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!

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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!

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.

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.

Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy

Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy
Pub. Date: March 2012
Source: Bought
Summary: The body of a young girl is found mangled and murdered in the woods of Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania, in the shadow of the abandoned Godfrey Steel mill. A manhunt ensues—though the authorities aren’t sure if it’s a man they should be looking for.

Some suspect an escapee from the White Tower, a foreboding biotech facility owned by the Godfrey family—their personal fortune and the local economy having moved on from Pittsburgh steel—where, if rumors are true, biological experiments of the most unethical kind take place. Others turn to Peter Rumancek, a Gypsy trailer-trash kid who has told impressionable high school classmates that he’s a werewolf. Or perhaps it’s Roman, the son of the late JR Godfrey, who rules the adolescent social scene with the casual arrogance of a cold-blooded aristocrat, his superior status unquestioned despite his decidedly freakish sister, Shelley, whose monstrous medical conditions belie a sweet intelligence, and his otherworldly control freak of a mother, Olivia.
Genre: Paranormal, Horror
Recommended for: readers in a Halloween mood, fans of the Netflix series

I won’t lie: when I first heard Netflix was going to produce their own original line-up, I was more than a little curious. And, truth be told, not entirely convinced they could pull it off. Oh, sure, they’re great at providing me with other company’s material, but how would their own hold up? When Hemlock Grove premiered, Matt and I decided to give it a chance. What would one episode hurt? Before we knew it we were halfway through the season; before the weekend was over, we had burned through every episode. It was only after the fact that I discovered it was based on a novel.

It took two years, but I dusted off my copy and settled in. Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania is a fictional suburb of Pittsburgh and a once-booming steel town. When the times changed, so did the Godfreys, the virtual overlords of the town. The family transitioned from steel to a biotech conglomerate with the ever-shining White Tower at the center of it all. One autumn day, a body (or, rather, what’s left of it) of a teenage girl is discovered and rumors run rampant that it was a werewolf, not a man, who committed this horrible crime.

Hemlock Grove is total camp, but I loved it. I’m always a little nervous to read the source material (details big and small tend to change and entire arcs undergo massive overhauls), but I quickly discovered I had nothing to worry about here. Hemlock Grove followed the book almost religiously, though I shouldn’t be surprised since Brian McGreevy, the author of the novel, is one of the head writers. Because the first season was a year and a half ago, there’s a good deal I forgot; Hemlock Grove (the book) is the entire first season and was not only a great refresher, but I also discovered a few things I had originally missed in the show or tiny details that were cut altogether.

Roman Godfrey, the heir apparent who knows all-too-well the weight his name holds; Peter Rumancek, a constantly-roaming Gypsy who recently moved into the local trailer park with his mother; Shelly Godfrey, Roman’s younger sister and a Frankenstein-esque creation with a heart of gold. These characters were all as wonderfully-fleshed out in the novel as they were in the show. If my heart broke for Shelly ten times over in the show, here it broke a hundred times over. Hands down my favorite character, this sweet girl is even more so within these pages. Something is rotten in Hemlock Grove and this quiet community isn’t nearly as sleepy as it seems. Old, old magic is alive and well and supernatural creatures no longer just exist in storybooks.

The one downside to Hemlock Grove was that, at times, I couldn’t figure out who the narrator was supposed to be. Throughout the novel there were be sentences sprinkled into scenes that broke the Fourth Wall. Was Brian McGreevy actually witnessing these events and then relating the tale to the reader? Was the narrator a character in the book? It was never clear to me.

Hemlock Grove is one of those novels that feels written especially for me. From the cheesy campiness to the numerous Pittsburgh shout-outs, I was completely on board from the very beginning. It’s also one of those rare novels that didn’t need to be virtually re-written for a screen adaptation, so it made picturing nearly the entire novel a joy. Although I’d definitely recommend this one for a Halloween read, Hemlock Grove is more than just a scary story: there’s history, mystery, supernatural elements, romance, and one of my favorite bromances all thrown together to create a ridiculously fun ride.

As if you actually needed some convincing to watch the show, this beautiful boy is the star:

yep.
image via tumblr

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
Pub. Date: October 16, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Recommended for: open-minded fans of Jane Austen willing to put story ahead of fact, fans of dual narratives

I’ll admit that when the publicist first reached out to me about this novel I was more than a little hesitant: I’ve made it 26 years without reading a Jane Austen novel, though I feel that by now I’m familiar enough with her works (through countless movie adaptations, friends, etc) to get the gist. So despite my worries, I took the plunge: I have extremely good luck with Viking and multiple factors of the novel intrigued me – y’all know I love a good dual narrative!

First Impressions is told through two narratives: Sophie Collingwood in the present, and Miss Jane Austen herself. The novel alternates between these two time periods, though Jane’s chapters are only a page or two to Sophie’s 10+. In the present, Sophie is at a crossroads in her life, unsure of what a post-Oxford career holds. A terrible tragedy sets her on a path of mystery and death threats, through she’s determined to get to the bottom of it – regardless of the consequences the end result holds for the literary world.

While Jane’s family loves hearing her stories, it seems as though they’ll be the only ones to ever enjoy her work; she’s struggling to find a publisher and has all but given up hope of ever achieving her dreams of being a writer. A chance encounter with the kindly Reverend Richard Mansfield leads to an incredible friendship and changes Jane’s life in ways she could have never imagined.

Let’s cut right to the chase: I liked First Impressions. Really liked it…as in an Any-Time-I-Wasn’t-Reading-It-Was-On-My-Mind, Rush-Home-From-Work-To-Read kind of deal. That said, I’m wondering if I enjoyed it so much because I haven’t read Jane Austen. Mr. Lovett took several liberties here and entertained some ideas that Janeites definitely wouldn’t find amusing. Can you imagine the mass hysteria that would erupt if evidence was shown that Jane Austen didn’t write her novels? Or worse, that she blatantly stole the ideas and characters? You’re looking at the start of World War III. So I’m wondering if my ambivalence toward Jane actually worked in my favor. A few months ago I read Mrs. Poe and while I understood it was a work of fiction, the characterization still rubbed me the wrong way. Virginia, a scheming, conniving, heartless woman who acts more like a child? Contemporaries of Poe have described him as a soft-spoken, charming man. In Mrs. Poe he was a suave sex god, leaving a trail of housewives in his wake. I absolutely understand why First Impressions might not be the novel for die-hard Austen fans.

Honestly, I love a good mystery (particularly at this time of the year!), and a literary mystery is even better! There were some twists and turns I wasn’t expecting and I’m happy to admit that some of my assumptions weren’t correct (I love it when I can’t see the end coming and a novel completely takes me by surprise). I’m not sure if it was because Sophie’s chapters were much longer than Jane’s and therefore I got to know her better, but I found myself enjoying the present day chapters far more – though I have a soft spot for the sweet Reverend Mansfield! Sophie’s sleuthing starts when she takes a position at an antiquarian bookstore. One day a customer comes into the shop with a rather odd request: he’s looking for a second edition of Reverend Mansfield’s book of allegorical tales. The following day a second man comes looking for the very same collection. Sophie’s Spidey senses are tingling and it’s not just because of Winston’s good looks. There’s something going on and could it have anything to do with her beloved uncle’s strange death?

I did have one problem with the novel. Since she was a child, Sophie has loved books and reading. With her Uncle Bertram’s help, she began collecting volumes and one passage had my eyebrows raised:

One girl in her tutorial had complained of the moldy smell wafting off Sophie’s copy of Little Dorrit, and Sophie had retorted, “This is the first book edition. Without the mold it would have cost me twice as much.”

-pg. 94

Sophie’s right – without the mold it would have cost much more, but this book is now damaged beyond repair. Mold is a living organism. It spreads, it grows. I deal with this every single day at work. It could be the rarest book in the world, but if mold has reached it, there’s nothing I can do. The same with broken books. In First Impressions, there’s talk of collecting broken and torn novels because they’re cheaper. I’ll never forget the day I had to throw out a first edition of Hemingway because it was literally split in two. Not just a cracked spine, but I could hold one half of the book in my left hand and the other half in my right. A small marking can be forgiven, but there’s some damage that’s too great. As a book lover Sophie ought to know this – especially once she becomes a bookseller herself!

Despite that minor annoyance, I had a fantastic time with First Impressions, but it’s a novel I’d recommend cautiously. Readers who live and breathe Austen might want to pass on this one unless you’re willing to go into it with a very open mind. However, if you’re a total Austen newbie like me and want a thrilling mystery, First Impressions is great! Short chapters, fast-paced, with an exciting premise. Definitely my kind of book!

Notable Quote

“That’s the beauty of rare books,” he had said one evening when he was reading a first edition of Cecelia. “If you mail a rare stamp it becomes worthless. If you drink a rare bottle of wine, you’re left with some recycling. But if you read a rare book it’s still there, it’s still valuable, and it’s achieved the full measure of its being. A book is to read, whether it’s worth five pounds or five thousand pounds.”