What I Read: April

I had a friend ask me how I was able to read so many books and still have a job/social life/exercise. I thought about it, and I realized that it isn’t just that I’m a fast reader (though I am and always have been); a big part of it is Taffy. I easily spend an hour to an hour and a half walking her daily, and while she’s squirrel hunting/smelling all the smells in Druid Hills, I am able to read on my Kindle app. Thanks technology, but really, thanks Taff. She really is the best.

As I finished April, I was actually one book ahead of schedule for my 2014 reading goal, and that is with some long books in here. Maybe I should have done a page goal? Anyways, here is the round-up!

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.37.15 AMThe Ring and the Crown, Melissa de la Cruz

Amazon: Magic is power, and power is magic…

Once they were inseparable, just two little girls playing games in a formidable castle. Now Princess Marie-Victoria, heir to the mightiest empire in the world, and Aelwyn Myrddyn, a bastard mage, face vastly different futures.

Quiet and gentle, Marie has never lived up to the ambitions of her mother, Queen Eleanor the Second. With the help of her Merlin, Eleanor has maintained a stranglehold on the world’s only source of magic. While the enchanters faithfully serve the crown, the sun will never set on the Franco-British Empire.

As the annual London Season begins, the great and noble families across the globe flaunt their wealth and magic at parties, teas, and, of course, the lavishBal du Drap d’Or, the Ball of the Gold Cloth.

But the talk of the season is Ronan Astor, a social-climbing American with only her dazzling beauty to recommend her. Ronan is determined to make a good match to save her family’s position. But when she falls for a handsome rogue on the voyage over, her lofty plans are imperiled by her desires.

Meanwhile, Isabelle of Orleans, daughter of the displaced French royal family, finds herself cast aside by Leopold, heir to the Prussian crown, in favor of a political marriage to Marie-Victoria. Isabelle arrives in the city bent on reclaiming what is hers. But Marie doesn’t even want Leopold-she has lost her heart to a boy the future queen would never be allowed to marry.

When Marie comes to Aelwyn, desperate to escape a life without love, the girls form a perilous plan that endangers not only the entire kingdom but the fate of the monarchy.

Elizabeth: Occasionally, I preorder books for myself — based on reviews, recommendations, who knows what else — and then they “surprise” me in my inbox because I normally forget about it. Whoops? This was one of those books, and I’ll be frank, not only was I surprised that I ordered this, I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did! The premise of the book is that England and France are part of one kingdom, ruled by a powerful mage and his Queen. Not very realistic, right? Within a chapter, though, this felt like it could be real — and who doesn’t want a little magic in their lives? The characters were all fleshed-out, the descriptions of clothes and castles were beautiful, and the intersecting stories of the main characters all felt complete. I’ll admit that I didn’t like the way it ended — just because I was cheering for x to get with y, not z to get with x (I don’t want to give anything away…). Great story, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.34.39 AMFall of Giants, Ken Follett

Amazon: Ken Follett’s magnificent new historical epic begins, as five interrelated families move through the momentous dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women’s suffrage.
A thirteen-year-old Welsh boy enters a man’s world in the mining pits.…An American law student rejected in love finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson’s White House.… A housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with a German spy.…And two orphaned Russian brothers embark on radically different paths when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution. 
From the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty, Fall of Giants takes us into the inextricably entangled fates of five families—and into a century that we thought we knew, but that now will never seem the same again.

Elizabeth: One of my favorite book series ever is Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk. War and Remembrance was given to me by my cousin Molly as I was about to start my senior year of high school, and I’ve read its 1000+ pages more times than I can count. It may have actually been the book to really get me into World War II/modern history. I’m telling you this for a reason, I promise — actually, two. First, to let you know that this will be compared to one of my most favorite books ever. Two, to let you know why I wanted to read it. When I first heard of the premise of Fall of Giants, I was immediately intrigued. I know I’ve mentioned it, but I love WWII history, but I only know the basics about what came before it. Well, basics for a history major. I enjoyed this book immensely, but there were some characters that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about. I loved parts of the story based in Russia, but Lev consistently got on my nerves. Some of the women were shallowly drawn, and some of the connections were implausible at best. I don’t want to give too much away, but since it is based on history, I don’t know if these count as spoilers? My favorite part of the stories were in England and in DC; I loved Ethel and the Fitzgeralds’ arc, though her younger brother Billy Two wasn’t my favorite. The bits about socialism were heavy-handed, in my opinion, though keeping with the feelings of the times.  This book was a beast (985 pages!), though in a weird way, it felt rushed through some parts. The dates jumped around quickly — years at a time — which I suppose was necessary to get through this much material. I plan on picking up the next book in the series – Winter of the Worlds – probably before I start my June plane travel.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.38.27 AMThe Here and Now, Ann Brashares

Amazon: An unforgettable epic romantic thriller about a girl from the future who might be able to save the world . . . if she lets go of the one thing she’s found to hold on to.

Follow the rules. Remember what happened. Never fall in love.

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Prenna James, who immigrated to New York when she was twelve. Except Prenna didn’t come from a different country. She came from a different time—a future where a mosquito-borne illness has mutated into a pandemic, killing millions and leaving the world in ruins.

Prenna and the others who escaped to the present day must follow a strict set of rules: never reveal where they’re from, never interfere with history, and never, ever be intimate with anyone outside their community. Prenna does as she’s told, believing she can help prevent the plague that will one day ravage the earth.

But everything changes when Prenna falls for Ethan Jarves.

Elizabeth: If I’m remembering correctly, I read this book when I needed a break from the Follett saga, and it looked like it would be a light read. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The story was compelling — it wasn’t like every other YA novel in the post-Hunger Games world. While the description makes it all about the story between Prenna and Ethan, the book has much more than that. The mystery of the mosquito-borne illness, the mystery of where Prenna’s father is, and the rules of the community were much more interesting than the love story. I did think that the relationship between Ethan and Prenna was realistic, and I appreciated that it wasn’t the sole focus. I don’t know if Brashares is planning to make this a series, but I would definitely be interested to see Ethan and Prenna’s future, especially with the choices made at the end of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.43.11 AMThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Amazon: A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner of Island Books, has recently endured some tough years: his wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and his prized possession–a rare edition of Poe poems–has been stolen. Over time, he has given up on people, and even the books in his store, instead of offering solace, are yet another reminder of a world that is changing too rapidly. Until a most unexpected occurrence gives him the chance to make his life over and see things anew.

Elizabeth: I loved this book. Everything about it. I loved the structure, I loved the story itself, I loved the characters; I only wish that Island Books was real and that I could take a trip to Alice Island. Sadly, they are all part of the imagination of Gabrielle Zevin. True story: I looked up Alice Island to see if it was real — that’s how well-drawn it was. I’ve seen it compared to The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and while that is one of my favorite books (I’ve reread it more times than I count), I don’t see much similar besides a well-written story and an island setting. I’m not saying that as a criticism, just to say that this book should stand on its own — the comparison is something that would likely drive A.J. Fikry, bookseller, mad. This was a quick read but not one that is easily forgotten. Wholeheartedly recommend.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.39.32 AMThe Paris Architect, Charles Belfoure

Amazon: In 1942 Paris, gifted architect Lucien Bernard accepts a commission that will bring him a great deal of money – and maybe get him killed. But if he’s clever enough, he’ll avoid any trouble. All he has to do is design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man, a space so invisible that even the most determined German officer won’t find it. He sorely needs the money, and outwitting the Nazis who have occupied his beloved city is a challenge he can’t resist.

But when one of his hiding spaces fails horribly, and the problem of where to hide a Jew becomes terribly personal, Lucien can no longer ignore what’s at stake. The Paris Architect asks us to consider what we owe each other, and just how far we’ll go to make things right.

Written by an architect whose knowledge imbues every page, this story becomes more gripping with every soul hidden and every life saved.

Elizabeth: Let me first say that I enjoyed this book — the premise was cool, the story was gripping, and if you couldn’t tell, I love a wartime history book. With that in mind, I have to say that I have two (pretty large complaints): the shallowness of the characters and the rushed feelings of the book. Lucien, the main character, goes from being obsessed with his mistress and his place in the community to protecting Jews at all costs in the span of two pages, and I don’t think that’s at all believable. The story didn’t ever go into enough depth to justify this, or other authorial decisions, which was to its detriment. This idea had such great potential to be awesome, but I’d have to say its just good, in its current execution.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.40.42 AM An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris

AmazonRobert Harris returns to the thrilling historical fiction he has so brilliantly made his own. This is the story of the infamous Dreyfus affair told as a chillingly dark, hard-edged novel of conspiracy and espionage.

Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself. 

Bringing to life the scandal that mesmerized the world at the turn of the twentieth century, Robert Harris tells a tale of uncanny timeliness––a witch hunt, secret tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, the fate of a whistle-blower–richly dramatized with the singular storytelling mastery that has marked all of his internationally best-selling novels.

Elizabeth: This is a book that I was a little ambivalent about, if I’m honest. It came pretty well recommended (both by Amazon and Goodreads), and I thought I’d love the story – historical spy novels are pretty much right up my alley. I just never got into the story, though. That’s not to say it wasn’t well-written or that the author didn’t do his research; neither of those things are true. I didn’t connect with the characters, and even though I know its deeply rooted in reality, everything felt a little flat. It took me over a week to get through this –not because of the length but because I didn’t really want to read it.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 8.43.00 AMThe Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer

AmazonThe Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the other lives she might have lived.

After the death of her beloved twin brother and the abandonment of her long-time lover, Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy. Over the course of the treatment, Greta finds herself repeatedly sent to 1918, 1941, and back to the present. Whisked from the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn carriages of the West Village to a martini-fueled lunch at the Oak Room, in these other worlds, Greta finds her brother alive and well though fearfully masking his true personality. And her former lover is now her devoted husband…but will he be unfaithful to her in this life as well? Greta Wells is fascinated by her alter egos: in 1941, she is a devoted mother; in 1918, she is a bohemian adulteress.

In this spellbinding novel by Andrew Sean Greer, each reality has its own losses, its own rewards; each extracts a different price. Which life will she choose as she wrestles with the unpredictability of love and the consequences of even her most carefully considered choices?

Elizabeth: This is another book that I really enjoyed. It had been on my “to-read” list for a while, and then it showed up as one of the Amazon Kindle Daily Deals, so it became mine. The premise of the story is unique, and I felt drawn to it a little bit because of its starting point: the AIDS epidemic in New York. I do work in the field, after all. The author’s connection of 1918 (the flu), 1941 (the war), and 1985 (AIDS) as landmark years was inspired, and Greta was so perfectly drawn that I initially suspected the author was a woman. The characters were well-defined, and the place descriptions were on-point. You can tell that a lot of thought – and a lot of research – went into this book, which is something that I greatly appreciated as a reader. The end, though a bit of a shock, was absolutely perfect for this book. All the Gretas were able to get what they wanted.

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