Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu

Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu
Pub. Date: May 5, 2015 (orig. April, 2010)
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, First Second!!)
Summary: Zoe isn’t exactly the intellectual type, which is why she doesn’t recognize world-famous author Thomas Rocher when she stumbles into his apartment…and into his life. It’s also why she doesn’t know that Rocher is supposed to be dead. Turns out, Rocher faked his death years ago to escape his critics, and has been making a killing releasing his new work as “lost manuscripts,” in cahoots with his editor/ex-wife Agathe. Neither of them would have invited a crass party girl like Zoe into their literary conspiracy of two, but now that she’s there anyway. . . . Zoe doesn’t know Balzac from Batman, but she’s going to have to wise up fast… because she’s sitting on the literary scandal of the century!
Genre: Humor, Romance, Graphic Novel
Recommended for: Fans of light-hearted comedies and charming artwork

Zoe is twenty-two and going nowhere fast. She has a crummy job at an ad agency and it’s not unusual for her to take a gig only to be felt up by sleezy men. Her home life isn’t any better: her boyfriend is a total slob and only looks for work when he needs some quick cash. The girls Zoe works with are only working in order to pay for school, while Zoe’s simply stuck where she is. One day, while feeling sorry for herself, she sits on a park bench and meets the eye of a man in an apartment building a few stories up. Had Zoe been a reader, she would have realized this man was the famous author Thomas Rocher…the famous author who had supposedly died a few years back.

When Thomas slowly came to the realization his books weren’t the bestsellers they once were, he came up with a plan with his editor (and then-wife). They would fake his death and, sure enough, his books were soon flying off the shelves. A “discovered” manuscript led to yet another bestseller and a few more “unearthed” novels made their way into the public eye. Now, however, Thomas lost his spark. His inspiration ran dry, that is, until the day he met Zoe. Suddenly the words began to flow and soon he has what could be his magnum opus, his best work yet.

Exquisite Corpse was absolutely lovely! The artwork was totally charming and Thomas has a cat named Gatsby. Yes, please! ALSO, the entire novel is set in Paris. Need I say more?? Almost instantaneously Zoe leaves her crappy life to live with Thomas and, while I would have loved a little more time spent developing their relationship (it literally goes from the pair meeting to them living together with a two-month jump in time – as a reader I want to get the behind-the-scenes look into their lives!) I have to say I really enjoyed them. Okay, so Thomas is a decade or two older and kind of scruffy but I was on board!

The ending kind of threw me though. Okay, guys. I try to avoid spoilers, but the blurb completely ruined most of the twists, so here goes it: Zoe’s revenge is delightfully evil – especially because there’s nothing Thomas could do to refute her claims without announcing to the world that he faked his death. So for that, bravo, Zoe! That said, Agathe (the ex-wife/editor) and Zoe fly off to a remote island, completely in love. Um, where did that come from?? At no point did the novel suggest any attraction between the pair or any romantic connection between either woman and another female. I’m all for GLBT themes, but this came out of nowhere and I didn’t quite get it.

Apart from the ending, I adored Exquisite Corpse! Between the fantastic art and the subtle details in the background (Gatsby the Cat has some seriously spectacular reactions), reading this was a breeze. While reading, I actually thought it was work well as a full-length novel – I would LOVE to read a thriller-esque take on this. The revenge plot in particular would be incredible. This comic is definitely worth the fifteen minutes it takes to read and I’m hoping for more translations of Bagieu’s works!

mini-review: Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson
Pub. Date: February 24, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, First Second!)
Summary: Princess Decomposia is overworked and underappreciated. This princess of the underworld has plenty of her own work to do but always seems to find herself doing her layabout father’s job, as well. The king doesn’t feel quite well, you see. Ever. So the princess is left scurrying through the halls, dodging her mummy, werewolf, and ghost subjects, always running behind and always buried under a ton of paperwork. Oh, and her father just fired the chef, so now she has to hire a new cook as well. Luckily for Princess Decomposia, she makes a good hire in Count Spatula, the vampire chef with a sweet tooth. He’s a charming go-getter of a blood-sucker, and pretty soon the two young ghouls become friends. And then…more than friends? Maybe eventually, but first Princess Decomposia has to sort out her life. And with Count Spatula at her side, you can be sure she’ll succeed.
Genre: Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Paranormal
Recommended for: Readers with fifteen minutes to spare & looking for something quick and cute

This past summer I got back into the deep dark pit that are graphic novels. I churned through series after series, binging on whatever I could get my hands on. Print or digital, it was all the same to me. In this addiction-fueled spree, I came across Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula on netgalley and requested it without hesitating one second.

As Princess of the Underworld, Decomposia’s life isn’t exactly as carefree as you’d think. With her father suffered from some new illness every waking hour, everything has fallen to her. Decisions need to be made, meetings need to be held, papers need to be signed. Everything reaches a boiling point when the king fires the head chef (if he says he wants meat, by the time the food gets to his chambers he’ll have changed his mind and demand soup – the king is never happy). Now on top of everything else, Decomposia has to see about scheduling interviews and reading through resumes.

After a number of unsuccessful candidates, Decomposia has just about given up hope when someone new walks through the door: a vampire named Spatula. Count Spatula. Within minutes Decomposia realizes he’s perfect – and not just at cooking! With their new-found friendship, the Underworld has become a better, a happier place: Decomposia has a friend and confidante, someone to bounce ideas off of. That is, until the king finds out about the lowly commoner his daughter has been hanging out with.

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula was an absolute delight! It took all of fifteen minutes to get through (if that!) and was a joy the entire time. Before you even begin reading, you can easily guess at how the story will play out, what lessons the characters will learn, how it will all end, but I quickly realized I didn’t mind one bit; the journey there was half the fun!

With a comic of this length, there isn’t a whole lot to say and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The art was adorable, the characters charming, and the little bits hidden in the background were an extra treat! Prior to this story, I had never heard of Andi Watson before, but he’s got quite an impressive backlist: numerous Middle Grade comics as well as multiple Buffy omnibuses! If the rest of his work is as lovely as Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, I’ve just hit the jackpot!

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
Pub. Date: February 17, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Howard Books!!)
Summary: The year is 1853, and the Hapsburgs are Europe’s most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia and Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and read to marry.
Fifteen-year-old Sisi – Elisabeth, duchess of Bavaria – travels to the Hapsburg court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival, Sisi finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s fiance. Intrigued by Sisi’s guileless charm and energetic spirit, not to mention her unrivaled beauty, Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, Sisi has no idea what struggles and dangers – and temptations – await her. She upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win, and keep, the love of her emperor, her people, and the world.

Genre: Historical fiction
Recommended for: Fans of biographical fiction, court life, rich details, and fantastic storytelling!

When I grabbed Pataki’s debut, The Traitor’s Wife completely by chance last year, I had no idea just how hard I would fall for this new author. Her storytelling blew me away and she took a person I knew very little about (Peggy Shippen, socialite bride of Benedict Arnold) and gave her life. Over the course of a few hundred pages, Pataki took this complete stranger and turned her into someone I not only cared about, but craved further knowledge of (and bless her for a fantastic list of research material/books compiled at the end!). So when I heard about her upcoming novel – this time taking place in the mid-1800s in the Hapsburg court – it was a no-brainer: I needed this book.

The lovely people at Howard Books are too, too good to me and they sent along a review copy my way. I received it in November, I read it in November. That right there should tell you a little something. Can an author be declared a favorite after only one book? What about two? While I don’t believe there exists a magical number for this, it’s clear Allison Pataki has carved a special place for herself in my heart and I guarantee you I will read anything she puts out!

Rich, powerful, and young, Emperor Franz Joseph is the most eligible bachelor in the world. When word is sent to Bavaria that he seeks the hand of the eldest duchess, it certainly comes as a shock – a rather liberal approach to parenting hasn’t exactly groomed the children for life as nobility let alone royalty! Helene is a meek, pious girl and horrifically shy, so it comes as no surprise when Franz Joseph finds himself captivated by bold, opinionated Sisi. As the pair spend more time together, their favorite outing traveling the countryside on horseback, Franz’s interest deepens and he reneges on his earlier proposal – much to the dismay of his mother Sophie. Through her son, Sophie essentially rules the empire and she is not pleased to discover her choice for bride has been turned down. If only Sisi had realized just what she was getting herself into.

Still in her teens, Sisi is virtually on her own; Sophie has made her feelings clear and Franz always sides with his mother. As the once-happy marriage begins to crumble – and the longed-for heir never arrives, just daughter after daughter – the pressure takes its toll. It’s not until a trip to Hungary that Sisi receives the love and respect she’s been craving and it’s this country and these people that will play a vital role in Sisi’s life.

What constitutes as a spoiler when it comes to historical fiction? Halfway through the novel I was so enchanted by this family and these characters that I wanted to know more. I should have known better than to head over to Wikipedia, but my history buff heart was a-flutter. Things don’t end well for anyone involved and The Accidental Empress gives a hint of things to come. As much as I held out hope for Sisi, I knew her decline was imminent. In her later life she became somewhat fanatical about her weight and the barest of whispers were evident here. Sophie took Sisi’s children away, dictated every waking second of her life. It really is remarkable Sisi managed to hold out for so long.

Because this is historical fiction, there are a few changes made and Pataki discusses this. Personally I enjoyed the story immensely, minor reworkings and all – at least here Sisi found a few moments of happiness.

The Accidental Empress proves Allison Pataki is not a one-hit wonder; this woman is here to stay and, my goodness, does she have stories to tell! As with The Traitor’s Wife, I savored every chapter, relished over every paragraph when I normally would race to the end. Here, however, I took my time and when I finally finished (only four days later – and to be honest, I’m surprised I finished that quickly: this is a big book that demands a lot of attention) I felt hollow. I wasn’t ready to let go and give up these people I had come to care for. Pataki describes the Hapsburg court in such vivid detail it was jarring to look up and realize I was in my living room (sadly, nowhere close to being anything as grand as a palace).

As much as I love chatting about books I adore, I absolutely dread having to review them. The Accidental Empress hit me hard and I’m still reeling from the blow. I laughed, I teared up, I wanted to swoop in and save this child from her horrible future (not to mention awful mother-in-law). Pataki positively shines in this novel and there isn’t a single sentence I can string together that could fully describe how much I loved this book. The Accidental Empress is a story to cherish and absolutely, positively a book I’ll be recommending whole-heartedly.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan
Pub. Date: January 13, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley + finished copy via publisher (Thank you, VIKING!!)
Summary: In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart attack.

Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel. With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Biographical Fiction
Recommended for: fans of intense research with an interest in Fitzgerald’s later life and old school Hollywood

Oh, hi there. Perhaps you’ve noticed this blog’s name: The Pretty Good Gatsby. Yep. In a surprise to everyone I’m sure, I adore Fitzgerald’s works. SHOCK, I know. So when I heard about a new book detailing his final years spent in Hollywood (AND being published by Viking) I was instantly sold. To be honest, I know very little about his later life, his final few years, and was heartbroken at just how sad they were. Gone were the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Here we have a middle-aged writer, struggling to hold down a job and pay his bills.

With his wife Zelda in an asylum (always hoping that today will be the day her doctors allow her to go home) and his daughter Scottie starting college, F. Scott Fitzgerald heads out west, out to Hollywood where he’ll try his hand at writing scripts. Initially, things look great: he’s getting work done, he’s being paid, and he’s got a novel in the works. Then the project he’s working on goes bust, new writers are brought in, and he finds himself falling down a seemingly endless hole. In the beginning it’s always promising: he’ll write some scenes and work on re-writes from the director’s notes (more often than not this turns into a total upheaval of Fitzgerald’s original script). Then, out of nowhere, he’ll find he’s been replaced by a different writer. Rinse, repeat.

While in Hollywood, Fitzgerald meets – and begins a relationship with – Sheilah Graham, a gossip columnist. The two carry on their relationship (although Fitzgerald is still married to Zelda) throughout his years in Hollywood (in the end Sheilah takes on more of a caretaker role than that of a girlfriend) and it’s in her apartment that he ultimately has a fatal heart attack.

Today Fitzgerald is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers, not just of the 20th Century, but ever. Period. During his life, however, his novels simply weren’t highly regarded. Sure, they sold, but they weren’t the defining works of literature that they are today. It’s heartbreaking how authors (or painters, musicians, etc etc) don’t receive the recognition they deserve until long after their death. Throughout the novel I kept thinking of another favorite writer: Poe. They had very parallel lives: heavy – heavy drinking, a constant struggle to make money, genius that wasn’t celebrated until after their death.

Although West of Sunset was a bit of a downer (okay, so maybe more than a bit), it wasn’t all sad. Dorothy Parker plays a fairly huge role in this novel and was always ready with a quip or snarky jab. Also, this book reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart is another large character and O’Nan doesn’t skimp on the name-dropping! Clearly you can’t have a novel about Fitzgerald without Papa himself, but I was a little disheartened to see Hemingway wasn’t around as much as I had hoped – though that’s clearly a Me issue; the novel isn’t about Hemingway, it’s about Fitzgerald, but I wanted more. There can never be enough Papa!

A few early reviews I read mentioned how dry West of Sunset felt. Personally, I didn’t share their sentiment. This novel reads like a novel, not a massive biography. Stewart O’Nan certainly did extensive research and it definitely shows, but at no point did I ever feel it was too much. I never felt like I was reading anything other than a richly detailed novel.

When all is said and done, West of Sunset tells a story that’s rarely revealed. It pulls back the shining veneer of flappers and bathtub gin and shows the end result: F. Scott Fitzgerald as an alcoholic in his 40s, making feeble attempts to gain the fame he lost. Gone are the glory days of all-night parties. Now he has a wife in an asylum, a daughter heading off to college, and no source of income. This isn’t how I’d like to remember or think of Fitzgerald, but this was one hell of a novel. Also, I had no idea he was a scriptwriter for Gone With the Wind!

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag
Pub. Date: December 30, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Ballantine Books!)
Summary: Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
Genre: Magical Realism, Contemporary
Recommended For: I’m hesitant to recommend this one..perhaps only to those who haven’t read The House at the End of Hope Street?

Earlier in the year I fell hard – and that’s putting it lightly! – for Menna van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street. It wasn’t just a favorite for 2014, but a favorite for all time. Naturally when I found out about an upcoming novel I was drooling all over myself and when I received a review copy, I immediately settled in to fall in love with a brand new story. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned..

The Dress Shop of Dreams packs a lot in its pages and, at times, it can be a bit of a story arc overload. Cora is a young scientist working alongside her professor to create plants that can grow without water. As a child, her parents – also scientists – died in a terrible house fire and since then, Cora has thought of little else except carrying on her parents’ dream of eradicating world hunger. Her beloved grandmother, Etta, owns a tiny dress shop in town, but it is far unlike any clothing shop imaginable. With a few quick stitches, Etta weaves magic inside the clothes, a tiny boost of confidence or courage and it’s this courage she provides Walt, gently pushing him to finally (finally!) confess his feelings for Cora. The two grew up together and since they were children Walt has been madly in love with her. Etta’s plans backfire, however, and the confession quickly goes south, leading to multiple misunderstandings. Walt decides it’s finally time to move on and meet someone who can return his love, Cora delves deeper into her parents’ death, and Etta accepts a fifty-year-old truth.

The Dress Shop of Dreams broke my heart – and not in a good way. There’s just so much going on here and, to be honest, I didn’t care for most of it. If just one or two story lines had been cut the entire novel could have been far more fleshed out, but as it stands, these characters didn’t receive nearly enough attention as their stories warranted.

I didn’t care for Cora at all. I think she was meant to be quirky. Instead, she comes off as odd and, for the majority of the novel, cold and even heartless. Her entire life has been dedicated to science, to facts. She looks down on people for enjoying fiction novels (if she’s going to read novels for pleasure, she’ll delve into a biography of a prominent female scientist, thank you very much). She feels love is a silly emotion – especially when there’s SCIENCE to be done. I could relate to her counting as a coping mechanism, holding onto numbers as a way to calm down, but that’s it. There was nothing likable about this girl and Walt can do much better if you ask me.

There are side plots involving a police officer and his recent divorce from his wife. Henry is able to tell when people are lying (which makes him great at his job) and he knows his ex-wife still loves him, but cannot understand why she wanted out of the marriage. After twenty years of not questioning her parents’ death, Cora wants to have the case reopened and Henry automatically knows there was more to it than what the original report said. There’s a man working for the radio station where Walt has taken a night position reading novels for a program. Walt’s voice is silky smooth and lonely housewives start sending in letters. Walt refuses to even look at the letters, he only has eyes for Cora. So what does Dylan do? Why he responds of course! He replies back but not as himself. No, he signs the letters with Walt’s name (all the while keeping it a secret from Walt). A year after marrying her husband, Millie found herself a widow. Ten years later she’s finally ready to open her heart to love once more and meets Walt. She also wrote him an innocent fan letter, but these two lives become messy: she enjoys her time with Walt, but the letters (written BY Dylan AS Walt) leave her feeling something else entirely. Sebastian is a tired priest who lost his faith decades ago. Prior to taking his vows, he fell in love and has been yearning to see Etta these past fifty years. The Dress Shop of Dreams also throws in some betrayal (of all sorts!), a secret baby, and alcoholism. I couldn’t keep up with any of it.

When the end does come around, it’s so poorly executed I felt ripped off. It’s hard to believe this novel came from the same writer as The House at the End of Hope Street! In fact, were it not for a cameo from one of Hope Street‘s characters, I honestly would have assumed the two books were written by completely different authors. The Dress Shop of Dreams might enchant a newcomer to Magical Realism, but reading this after having experienced the magic of The House at the End of Hope Street, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. This book was a huge letdown.

Steampunk + Teen Assassins? YES PLEASE.

Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1) by Gail Carriger
Pub. Date: February 5, 2013
Source: Library
Summary: It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but the also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.
Genre: YA, Steampunk, Humor
Recommended for: Readers looking for a fun, fast-paced story with great characters, a fascinating world, and a witty running commentary

Sophronia Temminnick is nothing like her older sisters. Rather than swooning over dashing young men and building wardrobes full of the latest fashions, Sophronia prefers to spend her time playing with gadgets, dismantling the pieces to see how the mechanicals work. In a last-ditch attempt to transform her daughter into a proper lady, Mrs. Temminnick enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. There she will learn to curtsy, faint and blush on cue, and all the ins-and-outs of flirting.

What Mrs. Temminnick doesn’t know, however, is that this finishing school takes their role literally. While the girls are indeed trained on which fork to use for which meal, they also learn all there is to know about poisons, weaponry, and intelligence-gathering. Throw in a few professors who aren’t exactly human and passing marks for evildoing and you’ve got the makings of one very interesting school year. And did I mention the school is actually a floating dirigible? Before you can learn the proper way to poison your enemy’s tea, you first have to find the school.

You know those books that take you by surprise? The books that suck you in and you’re halfway through the story before you realize what has happened? Etiquette & Espionage was one of those books. While I went in expecting a fun and entertaining read, I was totally caught off guard by how much I was enjoying it! Queen Victoria’s Steampunk empire, mechanical servants and household staff (AND animals!), vampires, a school for spies. Yeah I was NOT prepared for that one bit and I fell hard.

Sophronia’s snide remarks actually made me laugh out loud numerous times (scaring my poor pooch – sorry pup!). The best part though? She wasn’t the only fantastic character! Every single character in this novel, from the resident Mean Girl Monique to Professor Braithwope (a vampire with impeccable facial hair) to Vieve (a charming 10-year-old who is a genius with mechanics and prefers to dress as a boy), was deliciously crafted and fleshed-out. Everyone was given a distinct personality and voice rather than stock traits. Even Bumbersnoot, an illegally-obtained mechanical dog, worked his way into my heart.

Etiquette & Espionage had a very first-in-a-series feel; the actual plot took a backseat to world building and character introduction, but if that meant more time with Soap (a devilishly smooth boy who works down in the boiler room shoveling coal) I was totally okay with it! Really though, this was my introduction to Carriger’s works (finally, after years of customers asking about her Parasol Protectorate series!) and I’m a little disappointed nobody pushed this book (or any of her novels) on me already! While reading I had wondered if, given what little I know of her other series, if the two were possibly set in the same world. After reading some summaries on GoodReads it appears they are and I’m even more interested in reading her work! Etiquette & Espionage was an insanely fun start to a fantastic series – you better believe I’m reading the rest!

Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School #2) by Gail Carriger
Pub. Date: November 5, 2013
Source: Library
Summary: Does one need four fully grown foxgloves for decorating a dinner table for six guests? Or is it six foxgloves to kill four fully grown guests?

Sophronia’s first year at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality has certainly been rousing! For one thing, finishing school is training her to be a spy–won’t Mumsy be surprised? Furthermore, Sophronia got mixed up in an intrigue over a stolen device and had a cheese pie thrown at her in a most horrid display of poor manners.

Now, as she sneaks around the dirigible school, eavesdropping on the teachers’ quarters and making clandestine climbs to the ship’s boiler room, she learns that there may be more to a field trip to London than is apparent at first. A conspiracy is afoot–one with dire implications for both supernaturals and humans. Sophronia must rely on her training to discover who is behind the dangerous plot-and survive the London Season with a full dance card.
Genre: YA, Steampunk, Humor
Recommended for: Fans of Etiquette & Espionage, readers who are looking for an interesting new spin on the boarding school trope

Guys, let’s be real here – I never binge on series. Oh sure, I might be inclined to pick up a sequel a few months down the road, but immediately after? Never. Until Gail Carriger came along. I loved Etiquette & Espionage so much I needed to jump right into Curtsies & Conspiracies – and I was NOT disappointed!

Curtsies & Conspiracies takes place shortly after Etiquette & Espionage ended. Sophronia is now fifteen and well on her way to becoming a master intelligencer. In fact, her marks imply she’s doing too well and she’s convinced she’s being set up. Unfortunately, with all of her friends snubbing her, Sophronia has no one to discuss this with. When it’s announced Bunson’s, the boys’ school, will be sending their best students aboard AND the school will be departing for London, Sophronia’s convinced something’s going on and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

All my favorites (and not-so-favorites) from the first novel are back as well as some new characters I’m loving! Felix Mersey, a viscount who’s too charming for his own good, has his heart set on Sophronia and their interactions were an absolute delight! Although I’m still rooting for my boy Soap (I’m a total sucker for the rich/poor romance trope), Felix isn’t too shabby either. As for Sophronia, she’s completely clueless when it comes to advances (my dear Soap) or too confused (Lord Mersey) to make heads or tails of the situation. Clearly this love triangle is going to be in it for the long haul and I have to admit I’m enjoying both boys immensely!

In the first novel there was talk of a top secret valve that was stolen and that plot point has return, but I’ll be honest – I still have no idea what any of it means. I didn’t quite understand it in Etiquette & Espionage and I’m still not getting it now. Exactly what makes this valve so special?? Does it have something to do with the vampire/werewolf war? Did I completely skip a paragraph somewhere?

There’s a big to-do in London. Half of the school will be attending Monique’s coming out ball (does this mean she won’t be back in the third book now that she’s done with school?) while the other half – aka the teachers – are concocting their own schemes. My sweet Professor Braithwope is a rove vampire and this novel delves deeper into what exactly that means. Depending on a vampire’s rank they’re able to roam so far (interestingly enough, the higher the rank, the shorter their tether). Professor Braithwope is tethered to the school and, since it’s a dirigible, he’s able to move much farther than other vampires. That said, there’s a new technology that’s still in its testing phases that could potentially render tethers obsolete? (Unless I completely misunderstood the schematics.)

While I’m still not entirely sure just what’s going on here, I’m having an absolute blast with these books. The humor is brilliant (and the names! Professor Shrimpdittle! Lord Dingleproops!) and I’ve found myself giggling like crazy over entire passages. I’m a tiny bit worried I’ll continue to be lost with the plot in the third book (I have a feeling that if I’ve not gotten it already there’s a good chance I won’t), but I’m looking forward to getting back to these characters and their late-night snooping.

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio
Pub. Date: November 25, 2014
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Plume!!)
Summary: Born during a Christmas blizzard, Jane Williams receives a rare gift: the ability to see true love. Jane has emerged from an ailing childhood a lonely, hopeless romantic when, on her twenty-ninth birthday, a mysterious greeting card arrives, specifying that Jane must identify the six types of love before the full moon following her thirtieth birthday, or face grave consequences. When Jane falls for a science writer who doesn’t believe in love, she fears that her fate is sealed.
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction, Magical Realism
Recommended for: Readers looking for something easy and light-hearted, but willing to overlook a few flaws

Second chances were made for Sarah Jio. If you’ve been a follower of this blog for the past few months, you might recall my review of her last novel, Goodnight June. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Goodnight June (a bookstore! Margaret Wise Brown! the ‘true’ story of how Goodnight Moon came to be!). Unfortunately, it was a struggle to get through that book and I was left with more complaints than praise. I’ll admit that when The Look of Love was announced, I was more than a little skeptical: I had already been burned once, was I really going to put myself on the line again?

Jane Williams is content with her apartment and beloved dog. Oh, sure, she loves the idea of love and would be thrilled to meet Mr. Right, but that clearly isn’t going to happen anytime soon. She’s content working in her flower shop, a Seattle staple, and spreading the love of those around her: Lo is a serial dater, in it for the thrill of the hunt, but easily grows bored. Elaine and Matthew have the kind of life only seen in magazines, so why is Elaine suddenly thinking about her new neighbor? Mel’s wife passed away nearly a decade ago and though he misses her dearly, is it possible to find love again in your 70s? Katie and Josh are newlyweds, completely passionate and more in love than ever, eager to start a life together. Jane’s family and friends are all lucky (or unlucky) in love, when will it be her turn?

On her 29th birthday, Jane receives an odd birthday card from a woman she has never met. When they finally do meet, Colette dishes some pretty heavy news: Jane was born with a special gift. Those eye problems she’s been having all her life? She’s actually seeing love. Love comes in many forms and Jane has one year to identify them before time runs out on her own love story.

After finishing Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls, I was in dire need of some fluff. Enter Sarah Jio. Despite my less-than-stellar introduction to her work, The Look of Love sounding intriguing and, more importantly, just what I needed after the raw and grit of Ugly Girls. So perhaps this was merely a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right kind of mindset. Or maybe Goodnight June was a total dud and not at all representative of Jio’s work. In either case, I found The Look of Love to be a fun, quick read with just the right amount of drama. The perfect cooldown from the hard-hitting book I was still reeling from.

Flynn, Jane’s older brother, goes through girls like they’re going out of style. That is, until he looks out his window and sees the woman in a neighboring apartment. Though they’ve never spoken he’s enchanted and for the first time in his life, actually nervous. Jane’s hairstylist Mary is gorgeous. Her musician husband Eli is sizzling. Together they make a gorgeous pair, but now that Eli’s band has finally made it, his constant tour schedule has starting taking their toll. Over the course of a year Jane comes to realize what’s hiding behind smiles and outward appearances. She also discovers that love can be quiet and unassuming. Now it’s up to her to record everything.

While I enjoyed The Look of Love far more than Jio’s previous novel, it’s not without some flaws. My main issue was with Jane’s neurologist, Dr. Heller. This was a woman Jane had been seeing since she was a child – nearly two decades of her life. Shortly after one of her appointments, Jane receives a phone call and doesn’t recognize the number. It was Dr. Heller. Calling from her office. Am I really to believe that after twenty years Jane wouldn’t know her doctor’s number? Especially when Dr. Heller is, in Jane’s words, a mother-figure and mentor. Clearly these two woman have a strong relationship, they’re not just random acquaintances. It’s especially distracting when, later on in the novel, Dr. Heller’s name shows up on Jane’s caller ID. Another case of sloppy editing.

The other issue I had with Dr. Heller was a spontaneous interview she did. Jane’s love interest, Cam, was initially a slimy weasel, getting close to Jane because he needed a cover story for Time and he found out about her gift. He got in contact with the neurologist and easily obtained an interview about her client, violating all kinds of patient/doctor rights! Dr. Heller could have lost her practice, could have lost all ability to practice medicine. She threw away her entire career in the blink of an eye and thought nothing of it. Her ethics also were questionable when she practically bullies Jane into a surgery she doesn’t want:

“I’ve had to move mountains to make this happen, and you’d have to fly to Baltimore for the operation, but I pray that you’ll consent. Jane, if you don’t have this surgery, I fear you will regret it for the rest of your life.” She sighs. “That is, if you have the brain function left to even feel regret, or any other conscious though.”

EXCUSE ME? If I had a doctor who mocked me like that, you can bet that would be the last time I ever saw that doctor.

So while there were issues I had with The Look of Love, it was still leagues better than her previous novel. At times it can be overly sweet, but it came about at a time I needed something happy and I really didn’t mind at all. I’m disappointed with some of the endings (I didn’t see what made Cam such a great guy), but I’m positive Jio’s fans will be right on board with this novel. Pure escapism – with a gorgeous cover to boot!

GoodReads Recs: Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli
Pub. Date: March, 2012
Source: Library (though we have the gorgeous paperback at work and I think it’s calling my name!)
Summary: October 1941. Eleven-year-old Ella McGee sits on a bus bound for her Southern hometown. Behind her in Washington, D.C., lie the broken pieces of her parents’ love story—a black father drafted, an activist mother of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee descent confronting racist thugs. But Ella’s journey is just beginning when she reaches Hopewell County, and her disappearance into the Georgia mountains will unfurl a rich tapestry of family secrets spanning a century. Told in five unforgettable voices, Glow reaches back through the generations, from the red-clay dust of the Great Depression to the Blue Ridge frontier of 1836, where slave plantations adjoin the haunted glades of a razed Cherokee Nation. Out of these characters’ lives evolves a drama that is at once intimately human and majestic in its power to call upon the great themes of our time—race, identity, and the bonds of family and community.
Genre: Fiction, Southern, Family Saga
Recommended for: fans of sweeping epics, family histories, the American South, readers who loved Steal the North

Last week I started a new feature called GoodReads Recommends where I take a look at the books the site suggests based on other books I’ve read. One of the books mentioned was Glow and it sounded so fantastic, I immediately requested it from my library and bumped it to the very top of my stack. I started reading the moment I got my copy and I’m absolutely thrilled to say it did not disappoint!

Told in multiple voices, Glow tells an incredible tale of a family and spans over a century from a plantation in the 1830s to a Southern town in the throes of racial tension on the cusp of World War II. Although the story opens in a very sweet way with Amelia and her daughter, it soon turns frightening with an act of violence (while Amelia is White and Cherokee, the man she loves is African-American) and it’s that fear that has Amelia packing her daughter’s belongings and sending her off to her brother in their hometown. But Ella doesn’t show up when Buddy comes to collect her and it’s then we learn about this remarkable family from the very beginning.

Glow is one of those novels that’s SO difficult for me to review. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but I also want to say all the things. This is a beautiful, lovely, wonderful, haunting, heartbreaking novel and I delighted in every word. Every single character shines – from the good to the vile – and the voices were so strong. I had no trouble differentiating between the narrators (though I suppose it helped each chapter was labeled with a name ha!), and I adore any and all jumps in time.

Race is a huge theme in this book and it brought to mind Steal the North, one of my top reads this year. A comparison to that novel is NOT one I make lightly, but while reading, I couldn’t get StN’s characters and story out of my head. No, the plots aren’t similar at all, but the Big Pictures are: religion, race, humanity. Glow met each one head-on and wasn’t afraid to pull back the curtain to tell it like it is. Many atrocities are committed in the name of hate, but Glow shows that love is just as powerful, that one single emotion can be so strong (whether it’s for a child, a parent, a spouse) that it can move mountains and that faith is a force to be reckoned with. Life isn’t clean-cut or fair, but good does prevail and actions are held accountable.

It’s rare that in a novel with multiple narrators I don’t favor one voice over the rest, but here, each one held her own story and brought something to the book the others didn’t. These characters are all connected, either by blood or marriage, and their stories wove together beautifully. I feel as though I keep repeating myself, but Glow is just that good. It’s powerful and raw and it hurt something fierce when I was done. I wanted to race to the end, but the minute I reached that final page, those last words, I wasn’t ready to let go. I wanted more from these characters. I wanted to watch Ella grow just as I got to see Amelia and Willie Mae become women. I wanted to see what the future held for George and if Lovelady ever found peace. The excitement of the biplane, the stark horror of witnessing prominent men in the town come together and hang a man, hanging onto the hope that there will be one more letter from a soldier gone off to fight. Every emotion I felt was real and vibrant. Tuccelli did a fantastic amount of research and it shows.

Glow is the kind of novel I want to shout about, the kind of novel I want to shove into the hands of complete and total strangers. I’m floored that it’s a debut (again, just like Steal the North!) and I’m a tiny bit angry with myself for not discovering it sooner. This is a book written for me. A family deep-rooted in the South, heavy-hitting themes tackled respectfully but without sugar-coating anything, a well of faith, and just a hint of magic. Glow is a phenomenal novel that left me breathless. Not only will I be itching for whatever Tuccelli happens to write next, but you can bet I’ll be pushing this novel on whoever gets within shouting distance! Do yourself a favor, guys. Read this book.

Dangerous Deceptions by Sarah Zettel

Dangerous Deceptions (Palace of Spies #2) by Sarah Zettel
Pub. Date: November 4, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, HMH Books for Young Readers!!)
Summary: As a lady in waiting in King George’s London court, Peggy has survived a forced betrothal, royal scandals, and an attempt or two on her life. And now she has a new problem: her horrible fiancé has returned to claim her! To save her neck, or at least her hand in marriage, Peggy joins forces with her cousin Olivia and her sweetheart, Matthew. But if she doesn’t play her cards right, her career as courtier and spy might come to an end at the bottom of the river Thames.
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery
Recommended for: Fans of historicals looking for a break from the Regency- and Victorian-era novels

THIS IS A REVIEW FOR THE SECOND IN A SERIES – THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS!

In Palace of Spies, we were introduced to Margaret Fitzoy – Peggy, thank you. Begrudgingly raised by an uncle who cares not one bit for her, Peggy is surprised when she receives a marriage proposal instead of her beloved, highborn cousin Olivia. A rather disastrous first encounter leaves Peggy wanting nothing but a way out of the arrangement and she readily accepts a position at court posing as another girl. Court life doesn’t turn out to be as glamorous as she thought however, and soon she’s thrown into a world of murder, spies, and secrets.

Picking up right where Palace of Spies left off, Dangerous Deceptions hits the ground running. Now that her true identity has been revealed, Peggy’s dealing with the repercussions while trying to start a relationship with Matthew, end her betrothal to Sebastian, and find out if her father is really still alive. When Sebastian appears at court and starts to become overly friendly with Sophie Howe, another lady in waiting and an equally vile person, Peggy realizes she must act – and quickly.

As Peggy finds herself deeper into the depths of the Jacobites’ inner circle, she uncovers some pretty major family secrets involving not only her parents (court spies themselves) but also her Uncle Pierpont and she learns the real meaning behind her betrothal.

The year-long wait between these books is a killer, but the moment I began reading I had no trouble jumping back into the story. All of my favorite characters have returned (including a very pregnant royal pup!) and I got to meet some new faces, both good and bad. I will say that I was a bit frustrated that the majority of the reveals were discovered by little more than a stroke of good luck on Peggy’s part.

Again, just as in Palace of Spies, there are some very mature – and even triggering – themes. Dangerous Deceptions expands upon those themes and once more I’m a little surprised by the targeted audience. On HMH’s website, Dangerous Deceptions is listed as 7th grade/12-years-old and up. Sexual assault and multiple f-bombs (no matter how cleverly disguised) abound in this novel and it’s Sebastian’s attempted rape that provides the entire basis for Peggy’s repulsion and desire to find a way out of the marriage. While things with Matthew have yet to go beyond a few kisses, their relationship is definitely becoming more serious and while I’m sure there are some 12-year-olds who are mature enough to understand, I’m not convinced that this series should be targeted to such young readers.

While the young demographic has me raising my eyebrows once again, I still thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceptions. It doesn’t leave the reader hanging from the events that happened in Palace of Spies (though it’s entirely possible the year-long wait in between these novels will do that on its own!) and Peggy’s uncovering answers for her questions. This series provides a refreshing change from my usual 1800s-era Historical Fiction and I’m loving the closer look at the Jacobites! Although I’d be hesitant to recommend this series to a younger reader, older teens and adults are sure to be pleased!

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Pub. Date: November 4, 2014
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Farrar, Straus and Giroux!!)
Summary: Ugly Girls, at its core, is about the friendship between two girls, Perry and Baby Girl, and how that friendship descends into chaos, taking their world and the identities they hold dear with it. Their friendship is woven from the threads of never-ending dares and the struggle with power, their loyalty something they attend to like a pet but forget to feed. Ugliness is something they trade between themselves, one ugly on the outside and one on the inside.
Genre: Fiction
Recommended for: Fans of Law & Order: SVU looking for a read with a similar feel

Baby Girl and Perry are more frenemies than friends. Though they grew up together and spend all their time with one another (usually late at night while they’re out joy-riding in stolen cars), they really don’t feel any kind of bond or love for each other. Instead, their relationship is all about power. Perry, the pretty one, and Baby Girl with her shaved head and hard attitude. Perry’s trailer park and alcoholic mother, Baby Girl’s new role as her brother’s caregiver after a motorcycle accident left him with the mind of a Kindergartner. Both of these girls are far more broken and fragile than they’ll ever admit and it’s a new facebook friend, a high schooler named Jamey from the neighboring town, that starts their downward spiral. Unbeknownst to the girls, Jamey has been talking to both of them, reaching out to both girls and now he wants to finally meet in person.

I wasn’t at all prepared for Ugly Girls. Oh I knew it would be a rough read, but it wasn’t until I was actually inside its pages that I realized the extent of it. When I finished those final sentences I felt dirty. Unwashed. Filthy. And you know what? I enjoyed this book. A lot. There was a rawness to it that almost hurt. Lindsay Hunter had no time for sugar-coating: she laid out the facts, made you really see these characters for who – and what – they are.

Prior to starting the book, I knew there would be something wrong about Jamey’s character, that he wasn’t the teenage boy he claimed to be. I’m not sure if it was done intentionally or not, but when his true character appeared in the book, I immediately knew who he was. Whether or not I was supposed to know so early on didn’t matter to me and didn’t change my feelings. In fact, if anything, it made his all-too-innocent actions seem even more appalling and chilling. There were moments in Ugly Girls that actually sickened me and for that, I applaud Ms. Hunter. That her words could have such an effect on me proves her skill as a writer.

A word of caution: don’t expect a happy ending. Ugly Girls is just that: ugly. There are no sunshines and rainbows here. Despite knowing that, I still held out hope for an ending, maybe not one that was cheerful or upbeat, but perhaps satisfying? I wanted these characters to get the ending they deserved and, for the majority of them, that meant retribution and consequences for their actions. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say I was pleased with how things ended – though I’ll admit there was a huge shock, a twist I wasn’t expecting one bit!

Ugly Girls lays everything out in the open from the very beginning. There’s no glossing over or pretty little bows. Instead, this is a story with a stark portrayal of two unhappy and bitter girls. There’s no one to root for, no team to cheer on. At times overwhelming, and without a doubt tough, Ugly Girls held me captive. Despite the gritty feeling I had when it was over I enjoyed this one immensely and I do recommend it – though have a sappy love story on deck. Trust me, you’re going to need kitten videos by the time Ugly Girls is through with you.