Review: The Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen (The Queen of The Tearling #1)

Amanda

Expected publication: July 8th 2014 by Harper

448 pages

Source: Edelweiss

From Goodreads…

18689428

On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. But though she may be inexperienced and sheltered, Kelsea is not defenseless: Around her neck hangs the Tearling sapphire, a jewel of immense magical power; and accompanying her is the Queen’s Guard, a cadre of brave knights led by the enigmatic and dedicated Lazarus. Kelsea will need them all to survive a cabal of enemies who will use every weapon—from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic—to prevent her from wearing the crown.

Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing. But what she discovers in the capital will change everything, confronting her with horrors she never imagined. An act of singular daring will throw Kelsea’s kingdom into tumult, unleashing the vengeance of the tyrannical ruler of neighboring Mortmesne: the Red Queen, a sorceress possessed of the darkest magic. Now Kelsea will begin to discover whom among the servants, aristocracy, and her own guard she can trust.

But the quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend…if she can survive.

I loved this book. I want book #2 like yesterday. This book was perfect for me-a kick ass female protagonist, fantasy but still based in sort of reality, mysterious magic and said kick ass female protagonist is not head over heels in love and acting like a moron.

Kelsea has been raised in hiding to be the queen her people need. She was sent away from her mother as a small child and it is years before she realizes her mother is never coming for her because she’s been killed. We meet Kelsea on her 19th birthday as she leaves her guardians to go and claim her throne. Kelsea is not under the illusion that she will even survive to her coronation, let alone reign long; but still she’s brave and she leaves with her Queen’s Guard-a group of men she’s never seen in her life.

Kelsea knows she’s alone. She learns any one of her Guard could have sold out to kill her and her only remaining family member wants her dead. Kelsea doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself or wishing for a different life. She takes action as she can and she is awesome! I am dying to learn what’s up with her necklaces and terrified for her to run into the enemy Red Queen.

The setting of the Tearling really confused me at first and that’s pretty much what keeps this from being a 5 star book for me. This somehow takes place in the future, but what caused the founders of the Tearling to flee America on ships is not explained. They’ve lost all their access to medical knowledge and have no printing presses. While the Tearling was intended to be some kind of utopia, the people are uneducated and desperate. I believe the Queen will change that!

Just a heads up, this is not a YA book in my mind. Not to say a young adult shouldn’t read, but there is violence and violent language. This is not for a middle grade reader yet.

Read this! And Holly this means you too! Word is that Emma Watson is already signed on to play Kelsea in the movie. I love this news-but since the book is ALWAYS better than the movie get the book now!

One last thing because I’m obsessed with this book now-Here’s the Australian cover which is PERFECTION.

9780593072707

Seriously read this book so I can talk about it with you.

4.5 stars!!

Thank you to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for this advance read copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Amanda

Published April 1st 2014 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

260 pages

From Goodreads…

Image

On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

I love books about books.  I can’t help it, I just do. We meet A.J. Fikry when he’s in a place of despair.  His book store is failing, his wife is dead, his best friend is a womanizing drunk.  A.J is a grump.  He’s a book snob.  He reminded me of my husband (a former book seller)-who I love dearly-but he is also a book snob (and maybe a grump).

“Everyone thinks they have good taste, but most people do not have good taste.  In fact, I’d argue that most people have terrible taste.  When left to their own devices– literally their own devices–  they read crap and they don’t know the difference.”

How can you not love A.J. Fikry?   We learn what A.J. expects from his books:

    “If a gun appears in act one, that gun had better go off by act three.”

YES!  I loved that each chapter began with a book review by A.J.  I loved how we learned what books he chose for Island Books changed as he changed himself.  This was a book about books; more importantly it was a book about life, about how we make family and about love.  I think this is one that it is best to read without knowing too many details, so I’ll stop here.  This book made me laugh and made me tear up.  What a life A.J. Fikry had.

One more quote, because as I know I had this experience and I want to know who else did too:

    …”I always wanted to try the Turkish Delight in Narnia.  When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a boy, I used to think that Turkish Delight must be incredibly delicious if it made Edmund betray his family, A.J. says.  I guess I must have told my wife this, because one year Nic gets a box for me for the holidays.  And it turned out to be this powdery, gummy candy.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed in my whole life.”

RIGHT?  That stuff is so gross! Such a let down.

Read it and tell if you loved this too! Also-survey please on Turkish Delight.  My husband has never tried it and I’m appalled.  I feel like this disappointment is a milestone in life.

5 stars!!

All quotes were taken from an uncorrected galley proof subject to change in the final edition

Thank you NetGalley and Algonquin Books for this advanced read copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: Quintana of Charyn (Plus Book-Pushing!)

Title: Quintana of Charyn

Author: Melina Marchette

Series: The Lumatere Chronicles #3

Published 2012 by Viking Australia, 516 pages

quintana

Reviewed by Holly

I’ve reviewed the first two books in the Lumatere Chronicles here and here, and in both of those, I’ve tried not to give away too much of the story…which leaves me which little to say here besides this: for the love of all that is good in the world, read these books. (And keep reading for a chance to win the first one!)

The first book, Finnikin of the Rock, I liked a lot – and then Amanda told me that there were 2 more, and I was definitely leery of the trilogy (see: Divergent). But you guys, these just got better and better.

I read Quintana in between books of the Song of Fire and Ice series, and while there are definitely some genre-similarities between the two, there was a big difference for me as a reader. I keep reading the George R.R. Martin books because I’m intrigued enough with all the storylines to want to know what happens next (well, and also because J is reading them and I want to keep up). With the Lumatere Chronicles, I kept reading because my heart is f’ing bleeding for these people. In a completely made up kingdom, Melina Marchetta writes characters that are real and nuanced and believable and flawed.

I love them. I want to visit them.

I got all three books from the library, but this is a series I will buy and re-read for sure.

This is the worst review ever. I have told you nothing about the book. I guess you’ll just have to start reading if you want to know what it’s about. I will give you a few lines from the book though….

And Phaedra saw her smile, with a hint of mischief in it, and she couldn’t help smiling herself and then she was laughing. They both were, and the savage teeth were the most joyous sight Phaedra had seen for a long time. It was as if they were dancing. There it was. Suddenly the strangeness of Quintana of Charyn’s face made sense. Because it was a face meant for laughing, but it had never been given the chance. It robbed Phaedra of her breath.

Hey wait, there’s more! My sister is a book-pusher, and wants YOU to read the Lumatere Chronicles too. Clearly I also think this is a good idea. Just leave us a comment telling us what book you think everyone you know should read, like yesterday. We’ll send one lucky winner (US  only for a real book-International for a kindle version) a copy of Finnikin of the Rock. This post is completely sponsored by Amanda, because she is nice. We’ll pick the winner on Friday, 6/13!

Can We Please Stop Hating on Sheryl Sandberg?

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In last summer, before this book blog was born. I felt compelled to go back and look at it again now, after seeing this article appear in my own Facebook newsfeed repeatedly. I laughed along with the article at the beginning – “some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels…this of course, is also why I hate her.” Then, I got to the end of article, and I thought, wait, I don’t think that was what Lean In was about at all.

In “Recline: A Manifestus for the Rest of Us,” Rosa Brooks argued against the idea of leaning in because a) Sheryl Sandberg has a lot of money and therefore she can make different decisions than the rest of us, and b) women still do the majority of housework and childcare so how the F are they supposed to lean in at work?

As for a), Sandberg acknowledges that her book. And b) Yes. That is part of the problem and part of the question and every time I see that particular criticism of Lean In, I wonder if the critic has actually read the book.

Lean In is not supposed to be a be-all end-all treatise on the status of women in society. It’s not about being supermom, and it’s not about the gender-wage gap, and it’s not supposed to compel anyone to put in more time for a lesser quality of life.  It’s about more women in leadership roles. It’s about breaking down barriers that prevent women from reaching the top leadership ranks in business and politics – specifically, self-erected barriers.

There are social and institutional barriers to women’s success, and Sandberg recognizes and acknowledges those. However, this book is not about external barriers – and I found that refreshing. I spent a lot of time studying, and I still spend a lot of time pointing out, the ways that society works to repress women. Lean In made me examine the trees, instead of the forest. Lean In made me think about the choices that are within my control. Lean In acknowledged some things that I knew, but perhaps could not articulate very well.

Like this:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.

Yes. I met J when I was 27. For a short-time, we were both employed as part-time secretaries and high school athletic coaches with Master’s degrees. Up to that point, we had both made several moves and job changes in our twenties, trying to find the right place to land. I absolutely can look back on every major life decision I had made up until then, and know that I took into account the status of whatever relationship I was in, or even those “relationships” that might have a vague possibility of blossoming in the next six to twelve months, when determining my next steps. I know that J took absolutely none of that into account in his own trajectory. And yet, we both ended up at the same place (and fortunately for us, at the same time). I learned that I wasted, if nothing else, a lot of brainpower and energy overanalyzing decisions that probably deserved no room in my head. J got reinforcement for his M.O., that, the key to developing a healthy, happy relationship is finding someone who’s lifestyle can fit into yours (and you into theirs), rather than building your decisions around someone else – especially not a hypothetical “someone else.” Why don’t we teach girls that?

Instead, this is what we take on, per Sandberg:

A few years ago, a young woman at Facebook came to my desk and asked if she could speak to me privately. We headed into a conference room, where she began firing questions about how I balance work and family. As the questions came faster and faster, I started to wonder about her urgency. I interrupted to ask if she had a child. She said no, but she liked to plan ahead. I inquired if she and her partner were considering having a child. She replied that she did not have a husband, then added with a little laugh, ‘actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend.’ It seemed to me that she was jumping the gun – big time – but I understood why. From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals.

As I dove back into Lean In, I went back and forth on how to rate the book. I started thinking it was a solid 4-stars for me – the book covers many things I already knew about women and work, presented with a slightly different perspective. However, what pushes it over into a 5-star, is the chapter “Don’t Leave Before You Leave.” Here, I think Sandberg addresses something that no one else is really talking about, and that we need to talk about. It goes like this:

Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave. The classic scenario unfolds like this. An ambitious and successful woman heads down a challenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point, this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considers how hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back…often without even realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities… The problem is that even if she were to get pregnant immediately, she still has nine months before she has to care for an actual child. And since women usually start this mental preparation well before trying to conceive, several years often pass between the thought and conception, let alone birth. In the case of my Facebook questioner, it might even be a decade. By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career that she would have been had she not leaned back.

Sandberg goes on to talk about how this affects the new mother coming back to the workplace; she is likely to scale back her ambitions, and becomes more ready to leave permanently (if that is an option), because she’s no longer headed for the top, and no longer given challenging opportunities. Perhaps this is where the criticism of Sandberg comes in from Brooks and others – women shouting that they can’t lean in at work when there is so much to take care of at home.

Again, I wonder if they kept reading. Sandberg talks about her own parenting – yes, acknowledging that she and her husband can afford exceptional child care. She talks about how they manage household responsibilities, admits fault, and grapples with her decisions. I didn’t take any of the judgment that seems to be projected onto Sandberg and the Lean In movement by those working moms shouting “recline” or “lean out!” She talks about the need for women to engage with their partners to share household responsibilities, and how sometimes we need to settle for less than perfection, at home and at work.

One of my favorite posters at Facebook declares in big red letters. “Done is better than perfect.” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst.

Sandberg spells out her objectives in black and white at the end: “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential. I am hoping that each woman will set her own goals and reach for them with gusto.

Sure, most of us don’t have Sandberg’s resources – whether partnered or single, parents or not. Not everyone aspires to leadership roles, and not everyone has the skill-set to lead. However, I’m tired of reading the same two criticisms of Lean In – “easy for her to say, with her salary,” and “I don’t want to sit at the table, thank you very much.”

If you want to criticize Lean In, fine. We can talk about addressing the social and institutional barriers versus chipping away individually. We can talk about the gender wage gap, and affordable child care, and the seemingly endless fight for women’s control over our own bodies. Believe you me, I can – and often do – talk about all those things until I’m blue in the face. But at the same time, I’ll quote Sandberg one more time – “let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts. They are equally important.

Review: Froi of the Exiles

Title: Froi of the ExilesFroi

Author: Melina Marchette

Series: The Lumatere Chronicles #2

Published: 2011 by Viking Australia, 593 pages

Reviewed by Holly

Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to say – I was not sure about reading this book, Amanda made me do it, and OMG she was right. AGain. And, I will try not to post any spoilers, BUT, this is the second book in the Lumatere Chronicles, the first being Finnikin of the Rock, so the synopsis of this one may ruin some of the magic of that book. Consider yourself warned – but I’ll save the synopsis for the end of this post, and first tell you exactly what was so amazing about it.

I dilly-dallyed on this book for two reasons:

  1. Amanda made me read Divergent, which I loved, and then that series devolved into a hot-mess which I hated. I loved Finnikin, which I read not realizing at first that it was part of a series. I did NOT want this world to turn into something completely silly too.
  2. The title character in this book is Froi, who was introduced to us in Finnikin. You guys, Froi is not a likeable guy. In fact, Froi does something really awful in Finnikin – as in, attempted sexual assault. Ugh. I really could not abide the thought of reading a book with that guy as the main character – I mean, was he supposed to be some kind of hero?

Fast forward to my finishing Froi – I sent Amanda a short text: “Froi. Done. Heart hurts.”

The fact that this book tugged at my heartstrings so much – for Froi, and the people he has come to love, and the people who have come to love him – is a testament to Melina Marchetta’s amazing writing. I am not even sure how to describe what she did – Froi’s actions in Finnkin were not swept under the rug, and they were not merely forgiven and forgotten. From his experiences, he grows and changes and becomes better, but it certainly doesn’t come across as an after-school-special type lesson of finding the silver lining in a terrible situation. Rape is a prevalent theme in this book, but it’s not rape as a plot device (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin).

In fact, even if you don’t pick up on the subtleties, Marchetta delivers her point with a heavy-hand:

Men don’t rape women because their women are ugly,” cousin Jostien said, but there was a protest at his words. “That’s what my fa said! He says that inside their hearts and spirits they are nothing but little men who need to feel powerful.

Froi is not let off easy for his transgressions, by those around him and by himself. Froi is afraid of the darkness within himself, and he actually reminds me Dexterat several points of Dexter – you know, America’s favorite serial killer. Dexter (I’ve only watched the show, not the read the books) goes on and on about his ‘dark passenger,’ and Froi carries a dark passenger of his own. Dexter lives by the code of Harry, and Froi lives by the bond he has sworn to his adoptive homeland and family. I have been siding with Dexter for seven seasons now (have not watched #8 yet!), and, at some point in this book, I began to side with Froi, and hope that he could find light amidst his darkness.

Go read Finnikin, and then read Froi! There’s a third too- Quintana of Charyn, and you better believe that one is near the top of my to-read pile.

Parting Words:

“I fear that I will do something to bring harm to those I love,” Froi said. “So I will follow their rules to ensure that I won’t.”

“But what if you bring harm or fail to protect those you don’t know? Or don’t love? Will you care as much?”

“Probably not.”

“Then choose another bond. One written by yourself. Because it is what you do for strangers that counts in the end.”

Five Stars

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Three years after the curse on Lumatere was lifted, Froi has found his home… Or so he believes…

Fiercely loyal to the Queen and Finnikin, Froi has been trained roughly and lovingly by the Guard sworn to protect the royal family, and has learned to control his quick temper. But when he is sent on a secretive mission to the kingdom of Charyn, nothing could have prepared him for what he finds. Here he encounters a damaged people who are not who they seem, and must unravel both the dark bonds of kinship and the mysteries of a half-mad Princess.

And in this barren and mysterious place, he will discover that there is a song sleeping in his blood, and though Froi would rather not, the time has come to listen.

Review: The Enchanted

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

Amanda

Published: By Harper on March 5, 2014

256 pages.

17936636

From Goodreads…

A wondrous and redemptive debut novel, set in a stark world where evil and magic coincide, The Enchanted combines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.”

The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.

Beautiful and transcendent, The Enchanted reminds us of how our humanity connects us all, and how beauty and love exist even amidst the most nightmarish reality.

I was shocked when I finished this book.  Shocked that a book about the harsh reality of prison could be so beautiful.  This book is haunting me in a way I cannot remember another touching me right now.  I hope I have the right words to describe how I felt because I feel completely inadequate.

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.”

Our narrator is an unnamed Death Row inmate. He doesn’t speak and does everything he can to keep from being seen by the other inmates and the guards, as well as the Fallen Priest and the Lady who work on the Row.  He only interacts with the Warden, and that is as little as possible.  He does not leave his cell, yet he sees so much more than just the walls around him.

The Lady visits Death Row as an investigator into cases coming up for execution.  An inmate named York has requested to die so she begins looking into York himself and how he came to the Row-not the crimes that he is absolutely guilty of.

We’re watching the Lady discover this heartbreaking childhood, while we know she’s also the product of her own equally disturbing experiences.  What makes the difference from becoming York and becoming the Lady?  What should she do with her findings when this man wants to die, and she knows that given the chance to leave prison he won’t stop the same heinous crimes he has already committed?

We meet the Warden and the White Haired Boy and my heart broke for both of them.  I found the Fallen Priest to be pitiable, but he also gave me hope, because despite his feelings of despair, he still had hope.

This book makes you consider the worst of humanity, and they are not just the prisoners.  Yet despite the horrors both explicit and those hinted at in the story,  The Enchanted is hopeful and there is beauty in the magic inside the prison. There is beauty in our prisoner, and so he can see the golden horses and find the enchantment, even though he is capable of horrors never fully explained.  There is still good in the individuals that might be lost to the prison and some find their way out.   While I found myself cringing in anticipation while reading some scenes of this book and moved by the sadness, I was ultimately enchanted and hopeful when I finished.

The Enchanted will be released by Harper on March 5, 2014-read it, think about it and let me know if you were as moved as I have been.

5 stars

Thank you to Harper for this advanced copy for review.

Our Best Reads in 2013

Amanda

These are the books that I think have best stuck with me this year-though there are definitely others.  

#1 Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  This was just a beautiful love story.  I can’t find the words to describe it so here is the Goodreads blurb.

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.

This was the kind of book that makes me do a happy dance.  The characters are well written, the story surprises you and I found a new author with a collection of books to look forward to trying.  I loved seeing Will and Lou first see each other as more than they appeared and then finding out how strong they each were.  Read this!

#2 Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta.  This is the conclusion of Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. At my polite request (ahem), Holly just read and reviewed Book #1, Finnikin of the Rock which is also a 5 star book for me.  Quintana wraps up the Lumatere Chronicles beautifully and this is another book that made me cry. Read them!!

# 3 My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor.  Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor is just freaking amazing.  She’s brilliant and she rose into her position against pretty overwhelming odds.  My friend Kara said in her review of this book, “She is what America is about;” which is a perfect summation.  I feel good having a woman like this on the bench. I hope she can write another memoir to share what her years as a judge were like.

#4 Chimes at Midnight by Seanan Maguire.  This is book 7 of Maguire October Daye series, which I highly recommend if you like urban fantasy/paranormal. October is a changeling, half human and half fae and is something of a detective in the fae world.  The series has only gotten stronger as it continues and this last book brought me to tears– I didn’t know a pie could break my heart let me tell you.  Its really hard to say something about just one book of a series! So I’ll just say to give Toby a try.  She’s not perfect, but she is a champion at heart.  Rosemary & Rue is the first book so start here!

Honorable Mention – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.  I heard the author on the NYT Book Review podcast discussing how she wanted to write a love story intermixing her culture with that of her husband.  And so Chava -our golem and Ahmad-the jinni were born.  I loved the movement of this book, from Europe to New York, from ancient Syria to 1899 in New York again.  Clearly I like fantasy books, but I didn’t find this to be too “fantastic”.  There was so much realism brought out I thought in the setting and in the cultural influences of Judaism and the Syrian immigrant community.  I recommend this for just a really different book-also a good story of of how strong relationships can be and what love is like even without the physical. (Pssst – Goodreads is giving this book away -sign up!  https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/72308-the-golem-and-the-jinni) 

Holly

When Amanda said, “oh, we should write a post on the best books we’ve read in 2013,” I had to really think about what I’ve read this year that I loved. This was a much easier task for Amanda, I’m sure, because a) she reads books basically by osmosis, so she’s got a plethora of books to choose from for the year, and because b) she tracks everything on Goodreads. I, on the other hand, read a fraction of what my sister does in a year, and just started to get the hang of Goodreads sometime in the last few weeks (admittedly, I am now hooked).

So, what did I read this year that really stood out to me?

# 1 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I LOVED this book. When I finished it, I posted something on Facebook about how I was probably (as always) behind the times, but that if you hadn’t read this book yet, you should. I got lots of agreement from friends about how fascinating the content is, but also some mixed reviews about the writing style. I however, was completely drawn into the book, and I appreciated the mix of science and personal narrative that Skloot used, including her discomfort as she got more and more involved with the Lacks family. Do I have to add that Amanda was the one who told me to read this book? I swear, she is (almost) always right-on. You should listen to her too.

#2 Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. I know I have already waxed poetic about how much I loved Devil in the White City, and I never would have picked up Thunderstruck if not for my complete obsession with that book and Larson’s writing style. This one is different, and it did take a bit to get into, but this book has definitely stayed with me. What I love about Larson’s books is the level of detail about people and places and trends during the period he’s writing about. I started Thunderstruck just after reading Alice I Have Been (a novel based on the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland), and I remember noticing (and recognizing) a reference to Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) as the book opens with an 1894 (I did not remember this fact 6 months later…I had to look it up) scientific lecture in London, and Dodgson was a member of the hosting body. I appreciate the facts and all the context, though looking at reviews of this book on Goodreads, I see things like “an interesting book but often slowed by side journeys into minutia,” so I guess that’s not for everyone. I say, bring on the minutia!

#3 Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Since I just told you about how much I love this book, I’ll spare you the details – but I will link to my review! Just read it, because I am not going to shut up about this one anytime soon. Or ever.

Honorable Mention  – The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster. Yes, after writing a pretty awful review of Jeneration X, I am giving The Tao of Martha an honorable mention for my best of 2013, and I’ve even rated it 5-stars on Goodreads. I really liked this book, and  I’ve  given unsolicited recommendations of this one on more than one occasion.  One of my best friends went through a phase of being fascinated with organizing – not actually doing the organizing, but wondering why there are so many organizing gurus and organizing step-by-step workbooks and organizing professionals who will manage your life and your closet, etc. And this book, through Jen’s style of writing memoirs about her (repeated) attempts to not be an asshole, gets to that point – that having yourself slightly pulled together in one area of your life, often makes other areas work better. That’s a pretty solid message for the end of one year and the start of a new, no?

Review: Code Name Verity

Verity

Title: Code Name Verity

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Well, we took a bit of a Christmas hiatus, and there may be a New Year’s hiatus (you’ll have to ask Amanda. She is in charge of hiatuses), but anyway, I am bursting with excitement over how much I loved this book, so I had to tell you about it RIGHT NOW. Only I’m not going to tell you much.

When Amanda told me that I must read Code Name Verity, the conversation was something like: “you must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.”

I finally listened (six months or so later), and that is exactly what I want to say about this book: You must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.

Worst book review ever, eh?

Okay, let me try and expand (slightly). Code Name Verity is the story of a young British woman caught by Nazis in Occupied France.

Here is the basic basic description from the jacket: “Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

And here is a list of things that happened to me whilst reading this book, in no particular order:

1) I fell in love with all the characters. (Well, not ALL of them, obviously. Some of them are awful people. But I am in love with all the good ones.)

2) My mind exploded. (I texted Amanda halfway through to tell her that.)

3) My heart broke, but in the best way possible. (Probably more than once.)

4) I fell in love with the author, especially when I read these details on the jacket about her: “She is an avid flyer of small planes. She also holds a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennslyvania.” (Did you know that was even a thing?)

5. I fell more in love with the author reading her “debriefing” at the end, where she wrote: “it pains me to admit that Code Name Verity is fiction – that [names withheld] are not actually real people.” (For the record, the author lists the names in her note, but I withholding them. It’s part of the story. I am serious – don’t read any reviews or comments on this book. Just go read it, now. You can thank me later.)

Parting Words: I’ve decided to try and add a line or two that jumps out at me from each book to my reviews. Here goes:

“Maddie gasped at the river’s inadvertent loveliness, and all at once she found herself spilling childish tears, not just for her own beseiged island, but for all of Europe. How could everything have come so fearfully and thoroughly unraveled?”

5 books I cannot shut up about

Amanda

This list is making me think I have really random taste in books!

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

If I were to be marooned on a desert island this is the book I’d like to have with me.  I feel like I notice something different about the gods every time I read it.  I took a Norse mythology class in college so I love this book for the Norse gods that Gaiman makes real.  I love the discussion of the old versus the new, without having it made a Christian discussion.  And I love Shadow, love to watch him figure out what’s happening and how to interact with the gods as the book goes on.  I actually have the updated anniversary edition of this book that I received as a Christmas gift last year, I can’t bring myself to get it out to read.  its like I have to savor it and save it for just the right time.  This book is also being developed into a tv show. This excites and terrifies me at once!  It was originally going to be with HBO which gave me great hope, but I just read this week that Gaiman said HBO is out.  He was writing the screenplay himself which should make it brilliant! (Dr. Who episodes anyone?)

Feed, Newsflesh #1, Mira Grant

I had never read a zombie book before Feed, and I don’t know that I’d go seeking another one out, but something about Feed and the Newsflesh series just grabbed me at the throat-kind of like a hungry zombie might! I love the strong women that Grant writes (and in her October Day series as Seanan Maguire) and the snappy dialog that moves the stories along.  I think this series captivates me because its not really about the zombies.  The story is about defining the press, access to information and politics in a very different USA.  Its also about bravery, friendship and selflessness in the end. Oh the end– I won’t spoil it you should read it!

The Eyre Affair, and all Thursday Next books, Jasper Fforde

I love this book.  I would much rather sit down with a book than the television, and if I’m in an off mood, this book always perks me up.  Its bizarre, completely bizarre.  Dodos have been resequenced and ducks are extinct.  There’s a tariff on cheese-can you imagine the horror! But Thursday gains the ability to enter Jane Eyre and so finds out all about the Book World.  What fun -and terror- that could bring! You could go to Hogwarts or Longbourn or meet Sherlock Holmes (well actually if you’ve read Fforde you know you can’t meet Holmes).  Thankfully my sister, my husband and my mom have all given in to read these, so I can throw out Thursday Next jokes to crack myself up-and even if they aren’t as amused as I am, they at least don’t think I’m ready for admission to the psych ward.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Clearly I have a thing for books about books.  The Magicians takes Thursday Next’s ability to enter books to the next level.  The story is kind of an adult Harry Potter-magical education with sex, dark adult drama and lots of wine.  Quentin is feeling somewhat lost after finishing his magical education when he finds out that Fillory, the lands in his favorite childhood books, is actually real.  He also learns Fillory is not only what he’s imagined it to be.  The sequel is also fantastic and I’m anxiously awaiting the Magicians Land hopefully next year.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged…  My love for this book goes back to the same Brother Ruhl that taught us about Chehkov’s rule of the gun on the wall. If my memory is right–and as I’m getting old it’s possible that I’m wrong! But I think this was the first book that Brother Ruhl taught me to read, to really get down to the details and I’ve loved it ever since.  The is another book I read usually once a year-and I’m always happy to watch Colin Firth and the BBC version! I also find it hilarious to contemplate the slew of books inspired by Pride and Prejudice.  I’m really looking forward to reading Longbourn, I enjoyed Price and Prejudice and Zombies, and rolled my eyes and laughed through Jane Bites Back-when Jane Austen has been made into a vampire.  I can’t bring myself to read any “sequel” that has come out in recent years.  I really don’t want to read anyone’s interpretation of what Elizabeth and Darcy might do or how they might act.  Austen left the story at the perfect time for me.

5 Books I Can’t Shut Up About

By Holly

Devil in the White City – by Erik Larson
One of many reasons that I’m going to make a terrible book blogger is because sometimes it takes me forever to jump on the bandwagon after I hear rave reviews about a book. I mean, aren’t book bloggers supposed to be all on top of what’s cool before it’s cool? Anyway, I heard 100 things about Devil in the White City, and it just didn’t sound that exciting to me – world’s fair 1893, Chicago history, true crime, blah blah blah. I’ll be in the corner with a Jen Lancaster book. And then I picked this book up, and I don’t think I put it down for two days. I was totally consumed – and totally hooked on Erik Larson’s writing style. I just could not – and still cannot – get over how he writes nonfiction with so much detail and emotion that you feel like you’re there. I rave about this book all time, and then sometimes I remember that it’s actually about a completely creepy serial killer, and that my obsession with this book maybe makes me come across as crazypants. I swear though, it’s about the writing style. Larson introduced me to the narrative nonfiction genre, and made me rethink how I read, and how I (would like to) write.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Whenever anyone is looking for a book recommendation, I shout out this book. It’s short and flowy (is that a word?) enough to be a vacation read, but it’s also a historical fiction piece that maybe will make you slightly smarter as you go. It’s cute and romantic without being trite and cheesy, and the authors (there are two, and I really don’t know anything about them or their other work) create interesting characters with believable backgrounds and personalities. It’s written in letters, but don’t let that steer you away, even if that’s not your thing. This book is worth a shot, and, if nothing else, you will learn something about Guernsey.

The Brooklyn Follies – by Paul Auster
This is obviously a book I can’t shut up about, considering that I couldn’t even write my first review without referencing The Brooklyn Follies. This, like 70% of what I read, came as an Amanda-recommendation, and she rarely steers me wrong. The Brooklyn Follies is just my type of novel, where complicated characters must come to terms with the fact their lives are somehow failing to meet their expectations, and something’s gotta give. I don’t mean that to sound like this book is at all formulaic, because it’s not. It’s more that there certain books that really tug at my heartstrings in a similar fashion (I Know This Much is True, White Teeth, The Corrections), and it seem the main element is a character (or several) figuring out how to get his or her a** in gear. As I learned in high school English (in addition to learning about the gun in act one), this book could be subtitled, “the [mis]education of Tom Wood.” And you should read it, because obviously I won’t shut up until you do.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth & Happiness – by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
I read Nudge because my friend was applying to graduate school in accounting, and she said “oh, no, I swear it’s really interesting. Read this book, and you’ll understand the kinds of things I want to study.” I said, “nice try, but a PhD in accounting sounds like anything but interesting.” And then I read this book, and I proceeded to reference it in every conversation I had (about anything) for a solid two weeks. That was a few years ago, and I still find myself referencing it on the regular. Nudge is about behavioral economics, or how we make decisions about using resources. Ugh, I know. If I haven’t lost you yet, the authors use the phrase “libertarian paternalism” to describe their model, and those two words are ones I would not generally use to describe my outlook on anything. I’m telling you though, it’s really thought provoking, and, they offer practical solutions to huge social issues that, in theory, make a great deal of sense. When I’m trying to incentive someone to act a certain way (whether that’s trying to improve performance at work or trying to get myself out of bed to go for a run), I think about how this book really addresses the challenge of creating incentives that are relevant and simple. Even if it sounds dull, I swear it really is interesting!

It’s Called A Breakup Because It’s Broken – by Greg Behrendt and Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt
I know you’re saying, “dude, Holly, are you really picking a breakup self-help book as the #5 book you can’t shut up about? Cuz, uh, that’s sort of lame and embarrassing.” Yeah, I know. I thought a lot about contenders for #5, but I kept coming back to this one for many reasons. My primary reason is that I picked this book up while wandering around a bookstore in a sad state of mind (years ago), and this book totally cheered me up and helped me gain some much needed perspective on a breakup situation. I was definitely not too cool to follow along all the list making exercises in the book, which helped me see that, like Cher, I DID believe in life after love, after all. In the greater scheme, I’m also picking this book because a) I have a secret thing (not so secret anymore, eh?) for self-help-type books. Jillian Michaels, Geenan Roth, the What-Color-is-Your-Parachute? guy – I love them. I think that’s a reflection of the fact that b) books really are my go-to source for whatever it is that I’m dealing with. Recently, I’ve read a book about the intricacies of football, in order to better understand and enjoy lazy Sundays with my football crazy fiance (oh look, that old breakup thing turned out to be a good thing after all!), and books about wedding traditions to make sure that I’m not inadvertently including too many crazy homages to the patriarchy in our’s. I’ve read weight loss books, workplace motivation books, personal finance books, and relationship books, because when I want to get better at something, reading a book about it is usually my first line of defense (or would that be attack?…clearly I don’t read military books, though we do have a houseful of civil war books if the mood strikes). I’ve recommended It’s Called A Breakup Because It’s Broken a few times, though it is difficult to say to someone, “hey, you are looking a bit crazy. Read this book!” without sounding like a complete asshat. However, sometimes it’s worth being that asshat to a friend, so go ahead and recommend this book as needed. And if you’re the one walking around Barnes and Noble like a sad Sally, pick this book up, get some coffee (and probably a pastry) and sit down and start reading. You’ll probably at least crack a smile before you leave the store, even it you don’t buy the book.