Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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Audiobook Review: The Knockoff


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

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

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

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

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

What I liked:

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

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

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

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

What I didn’t like so much:

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

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

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

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

A note on the narration:

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

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

Wrapping it all up:

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

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The details:

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

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Book Review: Far From the Tree

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

Being the middle child has its ups and downs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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Book Review: Geekerella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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Book Review: Odd & True

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

I became oddly (*snort* ODDly!) enchanted by this story of two sisters, although it was less the magical storytelling that captured me, but rather the relationship between Od and Tru and the secrets that lay between them.

I went into Odd & True with somewhat false expectations, based on early synopses and the cover picture. I definitely expected something about monster hunters! Instead, Odd & True is more complicated and nuanced than I would have thought, and ultimately conveys some lovely sentiments about family and belonging.

Od and Tru, when we first meet them, live in a plain Oregon home with their straight-laced, strict Aunt Viktoria and her husband William. Od is five years older than Tru, and has been Tru’s protector since both their parents left them years earlier. Tru suffers terrible pain in her leg as a result of polio as a toddler, and to distract her from her suffering, Od tells Tru stories of their past. She tells her the story of the day of her birth, when she was born in a castle and her uncle the magician came to visit, stories about their mother setting out to battle monsters in the deep, dark woods, and stories of their artist father traveling the world to seek his fortune.

Tru believes it all, and grows up with no doubt that monsters exist in the world, and must be warded off by charms and amulets and spells, as well as by the special monster-hunting weapons in the family’s special traveling case.

In alternating chapters, we get the sisters’ views of their world… and once we start hearing from Odette, it becomes increasingly clear that the magical tales she spins for Tru are just a sugar-coated version of the darker truths of their childhood and their parents’ lives.

As the story progressed, I became more and more engrossed in Odette’s part of the story, and perhaps as a consequence, I found it harder to buy into Tru’s view of life and her fantastical belief in myths and legends. Still, I really appreciated the sisters’ devotion to one another, and the various threads do come together nicely by the end.

I had a hard time getting truly caught up in the story at first, but gradually it grabbed me, and I ended up liking it very much. I really admire the way the author weaves together the two viewpoints to create a picture of a family that’s mired it its own myths.

I’ve decided I’d rather be foolish than ordinary. I’d rather risk chasing monsters that might not exist, searching for [deleted spoiler] I’m not meant to find, than to believe we’re nothing more than mundane creatures, steeped in ordinary lives… Please trust me when I insist that it is too soon for you to turn your back on spellbinding wonders.

Odd & True is the story of two young women who refuse to let their lives be dictated by what they “should” be and do. It’s about taking risks and being brave, facing danger even when you feel weak, and not letting anyone put you into a box. It’s quite a lovely read, and I think fans of Cat Winters, as well as those new to her wonderful books, will enjoy Odd & True very much.

Interested in this author? Check out these additional reviews:
The Uninvited
The Cure for Dreaming
In the Shadow of Blackbirds
The Steep & Thorny Way

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The details:

Title: Odd & True
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Café by the Sea

“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)

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

My Thoughts:

The Café by the Sea is a sweet, fluffy treat of a book — not especially deep or filling, but enjoyable the whole way through. I enjoyed the setting — a beautiful, isolated Scottish island where everyone knows everyone else, and where, sadly, the younger generation doesn’t see much of a future. When Flora arrives back on the island for a work assignment, she instigates changes that will ultimately lead to the rejuvenation of the island, by convincing a billionaire about to open an exclusive resort to hire and source locally.

The work assignment is also the means for Flora to finally get noticed by her boss, an icy playboy lawyer with a tragic past who never allows emotions to seep to the surface. Honestly, the love story didn’t click for me. Flora, a paralegal in a prestigious law firm, has had a hopeless crush on Joel for years, and although it’s not giving away too much to say that the island has a profound effect on him as well, I couldn’t figure out what Flora saw in him in the first place, other than his amazing good looks. Meanwhile, there’s a potential love interest on the island, but that part of the story doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so it’s pretty clear early on which way things are going.

I loved the parts of the story about Flora reconnecting with her father and brothers, coming to terms with a loss in the family several years earlier, and reconnecting with the people and natural beauty of Mure. However, I was a little unsure about some of Flora’s decision-making regarding her career and her future. When we meet her, she’s working as a paralegal with an eye toward becoming a fully qualified lawyer, but her actual work in law seems to fall by the wayside as she becomes more and more involved in using her family’s history to open up and run an amazing café in the center of town. Was she never really all that interested in becoming a lawyer? It seems that she’s just fallen into this new life, and I would have liked to have her at least think about what it might mean to walk away from her professional plans and change course like this.

Still, this is really a charming book, with a gorgeous setting, interesting, quirky characters and a plot that hits some emotional notes without ever losing its sense of romance and light. When you’re looking for something to lift your spirits, check out The Café by the Sea!

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The details:

Title: The Café by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 27, 2017
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.

But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

 

Mermaids are real. They are dangerous. And they are very, very hungry.

I really loved the 2015  novella Rolling in the Deep (review), so I was thrilled when I learned that a full-length novel was to follow. I was also a little nervous — the novella was so perfectly constructed and so utterly disturbing. Could the novel live up to the promise of the novella?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Into the Drowning Deep picks up seven years later, when the tragic loss of the Atargatis is remembered as a personal devastation by some, and derided as a hoax by many others. Imagine Network, responsible for the first voyage, is determined to redeem its less-than-respectable reputation and commissions a huge, elaborate research vessel to go back out to he Mariana Trench and find proof that the events shown on the found footage from the Atargatis were real. The new ship, the Melusine, is filled with top scientists and researchers in fields of oceanography, oceanographic acoustics, marine biology, organic chemistry, and more. It’s also staffed by Imagine’s corporate henchman and the network’s quirky/geeky/adorable TV personality, who’s there to record everything that happens for the sake of the inevitable documentary to follow up on the voyage.

My first thought as I read about the Melusine’s voyage: Are these people nuts? Everyone from the Atargatis died, brutally, eaten by sea creatures with big sharp teeth and a hunter’s instinct for tracking down prey. Why on earth would sane people intentionally choose to go back there?

Well. Science. Vengeance. Money. Fame.

The mystery of the creatures caught on film on the Atargatis is simply too alluring to resist. The scientists all dream of prize-worthy glory, seeing the new voyage as a chance to prove the existence of an unknown species, to find something truly new and introduce it to the world. And there are those with personal stakes as well, including Tory, the scientist whose sister Anne perished seven years earlier and who has been chasing her sister’s shadow for all the years since.

Let’s just say that pretty much what we knew would happen, happens. Yes, the mermaids attack again — but this time the people are at least a little more prepared than the first time around, and although the bloody mayhem is intense and brutal, there’s also progress in understanding more about the nature of the creatures — what they are, how they function, and even the rudiments of how they communicate. It’s all quite brilliant — bloodily so.

I love Mira Grant’s writing. She manages to create interesting characters — some to root for, some to despise — and then throw them into situations that challenge them, threaten them, and cause them to either rise to the occasion or be consumed by their own worst character flaws. And yes, “consumed” is an appropriate word, since bad decisions quickly lead to becoming mermaid chow.

One (of many) brilliant aspects of this book is that it’s set just slightly forward into the future, but not by much. The action takes place in 2022, and the author paints a picture of a world already feeling the ugly effects of climate change. The changing ocean temperatures and resulting changes in the ocean ecosystem directly influence what happens in Into the Drowning Deep. It’s not preachy, just presented as inevitable result of the direction we’re heading in now. Definitely provides food for thought, and should make us all pause… and worry.

While the ending was rich and satisfying and edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, I think the door is open for the story to continue… and I really hope it does. I want more! I want to see what happens next with the characters left alive at the end of the story (definitely fewer than there were at the start!), and how the world chooses to deal with the mermaids now that their existence is proven beyond doubt.

Reading this book gave me chills, in all the best ways. A few tidbits for your reading pleasure:

Had they looked, they might not have seen anything. Daryl was inexperienced compared to Gregory, and more, he was letting his nerves get the better of him; he was seeing danger in every corner, and allowing it to blind him to the danger that was actually lurking. He would have seen the smooth sweep of the hull, the fruit of human labor and innovation, intended to protect them from the dangerous waters. He would have seen how high up he was, and how far the mermaids would need to climb, and felt this rendered him safe, somehow. Protected, sheltered, like a small fish choosing to believe the coral reef can offer genuine protection from the jaws of the eel, the arms of the octopus.

(The door would not protect them; the door was not enough. The door was wood and riveted steel and it was not enough. Tory had known that even before they’d run past the first shattered door. The cabin beyond had been dark, but not dark enough; there was blood on the door, and blood mixed into the slime onthe deck outside, and none of them were safe. Not here, not anywhere.)

Do I think they found mermaids?

Yes. Of course I do.

And I think the mermaids ate them all.

And finally, one from the perspective of the mermaids:

Where there was one of these things, there were always others. The delicate, delicious things that died so easily never traveled alone. Their schools varied in number from few to many, but they never traveled alone.

Deep beneath the waves, the hungry turned their eyes upward, toward the promise of plenty, and began to prepare.

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The details:

Title: Into the Drowning Deep
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: November 14, 2017
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of Orbit

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Audiobook Review: Reflections (Indexing, #2) by Seanan McGuire


“For her to love me, she had to be willing to kill me. Anything else would show that her heart was untrue.”

The struggle against not-so-charming storybook narratives isn’t the only complicating factor in Henrietta “Henry” Marchen’s life. As part of the ATI Management Bureau team protecting the world from fairy tales gone awry, she’s juggling her unwanted new status as a Snow White, dealing with a potentially dangerous Pied Piper, and wrangling a most troublesome wicked stepsister—along with a budding relationship with Jeff, her teammate.

But when a twisted, vicious Cinderella breaks out of prison and wreaks havoc, things go from disenchanted to deadly. And once Henry realizes someone is trying to use her to destroy the world, her story becomes far from over—and this one might not have a happily ever after.

Indexing: Reflections is New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s continuing new urban fantasy, where everything you thought you knew about fairy tales gets turned on its head.

Book 2 of the fabulous Indexing series is just as fun and dangerous as the first! The story continues, as Henry’s field team is back out there fighting the good fight to keep fairy tale narratives from killing lots of innocent people. The gang is back together, along with a few new folks (including the HR lady who also happens to be a Bluebeard’s Wife).

It’s not all silly games, though — the stories become dark very quickly, and the various characters, especially Henry and the ever-fascinating Sloane, must face down the demons of their darkest secrets and the scary bad guys of their pasts in order to save the day and save themselves.

Sloane is technically a secondary character, but in Reflections, she gets to take the first-person narrative for several chapters, and she’s a hoot, particularly in the audiobook, where her voice comes across as a potty-mouthed, spoiled, super cranky Valley Girl. Kudos to narrator Mary Robinette Kowal for making Sloane just so excellent.

The voice-work throughout is pretty terrific, only faltering a bit for some of the male characters. This didn’t bother me as much in the 2nd book, because overall the narration is just so compelling and captivating, really capturing the humor and the tension and the darkness so convincingly.

I really ended up loving both of the Indexing books, and want more! Will there be more? Please tell me there will be more! While Reflections comes to a very satsifying conclusion after a truly epic adventure, there’s plenty of room for further adventures of Henry and her field team.

See my review of book #1, Indexing, here.

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The details:

Title: Indexing
Author: Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: 47North
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Length (print): 325 pages
Length (audiobook): 12 hours, 18 minutes
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Novella Review: Romancing the Werewolf by Gail Carriger

 

Werewolf in trouble…

Biffy, newly minted Alpha of the London Pack, is not having a good Christmas. His Beta abandoned him, his werewolves object to his curtain choices, and someone keeps leaving babies on his doorstep.

Professor Randolph Lyall returns home to London after twenty years abroad, afraid of what he might find. With his pack in chaos and his Alpha in crisis, it will take all his Beta efficiency to set everything to rights. Perhaps, in the process, he may even determine how to mend his own heart.

New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger presents a charming gay love story set in her popular steampunk Parasolverse. Featuring the long-awaited reunion between everyone’s favorite quietly capable Beta and the werewolf Alpha dandy who let him slip away. This sweet romance is full of unexpected babysitting, holiday decorations, and no small amount of pining.

Delicate Sensibilities?
Contains men who love other men and have waited decades to do so.

Wait, where does this one fit?
The Supernatural Society novellas stand alone and may be read in any order. But if you’re a stickler, this story chronologically follows Imprudence and ties specifically to events in Timeless. Look for surprise appearances from popular side characters and the occasional strategic application of italics.

What a treat!

I love, love, love the world of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate (and also the Finishing School series and The Custard Protocol series), with their remarkable mix of supernatural shenanigans, intrigue, mayhem, and manners. The novella Romancing the Werewolf reunites two wonderful characters from the Parasol-verse, Biffy — the dandy who wanted to be a vampire but ended up an Alpha werewolf — and Lyall, the 400-year-old Beta werewolf who takes responsibility for the woes of the world and his beloved pack.

Here, Lyall finally comes home after 20 years away to resume his place as pack Beta… and to figure out if the connection between him and Biffy has stood the test of time during their years apart. Meanwhile, Biffy has the power of an Alpha but is so new in the role that he constantly second-guesses himself, and wonders if perhaps a romance with his Beta isn’t exactly appropriate any longer.

For fans of Carriger’s worlds, this novella is a total delight. The romance is sweet, sexy, and adorable — but before Biffy and Lyall manage to figure out where they stand, they also have to deal with all sorts of chaos involving the babies that keep getting left on their doorstep. There are plenty of laughs involving the pack and their sense of style (and inability to deal with infants), and some more serious moments as well as the pack settles into their new home and their new leadership.

I don’t think readers without a basic familiarity with the Parasol-verse will have an easy time following the story — but that just means that if you haven’t read the Parasol Protectorate yet, now is the perfect time to go ahead. (Let’s face it, it’s ALWAYS the right time for the Parasol Protectorate!)

Such a wonderful gift to Gail Carriger’s readers! If you love her characters and stories, get this one NOW.
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The details:

Title: Romancing the Werewolf
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 140 pages
Genre: Supernatural/steampunk/romance
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

 

I suppose I should acknowledge up front that it was practically impossible that Andy Weir’s second novel would measure up to his hugely successful first novel, The Martian. I mean, The Martian was amazing, plain and simple. It was fresh, it was new, it was smart, and it was highly entertaining.

So how does an author follow up such a tremendous hit?

Well, in this case, with a book that’s fun and light, but feels a little too familiar to really leave much of a mark.

In Artemis, Jazz (short for Jasmine) is a criminal-lite — she smuggles contraband while working as a porter, plans to become a wealthy EVA (extravehicular activity) tour guide, and meanwhile works odd jobs that are not quite legit in order to pay for her coffin-like bed chamber. (Calling it an apartment would be way overselling it.) Jazz seems to be well-connected, and while avoiding getting on the bad side of what passes for the law in Artemis, she drinks, avoids her observant Muslim father, and is something of a wise-ass.

When a mega-rich tycoon offers her a million slugs (moon currency) to carry out a dangerous, shady bit of sabotage, she sees a way to finally pay off some long-standing debts and improve her standard of living, but of course, nothing goes as planned. And when that escapade turns into a fiasco, she’s pulled into a worsening situation that involves murder, organized crime, and even more dangerous missions. If Jazz is caught, she’ll face deportation back to Earth, which would absolutely suck for her, since she’s lived on the moon since age six and wouldn’t be able to handle Earth’s gravity.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Jazz is a survivor, and she manages to get on people’s bad sides constantly, and yet charms them into helping her anyway. She comes up with some clever plans, but naturally what ever can go wrong, does go wrong.

The book reads like a moon-based heist caper, like Ocean’s Eleven in a space bubble. We’ve got a scrappy gang applying their various skills to pull off one big job, making millions, disrupting a bunch of bad guys, and making sure that their little world ends up better than it started. Sure, there’s science and space involved — instead of robbing a casino, for example, here they’re trying to blow up a smelting plant, but it’s the same basic idea.

It all feels familiar somehow. As a science fiction reader, I’ve read other books about life on other planets with humans living in biospheres. I’ve seen plenty of caper flicks. So yes, putting those elements together is fun, and Artemis is definitely entertaining, but it doesn’t have that outrageous spark that powered The Martian.

Jazz herself is a bit problematic, verging on tokenism. Kudos for putting a Muslim woman in the main character role, and certainly her relationship with her father and the conflict between his beliefs and her approach to life are interesting — but she seems very cookie cutter to me. I didn’t get a feel for who she is beneath the surface facts — independent, mid-twenties, rebellious, daring… but when, for example, she ends up kissing one of the male characters toward the end of the book, it was completely out of the blue. I had no idea she had any interest in him, but it’s just that kind of story where you know the main character has to have a love interest, and the only question is which of the available characters will be it.

I enjoyed the time spent reading Artemis, but at the same time, it’s not a book that will stick with me now that I’m done. Still, I like Andy Weir’s writing and use of science to tell a story, and look forward to seeing what he does next.

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The details:

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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