Dangerous Beauty // by Melissa Koslin

We all know I’m a sucker for the marriage of convenience trope, so I requested this book from Revell’s reviewer program in hopes that it would be an engaging read.  Unfortunately, this one just didn’t really work for me.  I didn’t buy the chemistry between the main characters, the marriage scenario felt rather weak, and for a story about human trafficking, I found myself somewhat disengaged.  I did like the Lillian as a character, and the concept, but on the whole this one just ended up falling flat.

We meet Liliana when she is fleeing from traffickers.  She’s escaped their custody and runs into a gas station.  When they close in on her, she’s rescued by a random stranger, Meric.  During the ensuing interview with police, etc., Meric offers to marry Liliana so that she won’t have to worry about getting deported back to Mexico.  And she just says yes??  And everyone goes along with it??  Marriage of convenience really only works if the scenario surrounding it makes sense, and two absolute strangers deciding to get married within 15 minutes of meeting each other just didn’t work for me.

Throughout the story, we rarely hear anything from Meric’s perspective, and the story really suffers because of that lack.  Koslin uses almost entirely negative words to describe him, like cold, hard, barely controlled rage, emotionless, abrupt, etc.  He’s constantly brushing off Liliana and leaving her alone.  She’s supposedly in constant danger, but he encourages her to go out and go shopping.  She tells him repeatedly that she hates being kept in the dark and needs information to feel safe, but he’s always withholding information and telling her it’s because “she needs to heal,” even after she straight-up says that, for her, the way to healing is understanding what is going on.

Of course, in the end, we find out Meric has been in love with her all along but didn’t want her to feel pressured so that’s why he couldn’t bear to spend time around her yadda yadda but since we never hear anything from his perspective, he just comes across as a real jerk, and it honestly made zero sense to me why Liliana even liked him, despite her CONSTANTLY talking about how kind he is and how she sees “behind the coldness in his eyes” and that kind of nonsense.  This made the emotional pacing the of the story feel uneven and disjointed, and left me never really rooting for them as a couple because I honestly never actually liked Meric.

I also didn’t like the way Liliana says repeatedly (to herself) that she views herself as “damaged” and “impure” because of her experiences with the traffickers.  Then at one point she just suddenly goes, “Oh no wait actually that’s not true!” and then it’s never mentioned again.  For as much as she referred to it negatively, it would have been extremely positive to have this epiphany actually be more involved.  And since Liliana is presented as someone who, if not a Christian, at least a believer in God/that He has a plan for her life, and since Revell is a Christian publisher, it was a pretty amazing opportunity to talk about how Liliana (and everyone) is valued by God no matter what happens to us.

Meric and Liliana have both gone through major trauma, yet in the end apparently their love for each other is all they need to “heal” and go forward.  I found it somewhat hard to believe that Liliana was really so quickly past a lot of what had happened to her.  Meric also finds out this huge thing about his past right at the end of the book and is basically just like, “Oh.  Well, at least I have love!”  It just didn’t feel realistic.

I hate to spend most of a review bashing a book.  I did feel like this incredibly complicated topic of human trafficking was handled really well and presented in a realistic yet not horrifically graphic way, which made it feel more approachable.  I would have loved it if this book had included some kind of information about a ministry or organization that is working against human trafficking that I could look up for more information on what I could personally do to help, just a little “here’s a place to start” kind of thing.

This book has over a 4* average rating on GR, so I’m definitely in the minority on this one, so if the synopsis sounds intriguing to you, I would still check it out.  I really loved Liliana, who is an incredibly strong and brave character and who doesn’t just roll over and give up, despite everything she has been through.

NB: This book was given to me for free from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

June Minireviews // Part 2

On to the next batch of June!!!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl – 4*

//published 1950//

This nonfiction account was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  On the one hand – fascinating!  On the other hand… Heyerdahl just isn’t the most compelling writer, so even some of their more exciting adventures felt a little flat.

In the 40s, the author, who was living on a Polynesian island at the time, theorized that instead of those islands being originally populated from Asia, the could have come from South America. He based his theory on many oral traditions and stories of the native people he had met, who had a lot of stories of gods and ancestors coming from the east. Determined to prove that it was at least a possibility, he and five others built a raft out of balsa logs, using only materials that would have been available at the time, and actually did sail from Peru to a Polynesian island just east of Tahiti – 4300 nautical miles in 101 days. They were mostly carried by trade winds and the Humboldt Current.  Since this book was published, this theory has fallen out of favor, because genetic testing has shown that “most“ of the native people of Polynesia did have ancestors from Asia. However, even the article I read that was incredibly dismissive of Heyerdahl, both as a person and of his theory, admitted that genetic testing had also shown that that some people were descended from South Americans as well. I’m a little confused as to why it can’t be both, but I’m just a layman haha  Heyerdahl definitely proved that it COULD have been done, and I was honestly just so intrigued by things like water storage, food provisions, surviving storms, etc.  It was so interesting!

This book was published in 1950 so there are a few things that jar with modern sensibilities, but for the most part Heyerdahl has a great respect for the native peoples both in Peru and the Polynesian islands. As a story, this is great fun, even if the author does tend to somehow make even very exciting moments a little dry.  It’s also obvious that Heyerdahl has already decided that his theory is the correct one, so his material is presented in a somewhat prejudiced manner, but on the other hand… he did it!

Something Wilder by Christina Lauren – 3.5*

//published 2022//

Do you ever read a book expecting one thing and then it just goes completely off the track, and even though it’s not a bad story, it’s just kind of like… the heck just happened??  That’s how I felt with this one.  I read it expecting a little second-chance romcom, and I … kind of got it??  About 100 pages in this book was just like, “Now for something completely different!” and I wasn’t exactly here for it.  I think if this plot twist had been hinted at a bit in the synopsis I may have been more on board.  It was supposed to be a little silly and fun, but it honestly just felt kind of ridiculous and unbelievable to me instead.  Not the worst book I’ve read this year, but definitely one of the odd ones.

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold – 3*

//published 1935//

Speaking of odd…  it’s honestly surprising to me that I never read National Velvet growing up, as I was a total horse-book girl, but somehow I never did.  I finally got around to it in June and it was… strange??  Mostly because it wasn’t actually a horse book!  It’s more of a slice-of-life kind of story in which horses are peripherally involved.   Basically all of The Pie’s training, and even most of the big race, happened off-page. We rarely see Velvet’s thoughts and I honestly never understood why she was so passionate about racing The Pie because we only saw incredibly rare glimpses of her interacting with him on-page. This was a fun story as a not-horse book – I fell in love with the entire Brown family, and some of Bagnold’s wry observations made me smile. I loved the complete and utter lack of romance between Velvet and Mi, and the utter randomness of Donald’s wild stories. But for all that, it’s still just a soft pick for me – not one I see myself rereading. The actual story was odd and disjointed and frequently felt like it was going nowhere. We spent significantly more time on the aftermath of the race than the race itself. I felt completely ripped off that the race wasn’t from Velvet’s perspective! There’s an entire side story involving an entire pile of other horses that felt odd and unnecessary and also didn’t really go anywhere. So, on the whole, a perfectly fine story, but one that I wouldn’t particularly label as a genuine Horse Story, despite the presence of multiple horses, and not one that I see myself rereading time and again.

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan – 3.5*

I feel like I should just summarize this entire series with “it was fine” because that’s pretty much how I felt when I finished each of these books.  I didn’t dislike them but also found them really unmemorable.  I never finished one feeling compelled to grab the next.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte – 4*

//published 1848//

After suffering through Wuthering Heights, I was a bit sad when the PemberLittens decided to read another Bronte.  I had never even really heard of this one before, but decided to give it a go nonetheless, and I actually enjoyed it WAY more than WH, although that’s not honestly saying much!  Another review I read said, “I respected this novel more than I enjoyed it” and I have to echo that sentiment. This was really a bold story for its time and I found Helen to be a remarkable heroine, absolutely hardcore devoted to her religion and her morals, refusing to ever take the easy way out if it meant compromising her beliefs. The entire story is such a call-out for so many things that were (and in many cases, still are) socially acceptable but objectively wrong, and Anne, through Helen’s voice, isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade and rake everyone over the coals.

That said, I didn’t really have a great time reading this book. It’s kind of a downer, Helen can definitely get preachy, and Gilbert made me roll my eyes CONSTANTLY. The ending especially went on too long.  I especially couldn’t get over Gil whining about how Helen “left him” when he thought she was getting married – like dude, you haven’t reached out to her in over a year?? Seems a little ridiculous to blame her if she DID find someone else who, you know, actually talked to her?! 

Part of the reason I didn’t really love this one may have been because there wasn’t a single likable guy in the entire story. Gilbert is spoiled, sensitive, prideful, and whiny. Helen’s brother is smug and self-satisfied. They’re supposedly the best out of the bunch, and, in fairness, the male characters do all go downhill from there. Anne keeps this story from going into a full-on screed against the entire male half of the population, but barely. And in fairness, considering women were virtually property and unable to make any independent decisions about their own lives, an anti-man screed may have been warranted at some level lol

All in all, this is definitely a worthwhile read, and I found the story and characters significantly more engaging and relatable than those in Wuthering Heights. But despite my 4-star rating, this isn’t a book I see myself reading again.

Gone With the Wind // by Margaret Mitchell

Wow, I was doing SO well on catching up on reviews, but then apple season hit and I have been absolutely slammed!!!  But I’m feeling like trying to catch up a bit again, so here’s a review I partially wrote in August (lol) and decided to finish up this morning.  I may even go write a few minireviews after this to be published tomorrow!!!

//published 1936//

Despite finishing this back in June, I still don’t even know how to organize my thoughts on this crazy story.  I had a complete love/hate relationship with this book – mostly hate, if I’m honest, but the writing was strong and compelling, and even though I genuinely couldn’t stand Scarlett (when has a heroine ever been so self-absorbed or self-sabotaging??) I also did want to finish this book and find out what happened to everyone.  I went in mostly blind, having never even watched the movie, so many aspects of the story were a complete surprise to me.

In the end, I found this book worthwhile and valuable for the look it gave at a perspective now almost completely ignored – the view from the losers.  What was done in the South during and after the Civil War was absolutely reprehensible, and it was a good for me to read this and be reminded of exactly what our government is capable of doing to its own citizens “for their own good,” including putting them under martial law, seizing all their assets, refusing to allow them to work unless they subscribe to a specific set of beliefs, imprisoning them for saying the wrong thing, raising taxes to force people out of their homes and/or starve them into submission, etc.

It was also interesting to see the perspective of the slaveowners who believed that they were actually doing good things for the people they were enslaving.  Obviously, I’m not agreeing with that position, but many people at the time believed that black people were incapable of caring for themselves.  I thought the later portions of the books, where various northerners are now living in Georgia, handing out judgment, quite fascinating as it’s revealed how little respect they had for the former slaves, despite claiming that that was what the war was all about.  At one point, Scarlet is driving through town with one of her former slaves who has stayed with the family even after the war and pauses to talk with a few northern acquaintances.  During the conversation, that woman says she is having trouble finding someone to help with her children. Scarlett says it shouldn’t be that hard to find a former slave to take the position –

“Do you think I’d trust my babies to a black nigger?” cried the Maine woman.  “I want a good Irish girl.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find no Irish servants in Atlanta,” answered Scarlett, coolness in her voice [considering she’s Irish lol].  “Personally, I’ve never seen a white servant and I shouldn’t care to have one in my house.  And,” she could not keep a slight note of sarcasm from her words, “I assure you that darkies aren’t cannibals and are quite trustworthy.”

“Goodness, no!  I wouldn’t have one in my house!  The idea!”

“I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I could see them and as for letting them handle my babies…!”

Scarlett thought of the kind, gnarled hands of Mammy worn rough in Ellen’s service and hers and Wade’s.  What did these strangers know of black hands, how dear and comforting they could be, how unerringly they knew how to soothe, to pat, to fondle?  She laughed shortly.

“It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”

“Lor’!  Not I, dearie,” laughed the Maine woman.  “I never saw a nigger till I came South last month and I don’t care if I never see another.  They give me the creeps.  I wouldn’t trust one of them – ”

For some moments Scarlett had been conscious that Uncle Peter [former slave] was breathing hard and sitting up very straight as he stared steadily at the horse’s ears.  Her attention was called to him more forcibly when the Maine woman broke off suddenly with a laugh and pointed him out to her companions.

“Look at that old nigger swell up like a toad,” she giggled.  “I’ll bet he’s an old pet of yours, isn’t he?  You Southerners don’t know how to treat niggers.  You spoil them to death.”

Peter sucked in his breath and his wrinkled brow showed deep furrows but he kept his eyes straight ahead.  He had never had the term “nigger” applied to him by a white person in all his life.  By other negroes, yes.  But never by a white person.  And to be called untrustworthy and an “old pet,” he, Peter, who had been the dignified mainstay of the Hamilton family for years!

Scarlett felt, rather than saw, the black chin begin to shake with hurt pride, and a killing rage swept over her.

I’ve quoted this rather lengthy passage because I think it illustrates so well the complete conflict of ideas and ideals that were going on at the time.  While obviously the Southerners underestimated the actual humanity of the slaves they owned, at the same time there was still a type of respect and an understanding of the responsibilities that they, the slave-owners, had towards their slaves.  The North didn’t ride in as an amazing hero – they literally needed more manpower and freeing the slaves was a great way to make it happen.  Yes, slavery was one of the core aspects of the conflict, but it was not the only one by any means, and the attitudes concerning the humanity, intelligence, and potential of black people was just as incorrect in the North as it was in the South.

In the end, I would absolutely never read this book again, but I’m glad to have read it once.  I’m from Lancaster, Ohio, birthplace of General William T. Sherman, so I’ve grown up in a community that takes some pride in the part it played in the Civil War.  It was good to be reminded that every story has more than one side, and that the looting and pillaging that took place during the war was reprehensible, as was the treatment of the Southerners after the war ended.  My biggest takeaway from this book was honestly that the government can and will do whatever it takes to keep you in line, even if that means revoking your constitutional rights.

The Civil War was a huge and complicated conflict that can never been simplified to one issue.  Repercussions are still felt 150 years later.  I absolutely hated Scarlett and spent most of this book wanting to strangle her, yet still found her story to be strangely compelling and a worthwhile read.

January Minireviews – Part 3

Here is the last batch of January reads!!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – 4*

//published 1952//

One of my 2022 goals is to clear at least 12 books off my classics backlist, and this one was very satisfying because it was so short!  I didn’t exactly like this book, but Hemingway writes in such a way that I had trouble putting it down, despite the fact that it’s literally an old man going fishing.  There is a tautness to his writing that makes it work, and so many layers to what is, at surface-level, a simple story.  I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the way it ended, but you can’t make everyone happy.

The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery – 4*

//published 1911//

The Kindred Spirits Buddy Read group on Litsy is continuing their foray into Montgomery’s works through 2022, and this was our January pick.  It had been a very long time since I read this one, so it was fun to revisit.  It’s a rather episodic book, but I did overall enjoy it although it will never be one of my favorites.  While the characters here are fun, they somehow lack depth – each of the children seems to fit a role and not go much beyond it.  And despite the fact that the story is being told in first person, the narrator is probably the one we get to know the least, which is odd.  Perfectly pleasant, but it will probably be another decade or so before I bother to reread this one again.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – 2*? 4*? No stars?

//published 1847//

The Litsy group that read through all of Austen’s works last year (the PemberLittens) is continuing into 2022 by reading books about Austen and also other works from women from the Austen-ish era.  Wuthering Heights was January’s book, and since I had never read this one all the way through – I remember abandoning it halfway in high school with the general feeling that the only “happy” ending would be for everyone to die of the plague – I thought I would give it a try as an adult and see if it was more palatable.  In a word – yes, it was, but… it’s really hard for me to rate this one.  First off, it was just absolutely ridiculous.  I actually found myself snorting with (inappropriate) laughter in multiple spots because it was just so over-the-top.  On purpose?  Who knows.  I was also absolutely befuddled by the fact that some people consider this a romance, or consider Heathcliff and Catherine to be a romantic couple.  What?!  These two are both mentally ill, unstable, obsessive, selfish, and creepy.  At one point, Heathcliff digs up Catherine’s dead body.  This isn’t romantic!  What is happening?! But I weirdly did like the way the story ended, although some of my fellow-readers thought it was too tidy.  I felt like Cathy, unlike her mother, actually outgrew her selfish whims and gain some balance to her personality, and I liked that.  I can’t say I exactly enjoyed reading this, but it did keep me engaged.  I was so confused by multiple people having the same name/being related that I printed off a little cheat-sheet towards the beginning of reading it and thoroughly enjoyed X-ing out everyone as they died… which was pretty much everyone, so my high school desire to have everyone die off for a happy ending was very nearly fulfilled lol  All in all, it was a worthwhile read, I think, but not one I see myself revisiting.  I did use this buddy read as an excuse to buy this pretty copy, though, which I’m perfectly happy to keep on my shelf.

Nation of Enemies by H.A. Raynes – 3*

//published 2015//

This was another one that is a little hard to rate.  It was also kind of creepy because it was published in 2015 (i.e. pre-Covid and pre-“vaccine passport” insanity) but was all about a future where the entire world is using a chip-based medical system where every person has a MedID rating based on how healthy they are and various genetic features that extrapolate how likely they are to be sick in the future (i.e. cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc).  People with good Med numbers are able to get good jobs, housing, move from place to place, etc. while people with bad numbers are relegated to the outskirts of society.  Many people tout this as a positive as eliminating the low numbers means that we are on track to eliminate said diseases, but others are beginning to grow uneasy with how swiftly the system has been used to alienate huge sectors of the population into second-class citizens.  The MedID chips have now become a way to not only track medical history, but everything else, making it easy to decide “criminals” (both real and determined by people who don’t like people) are unable to purchase groceries, travel from state to state, or get a job.  The story opens on the cusp of a huge presidential election, with one candidate determined to build on the MedID system and other poised to begin removing it, restoring the freedoms everyone once knew.  In the decade since the MedID was instated, the country has descended into a state of constant terrorist attacks, many by frustrated low-MedID citizens, others by various anarchist groups, some by other political powers playing on the emotions of vulnerable individuals.

Rayes does a great job setting all of this up, introducing the reader to several people within the government and within society who are both benefitting and losing from the MedID system, and showing how various things are working behind the scenes of the big election.  It was really terrifying and amazing to see how this concept, basically where the vaccine passports are headed, had changed the society, and it was all very believable.  But about halfway through the story, things began to lose steam as Raynes slowly turned his story into a more typical political thriller instead of exploring a lot of the nuances presented by a society dominated by this system.  In the end, basically everyone was a bad guy, which was kind of weird, and a lot of ends were left loose.  This was also a really long book, clocking in at 528 pages, so it definitely felt like it could have used some editing to tighten things up.  In the end, a story with some strong potential that just frittered away.

The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel – 2.5*

//published 2001//

Apparently this book is also a Hallmark movie, but I haven’t seen it.  It was chosen by a member of the traveling book club book, which is really the only reason I finished it as I found the main character, Livvy, to be insufferably selfish and bratty.  Set during WWII in Colorado, Livvy is from an upper-class family and has always lived a rather spoiled life. The author tries to make her a sympathetic character by giving her a dead mother and a distant father, but she never felt like a real person to me.  She gets pregnant from a one-night stand with a soldier with whom she’s gone on a few dates, and her father solves the “problem” by finding a farmer in eastern Colorado for her to marry, sight unseen.  Ray is stereotypically strong and silent, but the main things we have to know about him is that he’s uneducated by Livvy’s standards and thus rather dumb, he immediately begins to worship the ground Livvy walks on for literally no apparent reason, and Livvy’s so concerned about Ray’s “heart” because of his “innocence” around women – she goes on and on and on about this, about how she’s sooooo “experienced” and Ray isn’t, despite the fact that she went on like 3 dates and got pregnant, not sure how that makes her some kind of relationship/sex expert and it REALLY got on my nerves.  But Livvy’s that way about everything.  She’s from the city and she’s gone to college, so she’s soooo smart and clever and worldly and wise and all these other people are just sort of dumb hicks.  I kept think that she was going to recognize the fact that she’s just a blatant snob, but she never really does.  She and Ray have like two conversations and then from there forward Livvy’s always saying things like, “I could tell from the love in his eyes how much he yearned for us to be together” blah blah blah, which was both boring and unbelievable.  There’s this whole story about these Japanese women who are in a prison camp nearby and how the Japanese prisoners are working on the region’s farms, including Ray’s, but it’s really a sort of surface-level look at this because we never talk with Ray, we just get Livvy’s assumptions about how Ray feels about it.  What Livvy assumes is that he completely approves of interning the Japanese and thinks the Japanese are stupid and guilty, despite the fact that he treats them incredibly well and absolutely nothing in his actions support her theory.  Livvy also spends a bunch of time driving all over the countryside despite Ray specifically telling her that his gas rations are supposed to be being used for farm work, not pleasure.  Livvy justifies it by basically saying she’s bored.  I was also amazed at how a farm wife during World War II could be bored and have nothing to do, but here we are.  Everyone else in my traveling book club seemed to really like this one (I was the last to read it) so maybe I’m just being overly harsh, but I found Livvy to be painfully unlikable, which made the whole story drag for me a lot, since it’s literally all from Livvy’s perspective and literally all about her in every way, because to Livvy, Livvy is the most important person in the world.  I had absolutely zero confidence in her long-term happiness with Ray, because Livvy never actually changed as a person.

The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water // by Erin Bartels

//published 2022//

Fear not, friends, I am still planning to post a Rearview Mirror for both December 2021 and for 2021 as a whole (because I know you’re all dying to know whether my overall TBR went up or down for the year lol), but first I am going to review this one, as it was provided to me by Revell in exchange for a review.

Kendra, our narrator, grew up spending her summers on a lake in northern Michigan, where she always hung out with her summer best friend, Cami.  Cami’s family cabin was across the lake from Kendra’s grandpa’s cabin and the girls played together every year.  In the present day, Kendra has recently published a book that has sold very well, but is struggling to write her second novel.  Her grandpa has recently passed away, leaving his cabin to her, so she returns to the lake for the first time in years, hoping that facing some old demons will help her clear her writer’s block.

From the blurb, I thought this book was going to be a bit more thriller-y.  No one has seen Cami in months, there are allusions to Cami’s older brother, Tyler, being a nefarious character, and the cover/title combo just felt ominous.  But there isn’t any mysterious aspect to this story at all.  It’s more or less a straight novel about a woman struggling with her past and the way that it impacts her present.  The rest of this review will have some content/trigger warnings/spoilers, as it’s difficult to review this story without referring to them.  Many of these things you get the impression about in the first few chapters so they aren’t SUPER spoilery, but I know some people prefer zero knowledge going into a book, so if that’s you… skip this review haha

The blurb for the book says that Kendra wants to confront Tyler, who was the inspiration for the antagonist of her first book, but doesn’t say what he supposedly did.  As the story unwinds, it becomes obvious that he sexually assaulted her while she was still in her early teens (he was four or five years older than her).  The book Kendra wrote is fictional, but has many parallel characters to her own youth and experiences with Tyler.  Kendra’s current writing block was triggered by an anonymous letter that she received from “A VERY DISAPPOINTED READER” who basically tells her that she’s self-absorbed and doesn’t realize that everyone has a story, including perceived antagonists.  In fact, Disappointed Reader says, Kendra herself could be the antagonist to someone else’s story.

There were a lot of things about this story that I actually liked.  The setting, Kendra’s struggles, and some of the secondary characters were very well done.  I did struggle because Kendra is telling her story to Cami, so this book was both first and second person.  It’s not clear who Kendra is talking to at first, and it felt weird at times for her to be referring to “your dad” or “your house” etc.  But it was also a rather creative way to tell the story so I was overall willing to roll with it.  This means that we’re entirely in Kendra’s head, while she’s discovering things about herself and her past and those around her, and I can’t decide if it made Kendra more of a sympathetic character, or just emphasized how self-absorbed she really could be.

The dark parts of the story got darker than I was anticipating.  Tyler actually rapes Kendra, and while it’s not graphic, it’s there.  Considering there isn’t even a hint in the blurb that this story deals with the sexual abuse of a minor, a young teen being raped on the page was a bit more than I was expecting to grapple with in this story.  In many ways, this book is actually about the horrific cycle of sexual abuse and how difficult it can be to break free from that.  Overall, I thought that the topic was handled very well.  Kendra really struggles with not wanting to “rock the boat” by telling anyone what is going on with Tyler when she’s young, and, as an adult, wrestles a lot with “was I asking for it” kind of questions that felt realistic.  There’s a lot of discussion about how even though someone’s actions can be explained, it doesn’t mean they can be justified.

I struggled with the love interest part of this story.  It honestly didn’t fit with the rest of what was going on.  Later in the story, when Andreas explains how he ended up becoming the German translator for Kendra’s book, it honestly did feel weird and stalkerish to me.  He was a nice guy and all, but the parts with her falling in love with him felt the most contrived.  Bartels did a good job of not making him what “fixes” Kendra, but I still just felt like we didn’t need him in the story at all, especially since he kept freaking saying things in German that aren’t translated.  Instead, he’ll say a whole long couple of sentences in German and Kendra is just like “I didn’t know what it mean but…” blah blah blah.  If you didn’t know what it mean, how do you remember it WORD FOR WORD?!  I would have been far less aggravated if Bartels had said something like, “he murmured a German phrase – I didn’t know what it mean, but the warmth of his tone made the meaning clear.”  Instead, I’m stuck getting up off the couch trying to translate what the heck he’s saying.  It was so annoying.  It wasn’t like it happened ten times, but it did happen at least five times, and that was way too many.

My final niggle with this story is once again a personal preference.  This book is published by Revell.  When I read a Revell book, I expect there to be at least some reference to faith.  Here, in a story with so much darkness and despair, was an amazing opportunity for Kendra (and others) to find true healing and understanding.  Instead, there is not a single mention of Christianity whatsoever, beyond maybe a mumbled prayer at some point.  That may have been why the Andreas storyline low-key annoyed me.  Replacing a love interest with Kendra coming to God would have made this entire story much more readable.  Instead, because we never see the characters place their story into any kind of eternal context, it’s an overall downer – a sad and depressing story with a sad and depressing ending.  As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if Bartels was trying to make Andreas a kind of Jesus-analogy-figure with his unconditional love and acceptance??  Maybe??  But I would have preferred to see some real Jesus in Kendra’s life.

I didn’t hate this book, and a large part of the reason I didn’t really like it was because it wasn’t really “my” kind of book.  It was a lot darker than I was expecting, and even though Kendra comes to some peace with her past, I was left feeling depressed about her whole story.  Not a bad read, but not a book that made me want to see what else Bartels has written.

The Summer Seekers // by Sarah Morgan

//published 2021//

I read another of Morgan’s books last winter, The Christmas Sistersand surprisingly enjoyed it, even though it was bit more “novel-y” than I usually prefer.  I decided to give her newest book a chance, and while it’s not one I see myself revisiting, I did enjoy it and have put several of Morgan’s backlist books on my TBR.  As with The Christmas Sisters, The Summer Seekers follows three different women at different stages of their lives.  Kathleen is getting older, and her (adult) daughter Liza thinks Kathleen needs to give up her house and move into a retirement home of some kind.  But Kathleen, who was a travel journalist throughout her life, is actually craving adventure and decides that what she needs is a roadtrip.  And what better place to take one than across the US?  Knowing she can’t do all the driving herself, she advertises for a travel companion – which is how she meets Martha, a young woman, newly divorced and feeling adrift, who is actually a terrible driver, but who decides to take the plunge and head off with Kathleen anyway.  Meantime, Liza, feeling completely overwhelmed by life, a busy husband, and unappreciative daughters, thinks her mom has completely lost it – and then has a bit of a mini-breakdown of her own.

There were several strands of this story that felt a little overdone (Martha’s mother felt just almost comically bad – would any mother actually tell her daughter that said daughter’s husband was justified in having an affair because the daughter had gained some weight???).  I hated the fact that Kathleen had literally spent her whole life not opening letters – one of my least favorite plot tropes of ALL TIME.  And Liza’s breakdown felt a little over-the-top.  I also got annoyed because we are told repeatedly that Kathleen wasn’t a very good mother, what with all the traveling and all – and the fact that she has NEVER TOLD HER DAUGHTER SHE LOVED HER – but it’s presented as basically justified because if Kathleen had been a man/father, everyone would have been fine with it??  First off, no, I’m not fine with men being horrible parents, and secondly – that’s the best you can come up with?  Men suck as parents, so women should be allowed to suck also??  How does that make sense??

BUT to balance it out, there are so many fun and happy scenes.  Martha’s little love affair was a bit insta-lovey, but still fun, and I enjoyed seeing her grow in self-confidence throughout the story.  I appreciated that Kathleen was able to face up to mistakes she had made and apologize for them, even if it did take her like 50 years to do it.  Better late than never, I guess.  (Moral:  FREAKING READ LETTERS PEOPLE WRITE TO YOU)  Liza’s storyline had the real potential to make or break this book for me, because I genuinely hate when women “discover” that they’ve actually “wasted” their lives taking care of their families – but instead Morgan made the incredibly realistic decision to have both Liza’s husband AND Liza BOTH realize that they had made mistakes throughout their marriage and that if they wanted to make it work – and they do – then they will BOTH have to work together going forward.  So many times authors just make the husband do all the groveling because OBVIOUSLY the wife can do no wrong – but here Liza actually faces up to the fact that she’s been expecting her husband to just read her mind and ignore the fact that she keeps telling him everything and everyone is fine, even when she’s not.  I felt really optimistic about their marriage at the end of the book, like they had turned onto a good path and were going to have a great marriage going forward.

While The Summer Seekers wasn’t my favorite book of the year, it was still and enjoyable and engaging read.  If you like your novels with some fluffy romance, or your romance with some more serious themes, this may be a good read for you.

The Nature of Small Birds // by Susie Finkbeiner

Well, friends, as I feared, the orchard has taken over my life!!  It’s been several years since we had a decent crop of peaches, but this year it’s a bonanza!!  We have peaches, plums, nectarines, and blackberries EVERYWHERE!  We’re always short-staffed at the beginning of the season because the hours are all over the place and it can be hard to find people who are interested in just working for a couple of months.  Since I absolutely love the people who own this orchard and since I only live a mile away, I end up filling a lot of gaps!!  Surprisingly, although I’ve eaten several peaches every day for the last three weeks, I’m still not tired of them.  They are SO DELICIOUS.  So take a road trip to central Ohio and get your fix!! :-D

In the meantime, I honestly haven’t been reading nearly as much as I usually do.  However, I did have this review copy of The Nature of Small Birds that I finished last week and have been meaning to post about.  I enjoyed this gentle story about a family who adopted a young girl from Vietnam, yet it somehow failed to really stir a great deal of emotion for me.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In 1975, three thousand children were airlifted out of Saigon to be adopted into Western homes. When Mindy, one of those children, announces her plans to return to Vietnam to find her birth mother, her loving adoptive family is suddenly thrown back to the events surrounding her unconventional arrival into their lives.

Though her father supports Mindy’s desire to meet her family of origin, he struggles privately with an unsettling fear that he’ll lose the daughter he’s poured his heart into. Mindy’s mother undergoes the emotional roller coaster inherent in the adoption of a child from a war-torn country, discovering the joy hidden amid the difficulties. And Mindy’s sister helps her sort through relics that whisper of the effect the trauma of war has had on their family–but also speak of the beauty of overcoming.

Told through three strong voices in three compelling timelines, The Nature of Small Birds is a hopeful story that explores the meaning of family far beyond genetic code.

The three timelines are Mindy’s adopted father, Bruce, in present day/2013; Mindy’s adopted mother, Linda, in 1975; and Mindy’s adopted sister, Sonny, in 1988.  Choosing to not have Mindy – the actual Vietnamese girl who was adopted – be one of the narrative voices was an interesting choice to me.  I can see why the author made that choice, but it also kept me distanced from the character who seemed like she should be the center of the story.  I never felt like I really knew Mindy or understood her choices – but it almost didn’t matter because she honestly didn’t make a lot of choices in this story.  Things happened to her a lot more than she made things happen.

//published 2021//

From the synopsis, I expected more of the story to focus on Mindy’s search for her birth family in Vietnam, but in reality that was a very small part of the story.  In the present day, Bruce is wrestling with the failing health of his parents, which frequently took precedence over Mindy’s search.  In 1975, Linda is struggling to please her strict, overbearing mother-in-law while still doing what she believes is right – adopt a child from Vietnam despite Bruce’s mother’s outrage – Bruce’s brother was killed in Vietnam during the war, and his mother can’t believe that they are willing to adopt “one of them.”  Sonny’s storyline takes place when she is a senior in high school/the summer right after her graduation (Mindy is a couple years younger) and is a lot about Sonny realizing that even though they all love Mindy a lot, they can never truly understand the difficulties and prejudices she will always face.

Each of these storylines was perfectly interesting and pleasant, but there never was any zing to the story.  It was a very straightforward narrative without a lot of complications, but in many ways it felt rather directionless.  At the end of the story, I just wasn’t sure what the “point” had been.  This was especially emphasized by the fact that Bruce’s mother treats Mindy like garbage consistently across all three timelines, yet no one else in the family ever actually stands up for Mindy or tells Bruce’s mother to shape up.  I was very disappointed by the way this was presented, that basically it felt like everyone was willing to compromise on Mindy’s well-being for the sake of peace within the family.  Sometimes, there are reasons that there shouldn’t be peace in your family, and treating a child cruelly is definitely one of them.  This aspect of the story really brought down my overall enjoyment of the book.

I have mixed feelings about whether or not I would actually recommend this book.  It was an interesting look at a piece of history (Operation Babylift) that I hadn’t really heard much about before, and it was a perfectly fine story.  However, I honestly found it rather boring in places because the story wasn’t actually going anywhere, and there were just too many instances of Bruce’s mother being a jerk and no one saying anything about it for me to really like this book or consider rereading it at any point.  In the end, it’s 3* for this one, and another case of a book I wanted to like more than I did.

January Minireviews – Part 2

Lately, I’ve considered giving up book blogging since I’ve been quite terrible at keeping up with it. Life is busy and I have a lot of other commitments. Plus, I’m not going to lie, I hate the new WordPress block editor with a seething passion. HATE. IT. It’s so counter-intuitive, overly-complicated, and absolutely nonsense when you just are trying to have a regular blog where you write stuff and stick in a few pictures – I’m not attempting to create an actual webpage here, I’m trying to write a BLOG. Every time I start to write a new post, I just remember how much I hate working on WordPress now, which makes me extra depressed because I’ve always been such a huge fan of this site and have had several different blogs here over the years. Is anyone using a different host that they like better? I’m up for exploration because WordPress now SUCKS.

But anyway, all that to say, at the end of the day I actually use this blog to track what I read and whether I liked it, so even if other people don’t read my reviews, I actually use them as a reference point all the time haha So for now, even though I’m always a couple months behind, I’m going to keep at it. I do enjoy writing the actual reviews (usually) (except for the part where I have to use WordPress’s stupid new editor) so I’m going to keep posting a few reviews whenever I get the chance.

And so – here are some books I read back in January!!!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – 3.5*

//published 1865, 1872//

These books (generally published together now, although originally published seven years apart) are classics that I hadn’t read in decades. There’s a group on Litsy visiting one fairy tale per month, the original and then whatever variations or retellings anyone wants to read, so it seemed like a good way to hit up some of the stories I either haven’t read or haven’t read in a long time, starting with Alice. As I had vaguely remembered, I didn’t particularly enjoy these stories. They’re okay, but they are just a little too frenetic for my personal tastes. I’m consistently intrigued by what books become classics. Why are these books, published way back in 1865 and 1872 still considered childhood classics that everyone should read? I honestly don’t know because while they’re fine stories, I really don’t find them particularly inspiring or engaging. I didn’t mind reading them, but don’t particularly see myself returning to them again.

Thirteen at Dinner AKA Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1933//

This is a crafty little Christie starring Poirot and the faithful Hastings. It’s kind of impossible to talk about this one without using spoilers, but I’m still, after all these years and rereads, consistently impressed with Christie’s story-crafting abilities. It isn’t just the mystery, which was solid, but her ability to make the reader care about what happens to various characters. She pretty much always “plays fair”, giving the reader the facts needs to solve the case… but I pretty much never do. Some of the time for my rereads, as with this one, I remember who the villain is, but still enjoy watching Christie line up the red herrings .

The Pioneers by David McCullough – 4*

//published 2019//

This is a nonfiction book that originally drew my attention because its focus is on the settling of Marietta, Ohio, and the impact that that had on the push of settlers into the Northwest Territory. I’ve read maybe one other McCullough book, but can see myself checking out some of his other titles. Overall, this was a solid read, but at less than 300 pages, not particularly a deep one. While I enjoyed the quotes and diary entries that made the text more personable, I also sometimes felt like McCullough let them dictate the direction of his book a little too much. The last section, especially, wanders away from Marietta and kind of all over the place, almost as though he still had some good quotes but didn’t know how to work them in. But there were loads of fun facts, like how there is a recorded instance of the settlers cutting down a tree that was TWENTY-ONE FEET in diameter, or how one community was so determined to establish a library that they collected animal pelts and sold them to buy their books – Amesville still bills itself as the home of the Coonskin Library. I’ve been to Marietta several times and visited the museums there, but it was interesting to hear about some of the other settlers, as much of the information in Marietta is focused on the most famous of them, Rufus Putnam.

All in all, a decent read about pioneer history, but one that I would label as a starting point rather than all-inclusive.

Bill the Conqueror by P.G. Wodehouse – 4*

I’m always in the mood for Wodehouse even when I think I’m not in the mood for Wodehouse. As always, this book followed Wodehouse’s classic formula, but he does it so well and with such funny, funny one-liners that I always enjoy every page. With a whole slew of likable and unlikable characters all engaged to the wrong people, this was another fun read by my favorite author.

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack – 3*

//published 2017//

This is where waiting two months to write a book review really does the book an injustice. At the time that I read this one, I had a LOT of opinions about it, but now most of them have fizzled away. Basically, the main character works for an auction house that sells incredibly high-quality, expensive stuff. She’s an appraiser, and the story opens with her assessing a collection of books and documents. In them, she finds a manuscript that claims to have been written by a woman from the time of Cleopatra, but what really shocks the MC is when she comes across HER NAME in the manuscript. As things unwind, we discover that the manuscript’s author was a seer and she is writing this entire thing about various future descendants of herself.

I wanted to like this book, and if I turned off the logic side of my brain I did like it, but there were just too many gaps and issues for me to really get behind it. The MC herself is super annoying and a total user of everyone around here. She’s recently found out that she was adopted and is acting like a petty, spoiled child about it and at times is downright cruel to her adopted mother. For someone supposedly in her late 20s/early 30s, she frequently sounded like a petulant, sulky teenager. Even if I accepted the fact that the author of the manuscript was a seer with the ability to look to the future, I couldn’t believe that she would have the mental capacity to understand everything that she was seeing. Could someone from Cleopatra’s time have a vision that involved airplanes and cars and understand them – and have words for them?? The stories that the seer was writing were far too complete to actually make sense as a prophetic manuscript, although the stories themselves were engaging.

The plot with the missing tarot cards was convoluted and choppy and still didn’t make sense at the end. This was one of my traveling book club books, which is why I read it – it wasn’t particularly a book I would have picked for myself, or finished reading if I had. Not a terrible book by any means, but it didn’t really inspire me to find out if Womack has written anything else.

January Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer – 4*

//published 1932//

Heyer didn’t tend to write sequels/connected books, so I was bit surprised when I read These Old Shades and then discovered that there was actually a sequel. Devil’s Cub is set a generation later – focusing on the son of the main couple from Shades. You don’t necessarily have to read Shades first, but it did add a level of fun, knowing more about the various characters. This wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it was good, fluffy, Heyer fun with plenty of snappy dialogue, likable characters, and slightly-absurd adventures.

The Flip Side by James Bailey – 3.5*

//published 2020//

Most romcoms are written by women, and focus on the woman as the main character, but I genuinely appreciated Bailey’s story, which focuses on a guy, and puts that guy in the situation that so many female characters start with. Josh has arranged an incredibly romantic date with his girlfriend with the intention of proposing. Except not only does she turn him down – she confesses that she’s been cheating on him and no longer “feels the magic.” Within the first chapter, Josh is single, jobless, and back to living with his parents in the suburbs. As he looks at his life, he feels completely overwhelmed by all the choices he has to make, and all the choices he has made to get where he is – he feels like a failure and can’t see a way forward. And so, he decides to stop making decisions. Instead, he starts flipping a coin and letting fate decide what happens next. And as one might expect – shenanigans ensue.

There was a lot to enjoy about this story. There are fun and slightly-ridiculous scenarios, mostly likable characters, and a little bit of thoughtfulness about life choices and where they take us. On the other hand, a lot of the pacing felt stuttered, a few of the characters were extremely underdeveloped, and there’s this whole weird thing where Josh gets a ride with a taxi driver named Jesus, which leads to this whole conversation/scenario that felt kind of sacrilegious to me.

At the end of the day – an entertaining and overall enjoyable, but it isn’t one I see myself reading again and again.

The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer – 4.5*

//published 2004// Also, the cards are for another Litsy challenge haha //

These are the sequels to Sorcery and Cecelia, which I reread in December. Like the first book, they are fun and happy epistolary novels. In The Grand Tour, the two couples from Cecelia have just gotten married and are off on a joint honeymoon around the Continent, where they run into another magical mystery. The Mislaid Magician takes place about ten years later – both families now have several children, adding to the fun. This one is extra entertaining as there are letters between the husbands as well.

All in all, these are just such fun books with enjoyable characters and a very fun world-building concept – highly recommended.

Eyewitness Guides: Brazil4*

//published 2020//

Another challenge on Litsy this year is #FoodandLit – there’s a country each month, and participants try to read some books set in that country or written by authors from it, and we also share recipes, although I’m not particularly good at that aspect haha Because I’m really trying to keep my challenges focused on reading books already on my TBR, my goal is to read two books for each country – one nonfiction, most likely a travel guide of some sort – and one fiction, mostly based on what’s available at the library! These Eyewitness guides are great fun – super colorful, full of photographs and maps, and I learned all sorts of things about Brazil, which is actually a HUGE country. It was also fun to read this one before I read my fiction choice (next review) since I had a much better grasp on the geography of the country by the time I got to Ways to Disappear, in which the characters hop around the country quite a bit.

A fun way to armchair travel, especially to countries I’ll probably never visit in person.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey – 3.5*

//published 2016//

This was a weird book that I would never have picked up if it wasn’t for the #FoodandLit challenge. The story is about Emma, who works as a translator. Her main focus for several years has been translating novels by a Brazilian author named Beatriz Yagoda. The story opens with Beatriz climbing up a tree with a suitcase – and that’s the last anyone sees of her. Emma, in snowy Pittsburgh, receives an email that she thinks is from someone connected to Beatriz’s publishing house, and spontaneously decides to go to Brazil to see if she can help locate Beatriz, a decision that makes Emma’s live-in boyfriend/almost fiance quite annoyed. In Brazil, everything is as opposite to Pittsburgh as it can be. It turns out that the email was actually from a mafia-like guy to whom Beatriz owes thousands of dollars in gambling debts. The story wanders through Brazil as Emma and Beatriz’s adult children try to find the missing author all while dodging the increasingly intense threats of the loan shark. The entire book has an almost dream-like quality to it, with an emphasis on the hot, sticky weather (in contrast to wintry Pittsburgh). Emma has an affair with Beatriz’s son, struggling with feeling conflicted about the marriage proposal she knows is coming from her boyfriend back home. Beatriz’s daughter, Beatriz’s opposite in almost every way, is frustrated that Emma is there at all, much less than Emma thinks she knows so much more about Beatriz than anyone else. The whole novel meanders around – it feels like, with the whole loan-shark-deadline-if-you-miss-it-we’re-going-to-kill-you thing, that there should be more of a sense of urgency, but there just isn’t. The ending is odd, but not necessarily out of character for the rest. A book I’m not exactly glad I read, but also not mad that I did, either. It was a fairly quick read, which helped, because I’m not sure how long I could have put up with the complete bizarreness of the whole thing.

The Broken Earth Trilogy // by N.K. Jemison

Oh man, I was SO CLOSE to actually being caught up on book reviews and stuff… and then somehow the entire end of January just disappeared!!! So here I am in February, writing up some January reviews!

  • The Fifth Season
  • The Obelisk Gate
  • The Stone Sky

I’ve had this series on my TBR for quite some time, so when Jemison came up as January’s #AuthoraMonth on Litsy, I decided it was time to finally read them. While the world-building was excellent and the concept quite good, this story was also relentlessly depressing, which made it a difficult read for me. There is also one view of the narrative that’s told in second person – it was annoying to start with and only got more annoying as the story progressed. Even when I found out who was talking and why – I was still aggravated because not only was it second person, it was second person present tense, which literally made ZERO sense within the context of the tale. Finally, the conclusion of the story really depends on the motivations and actions of one character who I felt was entirely too young for that scenario to make sense – and even if she was older, I still wouldn’t have really believed that she was willing to destroy the world because of this one certain situation, which meant that the entire third book/conclusion to the story arc left me feeling a little so-so about the entire series.

I was going to say some more about these books (mostly complain about the second person thing), but now it’s been a month since I read them and a lot of my stronger feelings have faded haha In the end – interesting but so depressing that I’m not really planning to read any more of Jemison’s books. I also felt like there was a strongly polemic undertone about racism that at times felt a little like I was getting clunked in the head with it, and that wore on me after a while.

All in all, I don’t exactly recommend this trilogy, but if it sounds intriguing to you, it’s worth giving it a try. In retrospect, the story telling really must have been pretty strong for me to stick out even though all that second person nonsense, but that really did drive me absolutely crazy.