Sunday, August 21, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

The Dragon is not really a dragon.  He's a man.  More specifically, he's a wizard and he protects the villages in the valley against the Wood.  Agnieszka lives on the edge of the corrupted Wood, and for the people in her village it is a constant dark presence in their lives.  The Dragon is their protector - but in exchange, every 10 years he takes a girl from the village to serve him.  These girls return but aren't quite the same, and after being reacquainted with their families, they tend to leave the village permanently.

Agnieszka is amongst a group of girls who may potentially be chosen by the Dragon.  Everyone is certain that the Dragon will choose Kasia.  She is confident, beautiful, and brave - all things that Agnieszka is not.  Agnieszka and Kasia are the closest of friends, and Agnieszka is mourning the loss of Kasia for years before the choosing.  But her worry was misplaced - because it's not Kasia that gets chosen.

I feel completely incoherent when trying to talk about how much I loved this book.  Everything about it was great - I have no complaints at all.  The characters were fantastically written - even the more minor characters have depth.  It was a joy seeing how Agnieszka and the Dragon evolve over time.

Novik creates this beautiful and strange world.  There's so much backstory and lore and magic - and it's all woven seamlessly into the narrative.  I've read some fantasy novels and encountered either entire chapters or huge blocks of text that give an explanation of lore or backstory.  Not the case here.  Every moment was engaging.  And as a person who really "sees" the book as she's reading, I can tell you that the world Novik has created in Uprooted will stay with me.  It was so beautiful and mysterious.

I listened to Uprooted on audio.  It was phenomenal on audio!  The narrator did an amazing job.  There were so many unusual (to me) names and spells spoken aloud - it was great to have someone just say everything.  I didn't have to sound out the spells and try to figure out how they would be spoken - that's something that really breaks the flow of the story for me.  When shit's going down and someone is casting a spell it was great to hear the narrator just say the words confidently.  Completely immersive.  It was a long audiobook, but it didn't feel that way.  I was so excited to get back to it - I listened in the car, while I was cleaning up after dinner, in the shower, and while folding laundry.  Every chance I had!

Go get this book.  I can't recommend it enough!  It's the complete package - a hell of a story, fully drawn characters, immersive world.  NPR said to clear your schedule before picking it up - and I completely agree.  You won't want to stop reading!

Have you read Uprooted?  Do you agree with me that a narrator helps keep the flow going when there are unfamiliar names or invented language?  Are you interested in reading it?  Click here to grab a copy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

Madeleine has lived her whole life trying to live up to the expectations of her mother, husband, and the society into which she was raised.  Her relationship with her mother has always been strained.  Madeleine has always felt like a disappointment - her body, her passions, her interests, and her personality all stand in stark contrast to the expectations her mother has always had for her.  Madeleine has entered into a controlling marriage that offers a similarly critical environment and she finds herself trapped in a life she has never wanted, even if on the outside it appears as though she has it all.

Margie is Madeleine's grandmother.  Madeleine remembers her grandmother as being very similar to her mother - elegant, stuffy, and reserved.  While cleaning in her mother's attic, Madeleine finds Margie's diary and through it she follows her grandmother on a bold trip to Jazz Age Paris.  Margie as a young woman is completely different from the woman Madeleine remembers growing up.  Her grandmother was creative, a dreamer, and stood in defiance of her strict and critical family.  She, just like Madeleine, felt trapped in a world she didn't wish to be a part of - and she was able to spend a summer writing in cafes, making her own way, and falling in love.

Madeleine's marriage is threatened, and she finds unlikely refuge while visiting her mother and her hometown.  She reads about her grandmother's Parisian summer and finds herself reconnecting with parts of herself she thought she had lost.  

This was a beautiful book!  I'm a sucker for multiple narratives.  Especially when I like both characters equally.  Often, I find myself getting to a certain character's chapter and losing the momentum I had gained with my favorite character in the section prior.  Not the case here.  Both storylines were engaging and I loved how Brown made their lives intertwine even though they were living in different times and places.  

The biggest themes in The Light of Paris are expectations and control.  Despite the 75 year difference, both Madeleine and Margie were dealing with the same issues.
  • Pressure for marriage.  Madeleine feels the pressure to stay married.  Her husband and her mother fear how divorce will look to their social circles.  Margie's family sees marriage as a primary goal for her with no regard for the things she is passionate about.  
  • The relationship between mothers and daughters.  How can mothers best protect their daughters?  Is it more important to set up rigid expectations with the hope that safe pathways will be taken leading to a successful life?  Or should mothers step aside and allow their daughters to make mistakes and grow?  Which path really leads to happiness? 
  • Body image.  Do you make yourself happy or listen to what the world around you is saying and make yourself desirable for another?
I really loved this book - it was the perfect read to kick off my summer.  Eleanor Brown writes beautifully.  You'll be able to feel the cold, impersonal home that Madeleine lives in with her husband, and feel the sun on your skin as she has a stack of pancakes at an outdoor cafe.  You'll be able to smell the fresh Parisian bread, and the smoke-filled jazz clubs.  Beautiful language paired with big issues, all wrapped into a fantastic story.  

The Light of Paris came out yesterday, so click here to grab yourself a copy!  

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of The Light of Paris for free by the publisher.  The thoughts printed above are entirely my own!  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This modern retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was so fun!  The Bennet family, Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Darcy have been completely updated while maintaining essential elements of their personalities.  All the additions to the story are entertaining and fun to experience.

Liz is in her late thirties and works at a magazine.  Jane is a yoga instructor.  Both sisters reside in NYC.  Kitty and Lydia are way into CrossFit and Paleo (and as vain as they come).  Mary is working on her third online master's degree and is a bit of a recluse.  Mrs. Bennet just wants to marry off the daughters, especially as Jane's fortieth birthday looms on the horizon.  Darcy is a neurosurgeon at the same hospital where Chip Bingley works.  Bingley is a doctor who just finished filming a season of Eligible, this novel's version of The Bachelor.

Mr. Bennet has a health scare that sends Liz and Jane home for awhile, and during their stay they meet Bingley and Darcy.  Bingley is charming and takes an immediate interest in Jane.  Darcy is less charming and he and Liz get off on the wrong foot.

So I picked up Eligible through the Book of the Month Club.  I heard about this service on the Book Riot podcast (they were a sponsor).  I decided to give it a try and I'm loving it so far.  This was my pick for May, and I just selected Modern Lovers by Emma Straub for June.  I highly recommend checking out this service!  I went with Eligible because I'm in the midst of some stressful personal stuff and was craving something I could get lost in and just enjoy.  I picked a good one!

I loved this so much.  I've read Pride and Prejudice a couple of times and I really appreciated how Sittenfeld took the characters and updated them.  They still had their original qualities - the original Lydia is brash, beautiful, and spoiled.  So it makes sense that her modern version would be jobless and still living at home, crass and somewhat inappropriate, obsessed with her appearance, and coasting along on her good looks.  Darcy and Liz don't go for walks around the countryside estate.  They meet while taking a jog.  And the whole Eligible plot addition was super fun to read.  I'm not a TV person in general, but I have definitely seen my share of reality TV.  She nails it in the best way.

This is the first retelling of a classic novel that I've read.  I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.  I'm a fan of the original version, so I was a little worried this would piss me off.  I wasn't sure how closely Sittenfeld would follow the original plot.  She really stuck to it for the most part.  I had a really good time trying to decide how she would organize key plot points.

Finally, Sittenfeld takes on some social issues in her writing.  She addresses gender, class, family dynamics, and relationships.  I felt like Austen really tackled these issues too, but Sittenfeld does it in a more direct way.

I loved this!  If you're looking for a fun read, this book is for you.  If you're a fan of Pride and Prejudice, this book is for you.  And if you're into retellings or want to give a retelling a try, this book is for you!  Click here to grab a copy!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

Willowdean Dickson is a teenager living in Texas.  She's a self-proclaimed fat girl and is completely at home in her own skin.  Her mother is a former beauty pageant queen and has been calling Willowdean "Dumplin'" since she was just a little kid.

Will has always been comfortable with herself until the summer before her junior year.  Her relationship with her best friend, Ellen, is on the rocks, and she's smitten with a guy from work, Bo.  She's surprised and a little embarrassed that Bo seems to really like her as well and she's suddenly not so confident about her body and herself in general.

To gain her confidence back, and to prove that she doesn't have to be a size zero to be worthy, Will - as well as a handful of other "unlikely contestants" -  enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant.  Along the way, Will navigates her life, finds herself, and shows the town (and herself) a thing or two.

This was a delightful read.  Will has an amazing heart, and is a lot more self-assured than I was as a teenager.  The message is a good one, and an important one.  Will doesn't change who she is in order to prove her point or to compete.  She references fad diets her mom had her do when she was younger, and how as soon as she stopped adhering to the diet she gained all the weight back immediately (and sometimes even more).  She isn't trying to transform anything - she is who she is.  And I love this about her.  The book isn't about Will turning into a beauty queen, it's about how you don't have to conform to have self-worth.

Willowdean is a great character, and she meets up with some other fantastic characters as well.  They're all well developed.  They all have strengths and flaws.  I tore though this book and just loved it.

Click here to check it out for yourself!!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Think of England by KJ Charles

Think of England by KJ Charles

Captain Archie Curtis has accepted an invitation to spend a fortnight visiting his uncle's old school friend, Sir Hubert Armstrong, at his very isolated and very modern country estate.  It is the fall of 1904, and only two years prior, Curtis was severely injured and lost several friends in a horrific military accident.  He can't seem to shake the feeling that the accident was not an unfortunate incident, but sabotage.

Daniel da Silva is a poet who has also accepted an invitation to spend a fortnight visiting the Armstrongs.  Daniel is sarcastic, aloof, and quite obviously queer.

Curtis is investigating his theories of sabotage and treason, and it turns out that Daniel is also pursuing some secret information.  Although the two men appear to clash when they first meet, as the story unfolds they realize they have a shared desire for information.  They also realize they share an incredible amount of sexual tension.

The two men find themselves drawn to each other while at the same time uncovering a trail of blackmail, treason, and murder.  The reader gets to watch the romance between Curtis and Daniel unfold while also getting to know the other guests at the Armstrong estate, and realizing that things are not always as they appear.

So, obviously this is a romance between two men.  Up until now, my only experience with romance has been the (amazing, fabulous) author, Sarah MacLean.  She writes regency romance between a man and woman - and I've loved everything she's written!  I'm fairly new to the genre and quite happy I decided to give it a try.  I had been snobbishly avoiding romance and am pleased to discover that it can have strong characters (both male and female) and some real depth.

I was really curious how the romance element to the story was going to play out between two men.  Honestly, it read very similar to other romances I've read, only obviously the sex scenes had a slightly different feel.  It was refreshing and really well written.  The romance follows the familiar formula - two characters meet and at first it seems like they dislike each other, attraction unfolds, there's a conflict where it seems like they may not end up together, but they all live happily ever after.  This is the romance formula, yes?  I absolutely loved both Daniel and Curtis.  Great characters, fully developed, and incredibly interesting.  There was more to them than meets the eye, and I don't just mean their sexual preferences.  (Well, the reader knows that Daniel is gay right from the get go, Curtis takes a little more time to unfold.)

The male/male element to the story made this different than other romances I've read.  However, the bigger difference was the fast-paced tale of blackmail and murder.  There's a lot going on in this story!  The romance part was really well written, but I think the circumstances under which Daniel and Curtis find themselves working together are even more interesting.  Aside from all the romantic stuff, there's an incredibly interesting storyline being told with all the corrupt stuff happening in this country estate.  As excited as I was to see the progression of Curtis and Daniel's attraction, I was equally excited to find out what was really going on under the elegant facade in the Armstrong estate.

If you have preconceived ideas about romance novels (as I certainly did), I highly suggest you give Think of England a try.  It's not what I was expecting and I absolutely loved it!