Review: First & Then

First & ThenEmma Mills, First & Then

Devon Tennyson is a high school senior who couldn’t be more ordinary. She’s a decent but not exceptional student; she’s an only child with a stable home life; and she has no idea what she wants to do after graduation. For now, she’s happy to ignore the future and concentrate on having fun with her best friend Cas, who she’s hoping will finally notice her as more than just a friend. But when Devon’s freshman cousin Foster moves in with her family, her life slowly begins to change. Foster is strange and socially awkward, but while Devon finds him annoying at first, she eventually becomes very protective of him. Foster also introduces Devon to star quarterback Ezra Lynley, who’s recently transferred to their high school. Ezra is handsome, popular, and a shoo-in for a football scholarship, so Devon immediately assumes he’s an arrogant jerk. But the more she gets to know Ezra, the more she realizes that her first impression may not have been justified.

I’d been dying to read this book ever since I saw it promoted as “Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights.” I think that’s a fair comparison, in the sense that if you like those two things, you’ll probably like this book as well. Devon is a refreshingly ordinary heroine, and I enjoyed her wry, self-deprecating voice. I also really loved the progression of her relationship with Foster from distant cousins to (essentially) brother and sister. The romance with Ezra was nicely developed (the slowest of slow burns), but for some reason I didn’t find it especially compelling. Maybe that’s the reason I didn’t quite fall in love with this book the way I wanted to. But I do love the fact that Devon’s relationships with Foster and Ezra also open her up to other friendships. Initially, Devon’s only friend is Cas, and she’s so invested in him that she doesn’t really pay attention to anyone else. But throughout the course of the novel, she realizes that she’s been a bit self-absorbed and makes more of an effort to reach out to other people. So overall, I’m glad this book wasn’t just about the romance, but I still wish I’d felt a little more of the connection between Devon and Ezra.

N.B. An ARC of this book was graciously provided by the publisher. Publication date is October 13, 2015.

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Queen of the Tearling, TheErika Johansen, The Queen of the Tearling

Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has just turned 19, and it’s time for her to ascend the throne of the Tearling. But being the ruler of this kingdom is not exactly an enviable position. Competition for power is fierce — so much so, in fact, that Kelsea has been raised in exile and must be escorted to her palace by the Queen’s Guard, an elite group of warriors, in order to protect her from assassination. Her uncle, the regent, almost certainly wants her dead, and he is far from the only person in the Tearling who doubts Kelsea’s ability to rule. Most threatening of all, however, is the menace of the Red Queen, a powerful sorceress who rules the neighboring kingdom and has begun expanding her empire. Kelsea is shy, bookish, and plain — seemingly the last person in the world to make an effective ruler. But her strong sense of justice and the help of a few loyal allies eventually enable her to claim her throne and even — perhaps — to keep it, as she makes her first move to challenge the Red Queen’s supremacy.

I quite enjoyed this sword-and-sorcery novel, although the plot is certainly far from original. Kelsea is a relatable fantasy heroine, not particularly gifted at swordplay or magic, but grimly determined to hold onto her birthright and (essentially) not mess things up too badly. I also loved the basic premise that she has to win a place for herself in a situation where so many different factions are arrayed against her. I’m a sucker for a good political intrigue, and this book sets up a lot of different possible enemies who I’m sure will become more important in the sequels. The actual plot of this book is a little weak, in my opinion. The Red Queen is so over-the-top evil that I found her more annoying than threatening; I’d much rather see Kelsea deal with her internal foes than focus on defeating this “big bad.” But I want to spend more time in this world, especially to learn more about the Queen’s Guard and the Fetch. So I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, one of these days!

Review: The Twelfth Enchantment

Twelfth Enchantment, TheDavid Liss, The Twelfth Enchantment

As a young woman of no fortune in 19th-century England, Lucy Derrick’s choices are extremely limited. Her parents are dead, so she is forced to live with her odious uncle and his cruel housekeeper. Her only means of escape is to accept the advances of a prosperous local mill owner, but she doesn’t love the man and has delayed making a final decision. But everything changes when Lucy encounters the dashing Lord Byron, the principal landowner in the area. Byron shows up on Lucy’s doorstep with a mysterious illness that is soon revealed to be magical in origin. To Lucy’s surprise, she is actually able to help him through exercising her own magical abilities. This chance encounter leads Lucy into a shadowy world whose existence she had never before suspected — a world of changelings and faeries and soulless beings who cannot die. Assisted by her friend Mary Crawford (of Mansfield Park fame) and by Jonas Morrison, the man who once broke her heart, Lucy must navigate a supernatural power struggle and find an ancient spell book that will vanquish her immortal enemies once and for all.

This was my first encounter with David Liss, and I think it’s probably not the right entry point into his work. My understanding of his other books is that they are serious historical fiction, with plenty of exploration of the gritty realities of life in former eras. This book contains a lot of those same concerns, with Luddites and Rosicrucians both being fairly integral to the plot. But at the same time, this novel also has a lot of Regency romance tropes, like the lovely but impoverished young woman who seeks marriage both for love and for economic stability. As a result, the book felt slightly schizophrenic to me. Personally, I was more interested in Lucy’s individual character development and her romantic relationships than in the broader power struggle, so everything about the aforementioned Luddites and Rosicrucians was a real slog for me. In other words, it’s too heavy for a light, fluffy read; but the Regency-romance elements detract from the serious historical fiction aspects of the book. Some things did work for me, particularly the central romance, but overall I think the book suffers from trying to blend two very different genres.

Top Ten Tuesday: Fall TBR list

Top 10 TuesdayIt’s time for another seasonal TBR list for Top Ten Tuesday! A lot of my favorite authors tend to come out with new books in the fall, so this list was an easy one for me to compile. Here are 10 books I’m excited to read this fall, in no particular order:

1. Deanna Raybourn, A Curious Beginning — I really liked the first few Lady Julia Grey mysteries, and I keep meaning to read more by Deanna Raybourn, but for some reason I haven’t yet. A Curious Beginning is the first book in a new mystery series, so I’m excited to see how it will compare.

2. Rainbow Rowell, Carry On — I adore Rainbow Rowell’s books, but I’m not wholeheartedly excited about this one for several reasons (which I’ll probably detail when I review the book). Nevertheless, I definitely still want to read it, and I’ve put it on hold at the library, so hopefully I’ll be able to form an opinion soon!

3. Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown — Any book that combines Regency England and magic is going to pique my interest, and this one has been compared to Georgette Heyer and comes highly recommended by Jenny. So obviously I had to buy the hardcover, and I can’t wait to read it!

4. Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun — I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this book through LibraryThing. All I really know is that it’s based on a true story about kickass women in the Old West, but that’s definitely enough to convince me to read it!

5. Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows — I gave into the hype about this book and pre-ordered it before I’d even read anything by Leigh Bardugo! Now I’ve read the Grisha trilogy and enjoyed it overall, although I do have a few quibbles with it (reviews will be coming one of these days, I hope!). But I’m still very excited about Six of Crows — I love a good heist story!

6. Kate Beaton, Step Aside, Pops — Oh, how I love Kate Beaton and her smart, silly comics! I already have her first collection, Hark! A Vagrant, and I can’t wait to snatch this one up as well!

7. Seanan McGuire, A Red-Rose Chain — I’ve been invested in this series about since book one, and the most recent installment, The Winter Long, was a huge game-changer for Toby Daye and her allies. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

8. William Ritter, Beastly Bones — I loved Jackaby, so naturally I’m excited to see what will happen in the sequel! Abigail Rook is a wonderful narrator and heroine, and I definitely want to learn more about the mysterious R.F. Jackaby.

9. Charles Finch, Home by Nightfall — This is the latest installment in yet another series I love, featuring Victorian gentleman-detective Charles Lenox.

10. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey — Halloween is the perfect time to re-read Austen’s hilarious send-up of the gothic novels that were popular in her day. Plus, Mr. Tilney is adorable! :)

Library sale!

library sale fall 2015My local public library’s semi-annual sale was this past weekend, and while I wasn’t able to make multiple or prolonged visits, I did manage to acquire some shiny new-to-me books!

Diana Wynne Jones, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1 — I’ve only read a smattering of DWJ, but I know she’s an author I want to read more of! I actually have a vague memory of reading Charmed Life in elementary school, but I’m looking forward to revisiting it and then continuing with the series!

John Bude, The Lake District Murder — I have a soft spot for Golden Age mysteries, and I’m thrilled that British Library Crime Classics is re-releasing a lot of them!

Cyril Hare, An English Murder — Another vintage mystery, and this one looks like a classic English country house murder.

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane — I’m always meaning to read more Neil Gaiman, and this book might be a perfect read for the R.I.P. X challenge!

Antonia Hodgson, The Devil in the Marshalsea — This HF novel set in the infamous debtors’ prison looks a little creepy and a lot of fun!

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend — I’ve been seeing Ferrante’s books everywhere lately, and Lianne’s positive reviews finally wore me down! :)

Maria Semple,  Where’d You Go, Bernadette — I really liked this book when I read it a couple years ago, so I was happy for the chance to snag my own copy on the cheap!

M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts — I don’t read a lot of sci-fi/dystopian thrillers, but this one has gotten a lot of great buzz, and I vaguely remember Maggie Stiefvater tweeting that she liked it…and honestly, that was good enough for me! :)

Review: How My Summer Went Up in Flames

How My Summer Went Up in FlamesJennifer Salvato Doktorski, How My Summer Went Up in Flames

It’s the first day of summer, but Rosie Catalano is feeling anything but excited. Her boyfriend Joey, whom she had thought was the one, recently dumped her. In retaliation, Rosie had the not-so-bright idea of burning his stuff in his driveway, which resulted in an accidental car fire — and a restraining order against her! Now Rosie is dealing with humiliation as well as heartbreak, and her parents are more than a little bit concerned. But Rosie’s next door neighbor and best friend Matty has a solution: he and his two friends, Spencer and Logan, are driving from New Jersey to Arizona, where Logan will be attending college. He invites Rosie to come along, and her parents, worried about the consequences of her remaining in town, encourage her to go. Rosie is very reluctant about the trip at first, and her quick temper results in some very uncomfortable moments, especially with the standoffish Logan. But as she and the guys travel west, stopping at various landmarks around the way, Rosie reflects on the choices she’s made in the past and learns a little bit about herself. She may even find herself getting over Joey and falling for someone new.

This book was a gift, and while I probably wouldn’t have picked it up myself, I love a good road trip story! Overall, though, this book didn’t quite meet my expectations. First of all, it’s much more a coming-of-age story than a romance. While Rosie does eventually end up with one of the guys from the road trip, it’s very unclear whom she’ll choose for most of the book. On the plus side, this means the love story wasn’t predictable; on the minus side, I had absolutely no investment in the outcome of the relationship because I didn’t know whom I was supposed to be rooting for! I also wasn’t a huge fan of Rosie as a character. She makes a lot of bad decisions in this book, especially towards the beginning, and she never really stops to think about the consequences of her actions. Maybe I’m judging her unfairly because I can’t relate to her at all, but I found her antics more annoying than adorable. And finally, I was somewhat disappointed in the road trip aspect of the story. I can’t even remember the places they visited, except they might have gone to Graceland and/or Dollywood. Overall, the book’s not a bad read, but it just didn’t do anything for me.

Review: Spinster

SpinsterKate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

In this book that’s part literary biography, part memoir, journalist Kate Bolick engages with the notion of “spinsterhood” and claims that, rather than being used pejoratively, it should be seen as a term of female autonomy and empowerment. She notes that contemporary society is full of single women (whether never-married, widowed, or divorced), but “spinsterhood” is still largely viewed as an aberration. In other words, as she states in the first sentence of Chapter 1, “Whom to marry, and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence…” Bolick talks about her own life as a 40-something, never-married woman and how she was inspired to find her own path by the lives of five literary women: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. She weaves the biographies of these women into her own autobiography as she explores what it means to be a spinster and concludes that it can actually be a good thing.

This book was an odd read for me; some parts of it were very interesting and thought-provoking, while others made me roll my eyes in annoyance. I think its main problem is that it’s trying to be too many different genres; I was hoping for more of a cultural study and often found Bolick’s personal reminiscences tiresome. I also struggled with her definition of spinsterhood. To me, a spinster would be a woman who remains unmarried and uncoupled throughout her life. But Bolick’s literary inspirations, all of whom she styles as “spinsters,” mostly did get married eventually. Some of the marriages were tempestuous, and some of them ended in divorce, but these women did not live their entire lives uncoupled. Bolick herself, though technically never married, talks at length about her previous and current relationships, and she has even cohabited with some of her romantic partners. So I feel like she’s not really writing from the perspective of a spinster, but rather as a woman who is in a long-term, committed relationship — married in all but name. That said, the little biographies of the five “spinsters” who inspired Bolick were interesting, and I’d like to learn more about these writers and/or read some of their works. But overall, this book disappointed me; it just wasn’t what I expected.

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!