Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: A School for Unusual Girls

A School for Unusual Girls
By Kathleen Baldwin
Published: May 19, 2015

It’s 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England’s dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society’s constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young ladies. Or so their parents think. In truth, Headmistress Emma Stranje, the original unusual girl, has plans for the young ladies—plans that entangle the girls in the dangerous world of spies, diplomacy, and war.

After accidentally setting her father’s stables on fire while performing a scientific experiment, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is sent to Stranje House. But Georgie has no intention of being turned into a simpering, pudding-headed, marriageable miss. She plans to escape as soon as possible—until she meets Lord Sebastian Wyatt. Thrust together in a desperate mission to invent a new invisible ink for the English war effort, Georgie and Sebastian must find a way to work together without losing their heads—or their hearts...

My review:

If Ally Carter, Y.S. Lee and Gail Carriger wrote a book together it might be something like A School for Unusual Girls. When Georgie is sent to Stranje House after a series of increasingly shocking social mistakes that culminated in burning down the family stables, she decides to escape what she thinks is an institution that tortures young ladies into submission to society's rules. Fortunately for her, the school is actually a secret training ground for young ladies with unusual talents that can be used to save the British Empire. Her new boarding mates Tess, Jane, Maya and Sera all have special gifts and so does Georgie herself. Her experiments to create an invisible ink are prized as a way to protect English spies and their messages from falling into the hands of Napoleon's supporters. 

It takes Georgie quite awhile to realize what kind of school she is really at which was kind of frustrating considering that she is academically intelligent. Once she figures things out, she is on board to help the school by continuing her scientific experiments. Unfortunately she doesn't exactly get along with her new lab partner, Lord Sebastian Wyatt, whom she finds annoying and attractive in almost equal measure. There is also danger in the form of the snooping Lady Daneska, a former student of the school and possible spy for Napoleon herself.

A School for Unusual Girls is entertaining with a fun mix of humor, romance and mystery. It looks at the roles that girls were typically relegated to during that time and the students are able to use that to their advantage when spying for information. That aspect reminded me a lot of Y.S. Lee's Agency series which involves female detectives during Victorian times. The book also reminded me of the Gallagher Girls series which features teen girls who are trained as spies and how people underestimate them all the time. Georgie and her classmates are spunky and resourceful and though they may not be the ideal for Regency Society they have found a home at Stranje House and friendship with each other. This is the first in a series and while there is some resolution to the plot and Georgie's story there are some unsolved mysteries f. 

I think this book would appeal to fans of YA historical fiction, mystery, and books like Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger (minus the Steampunk and paranormal elements), The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee or Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle (minus the magic).

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday (154)

"Waiting on" Wednesday is a weekly meme to discuss upcoming books we can't wait to get our hands on. Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan
Release date: May 26, 2015

I’m the daughter of murdered parents.
I’m the friend of a dead girl.
I’m the lover of my enemy.
And I will have my revenge.
In the wake of the devastating destruction of the luxury yacht Persephone, just three souls remain to tell its story—and two of them are lying. Only Frances Mace knows the terrifying truth, and she’ll stop at nothing to avenge the murders of everyone she held dear. Even if it means taking down the boy she loves and possibly losing herself in the process.
Sharp and incisive, Daughter of Deep Silence by bestselling author Carrie Ryan is a deliciously smart revenge thriller that examines perceptions of identity, love, and the lengths to which one girl is willing to go when she thinks she has nothing to lose.

I think this sounds like a  really good psychological thriller. Early reviews have compared it to the TV show Revenge

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Top Ten Audio Books I've Listened To

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. There is a new subject each week and this week's topic is a freebie so I chose Top Ten Audio Books I've Listened To.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Read by Jim Dale

I think Jim Dale sets the bar really high with the quality of his reading and his ability to capture the voices of the characters. These are the first audio books I loved and still my favorite of all time. I have listened to the series many times since I first started with the audio books in 2004-2005.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett 
Read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell

The ensemble cast for this audio book really shines. I love that Octavia Spencer (who played Minny in the film) is the voice of Minny in the audio book. Really all of the narrators do a fantastic job.

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (and its sequels)
Read by Marc Thompson

Marc Thomas has a gift for sounding like the characters from the film (except for Princess Leia). The sound effects also make this audio book a lot of fun to listen to.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
Read by Jenna Lamia

I liked Jenna Lamia's narration for CeeCee and the southern ladies of Savannah. After listening to a number of audio books narrated by her I found that I really like her voice and audio book reading. This would be a great audio book to listen to in the lazy warm days of summer.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Read by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra

I thought the narrators did a really good job of voicing Eleanor and Park. The audio book version made me cry while I listened to it. Not a good thing when you're driving!

Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
Read by Joshua Swanson

I thought Joshua Swanson's voices for the many characters in this series were very good. Unfortunately he only narrates the first three books in the series and the drop in quality shows with the last two books (narrated by Nick Chamian). Still the series makes for entertaining listening and some laugh out loud moments.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Read by Kate Rudd

I loved this book and listening to it in audio made me really feel the characters' emotions more. Kate Rudd did a good job with both Hazel and Augustus's voice. I'm kind of picky when female readers take on male voices but I think her take on Augustus was pretty good.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Read by Grayce Wey

I think Grayce Wey perfectly captured Kimberley's voice both as a young girl and a teenager. This is another audio book that made me cry.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Read by Jim Broadbent

British actor Jim Broadbent did such a good job with the narration of this book. I think if there is a movie made, he needs to play Harold! 

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas
Read by Philip Battley

I loved this book when I read the print version but listening to the audio book (while enjoyable) made me not like the main character at first. For some reason when I listened, I picked up on how annoying and stubborn Iolanthe is in the beginning but I think that is because I knew what would happen since I'd read it before. Philip Battley does a great job with both Iolanthe and Titus's voices and I definitely plan to listen to the second book as well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Post (4)/ It's Monday, What Are You Reading

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Kimba @ Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news. A post to recap the past week, showcase books and things we have received and share news about what is coming up on our blog for the week ahead. It's Monday, What Are You Reading is a fun weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey where we share what we've read and reviewed over the past week and what we plan to read next. In Sheila's absence you can participate by sharing your post on Twitter #IMWAYR.

It's been an eventful couple of weeks with a girls trip to Williamsburg, Virginia and a visit home to see my parents this past weekend. I had fun in Williamsburg and got to see Jamestown as well. I wish I could have spent some time in Colonial Williamsburg but the rain derailed our plans a little. Still I liked what I did get to see and the trip was relaxing. I definitely want to go back sometime to see the historical sites as the focus was more on shopping and relaxing this trip. 

Over the weekend I finally got to see the film version of Still Alice on DVD. It was very sad and emotional though I did catch a few differences from the book. I thought Julianne Moore was fantastic. Kristen Stewart appeared to just be playing herself. I kind of wished they'd chosen someone else to be Lydia. Overall the movie was really good. Some of the most powerful scenes in the book made it into the movie but it was different to just see it and not be in Alice's mind experiencing her thoughts and fears though Moore did a pretty good job of emoting with just her facial expressions the confusion Alice felt. 

Last two weeks on my blog:

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova (review)
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas (review)

Books read:

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas (reread)

I liked this audio version of The Burning Sky. I thought the author did a good job of bringing Titus and Iolanthe to life. I kind of felt frustrated with Iolanthe at times, especially in the beginning when she refuses to acknowledge the danger she's in, but I don't remember feeling that way when I read the print version of the book. I'm planning to listen to the audio version of The Perilous Sea too in preparation for reading the final book.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

I liked this fantasy inspired by Beauty and the Beast. I don't always like books with faeries but this one worked for me even thought the pacing was a little uneven.

Nowhere But Here by Katie McGarry

I initially really liked the Pushing the Limits series though I struggled with some of the later books. This one is the first in a new series featuring bikers. I didn't entirely like Oz, the male lead or the bikers in Reign of Terror and their way of life. Some of it just seemed a little chauvinistic. I don't think I will be continuing with the series though that doesn't mean this book won't appeal to other readers.

An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

This is the book my afternoon book group is reading for our May discussion. I thought it was really interesting. It is set in the 18th Century and has details about servants' lives and cooking/recipes from that time period. There is also a little romance, a mystery and some sinister secrets. The main character is an undercook, Biddy Leigh, kind of a 1700s Daisy from Downton Abbey. I think readers who liked Longbourn will really like this.

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin

This was a fun YA historical mystery about a group of girls who don't quite fit into Regency society because of their skills and intelligence. The main character in the first book is Georgina whose chemistry experiment goes awry leading her parents to send her to Stranje House to whip her into shape. Readers who enjoy historical mystery and intelligent heroines will like it. There is also some romance between Georgina and a British Lord/spy.

Elyse is visiting Oregon for the summer to heal after she permanently loses her voice in an accident. Since she was an aspiring singer who had just gotten a big break in her career this is particularly heartbreaking. The book is written in a lovely descriptive and lyrical style. I also liked that the main character is from Tobago and we get to learn about the culture, food and traditions of the island. The Oregon coastal setting is also very appealing. The only weird thing is the mystical mermaid stuff. I did like that there are characters named Ursula (not a villain) and Sebastian and a ship named the Never Flounder. No Ariel though :)

Currently reading:

What I plan to read next:

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses
By Sarah J. Maas
Published: May 5, 2015

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin-one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.
As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin-and his world-forever.
Perfect for fans of Kristen Cashore and George R. R. Martin, this first book in a sexy and action-packed new series is impossible to put down!

My review:

I wanted to read this book because I love fairy tales retold and I also wanted to figure out if I should order this book for my library's teen collection since it has been described as "New Adult", a genre that I typically purchase for our adults. The book has also received major buzz which made it even more appealing.

Feyre initially reminded me of a Katniss Everdeen like stoic type especially with her hunting skills but she was also like Cinderella within her family. Though they've fallen on hard times, her father and sisters don't do much to sustain themselves. They rely on Feyre for food and trading and other useful life skills they haven't mastered. Feyre knows that her sisters look down on her, especially Nesta the eldest but it comes as a shock when she is taken from their home by Tamlin but her family doesn't really fight for her.

Feyre hates the Fae as most humans do even though she didn't have any dealings with them. She knows they are cruel and deadly so when she suspects the wolf in the woods might be a Fae, she kills it anyway because it is a threat to the deer she is desperate to catch.  As she is forced to live with Tamlin her views don't improve until gradually she starts to open her eyes to the truth about him. Even as she falls in love with Tamlin she is afraid of the dangerous blight that is destroying the land and represents a threat to her own family.

A Court of Thorns and Roses is inspired by fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin. It is a romantic fantasy with magic and a few steamy love scenes though I think adults would find that aspect kind of tame compared to the average romance novel. The first part of the book is set up for the world of the Fae as well as the human world Feyre inhabits. It also establishes the relationship between Feyre and Tamlin and her friendship with another fairy, Lucien who is Tamlin's right hand man. The last part of the book involves more action as Feyre has to go through some really dark times and make hard choices to save Tamlin and her world. 

I am not usually a fan of fairy books but I liked this. It wasn't perfect especially in terms of pacing and at times it felt like there was a little more telling than showing. Overall however I thought it was a page turner and a very good start to the series.  The world building was decent but the fairy tale and romantic elements definitely delivered. I liked Feyre and Tamlin and am very intrigued by Rhysand, a character introduced in the latter half. Some of the story lines are wrapped up by the book's end but there are still some things to resolve as this is the first in a series. Though I've seen references to this book as "New Adult" I'd say it is appropriate as YA fiction for older teens. Readers who are fans of her books or authors like Melissa Marr or Julie Kagawa should give this a try. 

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday (153)

"Waiting on" Wednesday is a weekly meme to discuss upcoming books we can't wait to get our hands on. Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

This week, I'm waiting on:

Ana of California by Andi Teran
Release date: June 30, 2015

A modern take on the classic coming-of-age novel, inspired by Anne of Green Gables
In the grand tradition of Anne of Green GablesBridget Jones’s Diary, and The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Andi Teran’s captivating debut novel offers a contemporary twist on a beloved classic. Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.
When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

I love Anne of Green Gables and the early reviews by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus are overwhelmingly positive so I have high hopes that I will love this book too!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O'Briens
By Lisa Genova
Published: April 7, 2015

Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.

My review:

Joe loves his family and he loves his job as a police officer in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston. He is looking forward to retirement in a few years to spend more time with his wife Rosie. Unfortunately Joe starts struggling with little things like writing reports and he begins fidgeting uncontrollably. It takes him awhile to finally go and see a doctor at Rosie's insistence. The diagnosis of Huntington's Disease seems to come out of nowhere and at first Joe is in denial. He also doesn't quite understand what this means for him and his family. What breaks him is the realization that his mom didn't die of alcoholism but of Huntington's Disease, the reason she lost her ability to control her body, had a nasty temper and ended up in an institution. Worst of all, as the disease is hereditary, each of his kids could end up with it.

I had previously read Still Alice which I loved so I had high expectations for Inside the O'Briens. I wasn't disappointed. While I did notice some similarities of the setup between both books, I think the author did a good job of getting into the head of a career cop in his early 40s. Like with Still Alice where the viewpoints are those of Alice and her daughter Lydia, the story is told through Joe's eyes and also that of Katie, his youngest child. Both Katie and her sister Meghan have physically demanding jobs. Katie is a yoga instructor and Meghan is a professional ballet dancer which makes their situation that much more poignant. Their oldest brother JJ is married and he and his wife are trying for a baby so this news couldn't come at a worse time. Their other brother Patrick is constantly plaguing his parents with worry over his partying lifestyle. 

The O'Briens are a very close family with Sunday dinners and they even live in the same building on different floors. Joe is the heart of their family but his devout wife Rosie is the glue that holds them together. His diagnosis is a blow to her faith and their marriage and relationships with their children suffer too. Katie is paralyzed with indecision about her future. The possibility that she might have HD keeps her from moving forward in her career and her personal life where she has found someone special who wants her to move with him across the country.

The ways that Huntington's Disease affect Joe and his children (who may also have inherited the disease) and his wife are the crux of the novel. How do you continue to live your life knowing what's coming? Is it better to be forewarned or to just live day by day and hope for the best? I think the title of the book refers to both life within the O'Brien household and also what is going on internally (physically and mentally) in the individual members of the family as they deal with Joe's diagnosis and their future.

This book is very sad but also moving. I loved the bonds that the O'Briens share and the love they have for each other as well as their determination. Joe does his best to keep HD from getting to him but he also suffers from depression (one of the side effects and very understandable given the circumstances). One of my favorite scenes in the book is the yoga class that he takes with Katie and how they both come to a new understanding of each other and find peace through it. While we know what future awaits Joe, he is inspiring in the way he chooses to meet that future. I'd recommend this book highly for book discussion groups and readers who loved Still Alice and other similar books.

I knew nothing about Huntington's Disease when I picked up this book but it is awful and like Alzheimer's there is no cure. In fact according to Huntington Disease Society of America, people say it is like having ALS, Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's at the same time. It usually hits in a person's 30s to 50s and they worsen over 10 to 25 years till death occurs. In between they lose physical ability to control their movements to the point that they are unable to walk and talk and become completely dependent on others. Hopefully Inside the O'Briens will help bring awareness to this disease and maybe help those whose families have been affected by it. You can find out more about HD at the HDSA website

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley