Review: Here’s Looking at You

Here's Looking at YouMhairi McFarlane, Here’s Looking at You

Aureliana Alessi was never the most popular girl in school. On the contrary, her bushy hair, dumpy figure, and acne-filled complexion ensured that she was frequently teased and bullied. Her worst torment of all came at the hands of James Fraser, the popular boy she had a crush on, who brutally humiliated her at the end-of-year talent show. Now, 10 years later, Aureliana has shed her old persona and her old name: she goes by Anna, and she loves her job as a history professor. But when her department agrees to assist a local museum with an upcoming exhibit, Anna is shocked to run into James Fraser again; he’s part of the publicity firm handling the exhibit. James is as handsome as ever, but he still seems to be the same shallow, self-absorbed person he was in high school. Worst of all, he doesn’t even recognize Anna, much less remember what he did to her. Nevertheless, as Anna and James start to spend more time together, they gradually become friends. She even finds herself harboring romantic feelings for him again. But will their fragile relationship survive when James discovers who Anna really is?

When I first heard about this book, the plot summary intrigued me right away. It seemed like the kind of thing that could be done either very well or VERY badly, depending on how the author handled the situation. I also felt a personal connection to the plot, since I was frequently picked on in school, and those experiences definitely still affect me today. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by this book! I found Anna a very relatable character, and her various emotions toward James — everything from anger to desire to embarrassment — made sense to me. I also think James is portrayed very well. He’s not an admirable character, especially in the beginning of the book; he’s selfish and lost, and the company he keeps isn’t helping. But his backstory is just sympathetic enough that I was rooting for him to change, and I could understand why Anna wanted to be around him. Toward the last third of the book, I realized that this book borrows its basic outline from [Pride and Prejudice], which was a nice bonus for me! But the novel stands very well on its own merits, and I’d recommend it to people who like their chick lit with a little depth.

Review: Murder Underground

Murder UndergroundMavis Doriel Hay, Murder Underground

Miss Euphemia Pongleton is an unpleasant old woman living in a dreary but respectable London boardinghouse. When she is strangled on the steps of the Belsize Park underground station, her fellow boardinghouse residents are surprised rather than saddened; but they soon move past their shock to speculate on who might have done the deed. The police have arrested one suspect, the boyfriend of a maid in the boardinghouse who had been involved with some petty thievery. But the maid is convinced her man is innocent, and the boarders entertain themselves by coming up with alternate theories of the murder. Naturally, Miss Pongleton’s nephew Basil, who always seems to need money and who depends on inheriting his aunt’s fortune, is a prime suspect. But Basil, despite some highly suspicious behavior on the day of the murder, insists that he is innocent. Are his protests a clever ruse, or could someone else in the boardinghouse have wanted Miss Pongleton dead?

This was a very enjoyable Golden Age mystery, although there’s really nothing that makes it stand out from the genre as a whole. But sometimes formulaic plots are comforting, and that’s why I usually enjoy mysteries from this era. There’s the unpleasant murder victim whom we don’t need to mourn; a variety of suspects with a variety of motives, secrets, and questionable alibis; the secondary love story; and the amateur detectives who solve the crime without the involvement or assistance of the police. The mystery is well plotted, and I didn’t guess who the murderer was (although I suspected almost every character at one point or other). There are also some lovely bits of humor, such as when the boardinghouse residents fight tenaciously — but silently — over who gets to sit in Miss Pongleton’s chair. All in all, I’d recommend this to fans of Golden Age mysteries, but it’s definitely not a stellar example of the genre.

Review: The Next Best Thing

Next Best Thing, TheKristan Higgins, The Next Best Thing

After five years, young widow Lucy Lang is ready to start dating again. But she’s not looking for love; her late husband, Jimmy Mirabelli, was the love of her life, and she has no interest in opening her heart to somebody new. But Lucy does want the stability and comfort of marriage, and she’d like to have children someday, so she decides to start looking for a potential husband. Of course, this means she’ll need to stop sleeping with Jimmy’s brother, Ethan, with whom she has shared a secret friends-with-benefits arrangement for the past couple of years. But when Lucy tries to break things off with Ethan, she’s surprised to find that he doesn’t take it very well. In fact, he seems to want to pursue a real relationship with her. But Lucy is afraid of where such a relationship might lead; she’s not ready to get her heart broken again. Plus, there’s the issue of what their families would say…. Will Lucy find the courage to risk her heart, and will she ever be able to see Ethan as Mr. Right rather than just the next-best thing?

This novel is yet another light, romantic read by Kristan Higgins. Her books tend to be quite similar, so if you like one, you’ll probably like them all. This one actually reminded me a lot of Fools Rush In, which I read earlier this year, because of the familial complications to the romance. In Fools Rush In, the heroine ends up with her sister’s ex-husband, while in this book, Lucy ends up with her dead husband’s brother. (I don’t think that’s really a spoiler, is it?) And in both books, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the resolution of these issues. I especially think that Ethan’s family would have had a much stronger, more lasting reaction to the news that their son’s widow is now dating their other son. At the same time, I was rooting for Ethan from almost the very beginning; it was so obvious that he really loved Lucy all along! In fact, I was pretty irritated with Lucy for not noticing it! That said, I actually did like this book and would recommend it to fans of contemporary romance…it’s just not my favorite offering by Higgins.

Review: Dreamer’s Pool

Dreamer's PoolJuliet Marillier, Dreamer’s Pool

This novel, set in early medieval Ireland, tells the story of Blackthorn, a young woman who has been imprisoned by a cruel chieftain and sentenced to death. But on the eve of her execution, she is saved by one of the Fair Folk, who grants her freedom under two conditions: she must assist anyone who asks for her help, and she cannot seek revenge against her jailer for seven years. Blackthorn reluctantly accepts these terms and escapes from the prison, along with fellow prisoner Grim. At first, the two travel aimlessly, with Blackthorn occasionally using her skills as a wise woman to help those who need medical attention. Eventually, they arrive in the kingdom of Dalriada, where Prince Oran asks Blackthorn for help. He is about to be married to Flidais, the daughter of a neighboring chieftain. He has fallen in love with her because of the letters she has sent him; but when Flidais arrives in person, she seems completely unlike the woman of the letters. Blackthorn and Grim help Oran to investigate his bride’s seemingly changed personality, and their search eventually leads to a shocking discovery about the nearby Dreamer’s Wood.

I’m a big fan of Juliet Marillier’s books, and I’m pleased to say that I liked this one also. The novel is narrated by Blackthorn, Grim, and Oran in turn, and each character’s voice is very specific and distinct from the others. Blackthorn is clearly the book’s true heroine, and I found her an interesting protagonist, especially because most of her motivation at this point stems from her (justifiable) rage at being imprisoned for so long. In other words, she’s not a very nice person, and her traumatic past often leads her to assume the worst of other people. But her flaws make her a compelling character, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop as the (planned) series progresses. Grim is also an intriguing character, although not as well fleshed out as Blackthorn; I’m eager to learn more of his backstory. Like most of Marillier’s novels, the pace of this one is quite slow, and I’m not sure the mystery with Flidais needed to be as drawn-out as it was. That said, I did like the book and will plan to continue with the series; I believe book 2 comes out later this year.

Some thoughts on World War II

So I haven’t been around here in a while, and I’m not really sure why. I’m still reading a lot, and they’re mostly good books that I want to recommend to people! But I’m about 15 reviews behind now, and the thought of trying to catch up is daunting. Nevertheless, I wanted to post today because it’s the 70th anniversary of VE Day, and I want to talk a little bit about my interest in World War II history and literature, and then recommend some of my favorite WWII books.

ww2 - anne frankww2 - number the starsww2 - nightww2 - verity

Growing up, I had no particular interest in World War II or in literature set during the period. I read The Diary of Anne Frank like everyone else, but I don’t think it made a particularly big impact on me at the time. I do remember reading and loving Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, however! When I got older, I started to get really excited about a few historical periods, but they were primarily the Regency era (thanks to Jane Austen) and the Middle Ages (probably thanks to my Catholicism, but I’ll give Ellis Peters and Sharon Kay Penman some credit too!). So I’m not really sure what prompted me to start reading more about World War II. Maybe it was the 2001 movie “Enigma,” which dealt with breaking the German submarine codes. (It’s a good movie, and I definitely recommend it to fans of the period!)

But regardless of what initially sparked my interest, I’ve become fascinated with World War II and especially with fiction set during the period. I must admit, though, that my interest is heavily skewed towards the British experience. That’s partly an issue of language, I’m guessing, and partly an issue of simple geography. Although America was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the war never really came to us the way it did to England. We didn’t live through the Blitzkrieg. We didn’t have to evacuate our children or plan for an imminent invasion. So for me, WWII novels set in England have much more tension and immediacy than those set in the U.S.

But of course, there were many other countries involved in the war, and I must admit that I haven’t read so much about them. I don’t think I’ve read anything at all set in the Pacific theater, which is especially shameful because my grandfather actually fought there! And as for Holocaust literature…well. Obviously it is incredibly important and valuable and necessary. I think everyone in the world should read Elie Wiesel’s Night, even though it will break your heart. But for me, reading descriptions of what happened in the concentration camps is just too much. Thinking about it for any length of time is just too horrible. So instead, I gravitate to WWII books set in Britain, which generally have plenty of gravity and pathos without being unspeakably horrific.

ww2 - blackoutww2 - all clearww2 - guernsey literaryww2 - operation mincemeat

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite books about World War II:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity — This book is about two young women and their extraordinary friendship. One is a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. One is a spy who has just been captured by the Germans. The spy begins the story, stating that she is writing her confession, but her narrative is much more complex than meets the eye. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It’s suspenseful, fascinating, and utterly heartbreaking. My review is here.

Connie Willis, Blackout / All Clear — This novel is an extremely detailed account of the experience of Londoners during the war, particularly during the Blitz. I can’t explain the spirit of this book any better than by quoting the dedication to All Clear:

To all the ambulance drivers, firewatchers, air-raid wardens, nurses, canteen workers, airplane spotters, rescue workers, mathematicians, vicars, vergers, shopgirls, chorus girls, librarians, debutantes, spinsters, fishermen, retired sailors, servants, evacuees, Shakespearean actors, and mystery novelists who won the war.

The books are a bit long-winded, but they are so, so worth it. My review is here.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — This book is quite a bit more light-hearted than the previous two, even though it deals with the fairly serious subject of German occupation of the Channel Islands. It starts with a thank-you note from a Guernsey man to a London woman who had donated some books to the occupied islands. The two characters strike up a correspondence, and eventually the woman, who is a journalist, travels to Guernsey to write about the experiences of the people there. The war almost takes a backseat to the various personal stories and relationships that emerge. But it’s one of my very favorite books, so I have to include it on this list! :) My review is here.

Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat — A nonfiction work that reads like a novel, this book tells the story of an absolutely outrageous Allied plan to feed misinformation to the Germans — and how that plan, against all odds, succeeded! Espionage is another longstanding interest of mine (although that’s another post, haha), so I was fascinated to read this account! Now that a lot of information about WWII intelligence operations has been/is being declassified, it’s a great time to learn more about the actual history behind the fiction. My review of the book is here.

If you’re also a fan of books set in World War II, what do you think of this list? What books should I add? What is the most fascinating aspect of WWII for you?

Review: Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog PrintsP.J. Brackston, Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

In the small town of Gesternstadt in 18th-century Germany, Gretel is something of a local celebrity. Her first claim to fame is being the Gretel, the one who escaped the clutches of an evil witch along with her gluttonous brother, Hans (a.k.a. Hansel). Now, the 35-year-old woman makes her living as a private investigator, and the biggest case of her life has just fallen into her lap. She has been summoned by Albrecht Durer the Much Much Younger, whose beautiful and beloved frog prints have been stolen. Gretel takes the case and travels to the busy metropolis of Nuremberg, accompanied by Hans, who wants to attend the city’s world-famous sausage festival. She soon stumbles across a variety of surprises, including a housecleaning hobgoblin, a secret brothel in the basement of a fancy hotel, and a veritable mafia of talking mice. And, naturally, her most promising suspect is later murdered at the scene of the crime. Can Gretel discover the thief, return the prints, and catch the murderer, all without being sidetracked by her dimwitted brother?

I got very excited by the premise of this book, which sounds like a delightfully subversive romp through both mystery and fairy-tale tropes. And indeed, there’s lots of fun stuff in this novel. Gretel has some wonderfully entertaining characteristics: she’s determined, confident, and extremely pragmatic. Hans is a good foil for her, reminding me of a Teutonic Bertie Wooster. But at the same time, I never found a reason to care about these characters; they don’t really develop over the course of the novel. Some of the humor also seemed forced, and the mystery itself was nothing special. I did enjoy the weird genre mashup of mystery plus fairy tale, and I would potentially read the sequel when it comes out. But a novel that’s pure spoof has got to be funny enough to justify itself, and I’m not sure that this one is. It certainly never reaches the zany heights of P.G. Wodehouse! Again, this book is an enjoyable read, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by it.

Review: Saga, Volumes 3-4

Saga Volume 3Saga Volume 4

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume Three and Saga: Volume Four

Volumes 3 and 4 of this saga (see what I did there?) continue the story of star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana and their daughter, Hazel, who is now a toddler. Fleeing their many pursuers, the family first takes shelter with Alana’s favorite author, D. Oswald Heist, whose romance novels have a surprisingly political subtext. But they’re unable to stay there for long, since a variety of people (and other entities) are hot on their trail. These pursuers include: The Will, a bounty hunter who’s still grieving for his dead paramour; Marko’s ex-fiancée Gwendolyn, who has a score to settle; a robot prince who’s following orders, even though he’d rather be at home with his wife and son; and two tabloid reporters named Upsher and Doff. Now, in addition to the many dangers that Marko and Alana will face if they’re caught, they also begin to face troubles within their marriage. Alana gets a job that introduces her to a dangerous drug, while Marko is tempted by a young mother he meets while at the playground with Hazel.

I enjoyed the first two volumes of this series, and I’m pleased that these two volumes continue to be entertaining, with a nice blend of dark humor and pathos. I remember being a little bit confused in the earlier installments because of the plethora of characters, but I think I’m clearer now about what’s going on. I was particularly happy to get a little more background on the robot kingdom, so I can see now how they fit into the bigger picture. I’m genuinely concerned about Hazel and her little family, and I hope they will be able to stick together going forward! I also have a soft spot for The Will and am interested to see what happens to him next. I definitely think that fans of graphic novels and/or science fiction should check out this series. Unfortunately, I believe only four volumes have been published as of now, but I’ll definitely look for Volume 5 when it comes out!

Review: Epitaph

EpitaphMary Doria Russell, Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

In the late 19th century, Tombstone, Arizona was a thriving silver-mining town in the American West, but it has become known to history only as the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The story has been told many times and has become part of the mythology of the Wild West. But what was the fight really like for the men and women who lived it? What were its real causes? Who was really to blame? This novel, the follow-up to Doc, seeks to re-examine the legend and portray events as they really happened — or might have happened. The story begins more than a year before the gunfight, with local and national politics having a significant effect on daily life in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp wants to be sheriff someday, but although he is a man of integrity, he is too naive to realize that others are manipulating him. Meanwhile, the Clantons and the McLaurys are cattle thieves, pejoratively dubbed “cow boys,” who resent the intrusion of the lawmen onto their traditional way of life. These two conflicting ideologies are bound to clash, but in the fallout from the gunfight, the truth is obscured by many conflicting versions of the story, until at last it is covered by legend.

My summary of this book was a pain to write, and I definitely didn’t do it justice, but all you really need to know is that I loved this book! When I read Doc a couple years ago, I thought, “This is why I love historical fiction!” And the same is true of this follow-up novel. I love how Russell is able to take legendary historical figures and make them real, living, breathing people. I love how she pays as much attention to the women of Tombstone as to the men, from the Earp brothers’ common-law wives to the beguiling Josephine Sarah Marcus, whose love for Wyatt Earp would eventually lead to her distorting the events of the gunfight and building Wyatt into a legend. I also got a huge kick out of the fact that each chapter heading is a phrase from the Iliad, which emphasizes the epic, mythic nature of the stories surrounding the gunfight. Another fun fact is that “Epitaph” was the name of one of the local newspapers in Tombstone, so even the book’s title has many layers of meaning. My one complaint is that I would have liked a little bit more of Doc Holliday and his lover, Kate. But anyone who loved Doc should definitely read this novel too! Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon

readathon - dewey's 24 hour 10-9-10The long-awaited day has finally arrived: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon is upon us! This post will be my home base throughout the day, where I’ll be logging my progress and participating in mini-challenges. I’ve got a bunch of snacks and a stack of books all ready to go, so let the games begin!

11:04 a.m. — Argh, I overslept! So I haven’t actually started reading yet…but I’m about to get going with Every Breath by Ellie Marney! Hope everyone is enjoying his/her day so far!

Classic Words of Wisdom Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “[C]reate a post highlighting your favorite ‘Classic Words of Wisdom’ and then explain their meaning to you.” This is one of my absolute favorite quotes, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

To me, this quote is a reminder to focus on life’s simple pleasures and to be “merry” whenever possible. Not bad life advice, I think!

Four Seasons, Four Books Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “This mini challenge is to convey the four seasons in four book covers, by colour, title, author, cover, or something a little less obvious. Just arrange your covers, snap a photo and then upload it.” Here are my choices for spring, summer, fall, and winter:

Peach Keeper, TheSince You've Been GoneOutlaws of Sherwood, TheWinter Long, The

1:21 p.m. — About halfway through Every Breath now, and it’s SO GOOD! I’ve just put the sequel on my wishlist. :)

3:17 p.m. — Finished Every Breath and really, really liked it! I did guess the culprit’s identity fairly early on, but the fun is in getting there, and in watching the slow burn of Watts and Mycroft’s relationship. Now I’m on to French Leave by Anna Gavalda, of which I have high hopes, since I really enjoyed Gavalda’s previous novel Hunting and Gathering!

Treasure Hunt Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “[F]ind a book with one of the listed items on the cover.” The listed items were a tree, snow, and a weapon, and here’s what I found:

Treasure Hunt mini-challenge

Tree — Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Snow — The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire
Weapon — The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Book Spine Poetry Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “Using the titles on book spines, make a short poem at least three ‘books’ long/tall.” This is one of my very favorite mini-challenges — it’s always so much fun to get creative with the books on my shelves! Here’s my poem:

book spine poetry

A song for summer, season of storms:
Let’s get lost in the woods.
Bewitching season, endless summer.

5:07 p.m. — I just finished French Leave, which was quite charming and a perfect palate-cleanser after the intense Every Breath. I did love this one passage, which is about a conversation between four adult siblings:

And then we talked about our parents. The way we always did. About Mom and Pop. Their new lives. Their own love stories. And our future. In short, the everyday trifles and the handful of people that filled our lives.

It wasn’t much, trifles to many people, and yet a boundless fortune.

9:32 p.m. — I took a little break from the readathon this evening to play in a community orchestra concert. But now it’s back to reading, and I’m in the middle of Katie Van Ark’s The Boy Next Door, which is really making me want to watch “The Cutting Edge”!

11:40 p.m. Finished The Boy Next Door, which was fine but lacked that spark that makes me really excited about a book. Not sure it will have a permanent home on my shelves. Oh well! On to my next pick, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Music Is Muse Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “Whilst you’ve been reading I wonder if you’ve felt a particular musical connection to a book, or a character. I want to know what songs remind you of that character, or connect you to something you’ve read today. For this hour’s mini challenge please tell me the name of the song, and the connection you feel to it.” For this challenge, I’ve assigned a song to each of the books I’ve read so far:

  • Every Breath by Ellie Marnie — “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks (listen here). I think this is a song that main character Mycroft would listen to; he has an appreciation for the classics! Plus, the book as a whole gives me the vibe of a high-energy rock song with snarly/angry vocals.
  • French Leave by Anna Gavalda — “Absolutely Cuckoo” by the Magnetic Fields (listen here). The song is short and whimsical, the perfect complement to this charming French novella! For some reason, I can imagine the characters riding bikes through the French countryside with this song as a soundtrack.
  • The Boy Next Door by Katie Van Ark — “Love Story” by Taylor Swift (listen here). This song is THE perfect choice for this book, which is about two young lovers who believe they’re destined to be together. And Romeo and Juliet is a prominent narrative in both the book and the song!

Reading Story Mini-Challenge

From the host’s website: “For this challenge you will be writing a six word story based on your read-a-thon experience so far or what you hope for the rest of your read-a-thon.” Here is my six-word story: “Read three books on couch. Success!”

1:13 a.m. Well, it’s Hour 18, and I think I’m going to have to call it quits! Sadly, I have to get up at a decent hour tomorrow morning. :( But before I go, I want to leave you all with this brilliant quote from Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), where Mindy Kaling is describing her first NYC apartment:

It was a staircase for killing someone and making it seem like an accident.

I’ve been cackling so loudly over this book that I think I’m disturbing the neighbors. Anyhow, this is me signing off, but best of luck to those of you who are still reading! You can do it!!!