nerdy girl reads: the invention of wings

I’ll confess: I didn’t want to read Sue Monk Kidd’s latest, The Invention of Wings. It was a book club pick and I put off reading it as long as possible until our meeting this week forced me to crack it open (the long library hold list helped me on this…guess I should have trusted its popularity). I don’t know exactly why I was dreading it, but let’s just call it the reverse Oprah-effect. I wasn’t feeling historical fiction and I think I went into it thinking it was going to be cheesy for no real reason at all. Good news: I was super wrong.

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kidd

The Invention of Wings is the true story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a layer and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of her family’s slaves, Handful. Growing up, Sarah was known for her intelligence, not her beauty, and was indulged by books and extra lessons from her father. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given Handful as her present, which is deeply unsettling to her. She tries to set her free to the dismay of her overbearing and unloving mother. When she fails, Sarah decides she’s going to be the first female lawyer in Charleston so she never has to feel that helpless again. As you can guess, it doesn’t go over well, she is publicly humiliated by her family, and develops a speech impediment as a result. Sheesh! Sarah listlessly floats through the next few years until she moves north. Her move away from her family, thankfully, is the catalyst for her personal growth. She becomes a Quaker, and ultimately finds her voice as an abolitionist writer and speaker and a champion of women’s rights along with her younger sister Nina. For her part, Handful lives up to her name and leads a life of quiet subversion. Handful, in real life, was a Grimke slave, but died very young. In Kidd’s imagination however, she follows in her mother’s footsteps, becoming the Grimke’s seamstress and doing her part in the building slaves’ riots and working everyday to escape. Kidd weaves in Handful’s family history throughout the novel as Handful and her mother sew it into their quilts. It is heartbreaking and I’m sure all too real.

In the end, I really enjoyed this book. It is powerful and beautifully written and an important story to be told. I loved how the narrative jumps between Sarah and Handful and I really loved the character growth. But I didn’t love the book. I had a very hard time getting into the story and there are SO MANY TIMES I wanted to shake Sarah. I’m sorry to be so awful to a woman who did so much work to end slavery and advance women’s rights in a time when doing so was dangerous and nearly impossible, but Sarah is the Edith of the Grimke family, just in Charleston instead of Downton and in way worse clothing. I kind of said “Poor Sarah/Edith” for awhile and got so sad that her family is so callous and everything seems to go wrong at the worst times and no man will ever love her…but then I just stopped caring. It’s not until Nina joins the crusade, and they find their wings together, that I was swept up in the plot and really felt that Sarah’s part of the story blossomed. On the other hand, I was caught up in Handful’s story from the beginning and never found it to be cheesy or maudlin. It was gritty and hard to read and yet still hopeful, and I am glad I learned just a little bit more about the worst part of American history from Handful’s perspective.

I’ll be honest, this is not a light, fluffy beach read. It’s perfect for the last dreary days of February when you want to sink your teeth into something that will make you a better person for having read it. I can’t wait to discuss the book later this week with my book club; I have the feeling that everyone in our diverse group will have taken away something special from this special book. You know, special for an Oprah book…

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

 

 

nerdy girl writes: the hangman’s daughter

With a title like The Hangman’s Daughter, you’d think the book would be about the hangman’s daughter, right? But no. The first of many disappointments ahead, be forewarned. I had heard about Oliver Potzsch’s book a few times in the last few years and the cover caught my eye in the library used book sale. It’s pretty, right?

the-hangmans-daughter

The Hangman’s Daughter is set in a small German town, Schongau, in the mid-1600s. Like I said, you’d think it would follow Magdalena Kuisl, the hangman’s duaghter, but the action instead follows her father Jacob and the young town doctor (and Magdalena’s forbidden love-interest) Simon Fronwieser. Early one morning, a child turns up dead near the river marked with “a washed-out purple circle with a cross protruding from the bottom.” So basically the woman sign. But back then, it equaled witchcraft. Jacob is forced to arrest the town midwife and use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get her to confess, though another child is killed while she’s in jail. Before the aldermen decide to hang her, Jacob and Simon must figure out who really is killing the children so justice can be served. And Simon has an ulterior motive: if he can prove he’s smart and able, he hopes to marry Magdalena. Potzcsh, it turns out, is a distant relation of the Kuisl hangman clan and tried to stay as true to family history (the Kuisls were known as being very well-read and respected healers despite the fact that they were still generally shunned in society) as possible. One of the creative licenses Potzsch took paid off – the villain of the story is truly and wonderfully evil. He’s known simply as “the devil” throughout the novel and has a fake arm made of crushed bones. It’s awesome.

I’m not sure whether it’s a poor translation (written originally in German), a product of the overly-formal 17th century time period, or just poor writing, but the first 300 pages are sloooooowwwww and disappointing. There are a lot of (German) names. A lot of Jacob and Simon running around the town. A lot of Simon fighting with his father about new and old medicine. A lot of Simon trying unsuccessfully to get with Magdalena. I think I came into the book expecting that Magdalena would have a central role — that she was the one who solved the murder mystery or she was the one who bravely came to her father’s or the midwife’s rescue. She doesn’t. It’s disappointing. I don’t think she was a strong character, and certainly not important enough to have a book titled after her. But then you get to the last 100 pages and it’s nonstop action – chases throughout the town, fights in pitch black tunnels, daring river escapes. It’s great. But getting there takes a lot of work.

I really wish I could give the book two different ratings because the ending really is exciting and satisfying, but as a reader you have to be really committed. Definitely not for everybody.

Rating: 4, Sub par (Bad. Just enough good to avoid complete disaster.)

nerdy girl reads: the fortune hunter

In the last few years I’ve been blogging, I’ve tried only to review the books that were extra special, ones that I couldn’t stop thinking about long after the last sentence. Which is great, they all deserve high praise. But it means that sometimes I’d go weeks or months on end without a book review. You just can’t pick up winners all the time. Sometimes the books in between the knockouts are just entertainment, like the tv shows you watch for mindless fun. Perfect for falling asleep on tired weekday nights. One of my goals this year is write shorter reviews of more of these books because just because they weren’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean they aren’t yours, dear reader. So, first up, The Fortune Hunter:

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I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It was on a book club reading list so it had to be good, right? And the premise is irresistible, no? A handsome cavalry officer torn in a love triangle between a sweet, ambitious heiress who defies society’s rules at every turn and an empress who is the most beautiful woman in the world and shares his love of hunting, set in the wealthy circles of Victorian England. Bay Middleton, the best rider in England, knows two things, horses and women, and he’s got several of each on the hunt.

But despite the perfect set up, the book did not live up to its potential, especially in its characters. Charlotte, Sisi, and Bay fall very flat and their affairs feel very wooden. Of the three main characters, Charlotte was the best depicted, and I admired her desire to pursue her own passions (photography) when society only wants her to marry and the way she eventually learns to stand up for herself. She is an heiress after all. However, her “love” for Bay felt much more like a teenage crush, but that’s an issue I have with this era of history in general (and why I just don’t see Jane Austen as that romantic…). The Fortune Hunter was JUST exciting enough to keep me going until the end, especially with the addition of the most animated character of the book, photographer Caspar. And I did love that the characters were in fact all real people (Bay Middleton is one of Kate’s ancestors!!! LOVE.) and most of the events really did happen. And of course, the ending was romantic, redeeming the rest of the story.

If you are a historical fiction fan and love Victorian-era romance, you will love The Fortune Hunter. If you like Downton Abbey and think that Mary should just stop being stupid and marry Gillingham already sheesh, then you will also like The Fortune Hunter. If you’re just meh, then join the club.

Rating: 5, Take it or leave it (Average and unmemorable.)

 

nerdy girl reads: top 10 books of 2014

I read 60 books last year. I know compared to some that number is paltry, but 60 seems huge to me. More than one a week, even with a full time job and a (maybe somewhat lame) social life. I read some really great books, and much more diverse than it felt like at the time. These definitely aren’t going to be the books on all the fancy NPR or NYT lists, but they are the books I enjoyed the most and the ones that have stuck with me long after I closed the back cover. Got a new year’s reading challenge? Get started with one of these I know you’ll love.

2014-top-ten-books

The Secret Place by Tana French
You can give me a book about a murder at a boarding school any day and I know I’ll love it, but it won’t have the brilliance of French’s The Secret Place. While simultaneously following the murder investigation of a teenage boy and the lead up to his murder, you’re really reading a smart and unexpected look at friendship, loyalty, ambition, and growing up. I loved the cast of characters and couldn’t get enough of French’s spot-on teenage dialogue.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
On the blog, I try very hard to either review a series as a whole or not at all. Most of my favorite series are not ones you can simply pick up in the middle, but I can’t not put The Magician’s Land on this list. The Magicians series follows Quentin, a brilliant debbie-downer of a guy, as he enters the world of magic, first at an exclusive school and then in the magical world of Fillory. Imagine a mix of Harry Potter and Narnia, narrated by Holden Caulfield. If you are AT ALL a fan of the fantasy genre or books with magic (I clearly am), the series is well worth your time, especially the final installment, which perfectly wraps up the magic.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I’m not known for choosing books that really push my boundaries — I have a few genres I like and tend to color within the lines. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so far out of the lines for me, but Karen Russell’s writing is absolutely captivating. I have never been a fan of short story collections, usually the characters and descriptions fall flat for me in their brevity, but there wasn’t a story in Vampires that I didn’t like. From the eponymous vampires of the title to women who turned into silkworms, each story is surprising and supernatural and full of smart and quirky storytelling. Seriously, I can’t choose a favorite, even months later.

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte
Find yourself wanting to slow down and cut back on the busy this year? PLEASE pick up Overwhelmed. Brigid Schulte looks at how we balance (or don’t balance) our work, family, and play time in this book and I think it is an essential read for anyone who feels like they are too busy to have any fun. I’ll admit I’m not the busiest person (I did read 60 books this year after all), but that is by design. I hate feeling busy, which is, as pointed out in this book, different from actually being busy. I believe in policies that enable more flexible workplaces and love Schulte’s emphasis on finding and making time for meaningful play — the thing that makes us human and able to do everything else that much better. The strategies laid out are easy to implement and make a huge difference!

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
I am 100% this book’s demographic. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES. Three stories weave together in this gripping and twisty-turny read: our heroine Claire’s present-day story, her past, and the history of a Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. As Claire begins to forge the Degas, she begins to doubt its authenticity and the tangled web begins to weave. As an art history lover, I couldn’t get enough of this book. I said in my review that Shapiro’s writing is excellent, the mystery of the painting is enthralling, and the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they-be-caught keeps you turning the pages well into the night and I stand by all of it months later.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
All I can say is this book though. It’s just so beautiful — both the story and the prose. A Tree Grows is the only classic I read this year (reading a few more is a goal for this year) and I didn’t write a review of it this summer because it’s so hard for me to put into words what this book means to me. I am SO glad I read it now and not in high school when the husband did (for the record: he loved it too) because it felt like it came to me at the most perfect moment. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the story of Francie Nolan reminds us how complicated and beautiful this life we have is.

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn
Are you a fan of Dexter? Yes? Go get The Intern’s Handbook. Now. It’s got all the makings of a fun thriller (I know, kind of an oxymoron there.): a sarcastic and witty assassin-turned-intern as a narrator, a plot that moves at breakneck speed, and twists and turns on every page. Plus a love story and a brilliantly designed cover (a skull and crossbones made out of office supplies! gah!) for some extra goodness. Both the husband and I couldn’t put this book down. Trust me, it’s no literary masterpiece, but it reads like an exciting screenplay (it’s already being adapted for a movie!) and is pure entertainment.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
OMG this book. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece, The Shining Girls is not it. If you’re looking for a very creepy and deeply engrossing thriller about a time-traveling serial killer and the one who got away, hot on his heels in investigation, this is definitely it. Beukes’ characterizations are remarkable – I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more evil or gruesome character than Harper. You’ll love the quick pace and suspense, dotted with the interactions with the “shining girls,” which act like short stories within the narrative and are a haunting look at women through history.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Every list needs a little chick lit yes? Big Little Lies is chick lit done right. This schoolyard drama following three women’s daily lives leading up to a shocking murder keeps you on your toes until the very end. As I said in my full review, you never know who has been killed and the storytelling effortlessly jumps from funny to dark and back again. It’s a fun read that has it all: humor, well-drawn characters, high-speed plot, and emotional depth.

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
As I mentioned in my full review of The Astronaut Wives Club, I really knew nothing about the early astronauts, much less their wives, and I completely gobbled this book up. I loved reading about the lives of these women, how they coped with the highs and lows, and how they used their positions of popularity and power to make a little history themselves. Koppel’s book is a little bit history and a little bit gossip and a completely fun way to learn a little American history. There’s also going to be a TV show based on it released this year and you better believe I will glued to my seat when it starts!

Honorable mentions: The Vacationers by Emma Straub, Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (like she wasn’t going to be on the list).

Fun fact: Least favorite books of the year were Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (ungodly boring), Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (funny how she can be on both of these lists – this book I just did not get), and Tenth of December by George Saunders (awful). All of these have either won or been nominated for book awards like the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer. I don’t want to know what that says about me…

What was your favorite book you read last year?

nerdy girl reads: the art forger

Oh hey, a book review! It’s been awhile. Don’t worry, I’m back with a good one. A great one even. I am so totally in love with B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, I can’t even stand it and I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. (An admission: I read an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book, even though it came out awhile ago. My “to read” list is a long and lengthy tome.) I mean, it is pretty much written expressly for me. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES.

art-forger

You see what that little review blurb says up there on that ridiculously beautiful cover? It’s all true. The Art Forger is so twisty and gripping and fascinating. At its core, the book follows the same general plot line(s) as The Bookman’s Tale. Like, spot on. Which is great for someone who adored that book. Anyway, we have three stories weaving together: our heroine’s story today, her past, and the history of the Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. Claire Roth is our struggling young artist, paying (most of) her bills by reproducing famous artworks for an online store and working on her own series on the side. Obviously, she knows she can do better…but no one will give her a show. She’s been snubbed for years thanks to a handsome professor, a MoMA show, and a major scandal…one that can magically go away, hottie gallery owner and major love-interest Aiden Markel says, if she helps him with one teeny, tiny, insignificant project: forging a Degas.

That reaction you have right now? Complete disbelief? Yeah, I think everyone had that reaction. Because there’s no way in hell someone can successfully rip off a Degas and fool all the historians. But remember, Claire makes reproductions for a living…so she is an expert forger and for a one-woman show, she’d do anything. When the stolen Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, however, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery. Thus beginning the fabulous twists and turns of her search for the truth about the painting and its past.

I really enjoyed this read. As an art lover, I gobbled up all the art history (obviously, Degas is awesome) and found all the forgery details incredibly fascinating. I honestly knew nothing about the Gardner heist (I mean, I was 4 when it happened…). How exciting! I mean, it’s not cool that we’re missing priceless works of art. (Understatement much?) But it’s amazing that they haven’t been found. As a historical fiction lover as well, I really appreciated how Shapiro used letters from Isabella Gardner to tell the story of the original Degas and help Claire discover its hiding place. I thought it was original and helped keep the three story lines distinct and well-paced. However…as good as this book is (and it’s really, really good), parts of the plot are pretty predictable and some are completely superfluous. It’s fairly obvious what’s happened to Claire that’s made her blacklisted from the art world after a few chapters and she volunteers at a juvenile detention facility, something given a fair amount of attention in the plot without having any connection to the rest of the events. To this day, I have absolutely no idea why it was included. But in the end, none of those frustrations matter because Shapiro’s writing is excellent, the mystery of the painting is enthralling, and the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they-be-caught keeps you turning the pages well into the night.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

As you can tell, I love historical mysteries about art or literature like The Art Forger or The Bookman’s Tale. Have you read one you loved? Share in the comments!

nerdy girl reads: 11/22/63

Confession: I know he’s only like the most famous author around (ok, maybe second behind joker James Patterson), but I have never read anything by Stephen King. I guess I got it into my head at some point that everything he wrote was horror-scary like It or Carrie or The Shining. And yeah, some of that is true, but mostly he just writes good books. I picked up 11/22/63 randomly because, why else, I liked the cover.

11-22-63

Obviously, you know what this book is about, or at least partly about, at first glance. 11/22/63 was one of the most memorable dates in recent American history, so we know right off the bat JFK is going to be involved. But…not until you’re like 90% done. And yeah, this is a looooong book. We start with Jake Epping, an English teacher in Maine who befriends the local diner owner, Al. He in turn shows Jake a secret portal to 1958 in his diner’s back pantry. Yup, folks, we’re going back in time. Al has been trying to go back in time and prevent the JFK assassination because he believes that it can change the course of history for the better (What would have happened had JFK survived that day? Would we still have Vietnam War, race riots, and Martin Luther King’s death?), but he is dying and won’t make it a few more years (it’s real time in the past, but only a few minutes or so have passed when you come back to the present). So Jake goes back to ’58 and away we go.

Using the alias George Amberson, we are treated to a nostalgic (if not sometimes saccharine) look at life in the late 50s and early 60s. From hot cars to the friendly people to the ubiquitous haze of cigarette smoke, Jake/George adapts to the slower life of the past. Armed with lots of cash and five years to wait and plan and research before his big date on that fateful day in Dallas, he sets about killing time. His first adventures are up north, where he learns the ways of the past and helps to change the futures of some of his friends and makes us fall in love with dancing the lindy hop. The bulk of the novel is centered around his time in Dallas, where Jake/George watches Lee Harvey Oswald and makes his plans…while making a new life for himself. But the past is not afraid to bite and really, really doesn’t like to be messed with.

I would have been super bummed if I knew too much of the plot or the outcome of the novel when reading it, so my synopsis ends there. Overall, I am SO glad I ditched my fear of scary and picked up 11/22/63. This book was a fantastic roller coaster ride. It is fast-paced, the dialogue is witty, the look into the past is spot-on, the ending is surprising…and the love story. Somewhere I read that King doesn’t believe he can write touching and realistic love stories. Well, that is just plain wrong. Jake/George’s romance with Sadie, the small-town librarian at the school he settles in in Dallas, is heartfelt and real and full of the joy and heartache of every relationship (ok, maybe a bit more dramatic than most!). It’s also full of poundcake. While not necessarily a deep novel full of metaphors on every page, King dabbles with the themes of the “past,” making it a character in an of itself, and challenges the notions of fate and inevitability. He is a master of psychological suspense, able to tap into the minds of average everyday people – some good, some not so much…

But there’s also poundcake. And dancing. Dancing is life.

I’ll close with this great review from Goodreads, which says everything I want to say much more eloquently than I just did, and the order to go out and read it: “King is an excellent writer and an amazing storyteller. His writing is effortless and natural, the characterization is apt and memorable, and the dialogue superb and real-sounding. I truly felt for Jake during each step of his journey. I loved how Oswald was described as not a villain or a nutcase but a flawed broken little man who stumbled into the middle of events that changed history. The other characters – Sadie, Deke, Ellie, Frank Dunning – were so well-written that I could feel them come to life (which actually can be a scary statement when the world of sai King is concerned). The story, despite its sizable length, was flowing along and never lost my attention. And his slow build-up of the sense of suspense and doom – think The Yellow Card Man (*) and jimla and the ‘harmonizing past’ – was just enough to keep me on the edge of my seat throughout the book.”

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

nerdy girl reads: the girl you left behind

Just in case getting a little scared while lounging on your beach towel isn’t quite your thing, here’s another option for a little summertime reading: Jojo Moyes. Y’all know I love her. Me Before You…just gah. The woman knows how to write a great story. I picked up one of her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, on a whim one day while I was trolling around the library stacks. Obviously her name alone was enough to pique my interest, but the cover is gorgeous as always, and it was lust at first sight.

Which quickly turned into love at, oh, about page two. What can I say, I’m easy that way.

girl-you-left-behind

Thankfully, The Girl You Left Behind is nothing like Me Before You. In a good way. It’s still incredible, but my tear ducts were very appreciative not to have quite the same workout. As with so many of my favorite pieces of chick lit (Sarah Jio, I’m looking at you), the story is actually two stories woven together. The novel opens in 1916 with Sophie Lefevre, a Frenchwoman whose artist husband Edouard has left her to fight in the war. With her sister, she runs the family hotel and restaurant despite the fact that the town has nothing. When it is occupied by German soldiers, they are forced to host the soldiers, and in an effort to maintain some semblance of normalcy, Sophie has kept a portrait of herself, her most prized possession painted by Edouard, hanging on the hotel wall. The local Kommandant is drawn to it and they strike up what is something close to friendship, or at least as friendly as you can be with an enemy soldier who has a crush on you but could still take you and your family out at a moment’s notice. Sophie uses her influence to risk everything to find Edouard again – at the cost of her dear painting.

We then meet modern-day Liv, whose husband has suddenly died, leaving her alone…with Sophie, the only work of art they had in their one-of-a-kind glass house in London. Trying to break out of her glass cage of emotion, Liv goes out and meets Paul, a retired American detective who now helps uncover stolen art. Yadda-yadda-yadda, he sees the painting that conveniently is part of his new case. What follows is Paul and Liv’s search into the past, Sophie’s past to be exact, to try and uncover the truth behind the painting’s journey. A legal battle ensues with the couple on opposing sides, Liv fighting alone to keep the one thing she loves most and to hold on to the memories of her husband.

I was totally sucked in by this book. Like read-it-in-a-weekend hooked. I was completely charmed by Sophie and loved her part of the story – it was dramatic and full of heart. Sophie herself is strong and brave, even when the townspeople turn on her and she has nothing left. The details and complications of daily life during the German occupation were gritty and thought-provoking and of course I won’t lie, the Edouard and Sophie love story was riveting. We all know, epilogues are tricky and some are simply not great (Mockingjay, anyone?), but this one was perfect for the hopeless romantic I will always be. Trust me, it is exactly the ending you would want for people who suffer so much. The last half of the book moves at a breakneck pace to wrap up both Liv and Sophie’s stories and I found myself wanting to pump the brakes so I wouldn’t finish so quickly. But of course I couldn’t and now I’m itching to reread it. Though not as heartbreaking as Me Before You, I did feel the losses of the two women and loved how despite their grief, they both found strength to make hard decisions and fight through their consequences.

All in all, The Girl You Left Behind was touching and powerful. Like I said before, Jojo Moyes knows how to write a great story weaving polarizing topics, different plot strands & well developed characters together into a great escapist read.

Rating: 9, Just Shy of Perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

nerdy girl reads: the shining girls

Do you like to be scared? Growing up, I hated it. I’ll chalk that up to an unfortunate viewing of Scream at way too young an age. While I still don’t like the startling, pop-up or gory horror, I’ll watch (and love!) Dexter or The Walking Dead or The Silence of the Lambs with the best of them. And of course, I’ll dive into a literary thriller or two. The creepier the better I say! I mean, half the fun of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects or Gone Girl is that they give you major creepy-crawly feelings. Perfect for reading at the pool, right?!?

Last year, like so many of the books I read, the cover for The Shining Girls caught my eye as I walked one of my many trips to the printer through the library’s processing department. Because look at this thing, it is pretty chilling:

the-shining-girls

I love its retro feel and the woman’s creepy stare, which is perfect because this book is about a time-traveling serial killer. Yup. I knew I was going to be hooked from the word, “go.” While the premise of the plot doesn’t seem that original (it is a crime thriller after all), Lauren Beukes’ writing is fantastic and the characters she has created, especially the “shining girls,” are something special. Oh, and it’s creepy as hell. I mentioned that, right?

The book begins with Harper, our serial killer and master creeper, stumbling around in Depression-era Chicago. He enters The House, which is his portal to time travel – and his victims. His victims have a sort of glow or buzz about them (hence they’re “shining”) that drives him crazy until he, well, kills them. He is masterful at stalking his prey; becoming a part of their lives, stealing a trinket or leaving one from another of the girls, until he finds the perfect moment to strike. And of course he always gets away. You would too if you could walk in your house in the 40s and walk out in the 80s! He’s all but untraceable…until Kirby. The last of the girls. Saved at the last moment. (I won’t give away how she survives, but it’s kinda sad and the husband couldn’t read that chapter just like we had to fast forward through the very first scenes of House of Cards. Sniff.) She is convinced (correctly) that Harper’s still out there and is determined to find him before he finds her again. She joins the Sun-Times to work with Dan, the homicide reporter who reported her case years ago. Impossibly, they catch a trail and the race to find Harper is on.

I loved Kirby and Harper. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to like the bad guy – and trust me, he’s a really, really bad guy – but he’s so relentlessly evil, I can’t help it. His interactions with the girls are gruesome and he’s so sick…such a good villain! The deranged machinations of his mind were fascinating to me and I really enjoyed the puzzle he created with the trinkets he took and left with the girls. And Kirby. Kirby is one tough cookie. I thought she was smart and a smart-ass and nutty and determined as all get out. Her interactions with Dan are fantastic and while not a love story (time travel and serial killing are enough for one novel I think), their relationship was a bright and funny spot in this otherwise dark novel. And let’s not forget about the girls. Traveling through the past to meet the girls (and sadly, watch them die) was like reading little historical short stories in the midst of the overall novel. Beukes’ research was incredible and really depicted the times, and the types of woman in them, perfectly. From a circus performer to a lab tech to an underground abortion clinic nurse, the “shining girls” couldn’t have been more different, but each of their stories were memorable and exciting.

The Shining Girls really hooked me in and I would recommend it to anyone who loves crime thrillers or creepy serial killers. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think it’s awesome that there are thrillers out there with strong female protagonists, and I hope we start to see more of them.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

Weigh in: Do you like to be scared? What’s your favorite creepy book?

nerdy girl reads: the yonahlossee riding camp for girls

I feel like lately it’s been hard to find historical fiction that isn’t a wartime novella or a sad-wife-of-famous-husband saga and I won’t lie, I’ve been feeling burnt out like whoa. Thankfully, it’s hard, but not impossible.

Last year, the cover of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls caught my eye in the sea of new books and I’ve been waiting impatiently to get a copy from work since. It’s so pretty, right?

yonahlossee-book-cover

Great mix of vintage and modern and the girl perfectly captures the attitude of Thea and the girls of the Yonahlossee. But I digress, you didn’t come here for a book cover design review did you?

Anyway, I really loved this book. The story is told in two timelines, one following the main character Thea Atwell from her start at the Yonahlossee camp and the other detailing why exactly she’s there. Because girls in the 30s weren’t sent away just to ride some horses and get a few classes on etiquette. Oh no. They were sent away because they did something wrong. Usually with boys. And Thea definitely did something wrong. I found the character of Thea incredibly compelling and complex. Other reviews have criticized her as being vapid and spoiled and unlikeable, which she is, but mixed in with her vanity and selfishness is a whole lot of vulnerability and strangely, innocence. Watching her come of age from her sheltered (read: completely isolated) childhood in her family’s Floridian paradise into the world of a wealthy socialite girls’ school on the brink of the Depression is fascinating and while not conventionally happy, the end of Thea’s story was validating and appropriate for her development.

I will concede that many plot developments of both the past and present story lines are predictable after a certain point. I really can’t elaborate much without giving it away completely, but the two “lust” stories (there’s not much love at all in this book) mirror one another and are unavoidable. I don’t think Thea and the others involved are bad people, they just made the choices that they needed to and by the end have to face the consequences. And while the love (and maybe lust?) stories are always my favorite, the friendship love stories really shine in Yonahlossee. Much of the interactions between the girls reminded me of sorority life, both good and bad. In the beginning, Thea is the new girl and it takes her awhile to break into the social structure (though thankfully her cabin-mate BFF takes her under her wing). Then there are the cliques and gossip and even a frenemy! But mostly I was reminded how important and special friendships are, and I loved the scenes where they really do love and fight for each other.

And there are horses. It’s like The Saddle Club, if The Saddle Club was set in the 30s and was dark and full of illicit affairs. Yonahlossee is a highly unique read and I highly recommend it for lovers of historical fiction (and horses). DiSclafani’s writing is image-heavy and movie-like and I loved falling into this little island of old school Southern charm and snobbery on the brink of economic destruction.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

nerdy girl reads: a star for mrs. blake

Each year, the library I work for promotes a community-wide reading project called On the Same Page. Clever, huh? It’s actually one of the longest-running projects of its kind, running each year since it started as a way to bring people together after a terrible rash of race riots hurt the city. Since working at the library, I try to read all the special books or featured books of the month, especially if I’m working on the designs. It’s a lot of reading and I don’t always get to it, but this year I made it a priority because we totally lucked out. Not only is the book A Star for Mrs. Blake beautiful, the story itself is moving and important.

nerdy girl reads: a star for mrs. blake

I mean, right? It’s gorgeous.

Because I am so famous and important (just kidding, I am the lowest man on the totem pole with one stroke of good luck), I had the chance to meet the author April Smith and chat over dinner. She was a delight – engaging, extremely knowledgeable about the Gold Star Mothers, and obviously passionate about writing and the literary world. I loved being able to ask her questions and learn more about her and her work. If you ever are lucky enough to go out to dinner or go to a VIP happy hour or something with an author, do it. It was great fun and I left with much more respect for all that authors do.

The story follows a group of Gold Star Mothers on their pilgrimage to France to see the graves of their sons who were killed in WWI. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but the Gold Star mothers (mothers of fallen soldiers) are out there to this day thanks to the pioneering women in Mrs. Blake. Smith got the idea for this book from a diary of one of the servicemen who accompanied the pilgrims and gleaned much of the itinerary that drives the plot of the book from actual journeys in the 30s. She visited all the places in the book and it’s completely obvious; there’s no other way to get all the visceral details, especially in the pivotal scene on the battlefields. I visited the WWII cemetery in Normandy and there really is no other way to describe it but awe-inspiring and completely sobering. I can’t imagine it was any other way for Smith. It is certainly an ambitious novel, telling of the hardships of the Depression, the aftermath of war, even the differences in how black and white soldiers (and their mothers) were treated. The story is powerful and the writing is truly elegant thanks to the sensory details that pop off the page.

Mrs. Blake begins with Cora, a small-town librarian and factory worker (it was the Depression after all), who leaves Maine to meet up with the rest of Party A, a jumble of a group including a wealthy socialite, an Irish immigrant, a Jewish woman, a woman fresh out of the looney bin, and the young officer and nurse assigned to them. I think these characters are the most memorable part of the story. You quickly fall in love with them and share in their grief and anxiety and struggles to find themselves. When the party reaches France, we meet Griffin Reed, a journalist and “tin nose,” something I actually knew about thanks to my favorite character on Boardwalk Empire. He helps Cora to find her voice after her grief and of course, I wish there had been more of a romance between Cora and Griffin, as well as the two army personnel (what, Lieutenant Hammond seemed dreamy), but I’m sure April Smith had her reasons (gah…should have asked when I had the chance!) The pivotal scenes at the cemetery and Meuse-Argonne battlefields are heartbreaking and help to put a face on a war that was so long ago and not well remembered in this county. The reader is left with a sense that everyone has found their peace and life will be much different than it was before the pilgrimage.

I recommend this book as a fantastic example of historical fiction that’s not a romance or “sad wife of famous husband” book. It’s definitely not perfect, sometimes I’d say it was too detailed and the pacing was inconsistent at best, but it’s highly enjoyable and you will definitely learn something thanks to April Smith’s stellar research. Here’s the library’s project page if you’d like more info about the program or the book.

Rating: 7, Darn good