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.

December Minireviews – Part 5

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.

My friends, this is the FINAL post of December reviews!!!

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz – 2.5*

//published 2017//

I’m always up for a P&P variation and even though I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about this one I decided to give it a try. This one wasn’t for me, though – I ended up skimming the entire second half just to get through it. The main issue was – this shouldn’t have been written, labeled, or marketed as a P&P retelling because it was drawing the comparisons between the two stories that left me feeling aggravated the entire time I was reading this. This story is a gender-swapped tale, with (first name) Darcy coming home to see her family and running into her old high school nemesis Luke Bennet. But if it wasn’t for the names, I would never have assumed this was supposed to have anything to do with P&P. P&P’s Darcy’s driving motivation is his intense commitment to caring for his family, estate, and the many people who depend on his responsibility. Mistletoe’s Darcy is a selfish, whiny little brat who decided her family was too “unsupportive” of her life choices (because of course anyone’s parents would be SO ANGRY if their daughter decided to have a successful career) and so left to strike out on her own. The implication is that she refused any and all money from her family, yet somehow now she’s one of the richest women in the country…??? P&P’s Darcy has no immediate family left besides his sister, and the tragedy of this is a huge part of what has left him cautious about relationships. Mistletoe’s Darcy still has both her parents plus multiple siblings, all of whom she treats like trash. P&P’s Charlotte is Elizabeth’s practical best friend – Mistletoe’s Charlotte is Luke’s bitter, obnoxious girlfriend. P&P’s Darcy had semi-legitimate reasons for being concerned about Bingley’s crush on Jane – there was no good reason for Mistletoe’s Bingley (Darcy’s gay best friend) to not like Luke’s brother, so we had this weird thing where Darcy just says she thinks they’re “going too fast” leading to completely contrived and almost immediately resolved conflict between Bingley and Luke’s brother. In P&P we have a fabulous slow burn between the two main characters where they both can’t stand and yet are drawn to each other. In Mistletoe, Darcy and Luke start snogging in basically the first chapter and other than Darcy remembering their past animosity, we really don’t get any reason for why the two of them shouldn’t like each other.

This wasn’t the worst book I read in December, but it was close. I think the entire story would have been SO much better if de la Cruz had just written a fun romcom about a bratty rich girl who gets her comeuppance. Instead, she tried to force a lot of P&P characters into the story, which made everything she was writing come up short.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – 3.5*

//published 2014//

At this point in December (the 27th, to be exact) I ran out of Christmas books!! It was sad because I actually still wanted to read more. (I’m not sure if it was sadder that I was out of them when I wanted to read them, or that I’d already read so many and still wanted to read more haha) So I picked up the next book on my TBR instead, which happened to be this one. It’s about a grumpy widower who runs a small bookshop on an island in New England. The story opens when one of the publishing companies sends a new sales rep to see him and he’s super rude to her. From there the story meanders around through AJ’s backstory, showing how he got to this point. It also moves forward in time to the moment when he someone leaves a baby in his bookstore with a note asking him to take care of her. AJ ends up adopting the baby (which honestly felt like a big weak point of the story, considering he just keeps the kid the entire time the process is ongoing… it really felt like she should have been put into an official foster home at first considering he’s just technically some dude not at all related to her) and of course his life changes as he softens up and opens up and ends up marrying the sales rep etc etc. I wasn’t expecting this book to cover so much time, but it continues right up through the baby becoming an adult and AJ’s eventual death and what happens to the bookstore after that. All in all, this wasn’t a bad story in any way and I found it perfectly pleasant to read, but it almost tried to cover too much time and too many characters, since we’re also following the life of AJ’s first wife’s sister and her husband and also a random policeman and maybe someone else that I’m forgetting right now. It’s not actually that long of a book (258 pages) so it kind of felt like we were skimming through a lot of things, and despite the main focus being on AJ, I never felt like I knew him all that well.

This is sort of literary fiction lite, so for people who like those types of stories they’ll like this one as well. It wasn’t a great fit for me, but that’s more on me than the book.

Foxes in Love by Toivo Kaarinen – 4.5*

//published 2020//

I follow this comic on Instagram and honestly love it so hard. The foxes remind me of Tom and me all the time. I try to support artists whose work I usually enjoy for free by buying their books when they appear, so I preordered this one and was delighted when it arrived on my doorstep a few months later.

I will say that apparently the foxes are based on the artist and his boyfriend, but their sexual orientation is not really a part of the comics – I didn’t even know they were both guys for a long time – for the most part it’s just about their every day lives and it makes me quite happy.

Christmas Weddings by various authors – 3* average

//published 2007//

I know I said I ran out of Christmas books but THEN two of them came in the mail from Paperback Swap! The day was saved!!!

This one has three stories in it and they pretty much went from terrible to regular. The first was His Christmas Eve Proposal by Carole Mortimer and it was one of the worst stories I read all month. First off, the author used exclamation points constantly! She would use them just for regular sentences! He made her a cup of coffee! She refused to drink the coffee! He didn’t know what to do with the cup of coffee! If she wasn’t using exclamation points, she was fading away with ellipsis… Slowly he walked back to the kitchen… Apparently he would just have to pour the coffee down the drain… IT WAS HORRIBLE. Plus, to top it off, they also win the instalove award of the month since they had known each other TWENTY-FOUR HOURS before he PROPOSED MARRIAGE! Oh my gosh.

Next was Snowbound Bride by Shirley Jump. This one was a little more regular. The female MC designs wedding dresses and is flying her most expensive, fanciest one yet in person to California – but she gets stranded in the Chicago airport because of a snowstorm. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she runs into her old exboyfriend, and he’s looking pretty delicious.

The final story was my favorite, Their Christmas Vows by Margaret McDonagh. I guess this one is loosely part of a story about a group of medical professionals at a Scottish hospital. In this one, the female MC has just started a new job as an helicopter EMT which means she has to work with this one doctor a lot. He has a reputation for being a big flirt and she’s super suspicious of him. She’s coming out of a bad relationship where her husband of less than a year left her when she had to have her breast removed because of cancer. The entire part about her cancer recovery, surgery, and how she felt about herself afterwards was handled really sensitively and well and added some depth to story.

In the end, 1* for His Christmas Eve Proposal, 3* for Snowbound Bride, and 4* for Their Christmas Vows.

White Christmas Wedding by Celeste Winters – 3.5*

//published 2019//

Beth has lived in NYC for several years and is getting ready to marry a rich guy from the city. Through various circumstances, however, the wedding is being held back in her small town hometown in Michigan. Beth’s best friend from her hometown, Jen, has taken on the role of wedding planner, with hopes that if this goes well she can continue to build her own business from there, using her family’s barn as an event center. As everyone arrives from NYC, a huge snowstorm hits, adding a lot of complications to the situation.

I really ended up enjoying this one, which was definitely more novel-y than it was romcom-y. What I liked the best was also the book’s biggest weakness – Winters decides to tell a LOT of stories here. Not only do we learn a lot about Beth and Jen, but Beth’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, both Beth and Jen’s parents, and both of Beth’s bridesmaids. For the most part, Winters manages to weave it into a coherent whole and I felt like she chose good topics to tackle for each woman, but this book is only 244 pages long, so in some situations it felt like we barely skimmed along the surface of what was happening.

It also felt like at times she suddenly realized that she wanted to write a romcom, so she would create some kind of “omg!” situation. The one that was the most ridiculous was when snow blew into the barn overnight – it seemed completely absurd to think that the barn door that was “cracked” open when Jen arrived would somehow let in enough snow to cover the ENTIRE barn in “inches” of snow. Even if the door was wide open, a barn large enough to comfortably seat a hundred or so people would not be buried in several inches of snow in the entire building. That was the most dramatic one, but there were a few other scenes that just made me roll my eyes instead of feel like there was a legitimate crisis and/or humorous situation.

But for all that it was still an enjoyable book – probably not one I’ll reread, but a nice way to conclude my December of romance!!

Bellewether // by Susanna Kearsley

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter to me that there’s a big gap between reading the book and writing my review, but with this book I really wish I’d taken the time to sit down and dash off my thoughts when they were still fresh because I really, really enjoyed this book. As a side note, I read it for the traveling book club, so it’s already been mailed off to the next reader – this means I may get a big vague on names because my notes aren’t very good!!!

//published 2018//

Generally speaking, two things that I don’t really enjoy in books are: (1) dual timelines and (2) a touch of the paranormal. But this is my second Kearsley book (the first was Mariana), and both times Kearsley has taken plot devices that normally grate on my nerves and somehow produced a story with likable characters that kept me completely engaged.

Charley (a woman) has recently taken on the job of a curator for a historic home that the town is turning into a museum. The Wilde House belonged to a Revolutionary War hero, and the idea is that they will restore the house to it’s 1770s state. Charley has lived several years in the city, but was originally from this town. Part of the reason that she moved back was because of the recent death of her brother, who left behind his teenage-but-adult daughter. Charley has moved in with her niece to help her out during this time (since the niece’s mom has been out of the picture forever). There was a big falling out between Charley’s dad and his parents, and Charley has never known her grandparents, even though they live in the town where Charley is now living. It will come to no surprise to learn that the contractor for the historic house is a good looking, single, and practically perfect in every way. As Charley is gathering research for the museum, she is intrigued by a local ghost story/legend that says that during the French & Indian War (when the Revolutionary War hero was just a young man), two French officers were held as prisoners of war at the Wilde House and that while they were imprisoned there, one of them fell in love with Wilde’s sister – they tried to elope but one of her brothers killed her lover and she later killed herself from grief. Charley begins to dig deeper into the Wilde family’s history, trying to find more information to confirm or contradict the story.

Meanwhile, Kearsley gives us the historic story of what really happened in the Wilde’s home during the French & Indian War – a tangled tale of a family conflicted by opposing loyalties and frustration with the British government that is supposed to be protecting and helping them but isn’t. The seeds of the Revolution are shown well here, a harbinger of the complications that would divide families a few years later.

I ended up loving basically everyone in this book. Kearsley writes sympathetic characters, doing an excellent job of showing different perspectives and motivations, meaning that even unlikable characters are still understandable at some level. I love the parallel between Charley’s research and what we, as the reader, are learning about the true story of the past. Kearsley does a fantastic job of reminding us that all of history is based on interpretation because we weren’t there – the best we can do is piece together puzzles from the past and make our best guess at the motivations behind what was happening. The clearest example is when Charley finds records that prove that the Wildes were renting a slave from another relative, making an annual payment to him for her services. But as the reader, we’re privy to what was actually happening – the relative refused to sell this slave because he knew the Wildes would free her, so the best they could do for her was to pay her rent each year and keep her with their family, still paying her a wage for her services as though she were free. The present-day people pass a judgment on the Wilde family for “supporting slavery”, but the reality of what was happening was much more nuanced and complicated. It was just such a good reminder that our present-day view has decided what was right and what wrong in the past – but when you are actually trying to live through these things, it’s much more difficult to find the right path.

There is some argument to be made that the storyline for the present-day was wrapped up much to easily, but I’m honestly all about happy endings, so I was here for it, even if it was a bit too tidy. There was also a minor complication for me concerning written records from the past versus what actually happened, and why the discrepancy was there, but overall I enjoyed this story so much that I was willing to overlook it. There is a bit of a ghost story aspect in the present-day line that can only be explained by the actual presence of a ghost, something that isn’t usually my cup of tea, but that honestly worked here.

All in all, this story was much more layered and engaging than I was anticipating. I was completely drawn in to both stories, and loved the way that Kearsley wove them together in multiple ways. (My favorite – having something in the present link to a moment in the past – i.e. a thunderstorm in the present… and then the past chapter opens with a thunderstorm as well.) This was a 4.5* read for me, and one of my favorite books of the year.

October Minireviews – Part 2

Yes, I realize it’s December. Someday I’ll catch up!!! I usually try to not review more than five books in one of these minireview posts just because I don’t want to bore the bejeebers out of all of you, but I’m determined to finish October’s reviews today so you get seven reviews for the price of one!!

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.

East by Edith Pattou – 3*

//published 2003//

I feel like I read this one a really long time ago, but I couldn’t remember whether or not I liked it. I saw that a sequel had come out for it, so I thought I would give this one another read and go from there. In the end, though, I didn’t bother reading the sequel because this one was just super boring to me. The narrative voices (and there are SEVERAL) all sounded absolutely identical. For me, if you need more than three narrators to tell a story, you need to tell your story in third person because all the jumping around is just plain annoying, especially when some of the chapters are only a couple of paragraphs long. (And this as someone who is generally fond of short chapters…) There were long swaths of pages where basically nothing was happening except for people wandering around looking for other people. It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t one that I really wanted to pick up again. And at almost 500 pages, it was just way too long.

I thought about reading the sequel anyway, but then I read the synopsis – and it’s basically the same story as East all over again! So thank you, but no thank you.

Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras – 3.5*

//published 2020//

This was borderline 4* for me. There was a lot I enjoyed about – the main characters were likable and the setting in Key West was super fun and fluffy. I really liked Luis’s warmhearted family, and appreciated the part of the story where Sara’s family was trying to come together as well. But somehow, even though this book had a lot of ingredients that I really liked (love me a fake relationship trope), the story just sort of dragged in places. Luis is mad at one of his brothers, but when I found out why I honestly mostly felt eye-roll-y about it. Like yes, that was a jerk move but… it’s been literal years so maybe it’s time to get over yourself and move on?? Sara was kind of the same way. She has an eating disorder that is currently under control, but it seemed liked it was all that she thought about. I understand that it’s a big part of her life, etc., but she was so sensitive about it. If anyone in her family said anything about her not eating enough, she would get incredibly wound up about and like – yes, I understand that it bothers you and why, and they definitely need to back off – but at the same time, they’re coming from a genuine place of love and concern?? And it felt like Sara literally never acknowledged that. The whole point of her family getting together in Key West is because her mom is recovering from cancer and wants to change the way that they’ve treated their (now adult) children and to bring their family together, and Sara is basically a little spoiled whiny-pants about it instead of even trying to meet her parents halfway.

It all comes together in the end, of course, and it wasn’t like I hated this book. But at some level it felt like both Luis and Sara were kind of immature in the way that they were handling their family issues, so it low-key annoyed me during the whole book. However, this is supposedly the first in a new series, and I would totally read the next book, presumably about one of Luis’s siblings. This wasn’t an instant classic for me, and I know I just whined about it a lot, but it was still overall good romcom fun that I did mostly enjoy reading.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik – 4*

//published 2020//

So I really loved Uprooted by wasn’t a huge fan of Spinning Silver. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first book in a new series, but I really loved it. I’ve seen reviews that are all over the places for this one, and I think it just comes down to whether or not you enjoy a narrative style that does some info-dumping. I actually do, as long as I find the information interesting. I love complicated world-building, and don’t mind having it explained to me by a character. But a lot of people find that super annoying, so that’s definitely one of the big complaints I’ve seen about this one – and honestly, they’re justified. The narrator of this book does a lot of rambling. It just happened that I found the rambling intriguing.

This book is a bit slow on action and long on talking, but for some reason it really worked for me. The writing style reminded me a lot of Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven for some reason, another book that I see a lot of mixed reviews for. All in all, if you like rambly narrators whose internal monologue is super sarcastic, you may end up liking this one. However, I’ll freely admit that I can see why this isn’t a book for everyone.

The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller – 3.5*

/published 2019//

This was a traveling book club book, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Set in 1875, the story focuses on a young widow named Alva Webster, whose recent marriage and separation, followed by the unexpected death of her husband, has left her trailing scandal everywhere she goes. She’s moved back to New York and purchased an old house in the country that she remembers from her childhood. Meanwhile, Sam Moore, an eccentric scientist from a family of eccentric scientists, is interested in ghosts and paranormal phenomenon. When he hears that Alva’s house may be haunted, he convinces her to let him run a series of experiments there, even though Alva doesn’t believe in ghosts. What unfolds in a not-entirely-surprising love story with a bit of ghost story mystery thrown in.

It was exactly “my style” of book, but I still did overall enjoy this one, mostly because Sam is perfection. Some of the situations felt a little overwrought, and there were a few times where it definitely felt like modern sensibilities were being imposed on the past, but it was still good fun. I don’t know if the author is planning to create a series from these characters, but I would totally read a book about another of Sam’s siblings, even if his whole family felt a little over-the-top. If you like historical romance and don’t mind some paranormal in your story, you’ll probably like this one as well.

Well Played by Jen DeLuca – 4*

//published 2020//

Earlier this year I read DeLuca’s debut novel, Well Met, which I really enjoyed but did find a little rough in places. I definitely felt like the sequel was better as far as pacing and dialogue goes, and there wasn’t nearly as much time spent listening to the main character lust after the hero as there was in the first book.

Stacey, a friend of the first book’s character, has had a bit of a crush on one of the members of The Dueling Kilts, a band that plays at the Renaissance Faire every year where Stacey volunteers. (Readers of the first book may remember that this Faire was the setting of that story.) But she’s always assumed that it’s just hormones, so when she gets an email from him after the Faire has left, she’s surprised at the connection she feels with him. Soon they’re emailing and texting every day, and Stacey can hardly wait until the Faire comes back to town.

The real problem with this book is that the actual synopsis tells you the twist, because it isn’t exactly meant to be a twist for anyone other than Stacey. But because the reader already knows what she’s going to find out, it means I spent a lot of the book rolling my eyes at how dense Stacey was for not realizing what was going on. But if I hadn’t already been privy to that information, I may have been just as surprised as she was – I definitely think this book would have read better if the synopsis hadn’t told the reader how it all plays out.

Still, this was overall an entertaining bit of chick lit. I really liked Stacey a lot. I did think the ending dragged out a little too long, and I’m also way over romance books ending with people saying things like, “I know he’s the one for me, but we’re just gonna shack up for a few years instead of actually making a real commitment to each other.” Sorry, moving in together is NOT a romantic way to end a book!

The Wrong Side of Magic by Janette Rallison – 3*

//published 2016//

This was another traveling book club book, and while it was a perfectly enjoyable middle grade read, it just never felt magical to me. There were fun moments and some clever ideas, but I never really connected with the characters.

Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery – 4*

//published 1919//

It’s actually been even longer since I read this book than it has the rest of the series, as this is the only one that I’ll sometimes skip when I’m reading the Anne books. While this story is full of Montgomery’s humor and relatable characters, the focus shifts from the Blythe family to the Merediths, the children of the Presbyterian minister. A widower, Mr. Meredith is incredibly absent-minded, and although he (theoretically) loves his children, he does almost nothing to actually care for their physical well-being. Meanwhile, the four Meredith children run more or less wild. They aren’t mean-spirited, but they don’t have a lot of direction, so most of this book is comprised of stories of their “scrapes” and the ways they try to make up for them.

My issues with this book – (1) I want more about Anne and her family, not these random kids, (2) Mr. Meredith is repeatedly said to be a “kind and love father” yadda yadda yadda, but even though on more than one occasion he “wakes up” to realize that he needs to do more for them – he always just goes right back to being obsessed with his studies instead of snapping out of it and taking care of his family. This drives me absolutely crazy. Mr. Meredith, despite the fact that he’s actually quite kind, is high on my list of least-favorite fictional fathers. (3) Mary Vance is probably one of my least-favorite characters Montgomery ever invented, and a large part of this book is also about her. I find Mary to be SO OBNOXIOUS.

So yes, the combination of Mr. Meredith and Mary Vance in one book means that I tend to skip this one even though there are parts of it that I actually really do love. And you do need to read this one at least once before reading the final book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside, as this one does set up a lot of the characters and backstories for that one, and Rilla is possibly my favorite out of the whole series.

While I definitely don’t love Rainbow Valley as much as I love the rest of the series, it’s still better than half the books I read these days, so I’m sticking with my 4* rating.

S. // by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

So in a way I have no idea where to start with the review for this book. It’s so complicated and my feelings for it were really mixed. It was a somewhat daunting book to read and is also a daunting book to review. But in the end I think it was worth it, even if it did fall flat for me in some ways.

S. is a book within a book, a story within a story. There are so many layers to this book that it verges on impossible to read. The book itself comes in a slipcover, which gives the actual information about the book (title, author, publisher, etc.) because the hardcover book within that slipcover is designed to look, feel, and read like a stolen library book that has been read and reread by two individuals – Eric – a disgraced grad student – and Jennifer, a senior in college. We know that the book has been read by them because they have left notes, annotations, and arguments within the margins of it, all sorts of handwritten discussions in various colors of pens. Throughout the pages are also multiple inserts – postcards, letters, copies of important information, maps, etc.

//published 2013//

The book itself is titled The Ship of Theseus and was written by a man known as V.M. Straka, and was translated by an individual who is almost as mysterious – F.X. Caldeira. Published in 1949, the book genuinely feels like a tome from that era. It’s clothbound, and the way that it was printed, the type of paper used, the font within the book – it all feels incredibly authentic. There is even a sticker on the spine with the library call number.

The book’s introduction, written by the translator, informs us of some of the controversy and mystery surrounding Straka, who was a revolutionary using his books to spread ideas and information, hated by many governments and businessmen for his wild ideas. No one knows who Straka really was, although there are several theories. Caldeira tells of some of them, although he seems to view most of them as somewhat ridiculous.

The story itself is a fictional tale about a man who wakes up on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Throughout the story, he wanders from place to place, frequently being forced (and later choosing) to travel on a boat with a disturbing crew, a boat that does not seem particularly tethered in time or space. This man is drawn into a revolution of sorts, and also is desperate to find a woman whom he saw on the first night of amnesia, a woman who he sometimes sees in the places he visits. The entire plot is very vague and dreamy with a lot of moving parts and is somewhat difficult to describe.

In the margins, different notes are written in different colors, so it becomes apparently which ones were written first. I.e., there are Eric’s original thoughts from before Jen read the book, written in pencil, then Jen’s first notes in blue pen with Eric’s responses in black. Later additions are written in yellow, green, red, etc. so you can usually tell when notes were written. Hypothetically, if you were a much stronger person than me, you could probably read the text of the book, and then go through and read just Eric’s pencil notes, then the blue/black, then the next set, and so on, and have a much more linear concept of how Eric and Jen’s story is unfolding. But, if you’re like me, you want to read all the words on every page, meaning that you are reading Straka’s story, Caldeira’s footnotes, Eric’s thoughts, watching Eric and Jen get to know each other, and learning about the mystery and even danger they find themselves in later – all at once. It’s confusing, but not impossible.

Eric is determined to discover who Straka really was, and believes that the key can be found in Ship of Theseus, Straka’s final work. Eric originally discovered Straka in high school, and became obsessed with his work. In grad school, he decided his thesis would be on Straka’s true identity, but ran into trouble when his advisor stole his work, accused Eric of stealing his work, and got Eric expelled.

As the story unfolds, Eric and Jen continue to piece together clues from the text and from Caldeira’s footnotes – and later from other sources – to determine who Straka was, racing against time, Eric’s old advisor, and other experts around the world who want to know the same thing. In the meantime, are menacing events just coincidence? Or is it possible that a secret society known as “S” during Straka’s time continues to live on?

Okay, so, if you’re still reading – there is a LOT to like about this book. The experience of reading it is honestly amazing, and I’m still boggled by the amount of work put into this thing. The postcards are real postcards. Copies are made on thin paper that feels like copy paper. Old photographs feel like old photographs. A map Eric draws of the campus is drawn on a legit napkin from the cafe where he and Jen hang out. A page from the campus newspaper is on newspaper paper. The detail here is amazing and emersive.

HOWEVER this story does become confusing, and not just because I was reading all the threads at once. There are way, way, WAY too many names. Nine specific individuals are listed in the foreword as possible Strakas, each with a different background/reasons for possibly being Straka. From there forward, these individuals are referenced frequently in the footnotes and extra material, and it’s quite difficult to keep them all straight, especially since they all knew one another (at least obliquely) so they become things like, What if Straka was actually Durand pretending to be Feuerbach when Feuerbach met with MacInnes in 1918?? Etc. It’s super confusing, and if I reread this, I would take more time to (ironically) make my own notes about each potential Straka.

My other negative for this one was that I didn’t really agree with Eric or Jen’s life philosophies. They both had “horrible” parents (i.e. parents who are worried that their children are making poor life choices…) and in the end their conclusion was basically “screw them” instead of any attempt to understand who their parents were or why their parents were doing what they were doing. Eric’s parents are also “Christians” so all of their actions are automatically labeled hypocritical, selfish, unscientific (Eric says multiple times that his break with his parents began when he began to “realize science existed” … excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head), etc. This really got on my nerves, especially the repetitive “my parents just believe in fairy tales and a sky daddy but I believe in REAL SCIENCE” over and over and OVER with honestly zero explanations (what science, exactly, do your parents not believe??) – sorry, not necessary. You are free to disagree with your parents and their religious beliefs, but mocking them repeatedly and acting so superior is not an endearing character trait. Jen’s thoughts about her parents were very similar – “They’re so selfish because they want me to have a career.” Yes, parents wanting their children to have a secure financial life is definitely a sign of how much they hate you?? In some ways, I guess Eric and Jen come across as authentic stupid college students who need a decade or so of real life to realize that maybe their parents weren’t as dumb as they always thought.

All in all, if you enjoy convoluted stories with complicated layers, and can get past Eric and Jen frequently whining about their parents, this was a fun and immersive story to read. I can definitely see myself revisiting it and taking more time to read the footnotes in the order they were “written” to see how the story unfolds from that perspective. While this book was the perfect story I wanted it to be, it was still a great deal of fun and overall I recommend it.

Jane Austen in Scarsdale // by Paula Marantz Cohen

//published 2006//

If this book hadn’t been one I was reading for the traveling book club, I would never have finished it.  It combined so many things that I loathe.  It was pretentious and unbelievable with characters I despised.  There wasn’t really much of a story, and all the characters were bitter and cynical.  And to top it off – I was completely bored through every page.  This was definitely a book where it felt like the author was constantly condescending to you to remind you of how clever she was.

So this is a loose (VERY LOOSE) retelling of Persuasion.  Anne is a guidance counselor at a high school in New York, still single because she let the One True Love of her life get away years ago – Ben was poor and from a poor family, and Anne’s grandma (the one person in life she truly trusts, which honestly never made sense to me because her grandma was a snobby, selfish jerk) convinced Anne that she should break up with him.  Since then, Ben has gone on to become a famous author of travel books and has seen the world, while Anne has stayed in her hometown watching her father and sister rack up debts while she herself works a job full of petty difficulties.

Because Anne is a guidance counselor, an inordinate amount of time in this book is spent talking about the lengths various parents are willing to go to try and get their kids into good colleges.  It was… genuinely unbelievable.  I just couldn’t accept that people were willing to lie, cheat, bribe, etc. just so their kid could get into a school.  Every single parent in this book came across as mentally unstable, constantly frothing at the mouth in rage, screaming at random people, storming into Anne’s office, just literally and completely irrational in every way.  And Anne is all like, “Oh, you know, so stressful getting kids into college!” – as though this behavior is normal and expected…!!!!!!

Everything about this book was depressing.  Anne herself was a depressing, passive character.  Her father and sister were horrific – in Persuasion they are self-centered characters, yes, but in this version they bordered on psychopaths with their completely willingness to destroy anyone and anything that got in the way of them enjoying life.  Their entire involvement in the story also made no sense.  In Persuasion, Anne’s financial stability is inextricably tied up with her father’s because of the way things worked at that time.  But here, Anne has her own job, her own apartment, and is financially independent – yet for some reason is still very stressed about her father’s debt, and is the one taking on selling the house, despite the fact that it’s mentioned multiple times that he’s the one who is going to get the money from it.  So why does Anne care?????  It makes literally no sense, and honestly drove me a little crazy, especially because it’s not like there is any kind of family bond between them – we’re told repeatedly that Anne’s father has never liked her, and neither does her sister, so while I could have understood Anne not wanting them to end up homeless on the streets, her obsession with making sure that their debts were paid just never rang true.

This book had virtually no plot.  Oh, Ben is back in town and his nephew is going to be a student at Anne’s high school… okay?  The only interaction we get between Anne and Ben is found through flashbacks.  They have maybe 3-5 conversations in real time during this book.  The rest is about how happy they were ten years ago, which didn’t really convince me that their life would be great now.  Instead, the vast majority of the pages in this book are taken up with absolutely idiotic stories about the students in Anne’s school.  A crazy guy comes to talk; he runs a business that basically makes your kid “look good” on college resumes.  An entire chapter of this guy nattering on as though I could possibly find what he has to say even remotely interesting.  It was stuff like that over and over and over again.  Constant barrages of random parents coming and and ranting at Anne and Anne calming them down and convincing them that they should do such-and-such yadda yadda yadda  I thought it was never going to end.

Throughout the entire thing, everyone is SO cynical.  I’ve already mailed this book to the next unlucky person on the list and didn’t think to write down any of the quotes, but basically my impression was that Cohen had some kind of horrible college admission experience in her past and this entire book was her purging it from her system.  Or something.

And to top all of that off, there was a constant snide, belittling attitude towards anyone who doesn’t want to go to college, like that’s literally the worst possible thing that could happen to you.  Even students who were interested in going to “regular” colleges were treated like secondhand garbage.  Ugh.  Guys, it was SO HORRIBLE.  Honestly, the worst part was this horrible bitterness over the entire book.  I think I could have handled it better if it had actually been funny, but instead all the “funny” bits just sounded bitter.

All in all, this was the worst book I’ve read in a long time.  I will say that reading it for traveling book club at least meant that I could succumb to my desire to write scathing comments in the margins, so that helped.  1* and please don’t read this if you can possibly avoid it.

Making Faces // by Amy Harmon

//published 2013//

Stephanie read and reviewed this one ages ago, and it’s been on my TBR ever since.  I finally checked it out of the library in March, where it sat on my shelf until July… I really don’t understand my reading life sometimes haha  Anyway, this wasn’t exactly what I was anticipating, but I ended up somehow enjoying this novel about faith, loss, grief, friendship, beauty, and love.

Part of the problem with this book is that it doesn’t categorize super well.  It was shelved under Romance in my library (part of the reason that this ended up being not exactly what I was expecting), and I definitely wouldn’t consider it romance, although romance plays a part.  It starts when the characters are in high school – with some flashbacks to even younger than that – so in the beginning it has a strong YA flavor.  But a large part of the story takes place when the characters are in their early-to-mid-20’s, so sort of NA… except without all the explicit sex and weirdness that that category seems to consider an important part of its definition (because apparently all new adults do is have sex, I guess).  One of the main characters, Fern, is a Christian, and her dad is a pastor, so there is a bit of a religious flavor to the story, yet I wouldn’t consider it to be a Christian book, either.  In the end, I guess it’s just A Novel, with a combination of genres within its pages.

The basic story involves Fern, who is a bit of a nerdy loner in high school; her cousin, Bailey, who has muscular dystrophy; and Ambrose, a high school star and all-around popular, good-looking, hard-working, great kind of guy.  The beginning of the story takes place in high school, where Fern has a crush on Ambrose, who is the high school wrestling star – the best wrestler in the state, in a state where wrestling is The Sport.  A lot of this section is actually more about the friendship between Fern and Bailey – they are cousins, next-door neighbors, and the same age.  Fern has always been there for Bailey, whose disease is degenerative and will eventually kill him – usually sooner than later with this condition – and I absolutely loved the relationship between these two.  Fern is just so genuinely kind without being condescending.  She’s so matter-of-fact about the ways that Bailey needs assistance, without acting like he’s helpless.  Bailey himself was probably my favorite character.  Harmon managed to write him as someone who has wrestled with and come to grips with his condition, without making him feel like an unnatural saint.

Despite the fact that the book is theoretically about the eventual romance between Fern and Ambrose, in some ways Ambrose didn’t feel like the main character.  We don’t get in his head as much throughout the story and he’s a little more difficult to get to know.  However, I liked that even though he had so much going for him, we still see that he has uncertainties and insecurities just like everyone else.

The critical turning point in this story is the fact that 9/11 occurs during their senior year in high school.  I was a freshman in college in 2001, so very close in age to these characters, and that’s definitely part of why this story resonated with me.  Obviously, it was an event that impacted everyone, but I think that those of us who were in that 17-21 year range – basically, the age of enlistment – really felt 9/11 differently than a lot of other ages.  That’s played so well in this story without making it feel political or even pro or anti war.  Enlisting was just something that Ambrose felt like he needed to do, and I liked how he acknowledged that it was both for his country, but also for himself, as he wasn’t sure that college was the next step he wanted to make.  Ambrose convinces several of his closest high school buddies to enlist with him, and they all head overseas.

This is literally in the synopsis of the book, so I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to say that only Ambrose comes back.  And wow, I was not expecting the emotions that came with that!  Even though the other guys are “secondary characters,” Harmon really portrayed them as individuals, with families and dreams that they’ll never come home to.  Ambrose barely survives the explosion that kills the other guys, and it leaves him horrifically scarred.  In high school, he was good-looking, had wrestling scholarships all lined up, and was extremely popular.  Now he’s returning home with half his face deformed, partially deaf, and weighted down with survivor’s guilt.  Determined to hide from everyone in his small town, he works the night shift at his dad’s bakery.

Of course, Fern (and Bailey) pull Ambrose out of his shell and help him to deal with his burdens.  There weren’t a lot of big surprises in this one (maybe that’s why it was shelved under romance haha), but the story was crafted in a way that had me really rooting for these friends, and wanting to see how things were going to work out.  And, not gonna lie, it actually did make me cry, which doesn’t usually happen when I’m reading books.

There were parts of this book where things dragged a bit, or where the jumps between flashbacks and current time weren’t done very well.  There’s another secondary character, Rita, whose story definitely felt like it was just there to add some drama.  Out of everyone in the book, her character felt the most clunky and unnatural, and in some ways the entire book could have been written without her.  The book is a little too long.  I think some of the earlier bits from high school could have been cut out without damaging the overall story.

Still, I was really engaged with this story when I was reading it.  I loved the characters and wanted the best for them.  I really, REALLY appreciated that Fern was a Christian and it was just an aspect of her character and part of who she was – yes, she does talk about her faith and God sometimes, but not in a way that felt unnatural or preachy.  Her dad, the pastor, doesn’t come into the story very much, but I was super appreciative that he was portrayed as an actual good guy instead of a evil bigot like Christians (especially preachers) usually are shown to be in fiction these days.

All in all, I recommend Making Faces, especially if you were in high school or college during 9/11.  This was a book that was more serious in tone than I usually prefer, and definitely did not feel like it should be shelved in the romance section, but was still an excellent story.