Takes Work, But They're Worth It

Sep 30, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week they post a new topic/top ten list and invite everyone to share their own answers. I'm so obsessed with lists - so it makes perfect sense that I'd love this feature!

Because of... Writing Style

1. Bleak House by Charles Dickens | I love Dickens, but this book was definitely a challenge to read! After creating my blog, I decided to participate in a read-along with this book. The experience was fun, but I wasn't crazy about the book. It was so confusing! | My Review

2. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy | I read this in high school and had a love/hate relationship with it. Hardy was challenging sexual more of the Victorian period with this book, which I can appreciate. But oh goodness, it was such a depressing read!

3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne | This was another classic from high school, and I'm so glad that I had an excellent teacher guiding us through it. I adored this book, but I credit my teacher for making it come alive and prompting such intriguing discussions.

4. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo | So, I wanted to love this one when I read it last year. But this was such a chore to get through! When it focused on the characters, I was hooked... and then it would get lost in some pages long essay on sewers, politics, etc. No thanks! | My Review

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy | This was a hard read, but in a good way. I read this in my AP English class in high school, and it's remained an all-time favorite book. It was surprisingly readable, although it sometimes suffers from the same long-winded diatribes prevalent in Les Miserables.

Because of... Subject Matter

6. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank | This book is such an incredible read, but it's also so difficult. I remember reading it when I was much younger, and it was one of the first times that history became real to me. It wasn't just dates and events - real people lived through it.

7. There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene - I loved this book when I read it earlier this year, but it's definitely a heavy subject matter: the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ethopia and how it has impacted children, in particular. It was a moving and heartbreaking book. | My Review

8. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand - While this is one of my all-time favorite books, it was definitely hard to read. The struggle to survive, the torture and abuse, the ugliest parts of war... I will never forget this this man's story or the way it touched my heart. | My Review

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - This book was so interesting, but it also made me stomach hurt at times. Questions of ethics, race, class, consent... Reading about the troubled relationship between medicine and minorities was a hard reminder of this country's history. | My Review

10. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls | This memoir is so well-written, and I loved Walls' voice. But it was definitely hard to read about all the ways her parents neglected their children and failed to provide for them. I was amazed by how the kids managed to overcome the hurt and not be defined by it.

The Favorite Factor: Whistling Past the Graveyard

Sep 29, 2014

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

Release Date: July 2, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Gallery Books
Pages: 307 pages
Source & Format: Gifted; Hardcover
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Summary (from Goodreads)
The summer of 1963 begins like any other for nine-year-old Starla Claudelle. Born to teenage parents in Mississippi, Starla is being raised by a strict paternal grandmother, Mamie, whose worst fear is that Starla will turn out like her mother. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three, but is convinced that her mother will keep her promise to take Starla and her daddy to Nashville, where her mother hopes to become a famous singer—and that one day her family will be whole and perfect.

When Starla is grounded on the Fourth of July, she sneaks out to see the parade. After getting caught, Starla’s fear that Mamie will make good on her threats and send her to reform school cause her to panic and run away from home. Once out in the country, Starla is offered a ride by a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby. She happily accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville. 

As the two unlikely companions make their long and sometimes dangerous journey, Starla’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of 1963 southern segregation. Through talks with Eula, reconnecting with her parents, and encountering a series of surprising misadventures, Starla learns to let go of long-held dreams and realizes family is forged from those who will sacrifice all for you, no matter if bound by blood or by the heart.
Cassie and I were chatting about our love for adult fiction, and we wanted to figure out a way to really highlight that love with a new feature. So, we're bringing you adult fiction reviews where we highlight four factors: The Frame (Setting), The Flow (Plot + Writing), The Faces (Characters) and The Feelings (Relationships).

Each of our posts will highlight our own thoughts on each of the four factors, so you can see side-by-side how our opinions stack up. Then, it all culminates in The Finale where we jointly share our overall feelings on the book with a rating that helps you find out how this book factors into our favorites pile.

Whistling Past the Graveyard is set in Mississippi in 1963, and Crandall did an excellent job at bringing this time period to life. Starla, the book's narrator, is just a child and isn't entirely aware of the racism and tension in the South. However, she notices certain things that bother her... and she expresses some opinions that she's clearly picked up from the adults around. Although it's difficult to read about the South during this time, I though Crandall a great job at bringing it to life. She doesn't avoid the hard things or try to make them seem less troubling. Instead, they inform most of the conflict of the novel - even when Starla doesn't realize it.

I loved the voice in this book, but the writing overall and the plot became the two things that I occasionally struggled with while reading. The pacing is just a bit off in this book. Certain portions feel quite slow - making you wonder just how much time has past and focusing more on internal conflict. Other parts move really quickly and feel like they deserve a little more time. In fact, I was shocked at how fast certain things were resolved in the book. While my issues with the pacing were pretty minor, I did feel like they were heightened a bit by my problems with the plot. It felt a little too episodic at times with lots of very dramatic moments! Finally, my only other issue was how everything seemed to be resolved a bit too easily and too perfectly.

In addition to the setting, I thought the characters were the strongest part of Whistling Past the Graveyard. Crandall really captures Starla's perspective and personality. She's confident, stubborn, sassy and desperate for love and adventure. I wanted to shake her a few times for being so unaware of the danger or consequences of her actions, but I did feel it was very realistic for a girl of her age. 

Eula, the black woman who becomes Starla's traveling character, was a fascinating character. She's been hurt by the world and sees herself as broken and weak, but it was so wonderful to see how much strength she possessed. And I was surprised by how much I ended up loving Starla's dad! I had my concerns about him, but he ended up just stealing my heart. There are a few other characters who just broke my heart in their awfulness, but I won't say who since it might spoil a few surprises.

There are a number of relationships in Whistling Past the Graveyard, and I liked how Crandall explored the dynamics of each. The majority of the relationships involve Starla: with her mother, her grandmother, her father, Eula, etc. But Crandall also portrays Eula's heartbreaking relationship with her husband and her absolute love for children. The most significant relationship in the book is the one between Starla and Eula, and I felt that it really depicted a believable relationship between a young white girl and black woman during that time period. From Starla's belief that Eula had to obey her because she was black to Eula's fear that someone would see them traveling together, it was hard to read but still felt so realistic. 

Cass: Alright Hannah, this month we have a book we've waited FOREVER to read - Whistling Past the Graveyard. I don't know about you but I had a LOT of expectations. Did you?

Me: I did! You read it at the beginning of summer, and I knew how much you enjoyed it when you read it! I was excited to finally see what all the fuss was about! And I think we both starting looking at it last year, is that right?

Cassie: It is! Because well, THAT COVER!

Me: Haha! Well, you loved the cover, and I was more drawn in by the summary!

Cassie: I guess I'm the superficial one here ;) Haha, anyway! What was your FAVORITE aspect of Whistling Past the Graveyard?

Me: I think my favorite part of Whistling Past the Graveyard was Starla's voice! Crandall really captured her perspective and her personality! What about you?

Cassie: I agree! I love that she was so much so a TEN YEAR OLD. Even with the brattiness and stupidity sometimes, she was authentic.

Me: YES! I kept texting you about the fact that she was driving me crazy at times AND YET it still felt so realistic and believable. And I thought Crandall did a good job of capturing what a 10 year old would have thought about some of the racial tension in the South.

Cassie: Yes, for sure! Speaking of tension, and racism, my heart broke for Eula. But I LOVED HER. 

Me: Yes! It was so heartbreaking to see racism so clearly depicted.

Cassie: It really was. Now, as much as I loved the characters - we discussed how the pacing just felt a bit off... This bothered you, yes?

Me: Yes! There were certain parts that felt a little slow and like they seemed to last a long time... and then other parts resolved really quickly. I was never sure how much time had passed in the book because of it!

Cassie: TOTALLY agree with that. It wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, but it DID result in me enjoying it a bit less. Sometimes, for me, pacing is more important than plot because it can make the whole book seem just awkward.

Me: I agree! It certainly didn't ruin the book for me, but it made things feel a bit off at times. I think the plot highlighted the pacing, for me, because it gets a little dramatic and tense... and then meandering and more internal. Not a bad thing, but kept me from really loving the book in the end.

Cassie: It happens! Ive never read a historical novel that was as "light" as this I guess I'd have to say, either if that makes any sense.

Me: I actually didn't think this felt light! For me, it felt pretty emotionally heavy. Starla's voice was very light and snappy, but the events of the book were so sad and so "adult." And I say adult because Starla clearly doesn't understand everything going on around her, and it's sad to read it as an adult and know the things she's missing.

Cassie: They were, but I think that Starla is what made it feel a bit light, though the issues in the book are definitely more heavy. It was bit conflicted for me. I enjoyed it though, just not a total fave. 

Me: Yes! I think you're right - Starla makes everything feel like because she infuses the book with this childlike enthusiasm and her stubborn spirit.

Cassie: YES! So all this being said, what are you thinking for your rating Miss Hannah?

Me: I think I'd say Not Quite a Favorite! And you?

Cassie: I understand. I'm going Almost a Favorite because overall I enjoyed it, but I won't be adding it tony favorite shelf on goodreads, or pushing it too heavily. But I LOVED Starla enough to make it a almost fave ;) Let's also not forget to tell our lovely readers that NEXT MONTH our book is......

Me: Silver Bay by Jojo Moyes! YAY JOJO!

Cassie: WOOHOOOO!! So excited to read a JoJo together!
Don't forget to check out Cassie's thoughts!

Can You Ever Have Enough Hector?

Sep 26, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns Stories by Rae Carson

Release Date: August 26, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins | Greenwillow Books
Pages: 288 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback
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Summary (from Goodreads)
A paperback edition of three novellas set within the world of the New York Times bestselling Girl of Fire and Thorns series, previously available only digitally: The Shadow Cats, The Shattered Mountain, and The King’s Guard.

The Shadow Cats is told from the perspective of Elisa’s older sister. Discover how their sibling rivalry looks from Alodia’s viewpoint, and find out why Alodia agrees to marry her sister off to King Alejandro of Joya de Vega. 

The Shattered Mountain revolves around Elisa’s best friend and handmaiden, Mara. Before she meets Elisa at the rebel camp in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, she suffers her own tragedy. Her village is destroyed and she must lead the few young survivors to safety.

The King’s Guard centers on Hector, Commander of the Royal Guard and Elisa’s true love. Set years before The Girl of Fire and Thorns, it shows us fifteen-year-old Hector as a new recruit. He must prove himself—and he discovers a secret he must keep forever. 

Thoughts on The Girl of Fire and Thorns Stories
I fell in love with this series not too long ago, but I never bought the e-novellas. So, I was thrilled when I saw they were being released in paperback form! The Girl of Fire & Thorns Stories focuses on three secondary characters from the series: 1) Alodia, Elisa's older sister, 2) Mara, Elisa's best friend and handmaiden, and 3) Hector, the hottest Commander of the Royal Guard and Elisa's true love.

At the beginning of the book, Carson writes about how writers are advised to make sure every secondary character has their own story, their own dreams and fears, etc. Whether or not it ever makes it onto the page, having that backstory and information is how your secondary characters can become fully developed and realistic in their own right. It's a great way to preface these stories - a reminder that these "bonus" stories reveal a lot of why these characters make the choices that they do in the full-length novels.

The Shadow Cats is Alodia's story, and it helps you better understand the tense relationship between these two sisters. Since you really only see Elisa's perspective in the books, this gave me new insight into how Alodia views her sister and why she treats her the way that she does. I think I was better able to sympathize with Alodia than I had been previously because I started to really think about what it would mean to be the older sister to someone like Elisa who was "chosen" and revered.

The Shattered Mountain is Mara's story, and it's almost my favorite of the three (Hector's story wins because Hector). Mara meets Elisa at the rebel camp in the series, but what events led her there? Seeing Mara's loss and pain made me really appreciate her character arc in the books. I think you see her strength and bravery in this story, which I loved. And it made me want to re-read the books now that I know her better!

Finally, The King's Guard is about Hector. If all three stories weren't going to be about him, I can at least appreciate what we learn about him in this story. He's a brand-new recruit hoping to join the Royal Guard, but he's got to prove himself first. The secret that he discovers was so shocking - I loved getting this new information. Honestly, this story just reminded me of all the reasons Hector is so amazing. Brave, loyal, principled... Hector is a person you can count on to do the right thing, and this story just highlights that so well!

While you don't have to read The Girl of Fire and Thorns Stories, I do think it's a nice little bonus addition to the series. I didn't love them as much as I do the books, and I secretly wanted to see more of Hector and Elisa together, but I can appreciate these for what they reveal about the thought and work that Carson put into all her characters. Overall, it was a fun and quick read that made me want to re-read the series so I could experience the epic adventures all over again!

There's No Such Thing As Perfect

Sep 25, 2014

In my post on learning to trust your gut when it comes to reading, I talked a little bit about loving books that others don't. I thought about expanding on that idea - of not letting someone's negative opinion of a book you loved diminish your enjoyment of it - but I wasn't sure I could bring anything new to that conversation. But I did start thinking about something else: what about when other people dislike a book or criticize a book that you love for very valid reasons? Let me explain...

When I really love a book, 
I often look at critical reviews of it.

"WHAT?!" I can hear the collective gasps. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of people find that statement absolutely horrifying. When you really love something, who wants to hear bad things about it? Why would I actively, on purpose, seek out reviews where people have negative feelings about a book that I've loved? 

Before I explain, just know that I'm never seeking out critical reviews in order to:
  • Base my experience on someone else's experience
  • Try to "teach someone" that they're wrong / didn't get it
  • Start an argument or defend the book 
I've written a few critical reviews in the past that have gotten comments from other readers trying to tell me how I'm "wrong" about how I've felt. Listen, that is a waste of your time and mine. If I have gotten something factually incorrect (like a character's name or plot detail), it's one thing. But trying to convince someone they have experienced something incorrectly? Who made you the Supreme Ruler of Reading Reactions?

So, let's talk about why I do sometimes seek out critical reviews:

Typically, there are three reasons 
I'll look at critical reviews for books I love:

1. It can help me identify why I loved a book or what I connected to in it.
Do you ever love a book so much that you almost can't explain the reasons why? I often think it's easiest to write a review for a book I disliked because I can usually state why it didn't work for me. But when I'm really passionate about a book, it's like my brain is so overwhelmed with love that I just want to write: I loved this book for ALL THE REASONS.

Reading a critical review might help me understand my own feelings for a book. For example: someone may not like the way friendship is portrayed, but I might like it because it reflects a situation I've personally experienced. In this situation, a critical review can give me more insight into my own reaction to a book!

2. When it comes to recommending, I can better understand who may or may not like the book.
Reading is such a personal experience, and I've talked before about how no one will ever have the same experience with a book. You bring too much of your own story to a book for it another reader to ever experience it in exactly the same way! However, I do try personalize my book recommendations. 

I may love some books enough to push them on anyone and everyone, but usually I want the right reader to find the right book. So, I sometimes like to glance through critical reviews of my favorites to see what some of the common issues are with a book. For example: if I see lots of people mention they disliked the slow pace, then I would know that the book might not be right for people who prefer more action.

3. I can get another perspective and see issues that I might have missed.
Of the three reasons, I think this one is the most important to me. Personally, I will look at critical reviews so that I can see the book from another point of view. I only know what I know, and I don't know what I don't know. Certain books might be problematic for people in ways that go beyond something like writing style or pacing, and I might not be able to identify that on my own.

For example, maybe many readers felt that a book was sexist or racist. I might not not have picked up on it, so I want insight into what another person thought about it. Or maybe it's something that I noticed but couldn't fully express why it gave me pause. In both cases, a critical review can help me become more thoughtful about what I've just read and about the books I'll read in the future.

I may not always agree when I read another perspective. For example, someone might feel that a book condones a certain behavior whereas I might feel it just portrays that behavior. But what if I do? What if a critical review points out something that really is problematic about a book that I love?

I can love a book
and acknowledge that it has flaws.

Loving a book and acknowledging that it has issues aren't mutually exclusive. I can recognize that a book has problems and still love it. It can still be worth reading, and it can still teach me things about myself or the world around me. I see this most often with classics, but it can exist in anything I read.

Charles Dickens is an incredible writer, and yet I still remember being shocked by anti-Semitic comments in his books. L.M. Montgomery is one of my favorites, but she's written some things with horribly racist attitudes in them. I adore Gone With the Wind, but yes, it's racist. That's just three examples (and only of racism) - and just what immediately came to mind! There are many more examples, and it's not limited to books "from the past."

I like the idea the idea of engaging with the books I read - connecting to them and examining them. Sometimes that examination will reveal a books' flaws, but that's okay. I don't have to love it less because of it! I read mostly for enjoyment, so I don't really analyze everything I read... but there are some books that just call for discussion, that make me think, and often lead to some of my most memorable reading experiences.

Let Down Your Hair

Sep 24, 2014

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Release Date: September 23, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins | Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 496 pages
Source & Format: ARC from Publisher at BEA
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Summary (from Goodreads)
French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens...

After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.

Award-winning author Kate Forsyth braids together the stories of Margherita, Selena, and Charlotte-Rose, the woman who penned Rapunzel as we now know it, to create what is a sumptuous historical novel, an enchanting fairy tale retelling, and a loving tribute to the imagination of one remarkable woman.

Thoughts on Bitter Greens
Prior to BEA, I looked up books that were going to be available there so I would have some idea of whether or not I really wanted to read it. I didn't want to just grab whatever was there, and I hoped that doing a little research beforehand meant that I'd be more likely to come home with books I was actually excited to read. The minute I saw that Bitter Greens was going to be there, I was thrilled! Originally published in Australia, I've had my eye on this book for quite a while.

Bitter Greens opens with French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force being banished from the court of Versailles after a series of scandalous love affairs and controversial stories. She's sent to a convent and forced to give up her life of luxury. While there, an older nun takes her under her wing and tells her the story of a young girl, Margherita, whose father agrees to give her to a powerful and dangerous woman named Selena (the witch) in exchange for some bitter greens that will save his wife's life. Locked away in a tower, Margherita spends every day hoping that someone will find her... and one day, a young man does.

In case you can't tell by that summary, Bitter Greens is a Rapunzel retelling. But the most exciting part? Charlotte-Rose de la Force is the real woman who wrote the story of Rapunzel as we now know it. That's right - this is inspired by real historical events! I love stories about real people, so I knew that I had to get my hands on this book when I realized that it wasn't just a simple retelling of a familiar fairy tale. In 1698, de la Force wrote Persinette - which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as Rapunzel.

In Bitter Greens, Forysth weaves together the stories of the three main women: Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita. Although it's fictional, Forsyth did her research and brings these two time periods to life. The book opens with Charlotte-Rose's story, and it takes a little bit of time before you get into the portion that focuses on Margherita. While I loved Margherita's portions the most, I was fascinated by Charlotte-Rose's life. Some of the most outrageous stories from her life are the things that really happened!

I really don't want to speak to what happens in the book because I think it's a book that you just have to experience for yourself. I did feel that some of the characters in the Rapunzel story were a little less fleshed-out than the "real" people in the story. In fact, I wanted a less of Charlotte-Rose and more of the fairy tale portions of the story. Forsyth's version of events was fascinating, and she introduced new explanations for certain parts that added a nice dimension to the Rapunzel story. That's what made me want more of the fairy tale!

There were times when the fairy tale felt like it was telling rather than showing, but I think that's partly due to the way the story is being "told" by the older nun in the convent. The story also shifts between a lot of different time periods, so you have to really pay attention to when each chapter is set. It's a slow and steady book, but the pacing never bothered me. Once I started to connect to the characters, I was happy to sit and read for hours!

While the language of the book is beautiful, the tone and content is much darker. Rapunzel isn't exactly light or happy material, and Forsyth definitely explores those heavier themes. There is a lot of sexual violence in the story - it affected all three of the main characters and became a pretty dominant presence in the book. It's the one thing that I struggled with while reading, and I ended up skimming a few things.

I read Bitter Greens so quickly, lost myself in Forsyth's writing and admired the way she has crafted this book... and yet, I don't think I would ever re-read it. Forsyth has intricately crafted three separate stories and managed to bring them together into a moving and memorable book. I think fans of fairy tale retellings, in particular, will be delighted with Bitter Greens. I debated rating it a bit higher - it's an imaginative, atmospheric novel that was clearly well-researched - but I just couldn't get past a few issues with some of the dominant themes. However, overall, I really did love most of this book!

So Quotable
"Words. I had always loved them. I collected them, like I had collected pretty stones as a child. I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch. Cerulean, azure, blue. Shadowy, sombre, secret. Voluptuous, sensuous, amorous, Kiss, hiss, abyss."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

Fall Into Reading

Sep 23, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week they post a new topic/top ten list and invite everyone to share their own answers. I'm so obsessed with lists - so it makes perfect sense that I'd love this feature!

I really love creating my TBR list each season, especially when I've read every book on my previous list. Yep, that's right! I read every book on my summer TBR - minus one that I didn't finish, but I replaced it with another book on my list. So, basically, I count that as a success!

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR

I've now read and loved three books by Liza Palmer, so I think it's finally time for me to binge her backlist. I dread the day I don't have more of her books left to read, but I just can't let these sit on my TBR any longer! Liza writes such well-developed characters, and I'm basically obsessed with the way she writes about family, friendships and life. Seriously, LOVE THIS AUTHOR.

1. Conversations with the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer
2. Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer
3. More Like Her by Liza Palmer

Alexa and I are working on a little something fun this fall, and it involves us reading these three books. I'm pretty excited about what we've got planned, and I'm read happy to read more fantasy. To mix things up, we've chose a middle grade, young adult and adult book. Yay variety!

4. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... by Catherynne M. Valente
5. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
6. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

I'm not really a seasonal reader, but sometimes certain books just seem like they were meant to be read in a certain kind of weather. For some reason, mysteries make me think of fall! So, here's a review read, a book from my TBR and a book I've had on my wishlist.

7. First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
8. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
9. Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

I mentioned to Alexa that I wasn't sure what my tenth book should be, so she chose for me! I didn't want to stop there, so I also had Cassie and Kelly each choose a book from my TBR. I'm really excited about all three picks! I've been meaning to read Alexa's pick for ages, have wanted to read Cassie's ever since we featured The Likeness for Favorite Factor and Kelly has completely sold me on this last series!

10. Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund
11. In the Woods by Tana French
12. The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

Sisterhood, Secrets & Shenanigans

Sep 22, 2014

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Release Date: September 23, 2014
Publisher: Macmillan | Roaring Brook Press
Pages: 368 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
There's a murderer on the loose—but that doesn't stop the girls of St. Etheldreda's from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda's School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings.

Thoughts on The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
Last year, I fell head over heels in love with Julie Berry's All the Truth That's In Me. And when I say in love, I'm talking in my top six books of 2013. Written in second person, the book was emotional and haunting... and ever since, I've wanted to read more from Berry. While she has a few books on her backlist, it was this upcoming release that caught my eye.

Normally, I don't read very much middle grade. I'm always open to it, but I don't often find titles that appeal to me. It might be because I sometimes think I'll have a hard time connecting to the characters at that age, but The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place proved that there are definitely middle-grade books out there that can capture my heart!

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place takes place in Ely, England, in 1890. It follows seven girls enrolled in a finishing school called St. Etheldreda's School for Girls. But, as the very beginning of the book reveals, this isn't the story you might expect! At dinner one night, the headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her brother, Mr. Godding, suddenly die. All signs point to poison, and the girls realize there is a murderer on the loose. But who is the guilty one? And what will happen to them when their parents find out? Determined to stick together, and desperate for a bit of fun and freedom, the girls decide that they will hide the bodies and cover up the murder. What could possibly go wrong?

Y'all, this was the most charming, hilarious and adorable murder mystery I've ever read! The tone is completely different from All the Truth That's In Me, so don't start this one expecting a similar feeling. If you've read that one, clear it out of your mind before starting this one. You want to approach this without any pre-conceived notions of what Berry will do. Of course, Berry's writing still shines - just in a new way! This is one is silly, quirky and comical. But it's also sweet, sassy and a seriously great read.

One interesting thing I noticed was that All the Truth That's In Me is historical fiction, but it's very vague on the time period. I loved that about the book and thought it worked perfectly for the story Berry was telling, but I was curious if that would be true of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, too. The summary makes it clear that the story is set during the Victorian period, but I wondered if would you see those details. I'm happy to report that Berry's research is so evident in this book, but in interesting and subtle ways. From women's roles to the setting, I think readers of any age will walk away with new information about the time period!

One thing to keep in mind while you're reading - The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a farce. A farce "is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audiences through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable." I think it's important to remember that about this story because many of the situations in this book are a little unbelievable. But if you just go along with it, you'll find yourself laughing at the banter, cheering on the friendships and wondering who could be responsible and whether people will realize that shenanigans are afoot at St. Etheldreda's.

The multitude of characters and Berry's use of a naming convention (adjective + girl's name, such as Stout Alice) made it a little confusing at first, but I found that I caught on pretty quickly and couldn't put it down after that. You don't get to know the characters very well and they feel a bit like caricatures at times, but it really didn't bother me. This was just a fun, delightful read!

I couldn't help grinning from ear to ear while I was reading The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place! It's so different from All the Truth That's In Me, but it gave me a new appreciation for Berry's creativity and talent. This tale of murder and mayhem is ultimately an ode to friendship and fun, and I enjoyed every second of it. So much so that I just had to buy a copy for my shelves!

And since it's so adorable, I can't resist sharing the book trailer:

So Quotable
"She didn't care what they said. She would never, never, never allow herself to grow to be a noodle-headed young lady whose brains had been sacrificed on the altar to boy-worship."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Sep 18, 2014

I've talked before about how I'm an eclectic reader. I like to sample from so many different sections in the bookstore! Although I have my favorites, I have deliberately tried to cultivate a curiosity for stories instead of focusing on categories. But, as I said in my post on the classics conundrum, I sometimes have conflicting feelings when it comes to reading.

I think that what someone chooses to read doesn't determine whether or not they're a "reader," and that reading should ultimately be enjoyable; however, I also think that it's also important to keep an open mind when it comes to choosing what you read.

Both of the posts I mentioned focused more on reading outside your comfort zone, so I thought it would be fun to write a little more about the first part of that statement - enjoying what you read. Obviously, there are a million different reasons to read - to learn, to be challenged, to escape, to be entertained, etc. But since you're reading a book blog, I'll assume you're probably reading because you want to and not because have to.

And it's okay to trust your gut
when it comes to choosing what you read. 

As a blogger, I think it's really easy to lose sight of this fact. We're constantly inundated with opinions on books - both good and bad. From discovering books to rating them, my entire reading experience has been impacted by my involvement in the book blogging community. For the most part, it's a wonderful thing. But it's also easy to get distracted by what everyone else is reading, discussing, rating, loving and loathing... and at the end of the day, I want to read for me. 

Here are a few times when I think you should ultimately trust your gut:

If you're really interested in a book, just try it.
No matter what the ratings show.

Recently, I was browsing in a bookstore and found a new release with a cover that caught my eye. I added it to my stack of books, made my way to a chair, and started reading samples. The next thing I knew, I'd read three chapters of it. I was hooked! So, did I immediately buy it? Nope. I looked it up on Goodreads, saw a lot of "okay" ratings, and debated purchasing it. Ultimately, I left without the book.

But I got home and couldn't stop thinking about it! I finally went back and bought it, and I immediately started reading it. I finished it within hours - I'd fallen in love! It wasn't a perfect read, but it was practically perfect for me. And I almost missed it because I was too concerned with how other people had rated it. It was an important reminder that I need to focus more on what interests me than on what the ratings show. Ratings and reviews are helpful, but don't let another person's experience keep you from experiencing a book for yourself.

If you're not interested in a book, don't worry about it.
No matter who says you HAVE to read it.

I've written before about my issues with recommendations, so I'll try not to repeat myself. I've found so many wonderful books through recommendations from other blogger and readers, but sometimes I don't want to add one more book to my TBR. Whether it's a specific recommendation or just seeing lots of hyped books, I often debate whether I'm thinking about reading something because I actually want to read it or because I've just heard a lot about it.

I've tried to be better this year about being aware of my reasons for reading a book and not just following the crowd. If I really am interested, awesome! If not, there are a million other books out there for me to read. And for books recommended specifically to me, I've learned the power of taking something into consideration and either letting it go or politely sharing why I don't think it's right for me. It's as simple as that!

If you're not enjoying a book, stop reading it.
No matter why you "should" keep going.

Oh, the good ole DNF. The struggle to push through a book, the pressure to finish, the guilt if you set it aside... is there anything else that causes the same amount of angst for so many readers? While I think it's probably most common when it involves review copies, I frequently hear bloggers lament their inability to leave a book unfinished once they've started reading it.

If I'm not enjoying a book, I typically respond in one of two ways. If I think the problem is me (timing, mood, etc.), I'll set it aside for later. But if the problem is the book (bad writing, one-dimensional characters, etc.), then I call it quits. If it's a library book, I return it. If it's a book I bought, I trade it in a my local used bookstore for credit. If it's a review book, I try to pass it on to another blogger. And if I'm still a little curious how it ends? I just flip forward and read that part. The End.

If you loved a book, don't apologize for it.
No matter who disagrees with you.

So, there's two scenarios where I see this play out. The first: you finish a book and are ecstatic about finding a new favorite... only to discover on Goodreads, Twitter or in reviews that a lot of really disliked it. In this instance, I think it's common to maybe feel a little disappointed that other readers didn't love it like you did. But you've (hopefully) still got your "so obsessed with this book" feelings, and that's the end of it.

The other scenario is when readers feel like they need to apologize for loving something that others look down upon or maybe even ridicule. It's the idea of a guilty pleasure - you love it, but you kind of feel bad that you do. Instead of being disappointed that others didn't love it (as in the first scenario), maybe you feel a little ashamed of just how much you did love it. Don't apologize or let someone else make you feel dumb about what you love! Channel T.Swift, remember that haters gonna hate and just SHAKE IT OFF. 

If you hated a book, don't feel guilty about it.
No matter if you feel like you're the only one.

Who hasn't had this experience? You don't love a book that it seems like everyone else is loving. People are raving about it. The hype machine is in full force. This book is life-changing, it's ground-breaking, it's THE BEST BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF BOOKS... and you're just like, "What? I don't get it." Or maybe it's more: "SERIOUSLY? THIS IS A THING PEOPLE LOVE?" And all of the sudden, you feel like you don't quite fit in.

I've definitely felt this way about plenty of books! I don't usually feel left our or like something is wrong with me, and I don't usually think something was wrong with the other reader. It's just about the right book finding the right readers. A lot of times, I learn something about myself or my reading taste in those moments. I figure out what sets me apart, what makes me unique, and that can help me pick the best books for me in the future!

Trying new things is wonderful, but don't forget: 
you know you

Nobody knows you - what inspires you, challenges you, entertains you, motivates you, delights you, bores you, interests you, enrages you - like you do. You know what will make your heart race or your blood boil. Other people may start to learn your reading taste, but you'll always be the one who knows it best. So, read what YOU want to read! Trust your instincts, and follow your interests.

You Are Seen & Loved

Sep 17, 2014

Wherever the River Runs by Kelly Minter

Release Date: August 1, 2014
Publisher: David C. Cook
Pages: 256 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
This beautiful journey through the Amazon invites readers to search their souls and follow Jesus wherever the river runs—experiencing the adventure of knowing the poor and forgotten people He loves. In Wherever the River Runs, Kelly Minter invites us on a jungle adventure down a river teeming with piranhas, caymans, a beautiful people, and, especially, God’s presence. Her honest and engaging narrative pulls back the curtain on one of the most captivating places on earth as well as on parts of the gospel we may be able to recite but have never fully believed.

For anyone feeling complacent in their American Christianity, Kelly’s story of the forgotten people of the Amazon and how they transformed her understanding of the gospel, is sure to inspire.

Thoughts on Wherever the River Runs
I discovered Kelly Minter in college when I randomly bought her Ruth: Loss, Love & Legacy Bible study at the Christian bookstore one day. I absolutely loved it, and it impacted me in a ways I never expected. There were so things I thought about and learned during that time that I will never forget. So, I was thrilled when I saw Wherever the River Runs on NetGalley! It sounded like a combination of some of my favorite things: non-fiction, travel memoir and a discussion on faith.

I started this book with both excitement and nervousness. What if I liked Kelly more as a Bible teacher than as a writer and storyteller? Well, I shouldn't have been worried. Within a few pages, I was swept away in this story.

In many ways, Wherever the River Runs is a travel memoir. Kelly is an author, speaker and musician who was invited on a trip to the Amazon by a business associate. I think it's safe to say that she never expected the trip - both the place and the people - to change her life the way that they did. After the first trip, she was hooked and has spent time there each of the last six years. Wherever the River Runs follows Kelly from the very beginning. The summary says that she invites readers "on a jungle adventure down a river teeming with piranhas, caymans, a beautiful people, and, especially, God’s presence." Honestly, that's a perfect description.

Brazil and the Amazon came alive for me through Kelly's words! I loved so many things about this book, but it's the place that really shines. I think part of what I loved about this book is that it reminded me so much of my own experience when I traveled to South Africa. Kelly's travels were completely different from mine, but there was something so familiar about the things that she learned about herself, about people and about God.

Beyond just a travel memoir, Wherever the River Runs talks a lot about Kelly's faith and what she learned about God and the gospel through her trips to the Amazon. Some of the more general thoughts she shares are likely true for anyone traveling abroad, such as adjusting to and learning to appreciate a very different culture from your own. But the more specific thoughts - reflections on what she could really offer these people, what it means to watch and wait for the Lord, etc. - are what truly moved me.
"If all the wealth, comforts, and resources of living in America were ripped away, what would I have? Whatever Jesus came to offer has to be enough for both me and these women of the jungle. If the good news of the gospel is only good in America, then it is not good."
Y'all know I rarely cry while reading, but this book brought me to tears so many times. One of my favorite things Kelly discusses is how much easier it is to love the poor from a distance. She talks about how it's ultimately not too challenging to travel somewhere for the short-term, pour into someone's life and then go back to your normal routine. But we're called to so much more than that! We ought to be showing that same level of love and care for the people we're surrounded by, and that's when it gets difficult. When it's messy, when it's right next door, when you can't just go home and forget about it... It's a reminder to "love my neighbor as myself" - the people you see and interact with every day, not just the ones on the other side of the world.

Over and over again, Kelly showed me how easy it is to get complacent as a believer (especially in America) and lovingly and honestly reminded me that it's not all about me. As you can probably guess, I loved Wherever the River Runs. It inspired me, yes, but it also challenged me. And I highlighted my digital copy so much that I'll be purchasing a paperback because it has more than earned its spot on my shelves. If you read Christian non-fiction, I'd absolutely recommend Wherever the River Runs!

So Quotable
"And because He follows this wildly unconventional atlas where His ways are not our ways, the way to the adventure is sometimes through the gates of heartbreak and broken dreams. You can't always tell where you're going, but eventually you find Him to be what He has been all along: faithful."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

One Book Had Me Hooked

Sep 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week they post a new topic/top ten list and invite everyone to share their own answers. I'm so obsessed with lists - so it makes perfect sense that I'd love this feature!

Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From 
But NEED to Read More

Adult Fiction

1. Kimberley Freeman
2. Allie Larkin
3. Emily St. John Mandel
4. Mhairi McFarlane
5. Lauren Willig
Young Adult Fiction

6. Diana Peterfreund
7. Marie Rutkoski
8. Elizabeth Wein
9. Kiersten White
10. Fiona Wood

"The only person you should be is yourself."

Sep 15, 2014

Wildlife by Fiona Wood

Release Date: September 16, 2014
Publisher: Hachette | Poppy
Pages: 400 pages
Source & Format: Publisher at BEA; ARC
Series: Companion to Six Impossible Things
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Summary (from Goodreads)
During a semester in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sib expects the tough outdoor education program and the horrors of dorm life, but friendship drama and an unexpected romance with popular Ben Capaldi? That will take some navigating.

New girl Lou has zero interest in fitting in, or joining in. Still reeling from a loss that occurred almost a year ago, she just wants to be left alone. But as she witnesses a betrayal unfolding around Sib and her best friend Holly, Lou can't help but be drawn back into the land of the living.

Fans of Melina Marchetta, Rainbow Rowell, and E. Lockhart will adore this endearing and poignant story of first love, true friendship, and going a little bit wild.

Thoughts on Wildlife
I can't remember when I first heard about Wildlife, but I knew that I wanted to read it when I saw that Mands from The Bookish Manicurist had given it five stars. She's one of my favorite Aussie bloggers, and I love looking through her Aussie lit recommendations. So, I was ecstatic when I saw it was being published in the US... and even more so when Cassie got me a copy at BEA. Wildlife is a follow-up to Six Impossible Things, but it's technically Fiona Wood's US debut. While I might have loved it even more if I'd gotten to read the other book first, I was still totally hooked while reading it!

Wildlife is told from two different perspectives: Sibylla and Lou. Both girls are attending an outdoor education program through their school. Sib has been around the other students for years, but she's thrust into the spotlight after modeling for a global advertising campaign. Suddenly, she's experiencing unexpected friendship drama and boy troubles. Lou, on the other hand, is the new girl. She's experienced heartbreak and has no interest in trying to fit in with her classmates - she just wants to make it through another day. But, despite her best efforts, she finds herself drawn into the drama surrounding her.

Here's the thing about Wildlife - I adored it, but I don't think it will work for everyone. The writing style is kind of different, and there's not a lot that happens in it. Personally, I really liked the writing style, but I'm not sure everyone will connect to it. The one thing that did bother me was that it wasn't immediately obvious that the chapters were alternating between two characters. It took me several chapters before I realized that Lou's chapters were dated (like a journal) and Sib's were not. The two girls have pretty distinct voices, so I'm not sure how I didn't pick up on it sooner, but I still wish it had a been a little clearer from the beginning.

Since it's not action heavy, it focuses mostly on character development and the different relationship dynamics. Sib is facing pretty typical teenage issues - how she fits in with others, tension with her best friend, Holly, and a budding relationship with a popular boy, Ben. Her relationship with Holly was so frustrating, but I thought it was so realistic. I think one reason I loved this book is because I related to Sib's inability to see Holly clearly and the way she feels kind of unsure of herself. Lou's issues are much heavier - she's lost someone important to her, and her grief is palpable on every page. While I didn't relate to her in the same way I did Sib, I felt more emotional reading her sections of the book. I truly hurt for her. I thought the secondary characters were really memorable - though Michael was my favorite by far!

Their stories may seem like complete opposites, but they complemented each other so perfectly. Wood explores so many things in the pages of Wildlife - friendship, grief, sex, jealously, popularity, beauty, identity, and loneliness. It's a coming-of-age story that felt raw and real, and I absolutely loved it. The pace is slower, but I still finished it within hours. I think my favorite thing was that it seems so simple on the surface but had so much depth and complexity at its heart.

I can't really explain it, but Wildlife reminded me of why I really love Aussie YA - the characters were realistic, the writing was so unique and the setting was the perfect backdrop for everything that unfolded. There were so many passages I wanted to highlight and revisit, which is always the sign of a great read for me. It has introduced me to a new favorite voice in Aussie lit, and I'll be tracking down a copy of Six Impossible Things as soon as possible. While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, it was a practically perfect read for me!

So Quotable 
“... my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”
"And if I don't keep you always in my mind, won't memory walk away? Or starve thin? Don't memories need maintenance?"
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.
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