Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Water for Chocolate (full title: Like Water for Chocolate: A novel in monthly installments with recipes, romances, and home remedies), published in 1989, was adapted for film by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau, in 1992, the year I first read the novel. It tells the story of Tita de la Garza, youngest daughter and talented cook, along with a series of twelve recipes of meals that Tita prepares on a variety of occasions. The novel employs magical realism in the style of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez.

As the novel opens, Tita has caught the eye of a young man, Pedro, who falls in love with her at first sight. He asks for her hand in marriage but Tita's mother, the cold and callous Mamá Elena, informs him that it's the family tradition that the youngest daughter never marries and takes care of her mother until the mother's death. Instead, Mamá Elena suggests Pedro marry Tita's older sister Rosaura, and in a fateful miscalculation, Pedro accepts this plan to remain close to Tita. Tita, who was born in a kitchen and who possesses magical culinary skills thanks to years of working with the family's cook Nacha, infuses everything she makes for the family with emotions of joy, sorrow, love, anger, bitterness, and lust. This gift plays out dramatically at Rosaura's wedding. Throughout the novel, Mamá Elena encounters that bitterness in Tita's food, and learning dark secrets upon Mamá Elena's death, Tita finds that Mamá Elena had her share of bitterness and loss in life. (Though it makes Mamá Elena no less sympathetic to the reader, who sees only her unflinching cruelty to Tita.)

As historical fiction set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, Like Water for Chocolate is perhaps most notable as a metaphor for emerging feminism and women's rights in Mexico. Tita marshalls her revolution against her mother and family tradition, and the expectations of women in her community. Even once Tita is free to marry, rather than marry a man who loves her but whom she is unsure she loves enough to be a worthy partner, she chooses to remain single and to forge her path, incendiary though it ultimately is. Unlike her sisters, both of whom are merely pawns in the machinations of men around them, Tita resolutely adheres to her path and strong moral center. At the book's conclusion, we find Tita's story has been told by her niece, Esperanza (Hope), entangled with the recipes that defined Tita and the de la Garza family history.

Overall, I find that Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate doesn't have the narrative strength of Allende or García Márquez, but it is still a rich confection.

Like Water for Chocolate was my May Classic Read for the blog.

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Review: The Tiger at Midnight

The Tiger at Midnight The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So here's the thing. These days in YA fiction we have a something of a template for trilogies about a beautiful badass heroine who is coming into her own, the handsome love interest, the possible second suitor for the heroine's affections, and the struggle for justice/freedom/something. It's all over everywhere in the genre, and on top of it, lately we've seen quite a few books set in alternate West or East Asian/Arabic/Indian Subcontinent settings following this template. And yet, in spite of the fact that The Tiger at Midnight was built on exactly that template, it flies. (*ehem* sorry for the inside joke here) Seriously, this was still a very enjoyable, well-written read for me. While it isn't as transporting as Daevabad trilogy, it is similar in feel in terms of the politics the central characters are forced to deal with. I wasn't all that thrilled with the inevitable romantic angle but it was made somewhat more palatable by the built-in backstory of the central characters, Esha, aka the Viper, and Kunal, the 'artist forced into being a soldier by the circumstances beyond his control,' who are well-written frenemies at the start. Teerdhala has still managed to make aspects of this story fresh, while imbuing it with rich Indian cultural references. If you are looking for something to tide you over until Empire of Gold releases, I suggest checking out this first book in the Tiger at Midnight series.

The audiobook is handsomely narrated by Sneha Mathan.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, May 24, 2019

Review: The October Man

The October Man The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars bumped to 5 Stars "because reasons"

The Rivers of London has become one of my favorite urban fantasy series. With its unique combination of characters, protagonist Peter Grant's casual obsession with the deficiencies of modern architecture, the whole "what if Aurors were real and Harry Potter grew up and became a magical detective inspector" vibe, the series gripped me from the first book. Aaronovitch has taken a sidestep in this novella however, and Peter Grant is a distant character off in London, an apprentice wizard admired by German apprentice wizard Tobias Winter. When Winter and police liaison to the supernatural unit Vanessa Sommer (yes, Sommer and Winter!) start investigating a series of murders in Trier, near the rivers Mosel (Moselles) and Kyll, we learn a number of different things about genus loci from Morgane and Kelly, goddesses of the two rivers. Some of this information is interesting to long time readers of the principal series who have been wondering about Peter Grant and his river goddess girlfriend, Bev. While this novella doesn't give any of their situation away, it does raise some mighty interesting possibilities. And we also find out the interesting tidbit that the goddess of the Kyll once sheltered Thomas Nightingale for three days during wartime. Oh, and it's now official that Nightingale's newest apprentice is "absolutely terrifying."

While I enjoyed Tobias less than Peter (he lacks a lot of Peter's panache, interesting family history, and laser rangefinder), Tobias does hold my interest and I'd like his rosemary lamb recipe. Vanessa is also interesting, though she's not my much-loved Guleed. And I want way, way more of die Hex aus dem Osten, the woman called Witch of the East, and Nightingale's German counterpart.

This novella opens some interesting possibilities as to the direction that the Rivers series is headed as the magical swell in London is also spilling over in Europe. (Brexit be damned!)

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Subterranean Press in exchange for an honest review. P

(Please note that the Orion/Gollancz edition of this novella publishes two weeks after the special hardcover edition from Subterranean Press.)

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: How to Forget: A Daughter's Memoir

How to Forget: A Daughter's Memoir How to Forget: A Daughter's Memoir by Kate Mulgrew
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kate Mulgrew's poignant and searing memoir of her parents final years captures a journey most of us will make as adult children. Her account of her stoic, alcoholic father's death from brain cancer, and her mother's death from Alzheimer's disease offer in full details what it's like for families going through these trials of love, in particular when siblings don't quite all feel the same way. Some moments, like that of her father's mistress helping her mother with Mulgrew's dying sister Tessie right up to the funeral (the surprising twists of the strong women of a certain era) or Mulgrew's account of her father's final hours (a brave description), are heartbreaking. But much of the book also brims with the Mulgrew family's brio and Irish humor. It's not unrelievedly dark by any means. A testament to the love of family, "How to Forget" is an altogether finer book than her first memoir, Born with Teeth.

The audiobook, narrated by Mulgrew herself, is outstanding. I do not know how she manages to read some of the passages without audible tears.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from William Morrow/HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, May 20, 2019

Review: The Scent Keeper

The Scent Keeper The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

Have you ever suddenly smelled something and been transported to a place of memory? The Scent Keeper addresses this and more. Focusing on the life of Emmeline, we follow her for a time, idyllic childhood on an island where she lives with her father and the revelation that so much that she believed about her family was wrong/ a lie.

Who hasn't found that something in their parents' lives isn't quite impartial or.... accurate? What secrets are there in your family? This novel gives us a protagonist who finds the story she has been raised with isn't the full truth. But where does she go from there? With that in mind, this novel is an exploration of family (chosen and born) and memory. A very evocative story.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Review: The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sandra Cisneros' wonderful narration of her short novel The House on Mango Street illuminates her character Esperanza and the community of friends and families she lives in on the fictional Mango Street. This is a seemingly simple novel that today seems more important than ever for young people to read, as it captures the Chicano experience through the eyes of children. Cisneros, born in Chicago, developed her unique voice after feeling dissatisfied with trying to emulate creative writing styles that were more accepted. She describes her fiction as conversational in style and this certainly captures Esperanza's story. Growing up poor and seeing the limiting choices faced by many girls, along with the indifference of adults to abuses of girls, Esperanza, just like the meaning of her name, which disappoints her, hopes for more.

In her introduction to the novel, Cisneros says that she is often asked if she herself is Esperanza. She says her reply is that everyone is Esperanza. We all hope for more.

This is a short novel, which won the American Book Award in 1985, is often recommended for middle graders. It should be on everyone's reading list.

This was my 2019 Classic Read for the month of April. And yeah, I know it's the middle of May. Sigh.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Review: With the Fire on High

With the Fire on High With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Acevedo has knocked it out of the park with this heartfelt YA novel.

Emoni Santiago is a young woman whose pregnancy at age fourteen has given her a different perspective than that of her peers. As a young mother, her first priority is her child, her second is taking care of her Abuela (grandmother) in part by working part-time, and whatever energy and little money she has left goes into her cooking. Her mother, Nya, died when Emoni was born and her dad, Julio, decided to leave Emoni in the care of his mother in Philly and return to Puerto Rico where he seems way more concerned about strangers than his own daughter. 'Buela and Emoni's best friend Angelica are the two pillars in her life, the only two people she can always count on. Now she's a senior in high school, on the cusp of adulthood, and unsure about her future path. Even with her gifts as a cook, she doesn't know if she should sign up for the culinary arts class that is a new senior elective, whether she should allow herself to hope that she can become a chef someday, or even whether she should bother to think about going to college. And then there's this new kid at school named Malachi, who's started thinking he's her friend in spite of her reminding him every chance she gets that she isn't.

This is a classic coming of age story. Emoni's naivete at fourteen doesn't ruin her chances to build her future. Even though she's a young parent, with the support of her grandmother, a good friend, and caring instructors, she manages to build her future in spite of the many challenges she faces. But it's also Emoni's pragmatic, forthright attitude that helps assure her success, an aspect I really loved in this book. Emoni learns to set boundaries, and recognize her own limits, and she knows when to ask for help or comfort. Her motto, "always forward," drawn from the Spanish expression "siempre pa'lante" keeps her from being trapped by her challenges.

This is a book that should be on high school summer reading lists. Its quiet takes on racism and sexism are reminders of all the ways we need to do better as human beings.

NB: It's a funny thing that my May Classic Read for the blog was Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate because Emoni's gifts in the kitchen and the love infused in her food reminded me of Esquivel's Tita. (Though it's important to point out that Emoni is Puerto Rican) In fact it had me wondering if Angelica's girlfriend Laura was a hat tip to Esquivel. The recipes included in the novel made me hungry!

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from Harper Teen in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life

Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life by Mallory Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Right in the middle of my move across the country, I was contacted by a friend of Mallory Smith, asking me to read Mallory's memoir for review. I downloaded the Kindle and audiobook version and promptly, in keeping with this entire move, lost the friend's email for a time. I very much wanted to read Mallory's story because I, too, had a friend who had cystic fibrosis, like Mallory.

Cystic Fibrosis, which is a progressive genetic disease, is cruel in that it worsens as a person enters what should be the prime of their lives. It is a disease that is a great challenge to live with and that is in part what made Mallory, who loved sports and the beaches, so unusual. For so many years, until the cusp of adulthood and her admission to Stanford, Mallory was undaunted by her CF. She wanted to simply live a happy life. Her observations of living with her illness can in some ways be generalized to the day to day struggles of anyone living with a serious, life-threatening disease. From understanding what it's like to be a young person who is continually having to readjust their expectations from life, to advice about what not to say to someone who is seriously ill, Salt in My Soul offers readers a chance to walk in Mallory's shoes.

This is a poignant story about battling Cystic Fibrosis and closes with some promising developments in treatment for one of the serious types of bacterial infections (Burkholderia cepacia) that can cause rapid clinical deterioration due to antibiotic resistance. My understanding from Mallory's friend is that all proceeds from this book will be donated to CF research.

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Review: Cinderella Liberator

Cinderella Liberator Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-known feminist author Rebecca Solnit (Men Explain Things to Me) has given us a fairy tale retelling of Cinderella for modern times. Less judge-y about Cinderella's stepsisters, giving mice and rats and lizards a choice in the matter of transformation, and realizing the poor idea of marrying a prince you barely know (look what happens in Into the Woods for instance?), this is unquestionably an all new take on Cinderella. Some little girls may be disappointed that Ella doesn't want to be a princess, but other little girls are going to be thrilled that she becomes a small business owner (a bakery) and can ride her beautiful horses any time she wants. And her sailor mother comes home, to boot!

While I enjoyed this retelling, I'm not sure I felt the Rackham illustrations (though I love them) feel harmonious with this modern heroine. Solnit's writing is beautiful, though, and who wouldn't want a dress that looks like a starry night?

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Candle and the Flame tells the story of Fatima Ghazala, a human/ifrit young woman. The book opens with child Fatima being rescued by a dying ifrit woman, Ghazala, who transfers her fire (effectively her soul or consciousness) to Fatima to save her. Fatima is taken in by an adoptive family but her adoptive parents die in a later battle with chaotic djinn, and her adoptive older sister Sunaina becomes responsible for her. Fatima's relationship with Sunaina is not without its rough spots, although the sisters truly love one another. Through her work as a messenger, Fatima meets Firdaus, an elderly ifrit bookseller who is titled the Name Giver. Firdaus is/was Ghazala's father and recognizes his deceased daughter's fire in Fatima and takes her under his wing, providing lessons in history, literature, and language. But nothing is as simple as it seems and when Firdaus is murdered with a book that Fatima delivers to him, his death portends hard times ahead, including explanations to the ifrit Emir of Noor, who was friendly with Firdaus.

One of the riches of this book is the number of positive female friendships between Fatima and the three Alif sisters (hat tip to Alif the Unseen, Nafiza? ) Adila, Azizah, and Amirah, who are Fatima's friends and neighbors. Similarly, Fatima's relationship with her adoptive sister Sunaina, and adoptive grandmother Laali are well drawn and sometimes quite poignant.

While the scaffolding of this novel is Fatima Ghazala's story, the city in which she resides, Noor, is also at the heart of this story. Noor is a diverse city where humans, ifrit, and other djinn create a place of safety. We see Muslims, Hindus, and Han Chinese (several possible faiths) living cooperatively, in a sometimes delicate dance of co-existence. Though Muslim, Fatima and her friends joyously celebrate Deepavali (Diwali) with the Hindu community. The differing boundaries of faith seem to be respected rather than merely tolerated. The community is not idyllic, however, and frictions exist between the races. As a biracial character, we see the occasional discomfort Fatima Ghazala engenders in others, and how she must struggle to find her place, her purpose, and answers about her complex nature.

According to my paper ARC edition of this book, Scholastic intended this to be a Middle-Grade novel. I feel pretty firmly that it is not, however. The cultural vocabulary even with the glossary at the end of the book might be too much of a challenge for the average 7th to 8th grader. Additionally, the book doesn't have action throughout, one of the somewhat lamentable hallmarks of current Middle-Grade fantasy. I do feel that it is well suited to 9th-grade students and above since its exploration of cultural diversity and co-existence are vital messages to offer young people in the present day.

I've followed Nafiza Azad's Twitter and reviews on Goodreads for a while and it's been a delight to enjoy her debut novel.

I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Thoughts on "A Game of Thrones" Versus the First Five Books in "A Song of Ice and Fire"

For quite some time now, I have been so angry at Dan Weiss and David Benioff's "interpretation" of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire that I have often refused to watch episodes or in one case a significant fraction of a season. I would read recaps in the NY Times and shake my head. You see, I've read the first five books in A Song of Ice and Fire. I found them so well-written, with such amazing character development and world-building that I had to read non-fiction for six months after I finished A Dance with Dragons because just about everything fictional seemed pale, wan, poorly fleshed out, in comparison. After the fiasco that aired last night, there are several things I'd like to share, regarding my problems with the show. They center primarily on the writing of the show's female characters and destroying the most incredible redemption arc I've read in fiction. I hope the discussion will pique the interest of those of you who haven't read the books to pick them up, even with the oft-discussed risk that GRRM may never finish the final two books in the series. I still want you to read those first five books and then contemplate Dan and Dave and the whole Hollywood machine that seems, for the most part, to find the idea of strong women unpalatable.

Let's begin with the whole Daenerys and Khal Drogo business. I was already shocked that the TV show changed the wedding night dynamic between these two. Khal Drogo is a grown man. Dany is a fourteen-year-old bride. It's a bad scenario, but Dan and Dave had to make it even worse because the audience isn't smart enough to get that she's a child bride. Drogo speaks neither Valyrian or much of the Common Tongue, but he knows the difference between "yes" and "no." He may not be suave, but when he takes Dany away from the khalazar for their wedding night, he doesn't want a crying bride. She is afraid of him, and he tells her "no." He then proceeds to affectionately stroke her, asking her "no?" as a question as he becomes more sexual. He wants her to be willing and in the books, be it because Daenerys realizes she has to make this guy happy, or Viserys is going to be horrible to her, or whether she starts to find him genuinely attractive, Dany says "yes." SHE SAYS YES. Instead, Dan and Dave want to give us a sobbing TV bride who is pretty much raped on her wedding night. Bad start? Oh, they were just getting going.

The showrunners problems with consent steadily grow more disturbing. For instance, in the books, after Joffrey's death a mourning Cersei and Jaime engage in life-affirming naughty place consensual sex in a church (the Great Sept) near their dead son's body. There's no need to have Jaime rape Cersei as was done on the TV show. They were already "being bad," and there is no need to strip Cersei of her agency in consenting to "be bad." But Dan and Dave felt it was just better to have her say "No, no, no, no" as Jaime raped her. The show wronged Cersei's character there. (And they wronged Jaime Lannister's character as well, which I'll discuss later.) Why? She's already grieving the loss of her child (who was legitimately a monster, but hey, Cersei really loves her children, you have to give her that...) So why add rape on top of it?

And then there is the whole rape-y subplot with Sansa. Show watchers who have never read the books are often amazed to find out that Sansa was never "married" to Ramsay Bolton. Sure she knows who the whacko is but Sansa is safe in the Eyrie (the Arryn stronghold where Petyr Baelish took her to her cray cray maternal aunt, Lysa Arryn, for safe-keeping and subsequent possible entrapment into a marriage to him though she's hiding under the name Alayne Stone, as his "natural" daughter. Yeah, that's right, Sansa is safe in an impregnable stronghold, surrounded by bannerman loyal to the Starks. Who's married to Ramsey the Flayer, then? Sansa and Arya had a childhood companion by the name of Jeyne Poole, who was Sansa's best friend. After the Starks fell from favor and the various events of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, the Lannisters force poor Jeyne Poole to marry Ramsay Bolton but they pass her off as Arya Stark (since they think the only remaining Starks are Sansa, married to Tyrion but up in the Eyrie, and that pesky Jon Snow, a no good bastard who gave up his rights to everything and now lives up on the Wall) in order to give the Boltons the right to Winterfell. While there was an uncredited extra who played Jeyne Poole in the first season of the TV show AGOT, evidently Dan and Dave thought it would be too hard for the watchers of the show to hew to this idea of Real Arya and Fake Arya.* So they had brutal Ramsay marry Sansa instead, even though she was married (legally married) to Tyrion Lannister. (BTW, make no mistake, this character of Ramsay is vile and brutal in the books, too.). This changes two things in the overall story. First, Theon rescues Jeyne, in spite of his great fear of Ramsay after horrible disfigurement and torture at Ramsay's hands, even though he has nothing to gain from this rescue. He's known Jeyne since childhood, and if he's escaping Ramsay, he's taking her with him. He is not rescuing a Lady of Winterfell. He's rescuing a dead minor lord's brutalized daughter, at considerable personal risk, and risk he knows full well. He doesn't care, because it's the right thing to do and Theon is finally in a place where he wants to do right. (I can still be angry over using poor Jeyne Poole's horrible abuse as a plot device to show how much Theon has changed, though.) All of this becomes even more of a problem when we have TV Sansa later explaining to Theon How rape and domestic violence made her who she is today! Stronger! Wiser! Cautious! Scheming! It was the rape and brutality that made me everything I am now- Lady of Winterfell! This is an immensely offensive piece of writing. Meanwhile, what's book Sansa up to? Well, actually, it's looking a lot like she might make her little brat of a cousin, the Sweet Robin, fly right through that infamous Moon Door and take the Eyrie for herself. Sansa may still be a teenager, but she's grown a pragmatic brain and a very healthy survival instinct. Book readers have been anticipating that the Sweet Robin (vile and annoying child, though he is) is likely a goner in Book 6, The Winds of Winter, either by Sansa's hands or Petyr's.

So I mentioned character redemption arcs and have shown how the showrunners diminished the evolution of Theon Greyjoy's character. But that is nothing in comparison to what they did to Jaime Lannister's character's redemption. When we first meet Jaime he is defined by two things- he's a Kingslayer (having killed Aerys Targaryen, who he was sworn to protect) and he pushes little Bran Stark out a window, to his likely death, to prevent anyone from knowing that he and Cersei have an incestuous relationship. It's really hard to conceive of Jaime not being a flat, one-dimensional villain at first because of these two things. And yet, over the course of five books, GRRM shows us a Jaime Lannister we could never have predicted. A man who saw that his king was going to blow up an entire city rather than lose a battle and who saved tens of thousands by killing that king before he could give the orders to blow up King's Landing with wildfire. Then we learn that the only woman that Jaime has ever been with sexually is Cersei (who both due to her marriage and her predilections for young relatives and courtiers cannot quite claim the same degree of fidelity) and that Tywin Lannister is a cold, demanding father who has always belittled Jaime in a million different ways. We learn that the closest bond Jaime has, other than the illicit one with Cersei, is with his brother, Tyrion, who he appears to love genuinely. (Especially poignant, since he can't show open affection for his children with Cersei...) And we see his great admiration for Brienne of Tarth and his rescuing her several times from potential rape and from being mauled to death by a bear. Jaime Lannister is a powerful man who was raised to do anything to keep his family safe. His morality is deeply flawed when it comes to family. But his eyes are opened wider and wider over five long books. Dan and Dave's decision to have him compound his incestuous relationship with Cersei with raping her ultimately destroys the redemption arc that GRRM built over those five books. Readers of his "Not a Blog" may remember GRRM's comment about that choice and that he was not happy with it. Well if that made him unhappy, I wonder what he thinks about what Dan and Dave have done to Daenerys Targaryen?

Over the course of five books, GRRM gave us a Daenerys who grew in wisdom and boldness, who appeared to be the famous gender-neutral-in-Valyrian "prince who was promised," along with, possibly, that "knows nothing yet" nephew of hers, Jon Snow.† The whole "white savior" thing that has been so in our face in the TV show has been downplayed in the books. (You don't want to get me started about sacrificing the sole female character of color, Missandei, as little more than a plot device to drive Daenerys mad like her father.)  No, Book Dany is wiser than TV Dany. In fact, there's been a lot of comparison to the artful, good-hearted Rhaegar, her elder brother, rather than her despotic father Aerys or her crass and cruel brother Viserys. But for seven seasons, they made sure there was always a man around to keep TV Dany from being too crazy cruel like her papí. Lately though, in season 8 of the TV show, it seems like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Varys the Whisperer just haven't been able to rein in the crazy. Yep, Dany just snapped and in the worst kind of way. If she can't take the Iron Throne the way she wanted she will burn it all down. It's a good thing there are still plenty of Menz around to fix this Dany problem, no doubt by just killing her. Prophecies be damned. Let's just all agree that women leaders, unless they've been raped into proper shape, aren't a good thing. They go all postal and unless you need one of these crazy women to kill a Night King or something, you should really only support male leadership, just like Varys told Tyrion before he was crisped by Crazy Power Mad Daenerys. It would be impossible for Daenerys to say, broker a deal with Jon/Aegon to divide or just co-rule in Westeros if they can take down Cersei together. It would be impossible to suggest using that awesome cool assassin sister of his to walk in, trick Cersei and off her, thereby saving thousands of civilian lives. Nope. No deal. They've all gotta burn! Because that all makes so much sense. (As does a Whisperer committing treason out in the open. Or Tyrion, Hand to the Queen, suddenly making stupid decisions ALL THE TIME.)

So here's the thing. GRRM has often said that while Tyrion is his favorite character, the real driving forces in A Song of Ice and Fire are the female characters. Whether it's Cersei eagerly serving as Regent for child king Tommen when her husband Robert Baratheon, her son Joffrey, and her controlling father Tywin, are killed off in short succession, or Daenerys taking control of khalazars and the Unsullied, or Sansa making the most of her secure situation in the Eyrie, or Asha Greyjoy trying to take control of the Greyjoy fleet, or Arya training as a Faceless Man, or her aunt, Lyanna Stark, turning the eye of a married Prince Rhaegar after a jousting competition in which she likely competed as the Knight of the Laughing Tree, and later running away with him and having his son, or Brienne of Tarth, a great knight in everything except the name, all these women characters rise above the perceived expectations of their sex and fight for their rights to self-determination. This is apparently something that Dan and Dave missed or couldn't wrap their heads around. It was something to be tarnished, diminished, or otherwise thwarted in great ways and small. The showrunners evidently didn't know how to handle Dany and Cersei because George hadn't written it yet. And so, they just ruined them. With lazy and bad writing, with character-assassinating tropes. And this is why you should read these books. To see what GRRM really intended, what he built toward. I may not be thrilled that GRRM has taken more than 8 years to give us The Winds of Winter. But I can still feel badly for the world and characters he built, which are being burned to the ground by Dan and Dave as surely as if they'd told Drogon "dracarys."

*This was evidently even harder than keeping Osha (a wildling woman who protected Rickon and Bran Stark) and Asha Greyjoy, the most functional member of the Iron Islands sea-faring Greyjoy family, apart in the audience's minds, necessitating changing Asha's name to Yara.

†Honestly, the fact that they're only aunt and nephew and not full siblings is refreshing when it comes to the Targaryens. Rhaegar was a really forward thinking guy by not marrying a sibling. Are Cersei and Jaime Lannister really so different from centuries of Targaryens?

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Review: The Satapur Moonstone

The Satapur Moonstone The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Ah, the sorrows of second book syndrome.

I really loved The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first book in Sujata Massey's Perveen Mistry series. I loved the character of Perveen, the fact that she was Parsi, her personal backstory of how she ended up going to Oxford and reading the law, and her return to Bombay (Mumbai) to work for her father's law firm, even though she can't be a barrister. The novel also had a wonderful plot, involving a mystery that only Perveen, being a woman, could solve/resolve.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Massey had something of a writer's block about where to go from there, since in this novel once again we have Perveen dealing with widowed female clients in purdah (seclusion) and a twisted villain who lives among them. We also have an awkward nascent and impossible romance, a Perveen who is less self-assured, yet who is traveling alone, in spite of the fact that she is socially acting as if unmarried, and staying with a bachelor British (Raj) governing agent in fictional Satapur. We even have occasional language that seems anachronistic. Overall, the books seems to be written less tightly and with less care. While I was gratified with the success of Maharani Mirabai, that outcome didn't overcome my qualms about the other things.

Given my fondness for the first book, I'd definitely be willing to give Perveen #3 a shot. However, having all her clients be widows in purdah will make this promising series stagnate. I hope that Massey moves on to new areas, in spite of the probable challenges facing a 1920's woman solicitor in India (or even in the British Empire, since Ivy Williams became the first woman called to the Bar in 1922.)

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Soho Press along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Spark

Spark Spark by Sarah Beth Durst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a discussion with a friend just the other day about what I love about Sarah Beth Durst's novels. First and foremost is that she doesn't have cookie cutter heroines. They aren't always super talented and the best at what they do, or if even they are, they often keep their talents to themselves, and work quietly from the sidelines. And this middle-grade entry offers just that- Mina is a quiet girl with a strong moral center. She is brave and has courage, without ever being brash or showy about it. Together Mina and Pixit are a force for truth. Spark was a delight to read.

The audiobook, narrated by Eevin Hartsough, is entertaining and well-voiced.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Review: Lost Roses

Lost Roses Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lost Roses is the story of three women, Eliza Ferriday (a real-life person), Sofia Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat and cousin to Czar Nicholas II, and Varinka, a Russian peasant who has made a bargain with the/a devil, in order to keep a roof over her, and her mother's, heads and food on their table. Eliza and Sofia become friends, and after Eliza travels to St. Petersburg, they correspond for years about their lives and families. When the letters stop at the height of WWI and the inception of the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, Eliza fears the worst for her dear friend and goes to great lengths to try to find out if she has escaped. Meanwhile, Varinka, who works for Sofia's family, cares for Sofia's son Max and manages to safeguard him when the unthinkable begins to unfold on the family's estate.

One of the richest themes of this book is the mother-child dynamic. We see Eliza struggle as a widow to maintain her relationship with her angry, mourning daughter Caroline (heroine of the author's first book, Lilac Girls), and we have Sofia's strained relationship with her stepmother and loving relationship with her son, Max, and sister Luba. Varinka's parentified relationship with her mother, who is ill and in the dark about the sacrifices Varinka has made to safeguard her, is poignant. But Varinka also plays mother to Max in a complex way that has the reader questioning whether what she feels is genuinely love or whether he is merely an objectified, idealized child. Her complicated relationship with Taras comes with a potent twist at the end that explains a mystery that made the relationship seemed impossibly contrived, due to its apparent boundaries, earlier in the book.

I also found that the plight of the White Russian emigrées in New York and Connecticut was fascinating and well portrayed. These women were aristocrats, and yet their presence as displaced persons was about as welcome as that which we presently see with Hispanic or Middle Eastern refugees. In modern America, we tend to forget how unwelcome the Irish, Italian and Russian immigrants were in the early 20th Century. Regardless of their social standing and pedigree, our melting pot country has always frequently been unwelcoming to those seeking sanctuary. As Kelly shows us, the threat to White Russians living in Europe was quite real, as the Bolsheviks were willing to go to great lengths to preserve their status quo against any potential Romanov heirs. America, an ocean apart from Russia and Europe, provided a greater measure of safety and a chance to rebuild a life with dignity to those who escaped the Russian Revolution. Sound familiar?

This book that was so much more affecting than I thought it would be. For anyone who has enjoyed historical fiction about the Romanovs, or looking for a quality book club selection, this is an excellent choice. I ruminated on empathizing with but disliking vulnerable peasants, and on the obliviousness of the Russian aristocrats even after they clearly know the history of the French Revolution. ("That could never happen here...") The aristocracy's blind trust of the impenetrability of their position is perfectly captured in the Streshnayva family, even as the cruelty of their fate, a real fate met by many, is unjustifiable.

I read Lost Roses during the slowly moving trainwreck that was my move across the country in April, and because I fell so far behind in reviews, I got a chance to listen to the fabulous audiobook. In fact, the audiobook is so good that I restarted the novel from the beginning, to hear the vibrant performances of the full book.

I will be reviewing Lilac Girls, next month, along with some background material for Caroline/Carolyn Ferriday's real-life story. And Martha Hall Kelly reportedly has an even earlier prequel in the works, as we step back further in time to learn more about Eliza's mother.

I received a paper review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Alex, Janelle and Marzie Read Seanan McGuire's Middlegame, Part 1

It's been a while but Alex, Janelle and I have been looking forward to discussing Middlegame for weeks! In that time I've read it twice and enjoyed this book a great deal. Middlegame released on May 7th and is available at an Indie bookstore near you, in audiobook (don't forget to check to support your nearest indie bookstore), or from an online seller. If it's not at your local library yet, please ask your librarian to order it! You might end up getting it on loan first just for asking!

Let's dive into Middlegame.... But remember, FULL SPOILERS ALERT.

Alex, Janelle and Marzie Read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Marzie: So honestly, I’m not even sure where to start talking about this book.

Alex: Well, like the book, let’s start with the end. Holy carp I loved this book and the ending was sooooooooo satisfying.

Janelle: I was surprised at how positive the ending was. I had no idea how it would all come together, and I don’t expect “happy” endings from her.

Marzie: It was definitely a positive ending, especially considering how the ending started and iteratively seemed to always end up with bloodshed. It was surprising and after seeing so many endings from Seanan that are dark, and remain dark. Actually, it was quite stunning to me. This was a happy ending!

Alex: This was a very bloody book! It felt like Seanan’s two sides (Seanan and Mira) struck a perfect balance. There were some very Mira themes and twists, but some other parts of the book struck me as very, VERY Seanan and had a very Wayward flavor.

Janelle: I was just about to say that I felt like this book took the whimsy and poetry from Seanan, and the dark science fiction from Mira! It almost seemed like Mira and Seanan are alchemical twins, and this book wedded them together.

Marzie: That is such a perfect description of it, Janelle. This novel is a perfect amalgam of Seanan and Mira.

Alex: There was definitely some of the poetry/story within a story structure that Seanan likes to employ in her horror novels at play here. And I loved it.

Marzie: I was very struck by the actual language in this book. I felt like it was the most sophisticated thing I’ve read of hers in that respect. I feel this is literary fantasy/sci-fi.

Janelle: Agreed about the language. But I felt like we couldn’t have expected less from that, considering the subject and characters.

Alex: I think Seanan would also agree with you. She herself has described it as though she has leveled up in her craft. She couldn’t write this book before now because she wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off technically. And I agree with that. If she had tried to write this when she was way back in Rosemary and Rue times, I don’t think she’d have done it.

Marzie: I think her reference to craft also deals with the sophistication of the time slip usage, which was very novel. This isn’t the usual form time slip takes. Although, I did feel that the alchemical issues were not fleshed out as much as I might have expected. But maybe it would have been too… dense if she had really developed it more. It’s a long book as it is. Though it is just as long as it needs to be to tell this story right.

Janelle: The time slip stuff was where the book fell a little short for me, actually. I guess I expected more concrete answers than what we got. I had to set aside some questions that I had and just enjoy the book for all the rest of its outstanding attributes.

Alex: Yeah, I have a hard time with books with time-travel or time slips in them, in general. There’s usually too much “handwavium” for me to be satisfied.

Marzie: Even the alchemy is hand waving here. We never get much information about how things are accomplished. How did they make these people, how does the unified twin power work.

Janelle: Which… I don’t mind a little hand-waving. It didn’t break the book for me, or anything. And there was so much that I loved.

Alex: Yes, true. But I kind of think that’s the magic at play here. I don’t need to know how it all works for the story to work for me.

Marzie: For me, the jewels of the book are Roger and Dodger, their relationship, and Erin.

Alex: Roger and Dodger’s relationship was so well written. I love them so much!

Janelle: Roger and Dodger were wonderful. Erin was the dark side of it, but I never lost empathy for her.

Marzie: I really loved Erin so much. She was so dark but so compelling. Even when she did horrible things, I never forgot what she lost, what had been taken from her.

Alex: She was just so *done* with all of it by the end. I felt for her so often, missing Darren. It broke my heart.

Marzie: The callousness of James Reed and of Leigh was just stunning to me. And I felt like the whole bunch of alchemists was like a representation of the very worst that organized religion has to offer.

Janelle: James Reed was chilling. You know, I hadn’t even thought of the organized religion representation, but now it is so apparent.

Alex: Yeah, Marzie that is a good point that didn’t dawn on me until you pointed that out in your review. James didn’t bother me so much as Leigh did. Nothing mattered to James other than his goals. Leigh reveled in the pain. She really struck me in my core.

Marzie: I felt like the alchemical college is the equivalent of Pullman’s Magisterium, where no price is too high, everyone is expendable in order to gain power over people, the world, etc.

Janelle: See, Leigh reveled in pain and was pretty much a sadist. But I’ve always found the calculating, for-the-greater-good type evil far more horrifying. I think because of the real-world angle in that… I think charismatic people who just want to carry through with their goals can do a lot wider-spread damage than sadists. I don’t know if that makes sense. But you see him gathering people to his cause, and there are real world parallels. I mean, I loathe both of them, but James a little more than Leigh.

Alex: They’re definitely both awful and horrible and the worst, but I’m the opposite. I am more disturbed by those who prefer to be cruel than by those who simply don’t care. Sadists scare me more than sociopaths.

Marzie: I’m not sure I like either one over the other. They were each horrible in their own way. I don’t want either type to influence our world.

Alex: I am equally grossed out by hands of glory. They are CREEPY.

Janelle: Hands of glory! I keep seeing references to them now and just shuddering! Like, I knew what they are because of folklore, but seeing it in a plot from such an evocative writer as Seanan was gross and terrifying and wonderful.

Marzie: The hands of glory was SUCH a Mira Grant device to use. OMG they are creepy! When we first see one, I looked at the cover and just about dropped my ARC going CRAP, how could I have forgotten about those! (I think I remember them being used in a Stacia Kane novel and tried to bury the memory of them!? And isn’t there one in Harry Potter, in Borgin and Bourke’s? Yuck!)

Alex: I knew instantly when I saw the cover that it was a hand of glory, and that was a signal to me that the book would have alchemy in it, but UGH! The one made of rendered baby fat??? *shudders*

Janelle: Honestly, I had no clue it was a hand of glory from the cover. LOL

Marzie: The child one was really the limit, yeah. Janelle, you were lucky, weren’t you? I’m sure you’d have forged ahead and all but going into it blind was probably better than dread. LOL

Janelle: Lucky? I just got to be surprised is all. LOL

Alex: Seanan/Mira certainly does toe the line between horror I can read, and horror that haunts me and I can’t finish. She’s an expert at that line.

Marzie: You know the thing that really stuck me in this book was that a lot of times I feel Seanan’s Mira Grant books have horror that is quite clinical (which I, too, tolerate better, by the way) but there was something so visceral about what James and Leigh want to do, how they do it, and how they force their creations to do such horrors. I felt much more emotional in reading this book than I have in any Mira book since Feed.

Alex: I think that’s the thing about this book, it’s about two sides of a coin, marrying two opposites all the way through. Roger and Dodger, Mira and Seanan, Alchemy and Science, Horror and Science Fiction, clinical horror and visceral imagery.

Janelle: I agree about the thematic weddings. What an eloquent way to put it, Alex!

Marzie: That’s so true, Alex.

Janelle: It was the clinical horror wed to visceral imagery that is still lingering with me.

Marzie: Oh, totally. I started rereading it all over again because I just couldn’t let go of the characters and their circumstances.

Alex: Oh yes. It’s been weeks since I read it and it’s still knocking around in my brain and I keep hoping I’ll find time to reread it in the near future. I feel like there’s a lot more to pick up on a second time.

Janelle: So where are we in hoping there is a sequel? I thought I heard she wanted to do a companion novel?

Marzie: I want to listen to the audiobook, too. And I think there must be a sequel and a prequel. It’s Middlegame, after all

Alex: YES! She wants to write at least two more. And I want to read them very badly.

Janelle: I just want to see what else is going on. I want more.

Marzie: I hope she writes Asphodel’s story and then tell us what Roger and Dodger have made of their world even if we don’t see them as central figures in a sequel.

Alex: I have a hard time seeing where she’d go after this one, she did such a good job of tying it up in a bow, but if she writes it, I will read it. This is a fun universe.

Janelle: It has a lot of potential. If we don’t see Roger and Dodger, I’d be okay with that.

Marzie: I can see working forward, but also backward from here. I’m so curious about Asphodel.

The discussion continues over on Alex's blog, here. Go read the rest, or I'll come after you with Erin.

© Marzie's Reads 2017-2019, All Rights Reserved.

Review: Aru Shah and the Song of Death

Aru Shah and the Song of Death Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most enjoyable middle grade fantasy books I read in 2018 was Aru Shah and the End of Time, first in a new series about the Pandavas. You can find my review of the first book here.

The further adventures of Arundhati Shah and her soul sister, and fellow Pandava reincarnate, Yasmini find the girls chasing after a mythical bow and arrows that have been stolen from Kamadeva. And they're doing it with the help of Brynne, their maddening new Pandava soul sister daughter of Lord Vayu, who apparently is better trained and better skilled. (Why does she seem to be driven to be so perfect all the time, wonders Aru!?) If the girls don't recover the bow and arrows within ten days, they will be stripped of their powers and banished from the Otherworld. On top of that, their guardian Boo is being held hostage against their delivering the stolen goods. And on top of that, Boo sends Aiden Acharya with them. That's right, a BOY. Not only that but a boy who Aru has embarrassed herself in front of at school, and who appears to be BFF with the formidably annoying Brynne. Could things get any worse? Aru is sure today, and possibly this whole entire week, should be canceled. But of course, you know it's going to get worse than all this because this is Aru we're talking about and that girl can find trouble like she's a magnet. What's a girl with a lightning bolt vajra to do?!

Roshani Chokshi continues to be at the top of middle grade fantasy game in this series, which is full of humor, adventure, friendship,and wisdom (I just love Aru's mom so hard!). There's never a dull moment and the quality of the writing is excellent. I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

I received a paper review copy from Disney Hyperion in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond: The Serpent's Secret and Game of Stars

The Serpent's Secret The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first new middle grade books employing Indian mythology as the basis for a fantasy story, Sayantani DasGupta gives us a princess of legend, Kiranmala,* who was living a quiet life with parents she didn't realize were her adoptive parents, in Parsippany, New Jersey. But one day her parents vanish and a rakkhosh shows up in her kitchen, planning to eat her. In burst two princes, Lal and Neel, purportedly to rescue her, only they don't seem to be particularly good at rescuing people. Kiranmala gets drawn into a secret world and is rather shocked to find out her biological father dad is, um, a scaly terror. And he's not good with children, either. How is she going to get her real parents (you know, the ones that raised her?) back and just go home?

Full of adventure and humor, Kiranmala's first story evolves at a breathless pace. She's an inspiring character for girls because of her moxie.

Game of StarsGame of Stars by Sayantani DasGupta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's great when you find out that you're an Indian Princess and that your mother is the Moon. It's horrible when you find out your father is Sesha the Serpent King, that he's got a horrible way of dealing with his children, and that he definitely bears you no affection. But you know what's worse? When you destroy him and his kingdom only to find he bounces right back and ends up right there on the evening program on the Kingdom Beyond's TV show. But you know what's worst of all? When you get sucked into a rigged competition called the "Who Wants to be a Demon Slayer?," trying to rescue one imprisoned prince friend, while you wonder if your other prince friend, his half-brother, is trying to get him killed. Don't get me wrong, Kiranmala is up for the job (in spite of countless Mini-Me-s trying to emulate her). She's filled out her Hopeful Contestant Form, and even though her parents don't want her to go and she's 100% sure it's all a trap, she's headed back to the Kingdom Beyond to rescue Prince Neel. But...hey now... is that really Prince Lal?

I found much to love about this second book in the series, including its social commentary on the reality TV world and its hat tip to the real life Gulabi Gang. I really can't wait to see what Kiranmala does next.

I received Advance Reader Copies/Uncorrected Proofs of both books in exchange for an honest review.

*Kiranmala's story was also developed as a very popular children's TV show (21 seasons!) in Bengali on Star Jalsha channel. You can find episodes with English subtitles on line. It's pure Bollywood fun!

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review: Middlegame

Middlegame Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars bumped because, while all of it didn't work for me, the parts that did work were truly wonderful.

Alchemy- a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.

Imagine you're an only child, with an imaginary friend. You find out your imaginary friend, whose voice you hear in your head, is a real person. You find out they live on the other side of the country. You also find out you both have the same birthday and year, and when you finally meet, the same eyes and features. Imagine you're a twin. And when you finally come together, you make something entirely new and different. And dangerous.

Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich are twins. They aren't twin humans, though; they're twin alchemical constructs. They are called cuckoos (a la Wyndham's brood parasite Midwich Cuckoos) because human parents have adopted and raised them, though at least one set of those parents doesn't know that the cuckoos aren't human. But that's okay because Roger and Dodger don't know what they are and what they can do yet, either.

An unusual aspect of this book is that we don't even meet Roger and Dodger (the central characters!) until more than fifty pages into the story, and we don't see what they can do until more than halfway through the book. Although, maybe that last part is a good thing. What they can do may not be beneficial for the world. Roger and Dodger are written with exquisite care, and for me, the best part of this book is their maturation as individuals, their sibling relationship and their character arcs. Roger and Dodger aren't "regular people" in the biologically-born sense but they are real and feeling people who are counted, like their brethren, as disposable by their creator. (There's a whole powerful subtext here that runs throughout the book in which alchemy could be equated to religion and religions may be too quick to discard those who are "imperfect.") Erin, a character who surprised me in that I grew to like her in spite of her viciously thorough side, gives us a poignant sense of what it's like when one alchemical twin is lost. In addition to giving us a story of two people finding "their other half" and figuring out who they are, the novel gives us the story of what happens when you meet your maker and your maker is a terrible person.

Looking at what didn't work as well for me, the alchemy itself was rather sketchy (seemingly not based on gnostic alchemical-doctrine?), as was the application of quantum entanglement on a macroscopic scale. The non-specific fourth-dimensional math, and the timeslip elements of the story, were never really explained in a grounded way for the reader. Still, the story kept me engaged. I found it read like a perfect amalgam of Seanan McGuire (fantasy) and Mira Grant (horror, since there's a reason there's a hand of glory on the cover, folks) writing styles.

Middlegame, middlegame... This is a book where I have contemplated the definitions of central themes (alchemy, cuckoos, manifestation, entanglement) including that title, which means the phase of a chess game, after the opening, when all or most of the pieces and pawns remain on the board. It leaves me wondering if there is space for a prequel. And a sequel. I'd be happy to see more of these characters.

Favorite quote:

"Stick and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me? Words almost never end that way. Words can be whispered bullets, quick when no one is looking, and words don't leave blood or bruises behind. Words disappear without a trace. That's what makes them so powerful. That's what makes them so important."

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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Back to Blogging!

As many readers will have noticed, it's been a while! I moved from Florida to New Hampshire at the end of March and my life has been a maelstrom that included moving chaos, computers dying, and just plain exhaustion! For a while there, this was me:

But I kept reading! It was just too crazy to write for a while and plus writing reviews on a tablet is just not my thing. But I'll be starting to post reviews of what I was reading while I was on hiatus over the next week or so. I read some great stuff in April and hope to share it while I resume my ARC giveaways, as well!

© Marzie's Reads 2017-2019, All Rights Reserved.

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