Monday, July 30, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

So, today I did one of the coolest things I will probably ever get a chance to do.  I had dinner at Per Se.

Before dinner, in front of the famous, non-working blue door.

Now listen, I am not a food blogger, and this experience has been covered by ALL the food bloggers.  So if you want a good description of the food (or pictures; I don't like taking pictures at the table), try these bloggers.  And if you want an ode to the whole thing of it, Sam Sifton's got that right here in the New York Times.

What I will offer are things that stand out in my head about our experience tonight (because of course I went with the extremely dapper Mr. S!)

  • We had an early reservation, and we were the first ones in when the restaurant opened for dinner.  As we were led through the dining room to our seats, at least a dozen staff members stood at attention, greeting us.  It felt exactly like that POV shot in Titanic, when Rose is on the grand staircase.  When I mentioned that to Mr. S, he realized that's what it had reminded him of too.  A little intimidating, but man, I have never felt more important.

  • The service throughout the night consisted of at least four different people answering questions, bringing food, explaining the food, clearing utensils and dishes, bringing new utensils and dishes, etc.  We had one main person (I think he's called the captain) who handled most of the talking (and recommended a really nice half-bottle of wine when I told him we weren't big drinkers but wanted a little bit to go with the food), and then there was like a whole team of people looking out for us.  I've never seen anything like it.

  • The food just. kept. coming.  Technically, it's a nine-course tasting menu:
  • In addition to what you see here, there were two little dishes at the beginning (anyone know the plural of amuse bouche?  I know the phrase means something like "please the mouth",  and that they are one-bite delicacies that usually come at the beginning of the meal, but I don't know how to talk about the fact that we got two of them, gruyere gougeres and Chef Keller's famous salmon cornets) and about ten different little things that came out after dessert, all covered by the word "mignardises" on that menu.  Seriously: truffles (we got to pick from a big selection of them), other truffles, macarons, little rounds of fudge, and "coffee and doughnuts", which actually meant coffee semifreddo (like less-cold ice cream) and little round perfect doughnuts.  (ETA: I forgot--also tiny round perfect ice cream bon-bons--buttered popcorn flavor.  I mean, really.)
  • Most memorable: probably the gruyere gougeres, as they were the very first, perfect bite.  A harbinger of so much good to come.  I may have bounced up and down a little.
So, now we are at home, recovering.  This was our summer vacation, really, what with the big move coming up and everything just sort of generally being crazy.  I had really, really wanted to eat here since I started paying attention to the New York food scene five or six years ago, and I'm so excited that we got to go before we left town.

Since I am too full to make this relevant to reading and writing, I will ask you for your best comparisons: how is a great meal like a great book?  What can writers learn from fine dining?  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Weak Sauce

Oh boy...that 150 book goal is remaining elusive.  What did I do this week instead of read?  I don't even know.  I saw some friends (good) and played a lot of games on my iPad (um, less good.)  I did not get any more packing done, and I did not leave my apartment a whole heck of a lot.  Yikes.  I guess Mr. S was taking his big scary exam (and now it's over!  Yay!) and the Olympics started--but there are excuses every week.  I've got to get back into reading shape!

What I Read This Week: 

 The Sweetest SpellThe Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a really fun, original story. Emmeline, a Flatlander, has always been something of an outcast among her own people. But when she is washed away by a flood and winds up in a new town, she discovers a power she didn't know she had. Suddenly, she is sought after by the most powerful men and women in the kingdom and has to balance her own needs (freedom and love) with the needs of her people (food, shelter, and safety).

Oh yeah--and her power? Churning cream into chocolate. In a kingdom where no one has had chocolate in generations.

This book is told in alternating POVs, between Emmeline and Owen Oak, the boy who saved her from the flood. He's funny and tough to the point of hard-headedness sometimes. Occasionally one or the other of the voices sounded a little off, or too similar to each other. But the story itself more than made up for it, along with supporting characters like the totally lovable Prince Beau and the self-adulating Griffin Boar. If you enjoy fantasy, fairytales, or folklore, I'd bet you a chocolate bar you'll like this one.

**I received a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.**

Liar & SpyLiar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am certainly not going to be the first person (or the last) to compare Rebecca Stead with E.L. Konigsburg. (Hopefully, Rebecca Stead is as big a fan of Ms. Konigsburg as I am.) My reasons for the comparison are simple: both authors have a gift for reaching back to roughly middle school age, and throwing the whole experience down on the page. It's hard to capture: there's still a bit of childhood's magical thinking, with a growing awareness of the cruddy parts of the world. The really tricky part, though, is that most adults think "Middle school--ugh. You couldn't pay me to go back there," and then move on. Even when we stop to tell our stories from middle school, it's usually a narrative framed by one particular bully, or one class that seemed to dominate the day with a particular insurmountable challenge (algebra, say, or rope climbing). In Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead zooms in on that experience and shows us the texture of each day: in this case, each day is made up of dots.

Georges, the protagonist (named for Pointillist painter Georges Seurrat) lives in Brooklyn, where he's lived for his whole life. His family recently had to sell their old house and move to a nearby apartment, but he has two parents who love him, and he stays in his same school, and keeps going to the same neighborhood spots, so life is ok. Not great, but ok. There are kids at school who bug him a lot, and his old friend Jason hangs out with those kids, but he mostly just tries to ignore it. The school lunch is sometimes pretty good but sometimes gross--regular gross, not epically so. In short, the scale of Georges' life feels real. Each dot Rebecca Stead creates is perfectly placed to make me nod or laugh in recognition (ordering from the bad pizza place with the gross cheese because the good place doesn't deliver: have you been watching me???)

When Georges moves to his new building, he meets Safer (a boy his age) and Candy (Safer's pip of a little sister). Safer inducts him into the spy club, and together they take on the mysterious Mr. X. I won't say much about this plot except that it is ultimately really satisfying and causes Georges to re-think his ideas about how things work. The resolutions of the various plot threads all feel deeply satisfying and deeply plausible. No one changes magically, but everyone changes a little.

If you enjoyed the excellent When You Reach Me, be prepared for a simpler, quieter story. That's what this is. It's also richly detailed and perfectly executed; I think I actually like this one a little more, despite (or maybe because of) its smaller scope. If you ever went to middle school, you will probably enjoy this. If you ever felt uncertain of the rules, you will almost certainly enjoy this. If you're a fan of writing that exudes truth and humanity, you will definitely enjoy this, so pick up a copy when it comes out on August 7th.

**Disclosure: I received a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.**

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Best YA Novels: The Winners!

To Recap:
On Tuesday, I spend much of my day agonizing over my choices for NPR's "Best-Ever Teen Novels" voting.  You can see my process for creating brackets, as well as my fantasy bracket and discussion of fantasy choices here, my dystopian/magical realism/science fiction bracket here, my contemporary bracket here and my classic/historical bracket here Today is the championship round!  Yes, all my votes have already been determined, but what's a bracket-based tournament without winners?

The Final Four:

Bracket:  Fantasy
Age when I first read it: 13
Why It Deserves To Be In My Final Four: Harry Potter changed the way young people related to reading.  Yes, lots of us were reading already, but suddenly the bookstore was COOL, at least once every few years.  Also, I was definitely in the first generation that grew up with Harry--I read the first book right before starting high school, and the seventh book came out when I was on my first grown-up vacation with Mr. S, right after I graduated from college.  I love knowing that so many more kids will continue to grow up with him.

Bracket:  Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction
Age when I first read it: 24
Why It Deserves To Be In My Final Four: I love The Hunger Games in two ways: as a reader, and as a teacher.  As a reader, I say it deserves to be here because it's the only book (as far as I can recall) that I've ever been able to finish and then immediately start reading again.  I've wanted to do that a bunch of times, but I get bored.  Not with this one.  As a teacher, I say it deserves to be here because it is very nearly the elusive silver bullet: 99 percent of students will read this book and like it.  And then 90 percent of them will read the sequels.  And then 80 percent of them will say, "What else do you have that's like The Hunger Games?"  And suddenly my library shelves are emptying out.  So it would win this competition on that alone--but I also really, really love the whole series as a reader.  

Bracket:  Contemporary
Age when I first read it: 26
Why It Deserves To Be In My Final Four:  Looking For Alaska is divided into two parts: before, and after.  There is a Thing That Happens and although this book is Kind of a Big Deal and although the Thing That Happens is a thing that happens all the time, in YA lit and in the world, I somehow managed not to know or guess what it would be and in fact I did not believe it for many pages after it did happen, sure that it was a mistake, much as I would have felt if it was a real thing in my real life.  It also made me cry on the subway, which happens more than I would like but still not that often.  Also, when I shoved it toward my students and said, "You guys need to read this so we can talk about it," one of them read it and gave a speech about it in her English class that made other students want to read it, which is pretty awesome.  

Bracket: Classic/Historical
Age when I first read it: So young I can't remember
Why It Deserves To Be In My Final Four: Anne Shirley taught me how to be a person who feels feelings all the time.  I mean, I have always been a person like that, but she showed me how to handle it, and she showed me that eventually the feelings that you are feeling RIGHT NOW will be replaced with other, different feelings.  Even when you've dyed your hair green by accident (her) or cut a big chunk of it off because it was tangled (me), you will get past it.  When you think your separation from your significant other will NEVER END AND IT WILL PROBABLY KILL YOU (that's both of us), you're right that it feels that way but wrong about the actual outcome, and you will probably wind up not only alive, but happily married (both of us again.)  Out of all the books on the list, these are definitely the ones that have had the biggest influence on me, personally.

 How It All Went Down:

That final match was an absolute killer--but while I allowed personal impact to guide a lot of my choices, I had to let the bigger picture be the tie-breaker here.  My students > me.  So ultimately, The Hunger Games series took first place, with my role model and BFF Anne Shirley taking the silver.  (And if I had to rank the runners-up, I'd probably have to say Harry takes the bronze.  I love you, John Green,'s Harry Potter.  I mean.)

In fact, here's my overall list, IN ORDER**:

1) The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (dystopian/magical realism/science fiction winner and overall winner)
2) The Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery (classic/historical winner and overall runner-up)
3) The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (fantasy winner)
4) Looking For Alaska by John Green (contemporary winner)
5) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (classic/historical runner-up)
6) Cinder by Marissa Meyer (fantasy runner-up)
7) The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth (dystopian/magical realism/science fiction runner-up)
8) How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr (contemporary runner-up)
9) The Scorpio Races (wildcard)
10) The Graceling series by Kristin Cashore (wildcard)

**What's a little weird, here, is that while I still think The Scorpio Races is my book of the year so far, there are a few books ahead of it that I read this year.  But they were divisional runners-up, and The Scorpio Races was a wildcard pick because it happened to be in the same division as the Hunger Games series and the Divergent series.  Yes, The Scorpio Races lost to The Book Thief and not the Hunger Games series; but then my gut chose it anyway.  That's what wildcards are for, in this competition.  That said, I felt obligated to my brackets at least a little bit, so my two wild cards are at the bottom of my top ten ranking.  I will also probably re-read several of these in December, prior to declaring an official Book of 2012.

Thanks for sticking with the nerdiest passion project ever!  And I'd love to hear where you disagree!  What were your top ten books?  If you had to pick a winner, what would it have been?  Which of these match-ups would you have called differently?

**CALL FOR GUEST POSTS: If you'd like to share your thoughts on any aspect of this NPR event--a bracket of your own, a discussion of your list, books you wish had made the list--email me at to set up a day within the next two weeks!** 

Other Brackets:
Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction

Friday, July 27, 2012

Best YA Novels: Classic/Historical

To Recap:
On Tuesday, I spend much of my day agonizing over my choices for NPR's "Best-Ever Teen Novels" voting.  You can see my process for creating brackets, as well as my fantasy bracket and discussion of fantasy choices here, my dystopian/magical realism/science fiction bracket here, and my contemporary bracket here.  Today is the final bracket: classics/historical novels.  I know that's sort of weird to lump together, but the math worked out, so, huzzah!

The Bracket: Classic/Historical

The Gut-Wrenchers: 

  •   The Jennifer Donnelly match-up (A Northern Light vs. Revolution) made me happy and sad at the same time.  I mean, it was cool that those books just fell in those seeds, but too bad that they couldn't both move on.  (If I'm really honest, I had to go back and pad out this bracket with a few books I read in school a million years ago and liked ok but didn't love.  Such is the inherent flaw of bracket-based systems.)  
  • Speak vs. the Anne of Green Gables series:  SO HARD.  But I've known Anne longer, and Anne was there for me time and time again (Occasional crazy temper in elementary school?  Check.  Being an ambitious but totally melodramatic teenager?  Check.  Struggling as a first-year teacher?  Check.  Long-distance relationship while you finish school and your husband-to-be is somewhere else?  Check.)  If I could nominate Laurie Halse Anderson for a compensatory Nobel Prize, I would. 
  • To Kill A Mockingbird vs. the Anne of Green Gables series.  For my money, To Kill A Mockingbird is the Great American Novel.  It just happened to go up against a Great Canadian Novel, which was the cause of its untimely demise.  If it went up against Code Name Verity...I mean, I really don't want to think about that (have you read Code Name Verity yet?) but it would have been a fairer fight, at least. 
The Upsets: 

  Weirdly, none.  I guess since most of these books have been around for so long, in some cases the cream has really risen to the top. That said, for a lot of these, it was really close.  Also, in this category more than any other, I think a lot of "OMG THIS IS THE BEST BOOK EVER" ratings were balanced out by a lot of "OMG MY STUPID TEACHER MADE ME READ THIS STUPID BOOK" ratings, which made the whole thing a little weird.  Seeds 1-3 are ones that are probably not assigned in classrooms too much so they may not suffer from that as much as the others.

The Votes From This Quarter (out of a total 10):

  • Anne of Green Gables series (winner)
  • Code Name Verity (runner-up)
Check back tomorrow for my winners and overall list!  And I'd love to hear where you disagree!  What classic/historical books from NPR's list would have made your top 16?  Which of these match-ups would you have called differently?

**CALL FOR GUEST POSTS: If you'd like to share your thoughts on any aspect of this NPR event--a bracket of your own, a discussion of your list, books you wish had made the list--email me at to set up a day within the next two weeks!** 

Other Brackets:
Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Best YA Novels: Contemporary

To Recap:
On Tuesday, I spend much of my day agonizing over my choices for NPR's "Best-Ever Teen Novels" voting.  You can see my process for creating brackets, as well as my fantasy bracket and discussion of fantasy choices here, and my dystopian/magical realism/science fiction bracket here.  Today is the contemporary bracket.  Spoiler alert: lots of John Green.

The Bracket: Contemporary

 The Gut-Wrenchers: 
  • Listen, I loved Looking For Alaska a lot a lot a lot.  So it's not that I really considered going the other way, but I was dismayed that it went up against Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, which surprised me: I had not expected to get so invested in it.  It's a really beautiful little book.  
  • Every single match-up in the second round.  Even when the answer was clear, all of those books were excellent, and I think they actually paired off kind of fittingly.  I've been thinking in particular about The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks: it has really stayed with me as a book that was deeply satisfying and perhaps needs to be upgraded to five stars on my Goodreads page.  (Actually, yeah.  Done.)    Of course Anna and Lola would go up against each other; I did not plan that but why not?   
  • I suspect picking How To Save A Life over TFIOS will be my most controversial choice, and maybe one that I would reverse if I re-read TFIOS like I've been meaning to...but How To Save A Life really did a number on me.
The Upsets: 

  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks vs. Paper Towns.  Again:  lots of love for everything John Green.  I really liked Paper Towns, actually.  But there's just something about Frankie.
  • Wintergirls vs. Thirteen Reasons Why.  The style of Wintergirls sealed the deal here.  Both books are incredibly thoughtful and moving investigations of teenagers with huge, huge problems; everyone everywhere should probably read them both.  But when forced to choose, I'll go with Laurie Halse Anderson's genius voice and the shifting, tilting world inside Lia's head.
  • Anna and the French Kiss vs. Lola and the Boy Next Door.  Both amazing.  Stephanie Perkins is the ultimate happy-contemporary-romance writer.  I loved creative, passionate, messy Lola just a little bit more than sweet, serious, tidy Anna (and, FWIW, Cricket is more my type than Etienne--I know, HERESY, but come on: supernerds FTW!)  So 6th-seeded Lola took the win over 3rd-seeded Anna.
  • And of course, the biggest upset, which I've already addressed: How To Save A Life (#8) over TFIOS (#1).  I am anxious about releasing this information onto the internet, because, real talk, even though I am 26 I still worry about what my friends will think of me sometimes and I want people to think I'm cool--and TFIOS is arguably the coolest book of the year.  But really, you must read How To Save A Life, if you haven't already.  I have my reasons.  (And hey--a John Green novel did win this division.  Just not that John Green novel.)
The Votes From This Quarter (out of a total 10):
  • Looking For Alaska (winner)
  • How To Save A Life (runner-up)
Check back throughout the week for the rest of the bracket and my overall list!  And I'd love to hear where you disagree!  What contemporary books from NPR's list would have made your top 16?  Which of these match-ups would you have called differently?

**CALL FOR GUEST POSTS: If you'd like to share your thoughts on any aspect of this NPR event--a bracket of your own, a discussion of your list, books you wish had made the list--email me at to set up a day within the next two weeks!** 

Other Brackets:
Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Best YA Novels: Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction

To Recap:
Yesterday, I spend much of my day agonizing over my choices for NPR's "Best-Ever Teen Novels" voting.  You can see my process for creating brackets, as well as my fantasy bracket and discussion of fantasy choices here.  Today is the weirdest bracket--this is the one where I think I was the most liberal with my classification, because there are a few on this list that don't fit easily into the other slots I came up with.  So please bear with me!

The Bracket: Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction

The Gut-Wrenchers: 
  • Right off the bat, Beauty Queens fell to The Hunger Games series.  It had to happen--but Beauty Queens  deserved to advance to at least the second round, I think.  It was an unfortunate match-up; I think both the pageant girls and the tributes would understand.
  • The Scorpio Races vs. The Giver series was a weird one.  See, if it had just been The Giver vs. The Scorpio Races, I would have had to give up on the bracket system entirely, or else just throw my computer out the window.  The Giver is one of my most beloved books of all time, ever, and The Scorpio Races is one of those books that just immediately latches on and feels like it was written just for me.  HOWEVER.  For some bizarre reason, it was entered as a series.  Now, it's true that it has two sequels.  And it's true that I'm salivating over the third sequel, which is coming out soon-ish.  But taken as a whole, I think they actually diminish the power of the first book, which is what allowed The Scorpio Races to take it by a nose. 
  • The Scorpio Races vs. The Book Thief was also really tough.  The Book Thief knocked my socks off in grad school, but I haven't read it since; however, some of my students have (points there) and also it stands out as a singularly sweeping and ambitious entry, especially for a standalone.  So I had to give it the benefit of the doubt.
  • Shatter Me vs. The Divergent series--so unfair!  Unravel Me isn't out yet, and I definitely felt like Insurgent was stronger than Divergent, or at least it made me love it more.  So, that accounts for that win, but the tables could totally be turned after the series are completed.  (OMG MUST READ SEQUELS.)
The Upsets:
  •  Across the Universe vs. Under The Never Sky.  I'm thinking two things:  the freezing business in Across the Universe freaked other people out even more than it freaked me out, and Perry is unquestionably hotter than Elder.   Somehow, though, Across The Universe really won me over (even when I try not to factor in A Million Suns, because for some reason Across the Universe was just on there as a standalone.)
  • Across the Universe vs. the Delirium series.  This one was trickier, because to me, the Delirium series is a really perfect example of dystopian story structure.  Like, that's my go-to model of how to build a dystopian narrative.  But I think Across the Universe edged out a win because the stakes felt even higher: generations born and manipulated within the walls of one spaceship, plus Amy's desire to ever see her parents again just barely wins over an operation to obliterate feelings.  But it's a tough match.
The Votes From This Quarter (out of a total 10)
  • The Hunger Games series (winner)
  • The Divergent series (runner-up)
  • The Scorpio Races (wildcard)  
Check back throughout the week for the rest of the bracket and my overall list!  And I'd love to hear where you disagree!  What dystopian/magical realism/science fiction books from NPR's list would have made your top 16?  Which of these match-ups would you have called differently?

**CALL FOR GUEST POSTS: If you'd like to share your thoughts on any aspect of this NPR event--a bracket of your own, a discussion of your list, books you wish had made the list--email me at to set up a day within the next two weeks!** 

Other Brackets:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Best YA Novels: Process and Fantasy Bracket

So, as many of you may already know, NPR is attempting to create a crowd-sourced list of the 100 best YA novels of all time.  After getting suggestions from readers and consulting with some experts, they have produced a list of 235 finalists, from which readers are invited to vote for ten.


So, needless to say: there were tears and spreadsheets, science and magic, and my very favorite decision-making tool--the bracket.

Let's break it down a little.

The Process

1) Look through the entire list.  Freak out.

2) Open up a Google Doc spreadsheet and create four columns: Contemporary, Classic/Historical, Fantasy, and Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction.  (You may choose different categories; these are the result of some tinkering in order to get them to come out evenly.)

3) Start sorting possibilities into lists.  Shuffle and go back for additional titles as needed.  (I found that my classic/historical list came up the shortest.  Hey, weak brackets happen.)

4) "Seed" each list using the highly flawed, deeply problematic, super-simple average Goodreads rating.  Wish you had a stats background so you could factor in the number of ratings and the fact that series collections tend to be much higher rated than the average of the books in the series.  Realize you have other things to do today and just add the average ratings to your spreadsheet, already.

5) Create a bracket (I used with all your choices.

6) Have several heart attacks while deciding between books you love like family members.  The final 8 get automatic votes, with two wild card spots to alleviate some of the heart-attackage.

7) Vote.  Try to remember that books don't have feelings, and you haven't actually betrayed your best friends.

The Bracket: Fantasy

 The Gut-Wrenchers
This was by far the toughest bracket for me.  The His Dark Materials/Graceling Series matchup nearly killed me.  In the end, neither of those made it to the final eight--but the Graceling series got one of my wild card votes.  The Goose Girl vs. Cinder made me sad too; I have a lot of love for The Goose Girl.  Oh, and Girl of Fire And Thorns.  I was surprised to learn that fantasy is apparently my favorite genre overall;  it didn't make the final match-up but it had a lot more mid-level contenders than any of the others.

The Upsets
  • The Graceling series ranked well below the His Dark Materials series; HDM has been around a lot longer, but both have opposition coming from some conservative/religious groups.  As Mr. S commented, though, HDM really is of a different era, and all told, I find Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue more than a match for Lyra.  
  • The Goose Girl ranked higher than Cinder, which surprised me, but when I look back I realize it's actually a pretty small margin separating them.  Cinder is much newer but I think higher profile, while The Goose Girl may not have as much hype to live up to, but has had years to quietly rack up good reviews.
  • The Princess Bride vs. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was an interesting match; it's another one where something really recent was up against something from an earlier era.  The Princess Bride is a classic; Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a celebrated newcomer.  I'm finding that, in fantasy, at least, I tend to go with the newer stuff.
The Votes From This Quarter (out of a total 10):
  • Harry Potter Series (winner)
  • Cinder (runner-up)
  • Graceling Series (wildcard)
Check back throughout the week for the rest of the bracket and my overall list!  And I'd love to hear where you disagree!  What fantasy books from NPR's list would have made your top 16?  Which of these match-ups would you have called differently?

**CALL FOR GUEST POSTS: If you'd like to share your thoughts on any aspect of this NPR event--a bracket of your own, a discussion of your list, books you wish had made the list--email me at to set up a day within the next two weeks!** 

Other Brackets:
Dystopian/Magical Realism/Science Fiction


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Life Gets In The Way Edition

So...another two-book week.  What have I been doing this whole time?  PACKING.  I've packed 25 boxes so far--and, the part that makes my former stage-manager self very happy--I have a spreadsheet listing every item in every box.  Down to the book and movie titles.  So you can bet my first project in our new home (after unpacking, of course) will be to cull the book titles from that list and make a library catalog for our apartment.  (Of course, as the move approaches, we'll see if this holds up.  But with nearly a month left, this feels sustainable.)

I've also been visiting family this weekend, while Mr. S finishes studying for the Bar Exam (two days from now!)  So I've been having a great time--and I think he's just wishing Thursday (the day after the exam!) would hurry up and get here.

In my travels, though, I managed to read and review (well, "review", meaning "ramble at length about") Shannon Hale's excellent Princess Academy and the soon-to-be-released sequel, Palace of Stone.   I highly recommend these for any girls in your life, ages 10 (or younger, especially as a readaloud) to [insert your age here]. 

What I Read This Week:

Princess Academy (Princess Academy, #1)Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a fantastic read! I had read this one before, when one of my younger students was reading it--I had no intention of loving a book named Princess Academy but I like to read books my students are reading, so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be a really wonderful story, appropriate for young kids but not at all written "down" to them. Miri, the heroine, is fourteen when the story starts, and it has many hallmarks of a YA fantasy--a group of girls from a remote town are groomed for the chance to become the next princess. So there's (light, sweet) romance, and a lot about the girls' evolving relationships with their peers as they bond even as the competition heats up. But Miri is concerned with more than the prince--she is also coming to terms with her place in her family and her community. The outcome surprised and delighted me my first time through, and it continues to delight me now. In true fairy-tale style, people get what they deserve, but the satisfaction I feel at the ending has as much to do with societal infrastructure as it does with hand-holding. I can't wait to finally find out what happens next; I'll be posting a review of the sequel in the next few days, and it's officially out a month from today!

Palace of Stone (Princess Academy #2)Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot can change in a year! Palace of Stone feels like a markedly different book from Princess Academy--not in quality, but in age. While it remains appropriate for fairly young readers (some scary/violent scenes, a little more intense than the first book, but nothing too graphic) the concerns of the book have shifted and Miri is suddenly shouldering many more burdens. This makes the whole book feel a little more YA where the first straddled the YA-MG border a bit more.


With Britta in the big city, preparing for her wedding to Prince Steffan, and Katar working as the delegate from Mount Eskel, Miri and some of the other girls leave the mountain for the first time and quickly find themselves ensconced in court. All of the girls (and Peder!) find new things to learn: music, medicine, craftsmanship. Miri, however, is sent to the university and finds herself overwhelmed by all there is to learn. She also finds herself in the middle of a revolution. Miri being Miri, and coming from a town of impoverished laborers, she supports the revolutionary ideals, but is dismayed to find that her friendship with Britta is considered incompatible with the revolution. She must figure out a balance that will allow her to help her town, her kingdom, and her best friend.[With Britta in the big city, preparing for her wedding to Prince Steffan, and Katar working as the delegate from Mount Eskel, Miri and some of the other girls leave the mountain for the first time and quickly find themselves ensconced in court. All of the girls (and Peder!) find new things to learn: music, medicine, craftsmanship. Miri, however, is sent to the university and finds herself overwhelmed by all there is to learn. She also finds herself in the middle of a revolution. Miri being Miri, and coming from a town of impoverished laborers, she supports the revolutionary ideals, but is dismayed to find that her friendship with Britta is considered incompatible with the revolution. She must figure out a balance that will allow her to help her town, her kingdom, and her best friend. (hide spoiler)]

One of Miri's biggest concerns is how to make her new opportunities work for everyone she cares about. She is well aware that she is one of just a few from Mount Eskel to ever go down the mountain, and even of those, she is the only one to formally continue her studies. This idea really weighs on her--that she has to get as much education as she can before she goes home, because her people will only ever get as much as she can pass along to them. Thinking like this, Miri seems much more like an adult; even in Princess Academy when Miri tries to bring about improvements for her village, she is much more hesitant because she knows she is seen as a child. She has really grown in this book and doesn't blink at the idea that suddenly she is responsible for not just Mount Eskel but also for keeping the peace in all of Danland. This broader scope really appealed to me, and I thought Shannon Hale did a great job weaving in the principles of popular revolution, along with some new twists and turns for the characters. I found this to be a really satisfying expansion of Miri's story, one that was well worth the long wait.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Up-And-Comers

This week's Sunday Sunshine covers a few cool upcoming releases I read through NetGalley and Edelweiss, and best of all--they'll all be available within the next month! 

What I Read This Week: 

Glitch (Glitch, #1)Glitch by Heather Anastasiu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I guess I'll start from the beginning: it took me quite a while to get into this book. I can't tell exactly how much of it, since I read it as an e-galley, but definitely a big chunk of the book passed before the first "whoah" moment. But then there was that first "whoah" moment, and in short order a second, and a third. By the end they were coming pretty fast and I'm definitely curious about what happens next.

A little bit about what actually happens, with as few spoilers as possible: Zoe (or "Subject Zoel", as she is officially known) lives in a community where everyone is connected through computer chips in their brains. Then one day her chip starts glitching. Basic enough, right? Ok. Then she finds out that she is not alone. And when she meets others like her, she starts to learn secrets about her world and the people who control it. (I'm not great at summary and also don't want to give away any of the "whoah" moments. But this much, I figure, is just sort of genre standard.)

In the interest of writing a balanced and honest review (and explaining what made this a three-star read--which, it bears repeating, means "liked it" and is still, on the balance, solidly positive), I will mention that two things bugged me a little: one was the slang terms, which felt a little arbitrary and which were used more often than I would have liked (BUT which did signal a plot element at one point, so I at least see the purpose) and the other was a little bit of InstaLove (although I guess if you'd never felt feelings before, and suddenly you FELT ALL THE FEELINGS, that kind of thing could happen.) So, not huge issues, but ones which I'm hoping will ease up a bit in the second book. (Yes, I did like this one enough that I plan to read the second book.)

NOW, the good stuff! The moments when I thought this book really stood out were some of the big reveals and action sequences. In particular, the first thing that made me sit up and take notice was one of the most horrifying action sequences I've ever read. Heather Anastasiu, I want you to know that I will be having nightmares based on your words, so, well done there. I was also impressed with the number and variety of obstacles thrown at the characters, particularly Zoe. They were never allowed to get comfortable for too long, and I thought the twists and turns were often surprising (I gasped at least once, having been caught totally off-guard in the best way--the "oh my god DUH" way) and definitely made me want to keep reading. That's hard to do and I think it was managed pretty deftly here once the story really got flowing.

To sum up: if you're a fan of stories about dystopian societies with heavy romantic elements, give this a shot, and be patient if the first few chapters don't grab you. Once this one hits its stride, it plays out really well, and I think the potential conflict that's set up by the end could make for an even better second book.

Something Strange and Deadly (Something Strange and Deadly #1)Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh man, I just finished this book, and my pulse is racing. I am slowly starting to come around to the idea that I think zombie books are pretty awesome. This one is a little different from others I've encountered, though, in that the zombies are created and controlled by a necromancer--they're not contagious, just terrifying. I was a little iffy on that twist at first, because I *am* a little bit worn out on books with dark magic plots. Ultimately, though, I thought it was really well set up and it definitely worked for me. I don't want to give anything away, because this book definitely surprised me a couple of times. It took me a little while to get into it but for the last two-thirds or so I couldn't put it down. You may not know that you're a fan of steampunk zombie mysteries, but once you read this, you will be!

Between You & MeBetween You & Me by Marisa Calin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm so all over the place on this one. I think it does a lot of big things well, certainly, and I would recommend it for plenty of people. On the other hand...there were some things that bugged me.

1) This book depicts the feelings of a teenage girl who is dealing with a crush on a teacher--a female teacher--when previously she has only had experience with boys her age. While I am a bit touchy about anything that even remotely resembles teacher-student relationships that cross the line, I thought this book handled Phyre's feelings in a way that realistic and sympathetic while also making clear that Mia (the teacher) cared deeply about Phyre as a student--and nothing more. I appreciated the deft handling of what could be really tricky subject matter, and I give bonus points for working in the especially strange and often intense bond student actors sometimes feel with their adult directors (here I'm relating through my own remembered experiences on the student side; my directors and theater teachers rivaled only my parents in terms of influence in my teenage life.)

2) This book did pretty well, I thought, in portraying the way high school theater works; I draw the line at the swimming pool, which I didn't totally think was necessary, but fine--there's no indication that this school district is in any way cash-strapped, so maybe they did go crazy and build a swimming pool in the stage, what do I know (no amount of time will lessen the bitterness my perpetually broke inner-city high school peers and I felt toward the ritzy suburban high school ten minutes away. There were rumors that while I was devoting my Saturdays to building rickety staircases and re-painting old flats for our sets, the suburban kids were doing Titanic the musical with a hydraulic mechanism to sink the ship right into the stage.) But I liked the degree to which the play actually shaped the way Phyre thought about things; that's definitely something I experienced.

3)POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD; ONLY AS MUCH AS YOU CAN READ IN THE GOODREADS SUMMARY, BUT HEY, NOW YOU'VE BEEN WARNED (loudly, sorry for that.) I liked the screenplay and play-within-a-screenplay formats, if only as a novelty--I believe that a kid like Phyre would tell her story that way. That rang true. And I like the idea of the ambiguously-gendered, second-person best friend--but I wish that I hadn't been told from the beginning that the character could be read either way. (I thought maybe that was just the note at the front of the ARC, and that the finished copy wouldn't do that, so I was going to leave it out of my review--but then I realized it's right there in the Goodreads summary. So, the cat's outta the bag, I guess.) I think I would have loved to realize that at the end--like, hey, this character that you thought was a [gender 1]? Could have been a [gender 2], couldn't it? It's a cool device and a lot of care was taken with it. However, going in with that primed in my brain--I couldn't decide. It was a little like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book and checking out all the choices before actually turning to a page (which, ok, I did all the time; yes, I know that's cheating at books; sue me.) So I wound up doing double readings of each scene as I went, where I think I would have preferred to read the whole book again after realizing there was another option. OK, SPOILERS ARE DONE NOW.

In short--this is definitely a story worth reading. I actually talked myself up a star while writing this review, because as I thought back over the story I realized how much I liked. A few distracting things don't take away from a really original, truthful story, and I would recommend this to the following groups of people:

--theater people, especially people who were theater people in high school
--anyone who's been confused about their feelings toward someone
--anyone who's felt ignored by someone they cared about
--anyone who's ever realized they were being a jerk to someone they cared about
--so, basically, all the people, because if you show me someone who says that none of the above apply to him/her, I'll show you a liar.

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**Disclosure: I received free e-galleys of all three of these books in exchange for honest reviews.**


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Awesome Alert: YA Highway 3rd Anniversary Giveaway!

You guys.  Do you like books?  (If did you get here?!?)  I thought so. 

Run, don't walk, to YA Highway's 3rd Anniversary Giveaway!  I don't know why WE get the chance to win such awesome prizes for THEIR birthday...but frankly, I'm ok with that confusion.  Because the prizes are that great.  SO MANY ARCS.  Also books.  And critiques.  And the grand prize is your choice of  a Nook or Kindle. 

But since it's their birthday, I thought I'd also use this post to celebrate them a little bit.  After all, they do bring us together as a community with features like Road Trip Wednesday and the YA Highway Bookmobile!  They offer all kinds of tips for writers: practical ones like this article about how to ALWAYS back up your work, craft-related ones, like this article that gives Four Steps to Nailing Your Character's Voice, and then ones that will help you become not just a better writer, but frankly, a better citizen of this planet, like this fantastic article about how to speak to people about the ways in which they are different from you.   And on top of all that, they serve up a weekly digest of  everything interesting that has happened on THE ENTIRE REST OF THE INTERNET every Friday. 

So, here's to many happy returns, YA Highway!  Thanks for all the hard work--it's definitely appreciated by your fellow YA bloggers!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

RTW: Book-To-Movie Successes

I totally love this week's Road Trip Wednesday prompt--it's something about which I have very strong feelings.

What movie have you seen that actually (gasp!) improved on the book?

I like how positive they are, so I will try not to spend this entire post loudly complaining about blonde girls playing brunette characters (Shirley Temple and Liesel Matthews, I'm looking at you guys.  Sara Crewe did. not. have. blonde. ringlets.)


Instead, I'll talk about a trend I've noticed--the weirder and more whimsical the book, the more I love the movie.

So, naturally, a few of my favorites are adaptations of Roald Dahl books.

 1) Matilda.  This might be my all-time favorite movie based on a book (depending on whether we're counting Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows as a movie or a miniseries.)  However, like Anne of Green Gables, and also like Little Women (the one with Winona Ryder), I love the book so much that I'm not sure it's right for today's post.  In all three of those cases, I feel like the movie is worthy of the book--but can I say better?  I don't know.

2) Ok, here's one where there was no contest for me as a kid.  The movie is hands down better than the book.  It is also terrifying.  I found the book a little hard to follow and therefore kind of slow-moving.  That said, we're talking about my experience when I was like, six, so I may owe the book another go.  (The movie, on the other hand, has continued to hold up over twenty years of frequent viewing.)

3) My winner today is surprisingly not a Roald Dahl adaptation.  It's an Ian Fleming adaptation.  "Oh," you're thinking, "one of the James Bond movies, huh?  Interesting, interesting--"


It's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

 I tried to read this book as a kid.  I really tried.  I wanted to love it.  But I just couldn't.  BUT THEN.  I must have borrowed the VHS tape from the library, I think--we certainly never owned it--then I discovered the bizarre glory of this movie.  Whistling sweets, a flying car, Dick van Dyke pretending to be a wind-up toy...I can't even.


That's right--Roald Dahl.  So, kid, the moral of today's story is that Roald Dahl is the king of book-to-movie adaptations.  Whatever you're doing on this fine summer afternoon, raise a glass of lemonade or snozzberry juice or whatever to the very pleasantly deranged and dearly departed Mr. Dahl.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Awesome Alert: "Among The Nameless Stars"

Go here!  Download!  Read!

This is just a quick post to alert everyone that Diana Peterfreund, in addition to writing the excellent For Darkness Shows the Stars (which I reviewed here), has also written a short prequel, which is available FREE on her website.  It covers some of the time that Kai and Elliot spent apart, and it is pretty wonderful.  And let me tell you--I have a mind like a sieve, and two weeks after reading a book, usually the details are GONE.  But I started reading "Among the Nameless Stars" and found that the whole world was just waiting there in my head like I had never left.  I so hope for more in this universe--it's so vivid and unique.  Anyway, enjoy!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

(Early) Sunday Sunshine: Heat Wave Edition!

Have I already had a Heat Wave Edition?  I don't remember.  It's been a pretty warm summer so far here in New York City, but these last few days it's been "don't leave the apartment" hot.  Thank you, air conditioners, for your excellent work.

Anyway, I've been doing a lot of fun indoor stuff this week, and I've been making sure to include plenty of reading.  Really, you can only play so many computer games,

and you can only watch so many episodes of ludicrous ABC Family original programming on Netflix.


And trust me, I've been getting at least 300% of my recommended daily allowance of both of those things.  But in between, I've read several delightful books:

What I Read This Week:

One for the MurphysOne for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. This book packs a punch. Most of the contemporary I read is pitched, I think, at slightly older readers, so it was different for me to read a book that focused entirely on family and friendship without even a glimmer of romance. In One For The Murphys, Carley Connors finds herself thrust into a foster family that she desperately wants to be part of--and she can't stand how great they seem. Carley is a prickly, clever, mercurial twelve-year-old, and she is clearly a product of her life before the Murphys. Her mother, who calls her in school to sing "Happy Birthday" at the moment of her birth, and who has midnight song-and-dance parties with her, is in the hospital after doing something unforgivable. Carley doesn't want to be around her--but she doesn't want to accept Mrs. Murphy's over-the-top kindness, either.

I was completely drawn into this story by the end of the second chapter. It was a very quick read for me because I was so absorbed. What could read like a movie-of-the-week is elevated far beyond that with characters who feel three-dimensional (even the four-year-old talks like a real four-year-old; exaggerated baby talk is a pet peeve of mine but Michael Eric Murphy passes the test.) Nothing is ever 100%; the characters aren't "good guys" or "bad guys" (well, except Carley's stepdad, who remains off-page) and the situations resolve in ways that feel realistic (and had me reaching for the Kleenex.)

I would heartily recommend this to anyone in middle school or older who wants a powerful, non-sappy story about what it means to be a friend or a family. Adult readers who have worked with children, or have children of their own, will be especially moved by Julie Murphy, I think. (I know I was. I want to know her.)

**Disclosure: I won a copy from the YAMazing Race, organized by The Apocalypsies. This is my honest review of the book.**

Anna and the French KissAnna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eeeek! (I don't really love the word "squee", but I mean, I guess it's appropriate here.) I can't stop grinning. What a fantastic read. Stephanie Perkins writes what it feels like to be falling for someone SO WELL. And what it feels like when that gets complicated. And when you're trying to make new friends. And when you're awkward and confused and don't know what to do. And when you think everything is wrong. And when you find out everything is right.

Other people have talked about this book way better. But (to quote Jon Stewart talking about Bruce Springsteen) "if you like joy" (or other emotions, they're pretty much all in here), go read Anna and the French Kiss. It's a perfect summer read.

Lola and the Boy Next DoorLola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I. Love. Lola. Nolan. Anna and the French Kiss was a great book, and I finished it in a day. Lola and the Boy Next Door was an even better book--the kind I kept putting down after a few chapters because I didn't want it to end. (Still, it only took three days. Sigh.) Lola is such a fabulous protagonist--she screws things up in such REAL ways, but she's someone I would be friends with for sure. Her screw-ups don't condemn her to "bad person" status--sometimes she is a bad friend/girlfriend/daughter/employee/whatever, and sometimes (more often) she is a good one. She is one of the most authentic-feeling characters I've ever read. And what's more--the people around her are the same. Her best friend Lindsay, in particular, is a good-but-not-perfect friend. Both girls annoy each other sometimes, and hurt each other sometimes, and it's not end-of-the-world-level drama, because they've been friends forever and they both really care about each other, so they get past it.

Cricket Bell, on the other hand...well, he might be a little too perfect. But I guess I can live with that. Twist my arm. GEEZ is this guy a dreamboat.

I also have to give points to St. Clair and Anna (but really St. Clair in particular) for speaking up for the "easy" relationship. Growing up, as I did, on a steady diet of romantic comedies (R.I.P. Nora Ephron), I briefly labored under the delusion that real love has to be complicated on like, an epic scale. Then I met my husband and realized that actually, relationships that make both people really happy most of the time, that are "easy" (well, relatively; all relationships take work) and drama-free--those relationships are pretty great. And those relationships are really underrepresented in literature, film, and television (which I understand; you need conflict to tell a story), so it was really nice to see one here.

Stephanie Perkins, I'm sold. You're going on my "must read" list: Maggie Stiefvater, John Green, Kristin Cashore, Libba Bray--and you. Good company, yes? (Yes. Very yes.)

Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know what I expected. Whatever it was, I was wrong. In turns eerie, gripping, funny/sad, bizarre, and heartbreaking, Where Things Come Back is probably the closest in style to contemporary adult literary fiction of any YA book I've read. I say that last piece not as a value judgement, but simply to note that it felt different than anything I've read lately. There was a moment, about three-quarters of the way through this book, when I was suddenly seized with the notion that perhaps everyone else in the world had disappeared--and it felt really plausible after being submerged in the world of Lily, Arkansas and Cullen Witter.

I won't try to summarize Where Things Come Back; I'm bad at summarizing under the best circumstances. But I can tell you that it's about loss, faith, belief, community, and perception. I read it in one afternoon; I recommend that method, as long as you have an afternoon plus some recovery time. This book didn't make me cry but it did make me feel truly anxious and confused in ways that I found really satisfying.

Oh, for Pete's sake, it won the Printz: more coherent people than me have written about it, so you can look for their reviews--or you can just go read it.

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Waiting in the Wings:

I have a bunch of titles on Netgalley that are about to pass the all-important "30 days to publication" marker, so in the next few weeks I'll be giving them priority.  I don't want to mention titles here because I don't post reviews unless I can honestly give at least three stars, but check in next Sunday to hear about some upcoming releases!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Great Expectations

It's summer--and you know what that means!  Time for some great beach reads!

There is a box of books hurtling towards me as we speak (by LASERSHIP, which is the coolest name for any kind of shipping ever, and which I will totally miss when I leave Manhattan, because it gets B&N orders to me in like a DAY):

Now, you may be thinking, hey--one of these things is not like the other!  And, ok, SURE, I guess you're right.  But I'm pretty psyched for all three.  I mentioned before that I'm reading Great Expectations with a few of my students this summer, and I did in fact set up a blog for my notes.  I'm hoping to get some other contributors--I'd love for my students to contribute, but it IS their summer vacation and they ARE already reading a Dickens novel for fun, so I think they've already earned their readerly "cred" for the summer.  If anyone wants to follow along and share thoughts in the comments, awesome; if anyone wants to guest-post, awesomer.

You can find the blog here:
Great Expectations Readalong

But I'll still be blogging and reviewing here.  This is just a little internet experiment, so if it's not your thing...then, carry on!  Nothing to see here!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: End of the School Year Edition

Since this was the last week of school/first week of summer vacation, I had a strange (but lovely) week of reading.

What I Read This Week:

 Dash & Lily's Book of DaresDash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a really fun read. I read Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist at the beginning of the school year, and LOVED it, so I was excited to read another book by the same authors. While I think I prefer Nick and Norah to Dash and Lily, there was a lot that I really enjoyed about this one. First of all, it was set in and around my neighborhood. A few pretty memorable encounters take place in Washington Square Park (which I walked through twice today) and Dash even goes to my supermarket (Morton Williams) on an ill-fated yogurt run.

I liked Dash and Lily--I feel like I would really have loved them when I was in high school, especially Lily--but I found that I liked the supporting characters better. I especially liked Dash's exuberant friend Boomer (I'm pretty sure at least 3/4 of his sentences ended with exclamation points) and Lily's great-aunt Ida, aka Mrs. Basil E.

This is a great Christmas story, and a great New York City story. If you're in the mood for one of those, you can't go wrong with this one.

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, I decided I should re-read the source material. I like Persuasion better every time I read it, which I think has everything to do with the fact that the first time I read it, I was in college. As Goodreads points out, Anne Elliot is the oldest of Jane Austen's heroines. She's in her late twenties, and had an Austen-esque love affair when she was younger--but it didn't have the traditional happy ending. Persuasion picks up several years later, when Anne has had some time to reflect. Many of Austen's heroines are marked by greater thoughtfulness and maturity than those around them, but they still get to experience the first-big-love thing on the page. Anne's story is a bit different, which I think is why it took me a while to warm up to it. Now, though, I really enjoy Anne's sightly older and wiser take on everything. In particular, I think Anne's relationship with Lady Russell is really interesting. Anne's always looked up to and respected Lady Russell, especially because Anne's mother died when Anne was 14. Lady Russell is presented as a generally sensible, likable character--but we get to see Anne realize that that "sensible and likable" does not equal "infallible".

And of course, there's all the usual Austen: a whole range of goofy, outsized, occasionally vile, occasionally wonderful characters, and a slow-burning, swoonworthy romance. Oh, and an amazing letter. I definitely recommend this to Austen lovers...just know that it's a quieter novel than her others.

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