SHADOW WOMAN by Linda Howard

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Lizette is having a perfectly normal morning when she glances in the mirror and realizes that the face staring back at her is not hers. When she looks closely, she can see the faint scars from plastic surgery she doesn’t remember having.  In fact, there is a huge gap in her memories starting three years earlier.  And now when she tries to recall what happened, she experiences violent physical symptoms.  What she knows instinctively—although she cannot say how—is that someone has bugged her house and her car.  The same people who are watching her are the people who took her memories.  She also realizes that for some reason, she has significant training in espionage and combat.  Knowing that her life hangs in the balance, Lizette must put on a show for her observers as though nothing is wrong while she struggles to figure out what happened to her three years ago–and how she can escape.

Xavier has been observing Subject C for three years, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  When she begins making slight alterations to her behavior and habits, Xavier notices.  He doesn’t know whether Al and Felice have picked up on the subtle change, but then they never knew her as well as he does. Xavier knows the old Lizzy is coming back, and he knows that if Al and Felice realize it, her life will be in grave danger.  What Xavier doesn’t know is whether he can get close enough to protect her when the sight of him might bring her memories flooding back and put them all in even more danger.

Linda Howard is a bestselling thriller-romance writer.  I had previously read several of her books which I had hated (Ice, for example).  But I loved Shadow Woman.  The thriller plot and romance plot were fairly well integrated in this novel.  The suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat.  I literally read the book in two hours because I couldn’t stop turning pages.  So if you like thrillers and steamy romances, I think Shadow Woman is one of Linda Howard’s best.  (If you don’t like steamy romances, there are about 3 or 4 sex scenes, none of which are essential to the plot and can be skimmed over; but if you don’t like romance at all, Linda Howard is not for you.)

STARDUST by Neil Gaiman

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The village of Wall sits on the border between the mortal world and Faerie.  Usually, guards stand at either side of the break in the wall that separates the village from the faerie meadow.  But once every nine years, the faerie market comes to the meadow at Wall, and the villagers and Faerie folk mingle freely.  It is on one such market day that the ordinary shepherd Dunstan Thorn meets the beautiful young woman, slave of a witch merchant, who is his heart’s desire.  And it is nine months later that an infant is left in the gap between the wall bearing the name Tristran Thorne.

At age 17, Tristran finds a love of his own and vows to retrieve a falling star from Faerie so that Victoria will agree to marry him—or at least to give him a kiss.  But with ancient witches, ruthless assassins, murderous trees, and other strange magics, Tristran’s quest into the land of his birth turns out to be much more challenging and exciting than he expected.

Another awesome Neil Gaiman audiobook narrated by Neil Gaiman!  Stardust is a true fairytale romance for adults.  Gaiman draws on the tropes and laws of traditional faerie lore to craft a compelling and dangerous magical world.  As usual, his storytelling is masterful; he brings together numerous plotlines and resolves them in complex, unexpected, yet perfect ways.  One word I will say against Stardust as an audiobook: Gaiman has a habit of writing some excruciatingly long and confusing sentences.  This is more of an issue in his adult books than his children’s books, and there were definitely a few points where I was jerked out of the story as I tried to decipher what exactly all of the clauses in the last sentence meant.  But it was not egregious, and I still think that Gaiman’s marvelous reading enhanced the story on the whole.

If you liked Stardust, you might like William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, or Cornelia Funke’s Reckless.

JUST ONE DAY by Gayle Forman

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Allyson’s parents sent her on the “Teen Tours!” whirlwind trip to Europe as a high school graduation gift.  They insisted that the experience would broaden her horizons and prepare her for her promising future career as a doctor.  But for Allyson, the trip is a bust.  She doesn’t enjoy traveling, and her childhood best friend Melanie, traveling with her, has “reinvented” herself in preparation for college, and Allyson isn’t sure she likes the new “Mel.”  But her prospects change drastically when Allyson meets Willem on the streets of Stratford-on-Avon.  There is something about the unconventional, amateur Shakespearean actor that intrigues her.  And when he invites her to play hooky in Paris for a day, she throws away her old identity as straight-laced Allyson, and begins the adventure of a lifetime.

I read a review recommending this book to people who like Shakespeare and teen fiction, but when I read the tagline on the back of the book, I almost didn’t read it (“She went looking for him and along the way she found herself…”—ugh!).  But I’m glad I did read it, because the tagline hardly does this good book justice.  The book is definitely about “finding yourself.”  Most of the characters are playing with their identities—which is nicely paralleled with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It.  But in the context of starting college and struggling to build new friendships and relationships, I did not find Just One Day obnoxious the way I do most middle-aged-woman-goes-to-Europe-to-find-herself books.  In fact, it reminded me of John Green’s identity-focused YA novels.  The plot was moved forward by action; Allyson didn’t spend too much time ruminating without doing anything else—and she has a great sense of humor.  There were also many relationships in the book (friends, family) in addition to the romance focal point that helped flesh out Allyson’s character.  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and college students (or grown-ups who enjoy teen lit) who like realistic fiction and/or romance.  I’m looking forward to the sequel!

If you liked Just One Day, you might like Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska by John Green and The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

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When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army.  The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own.

Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie.  Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child.  Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again.  The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.

Although I grew up watching the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked.  I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will.  Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up.  And from that moment, I could not put it down.

Gone With the Wind is the most problematic book I have ever read. It would be easy to decry it if it were all racist manifesto and easy to praise it if it were all enthralling love story. Unfortunately, it is both.

As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South.  She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact.  Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration. Long passages expound up on the “virtue” of slavery and the “inferiority” of all people of African descent. Although is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the mythology of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling, it is deeply troubling that the racist arguments she makes shaped society then and even today. I was horrified to realize that some of the racist ideas she encompasses in her pro-slavery thesis were taught to me in school in the 1990s and are echoed by white nationalists today. In that sense, this book is beyond bad. It is evil.

And yet … the love story is one of the most well-crafted, engaging stories I have ever read. It is a story of contradictions. Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength. Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices. It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men.

If you love the movie, you will love the book. The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel.  Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle. BUT–and this is critical–be prepared to face the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South). Do not go into this book blindly. I believe that reading this level of racism can be eye-opening and informative, illuminating racism we didn’t realize we had internalized ourselves, but only if we READ CRITICALLY. If not, this book will continue to perpetuate the racism that has permeated our country since its foundation.