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.

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis
Pub. Date: January 22, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Dutton!!)
Summary: Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back.

Agatha Pantha is an eighty-two-year-old woman who hasn’t left her home since her husband died. Instead, she fills the silence by yelling at passers-by, watching loud static on TV, and maintaining a strict daily schedule. Until the day Agatha spies a little girl across the street.

Karl the Touch Typist is eighty-seven years old and once typed love letters with his fingers on to his wife’s skin. He sits in a nursing home, knowing that somehow he must find a way for life to begin again. In a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes.

Together, Millie, Agatha and Karl set out to find Millie’s mum. Along the way, they will discover that the young can be wise, that old age is not the same as death, and that breaking the rules once in a while might just be the key to a happy life.
Genre: Adult, Fiction, Contemporary
Recommended for: Readers looking for an emotion, heartfelt tale with a fantastic cast of characters – be sure to have a box of tissues!

I totally judge books by their covers. I’m not ashamed of this at all – nope, no sirree. That beautiful cover – the striking font and bold, vivid colors – are what initially caught my eye, but I’m VERY pleased to say the loveliness doesn’t end there; the inside is just as incredible. When I discussed Lost & Found with the publicist, she mentioned it was an office favorite and, now that I’ve read it (even before I was finished!) I completely understand why.

Seven-year-old Millie Bird finds herself abandoned inside a department store, obediently waiting in the spot where her mother said to wait for her return…only her mother never came back. Leaving a trail of THIS WAY, MUM and BE RIGHT BACK, MUM notes in her wake, Millie eventually ventures out into the rest of the store, hiding when she can and befriending a mannequin (fully believing, in only the way a lost seven-year-old can, that this mannequin is alive and saved her after collapsing onto a night guard inches away from discovering Millie’s hide-out). In the food court her life becomes entwined with that of an elderly man, Karl.

Karl the Touch Typist’s fingers are always moving, always typing. On the run after breaking out of his nursing home, Karl now spends his days roaming about, waiting for a grand adventure to whisk him away. Although he never meant to befriend a little girl, there’s something about Millie that instantly connects the pair and when Millie is ultimately caught and held while the police are called, Karl knows it’s time to act.

Agatha hasn’t left her home since her husband died nearly a decade ago. Since then her days are lived with a military-like precision: she wakes up at precisely this time, slips on her sensible skirt not a second later than normal, follows her daily ritual of sitting in her Chair of Resentment to shout complaints at the neighbors. One day, without Agatha’s permission, her routine is interrupted. The woman across the street is long gone at that point and her little daughter has been fending for herself. Millie’s arrival at Agatha’s doorstep breaks her solitude and she’s not at all pleased.

Travel itinerary in hand, Millie asks for Agatha’s help in finding her mother. She now knows where she went and, silly Mum, she left before remembering to pick up Millie. Agatha, this woman who hasn’t been out of the house in nearly ten years, decides to track down this heartless woman and, after teaming up with Karl, the pair set off across the country on a life-changing (and eye-opening) journey.

In a note to the reader Brooke Davis discusses how Lost & Found came to be: while in her twenties, she went on a backpacking trip across Asia. After receiving a message from her brother telling her to call home immediately, she learned her mother has unexpectedly passed away and without a moment’s hesitation, she’s on a plane. Her anger and hurt and confusion became Lost & Found and the novel was written for her PhD thesis on grief. I’m not sure if that note will be included in the finished copy, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If I hadn’t read it, I’m sure I would have still loved Lost & Found, but because I was given that background info, these characters took on another meaning for me. Their fears and worries were Brooke’s fears and worries and that’s really what took this book to a new level and set it apart from others.

This is a review I’ve been sitting on for weeks. I tore through the book the week before Christmas, but only recently sat down to gather my thoughts. While Lost & Found isn’t a memoir, it’s still an extremely personal experience and, because of that, I’m having a hard time critiquing it (just as I hard a hard time discussing brown girl dreaming, one of my top reads last year). Even now, despite having a wealth of points I want to make and scenes I want to discuss, I’m at a loss and that is how I know a book has affected me. As with my other favorite novels, I’m finding myself struggling over what to say – I don’t want to give away too much, but I also want to shout about it from the rooftops.

A month and several books later, I’m still finding myself thinking back on these characters. Millie and her boots. Karl the Touch Typist’s love for his wife that will never fade. Agatha’s daily measurements of arm wobblage. Yes, Lost & Found can be described as quirky, but there’s also so much love and pain and at multiple times throughout their journey I wanted to pull each character into my arms and tell them everything will be okay. I am NOT a re-reader, but Lost & Found is a novel I just can’t shake and I know I’ll be returning to in the future. This is a beautiful, beautiful novel I’ll be pushing hard on customers and friends.

#hailtotheking: Revival

Revival by Stephen King
Pub. Date: November 11, 2014
Source: a gift from Cass!
Summary: In a small New England town, over half a century ago, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister. Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs. Jacobs; the women and girls feel the same about Reverend Jacobs — including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister, Claire. With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond based on a secret obsession. When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.

Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of thirteen, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties — addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate — Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary, a hint of Sci-Fi
Recommended for: SK fans, readers looking to become engrossed in a richly woven story with a huge payoff at the end, SK newbies who want to try a novel without diving into Horror

So my first #hailtotheking read. Guys, this book is over 400 pages and I read it in ONE DAY. That alone speaks volumes to King’s mastery of his craft and his power over words. The jacket hails Revival as a throwback to Classic King, with shout outs to Gothic powerhouses like Melville and Poe, with “the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written.” While I didn’t quite get that (and I was VERY disappointed I didn’t lose sleep over the ending – this is Stephen King we’re talking about!), Revival was a damn fine novel and one that left me feeling both mentally and emotionally drained upon finishing.

Over the course of fifty years, Revival follows Jamie Morton as he grows from a little boy playing with army men to a guitarist in a high school band to a guitarist in bar bands that never stood a chance. As that little boy in Maine, Jamie met Charlie Jacobs, the easygoing and friendly new minister the entire Morton family (entire town, for that matter) instantly took a liking to. However, tragedy struck and with the Terrible Sermon, Minister Jacobs walked out of Jamie’s life. Years later as a coke-addicted adult, Jamie finds his path crossed with Charlie’s once more and, over the coming decades, their lives interlock in ways Jamie could never imagine.

It takes so much more than one paragraph, a mere four sentences, to fully sum up Revival. It reads like a memoir of sorts, a fifty-year character study into Jamie Morton’s life. From what I understand, King has done other coming-of-age tales and if they’re anything like this one, you can bet I’ll be reading them! Revival has many definitions, nearly all of which are explored in these pages. Religion, death, identity – Stephen King shies away from nothing and tackles each topic expertly.

Charlie, the electricity-obsessed Minister who lost his faith, was fascinating and I could have read another 400 pages devoted solely to him. He was in his early twenties when he left Maine and when Jaime meets him again decades later, he has completely reinvented himself, taking on a new identity and adopting a backstory. Over the next few decades, he goes through multiple names, multiple personas, all the while keeping his eye on one goal – a goal he needs Jamie’s help with, though he’s tight-lipped about the details.

Revival is a sweeping 400-page buildup to its final conclusion and, I’ll admit I had a hard time getting into it. I expected non-stop action and spine-tingling scenes from the very first sentence instead of a quiet little town full of church-going families. Within a few chapters, however, I was golden and 100% along for the ride. I refuse to say anything about the ending (I had my theories about what the Big Reveal could be and wasn’t entirely wrong), but I will say it was a little disappointing. I think the ending will make or break this book for readers. Revival is a LONG and meticulously-plotted journey and I really feel that if the ending doesn’t work for a particular reader, it’ll ruin the entire experience. Although I had hoped for something truly scare-my-socks-off eerie, I still enjoyed this novel immensely. I’ll just have to head back to early King for my nightmares!

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.

The Traitor’s Wife by Allison Pataki

The Traitor’s Wife by Allison Pataki
Pub. Date: February 11, 2014
Source: Library (though I’ve ordered a copy ♥!)
Summary: Socialite Peggy Shippen is half Benedict Arnold’s age when she seduces the war hero during his stint as military commander of Philadelphia. Blinded by his young bride’s beauty and wit, Arnold does not realize that she harbors a secret: loyalty to the British. Nor does he know that she hides a past romance with the handsome British spy John Andre. Peggy watches as her husband, crippled from battle wounds and in debt from years of service to the colonies, grows ever more disillusioned with his hero, Washington, and the American cause. Together with her former love and her disaffected husband, Peggy hatches the plot to deliver West Point to the British and, in exchange, win fame and fortune for herself and Arnold.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Recommended for: Fans of biographical fiction, those curious about the Revolutionary War and the man who betrayed his country

Oh, this was lovely. Absolutely wonderful. I spent a little longer than I would have liked reading The Traitor’s Wife, but I wanted to savor it, to really get down deep into these characters’ lives. While I liked it when reading, the more I think about it since finishing, the more I love it – and I’ve already ordered a copy to keep on my shelves! That’s certainly saying something about this book; even when I love a story, I rarely – RARELY – purchase my own copy. The Traitor’s Wife is definitely a special story.

Peggy Shippen, the youngest daughter of the respected Shippen family, is the socialite. She’s beautiful, smart, and charming – and she knows it. While there are a few other debutantes in her Season, none are of Peggy’s caliber. Every night is spent at another dance and Peggy is never without a man happy to be seen with her on his arm. At seventeen she’s in no rush to settle down, though there are plenty of suitors who would love to have Peggy Shippen as his wife. Instead, she regularly breaks curfew, preferring to spend her time hidden in the shadows with John Andre, a Major in the British Army. She’s certainly attracted to him, but I wonder if Peggy’s rebellious nature didn’t also play a part in their relationship (Peggy’s father, Judge Shippen, refused to side with either the Colonists or the British).

While The Traitor’s Wife is absolutely, positively about Peggy, the story itself is told through the eyes of a young maid, Clara Bell. On her deathbed, Clara’s grandmother made arrangements for her granddaughter to have a position in the Shippen household. Once she arrives, Clara is told she’ll be the handmaid to the Shippen daughters…though, naturally, Peggy takes her all for herself. As a maid, Clara is virtually invisible, allowing her to hear every single secret whispered among the household.

When Andre leaves, Peggy is heartbroken, though she quickly finds solace in the much older Benedict Arnold. Over time, the two further their relationship, ultimately ending in marriage. Through it all Clara is right by Peggy’s side, from the first encounter with Arnold to the initial hints at something sinister to come.

I honestly cannot say enough about The Traitor’s Wife. I loved it while reading, I love it even more in retrospect. Everything about it was wonderful: the vivid details, the setting, the fantastic characters – both good and bad. Pataki’s characterization of Peggy was delightful. She’s definitely a character readers will love to hate. When we first meet her she’s a bratty, selfish teenager…and she really doesn’t change much at all. As an adult she’s still bratty and selfish, only thinking of herself and the gains she could make. When he first met her, Benedict Arnold had a limp from a war wound. Peggy led him on for months until announcing she would no longer have anything to do with him since he was old and couldn’t even dance. Arnold’s love for this girl was so great he all but overcame his disability, rehabilitating himself until he no longer needed a cane. Even still she refused to marry him until he could buy her one of the largest estates in America. He did, but it left him all but destitute.

While I’m not sure how much of the actual plot is based in fact, in The Traitor’s Wife, treason was entirely Peggy’s idea – and I completely believed it. She wanted wealth and a fancy title and would do anything she could to get them. I certainly don’t think Arnold was innocent, but he was definitely sympathetic here.

While I adored the characters (everyone, from the servants to George Washington himself, was absolutely perfect), there were two issues I had that could have been easily fixed and would have made this a five-star read (because it definitely was). I noticed a number of typos and errors. There was one sentence that stuck out in my mind where it read understand instead of understood. A quick edit would have eliminated these. The other issue was a factual error. There’s a scene where someone is hurt and the servants are told to check for a pulse. Not a single one has any idea what that means. Yes, they’re servants, but they can all read and write – they’re educated. I’m supposed to believe an entire household staff (who are no strangers to butchering the livestock for meals) wouldn’t know what a pulse was? Read up on medical history: doctors in the Middle Ages, China, Ancient Egypt were all familiar with pulses.

Apart from those two easily-corrected errors, The Traitor’s Wife was perfect. I loved every minute of it – even better, it gave me a fantastic starting point for further research on my own!

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Pub. Date: August 28, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin!!)
Summary: In vivid poems, award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in both the North and the South. Raised in South Carolina and later New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place, and she describes the reality of living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the civil rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
Genre: YA/MG, Memoir, Verse
Rating:

Writing a review for brown girl dreaming doesn’t seem fair at all. How does someone rate a memoir? A biography? A young girl’s life so beautifully-written and heartbreaking it steals your breath away? brown girl dreaming is so much more than I could ever say and my words could never compare to Woodson’s.

Initially I was a bit hesitant to try out a novel written in verse. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to ‘get it,’ that I wouldn’t be able to get a real feel for the characters and the setting. ..haha! Ms. Woodson stomped all over my reservations and I tore through this book in a day. I was floored by the power of her words and as I’m writing this review I’m noticing the effect it’s had: my normally long-winded and flowery sentences and short and direct. Half a sentence in some cases! A month later brown girl dreaming still lingers in my mind and made a lasting impression.

Jacqueline was born in Ohio and moved to South Carolina a few years later. Even as a child she noticed the differences between the North and the South. In South Carolina she could only visit certain restaurants, use certain restrooms. Her grandparents were her rock, however – particularly her beloved grandfather, Daddy. The way she wrote about these two wonderful people it was clearly evident she thought – and still thinks! – the world of them. They were her stable footing in a world vastly different than the one she had come from. When her mother became a part of the civil rights movement and left for New York, Jacqueline and her siblings stayed behind, always looking forward to the phone calls and that far-away day when their family would be reunited.

Ms. Woodson writes openly about death, prison, race. That she’s so matter-of-fact about it, this is how it is is shocking and painful. As a Middle Class White girl, so many things Jacqueline dealt with on a daily basis have never been set before me and to see the world from her perspective brought me to tears multiple times. I’m still struggling to gather my thoughts; brown girl dreaming was that bittersweet and beautiful.

Nothing I say could possible do this gorgeous story justice. brown girl dreaming is an emotional, raw, heart-wrenching look into a young girl’s life and it broke me. I didn’t tear up, I sobbed. I cheered Jacqueline on as she discovered her love of writing, I laughed right along with her as she played with her best friend. Any worry I had about the verse format completely and utterly vanished and I feel silly for ever having worried in the first place. Jacqueline Woodson has solidified her place in literature and I’m ashamed and embarrassed to say brown girl dreaming is my introduction to her work. Her books have won multiple awards: the Newbery, the Caldecott, National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, a lifetime achievement award, the list goes on and on. Now that I’m aware of her work (and their impact) I’ve got some catching up to do.

brown girl dreaming is a book I need to own in hardback; a review copy just won’t cut it. This is a story I want to cherish and share and I want it to have a permanent place on my shelves. There are so many words I keep repeating: gorgeous, beautiful, raw, heart-breaking, and although I feel like a broken record, brown girl dreaming IS all of these things – and so, so much more. I cannot say enough about this memoir. Go out and buy a copy now.

NOTABLE QUOTES

I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time, we’re a part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.

Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Pub. Date: July 8, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Atria!)
Summary: The Awakening of Miss Prim is a charming debut novel about a young woman who leaves everything behind to take a librarian job in a remote village of France. Though proud and self-assured, Prudencia Prim’s four advanced degrees make her a little overqualified. Nevertheless, there is something glimmering beneath the surface of the picturesque town of San Ireneo de Arnois that cannot be learned from books. Little by little, the peculiar and unconventional ways test Miss Prim’s world vision, her most intimate fears, and her most profound convictions.
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating:

Close your eyes. Picturesque. Charming. Quaint. What do you see? Offbeat. Unconventional. Quirky. This is exactly what you’re getting from The Awakening of Miss Prim. There’s something decidedly old-fashioned about this story – and that’s certainly high praise! One part The Village (bear with me here), one part The Sound of Music, this novel was just plain good and this is a review that scares me. Despite sitting on my thoughts, I’m still unable to come up with the right words to say (apart, of course from I LOVE IT).

Prudencia Prim has more degrees to her name than I have fingers on my hand. With a blatant disregard for a firm “graduates and postgraduates need not apply” and ignoring the “preferably without work experience,” Miss Prim marched up the hydrangea-lined path to inquire about a posting for a librarian position. The Man in the Wingchair (a man never named throughout the duration of the novel) decides to hire her on and Miss Prim quickly comes to realize San Ireneo is a town unlike any other.

The tiny village was founded as a refuge of sorts for those seeking to get away from the intensity of city life. In San Ireneo, values are sacred, gardens are perfectly tended, any goods are produced locally, education is prized (the Man in the Wingchair’s nieces and nephews – all under the age of 11 – are able to recite ancient Greek and Latin works and hold their own in philosophical debates). What makes this town different is that the school teacher? The bookseller? None of these positions are filled by professionals. Shops open simply because the town lacks a particular ware. Miss Prim comes to learn this way of thinking came largely out of the want for the town’s children to have an unbiased education, they learn the basics from the school teacher, but the bulk of their education is learned at various homes, largely the Main in the Wingchair’s private library (which Miss Prim has recently taken to organizing).

The Awakening of Miss Prim is such a delightfully sleepy tale, exactly the kind of story I adore. There wasn’t much in the way of action; instead, there’s a wealth of character development and depth. A variety of topics are explored – religion, philosophy, there’s even a debate on the merits of Mr. Darcy. While I’m relatively unfamiliar with the main bulk of 18th-Century British Literature (sorry, Janites!), The Awakening of Miss Prim felt right at home with those works. The Man in the Wingchair is a gentleman in every aspect of the word, San Ireneo itself had an old, primitive feel, the characters are all exceedingly formal. I loved every minute.

In addition to the story, the storytelling was beautiful too. Entire passages gave me pause and there were pages I read and reread because the language was so breathtaking. What boggles my mind is not only that this is a debut, but it’s also a translation. That a translation could be this gorgeous is nothing short of amazing! It pains me to say that I feel The Awakening of Miss Prim will go unnoticed by the majority, but those of you who actively seek out under-the-radar novels will find a true gem. Fiercely character-driven, intensely thought-provoking, and with an ending that left me wanting more (I need to know!!), The Awakening of Miss Prim is a fantastic debut that I eagarly look forward to revisiting again. If you like your characters prim and proper (Prudencia Prim is a most apt name) with more than a hint of quirk, do yourself a favor and read this book.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
Pub. Date: July 1, 2014
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Pamela Dorman/Penguin!!)
Summary: Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: (hello, it’s JOJO)

Whenever Jojo Moyes releases a new novel I know I’m in for a good time. The moment I have it in my hands I begin planning my day around it (I do not appreciate being interrupted while reading her books!) and set aside huge blocks of time in which to dive deep into Jojo’s worlds. Since reading the incredible The Girl You Left Behind last year, I have since gone on to work my way through her backlist (something I rarely do). One Plus One is my fourth Jojo to date (The Last Letter from Your Lover and Silver Bay were both devoured earlier this year) and, while I’ve adored them all, Jojo’s growth and ever-sharpening skills as a writer are evident with each novel.

Because my first two forays into Jojo’s works were dual-era novels, I had mistakenly assumed this was her shtick. Silver Bay taught me that wasn’t the case and One Plus One follows in its footsteps while still employing the multiple narratives that I love so much. Jess doesn’t have much. She lives in a government-provided home, works as a house cleaner for wealthy vacationers, and struggles to make ends meet. Her husband took off two years ago and left Jess to support their daughter and his son on her own. Nicky, a smart-but-brooding teenager, is relentlessly bullied by the neighboring kids. Tanzie is an odd little girl, but phenomenal at math.

One phone call changes their world. When Tanzie is granted a hefty scholarship to an elite private school, Jess is left to find a way to come up with the rest of the cash – and fast. Word of a Mathematics Olympics has the family – and their gigantic dog – piling into a less-than-reliable car and on their way to Scotland.

When Ed was in college, the world was in his palms. He partnered with a buddy and together they created a booming software business, leaving both of them very well-off. Unfortunately, Ed ended up in a rather compromising position with an old college friend and now phrases like ‘insider trading,’ ‘litigation fees,’ and – the worst – ‘jail time’ have become a part of his life. In an attempt to lay low for a bit, Ed heads down the coast to stay in his beachfront home. When he first meets the cleaner he doesn’t give her the time of day. The second time he meets her (and her kids and dog broken down on the side of the road) he decides to do something right for once: Ed offers to drive them to Scotland.

To say One Plus One is a road trip novel would be selling it short. Yes, technically, it is, but it’s about so much more. These are flawed, broken characters who, over the course of the book, discover what it’s like to love and be loved in return. My emotions ran the gamut: I laughed, I cried, I fretted over several choices made but stood in their corner through it all. While reading I lived and breathed these characters and now that it’s over, I’m left feeling like I’m six years old again and my best friend has just moved away. I cannot praise Jojo’s skill highly enough. She took a relatively ordinary story – single mom trying to support her kids – and turned it into something extraordinary.

One of my favorite things about any Jojo novel is the sheer amount of character growth. She has a no-holds-barred kind of attitude when it comes to her stories and seriously puts her characters through the wringer. Nicky, a Goth boy who likes eyeliner and prefers online friends, became so much more than a moody teenager. Ed, at first an extremely unlikable, egotistical man, did a complete 180° and turned out to be a fantastic – and fascinating – character.

I feel this review is more of me spouting my love for Jojo than anything and, as with each of her books, I’m struggling to find just the right words to say. One Plus One is story that made my heart swell and break – usually within the same chapter! For me, it’s a perfect summertime read, though in a different way than your average beach read. The characters come alive and their circumstances – trying to keep up with bills, going from paycheck to paycheck – hit home for many. While most beach reads are about escape, One Plus One takes hold of your hand and shows you there are others out there just like you. And who doesn’t love a smelly, drooling dog?

One Plus One is a phenomenal novel and firmly secures Jojo’s rank as one of my favorite authors. Are you a long-time fan? Read this. Are you still new to her work and feel a bit overwhelmed by all the love she’s received? Read this. Are you looking for a damn fine story? Read this.

NOTABLE QUOTES

“You know, you spend your whole life feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere. And then you walk into a room one day, whether it’s at university or an office of some kind of club, and you just go, ‘Ah. There they are.’ And suddenly you feel at home.”

The only things Jess really cared about were those two children and letting them know they were okay. Because even if the whole world was throwing rocks at you, if you had your mother at your back, you’d be okay. Some deep-rooted part of you would know you were loved. That you deserved to be loved.

He dropped his head and kissed her. He kisses her and it was a kiss of utter certainty, the kind of kiss during which monarchs die and whole continents fall without your even noticing.

Love by the Morning Star by Laura L. Sullivan

Love by the Morning Star by Laura L. Sullivan
Pub. Date: June 3, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (thank you, HMH!)
Summary: On the brink of World War II, two girls are sent to the grand English country estate of Starkers. Hannah, the half-Jewish daughter of a disgraced distant relative, has been living an artistic bohemian life in a cabaret in pre-war Germany and now is supposed to be welcomed into the family. Anna, the social-climbing daughter of working-class British fascists, is supposed to be hired as a maid so that she can spy for the Nazis. But there’s a mix-up, and nice Hannah is sent to the kitchen as a maid while arrogant Anna is welcomed as a relative.

And then both girls fall for the same man, the handsome heir of the estate . . . or do they?
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
Rating

Love by the Morning Star is one of those rare books that kept me up far later than I intended and the only way I managed to get ANY sleep that night was to physically force myself to set the book down. Bravo, Ms. Sullivan!

Anna Morgan wants nothing more than to be accepted into the arms of high society. Her father, a mere grocer, has started gaining a following with his political viewpoints and Anna welcomes any and all publicity. She’s worked hard to look and sound right and now, as far as anyone’s concerned, she can pass for a wealthy young woman. Her dreams collapse however, when she’s called upon to take a position at Starkers Castle as a lowly kitchen maid – servants were virtually invisible – and spy on the household, looking for any possible pro-Hitler leanings.

Hannah Morgenstern loves singing and dancing in her family’s cabaret. All around them Berlin is falling, and the only reason this particular Jewish family has managed to stay afloat is because Mr. Morgenstern’s clientele includes many high-standing politicians and members of the Nazi Party. Their luck could only hold out for so long though, and eventually the Morgensterns make the decision to send Hannah to a relative in England. Lord Liripip had once been married to Mrs. Morgenstern’s sister and the family never quite forgave her for running off to Germany to buy a nightclub. Family is family however, and Hannah packs her things.

In a classic case of mistaken identities, Anna is presumed to be the family’s niece, while it’s Hannah who’s sent down to the kitchens. Anna can’t believe her good fortune, while Hannah believes her position is Lady Liripip’s form of punishment. Add in a few cute boys, a fantastic cast of characters, and an assassination plot and you’ve got the makings of quite a story!

The more I think about this book, the more I love it! Love by the Morning Star was intriguing, it was surprisingly raunchy in some parts, it was thought-provoking. I’m a big fan of dual narratives and while that’s employed to great effect, Hannah is largely the focus. To be honest, that was perfectly fine with me; Anna was insufferable at times and her self-centeredness brought out some woefully pathetic opinions (the poor wouldn’t be poor if they just went out and got jobs; some songbirds were too loud – hey! the poor people can be hired to hunt songbirds and maybe make a pretty hat out of the feathers; years before the story takes place she had been in love with a florist, but wouldn’t admit it – a girl like her couldn’t possibly lower herself to be a florist’s wife).

Hannah, on the other hand, was a delight! She was funny, she was cheerful, she took to rambling on and on – sometimes at the most inopportune moments! So many times she wants to leave Starkers, but it’s the only place she can receive word of her parents’ safety and for that reason alone she’s determined to stay.

While the reader knows from the start the two girls aren’t who they’re supposed to be, the truth doesn’t come out until the very end. And I mean very end – and what a reveal it is! I delighted in every minute of that scene. It’s all the more confusing when two boys enter the picture: Teddy, their heir to the Liripip fortune (and title), has fallen for the girl he believes is Anna (their meetings have only ever been in the dark, dead of night); and Hardy, the charming gardener. If you’re a reader who is not a fan of love triangles, have no fear. While the lines are pretty blurred at times, each person is really in love with only one other…they just might have some trouble figuring out who that person truly is!

Although WWII is looming and Hitler is in full control, this isn’t a war novel. Yes, Hannah’s family had to flee. Yes, Anna’s father has some extremely anti-Semitic views. These very real things don’t exactly take a backseat to the novel, but they’re also aren’t at the forefront. Instead, Love by the Morning Star is a story about two girls who are thrown into positions they weren’t quite expecting and how they manage to carry on. It’s a shame I haven’t seen more buzz about this novel – I absolutely adored it and hope others will do the same! I know this is one I’ll be recommending to many people. It has just the right amount of humor and drama to appeal to readers of so many genres: YA, Historical, Romance, War Fiction, character-driven stories, I could go on and on.

Notable Quotes

“Hate is like hunger, I think. When one person feels it and talks about it, suddenly everyone feels it, even if they didn’t before.”

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” Anna moaned, calling on a diety more primal and powerful than the benevolent uncle of the C. or E. For this, she needed one of those old gods who came to earth with their spites and jealousies and vengeance. She needed Zeus. She needed Loki. Nothing less than divine intervention would save her from this.

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Pub. Date: May 27, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Simon & Schuster!!)
Summary: Can you commit the perfect crime?

Pilgrim is the codename for a man who doesn’t exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation.

But that book will come back to haunt him. It will help NYPD detective Ben Bradley track him down. And it will take him to a rundown New York hotel room where the body of a woman is found facedown in a bath of acid, her features erased, her teeth missing, her fingerprints gone. It is a textbook murder – and Pilgrim wrote the book.

What begins as an unusual and challenging investigation will become a terrifying race-against-time to save America from oblivion. Pilgrim will have to make a journey from a public beheading in Mecca to a deserted ruins on the Turkish coast via a Nazi death camp in Alsace and the barren wilderness of the Hindu Kush in search of the faceless man who would commit an appalling act of mass murder in the name of his God.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Rating:

I Am Pilgrim is a sweeping 700-page behemoth of a novel that spans multiple decades and continents and I could have easily read another 700 pages. I’m typically hesitant to give in to hype, I’ve been burned in the past, but with this novel, the hype is not only deserved, but actually doesn’t do the book justice. I Am Pilgrim is greater than the hype. It’s the kind of book that rocked me to my core and left me breathless. It took me over a month to finally come up with a review but even after a month’s thought, nothing I say will be good enough. This book is that good.

I’m purposefully leaving the summary vague; uncovering the details is half the fun! What initially starts out as a routine – albeit rather gruesome – murder investigation in a seedy New York hotel quickly spirals into a whirlwind race across Europe and the Middle East to stop a crazed zealot from raining destruction down on America. Throw in some ultra-secret government divisions, biological warfare, and a main character with severe mommy issues, and you’ve got the backbone of I Am Pilgrim.

It’s never fully revealed just who our main character is. He was adopted as a child and later on recruited for an agency where he was given a new name and a new past. With each case he took on a new identity. He’s a ghost, living on the fringes of society, never getting close to anyone. After he left the agency, he wrote a book detailing various crimes and unique methods of killing. He becomes involved in the murder investigation after it becomes clear the killer used his book as a blueprint, a checklist of what not to do and how to get away with it. From there I Am Pilgrim takes on a life of its own and I happily buckled in for the ride.

This is a novel where there’s So. Much. to say but saying it will give away the book’s secrets and I refused to ruin it for anyone! I Am Pilgrim is definitely not for the queasy and makes that clear with the opening scene. Thankfully I’m the kind of person who can’t resist watching horror unfold and was thoroughly ensnared in this book’s web. I’m convinced Hayes is something of a genius – the way he introduced multiple stories that, on first look, appeared completely unrelated only to have everything come together at the end had me in awe. It takes a special kind of author to turn a book of this length into a frenzied page-turner, and Hayes is clearly a master of his craft.

I Am Pilgrim kept me up late, got me up early, and had me sneaking in some reading time whenever I could throughout the day. When I wasn’t reading this book I was thinking about it and counting down the minutes until I was able to get back to it. I realize this review is little more than me rephrasing “I LOVE THIS BOOK” over and over again, but when it comes down to it, that’s all I can say (without spoiling anything, of course). I Am Pilgrim is a highly ambition novel that fully lives up to those ambitions and I’m counting on it becoming a huge hit this summer. It appears this is going to be a series, and if that’s truly the case, I desperately need the next!

NOTABLE QUOTES

Putting aside my despair about humanity, I have to say I’m even more impressed by the killer – it couldn’t have been easy pulling thirty-two teeth from a dead person. The killer had obviously grasped one important concept, a thing that eludes most people who decide on her line of work – nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.

I had got up in the morning and by the time I was ready for bed it was a different planet – the world doesn’t change in front of your eyes; it changes behind your back.