Saturday, May 2, 2015

Review | Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Title: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon {website}
Publication Date: 1991
Publisher: Dell Publishing

Series: Outlander {Book 1}
Source & Format: Owned; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord...1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

This is one of those books that is so wildly popular that I've been terrified to read it. There's an aura of mystique that surrounds this book, a secret fan club that gets a knowing look in their eyes when they see you carrying this book around (and it's a tome, reaching over 800 pages). The girl at the book store began raving about it when I stepped up to pay, claiming, "It's magical. You'll LOVE IT." (I swear she italicized and capitalized her words when she spoke. It was that intense.) I expected to like it, but I didn't. I LOVED it (Yes. With caps).

Now I need to be honest - this book sat on my nightstand for a good week. I got through a few pages a night, but that hook wasn't there quite yet. It was a great premise - how on earth is she going to get herself out of this mess? - but it didn't grab me.

Then I found season one of Outlander at the library.

I needed the context, the faces to put to names, to fall truly in love with this story. The show intrigued me, but it was the book that caught me. After that, I couldn't put it down. I read while I did my makeup (a tricky thing, let me tell you), while I cooked dinner (only burned one pork chop), during my lunch, and late into the night. I couldn't get enough.

When I returned to the book, I found myself fascinated by Claire's struggles, and boy, she has enough. Her core struggle, the yearning to find her true place in life, got to me. Most of us don't face falling through the rabbit hole every day (or in this case, the faerie hill), but Claire's struggle to find a place for herself is something many of us deal with every day. Her life in 1945 isn't quite as satisfactory after the war is over; I feel like she detected a great joy from being useful, being helpful, and felt a bit at loose ends when she and Frank journey to Scotland. 1743 Highlands isn't her own time, but it gives her a chance to work at her trade, to get her hands dirty, and to be useful. Watching her struggle between that satisfaction and attraction to Jamie and the loss of her old life and husband pulled at my heart, and I had to know what choices she'd make, what she'd do. 

The other theme that made me fall in love is rather a bit more simple: true love. No, don't roll your eyes: this isn't exactly the Disney true love. This is the heart-wrenching, real-life, brutal and beautiful true love, the kind that knocks your breath away and steals your heart. I've read a fair amount of romance, but Outlander is one of the few that forces the romantic heroes to make the tough choices, to actually show the depth of true love instead of simply stating it. There are some things Jamie and Claire do for each other that I don't know I would have the strength to. On many of those scenes, I had to skip ahead to know it would be okay, then go back and read. Gabaldon addresses true love as it should be: heart-wrenching and glorious with your best friend and partner. 

While the narration didn't grab me in the beginning, I started tearing through those 800 pages, sunk into the smooth narrative and unwilling to climb back out to the real world. I could hear the quiet of the Highland nights, the laughter in the castle, the neighing of the horses. It was simply immersive.

It's been a long time since I've wanted to immediately reread a book, but Outlander makes me want to revisit it again and again. The next time someone spots me reading the book, like the checkout girl at the bookstore, and gets that glint in their eyes, I'm going to "OH, I KNOW." It's that good.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review | At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

Title: At the Water's Edge
Author: Sara Gruen
Publication Date: March 2015
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Source & Format: Netgalley; ebook
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes  & Noble
After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love. 

When I saw that Gruen's book was blurbed as a "Scottish Downton Abbey," I knew I had to read it. Everything about At the Water's Edge called my name, from the book's description to the gorgeous cover and typography title. 

I liked Maddie, but for the good first half of the novel, it was hard to identify with her, or any of the other characters, for that matter. They lived in a world so far removed from my own that the chasm between us felt impossible to cross. Even after Maddie and Ellis lose their home and leave to explore Scotland with Hank, there was an air of entitlement. Both men are rejected from the military for different reasons and live with a forced bravado, one they wear as a shield in the harsh environment in the first world war. Hank and Ellis lived as rich playboys, no thought or care in the world except their own.

Maddie had flashes of clarity, but for the most part, she went along with their hare-brained schemes. When she had a change of heart and finally opened her eyes, I found the heroine I had been searching for. She developed into her own person instead of the pretty shell she had been with Ellis and Hank. 

Although I didn't immediately understand the initial opening scenes with Mairi, I loved how her story connected with Maddie's. Although horribly heartbreaking, Mairi's scenes not only set the tone for the story, but the metaphors and the story's arc. Gruen's work opens with great emotion and closes the same way. 

I expected Gruen's work to be a romance, but she surprised me. Instead of focusing on the romance, At the Water's Edge is the story of a woman coming into her own, finding herself, and learning how to stand up for herself. The romance was just the cherry on top.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Monthly Rewind | April 2015 {The Month of the Eureka Moment}

Sarah Hearts

Something very unusual happened to me in April, one of those moments that I assumed only happens in books or movies, but never in real life: I had an eureka moment. The light bulb over my head shone brilliantly, and things made a bit more sense. I realized I have the power to control only me, my day, and how I react. This might not seem too momentous, but the more I thought about it, the clearer things felt. So someone cuts me off on my way home in traffic. Short of flipping them off and possibly getting in a road rage incident, there's nothing I can do. To sum it up, I learned how to let it go. There are a few things in this world that truly matter to me, and the rest, well, not as much.

The inspiration behind this clarity? Kacey Musgrave's new song, which I found on Spotify:

Even if you don't like country, give it a try.

Anyway, back to books. I had a great reading month! It feels like it's been so long since I've been able to say that. 

Revolutionary Hearts by Pema Donyo
The Diviners by Libby Bray
"Something Borrowed" by Jim Butcher
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Case Closed by Gerald Posner
"The Man With a Twisted Lip" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Poison by Bridget Zinn
"The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan" by Agatha Christie
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
"It's My Birthday, Too" by Jim Butcher
The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen (review up on Friday!)

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Bits and Pieces...
On My Radar..
     Oh my...How did I miss this show? It was on the fringes of my mind, but we don't get Showtime. I found the first volume of season one on the library shelf, and ended up binge-watching it this last weekend. I've had Outlander (the novel) on my nightstand for a few weeks, trying to get into it. I've got a whole post next week devoted to this experience, but let's just say I can't put the dang thing down now. 

Complete/read my entire blog calendar. Not finishing is part laziness, and that's the part I'm aiming to fix.

No library fees. Failed at this last month, but hey, it's worth a shot!

Take an hour a day to read, even if it's my lunch. I feel so much better if I have an hour to myself to just sit and be with a book. 

Sarah Hearts

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review | The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Title: The Invasion of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publication Date: June 2015
Publisher: Harper
Series: The Queen of the Tearling {Book 2}
Source & Format: Edelweiss; ebook
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
With each passing day, Kelsea Glynn is growing into her new responsibilities as Queen of the Tearling. By stopping the shipments of slaves to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne, she crossed the Red Queen, a brutal ruler whose power derives from dark magic, who is sending her fearsome army into the Tearling to take what is hers. And nothing can stop the invasion.

But as the Mort army draws ever closer, Kelsea develops a mysterious connection to a time before the Crossing, and she finds herself relying on a strange and possibly dangerous ally: a woman named Lily, fighting for her life in a world where being female can feel like a crime. The fate of the Tearling —and that of Kelsea’s own soul—may rest with Lily and her story, but Kelsea may not have enough time to find out.

I received an advance reader copy of this book from Edelweiss, but this in no way influenced my opinion or review of this book. Promise!

I had a mad fascination with this series the moment I finished The Queen of the Tearling. Kelsea's strong will, the magic of the land of the Tearling, and the tension of the rising war with Mortmesne captivated me. When I received The Invasion of the Tearling, I immediately delved in. 

The title The Invasion of the Tearling represents the building of war, the tensions between the two counties, but it also foreshadows the exploration of Kelsea's own person in the story. In The Queen of the Tearling, Kelsea is a still a girl, growing into the role of the queen. In the second novel, Kelsea has grown into a more confident, competent woman, one that wars with the light and dark inside her.

I truly loved how Johansen focuses on the story, including strengths and weaknesses, of the Mort Queen, Kelsea's nemesis. Creating a human side to the Red Queen makes the tensions building behind the war even more potent. Showing the Red Queen's history and perspective, contrasted with Kelsea's own personal discoveries, created a strong narrative, pulling the reader into the world of the Tearling.

Simple to say, the conclusion of the story left me breathless and turning pages, hoping that the story hadn't ended with this cliffhanger or at least there was something that would tide me over until Johansen's next book is published. 

The dual narration was a bit disconcerting at first, but once the parallels to Kelsea's story were established, I loved the variation in the story. Lily's story helped developed not only the plot, but Kelsea's own character and added a great aspect of history to the Tearling. 

The Invasion of the Tearling is a fabulous story, pulling in elements from the first installment to create tension leading up to the final book. I do wish the next installment came out quickly so I can find out what on earth happens!, but I appreciate how Johansen left her story; it's the perfect example of a well-done cliffhanger.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Eight Characters Who Inspire Me | Top Ten Tuesday

There are characters that are fun to read, engaging, and/or hilarious, and then there's the characters that make an impact on you, that stick with you long after you close the pages. Here are the top ten characters that made a lasting impact on me. 

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter // Hermione broke the smart-girl stereotype. She made me feel confident to raise my hand to answer the question, to have wild, puffy hair, and to say exactly what's on my mind. 

Claire Beauchamp, Outlander // Dumped into an unfamiliar world, Claire has only her wits and her medical skills to make her way back to her own time. Reading her story made me grateful for the leaps and bounds society has taken since the late 18th century and reminds me not to take it for granted. Claire overall inspires me to not take anything for granted.

Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice // Lizzy, a proud somewhat stubborn, woman has to learn to listen to her heart, not her pride, a lesson that I definitely need to take note of more often. 

Harry Potter, Harry Potter // The ultimate underdog, the Boy Who Lived and faced down not only Voldemort's legend but his own, inspires me pretty simply: if he can do that, I can handle this.

Will and Lou, Me Before You // These two characters are powerful inspirations in their own right. Their combined charisma creates in me a gratitude for life. 

Alice in Wonderland, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland // If it's a hard day, I list five impossible things, even if it's after breakfast. 

Harry Dresden, The Dresden Files // Harry might be sarcastic, but his heart and intentions are always in the right place. Harry's character inspires me to look for the good, to make the right decision, even when the wrong one might be easier. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Mini Monday | It's My Birthday, Too by Jim Butcher

Title: It's My Birthday, Too
Author: Jim Butcher {website}
Publication Date: October 2010
Publisher: Roc
Series: The Dresden Files

Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Some of the Dresden stories I've read so far in Side Jobs have had deep, hidden meaning, symbols to analyze, or a character's emotional growth. "It's My Birthday, Too" had very little of that, and honestly, it was just what I needed today. 

"It's My Birthday, Too" is a short story, written by Butcher for Charlaine Harris' Many Bloody Returns (which might be my next library request...) about a birthday experience. Butcher's story about what happens when Harry crashes his brother Thomas' LARP party (I hope that's the right way to use that term) is hilarious, a little violent, and plenty Dresden. 

When a Black Court Vampire breaks into the party at Thomas' shop in the mall, Harry and Thomas go into survival mode. The Black Court Vampire, snubbed by the others when she was human, returns to take her vengeance upon the group, allowing Harry to quip they've got a "Code Carrie." I loved the cobbler fairies that Harry bribed into helping him with a pair of Prada shoes. It's the little touches that make The Dresden Files so much fun to read. Also, lots of things catching on fire and snappy dialogue, but that's besides the point.

There is a small bit of character growth. At the end of the story, Harry and Thomas have a small, what M would call "brothers," moment, one that cements their relationship even more firmly.  It's possibly the best birthday present Thomas has ever gotten or Harry has ever given. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Six Books You Need to Watch For in May

Always the Bridesmaid by Lindsey Kelk  

Read this if: you love romance, humor, or are going to a wedding this year (most likely all of us...).

Revenge, Ice Cream and Other Things Best Served Cold by Katie Finn

Read this if: you need a little teen drama mixed with humor or are heading to the beach - Finn's first installment is the perfect beach read. 

Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Read this if: you love fairy tales, paranormal, fantasy or Maas' last series. 

Nowhere But Here by Katie McGarry

Read this if: you loved McGarry's last series, are a fan of romance, or heading to the beach. 

The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer

Read this if: chick lit covers your shelves.

You Deserve a Drink: Boozy Misadventures and Tales of Debauchery by Mamrie Hart

Read this if: you need a laugh...or a drink.