July Minireviews – Part 3

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.

Some more July reviews in August!!

Mystery Mountain by Florence Laughlin – 3*

//published 1964//

Regular readers here will know that I’ve collected a lot of random books over the years at yard sales and library discards and antique shops and flea markets and just wherever I can find them.  What this also means is that I have a LOT of super random unread books. This one I purchased all the way back in 2003 and only just now managed to read!  While this wasn’t a bad story exactly, it wasn’t that great, and it definitely hasn’t aged all that well over the years.  Even I, who am pretty old-fashioned, got tired of the way the boys were treating Karen, who is only allowed to join them on their adventure if she does a bunch of extra chores i.e. all the cooking and clean-up!  When they finally solve the mystery of what happened to their grandpa all those many years ago, it literally made no sense.  I’m going to spoil it for you in the next paragraph, because really, what are the odds of you finding this obscure not-that-great book from 1964 and reading it??

So the kids’ grandpa disappeared back in the day when he was on his way to his gold mine that no one else knew where it was.  Everyone suspects he was murdered, and probably murdered by some wily Indians (another reason this book felt a bit dated).  The kids do find his remains in a cave, along with a journal that conveniently explains exactly what happened (and also means he died a long, lingering death of starvation, which makes no sense because everyone looked for him everywhere and if he was in a blocked up cave right next to where he disappeared, why wouldn’t the rescuers have heard him calling for help…????) and what happened was he got jumped by a wily Indian and managed to escape into this cave, and then the Indian rolled a big rock in front of it to block him in.  Except… why?!?! If the wily Indian was after the gold, why would he kill this guy BEFORE the guy got to the gold mine???????  There was literally no motive for murdering this guy, so the entire story made zero sense!

Honestly, 3* is kind of generous for this one, but it did have some fun moments and it wasn’t horribly written – it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the end!

Beauty Sleep by Cameron Dokey – 3*

//published 2002//

A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, this one was pretty firmly in the so-so category.  It was perfectly fine for a one-time read, but I’ve noticed with every book I’ve picked up in this “Once Upon a Time” series that it almost always feels like an outline of a story instead of a fully-fledged story itself.  The way this one concluded felt rather odd, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella – 3.5*

//published 2012//

In this romcom, we meet Poppy desperately searching for her missing engagement ring – it’s gotten lost while she was at a hotel for a conference, and while she’s searching for it, her cell phone gets stolen, too.  When she finds a perfectly good cell phone in the trash, it’s almost too good to be true.  Poppy immediately begins using it to call and text her friends to see if they know what happened to her ring.  So when the guy who owns the phone – which happens to be a business line – tries to reclaim it, Poppy convinces him to let her borrow it, since she’s already given that name to the hotel workers who are hopefully going to find her ring.

The set-up sounds convoluted, but Kinsella makes it work.  Poppy is a likable featherbrain, constantly getting herself into what Anne Shirley would call “scrapes,” but she is so warm and friendly that it works just fine with the story.  She impulsive, but usually because she’s trying to help someone, and her character really carried the story.

My main issue?  She lies to her fiancee the entire time, and since the reader literally knows she’s going to end up with the other guy……!!!!!  As I’ve noted with several other romcoms lately, I just do NOT understand WHY there is another guy!  That tension could be created soooo many other ways besides putting us in a “grey” area of cheating.  (Is it cheating to be texting/calling/hanging out with a guy that your fiancee doesn’t even know exists?)

All in all, as usual, a fun one-time read but, yet again, not one I see myself rereading.

This Present Darkness // Piercing the Darkness // by Frank Peretti

//published 1986//

I first read these books back in high school, and read them a few times in my 20’s, but it had been at least a decade since I had revisited them.  I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t love them as much now as I did then, but there was nothing to fear – these were both 5* reads for me, and I was honestly impressed by how well they’ve aged.

The first book centers on a small college town that seems normal enough, but there is insidious evil brewing under the surface.  A young minister has just accepted the pastorship of a small church, but isn’t sure why God has called him there, since it seems that half the congregation wants him out.  A newspaper reporter from New York has just bought the local paper, hoping that a move to a small town will help him to slow down his life and reconnect with his wife and daughter, but he seems to getting pressure from various officials in the town to ignore certain activities.  One of his reporters has lived in Ashton for a few years – she moved here after the suicide of her sister, and is still trying to figure out what would cause her happy, loving sister to kill herself.  Slowly the threads of the story are drawn together as each of the characters begins to discover a piece of the puzzle.

This is an excellent thriller with absolutely spot-on pacing.  The chapters are short and snappy.  The action jumps around often enough to keep you engaged, but not so much that it feels choppy.  Throughout the story, the reader is privy not just to the actions of the human players, but those in the spiritual realm as well, as this is a spiritual battle between angels and demons, light and darkness.

Peretti doesn’t pretend to be saying that “this is the way angels and demons work” – but I feel that he does a really amazing job of presenting readers with a way that they could work.  Strengthened by prayer, the angelic forces work to protect and battle for the saints, while the demons attack, unseen, the humans in the story in a very real way.  This book is fabulously creepy, but, as a Christian, it balances that with the concept that there is much that we can do to battle the darkness that sometimes feels overwhelming.

Piercing the Darkness is a similar story, but doesn’t feel repetitive.  Although the focus is on a different town with a different core group of players, several characters from the first book reappear in this one.  I think if I had to pick a favorite, I would go with Piercing the Darkness – the pacing, again, is just astoundingly good.  I remembered some of the twists but not all of them, and I couldn’t stop racing my way through the pages.

There are several goosebump-y sections of this story, places where you suddenly recognize how God is working all of these pieces together for good – but that that doesn’t mean that our prayers and actions are useless or unneeded.  In these current times, where we are in a very serious spiritual battle, where you can actually see the evil all around us, these books were an incredibly timely read.

I’m not completely positive how well these books will read if you aren’t a Christian.  I mean, one of the foundations of the Christian belief – of most religious beliefs – is that our particular religion is correct, and others are wrong, and that’s a part of this story.  So if that kind of attitude would bother you, then probably give these a miss.  But the writing is excellent, the plot amazingly engaging, the pacing is perfect, the characters are likable – for me, these books are close to perfection, and definitely worth a read.

July Minireviews – Part 2

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.

For a brief moment in time I was reviewing books in the same month I read them!  Ah well, here are some more July reads (in August)….

Green Card by Elizabeth Adams – 4*

//published 2014//

This was a reread for me.  It’s vaguely a P&P modern adaptation, but honestly not really.  What it really is a marriage of convenience story, and we all know how I feel about those.  Even though this one has a few too many sexy times, it’s overall just a fun, happy tale with a likable pair of people at its core.  I really enjoyed the slow build to the romance, although at times it felt like the main characters were a little too slow at recognizing what was happening.  There is also an almost ridiculously long epilogue – this author has a habit of writing epilogues so long that I don’t understand why she doesn’t just write a sequel, which I would really enjoy.

Anyway, this was a fun one that I’ll probably reread again sometime.

Wedding Bands by Ev Bishop – 3*

//published 2015//

I got the first two books in this series as a free Kindle series a while ago and finally decided to give them a try.  I really enjoy stories about people who own/operate hospitality businesses (I’ve always dreamed of having my own little string of cabins in the woods somewhere), but this one wasn’t really about that.  Jo is trying to hang on to her (now deceased) uncle’s house so she can turn it into a B&B.  Her sister just wants to sell the place and get the money because she doesn’t think the B&B is going to be successful.  The sister hires a lawyer, Callum, who turns out is the guy who ruined Jo’s life back when they were seniors in high school.  This book was entirely based on the inability of Jo and Callum to communicate at all (literally ONE CONVERSATION fixes all their problems in the end).  There’s also this weird thing where this other guy – who happens to be Callum’s best friend – is interested in Jo and keeps basically convincing Jo and Callum that the other one is trash-talking the other, but his motivation is never really made clear, and I kept also thinking – “You & Callum have been ‘best friends’ your whole lives… and you’re trying to screw up his second chance at the love of his life…?????”  It also seems like he’s communicating/working with Callum’s ex-wife, but that’s also never made clear.  Basically, this wasn’t the worst story I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t particularly well written.  I only read the second one because I already owned it and thought I might as well see what happens to Jo’s sister, mostly because I was curious how the author could make the sister so freaking horrible in the first book and then turn her into the heroine in the second!

Hooked by Ev Bishop – 3*

//published 2015//

The second book was slightly better than the first, but honestly not by much.  The story was just SO slow… basically nothing happened the entire time except for people wandering around and not really having any conversations with one another.  There’s also a character who is getting ready to have a baby, but the dad isn’t in the picture.  I was extremely aggravated by how no one actually knew what had happened between the mom and the dad (multiple characters say things like “I don’t know what happened, but that’s their business” so it’s not even like they had conversations with her off page about the situation), yet everyone assumes that the dad is a jerk who doesn’t deserve to have any say about his own child.  Towards the end there’s this throw away comment about how the dad is thinking about suing for partial custody and everyone is basically like “wow the nerve of that guy” …  ummmm IT’S HIS CHILD?!?!?!  I am OVER the anti-dad attitudes so hard.  Even if this guy was upset with his girlfriend when he found out she was pregnant (which he may have been since they are both SEVENTEEN?!?!), that still doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve the right to ever see his own child???  Whatever.  Anyway.  It wasn’t even that big of a part of the story, it was just the part that annoyed me the most.

Overall, I found zero of these characters to be likable or interesting, which was a relief in some ways as it meant I didn’t have to bother finishing the series.

Daddy’s Little Girl by Mary Higgins Clark – 4*

//published 2002//

I’m a little late the MHC party, as this is only the second or third book of hers that I’ve read, but they have been consistently engaging and twisty, and I like it.  In this one, the story opens when 7-year-old Ellie’s sister (around 16 years old, can’t remember exactly) disappears one night and the next morning is discovered murdered.  Ellie feels guilty because she knew about the “secret hangout” where her sister and her sister’s friends would sometimes go to smoke or make out, but didn’t tell her parents until the morning.  Would they have discovered her sister before she died if Ellie had told them the night before?

The book then jumps forward in time.  Ellie is in her late-20’s now and is an investigative reporter.  The man who was convicted of murdering her sister – who was partially convicted because of child-Ellie’s testimony – is being released on parole.  He has always claimed he was innocent, and now says he has testimony to prove it, and is going to have the case reopened.  Ellie is still convinced of his guilt, and returns to her hometown to do her own research on her sister’s murder.  The pacing is excellent here, with many of Ellie’s discoveries muddying the water concerning the accused man’s guilt rather than clearing it.  As the reader, I was mostly convinced that he really was the murderer… and then something else would turn up.

While this isn’t particularly a stand-out thriller, it’s still a good one.  Ellie is a likable character, and I also enjoyed the fact that this book was virtually devoid of romance.  The ending is a little too tidy, but still good.  My only real beef is how hard Ellie is on her dad… like yes, he made some mistakes, but you’re an adult now and maybe you should do some investigative reporting into your own biases against him, geezy.  Still, I found it hard to put this one down and am excited to continue delving into the large backlog of Clark’s work.

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters – 3.5*

//published 2019//

Because I’m still reading romcoms when I can find them…

Par for the course, this was an enjoyable one-off but not an instant classic.  Evie is incredibly likable, and she definitely carried the book.  The concept here is entertaining, and Evie’s staged “meet cutes” in an attempt to prove that meet cutes are a thing were loads of fun (although sometimes slightly ridiculous).  Evie’s group of friends were also entertaining, although the one who was getting married was honestly so self-obsessed that it was hard for me to understand why everyone else liked her.  There were a few places where the pacing of this story was just off – like when they went to have the hen-do and it was a disaster, and when the rich guy is insisting that he’s in love with Evie.  Evie’s boss is also such a jerk that it literally makes no sense that she’s working for him.  And when, in the end, I found out why she was still working for him – it honestly made even less sense and kind of made me mad at the whole book.

So, in the end, not a bad read, and if you like romcoms this is a fun one to pick up, but the pacing was just too uneven for me to really love it.

The Switch // by Beth O’Leary

//published 2020//

Last year I read and enjoyed O’Leary’s first novel, The Flatshare.  So it was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I picked up her second book, The Switch.

Leena loves her job, but ever since her sister died a year or so before she has been on a downhill slide, struggling with depression and anger.  When she has a bit of a nervous breakdown at work, her boss tells her that she has to take two months off to R&R… yes, you heard that right, two months paid leave with no repercussions… to which Leena basically says, “Oh no, please, anything but that!  How will I ever survive if I have to have a two month vacation doing whatever I want and still getting paid for it!  My life is soooooo harrrrdddd.”  Yeah, I didn’t hit it off with Leena right away, in case you couldn’t tell.

After a bit of this and that, Leena pops up to Yorkshire to visit her grandma, Eileen.  Eileen is feeling a bit lonely ever since her 70-year-old husband ran off with their dance instructor (yeah, I thought that seemed a little unbelievable if I’m honest) and wishes that she could have a second chance at love.  However, that just doesn’t seem all that likely in her small village where she already knows everything about everyone.

Leena comes up with a brilliant idea: she’ll stay in Yorkshire and take on all of Eileen’s responsibilities, and Eileen can stay in Leena’s London flat and do some online dating where the pool of eligible men is much larger.  And so the switch takes place…

There was honestly a lot to like about this book, and I gave it an easy 4*.  I got off to a rocky start with Leena, and really never did find her particularly likable.  She and I are completely different personalities, and I would never have handled any of my problems in remotely the way she did, so that was definitely a big part of my issue with the book.  In particular, Leena blames her mom for Leena’s sister’s death because her mom agreed that the sister could “stop her treatment.”  At first I thought that this was going to be at least somewhat understandable – maybe Leena’s sister committed suicide or something after stopping therapy?  But no, literally her sister died of cancer, and Leena is mad at her mom because her mom didn’t try to convince Leena’s sister to try this experimental treatment that would have been super expensive and would have involved going to the U.S.  To me, the level of rage that Leena has been nursing about this for over a year was just absurd, and even though eventually she forgives her mom and they start to move forward, I just couldn’t really like Leena all that well.  She always seemed rather spoiled and whiny.

Eileen on the other hand was fantastic.  Intelligent, interesting, likable – she works hard and engages with people around her.  In London, not only does she find a boyfriend, she sets up an entire club that starts meeting for games and puzzles in the common area of Leena’s apartment building.  Funny and full of wisdom, Eileen is what sold me on this story.

All the secondary characters are great.  There’s an entire clan of elderly people in Eileen’s village that add so much humor and warmth to the story.  I appreciated that “small town life” wasn’t presented as the worst thing ever or the best thing ever, but simply a way that some people choose to live, and the same with city life.  Eileen and Leena could appreciate the advantages and disadvantages to their life choices, and I liked that a lot.  Leena ends up surprised at how busy her grandma actually is – she has loads of responsibilities around the village and beyond, and I liked the way that Leena came to appreciate that her grandma was contributing to the community in a lot of ways.

My biggest issue with this book was one I run into a lot with romcoms – the almost-cheating love triangle.  Leena has a boyfriend that she’s been dating steadily for a few years, but has a crush on a guy she meets while staying at Eileen’s.  Nothing really “happens” but I didn’t like the way it all played out, especially since Leena literally goes from the boyfriend to the new guy in just a couple of days, despite the fact that the boyfriend has been “her rock” for years… it just felt extremely unnatural and made it difficult for me to ship Leena with the new guy.  The whole story would have read significantly better if the boyfriend had been jettisoned way earlier in the story, or even before the story began.  Why did we even need that boyfriend?  He was completely pointless!

Still, all in all I did enjoy this story, which was definitely more about healing and moving forward than it was about romance.  There are a lot of secondary storylines about grief, being true to yourself, finding your place (which doesn’t always look the way other people think it should), taking risks, forgiveness, and being content.  While I didn’t love Leena, the overall story was warm, welcoming, and humorous.  I look forward to seeing what O’Leary writes next.

87th Precinct Mysteries // Books 31-35 // by Ed McBain

31. So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)
32. Long Time No See (1977)
33. Calypso (1979)
34. Ghosts (1980)
35. Heat (1981)

As usual, this batch of five 87th Precinct mysteries was a mixed bag.  Long Time No See and Heat were my favorites of the group, with Calypso not only my least favorite of these five, but possibly my least favorite of the series so far.

Bert Kling finally gets married in So Long as You Both Shall Live, but his wife disappears from their honeymoon suite.  In this one, the mystery felt like a bit of a stretch, but it wasn’t too bad.

In Long Time No See, someone keeps murdering blind people.  Is there a connection?  The pacing in this one was pretty snappy and kept me engaged in the story.

Calypso was just way over-the-top.  I’m going to give away the entire shebang here – basically, this crazy woman has kidnapped this guy and kept him as a sex slave on private island for seven years…..?????!!!!!!  I’m sorry, that’s just not an actual solution to a mystery to me, and all the coincidences were just way too much.  Plus, in the end there is a pretty horrific torture scene that was completely unnecessary.  Ugh.

Ghosts was a pretty decent mystery, but there are actual ghosts in it, which felt like a departure from the norm for this series.  However, since the ghosts weren’t the solution to the mystery, I was willing to go with it.

Finally, Heat had a good main mystery, but there was a side quest with Kling’s wife having an affair that really just felt like (a) filler and (b) a way to emphasize the fact that Kling has terrible luck with women.  (Pro tip: Don’t date Kling.)

Overall, I’m still enjoying my trek through the 87th Precinct mysteries, but I still have 20 to go and am not as excited about them as I once was.  However – the Deaf Man is back as the villain for one of the stories in the next batch, and those have been my favorites by far, so at least I have that to look forward to!!

Love Lettering // by Kate Clayborn

//published 2020//

Continuing my pattern of slightly-better-than-meh romcoms, Love Lettering was another book that it seemed like I should really enjoy.  Meg designs and hand-letters all sorts of things – planners, wedding invitations, inspirational wall-hangings, you name it.  She’s somewhat famous within those circles on social media, and is hoping to win a spot designing her own line of items for a company that publishes planners/to-do lists/cards/etc., although recently she just hasn’t been feeling the magic of inspiration.  But one day, a guy walks in the door of the shop where she works – a guy Meg didn’t think she would ever see again, because the last time she saw him, she was designing all the paper for his wedding.  But here he is, unmarried – and he says that part of the reason is because of the message Meg hid in the wedding program.

Part of my problem with this book was Meg herself.  She’s absurdly nonconfrontational, and it got on my nerves so hard.  I don’t like going out and getting in someone’s face, but if it’s someone that I’m close to, I want to talk things through and fix what’s going on, not continue to live with my best friend while completely ignoring the fact the fact that she’s obviously super mad at me about something FOR MONTHS.  Then there’s this whole thing with the secret messages that Meg sometimes leaves in her designs.  Little things, like only having certain letters drop in a phrase, and those letters spell out a word.  It’s just never clear as to why.  Like I can understand when it’s someone Meg knows, and this is her little passive-aggressive thing since she literally is incapable of having an even vaguely confrontational conversation with anyone, but why does she do this with total strangers, like the wedding program?  It’s never really explained in any way, and it aggravated me because it ended up just coming across as a plot device so this guy would come back into Meg’s life.

Meg spontaneously invites this guy to start taking some walks with her around the city, and it makes zero sense that (a) she invites him or (b) that he accepts.  It goes completely against both of their personalities and left me feeling rather confused.

Finally, as they get more serious about their relationship, part of the reason Meg feels like it won’t work is because Reid really wants to move out of NYC.  That’s it, end of discussion.  They literally never discuss the possibility of Meg leaving NYC despite the fact that Reid genuinely hates living in the city, and Meg freaking WORKS FROM HOME.  It’s not even that I would expect Meg to “sacrifice” her preference for Reid, it was the fact that it was never on the table.  Either Reid had to decide he was cool with living in NYC for the rest of his life, or the relationship was over.  And that didn’t feel remotely fair to Reid.

Despite all these complaints, I’ve still given the book a 3.5* rating (albeit one I rounded down rather than up on Goodreads).  That’s because I honestly did, for the most part, still enjoy the story.  When Meg isn’t being an inconsistent little wuss, she was a perfectly nice character, and a lot of the little adventures were fun.  I wouldn’t necessarily avoid Clayborn’s books in the future, but I’m not on a mission to find what else she’s written, either.

July Minireviews – Part 1

Hey friends!!  Here I am with book reviews in July for books I actually read in July!!  Will wonders never cease!

Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene – 3*

//published 2018//

For a week or two in early July I was trying the thing where I read multiple books at once.  It worked at the time to get through a few books I was struggling to finish (“rewarding” myself with chapters from the books I actually like weirdly helps me haha), but I’ve noticed that when I do this thing where I read one chapter at a time and then read a chapter from the next book, and then a chapter from the next book, I frequently end up finishing books I would normally just bail on.  Amber & Dusk was a great example.  This book was DEADLY slow.  Like, indescribably slow.  Literally NOTHING was happening except for the main character whining.  But part of me didn’t completely notice because I was only reading one or two of the very short chapters at a time.  But I got about 2/3 through this book and suddenly thought, What has actually happened in this story, anyway?!  And the answer was… basically nothing!  The last handful of chapters were suddenly jammed with action, incredibly rushed, didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, and then suddenly the book was over?!  I was, frankly, incredibly underwhelmed by this story.  The world-building itself was also very weak, I never really got any sense of where they were or what life was like for regular people.  This whole “overthrow the evil ruler” bit was… okay?  I guess?  But there is literally no real direction on what’s going to happen once she’s gone, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the queen’s replacement, who spent basically the entire book whining and complaining about how she “deserved” so much more from life… not exactly qualities I look for in a rebel leader.  So.  Whatever.  Originally I went ahead and checked the sequel out of the library thinking I would just see what happened, but when that book actually got here I realized I literally didn’t care, so I just sent it back.  Three stars is somewhat generous, but I mean I did actually finish the book, and there were a few characters that I liked, and moments of creativity, so I decided to round up a little.

Finding Home by Irene Hannon – 4*

//published 2012//

This one is a loose sequel to Seaside Reunionand since I happened to own both, I went ahead and read this one.  Set in the same town with some overlapping characters, Finding Home was a perfectly happy little romance, even if it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking.  Honestly, I didn’t take any notes on this one and can’t remember much about it… so, pleasant but forgettable apparently haha

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome – 5*

//published 1937//

Book Seven of the Swallows & Amazons series did not disappoint in any way.  I’m better than halfway through this series now, and honestly am already thinking about rereading them whenever I’m done.  I love these books!  In this one, the four original Swallows accidentally end up in the North Sea, in a manner that actually feels like it could really have happened.  This one was a bit more action-oriented than some of the others, and even though there was a giant coincidence that helped bring everything together, even the coincidence didn’t feel terribly unlikely, so I was willing to roll with it.  Another absolutely delightful addition to this series.

As a side note, I’m only missing one book to complete my set of Jonathan Cape editions.  I absolutely love these hardcovers – they are a pleasure to read and have the most delightful endpaper maps!!

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – 4.5*

//published 1929//

This was a reread for me, but it’s one of my favorites.  It’s a little over-the-top, but that’s part of the reason that I love it.  A loose sequel to The Secret of Chimneysseveral of the characters overlap, including the intrepid Bundle, who makes a lovely, no-nonsense heroine.  This is more of a spy thriller than a straight mystery, so if you don’t like Christie’s campier style, this one isn’t for you.  However, I found it to be an absolutely delight – her humor is so strong throughout this one that it almost feels like a Wodehouse!

I also read this one back in 2016, so if you want a few more thoughts, that review can be found here.

Byrony & Roses by T. Kingfisher – 3.5*

//published 2017//

As you may be able to guess from the title, this is a retelling of Beauty & the Beast.  In this version, there is no father – the story opens with Bryony getting lost and finding herself at the castle.  She personally bargains with the Beast to come back and stay with him.  This was an okay version – some of it was interesting and different – I loved the malevolent magic hovering over everything.  However, Bryony adjusted to the fact that the Beast was a Beast basically immediately.  The Beast himself is a victim, rather than someone who needs to learn a lesson, so he doesn’t really have a lot of character development and is always studiously polite and helpful, making it difficult to even picture him as a Beast.  But my biggest beef with this story is that Bryony is obsessed with her garden to an unhealthy degree – as in, when she goes back to visit her sisters, she spends a few hours “fixing” her garden before going in to see her sisters?!?!  Like, oh she’s been gone for weeks and weeks and weeks and has no idea what’s going on with her actual family, but she’s sidetracked by weeds in the garden and decides to take care of them first?!?!?!  And that was not the only instance of her literally thinking that a garden was more important than people.  It felt strange and unnatural, and did not particularly endear me to Bryony – and I say this as someone who really enjoys gardening!

So, in the end, like so many other books I’ve read lately, a perfectly fine one-off read, but not anything that made me want to rush off and see if Kingfisher has written anything else.

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.

The Cliff House // by RaeAnne Thayne

//published 2019//

Back in December I read a series by Thayne (Haven Point) that I actually ended up really enjoying.  They were what I think of as low-drama romances – just everyday little stories taking place in some random small town somewhere, and The Cliff House was similar in type.  This one bordered, honestly, with Women’s Fiction, as the romance wasn’t really central to the plot.  Most of the story is really about two sisters, Daisy and Beatriz, and their aunt, Stella, who raised them after their mother died when they were around 10.  Adoption is a theme that seems to keep popping up in my reading lately, and it was a central part of this story as well.

After taking in Daisy and Beatriz, Stella also fostered many other children, and even started an organization to support and help foster/adoptive families.  One of her foster sons went on to marry Beatriz and become a now-famous rockstar.  When our story opens, Bea has been divorced from her husband for several years, and lives with their daughter, who is now (I forget) around 10 or 11.  Bea is realizing that she has romantic feelings for an old friend of hers, also her neighbor, and is trying to figure out how to further the relationship, when the ex-husband comes back to town, full or repentance for letting Bea go and wanting to patch things up with her.

Meanwhile, Daisy has lived her life with a very tight rein on her emotions thanks to the trauma and difficulties she suffered when they were children, before they came to live with Stella.  One interesting aspect of this story was a bit of exploration on how things can impact us as adults – when Daisy and Bea were living with the drug-addicted mother, constantly on the brink of being homeless and hungry, Daisy felt like she was the one who had to care for and protect Bea.  As an adult, Daisy has become very focused on making sure that she has a secure job, good savings, back-up plans, etc.  Bea has remained the more free-spirited one of them, sometimes frustrated by Daisy’ refusal to loosen up.  Anyway, a new guy moves to town and is immediately drawn to Daisy, and I actually really enjoyed their relationship/story probably the most out of three.  I had a lot of empathy for Daisy, who finds it difficult to express a lot of emotion, and doesn’t completely understand why people would want to do that anyway.

The final thread in the book is Stella, who is now around 40, and despite raising so many children throughout her life yearns for one of her own.  She has secretly decided to go through with artificial insemination, and at the beginning of the story has just found out that she is actually pregnant.  She’s absolutely thrilled, but also a little terrified, and not completely sure how to share the news with Daisy and Bea.  While she’s still processing all of that, her college boyfriend – to whom she was practically engaged – moves into town.  Now widowed, he and his daughter are looking for a place to settle down.  I also really enjoyed this story of Stella working through her past and accepting that maybe her future wasn’t going to turn out exactly as she planned.

I’m not sure why I enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t full of excitement or big twists.  It was just a quiet book about three women who love one another all arriving at a crossroads in their lives.  There are a lot of themes of family, sisterhood, acceptance, and courage.  While the story could be slow in spots, it never felt like it was dragging.

I had a few quibbles.  I felt like the relationship between Bea and her friend/neighbor wasn’t as developed as the others, possibly because we’re told that they’ve been friends for years.  But it was hard to get a grasp on how well they would really deal together because the potential for “more” than friendship means that their friendship itself is a little rocky when we meet them.  I also got frustrated with both Daisy and Stella from time to time for withholding information from people who care about them, in a few instances just so the plot could be furthered rather than because that was what seemed like the natural thing for them to do.

Also – I feel like the title doesn’t really match the story.  All three women live in different houses, and it didn’t particularly feel like there was “a” house that bound them together, so I’m not even completely sure which house IS “the” cliff house??  It seemed like an odd choice for the title.

Still, all in all a 4* read and one that I recommend, especially if you like your romance to be on the women’s fiction-y side of the spectrum.

June Minireviews – Part 5

Part 5?!  Oh my gosh.

Five Children & It by E. Nesbit – 4*

//published 1902//

Nesbit’s work is just classic – children having magical adventures and everything is perfect.  In this story, a group of siblings discover a magical being (the “It” of the title) who grants them one wish a day.  Of course the wishes don’t always play out the way the children anticipate, and sometimes saying “I wish—” without intending it to be your wish causes extra complications as well.  All in all just good, clean fun.

Seaside Reunion by Irene Hannon – 3.5*

//published 2012//

This is a gentle and rather uneventful romance that takes place in a small town in northern California.  A young widow has moved back to town several years ago to help her dad with their family store.  When the story opens, a guy who lived there for just a year or so when he was little comes back for a visit – it was the happiest place of his difficult childhood, and he wants to see it again.  While nothing particularly ground-breaking happens, it’s a nice story to while away some time.

Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren – 4*

//published 2017//

This is a borderline 3.5* and I keep going back and forth.  There was a lot about this book that I really enjoyed, most of which can be categorized as “snark.”  The idea is that both the main characters work for competing companies that represent actors, so despite the fact that they hit it off really well, they aren’t sure that their high-pressure jobs will let them date.  Things get even worse when their companies unexpectedly merge – and Evie’s boss – now also Carter’s boss – announces that the company can only afford one of them, so they’re going to have to basically duke it out to decide who stays.  So their flirting turns into pranking (some of which felt a little ridiculous for two adults) with an undercurrent of seriousness.  My main problem with this book was that the boss was SUCH a horrible jerk.  I literally had to flip to the end of this book to make sure that he got some kind of comeuppance because he made my teeth hurt every time he was on the page.  That plus a little too much sex is what kept this book from being a hearty 4*.  In the end, another fun and fluffy read, but not one that I truly fell in love with.

The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit – 4*

//published 1904//

The sequel to Five Children & It, this book takes place the next year when the children are back to living in town.  They get a new carpet for the playroom, and an odd rock falls out of it – which turns out to be a phoenix egg.  The rest of the book is taken up with regular Nesbit shenanigans, with many wishes not quite going the way one would hope.  Nesbit’s books are always happy and fun, and so relaxing.