Book Review: Ironside (Modern Faerie Tales, #3) by Holly Black

Title: Ironside
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2007
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the realm of Faerie, the time has come for Roiben’s coronation. Uneasy in the midst of the malevolent Unseelie Court, pixie Kaye is sure of only one thing — her love for Roiben. But when Kaye, drunk on faerie wine, declares herself to Roiben, he sends her on a seemingly impossible quest. Now Kaye can’t see or speak to Roiben unless she can find the one thing she knows doesn’t exist: a faerie who can tell a lie.

Miserable and convinced she belongs nowhere, Kaye decides to tell her mother the truth — that she is a changeling left in place of the human daughter stolen long ago. Her mother’s shock and horror sends Kaye back to the world of Faerie to find her human counterpart and return her to Ironside. But once back in the faerie courts, Kaye finds herself a pawn in the games of Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court. Silarial wants Roiben’s throne, and she will use Kaye, and any means necessary, to get it. In this game of wits and weapons, can a pixie outplay a queen?

Holly Black spins a seductive tale at once achingly real and chillingly enchanted, set in a dangerous world where pleasure mingles with pain and nothing is exactly as it appears. 

I’m going to keep this post short, because I just don’t find myself having all that much to say about Ironside. But hey, I posted reviews for the first two books in the trilogy (Tithe and Valiant), so I might as well be complete about it!

In Ironside, we go back to the main character from Tithe — Kaye, the pixie raised as a human, who has fallen in love with Lord Roiben, the ruler of the Unseelie Court. He sets her on what seems to be an impossible quest, and meanwhile, is on the brink of war with the Seelie court, which his outnumbered people seem destined to lose.

Alongside her best friend, the mortal Corny, and their new friend Luis (who was introduced in Valiant), Kaye has to try to solve the riddle of her quest and find a way to prevent the war that’s likely to end with Roiben’s death, while also keeping Corny from the endless disasters that seem to pop up wherever he goes.

As in the other books in the trilogy, Ironside is set in New York, where faeries need magical powders of protection to live amidst all the poisonous iron of the human world. This book is not as bleak and grim as the 2nd book. There’s still danger, but the focus is mostly on events involving the faerie courts, and it doesn’t have quite the same sense of urban grittiness.

I’m not mad that I finished the trilogy, but I didn’t love the overarching story as a whole. Some characters are endearing, but the plot didn’t grab me, and key moments felt kind of brief and lacking in substance.

My edition of the trilogy (a three-in-one volume) includes The Lament of Lutie-Loo, a short story (written in 2019) about Kaye’s sprite companion and the visit she makes to Elfhame. I liked this a lot — it’s light and fun, and I think I particularly liked it for the glimpses of beloved characters from the Folk of the Air trilogy.

I’d been curious about these books, and they were on my list of series I wanted to read this year, so I’m glad to have accomplished what I set out to do. This trilogy as a whole didn’t thrill me, but I do love Holly Black’s writing and imagination, and look forward to reading a few more of her books.

Book Review: Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales, #2) by Holly Black

Title: Valiant
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to New York Times bestselling author Holly Black’s enthralling realm of faerie in the second Modern Faerie Tales novel, where danger and magic come hand-in-hand in the dark underground of New York City.

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends that sets her on edge.

When Val is talked into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature, she must strike a bargain to make it out with her life intact. Now drawn into a world she never knew existed, Val finds herself torn between her affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

While Valiant is the 2nd book in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, don’t pick it up expecting to continue where Tithe left off. In Valiant, we meet a completely new cast of characters in a mostly new setting, and it’s only toward the end that there’s some cross-over with the previous book’s characters.

Val is 17 years old when she discovers a major betrayal by the people she trusted the most. Distraught, she takes a train into Manhattan to get away for a few hours — but then can’t bring herself to go back home. She shaves her head and takes to the street, fortunately meeting up with a few other teen runaways who welcome her into their circle. She soon finds herself squatting with them at an abandoned subway platform, where they can be relatively safe, keep warm, and have a regular place to sleep.

Val’s new friends — Lolli, Dave, Luis — have secrets. It turns out that they do odd jobs for the faerie underground in the city, making deliveries of a special potion that helps the Fae stay healthy in a world full of poisonous iron. What Val’s friends have discovered is that when a human uses this potion, especially by injecting it, it gives them all sorts of delicious borrowed power. It’s also highly addictive, and none of them seem able to resist it for long.

Meanwhile, someone is murdering solitary fae, and suspicion falls on Ravus, the bridge toll who creates and distributes the magical potion. Val has grown closer to Ravus, but being in his circle becomes more and more dangerous. There’s adventure and chaos, friendship and betrayal, growing up and going home. There’s a LOT going on this book.

Val & Ravus fan art via https://hollyblack.tumblr.com/

In some ways, Valiant could be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of being a runaway. Remember how people used to talk a lot about how Buffy is really a metaphor for the teen years (high school is hell!)? You could look at Valiant in a similar fashion. There’s a point to be made here: The experiences of Val and her friends are dark and grim and in no way glamorous or magical. The book shows their daily struggle to get enough to eat, find a bathroom to clean up in, sleep where they won’t be robbed or assaulted, and figure out who to trust. Several characters fall quickly into addiction, and the fact that it’s a magical drug doesn’t change the fact that it’s destroying them more and more each day. Through the constant threats and uncertainties, this book makes clear that running away shouldn’t be seen as the answer. Home may be hard, but being on the streets isn’t the “magical” solution either.

At the same time, this is a faerie tale, although a very dark one. It’s bleak and hard, the fae the characters meet are mostly cruel, and the stakes are high — if they survive their lives on the streets, they can still be killed by creatures that want to hurt them just for fun.

This isn’t a pleasant read, but it did keep me interested. I liked Val and Ravus as characters, and I’m interested in seeing how the 3rd book, Ironside, wraps up the plots of Tithe and Valiant. As I mentioned in my review of Tithe, I don’t feel these books are anywhere near the greatness of the Folk of the Air trilogy — but considering that the Modern Faerie Tales books were written about 20 years earlier, it’s nice to be able to compare and see the author’s development of her craft and the worlds she creates.

Onward to #3!

Book Review: The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons, #2) by Julia Quinn

Title: The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons, #2)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2000
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, This Author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London’s most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better…

–Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn’t just decided to marry–he’s even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended’s older sister, Kate Sheffield–the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate’s the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams…

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes do not make the best husbands–and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate’s determined to protect her sister–but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony’s lips touch hers, she’s suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself…

Reading the Bridgertons series is such a fluffy, escapist treat, despite the fact that I’m not much of a romance reader, and some sections made me roll my eyes so hard that they hurt. But after watching the Netflix series, it’s hard not to want to keep going and read more, more, more.

The setting is Regency-era London. The Bridgertons are a large family, with eight children (named in alphabetical order, which the high society ton find amusing). Lady Bridgerton is a widow, and she’s determined to see all of her children settled into happy marriages. In the first book in the series, The Duke & I, daughter Daphne ends up quite blissfully married (to a Duke, obviously). Now it’s time for the the rest of her children to get paired off as well.

In The Viscount Who Loved Me, the focus shifts to Anthony Bridgerton, the oldest of the Bridgerton children and the head of the family since their father’s death eleven years earlier. Anthony has never truly gotten over losing his father, and through his grief and his devotion to his father, has somehow managed to convince himself that he won’t live longer than his father did. Now at age 29, he’s sure — even while acknowledging to himself that he’s not really being rational — that he’ll be dead within 10 years. Constantly aware of his impending date with death, Anthony has played the rake up to now, but wanting to leave behind his own legacy, has decided that it’s finally time to marry and have children.

One firm rule he’s sworn to keep to is not to marry for love. After all, despite his parents’ love match, love isn’t really a requirement for marriage at that time. He seeks a wife who’s pretty, pleasant, from a good family, and who’ll make a good mother. But love will not be a factor: His deep-seated fear is that if he loves his wife, the knowledge of his premature death will make his life too painful to bear. Again, not rational, but it’s what he believes.

Anthony decides that he’ll marry Edwina Sheffield, considered to be the diamond of the season. Edwina and her older half-sister Kate are both having their first season. They live with Mary, Kate’s stepmother and Edwina’s mother, but have little in the way of financial means since the death of their father. Not being able to afford the expense of two full London seasons, Kate has postponed her own debut until the practically spinster-ish age of 21, when Edwina would also be old enough to be out.

Kate is a wonderful character, devoted to Mary and Edwina, smart, and outspoken. She’s fiercely protective of Edwina, and Edwina has stated that she won’t marry without Kate’s approval of her potential husband. Kate doesn’t play games and doesn’t expect many suitors, especially since her own looks can’t (in her opinion) hold a candle to Edwina’s delicate, classically beautiful appearance. She knows that one of them must come out of the season married, and married well, in order to support the rest of their family, and assumes Edwina has a much better chance.

Because of Anthony’s reputation as a rake, Kate immediately rules him out as a husband for Edwina, especially after hearing him state that it’s okay for a man to maintain a mistress after marriage, so long as he doesn’t love his wife. She thinks badly of him and informs him that she won’t allow him to wed Edwina. The two engage in lots of bickering and heated exchanges, but over the course of their encounters, they both become aware of a spark between them.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed! Sparks fly, and a potential scandal forces them into marriage, even while neither is wiling to admit their desire and unwanted feelings for one another.

A few random thoughts on things that stuck out to me while reading this book:

  • As in The Duke & I, the male love interest is flawed and carries emotional baggage. Like Simon, Anthony is damaged by the trauma he experienced earlier in his life, and this influences his attitude and emotions regarding love and marriage.
  • We can’t really be mad when the norms of a historical period don’t match our own, but certain things make me bonkers anyway. Like how Anthony at age 18 becomes the Viscount and head of the family, meaning (among other things) that all the Bridgerton properties — their London house and their country estate — belong to him and him alone. I get it, that’s how things worked then, but it makes me mad on Violet’s behalf (the mother of the Bridgertons) that she owns nothing and technically is dependent on Anthony.
  • Also, there’s the tired old sentiment that men who are rakes are daring and dashing and make desirable husbands. Their bad reputations (so long as they have money and social standing) seem to only make them more desirable. Whereas young women must be pure and virginal, and can be ruined by being alone with a man or exchanging a kiss. Stupid double standards.
  • When we first meet Edwina, I expected her to be the standard romance character of the beautiful but shallow girl who everyone falls in love with — so I was happy to discover that there’s a lot more to her. She’s a supportive sister and daughter, she loves to read and study philosophy, and her true desire in a husband is to marry a scholar with whom she can study and learn. How refreshing!
  • I had to laugh at the scene of Anthony and Kate’s scandalous encounter that drives them into marriage. Kate is stung by a bee, and Anthony becomes so frantic about it (an allergic reaction to a bee sting is what killed his father), that he decides to suck the venom from the site of the sting — just above her breast. Okay, I have never heard of someone sucking out a bee’s venom, and it just seemed ridiculous. Of course, the women who stumbled upon them in the midst of this ridiculousness didn’t know what had happened and of course it was highly scandalous behavior… but still, so silly.
  • In the first book, main character Daphne went into marriage with zero knowledge of sex, after a pre-wedding talk with her mother that conveyed absolutely no actual information. Here, Mary does better with “the talk” on the night before Kate’s wedding, but manages to leave Kate with certain impressions that are detrimental to her marriage.

As I mentioned, romance is not a typical genre for me, and so some of the language just makes me laugh. I don’t know how much of this also has to do with the book being written 20 years ago, but I’m guessing that a lot of it is just typical romance language, and the statements made by certain characters are true to the general portrayal of Regency-era gender roles. Some choice bits:

A taste of attitude:

Anthony leaned forward, his chin jutting out in a most menacing manner. “Women should not keep pets if they cannot control them.” “And men should not take women with pets for a walk in the park if they cannot control either,” she shot back.

Bridgerton chuckled. “The only reason to give up one’s mistress is if one happens to love one’s wife. And as I do not intend to choose a wife with whom I might fall in love, I see no reason to deny myself the pleasures of a lovely woman like you.”

“The talk””

“Men and women are very different,” Mary continued, as if that weren’t completely obvious, “and a man—even one who is faithful to his wife, which I’m sure the viscount will be to you—can find his pleasure with almost any woman.”

Which leads directly to Kate’s fears and insecurities:

But she’d been consoling herself with the memory of the desire she had felt—and she thought Anthony had felt—when she was in his arms. Now it seemed that this desire wasn’t even necessarily for her, but rather some primitive urge that every man felt for every woman. And Kate would never know if, when Anthony snuffed the candles and took her to bed, he closed his eyes . . . And pictured another woman’s face.

And then there’s the sexy-times, which I generally find hilarious:

She wouldn’t recognize the first prickles of desire, nor would she understand that slow, swirling heat in the core of her being. And that slow, swirling heat was there. He could see it in her face.

Kate gasped as his hands stole around to her backside and pressed her harshly against his arousal.

“You’ve never seen a naked man before, have you?” he murmured. She shook her head. “Good.” He leaned forward and plucked one of her slippers from her foot. “You’ll never see another.”

His hands slid to the top button of his trousers and unfastened it, but stopped there. She was still fully clothed, and still fully an innocent. She wasn’t yet ready to see the proof of his desire.

Kate’s eyes widened as he left the bed and stripped off the rest of his clothing. His body was perfection, his chest finely muscled, his arms and legs powerful, and his— “Oh, my God,” she gasped. He grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I’m not really mocking the book, just noting that romance language never fails to entertain me and make me giggle over scenes that aren’t meant to be funny. I’ve become very fond of the characters in the series (having watched the Netflix series definitely helps), and for sure I’ll be reading more.

That’s two Bridgerton siblings happily married — six more to go!

Book Review: Tithe (Modern Faerie Tales, #1) by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

I have been wanting to read the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy ever since reading the author’s more recent Folk of the Air series, which I love to pieces. Tithe, the first book in the trilogy, was first published in 2002, and is Holly Black’s first novel.

Kaye is a 16-year-old girl who lives wherever her mother happens to land, raising herself while her mother focuses on her band. She stopped going to school a couple of years earlier, rather than continuing to go through the process of starting over every time they pick up move somewhere new for the sake of a new gig.

When they need a sudden escape from a dangerous situation, they move back to Kaye’s hometown in New Jersey to live in her grandmother’s house. Kaye is happy to reconnect with her elementary school bestie, Janet, and also hopes to see her imaginary friends again. But are they really imaginary? In her early years, Kaye would tell anyone who would listen about her magical fairy friends, which no one ever believed, earning herself the reputation of being a weird kid.

Some strange things start to recur, and after a bad night out, Kaye runs into a beautiful, otherworldly man in the forest who’s been injured. As she tries to help him, a bond is forged, and she starts to learn more about her own true nature. It turns out that Kaye is a pixie changeling, placed under heavy glamours to appear human and exchanged for the real baby Kaye, who’s been raised in Faerie in Kaye’s place.

Things escalate quickly, and Kaye finds herself pulled into a power struggle between the different Fae courts. She’d like to trust Roiben, but he’s clearly dangerous as well, and Kaye is still learning about her own magic and abilities, as well as worrying about her mortal friends who have inadvertently gotten mixed up with the world of Faerie.

Kaye is a great character, a little jaded and world-weary, but also in awe of the new world that opens before her. She hates the power games and brutality shown by some of the Fae, but she sees beauty in this world as well. The dynamic between Kaye and Roiben is quite fun. (Side note: Kaye and Roiben make brief appearances in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and once I realized that they were the main characters in Tithe, I knew I needed to read it.)

There are some tragic turns and dramatic encounters, and the pacing of the story is quick and engaging. That said, this book was written almost 20 years ago and is a first novel, and both of those elements show. I can’t fault a book for depicting the time in which it was written, but it’s still jarring, here in 2021, to have teens not glued to their cell phones, see them using pay phones, or mention the noise their modem makes while connecting to the internet.

In terms of this being a first novel, it’s well-written and engaging, but having read the Folk of the Air trilogy, Tithe suffers by comparison. Which may just be a round-about way of saying how amazing the Folk of the Air books are — sophisticated plotting and world-building, powerfully depicted characters, intricate relationships… I could go on and on. Reading Tithe after those books, it’s clear that Tithe is much simpler writing, and at the same time, doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the various power dynamics of the Fae courts (which we basically get to know about via one massive information dump).

Holly Black is an incredibly gifted writer, and it’s interesting to see where she started. The world of Tithe is related to the world of the Folk of the Air, and reading Tithe is a great chance to experience Faerie as the author first depicted it.

I will definitely read the other two books in the series (Valiant and Ironside), and then have an unrelated trilogy (Curse Workers) and an unrelated novel (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) by Holly Black on my TBR shelf.

I do recommend Tithe, especially for fans of the author’s later books.

For more of my reviews of Holly Black books:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Good Neighbors (graphic novel trilogy)
The Cruel Prince
The Wicked King/The Queen of Nothing
How the King of Elfhame Learned To Hate Stories

Book Review: We Came Here To Shine by Susie Orman Schnall

Title: We Came Here To Shine
Author: Susie Orman Schnal
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

At the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, two ambitious young women—a down-on-her-luck actress and an aspiring journalist—form an unlikely friendship as they navigate a world of possibility and find out what they are truly made of during a glorious summer of spectacle and potential…

Gorgeous Vivi is about to begin filming her first starring role in a Hollywood picture when the studio head ships her off to New York as a favor to a friend. She’s assigned the leading role in the heralded Aquacade synchronized swimming spectacular at the World’s Fair, a fate she believes will destroy her film career. If she performs well, she’ll have another chance at stardom, but with everything working against her, will her summer lead to opportunity or failure?

Plucky Max dreams of becoming a serious journalist, but when her job at the New York Times doesn’t pan out, she finds herself begrudgingly working for the daily paper of the World’s Fair. As her ideas are continually overlooked by her male counterparts and her career prospects are put in jeopardy, Max must risk everything to change the course of her life.

When Max and Vivi’s worlds collide, they forge an enduring friendship. One that teaches them to go after what matters most during the most meaningful summer of their lives.

We Came Here To Shine takes place at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, bringing the spectacle to life through the experiences of Max and Vivi, two very different women who find themselves drawn together as they each battle sexism and misogyny.

Max is a journalism student at NYU, whose dream is to become a star reporter for the New York Times. As part of the coursework, each member of the class is assigned to a summer internship with a New York publication. Max is crushed when she loses out on her first choice with the Times, and is instead assigned to Today At The Fair, the daily paper produced at the World’s Fair to highlight the days’ events and generate buzz and excitement.

It gets even worse when she and her classmate Charlie show up to work on the first day, only to be told that Charlie will write all the articles, and Max will be responsible for the daily event listings. When she protests, she’s told that women aren’t suited for reporting, and are much better at doing detail work like lists and calendars. Max is furious, especially because she and her classmates are competing for a scholarship that will be awarded based on submission of articles written during the internship. Without the scholarship, Max doesn’t see a way that she can afford the next year’s tuition.

Meanwhile, Vivi is on track as a rising starlet in the Hollywood studio system. After supporting roles in a few films, Vivi is about to start filming a starring role in a new movie — until the studio chief informs her that she’s being replaced, and is instead being loaned out to Billy Rose, the producer of the Aquacade swimming show at the World’s Fair. The Aquacade’s star (in the role of Aquabelle Number One) has been injured, and they need someone to replace her and draw in the crowds. Vivi isn’t a movie star yet, but the producers all agree that the Hollywood cachet will boost ticket sales.

Vivi is dismayed and hurt, but has no choice. She’s under contract to the studio, which means they can do as they want with her. They also dangle a promise that after the summer, they have another starring role all lined up for. Do what they want, and she’ll get that chance. Don’t do it, and the studio will be done with her, ending her Hollywood dreams for good.

There’s a lot to like about We Came Here To Shine, but it fell flat for me in several ways.

First, what I liked:

  • Being introduced to the wonders of the Fair, which at that time would have been mind-boggling. New technologies, glorious buildings and gardens, international pavillions, glamorous restaurants, and the Aquacade — the book does a great job of conveying the awe of experiencing the Fair for the first time.
  • I liked Max and Vivi’s friendship and how they supported one another through their lowpoints, helping each other figure out how to get out of terrible situations and take control of their own paths.
  • The sense of the impact of the Depression, as shown by Max’s family life as well as by some of the negative reactions to the Fair around the ticket prices making it beyond the reach of many families.
  • The photos and historical notes included in the book, which really helped me appreciate different attractions mentioned in the story, as well as explaining which of the issues and people are real and which are created by the author.
  • The inclusion of the National Women’s Party (a real organization) as an inspiration for both Max and Vivi.

The bits that didn’t really work for me:

  • For someone who’s described as being top of her class in journalism, the tastes we get of Max’s writing just aren’t impressive. In fact, the pieces she submits for the scholarship competition are sensational without including sources or diving beyond the surface.
  • It doesn’t actually make sense that Vivi would be chosen to take on the high-profile starring role in the Aquacade. She was on her high school swim team, but has never done choreography or synchronized swimming, and is initially given just four days to rehearse before her first performance.
  • Vivi’s family drama, which drove her to Hollywood in the first place, isn’t explained well enough. We know the basics of what happened, but (see below), the presentation left me feeling that I was reading about stock characters, rather than unique people and dynamics.
  • SPOILER: Vivi, with Max’s help, finds a way to get out of her contract and leave the Aquacade and Hollywood in her past. It’s clear that she’s been mistreated, cheated, and controlled by the various powerful men who run the industry and have absolute power over her career, but I couldn’t quite accept that Vivi’s need to take back her life would include giving up her career and switching aspirations quite so suddenly. It reads as if she never really wanted to become an actress in the first place, but that’s not the impression I had at the start of the book.

The biggest issue I had with the book is the writing. The writing style makes the story feel bland, even when there’s something dramatic happening. In fact, this is probably what bothered me the most: Even as certain events unfolded, I felt like I was being told about what happened, rather than actually seeing them happen. Again and again, I felt like I was reading a summary of the big moments — some key parts felt too short or glossed over, and I never got the sense that I was there.

Still, I did enjoy enough aspects of We Came Here To Shine to make me glad I read it. I’ve now spend some time browsing images and videos to get a sense of what being at the Fair was like. To learn more about the Fair, check out https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/index.htm. Also, here’s a short video highlighting the Aquacade (silent, but still fun to watch.)

We Came Here To Shine is my book group’s pick for January — yet another book that I likely would not have come across otherwise. Despite the problems mentioned above, it’s worth reading to experience the time and place of such a unique and exciting event.

Book Review: Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 10, 2016
Length: 532 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

Let me just say up front that this is going to be a short review — not because I didn’t love the book, but because I tore through it so quickly that I didn’t pause to take notes or mark amazing passages or terrific dialogue. Yes, I loved the book, and it definitely merits 5 stars!

The fifth book in the fabulous Expanse series, Nemesis Games has a lot going on. The key things to know are (1) the crew of the Rocinante spend most of the book apart, each going off on their own private journeys while their ship is undergoing major repairs, and (2) a massive terrorist attack by a dangerous Belter faction changes the power dynamics of the solar system, perhaps permanently.

Each of our four main characters gets a chance to shine, although Naomi’s saga is clearly the most dramatic and emotionally powerful. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, so I’ll be vague, but the attack by the Free Navy (the aggressive Belter faction) is shocking in its scope and impact.

The plotline of Nemesis Games is the basis of the excellent fifth season of The Expanse (now streaming on Amazon Prime), with a few changes here and there. While I’m usually a stickler for reading books before watching movie or TV adaptations, in this case, I’m glad I had the visuals of this season to help me while reading the book. So much of the technology, military aspects, etc are really complex, and having seen the depictions on TV really made the book passages feel more alive to me.

As I said, I’m keeping this review short, so I’ll just wrap up by saying that Nemesis Games and the entire series are highly recommended. The books are long, but they speed by. So far, there are 8 books in the series, with the 9th and final book set to be published sometime this year. I don’t think I’ll be able to get through all of the available books right away, but I do want to keep going! The books are exciting, pulse-pounding reading, and I just have to know what happens next!

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

Book Review: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey

Title: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
Author: Laura Taylor Namey
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Love & Gelato meets Don’t Date Rosa Santos in this charming, heartfelt story following a Miami girl who unexpectedly finds love—and herself—in a small English town.

For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.

Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.

A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow was one of Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club picks, and I can see a lot of what makes it appealing — romance, family, grief and recovery, friendship, and cultural diversity and celebration.

The girl of the title is Lila Reyes, a 17-year-old with a broken heart who has suffered too many losses in too short a period of time. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, her best friends makes plans to work in Ghana after graduation without telling Lila, and most devastating of all, Lila’s beloved abuela dies unexpectedly.

Her abuela was the heart and soul of the family, and she taught Lila everything she knew about food and baking. Lila’s plans were set in stone already — after graduation, she and her older sister Pilar would take over the management of the family bakery. But when Lila’s grief leads her down a self-destructive path, her worried family sends her to a small town in England to spend the summer with a cousin at her family’s inn.

Lila is mad and resentful at first, and so stubborn that she refuses to alter her Miami dress code of tank tops and strappy sandals, even when confronted with chilly English weather. Slowly, though, Lila finds the beginnings of a routine for herself, baking her special Cuban pastries and treats in the inn’s kitchen, becoming friends with a local musician and her group, and getting to know Orion Maxwell, a lovely local who is determined to show Lila all the best sites and tastes of Winchester.

The story is sweet and occasionally moving, as Lila, Orion, and others deal with sorrows and challenges, and learn the various ways true friends can hold each other up when they need it most. And oh, the food! Each chapter is filled to the brim with Lila’s nonstop cooking and baking, and it all sounds amazing! Take me to her bakery now, please, so I can fill my stomach with absolutely everything!

So why only 3 stars? (And, I’ll be honest, I wavered between 2.5 and 3 for quite a while.) It’s simple — I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.

You know how in some books, the sentence structure or use of words is so unique or special that it makes you stop and admire it while you’re reading? This isn’t that. Instead, I was constantly pausing because I was befuddled by the odd syntax and use of language, and had to try to puzzle out what certain descriptions and phrases actually meant:

Blond hair — a dark variety his creator dyed in a murky rain puddle — curls slightly on top of a cropped cut.

Before my mouth even closes, my words strike faces.

Gray, dim, shade — those are the colors on his face before he thumbs his chin and half-smiles for me.

My culture also has too much wanting to die out in the new.

Miami. The third heart on this pavement, trying to love me harder.

The story is nice and moves pretty quickly, but I just didn’t love it enough to want to rave about it, and the writing issue definitely affected my overall enjoyment.

Recommended for the amazing food and the tribute to Cuban Miami culture, but not a must-read.

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator:  Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.

In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.

The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.

At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)

Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.

During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.

The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?

The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.

All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.

The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.

Book Review: The Duke & I (Bridgertons, #1) by Julia Quinn

Title: The Duke & I (Bridgertons, #1)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2000
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn comes the first novel in the beloved Regency-set world of her charming, powerful Bridgerton family, now a series created by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix.

In the ballrooms and drawing rooms of Regency London, rules abound. From their earliest days, children of aristocrats learn how to address an earl and curtsey before a prince—while other dictates of the ton are unspoken yet universally understood. A proper duke should be imperious and aloof. A young, marriageable lady should be amiable…but not too amiable.

Daphne Bridgerton has always failed at the latter. The fourth of eight siblings in her close-knit family, she has formed friendships with the most eligible young men in London. Everyone likes Daphne for her kindness and wit. But no one truly desires her. She is simply too deuced honest for that, too unwilling to play the romantic games that captivate gentlemen.

Amiability is not a characteristic shared by Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. Recently returned to England from abroad, he intends to shun both marriage and society—just as his callous father shunned Simon throughout his painful childhood. Yet an encounter with his best friend’s sister offers another option. If Daphne agrees to a fake courtship, Simon can deter the mamas who parade their daughters before him. Daphne, meanwhile, will see her prospects and her reputation soar.

The plan works like a charm—at first. But amid the glittering, gossipy, cut-throat world of London’s elite, there is only one certainty: love ignores every rule…

After binge-watching Bridgerton on Netflix, how could I resist reading the book that inspired the series? I’m not a big romance reader, and when I do read romance, it tends to be contemporary. But giving into my Bridgerton obsession, I dove into The Duke & I, and finished it in one day!

First, for the TV viewers: No, this is not an integrated society as in the Netflix series. The Duke & I is pretty traditional Regency-era romance, dukes and earls and the gossip of the ton, very solidly white. (Not in my imagination, of course — once you’ve encountered the TV version of Simon Bassett, there’s no way you’ll ever envision him as anyone else!)

Back to the book: The Duke & I has a very traditional romance feel to it, and let’s keep in mind that it was originally published 20 years ago! Daphne Bridgerton is the 4th child of the large Bridgerton family, which very conveniently names its children alphabetically, so it’s easy to keep track of who’s who. The oldest daughter, Daphne is now in her second season out in society, and while she’s received marriage proposals, not a single one has appealed to her. Having grown up with three older brothers, Daphne is perhaps too comfortable with the males of the species, so she’s seen as a great girl and a good friend, but not a romantic prospect. (Men can be stupid.)

Simon, the new Duke of Hastings, is the epitome of eligible bachelors, and “ambitious mamas” are continuously throwing their marriageable daughters at him. Simon is very good friends with Daphne’s oldest brother Anthony, and when he encounters Daphne dealing with an insistent suitor, he’s happy to come to her aid. The two form an agreement: By pretending to be courting, Simon will avoid the mamas, and Daphne will become instantly more alluring to other men, who will now appreciate her more after seeing Simon’s interest. (Again, men can be stupid).

Of course, their fake relationship leads to real feelings, but there’s a catch. Simon has sworn never to marry or have children, as a sort of posthumous revenge on his abusive father who treated Simon horribly and only cared about the continuation of the Basset family line. Simon has sworn to deny his late father’s ultimate goal by letting the family name die with him. Daphne, on the other hand, having grown up in a large, loving family, yearns for a family of her own.

After a compromising encounter, a duel, threats by her brothers, and all sorts of drama, Daphne and Simon do end up marrying. But while their honeymoon is a blissful sexual awakening for Daphne, all is not wine and roses. Simon has told Daphne that he can’t have children, but when she discovers that his “can’t” really means “won’t”, their young marriage in on the brink of collapse.

Okay, so anyone who’s interested in the book or in the TV series knows that there a major controversy about Daphne’s action and the issue of consent. So, I’ll throw up a big spoiler alert before going further.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

He shifted restlessly, and Daphne felt the strangest, most intoxicating surge of power. He was in her control, she realized. He was asleep, and probably still more than a little bit drunk, and she could do whatever she wanted with him. She could have whatever she wanted.

The most controversial scene in the book is one in which Simon comes home very drunk, after the two have had a major falling out. Daphne gets a very belated lesson on how babies are actually made, and realizes that Simon has been pulling out when they have sex in order to make sure she doesn’t become pregnant. Daphne initiates sex, and Simon, though drunk, is a willing participant, until they get close to climax, at which point Daphne does not let him pull out as usual. He feels betrayed, and leaves her.

The TV version takes away the issue of Simon being drunk, but does still have Daphne take control of the situation so that Simon can’t pull out when he wants to. Again, he feels betrayed.

If you look on Goodreads or elsewhere, there’s a lot of discussion about whether Daphne raped Simon in this scene. I have mixed feelings. The sex act itself is consensual. You could argue that Simon was too drunk to consent, but in the context of their marriage, which has included a lot of very enthusiastic sex up to this point, I think it’s hard to make the case that Simon was not a willing participant.

Was she right to force him to finish inside her? Well, no, she did take away his choice there. But I think it’s a more nuanced situation.

Daphne was utterly and completely ignorant about sex prior to her marriage. She had absolutely no idea about the specifics of having babies, other than knowing that it happens during marriage. Daphne’s mother Violet comes to give her “the talk” the night before the wedding, and completely fails to give her any actual, specific information. No mention of body parts or anatomy, no discussion of how it all works, and nothing about how babies are made.

It’s only a housemaid’s random comment about “seed” and a “womb” that lead Daphne to start piecing things together, and to understand that Simon is choosing to “spill” his seed outside her (ugh, romance euphemisms). She feel betrayed by Simon, who let her believe that he was physically unable to father children, rather than explaining anything to her with honesty. And Simon absolutely knew that Daphne was clueless about how it all worked — he does a very good job of introducing her to sexual pleasure, but deliberately doesn’t explain things to her that would work against his own intentions.

So, yes, Daphne is wrong to do what she did — but Simon is wrong too, and Daphne’s mother essentially created the potential for this conflict by allowing her daughter to enter marriage with no knowledge about “the marital act” whatsoever.

END SPOILERS

Beyond all that, however, I can’t deny that The Duke & I was a compelling and enjoyable read. The characters are lots of fun, especially Daphne’s older brothers, who are fiercely protective and also very funny.

As I mentioned, I’m not much of a romance reader, and some of the descriptions and language are a bit over the top for me:

His face was quite simply perfection. It took only a moment to realize that he put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame.

Her legs snaked around his, pulling him ever closer to the cradle of her femininity.

LOL. Cradle of femininity? That’s definitely a new one for me!

Still, there’s no denying I enjoyed this book, problematic issues aside. There’s a lot of fault to go around, and also, this book was written 20 years ago. I’d hope that a writer today would make different choices about how to depict Daphne and Simon’s key conflict.

As a fan of the TV version, I missed all of the non-Daphne, non-Simon plot elements concerning Eloise, the brothers, etc. But, as far as I can tell, these plots are all addressed in other books in the Bridgertons series. Eight books, eight siblings… each gets their own story!

Will I continue reading the Bridgertons books? Well… who am I kidding? Of course I will! As much as this isn’t my preferred genre, I do love the characters and want to read more about them. Onward!