Fiction, Thriller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I began reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after the movie was announced (though before watching it) after one of my friends recommended it. Based on my knowledge of the friend who offered the recommendation, it was nothing as I expected.

Synopsis

It’s about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden… and about her octogenarian uncle, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder.

It’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired to find the underlying cause of Harriet’s disappearance… and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacked possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age – and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness to go with it – who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a view of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, astonishing corruption in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism – and an unexpected connection between themselves.

Review

I don’t read mysteries or thrillers for fun. They freak me out and give me nightmares. I have a great deal of difficulty getting the villain out of my head. It’s even worse when they’re exceptionally well crafted and convincing, as is the case in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

I typically try to read a book before I see the adaptation and I really wanted to see the movie (my hang-ups with thrillers mentioned above don’t seem to apply to film) so figured that I should read the book first because there was a good chance I would miss some important detail throughout the course of the movie (which is probably why I love, but can rarely follow, Bond films – I’m never paying enough attention). However, to understand the world in which Vanger, Blomkvist and Lisbeth are living, I needed a crash course in Swedish elitist politics or I would miss something important.

Never had I done so much research before reading a work of fiction, but I knew going into the book that I had to familiarize myself with a society that differed from my own to understand the actions and behaviors of the characters, particularly the secondary ones. But what really drew me to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the girl herself, Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is a ward of the state, an orphan with a traumatic background, declared mentally unstable which puts her finances, and therefore life, into the hands of a court appointed guardian – a rare kind man who unfortunately suffers a stroke at the start of the book. The man who replaces him, Nils Bjurman, is quite the opposite.

Lisbeth is highly aggressive towards those who abuse women and when Bjurman forces her into submissive and degrading positions to procure her pre-determined allowance. The revenge she takes on him is magnificently cruel and degrading, equal to the treatment he forced upon her. Lisbeth is fierce, and perhaps more than a little crazy, but her talents are unequaled in the art of hacking and manipulation. But her heart is pure, hidden though it may be, and she is capable of suffering heartbreak, despite her cold exterior and extremely introverted personality. Lisbeth is the heart and soul of the book and without her, the corporate espionage and possible murder plots mean little.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $9.99 • 9780307949486 • 644 pages • first published in English in September 2008, this edition published November 2011 by Vintage Books • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 stars • read in January 2011

Stieg Larsson’s Website

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Goodreads

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Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 

Fiction, Historical

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Given that the BBC is doing a miniseries of The Miniaturist for the holidays, I thought it a pertinent review for today! A few weeks ago, I admitted to owning a Kindle. For Christmas a few years ago, my father gave me a Kindle – yes, I finally gave in and accepted that some of my favorite authors might only publish eBooks (thank you Viv Daniels/Diana Peterfreund…) and if I wanted to read them, I’d have to suffer through reading them on my laptop or phone (which is far too bright for night reading) so I gave in – I now own an eReader and The Miniaturist is my first electronically read novel. It’s an odd sensation.

Synopsis

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office – leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist – an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand – and fear – the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation… or the architect of their destruction?

Review

At first, I was very excited about The Miniaturist. I was intrigued by the plot line and the potentially interesting character of the miniaturist, all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to being promised, but never quite delivered. The Miniaturist is extremely well written, but never really developed. Jessie Burton introduces her readers to a myriad of interesting characters, and then does nothing with them. Events unfold, but nothing changes. No one grows. And a story cannot be successful without change and growth, nothing happens without change or growth. Yes, characters die, it’s pretty much inevitable given the circumstances, but Nella, our main character, does not change or grow, even though she claims she has. We’re not given enough background or knowledge of how her experiences have changed her to know that she is, in fact, any different, or any less irritating.

Nella is married off to a man for his money to save her family from destitution, a common thread in 17th century life in Europe. The man is older and kind and doesn’t force himself upon her (immediately this should point a flashing arrow towards the inevitable plot “twist”) and she manages to adjust to life in Amsterdam and deal with her cold sister-in-law and unpleasant acquaintances. Along the way, Johannes, her husband, gives her a cabinet to fill with miniatures of their life – so Nella enlists the services of the miniaturist to help her populate the cabinet. But it becomes clear, and more than little creepy how much the woman knows about Nella’s life, but the character and all her mysteries never really become known, they remain a mystery – which is completely aggravating as it means that the woman driving the plot never really “shows up”.

Any other part of Nella’s life would have been far more interesting, any other part of any of the characters’ lives would have been more interesting. How did Marin wind up so cold? How did she and Otto really connect? Why did all the interesting bits happen “off-screen”? I thought I loved this book with its flowy words and articulate sentences, dynamic dialogue, and unspoken understandings. Two days later, I realized why it felt so off balance. Nothing really happened, we got a snapshot into a few months of a young girl’s life in which she didn’t really do much until her actions no longer mattered.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062306845 • 432 pages • originally published August 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 3.58 out of 5 • read in February 2015

Jessie Burton’s Website

The Miniaturist on Goodreads

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20171109_111441-1

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Scarlet trilogy by A. C. Gaughen

I’d been debating picking this book up for a while and decided to just go ahead and order it. I flew threw it – I definitely should have started it sooner! It has now led to me re-watching all the Robin Hood adaptations I love – starting with the BBC series.

Scarlet Synopsis

Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know… that the slip of a boy terrorizing the sheriff’s men is really a girl. Her real identity is in danger of being exposed hen the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men for the last time. As Gisbourne closes in, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this fight worth dying for.

Review

Scarlet took a bit getting used to – her voice is that of a lower-class English girl and A. C. Gaughen writes in completely in first person, from Scarlet’s point of view. Once I could read fluently without lamenting her accent, it was a delight to read. Who is Scarlet and why is she so fearful of Gisbourne? What secrets does her past hold that makes Robin Hood fearful of trusting her? All valid questions, all artfully dodged by the cunning and clever Scarlet.

Scarlet is a love story, an adventure tale, a re-imagining of a tale the English-speaking world grew up with and it is crafted with love and is masterfully told. I, like A. C. Guaghen, never really cared for wimpy, washed out Marion – her character was never fully developed and always full of insipid flaws. Why should the beloved Robin Hood be stuck with a fair maiden he has to save over and over? How can she be a real partner to him if she can’t manage to do anything more than cower behind him or run away? Scarlet is the answer – a strong female character for the testosterone filled bardic tales of Robin and his Merry Men. It’s always all about the men but hopefully Scarlet can change that!

What I truly love about her, though, is she is completely female. When she gets upset, she’s not above tears (though she tries to avoid them) and sometimes, she just wants a little comfort. She doesn’t seek to play games with the guys, she’d honestly prefer they just ignore the fact that she’s a girl, but when push comes to shove, she must admit what she truly feels, to both herself, and the band. And she does it in a way that isn’t sappy and is thoroughly courageous.

I flew through (most of) Lady Thief and Lion Heart in 3 days. I just had to know what happened and I’ll try my best to review sans any major spoilers. It took me awhile, when starting Lady Thief, to get back into the swing of Scarlet’s accent and then as soon as I did, I pulled a classic “great book, can’t stop reading” all-nighter to finish it as soon as I possibly could! As it had been a year since I read the first book in the trilogy, Scarlet, I hoped that Lady Thief and Lion Heart would really flesh out Scarlet as a character as well as all the Merry Men and her relationship with Robin Hood.

Scarlet is forced, from the start of Lady Thief to make a next to impossible choice regarding her marriage to the despicable Gisborne: stay with him for a fortnight and he’d grant her an annulment or be hunted down for the rest of her natural life. Things are not easy with the less-than-Merry Men and Scarlet does everything she can to build a better future for them, even if it means acquiescing to Gisborne for a short period of time. Alas, trouble still finds Scarlet in the form of the evil and impish Prince John and Scarlet is scarred both physically and emotionally by their encounter. But not even the clever Scarlet and Rob can predict the prince’s conniving actions and Scarlet lands herself accused of a crime that appears to benefit her, but that she clearly did not commit, and on her way to prison at the start of Lion Heart. The kindness of the Queen Mother pulls her out of the prince’s clutches and Scarlet and her beloved Rob must, once again, do everything in their power to rebuild and reclaim their home in Nottingham.

The twists and turns of the characters’ actions are amazing and so many terrible things have happened to them that when someone good finally seems to be taking shape, I was constantly turning the pages waiting for the inevitable catastrophe that would ruin the happiest of happy moments. Beloved characters will die, others will be forced to make impossible decisions, but ultimately Gaughen demonstrates just how scarlet Scarlet can get and how that rage and anger she’d been holding inside is finally unleashed to wield good and positive power for the people of Nottinghamshire. My only criticism is that the ending felt a bit rushed, but I was glad that the last bit of thievery wasn’t drawn out or over-extended, I wanted to know that Scarlet and Rob would finally have a slightly less difficult time (one can’t quite call it a happy ending) in Nottingham!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars for series

Scarlet Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780802734242 • 292 pages • first published February 2012, this edition published February 2013 by Walker & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.96 out of 5 • read in July 2014

A. C. Gaughen’s Website

Scarlet on Goodreads

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Scarlet

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper

My sister told me I absolutely had to read these books, and while being told to read something is not usually a good incentive, this time I am so happy that she introduced me to these books. These are three of my favorite books I have ever read and much of that has to do with how easily I was able to relate to the narrator, Sophia.

A Brief History of Montmaray Synopsis

Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

Series Review

Laura’s Review

It had been a long time since I had read a series where I cared so much about the characters and felt as though I were on their journey with them. From the very first pages of A Brief History of Montmaray when Sophie states that one of her birthday presents was a new copy of Pride & Prejudice, I knew that she and I would get along quite well. Anybody who loves Jane Austen scores points with me; but that was only the beginning. As Sophie chronicled her life on Montmaray and later in England, I was always thinking, finally, an author who wrote a character that was basically me but living in the 1930s and ’40s. Sophie’s feelings and responses to situations always made sense to me because I believe it is how I would have acted as well.

Sophie loves books and writing, and did not want to associate with the catty debutantes that she was forced to interact with – which is basically how I felt the entire way through high school. I was always wondering why I did not have friends that cared about the same activities that I did instead of having a debate about that idiotic Twilight series. Sophie has now become my favorite literary heroine of all time (sorry Elizabeth Bennet!) and I have now read these books more times than I can count in the past few years. My sister had originally lent me hers and as soon as I finished reading them, she of course wanted them back, so I bought my own copies. I believe all three books deserve a five star rating, however, if I had to choose I would say that the second in the series, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, is my favorite. I love the first one; however, it takes a little while to really dig deep into the story, but after about that it is nonstop through all of the books. The second book is the when the characters really become fleshed out and due to the horrific events at the end of the first book, everyone starts to experience the tribulations that accompany adulthood. In The FitzOsbornes in Exile Sophie experiences so many different events, meets new people, (all of whom are very different) and begins to live her life on her own terms (as long as Aunt Charlotte can be persuaded to be amenable).

Michelle Cooper blends historical events and people wonderfully into the fabric of the story – of course Sophie would become friends with Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and partake in helping refugee children from the Basque region which was practically demolished during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the novel the family begins to try to have the option of returning to Montmaray, and it ends with a sit-on-the-edge of your seat, cannot-put-the-book-down adventure in order to have their story heard by leaders of nations all around the world and to expose the viciousness of the Nazi Regime. The final book, The FitzOsbornes at War, captures every feeling one could possibly experience as Sophie lives through the Second World War, including the Blitz, having family serving in the armed forces, and being forced to spin a positive outlook on rationing. Overall, you cannot go wrong picking up and reading this series. I wholeheartedly recommend it and I cannot think of anything even remotely negative to say about it.

Sarah’s Review

The title of this trilogy, The Montmaray Journals, refers to the written chronicle in which the protagonist, Sophie FitzOsborne, lets the readers in on her life on the island of Montmaray and her family’s experiences during World War II while residing in London and the family house in the English countryside. Her life differs greatly in all three locations as she and her family must try to cope with being forced out of their homeland and overlooked by the European community when they fight to have their home on Montmaray restored to them. An intriguing narrative that only gets deeper and more emotional as the terrors of the war hit home for all the members of the FitzOsborne family.

Sophie shares her adventures with her older brother, Toby, younger sister, Henry (Henrietta) and cousin, Veronica, all members of the royal family of Montmaray, a tiny island in the middle of the English Channel. Each and every characters is fully and richly developed and when misfortune strikes, they band together as a family to overcome any and all adverse situations. However, no family is immune to loss when it comes to World War II in Europe and the FitzOsbornes are certainly not exempt from overwhelming heartbreak. Their loss felt like my loss, their pain was my pain, as I turned page after page to find out what happened next to the lives of those I came to love.

Michelle Cooper develops a strong and engaging world, believable in its details due to her extensive research (all consulted materials are listed at the back of each of the three books) and the way her fictional characters interact with real people from the era (such as the Kennedy children). All in all, I highly recommend all three books for anyone looking for an intriguing story from the point of view of the young adults whose lives were irreversibly changed when war was declared.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

A Brief History of Montmaray Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780375851544 • 296 pages • first published October 2009, this edition published March 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 3.64 out of 5 • read summer 2014

Michelle Cooper’s Website

A Brief History of Montmaray on Goodreads

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Montmaray

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I just realized I’m reviewing the Leigh Bardugo books I’ve read in the opposite order in which I read them! It you have any interest in reading any of the books in her Grisha-verse, I recommend starting with this one and reading them in the order they were published. As with many authors, Leigh’s writing only gets stronger as she goes and if you start with her later books (i.e. Six of Crows), you will invariably be disappointed by Shadow and Bone. That being said, start with this one, and you’ll love the whole series!

Synopsis

Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her… and only she can save the future.

Review

While I dish out book recommendations left, right and center, especially at my job at a bookstore, I’m generally very reluctant to read books others have recommended to me, mostly because I feel like they will always fail to live up to: a, my ridiculously high expectations for books and b, give me unrealistic expectations for them based on how much my friend loved it. That all being said, Shadow and Bone fell only slightly flat – and I probably would not have been so harsh on it if it hadn’t been described as very similar to Throne of Glass, which is my most favorite book ever. I did enjoy Shadow and Bone, however, just not as much as I would have liked, given the hype, and the awesome impression I got of Leigh Bardugo when I saw her play truth or dare with Marissa Meyer (author of the Lunar Chronicles) at BookCon.

Alina, central character of the trilogy, falls into a very stereotypical female archetype: girl pines for childhood friend, girl discovers she has an unknown special power, boy realizes he loves girl, girl saves lives/has some great revelation about good and evil, girl and boy run off together. While it’s not a “The End, Happily Ever After” ending for the first book, the general arc rings true to the story. And even though Alina has a little more backbone than most female fantasy lead characters and has her moments of clarity, unfortunately I’ve got a huge girl crush on Celaena/Aelin and alas, next to her, no other can compare.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 9781250027436 • 358 pages • originally published June 2012, this edition published May 2014 by Square Fish • average Goodreads rating 4.05 out of 5 • read in September 2015

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

Shadow and Bone on Goodreads

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Shadow & Bone (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

There aren’t many books that I can say I jumped on when they were first released in hardcover, but I’m very proud to own a first edition of Seraphina. It is one of my favorite books (I know, I say that a lot), but this one I love specifically to recommend to people. Seraphina, the character, is the perfect character for anyone who feels like the world doesn’t completely “get them,” and I believe all humans fall into the description at one point or another in life.

Synopsis

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, pairing with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Review

Seraphina is a very interesting character. She reminds me a lot of the characters that I heard about at all the Diverse Books panels I attended during Book Con. As a half-dragon, half-human, she has many difficulties that she must deal with and overcome, as well as secrets society pressures her to hide, something that I’m sure many young women and men can relate to.

I think Rachel Hartman and I could have lots of awesome conversations about music, dragons, and just growing up in general. A lot of what Seraphina must deal with runs true to the challenges of most young people’s lives and the awesome thing about her story is that, even though things go terribly wrong, she has a strong and supportive group of family and friends to back her up and stand by her.

One of the best parts about writing fantasy is that you can write about so many themes that can seem untouchable or insurmountable in realistic fiction. Seraphina’s story would be heartbreaking in the modern world. In the context of Goredd, her home country, she’s not supposed to be able to exist – I can’t imagine reading a story about a child whose very existence is supposedly impossible and if that child did exist, multiple factions would actively try to kill her. It’s so much easier to make dragons the bad guys, it’s plausible and believable, and its what fairy tales have led us to believe for quite some time.

But it’s the humans of Goredd who are much harsher on Seraphina, it is the humans who fear different people and fear change. This is true in the real world as well, but seems much less critical through the lens of a fantasy world. Fantasy is one of the perfect genres for social commentary and anyone who misses it in Seraphina is in denial. Seraphina’s story is a great one and an enjoyable tale of dragons and fantasy as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780375866227 • 528 pages • originally published July 2012, this edition published December 2014 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.98 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Rachel Hartman’s Website

Seraphina on Goodreads

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Seraphina

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Review Previously Published, Updated November 6th with Laura’s Review!

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

8 - July 2016 - Murder on the Orient Express

Synopsis

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

Review

Laura’s Review

Mysteries are not usually my first choice to read, but I definitely enjoyed my first Agatha Christie novel! I was not sure entirely what to expect but when I told people I was reading it they said that it would be pretty easy to figure out the conclusion. However, I consciously tried to not obsess over who the murderer was because I wanted to enjoy the thrill of the book. Therefore, I enjoyed the suspense and being surprised with each red herring and revelation.

Murder on the Orient Express is definitely a classic kind of mystery. While I don’t usually read mysteries, I have watched my fair share of crime shows (favorites being NCIS and Law & Order). The TV shows are always trying to be bigger, bolder, and better than the last season, but this book was just a straight-up whodunit. It presented the facts of the crime, the evidence of the passengers, and the detective’s analysis of the all aspects of the crime. And it was fascinating.

The story was never dull and I was reading through it quite rapidly, occasionally trying to work out who was responsible, but never quite getting it right. Which was actually the most fun part of reading it. Of course it seemed so obvious after I finished it, and it was a similar feeling to anytime I read Sherlock Holmes stories and Sherlock points out everything Watson or the reader missed as if it truly is the most obvious thing in the world. If you want to start reading mysteries or have been wanting to read your first Agatha Christie novel, I definitely recommend Murder on the Orient Express as a great one with which to start!

Sarah’s Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Murder on the Orient Express on Goodreads

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Murder on the Orient Express

 

Biography, Non-Fiction

Kick Kennedy by Barbara Leaming

Review Previously Published, Updated October 30th with Laura’s Review!

Ever since I was introduced to Kick Kennedy as a character in the Montmaray Journals (review to come!), I have been fascinated by her life and her experiences as an American in England during the Second World War. When the ARC for this biography arrived at the bookstore, I got ridiculously excited, so happy was I for a contemporary account of her life.

Synopsis

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life force of the fabled Kennedy family, her father’s acknowledge “Favorite of all the children” and her brother Jack’s (JFK!) “psychological twin.” She was the Kennedy of Kennedys, sure of her privilege, magnetically charming, and somehow not quite like anyone else on whatever stage she happened to grace.

The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. In a decaying world where everything was based on stultifying sameness and similarity, she was gloriously, exhileratingly different. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of them.

To Kick, everything about this life was fun and amusing – until suddenly it was not. For this is also a story of how a girl like Kick, a girl who had everything, a girl who seemed made for happiness, confronted crushing sadness. Willing to pay the price for choosing the love she wanted, she would have to face the consequences of forsaking much that was dear to her.

Review

Laura’s Review

Wow. Kick lived for only 28 years, but what a life. Happy, tragic, disappointing, thrilling, and frustrating could all be used to describe her rather short life. Kick grew up as a member of the famed Kennedy family, but by the end of her life, they had practically disowned her for daring to follow her own heart and not tow the family line.

Kick Kennedy arrived in England when it was on the cusp of war with Germany in 1938. Exposed to the elite set of British aristocrats through her father’s role as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Kick quickly came to love her life in England. It did not take her long to fall in love with William “Billy” Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Sounds like a dream, right? The only problem was that Billy was a Protestant and Kick was member of a strict Catholic family, and neither family would consent to their marriage. The years that followed Kick’s 1938 debut in English society brought her both pure happiness and devastating heartbreak.

Reading about Kick’s life made my heart break for her and everything she endured. It seems silly, she was a member of one of the wealthiest and prominent family in America, her father could pull strings and buy her pretty much anything she wanted, and yet when her wants went against the family’s wishes, they cast her out. Kick was 24 years old (the same age as me) when she married Billy Hartington, and the only member of her family to attend was her eldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. To come to terms with the fact that your own family was rooting against your happiness seems like something no one should have to endure. And when that happiness was so quickly taken away and that same family offers no sympathy seems unconscionable.

The story of Kick’s life was a fascinating read, and provided as much insight into her forgotten life as it did into the politics of the time. Kick Kennedy was a feminist, and her story should never have been forgotten; so thank goodness Barbara Leaming took the time to write it all down for us.

Sarah’s Review

Oh Kick. Barbara Leaming’s biography is really Kick’s coming of age story and while her last name allowed her to grow up in a family full of wealth and privilege, her story is that of what happens when Kick decides she is no longer content being one of the nine Kennedy children, but wants to be one of one, just Kick, defined on her own terms. One of the things that I’ve discovered that I really love about ARCs is that I get to read a book without my view being, even unwittingly, skewed by the thoughts and opinions of other readers and I can judge the merit of the book on just that: it’s own merit, and I can make my own decisions, without any outside influence, about how I connected with Kick’s life story.

Kick Kennedy was truly an early feminist, though I’m not entirely sure she’d admit it, just like twenty-somethings today. And like modern twenty-somethings, Kick’s life goal was really quite simple: do things that bring happiness into life. The things that brought Kick happiness included debating politics and current events with both her brothers and the young aristocratic men of England, dressing up and enjoying parties, and falling in love. But unfortunately for Kick, she went from bride to widow in under six months (not a spoiler, it’s history), due to the violence of the Second World War. Understandably, her life changed dramatically, as did her attitude towards how she lived it.

While contemporaries of Kick may have seen her as an impulsive and naive young woman, in reality she was just doing what every young woman has tried to do since the beginning of time – figure out who she is as a daughter, sister, friend, wife, and ultimately as an individual.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250115935 • 320 pages • first published in April 2016, this edition published April 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 3.56 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Fiction, Historical

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!

4 - March 2016 - Cinnamon & Gunpowder

Synopsis

The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.

Review

Sarah’s Review

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.

Laura’s Review

This was certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. I did not know culinary-piracy could be a book genre, but Eli Brown seems to have made it one all his own. I was not entirely sure what to expect when it was announced as the next book club read, but after hearing “female pirate captures chef to cook for her” I thought it would provide some good laughs and be a rather light read.

Cinnamon & Gunpowder was a much more serious story than I was expecting. It took an honest look at the life of pirates, the dangers of opium addiction, and the politics and corruption of the East India (renamed Pendleton in the book) Trading Company. There were a few light moments, but after his kidnapping by Mad Hannah Mabbot, Owen Wedgewood’s life becomes extremely difficult, rather depressing, and occasionally infuriating. The story is told entirely from Wedgewood’s point of view as it consists of his musings that he writes down during his time on Mabbot’s ship. I understand that the story is told from Wedgewood’s point of view because he is most like the reader for he is taken from the comfort of his home and thrown into a world of which he knows very little. As he learns more about his captors, he begins to feel less like a prisoner and more as a member of the ship’s crew.

For me, some of the best parts were when he was describing what culinary masterpieces he was making for Mabbot and how he managed to pull them off while living aboard a pirate ship. However, I think the book could have been even more compelling and enjoyable if everything had been from Mabbot’s viewpoint. Hannah Mabbot lived a long, tortuous, complicated, exhilarating life that we only learn through about through Wedgewood, and always through his eyes, whether they be judgemental or sympathetic.

I enjoyed the story; I certainly learned quite a bit about both pirates and the British merchant aristocracy and how neither were wholly good or evil. I just would have enjoyed it more if it had been Hannah Mabbot’s diary I was reading, and not that of Owen Wedgewood.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016

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Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

Yesterday a book came into the bookstore that I could not believe my coworkers did not show me immediately – a new biography of Prince Harry! I freaked out so much my boss just gave it to me… I should probably tone down my royalist tendencies. But it reminded me of another book that I read a few years ago that I loved that has now made its way around the staff at the bookstore – The Royal We! Laura first sent me a picture of the cover when it was first released expecting me to mock it, and instead I told her I wanted it. It has been a favorite ever since. After Laura read it, we decided it should be a book club pick.

16 - March 2017 - The Royal We

Synopsis

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love – her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself – will have been for nothing.

Review

I completely adore this book. Even though I am a diehard (American) royalist, I never entertained princess fantasies after the age of 9 (other than hoping I’d run into Prince Harry while on a London vacation when I was 16), but I am a sucker for a well-written and convincing royal love story. Thankfully, The Royal We delivers on both counts. I’ve been burned by terrible royalist fanfiction over the years, drivel full of simpering and annoying characters that made we want to gag (you can be royal and still have a personality you know…) and the last time I read a decent royal princess book was when I read Ella Enchanted and Just Ella back to back and over and over again when I was in the 4th grade. That was 16 years ago and I’d been searching ever since. Finally, my search is over!

Bex is a modern American young woman (props to the authors for writing awesome college characters!) who jumps at the chance to study art at Oxford as an exchange student from Cornell – yep, she’s witty and brilliant too! She thoroughly embodies what I think of when I think of a model New Adult protagonist – like Mary Poppins, she’s practically perfect in every way! And by practically perfect, I mean she’s real, she has flaws, she can be impulsive and indecisive and questioning but also strong and fierce and proud to be herself. Nick is charming, and also particularly perfect in his flaws as well. To the point where I questioned whether or not Heather Cocks and/or Jessica Morgan knew Prince William and if he was anything like Nick in his early twenties.

Beyond the two main characters (as The Royal We is told from Bex’s point of view, clearly it’s mostly about her and Nick and their relationship), the supporting cast are equally intriguing (oftentimes more so than B & N) and never fall flat, unless they’re literally falling flat on their faces, which might happen occasionally… Prince Freddie behaves in what I imagine to be a very Prince Harry like fashion, their father is cold and cruel (which does contrast to the image of slightly goofy Charles) and the addition of a mother character on the royal end is fascinating. Bex’s family is charming and clearly love her unconditionally, but it’s her twin sister that readers see the most of, and, well, Lacey’s not too thrilled to be giving up the spotlight. A good bit of sisterly drama unfolds which, having a sister, I could thoroughly appreciate, and it a strong point of the story to see their relationship change, evolve, and, eventually, deteriorate, though there is hope for future reconciliation!

I could read The Royal We over and over again and probably not get bored, for at least the first three re-reads. Though now, Laura has read it so given that she had at first hoped I’d mock it, we’ll have to see how she weighs in in her review in a few weeks!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781455557110 • 496 pages • first published April 2015, this edition published April 2016 by Grand Central Publishing • average Goodreads rating 3.8 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan’s Website

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Royal We