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.
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County: A Novel
By Tiffany Baker
Born in a small town, Truly was the polar opposite of her sister Serena Jane. While Serena Jane was blond, petite, porcelain-skinned, and wore cute little dresses, Truly was a brunette so large that she wore men’s clothing and handmade sack-like dresses. And she kept growing bigger.
Truly had a hard life. Her mom died in childbirth. After her father passed away, she went to live with a poor family on the outskirts of town while her sister lived with a middle-class family where she was pampered. Life went on, with Serena Jane marrying the man who became the town doctor, Dr. Robert Morgan. However, Serena Jane had an unhappy marriage and ran away. Her husband, in turn, blackmailed Truly into living with him to keep house and raise his son. (Can you tell that the 10-15 years was hard to condense?)
In this midst of this new life, Truly was forced to deal with issues about her body, health, and self-esteem. In the midst of this, she inadvertently discovered the Morgan family legend: the book of herbs and remedies written by the family witch many years ago. The book was not actually a book but a quilt that has been in the family for generations.
Review: This was a particularly difficult book to review, and because of that, I’m not going to assign a letter grade for the book at the end of the post.
My hardcover edition was only 340 pages, and I’d say that I didn’t become really interested into the story until more than a quarter of the way through it, around page 80-100. I usually give up on books before that point if I’m not interested, but this time, I kept reading. I’m not quite sure why the story didn’t grab me – it could have been the writing; it could have been the characters, not exactly people I’d relate to; it could have been the mood, which wasn’t exactly uplifting. I spent a good chunk of the book feeling sorry for Truly and annoyed at her for not leaving Morgan for treating her badly.
Even once I got past the first 100 pages, I wouldn’t say that this was a book that I was truly engaged in. I could have put it down and been just fine. Ultimately, I don’t think this book was worth the effort.
Recommendation: The book wasn’t bad, and I don’t want it to come off as such. I just think that something about it… it just wasn’t my cup of tea. It was a lot of work to get into, so I’d probably advise that you skip this one.
The Night Circus
By Erin Morgenstern
In the late 1800s, unbeknownst to each other, Celia and Marcus are bound together by powerful magic. For several years, the two are mentored by magicians of different philosophies. They are taught to finesse their trade and understand their strengths in order to prepare for an undefined challenge that only one can win.
The venue for the challenge is Le Cirque des Rêves, a circus that comes and goes without warning. The circus is unusual. Only open at night, the circus is a stunning vision in black and white. It’s a magical place filled with the smell of warm caramel apples and tents full of bottled memories, mazes, ice sculptures, and more. It is at the circus that Celia and Marcus use their imaginations and willpower in exhibitions, in order to win the challenge.
But outside the circus, Celia and Marcus fall in love. A love that is forbidden by the bond they shared since childhood.
Recommendation: Although there was a lot of hype about The Night Circus, I initially had no interest in the book. I ended up reading it for a book club, and the day after I started it, Life Is Short, Read Fast posted a review. Jennie had similar misgivings as I did but ended up loving the book. She gave me hope!
I ended up really enjoying The Night Circus. One of the big strengths of The Night Circus was the writing, and the incredible descriptions of just about everything. The magical places came alive with the vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of the circus. Remember those long books you used to read in school, where the author would describe the street for pages upon pages? This isn’t it. You need and want those descriptions in order to really get a feel for the circus.
Pretty quickly, I got pulled into the story and attached to the characters (although I will admit that it took me a little while to keep them straight). Some of the scenes were written in a vague, mysterious manner which only encouraged me to read a little longer, staying up a little later. The magical world was far more mature than the likes of Harry Potter, but if you enjoyed A Discovery of Witches, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.
The Lover’s Dictionary
The Lover’s Dictionary is a short chronicle of a couple’s relationship. The book is written in the form of a dictionary, with each dictionary word representing a memory, an event, or a challenge in the couple’s relationship.
Recommendation: Reading the book jacket, I wasn’t immediately drawn to The Lover’s Dictionary. I ended up reading it based on recommendations and reviews,* and ultimately, I really enjoyed it. The book is very short and a pretty quick read (I read it over a busy weekend), but it does invoke a bit of thought. I loved the unique format of the book. Even though the entries are not very long – a line or two to a couple of pages – the entries succeed in telling the story about the two nameless, genderless characters (referred to as I, me, and you). You would think that with the short chapters and the lack of even a gender for the main characters, that it would be difficult to get to know the characters, but that isn’t the case. Levithan succeeds in portraying the character’s personalities and the dynamics of their relationship. As a reader, I felt the awkwardness of drunken nights, the excitement in their adventures, the pain in their struggles.
The Lover’s Dictionary is not in chronological order so there were a couple pieces that kind of fell away until a number of pages later when it was brought up or alluded to again. But in the end, you still see the whole picture of their relationship.
Read this book. It’s short – you’ll fly through it, but it’s well-written and completely worth your time.
* In addition to being reviewed and discussed in several book blogs, this book was rated Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2011 .
By Catherine Anderson
Isaiah Coulter is a single veterinarian, successful but a little absentminded. His mother is determined to set him up with someone who will take care of him.
Enter Laura Townsend. She’s a beautiful and PhD smart. But she was in an accident that left her with permanent brain damage, including difficulties speaking and staying focused. When Isaiah and Laura meet, Laura is lonely and working odd jobs, cleaning houses and walking dogs. Her love of animals (along with fearing his mother’s reprisal) convinces Isaiah to give Laura a shot working at the veterinary clinic.
Laura’s time at the clinic is a wonderful adventure. She loves working with the animals, and developing new friendships. However, it’s not without problems. Mistakes occur on Laura’s shift. Is Laura losing her focus or is someone plotting against her? Also, Laura falls hard for Isaiah. But how can it work out? He’s her employer, and besides, why would someone like him fall for someone like her, who has trouble speaking words longer than two syllables. But she’s wrong. Isaiah cares for Laura just as much as she cares for him….
Recommendation: Yes. My Sunshine was a light, sweet story. I liked the characters and felt the story was original. Although it is part of a series following the Coulter family, I read it as a standalone book and wouldn’t have known it was a series except for 1 sentence at the end of the book.
Again, there are slight spoilers in this review, but I tried to keep them to a minimum.
The Summer Garden
The Tatiana and Alexander Series, Book 3
By Paullina Simons
The Summer Garden is the final book in the Tatiana and Alexander series, and chronicles Tatiana and Alexander Barrington’s life together as adults. The Barrington’s life is broken up into three different periods. Immediately after their return from Europe, they try to figure out life together – adjusting to peacetime and to being together. They struggle with trusting the government under which they now live, with fears of the Soviet Union, communism, and betrayal still so close to the surface.
As some of these fears and anxieties are dealt with, Tatiana and Alexander settle down to build a life together and for their family. Instead of worrying about being deported or thrown in prison, their emotions and anxieties are centered around what we worry about today – where to work and how to pay the bills, what our friends/coworkers are saying/thinking about us, jealousy and protectiveness over their spouse, how our children are raised and are developing…The couple are consumed by these worries, unhappy and fighting. It is probably the most difficult time in their relationship.
Tatiana and Alexander eventually moved past this period in their lives, in a series of tension-building scenes. The Barringtons reach an agreeable and comfortable point in their relationship. They are happy and blissful. They have the family and home they’ve always wanted. It’s not without problems and fears (nope, not going to tell you what they are), but Tatiana and Alexander have reached a more peaceful point in their lives.
Interspersed with the chronological journey through Tatiana and Alexander’s adulthood were interludes of Tatiana’s summers at her dacha* in Luga. These interludes provide additional insight into Tatiana’s personality and her relationships with twin brother Pasha and cousin Marina. In addition, they provide context for some of the references to these time periods throughout this final novel.
* Dacha is Russian for a family’s second house, where the family retreats to in the summer or for vacation. It was (and still is ) common for city-dwelling families to have dachas in the suburbs.
Recommendation: The Summer Garden was a wonderful way to finish this series. Most of the loose ends, holes, and questions were explained in this huge final book in the series. Like the previous books, you, the reader, could feel the characters’ every emotion throughout the book, to the point where some parts were hard for me to read. Everything I enjoyed about the previous books were present in the final book.
I was really interested to find out how the series ended… I’ve become so attached to Tatiana and Alexander but they endured so many struggles and so much heartache, that it wouldn’t have surprised me if the series ended with some sort of catastrophe. I don’t remember when I wanted a happy ending so badly, but I’m really glad Simons delivered on that!