Contemporary, Fiction

Brida by Paulo Coelho

One of my GED students from Brazil recommended this book to me as the author is from her home country (though she read it in English) and she really enjoyed the premise. I agreed to read it in an effort to continue to encourage her to read in English, but I was not quite as impressed as she was.

Synopsis

Brida, a young Irish girl, has long been interested in various aspects of magic but is searching for something more. Her search leads her to people of great wisdom. She meets a wise man who dwells in a forest, who teachers her to trust in the goodness of the world, and a woman who teachers her how to dance to the music of the world. As Brida seeks her destiny, she struggles to find a balance between her relationships and her desire to become a witch.

Review

Brida is… interesting. I’ve read a few books that are translations from the original language or dialect, but this is the first time I’ve read a work of fiction that was a translation and it just felt… awkward? It’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished reading Brida and I’m still trying to figure out if my feeling of awkwardness comes from the translation or Coelho’s writing style.

Brida is an intriguing character as she is a young woman who simply decides that she wants to be a witch. The story starts off with her quest to find the Magus, a potential teacher/mentor for her to follow on the path of the sun, a spiritual path open to those who choose to study witchcraft. The Magus, however, realizes that the path of the sun is not Brida’s destiny but that she is, in fact, his soul mate. The Magus points her in the direction of Wicca, a teacher of the path of the moon, which seems to fit Brida better on a spiritual level.

Brida takes an interesting approach to the world of magic be enveloping it in to organized religion and taking it beyond Wiccan culture. The paths of the sun and moon are described as paths to God. The book is a discussion of the “meaning of life” through Brida’s decision to become a witch. She learns to dance to the music of the world, use all five of her senses simultaneously, and ultimately get the most out of life. She goes through a crisis of “faith” or two and doubts her abilities and life choices. Overall, though, I think I was ultimately disappointed because it just felt so ordinary and scatter-brained.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780061578953 • 212 pages • first published in 1990, this edition published February 2009 by Harper Perennial • average Goodreads rating 3.46 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Paulo Coelho’s Website

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125-Brida

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

City of Dark Magic is a testament to how well Ben knows me. One fall day, a few years ago, we were partaking in one of our favorite Saturday afternoon activities of perusing the shelves of the local independent bookstore (where I now work) when he called me over to his usual spot along the fantasy wall. When I finally pulled myself away from the bestsellers long enough to mosey over, he handed me a very colorful book, City of Dark Magic, and the synopsis read like that of the dream book I never knew I’d find.

Synopsis

Prague is a threshold to another world – where the fabric of time is thin – a city steeped in blood. Once a city of enormous wealth and culture, Prague has been home to emperors, alchemists, astronomers, and, it’s even been whispered, portals to hell. When music student Sarah Weston lands a lucrative summer job at Prague Castle cataloging Beethoven’s manuscripts, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become.

Shortly after she arrives, strange things begin to happen. Sarah learns that her mentor, who had been working at the castle, may not have committed suicide after all. Soon she finds herself in a cloak-and-dagger chase with a handsome, time-traveling prince; a four-hundred-year-old dwarf; and a U.S. senator who will do anything to keep her dark secrets hidden.

Review

Fantasy, adventure, music, political intrigue, a protagonist named Sarah, and Prague as the setting? I couldn’t read this book fast enough! Sarah is, by far, one of my favorite protagonists I’ve ever been introduced to, tied for the top spot with Amy Haskel of Diana Peterfreund’s Ivy League series. She fears little and is unabashedly who she wants to be. Sarah doesn’t apologize for being herself, even when her brazen personality can offend even the most liberal contemporary, and that is what I love most about her.

Prague is my top travel wishlist destination and the more I read about it, in both fiction and nonfiction works, the more my desire to see the city of dark magic deepens. Sarah experiences the city in all its splendors, and it’s not so splendid features as well. Beethoven is her guide as she readies a music exhibit for the Lobkowicz Palace museum after the former curator, her mentor, is found dead outside the palace from an apparent suicide attempt. Before long, Sarah discovers there is so much more to the story when she retraces her mentor’s, and Beethoven’s, steps throughout the city upon discovering a time shifting drug one evening with the dashing prince Max.

A great deal happens in this book and there are about ten different stories being intertwined together but that made me enjoy it more. I cannot stand stories where it is all about the main character and written as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. While City of Dark Magic may take it a little too far in the opposite direction, it meant that I never found a boring moment the entire time I was reading. Really, I cannot emphasize how much I love this book and all the magnificently entertaining intertwining stories.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780143122685 • 448 pages • published November 2012 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 • read in December 2012

Magnus Flyte’s Website

City of Dark Magic on Goodreads

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Sarah Weston - City of Dark Magic

Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

A few years ago I was looking for new books to listen to on my long work drives and picked up Eleanor & Park, having seen it all over the book stores and hearing lots of wonderful things about Rainbow Rowell’s work. I almost didn’t bother listening to it after the first 5 minutes – I am not a fan of the 1980s – but I kept listening because my heart started breaking. Eleanor’s life sucks, there’s no way around it, and I had to know if she would find some happiness. 

Now, however, my opinion of E&P has fallen slightly – when I interview people at the bookstore, I ask them to find their favorite book in the store. One day, I did three interviews, and they ALL choose E&P. Each and every one. So now I, unfortunately, associate with unoriginal thought.

Synopsis

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Review

[warning: potential spoilers ahead]

Eleanor & Park broke my heart. Rainbow Rowell reminded me that people’s lives are real and terrible and wonderful simultaneously. Eleanor is a complex character, deep and shallow, scared, and excited, open to, yet closed off from, the world around her. Park is naïve and loving, shallow and superficial, deep, and inviting, and thoroughly and completely real. They are both so real that it’s a bit terrifying.

I almost stopped listening to Eleanor & Park multiple times, I don’t like books that are so completely realistic. This is not a fairy tale, there is no guarantee of a happy ending because life has no promise of eternal happiness, just hope. All we get from life is the opportunity to hope for something better, something incredible, something that makes us feel like life is worth living – hope. Park gives Eleanor hope that even though her step father is a terrible person and her mother has turned on her and her father doesn’t care about her and the mean kids at school bully her, there’s still some hope that she can find happiness. That she can be herself without needing to hide away in a closet, a completely private place surrounded by walls, so she doesn’t, so she can’t, get hurt. She’s strange and different and, understandably, has some self-esteem issues. But with Park, she can be herself, and that’s all anyone can really hope for, to find that one person with whom we can let all our walls down, call off the guard dogs and open and share our lives.

We’re all just looking for someone to share our lives with, someone who will love us without judging our life choices, someone who understands, who really understands, who we are and where we come from. For Eleanor, that person is Park. But she knows their time is limited, they’re sixteen years old, and the impermanence of their world, their lives, is almost too overwhelming for her to really relax and let him in. Like any sixteen-year-old girl, she doubts him, her life, everything. Does he love her? How could he love her? It’s the question we all ask when we first fall in love – what’s so special about me? How did I get so lucky to have this person in my life?

Eleanor and Park live in a world that is terribly flawed and therefore completely real. And for me, that was too much to handle. I don’t like reading books that remind me that the world can be a terrible place – I want books that give me hope and a happy ending, regardless of whether it’s realistic or not, not books that remind me that hope is all I have and that happy, sunny endings are the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t like to be reminded that when I was 19, I acted exactly like Eleanor, that I ruined something potentially wonderful because my own life was too overwhelming. I wouldn’t share it with anyone and it led to heart break. I hate it, because I want Eleanor and Park to be together, not have to go their separate ways in life. I was lucky and realized that my first relationship was worthless and terrible and that my life now is far better than it ever would have been had I made different choices at sixteen and nineteen. But for Eleanor and Park, I don’t want them to have to wait to find happiness. I want them happy now, unrealistic though that may be, I don’t care.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781250012579 • 336 pages • published February 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read in April 2015

Rainbow Rowell’s Website

Eleanor & Park on Goodreads

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Eleanor & Park

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult, Young Adult

Bunheads by Sophie Flack

When I was a little girl, I took many ballet classes and I loved it! Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good. In fact, I was incredibly clumsy, and as such, I never really managed to finish a recital or class without causing bodily harm to myself or someone else and therefore, I had to give it up. Then, after binge watching the entire mini season of Bunheads (created by Gilmore Girls genius Amy Sherman-Palladino!), I was on a dance kick and needed to read this book to further explore the lives of young ballerinas!

Synopsis

Until now, nineteen-year old dancer Hannah Ward has followed the Manhattan Ballet company’s unofficial mantra, “Don’t think, just dance.” But when she meets Jacob, a spontaneous musician, Hannah’s universe begins to change. With her eyes newly opened to the world beyond the theater, she must decide whether to compete against the other “bunheads” for a star soloist spot or to strike out on her own.

Review

I love when authors write about what they know as it tends to be the most realistic way to learn about a topic. Sophie Flack is particularly qualified to write this book and it would not be nearly as realistic if the author did not have Sophie’s ballet background. While the complaint of many reviews I read was that the book was littered with too many French, dance-specific terms, to the extent that it detracted from the story, I disagree – this is an exceptional and unique look into the lives of young professional dancers.

Hannah reminds me a great deal of one of my own protagonists, Natalie, my goalie girl. Hannah debates the merits of dedicating her life to ballet, a career that will last a decade, if she’s lucky, or following the path of most nineteen-year-olds in New York City and enrolling in college. My character, Natalie, debates following the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a professional goalie or going to college like most girls her age. In addition, the themes of Bunheads are marvelously true to life – so true that I found myself often wondering if Bunheads is semi-autobiographical. Hannah’s relationship with Jacob is completely recognizable as it is filled with confusion and muddled emotions and feelings – common identifying aspects of most relationships of actual young adults.

There’s a thought that crosses most young adults’ minds more than once during their college years, “Did I make the right choices so far in my life or is it time for a change?” While I found Bunheads in the young adult section of Barnes and Noble, it really embodies the new “New Adult” genre and fuels my dream to see more books about actual young adults and college-age girls trying to figure their lives out on the book shelves of my local book store.

Rating: 8 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780316126540 • 320 pages • first published October 2011, this edition published October 2012 by Poppy Books • average Goodreads rating 3.73 out of 5 stars • read in June 2013

Sophie Flack’s Website

Bunheads on Goodreads

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Bunheads

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

Sloppy Firsts on Goodreads

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Jessica Darling

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult, Novella

Hear Me by Viv Daniels

This book is known to my family as “the reason Sarah owns a dreaded Kindle.” New Adult author Viv Daniels (aka my second favorite author in the whole wide world Diana Peterfreund), originally released this book eBook only. Two years later, I found that I could order a paperback (pictured above), but of course I had to read it as soon as it was released and therefore begged my dad to get me the device I swore I never wanted for Christmas that year. And while I’m not a big “holiday” reader, this is one of the few winter/Christmas books I read in December and it really did help get me in the holiday spirit.

Synopsis

Once upon a time, Ivy belonged to Archer, body, heart, and soul. They spent long summer days exploring the forest, and long summer nights exploring each other. But that was before dark magic grew in the depths of the wilderness, and the people of Ivy’s town raised an enchanted barrier of bells to protect themselves from the threat, even though it meant cutting off the forest people—and the forest boy Ivy loved—forever.

And there’s a naked man lying in the snow. Three years later, Ivy keeps her head down, working alone in her tea shop on the edge of town and trying to imagine a new future for herself, away from the forest and the wretched bells, and the memory of her single, perfect love. But in the icy heart of winter, a terrifying magic blooms—one that can reunite Ivy and Archer, or consume their very souls.

Review

For an eBook of not even 200 pages, Hear Me sticks with me, a good 3 years after I finished reading it. In one sitting. Viv Daniels (Diana Peterfreund) has cemented herself as an extraordinary writer and story crafter. Typically, when I go about “topic-tagging” a book, as I call, it there are usually about 10 to 15 that I assign, 5 to 10 for the books that are not at all complex or intriguing. This one? Over 30. That’s on par with a good series and, it weighs in at only 170 pages.

I had previously written off New Adult as being just “young adult with a steamy sex scene thrown in.” Does Hear Me fulfill that? Yes. If there was an R rating for books, this would have it. But Hear Me does so much more than tell the tale of loner Ivy and her aching, Archer loving heart – it explores the themes of oppression and racism, self-loathing and self-acceptance, desperation, and sacrifice, all in the name of love, and in a world, that is far from kind and frequently cruel and unjust. So, as is often the question with New Adult these days it seems, does it need the sex? No. Does the steaminess make it more enjoyable? Maybe. Does Viv Daniels do an expert job in telling an interesting, intriguing, and thought-provoking story? Absolutely.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.00 • 9781937135140 • 204 pages • published November 2014 by Word for Word • average Goodreads rating 3.26 out of 5 • read in December 2014

Viv Daniels’ Website

Hear Me on Goodreads

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Hear Me