Take A Peek Book Review: By the Book

“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)

An English professor struggling for tenure discovers that her ex-fiancé has just become the president of her college—and her new boss—in this whip-smart modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion.

Anne Corey is about to get schooled.

An English professor in California, she’s determined to score a position on the coveted tenure track at her college. All she’s got to do is get a book deal, snag a promotion, and boom! She’s in. But then Adam Martinez—her first love and ex-fiancé—shows up as the college’s new president.

Anne should be able to keep herself distracted. After all, she’s got a book to write, an aging father to take care of, and a new romance developing with the college’s insanely hot writer-in-residence. But no matter where she turns, there’s Adam, as smart and sexy as ever. As the school year advances and her long-buried feelings begin to resurface, Anne begins to wonder whether she just might get a second chance at love.

Funny, smart, and full of heart, this modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic explores what happens when we run into the demons of our past…and when they turn out not to be so bad, after all.

My Thoughts:

Hmm. I tore through By the Book, and definitely had a good time while I was reading it. At the same time, for a book being billed as a retelling of Persuasion, it’s pretty loose when it comes to making the plot stick.

Anne spends much of the book in a relationship with a smarmy writer who drops lines about being on the front lines in Fallujah and his battle-related PTSD, but it’s just so clear from the get-go that he’s a con artist and a fraud. When Adam makes a comment to Anne about Rick’s shady past, I couldn’t help but wonder how Darcy and Wickham sneaked into Persuasion! Anne is a decent protagonist, a smart woman who’s chose her professional career over love (although the history of her break-up with Adam on the eve of their college graduation didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.) Of course, as a retelling, the ending is inevitable — but if I didn’t know Persuasion, I wouldn’t have been convinced that Anne had actually been mooning over Adam and regretting their break-up the whole time. When they do finally declare their love, it’s about as out of the blue as it gets.

Still, I wouldn’t want to imply that this isn’t a fun read. Anne’s best friend Larry is a hoot, even if his romantic indulgences are ill-advised. The big blockbuster movie that’s all the rage is called Jane Vampire (a supernatural version of Jane Eyre, of course), and it becomes a pretty silly recurring subject throughout the book. Anne’s family life is messy and has a realistic ring to it, and I enjoyed seeing campus life through a professor’s eyes, showing that behind the intellectual, scholarly facades are real people, looking for love and friendship and just a little bit of fun once in a while.

Don’t expect anything too deep, and don’t expect an Austen retelling that’s particularly attached to the original — but given those caveats, By the Book is an entertaining, funny, and even charming read.

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The details:

Title: By the Book
Author: Julia Sonneborn
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: As Bright As Heaven

“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)

From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.

My Thoughts:

When we hear about the flu pandemic of 1918, we can be blown away by the number — as many as 50 million people died, many more than the number who died on the battlefields of World War I. In As Bright As Heaven, this unfathomable global catastrophe is made personal as we see the flu and its devastating impact through the experiences of one family. The Bright family, having already suffered the loss of an infant to a heart condition some months earlier, relocates to Philadelphia from the countryside so that the father can start a new career as partner and heir to his uncle’s funeral home business. For the mother Pauline and her three daughters, it’s a chance at a new life in a new city, moving away from the location of their recent heartbreak and starting over.

Between living in the family quarters of the funeral home, the continuing war in Europe, and then the onslaught of the flu, the family can’t escape death. Through the eyes of Pauline and each of the girls, we see the darkness of the time period as loss piles upon loss, with no rhyme or reason for who lives and who dies.

The story of the Spanish Flu pandemic is tragic and fascinating, but I found the individual characters and their perspectives less compelling than I would have hoped. Perhaps having so many narrators — not just Pauline, but also the three daughters, one of whom is only nine years old — dilutes the immediacy. The book gets off to a slow start, although the pace picks up quite a bit from about 40% onward, once the flu begins to spread and the family’s life begins to change. The subplot about the orphaned baby adds some suspense, but it’s fairly simple to see where that storyline is going.

I liked the characters well enough, and overall thought this was a fine read about an interesting time period. I can’t really put my finger on why the book as a whole just didn’t particularly grab me.

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The details:

Title: As Bright As Heaven
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Glass Forest


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller comes a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.

In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to charming, handsome Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever.

When Paul’s niece, Ruby, reports that her father, Henry, has committed suicide, and that her mother, Silja, is missing, Angie and Paul drop everything and fly to the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York to be by Ruby’s side.

Angie thinks they’re coming to the rescue of Paul’s grief-stricken young niece, but Ruby is a composed and enigmatic seventeen-year-old who resists Angie’s attempts to nurture her. As Angie learns more about the complicated Glass family, staying in Henry and Silja’s eerie and ultra-modern house on the edge of the woods, she begins to question the very fabric of her own marriage.

Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ state of affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.

My thoughts:

The Glass Forest is a multi-layered look beneath the surface of a family, slowly peeling away the facade to reveal the deep, dark secrets and hidden truths. Told through alternating chapters focusing on Angie, Ruby, and Silja, we get multiple timelines, all converging by the end to show the truth behind Henry’s death and Silja’s disappearance.

The three main female characters — Angie, Ruby, and Silja — are well-drawn; not always likeable, but despite their flaws, they all possess an inner strength that helps them survive. Silja is a particularly sympathetic character, as we see how the years of her marriage change her. Angie, years younger, seems to be following in Silja’s footsteps to an extent in the early days of her marriage; barely twenty-one, she rushed into marriage with someone who seemed to be the man of her dreams, and only later starts to realize that there might be more to know about him. And Ruby, the teen daughter left behind by Silja and Henry, seems to be a mysterious, secretive girl — but as we find out, there’s a lot more to Ruby than meets the eye.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot, because it’s full of so many surprises, all deftly handled with a masterful set-up. There are shocking developments, but looking back, I can find the little breadcrumbs scattered through the earlier parts of the story that lay the groundwork for the bigger moments later on. The story as a whole is so well done, building to an ending that’s very much unexpected, but that absolutely fits.

I know I’m being deliberately vague here, but really, I just don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone. The Glass Forest is a compelling read that got harder and harder to put down, the farther I read. This would make an excellent book group choice — because I promise, when you finish reading it, you’ll be dying for someone to discuss it with!

I rarely go back to the beginning of a book once I finish. The Glass Forest is a rare exception where I ended up skimming back through the entire book once I’d finished to find all the hints and details that didn’t seem all that important the first time through — and ended up amazed all over again by how well put together the story is.

I loved Cynthia Swanson’s previous novel, The Bookseller. The Glass Forest is another winner. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Glass Forest
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Touchstone

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Going a little preorder crazy

I’ve been showing remarkable restraint when it comes to book buying — but no more. I broke down today and pre-ordered three upcoming 2018 releases that I need in my hands NOW. Unfortunately, we all must wait for these… but aren’t they exciting?

First up, Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness – to be released September 25, 2018:

Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness

AAAAAAAAAH! It’s a new All Souls book! Here’s a bit of synopsis, as shared on Entertainment Weekly:

Harkness’ next novel will be Time’s Convert, EW can exclusively announce, which is set in the same universe as her best-selling All Souls trilogy and takes place in contemporary London and Paris, as well as the American colonies of Revolutionary War times, in its bridging of past and present.

On the battlefields of the American Revolution, Matthew de Clermont meets Marcus MacNeil, a young surgeon from Massachusetts, during a moment of political awakening when it seems that the world is on the brink of a brighter future. When Matthew offers him a chance at immortality and a new life, free from the restraints of his puritanical upbringing, Marcus seizes the opportunity to become a vampire. But his transformation is not an easy one and the ancient traditions and responsibilities of the de Clermont family clash with Marcus’s deeply-held beliefs in liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

The narrative jumps forward to the present, too, in its exploration of vampires and immortality. Overall, Time’s Convert emerges as both a love story and a meditation on tradition and change.

Also in the world of All Souls, there’s a new reference book coming out in May (which I will definitely need before diving into the new novel, unless I decide to do a series reread between now and September):

The World of All Souls: A Complete Guide to A Discover of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life will be released May 8, 2018.

A fully illustrated guide to Deborah Harkness’s #1 New York Times bestselling All Souls trilogy–“an irresistible . . . wonderfully imaginative grown-up fantasy” (People)

A Discovery of Witches introduced Diana Bishop, Oxford scholar and reluctant witch, and vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. Shadow of Night and The Book of Life carried Deborah Harkness’s series to its spellbinding conclusion.

In The World of All Souls, Harkness shares the rich sources of inspiration behind her bewitching novels. She draws together synopses, character bios, maps, recipes, and even the science behind creatures, magic, and alchemy–all with her signature historian’s touch. Bursting with fascinating facts and dazzling artwork, this essential handbook is a must-have for longtime fans and eager newcomers alike.

And finally, my third preorder today — from a completely different fictional world and genre — is an upcoming sequel to Every Day by David Levithan:

Someday will be released October 2, 2018. Click here to read an excerpt via Entertainment Weekly. How excited are we??? (And don’t forget, the movie version of Every Day will be here later this month! )

I almost added a 4th preorder to my cart today, but held back at the last moment:

The Outsider by Stephen King will be released May 22, 2018 — and I definitely plan to read it, but I’m not sure I need to own it. I’ve been burned by King books before. I either love them or fall squarely on “meh”, and if this happens to be a “meh”, I’ll regret having spent money on a hardcover. So as much as I want to read The Outsider, I may just wait and get on my library’s request list. (Or, who knows? I may break down and preorder it yet. May is a long time from now — anything can happen!)

I’m so excited for my preorders! Are any of these on your WANT list?

Book Review: The Great Alone


Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

The Great Alone is many things — a portrait of life in rugged Alaska, a story of the damage done by war, a tale of the horrible secrets lurking underneath a family’s facade… and also, a story of love and devotion and commitment.

We first meet Leni as a 13-year-old who never fits in anywhere, thanks to her parents’ inability to settle. Ever since her father returned from his years as a POW in Vietnam, Leni has been pulled from home to home and school to school, as her father’s instability and nightmares make him unable to keep a job or stay put for very long. Meanwhile, Leni’s mother Cora remains madly in love with her husband Ernt, and constantly tells Leni that she wishes she could remember how he was before. Out of options, Ernt comes up with a seemingly crazy idea — they’ll move to Alaska, to a plot of land left him by a war buddy, and live off the land, off the grid, as homesteaders.

Leni, of course, has no say in this, just as she has no say in most of what happens in her life. Cora is desperate to find the answer to making Ernt happy again, so off they go in their battered VW bus, completely unprepared for the realities of the life ahead of them. When they finally reach their land in Kaneq, they find a falling-down dirty cabin, and not much else. Fortunately, the neighbors in this tiny community rally around to teach them what they need to know, with an emphasis on the all-important preparations for their first Alaskan winter.

The land and its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, of course… but the winter is harsh, leaving the small family isolated in their cabin for months on end. For Leni and Cora, life becomes increasingly dangerous, not because of the natural threats such as wildlife and climate, but because of the man they live with. Ernt does not do well in the dark, under stress, and he takes out his inner demons on Cora.

Over the years, the family becomes intertwined with their neighbors, and Cora and Leni develop deep bonds with their new friends, but Ernt becomes more and more obsessed with survivalism, his paranoia and nightmares becoming more and more intense. Leni grows up in the shadow of domestic violence, witnessing her father’s brutal treatment of Cora, but unable to do anything to stop it.

And as Leni matures, she falls in love with the boy who was her first friend in Alaska — but her father hates his father and everything he stands for, and it’s clear that the relationship must be kept hidden from Ernt before it pushes him into even more violence.

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t so sure about this book for the first third or so. I was interested, but it was slow-going. The description of Alaska and what it takes to build a life there are intriguing, of course, but I’ve read other stories about life in Alaska, so this wasn’t exactly new. I had a hard time at first with the viewpoint, as this section of the book is seen mainly through 13-year-old Leni’s eyes, and there was just something a little limiting about that. Still, it was sadly fascinating to see Leni’s experience of her parents’ toxic marriage — the loving moments, when the two were so obsessed with each other that they couldn’t see anyone else — and the explosively painful moments, when Ernt’s rage would boil over into fists and abuse.

Later, when Leni is an older teen, her story becomes much more compelling. Suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down. (Seriously, I read the 2nd 50% of the book in one sitting.) Leni’s love story builds along a Romeo and Juliet trajectory, and while we can see the inevitable tragedy looming ahead, it’s still a shock when Leni’s life is turned upside down.

In some ways, the story of Ernt’s violence is simply tragic. It’s hard not to hate him as the years go by and his craziness and violence escalate — but there’s an element of pity, too. In today’s world, his PTSD would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to get help. In the early 1970s, just back from hellish years as a captive in Vietnam, not only was there no psychological help, but he also was subject to the derision of anti-war America when he returned. It might be easy to view Ernt as simply an evil character, but we can’t. He is horrible and abusive and destructive, but his horror stems from his own status as a victim of war and torture. We can absolutely condemn his behavior and his treatment of his family, but I can’t help but feel sorrow too for how different this man might have been without the trauma of Vietnam.

The depiction of domestic violence is harrowing but has a ring of truth. At that time, there was much less support for “battered women”, and a woman who fought back could easily end up either dead or behind bars, without much in the way of legal defense or public awareness. Seeing Leni’s need to protect her mother, and Cora’s inability to find a way to leave, is painful and tragic.

At the same time, I loved the way Leni’s life in Alaska grows. She becomes a part of the community, part of Alaska itself, and this stays with her and changes her in deep and unalterable ways.

I won’t say more about the love story or its outcome, other than WOW and SOB and TEARS and… well, read it yourself to find out!

The Great Alone is powerful and moving, with a unique setting and memorable characters. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Novella: The Only Harmless Great Thing


In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is weird and wonderful, cruel and beautiful. Can you possibly believe that two awful chapters from history — the “radium girls” and an electrocuted elephant — would fit together in one story? Author Brooke Bolander pulls off this seemingly impossible task in a new novella that almost defies description — you just need to experience it.

The narration shifts between elephant and human characters, in language that’s often hauntingly strange and beautiful.

At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.

The human parts of the story are heart-breaking and outrage-inducing… but so are the elephants’ sections. As I read, the story of the radium factory workers’ treatment left me feeling furious. The involvement of elephants in the radium story is startling but makes sense in this alternate world in which humans and elephants converse via sign language, and the elephant language (Proboscidian) is taught in universities.

Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a quick but powerful read, unusual and a little crazy and definitely something that will stick in my mind for quite some time. It made me angry and sad, and also made me think. Highly recommended.

But chains can be snapped, O best beloved mooncalf. Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands. And one chain snapping may cause all the rest to trumpet and stomp and shake the trees like a rain-wind coming down the mountain, washing the gully muddy with bright lightning tusks and thunderous song.

PS – The story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island, is changed and reinvented here in this novella — but yes, there was a real Topsy, and she really was put to death in 1903 by being electrocuted in front of a crowd as part of a public spectacle. It’s a horrible story that seems too outrageous to be true, but sadly, it really happened. You can read more about Topsy’s awful fate here.

PPS – Reading this novella reminded me that I picked up a copy of the non-fiction book The Radium Girls (winner of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for history and biography), and really need to read it!

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The details:

Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Length: 96 pages
Genre: Alternate history
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Still Me by Jojo Moyes


From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Jojo Moyes, a new book featuring her iconic heroine of Me Before You and After You, Louisa Clark

Louisa Clark arrives in New York ready to start a new life, confident that she can embrace this new adventure and keep her relationship with Ambulance Sam alive across several thousand miles. She steps into the world of the superrich, working for Leonard Gopnik and his much younger second wife, Agnes. Lou is determined to get the most out of the experience and throws herself into her new job and New York life.

As she begins to mix in New York high society, Lou meets Joshua Ryan, a man who brings with him a whisper of her past. Before long, Lou finds herself torn between Fifth Avenue where she works and the treasure-filled vintage clothing store where she actually feels at home. And when matters come to a head, she has to ask herself: Who is Louisa Clark? And how do you reconcile a heart that lives in two places?

Funny, romantic, and poignant, Still Me follows Lou as she navigates how to stay true to herself, while pushing to live boldly in her brave new world.

Still Me is the third Louisa Clark story, taking the young woman we know and love and putting her in a decidedly new and strange environment — New York’s Upper East Side.

In the beautiful Me Before You, Louisa’s life changes through her relationship with Will Traynor, a man she loves but cannot save. In After You, we see Louisa grieve and suffer, finally starting to rebuild a new version of a life as she allows new friends and connections into her world and begins to open up to the possibility of a new love.

Still Me picks up right where After You leaves off, as Louisa leaves her family and new boyfriend Sam behind in England to accept a job working for a super posh family in New York. The Gopniks are incredibly rich and live a life of utter luxury and intense busy-ness, with husband and wife requiring personal assistants to keep their days on track and to get them from one charity event to another. Lou’s role is to be Agnes’s companion as well as assistant, providing reassurance and steadiness to the young wife who is scorned by the more established society matrons.

Lou and Sam plan to continue their relationship, but as we all know, long-distance relationships are tough, no matter the good intentions. Misunderstandings crop up. Communication is strained. Sam’s visits to New York never seem to work out as wonderfully as planned. And then a disastrous visit home leads to even more trouble.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Lou’s career as a companion takes an unexpected turn… but soon new opportunities and friendships come her way. And Lou — finally, slowly — begins to understand that she has the opportunity Will always wanted for her: the chance to decide for herself who she will be, and what she wants her life to look like.

I won’t say any more about the plot — who wants to give away the good stuff? Louisa is, as always, an original — a funky, upbeat, unusual young woman who’s headstrong, loving, creative, and assertive; who also drinks too much when nervous, rolls with the punches, but is decidedly vulnerable too. Will Traynor will always be an indelible influence on her life, but Sam holds her heart… or does he? And is he as devoted to her as she’d like him to be?

Still Me introduces some memorable, delightful new characters, especially Mrs. DeWitt — the feisty, slightly mean old woman who lives down the hall from the Gopniks — and her dog Dean Martin, a pug who’s got just as much of a bite as his owner.

In her New York setting, Louisa gets a new chance to shine, whether wearing her unique style of outrageous fashion or finding her way around Fifth Avenue. It’s fun and heartening to see “our” Lou turn into this new version of herself, whistling for cabs like a New York pro.

In some ways, Still Me could almost be a stand-alone. There are many sections that read like a fish-out-of-water story. Take one small-town English girl and place her in the world of New York billionaires — it’s bound to be entertaining. And yet, for those of us who have read the earlier books, it’s especially heart-warming to see the unsure, broken-hearted heroine of Me Before You finally coming out the other side of a world of grief and taking steps toward becoming who she’s meant to be.

Still Me wraps up a lovely trilogy that’s full of pathos, humor, warmth, and characters who feel like real people, flawed but lovable all the same. I’d love to think that Jojo Moyes might continue writing about Louisa Clark — I haven’t seen anthing that says, one way or the other, whether Still Me is the end of Louisa’s story. I hope not! I think I’d be happy following Lou through the many glorious years ahead of her. Still, if Still Me is the final Louisa Clark book, we can all take satisfaction in seeing the life Louisa has built for herself by the end of the book, and imagine the great things yet to come.

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The details:

Title: Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Red Clocks


In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

This book is getting a ton of buzz, with non-stop comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, among others. But I’ll tell you up front, I just don’t see it, and feel like the hype is pretty undeserved too.

Also, just to get this out of the way, the synopsis is misleading as well — the book is not about “five very different women” “in a small Oregon fishing town” — it’s about four women, and there are notes from one character’s unfinished biography of a female explorer. But Eivor is certainly not a woman in the small Oregon town. Nitpicky, I know, but accuracy matters.

Okay, so what’s it all about? Through chapters alternating between the four main characters and the notes on Eivor, we get a view of life in an America much like our own, but with a scary difference. Since the Personhood Amendment became the law of the land, abortions are illegal, and by law, life starts at conception, conveying the rights of full humans on embryos. Women who miscarry are forced to pay for funerals for their dead babies. Getting an abortion will result in murder charges. Canada has enacted an agreement to close the border to women seeking abortions; this is known as the “Pink Wall”.

And yet, in all other ways, it’s just a small town with the usual assortment of odd characters overly involved in one another’s lives.

Ro is desperate to become pregnant, but as the clock seems to be running out on her fertility chances, she’s also aware of the law about to take effect (Every Child Needs Two) that bans adoption by single parents. Ro’s student Mattie is bright and ambitious, but finds herself trapped by an unwanted pregnancy. Susan feels trapped in her marriage and family life, and seems not quite stable in a self-destructive way. Gin is a healer with a talent for herbal medicine and the courage to provide care for women with nowhere to turn. All, in different ways, feel trapped by their own circumstances and the laws that take away their choices.

Oddly, Red Clocks is much less compelling than it should be. Yes, the twist about the Personhood Amendment and the return to a world of back-alley abortions is frightening, clearly intended as a cautionary tale for those who take rights for granted and who assume someone will do something about the slow creep of rising conservatism. But in execution, the events of the novel feel narrow in scope — the small town, rather than feeling representative, is just its own odd little locale.

The writing in Red Clocks suffers from literary affectation that’s distracting and even laughable in places. The main characters are referred to only by their generic descriptions in their own chapters — so in Ro’s chapters, she’s referred to only as “the biographer”. Susan is “the wife”, Mattie is “the daughter”, and Gin is “the mender”. Yet they get names when they feature in chapters about the other characters… so what’s the point of not using their names? Are they supposed to be iconic in some way? Perhaps it’s the author’s way of showing the roles that women are assigned, but it doesn’t feel necessary or effective; rather, it feels like someone trying too hard to be different.

And oh, the writing itself drove me a bit batty. Are we supposed to be seeing how these women think? Is that why everything is so disjointed? And yet, the chapters all sound kind of alike, without distinct voices. Here are a few samples — judge for yourself if this is the kind of thing you can stomach:

Labiaplasty surgeons earn up to $250,000 per month.

A little animal — possum? porcupine? tries to cross the cliff road.

Sooty, burnt, charred to rubber.

Shivering, trying to cross.

Already so dead.

(opening lines of a “The Wife” chapter)

A witch who says no to her lover and no to the law must be suffocated in a cell of the hive. She who says no to her lover and no to the law shall bleed salt from the face. Two eyes of salt in the face of a witch who says no to her lover and no to the law shall be seen by policeman who come to the cabin.

(“The Mender”)

There is an egg bracing to burst out of its sac into the wet fallopian warmth.

(“The Biographer”)

Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but now now. The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic of baby craziness to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.

Then, suddenly, she was one of them. Not the gutters, but the clock.

(“The Biographer”)

After Clementine leaves, the mender misses her, wants back the soft white thighs. She likes her ladies big-sirenic, mermaids of land, pressing and twisting in fleshful bodies.

(“The Mender”)

Red Clocks isn’t boring, and the plot does include dramatic and moving moments — but few and far between. Otherwise, it’s all very introspective, and the political and social impact gets drowned under the droning of the inner monologues. The book held my interest, but wasn’t the buzz-worthy read I’d expected.

And a final note: I keep seeing people describe Red Clocks as “dystopian”, but I find that not quite accurate either. While it’s disturbing to see the impact of the Personhood Amendment, the world of Red Clocks is no where near the societal upheaval and tyranny of a dystopian society. It’s our world as it could be, which is scary enough without the “dystopian” label attached to it.

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The details:

Title: Red Clocks
Author: Leni Zumas
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)

“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)

Members of an Egyptian expedition fall victim to an ancient mummy’s curse in a thrilling Veronica Speedwell novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries. 
 
London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker. His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past. Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything. . . .

My Thoughts:

This series is so much fun! I’ve written lengthier reviews of the first two Veronica Speedwell books (A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking), so I’ll keep this one brief. Veronica Speedwell, a (mostly) proper Victorian lady with a penchant for butterflies, scientific expeditions, and hot men, once again becomes embroiled in solving a mystery in order to stave off potential disgrace for her partner Stoker. The plot involves a mummy’s curse, shady explorers, Egyptian gods… and perhaps most importantly, figures from Stoker’s dark past.

The mystery itself is quite fun, and it’s satisfying to get some of the answers we’ve been waiting for about Stoker’s dismal reputation and the scandal that haunts him. Veronica and Stoker still have that red-hot (but unfulfilled) chemistry between them, and the door is definitely open for further adventures and further romantic entanglement.

Veronica is a terrific heroine, and the books in the series feature just the right combination of danger, adventure, and witty dialogue. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Mystery/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books I’m looking forward to reading in 2018

snowy10

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Top Ten Books I’m Looking Forward To In 2018. I’m hoping to make a huge dent in my backlist of books this coming year… but meanwhile, here are some new releases for 2018 that I’m really excited about:

1. Noir by Christopher Moore: Sounds crazy, like all the best books by “the author guy”.

2. The Lady Astronaut books by Mary Robinette Kowal: The premise sounds amazing.

3. The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian: Sure to be great – as are all books by this author.

4. Still Me by Jojo Moyes: Time to find out what happens next in the life of Lou Clark!

5. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire: Another Wayward Children story! So exciting.

6. Belleweather by Susanna Kearsley: Gorgeous cover, and I’m always up for a new book by one of my favorite authors.

7. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert: I love the description, and that cover is fantastic!

8. Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs: The newest installment in the Alpha & Omega series. More Charles and Anna!

9. Competence by Gail Carriger: There’s no cover yet, but I’m still dying with excitement for book #3 in the Custard Protocol series!

10. Head On by John Scalzi: The sequel to the terrific Lock In:

What books are you excited to read in 2018? Please share your links!

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

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