Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 Steps, TheJohn Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

Richard Hannay is fed up. He has just returned to London after several years in South Africa, where he’s led an adventurous life and made a modest fortune. His current life of leisure in England seems incredibly dull by comparison — that is, until his neighbor knocks on his door one day with an amazing story about international conspiracies, assassination plots, and his own very important mission. Hannay isn’t sure what to make of the story at first but agrees to keep his neighbor’s secret. When the man is murdered shortly thereafter, Hannay concludes that his farfetched story must actually be true, and he decides to take over the dead man’s mission to deliver some secret documents to a highly important member of the British government. He immediately finds himself on the run, as the people who murdered his neighbor are now on his trail. Hannay encounters a variety of people on his journey, both friend and foe, and he relies on his instincts to tell him whom he can trust with his story. In some cases these instincts are right, while in others, they are very, very wrong. But somehow, he always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he searches for the mysterious location with the 39 steps, where the evildoers can all be captured in one fell swoop.

This is one of those books that’s fun to read as a historical artifact, but I feel like it would never be published today. Spy thrillers are so popular in book, TV, and movie formats that audiences have become very sophisticated. The plot of this book may have been cutting-edge when it was published in 1915, but for a modern reader, it’s pretty predictable and really strains credulity at times. Hannay’s actual mission isn’t important; the dramatic tension in the book comes from the fact that he’s being followed, as well as the fact that some pursuers are actually lying in wait for him. There is one pretty suspenseful scene near the end where Hannay is in a room with the suspected evildoers, and he’s suddenly struck with self-doubt: are these people actually the bad guys, or has he been imagining the whole thing? But I did mentally roll my eyes at Hannay several times, as he basically blurts out the entire story to everyone he meets without once stopping to wonder, “Should I actually trust this person?” Still, despite its flaws, I did find the book entertaining and would consider reading more of Hannay’s adventures. I also need to check out the Hitchcock movie now!

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-buy Authors

Top 10 TuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is auto-buy authors — the ones whose books you snatch up or preorder without even checking the synopsis first because they are JUST THAT GOOD. There are definitely several authors that fit this description for me, although most of them come with a caveat…so I guess maybe they’re not true auto-buy authors after all! Nonetheless, here are ten nine authors whose books I’ll automatically buy at least 99% of the time. :)

1. Jasper Fforde — I’ve been a huge Fforde ffangirl ever since the first Thursday Next book, and I bought most of his books in hardcover as soon as they came out! I must admit, I haven’t yet gotten  The Song of the Quarkbeast or The Eye of Zoltar, but I do hope to obtain them eventually.

2. Rainbow Rowell — Along with the rest of the Internet, I love love love Rainbow Rowell! She did an author event near me last year, where she graciously signed my copies of all four of her novels. So I’m definitely on board for whatever she writes next…EXCEPT that I’m not going to buy Carry On. I’m pretty skeptical about this particular book (and one of these days, I’ll write a post about my reasons why). But I still definitely want to read it, and I’ve got a library hold on it already!

3. Megan Whalen Turner — I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the Attolia series and own all four books. If she writes another, I will be first in line to grab a copy!

4. Sharon Kay Penman — You can’t beat SKP for well-written, page-turning medieval historical fiction! I have all her books except for her most recent one, A King’s Ransom.

5. Kristan Higgins — My favorite contemporary romance author! I think I actually do have all her books, and I’m super excited that another one is coming out next week! (And yes, it’s on my Amazon wishlist!)

6. Robin McKinley — One of my all-time favorite authors since I first read The Hero and the Crown in elementary school. I own everything she’s written except for a couple of children’s picture books and some stray short stories from anthologies.

7. Julie James — Another contemporary romance author I really enjoy. So far, I have all her books except the latest one, Suddenly One Summer. But I wasn’t as impressed with her last couple of books, so, sadly, I may end up demoting her from auto-buy status one of these days.

8. Sarah Addison Allen — Her books are the ultimate comfort reads, featuring romance and magic and tight-knit communities of strong women.

9. Jandy Nelson — I loved I’ll Give You the Sun so much that I had to get The Sky Is Everywhere right away! I’m definitely looking forward to her next book!

Bout of Books 14 Progress

Bout of BooksMonday 8/17

Hooray, Bout of Books 14 started today! I meant to set up a post earlier, but time just got away from me (by which I mean I was watching “Gilmore Girls” and then listening to the Gilmore Guys podcast. This is my life now). I didn’t even get any reading done today! But I did manage to take a look at the Fictional World Travel challenge, which asked us to list 3-6 books set in a country other than our own. I think we were supposed to pick 3-6 different countries, but all the books I chose are set in France! I wanted to do a fun theme…plus, I really just wanted to make a bookish Eiffel Tower!

Vive la France!

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy — One of my all-time favorite books, involving spies and romance during the French Revolution! Part of the book takes place in England as well, but I’m still counting it. :)
  2. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins — A lovely YA contemporary romance about an American teen at a French boarding school who falls for the most swoonworthy boy in the world!
  3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery — A novel about a middle-aged concierge and a 12-year-old girl, both of whom are highly intelligent social outcasts who yearn for — and eventually find — human connection. It starts slowly but gets much better as it goes on!
  4. Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda — A charming Parisian romance that develops when an artist, a chef, and an aristocrat become roommates and unlikely friends.

So, that’s my challenge entry! Any other French books or books set in France that I should check out?

Tuesday 8/18

I’m getting a head start on Bout of Books today with the Scavenger Hunt challenge! While I don’t own all of these books, each one is a book I’ve really enjoyed or can’t wait to read! Here’s what I “found” for this challenge:

Blue Lily, Lily BlueBridge of SpiesJackaby

1. A book that begins with B: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (review is here)
2. A book I’m currently reading for Bout of Books: Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War by Giles Whittell
3. A blue book: Jackaby by William Ritter (review is here)

Sorcery and CeceliaCut to the QuickLure of the Moonflower, The

4. Books from my favorite genres: Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (historical fiction & fantasy); Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross (historical fiction & mystery — review is here)
5. A book from my TBR pile: The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig

I also managed to read about 40 pages of my current book, Bridge of Spies. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and it tends to go slowly for me because there’s no story to latch onto. But I am enjoying the book — lots of fascinating stuff about spycraft in the Cold War era!

Wednesday 8/19

Today’s MASH challenge was a real blast from the past! My friends and I definitely did this in elementary school. Here’s my game (I got the number 3 from the random number generator):


As you can see, I will marry Julian Kestrel (the detective in Kate Ross’ wonderful Regency mystery series)! We will live in a house in Stars Hollow with our pet dragon and four kids, and I’ll drive a Rolls Royce. But I’ll probably be away from home a lot because of my career as a rock star! Yes, I accept this future. :)

Also, I decided to switch gears with my reading today. Instead of continuing with Bridge of Spies (which I’m reading in tandem with an online friend), I read the first few chapters of Leigh Bardugo’s Siege and Storm! This is my first time reading the Grisha trilogy, and I’m enjoying it so far…hoping to finish before my pre-order of Six of Crows arrives!

Thursday 8/20

So, Thursday was a total wash for me! I didn’t do any reading, nor did I complete the daily challenge. Oh well — hopefully I’ll do better over the weekend!

Friday 8/21

Another non-reading, non-challenge-doing day! I blame Netflix; I started re-watching “Friday Night Lights” and basically lost track of everything. :)

Saturday 8/22

No reading, no challenges. Womp womp.

Sunday 8/23

And once again, no reading, no challenges! I certainly ended this Bout of Books “not with a bang but a whimper”!

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.