A Kidnapping Plot, A Doppelganger, and Three Murderous Queens

Hi there! I don’t know about you, but my stress levels have been way up lately! I’ve read quite a few studies that say most Americans feel really stressed out because of the divisiveness of this election. For the sake of my health and sanity, I’ve been doing a few things to lessen the stress:

  1. Reading international news: I think it helps to get a perspective outside of the US these days. Reading national news is pretty depressing lately; however, I don’t want to be uninformed. The Guardian, BBC, Reuters, and Al Jazeera have been my go-tos because they focus on more than just our election (although there’s enough of that thrown in there that I still feel informed).
  2. Staying off social media when I can: This is tough, but it sometimes helps to take a break from Facebook and Twitter for a while. Everyone is so passionate about politics right now (which is great!) but it can get overwhelming to read everyone else’s thoughts all the time. This is why I would NEVER want my superpower to be mind-reading!
  3. Reading escapist books! I’ve read two mystery/thrillers and one fantasy novel over these last two weeks. I swear, escaping into the problems of a novel’s protagonist is the best way to relieve stress!

So here’s what I’ve read lately:

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, mystery/thriller (320 pages)

This is the kind of book you can reading in a weekend because from the first page you’re dying to know whodunit.

The story begins with Anne and Marco Conti, an upper-middle class couple in their thirties, having dinner at their neighbors’ house. Anne and Marco began the night with a disagreement about coming to this party; Anne wanted to stay home since they babysitter had cancelled and Marco insisted they could put the baby to bed and bring the baby monitor with them since the houses are so close together. Every thirty minutes, the couple has taken turns checking on the baby. However, when they get home late that night their front door is ajar and the baby’s crib is empty.

Everyone in this novel has secrets and it’s up to us and the detective assigned to the case to figure out whose secret has compelled them to kidnap (or even murder) the child. As ransom demands start to come in, secrets start to come out. It’ll keep you guessing until the very last page!

(New mothers, I don’t suggest you read this one! Just reading the words “baby stolen out of its crib” is triggering!)

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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French, detective procedural/thriller (466 pages)

I read the first novel in this series a couple of weeks ago (I wrote about it here), and after reading this one I am a Tana-French-aholic. The Dublin Murder Squad books are kind of like the TV series True Detective in that they each star a different detective. The first one was from the perspective of Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox was his partner. The Likeness is from Cassie’s perspective and I believe each one follows that formula (the protagonist of each novel is featured in the one before it). Though I loved In the Woods, this one was even better!

In In the Woods we learn that Cassie was in Vice (undercover) before she got on the Murder Squad. During her time in Vice, she posed as a college student named Lexie Madison to infiltrate a drug ring. At the beginning of the novel, Cassie is called to a murder scene in a secluded cabin. There, she finds a girl who looks exactly like her carrying an ID with the name Alexandra Madison on it. In order to find out who killed this girl, Cassie agrees to go undercover again. In doing so, she hopes to find out how this girl slipped into her made-up alias from long ago, who she is and how she looks so much like Cassie, and whether the group of tight-knit friends she was living with had anything to do with Lexie’s death.

This is a brilliant mystery. I’ve always like novels about a too-close group of college friends who find themselves wrapped up in a murder (both Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates and The Secret History by Donna Tartt come to mind). This one fits that bill and also offers up some great character studies and a satisfying ending. I loved it and can’t wait to read the next one in the series!

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, young adult/fantasy (416 pages)

I’m telling y’all, fantasy is where it’s at if you want to escape from the everyday stuff for a little while.

Think about living in a society ruled by a queen. Every generation that queen births triplet girls imbued with magic: one poisoner, one naturalist, and one elemental. These girls hone their magic in separate kingdoms for years until The Beltane Festival celebrating their sixteen birthday comes around. Then, during a time called The Quickening, the girls are to show off their magic. With this, it’s open season on queens and each sister must try to kill the others in order to rule the kingdom.

Three Dark Crowns follows each of these sisters during their fifteenth year up to The Quickening. Katherine, the poisoner, is trained to eat tainted food without dying as well as how to use poison to kill others. She, however, is a weak queen and the poison her caretakers use on her makes her sick and small. That is, until Pietyr comes along to train her. Will he be able to make her strong and cunning enough to kill her sisters?

Next there’s Arsione, the naturalist queen. Though naturalists are supposed to be able to control vegetation and animals, Arsinoe has never been able to do this. Her caretaker and friend Jules, however, is the strongest naturalist the island has ever seen. And then there’s Joseph to round out this trio of friends; we learn that Joseph and Jules once tried to help Arsione off the island so that she wouldn’t have to die at the hands of her sisters. It was no use, however, and as Beltane draws nearer Arsione finds herself going to extreme lengths to try and call her magic.

Mirabella is the strongest of the three. An elemental, she can control the air, water, and fire. She is so strong, in fact, that the priestesses at the temple watch and support her every move so that when she becomes queen they can become more powerful. The problem with Mirabella, however, is that she does not want to kill her sisters. She will try everything she can to avoid the events of the Beltane year, even if it means throwing away her crown.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait for the next one to come out (I think it’s going to be a trilogy). I’ve decided I would want my power to be naturalist because they get to have “familiar” (animal soul-friends). Forget controlling the weather or being immune to poison, I want a cat with me at all times.

 

So that’s all this week. I hope to read a little more Dublin Murder Squad in the coming weeks as well as my new BOTM club pick, The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang. Happy reading and keep your stress in check!

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Exile in Moscow and Murder in the Woods

I guess there’s something about the weeks leading up to October that puts me in a creepy mood. I’ve been really into mysteries and thrillers lately and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Today I’ll talk about what I’ve read over the last two weeks and the books in my TBR pile.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, mystery/thriller (320 pages)

When I finished The Woman in Cabin 10 a few weeks ago (recap here) I looked over some reader reviews on Goodreads because I was curious if other readers felt the same way I did about parts of the novel. Though a few reviewers made me feel a little better about my own feelings regarding it, my biggest takeaway from those reviews was the overwhelming feeling that Ruth Ware’s first book was more satisfying. I picked up In a Dark, Dark Wood at the library a few days later and read it in 24 hours.

It takes place over the course of a bachelorette weekend in the woods. Lenora, the narrator, reveals early on that she was surprised to be invited since she and the bride-to-be, Clare, haven’t spoken since high school when their friendship ended badly. Lenora isn’t excited about the weekend to begin with, but when she finds out Clare is marrying her ex-boyfriend she becomes almost unhinged. Adding to her frustration is Emma, Clare and Lenora’s mutual friend, who won’t stop awkwardly bring up the man both Clare and Lenora now share. There’s also Flo, Clare’s best friend who seems a little too obsessed with her (one character actually compares Flo to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction). And then there’s the cabin: it’s in the middle of the woods, miles from help, and the walls are made chiefly of glass. Lenora often remarks that she feels as though someone is watching them from the woods and the suspicious shoe prints outside early one morning don’t help matters. The weekend is interrupted by a brutal crime and Lenora wakes up in a hospital with large gaps in her memory. She knows she is going to be accused of a crime since she overhears police officers discussing whether she’s innocent or guilty, and she must somehow prove her innocence from a hospital bed. But is she innocent? Both Lenora and readers won’t know until the end since her memories only come back in small spurts.

This is a story of sinister friendships and relationships gone wrong. It kept me up into the late hours of the night and when I finished it I didn’t want to go to sleep.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, literary / historical fiction (462 pages)

It took me about a week and a half to read this one, and since this novel covers so many years and is so dense I broke it up by reading In a Dark, Dark Wood. Amor Towles’s debut novel was a wonderful story about a young woman living in New York in the 1920s (it’s called Rules of Civility and it’s a great for Gatsby-lovers!). So, when I heard he was putting out another work of historical fiction, I was thrilled. A Gentleman in Moscow did not disappoint. Set in Moscow after the Russian Revolution, it follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a “former person” (as the Bolsheviks call him), who has been sentenced to live out his remaining days in the Metropol Hotel under house arrest. Rostov’s crime was writing an unsavory political poem years before. Used to a life of endless choice and luxury, Alexander is forced to reconcile himself to the four walls of this grand hotel. His life inside the hotel moves forward as people on the outside are disappearing, old ideas are dying, and Russia is being demolished and rebuilt for a new generation. Though you might think a novel that takes place in one building would be boring, Alexander’s zest for life despite his circumstances is contagious and I delighted in his many adventures. He is able to fall in love, build relationships, and transcend his sentence. There are a few surprises along the way too, and I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that was at once cozy and unsettling.  If you like history or comeback stories, this one’s for you.

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1) by Tana French, mystery (429 pages)

I have told almost everyone I know to read this book. Though I finished it a few days ago, it has stuck with me and I’m still trying to figure out one of the book’s mysteries.

Three twelve year old children go out to play in the familiar woods surrounding their small community and don’t come back. Days later, one of the children is found hugging a tree so hard his fingernails are falling off. His shirt is sliced up in the back and his shoes are filled with someone else’s blood.

Years later, this boy has changed his name from Adam Ryan to Rob Ryan. Though he is a detective in the exclusive Murder Squad of the Dublin Police Department, no one there knows about his mysterious past except for his partner and best friend Cassie. Rob himself doesn’t know what happened in those woods as his memories from the first twelve years of his life are gone. When a young girl goes missing and is found murdered in that same small community, Rob and Cassie have to figure out if there is a connection between the two cases.

GUYS.

GUYS.

This book is great.

I loved the two mysteries at the center of the story, but even more than that I loved French’s characters. I’m biding my time before I start in on the other books in this series, but I’m so glad I’ll get to visit with some of these characters again. This novel really did it for me for some reason, and I can’t wait for some people I know to read it so I can talk through my theories with them. I’ve heard French always leaves at least one mystery unsolved in all of her books, which is so cool! This one has had me reeling for days.

TBR Pile

The Shining by Stephen King

My book club is reading this for the month of October and I’m so scared and so excited! Red rum…

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

I’m currently reading this one and it’s pretty good so far. I didn’t know that it was about a stolen baby before I started reading, so that has me a bit bummed. But it’s supposed to be a really great thriller…hopefully things will get less sad and more awesome soon!

A to-be-determined romance novel

My friend Lindsey is a huge advocate of romance novels and I’ve decided I don’t read enough of them. I’m leaning toward The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean (who wrote this great article, “Bashing Romance Novels is Just Another Form of Slut-Shaming” , for Bustle this week).

A Few Others…

I’m picking up The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawkley from the libary soon, but it might be a week or two before I get to those!

 

What I Read This Summer

I read twenty-three books this summer, guys.

I have no idea if that’s a personal best or not because this is the first summer I’ve actually tracked my reading. Some good, readerly friends (I’m looking at you, Kelsey and Laura) suggested that I get into Goodreads, and though people have mentioned it before I somehow never had the desire to track my reading. Now I’m pretty obsessed with it and my favorite part is that you can scan the barcode of your book and BOOM!, it’s ready to be shelved on one of your booklists. Though Goodreads isn’t a totally comprehensive tracking site (you can read about what it’s lacking in this great Book Riot article by Amanda Nelson), it works well if your main goal is to remember what you read.

Today I’m going to attempt to categorize the books I read this summer into three lists (can you guess my category title theme?):

  • All My Loving: These are my most highly rated books of the summer. I loved them and want everyone else to read them. If you tell me you’ve also read any of these books, I’ll promptly request a coffee date so we can talk about them.
  • I Want to Hold Your Hand: These are books I simply liked, but for some reason couldn’t include in the “loved” category. This is due to either personal preference, my current reading mood, or something about the book itself.
  • Hello, Goodbye: I want to stress that my reason for putting some books in the lowest category is simply personal preference. All of these are fine books written by people who are way more talented than me. However, for one reason or another I didn’t vibe with them. I’ll try to lay out why in my brief discussion of each.

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All My Loving (8)

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (finished on 8/31/16), sci-fi

Imagine waking up in a world that’s almost like yours. People know you, but your job is different. You no longer have a wife. There’s different art hanging in your apartment. Dark Matter explores regret, physics, family, and love. I’m always a sucker for alternate timelines, time travel, and the road not taken, so Dark Matter was a perfect end-of-summer read.

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (finished on 8/12/16), fantasy

The first novel in this series is in my “like” list. When I read The Queen of the Tearling I knew I was going to like the series. Somehow, though, Johansen adds a new layer of meaning and plot to the second installment, and that element put this one in the “love” category. There are really cool flashbacks to a scary world, not unlike our own. I suggest you read it to see what I’m talking about. I think this is a MUST-READ series!

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars #1) and Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2) by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (finished on 7/24-27/16), mystery

As a huge fan of the television show and movie based on Thomas’s snarky girl detective, I was really psyched when I found out he’d written two sequel novels. They pick up where the movie left off. Reading these was like sitting in the comfiest chair with the warmest cup of tea. The familiarity of Veronica and her gang of crime-busters was just so nice. I think people who haven’t watched the series or the movie would like these too.

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Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel (finished on 7/23/16), sci-fi

This was probably my favorite book of the summer. Every podcast I listen to recommended it and compared it to The Martian by Andy Weir. Though the stories differ completely, the way the stories are told–in a series of interviews and documents–is similar. The rich characters, smart writing, mysterious narrator, and alien technology rung all my bells. This was a fun read and I’m so happy there will be more novels in this series!

The Vacationers and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (both finished sometime in June),  adult fiction/contemporary

I fell in love with Emma Straub this summer. I stalk her instagram, envy her apartment, think her children are cute, and want to read everything by her. Her novels also have the brightest, happiest covers.

I began the summer with Modern Lovers, which is about the former members of a college band who’ve grown up and moved to a close-knit neighborhood in NYC. Since one of the band members got really famous and died young, studio executives are hounding the band’s other members to release their life rights for a movie based on their college years. We follow these adults as they grapple with their past, fight with and love each other, and try to stay together despite life tearing them apart. We also follow their very cool kids, who don’t know what to make of their parents or themselves. It’s such a nice slice-of-life novel.

The Vacationers is also about a close group of people, a family going on vacation together. It’s got great characters, a coming-of-age romance for the recently disgraced teenager, and tons of fun character interactions. It’s a beach read, I guess, but it could definitely be read in the fall as we’re all preparing to deal with our own families during the holidays!

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Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (finished on 8/25/16), young adult

This was my first Jacqueline Woodson novel, though I plan to read Brown Girl Dreaming sometime in the near future. Another Brooklyn is full of memory and rememory. The main character, August, looks back on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn where she and her three friends felt more beautiful and popular than everyone else. They helped and hurt one another, listened to each other’s stories of abuse and neglect and love, and–as happens with most childhood friendships–parted ways. August remembers the girls as they were and tries to reconcile this with who they are now. It was a beautiful and short read and I would love to share this with my students at some point.

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The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (finished sometime in June), literary fiction

An opera singer with a secret history finds out that someone has written an opera about her life. Whodunit? Her former lover? friend? mentor? other lover? I loved the rich storytelling by Chee here as well as the engrossing tale of Lilliet Berne’s ever-changing life. It reminded me of a Dickens novel in a way, which is a great thing in my book.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (finished on 7/6/16), contemporary

This book popped up on a lot of “summer must-reads” lists and I’m really glad I read it. If you are interested in food and wine, the restaurant industry, New York City, the coming-of-age of a young girl, or just fun, slice-of-life storytelling, you’ll like this one too.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (finished on 7/12/16), young adult

Red Queen reminded me a lot of  the Hunger Games or Divergent series. Its main character is a young girl who finds out she’s special somehow. When she publicly displays a strange and terrible power, she is made to masquerade as an upper-class silver and  be betrothed to one of the princes. I really liked this YA novel and plan to read the others in the series at some point.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (finished on 7/14/16), literary fiction

Toni Morrison can do no wrong in my book. This is her first novel and it is about a young black girl who believes she’s ugly. After abuse and ridicule, she wishes God would give her blue eyes. Morrison’s meditation on beauty, rejection, and abuse is fascinating, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. I could read her prose all day long. The reason this isn’t in the highest-ranking category is simply because it made me want to cry bitter tears several times. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I have to say I would only recommend this to people who are emotionally ready for it.

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The Girls by Emma Cline (finished on 7/17/16), literary fiction

Based on the story of the Manson family, Cline’s novel meditates on all types of girls: cool, dangerous, neglected, needy, beautiful, taken-advantage-of, etc. She also shows how easy it is to become enamored by yourself or another person. The main character spends time not only recapping her own involvement with the murderous cult, but also meditating on the reason she didn’t participate in the horrendous acts in which they engaged. She asks herself if she was lucky or different than the rest of the girls in the cult. She asks herself how she can be better now, later in life. I really loved The Girls and would recommend it to people who love true crime (even though this is fictional).

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner (finished on 7/20/16), mystery

This was a great little mystery. I received it as part of my Book of the Month subscription and chose it because the lead character was described as a “smart, lonely, bitingly funny detective with Scotland Yard.” How could I resist? This mystery, about a young girl who goes missing after a wild night, had me guessing until the resolution.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (finished on 7/31/16), drama

I’m definitely a Potter Head, so when I heard there was a play coming out set ten years after the Battle of Hogwarts I knew I would need it the moment it was released. My brother and sister-in-law purchased a voucher so I could go to the midnight release party at Books-a-Million, and the whole experience of getting the book at midnight with tons of other fans transported me back to my college and graduate school days when the last few books came out. I had a few problems with the play: it was…a play, and therefore too short for my taste. A couple of the characters made decisions that felt off-canon. Some major characters I loved didn’t show up at all. However, I generally liked it because I got to visit my favorite characters again and see how their children turned out. Sure, I would have liked to see Luna Lovegood and Teddy Lupin, but what Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne came up with was, overall, satisfying.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (finished on 8/9/16), fantasy

As stated above, I loved the second novel in this series. Nothing to sneeze at, the first installment is thrilling as well. These books take place in a kingdom of people who were disenchanted with what America had become during the twenty-first century. They, led by a man named William Tearling, sailed to unpeopled land and left technology behind. The Tearling, one of the four or five provinces that make up the larger kingdom, has been without a queen for years. The story begins with a girl named Kelsea who has lived deep in the woods with her godparents for eighteen years, preparing for the day she would be taken to the Tearling to claim the throne. Along the way she has to dodge multiple assassination attempts, confront her mother’s problematic legacy, and battle it out with the dangerous Red Queen.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro (finished on 8/15/16), young adult / mystery

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s descendants meet at boarding school in this YA detective story. Charlotte Holmes has been raised from birth to deduce and solve crimes. After Jamie Watson shows up at her boarding school, someone starts committing crimes in the fashion of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the whole campus suspects that these teens are behind them. Smart, funny, and addictive, this story left me wanting more of Charlotte and Jamie! If you like teen detectives, the Sherlock Holmes stories, or young adult lit in general, this one is for you.

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The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (finished on 8/17/16), mystery

I’m starting to realize I read a lot of mysteries this summer. The Woman in Cabin 10 was another Book of the Month Club pick, and I chose it because I love mysteries that take place in close quarters. This one is set on a small luxury cruise ship. A woman goes missing and our protagonist is the only traveler on board who saw her before she died. This was an exhilarating read, for sure.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (finished on 8/19/16), memoir

I came for the comedy and stayed for the stories of survival. Amy Schumer talks about her difficult relationship with her mother, he father’s multiple sclerosis, and an abusive, almost fatal previous relationship. It was also hilarious, as is on-brand for Schumer, and I came away with a new respect for the comedian.

Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton (finished on 8/22/16), nonfiction / religious

Adam Hamilton’s views on the Bible were seen as very controversial when this book came out. I, for one, found a lot of hope and comfort in this book. I’ve recommended it to several friends and plan to read more of Hamilton’s work!

Hello, Goodbye (3)

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Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn (finished on 7/29/16), comics

Ok, the deal on this one is I was NOT in the mood for it. I don’t think it’s totally the book’s fault. The story-line is great: an inter-species couple is on the run from bounty hunters in space. The elements I didn’t like, however, were just too glaring for me to ignore. I just don’t think I can enjoy a book with rampant (gratuitous?) prostitution that’s mainly seen/told from the male perspective. If there are prostitutes, I want to hear from them, not just witness their exploitation. I also think I’m done with books that include pedophilia…I just don’t need to read about that anymore. I get it…authors use it to show how bad and depraved characters or worlds are…but I’m over it. Roxane Gay reviewed it on Goodreads shortly before I read it and her words sum it up best: “Compelling characters and world building. Sometimes the dialogue is just…off and offensive and not in a charming way.”

One For the Money by Janet Evanovich (finished on 7/30/16), mystery

I really wanted to find a series to read this summer. This one was not for me. I’m sure it gets better as it goes, but I couldn’t get over how much I despised the main character, Stephanie Plum. She has no business being a bounty hunter (which I get is the point…but it just bothered me). The novel is supposed to be about her ineptitude, but I kept thinking she was going to get a bit smarter. I picked up the second novel to see if there was some progression and it looked like she was just as ditsy as before. Again, this is just me. I know people who love this series and I totally understand why. It just wasn’t my jam.

Naked in Death by J.D. Robb (finished on 8/5/16), mystery

After I abandoned the Evanovich series I decided to try this female-centered detective series. There were certainly things I liked about it: it’s set in a very cool futuristic Earth, the main character was smart, the mystery was…mysterious. There was just something about the love scenes (and this is a good place to note that J.D. Robb is a pen name for Nora Roberts) that struck me as strange. I’ve never read a Nora Roberts book, and though I’m certain she’s a great romance writer–her sales speak for themselves–the scenes in this book reminded me a lot of 50 Shades of Grey. This was, of course, written before the publication of that book, but since I read Shades a few years ago I don’t want to go near anything else that reminds me of it. I think the power dynamics between the two romantic leads here (rich, powerful man and mousy girl) reminded me too much of that book. Maybe the rest of the books are great, and I’m not saying I’ll never pick another one up…I just have to put it in the lowest category as it was one of my least favorites of the summer.

 

Have you read any of these?

Do you have any suggestions for me based on anything you’ve read here?

Leave it in the comments!