Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

A Great and Terrible Beauty on Goodreads

Get a Copy of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Today my husband and I are celebrating the 7th anniversary of our first date so I figured I would review one of his favorite books, that I also read for our book club, The Modern Readers. 

3 - February 2016 - Vorrh

Synopsis

Outside the colonial town of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, a vast – perhaps endless – forest. Sentient and magical, a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend holds that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now a renegade foreign soldier intends to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a bow, he begins his journey. But some fear the consequences of his mission, so a native marksman is chosen to stop him. Around these adversaries swirls a remarkable cast of characters, including a tragically curious young girl and a Cyclops raised by robots, as well as such historical figures as protosurrealist Raymond Roussel and pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge. Fact and fiction blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate will hang in the balance – in the Vorrh.

Review

Uhhhh, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Since finishing it and discussing it, I’ve sold more copies of this book by saying I hated it than I have sold books I loved to people by telling them how much I loved it. But I didn’t hate it… I think?

There are many stories working in tandem in this book and they are all confusing and befuddling and written in different styles based on the character’s perspective that we are currently viewing the world through. Told in at least four alternating perspectives, The Vorrh is the story first and foremost of the forest from which it gets its name and the people in the town right next to it. It bears similarities in equal parts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it goes beyond that to discuss mental illness and paint pictures in the reader’s minds of things that are just downright unpleasant and, for some, upsetting. You have to have a strong stomach to undertake a serious reading of The Vorrh.

If anyone else has this book figured out, not just enjoyed it, but actually figured out the symbolism and intent, please do enlighten me.

Rating: 6 out 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9781101873786 • 512 pages published April 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 3.51 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Brian Catling’s Website

The Vorrh on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Vorrh

Vorrh

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer came into the bookstore one day with a blurb from Sarah J. Maas on the cover and it was a pretty quick decision about whether or not I would be taking it home to read it.

Synopsis

She’s a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title – and drop-dead beauty.

She’s a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. She’s leading a double life: she has the rare ability to sense the sithichean – the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans – and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She’s a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her abilities and her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons – from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols – ruthless Aileana has one goal: destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She’s a falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother’s murder – but she’ll have to save the world first.

Review

The Falconer took me over a month to finish. Typically, a young adult fantasy takes me less than a week, if not just two or three days. Why it took me so long, I honestly can’t put my finger on it, other than to say that I didn’t love it as much as I thought and hoped I would. All the pieces were there that usually equate to literary obsession for me: fierce female heroine, faeries, a Scottish setting, steampunk elements, etc, but I just wasn’t hooked.

Protagonist Aileana is likeable enough, though difficult to relate to, and her prowess in fighting killer Scottish faeries of lore is explained reasonably enough. The love story is pretty obvious and predictable and the love triangle contrived and unbelievable. The cliffhanger is terrific, but a little mean, so now I must keep reading a trilogy I might have otherwise abandoned.

But, and it’s a big but, Elizabeth can write, and write very well. Any potential plot and character development shortcomings are more than compensated for with exquisite writing. May’s knowledge of Scottish lore is beyond compare and she weaves such knowledge (and vocabulary) expertly into her fantastical story. Here’s to hoping the second book is just as well written and the character’s more developed.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781452128771 • 392 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published December 2015 by Chronicle Books • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Elizabeth May’s Website

The Falconer on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Falconer

Falconer

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

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.

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

Cinnamon and Gunpowder on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor

When I first saw the cover of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I fell head over heels – love at first sight. Blue hair, dynamic fonts, intriguing synopsis, Prague as a setting, fantasy world. I was just coming off the high of finishing City of Dark Magic and was very excited to find something that might be similarly fantastic. 

Synopsis

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

Review

I didn’t know much about the Seraphim/Chimaera trope until I finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ben had to correct my pronunciation of “chimaera.” So for the majority of the book, I was greatly intrigued by the seemingly unique fantasy world – it was just new to me. That being said, Karou discovering of her place in that world and stumbling upon the unending conflict was revealed marvelously and magnificently as she rediscovered her past – and her past love, Akiva, a seraphim.

The “modern day” fantasy retelling of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers is common in most young adult literature, it can even be viewed as the ultimate love story, the tragic fated love of those who were never supposed to be together in the first place. Karou is brave and resilient, unapologetic for who she is (as soon as she discovers the truth) whereas Akiva is a spineless sniveling coward who just irks me to no end. Yes, he’s gorgeous. No, that’s not what you base an entire relationship on, give young adults a bit more credit. There is nothing other than wanton lust pulling these two towards each other and honestly, I’m tired of reading about hot people falling for other hot people just because they’re über-attractive. Nothing sells their relationship, nothing anchors the fantasy world of the second half of the book in reality and even the most wildly outrageous fantasy still has some sort of foot hold into reality – it’s the only way it can be relatable.

I’m not entirely sure what it was that made me decide to finish this series, given my lack of insta-love for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but I am certainly glad I did. I enjoyed Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters infinitely more than I enjoyed the first book.

Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters take place immediately after the first book and Dreams of Gods & Monsters is set only over the course of a handful of days. They chronicle the renews war crimes committed by the chimera and the seraphim in the name of Eretz, their homeland, though further backstory reveals that the Seraphim were not always native to Eretz. As Karou takes up Brimstone’s mantle of creating new bodies for the slain chimera souls, Akiva is saving chimera in an effort to ingratiate himself with his blue haired love. The story is a rollicking adventure and the secondary characters, particularly Ziri and Liraz, and Zuzana and Mik, make the story worth reading.

Unfortunately, my lack-luster feelings for Karou and Akiva, our woeful star-crossed lovers, remain. I really struggled to connect with either of them and found their moping and whiny incredibly irritating and I really wanted to rush through their parts. But, with an audiobook, not possible, so thankfully Laini Taylor at least wrote those parts very well, even if the characters didn’t sell it for me. I tried to understand, I tried to appreciate the Romeo and Juliet nature of their relationship, but at that point, I would have realized that life is short (particularly theirs, being that they’re in the middle of  war) and therefore one shouldn’t waste any time going after the things they want and the things that will make them happy.

So overall, can I recommend the trilogy? Sure, why not. But that’s only half-hearted and rides more on the fact that Laini Taylor is a gifted wordsmith than anything else.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition (Daughter of Smoke & Bone): Paperback • $12.99 • 9780316133999 • 418 pages • first published September 2011, this edition published June 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in May 2013

Laini Taylor’s Website

Daughter of Smoke and Bone on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (2)

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Warcross by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is officially now the most reviewed author on this site! This may be due in large part to a very exciting event that took place at the bookstore I work at two weeks ago when I had the great of fortune of moderating a discussion between the lovely Marie Lu and her friend and fellow author, Alex London. 

Marie Lu

It was an absolutely delight to discuss everything from diversity in books to fan art with Marie, and I am happy to report that she is a genuine kind and compassionate human being. And while I wanted to record the interview and post the transcript here, in all my excitement I completely forgot to do so! So please settle for my review of her newest book, Warcross!

Synopsis

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight success.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem… and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation will uncover a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Review

This is my favorite of each of Marie Lu’s books and I almost didn’t read it. First, it was pitched to us by the publisher as being a middle grades novel (definitely not the case), and second, as my husband often says, I didn’t have a “real childhood” because I never once played a video game. The gaming aspect didn’t appeal to me. For those who might hesitate to pick this up because you think it’s a gaming novel, let me put your mind at ease. Virtual reality is a closer description of Warcross and it is part of the plot, but most of the book does not take place in the world of Warcross, most of it takes place in the “real world,” in Tokyo.

For the number of books I read each year, I’m always amazed a, that I remember any of them, and b, I can still be wholeheartedly surprised to love a book that I didn’t expect to. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I would certainly like Warcross, but I didn’t expect to love it on a level close to that which I love the works of my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. Emika is now one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, and she is, like her creator, quite the magnificent lady. She is brave, she is compassionate, she is driven to do what is right. And unfortunately, there are those in the story who would like to take advantage of those qualities. Well, not quite unfortunate because without other character’s motivations, there would be no story!

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I feel like just about anything I might say would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that if you have read Legend or The Young Elites, you will recognize Warcross as another book in Marie Lu’s catalog that is witty and enjoyable with just the right mix of adventure and a little romance. But it’s way better than Legend and The Young Elites and I enjoyed both of those very much.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9780399547966 • 368 pages • published September 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Warcross Website

Warcross on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Warcross

Warcross

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

Station Eleven on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Station Eleven

Station Eleven

Biography, Childrens, Non-Fiction, Picture Book

She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton

Growing up, I loved any and all books about women who did amazing things. It’s not often, now in my adult years, that I go through the picture book section of the bookstore, but with lots of young ones joining my family (not my own, but nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.), I want to be sure that I give them books as they grow up the inspire them to be thoughtful and persistent young people.

Synopsis

Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they had to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity – sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.

She Persisted is for everyone who has ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down, for everyone who has ever tried to reach for the stars but was told to sit down, and for everyone who has even been made to feel unworthy or unimportant or small.

Review

The bookstore that I work at is in a republican stronghold. Despite Philadelphia’s perpetual blue status, the suburbs are usually blood red. While I try to keep politics out of my reviews, I did decide that the first review on here, ever, would be Pantsuit Nation, so my inclusion of a book by Chelsea Clinton should not come as any surprise.

This year, a young female family member is turning five years old – the perfect age for picture books and she devours them. As I thought about which book to pick out for her for her birthday, only one came to mind – She Persisted. She has terrific parents who have read probably every book under the sun to her already, and I know they want her to know that regardless of any adversity she might face, she will always find the strength within herself to persist until she achieves every goal she sets for herself.

She Persisted includes both well- and little-known women in America’s history. Clinton forgoes including Rosa Parks and instead includes her predecessor, Claudette Colvin. She chooses Clara Lemlich over Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Chase Smith over any other female politician. Her choices are diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of heritage and skin color, but also in occupation and the obstacles the women had to overcome. I adore each and every women included, particularly the inclusion of Sonia Sotomayor over Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781524741723 • 32 pages • published May 2017 by Philomel Books • average Goodreads rating 4.48 out of 5 • read in July 2017

She Persisted on Goodreads

Get a Copy of She Persisted

She Persisted

Contemporary, Fiction

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

One random day in January 2016, shortly before I was due to head to Denver for a bookseller’s conference, a book arrived at the bookstore for me – a copy of Be Frank with Me. Needless to say I was incredibly intrigued and discovered that I was due to have dinner with the author while in Denver and the publisher sent me the finished copy to read beforehand!

Synopsis

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies – with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away – as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, a wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.

As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation – and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Review

Admittedly, I was very hesitant to start reading Frank as I had the dreaded “required-reading-and-exams” flashback each time I looked at it, so I didn’t actually start reading it until I was sitting on the plane to Denver. Instantly, though, I found myself drawn into Alice’s experience as a publishing assistant trying to keep Mimi on track to finish her second novel (sort of like Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman) and her efforts to keep an eye on Frank.

Alice is a twenty-something know-it-all, just like me, and, like me and most other childless twenty-somethings, thinks she knows a hell of a lot more about parenting than she really does. While she is not outwardly critical of Mimi’s decisions regarding Frank’s upbringing, as the story is told in first person and exclusively from Alice’s point of view, readers are acutely aware of how she really feels, not only about Mimi as a single mother, but also about Frank, whom she comes to love as if he were her own.

While Alice is the narrator, the story is not really hers to tell – it is Frank and Mimi’s. Like the reader, Alice is an interloper, a stranger, being forcibly inserted into a very delicate, sensitive, unfamiliar and precariously perched family unit, and she must learn to accept that role, and later embrace it if they are all to survive their summer of forced cohabitation. Alice and Frank’s relationship is the heart of Be Frank with Me, but Frank’s relationship with his mother and the world around him is really the soul of the story. Frank is, by far, one of my favorite children in literature and I would love to see more of him if Julia Claiborne Johnson plans to continue his story.

The only part of the story that fell flat is the role of Xander, who serves as Frank’s sole male role model, and he’s not a very good one by the standards of keeping promises, holding a job, and general maturity (despite being well into middle age), but he loves Frank, and for Frank, that really is sufficient. His relationship with Alice feels contrived and their romance is superfluous and unnecessary when viewed next to the strength of each of their relationships with Frank.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062413727 • 320 pages • first published February 2016, this edition published September 2016 by William Morrow and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Be Frank with Me on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Be Frank with Me

Be Frank with Me (2)

History, Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!

5 - April 2016 - Dead Wake

Synopsis

On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.

Review

Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.

Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…

I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408877 • 480 pages • originally published in March 2015, this edition published March 2016 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in April 2016

Erik Larson’s Website

Dead Wake on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Dead Wake

Dead Wake