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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Audiobook Review: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire


October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

Rosemary and Rue  is the first book in the ongoing October Daye series — and as the first book, it has a lot of heavy lifting to do, in terms of establishing characters, building a world, and setting up the rules of the supernatural system that dictates the possibilities of plot from the starting point onward. Fortunately, Seanan McGuire is supremely talented and inventive, and in Rosemary and Rue, she’s more than up to the challenge of creating a world we’ll want to stay in.

Set in and around San Francisco, R&R starts with a pretty ominous set-up for Toby (October) in the prologue. While chasing her liege lord’s enemy (who’s also his twin brother), Toby walks into a trap and loses the next fourteen years of her life. I won’t say why or how — it’s just too much fun to find out for yourself.

We re-meet Toby in chapter one after she’s returned to a version of her former life, having sworn off anything to do with the world of the fae, determined to live as simply human and ignore the other half of her changeling identity. She’s been burned too badly and has lost far too much to be able to stomach the idea of returning to the intricate systems of fae courts and allegiances and territories. But Evening’s murder sucks her back in against her will, and soon enough Toby is brought face to face with old allies, lovers, and enemies. Her own life is on the line as she tries to solve the murder. If she fails, Evening’s dying curse will take Toby’s life as well.

The plot of R&R follows Toby’s search for clues and her reinvolvement with characters from her past, some well-meaning, some clearly not. As a changeling, Toby’s magical abilities are only so-so, and each time she engages with a pureblood, she’s at risk. As you’d expect in an  urban fantasy series, Toby is a smart-ass, tough woman with her own set of abilities, not least a talent for thinking on her feet, reading a room, and figuring out how to get what she wants. Still, she has vulnerabilities too, both physical and emotional, and she certainly suffers throughout the book as all sorts of baddies are out to get her and stop her investigation.

I love Toby as a character, and love the odd assortment of changelings and purebloods we meet along the way. Also excellent is the use of San Francisco as a setting. While some of the location descriptions didn’t quite gel with the reality of the area, others (such as the use of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park) are just brilliant.

I have to give a shout-out to the most endearing and adorable magical creature in the book, a “rose goblin” named Spike. Picture a cat with thorns instead of fur, and you have the basic idea. Just loved it.

I did wish that Toby’s backstory was spelled out in a little more concrete detail. As with many urban fantasy stories, we start in the middle of the action and learn about Toby’s difficult past through various references as we go along. It’s enough to give a general timeline, but I still have questions. What does it mean that she’s a knight? What was the process to become one? How did she first join Sylvester’s court? Maybe future volumes in the series will provide more specifics.

Even thought the solution to the murder wasn’t that difficult to guess, I still enjoyed the revelations, Toby’s realizations about the various people in her life, and the reasons behind the events. The plot is fast-paced and exciting, and I enjoyed the adventure start to finish.

Narrator Mary Robinette Kowal brings her talents to the variety of characters, with accents and intonations and pitches that distinguish them and make it easy to identify the speaker at any given point — not always easy in audiobooks. As with the Indexing books, she does a great job of making the story flow, and I enjoyed her depiction of Toby’s inner life.

Rosemary and Rue was really a fun listen, and I’m planning on diving right in with book #2.

Note: Woo hoo! I’ve started another series from my reading goals list for 2018!
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The details:

Title: Rosemary and Rue
Author: Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: DAW Books
Publication date: September 1, 2009
Length (print): 346 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 20 minutes
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased

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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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Aubiobook Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

 

The feisty, fiery Kopp sisters are back in another unforgettable romp by international bestseller Amy Stewart.

Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is outraged to see young women brought into the Hackensack jail over dubious charges of waywardness, incorrigibility, and moral depravity. The strong-willed, patriotic Edna Heustis, who left home to work in a munitions factory, certainly doesn’t belong behind bars. And sixteen-year-old runaway Minnie Davis, with few prospects and fewer friends, shouldn’t be publicly shamed and packed off to a state-run reformatory. But such were the laws — and morals — of 1916.

Constance uses her authority as deputy sheriff, and occasionally exceeds it, to investigate and defend these women when no one else will. But it’s her sister Fleurette who puts Constance’s beliefs to the test and forces her to reckon with her own ideas of how a young woman should and shouldn’t behave.

Against the backdrop of World War I, and drawn once again from the true story of the Kopp sisters, ‘Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions’ is a spirited, page-turning story that will delight fans of historical fiction and lighthearted detective fiction alike.

My Thoughts:

The third book in the Kopp Sisters series is another terrific adventure starring Deputy Sheriff Constance Kopp and her sisters. In this installment, the main trouble is young girls looking for freedom and purpose, and the fear the authorities seem to have at the prospect of “waywardness”. Blameless girls can be scooped up and put in jail at the request of their parents, simply for leaving home without permission. Constance becomes convinced that there has to be another way, and does her best to find it.

I love the characters in these books. Amy Stewart does an amazing job of bringing to vibrant life these audacious, unusual women, and shows us the incredible biases they faced on a daily basis. It’s great fun knowing Constance was a real person, and I couldn’t help but admire her devotion to her principles and her job, even while being scoffed at for doing “men’s work”.

Book #3 isn’t perfect, though: The plot itself is a tad flat compared to the previous two books, which featured dangerous criminal cases, pursuits, threats, and imminent risk to the Kopps. Here, it’s a quieter sort of story, as the plights of Minnie and Edna are interwoven with Fleurette’s own escapade. The story is never dull, but it lacks the adrenaline and speed of the previous two.

Still, it’s absolutely worth reading. The characters continue to be delightful, and it’s interesting to see how the looming involvement of the United States in WWI begins to cast a shadow over the events in the story. I definitely want to see what happens next!

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

If you have had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 5, 2017
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 4 minutes
Printed book length: 365 pages
Genre: Detective story/historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased)

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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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Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a book all year! (Okay, it’s only January 20th, but that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

Eligible is a Jane Austen retelling, part of The Austen Project, in which modern-day authors are matched up with Austen novels, retelling Austen’s classic tales in a modern setting. Eligible is the 4th of the Austen Project books to be published, and I’d have to say it’s the most enjoyable so far.

The author opens this Pride and Prejudice reinterpretation with a quote by Mark Twain about Cincinnati being 20 years behind every one else… and thank goodness she does, because this mindset certainly help Eligible make sense. The problem I have with most modern-day interpretations of Austen stories is the unrelenting emphasis on marrying well, which definitely isn’t a notion that fits with a 21st century outlook.

In Eligible, Mrs. Bennet is a Cincinnatian who wants nothing more than for her five daughters to be married off to wealthy, successful men, so she can go brag about it at the country club. Mrs. Bennet is just as insufferable here as she is in Austen’s original. Liz and Jane have found lives and careers in New York, but when they return home due to their father’s health crisis, they’re sucked right back into the Bennets’ world, full of gossip and obnoxious younger sisters and oblivious parents.

The story is quite fun. Darcy is a snobbish neurosurgeon who forms terrible impressions of Cincinnati and the Bennets. And he does have good reason, as Kitty and Lydia are crass and embarrassing every time they open their mouths. Jane is lovely, of course, and Chip is smitten… but complicating matters is the fact that Jane had decided to pursue single motherhood right before returning to Cincinnati, and a pregnancy could definitely throw a wrench in the romance.

The modern-day touches are sprinkled throughout the story. The use of a reality TV show as a catalyst is quite brilliant, especially as Chip’s ongoing connection to the show comes back into play later in the book. Lydia’s story take an unexpected turn as well, and fortunately, she ends up being more sensible and much happier in Eligible than she does in the original.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

I don’t want to get too far into the details, because the fun is in encountering all the little ways in which the author takes the original P&P story elements and turns them on their head and makes them fit in a contemporary novel. Still, I’ll mention just a few things that I thought were great twist, such as Jasper Wick (Eligible‘s version of Wickham), a married man with whom Liz has an affair for far too long (prior to the events of the story), and who ends up being just the sort of ass we’d expect. Fortunately, Lydia does NOT get involved with Wick/Wickham in this story… but the way the author makes Lydia’s elopement work out is fitting, and I only just now got the play on names that the author pulls off with Lydia’s love interest.

The one thing I had a really hard time with in Eligible is that about mid-way through, as Liz and Darcy keep running into each other, being rude to one another, and clearly expressing their dislike… Liz asks Darcy if he wants to have hate sex, and he agrees, and they end up in bed together! A lot! Okay, fine, I don’t have any problem with consenting adults doing whatever they like, but somehow it’s shocking to think about Lizzie Bennet and Darcy getting physical! I felt like I was going to have an attack of the vapors. Quick, fetch the smelling salts! It actually all works in the context of the plot, but somehow putting those characters in that situation was quite outrageous for my poor, proper sensibilities.

Okay, end of spoilers.

The writing in Eligible is fun and light-hearted, and the short chapters keep the plot moving right along, even though the book itself, by pure page-count, is on the long side. Despite knowing overall how the story must work out, given the premise, getting there was really a blast.

I haven’t entirely loved the Austen Project books that I’ve read so far, because I do find the notion of Austen’s plots really hard to force into modern retellings. In the case of Eligible, though, it’s a great fit, and so well done. If you’re an Austen fan, Eligible is worth checking out, and I suppose even someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) would enjoy the story as well.

For more on Austen Project books, check out my reviews of:
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 19, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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