The Beginning of After

The Beginning of After by Jennifer CastleFirst Lines: Anyone who’s had something truly crappy happen to them will tell you: It’s all about Before and After.

This book was on my to-read list for the last 9 years.  Sigh.  But it was also one of the last books I was able to check out from the library before it closed, so…I’m kind of doing my homework.  Actually, the premise of this has always fascinated me because I’m continually drawn to the books I know are going to make me sad but mean something.

Sixteen-year-old Laurel’s life changes in a single moment when her parents and brother are killed in a car accident.  Her neighbor, David Kaufman, lost his mom in the accident as well–and his dad was the one driving.  Life in the After isn’t easy as Laurel navigates the new “normal.”  Boy may be approaching her out of pity. Her friendships are strained. Memories are everywhere. And Mr. Kaufman is comatose, but very much alive unlike her family.  Through it all, David keeps swooping in and out of her life.  Unlike everyone else, he understands what Laurel is going through.  As their connection grows, Laurel begins to wonder if maybe After will be…ok.

So I knew I was getting an emotional story out of this and that was right on the money. There were times that were rough. But I felt like it was an accurate portrayal of not only grief, but also of how people who aren’t grieving react to that person. Laurel is, in one fell swoop, left as the only member of her immediate family. It’s heartbreaking, but her journey was really something to see.

Laurel is a character who is far from perfect, despite the fact that many people do actually see her as “perfect” because of her great grades and SAT scores. She does have a lot of flaws and seeing how those manifested, especially as contrasted to David’s grieving process, was really awesome. David and Laurel are night and day, so their different processes were great to really show how grief and moving on hits people differently.

The story doesn’t exactly totally have a plot. Like it does, but it doesn’t. Most of the book, I couldn’t have told you what we were building toward. Only when the thing actually happened at the end was I like, “Oh, ok I get it now.” Did that diminish my enjoyment? Not particularly. I got sucked into the story because of Laurel and her grandmother and David and Meg. I binge-read this hard.

One thing about this book that was a little laughable while reading it in 2020 was just how dated and cringey the technology was. Whenever people are making plans, they keep asking for the other’s email address. (I truly forgot we ever did that.) And it’s not that they don’t text in this book, but when they do, it looks like either your grandma trying to text or like you sat on your phone and it happened to look like a sentence. It was stuff like “Jst cnt w8 2 c u ltr.” Oh my God, I thought I was trying to decipher another language. My whole life, I’ve never had anybody text me like that. That’s how my parents thought we texted back in 2008.

But if you can ignore that, it’s a pretty good story.

Top Ten Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

Hey everyone!  So the topic today is *technically* “Books I wish I’d read as a child”, but like, I don’t remember a whole lot of the books I actually did read as a child.  (It’s because of how many books I read, not…not memory issues or anything…)  So instead, I thought I’d stick to the main idea but modify it.

So my topic is essentially this: Have you had that book on your to-read shelf (or your actual shelf) forever and finally read it years later?  Or how about that book that’s been out for years and you just discovered how awesome it is?  That’s what I’m looking at.

I have a terrible habit of putting off books, so this was a very easy list to produce.

Top Ten Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

1. Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

I’m starting with what is perhaps the most ironic ones of this list, considering I just read this.  After being on my to-read list for 7 years and on my literal in-my-hands bookshelf for at least 6, yeah, I should have read this a very long time ago.  I really enjoyed it.  I have no excuse.  Well, no good ones, anyway.

2. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

With 4 years between adding to the to-read list and reading it, this is actually on the shorter side for this list.  (I told you I had a bad habit!)  But actually, this one wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it–it was because I couldn’t get my hands on a library copy!  Well, ok, like I didn’t try all that hard, but still.  Ok, I’m still making excuses.  Suffice it to say this was really good and I’m also kind of glad I waited because now the whole series is out.

3. Some Boys by Patty Blount

A little shy of six years between adding to the to-read list and reading it, I feel like I should definitely have gotten to this a long time ago.  It’s a dark, emotional ride and I will fully own that, but I like those kinds of stories sometimes.  Clearly it kept my attention as it survived multiple to-read-list purges, but I should have read it before.  However, it does take on some new meaning in this post-#MeToo world.

4. Nowhere But Here by Katie McGarry

I only had this on my to-read list for a short time before I read it, but it was out for 4 years before I read it.  And I can’t even tell you why I didn’t want to in the first place.  I like Katie McGarry’s work.  I think she’s an excellent writer who writes fantastic characters.  I think maybe I got burnt out for a while?  I don’t know.  But I made the decision at some point that this book sounded boring and I passed.  Younger Me was dumb.

5. Bad Girls Don’t Die by Katie Alender

Now this one gets the award for the longest time span between adding to the to-read list and reading it.  9.5 years, people.  NINE AND A HALF YEARS.  This one, perhaps the only one of its kind on this list, I wish I’d read earlier because the writing feels so juvenile and I know I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it around when it came out.  It’s a fun little demonic story (bet you never thought those words should be placed together) and there are parts of the story that work well, but it’s so 2000s writing.

6. The Leaving Season by Cat Jordan

Nearly 4 years went by between the time I added this to my to-read list and about 3.5ish since I was able to read it as an ARC…and didn’t “get around to it.”  It’s a story of a girl whose boyfriend is graduating and leaving for his gap year…and then tragedy strikes and she’s left trying to pick up the pieces.  I think this would have been more impactful if I read it when I was closer to that age, but I still think it’s a fantastic book.

7. Something Real by Heather Demetrios

4.5 years went by between adding this to the to-read list and reading it.  And honestly, it’s a super insightful and biting commentary on our reality TV culture and how it’s not that real (I know, right?!).  This feels like more of a commentary on those TLC family shows with the Duggars and that other family that I don’t really want to take the time to look up because I don’t care, but the point still stands.  It has a lot to say.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This was on my to-read list for about 8 years before I finally read it.  The reason why I didn’t read it sooner was because I watched the Keira Knightley movie back in college and I kind of hated it at the time.  (My opinion has since changed–put down your torches and pitchforks.)  But this book just kept coming up in references and showing up in my life, so I finally read it.  Still, it would have made my life a little easier if I’d read this sooner.

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Admittedly, this really wasn’t on my to-read list long before I read it, though I’d definitely heard about it long before I read it.  And I certainly had a “WHERE HAS THIS BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!” moment when I read it, but I also actually really like that I read it when I did.  I was in my 20s, roughly Jamie’s age, and I was on vacation in the Smoky Mountains, which was the perfect setting to be reading about the Scottish Highlands.  So maybe I wouldn’t have read this sooner…

10. The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg

About 5.5 years went by between adding this book to my to-read list and actually reading it.  And like, I have this thing for afterlife stories.  Don’t know why, but I love them.  Anyway, I thought this story was very sweet and had a lot of heart.

Across a Star-Swept Sea (For Darkness Shows the Stars, #2)

Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana PeterfreundFirst Lines: If the Wild Poppy dared return to Galatea, Citizen Cutler was ready.  He’d stationed armed guards at the entrance to the estate and placed an additional ten soldiers around the perimeter of the taro fields. Though no Reduced could even attempt escape, Cutler knew the real danger came from outside.

Ok, y’all, this is one of those times when I have to throw my own hands up in exasperation–at myself.  I added this to my to-read shelf 7 years ago and to my actual shelves at least 6 years ago.  And it only took a quarantine for me to finally read it.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead — These books are really more “companion” novels than actual sequels but they do overlap a little.  Just saying.*

Ever since a medical revolution gone wrong, the islands of New Pacifica have been alone–the only humans left on the planet.  The war that destroyed humanity may have ended centuries ago, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets along.  An uprising against the ruling class of Galatea has turned deadly.   The weapon is a drug that turns your brain to mush and the only hope of defeating this uprising comes in the form of a mysterious spy named the Wild Poppy.  On the nearby island of Albion, no one would guess the famous spy was none other than socialite and flake Persis Blake.  She uses her status as a cover for her operation–gossipy flutternotes are actually coded messages her sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized romance with Galatean medic Justen Helo isn’t the fluff everyone–including Justen–thinks it is.  Though Persis actually admires Justen, she can’t let him know any of her secrets or that she’s not the empty-headed girl he believes her to be.  And Justen is hiding plenty of dark secrets of his own…

This book took a little getting used to because it’s set in the same world as FDSTS, but it’s not the same. The rules, the names for the Luddites and the Posts are different in this book and it took a little adjusting. Also getting to know all new characters took some time too.

I have no familiarity with The Scarlet Pimpernel, the book on which this story is based, so I’m not going to compare that at all. But I did really enjoy the plot of this. I loved that Persis was The Wild Poppy and that she was so good at manipulating so many situations. The plot was always interesting for all of its court intrigue, which is something I adore anyway in books.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the world building here. Over the course of these two books, I feel like there’s some serious and under-respected world building going on. These stories include multiple cultures, different technologies, and varying social class systems. It’s incredibly interesting how all of this fits together. I think this deserves a lot more credit than it’s been getting.

The story is told by multiple narrators, though mostly focusing on Persis and less-so on Justen. (There are other narrators who pop up, but usually only for part of a chapter.) That was sometimes confusing (occasionally intentionally so), but generally I liked it. Or at least I didn’t really have too many complaints about it.

Characters. Persis was endlessly fascinating, which was a little unexpected. I knew that she had to be clever to be the Poppy, but the jacket also said she was pretending to be this vapid socialite and…that didn’t appeal to me. But Persis (and the story) pulls this off masterfully. Justen is hiding some dark secrets, which makes him an interesting character as well. But Persis was my favorite by far. Not even a competition.

The only thing I really can complain about is the romance. What I adored so much about FDSTS was that the romance was a slow burn. And I thought this attempted that same thing but with worse results. The signs of their “love” were virtually nonexistent to me and that was disappointing.

Still, this was a fun read. I really did have a hard time putting it down. I read it for hours at a time just to find out what would happen next.

Reread: For Darkness Shows the Stars

Hey everyone!  So in my effort to find something to do during this isolation, I’ve started rereading books in series that I haven’t finished but plan to.  And since I owned this book and the sequel (that I hadn’t read), I decided to reread this.  Why not?  It’s been about 7 years since I last read it.  (If you’re interested, my original post/review is here!) For Darkness Shows the Stars (9780062006158 ...Obviously back in the day I loved it.  I gave it 5 stars.  But looking back on it this time, I didn’t really remember why.  In fact, for the last 7 years while I’ve stared at it on my shelf, I couldn’t even really remember liking it.  Not that I hated it or anything, but I was utterly indifferent to it.

In case this is your first time hearing about this book, it’s basically a dystopian take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  (Side note: I’ve never read Persuasion.  That may matter later.)  We follow Elliot, a rich Luddite who’s the only one in her family who truly cares about the servants on their land.  Her father and older sister only care about social class and whether they can continue living in comfort.  Four years ago, she had the chance to run away with her childhood love, Kai, a servant on the estate, but she turned him down.  Desperate to bring in some money, Elliot rents out some of the land to the renowned Cloud Fleet, a group of Post-Reductionists (the lower class, essentially) who are changing the world.  And one of their explorers is the famous Captain Malakai Wentforth–or Kai, as Elliot knows him.  There’s a lot of other stuff going on as well, like how Kai is determined to ignore Elliot at every turn, the estate is falling to pieces around her, and the changing of society as a whole.

Rereading my original review really showed me how much I’ve grown as a writer and a book reviewer because it feels really juvenile now.  So let me try to rectify that.

This book is stunning.  Absolutely stunning.  I spent hours at a time just constantly reading to see what happened next–and I’ve already read this once before!

My forte is characters, so let’s start there.  Elliot is a very complex character.  As a Luddite, she is supposed to look down upon the Reduced and the Post-Reductionists.  It’s a long story what those both are and maybe I’ll cover that soon, but just bear with me that they’re the serving classes.  Anyway, Elliot has a big heart that causes her to want the best for her servants, even if it hurts the estate in the end.  That is not a Luddite thought and she frequently gets called out for her “dangerous” ideas by other Luddite characters.  She’s very aware of her duty and while I wouldn’t call her selfless, she is very giving.  She knows what her role is and how to play it.  But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want more out of life.

There are many other amazing characters as well.  Kai isn’t as developed as I would maybe like, but that feels kind of Austen-esque anyway, you know?  (Her books fail the reverse-Bechtel test, which is kind of hilarious.)  But still, Kai is a fascinating character for the way he changes throughout the novel, from what we see of him as a child to the Captain to how he deals with seeing Elliot again.  You really do understand why Elliot loved him.

The minor characters are incredibly interesting as well because they put the social classes into perspective for you.  The other Luddites, the other Posts, the Cloud Fleet, the Reduced.  You see all the different groups and classes and it really helps to build the world that Elliot exists in.

Speaking of that, the world building is phenomenal.  Sure, it essentially looks like a 19th century British estate with some dystopian elements thrown in, but there’s more to the world than that.  There’s a different religious system with its own rich history.  There’s all the genetic engineering they reference and the history around that.  Even the term Luddites comes from the 18th century.  (They were a group of people who opposed the industrialization of Britain and frequently destroyed machinery and factories to slow the march of Progress.)  It was a weird–but awesome–mix of history and futuristic elements.

There are so many layers to this story that work incredibly well.  There’s the focus on social class, the constant question of what kind of Progress is acceptable and what’s playing God, and obviously the very human elements of trying to play nice with an ex you still happen to love.  It’s just so much fun and so immersive.  Like, I feel like I could just about write a dissertation on their world right now.  (That…might be a stretch.)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a fantastic book that will help you lose track of a few hours, I HIGHLY recommend this one.  I’m so glad I rediscovered it on my shelves.

Bellamy and the Brute (Bellamy and the Brute, #1) Bellamy and the Brute (9781634222310): Alicia Michaels ...First Lines: “Who can tell me which event in United States history was referred to by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as ‘a date that will live in infamy’?”  You could have heard a pin drop.  Apparently, no one in my history class knew the answer to Ms. Neal’s question.

Alright, y’all know me.  If something even hints at Beauty and the Beast, I’m all over it.  I got this on my Kindle a long time ago, probably for free or at least super cheap.  Anyway, when I was between books, this started to look reeeeaaaallly appealing.

Bellamy McGuire desperately needs a summer job…but babysitting for the wealthy Baldwin family may not be the best choice.  Everyone in town knows about the sudden disappearance of Tate Baldwin, the family’s oldest son.  He was a football star and the town’s golden boy before he became a hermit at sixteen.  No one’s heard from him in two years and no one knows why he suddenly retreated.  Rumors say he contracted a disease that disfigured him and turned him into a real-life monster.  Reluctantly, Bellamy accepts the job out of need, and she promises she will never ever go up to the third floor of the mansion.  But soon, Bellamy begins to realize Tate’s disappearance isn’t the only mystery at the Baldwin mansion.  Cold drafts, electricity that cuts out suddenly, and rose petals on the stairs that only she can see…she begins to wonder what’s going on.  And if she’s in way over her head.

Honestly, I don’t really know what I think of it.

Let me start with what I liked. First of all, the similarities between the original fairy tale and this are definitely there, but this is still its own story. Obviously, Bellamy is Belle and Tate is the Brute/Beast. There’s a Gaston character and a lot of the plot at least occasionally links up with the Disney original if not the original-original story. I also liked how inclusive this story was. There are characters of color and characters with disabilities. I really liked that, actually. I liked that Bellamy, our lead, was one of those characters of color.  You very rarely ever see a Belle character who isn’t white.

What I struggled with a little is that the story is kind of all over the place. It’s a fairy tale retelling, but it’s also this paranormal-mystery-thriller-romance. Like, it was everything and I felt like sometimes some of it started falling through the cracks. Yeah, eventually it came together, but along the way I was like, “Where did this go?”  Basically speaking, it has a major tone problem.  Is it a teen romance?  Is it a mystery?  Is it a thriller?  Being all of these things turned it into the monster it accused Tate of being.

Also, there were some little details that kept changing that drove me crazy. Like one time the characters were like, “Oh, that town’s close!” and then you find out it’s 5 hours away?? Look, I’m from the Midwest where we drive everywhere and a 5 hour drive can literally take me 2 states away. That’s not “close”. I think it was more of an editing mistake than anything because later they said this town was 6 hours away and then it was back to 5. It was weird. But it bugged me.  And there were other little moments like this that just didn’t make sense either.

I think what also sort of bugged me was the fact that the story wasn’t terribly realistic. And I don’t mean the paranormal or even the retelling part. I’ll buy into that. It was the mystery/thriller stuff that didn’t work for me sometimes. Like they’re trying to solve a mystery and they’re getting all this information that they should not be able to get and it’s no big deal…it seemed weird.

Can I say that I didn’t enjoy it? No. I really did like the characters, everyone from our leads to Bellamy’s dad and the kids and Ezra. The characters, in many ways, drove the story for me. And the beginning maybe 25% of the story, what was arguably the most like the fairy tale, was awesome. I loved seeing everything unfold. It was just the stuff from then on that started losing me a little.

It was an interesting read to say the least and I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

Top Ten Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

Ok, now THIS sounds like fun.  If we can have band names like Panic! At the Disco and New Kids on the Block and all-male groups named Queen and the Goo-Goo Dolls, then I feel perfectly capable of turning book titles into band names.  I’ll even make it more interesting–I’ll tell you what genre they could be!

Let’s have some fun!

Top Ten Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

1. The Republic of Pirates

This is the nonfiction book I’m reading, and I gotta tell you, when I picture this (the book is literally a history book about the Golden Age of piracy), I picture a bunch of middle aged men dressed as pirates in some 80s cover band.  I’m not sure what band they cover, but it’s totally a cover band.  And not a good one at that.  Like your dad and the neighbor guys thinking they’re cool as they perform in your garage.

2. Scrappy Little Nobody

This Anna Kendrick memoir is perfect for my 90s girls group.  (Think like Spice Girls but with No Doubt’s self-assurance and fire.)  I see the people in this group as being super confident with a take-no-crap attitude.  I want to say that they’re pop, but they feel more rock.  So let’s just call them rock but with pop crossover success.

3. Some Boys

This seems to me like an all-female punk band.  Like how I mentioned Queen and the Goo-Goo Dolls earlier, this is along that line.  If guys can do it, surely girls can too.

4. All Your Twisted Secrets

This reminds me of Twisted Sister, so I’m going to call this one their cover band.  But like, a cooler version than Republic of Pirates.  One that’s actually good.  This one people actually buy tickets to.  Republic of Pirates plays at fairs and stuff and people just keep walking by.

5. The Bone Houses

For some reason, this reminds me of The Roots, so I’m feeling their style of music for this band.  I truly have no idea how I connected those two.

6. Famous in a Small Town

Maybe it’s because there’s a Miranda Lambert song by this name, but I see this as a country/folk/bluegrass band.  And I like this for a country-style band because country has a history of being able to make fun of itself and this band name would be pretty ironic, don’t you think?

7. The Leaving Season

This seems like a pretentious 60s and 70s British Invasion band, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  My first thought was something like The Beatles (who I actually do think are pretentious), but then I started leaning more toward like The Clash.

8. Wintersong

This group I think is contemporary and experimental.  I see them as a group that incorporates cellos and violins as well as some edgier guitar and drum beats.  Actually, I would probably really like that.  I’m a sucker for surprise appearances of cellos and violins in stuff.

9. The Edge of Never

This seems like a 90s grunge band, like the Foo Fighters.  The way this says “Edge of Never” reminds me of the way we talked in the 90s.  “And I told him, like never would I go out with him.”

10. Hello Stranger

This romance novel seemed like the perfect title for a 2010s boy band.  I mean, just look at it.  Do you know how many girls would swoon over a band that came on stage, pointed at someone random in the first few rows, and just said, “Hello Stranger” as some flirty line?  #MoneyMaker

This was so much fun!  I hope at least something along the way made you laugh or made you check out these books.  I’m going to have to remember this one to do it again.