Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the SunPaula McLain, Circling the Sun

Beryl Markham is known to history as one of the pioneers of aviation: she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. But this novelized version of her life focuses on her childhood and youth on an African farm in what is now Kenya. Beryl’s family moved to Kenya when she was four years old, but her mother had trouble adapting to African life and soon returned to England. As a result, Beryl’s upbringing was unconventional, and her education was sporadic at best. She grew up with a deep love of the land and creatures surrounding her, and she loved to ride, shoot, and train horses. But as she approached adulthood, her father’s farm fell on hard times, and he eventually decided to sell the property and relocate to Nairobi. Distraught at the thought of leaving her home, and unwilling to be a burden on her father (with whom she was not close), Beryl married a neighboring farmer. But the marriage was not a happy one, and Beryl soon left him to become a horse trainer in her own right. The novel follows Beryl’s attempts to stand on her own against the odds, and it also chronicles her friendship with Karen Blixen — better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa — and her love affair with Denys Finch Hatton, whom the book portrays as the great love of Beryl’s life.

This book initially caught my interest because I find the early days of flight fascinating. It’s amazing to me that traveling by plane is so common now, when back then it was terribly dangerous, and only the most daring adventurers were brave enough to attempt it. Unfortunately, this novel has almost nothing to do with Beryl Markham’s career as an aviatrix; but I still ended up enjoying it a lot for the setting and characters. I don’t know much about Beryl’s life, so I can’t say how accurate the book is in its details, but it certainly paints a vivid and compelling picture of her character and of life in British East Africa at that time. The Beryl of this book was certainly ahead of her time in many ways. She married and divorced multiple times, and she had several extramarital affairs, including one with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. She pursued a career at a time when most women were still relegated to the home. Such characteristics make her a compelling heroine, and I enjoyed reading about her adventures — although this book focuses a lot on her various romances, when I really wanted to know more about her professional life and aspirations. But I did enjoy the novel and would like to learn more about this era. I’ll have to read Out of Africa and Beryl’s own memoir, West with the Night!

Review: Illusionarium

IllusionariumHeather Dixon, Illusionarium

Jonathan has always viewed himself as a completely ordinary young man. He works as an apprentice to his father, one of the foremost scientists in the city, but he is preparing to go to university in a few months. However, all his plans are derailed when the king tasks his father with an important assignment. All throughout the country, a terrible illness is gripping its women, and now the queen has succumbed. Jonathan and his father have only a few days to find the cure before she dies. Their only hope seems to lie with Lady Florel, the most famous scientist in the country. She suggests using a drug called fantillium, which causes shared hallucinations and can thus be used to speed up the apparent passage of time. This will effectively give Jonathan and his father more time to experiment with a cure. Jonathan soon discovers that he is skilled at using fantillium to create hallucinations, or illusions, to impress his audience. But his use of the drug has a dark side, as well as the potential for a shockingly drastic effect on his entire society.

This is a book with a lot of interesting ideas, but it all felt a little half-baked to me. I think the problem is that there are too many plotlines for this relatively short novel, and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to focus my attention. There’s the “race against time to find a cure for the disease” story, which does get resolved in the end, but we still don’t know much about what caused the disease or why it only affects women (at least, not that I can remember). There’s the “look at this cool drug that causes illusions, but what about the possible negative consequences?” story, which is probably the most developed plot. But to me, it seemed a bit inconsequential in the end…while the illusions would probably be great to watch on the big screen, they’re not particularly exciting in book form. And then there’s some business with parallel universes, but those are never really explained or explored either. I did like Jonathan as a character, and I loved his enemy-turned-ally Lockwood. But unfortunately, character development definitely takes a backseat to plot in this book. Overall, it’s not a bad read, but I wasn’t particularly engaged by it.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite books of the year so far

Top 10 TuesdayWe are officially halfway through 2015, which feels very strange! But this week’s Top Ten Tuesday asks us to reflect back on the first half of the year and list our 10 favorite reads so far. I’ve read a lot of good books this year, but there are a few that definitely stand out! So, without further ado, here are my 10 favorite books of the year so far (not counting re-reads):

1. Naomi Novik, Uprooted — This is, without a doubt, my favorite read of 2015 so far! It’s everything I want my epic fantasy to be: great characters, a compelling plot, magical writing..honestly, I felt like this book was written just for me! My review is here.

2. Mary Doria Russell, Epitaph — Despite my general lack of interest in Westerns, I really enjoyed this sequel/companion novel to Doc, which describes the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral and examines its growth into an American legend. My review is here.

3. Jandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun — I wasn’t expecting to love this one as much as I did! But I was blown away by the writing style, and I ended up really enjoying this story of love (both romantic and fraternal) and redemption. My review is here.

4. Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club — This retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is set in the jazz clubs and speakeasies of New York in the Roaring Twenties. If the premise appeals to you, you’ll love this one! My review is here.

5. Ellie Marney, Every Breath — The tagline on the U.S. hardcover edition of this book says, “What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?” And that’s really all you need to know, isn’t it? :) My review is here.

6. Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There — Another teen romance that I unexpectedly loved! This one is about an ambitious young woman trying to leave her tiny town behind, and a Marine who comes home from Afghanistan missing a leg. The book doesn’t shy away from darkness with these issues, but the overall message is one of hope. My review is here.

7. Sarah Addison Allen, First Frost — This novel, a sequel to Garden Spells, isn’t my favorite of Sarah Addison Allen’s books. But it’s still a lovely, light, magic-infused novel that was a pleasure to read. My review is here.

8. Elizabeth Bailey, The Gilded Shroud — I have a soft spot for historical mysteries, especially those set during the Regency era, and this one is well-written and feels very authentic. The mystery was perfectly fine, but the real enjoyment for me was the period atmosphere. My review is here.

9. E.C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case — This vintage mystery is an oldie but a goodie. Fans of the Golden Age will like this book but still be surprised by a few twists in the plot! My review is here.

10. Annie Barrows, The Truth According to Us — This novel, set in a small town in West Virginia during the Great Depression, is an excellent family saga about decades-old secrets, as well as a sensitive portrayal of a young girl’s coming-of-age. My review is here.

What are your favorite reads of the year so far? Are there any books you just want to shove into everyone’s hands? What should I add to my TBR list?

Review: Uprooted

UprootedNaomi Novik, Uprooted

For as long as anyone can remember, Agnieszka’s tiny village has lived under the shadow of the Wood, a forest possessed by dark magic that corrupts everything and everyone that ventures too close to its borders. Fortunately, the village is also protected by the Dragon — not a literal dragon, but a powerful wizard whose magic helps to keep the Wood at bay. But the Dragon demands a price for his services: every ten years, he takes a girl from the village back to his tower with him. The girls always return at the end of ten years, apparently unharmed, but they never stay in the village for long. Agnieszka was born in a Dragon year, so she has the potential to be the one chosen as the next tribute. But everyone knows the Dragon will choose Kasia, the kindest and most beautiful girl in the village, who happens to be Agnieszka’s best friend. Agnieszka already hates the Dragon for taking Kasia away. But of course, when the Dragon actually comes, it’s Agnieszka whom he takes. At first, torn from everything she’s ever known, Agnieszka is shocked and afraid, and the Dragon treats her with coldness and contempt. But when she discovers that she herself has magical abilities, she is eventually able to stand with the Dragon in the fight against the Wood.

This is, hands down, my new favorite book of the year so far! Everything about the lush, magical writing completely sucked me in; I wanted to devour it and savor it at the same time. I’m actually somewhat at a loss to describe exactly why this book worked so well for me. For starters, Agnieszka is a heroine after my own heart. While she’s not immune from fear and self-doubt, she doesn’t allow those emotions to rule her life. She also remains staunchly loyal to her friends and family back home, and when Kasia needs help later in the novel, Agnieszka is the first person to rush to her aid. I also really grew to love the Dragon, although he’s an indisputable jerk at first — a bit Darcy-esque, in a way, which possibly explains things. :) And the plot is just as compelling as the characters: I completely believed in the menace of the Wood and Agnieszka’s growing belief that it needs to be stopped once and for all. In short, have you ever started a book and felt like it was written specifically with you in mind, because it has everything you love and unfolds so perfectly? Uprooted is definitely one of those books for me! It’s everything I want my epic fantasy to be, and I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Review: The Fill-In Boyfriend

Fill-In Boyfriend, TheKasie West, The Fill-In Boyfriend

To all outward appearances, Gia Montgomery has it all: she’s pretty, she’s popular, she has a close group of female friends and a cute older boyfriend who’s taking her to the prom, where she might even be crowned queen. So when the boyfriend unexpectedly breaks up with her — in the parking lot at the prom, no less — Gia panics. Her friends haven’t met him yet, and she’s sure that her frenemy, Jules, is waiting for any chance to edge her out of their friend group. So Gia decides to take desperate action. She sees a guy around her age in the parking lot, and she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for the next two hours. Although the guy is understandably confused by her request, he eventually agrees. And Gia’s plan actually works — so well, in fact, that he asks her to return the favor and accompany him to a party hosted by his ex-girlfriend. The problem is, the more Gia hangs out with her fill-in boyfriend, the more she really begins to fall for him. But how can she tell if he feels the same way, or if their relationship really is just an act?

I’ll admit right off the bat that this book is pure fluff, but if you don’t have particularly high expectations going in, it’s quite a fun read. I’m a fan of the fake-relationship-becomes-real plot, so I guess I was predisposed to enjoy it. But while the romance is very cute and satisfying, I was pleased to discover that there’s a little bit more substance to the book, also. I was particularly fascinated by Gia’s relationship with her group of friends. Initially, she believes she’s really close with her longtime best friends, Claire and Laney, while Jules is the interloper. But as she grows in self-awareness, she realizes that maybe things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought. The glimpses into Gia’s home life reveal that her way of dealing with conflict is to avoid it altogether. There’s a very telling moment where her friends basically tell her she’s bossy, citing the fact that she always decides where they eat lunch. Gia thought she was just making a suggestion, but her friends took it as a command and resented her for it. So in the end, Gia actually learns something about herself and takes some steps toward healthier friendships. I still wouldn’t characterize this as a particularly deep or thought-provoking read, but it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon!

Review: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

Thousand Dollar Tan Line, TheRob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

***Warning: Spoilers for the “Veronica Mars” TV show and movie!***

This first Veronica Mars book picks up right after the movie left off: Veronica has just turned down a lucrative job as a lawyer in NYC to return to her hometown of Neptune, California, as a private investigator. Unfortunately, business isn’t so great, due to her father’s extended recovery (after being hit by a car in the movie) and Neptune’s continued hostility toward her. But when spring break arrives in Neptune with its drinking, drugs, and all-night partying, Veronica soon has more work than she bargained for. A freshman girl goes missing, and the oafish local sheriff does nothing to look for her, claiming that she probably just wandered off on her own. But after speaking to the girl’s friends, Veronica is sure that something awful happened to her. Did her on-again, off-again boyfriend lose his temper one night? Or did someone abduct her from the party she attended on the last night her friends saw her? As Veronica investigates the case, she runs into several people from her past, including Eli “Weevil” Navarro, Dick Casablancas, and her estranged mother — not to mention her best friends Wallace and Mac. But when a second girl goes missing, Veronica must focus all of her attention on the case, or risk becoming a victim herself.

I’ve long been a fan of the “Veronica Mars” TV show, and I was very excited about the movie that continued her story 10 years later. Now showrunner Rob Thomas has responded to the show’s following by writing books that continue the story even further. I definitely think that fans of “Veronica Mars” will like this book, which honestly feels just like a vintage episode of the show. Veronica may be older, but she still has the same tough-as-nails persona, always ready with a sarcastic quip to mask any hint of vulnerability. But this book does open some old wounds for her, as she once again meets the mother who abandoned her. On the one hand, she wants to protect herself and is rightly suspicious of her mother’s motives; on the other hand, part of her wants to reach out and forgive. I hope subsequent books continue to explore this relationship, which could lead to some interesting character growth on Veronica’s part. I was a little disappointed that some of my beloved characters from the show got short shrift, particularly Logan (deployed overseas) and Keith (still recuperating), who each only got a couple of scenes. As for the mystery, I thought it was very clever, and I was definitely surprised by the reveal at the end. So I would definitely recommend this to “Veronica Mars” fans, but it probably doesn’t work very well as a standalone novel.

Review: Funny Girl

Funny GirlNick Hornby, Funny Girl

This novel, set in the 1960s, tells the story of Barbara, a girl whose only dream growing up was to go on television and make people laugh. When she wins a local beauty pageant and realizes that she’s about to become stuck in a small-town rut forever, she moves to London to pursue her goal. Her good looks attract the attention of an agent, but all he wants is for her to stand there and look pretty in various insipid commercials. Eventually, however, by sheer luck she teams up with a group of comedy writers who are trying to develop a new show for the BBC. There are Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner, who have been writing partners for years; there’s Dennis Maxwell Bishop, the meek producer who’s trapped in an unhappy marriage; and there’s Clive Richardson, the handsome, arrogant actor who will be playing the male lead in the show. Against all odds, Barbara — now using her stage name of Sophie Straw — lands the part, and the show becomes an unexpected hit. Throughout its run, Sophie and her colleagues must deal with love affairs, identity crises, divorces, and changing artistic visions; but in the end, they are inextricably linked by the shared bond of creating a show that changed all their lives.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s books, so I was excited to read this latest release. It’s a bit different from his earlier works — still very funny, but in a subtler way. My favorite parts of the book are when the four main characters are just sitting around, discussing the show and trying to break new stories. It’s a pleasure to watch them all interact and tease each other. It’s obvious that, regardless of the personal issues these characters might have with each other (or in their lives outside of work), they are all genuinely fond of each other. Because of this focus on the characters, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it covers the show from beginning to end, then goes forward in time to explore what happens to Sophie and the other characters. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the time jump; it made the book drag on and minimized the various setbacks and triumphs that occurred during the show’s run. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book overall and would recommend it to people who like character-driven books, as well as people who are nostalgic for ’60s-era television.

Once Upon a Time IX Challenge Wrap-up

once upon a time ixWell, I forgot to mention that the Once Upon a Time IX event at Stainless Steel Droppings ended last Sunday, June 21! The challenge was to read at least one book within the genres of fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and/or folklore. I committed to reading one book but actually read three:

  1. Juliet Marillier, Dreamer’s Pool
  2. Kiersten White, Illusions of Fate
  3. Naomi Novik, Uprooted

I really enjoyed all of these books, but Uprooted is the standout — it will undoubtedly end up on my top 10 books of the year! I haven’t had a chance to write my review yet, but trust me: if you like fairytale-inspired fantasy with a kickass heroine and a slow-burning romance, you should definitely read this book!

If you participated in this challenge, what books did you read? Which were your favorite and least favorite? Did you discover any great new authors or books to recommend?

Top Ten Tuesday: Meta edition

Top 10 TuesdayI was surprised to discover that this week marks the five-year anniversary of the Top Ten Tuesday meme! In honor of the occasion, this week’s topic is your 10 favorite Top Ten Tuesday topics so far. It was hard for me to pick just 10, and I have to give honorable mention to the seasonal TBRs, the best-of-the-year lists, and the most anticipated new releases of a given year or season. But here are 10 topics that I really enjoyed thinking about and compiling lists for, in no particular order:

1. Top Ten Favorite Authors in [Historical Fiction] Genre — There’s nothing I love more than discovering a new author, so I was happy for the opportunity to recommend some of my favorite authors in a beloved genre, in hopes of giving that thrill of discovery to someone else!

2. Top Ten Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit — Although I’m too much of a chicken to read horror books, for some reason I still try to read seasonally appropriate things around Halloween. I love the annual Halloween TTT because it yields such a huge variety of recommendations! There’s almost always some great suggestions that even a scaredy-cat like me will enjoy!

3. Top Ten Words/Topics that Will Make Me Pick up a Book — This was one of my very favorite lists to compile, because it really made me think about what makes me tick as a reader. From spies to epistolary novels to slow-burning romance, I now know what to look for as I scan the bookstore (or my own shelves) for my next great read!

4. Top Ten Best/Worst Book-to-Movie Adaptations — I had tons of fun making this list, mostly because I felt compelled to share movie trailers for each of the films I selected. I picked five “best” and five “worst” adaptations, and I had a lot of fun reliving some of my favorite cinematic memories — not to mention ranting about some of my least favorite ones! :)

5. Top Ten Book Turnoffs You Encounter While Reading — As a corollary to #3, this list was helpful in thinking about what I should avoid in selecting books! It also helps to know what things trigger a knee-jerk reaction in me, so that I can include a caveat in any negative reviews; what bothers me may not bother another reader.

6. Top Ten Favorite Movies or TV Shows — I loved this topic so much, I couldn’t resist doing two separate lists, one for movies and one for TV! What can I say? I’m a binge-watcher at heart. :)

7. Top Ten Things You Like/Dislike about Romances in Books — As is well documented by now, I’m a sucker for a good love story, so it only makes sense that I would love this topic too!

8. Top Ten Favorite Book Quotes — Although I don’t keep a log of my favorite book quotes or anything like that, I do tend to remember sentences or passages that jump out at me. I think the list I made three years ago is still pretty accurate!

9. Top Ten Books that Came Recommended — This topic is great because so many of the books I’ve read and loved have been recommended by bookish friends and fellow bloggers! I’m so grateful to the online bookish community for giving me countless hours of joy in the form of great book recs!

10. Top Ten Favorite Love Stories — See #7. :)

Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for such a fun, popular, and thought-provoking meme! If you’re a fellow participant, what were some of your favorite topics?

Review: Illusions of Fate

Illusions of FateKiersten White, Illusions of Fate

Jessamin has recently left her sunny island home of Melei to study at the prestigious university in Albion. But she hates the cold Alben weather and the narrow-minded Alben prejudices she is constantly exposed to because of her heritage and skin color. She is determined to endure the next few years and then leave Albion forever, but a chance meeting with a charming nobleman changes the entire course of her life. Finn Ackerley is attractive and wealthy, and he seems to be genuinely interested in Jessamin. He also happens to be an extremely powerful magician, and he possesses secrets that could have dire consequences for both Albion and the entire world. As Finn fights to save his country against the wicked, scheming Lord Downpike, Jessamin is caught in the middle. And when Lord Downpike discovers her relationship with Finn, he doesn’t hesitate to use her as a pawn in his power struggle. Can Jessamin outwit this deadly adversary and help Finn, all while remaining true to herself?

Historical fantasy is a genre I really enjoy, so I was predisposed to like this book, but I was a bit disappointed in the execution. There are a lot of really great ideas in the novel, but I wanted almost all of them to be explored in a lot more depth! For example, even though the book is set in a fictional world, it’s clearly meant to explore the issue of colonialism, but that side of things felt a bit superficial to me. I also loved the magical elements of this world, but in my opinion, the book doesn’t delve deeply enough into the history or the current power struggle with magic. The romance between Jessamin and Finn was adorable, but it also seemed fairly lightweight; I never truly connected with the characters or had particularly strong emotions about them getting together. Finally, the plot is resolved very abruptly in the end. I think all of these issues could have been resolved if the book had been longer, and I feel bad for nitpicking so much because that might have been the publisher’s fault rather than the author’s. And it is a light, enjoyable read; it’s just a bit insubstantial for my taste. But I would certainly try something else by Kiersten White in the future.