ARC review: Disenchanted by Susan Carroll

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In this retelling of Cinderella, Prunella (“Ella”) Upton is a smart-mouthed seventeen-year-old supporting her loving stepmother and her two kind but rather clueless stepsisters.  Though they have little money, Ella takes care of her family as best she can.  When the king announces a ball to introduce all the ladies of the land to the charming Prince Florian, Ella is sure that it’s just another of his many disguised taxes, but her stepmother and stepsisters are so intent on attending that Ella does everything in her power to make it possible.

On the fringes of the story, we have Ella’s courtship with Commander Crushington, a mysteriously disappearing ex-lover, and her loveable best friend Mal.  There are also mentions of several mysteries throughout.

Alright. So I’m a pretty big fan of retellings. There’s just something about taking a classic story and putting a twist on it.  That said, the only reason I even picked up this book was an email from Netgalley suggesting that I might enjoy it based on other recent requests.  That in itself was a little weird because this book is so far removed from what I usually request on Netgalley, but nevertheless, I read it.

From the beginning, I was a little confused about where exactly this story is supposed to take place.  There are constant mentions of “Midtown,” which leads me to believe that we’re in New York City, but I’m not sure if I’d make that association if I didn’t live a mere 45-minute train ride away.  I kept getting thrown off by the setting, which made it really difficult for me to immerse myself in this story.

I really struggled through the first third or so of this book.  Like, to the point that I had to bribe myself with other books to make it through.  I think a lot of my dislike had to do with the writing style.  It’s both weirdly formal and filled with grammatical errors.  (This might be corrected in the final copy.)  It felt old-fashioned, which fit with the time period, but also not quite right, which was a little off-putting.

Anyway, it got better as I went along and really picked up steam about halfway through.  It’s unfortunate that it took that long for me to really get interested, but at least it improved. I ended up really liking most of the characters, but the one that stands out the most for me was Mal.  (I always like the friend in these kinds of stories.)  Even though this is a retelling and it was obvious that Ella wouldn’t end up with Mal (the blurb claims there is a love triangle, but Ella has no romantic interest in him), I was still rooting for them.  What can I say, friends-to-lovers is my favorite trope.

There were certain twists on this retelling that were really interesting, most notably the change in the relationship between Ella and her stepmother and stepsisters.  In the classic story of Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters are absolutely evil.  In this retelling, they all love each other and Ella does her best to care for them after the death of her father.  I’m all for positive female relationships and not pitting women against each other unnecessarily, so this was a really cool change.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers in my review, so I guess I’ll just mention that there are a few very interesting plot twists in this book that I really appreciated.  Carroll clearly has a great talent for developing a plot, but one almost unforgivable thing that happens in this book is the lack of resolution.  There are so many interesting mysteries in this book, and so few of them are actually resolved.  I was left with no less than ten burning questions as the book wrapped up.  Is there going to be another book, or am I just supposed to wonder about Crushington’s past and Ella’s father and that weird library book forever?

This book has a really high average rating, which means that it’s clearly been enjoyed by a lot of people.  I am notoriously picky about continuity and cliffhangers, so it’s possible that I’m being a little too harsh in my criticisms.  The book did end up much better than I had expected when I started, but I can’t say that I really loved it.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and Loveswept for the ARC!

Book review: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

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Over the course of my life, I’ve read this book countless times.  First in elementary school, and then in middle school, and now, as a twenty-six-year-old woman, the book never fails to impress me.  Originally I had rated this book four stars, but given the fact that still, all these years later, I could not bring myself to put it down, I raised my rating to a full five stars.

Margaret is eleven years old, and she’s just moved from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey.  Raised by parents who think Margaret should decide for herself what religion she wants to follow, she struggles to fit in with kids who either belong to the Y or the Jewish Community Center.  In the midst of her religious struggle, Margaret also struggles with puberty.  Why hasn’t she started her period yet?  Why isn’t her chest growing?  Why can’t she be like Laura Dacker, who is fully developed and has surely started her period?

I think every young girl should read this book.  You’d be hard-pressed to find an eleven-year-old girl who hasn’t worried about how she’s developing in comparison with her peers.  Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has been challenged in schools and libraries across the country since its publication in 1970, but in my opinion, it deals with Margaret’s concerns in an age-appropriate way.  Growing up, I never thought any part of it was lewd or offensive, and I feel the same now as an adult.

Do Margaret and her friends sneak a copy of her father’s Playboy to examine the centerfold?  Yes, and that’s a normal thing that happens.  (I remember sitting at the lunch table in sixth grade and discussing a friend’s older brother’s obsession with the magazine.)  Does Margaret stuff her bra to feel better about herself?  Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Are Margaret’s male classmates all jerks?  Yes, and nearly every eleven-year-old boy I’ve ever met is, too.  (A note to all eleven-year-olds out there: Most boys will get nicer as they get older.)

One of the topics that didn’t hit me as much as a young girl was Margaret’s struggle with religion. When I first read this book, I could not relate.  I was Catholic, born and raised, all sacraments complete.  The first time I read this book, I attended church at least twice each week – once with my mother on Sunday, and every Tuesday with my grade school class.  (Sometimes, when my grandmother was watching me, we also “attended” a televised mass, and other times, we would walk the seven blocks to her church and attend a third or fourth “real mass.”)  Not only was I the picture-perfect Catholic child, but in my area of northern Wisconsin, literally everyone was.  There was no discussion of what religion you were.  You were Catholic.  My town didn’t have any temples or mosques or synagogues, and I didn’t meet anybody who wasn’t Catholic until I was in high school. Even then, Catholicism was still the majority.  Now, living in a much more diverse area of New Jersey and not having attended mass in about six years (except for weddings, funerals, and christenings), I can relate to Margaret’s struggle to define what she believes.

This book is a classic.  My copy is from 1991 and still contains references to the dreaded “belt” (I remember being very concerned about what kind of belt I was supposed to be wearing, and wondering why I’d never heard of this contraption before), but aside from that, the boy-girl parties, the school dances, and Margaret’s questions are timeless.  (And, anyway, I have read that the newer editions have been updated to include adhesive pads instead.)

I would be happy to share this book with my future children to help them come to terms with exactly what’s happening as they grow older.

Final rating: ★★★★★

Book review: Long by B.B. Hamel

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Studious Avery always errs on the side of caution, a side effect of growing up with super-strict, super-religious parents. But one night she decides to let loose and hook up with her college’s star football player, Gibson Evans. Avery has no illusions about this encounter. She knows she’ll never see Gibson again. But just this once, she’s decided to have some fun.

Then she finds out that she’s pregnant, and her entire life changes.

This is far from my first book by BB Hamel, but it is my first of her “secret baby” romances. Prior to 2016, I didn’t even know that “secret baby” was a romance genre, but I guess it’s a thing, and now I’ve read one.

Honestly, the baby really isn’t even that secret. Avery (rightfully) tells Gibson right away. Some of their friends also know. I mean, it’s pretty realistic for a pregnancy that comes from a random hookup. It’s not like normal people would have t-shirts made emblazed with “PREGNANT WITH THE QUARTERBACK’S BABY.” But anyway.

Gibson transforms from a jerk to a really good guy pretty quickly. Coming from a family with awful, neglectful parents, he wants nothing more than to take care of Avery and their child. Avery was predictably hesitant to trust Gibson with her heart, but I was rooting for them to be happy together.

It’s not like I hated this book, so why the low rating? For one, it just seemed to drag. I have read some of Hamel’s books in one sitting, but this one took me five days! I thought some of the actions and reactions were a little over-the-top. I mean, I know that’s a thing that BB does in all of her books, but it didn’t do it for me here. And finally, I just didn’t connect with this story. I read it and it was fine, but these aren’t characters that I’m going to be thinking about again any time soon.

Note that this book is actually FOUR books. It also contains the full text of Cocked, Stiff, and Hard Bastard, as well as bonus material from Bull and Royal Rock.

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

Book review: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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Some might say that Dolssa de Stigata was blessed.  Others might call her cursed. Dolssa doesn’t just believe in Jesus: she sees his face, hears his voice, and feels his embrace. He is her Beloved, and she can’t help but preach his word in her community. And in Dolssa’s time, that was enough to get you branded a heretic and sentenced to death.

The story begins as Dolssa narrowly escapes execution and begins her life as a runaway. Despite having no street smarts, no knowledge of how to feed herself or take care of herself, Dolssa perseveres.  She evades the friars that search for her.  She manages to find just enough food and shelter to stay alive. A few chapters later, she is found malnourished and injured, hiding from the inquisitors. Her savior is Botille, a young woman who takes Dolssa under her wing and, with the help of her two sisters, nurses Dolssa back to health and provides her a safe place to hide from the Church.

So, to start things off, I should probably mention that although I knew this book was going to have religious undertones, I did not think it was going to be so overtly religious.  Not that I have a problem with that, of course. I mean, I did attend thirteen years of Catholic school. I’m used to religion. I was just a little surprised.

I was also surprised by the heaviness of this book.  It’s advertised as Young Adult. It’s a Printz Honor book. But this is not a book that I can imagine myself having read as a teen. It’s not a book that I can imagine most teens reading. Not only is it long (it’s close to 500 pages), but it’s also dense.  Not only that, but I can’t imagine having been interested in 13th-century religious persecution when I was an actual Young Adult.

This is not a happy book.  If you’re looking for a book about teenage girls who overcome all odds to live happily ever after, please look elsewhere.  This is a story of girls taking care of each other, fighting for their lives, doing whatever they must to avoid execution.  A worthy topic, for sure, but not what I expected given the summary.

So, while this is a very worthwhile book, it took me a very, very long time to get interested in the story. While I thought I was going to be reading about a friendship between “the matchmaker” and “the mystic” and their attempts to evade “an obsessed friar,” I actually read a book about a town of peasants in 13th century France who attempt to hide a known heretic with mysterious healing powers.  I should probably also mention that Dolssa is more of a side character than anything.  There are probably more POVs than necessary in this book, but our protagonist is clearly Botille.

I don’t want it to seem like this is a bad book.  It is just not the book I expected to read.  It is absolutely well-written.  The characters are well-developed.  There are motives for all of the actions. Nothing happens without reason.  But still, it is not what I expected, and I can’t help but feel that my rating would have been different had I gone in with different expectations.

So, I’ve touched on a few things that I didn’t particularly enjoy about this book.  Now I’d like to talk about the things that I did like.

First, I actually learned things while reading this book. My knowledge of the Inquisition is admittedly pretty limited. I do remember learning about it in my college Spanish classes, but that was focused mainly on the key elements: who, what, where, and when. It was also focused primarily on the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions an Inquisition is Monty Python’s famous sketch, which is both hilarious and obviously historically inaccurate.

I cannot even begin to explain how happy I am that I did not live through this era.  Because not only could you be executed for not believing in God, but you could also be executed for believing too much. Because seeing God’s face, hearing his voice, and believing you knew him were signs of the devil, and needed to be burned out of you.  I can’t imagine the fear people must have had as they tried to believe just the right amount.  In our modern society, it’s almost unthinkable.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was its setting. I have read an awful lot of young adult novels over the years, but this is the first one I’ve read that was set in medieval France. It’s certainly the first non-fantasy YA book with a medieval setting. It’s also fairly uncommon for a young adult book to have an overtly religious message, so that was a nice change as well.

And although I didn’t get the protagonist I expected, I did adore Botille.  She was a strong, clever, resourceful young woman and Dolssa would quite literally be dead if not for her help.  Although this book takes place in the 13th century at a time when feminism was most certainly not A Thing, it’s clear that Botille and her sisters challenged the patriarchy at every turn. Not only do they own and run their own business, but they do it without the help of any men. And not only that, but they also support Jobau, their (mostly) useless father figure. In addition to their saloon, Botille earns money as a matchmaker and her little sister Sazia reads fortunes. They have the full support of their town and are considered important members of the community. Whether this is realistic or not, I appreciated that these girls were able to take care of themselves.

To be honest, I think I was just too excited for this book. I had seen so many glowing five star reviews that there was no way the actual book could match up to my expectations. While I might not have loved this book, I’m glad that I read it.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

#mmdreading: a book nominated for an award in 2017

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: AmazonGoodreads
Publication Date: December 29, 2015
Source: Borrowed

Are you stressed out, overbooked, and underwhelmed by life? Fed up with pleasing everyone else before you please yourself? It’s time to stop giving a f*ck.

This brilliant, hilarious, and practical parody of Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up explains how to rid yourself of unwanted obligations, shame, and guilt–and give your f*cks instead to people and things that make you happy.

The easy-to-use, two-step NotSorry Method for mental decluttering will help you unleash the power of not giving a f*ck about:

Family drama
Having a “bikini body”
Co-workers’ opinions, pets, and children
And other bullsh*t! And it will free you to spend your time, energy, and money on the things that really matter. So what are you waiting for? Stop giving a f*ck and start living your best life today!

I was a born fuck-giver.  Maybe you are too.  As a self-described overachieving perfectionist, I gave my fucks liberally all throughout my childhood and adolescence. I tackled numerous projects, tasks, and standardized tests in order to prove myself worthy of respect and admiration from my family, friends, and even casual acquaintances. I socialized with people I did not like in order to appear benevolent; I performed jobs that were beneath me in order to appear helpful; I ate things that disgusted me in order to appear gracious.  In short, I gave way too many fucks for far, far too long. This was no way to live.

Alright, so when a book starts like this, it’s kind of obvious that I’m going to love it.  But in all honesty, this book was pretty eye-opening for me.  You see, I too care far too much about what people think of me.  I make my job more stressful than it needs to be by agreeing to help my boss with things that absolutely are not my responsibility.  I make my home life more stressful by operating on the principle that “if nobody else does it, well, I guess it’s my job now.”  I make my anxiety have anxiety by worrying about what literally everybody will think of literally everything I do.

Not giving a fuck – crucially – means releasing yourself from the worry, anxiety, fear, and guilt associated with saying no, allowing you to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do.

Have you ever thought about exactly how much time and effort you expend in doing things you really couldn’t care less about?  And not to mention the money involved!  How many trips have you taken because you couldn’t bring yourself to say no?  How many extra tasks have you taken on at work because you wanted to improve your reputation?  How many disgusting meals have you choked down for fear of offending the cook?

For me, the answer is a lot, a lot, and a lot.

Sarah Knight gets it.  She worked for years in corporate America, sucking up to the higher-ups, following stupid rules, and doing pointless paperwork.  Then one day, she decided that enough is enough and quit her job to be a freelancer.  No longer having to worry about dragging herself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, only to chase down a train (twisting her ankle in the process) just so that she could walk into an unappreciative job on time was life-changing.

And so she wrote this book, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.  And sure, the title and premise are obviously a parody of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but, having read both, I have to say that this book is about 12,000 times more interesting and 12,000 times more useful.  (And also infinitely funnier.)

Obviously, given the title, I wouldn’t suggest picking this book up if you’re sensitive to profanity.  I mean, the word “fuck” appears, in various incarnations, over 500 times in this book.  It appears so many times that my Kindle’s search function can’t even tell me how many.  But it’s that very same attitude (of saying “fuck” at least two times per page) that makes this book work so well.

The point of this book is not to be an asshole.  Knight actually goes out of her way to advise you, above all, to maintain the relationships you care about, not get yourself fired, and generally act like a decent person.  But also to do what makes you happy.  Her motto is you do you.

If you don’t care about your coworker’s venture into homemade all-natural peanut butter, don’t feel that you need to buy six jars.  If you don’t care about an acquaintance’s Kickstarter campaign, just say you have a personal policy against supporting them.  (This was actually brilliant advice – “If I support one, I’d feel like I have to support them all, and I just don’t have that kind of money.”)  If you don’t want to attend the destination wedding of an elementary school friend that you haven’t seen in ten years (and are really wondering why you were even invited), RSVP your regrets.

The amount of time, money, and energy you’ll save by not doing things you’re uninterested in (but feel obligated to do) can be incredible.  Just imagine, she says, you opt out of spending $1000 to attend that destination wedding.  Even if you send your regrets with a nice (let’s say $200) gift, you’ve still saved a net $800.  If you’re of a certain age (let’s say mid-twenties to early thirties) and opt out of every non-BFF and non-immediate family wedding you’re invited to, you could save thousands of dollars over the years.  You can then take those thousands of dollars and put them toward something you do care about, like a new car, or your retirement account, or some really great concert tickets.  As long as you respectfully decline the things you don’t want to do, you’re not going to burn any bridges.

This book might be hilarious – and more than a little profane – but at the end of the day, it has a great message.  I don’t think I’ll go into work tomorrow prepared to tell my boss to do her own paperwork, but I am one step closer to living a better life.