Happy Release Day, Lauren!

It’s book launch day for Lauren Willig and The Other Daughter!

Other Daughter

Huge thanks to St. Martin’s Press and to NetGalley for letting me get my hands on an early copy.  If you’re picking up your copy today, you are in for such a treat!  I’m going to include my review below – I am *almost* positive that there’s nothing in it you may consider a spoiler, but if you like to dive into a book knowing only what you’ve read on the jacket, maybe give the rest of this post a miss until you’ve finished the book. Happy reading to one and all!

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When I received an email from NetGalley letting me know that an ARC of Lauren Willig’s The Other Daughter was available for me to download, I did a serious happy dance. But I made myself wait a few weeks to begin it. A new book from Lauren is a thing to be savored, and I knew that when I started it, it would be over all too quickly. True to form, once I did sit down with my Nook, I gulped this book down in two sittings. Once again, and as always, Lauren has delivered an excellent story.

When Rachel Woodley receives a telegram in Normandy informing her that her mother is sick with influenza, she immediately packs her bags for her home in Netherwell, England. But by the time Rachel sets foot on home soil, her mother is already gone. Rachel can’t imagine that her grief could be any worse, but then she finds a newspaper clipping among her mother’s bedclothes. In that clipping is a picture of Rachel’s father – her father who died when she was only four – escorting his daughter, Lady Olivia Standish, to a society function. Suddenly, Rachel’s past is a lie. She isn’t the daughter of a respectable, hard-working widow. She is the other daughter – the illegitimate daughter – of an earl. With no idea how to move forward and no clue how to fill in the gaps in her history, Rachel joins forces with Simon Montfort, a gossip columnist with a past as murky as her own, to find a way to insinuate herself into her father’s set. She makes a daring entrance into London society, masquerading as Vera Merton, and quickly becomes the toast of the Bright Young Things. Her goal: get herself invited to her half-brother’s twenty-first birthday at the family seat and seize the opportunity to confront her father. But as Rachel pushes deeper into Lady Olivia’s social circle, she realizes that she is woefully ignorant of the shared history in this set. And although Simon Montfort has promised to help her, Rachel begins to suspect that his reasons for interfering in her family affairs may not be as straightforward as she thought.

The idea at the heart of this story is a familiar one – what would you do if you found out that your past was not what you’d always thought? But even though this premise is one I’ve read before, Lauren’s variation on the theme is fresh. Rachel is an excellent narrator. I was indignant and angry right along with her when she learned that her father had abandoned her. I celebrated with her when she launched herself into London society without a single person questioning her backstory. I turned up my nose with her at the empty lives of the Bright Young Things with their “too, too sick-making” rounds of parties and entertainments. But then, when Rachel starts losing herself in the façade of Vera Merton, I worried for her. Is she becoming so single-minded that she is willing to hurt the people who are, even though they don’t know it, her family? And if she does manage to get close enough to her father to force a confrontation, what will she do if his reaction isn’t what she’s been hoping for? I started to feel less “in Rachel’s corner” and more disappointed in the person she was becoming, and I was holding my breath to see if Lauren would redeem her in the end.

I loved the relationship between Simon and Rachel. They fling Much Ado about Nothing quotes at each other fast enough to make your head swim. They bicker, but they find genuine comfort in each other’s company. And at heart, they are very similar – two people who are unsure where they belong but brave enough to make a fresh start somewhere new. Watching Lauren peel back the layers to show Rachel the real Simon was like watching a picture resolve into focus. You think you see him clearly, but shift a few things around and see how he’s brought into sharper relief. The revelations are not always good ones, but Simon is a better, more interesting character in the end for the twists that Lauren puts him through.

On a more technical note, this is the first of Lauren’s stand-alone books that does not shift perspective between a modern and historical storyline. I didn’t even realize until halfway through the book that she had made this departure from form, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I loved all the setting detail that she included – the brief glimpse of Rachel’s life as a governess in France, the fancy-dress parties and beautiful flat in London, and the imposing estate at Carrisford Court. The supporting cast she created for Rachel’s story is incredible.

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Thanks to Downton Abbey, I shouldn’t be surprised at the lengths that the British aristocracy would go to in order to keep a title and an estate intact, but Lauren kept me on my toes. I can’t wait to see what she’s planning for her next book.

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The Sound of Music Story

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The film The Sound of Music celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on March 2, so this year, fans everywhere have had a variety of opportunities to indulge in their favorite movie in new ways. From a feature spread in Vanity Fair to an ABC television special, lots of people want to get in on the action and celebrate this movie. Tom Santopietro’s new release, The Sound of Music Story, is my latest discovery in my quest to feed my love for all things Sound of Music. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley, I had a chance to read an advance copy.

This book is a treat for anyone who loves the movie or enjoys Hollywood history. Santopietro begins with a brief background on the real-life von Trapp family and the German film Die Trapp-Familie. He moves through the production of the American stage musical with Rogers and Hammerstein, the search for a studio to produce the film, and then finding the perfect cast and crew. There are details galore about the filming, and then Santopietro moves into the movie’s critical and popular reception. He covers the awards season, the effects of the movie on the future careers of the major players involved, and he includes a chapter on the ways that The Sound of Music has integrated itself into our culture.

I loved reading about the filming. The costuming and choreographing chapters were probably my favorites. Evidently, Julie Andrews told an interviewer that she had never felt more beautiful than the day she wore her iconic Maria von Trapp wedding dress. Kym Karath, who played Gretl, couldn’t swim and nearly drowned filming the scene where Maria and the kids tip over their boat. Attempts to dye Nicholas Hammond’s (Friedrich) hair blond for filming went so badly awry that he wound up with practically white hair and a severely blistered scalp. This behind-the-scenes information was all great fun to me.

There were a few places where this book felt a little dry. As much as I adore the movie, I struggled a bit through a few chapters that detailed the selection of the film’s production crew. Someone who is a Hollywood buff would probably have appreciated all the references to big names and big films of the day, but a lot of it went over my head. Also, the last third of the book all felt like conclusion – it was slightly repetitive.

Some fun new facts I learned from this read:

  • The Sound of Music’s first run in movie theaters lasted five years and nine months. That seems UNREAL, especially living in a day where a films come and go from the theater in a matter of weeks.
  • The statistics show that in Salt Lake City, more than half a million admission tickets were purchased for The Sound of Music – that is more than three times the local population.
  • According to the information Santopietro gathered about Austria’s tourism industry, one in three people who visit Austria “journey there specifically because of The Sound of Music.” It’s hard to even wrap my brain around that. But if you’ve got a moment and want to watch the first minute or so of that ABC special, there are some hilarious clips of tourists trying (and sometimes failing) to reenact their favorite scenes from the movie.

The Sound of Music will always be special to me, but I don’t think I fully understood how many other people feel the same way until I read this book. I definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fellow fan.

Rebel Queen

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Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Rebel Queen, Michelle Moran’s latest release.  Perfect timing for the month that our Pink book is set in India, no?

In the small Indian village of Barwa Sagar in 1840, a young girl named Sita’s world collapses around her when her mother dies giving birth to a second daughter. To earn money for her family, and to prevent her grandmother from selling her sister to the temple for life as a prostitute, Sita begins a rigorous course of training to become a member of the Durga Dal – an elite group of women who function as the bodyguards, entertainers, and personal confidants for the Maharani of Jhansi. Sita learns to fight, to play chess, to discuss English poems and plays, and to ride a horse, but nothing could prepare her for her life in the palace of Jhansi. In the royal court, Sita discovers that there are two sets of rules at play: a set of traditions and expectations that she will understand with time and practice, and the unspoken rules of behavior that are only known to those who have spent a lifetime at court. On her first day at the palace, Sita learns that trust is an invaluable commodity, but it’s a lesson she will find herself forced to learn over and over throughout her seven years in the Durga Dal. Between the threat from the encroaching British and an even more insidious threat from within the palace itself, Sita begins to lose sight of her purpose in coming to Jhansi, and when open war breaks out between the British army and the local sepoys, she finds herself questioning where she owes her highest loyalty.

I have had a fascination with books set in India in this time period ever since I read M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions a few years ago. I’ve tried to find other books that would have that perfect blend of rich historical detail, beautifully rendered setting, exciting plot and fascinating characters, but for the longest time, I thought Kaye had managed to catch lightening in a jar. I’ve read a few other books that have come close, but never a story that could match Kaye for making me feel so wrapped up in the story. Rebel Queen has succeeded where the others failed. Moran’s story is immersive and compelling (although Rebel Queen clocks in under 300 pages, compared with over 1,000 for The Far Pavilions).

Some books about Indian history have an annoying habit of trying to place you in the setting by just throwing random Hindi or Sanskrit words at you in italics throughout the story. I find that, rather than making me feel at home in the setting, that tactic jerks me out of the story abruptly, like a big billboard screaming, “LOOK, A FOREIGN WORD! BECAUSE WE’RE IN INDIA, REMEMBER?” Moran’s setting details are so subtle that sometimes you forget she is building another time and place for you. Without bashing you over the head with descriptors, Moran makes you feel the summer heat, smell the rain, and hear the chaotic hum of a busy marketplace around you.

I love stories about palace intrigue, and Rebel Queen has that in abundance. The Durga Dal are, in theory, all fiercely devoted to the Maharani, but within their ranks, some are more interested in self-preservation and advancement than serving their queen. Neighboring kingdoms jockey for additional territory, and spies are constantly infiltrating the court of Jhansi. The all-female Durga Dal are the counterparts to the Maharaja’s male bodyguards, and given the amount of time these groups spend in close quarters, romantic sparks fly. Meanwhile, the British are slowly taking over Indian kingdoms under the guise of stewardship. Sita explains their presence with the parable about the camel’s nose, and how “on a cold winter’s night, the camel begged its master to allow it to place its nose inside the master’s tent… the camel, who promised at first it would be just its nose, then its legs, then its back, until finally it was the camel living inside the tent while the master shivered in the cold outside.” With so many sources of drama and tension, I was never bored – the pacing is great.

Sita was a wonderful narrator. You want her to succeed so badly after all the hardships she’s endured growing up, and you feel fiercely protective of her when people in the Jhansi court try to take advantage of her inexperience. And in the end, when you watch her struggle with conflicting loyalties, you heart will break right along with hers when she realizes that it’s not possible for her to save everyone and everything that she loves.

All in all, I was really impressed. I will definitely look into some of Moran’s previous books – I keep picking up Madame Tussaud and putting in down again in my trips to Barnes and Noble. Have you read any of her books? What would you recommend?

The Hero and the Crown

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I have come across Robin McKinley’s name on several occasions on lists of books I would or should like – several of her fairy tale retellings have been on my TBR list for years. Open Road Integrated Media has released several of her older books in e-book format, and I had the chance to read a copy of The Hero and the Crown from NetGalley. I felt a special connection to this book because it won a Newbery Medal the year I was born. It’s a prequel to her novel The Blue Sword.

In the kingdom of Damar, Aerin is a princess, but she is not exactly a beloved one. It’s whispered that Aerin’s mother, who may or may not have been a witch, killed herself in despair when she gave birth to a daughter rather than a son. In Damar, all royalty are supposed to have a Gift (kelar) they can display which marks them as special. While everyone else in her family can use their Gift without struggle, Aerin has never developed hers. Aerin spends her childhood trying to be invisible, preferring the company of her father’s retired warhorse Talat to her peers or subjects. She becomes fixated on learning sword fighting skills and perfecting a recipe for an ointment that will keep her safe from dragon fire so that she can slay dragons. The trouble is, in Damar, dragons are more like vermin than ferocious beasts from legend, and killing them is far from a noble pastime. Aerin’s talents for dragon-killing are scorned rather than appreciated.

Suspicion grows in Damar that the hero’s crown, lost for years, has fallen into the hands of the unruly Northerners. Aerin’s father, her cousins, and their army ride out to negotiate with the Northerners, and word comes to them too late that Maur, one of the last great dragons left in the world, is attacking a nearby village. Aerin is the only one on hand to help the villagers fight Maur, and though she kills the dragon, she pays a heavy price. Maur’s death sets off a chain of events that will cause Aerin to leave home seeking healing, the truth about her family and her destiny, and the hero’s crown.

Aerin is the archetypal hero who doesn’t understand her own worth. She’s used to being the butt of everyone’s jokes and having her efforts be under-appreciated. People in Damar think she’s crazy, and they speculate about whether or not she’s even legitimate – but she doesn’t hesitate to do them a service (like killing their dragons) when she can. She doesn’t do it out of any sense of obligation to the people – it’s just something that can be done and something that she’s capable of doing. Aerin can be stubborn to the point where you want to shake her, but you have to admire a girl with her level of perseverance. It’s one of the things that saves her life in the end.

The first half of the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, as we learn about Aerin’s childhood and her determination to do something useful. The second half flew by, and I will confess to being a bit lost at times. I think if I had read The Blue Sword, I would understand a bit more about the world McKinley has created for these books and some of her mythology. It was interesting enough that I do plan to read more of this series eventually, and I do really enjoy her writing style. I think my next book of hers will either be Beauty or Spindle’s End.

First Frost

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Any Sarah Addison Allen fans out there?

I heard Sarah speak at Quail Ridge Books in January 2014 while she was on her Lost Lake tour. The response when she announced that she would be publishing a sequel to Garden Spells was amazing. People clapped, gasped, cheered, and I think a few might have teared up a bit. I knew I was looking forward to reading this book too, but sequels are tricky. Sequels are especially tricky when they come eight years after the original book was written.

Garden Spells was a wonderful story with a very satisfying ending, so a sequel seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up with some great characters. But a sequel has to come at a price. To give us another story about the Waverly sisters, Sarah had to take them out of the snug, cozy places where she tucked them it at the end of Garden Spells and shake them up.

In First Frost, all the Waverly girls are back – Claire, Sydney, Bay, and Evanelle – and just as magical as ever. Claire has put her catering business on hold to start up Waverly’s Candies. In typical Claire fashion, she wants to do all the work herself, but as demand for her candies grows, she struggles to balance filling her orders and ensuring that her products deliver what they promise. Sydney loves her husband, daughter and sister more every day, but her desire to have another baby and to protect Bay from high school heart break are overshadowing all the goodness in her life. Bay has grown up a lot since we last saw her, and her Waverly magic is causing her a bit of a struggle. High school is full of teenagers trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. Bay’s gift is knowing exactly where things belong, but not everyone trusts her instincts.

It’s a time of uncertainty for the Waverly girls, and they anxiously await the first frost of the year, when the temperamental apple tree in Claire’s back yard will carpet the garden with its blossoms and remind them that it’s okay to let things go. As Claire could tell you, “First frost was always an unpredictable time, but this year it felt more… desperate than others.” With only a week to go before the frost arrives, a silver-eyed drifter checks in to the Bascom bed and breakfast. He has a way of charming those around him, but what he carries in his suitcase may just be enough to bring Claire’s entire world down around her.

I’ll admit, as much as I love Sarah’s books, this one took me a few chapters to get into. It’s because Sarah worked so hard in Garden Spells to give Claire, Sydney and Bay such hopeful, happy endings. When the book opens with Claire in the kitchen, frazzled and doubting herself, I wasn’t sure I liked where things were headed. But after a few chapters, I reminded myself to trust Sarah and let her tell me her story, and in the end, I loved it.

The best thing about Sarah’s particular brand of magical-realism is her ability to make you forget that the things she’s describing don’t actually happen in real life. There is no tree that throws apples through your bedroom window. You don’t actually have an eccentric aunt who pops over at after dinner to give you something simple, like a Band-Aid or a flashlight, which will turn out to be absolutely essential tomorrow. You can’t buy a lemon drop at the store that will both ease your sore throat and give you peace of mind. Sarah makes you believe these things are not only possible, but they are a fascinating blend of remarkable and commonplace.

This was another hit for me – I hope she’ll have another in 2016!

*I got an advance copy of this e-book from NetGalley.

The Magician’s Lie

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Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark, I had a chance to read an advance copy of The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel from Greer Macallister.

In 1905, The Amazing Arden and her company of performers are putting on a show in Waterloo, Iowa. The audience is clamoring to see Arden’s most notorious illusion, The Halved Man. From his seat in the packed theater, a local policeman named Virgil Holt watches in horrified fascination as Arden attacks a man in a wooden box with an axe – and moments later, presents the same man, whole and uninjured, for the audience’s inspection.

Hours after the show has ended, Holt is called back to the theater to investigate a murder. A man is lying in the wooden box used in The Halved Man with an axe buried in his chest, and two young performers have identified him as Arden’s husband. No one who saw Arden perform The Halved Man earlier in the evening has any doubts about what happened to her husband – her trick, her axe, clearly her doing. Holt is the one to find Arden and take her into custody, but once he has her, he doesn’t know what to do with her. If he hands her over to the sheriff, she’ll definitely be hanged, and Holt isn’t entirely convinced she’s guilty. Arden has one night to tell Holt her story and convince him she isn’t a murderer. She starts from the beginning, as far back as she can remember, and as the night wears on, Holt struggles to decide if he can trust a women who built her reputation on making people believe the impossible.

Evidently, I have a bit of a weakness for stories about traveling performers in the early 1900s. I thought Water for Elephants was really interesting, and I absolutely loved the movie The Prestige (for more reasons than just because it starred Christian Bale). I think what appeals to me most is the backstage feeling these stories have – the impression that you’re being let in on a secret or getting a rare sneak peak at how things work. Some of my favorite moments from The Magician’s Lie were Arden’s descriptions of how her illusions worked. I love the way that she integrated herself into the company’s routine, starting as an extra, working her way up to having a few of her own illusions, and gradually becoming such a presence that she carries the show rather than being an accessory to it. The other thing that pulls me into this type of story is the sense of duality. The audiences who attend the circus performances or magic shows see something glamorous and fantastic, but the reality for the people who live and work on the shows is drastically different. As the reader, you get to see the hard work and the very unglamorous details that go into each performance.

The frame story format works really well for this book. There is a brief prologue from Arden’s perspective, but then Macallister shifts immediately to Holt. The story stays with him until Arden is in his custody, and then the point of view alternates between Holt’s thoughts as he interrogates Arden and Arden’s story of how she came to be where she is. I will say that I found the bits about Arden’s early life less interesting. She trains as a ballerina, works as a maid at the Biltmore, and eventually dances in a New York ballet company. The story didn’t really take off for me until Arden is approached by Adelaide Herrmann, the only female magician of the day with her own show. From that moment, I felt like Macallister found her rhythm, and the story really got going.

Beneath the excitement of Macallister’s descriptions of life in the magician’s company, there is the lurking awareness that Arden is telling her story because she’s bargaining for her life. In the moments where Macallister returns us to the “present,” we learn that Holt and Arden aren’t as different as he might like to pretend – Holt has a secret, one that he knows will catch up with him one day, and deep down, he’s hoping for a miracle (or magic, maybe?) to save him. As Macallister peels back the layers and shows you more about each character, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for both of them.

Macallister opens her story with a quote from Sanditon by Jane Austen: “Those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution.” As you come to the end of The Magician’s Lie, you wonder right along with Holt how much of Arden’s story is real and how much is illusion. Macallister gives readers plenty to think about: historical details, mystery, a villain, an unconventional romance, and a coming-of-age story. The only thing that kept this from being a five-star read in my opinion was the length of time (almost a hundred pages) it took for the story to really find its footing.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

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Oh, scissors – Flavia is back! Thanks to NetGalley and Bantam Dell, I had a chance to read an advance copy of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, the seventh novel in Alan Bradley’s fantastic Flavia de Luce series.

In this novel, we pick up with Flavia on a boat crossing the Atlantic as she departs England and her beloved home at Buckshaw to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada. Flavia understands this school will train her to follow in the mysterious and patriotic footsteps of her mother and her eccentric Aunt Felicity, but she knows nothing about what to expect or what this training will entail. Most twelve year old girls would probably faint if their first night at boarding school involved a charred corpse tumbling out of their chimney, but Flavia – chemistry enthusiast, lover of poisons, and avid student of biological decomposition – is not your average twelve year old. Thanks to her habit of pocketing important bits of evidence and her ability to startle people into answering her unexpected questions, Flavia discovers that something is amiss at Miss Bodycote’s. Three girls have disappeared, and Flavia makes it her business to determine what has become of them, and whether one of them might be the unfortunate body from her chimney.

I absolutely loved exploring Miss Bodycote’s with Flavia. It reminded me of reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time and watching Harry learn his way around Hogwarts. At Miss Bodycote’s, there are day-pupils and boarders, chemistry labs with the very latest technology and equipment, teachers with a wide variety of backgrounds (among them an acquitted murderess), and a headmistress who seems uncannily omnipresent. The wings of the school are named after goddesses, the girls’ rooms after heroines, the houses after female saints, and the bathrooms after defunct royalty. There is a hierarchy among the students, both official and unofficial, that Flavia must learn to navigate, and she hasn’t been at the school for more than a week before she’s had several late-night visitors and an impromptu field trip into the Canadian woods to hone her survival skills.

Watching Flavia try to integrate herself into new surroundings was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be. When she tries to mimic the other students’ slang and says to a classmate, “Spill it,” she is overjoyed to see that she’s used the phrase correctly. Flavia decides that “[a]ll those afternoons with Daffy and Feely at the cinema in Hinley had not been wasted after all, as Father had claimed. I had learned my first foreign language and learned it well.” She calls upon all her skills to learn her new environment – her ability to adopt the body language of “little girl lost,” squeeze herself into tight spaces, and (oddly) to vomit on command all come in handy in this story.

If you’re a regular reader of the series, you probably will miss Colonel de Luce, Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, Flavia’s sisters, and the other Bishop’s Lacey locals we’ve come to know and love. But Bradley introduces a whole cast of characters to take the sting out of their absence, and I found that this change in setting is breathing new life into the series. If you haven’t experienced Flavia yet, definitely grab a copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and get started. If you’re already a fan, you won’t want to miss the latest of Flavia’s exploits.