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

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Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 

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

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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

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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

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Seraphina

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

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Royally Screwed by Emma Chase

I’ve always been an American Royalist, since I was a young girl and first learned about two real live princes actually existing in England and not just in Disney movies, I’ve been one of those people who follows there every move. My mother’s own love of Princess Diana certainly didn’t hurt my love for the royal family, and I was one of the people who woke up at 4am on Saturday, April 29, 2011 to watch the Royal Wedding. One of my favorite books of 2015 was The Royal We (review to come in the near future) and since then, I’ve been reading every piece of glorified royalist fan fiction that I can get my hands on!

Synopsis

Nicholas Arthur Frederick Edward Pembrook, Crowned Princes of Wessco, aka “His Royal Hotness,” is a charming, devastatingly handsome, and unabashedly arrogant – hard not to be when subjects are constantly bowing down to you.

Then, one snowy night in Manhattan, the prince meets a dark haired beauty who doesn’t bow down. Instead, she throws a pie in his face. Nicholas wants to find out if she tastes as good as her pie, and the heir apparent is used to getting what he wants.

Dating a prince isn’t exactly what waitress Olivia Hammond ever imagined it would be. There’s a disapproving Queen, a wildly inappropriate spare heir, relentless paparazzi, and brutal public scrutiny. While they’ve traded in horse drawn carriages for Rolls Royce’s and haven’t chopped anyone’s heads off lately – the royals are far from accepting of this commoner. But to Olivia – Nicholas is worth it.

Nicholas grew up with the whole world watching, and now Marriage Watch is out in full force. In the end, Nicholas has to decide who he is, and more importantly, who he wants to be: a king… or the man who gets to love Olivia forever.

Review

My sister first described Royally Screwed as a rip-off of a rip-off. Even the fictional prince’s name is the same here as it is in The Royal We. While intentional or not, it means that I find myself frequently defending my enjoyment of this book to my sister, my friends, and just about everyone I’ve allowed to see my reading it, or see it on my shelves. They’re my guilty pleasure, new adult romances. I am finally admitting it here for the first time – I do occasionally (about once a year) enjoy curling up with a dirty romance and Emma Chase writes them well.

Are the characters spectacular? Not really. But they are well rounded with thoughtful backstories and logical actions and reactions based on what the reader learns about them. Are they role models? Not really. But they are real (well, other than the prince/commoner romance bit), and they have problems that are relatable and impulses that  can sometimes lead them to leave their better judgment behind. They are human, and they are flawed and they don’t at any point feel forced or mechanical.

Is the plot spectacular? Not really. It’s pretty predictable from start to finish – but sometimes the best escapist fiction is. It’s a perfect plane, train or road trip book – compelling enough to hold even my attention and I have an admittedly very short attention span – I’m not much better than the 6th graders I used to teach in that regard, but lighthearted and, yes, predictable. Are there things I would change about the characters/plot? Absolutely, but Emma Chase didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel and it is romance – which does have a prescribed formula for plot that ensures a happy outcome. Am I going to read the rest of the series? Absolutely.

* recommended for ages 17+ *

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781682307755 • 276 pages • published October 2016 by Everafter Romance • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Emma Chase’s Website

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Royally Screwed

Fiction, Mythology, Young Adult

Freya by Matthew Laurence

I don’t remember exactly how I wound up with the advance reading copy (ARC) of Freya, but it definitely had my name written all over it – from my obsession with Norse mythology, to a badass woman on the cover, I was definitely going to inhale this book.

Synopsis

Freya is myth. She is legend. And she’s about to make one hell of a comeback.

Sara Vanadi is more than she appears to be. In her prime, she was Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death. Now all that’s left of her legacy is herself. Her power comes from belief, and for an ancient goddess in the 21st century, true believers are hard to come by.

She’s been lying low for a few decades, when all of a sudden a shadowy corporation extends an offer: join them and receive unlimited strength and believers—or refuse and be destroyed. Sara chooses neither; she flees with the help of a new friend named Nathan. With a modern power rising that wishes to bend the divine to its will, Sara decides to fight back—but first she needs some new clothes.

Review

First things first – Freya is a debut novel by a cool dude about a badass woman. I always check out reviews of books before reading them, but this time, I was the first to post a “review” of sorts on Goodreads and in going back to read the new reviews since the book was released in March (I read it in November), I have to say, I understand the complaints, but the pros outweigh the cons and the promise of more outweighs what the first book may have lacked.

Freya is the perfect book for young adults who spent their childhood reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and are looking for a mythology book that is a touch more grown up. The pacing is quick, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the supporting cast of characters is richly described. While they may not yet be full realized, there is a lot of opportunity for them to grow and for the readers to get to know the various deities and mythologies better.

Sara/Freya is a fabulous narrator – in a debut, first in a series, YA fantasy, the most essential part of ensuring readership is to have a fully realized main character and Sara/Freya is such a character. And while some may complain about a pretty big structural point, that Freya is in first person, and there are certain things about Freya, what she is thinking, her background, and such that we as readers are not privy to, I personally enjoy the suspense and delight in the “not-knowing” aspect of the final plan to take down the big bad corporation. Freya marries the best parts of first and third person narration spectacularly.

I have only two complaints, and one is a silly one at that. The first, if Nate is going to be our main supporting actor, he needs a bit more of a role than simply “worshipper of Freya.” And the second, the silly one, the name Sarah, my own name, should always have an “H” at the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781250088178 • 352 pages • published March 2017 by Imprint • average Goodreads rating 3.42 out of 5 • read in December 2016

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Freya