Author: Ellen

December 4, 2017

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. I

by Elle Katharine White, Lev Grossman, Mary E. Pearson, Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Harper Voyager, Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), Touchstone, Viking

Returned to the Library is a (new!) feature where I sum up the latest books I’ve returned to the library or put down unfinished.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IHeartstone by Elle Katharine White
Publisher: Harper Voyager, January 2017

A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms
They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.
Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.
Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.
It’s a war Aliza is ill-prepared to wage, on a battlefield she’s never known before: one spanning kingdoms, class lines, and the curious nature of her own heart.
Elle Katharine White infuses elements of Austen’s beloved novel with her own brand of magic, crafting a modern epic fantasy that conjures a familiar yet wondrously unique new world.

Oh, how desperately I wanted to love this book. A Pride and Prejudice retelling in a fantasy world? Yes, please!

But I couldn’t get into the characters or their story. Once I realized that a majority of the characters shared similar names (or at least names starting with the same letter), I felt disillusioned and lost interest in the story.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson
Series: The Remnant Chronicles,
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), July 2015

Held captive in the barbarian kingdom of Venda, Lia and Rafe have little chance of escape. Desperate to save Lia's life, her erstwhile assassin, Kaden, has told the Vendan Komizar that she has the gift, and the Komizar's interest in Lia is greater than anyone could have foreseen.

Meanwhile, nothing is straightforward: There's Rafe, who lied to Lia but has sacrificed his freedom to protect her; Kaden, who meant to assassinate her but has now saved her life; and the Vendans, whom Lia always believed to be savages. Now that she lives among them, however, she realizes that may be far from the truth. Wrestling with her upbringing, her gift, and her sense of self, Lia must make powerful choices that will affect her country... and her own destiny.

I loved Pearson’s first book, but The Heart of Betrayal didn’t hold the same allure for me. Pearson starts the narrative off just as she left it at the end of The Kiss of Deception, but without a little background, I felt lost. The dynamics and motives of the Kozimar were interesting, but not enough to keep me hooked.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory
Series: ,
Publisher: Touchstone, August 2017

The latest novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen. Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days, dying on the scaffold for her faith. But few people know about her two sisters, cousins to Elizabeth I who also faced imprisonment and death sentences for treason. Katherine Grey was the beauty of the family who earned the lifelong hatred of her cousin Elizabeth I when she married for love. Mary Grey was an extraordinary little person known as a dwarf in Tudor times, who defied convention to marry the tallest man at court in her own secret love match. The fascinating story of three idiosyncratic Tudor girls and their challenges to the most powerful Tudor woman of all is the subject of the next novel from the author who defines what it means to be a writer of historical fiction (RT Book Reviews)."

Gregory’s work is typically one of my favorites (one of her books was in my 10 Books I’m Grateful For list), but The Last Tudor and I started off on the wrong foot instantly. Why? The narrator. She was whiny, selfish, and narcissistic. Granted, she was a pre-teen girl, and most pre-teen girls have at least one of those unfortunate characteristics. I would have stuck with her longer, but without the immediate historical context, The Last Tudor felt more like work than fun.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
Series: ,
Publisher: Viking, August 2009

A thrilling and original coming-of-age novel for adults about a young man practicing magic in the real world.

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, The Magicians boldly moves into uncharted literary territory, imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions. Lev Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.

The Magicians was, honestly, built up in my mind. I knew they had started a Netflix series about the show, but I wanted to read the book beforehand. I expected a lot more from this wildly popular book, but the only winning element was the beautiful atmospheres Grossman created. I liked the magical school entry exams, but the main character was so uncomfortable in his own skin that I felt just as awkward. Not a winning combination for me.

Posted December 4, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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December 3, 2017

Review | The Laird Takes a Bride by Lisa Berne

Review | The Laird Takes a Bride by Lisa BerneThe Laird Takes a Bride by Lisa Berne
Series: The Penhallow Dynasty, #2
Publisher: Avon, August 29, 2017
Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble


Lisa Berne’s Penhallow Dynasty series continues as a Highlander marries against his will —

and discovers he may have found the perfect bride.

Alasdair Penhallow, laird of his clan and master of Castle Tadgh, is forced to end his carefree bachelorhood, thanks to an ancient decree that requires him to marry. But Alasdair’s search for a biddable wife comes to a screeching halt when Fate serves up Fiona Douglass. Prickly as a thistle, Fiona challenges him at every turn, rendering herself surprisingly irresistible. Her love would be a prize indeed . . . if Alasdair could accept it.
Fiona gave her heart once, and doesn’t plan to repeat that folly. Yet she finds herself drawn to Alasdair’s intelligence and strength, and the passion he incites goes well beyond her expectations for what’s only a marriage of expedience. Despite herself, she’s falling in love with her husband.
But there’s a high wall between them — and Fiona’s not sure it can ever be torn down.

I have a special soft spot for historical romances. Especially those set in England or Scotland. Especially when they have a strong heroine, a twist of lore, and a hero who is reluctantly falling in love. So on the surface, The Laird Takes a Bride should have been the perfect read. But there were a few elements that kept the book from being an easy win.

Simply, there was too much going on in the plot. From archaic rules dictating who and when the laird should marry, a historical romance version of the Bachelor, to conflicts with neighboring clans, I couldn’t follow the thread of The Laird Takes a Bride‘s main plot. Each idea would have been great alone or paired with just one other, but together, it felt jumbled.

The overwhelming amount of things going on stilted the character development. It was hard to get to know them. Let’s take Fiona, the heroine, for example. She’s already classified as a spinster, destined to remain with her family until her death. Then mix in her father’s physical and verbal abuse, her mother’s meekness, and her cousin Isabel’s past interference with Fiona’s love life, which ended in her sister marrying her one true love. That’s a lot for a girl to deal with and would have made for a fascinating character. But she never gets to build it up, create her motives, her thoughts, her feelings, because Berne throws her into the Scottish Bachelor.

Speaking of the Scottish bachelor, Laird Alasdair has enough going on in his own life, thank you very much. Raised by an uncle who would rather teach him to party than to be a laird, Alasdair discovers with a rude awakening that he needs to marry as soon as possible to one of the local noble ladies. Add in his own demons (family, past lovers, etc) and he’s got a lot going on. Again, it would have been an interesting character if The Laird Takes A Bride had given him enough time to develop.

When these two troubled, undeveloped characters met, their chemistry just wasn’t there. The love scenes and tender moments didn’t make sense because they didn’t have the background to support them.

Fiona was determined to make the best of her lot, an outstanding characteristic that shone through the muddle. This pushed Alasdair in unexpected ways and forced a little character development for them both.

For me, the saving grace of The Laird Takes a Bride comes in two parts: the wacky old wisewoman and the final climatic scene.

The wisewoman was funny – occasionally unintentionally – and brought a little personality and humor when I felt I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the narrative. Her small role in forcing Fiona and Alasdair together was subtle, but crucial to the plot.

And that final scene. Sigh. It brings to mind that beautiful scene near the end of  2005’s Pride and Prejudice. You know the one I mean…

Image result for pride and prejudice gif

Yep. That one.

The romance between Fiona and Alasdair was good; with all the activity, there was plenty of tension. Yet without more character development, I felt little attachment to them. It’s the final scene, so quietly poginant and stunningly emotional that saved the story.

 

3 Stars

Posted December 3, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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December 1, 2017

Montly Rewind | November 2017

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I can’t believe it’s December. It feels like I was just melting in the August heat, but I blinked, and everyone is bundled up in sweaters and scarves. I’m not complaining – fall and winter are my favorite time of the year!

With work starting to slow down a bit for the end of the year, I can finally focus again on reading. It’s been hit and miss lately; either I don’t have the energy to keep my eyes open when I get home or the books I’m picking up just aren’t good fits for me. Fingers crossed I finally come out of the reading slump – there are some fantastic books coming out this month!

In our house, the holiday lights are up, the Hallmark ornaments are on the mantel, and Christmas music is on repeat! I’m excited to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple (that still blows my mind).

Oh, and I’ve started blogging about my new writing project as well. It’s exciting, terrifying, exhilarating and exhausting all at once. And I LOVE it!

But to get down to what you’re really here for:

November 2017 Reads
A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #3)Till DeathThe Last Tudor (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, #15)The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrel, #3)The Heart of Betrayal (The Remnant Chronicles, #2)HeartstoneSecrets in Death (In Death, #45)
November 2017 Reviews

Till DeathThe WidowThe Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke, #1)A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir

Favorite read:

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah  J. Maas

Favorite review:

A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Favorite working playlist:

 

Favorite playlist on repeat:

 

I’m hooked on:
What did you fall in love with this November?

Posted December 1, 2017 by Ellen in monthly rewind / 0 Comments
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November 30, 2017

On My Radar | December 2017 Releases

It’s almost a new month and you know what that means: new books! I always love seeing what comes out just before and during the holiday season. This year’s December releases looks to be one of the best yet! Check out the books I’m especially looking forward to this year:

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesThe Truth Beneath the Lies by Amanda Searcy
Publisher: Delacorte Press, December 12th 2017

Fight or Flight.
All Kayla Asher wants to do is run. Run from the government housing complex she calls home. Run from her unstable mother. Run from a desperate job at No Limit Foods. Run to a better, cleaner, safer life. Every day is one day closer to leaving.
All Betsy Hopewell wants to do is survive. Survive the burner phone hidden under her bed. Survive her new rules. Survive a new school with new classmates. Survive being watched. Every minute grants her another moment of life.
But when fate brings Kayla and Betsy together, only one girl will live.

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesYear One (Chronicles of The One, #1) by Nora Roberts
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, December 5th 2017

It began on New Year’s Eve.
The sickness came on suddenly, and spread quickly. The fear spread even faster. Within weeks, everything people counted on began to fail them. The electrical grid sputtered; law and government collapsed—and more than half of the world’s population was decimated.
Where there had been order, there was now chaos. And as the power of science and technology receded, magic rose up in its place. Some of it is good, like the witchcraft worked by Lana Bingham, practicing in the loft apartment she shares with her lover, Max. Some of it is unimaginably evil, and it can lurk anywhere, around a corner, in fetid tunnels beneath the river—or in the ones you know and love the most.
As word spreads that neither the immune nor the gifted are safe from the authorities who patrol the ravaged streets, and with nothing left to count on but each other, Lana and Max make their way out of a wrecked New York City. At the same time, other travelers are heading west too, into a new frontier. Chuck, a tech genius trying to hack his way through a world gone offline. Arlys, a journalist who has lost her audience but uses pen and paper to record the truth. Fred, her young colleague, possessed of burgeoning abilities and an optimism that seems out of place in this bleak landscape. And Rachel and Jonah, a resourceful doctor and a paramedic who fend off despair with their determination to keep a young mother and three infants in their care alive.
In a world of survivors where every stranger encountered could be either a savage or a savior, none of them knows exactly where they are heading, or why. But a purpose awaits them that will shape their lives and the lives of all those who remain.
The end has come. The beginning comes next.

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, February 6th 2018

Alaska, 1974.Untamed.Unpredictable.And for a family in crisis, the ultimate test of the human spirit.
From the author who brought you the phenomenon of The Nightingale.

 

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesThe Young Queens (Three Dark Crowns, #0.5) by Kendare Blake
Publisher: HarperTeen, December 26th 2017

Three black witches, born to a descending queen. One would rise to become queen in her place. Perhaps the strongest of the three. Perhaps the cleverest. Or perhaps it would be the girl born under the best shield of luck.
Katharine, Arsinoe and Mirabella - three young queens born to fulfil their destiny - to fight to the death to win the crown. But before they were poisoner, elemental and naturalist, they were children, sisters and friends . . .

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesCrown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis
Publisher: Pegasus Books, December 12th 2017

"Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same.” These were the heartbreaking words of a seventeen-year-old girl, Lady Jane Grey, as she stood on the scaffold awaiting death on a cold February morning in 1554. Minutes later her head was struck from her body with a single stroke of a heavy axe. Her death for high treason sent shockwaves through the Tudor world, and served as a gruesome reminder to all who aspired to a crown that the axe could fall at any time.
Jane is known to history as "the Nine Days Queen," but her reign lasted, in fact, for thirteen days. The human and emotional aspects of her story have often been ignored, although she is remembered as one of the Tudor Era’s most tragic victims. While this is doubtlessly true, it is only part of the complex jigsaw of Jane’s story. She was a remarkable individual with a charismatic personality who earned the admiration and affection of many of those who knew her. All were impressed by her wit, passion, intelligence, and determined spirit. Furthermore, the recent trend of trying to highlight her achievements and her religious faith has, in fact, further obscured the real Jane, a young religious radical who saw herself as an advocate of the reformed faith—Protestantism—and ultimately became a martyr for it.
Crown of Blood is an important and significant retelling of an often-misunderstood tale: set at the time of Jane’s downfall and following her journey through to her trial and execution, each chapter moves between the past and the “present,” using a rich abundance of primary source material (some of which has never been published) in order to paint a vivid picture of Jane’s short and turbulent life. This dramatic narrative traces the dangerous plots and web of deadly intrigue in which Jane became involuntarily tangled—and which ultimately led to a shocking and catastrophic conclusion.

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesSo Over You by Kate Meader
Publisher: Pocket Books, December 19th 2017

Three estranged sisters struggle to sustain their late father’s failing hockey franchise in Kate Meader’s sizzling Chicago Rebels series. In this second entry, middle sister Isobel is at a crossroads in her personal and professional lives. But both are about to get a significant boost with the addition of a domineering Russian powerhouse to the Rebels...
Isobel Chase knows hockey. She played NCAA, won silver at the Games, and made it thirty-seven minutes into the new National Women’s Hockey League before an injury sidelined her dreams. Those who can’t, coach, and a position as a skating consultant to her late father’s hockey franchise, the Chicago Rebels, seems like a perfect fit. Until she’s assigned her first job: the man who skated into her heart as a teen and relieved her of her pesky virginity. These days, left-winger Vadim Petrov is known as the Czar of Pleasure, a magnet for puck bunnies and the tabloids alike. But back then... let’s just say his inability to sink the puck left Isobel frustratingly scoreless.
Vadim has a first name that means “ruler,” and it doesn’t stop at his birth certificate. He dominates on the ice, the practice rink, and in the backseat of a limo. But a knee injury has produced a bad year, and bad years in the NHL don’t go unrewarded. His penance? To be traded to a troubled team where his personal coach is Isobel Chase, the woman who drove him wild years ago when they were hormonal teens. But apparently the feeling was not entirely mutual.
That Vadim might have failed to give Isobel the pleasure that was her right is intolerable, and he plans to make it up to her—one bone-melting orgasm at a time. After all, no player can perfect his game without a helluva lot of practice...

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesThe Art of Running in Heels by Rachel Gibson
Publisher: Avon, December 26th 2017

Running in five-inch stilettos is an art form
Leaving your fiancé at the altar on live television is a disaster. Lexie Kowalsky thought she was ready to get married in front of millions of people, but at the last minute she fled the set of television’s hottest reality show, Gettin’ Hitched. Wearing a poofy white dress and a pair of five-inch sparkly shoes, Lexie hopped a float plane for Sandspit, Canada. She figured no one would find her there. But she was wrong.
Sharing her flight was the Seattle Chinooks biggest star, Sean Knox. Lexie wasn’t just a reality-show runaway, she was his pain in the butt coach’s daughter. She was chaos and temptation and definitely off limits, but getting her luscious body out of that wedding gown, he couldn’t resist getting her in his bed for one amazing night.
Then a photo of Sean and Lexi breaks the internet—and suddenly they’re both swept up in a crazy plan to spin the whole story. But you can’t run from love—
 

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesEver the Brave (A Clash of Kingdoms #2) by Erin Summerill
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers, December 5th 2017

Ever the Divided. Ever the Feared. Ever the Brave.After saving King Aodren with her newfound Channeler powers, Britta only wants to live a peaceful life in her childhood home. Unfortunately, saving the King has created a tether between them she cannot sever, no matter how much she'd like to, and now he's insisting on making her a noble lady. And there are those who want to use Britta’s power for evil designs. If Britta cannot find a way to harness her new magical ability, her life—as well as her country—may be lost.
The stakes are higher than ever in the sequel to Ever the Hunted, as Britta struggles to protect her kingdom and her heart.

On My Radar | December 2017 ReleasesEnchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini
Publisher: Dutton Books, December 5th 2017

The only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets, Ada was destined for fame long before her birth. Estranged from Ada’s father, who was infamously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Ada’s mathematician mother is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage. Banishing fairy tales and make-believe from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.

When Ada is introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize that her delightful new friendship with inventor Charles Babbage—brilliant, charming, and occasionally curmudgeonly—will shape her destiny. Intrigued by the prototype of his first calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and enthralled by the p;plans for his even more advanced Analytical Engine, Ada resolves to help Babbage realize his extraordinary vision, unique in her understanding of how his invention could transform the world. All the while, she passionately studies mathematics—ignoring skeptics who consider it an unusual, even unhealthy pursuit for a woman—falls in love, discovers the shocking secrets behind her parents’ estrangement, and comes to terms with the unquenchable fire of her imagination.

Posted November 30, 2017 by Ellen in on my radar / 0 Comments
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November 28, 2017

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBR

Top Ten Tuesday

Spring and summer are nice, but fall and winter are prime reading seasons for me. A cup of tea (or glass of wine, depending on what kind of day it’s been), a blanket, and a good book equal heaven to me. Here are the top ten books I’m planning to curl up with this winter:

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRObsidio (The Illuminae Files, #3) by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza—but who knows what they'll find seven months after the invasion?

Meanwhile, Kady's cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza's ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys—an old flame from Asha's past—reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heros will fall, and hearts will be broken.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRTower of Dawn (Throne of Glass, #6) by Sarah J. Maas

Chaol Westfall has always defined himself by his unwavering loyalty, his strength, and his position as the Captain of the Guard. But all of that has changed since the glass castle shattered, since his men were slaughtered, since the King of Adarlan spared him from a killing blow, but left his body broken.

His only shot at recovery lies with the legendary healers of the Torre Cesme in Antica—the stronghold of the southern continent's mighty empire. And with war looming over Dorian and Aelin back home, their survival might lie with Chaol and Nesryn convincing its rulers to ally with them.
But what they discover in Antica will change them both—and be more vital to saving Erilea than they could have imagined.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRCome Sundown by Nora Roberts

The Bodine ranch and resort in western Montana is a family business, an idyllic spot for vacationers. A little over thirty thousand acres and home to four generations, it’s kept running by Bodine Longbow with the help of a large staff, including new hire Callen Skinner. There was another member of the family once: Bodine’s aunt, Alice, who ran off before Bodine was born. She never returned, and the Longbows don’t talk about her much. The younger ones, who never met her, quietly presume she’s dead. But she isn’t. She is not far away, part of a new family, one she never chose—and her mind has been shattered…

When a bartender leaves the resort late one night, and Bo and Cal discover her battered body in the snow, it’s the first sign that danger lurks in the mountains that surround them. The police suspect Cal, but Bo finds herself trusting him—and turning to him as another woman is murdered and the Longbows are stunned by Alice’s sudden reappearance. The twisted story she has to tell about the past—and the threat that follows in her wake—will test the bonds of this strong family, and thrust Bodine into a darkness she could never have imagined.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRWintersong (Wintersong, #1) by S. Jae-Jones

Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.

All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRShimmer and Burn (Shimmer and Burn, #1) by Mary Taranta

Faris grew up fighting to survive in the slums of Brindaigel while caring for her sister, Cadence. But when Cadence is caught trying to flee the kingdom and is sold into slavery, Faris reluctantly agrees to a lucrative scheme to buy her back, inadvertently binding herself to the power-hungry Princess Bryn, who wants to steal her father’s throne.

Now Faris must smuggle stolen magic into neighboring Avinea to incite its prince to alliance—magic that addicts in the war-torn country can sense in her blood and can steal with a touch. She and Bryn turn to a handsome traveling magician, North, who offers protection from Avinea’s many dangers, but he cannot save Faris from Bryn’s cruelty as she leverages Cadence’s freedom to force Faris to do anything—or kill anyone—she asks. Yet Faris is as fierce as Bryn, and even as she finds herself falling for North, she develops schemes of her own.

With the fate of kingdoms at stake, Faris, Bryn, and North maneuver through a dangerous game of magical and political machinations, where lives can be destroyed—or saved—with only a touch.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRBatman: Nightwalker (DC Icons, #2) by Marie Lu

Before he was Batman, he was Bruce Wayne. A reckless boy willing to break the rules for a girl who may be his worst enemy.

The Nightwalkers are terrorizing Gotham City, and Bruce Wayne is next on their list.

One by one, the city's elites are being executed as their mansions' security systems turn against them, trapping them like prey. Meanwhile, Bruce is turning eighteen and about to inherit his family's fortune, not to mention the keys to Wayne Enterprises and all the tech gadgetry his heart could ever desire. But after a run-in with the police, he's forced to do community service at Arkham Asylum, the infamous prison that holds the city's most brutal criminals.

Madeleine Wallace is a brilliant killer . . . and Bruce's only hope.

In Arkham, Bruce meets Madeleine, a brilliant girl with ties to the Nightwalkers. What is she hiding? And why will she speak only to Bruce? Madeleine is the mystery Bruce must unravel. But is he getting her to divulge her secrets, or is he feeding her the information she needs to bring Gotham City to its knees? Bruce will walk the dark line between trust and betrayal as the Nightwalkers circle closer.

Add to your TBR!

Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRUnearthed (Unearthed, #1) by Amie Kaufman, Meagan Spooner

When Earth intercepts a message from a long-extinct alien race, it seems like the solution the planet has been waiting for. The Undying's advanced technology has the potential to undo environmental damage and turn lives around, and Gaia, their former home planet, is a treasure trove waiting to be uncovered.

For Jules Addison and his fellow scholars, the discovery of an alien culture offers unprecedented opportunity for study... as long as scavengers like Amelia Radcliffe don't loot everything first. Mia and Jules' different reasons for smuggling themselves onto Gaia put them immediately at odds, but after escaping a dangerous confrontation with other scavvers, they form a fragile alliance.

In order to penetrate the Undying temple and reach the tech and information hidden within, the two must decode the ancient race's secrets and survive their traps. But the more they learn about the Undying, the more their presence in the temple seems to be part of a grand design that could spell the end of the human race...

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Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?
It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

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Top 10 Books on My Winter TBRHardcore Twenty-Four by Janet Evanovich
Series: Stephanie Plum,

Trouble comes in bunches for Stephanie Plum. First, professional grave robber and semi-professional loon, Simon Diggery, won’t let her take him in until she agrees to care for his boa constrictor, Ethel. Stephanie’s main qualification for babysitting an extremely large snake is that she owns a stun gun—whether that’s for use on the wandering serpent or the petrified neighbors remains to be seen.

Events take a dark turn when headless bodies start appearing across town. At first, it’s just corpses from a funeral home and the morgue that have had the heads removed. But when a homeless man is murdered and dumped behind a church Stephanie knows that she’s the only one with a prayer of catching this killer.
If all that’s not enough, Diesel’s back in town. The 6-foot-tall, blonde-haired hunk is a man who accepts no limits—that includes locked doors, closed windows and underwear. Trenton’s hottest cop, Joe Morelli isn’t pleased at this unexpected arrival nor is Ranger, the high-powered security consultant who has his own plans for Stephanie.

As usual Jersey’s favorite bounty hunter is stuck in the middle with more questions than answers. What’s the deal with Grandma Mazur’s latest online paramour? Who is behind the startling epidemic of mutilated corpses? And is the enigmatic Diesel’s sudden appearance a coincidence or the cause of recent deadly events?

Add to your TBR!

What’s on your winter TBR?

Posted November 28, 2017 by Ellen in top ten tuesday / 0 Comments
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November 27, 2017

Deciphering the Outline | The Writing Files

As a four-year-old, I used to scribble nonsense into notebooks, pretending I was a writer. At ten, I wrote my first story, a Mary-Kate and Ashley fan fiction that was so close to the movie they had just released, it was…is uncanny the right word? (wink.) In high school, I covered my brown paper-wrapped books with lyrics, phrases that caught my attention, pretty sounds. I felt I was destined to write, something I knew was probably a romantic teenage notion, but I had to try. But in college…in college, I had a creative writing teacher who hated everything I wrote.

No, I’m not exaggerating. Hated. Everything. I made the mistake of writing a short nonfiction piece on a bad breakup between one of my high school boyfriends. It was a scarring experience that had happened only a few months ago, and I hoped writing it down would help me work through it. Her critique was ruthless, attacking the emotions I was still dealing with, the implausibility of the story…you name it. In retrospect, I think she was trying to shape me into a better writer, but instead, I retreated into my shell and didn’t pick up a pen to write a creative piece for a long time.

Until this summer. I had some characters bouncing around in my head, shouting to be let out, and after a few rough weeks, I needed an outlet. So for the first time since I was seventeen, I picked up the pen to write.

Writing is such a personal yet community effort, so I want to share my experience – positive or otherwise – through The Writing Files. Today, we’re talking the outline.

I write a lot in my career. In my last job, I was the primary content writer for the company, so I’m comfortable with a blank page. Usually, I could start drafting and, after a few bumps in the opening lines, I could get something written within a day or two. Creative writing? Not so much.

In researching writing methods (a favorite hobby when I am avoiding the one thing I should really be doing – writing), everyone has a different approach to outline. Each seems to fall into one of three main categories:

  • No outline
  • Light planning
  • Plan everything

 

I loved the idea of no outlining, à la Stephen King. He advocates starting with a general sense, but letting the writing and the characters take you where they want. It was beautiful, poetic, and did not work at all for me. My characters ended up stilted, awkward, and had no idea where they wanted to go, let alone how to get to the ending scene I had in mind. This method would be best for more experienced fiction writers or if you have fully-developed characters.

Light planning was my next experiment. I’d read Sarah J. Maas likes to have the major plot points of her story ready when she sits down to write (and let’s be real: her stories are amazing). I thought, perfect. A mix of planning and wild creativity. Let’s do it. This was more successful than my previous try, but I still felt lost, wandering down a small town main street with my protagonist giving me a “what the hell” look.

So I planned everything. Looking back, I should have done this to begin with because I am a planner at heart. My work calendar is color-coded to task. My day planner is mapped every Sunday afternoon, so I know what to expect for the next week. I even plan our dinners and my lunches for the entire week.

I started over. Again. It started to feel fruitless like this was just a waste of time, but I had to keep going. The story would pop up in my head while I was waiting at the stoplight, staring at multiple spreadsheets at work, even in my dreams. Most chapters have an outline of what I want to accomplish, setting details, even dialogue. Others are freewrites that I had to get out of my head onto paper.

Now, it’s time for the scary (scarier?) part – drafting. I think it will be the same type of learning experience as outlining, now I know to just stick with it.

Lessons learned

Whatever your personal organizational method is, go with that. If you lean more towards sitting down and seeing what comes of it, go for it. If you’re like me, try planning first, then see what happens. Experimenting is the only way to find out what works best for you.

What are your best outlining tips? Share below!

Posted November 27, 2017 by Ellen in the writing files / 0 Comments
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November 22, 2017

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev GolinkinA Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
Publisher: Doubleday, November 2014
Pages: 307
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A compelling story of two intertwined journeys: a Jewish refugee family fleeing persecution and a young man seeking to reclaim a shattered past. In the twilight of the Cold War (the late 1980s), nine-year old Lev Golinkin and his family cross the Soviet border with only ten suitcases, $600, and the vague promise of help awaiting in Vienna. Years later, Lev, now an American adult, sets out to retrace his family's long trek, locate the strangers who fought for his freedom, and in the process, gain a future by understanding his past.

Lev Golinkin's memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It's also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible . . . and say thank you. Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin's search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history is more than a memoir—it's a portrait of a lost era. This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat—and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.

Moving is scary. The uprooting of the place called home usually strikes fear in all of us, subconsciously or otherwise. Especially kids. Especially when the home you’re leaving is in the Soviet Union.

Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a poignant, unexpectedly funny at times and terrifying at others, unique take on one of the more unspoken periods of modern history: the emigration of Jews from the U.S.S.R.

I knew life in the Soviet Union couldn’t have been easy, but Golinkin’s depiction of his Jewish upbringing and the struggles he and his family endured merely because of their ethnicity was heartbreaking. Golinkin’s narration was threaded with a sort of absence that children have when speaking of hard memories in their past. Instead of slowing down the narrative, it brought an emotional touch, a sense that the author was talking to me in real time instead of words on a page.

The first difficult part (buckle your seatbelts, there’s a few in this book) came when Lev and his family finally got permission to leave the country. The catch? They could only take two suitcases and some cash. Everything else, especially items of value, belonged to the country, not them. Their personal documents, including passports, transcripts, projects, writings – they were all to be left behind. If you didn’t, the border check would find them…and you didn’t want that.

So when Lev left his homeland, all he had was a backpack with a few changes of clothes, a small turtle carving, and a bear. Oh, those eight crates of vodka? Those were used as bribery to ensure the family’s safe passage out of the Soviet Union to Vienna.

All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but what tied them all together was Golinkin’s narration. It was personal, vivid, emotional and yet detached all at once. It had an authenticity that brought his past and his present search together into one cohesive book that I couldn’t put down.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a surprisingly refreshing yet emotional memoir of a harrowing escape and determined pursuit of the American dream. Golinkin’s work quickly became and still is one of my favorite nonfiction reads of the year.

4 Stars

Posted November 22, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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November 21, 2017

Top 10 Books I’m Grateful For

Top Ten Tuesday

It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the time when Starbucks pulls out their new cups or we all tug scarves out of hiding to bundle up against the cooling temperatures. It’s the time of year when you have to tell everyone what you’re grateful for before digging into the Thanksgiving feast.

I remember doing this one year, up at a family member’s house. I didn’t realize we would have to share so when put on the spot, I looked down at my half-filled plate, then gleefully met the host’s eye and told her I was grateful for green beans.

You get what you ask for, I suppose. I got a lot of green beans that night.

We haven’t played that game since (thank goodness), but if we were, I think one of the books below would make it onto my list. Each one has shaped my life in some way, and I couldn’t be more thankful for them.

The Harry Potter series

Why I’m thankful: The ultimate underdog story helped me find courage when I went through a hard time as a child. The rise of the smarty-pants Hermione made me more comfortable in my own skin (and hair – we have the same wild brown mane).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why I’m thankful: While this wasn’t the first American lit classic I read, it was the first one I fell in love with. Gatsby opened the doors to so many amazing writers I would never have read otherwise.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Why I’m thankful: My mom bought me this book, one she had loved, in junior high. At first, I thought it was a homework assignment (this novel is enormous), but as I read it, I started to fall in love with the legend of Arthur and Avalon. It sparked my love of mythology, something we share.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Why I’m thankful: This novel alone sparked my fascination with Tudor history, which quickly expanded to British history, then world. Without it, I wouldn’t know half of the random Tudor facts I have in my brain (great at parties…?) or be inspired to read more. I’ve read this book so often that pages are falling out.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Why I’m thankful: To say I understood this book my sophomore year of high school would be an outright lie. I followed the story, the surface level narrative of Scout, and grasped the more intricate nature of the book once my (outstanding) English teacher pointed them out. But it wasn’t until years later that I started to grasp the complexity of this straightforward narrative and the story it told. Each time I find something new. So I’m grateful for this book for two reasons: for teaching me simplicity is best and for telling a tale that so desperately needed to be told.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Why I’m thankful: Without Much Ado, I’d still think of Shakespeare merely in terms of Hamlet and Othello. The beautiful intricate simplicity (yes, that was intentional) of his comedy and the shameless abandon with which he treats his lovelorn characters caught me instantly, and I’ve never looked back. Years later, this is still my favorite play.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Why I’m thankful: My mom comes up again and again here because she had a significant influence on my early reading. When she bought me Jane Eyre as a young teenager, I thought she was crazy. No way was I going to read this. But I did. And I loved it. While it may be a darker entrance into the British societal novels of the 1800s, it’s complicated romance, dark mysteries, and engaging narrative fascinated me right away.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

Why I’m thankful: I don’t think of Jacobs’ work as nonfiction. Or even memoirs, although I suppose that’s what it is. Instead, it feels like talking with a friend, listening as they recount their latest adventure. The Year of Living Biblically is funny, engaging, and made me think of nonfiction in an entirely new light.

11/22/63

Why I’m thankful: I am a scaredy cat (or as M endearingly calls it, a “wimp”). I hate scary movies, stories, the whole shebang. I checked in street drains for that damn clown for weeks after the It trailer was released. Yes, that was enough to terrify me. But I wanted desperately to read some of King’s work (and still be able to sleep that night), so 11/22/63 seemed perfect. And it was – in more ways than one. King’s narrative is simple but effective. Each word is chosen with such careful clarity that I couldn’t help but admire as I was sucked into the story. Besides the fact he reinvigorated my interest in JFK, King’s 11/22/63 showed me simple is best.

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

Why I’m thankful: I first read The Princess Diaries heading into high school. Mia Thermopolis, with her crazy hair and ability to trip over nothing, felt like a soul sister. Opening Mia’s story was an escape, a little time where even princesses struggled to get through high school.

 

What books are you grateful for this year?

Posted November 21, 2017 by Ellen in top ten tuesday / 1 Comment
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November 20, 2017

Review | The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

Review | The Duchess Deal by Tessa DareThe Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
Series: Girl Meets Duke, #1
Publisher: Avon, August 2017
Pages: 370
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When girl meets Duke, their marriage breaks all the rules…

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.
His terms are simple:- They will be husband and wife by night only.- No lights, no kissing. - No questions about his battle scars.- Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.
But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:- They will have dinner together every evening.- With conversation.- And unlimited teasing.- Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

Beauty and the Beast meets Regency romance in Tessa Dare’s latest, The Duchess Deal. Dare’s characteristically clever writing brings this new spin on the classic love story to life.

After suffering traumatic injuries in the war, the Duke of Ashbury has turned into a skeletal version of the man he once was. Abandoned by his intended and feared by society, he comes a veritable recluse, skulking around his darkened home with only his staff for company. For the most part, he prefers it that way; no one stares at his disfiguration, and he can pretend, at least temporarily, that everything is fine. But like many other dukes, he needs an heir. And for that, he needs a wife.

Emma works as a seamstress after being kicked out of her father’s home, frantically working to make ends meet. When the Duke of Ashbury’s wedding is called off, the bride, Emma’s biggest client, refuses to pay for the monstrosity of a dress she’s ordered. Donning the dress, Emma strides into Ashbury’s study, intending to demand payment for her work. Instead, she finds herself face-to-face with a mysterious man who offers a tempting deal.

There’s a lighthearted loveliness in The Duchess Deal that I adored. Considering the difficult topics it tackles – self-esteem, the power and wrath of family, the strength of friendship – it’s a welcome element.

Yet while Dare probes deeper into the complex issues surrounding the Beauty and the Beast tale, I wish she’d given Emma a little more oomph. She was sweet, she was kind, she saw past Ashbury’s inner hatred to himself to reveal the real man. But more often than not, Emma felt a little one-dimensional. She gave me the vague feeling of someone I’ve met before.

She provides a sharp contrast to the dark, broken man that Ashbury has become. The difference brings a new vibrancy to the story and showcases Ashbury’s character journey in the best way. But still. I wished a little more for her.

The Duchess Deal is a sweet, unexpected take on one of my favorite fairy tales. Dare’s snappy dialogue, clever narrative and instinct for the hilarious brought all the elements together for a great trip back in time.

4 Stars

Posted November 20, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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November 16, 2017

Review | The Widow by Fiona Barton

Review | The Widow by Fiona BartonThe Widow by Fiona Barton
Publisher: NAL, February 16th 2016
Pages: 324
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When the police started asking questions, Jean Taylor turned into a different woman. One who enabled her and her husband to carry on, when more bad things began to happen...
But that woman’s husband died last week. And Jean doesn’t have to be her anymore.
There’s a lot Jean hasn’t said over the years about the crime her husband was suspected of committing. She was too busy being the perfect wife, standing by her man while living with the accusing glares and the anonymous harassment.
Now there’s no reason to stay quiet. There are people who want to hear her story. They want to know what it was like living with that man. She can tell them that there were secrets. There always are in a marriage.
The truth—that’s all anyone wants. But the one lesson Jean has learned in the last few years is that she can make people believe anything…

Caught up in the tempest of her husband’s horrific crimes, Jean Taylor plays the dutiful wife. She stays stalwart in the face of harassment, stares, and outright disgust. She remains silent against the onslaught of hatred aimed at her for standing by her husband. But after his death, Jean is free to say anything she wants…and the whole world is waiting to hear.

It’s only fair to call The Widow a book of the unexpected. The most surprising of all was the viciousness of the crimes. Barton’s novel addresses a genuine threat to today’s society: the internet and those who use it to their own nefarious ends. Although it goes without saying, the crimes of pedophilia perpetrated in The Widow were terrifying. Seeing them printed in black and white was heartbreaking.

It is these crimes that caused such a drastic shift in my perception of the characters, especially Jean. In the beginning, she’s almost a victim, portrayed as another damaged soul, collateral to her husband’s sick, twisted mind. But the story unravels, revealing more of Jean and making me wonder how innocent she actually is.

That’s the rub of The Widow. Neither main character is one to cheer for, an unusual problem in today’s popular literature. Instead of the story of the heartbroken, lost wife rebuilding her life after her monstrous husband passes away, Jean’s unreliable narration casts her own character into doubt.

Jean’s unreliable narration is what made me fall in love with this book. It made me question the truth in her mind versus truth in reality. Her outward demeanor didn’t match what was below, and the minor characters surrounding her began to show the complexity of her perspective. It cast doubt on Jean herself, but also her entire story.

While The Widow is not an emotionally easy read, it is, without a doubt, a unique one. Jean’s perspective and character development put a new spin on the typical crime/police procedural novel. Instead of looking at facts, examining clues, the story is told by a somewhat unreliable witness…if that is what you choose to call her.

Posted November 16, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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