Four Star Fridays: “The Shadow Land” by Elizabeth Kostova

I realize that this is only the second installment of my newborn Four Star Fridays series but I’m noticing a trend that I’m curious to see if it will continue. The trend is this…

I give four stars to books that leave me wanting more.

Does this make sense to anyone? It’s basically what my Goodreads review from last week’s book said (thanks Goodreads, for facilitating this new series by recording me forever!) and it’s flat out what my problem with this week’s book was.

That book, before I digress further, is The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova.

It was the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova that I’ve read (I see she’s got three so I’m going on Amazon right now to see about the third). I loved The Historian, all three times that I’ve read it. It was one of the strangest takes on Dracula that I’ve ever encountered but it’s become a sort of canon to me.

But… The Shadow Land… this book is about an American woman who travels to Bulgaria, for reasons I admit to having forgotten precisely – I feel like it was tragedy in her family but I could be wrong, and is quickly caught up in a web of intrigue and drama when she picks up the wrong suitcase by mistake at the airport. It’s a thriller and it’s a mystery but that’s not where this novel’s value really lies. The value of this book, for me (who is wholly addicted to anything marketed as historical fiction), is in the Bulgarian aspect of the story. Kostova has lived, or maybe lives, in Bulgaria so she easily transports a reader to the places her story takes them. She knows the folklore and the legends and the history, and she weaves all of that into a plot that is incredibly complicated and yet incredibly readable.

I always want a book to teach me something. Even novels. If a book makes me want to delve deeper into a subject, fall down the proverbial rabbit holes, then it is a good book that has done a good job. The Shadow Land did that. I learned more about Bulgaria than I ever knew before and I spent time after I finished the book looking for more about the country and it’s history.

What stopped The Shadow Land short of being a five star book to me was that the conclusion of the story was rushed and forced, for the sake of a happy ending. The novel skipped between Present and Past, and I’d have read both books were they separate. The characters in the novel were so good that, somehow, they deserved more.

Do you know what I mean?

Anyway, I’m off to probably buy Elizabeth Kostova’s middle book.

If you like historical fiction and want to check Bulgaria off your “places I’ve traveled via books” bucket list (I’m not the only one who has that, am I?), give this book a try!

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Back in the Day Books #1

And so begins another series I’m trying in my continuing attempt to be a better book blogger! This one is called, as the title says:

Back in the Day Books

It is, in case there is any question (which there probably is), a series in which I’ll re-read and revisit an assortment of random books I liked ‘back in the day’, i.e. when I was a kid. This will be accomplished via a box of books from back in the day (have I said that phrase too much already?) that I ‘rescued’ from my parents’ garage. I honestly have no idea what’s in the box, aside from a couple Beverly Hills 90210 novelizations that are on top. My method will be to dig around, grab a book, read it, and report back to you.

Hopefully this will be interesting for you, the people I’m assuming might read this post.

And I started already!

I dug around, grabbed, a book, and read Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You by Barthe DeClements.

I don’t remember my history with this particular book. I know that I wrote my name in the cover, in surprisingly sloppy cursive (I usually have very neat handwriting… so perhaps I’d just learned cursive?), and the cover tells me that Barthe DeClements also wrote Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade and I remember that more. But my fifth grade teacher was a lot better than my sixth grade teacher so maybe I can chalk it up to better memories overall.

Anyway, not surprising for a book marked Reading Level 5, I read Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You in a day. It is 146 pages long and was originally published in 1985 (I wasn’t even in school in 1985, so I must’ve read a reprint or something). Given when it was originally published, I was curious to see how it has stood the test of time, if it had a message that was still relevant to sixth graders today, if it brought back any memories, and if it was worth keeping or not.

I won’t be keeping it. I don’t have kids and I feel sure that there are better books out now for that awkward period when you’re not quite a kid and not quite a teenager that my nephew and niece will find helpful.

I still don’t remember having read the book before. Maybe vaguely, but that’d be extremely vague. There was no moment of “oh, that’s why I’ve kept this book so long!” or “I remember now!” It was just… a book that I read once, a fact I take for granted given my name in the cover.

The message of Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You is still relevant. Helen, the lead character, struggles with learning disabilities (specifically perceptual learning problems that Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller, and Albert Einstein had) that cause her to switch and mix up which letters like b and d are supposed to go, and to drop silent letters like e from the ends of works like ‘puke.’ Helen sees this as a burden she carries, something to be ashamed of. The book is about Helen overcoming that shame to get help through targeted classes that help her train her brain to be as good at reading as it is as math and arts. It handles the way her mother worries about the perceptions of others toward her and her daughter, and Helen seems to have inherited that. These things still happen today, that much is still very much true and will likely always be true. That makes this book valuable in that sense.

However, it doesn’t stand the test of time very well. Not in terms of language, political correctness, and fair and balanced relationships. One chapter is called “The Retard Room,” for example. Helen’s nickname at school, even with administrators, is “Bad Helen” and she embraces that nickname with sometimes cruel jokes and occasionally outright vandalism of the school itself. She gets away with it all. And her father goes behind her mother’s back to sign her up for the special classes, which is good on it’s face because she needs them but not an example of open, good family life.

So I’ve gone ‘back in the day’ with Barthe DeClements’ Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You and not had an altogether bad time. Not an altogether good one either, but no regrets. I won’t, however, be keeping or donating the book because I neither need it or think it’s something that would be noticed at a secondhand store.

Other Sensory #1

So, in my continuing attempt to be a more consistent book blogger, here is a new series… that has nothing to do with books! Because of course.

We’re (i.e. I’m) calling it Other Sensory because it will be about the things I use my other senses to do, or simply the other things I do. Not that one uses a different of the five senses to, say, watch a television show than one does to read but… I wrote “other sensory” in my bullet journal list of things to blog about and we’re (i.e. I’m) sticking with it.

I’ll at least try to tie the things I list here to senses, for the sake of being just a little bit more than a consistent blog. A coherent one, if you will.

And so…

Sight

  • I’ve been watching my very first Marvel related movie or show. Ever. Shocking, I know, but this whole MCU thing I hear about is quite daunting to start getting into. I am, however, absolutely loving Jessica Jones on Netflix far, far more than I ever thought I would. Maybe because there aren’t so many caped heroes or maybe because the acting is superb. I don’t know. I’m just over halfway through season two as I write this and I’m already annoyed the show has been cancelled.

Smell

  • Um… smells… hmm… what scent related things can I talk about here… Well… I don’t burn candles and I don’t wear perfume or use lotions so… My shampoo is ocean scented, as is my soap but… I don’t seek out those scents, nor do I particularly notice that I smell like a day at the beach. Well, this section is getting weird so I’d better move on…

Hearing

  • Michael Malarkey. I’ve been listening to Michael Malarkey a lot, which is odd because I don’t know of anyone else who does. But, awhile back, his song “Feed the Flames” showed up on one of the many curated lists Spotify creates for you and I’ve been hooked, particularly to that song, since. I’m just starting to explore his other songs and it’s a good thing. In case you haven’t heard “Feed the Flames,” please do…

Taste

  • The best new thing I’ve tasted this month, the thing I’ve become a bit addicted to, is watermelon juice. To be fair, I’m sure watermelon juice is not new. It’s new to me. I was looking for orange juice for someone else and got distracted by a display of Tropicana juices in flavors I’d never noticed before (shameful admission time, I’m not a big juice drinker but I hardly ever drink soda so all the water balances out the coffee… right? right!). I spent two days think about trying it before I went back and got it (because I suck at shopping, all shopping… even food and drink shopping). I’m on my second bottle now. If you need a basic, refreshing juice to drink during those hot days of August, try it!

Touch

  • I’m not sure I thought this through because… well, because this category could turn out as odd as the scent one. Maybe even more. But let’s not let that happen. So touch… It being the beginning of August and just past two heat waves, touch is a strange thing. The grass is crackly and dead, and itchy if you sit on it. Soft blankets would just turn already roasting world into a proper oven. I wear strappy tank tops and running shorts almost every day, because why not. But even that isn’t fun because it’s humid and sticky, even in air conditioned houses. Oh! I know something good! I got new socks (of which I am too lazy to provide a picture, as if anyone would care about my comfy socks whose brand I have already forgotten… I got them WalMart) and they are soft and nice. Which is especially weird because I usually hate socks in summer. But they have sparkles and bumblebees on them (I know, I know, a picture would be nice but… sorry), and that makes me happy too.

And those are the Other Sensory things for this month. What things are you loving this month? Let me know in the comments, please!

Four Star Fridays: “11/22/63” by Stephen King

It seems appropriate to begin my Four Star Fridays series with a historical fiction, because I will read anything related to history. It seems extra appropriate to being my Four Star Fridays series with a novel related to the JFK assassination because that particular part of history is one of the first things I really fell down the proverbial rabbit hole into, quickly soaking up all the information I could find – probably long before I really should have understood someone having a portion of their skull blown off by a gunman the sixth floor of a nearby building.

So, having grown up in a house where Stephen King was a bit revered (and I did see some of his movies before I was probably quite old enough), when he wrote a novel based on the events of that day, I was on board.

I had read other King books, but I was most into this one.

And it didn’t disappoint.

Having absorbed so much related to the actual historical event, I went into the book with some nerves about a novel staying true to history. But it did, even including Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald in ways that I understand them to have spoken, acted, and lived. That was absolutely worthy of a full star.

Worthy of another full star is the setting. A time travel novel, which this is (not a spoiler as it’s in the blurb on the dust jacket), had me a little worried too as they can be fantastic or, more often, not so great. 11/22/63 trended far more toward fantastic. The time jumps were seamless, the logic behind them sound, and the reason for them made sense.

More stars are easily wrapped up in those two things, and things I don’t remember because (as Goodreads tells me), I read this book in 2012.

It seems so weird that it’s been so long but…

This is an 849 page brick of book. But it is worth it. If you like time travel, weird stuff, historical fiction… and have some time to devote to big book like this, I can’t recommend it enough.

My Goodreads review from 2012 tells me that, at the time, I docked the book a star because the last 150 pages were no good. Is this true? I couldn’t say. I don’t remember. I might feel different if I read it again, which I will probably do.

Someday.

My TBR list is a mile long and 849 pages is a lot of book to re-read…

Coming Soon! Four Star Fridays!

I’m going to be a better, more consistent book blogger… come hell or high water, as it were. I need to do more than post reviews, sometimes with randomness. I need to have regular things that I post regularly. (And yes, I know I’ve said this before but… this time will be the time… hold me too that, please. Somebody?)

Anyway, I’ve been doing some brainstorming and I’ve got some ideas that I’m becoming more fond of the more I think about them.

Of course, I’ve already altered the main one, which might not bode well for the future but… c’est la vie!

(Is it bad that I’m posting this to hold myself to it while also giving myself an out? Maybe. I’m just a mess!)

The idea I had originally was for a series called Five Star Fridays in which I feature, you guessed it, books that I gave five stars too. My favorite books, if you will, the ones I will read again and have & will badger other people to read.

But…

Five star books get all the love. If I gave a book five stars, all the reasons why are probably in a rambly, glowing review right here on my little blog. Five star books are often ones that get or got a lot of hype and love and attention. And usually with good reason.

But why should I talk about what everybody else talks about? Why shouldn’t I be a little bit original? (Is this idea original? I doubt it. Do I care? No. All credit to whoever did it before, I’m doing it now.) Five star books are just fine. But you know who needs a little love?

Four star books.

The almost perfect ones that are maybe missing just that one thing, that could’ve done that one thing just a little better, that book that let you wanting just a little bit more. Those books need a little love, and I want to give those books (and their authors!) the love they deserve so…

Four Star Fridays

Beginning August 2, right here. One book a week, one book that is almost perfect that I think you should try. Are you excited?

I am!

See you Friday, I’m off to pick my first feature!

Reviewed: “We Came Here to Forget” by Andrea Dunlop

This book had so much potential. I was hooked from the start, needing to know more and needing to know immediately. Even if the subject matter sometimes required that I put the book aside to digest it.

It is the story of an Olympic skier (my first novel about an alpine skier!) named Katie who up and leaves for Buenos Aires after tragedy, of some sort, befalls her family and brings her the sort of attention world-class athletes don’t really need. It takes a very long time to get to the heart of the tragedy… which would have been just fine, books need suspense, but…

(There is also the issue of a back-and-forth narrative between Katie the Skier and Liz the Ex-Pat (both of them being Katie, one in the past, one in the present) but that would also have been fine.)

…I saw the possibility of what probably amounts to a ‘twist’ in this would-be hard-hitting contemporary and I desperately hoped it would not come to be. But it did. And it felt… contrived to force a happy ending on an incredibly bleak and yet powerful story. It felt… unnecessary.

I do not regret reading this book, not at all. I doubt it’ll join my list of things to re-read, thanks to the ‘twist’. And I am absolutely sure this book will be loved by many.

Just not me, so much.

–trigger warnings for: severe mental illness, tragic death of a child–

(I received a copy of WE CAME HERE TO FORGET through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “How to Hack a Heartbreak” by Kristin Rockaway

This book is fine. It was what I needed it to be.

I was teetering precariously on the edge of a reading slump, unable to get into a book and stay interested. I tried three. It was dangerous times, trying to avoid this slump. So I scrolled through all the titles I’ve been so lucky to get access to through on NetGalley in search of something that looked fun, cute, and quick.

Kristin Rockaway’s How to Hack a Heartbreak ticked all of those books.

Was it a little predictable, a smidge formulaic, and a bit too heavy on the Happily Ever After? Sure. But that’s irrelevant.

Life can be such a rollercoaster that sometimes you need a bit of predictability, formula, and hope of a Happily Ever After. So thanks to Kristin Rockaway for that!

This is a very modern story, with main character Melanie working a crappy job as tech support for a bunch of “bros” trying to get money to fund their startups and apps. Melanie is also just a bit addicted to online dating. All the swiping is how she and her friends search for love in New York City. There are copious amounts of text dedicated to complaints about unsolicited dick pics (as there should be), good attention paid to ghosting, and just enough due given to the possibility of real love being out there somewhere.

But…

That last one is not so easy to come by and Melanie quickly puts her skills in coding and computer tech to use, creating an app where women can share their experiences (the bad ones, anyway) with guys they matched with on Fluttr (the most popular dating app). Reading the book gives the impression that what Melanie does is meant to empowering and feminist, and it is. To a degree, because it’s not always in a good way. It’s good that women can band together to protect each other from harassment and danger but, as Melanie soon finds out, even women can unfairly target men and lie about them, just as much as men can.

Melanie is a lot of things in this book – a relatable single girl looking for love, a go-getter in the man’s world of tech, a woman willing to help other women, a sassy and brave character who doesn’t take crap from anyone. But she’s also, at times, a bit of a stalker and a bit immature.

But, I suppose, aren’t we all sometimes?

Melanie gets her happily ever after and that’s fine. I knew she would. All the tropes of mixed signals, wrongly interpreted signs, and slightly superficial obstacles were there, telling me she’d get it.

It’s cute, it’s quick, and it’s fun.

I received an early copy of How to Hack a Heartbreak from NetGalley and Harlequin – Graydon House Books in exchange for an honest and original review.