Book Review: O Pioneers!

I have to talk about ‘O Pioneers’, or I am going to go crazy. Let me rephrase that. I already have talked about this book to anyone who would listen, now I need to again or I am going to go crazy. Yep. It was that kind of book. I mean, how could you not talk about a book that has these kinds of quotes?

‘People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose that to find.’

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O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. (I think I like it better than ‘My Antonia’, and I really liked that book) No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities (to be honest, there are not that many of these harsh realities when you get past the first couple chapters.) and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself. (have you read the book? Obviously not, because her cost was not love, not really anyway)

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels,
(Yeah, right.) O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

Don’t you love how there is an exclamation mark in the title? It makes the book sound so cheerful and upbeat. To that I say Ha! No no. It was not a tear jerker. But it wasn’t a enjoyable lark through the countryside either.

What I first noticed about this book was how I wanted to write everything. Every quote, every line. I wanted all of it saved forever it my notebook. But if I did that, I would just be copying the whole book word for word, and I already have the book so… The writing was beautiful, no, it was achingly gorgeous. Honestly, I would have read the whole book just for the prose alone.

But the prose wasn’t the only thing worth reading in this book. There were also characters.

This is the book that I want to shove underneath all writers noses and say, ‘This is how you write realistic characters.’

Willa Cather created characters underneath her pen that almost jumped off of the page. I could see them move and breath in my minds eye. Their strengths, weaknesses, foibles and pet peeves. They were all there for the world to see. What I think made each and every character so imminently real was their weaknesses.

While I can not read the authors mind, it seemed to me that Willa Cather did not set out to make you like her characters. She seemed to care less really. It was more like she was focusing on showing you her characters in all of their glorious mistakes. Did it matter that they were all people with blind spots and foibles? No, it didn’t. Despite every failing, I loved them anyway.

The character that the entire story is woven around is Alexandra Bergson. She inherits the farm from her father because he knows that she can run it better than her brothers. And she does. Her farm becomes the most well off in the entire county. She is hard working, diligent, cool headed, and smart. But in the novel what characterizes her most is her love for the land. She loves this Nebraska land that is so hard to farm, and after a while, you wonder if the land knows it, and so blesses her in return. She loves it, and so it loves her.

The other characters in this novel act out a play of love and loss on the backdrop of her steadfastness. She has one love, the land, and one goal, to live on the land. The rest are action to her stillness, the passion to her calmness.

Plot wise, I would not recommend this book to anyone who must have an action plot where things are happening all the time. For one thing, this small book reaches through decades of living to tell its story. For another thing, there is much introspection allowed to the characters. Things happen, and sometimes things happen quickly, but there is always ample time for the characters to think about, and react to, that particular action.

Inside the book events build and become more intense, everything is straining at the seams, until the world snaps in a single moment, and everyone is left stunned.

I will let you read the book to figure out what that event is *evil laugh*

On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who liked ‘My Antonia’, and to those who enjoy slower stories with rich characters. Though I would hesitate to recommend to anyone younger than thirteen, because while nothing is explicit, a couple of the things the book deals with are not for the young.

Enjoy!

Shaina Merrick

Favorite Reads of 2019

Fine. Since everyone else is doing it, I will to.

I have been keeping track of what I read, and how much I liked it, since I was… In Middle School? And all of those lists are around here somewhere. Heh. Thankfully, the list for this year is not in the depths of some journal, and easy to get to and finally organized according to month and year. (don’t ask)

I read a bunch of good books this year, so this list is not going to be short. Sorry not sorry.

The Chestnut King by N. D. Wilson

The Chestnut King (100 Cupboards, #3)

The only reason the rest of the 100 cupboards series isn’t on here is because I didn’t read them in 2019, and I had to cut myself off somewhere. This was the finale to end all finales. The perfect wrap up to the series, and a scene at the end that left me crying happy tears. You must read this series. I don’t think I can put into words how much I love all of these characters and the relationships between them. Also, this series is the reason I now like baseball. Thanks Henry.

A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews

A Thousand Perfect Notes

This, this is the book that I will fangirl over with anyone, anywhere. I was not expecting this book to bowl me over, but it did. Every scene left an ache in my heart, every word made me fall in love with the main character even more. Beck was so, so wonderful, all I wanted to do was hug him and give him a cookie. Also, there was piano. My other great love in life. This book combined my two favorite things. The way the author explained playing piano was something I knew. This was an experience I could share with Beck because I have done that. Played the song, had the nerves, hoped the soul I was bleeding over the keys would be liked by others. So yeah. It was great.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

The Scorpio Races

I will shove this book at almost everyone in existence. I will admit, I avoided it for years because it seemed to be a combination of things I didn’t like. Ha! I was wrong, and I have never been so happy about it in my life. Scorpio Races has the most beautiful prose, and her way of describing left me in awe. All I wanted was to learn how to write like that. Well, I also wanted to figure out what happened next. But ya know, priorities.

Romanov by Nadine Brandes

Romanov

I know I have done a review on this book somewhere on this blog. But I am too lazy to look it up and link to it. Anyway. This is one of the few historical fiction I read this year, and it was also a fantasy. Two of my favorite genres! What I really loved about this book was the way she handled the Romanov family itself. I loved the relationships between them all, and how they were compassionate even in the midst of cruelty. The father showed forgiveness in the face of men who hated him, and even though in the terms of the world he ‘failed’. I think the story showed how such acts of compassion and forgiveness change people, and the world. Go read it! And bring a box of tissues with you.

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda

Fireborne (The Aurelian Cycle, #1)

Enter tears, chills of awe, and a stupid grin. I don’t think my heart will ever recover from the emotions of this book. Up and down, and down some more, and then back up we went as I followed the characters around. I literally stopped in the middle of an intense scene and started trying to figure out why I was feeling so much emotion. (yay logic) I might have figured it out. Sorta. I couldn’t believe all the things this book covered when I stepped back and looked at it. Love, friendship, politics, family, this book covers it all. Yet never feels overly full or preachy or that things are going at a breakneck pace. I adored it.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4)

The best word I would give this book is melancholy. The whole book was melancholy. But I loved it. Every melancholic word of it. Somehow, Taran’s journey became a rippled reflection of mine this year. Trying different things and hoping that one of them will work out. Only to realize that the one skill I ache to have may not be within my grasp at all. Can we discuss the ending for a moment? Where everything is answered and yet nothing is at all? There is inward screaming right now. I wish more books could pull off that kind of ending.

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain, #5)

Yes, I am allowed to have a two books by the same author, and both in the same series, in my list. It’s my blog. Anyway, what would a list of 2019 favorites be without the last/best book of the series that made me rethink everything I thought I knew about fantasy? It wouldn’t be a list, that’s what! This book perfectly wrapped up every loose end in the whole entire series, yet still reminding you that there are more adventures to come. Every question was answered, yet there were still questions. But good questions, the ones that make you think about the book long after it has finished. The characters all came to their poetic justice, though mercy was shown to those who didn’t deserve it, yet you were glad they got it anyway. I better stop while I am ahead.

There you have it folks! A by no means complete list of my favorite reads of 2019! What did you read, and love, this year?

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: Romanov

I love history, I love books, so when someone decides to write a historical fiction, I grumble under my breath and roll my eyes. My mother lovingly calls me a history snob. Usually with a laugh, because it is right after me ranting about how this movie or that book got some history wrong. I really hate it when books get history wrong. I mean, a detail here or there isn’t so bad, but most of the time authors take the general idea of the era and then do whatever they want. Ugh.

You are probably expecting this to be a long rant on how much I hated this book. Wrong!

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The history books say I died.

They don’t know the half of it.

Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov was given a single mission: to smuggle an ancient spell into her suitcase on her way to exile in Siberia. It might be her family’s only salvation. (might be?!? It is the only thing giving them hope at the moment!) But the leader of the Bolshevik army is after them, and he’s hunted Romanov before.

Nastya’s only chances of saving herself and her family are to either release the spell and deal with the consequences, or enlist help from Zash, the handsome soldier who doesn’t act like the average Bolshevik (heh, later on anyway. At first though? Bolshevik through and through). Nastya has only dabbled in magic, but it doesn’t frighten her half as much as her growing attraction to Zash. She likes him. She thinks he might even like her (one of my favorite romantic arcs ever).

That is, until she’s on one side of a firing squad . . . and he’s on the other.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my opinions on ‘Romanov’ by Nadine Brandes.

I loved it. Review over.

Or not. Because I can’t help myself, and because this is such a lovely book.

For one thing, Nadine Brandes actually did her research! Don’t laugh. You would be surprised how many authors don’t research. And it shows. She, on the other hand, wrote a book that was at the same time fantasy and true to history. It was fantastic. I loved how rich in detail the book was. Everything from the setting down to their clothes had the perfect details. I knew how worn their clothes were, and what the apartments looked like, and she never had to bore me with a long page of description.

It was those details that showed the era and climate the characters lived in far more than the date and place.

That, writers, is why you research.

It can be tricky to write any historical novel, especially one that deals with such high profile people as the Romanov family. Yet once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of research Nadine Brandes did. I felt like I knew these people. I felt closer to them that I would have if I had picked up a biography (and believe me, I had). Yet I knew the family had been portrayed correctly. There was no let down later when I realized that she had mussed with peoples personalities and beliefs. Yes, the story was fictional and some of the scenarios. But she had drawn from real life people and events, and did those people and events justice.

I think my favorite part of the book was the characters. Each and every character captured my attention and held it. I miss those people and I have never even met them! Oh, the woes of a bookworm.

Nastya has three sisters, and each one of them has an integral part to the story. Far from being nameless backdrops to her own story, their lives and stories intertwine and intersect with her own. But by far, other than Nastya, my favorite character was her father, Nicholas Romanov. The strong man who loves his enemies and sees the good in people. He is the one who makes friends with his guards, even if his guards hate him. He is the one who strives to understand his captors. Nicholas Romanov is the rock of his family, the one who keeps them all together.

No I didn’t cry. No I am not crying. Be quiet.

I loved Nastya. The precious little person who is trying so hard to help her family. Her struggles with being gracious to her captors and not being bitter tugged at my heart. It was so hard for her to be friendly to those who obviously hated her, but she got up and did it anyway. When anything was hard, Nastya did not back down. She did it. Whether she liked it or not, she did what needed to be done to help her family.

Lets talk plot. This is by no means your typical fantasy novel with epic journies and huge battles with world wide stakes. This is a story about a family put under house arrest. A family trying to come to terms with a country who now hates them. A country they had dedicated their lives to serving.

As a result, the plot does not go swiftly. And I loved it. The long periods of rest and reflection in between the bits of action revealed the characters. You got to know them, their dreams and wishes, and why each one acted the way they did.

This isn’t to say that the book dragged on. Definitely not. Each period of rest was preceded by a tense bit of action where you are holding your breath the whole time hoping against hope that things turn out alright.

That doesn’t even mention the tension through out the whole book as the reader is wondering if the family will escape or not. Will this work? Will it not? Will they ever get out alive!?!

SPOILER ALERT: I have to say that after the Romanov family died, I was a little bit bored. I was mostly reading it for the family, and when they were gone, I felt like quite a bit of the tension leaked out of the story. It did still keep my attention though. SPOILER OVER

The pacing was very well done throughout the book. It didn’t drag at any points, and didn’t rush along helter skelter either. Each point of high stakes and heart pounding chases was tempered by a point of character interaction. Yay for balance!

Oookay, I have to touch on the romance before I leave. When Nastya and Zash meet. He immediately hates her. She is wary of him and frustrated that her attempts to befriend him fall flat. He has preconceived notions of her, she decides very quickly who he is. Obviously, they are both wrong. Here is the thing though. It doesn’t go from enemies to lovers within a chapter. They are friends first. Friends before romance, imagine that!

They talk, laugh, argue, he builds a swing for her, all things that friends do. Well, except maybe for the heated arguments about her parents.

I actually really liked those arguments. Because each of them had a valid point. Neither side had a weak argument. And they both presented them well. You were forced to see both sides of the question they were arguing, and decide for yourself who was right. Because the characters did not necessarily do that for you. Zash and Nastya pushed each other to think, to see another side, and to truly decide for themselves instead of buying into whatever they had been told. And it is out of that friendship that a romance is born.

If you love historical fantasy, and are curious and or fascinated by the Romanov family and the Russian Revolution, definitely pick up this book!

I would recommend it to mid to late teens and above, while nothing is graphic, there are many of tense situations. And one scene with quite a bit of death.

All in all, ‘Romanov’ was one of my favorite reads this year. It most definitely earned its five stars. * * * * *

Shaina Merrick

My All Time Favorite Stories

Bookworms tend to be curious little things. They always want to know what other people are reading. That one person who has her head cocked to the side because she is trying to read the title of the book a random stranger is reading. Then flushing and jerking her head away because the random stranger looked up from their book.

If you are anything like me, you enjoy any chance to add to the already ridiculously long tbr (to be read) list. So many books, so little time….

To indulge your curiosity, here is a list of my top favorite books.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Yes, I am well aware that this is an old classic that everyone and their sister knows and loves. But there is a reason that it is a classic!

Any book with strong sibling relationships is going to be high on my list. And Little Women has some of the most beautiful sister relationships out there. Sisters who squabble, annoy each other, hurt each other, yet at the end of the day they love and forgive. Choosing their sisters over their petty problems of the day.

Yes, there are some love stories (all of which are adorable), but I read it for the sisters. And for Jo, one of the most like me characters in the literary world.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

If you haven’t heard about this one, don’t worry. No one else has either. One of the least known of the Jane Austen books, it happens to be my favorite. Yes, even over Pride and Prejudice. Don’t hate me.

Northanger Abbey is about a young, sheltered girl who goes to Bath with some family friends. Like all Jane Austens, this is a love story. However this love story is about a bookworm. A bookworm with a healthy imagination. She sees love and drama around every corner, helped along with her newfound friend who also loves books.

This is the most lighthearted of all of Jane Austens books. Throughout the story it makes fun of the popular novels of the day. It would be like an author today making fun of the fantasy genre in her fantasy book. I love it.

It is a must read for all bookworms who daydream more than is usual.

The Last Dragon by Silvana De Mari

Don’t listen to the title. Yes there is a dragon, but the book is actually about an elf. One of the most adorable elves that has ever existed.

In a world that blames elves for the never ending rain, Yorsh is saved by his grandmother and told to run far away. So he does, and while he is running he comes across two humans. Humans who alternately want to strangle him and keep him from all harm.

Begin hilarious scenes. Scenes made even funnier because Yorsh doesn’t understand a lick of sarcasm. He takes everyone at their word, exactly. Cue the humans growling in frustration and Yorsh looking at everyone wondering what the fuss is about.

It may seem that this book is just one big comedy of errors, but it isn’t. Yes, it is funny. But there is so much more to it than that. The people Yorsh comes across are literally scraping by. Sometimes unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Things are not going well for the humans, and then here comes a tiny elf who has a little bit of magic and believes everything that is said to him. He also believes that everyone he meets is good. Even if they look like the scariest scoundrel that ever lived, he likes them. It is like a living ray of hope is dropped into a harsh world. A world that alternately hates it and wishes that it would never leave.

If you need a laugh, go read it. If you just need another excuse to procrastinate on homework, go read it. It’ll be worth it.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Steifvater

If you haven’t read this one shame on you! Go read it at once! This book is gorgeous and everyone should read it!

I love this book because one, it is set in Colorado and two, it is set in the desert of Colorado. I live in the desert of Colorado and before I had read that book I had not been able to find a good representation of that desert. Or any desert for that matter.

But this book does it perfectly. Maggie Steifvater brings the desert to life through her book. I love how she describes it.

I also love all of her confused, struggling, beautiful characters. All of which are trying to find their place among their family and the world. The hope that they will someday figure out why they are here diffuses the whole novel.

I say again, go read it!

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Yes, I know that this book is by the same author as the last book. And?

The premise of The Scorpio Races at first turned me off. Why would I want to read a book about a girl riding in a horse race? Even if the horses are all man eating Capaill Uisce. Then I read it, and I wondered why it took me so long to do so.

I had to literally put this book down when I got to the climax for fear that my heart was going to jump out of my chest. Everything just kept building and building until the end race where everything was on the line and you just desperately wanted the main character to win.

However, what made the ending such a crazy climax was the fact that not everything in the book was tense. Sure, there were tense moments. It’s hard for there not to be when you are riding horses that would just as soon eat you as look at you. But after every tense moment was a moment that was a breath of relief. A space for the characters, and the reader, to breath.

That roller coaster of emotions made the book very, very hard to put down. (unless you were afraid that your heart was going to combust) Even when it was late and you still hadn’t gotten anything done….

Anyway. It was worth every moment, and made me obsessed with November Cakes. (still gotta make those)

Now for the honorable mentions, stories too wonderful to leave out but didn’t quite make it to my favorites list.

  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
  • Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
  • The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  • 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson
  • A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews

If you made it to the end, congratulations! Your patience is amazing and you should go award yourself some chocolate strawberries.

Whadja think of my list? Are any of these books on yours as well? Have you heard of any or all of them? Let me know in the comments below!

Shaina Merrick