American Royals, by Katharine McGee – Review


American Royals
by Katharine McGee

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers

Synopsis: 

What if America had a royal family?

When America won the Revolutionary War, its people offered General George Washington a crown. Two and a half centuries later, the House of Washington still sits on the throne.

As Princess Beatrice gets closer to becoming America’s first queen regnant, the duty she has embraced her entire life suddenly feels stifling. Nobody cares about the spare except when she’s breaking the rules, so Princess Samantha doesn’t care much about anything, either . . . except the one boy who is distinctly off-limits to her. And then there’s Samantha’s twin, Prince Jefferson. If he’d been born a generation earlier, he would have stood first in line for the throne, but the new laws of succession make him third. Most of America adores their devastatingly handsome prince . . . but two very different girls are vying to capture his heart.

ratingtwo

Oof. Soooo, that was certainly… a book.

I think my major issue with American Royals is that this book doesn’t seem like it knows what it wants to be. Does it want to be a thought-provoking story set in an alternate version of the United States with a monarchy? Yes. Does it also want to be a fluffy young adult romance novel? Yes. Does it also want to be a reality TV-esque teen drama? …Yes. Are any of these elements playing nicely together? Definitely not.

This book is 448 pages and it felt loooooong. Part of the problem is that it’s trying to explore three (three!!!) separate forbidden romance plots which are all fairly redundant when taken together. I get what the author was going for in creating these parallels, but honestly, no single story line brings enough to the table to justify including all three.

First you have Princess Beatrice, first in line to the throne, who is in love with her guard, a commoner. Her younger sister, Sam, is in love with Teddy, the “suitable” potential king consort who has been hand-picked to marry Beatrice. Finally, Sams’ best friend, Nina, another commoner, is in love with Prince Jefferson. I think McGee thought it would be fun to have these parallels and explore how these characters with varying personalities handled the situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of these plot lines can be boiled down to “I love this person and my social station is keeping me from being with them.” The story feels extremely bogged down with all the separate romances and point of view characters.

The major characters themselves, while certainly fairly distinct from one another, are very shallowly developed. Beatrice is the dutiful daughter who is being pushed to her breaking point and flirting with rebellion for the first time. Sam has middle child syndrome to the extreme, feels invisible, and is obliviously selfish. Jeff is… well, honestly, after finishing the book I’m not sure I could tell you a single personality trait of dear Prince Jefferson. Finally, Nina, who has grown up understandably insecure as a commoner while the best friend of royalty, is basically Sam’s doormat through most of the book. At no point did I feel moved to care about any of these characters, except poor Nina, who probably should have punched Sam in the face at some point early in their friendship. (#ninadeservedbetter)

But back to the issue of this book clearly not having a good sense of what it wants to be, there is a weird mixture of teenage drama and a thought experiment on how an American monarchy would have changed the world as it exists today. Both of these elements feel like they’re getting in each other’s way rather than meshing well together. There are some great YA books which blend the personal and political together really well. (Red, White, & Royal Blue comes to mind.) This is not one of them. The bits of political philosophizing serve only to up the page count and break up the romance plot lines without ever saying anything new or interesting.

Have you ever read a book that takes place in the real world but with an alternate history? Did you like it? Tell me about it in the comment section!

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Call Me God: The Untold Story of the DC Sniper Investigation (Review)

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Call Me God: The Untold Story of the DC Sniper Investigation
by Jim Clemente, Tim Clemente, Peter McDonnell

Genre: True Crime

Length: 7 hours, 4 minutes

Release date: October 24, 2019

Publisher: Audible Original

Synopsis: 

Wednesday, October 2, 2002.
Aspen Hill, Maryland. Northgate Plaza.
5:20 PM.

Inside Michael’s craft supply store, cashier Ann Chapman rings up another customer. Then it happens. A loud crack; a gust of wind; the light in register five goes dark.

Over the next 23 days, the entire DC area will be thrust into a reign of terror unprecedented in American history. Sniper attacks targeting and murdering everyday citizens will bring the entire region to its knees, as a nation still reeling from the recent attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax scare, are forced to confront a new type of brutal assault—this time in their own backyard. As law enforcement grapples with the mass carnage and chaos, media’s ravenous 24-hour cycle amplifies the very real fear, while steadily pumping new theories and bad leads onto a paralyzed public desperate for it all to end.

But who can stop it? And exactly how?

Call Me God is the never-before-told story of the fascinating and turbulent investigation that led to the diabolical and elusive killers’ capture; one that pitted protocol against instinct, sacred institutions against individual insight. Told firsthand by those few who had the vision and expertise to solve it, and including a fascinating look into the behavioral, ballistic, forensic, and electronic analysis vital to cracking the case, FBI agent brothers Jim Clemente (former FBI behavioral profiler) and Tim Clemente (former FBI counter-terrorism expert) take us through every facet and flaw of a nationwide manhunt that pressure tested nearly every aspect of law enforcement capabilities—and its glaring vulnerabilities.

Anchored by harrowing accounts from victims, intimate conversations with family members of those deceased, as well as candid accounts from those who knew the perpetrators best, relive the haunting events of the DC Sniper attack and piece together a true crime phenomenon that’s impact can still be felt today.

ratingfive
My thanks to Audible for sending me an advance copy of this audio book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Audible always knows how to use the audio format to its full potential, and that’s really exemplified in this audio book, bringing the first hand accounts of people directly impacted by the DC sniper and those who helped investigate the case directly to the listener. I’ve said before on this blog that I have a hard time with some elements of true crime; it can be so easy for the genre to fall into the trap of feeling voyeuristic or exploitative. Call Me God keeps first hand-accounts in the forefront of the storytelling in a way that always feels very respectful and human. We must always worry about ethical storytelling when it comes to true crime and this was a great example.

Beyond that, though, it was just so very well done. I could not stop listening and binged most of this one in a day. (Coming in at just over 7 hours, if you’re like me and listen to audio books with the speed bumped up a bit, you’ll fly through this one.) I was 12 when the DC sniper was active, so I had a vague recollection of the case and not much more. Most of the info I learned here was new to me.

One of the more interesting aspects of the case, which I hadn’t considered before listening to this, is how the zeitgeist of the time period impacted the way people perceived the case. This came on the tail of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; law enforcement and the general public had been on guard due to the symbolic power of a potential attack on that anniversary. Random acts of violence designed specifically to terrorize an already on-edge populace rendered the city a powder keg.

Call Me God is a must-listen for true crime fans! Between the detailed accounts of the investigators and the statements from those who lost family members, there is something of substance in this for everyone, regardless of your level of familiarity with the case going into it.

Let’s discuss:

Lee Boyd Malvo (i.e., the DC Sniper) has been in the news again recently as he fights his life sentence without the possibility of parole. Malvo was a minor at the time of the crimes, and it has been ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Let me know your thoughts in the comments; should he get a new sentencing? Are certain crimes too severe for rehabilitation regardless of age? buy

Check this title out on Audible.com!

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Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper

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Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
by Megan Phelps-Roper

Genre: Memoir

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: October 8, 2019

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Synopsis: 

The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America

At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life.

A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.

ratingfive

This post will be a little different than most on my page; I’d like to post less of a formal review and really talk more about why this book is so important to me. In terms of quality, I’ll be brief. Megan is eloquent and this subject matter of her memoir is totally riveting. Every time I had to set this book down to take care of real life felt like a chore.

But beyond being an enjoyable read, a lot of what Megan had to say feel so terribly timely. We live in truly weird times. The internet is forever and a ruined reputation can be increasingly difficult to escape, especially for anyone remotely in the public eye. Strangers snipe at each other on Facebook in public comment sections. Ten year old tweets are dragged from the depths of Twitter to discredit people who have long since grown out of and apologized for the attitudes they expressed at the time.

Let me be clear; this is not anti-accountability. People who mess up or hurt people should apologize and see if there is a way to make amends to those who were harmed. But implicit in Megan’s story is a message that is, at its heart, simply pro-empathy. Megan left her church in large part because of people who were able to stop seeing her as a cog in the Westboro machine and engage with her as a human being. They pushed back against her harmful ideas, but treated her as a person who was capable of improvement rather than a person who needed to be punished.

It is never the responsibility of harmed parties to try to change the extremist views of those who have hurt them. But for those who do have the ability and emotional energy to do so, we must first empathize. We cannot change views that we don’t take the time to understand. We cannot change people whom we treat as inherently unworthy and irredeemable. Megan was raised in a church that, like many extremist groups, taught her the world would reject her forever because of the way she grew up. If we want more people to experience the growth that she did, we must always be prepared to prove them wrong about us. buy

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Ribbons of Scarlet – Review


Ribbons of Scarlet
A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women

by:
Kate Quinn
Sophie Perinot
Laura Kamoie
Stephanie Dray
E. Knight
Heather Webb

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 560 Pages

Release date: October 1, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Synopsis: 

Six bestselling and award-winning authors bring to life a breathtaking epic novel illuminating the hopes, desires, and destinies of princesses and peasants, harlots and wives, fanatics and philosophers—six unforgettable women whose paths cross during one of the most tumultuous and transformative events in history: the French Revolution.

Ribbons of Scarlet is a timely story of the power of women to start a revolution—and change the world.

In late eighteenth-century France, women do not have a place in politics. But as the tide of revolution rises, women from gilded salons to the streets of Paris decide otherwise—upending a world order that has long oppressed them.

Blue-blooded Sophie de Grouchy believes in democracy, education, and equal rights for women, and marries the only man in Paris who agrees. Emboldened to fight the injustices of King Louis XVI, Sophie aims to prove that an educated populace can govern itself–but one of her students, fruit-seller Louise Audu, is hungrier for bread and vengeance than learning. When the Bastille falls and Louise leads a women’s march to Versailles, the monarchy is forced to bend, but not without a fight. The king’s pious sister Princess Elisabeth takes a stand to defend her brother, spirit her family to safety, and restore the old order, even at the risk of her head.

But when fanatics use the newspapers to twist the revolution’s ideals into a new tyranny, even the women who toppled the monarchy are threatened by the guillotine. Putting her faith in the pen, brilliant political wife Manon Roland tries to write a way out of France’s blood-soaked Reign of Terror while pike-bearing Pauline Leon and steely Charlotte Corday embrace violence as the only way to save the nation. With justice corrupted by revenge, all the women must make impossible choices to survive–unless unlikely heroine and courtesan’s daughter Emilie de Sainte-Amaranthe can sway the man who controls France’s fate: the fearsome Robespierre.

ratingfive

My thanks to NetGalley and William Morrow for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“Beautiful, terrible humanity. Capable of the most inspiring and creative genius and the greatest and most unimaginable abominations.”

I’ve had a bit of an ongoing effort to read more historical fiction that isn’t set during World War II, and this novel was an easy choice because, hello, Kate Quinn. If you’ve never read any of her work, I (obviously) recommend this book, but also The Alice Network and The HuntressRibbons of Scarlet is set during the French Revolution and focuses on women’s role in these events.

The format of this novel worked very well. I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding about this book online. Because of the number of authors listed, a lot of people have assumed it is a collection of short stories set during the same time period, and this is not the case. The novel follows a single linear narrative following the course of the revolution, but each section introduces a new point of view character. This is different from most novels with multiple POV characters in that, for the most part, we do not return to a character once we move on from her singular section. We get one peek into each woman’s perspective and then she is lost to us. I worried that this would feel disjointed overall, but this was absolutely not the case, and it provided an excellent opportunity to look at some of the same events through different eyes.

Despite what must have been a very difficult process, the six authors meshed very well together. Even while jumping from one one woman’s perspective to another relatively unrelated woman’s section, there is a strong sense of a central narrative following the course of the revolution. Each woman has a wildly different perspective on the historical moment they are inhabiting, and each perspective seems fully fleshed out and genuine.

It was refreshing to see a war novel which focuses exclusively on women’s experiences, as these are often overlooked. French women played a significant role in the revolution and women of different social classes were impacted in very different ways. It was particularly interesting to me to spend time in the mind of a female members of the aristocracy, who, while they did enjoy the benefits of wealth leading up to the revolution, often had little to no power of their own. In the end, they bore the consequences of the actions of their husbands and fathers alongside them.

Ribbons of Scarlet is an illuminating novel about a fascinating piece of French history. Seamlessly told and heartbreaking, this book is a jewel.

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The Broken Girls, by Simone St. James (Review)


The Broken Girls
by Simone St. James

Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction, Suspense

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: March 20, 2018

Synopsis: 

A breakout suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare.

Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

rating

four

The Broken Girls is the perfect novel to pick up in October. It’s creepy, atmospheric, and also surprisingly heartfelt. It’s categorized as a mystery/suspense novel and a ghost story is a large driving force in the narrative. These kinds of novels often fall flat for me because the characters tend to be cardboard cutouts instead of fleshed-out human beings. The Broken Girls is very character-driven, and feels like it has more substance than a lot of novels in the same category.

The main character of the modern story line is a journalist, Fiona, whose life has been altered by the death of her older sister twenty years prior. Her sister’s boyfriend is in prison for the murder, but little inconsistencies have always nagged at the back of Fiona’s mind, and she’s been unable to move on. When she finds out that a developer has purchased the old abandoned girls’ boarding school where her sisters body was found, her personal connection to the place leads her to want to cover the story.

“Idlewild was the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. Hidden in the backwoods of Vermont, it had only 120 students: illegitimate daughters, first wives’ daughters, servants’ daughters, immigrant girls, girls who misbehaved…”

The 1950’s sections of the novel explore the lives of various girls who were living at the boarding school at the time. These sections were ridiculously engaging and the characters were each sympathetic in their own way, as St. James explores some of the reasons a girl might be considered “troubled” at the time and simply sent away. For example, one of the girls stopped speaking entirely after experiencing a traumatic event; her parents made some attempts to get her help, but when these were ineffective, off to Idlewild she went.

“It was infuriating how many people got things wrong about you when you were a teenage girl, but as she had learned to do, Katie took her anger and made it into something else.” 

There are two main driving forces in these sections of the novel: a piece of school lore about a possibly malicious ghost named Mary Hand who appears to each of the students sooner or later, and the disappearance of one of the girls, quickly dismissed by authorities as a runaway. In the course of covering the story of the renovation of Idlewild in the modern day, Fiona also gets caught up in these stories and hopes to solve both of the mysteries. At the same time, she begins to uncover new information about her own sister’s murder which may put her in danger herself.

The various mysteries in The Broken Girls are woven together so seamlessly and the story is expertly paced. I fell in love with these characters and was anxious for them in the moments of tension sprinkled throughout the book. The eerie atmosphere is perfect for this time of year.

(This is a repost of a prior review – I wanted to feature this book again because it’s the Girly Book Club pick for this month. If you haven’t heard of them and you’re looking for a book club to join, I definitely recommend checking them out. It’s an international book club for women with chapters all over. If there isn’t one near you, you can reach out to them at info@girlybookclub.com to inquire about starting your own chapter!)

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Thanks for reading! Have you been reading any ghost stories in the days leading up to Halloween? What’s your favorite novel that features a ghost story?

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (Review)

Salt to the Sea
Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys

Genre: YA, Historical Fiction

Length: 416 Pages

Release date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Books

Synopsis: 

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

ratingthree

“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”

What’s happening, bookworms? I’m back with another Minority Opinion Post™. This book has so many positively glowing reviews and came highly recommended by some friends of mine (shout out to my book club ladies… please don’t hate me). I went into it with high expectations and had a really lukewarm experience with this book.

Let me start with the positive. Sepetys has plenty of quotable passages and the writing is really stylistically lovely overall. There were some passages I loved that really packed a punch, like this one: “His smugness was annoying. This was the type of man who looked at a picture on the wall and instead of admiring the photo, looked at his own reflection in the glass.”

The story is technically a continuation of Between Shades of Gray (also published as Ashes in the Snow) but can be read without that background information without any confusion. There is a small overlap, but the story line and cast of characters is largely separate. That being said,  I do recommend reading Between Shades of Gray before Salt to the Sea. While it’s not necessary to follow the story, certain passages which call back to the first book will inevitably have more emotional impact if the books are read in order. I love this kind of flexibility in storytelling, when readers can jump in at either book but fans get that reward of a spark of recognition that won’t be there for all readers.

That being said, let’s get into my issues with this book. The chapters are extremely short, which would not be a problem in and of itself were it not for the fact that we are hopping from one point of view character to the next with these chapters transitions. The end result was that the reading felt very choppy and somewhat shallow; I had a hard time getting invested in characters when I was only spending a few pages at a time with each of them, and they ended up feeling very flat.

Albert, the Hitler fanatic, was the most compelling of the point of view characters. Sepetys seems to have a particular skill for writing a character the reader will despise without turning them off of the book. I sped through Albert’s chapters, with a mixture of horror and barely restrained glee as I waited for what was sure to be his inevitable fate.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm response to this book as a whole, I do love that the author chose to write about this topic. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff had a death toll of around 9,000, compared to the Titanic’s death toll of just over 1,500, yet it has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. I was not familiar with these events prior to picking up this book, and one of my favorite things about historical fiction is that it can introduce us to times and events we would not have otherwise encountered, inspiring further research and learning. Sepetys handled this event with the sensitivity and respect for the real-life victims that was deserved. 

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Thank you for reading! What’s an overlooked historical event that you’d like to see explored more in fiction? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Book Rec ~ Salt Slow, by Julia Armfield

Salt Slow
by Julia Armfield

Coming October 8, 2019

This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.

From the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018, salt slow is an extraordinary collection of short stories that are sure to dazzle and shock.

 

I rated this book 4.5/5 stars. The writing is visceral, magical, and sometimes horrifying. You can read my full review over at The Girly Book Club’s website!

❤️ Jenna