Unabridged Chick

I'm Audra, a 30-something married lesbian. I love interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.
The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

Captivated until the last chapter; the end didn't do it for me however. It felt incomplete. (I haven't read Gulliver's Travels, which I think this is modeled on; perhaps that's how it ends?)

An incredibly readable literary novel. Touches of magical realism with flat out realism; imaginative smudging with the historical timeline, too. Cora is an appealing heroine, and the chapters we weren't with her were the loneliest for me. (Her mother's chapter, however, oh lord, that one killed me.)

Torn about "enjoying" this one; I'm still haunted by Kara Brown's Jezebel article "I'm So Damn Tired of Slave Movies":

" I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient."

It's different, of course, from a film made by white folks, but I still wonder if I'm feeding that machine. Need to sit with this a little and figure out the thornier parts. But a good novel, an accessible one. In this year of #blacklivesmatter, Whitehead articulates the various ways America allows black lives to matter -- they don't; or they do if they are sterilized or experimented on; or they do if they accept the word of God; or, if, if if...

From a third into the novel: "...one might think one's misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality."

Almost, but not quite...

Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal

The basic gist of this book is Jane Austen with magic, which pretty much sold me, and it's been on my TBR since its 2010 release. In the meantime, I've loaded up on Kowal's short fiction, which I love, and have been gobbling up her writing advice via her fab writing craft podcast, Writing Excuses.

Sadly, all that time waiting lead me to an anticipation that this novel just couldn't meet. It's a fluffy fun Austen homage, breezy and brisk, but felt too short and a little too thin for my tastes.

There's a mishmash of Austen elements in this novel, from Pride and Prejudice to Emma, and it's a very fun to see what threads Kowal includes. Our heroine, Jane Ellsworth is not pretty, but gifted in the arts and skills of a proper woman, including working glamour -- magic. Her sister Melody is pretty. Their mother is a hysterical hypochondriac. Jane fancies their neighbor, Mr Dunkirk, and charms his younger sister -- who seems to be having a fling with someone she shouldn't. The moody and broody Mr. Vincent, gifted glamourist, finds offense in everything Jane does. In the end, Jane behaves as no Austen heroine would (hooray!) and is justly rewarded.

The use of magic here is very mundane -- decorative elements, some cosmetic -- and at times I forgot I was reading a fantasy, it felt so natural. Fantasy can be very hit or miss for me, but I liked the light touches and especially enjoyed the societal implications of magic -- a domestic art, to be sure, but ultimately the grand works and admiration go to the rare men who make it their craft. Still, I wanted more: more about the characters, more about glamour, more about Jane's world. (Although the hardcover is 300 pages, I swear the formatting is what gave it that page count -- this read so quickly!)

There are five books set in this world, following Jane, and I'm already on the third one.(The second book reads entirely different from this one -- less Austen-y and more ambigu-Regency, which is fine by me.)

I feel like this review is damning with faint praise, and perhaps it is. If this were a standalone, I would probably be unhappier than I am, but the remaining four books make me feel a little forgiving -- I can still try to gobble up the details I'm hungering for. Other readers may not feel so kind!

Cutesy fangirling over Anne Bronte

The Madwoman Upstairs - Catherine Lowell

This is the kind of book that gets the cutesy adjectives thrown at it -- quirky, charming, playful, breezy -- and they're all apt. This is a quirky, charming, playful, and breezy read, a kind of chick-lit-y coming-of-age story that did, I confess, occasionally kill me with the snark, but ultimately had me sighing with satisfaction as I closed it.

Our narrator, Samantha Whipple, is that last living descendant of the Brontes, and is newly arrived at Oxford University where she plans to study modern literature.

Homeschooled by her brilliant but unconventional father, novelist Tristian Whipple, Samantha is an odd duck who has a love/hate relationship with her famous ancestors. Her father's obsessive study of their writings combined with the public's insatiable curiosity about them has Samantha wanting to do anything but study them -- but they immediately intrude into her life. Copies of her father's books -- thought to have been destroyed in the fire that killed him -- appear at her doorstep, and her family's nemesis, the caretaker of the Bronte's Haworth home, nags her for a meeting. Add in a crush for her prickly, brilliant tutor and an insta-hate relationship with an Oxford professor who seems to see her only at her worst, and Samantha has a very full -- but entertaining -- plate.

I will admit upfront that two things made me bonkers while reading this book. One, Samantha is a non-stop font of sarcasm and glib one-liners. They're amazing and hilarious but extremely tiresome in large doses, and at moments, I felt like her tart testiness and wry zingers were actually a bit mature for her -- she made observations that didn't quite feel true for a 19/20 year old homeschooled girl. And two, Lowell unloads mystery after mystery without revealing the answer to any for almost two-thirds of the book, which was exhausting -- I just wanted some relief from the wondering and mystification!

Still, I could not put this book down. The mysteries unfolded deliciously, surprising me, and I found myself sighing a little over the romance. It was the perfect mix of nerdiness, silliness, and drama, and I can't recommend it enough for this summer. The lingering memory of this read makes me smile, and I'm almost contemplating a reread one sunny weekend this summer!

Book Review: The Jane and Bertha In Me

The Jane and Bertha in Me - Rita Maria Martinez

In my ongoing (but entirely accidental) Year of Eyre, this collection of poetry fits perfectly. It has a fierce, unapologetic, and wildly imaginative nature, mixing feminist critique and pop culture with an unabashed love for Charlotte Bronte and her classic novel.

In this book, Martinez evokes the multitudes of Janes and Berthas that exist now: Janes that are heroines and Janes that are doormats; Berthas who are misunderstood and Berthas who need major therapy and meds. Undoubtedly, one can find a Jane or Bertha in this collection that echoes the woman one sees in the novel; the others will challenge and provoke (and undoubtedly polarize), and it's this edgy, reckless collage of personalities that I found most enjoyable.

There are more than 35 poems, divided into three sections. Some take on the "legacy" of beloved authors, like in her piece "Postmortem Lament for Charlotte":

You’re a commodity now. They will pillage your life.
They will raid the closets of your memory—
auctioning, trading, and stealing your correspondence
for posterity, entertainment, or several hundred pounds.
Everyone will know you had the hots for your French
teacher because his wife will salvage your ripped
scrawl from the trash and stitch the pieces together with cotton
and gum.

Others are more outrageous and button-pushing (and polarising!), as Martinez gives new voice -- and interpretation -- to the characters in Jane Eyre. From "Rochester Triptych":

At first it was curiosity, whim.
I wanted to know if she was a private
school girl with public school pizzazz,
fire and ice, you know the kind:
ankle-length skirts, panties optional.

Tenacious of life, eager plums,
these Lowood girls.

and "Blanche Ingram’s Bitterness":

Their engagement portrait and my modeling pics are smeared
across the tabloids like bird shit on a windshield.

That smug mug, Miss Hoytoytoy’s blotchy pinched face
makes me puke. Never trust anyone named Jane—

especially a loose tooth who futzes with her fork
and doesn’t know how to butter her bread.

Good riddance to him and his French freeloader,
says mom. You’re in the bloom of youth, honey bunny.

Martinez includes a "glossary" identifying some of the figures she quotes from or name drops in her pieces, which is helpful, as well as a Notes section with sources for her quotes or poetic inspiration.

As someone who doesn't love Jane Eyre, I appreciated the less-than-flattering reinterpretation of Jane and Rochester throughout this collection. Fans of the novel might take umbrage, but there might be something here that clicks as well.

Underwhelming sci-fi-ish thriller

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

I tend to manage about one sci-fi-ish novel a year; I'd been so desperately excited for this one and was thrilled when I landed a review copy.

In the end, this wasn't the oh-my-god-whaaaat?! story I'd hoped for, but it was an entertaining, light sci-fi/speculative-ish read that was quick, easy, and fun to consume over the weekend.

The premise is pretty simple: a young girl discovers a giant metal hand buried in the earth, and eleven years later, finds herself the head of the scientific team charged with unlocking the secrets of this massive, mysterious artifact. Unsurprisingly, figuring it out is more than just quiet research in a lab, and the search for answers spans the planet and causes international drama.

The story unfolds through "found documents" -- interview transcripts, articles, communiques, that kind of thing -- and through this we learn not just about the strange object, but the key people involved. There's just a small handful of characters we follow, from the nameless figure who manages the endeavor, the two military personnel who assist the lead scientist, to the brilliant linguist who is one of the keys to solving everything.

While the plot was fun, my big quibble was with the characters. There's a brilliant pilot who is admired and respected for her exception skills, but she's got the personality of a petulant, defensive teenager. Every interaction she's featured in, she's so bratty and combative it almost killed the story for me. She's got an immediate connection with the brilliant linguist, who ends up being the only one with any real back story, but he's so perfect it's hard not to read him as a Gary Stu.

This was originally a self-pubbed offering that got a traditional publisher after it was optioned for film (full story) and I don't know how much, if any, of the book changed between the self-published version and this one, released by Del Rey.

This is the first in what will be a trilogy (siiiiiigh) and it was fun enough I'll be keeping an eye out for the next book (I haven't seen any info about when that will be, sadly). Readers who like zippy, slightly creepy stories that mix a hint of science with a dose of mystery will enjoy this one. It's being compared to The Martian, which I haven't read, but if you liked that one, you might dig this one, too!

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Just read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time -- although I attempted it as a teen, it really went over my head -- and now I'm just in book hangover mode. Don't want to read anything else, not really. Love this reissue with the Edwidge Danticat introduction. It's not scholarly or academic, but more of a love letter to this novel, and an argument for why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.


Will need time to review this one -- I won't have anything deep to offer, nothing that hasn't been already said -- but am very struck by how pedestrian and banal Rochester is. He's not quite the monster I imagine -- a man who would imprison his wife for the entirety of his life! -- and yet, I can see already the quick resignation and the desire to just be done with this "headache".


At moments, was struck by similarity to Rebecca with the passion for an old estate and its destruction by fire.

The Fair Fight - Anna Freeman

First line: Some folks call the prize-ring a nursery for vice.

Review: I loved this book. I just loved it. The awesome is just one layer upon another: the plot is fascinating, the characters intriguing, the writing spectacular, the author's story amazing.

Shamefully, I didn't pen my thoughts back in February when I finished this, because I was just back to work from maternity leave and feeling even more sleep-lost and fuzzy-minded than I am now. But ten months later, I'm still obsessed with this book, and I hope I can convey enough of what was brilliant to entice some of you to read it.

Set in the late 1700s, the novel is split between three narrators: Ruth, daughter of a prostitute, who gains notoriety and fame as a female boxer; Charlotte, the pox-scarred wife of Ruth's patron, who takes inspiration from Ruth to find her own rough freedom; and George, friend to Charlotte's husband, and complicated third in an unusual love triangle. The voice of each character is distinct and bold, although my love is devoted to Ruth and Charlotte more than George (who is deliciously slimy at times!).

This is a book about boxing, which isn't not my thing, but don't let that scare you from this uh-mah-zing story. While Freeman doesn't soft pedal the violence of boxing, she also doesn't make it overly grotesque or gruesome; I was uncomfortable but not grossed out, and the disquieting savagery was done artfully, grounded in the story and the characters.

And the characters. I was, and am, obsessed with Ruth and Charlotte. The two women couldn't be more unalike (and occasionally, more unlikable!) but they're captivating, and reveal the rough and polished possibilities for 18th century women in London.

Freeman's narrative style is bold and full of personality (read the first chapter here), and it makes this novel so gripping. There's a rough immediacy that holds up to the crazy plot and the intense characters, but it doesn't overwhelm or detract from the story. 

I could not tell anymore how much of the screaming came from my own mouth. I was borne up on the swell of it, I was the sound. We were all howling together, the poor and the quality, the boxing girl and the beast inside my breast. If she was a madwoman, then we were all of us with her, and I had never felt such savage elation, nor known that it existed.

This is a stunning debut novel, the kind of book that makes me so envious my teeth hurt, and it's a top ten read of 2015. (It might be among the ten best reads since I've started blogging, even!)

It comes out in paperback in April 2016, I believe, and you must, must get it. I'll be buying myself a copy!

I am so behind on reviews! I have about seven books to review, I think, not including the ones I'm currently reading, and I'm trying to avoid looking and the calendar and panicking. (It's okay for me to review 2015 reads in 2016, right???)


If there's been one theme to my blogging year this year, it's this: feeling behind. My sweet, bookish baby just captivates me, so if I'm not working, I'm with him. But I also think I'm still struggling with some postpartum depression, because I have a hard time sitting down and writing -- be it a blog post, book review, or even work on my novel. (NaNoWriMo was mixed -- I didn't "win" but I did manage nearly 11,000 words and maintained about three weeks of regular writing.)

I've decided to seriously scale back my blog expectations for 2016. So far, I haven't signed up for any book tours and I'm trying to keep from doing so. (I don't think I've posted a book tour review on time once this year.) I'm requesting stuff still from NetGalley and Edelweiss, but I plan to read only if it really catches my interest. I'm hoping to do more "free range" reading and broaden my reading horizons via #WeNeedDiverseBooks and Book Riot's Read Harder challenge.

And since I'm swimming in guilt, my weekend read is Christy English's How to Seduce a Scot, and it is just the fluffy, silly, sexy, and fun read I need. (But when will I review it, eeek?!?!?)

What are you reading this weekend?

Book Review: Medicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois - Sophie Perinot

First line: In my dreams the birds are always black.

Review: The extent of my knowledge about Marguerite of Valois begins and ends with the sumptuous 1994 film starring Isabelle Adjani, but the drama of her marriage and the days following have stuck in my mind for more than a decade. I've been dying to get my hands on this book since learning of it, as I enjoyed Perinot's debut and was eager for her take on the infamous French royal and her notorious family.

I was rewarded with a stellar read, a top ten for 2015, and I have no doubt I'll be haunted by this one for a long while.

Opening in 1562, a decade before her marriage, the novel is narrated by Marguerite. A smart young woman who craves the love of her mother -- Catherine de Médicis -- Marguerite is powerless against her conniving, mercurial family. Her brothers love her, but their affection comes with an enormous price tag. Marguerite wrestles for what small power she can, among which is a love affair at a time when surrounded by very few who truly loved her for her. But that, like so much else, costs her, too, and the heartache, cruelty, and betrayal Marguerite experiences is presented in plain, unvarnished light.

As with her previous novel, Perinot doesn't smooth over the rougher aspects of life for women in this historical era nor does she tone down the drama of the Valois family: there's enough soap opera-y drama to make this fun, but everything is anchored by Marguerite's voice and character. She's a different woman at the end of the book than at the beginning, and her development felt authentic and real. Surrounded by some over-the-top personalities (like her mother, ohmygod, her mother!), Marguerite manages to hold her own despite her powerlessness and it makes her choices following her marriage even more staggering and stunning.

This novel has one of the most deliciously satisfying closes I've read in very long time. Although I yearned for more of Margot's years, the precise moment Perinot chose to end the book with had me both cackling with triumphant delight and sighing a small, teary sigh.

Gutting, gruesome, and gorgeous

A Year of Ravens: a novel of Boudica's Rebellion - E.E. Knight

First line: We were both queens.

Review: If you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book will change your opinion. If you know how rich, violent, and disturbing historical fiction can be, this book will make you cackle with delight.

Set in 60 AD, this episodic novel follows the rebellion of Boudica and the native peoples of the UK against the Romans. Despite the fact that this book is penned by seven authors -- each chapter follows a different point of view -- this book has a cohesive feel, and the absolutely gutting story of Boudica, her daughters, and the Romans fighting against her are presented in raw, hard, and unapologetic prose.

I loved this book for all the reasons I adore historical fiction: it illuminated a foreign era for me and each author created a vibrant human I couldn't help but relate to (even if I didn't want to!). The arc of the story is chronological, but the story is pushed along by each new character. Previous characters aren't forgotten, but each -- whether Briton or Roman -- are articulated so well, I actually found my loyalties waffling! (And I say this as an unabashed Boudica fangirl!)

The participating authors are fabulous, and the writing here is top notch. There's enormous emotion, cinematic battles, and darkly hilarious moments to punctuate the gut-punching sorrow. The characters are deliciously wide ranging -- from queens to servant girl, Druid priest to lowly Roman soldier -- and I loved that I found myself viewing this conflict from 360 degrees.

The brutality of this campaign is presented unapologetic detail, which meant I was gasping, wincing, and squinting my eyes closed more than once. It very nearly verged on too gruesome for me but I appreciated that -- there's nothing whitewashed about war in this era. As I said, the characters are so fully realized that each time I thought -- oh, I'm for the Britons -- I'd find myself melting in sympathy toward the Romans. (Well, maybe not sympathy, but you know...)

This is a fav read for 2015, and another knockout for the H Team (the loose collection of historical fiction authors who are penning collaborative novels together). I never thought I'd be so devoted to the collaborative novel, but I'm already impatiently awaiting their next endeavor!

Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott - Jeannine Atkins

We are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!

When I saw mention of this book, a novel about Louisa's sister Abigail May (or Amy in Little Women), I was consumed with need for it. I knew a little of May from our visits to Orchard House, and my wife and I tripped over an exhibit of May's art at the Concord Public Library by accident some years ago. But I never thought more about her; I just assumed the girl portrayed by Louisa was more or less that vain and silly.

Yeah, I'm the silly one.

I inhaled this novel in a matter of days. The May portrayed here is an ambitious young woman who wants more than her family expects; and worse, she's made to feel bad for wanting it all -- a husband, a family, an artistic career, money, a home. Teaching art to young women who do it out of obligation, May yearns to go to Europe to learn from the masters. Conservative New England mores combined with her family's poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa's Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.

Atkins reveals a less appealing side to Louisa May Alcott, but she offers it with such respect for the Alcott family that I appreciated her unvarnished story. In Atkins' hands, Louisa's determination comes off callous and brusque, cruel even, and suddenly the bratty Amy I had written off most of my life seemed less selfish and more sympathetic.

In fact, May's life is rife with tragedy and full of unexpected encounters with the luminaries of her time. She makes it to Europe where, for a while, she has professional praise, income, and even love. For those unfamiliar with how her life proceeds, I'll not say more, but it reads like the best kind of novel, and I heaved a big, teary sigh at the end.

Atkins' writing style is lovely, mixing wonderfully evocative details with brisk dialogue, and I don't think one need be familiar with the Alcotts or the world of mid-19th century Concord to enjoy this story. It's a kind of coming-of-age story, an exploration of the obligations of family and the wishes of personal fulfillment. As a new mother trying to work on my novel, I appreciated the tension the Alcott women faced, from angry Marmee to impatient May, in trying to balance family life with vocation.

Fascinating and delightful, this is a marvelous novel for those who enjoy biographical fiction that focuses on figures less well-known. And of course, any fan of Little Women will want this one -- it'll invite a rereading of that classic with a new eye!

"From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color. "
Miss Emily: A Novel - Nuala O'Connor

Charmed by Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor. A novel of poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, Ada Concannon. Nothing surprising, especially for poor Ada, but the strength of the novel is O'Connor's evocation of the famed poet. Passionate and quirky without verging into twee or Manic Pixie Dreamgirl territory. Full review and giveaway.

The Wild Girl - Kate Forsyth

Full review here. Who told the first fairy tales?


Forsyth's novel represents what I love about historical fiction: it presents something many might have fuzzy familiarity with in a vibrant manner with people who stay in the mind well after the book has ended.


In her opening note, Forsyth reminds (or in my case, educates) the reader as to precisely when the Grimm Brothers collected their stories. Not medieval scholars in musty robes, to paraphrase her, but handsome young men writing in the same era as Austen and Byron. That was eye-opening. Locational awareness secondly was a surprise: the Grimm brothers did their collecting as Germany was facing Napoleon's relentless march toward a unified empire. While never explicitly named in the text, the Grimm brothers were doing a little cultural conservation in the face of French domination.


Forsyth also rather daringly imagines why Dortchen, our heroine, takes so long to end up with the Grimm brother of her choice. It worked for me although was very upsetting -- but it also has a kind of fairy tale-ish grime to it, too -- I kept waiting for magic beans or a fairy godmother to solve things.


The Visitors - Sally Beauman

Sally Beauman's The Visitors made my top ten of 2014. The publisher has offered me a giveaway on the book's paperback release.

Weekend reads and sabbatical soon...

— feeling excited

A grey and steamy Friday here in Boston. And another few weeks without reviews -- shame on me! (Especially as I've sped through a number of great reads.) I'm going to try to catch up this weekend, but I find reviewing -- or at least, nailing down my thoughts on my reads -- a bit elusive these days. Exhausted is my new normal, and work is wildly crazy, and I just want to read if I have a few free moments.

A room of my own, from 2013


But...the second half of my sabbatical begins next Tuesday (!) and I can't wait. My goal is to write a second draft of my historical novel, and having finished my fabulous writing class with the equally fabulous Tim Weed, I feel better equipped to do so successfully.

So, for the next seven weeks, I plan to bang out about 10K words a week, and see if I don't end up with a slightly less embarrassing draft.

I'd really been putting off this second draft because, and I'm embarrassed to admit it, I wasn't sure exactly how one created another draft of something. In school, I was a first-draft-is-the-final-product kind of girl, but I know that's not the best work I do. In the writing class, I learned a few techniques and styles for rewriting a draft, and I've been doing tiny prep work in anticipation of really diving in. (If you're curious, I clumsily summarize my novel at the end of this interview with Lynn Cullen, after she asked about it.)

My reads this weekend are crazy ambitious, but in addition to writing, I hope to get a good chunk of reading done over sabbatical.

This morning I started Nuala O'Connor's Miss Emily and I know I'll finish it tonight -- it is that good, and that inhale-me-right-now readable. Yesterday I started Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me which is gripping, but a less zippy read.

What are you reading this weekend?

International giveaway

The Lover's Path: An Illustrated Novel - Kris Waldherr

Offering an e-book copy of The Lover's Path, open internationally. Learn more and enter on my blog.