Library Reading Round-Up: A classic re-told, spooky scarecrows, and the invention of a monster

It’s been a busy week, but not so busy that I couldn’t pick up the books waiting for me on the library hold shelf! Here are the three library books I’ve read in the past few days:

 

Pride by Ibi Zoboi: A contemporary YA retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Pride is the story of Zuri Benitez, who lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. When the wealthy Darcy family moves into the mini-mansion across the street, it seems that gentrification has really and truly arrived, and Zuri is not at all happy. What will become of the neighborhood’s way of life? Zuri’s sister Janae falls for Ainsley Darcy, but his brother Darius is rude and stuck-up and immediately sets Zuri’s teeth on edge. Well, if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, you know where this story is going, but it’s nice to read this take on the classic. Jane Austen’s stories don’t necessarily translate well to the 21st century, but Pride does a pretty good job of sticking to the bones of the original while infusing a new and different vibe. Will the target YA audience love it? No idea. I think Pride works well as a contemporary story about family, culture, loyalty, and teen romance, even without the context of the Austen original. As an adult who’s an Austen fan, I wasn’t 100% sold, but then again, I’m more than a little bit outside the demographic for this book!

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden: Moving on to middle grade fiction… Small Spaces is a spooky treat, perfect for the month of October, with some great scares and a memorable main character. Ollie is a sixth-grade girl in a small rural town. In the year since her mother’s death, she’s withdrawn from friends, activities, and everything that once gave her joy. When she’s forced to go on the class field trip to visit a local farm, she sneaks along a copy of an old book to keep her company. The book tells a ghostly story, and as the class explores the farm, Ollie starts to realize that the story may be true. There are sinister scarecrows, spooky fog, a creepy corn maze… and daring escapes, lots of bravery, and the forging of strong bonds of friendship. Katherine Arden is the author of the beautiful adult novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. It’s fun to see her turn her writing skill to a middle grade ghost story!

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda: A gorgeous picture book about the life of Mary Shelley, showing her early years and the events that shaped her development into a writer. The story is told simply, and the beautiful illustrations give life to Mary’s imaginations and dreams. A lovely book.

 

Three books, three target age ranges, all quite fun — overall, a nice way to amuse myself during an otherwise crazy week. And now I can return them, and come home with even more new books to stack on my nightstand.

A view from the halfway point of the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi

The Old Man’s War series has occupied a place of honor on my TBR list for years now… I almost feel like I’m breaking with tradition by actually reading these books, rather than featuring them in yet another January post about my reading resolutions for the year.

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

The series kicks off with Old Man’s War, which sets up quite a neat bit of world-building. From the opening lines, we know we’re in for a treat:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited by wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

John Perry is the main character — a nice, decent man who misses his late wife, and has nothing much tying him to life on Earth. So, John enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces, a space-based military whose purpose is to protect human colonists across the depths of space, as they fight other species for possession of habitable planets. Why would a 75-year-old enlist? Because the CDF only accepts senior citizen recruits, enticing them with the prospect of technology that can make them young again. Sure, there are a few catches, like never being able to return to Earth again, and — oh yeah — going out and killing aliens in battle after battle, but the elderly recruits are all eager for a new chapter in their lives, so off they go.

What follows is an intriguing story of warfare, military training, the bonds between squad-mates, unimaginable danger from unimaginable aliens, and a rip-roaring good adventure. The morality is decidedly grey, and John Perry becomes more and more aware of the fallibility of the CDF powers-that-be. Danger, adrenaline, and even love come into play. It’s an awesome start to the series, although Old Man’s War can certainly stand on its own as a single-volume story, for those not looking to make a long-term investment in a series.

 

Book #2, The Ghost Brigades, shifts gears and perspectives quite a bit. While some characters cross over into this book, for the most part, The Ghost Brigades introduces a brand new cast of characters and a new set of dilemmas and conflicts.

The question of free will and consciousness is front and center. What does it mean to be a person? Are you still a person if your consciousness has been manufactured? Can a non-self-aware species become self-aware through technology? And if so, should they?

The adventure here feels much more personal, as it focuses on a few key people and their struggle to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t always obvious. The technology in this book expands on what we know from Old Man’s War, and is quite fascinating.

I did feel that the first third or so of the book was rather slow-moving, as it throws us into a new situation amidst new people and species, and spends a lot of time laying out the framework of the current conflict. I missed John Perry quite a bit (he’s absent from this story), although by the later sections of the story, I found myself just as invested in the new characters’ lives.

Things definitely pick up by the end — I couldn’t put this book down, and had to immediately move on to the next book to see what happened next…

Which brings us to The Last Colony, the third book in the series. As you might guess from the title (and as is clear from reading the author’s acknowledgements), The Last Colony was meant to be the end of the story. And a great end it is! Although apparently enough people loved these books for the author to continue the story for three more books, but I haven’t gotten there yet!

In The Last Colony, we’re reunited with John Perry, who’s once again at the center of a galactic battle for domination between the CDF and the non-human species who have allied together to put a limit to non-authorized planetary colonization. John is sent to head up a new colony on a new planet (which the CDF names Roanoke, not that that’s ominous or anything).  But the aliens aren’t particularly happy with this bold move by the humans, and they’re willing to do something about it.

I won’t give away too much about what actually takes place. It’s quite a good story, full of military maneuvering, intelligence gathering, high technology… and also domestic drama, snarky colonists, and plenty of awesome wordplay and quippy, snippy arguments. I was completely engrossed by this book… and now that I’ve finished, I’m trying to force myself to hit pause and read something different before diving into the 2nd half of the series.

Yes, there are three more books in the Old Man’s War series, and at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading them all… probably very, very soon.

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The details:

Old Man’s War – published 2005; 351 pages
The Ghost Brigades – published 2006; 347 pages
The Last Colony – published 2007; 320 pages

 

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Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 

A love story about what happens after you meet, or rather, don’t meet the one.

Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

It seems to me that your personal enjoyment of One Day in December will depend to a large part on a) whether you believe in love at first sight and b) your overall appreciation of love triangles, finding THE ONE, and other staples of modern-day love stories.

As I’ve mentioned about a zillion times elsewhere on this blog, I’m not usually a romance reader, and while I enjoy a good, frothy contemporary love story every so often, it’s often an uphill battle for me to get past the meet-cute scenarios and the seemingly obvious obstacles that come with the territory.

All that said, let’s focus on One Day in December.

First off, yes, it’s the love-at-first-sight scenario. From the bus, Laurie sees the perfect man. They make eye contact. He tries to get on the bus — but it’s too crowded, the bus pulls away, and Laurie spends the following months pining for the man her best friend Sarah dubs “bus boy”. So naturally, when Laurie finally meets Sarah’s perfect new boyfriend, it’s “bus boy” himself (a.k.a. Jack), and Laurie makes the split-second decision not to tell Sarah.

Laurie and Sarah are true-blue besties, and Laurie wants Sarah to be happy, so she says nothing about her prior encounter with Jack. Laurie and Jack become friends, and she’s always aware of an underlying chemistry — but meanwhile, Sarah and Jack are in the early stages of what will become a years-long committed relationship. Laurie is the best friend, and becomes close friends with Jack, but that’s it… apart from one drunken kiss that they agree to forget ever happened and never, ever tell Sarah about.

One Day in December covers about ten years, starting with the bus encounter, when Laurie and Sarah are in their early twenties, and following the three main characters through to about age 30, when their lives and loves and careers have all dramatically changed. Laurie and Jack both move on, but neither has ever completely forgotten their secret connection, and it haunts every encounter and every relationship they each try to have over the years.

In general, I found this a quick and entertaining read, heavy on the bestie-love, with plenty of wine and silliness to enjoy — not to mention vintage clothing shops, perfect gifts, romance on Thailand beaches, yearnings for babies, and plenty of hot men. But I do have some issues with the plot…

ENTERING MINOR SPOILER TERRITORY – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Here’s the part where I talk about what bothered me about this book.

First and foremost, Laurie — how dumb is it not to say something to Sarah when you’re introduced to Jack? The entire tension could have been defused by laughing, saying “oh my god, it’s bus boy”, and moving on. Either Jack and Sarah continue to date and get serious, or not — but that way, Laurie is upfront with both of them, and the situation could have been dealt with. Instead, the truth comes out years later, and Sarah is rightfully pissed at Laurie for hiding the truth for so many years, to the extent that it almost destroys their friendship for good. Which leads to…

Second complaint, Sarah — you choose to pursue the conversation about bus boy on the eve of Laurie’s wedding, blow up at her, stomp out, and skip the wedding, where you’re supposed to be the maid of honor. Not cool. Having the blow up at this particular junction is unnecessary and over the top.

Third complaint, Laurie’s love interest Oscar — he’s a perfect guy, madly in love with Laurie, gives her everything she could possibly want in a partner, and then seems to have a change of personality and becomes married to his work. Too big a turnaround, too suddenly, in my humble opinion. It would have been easier to accept the gradual decay of their relationship if there’d been earlier signs of Oscar being unworthy or otherwise acting like a jerk.

Final complaint, Jack — I just wasn’t so impressed. He lacks focus and clarity for much of the book, and doesn’t seem worth the adoration that Laurie feels for him. For me to believe that he’s Laurie’s perfect man, I would need to be a lot more convinced of his wonderful qualities.

But most of all, I just don’t buy the overarching concept, that two people can know at a glance that they’re each other’s perfect match, and nothing can ever stand a chance of coming close to that perfection. Nope. Life doesn’t work that way… I mean, yes, it makes nice stories in books and movies, but this ten-year drama seems awfully forced to me.

END OF SPOILERS

All this may sound like I didn’t enjoy reading One Day in December, which isn’t exactly accurate. Like I said, it was quick and fun, and I was never bored or uninterested. It’s a light read, great for a day when you need a bit of comfort and cheer, probably best read while wearing flannel pajamas and drinking a big mug of cocoa (or glass of wine — whatever rocks your world.)

And who knows, someone who’s less of a grouch and much more of a romantic than I am might find this book to be absolutely swoon-worthy!

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The details:

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

 

When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

This father/son-written novel starts at a point not so foreign to our world today — a drought in California that’s gone from bad to worse. Water restrictions have been in place for a while. Lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and the Central Valley, California’s agricultural hub, has become a new Dust Bowl.

As the story opens in a Southern California suburb, Alyssa’s mother turns on the kitchen faucet, and nothing comes out. Is this the result of yet another plumbing mishap on the part of Alyssa’s father? When the family turns on the news, they discover it’s the Tap-Out — there is no more water. Outside of California, the situation is slow to draw attention, as there’s a major hurricane wreaking havoc on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem so dire at first. Surely, the water will be back soon.

A visit to stock up at Costco that afternoon reveals the panic already setting in. The bottled water shelves are already empty. So are the shelves of Gatorade, juices, and anything else to drink. People are intense and possessive, in competition for the remaining liquids. Alyssa and her brother fill a cart with bagged ice, which they then need to fiercely protect from predatory adults. It’s only been a few hours, and already kindness is evaporating along with the water supply.

Alyssa’s next door neighbor Kelton and his family are “preppers” — survivalists in suburbia, with a well-stocked safe room, an armory, and all sorts of defensive perimeter booby traps, as well as a bug-out location in the mountains. But as the neighborhood becomes more and more tense, even this well-guarded and provisioned home won’t remain safe for long.

As is typical for a YA adventure/survival tale, we eventually end up with the teens cut off from their parents and forced to make life-or-death decisions if they’re to have any chance of survival. Things get violent and scary very quickly. Panic leads to riots and death. Martial law is declared and people are herded into evacuation camps — but even there, there’s only enough water for about a tenth of the people cramming into the centers. As people get more and more desperate, safety becomes even more elusive. Finally, Alyssa and Kelton, joined by two other teens, are on the run with Alyssa’s younger brother, seeking hydration and safety from the masses, just looking for a place to hole up and wait out the Tap-Out. It can’t last forever… can it?

Of course, the danger isn’t only from desperate mob violence and panic. Dehydration sets in quickly. People find all sorts of inventive ways to find sips of water, just trying to stay alive — but reading about the early and then more advanced stages of dehydration is plenty horrifying.

Dry takes place over little more than a week, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly society disintegrates in the face of such a catastrophe. Alyssa’s brother Garrett refers to the people so desperate for water that they’ll do anything as “water-zombies” — and it’s no surprise that some scenes reminded me of The Walking Dead, as normal life and the moral standards of civilization break down in the face of a very basic threat to survival. I was also reminded in many ways of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series, in which a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions leads to this same type of societal collapse.

Dry is a quick, pulse-pounding read — I finished it over a day and a half of intense reading. I was drawn to this book because I’d just read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman over the summer, and found those books deep and thought-provoking (as well as being outstanding adventures). Dry doesn’t provoke the same sort of queries about life and purpose as those books, and it lacks the character development I found so engaging in Scythe. I was absolutely caught up in the story of Dry, but didn’t find myself caring deeply about any of the specific characters, who all sort of blended together as the POV shifted from chapter to chapter.

An additional minor quibble is that reasons and consequences are glossed over for the sake of moving the action forward. I would have liked to learn more about the events that led to the Tap-Out, and how the water was able to be restored finally. Reading Dry, we just have to accept these developments as fact, but more detail would have helped make it all seem more real.

I do recommend Dry. It’s a scary, intense adventure, as well as a cautionary tale about climate change and the need to pay attention, NOW, before things get so much worse.

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The details:

Title: Dry
Author: Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

“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)

“I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been—Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.

My Thoughts:

Yet another tense, tight murder mystery from the pen of Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J. K. Rowling… who obviously can do no wrong when she sits down to write a book.

In this 4th book in the Cormoran Strike series, Cormoran and Robin are both more successful and more troubled when the story opens. Book #3, Career of Evil, ended at a wedding… and Lethal White picks up right at the very same wedding, showing us all sorts of consequences and aftereffects that we could only previously imagine. The tensions each carries following the wedding spill over into their professional lives, as they deal with their respective relationship partners while trying to build their detective business now that they’ve become incredibly famous (thanks to the events of Career of Evil).

The mystery in Lethal White is two-fold, kicked off by the ravings of a schizophrenic man who finds his way into Strike’s office, and then deepened when the firm is hired to investigate a case of high-politics blackmail, which soon turns into a murder investigation. There’s danger and red herrings galore, and Cormoran and Robin are at their detective-y best as they charge off to investigate, interrogate, and stir up oodles of trouble for the rich and famous.

At 650+ pages, Lethal White is a BIG book, and the plot threatens to collapse under the weight of its endless twists and turns. The convoluted schemes and interconnected alibis and misleading clues keep things interesting, but I felt at times as if the story might have benefited from straight lines occasionally. The coincidence meter is on high alert in this book, as the double-mystery is awfully conveniently interwoven. I had to suspend my disbelief big-time over Cormoran’s powers of deductive reasoning and his ability to draw connections out of seemingly thin air.

At the same time, Cormoran and Robin are a great duo, working well together and playing off each other’s strengths. The complications of their personal lives make for a diverting and engaging side theme throughout the book, and is the piece I’ll be most anxiously awaiting in book #5, whenever that might be coming.

I’m really loving this series, and can’t wait to see where the story goes. Meanwhile, I’m delighted that I watched seasons 1 – 3 of the TV adaption, C B Strike, over the summer. It was terrific way to get a refresher on the story thus far, getting me totally ready to dive into reading Lethal White. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: Lethal White
Author: Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Length: 656 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Library

Aubiobook Review: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit by Amy Stewart

 

Trailblazing Constance’s hard-won job as deputy sheriff is on the line in Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, the fourth installment of Amy Stewart’s Kopp Sisters series.

After a year on the job, New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff has collared criminals, demanded justice for wronged women, and gained notoriety nationwide for her exploits. But on one stormy night, everything falls apart.

While transporting a woman to an insane asylum, Deputy Kopp discovers something deeply troubling about her story. Before she can investigate, another inmate bound for the asylum breaks free and tries to escape.

In both cases, Constance runs instinctively toward justice. But the fall of 1916 is a high-stakes election year, and any move she makes could jeopardize Sheriff Heath’s future–and her own. Although Constance is not on the ballot, her controversial career makes her the target of political attacks.

With wit and verve, book-club favorite Amy Stewart brilliantly conjures the life and times of the real Constance Kopp to give us this “unforgettable, not-to-be messed-with heroine” (Marie Claire) under fire in Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit.

My Thoughts:

Four books in, the Kopp Sisters series is going strong! Constance Kopp is an independent, strong, career woman — at a time when these were not considered desirable attributes for a female. She works as a deputy sheriff at the Hackensack jail, where she essentially does double duty, both capturing criminals and carrying out deputy funtions, and serving as the jail’s matron for female inmates, whom she views as her charges.

Both Sheriff Heath — a fair-minded man who treats Constance as a colleague and professional, a rarity in the law-enforcement world — and Constance believe in prison reform, the idea that treating prisoners as people with options for redemption will actually lead to less crime overall. Constance takes a particular interest in the young women who often find themselves incarcerated for being wayward or otherwise uncontrollable, working with a sympathetic judge to get them released on probation, under her supervision, and finding them safe living situations, opportunities for decent work, and the chance to educate themselves and improve their lives.

All this is threatened by the 1916 elections. Sheriff Heath has termed out of his role and is running for Congress, and the sheriff’s position is hotly contested beween a man who detests Constance and a man who sees her as a cute affectation. In describing the tone of the campaign, author Amy Stewart adeptly shows how dirty politics isn’t new to today’s political climate. Sheriff Heath, perhaps naively, believes that elections can be won or lost on the merits of a candidate:

“Miss Kopp, Don’t you see that it’s better for us this way? He’s putting all his worst qualities right out on display for the public to see. You notice that he hasn’t said a word about what a sheriff’s actual duties might be, or why he’s best qualified to carry them out. A man who does nothing but cast out hate and blame couldn’t possibly be elected to office.”

If only.

As always, Constance Kopp — who is a real person, and whose history Amy Stewart draws upon for the events of the novel — is a stunningly strong, honest, and dedicated woman. She believes in her purpose, and constantly puts her own interests second to her duty to the public and to her inmates. In Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, we spend a bit less time with Constance’s sisters Norma and Fleurette, who feature much more prominently in earlier books. Still, their home life and interesting personality dynamics are always entertaining to read about.

By the end of the novel, circumstances have changed dramatically for the Kopp sisters, and it would appear that their lives are about to enter an entirely new phase. And while I’m sad to see the partnership between Constance and Sheriff Heath reach an ending of sorts for the moment, I’m still as invested as ever in these people and their lives, and can’t wait to see where they go and what they do next.

I’ll wrap up by repeating almost exactly what I wrote at the end of my review for the 3rd book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

A final note: I listened to the audiobook, and it’s wonderful! Narrator Christina Moore has a gift when it comes to these characters, making each sister distinct, as well as the rest of the characters, whether working class New Jersey girls or glad-handing politicians or downtrodden housewives. Their voices are sharp and funny and full of personality, just like Amy Stewart’s characters themselves.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 53 minutes
Printed book length: 320 pages
Genre: Detective story/historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased); ARC from the author

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Take A Peek Book Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

“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)

The Rules of Blackheath

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m.
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit.
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer.
Understood? Then let’s begin…

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Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

My Thoughts:

Man, this book. I DNF’d at 40%, then read so many rave reviews that I convinced myself to soldier on. What if I’m missing out? What if there’s a huge payoff? What if it gets tremendously better in the 2nd half?

Nope, should have trusted my gut on this one. I’ve seen it described as “Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap” — and sure, why not. There’s definitely an Agatha Christie vibe to the set-up. The Hardcastles have invited an assortment of guests to their country estate for a party. Someone will be murdered at this party, and it’s up to our main character to solve the murder. But there’s a twist! The main character doesn’t know who he is or have any memory before waking up on the morning that the book begins. And it turns out that there’s a reason for this — the main character is doomed to inhabit each of eight different people (“hosts”), all of whom have some connection to the Hardcastle family, on a repeating loop. He has basically eight chances to solve the murder as the day repeats itself over and over again, or his memory will be wiped and he’ll start all over again.

There are quite a lot of clever bits in the story, and it would take an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the timelines and all the interlocking pieces of this puzzle. Still, it’s too complicated for its own good, and the fact that the main character doesn’t know himself means that we as readers don’t get to know him either. It all feels like an elaborate charade, and I always felt like a distant observer, rather than getting absorbed by the story or the cast of characters.

On a language note, there was a writing tic that bugged the heck out of me: the constant use of phrasing such as “he is stood…” or “it is sat” (as in, the book is sat on the table, or the girl is stood outside the door). What is that? Is that a UK English vs US English thing? I haven’t come across this before, and the repitition of this phrasing throughout the book made me batty.

Long story short: Yes, I finished the book. Yes, there’s an explanation for the time loop and the set-up, kind of, although the mechanics aren’t explained and the reasoning behind the situation seems pretty flimsy to me. Having never become invested in the characters, I just couldn’t care very much. 500+ pages is a loooong book for something that didn’t grab me. I’m still not sure what all the fuss is about.

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The details:

Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Murder mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Series wrap-up: The Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Once again, I need to thank my amazing daughter for her never-flagging enthusiasm for Tamora Pierce and the world of Tortall. After seeing her obsession with these books, starting in her tweens and continuing into adulthood, past college and grad school, I just knew my involvement was inevitable. I re-read (and loved) the Alanna series over the summer (see my thoughts, here), and thanks to a reading-order list supplied by my helpful daughter, I decided to continue onward.

So, following the list, my next stop on the Tortall adventure was The Immortals, another quartet, set roughly a decade after the end of the Alanna books. The Immortals introduces new characters, settings, and challenges, but retains the familiar Tortall at its center and keeps some familiar faces in the mix — although it’s decidedly odd to see our previous teen hero, Alanna, through the eyes of a younger girl, so that Alanna is viewed as an accomplished, brave, grown-up. (Which she is, but it’s a big jump from hearing the story through her teen voice.)

The story of The Immortals:

In book #1, Wild Magic, we meet Daine (full name Veralidaine Sarrasri — isn’t that gorgeous?). Daine is a young girl of about 13, orphaned after raiders killed her mother, who signs on as an assistant to the horse trainer who supplies horses to the Queen’s Riders, an elite fighting force serving the kingdom of Tortall. Daine has an unusual skill with animals of all sorts. When she meets the mage Numair, she learns that it’s not just a skill — it’s magic. Wild magic, to be specific, a rare and unusual gift that allows her to connect with animals and speak with them mind to mind. Later on, as she learns to use and expand her magic, she’s even able to inhabit animals and shape-shift at will, giving her powers that enable her to triumph in the most dangerous of situations.

Daine becomes a key player in the kingdom, working with the King’s forces and range of allies to combat enemies who wish to overthrow him. In book #2, Wolf-Speaker, a fiefdom within Tortall has taken disturbing steps to shield themselves from the rest of the kingdom, using the mining of unusual gems to establish a magical connection with the Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. And in book #3, Emperor Mage, Daine travels to Carthak with a Tortallian delegation to negotiate peace between the nations, only to find herself enmeshed in the Emperor’s sinister schemes.

Finally, in book #4, The Realms of the Gods, there’s the ultimate showdown between Tortall and Ozorne, although Daine and Numair spend much of it literally in another world, having been brought into the realms of the gods for their own protection. Much of the 4th book is spent on Daine and Numair’s quest to find a way back to their own world, in order to fight alongside their friends and defeat Ozorne once and for all.

 

I really and truly enjoyed this series, although (and I hate to say it), the fourth book was somewhat weak in comparison to the earlier three. I love Daine as a character: She’s fierce, talented, and strong. We see her development from a young girl who’s been wounded by life, full of guilt and self-doubt, into a young adult with the confidence to use and control her gift, but who never abuses her own power. She’s devoted to the animal world and respects all creatures, coming to understand that even animals that humans find repellant have a purpose and a right to their lives. Daine is a loyal friend, who loves unconditionally and pursues what she feels is right, even at risk to her own life.

My problem with the 4th book is right there in the title. By removing Daine and Numair to the realms of the gods, too much of the book is spent with them outside of the central arena of the story so far. They’re isolated, encountering new beings and places on their quest to return home. This takes them out of Tortall for way too much of the story, so that they’re only there for the final showdown. Yes, while in the realms of the gods, Daine learns important facts about her parentage and her own powers, but it’s not a great way to wrap up the series.

 

 

 

I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the amazing animals and gods Daine befriends. There’s Skysong, also known as Kitten, an orphaned baby dragon whom Daine rescues and raises; the badger god, who becomes Daine’s patron and mentor; Tkaa, the basilisk, a strong ally; Cloud, Daine’s pony, and so many more. Because Daine can converse with animals, we get to know all of these as people with their own minds and attitudes, and it’s quite fun and fascinating to see how the author chooses to portray them.

 

 

I listened to the audiobooks — such a treat! The Immortals was recorded by Full Cast Audio, who specialize in full-cast recordings of children’s books. Tamora Pierce herself serves as narrator for the series, and each character gets his or her own voice actor. This was a bit of an adjustment for me at first, as I’m not used to listening to audiobooks with more than a single narrator. Once I got into it, though, it was really a great experience. I particularly loved the voices for Daine and Numair, but also really enjoyed the voices used for their animal and immortal friends.

The Immortals was a terrific listen and a great adventure, and I will absolutely be continuing with my Tortallian quest! Next up (after a pause to catch up on some other audiobooks) — the Protector of the Small series!

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Book details:

Wild Magic – published 1992
Wolf-Speaker – published 1993
Emperor Mage – published 1994
The Realms of the Gods – published 1996

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Book Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

 

A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Sometimes, a reader just NEEDS light, fluffy, no-fuss entertainment. That was me this week, and The Wedding Date definitely fit the bill.

It’s a cute story, starting with an almost too tropey meet-cute: being stuck in an elevator with the perfect guy/perfect girl, instant attraction, and plenty of cheese and crackers. Drew and Alexa hit it off right away, joking, being a bit flirty, and just passing the time with an attractive stranger. But there is a spark, so Drew asks Lexie to be his wedding date for the weekend, and she throws caution to the wind and accepts.

By the end of weekend, they’ve gone from fake dating to seriously real hot sex. They just seem to connect, and they can’t resist the physical chemistry. And despite the distance — one lives in LA, the other in Berkeley — they’re soon spending weekends together, sending racy texts, and fantasizing to distraction about being together.

I liked the characters, and the fact that this is an interracial couple where they acknowledge their differences and also embrace them. Mostly, though, the book is about two hot people who have hot sex and really, really are into each other. It’s a nice touch to have the perspective shift between the characters, so we get to hear both sides of the story as they think about each other’s actions and how they feel. Drew and Lexie are both a lot of fun to spend time with, and seem really down to earth and overall like good people.

Which may be why the complications in their relationship drove me a little batty. And yes, there have to be complications, or there wouldn’t be much of a story, right? Still, for two intelligent, highly-educated professionals, their relationship communication totally sucks. They spend a lot of time in their own heads, wondering what the other meant by a simple phrase or question, doubting themselves, not being straight with one another, and never actually saying what they mean. If they just had a simple, honest conversation, so much drama and stress (and tears — SO many tears) could have been avoided.

The writing for the most part is light and flowy, but every once in a while there’s a real clunker. Take this scene:

“Has everyone at this table dated Drew?” Shit, she probably shouldn’t have said that out loud. But at least now she’d get an answer.

“Not me!” Lucy said. But Heather, Emma, and Robin all rose their hands. Huh.

I’m sorry, what? They ROSE their hands? No.

In any case, I liked the characters themselves, and found the descriptions of their junk food habits kind of endearing. They’re cute together, and I was glued to the page despite feeling like the characters were making dumb decisions and acting irrationally simply for the sake of having dramatic tension. It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s a happy ending. Just take a look at the cover and tell me you don’t expect it to end happily!

I had fun reading The Wedding Date. After some fairly heavy books and a heap of work-related stress, this cheery romance hit the spot. I’ll definitely check out this author’s upcoming new release as well!

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The details:

Title: The Wedding Date
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Library

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