My Reading List
The Inside Ring
By Mike Lawson
Joe DeMarco is a law school graduate working as a “fixer” for the Speaker of the House. At the Speaker’s request, DeMarco begins investigating an assassination attempt against the President. Did the man who admitted to the assassination attempt in a suicide note really do it? Or was the Secret Service hiding the truth? DeMarco seeks the answers while wadding through Washington politics and hidden agendas, risking his life to find the truth in a Georgia county run like a kingdom.
Review: The Inside Ring is the first book in the Joe DeMarco series and the first book I’ve read by Mike Lawson. While the plot was pretty good once the book got going, I would not read another book by Lawson. As a main character, I found DeMarco pretty unremarkable. He was neither likeable nor unlikeable. He didn’t seem all that intelligent, his “ah ha” moments coming largely when someone else was was hinting at what they had already deduced. It bothered me that DeMarco was supposed to be a “fixer” but he relied heavily on others to help him in his investigation.
In this book, DeMarco received the most assistance from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) agent named Emma. Lawson tells the reader, in a few pages, that DeMarco met Emma when he saved her life, thus beginning their relationship. In The Inside Ring, DeMarco partners with Emma (and an array of people that help her) to investigate the assassination attempt. This whole relationship baffled me. I can understand Emma repaying a favor, but Lawson indicates that Emma helps DeMarco on a fairly regular basis. Apart from absolute boredom and a bottomless fortune (which I did not get the impression that she had), I could not understand why Emma would bother spending the time and energy to help DeMarco.
Ultimately, the weak main characters and relationships are what proved to be the downfall of this book. It’s unfortunate because the plot was pretty interesting, and I enjoy finding new mystery authors that I enjoy.
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
By Jenny Lawson
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is more like a series of short stories rather than a traditional novel. Blogger Jenny Lawson tells story after story of her life, from her childhood through adulthood. There’s no plot – just a bunch of random stories and a lot of humor.
Review/Recommendation: When a friend recommended this book to me, I thought I’d love it. I thought it would be similar to Bossypants, which my husband and I both enjoyed. I later read that this book would also appeal to fans of David Sedaris, who I’ve also read and enjoyed.
Unfortunately, I found Let’s Pretend This Never Happened to be very different than Bossypants and a Sedaris book. The best way I can describe the writing and style of the book is raw… it’s pretty much 300 pages of unfiltered stream of consciousness. It was filled with cursing, misspellings, and bizarre tangents…. it very much felt like a personal journal or diary, or the blog entries I imagine Lawson writes (I’ve never read her blog). While the stories were funny, this style made it difficult to become and stay engaged in the book. Instead of devouring chapter after chapter, I read only a chapter at a time, with another book or two finished before I returned to this one.
That being said, this book was very funny – I laughed out loud several times. In fact, I’ve told my science fiction-loving husband that he had to read it – I was truly amazed at the amount of mentions of a zombie apocalypse, considering the book was a memoir. I actually had a hard time believing that most of the stories were real. I kept
thinking hoping that there was far more exaggeration in the stories Lawson described than she actually owned up to, because she frequently came across as a complete lunatic (at least to someone who had never heard of her or followed her writings).
Would I recommend this book? Perhaps. It definitely has a certain appeal, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
First, I’ll apologize for my sparsity of posts. I’ve been thinking about this blog and meaning to sit down to finish up some posts I’ve started but third trimester tiredness (less than 5 weeks to go!) as well as pregnancy-induced carpel tunnel (limiting my cooking and computer time) has gotten in the way. Rest assured, while I might be slowing down, I will be back. Just a little less frequently, and probably with more book reviews for a while.
This past week, I lost myself in a couple of older mysteries. I’ve always enjoyed Iris Johansen’s romantic suspense novels, but these two had a different feel to them.
Silent Thunder & Shadow Zone
By Iris Johansen & Roy Johansen
Silent Thunder (2008): Submersible designer Hannah Bryson and her brother Conner are evaluating the safety of a Soviet submarine (the Silent Thunder) before a museum opens the submarine up to the public. Minutes after the two discover a set of plates with strange engravings on them, Connor is killed. Hannah dodges attacks against herself while chasing after Connor’s murderers, with the help of both the CIA and Soviet submarine captain (and occasional CIA asset) Nicholas Kirov.
Shadow Zone (2010) : Hannah and Kirov return in this sequel. Hannah is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean mapping the lost underwater city of Marinth. Her research has uncovered so much about the people’s lives, leaving only the city’s downfall in question. Just as her mission comes to an end, she discovers an artifact that may be the key to uncovering the truth about the city’s demise. When the artifact is stolen by a weapons dealer, Hannah teams with Kirov to recover the artifact on their own, despite offers of assistance from the U.S. government. What they didn’t expect, however, was to get in the way of a grande ecoterrorism scheme.
Review: These have been the first books that have hooked my attention in quite a while. I actually finished one and within an hour, drove to the library to get the other. They are by no means great literature, but I enjoyed the mix of Johansen’s usual romantic suspense with the scientific adventure that reminded me of a Clive Cussler book. The big difference is that Johasen’s books are a much quicker read than most of Cussler’s and glaze over the scientific details that Cussler goes into. I’m more than ok with this.
If you’re looking for a light read – something to curl up in front of the fireplace with, or perhaps a beach book – this pair will easily hold your interest.
I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction novels, and actually tend to read a good number of them. Most of the historical fiction that I read are from the WWII time period. In January, I decided to challenge myself to diversify my reading habits a bit more. I stumbled across a historical fiction reading challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry, and thought I’d give it a shot. My other motivating for participating in this challenge was to encourage myself to post more book reviews (I know that I post a lot more cooking/baking posts). Part of that is because I read a lot of mystery novels, but don’t usually feel that those books deserve their own post. However, I do review most other books that I read.
When I started the challenge, I had hoped to read at least 20 historical fiction books during the course of the year (reaching the highest level of the challenge, “severe bookaholism”). Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards this year. 2012 ended up being busier than I expected with lots of travel, family in town, and getting ready to move. I also lost a couple of months to general listlessness during my first trimester.
While I didn’t meet my goal, I did read several historical fiction novels that I really enjoyed. Below, you can find a wrap-up of the books I read,with links to my reviews.
1 – The Invisible Bridge (by Julie Orringer)
2-4 -The Bronze Horseman Trilogy: The Bronze Horseman, Tatiana & Alexander, The Summer Garden (by Paullina Simons)
5 -Shadow of Night (Book 2 of the All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness)
6 – The Historian (by Elizabeth Kostova)
7 – The Secret Speech (by Tom Rob Smith)
I also read, but did not review The White Queen (by Phillippa Gregory): This book would probably have gotten a C- had I reviewed it. I remember really enjoying The Other Boleyn Girl, but The White Queen just didn’t do it for me. My attention kept drifting throughout the book.
Are you a fan of historical fiction novels? What are some of your favorites? I’d love some recommendations to read in 2013.
By Gillian Flynn
Nick and Amy had been together for 5 years. They’ve been through ups and downs – moving from NY to Nick’s hometown in Missouri when both lose their jobs and Nick’s mother falls ill.
On the morning of their 5th anniversary, Amy goes missing. As the husband, of course, Nick is the primary suspect. Unfortunately for Nick, things start looking worse and worse for him. His awkward demeanor on camera makes him appear suspicious and guilty. Details of his life with Amy consistently point to problems in their marriage. A review of the crime scene and evidence continues to point at Nick.
Is Amy alive or dead? Did Nick do it?
Review/Recommendation: This is another book that I had heard mixed reviews about. For a book that seemed to be a must read (it was on several summer reading and best seller lists), people seem to love it or hate it. Of the three friends I knew who were reading it at the same time I was, one was really enjoying book while the other two had a very hard time getting into it and struggled to finish it.
For the first 20 pages, I was convinced that I would have a very difficult time reading and finishing the book. It was something about the writing and the characters that just didn’t hook me. However, once I got past that point, I became engrossed in the story. The character development throughout the book is pretty dramatic. More and more details and insight into the characters’ lives and personalities were revealed the farther into the book you read. For me, I went from liking and pitying characters to hating them. It was a pleasure to see this sort of change throughout the book, rather than a stagnant character. In terms of plot, I’ll only say that for the most part, I was kept guessing.
If you enjoy mysteries and don’t mind a book that is a little slower reading, then I would recommend this book.
The Secret Speech
By Tom Rob Smith
In 1956, former Soviet secret police agent Leo Demidov worked in secrecy. In an attempt to put his past with the MGB behind him, he works for secret homicide department. The department seeks the truth, regardless of what it might be.
Leo’s life begins to unwind when current and former members of the secret police are murdered and Khrushchev’s secret speech (admitting the wrongs of Stalin) is released. When one of his adopted daughters is kidnapped by the same individual responsible for the murders taking place throughout the city, Leo’s world falls apart.
Leo and his wife embark on a long journey to get their daughter back. From the gulags (forced labor camps) of the eastern USSR to revolutionary Hungary in the west, Leo embarks on a journey that he never imagined, taking the place of the victims he once arrested and sometimes fighting the state he works for.
Review: I picked up this book with no expectations. It was one of the few books left for $1 at my local Borders just days before it closed. I enjoy historical fiction and most novels set in Russia/the Soviet Union, so for a buck, I figured it was worth a shot.
As I began reading, I became engrossed in the story pretty quickly, in large part due to the point of view. The entire book was told from Leo’s perspective, the perspective of both a tormenter and a victim. Despite the frequent reminders of the atrocities committed while working for the secret police, I felt for Leo throughout his ordeals because I knew he was remorseful. He knew that everything he did while with the MGB was wrong and that there was no excuse for it. All he could do was try to make up for it with his actions in the present and the future.
There were two or three scenes while Leo was in the gulag that were difficult to read. It’s a strength of the book that Smith was able to make the reader want to stop reading, to look away because of his descriptions. Power through it though. It does pass (I was definitely worried that all 400 pages would be set in the gulag and I wouldn’t have the stomach to finish it!) and the story is great.
I had a difficult time picking up a new book after finishing Shadow of Night. This has been happening to me a lot lately. I become so invested in the characters and the plot that it’s tough to start a new book.
After a months of staring at The Historian on my bookshelf, I finally decided to pick it up. Reading the book jacket, it seemed to have the same sort of historical fiction meets paranormal and suspense feeling as Shadow of Night, which made it a little easier for me to get into.
By Elizabeth Kostova
Old books, filled with blank pages except for a woodcut of a dragon at the center of the book, randomly appear to different people across the world. The recipient is usually a scholar and a lover of history. Those that receive the book are intrigued. They begin researching the unknown book and its history – chemical analysis is done to date and place the book, tales and symbols of dragons are researched, the life and legends of Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler) examined – at least until strange things start happening. People get hurt, started disappearing… causing the recipients to question their safety and the safety of those around them. Most eventually give up on the mystery to protect themselves and those around them.
This is exactly what happened to Professor Rossi and years later, his student Paul. The Historian chronicles first Rossi’s research and then Paul’s into the life and legend of Dracula in a series of stories and letters, flipping back and forth between past and present. How much of the stories are simply that, stories? How much of it is true? Could Dracula still be walking the earth today, undead?
Recommendation/Review: While I felt like I was reading this book forever, I did enjoy it. It was clear that a lot of research went into the historical components to make them as factual as possible. In fact, it took Kostova 10 years to write the book. There were definite lulls in the story as some of the historical aspects and descriptions travel throughout rural Europe went on a little long, but overall, these parts did not detract from the story. I continued to be hooked, wondering whether the mystery of the appearing books and Dracula would be solved and whether missing persons would be found.
In my opinion, the one major weakness of The Historian was end ending. After such a long book, it was pretty anti-climatic and long – I thought it would end three times before it actually did. Actually, I was surprised because I found the ending seemed to set Kostova up for a sequel, although I have yet to hear that she is working on one. Had the ending been stronger, it could have been a great book.
Missed my review of A Discovery of Witches, All Souls Trilogy #1? Check it out here.
If you haven’t read the first in the series, then this review will contain spoilers for you.
Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)
By Deborah Harkness
Shadow of Night picks up where A Discovery of Witches left off – newly married witch and vampire Diana and Matthew travel back in time to 1590. Their purpose is twofold: Diana needs to learn to use her powers and the couple want to discover the secrets behind Ashmole 782, an ancient alchemy manuscript that, legend has it, tells of the creation of witches, vampires, and daemons.
For Diana, a historian, the journey is surreal. She meets legends of the past she had only read about, such as Christopher Marlow and Queen Elizabeth II. She experiences the fear of witch hunts first hand, as witches are hunted and killed all over Europe. She meets witches more powerful than she’d ever known and with powers she hadn’t even heard of.
However, living in 1590 is not without its challenges. Diana and Matthew have to be extra careful not to change the past, causing “wrinkles” in the future. They have to tread carefully around tenuous alliances – amongst families, between witches and vampires, and between nation-states. And most of all, Diana has to learn enough magic to be able to transport them back to their own time.
Recommendation & Review: Unlike the first book in the series, set in contemporary times, Shadow of Night is largely set in the past. It is an interesting weave of romance, paranormal, and historical fiction. The relationship between Diana and Matthew matured in this second novel – while their deep love remained, Harkness depicts the tensions in a their relationship as two people continue to get to know one another and overcome their insecurities. Set in Europe in the late 1500s, these tensions were heightened by Diana being thrown into the unknown. With Matthew a member of the Queen’s court and a spy, the reader was treated to glimpses of the political tensions of the time – the witch hunts, life at court with a temperamental queen, the squabbles between countries…. all incredibly interesting from a historical fiction perspective, but these are unknown and potentially dangerous waters for Diana. Tensions increased as she attempted to understand these things she’d only read about and navigate safely back to the future.
I enjoyed Shadow of Night just as much as the first book in the series. However, the ending had a very different feeling for me. After finishing A Discovery of Witches, I cursed myself for started the series before it was finished – it ended with a big cliffhanger that kept me wanting much more. In comparison, the end Shadow of Night gave me more closure. I know exactly where the third book is going to pick up, but I wasn’t left with the same sense of desperation for the next book. That being said, I did have a bit of trouble picking up another book after this one was finished. I ended up sticking with a paranormal-ish historical fiction: The Historian, a book loosely woven around the legend of Dracula. I’m not going to lie, most of the time I pick up The Historian and try to remember where I am, the first pieces that come back to me are scenes from Shadow of Night. Talk about staying power!
The Graceling Realms
By Kristin Cashore
A Graceling is a person who possesses a particular skill, a Grace, far surpassing the capabilities of ordinary people. This skill might be practical – such as cooking, fighting, math – or something paranormal, such as mind-reading. Gracelings are distinguished from an early age by their eyes: each eye a different color.
In the land of seven kingdoms, Gracelings are treated differently. In most kingdoms, Gracelings are offered up to the kings. If the king had a use for a particular Grace, the Graceling lived at the court, trained, and served the kingdom. If their Grace was not useful, they were sent home to lead a normal life, although they were often ostracized by their neighbors.
Graceling (published Oct. 2008): In Cashore’s debut novel, Lady Katsa, niece to the king of Middluns, is graced with an unbelievable ability to fight. Trained by the royal guard, she becomes known as the king’s thug, his enforcer. She is the one he sends to enforce his will or punish those who disobey him.
However, as Katsa grows older, she begins to use her Grace for good. She and a trusted group form the Council, under which they attempt to right the wrongs committed by monarchs across the seven kingdoms. After one of these such quests, she meets and befriends Prince Po of Lienid. Together, they embark on a long journey against Katsa’s toughest adversary yet, an adversary she shouldn’t have a chance against.
Spoiler: During this adventure, Katsa rescues 10-year old Princess Bitterblue of Monsea and falls in love.
Fire (published Oct. 2009): The second book in the Graceling Realm series is sort of a prequel to Graceling. Only one character from the first book appears in Fire. The character does not play a huge role in the story but we do get a glimpse of his past, which is not detailed in Graceling.
The main storyline in Fire revolves around a monster named Fire. The only human monster left in Dells (the other monsters in the story are colorful, hypnotic animals, most with a taste for blood), beautiful Fire struggles to distinguish herself from her father’s awful legacy. Like all monsters, Fire’s presence is alluring. People are drawn to her, sometimes in attraction and other times in hostility. However, Fire’s kindness and morality overcome her father’s legacy of violence, cruelty, and selfishness as she embarks on a journey to help save the monarchy in Dells and limit the damages of civil war.
Bitterblue (written with Ian Schoenherr, published May 2012): Graceling ends. Fast-forward eight years. Bitterblue is queen of Monsea. Under her leadership, the kingdom is working to recover from life under Bitterblue’s crazy, manipulative predecessor.
However, Bitterblue’s advisers and subordinates are beginning to act strangely. She’s unable to implement the programs she wants to. Her advisers are seen wandering the castle at odd hours. In an attempt to gain some space and freedom, Bitterblue begins sneaking out of the castle into the city. She becomes drawn by glimpses of the past, of unanswered questions. As her advisers act increasing odd and her new friends in the city are threatened, Bitterblue isn’t quite sure what to do. Katsa, Po, and several other characters from Graceling are around to help Bitterblue out.
Review: One of the awesome things about my book club is that every one of us has a different taste in books. Graceling was chosen by an elementary school media specialist-librarian. For the third time, her pick was a success (see: Hunger Games and Life As We Knew It). I really enjoyed Graceling, so much that I couldn’t wait for the second and third book to come from the library. Thank you, Nook.
Overall, this was a great series, a very quick, light read. After the second book, I was wondering if it was necessary to read them in order. I still think that the first two books can be flip-flopped, if really needed, but Bitterblue pulls the stories together beautifully. (Nope, not going to explain how Fire is tied in with Graceling. I don’t want to spoil anything for you.)
Each of the three books has very similar themes: a little romance, fighting tyrants in the kingdoms (both living and after their death), overcoming perceptions… It sounds like the typical formula, but I was sucked in. The characters were fun and a little quirky. I especially enjoyed the strong female roles in the first two books.
I only had one complaint with these books. No, with one book, Bitterblue. There were parts of Bitterblue were the voice was wrong, the dialog a little off. The moments were few and far between, but there were definitely moments when I raised my eyebrows at something out of character (such as a “man,” suck at the end of a sentence, something similar to a “come on, man”). I suspect this comes from the fact that the third book was co-authored, unlike the first two. A minor detail, but I hope that if Cashore continues on with the series, that she either writes new books herself or she/her editor pay closer attention to the changes in voice.
This was a great fantasy-ish young adult series that I’d definitely recommend. Because of the heavy dose of romance, the series had a more chick-lit feel to it, rather than fantasy. It’s a great beach book.