Stepsister

Image result for stepsister jennifer donnellyFirst Lines: Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.  The first was a maiden.  Her hair, long and loose, was the color of the morning sun.

I’m a fan of Donnelly’s historical fictions, like These Shallow Graves in particular.  And I’m always down for a fairy tale retelling, especially since I tried writing this particular story in college.  (I’ve always been slightly fascinated with what must have happened to Cinderella’s family after she left.)  So I thought this book might scratch that itch.

Isabelle should be happy–after all, a prince is waiting to escort her to his carriage.  Only Isabelle isn’t actually the girl the prince is after.  And that glass slipper on her foot?  It’s rapidly filling with blood now that she’s cut off her toes to fit into it.  When the prince discovers her family’s deceptions, they are shamed far and wide.  Isabelle is not particularly surprised–she’s the ugly stepsister after all, a girl who is fierce and fiery, but certainly not pretty or polite or kind.  Isabelle has tried to fit in, to be that perfect model of feminine beauty and follow her mother’s instructions, but all that’s done is leave her mean, hollow, and ugly.  But when Isabelle gets the chance to change her destiny, will she be strong enough to take it?

I’d heard a lot of things about this book before I started, to the point where I eventually got the impression this was supposed to be one of the best books of the year.

I’m not seeing that.

I love a good fairy tale retelling, but I will fully admit that Cinderella is far (and I mean really far) down my list of favorite fairy tales. As in I kind of hate it. But at the same time, I’ve always mulled over the question of what happened to the stepsisters after she left, as I mentioned earlier. (Funny enough, it started off very similarly to this book.)

I’ll start by saying that I liked Isabelle and Tavi. Their lives are slowly destroyed by others who want them to fit a specific mold–their mother pits them against the prettier Ella, the villagers call them ugly for their treatment of the now Queen, and neither of them is allowed to live the life they want. These are “atypical” girls who want to be warriors and mathematicians, not dainty girls who are only interested in marriage and starting families.

I liked how various elements of the story were all woven together from beginning to end. Things you’d almost forgot about showed up again later to great satisfaction. That was fun to read.

But I found the book to be too heavy-handed with its philosophy. The feminism in this was about as subtle as a donkey-kick to the gut. I’m all about empowering women and remembering strong women in history, but I was almost rolling my eyes throughout this for how in your face this was. There’s even a whole bit in this about rewriting history as “herstory”. And while I completely get the point, I felt by the end that this book was preaching at me. I don’t respond well to forceful preaching.

I was also struggling with the Fate vs. Chance thing. There’s magic in this book, but it’s mostly this fight between the actual Fates and a character named Chance. Chance is trying to mess with destiny by mostly allowing random things to happen while the Fates are very organized yet pessimistic about humans. I felt it was kind of an odd thing to add to the story and detracted from the retelling. I actually wanted more about the girls, not this odd subplot.

This was not what I thought it would be. I thought it would be more fairy tale than it ended up being. This was not the book for me.

My Christmas Reread: The Afterlife of Holly Chase

When it comes to Christmas, I’ve pretty much got this in the bag.  I’ve memorized a bunch of the movies, tons of the songs, and I baked a bunch of Christmas sugar cookies a few weeks ago.  And my Christmas decorations were up on November 10th this year, now that I have my own place and no one can complain about how early I put everything up.

I feel like a lot of my Christmas spirit is my parents’ fault.  After all, they named me Holly, even though my birthday is almost literally as far away from Christmas as it could possibly be.  (My birthday’s at the end of June, folks.)

To get into the holiday spirit, I’ve been mostly listening to music and watching movies.  But I really wanted to reread this book that I discovered last year.

Image result for the afterlife of holly chaseThe Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand is a wonderful holiday read if you haven’t discovered it yet.  (And I’m not just saying that because I have the same first name as the main character, though that is pretty epic.)

This modern twist on A Christmas Carol introduces us to Holly, a self-centered Malibu social media queen.  Holly is mean and cares more about fashion and status than she does about people.  Then, of course, she’s visited by three spirits, who try to lead her on a better life path, full of kindness and caring.

They failed.  And that’s where Holly’s story begins.

See, Holly was warned that if she didn’t listen to the spirits, she’d die within the year.  And they weren’t lying.

Now, as a spirit herself, she’s been recruited by Project Scrooge to be the Ghost of Christmas Past and help other Scrooges like herself redeem themselves.  For years, she’s been reluctantly doing her job.  But this year, when the Scrooge is a hot seventeen year old like herself, Holly finds herself drawn to him.  He’s just like her…can she save him when she couldn’t save herself?

I adore this book, y’all.  I don’t want to necessarily turn this into a review, but it’s adorable.  Predictable?  Maybe.  But don’t tell me y’all don’t watch Hallmark movies without guessing the endings.  And truly, this isn’t as predictable as you might think.  There are some pretty massive twists still in this story that you’re not necessarily going to be able to figure out, even if you know something’s off.

It’s kind of the perfect Christmas story, in that it’s all about redemption.  Holly can be a bit unlikable at times, but you also kind of understand why she’s the way she is.  She may seem perfect on the outside, but that’s to hide the insecurities she holds close and that’s such a relatable thing.  We don’t always want people to see us break, and that’s what Holly’s hiding.

But on top of that, as an English nerd, I loved how the original story was updated and  how it incorporated the original into this one.  It’s not this subtle search for clues.  It’s pretty in-your-face.  It’s Project Scrooge.  And for each Scrooge they pick, they try to make it fit the original narrative–who is this person’s Bob Crachit?  Who is his Marley or his Belle?  It’s really imaginative and I love that it totally embraced the original while still putting its own spin on things.

Also, it’s a fast read.  I know I’ve read it before, but I got this done in a couple of days easily.  Holly’s voice is really clear and easy to sink into.  I kept trying to find five minutes to pick it up again.

It’s a wonderful story and I highly recommend.  If you’ve got the chance before Christmas (or even after!), get your hands on this book.  I love it and I think rereading it is going to be a new Christmas tradition for me.

Top Ten Most Surprising Reads of 2019

It’s that time of year again!  I’m ready.  For probably most of the rest of the month, you’re going to see what I liked/didn’t like about the books of 2019.  And I’m so here for it.  I love looking back on books and seeing what was awesome, and what maybe wasn’t.

So let’s check these out!  These were the ones I either picked up without knowing anything about the book or they exceeded my expectations by quite a bit.

What’s funny is these picks were only January through August…but I think you’ll be seeing the others soon.

Top Ten Most Surprising Reads of 2019

1. Something Real by Heather Demetrios

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this, based on how I don’t really like or watch much reality TV (and that’s the subject of this book–a family with a ton of kids who’ve had a TV show basically their whole lives).  But actually, it was so much better than I expected.

2. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

I am loving this resurgence of stuff about Mr. Rogers, and this book was worth it.  There was so much in this book about Mr. Rogers that I didn’t know before and it made me respect him all the more for it.  The man truly did love kids with his entire heart and everything he did was to help kids.

3. On the Spectrum by Jennifer Gold

The only reason I originally picked this up was because there were Eiffel Towers on the cover and I’m a little obsessed with reading stories about France.  But this story ended up being so much more, especially with the main character’s half-brother being on the spectrum (which was part of the reason for the title, if you didn’t know).  It was such a sweet story though.  Truly touching.

4. All Fall Down by Ally Carter

I’ve enjoyed Ally Carter’s writing before, but I kind of figured this would fit the same formulaic mold of her previous series.  And while I wasn’t entirely wrong, I did enjoy the darkness in this story.  I think Grace is probably one of the darkest characters she’s ever written and there was something edgy and real about that that I was drawn to.

5. A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

I’m a sucker for a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so this was a shoo-in when I found out about it.  I actually even forgot it was on my to-read list when I found it at the library.  I read the jacket and was like, “Why is this not on my list?” (…yeah…it was there…)  But man, did this blast everything out of the water.  Such an entertaining story.  I even went out and bought it after I read it.

6. The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin

I had this one as an ARC and I was looking forward to it from my history nerd side.  A modern retelling of King Henry VIII and his six wives?  Sounded promising.  And while it maybe didn’t exceed my expectations, it definitely took me by surprise with its wit, feminism, and interesting twists.  Some of the connections to history were incredibly subtle and I appreciated them all the same.

7. The Leaving Season by Cat Jordan

I’d been aware of this book for some time, but reading it was actually something of an experience.  It ran the gamut of emotions, from happy to sad to despairing to hopeful to lost to everything else in between.  It was such a poignant book.

8. Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

I want to preface this by saying that I abhor the Roaring Twenties.  I loath them, the excess of the time, the wild parties and Flappers and all of that.  (I’m not sure why, but it strikes me the wrong way.  Maybe it was a bad experience with The Great Gatsby, I don’t know.)  But this semi-modern retelling of my favorite Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, had my attention.  And truly, it was incredibly well done.  Even the stuff about the 20s.

9. City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I had this Middle Grade book from Scholastic sitting at my house for a while.  I like to read these books before I take them to school and the kids steal them.  I like ghost stories, Scotland, and Victoria Schwab, so I figured it was going to be good.  But in many respects, it was better than I thought it would be.  And it was a super fast read, which I loved too.

10. An Affair of Poisons by Addie Thorley

“Poison” in the title had my attention because…well, I’m weird like that, I guess?  But the jacket hooked me, talking about royals and poisoning plots and magic.  Oh, and France.  We’ve established my obsession with that.  For a book I’d not heard of until I saw it at the library, it completely exceeded my expectations.  I loved everything about it.

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, #7)

Image result for kingdom of ashFirst Lines: He had been hunting for her since the moment she was taken from him.

Alright, y’all, I finally did it.  This has been sitting on my shelf since August after months of putting it off prior to that.  Why did I wait so long?  Partly because I feared what would happen, partly because it had been 3 years since the last time I read about Aelin.  (I read Tower of Dawn like a year or two ago, but Aelin wasn’t in that book.)  I feared it had been too long since I’d followed her story.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead.  Dude, it’s the final book in the series.  Proceed at your own risk.*

Aelin has vowed to protect her people at all costs–and what a terrible cost it’s been.  Locked away in an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin will have to rely on her strength to get through the torture Maeve has in mind.  Because if Maeve learns anything at all that Aelin is hiding, it could mean the end of everything she loves.  But each day is getting harder and harder to withstand.  With Aelin captured, her friends are scattered across the lands, desperate to fight back in whatever way they can.  Bonds will grow deeper, some friendships will be tested.  And some will not make it.

Before anyone starts berating me for my rating, I just want to say that a lot of my issues with this book simply stem from the fact that it’s been so long since I read the previous books that I struggled to remember what happened. But I also had a few other minor issues.

But first, what was good. Obviously, as the last book in a series, there’s a lot that still had to happen. The last time we saw Aelin (two books ago), she was in some Pretty Serious Trouble, to put it mildly. So I was absolutely looking forward to seeing how that played out and I was pretty satisfied with that.

I also adore these characters. I reread my previous reviews before reading this and in most of the reviews, I had specific characters that I adored and wanted to see more of as time went on. First Chaol. Then Aelin and Rowan. Then Aedion. Then Elide and Lorcan. Then back to Chaol and Yrene. I mean, there isn’t a terribly written character anywhere in this series. One way or another, you come to love most of them. And that’s pretty awesome. (Until it isn’t. I mean, this is the last book in a series. Things happen…)

And now we start getting into what was a little dicey for me.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s been so long since I read the other books (Empire of Storms was November 2016!) that I truly had a hard time remembering things. I relied heavily on Google during the early chapters to remember who some of the characters were. But the great thing about Maas’s writing is that once I saw what happened to those characters in previous books, I actually usually had a pretty vivid picture of something they did in my head.

Also, I’m still not over the fact that there are so many references to things that happened in Assassin’s Blade and it isn’t quite part of the series. At this point, I gave up on ever reading that and just dealt with not knowing who Captain Rolfe was beyond Empire of Storms and a few other characters.

But perhaps one of my strongest beefs with this story is the same issue I tend to have with a lot of final books in series: the Final Battle. I mean, look, I get it. We’ve been building up to a Standoff for the last six tomes in this series. We’ve got to have something epic to end on. But with this book being a monster 980 pages, I felt like 75% of this book was engaged in some sort of battle. And while that was fun and exciting in the beginning, it was starting to get a little old by page 600.

It didn’t exactly help matters that the story was told from about 12 different people’s perspectives. Yes, I wanted to see what they all had to say. I’m not exactly bemoaning the narrators. But it seemed a lot of the time like 6 of the characters were fighting all the time and we’d get a short reprieve with 1-2 of the others for a time, then we were back in the thick of it. And as dark as this story gets, it was hard to be stuck in those dark emotions for long enough to make any serious progress on the book.

In the end, the ending was pretty satisfying though.

Look, we all know Maas is amazing. I’m certainly not discrediting that. I just felt this was not one of her better books. And I discovered a few years ago that I adored A Court of Thorns and Roses series more than this one, so I could be a little biased in that regard.

The Bone Houses

Image result for the bone housesFirst Lines: The gravedigger’s children were troublemakers.  They chased chickens through the neighbors’ yards, brandishing sticks like swords, claiming that the fowl were monsters in disguise.

When I knew this book was coming out, I was so excited I can’t even tell you.  Emily Lloyd-Jones’s previous book, The Hearts We Sold, was one of my favorites from a few years back.  And this promised to be good too.

Aderyn or “Ryn” only cares about her family and the graveyard they run.  However, with the graveyard business struggling at the moment, Ryn’s family is near destitute–and it looks to get worse before it gets better.  See, the dead of Colbren don’t always stay dead.  These rising dead are known as “bone houses” and they supposedly resulted from an old curse.  When Ellis, a mapmaker from a nearby town, arrives in Colbren, the bone houses seem to get more brazen.  What’s drawing them to the village?  The only way to find out is for Ellis and Ryn to go into the woods and see if they can unravel the mystery…and hope they don’t end up as a bone house themselves.

For the most part, it was everything I wanted it to be.

In this story, we’re introduced to Ryn, a gravedigger in the small village of Colbren, and Ellis, a mapmaker with mysterious past. The two of them are very different characters, but they work together well. Their chemistry was really cool and I liked how their personalities came out on the journey.

I also like that this is a fantasy standalone, as that virtually never happens. The story moves quickly for that reason and there’s always action coming. The only downside is that this can sometimes make the story predictable.

And that was really my only downside to this story. There’s a massive twist in the story, but it was far too easy to spot. Not only that, but there were other moments along the way that were lacking in surprise. That wasn’t a deterrent from continuing to read the book, but it was a little disappointing/frustrating when the characters couldn’t figure out what I saw five or more chapters ago.

Lloyd-Jones’s writing must be somewhat formulaic because this story seemed to follow the same types of twists and turns that her previous book did. I was on the lookout for certain things because I know she had the guts to go there and sure enough, those types of things happened. It’s not a bad thing because they story was still exciting, but again, it goes back to the predictability.

I feel like I’m bashing the book and that’s definitely not my intent. The story is really interesting. Inside the forest, the dead come back to life every day after sundown if they weren’t given a proper burial. Ryn has a very interesting perspective on things, as a gravedigger. It makes her tough and it was fun to read her side of things. And then there’s Ellis, who has a very different set of skills and is more attune to details. Their perspectives worked.

It was a good book. Truly.

The Rest of the Story

Image result for the rest of the storyFirst Lines: There weren’t a lot of memories, especially good ones.  But there was this.  “Tell me a story,” I’d say when it was bedtime but I wasn’t at all sleepy.  “Oh honey,” my mom would reply.  “I’m tired.”

It’s probably semi-embarrassing to admit this, but it’s been quite a few years since I read anything by Sarah Dessen.  (According to my Goodreads, it’s been nearly 4 years…)  But I heard so many good things about this book and it being a Goodreads Awards finalist, I decided I needed to read it.

Emma Saylor doesn’t really remember her mother, who died years ago.  The only thing she does remember well are the stories her mother told her about the lake.  Now that it’s just Emma and her dad, life’s pretty predictable.  Or at least it was.  While her dad’s on his honeymoon with his new wife, Emma is sent to stay with her mother’s family at North Lake to stay with the grandmother, aunt, and cousins she doesn’t remember at all.  It soon becomes clear that there are two different lakes: North Lake is a working class community while Lake North, where her father spent his summers, is a rich resort area.  And the longer she says with her family, the more she feels divided into two different people.  With the help of her cousins and her new-old-friend Roo, Emma is determined to put together the pieces of who her mother was.

I forgot how good Dessen’s writing is.  Nuanced and subtle, her stories never quite go where you initially thought they would, but they certain go where you want them to.

In this story, we’re introduced to Emma Saylor, Emma to her dad’s side, Saylor to her mom’s side. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call her Emma. Emma is anxious about virtually everything, bordering on OCD as a result of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s sudden death about five years earlier. I really related to her anxiety, seeing as I’d been just like her at that age. But aside from all of that, Emma’s curious. She wants to use this summer to get to know her mom better, from the memories of the people at North Lake.

I didn’t think I would, but I really liked the North Lake/Lake North differences. It’s a class issue and I liked how it was portrayed. Emma technically comes from Lake North stock, growing up with money. But her mom’s family is from North Lake, the working class side of the lake where most people hold more than one job in the summer. It was all shown very well, sometimes showing their stark differences, sometimes focusing instead on how both sides have the same struggles.

Most of you know Dessen’s writing style–you know what you’re getting into. It’s the same kind of story we’ve come to expect. It’s deep but charming and funny with real characters. It’s sweet but also so real you can’t look away from the bad times either. There are plenty of ups and downs for Emma and the others and I was just moved by it.

Such a gorgeous story. Worth the read.  And so worth being a Goodreads Award nominee.

The Boy Who Sneaks In My Bedroom Window

Image result for the boy who sneaks in my bedroom windowFirst Lines: I sat on the kitchen counter, watching my mom make pasta bake.  She was panicking slightly and kept glancing at the clock every couple of minutes.  I knew why she did this–my dad was due home in exactly sixteen minutes and he liked dinner to be on the table as soon as he got in.

This book has been on my Kindle for a few years now and I only just got around to reading it when I was looking for something a little different.  It has a ton of ratings on Goodreads and a pretty high rating overall (3.92/5), so I thought it would be worth looking into.

Amber Walker can’t stand Liam James by day.  Liam is her brother’s best friend and he’s constantly being a cocky jerk to her.  He’s a player who a trail of broken hearts behind him.  But at night, Liam is Amber’s protector, the one who keeps her nightmares of her abusive childhood from overwhelming her.  He’s the only one who truly understands how badly her past hurts her.  Amber knows Liam is the last person she should fall for, but she’s not sure she can stop it from happening…

In the end, I ended up feeling a little disappointed by it all, especially given how highly it was rated. That was especially disappointing.

First of all, this is so pre-Me Too that it almost hurts. The beginning of the book is so uncomfortable. Amber has a Tragic Backstory that makes her uncomfortable with anyone touching her. So of course, everyone from the waiter at the Chinese restaurant to the random dude at a party have to practically grope her All The Time.  Also, on nearly every page it seems, someone is being called a slut. It is equal opportunity, referring to men as well as women, but it was too much for me.  And all anyone seems to care about is getting some.  Literally, that’s the story.

The story did get better once it started settling down from that and sinking into the romance. Amber and Liam are a cute couple who really enjoy teasing each other, and some of Amber’s antics were really funny. I was giggling out loud as I read. I really got into the middle of the book as they tried to figure things out.

And then back toward the ending, I started to lose it again. It started to feel like a soap opera, with everything that could go wrong happening. I mean, I had been starting to wonder what exactly was the plot of the story, but it was a bit too predictable and dramatic for me at the end.

For the most part, the characters were pretty good, if sometimes inexplicably odd. Liam is sort of painted as the female fantasy, and while I thought he was cute, he wasn’t McDreamy.  In fact, some of his comments about Amber (whom he calls “Angel” and almost never calls “Amber”) are actually pretty creepy. Amber’s trauma is sometimes painted as a positive almost, a quirk that makes her cute rather than showing the horror she’s lived through.  It’s hard for me to reconcile her trauma with, “Look at how she flinches away from everyone but me.  Isn’t that cute?”  Same for her brother Jake, who is overprotective to a fault and yet it’s almost brushed off as a positive, even though he threatens to kill people on a daily basis.  I was concerned about what I was reading more than once.

The plot sort of meanders without any clear focus. For a while it seems like the plot is one thing. Then it’s something totally different. And then it’s a third thing. I didn’t really know what to make of that, but it didn’t make it a bad story.

Was it diverting for a weekend read?  Yeah.  But I kind of shudder to think of actual teenagers reading this and thinking these things are normal.  Remember when everyone was reading Twilight and, as teenagers, we swooned over Edward sneaking in to watch Bella sleep but adults were weirded out?  Yeah…that’s this book.