Author Archives: Agent Annie

The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

Before Lyra started her adventures, her coming was foretold. See how it really started in La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman, a new book in the same world as His Dark Materials.

Title: The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Phillip Pullman
Series: The Book of Dust 01
Publish Date: October 19, 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre: YA Fantasy
Source: Digital library book

Publisher’s DescriptionMalcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…

Malcolm’s parents run an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust—and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, he sees suspicious characters everywhere: the explorer Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a daemon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl—just a baby—named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

5 stars isn’t enough praise for this book. Having loved the original trilogy, His Dark Materials, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Lyra’s early life. So much so, that I went from this book right back to the original trilogy. Pullman did a fantastic job of creating a much larger role for very minor characters in the original. This also felt much more like a straight adventure tale rather than a moral tale with an adventure.

The flight from the nunnery that Malcolm and “the kitchen girl” make is absolutely heart pounding. I literally was up until the wee hours reading to make sure they were OK. However, the tension lasts until practically the last page, so it was hard to know when to put it down and take a breath. The evil character and his daemon, the disabled hyena, that pursues the young people and baby Lyra are villains straight from your worst nightmares. The one thing that kept me from despair was knowing that Lyra makes it to Oxford and is taken in.

Other recommendations…

I highly recommend the whole body of work from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials!

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Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes

Cinelle Barnes is a creative non-fiction writer and educator from Manila, Philippines. She writes memoirs and personal essays on trauma, growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America.

Title: Monsoon Mansion
Author: Cinelle Barnes
Publish Date: April 1, 2018 by Little A
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased through the Amazon’s Kindle First program

Publisher’s Description: Told with a lyrical, almost-dreamlike voice as intoxicating as the moonflowers and orchids that inhabit this world, Monsoon Mansion is a harrowing yet triumphant coming-of-age memoir exploring the dark, troubled waters of a family’s rise and fall from grace in the Philippines. It would take a young warrior to survive it.

Cinelle Barnes was barely three years old when her family moved into Mansion Royale, a stately ten-bedroom home in the Philippines. Filled with her mother’s opulent social aspirations and the gloriously excessive evidence of her father’s self-made success, it was a girl’s storybook playland. But when a monsoon hits, her father leaves, and her mother’s terrible lover takes the reins, Cinelle’s fantastical childhood turns toward tyranny she could never have imagined. Formerly a home worthy of magazines and lavish parties, Mansion Royale becomes a dangerous shell of the splendid palace it had once been.

In this remarkable ode to survival, Cinelle creates something magical out of her truth—underscored by her complicated relationship with her mother. Through a tangle of tragedy and betrayal emerges a revelatory journey of perseverance and strength, of grit and beauty, and of coming to terms with the price of family—and what it takes to grow up.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

My April “Kindle First” book choice was fantastic. Monsoon Mansion is a memoir that immerses you in the life of the author as a child.

I hardly knew anything about the Philippines before reading the book other than the name of Imelda Marcos and her huge shoe collection. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished in yet another “third” world country, but the author vividly describes the differences between her own family’s life and privileges and the abject poverty of the servants’ village life and the misery in Manila outside her gates.

I still marvel at the author’s ability to put perspective on her mother’s behavior. Barnes describes the relationship in a poignant scene in the final chapter as she answers her own daughter’s questions.

…Then she asks, “Mama, do you miss your mama?”

“I do, but it’s better to miss her than to be around her.”

“Because she does things that hurt people?”

That’s how I’ve explained it to her: that my mother cannot come near us because she does regrettable things.

Barnes’ mother was a true nightmare, but her father, whose choice to abandon the family brings about the depraved situation the author grows up in, is portrayed so richly that the reader fully understands the complexity of his thought process and the details of his personality, and it’s easy to understand why he made the choices he did and that he was truly trying to do what was best in the scope of his own human weakness.

Barnes writes in such a way that the mansion itself and the weather are also characters that play a role in her childhood. The deteriorating mansion is a symbol of her mother’s decay, but it has its own characteristics and can haunt or protect the children. It’s described in such rich detail that I feel if I walked in the front door, I would recognize it immediately. The monsoon that is the catalyst to her father leaving, also provides the author with a glimpse of the freedom brought by big water. It’s such an interesting parallel to explore the flood waters and forever after be drawn to the ocean.

This book is definitely a 5 and I look forward to reading more of Cinelle Barnes’ work.

Origin by Dan Brown

Title: Origin
Author: Dan Brown
Series: Robert Langdon, #5
Publish Date: October 3, 2017 by Doubleday Books
Genre: Mystery
Source: Library

Publisher’s Description: Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. Kirsch, who was one of Langdon’s first students at Harvard two decades earlier, is about to reveal an astonishing breakthrough . . . one that will answer two of the fundamental questions of human existence.

As the event begins, Langdon and several hundred guests find themselves captivated by an utterly original presentation, which Langdon realizes will be far more controversial than he ever imagined. But the meticulously orchestrated evening suddenly erupts into chaos, and Kirsch’s precious discovery teeters on the brink of being lost forever. Reeling and facing an imminent threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape Bilbao. With him is Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director who worked with Kirsch to stage the provocative event. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Navigating the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, Langdon and Vidal must evade a tormented enemy whose all-knowing power seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace itself… and who will stop at nothing to silence Edmond Kirsch. On a trail marked by modern art and enigmatic symbols, Langdon and Vidal uncover clues that ultimately bring them face-to-face with Kirsch’s shocking discovery… and the breathtaking truth that has long eluded us.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

I had quite given up on Dan Brown books after not enjoying The Lost Symbol. In fact, I never even read Inferno, but for some reason, I picked up Origin, probably because the cover had a chambered nautilus on it.

It turns out that’s fitting because, in my opinion, it was the best thing about the book. Not only did the nautilus represent a specific piece of artwork in the Guggenheim museum in Barcelona, Spain, but also the golden ration and the idea of infinite love and the perfection of the universe.

I know, that’s deep, but I think that is what Dan Brown has done with this book. It didn’t feel like an action thriller in the same way that DaVinci Code and Digital Fortress did. It was more like Brown’s commentary on religion versus science. Dan Brown is obviously on the side of science, but very strongly included in that is Love. One of the beautiful quotes in the book is a prayer that the character Edmond Kirsch wrote:

May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies.
May our compassion keep pace with our powers.
And may love, not fear, be the engine of change.

I  like that Robert Langdon is starting to show his age and had a harder time keeping up with the “damsel in distress,” Ambra Vidal, who is a decade or two his junior. There were some very tender moments when Langdon feels a closeness to Vidal that is more fatherly than romantic. That’s a nice change from the typical action hero lover persona that is a part of so many thrillers today. In fact, Ambra Vidal even says to herself towards the end of the story,

“[She] suddenly understood what Edmond had been saying about the energy of love and light… blossoming outward infinitely to fill the universe. Love is not a finite emotion. We don’t have only so much to share. Our hearts create love as we need it… Love truly is not a finite emotion. It can be generated spontaneously out of nothing at all.”

I give this book 4 stars because Dan Brown found a way to use an action-packed thriller to convey the message that Love is Universal. I also really enjoyed learning more about the art and architecture in Spain. I found myself looking things up on the internet and trying to see pictures of these amazing buildings and works of art. I hope the publishers create an edition that has hyperlinks or references or color illustrations like they did with DaVinci Code.

Other recommendations…

If you liked this book, you might try any other book by Dan Brown, The Art Forger by BA Shapiro, The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, or Guernica by Dave Boling.

As Good As True by Cheryl Reid

A powerful and haunting novel of a woman’s broken past and the painful choices she must make to keep her family and her home.

Title: As Good As True
Author: Cheryl Reid
Publish Date: February 1, 2018, Lake Union
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: August 1956. After a night of rage and terror, Anna Nassad wakes to find her abusive husband dead and instinctively hides her bruises and her relief. As the daughter of Syrian immigrants living in segregated Alabama, Anna has never belonged, and now her world is about to erupt.

Days before, Anna set in motion an explosive chain of events by allowing the first black postman to deliver the mail to her house. But it’s her impulsive act of inviting him inside for a glass of water that raises doubts about Anna’s role in her husband’s death.

As threats and suspicions arise in the angry community, Anna must confront her secrets in the face of devastating turmoil and reconcile her anguished relationship with her daughter. Will she discover the strength to fight for those she loves most, even if it means losing all she’s ever known?

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

I enjoyed this story since it offered a glimpse into a little-known part of US history. I’ve never thought about how Arab immigrants would have fit into the Jim Crow South and the unique struggles the families would have as to their status in society.

I was drawn to the main character, Anna, who struggled with being different her whole life. I also thought the author did a great job explaining what caused Anna to make certain choices and why those choices had so much impact on those around her. The loss of her mother at an early age affected Anna and created far-reaching implications that will still be felt in the generations yet to be born.

I give this book 4 stars. I wanted to give it 5 stars, but there were just a few editing errors that were noticeable enough to cause me to “fall out of the story” and take notice, but not enough to keep me from recommending it to others.

Other recommendations…

If you liked this book, I recommend The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal, or Mudbound by Hilary Jordan.

Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige

From the author of the successful Dorthy Must Die series comes a new fairytale retelling of the Snow Queen.

I received an ARC or review copy of this book from the author/publisher. All opinions are my own.

Title: Stealing Snow
Author: Danielle Paige
Series: Stealing Snow, Book 01
Publish Date: September 20, 2016, by Bloomsbury USA
Genre: YA fantasy, Fairytale retelling
Source: Provided by the publisher

Publisher’s DescriptionSeventeen-year-old Snow has spent the majority of her life within the walls of the Whittaker Institute, a high-security mental hospital in upstate New York. Deep down, she knows she’s not crazy and doesn’t belong there. When she meets a mysterious, handsome new orderly and dreams about a strange twisted tree she realizes she must escape and figure out who she really is.

Using her trusting friend Bale as a distraction, Snow breaks free and races into the nearby woods. Suddenly, everything isn’t what it seems, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, and she finds herself in icy Algid–her true home–with witches, thieves, and a strangely alluring boy named Kai, none of whom she’s sure she can trust. As secret after secret is revealed, Snow discovers that she is on the run from a royal lineage she’s destined to inherit, a father more powerful and ruthless than she could have imagined, and choices of the heart that could change the fate of everything…including Snow’s return to the world she once knew.

This breathtaking first volume begins the story of how Snow becomes a villain, a queen, and ultimately a hero.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

Ack, what a terrible book. It was so poorly written, even the choice of vocabulary was bad. You can’t have arrows pelt off of a wing. That’s not what arrows do! They pierce, sting, puncture, drill, perforate, etc. Pelting is what you do with a rock, or you can pummel with it or batter even. That simple choice of one inaccurate word is indicative of why I didn’t like this book. It needed a good editor.

The story was actually well conceived. I liked the plot, but the execution made reading this difficult to slog through. Even the ending (SPOILER) in which Snow holds her mother’s hand and freezes her solid was so lame. How was Snow able to do that? She had never done it before. It wasn’t even something she had considered. Also, how was her mother, who had been plotting for most of her own life, not to mention the entirety of her daughter’s life, not be able to defend against the freezing? It’s disappointing that the author chose to end the book with such an implausible scene in order to set the stage for next book. I definitely will NOT be reading any more books in this series. I give this book 2 stars.

Other recommendations…

If you’d like to read a good book with a fairy tale style story, I recommend The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, the Mordant’s Need Duo by Stephen R. Donaldson (The Mirror of Her Dreams, & A Man Ride’s Through) or His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.

I received an ARC or review copy of this book from the author/publisher. All opinions are my own.

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