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.

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!!

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.

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 3

So after spending a couple of weeks basically reading books for younger readers, I suddenly was filled with the yearning to read something for grown ups!  I happened to have an unread duology by Nora Roberts sitting on the shelf, so I started with those and then went on a bit of a book-buying binge, something I very, very rarely do because I mostly use the library to check out books I haven’t read yet, and spend my money buying books I already know that I love and want to reread.  But there was something kind of magical about getting a box of books I’ve never read, especially since I got most of them either on the super cheap via Book Outlet (which I just discovered) or thanks to an Amazon gift card I had been hoarding for just such an emergency as this.  Anyway, the next batch of minireviews is more focused on romcom and fun.

Sacred Sins by Nora Roberts – 3.5*

//published 1987//

This is another 1980’s romantic suspense from Nora Roberts, and really that’s about all the description you need.  I really liked the main characters and enjoyed the story at the time, but it was overall pretty forgettable.  The big reveal was a little bit confusing since it was someone who had been in the story earlier but I couldn’t remember very well, so it seemed like he either needed to be more in the story or just be a stranger, if that makes sense.  The pacing was good, and it was just nice to read a book about adults haha

Brazen Virtue by Nora Roberts – 4*

//published 1988//

A loose sequel to Sacred Sins, I ended up liking this one better.  In the first book, one of the main characters is a cop, and this book is about that cop’s partner, who I actually really liked in the first book as well.  This is one of those books where the reader knows who the murderer is from the very beginning, but that didn’t make it any less suspenseful.  A big part of this book is that the original person who gets murdered works for a company that provides phone sex, so that aspect was rather eye-roll-y for me, since it’s presented as a sort of “harmless” way to cheat on your wife, but overall the pacing and story really came together well for this one.

Side note – since I now publish little reviews on Litsy much closer to when I read the book, I’m back to mostly posting pictures of books that I take myself – which means you get a lil pic of Paisley with this one, and some background of my house/garden for some of the others!

My One Square Inch of Alaska by Sharon Short – 2*

//published 2013//

This was another traveling book club book, and another bust for me.  Part of it is the incredibly misleading synopsis, which acts as though the road trip that Donna and her brother take to Alaska is the driving plot of the book.  However, that was pretty far off base.  The book is actually about Donna, a teen in a small 1950’s Ohio town.  Donna spends most of the book whining about her life, and the author spends most of the book reinforcing any stereotype you can think of about small town residents, emphasizing how literally EVERYONE who lives in a small town is narrow-minded, prejudiced, uneducated, boorish, stupid, etc. etc.  As someone who lives in a small Ohio town, it was honestly genuinely offensive.  FINALLY Donna and her brother actually go to Alaska, and that entire part of the book felt completely unrealistic.  This was a book that annoyed me so much when I was reading it that I don’t even feel like reliving it via a cathartic rant.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – 3.5*

//published 2019/

So the way I picked which books I was going to buy was mostly finding anything on my TBR that looked romcom-y, because that was really, really what I wanted to read.  Sadly, it’s been a pretty mixed bag.  So far none of them have been terrible, but I’ve struggled to find any that have that actual fun, fluffy magic.  Our Stop was kind of typical.  The premise is great fun – Nadia loves to read the “Missed Connections” section of the paper (online of course) and one day reads an ad that may actually be addressed to her.  Daniel finds himself attracted to a woman he does know – he overheard a conversation she was having when she was in the park that made him admire her brains and empathy, and he has seen her a few times on his commuter train in the mornings. But how do you meet a stranger without coming across as creepy?  And so he writes the Missed Connection.  Throughout the story, Daniel and Nadia keep almost meeting through a series of circumstances that feels believable.

Whenever this book was being a romcom, it was funny and enjoyable.  However, it felt a bit like Williams wrote this happy, lighthearted story and someone read and told her that she really needed to remember that this is the 21st century, and people aren’t allowed to have fun books unless they also get some social commentary.  So there are all these random conversations where characters talk about loads of buzzwords.  Literally none of those conversations felt realistic or natural in their context, instead coming through as incredibly polemic – Remember, while we might be having fun here, we’re still feminists!  Never forget!  There’s an especially awkward scene involving Daniel’s roommate bringing home a very drunk girl from the bar and Daniel preventing the roommate from having sex with her because “If she can’t say yes, it means no!”  Which yes, is true, but doesn’t really fit the whole romcom flavor??  It was things like that that I didn’t necessarily disagree with what was being said, it just didn’t need to be said because it had literally nothing to do with the story.  That whole scene is a complete one-off that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the plot, so apparently it was only inserted there to give readers a little mini-lesson on consent, I guess.

ANYWAY as seems to be the pattern with most of the books I got, this was fun for a one-time read, but not one I’m going to come back to again and again.  Enjoyable but not magical.

Roomies by Christina Lauren – 3.5*

//published 2017//

I literally cannot resist a marriage of convenience story.  It’s my all-time favorite trope, and even if a book sounds terrible, or has bad reviews, if it’s marriage of convenience, I’ll probably still read it!  Roomies ended up being a sort of meh read, mainly because it felt like the authors did literally zero research on green cards and how they work.  They were doing things like photoshopping pictures of themselves on a beach so they would have “photos” of their honeymoon… as though the government wouldn’t bother to check and see if they actually left NYC at any point?!  They were sending sexy text messages so they would be “on record”… as though they weren’t going to also be time-stamped??  It was just weird stuff like that that made the story feel really unrealistic and thus less enjoyable to me.  The actual romance was perfectly fine, although a smidge too angsty, but it was a struggle for me to get past their plans for “tricking” the government.

May Minireviews – Part 2

Here we are with the final books for May!!!  Hopefully this book blog will get back on track this summer!!

NOTE: I wrote most of these a week or two ago… still trying to get May’s reviews published before July starts!

King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry – 5*

//published 1948//

I read a lot of children’s books in May (and this pattern has carried over into June) as life was very busy and I was looking for quick, simple reads.  Most of them were rereads from many moons ago, and King of the Wind was no exception.  Regular readers of my blog may recall that Henry was one of my favorite childhood authors, and I read King of the Wind probably a dozen times growing up – but then hadn’t read it in, oh, probably 20 years!  I wasn’t sure if the story would hold up, but I shouldn’t have worried.  The combination of Henry’s storytelling and Wesley Dennis’s drawings worked its magic yet again!

This tale is, as are many of Henry’s stories, a mixture of fact and legend.  The story is about a horse named Sham and the boy who cared for him, Agba, and the tale begins in Morocco, where Agba works as a stable boy. The sultan decides to send several of his fastest stallions to the king of France as a gift, with a stable boy in charge of each horse, and so Agba and Sham begin their journey together.  Legend says that Sham, later known as the Goldophin Arabian, became one of the founding stallions of the Thoroughbred breed – every Thoroughbred can trace its lineage back to one of three stallions, one of which is the Goldophin Arabian.  Sham and Agba have many ups and downs in their journey, as Sham’s worth isn’t recognized at first, making an engaging and interesting story.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1928//

This is one of those Hercule Poirot stories where Poirot doesn’t come into it until about halfway through.  Sometimes that annoys me, but it worked with this story, although it’s always difficult when the reader (theoretically) knows more about what’s going on than the detective, because we’re privy to scenes and conversations were the detective isn’t.  Still, the mystery is a good one, and Poirot is at his most pompous.  If you love Poirot because of his Poirot-isms, this one is definitely worth the read.

Little Gods by Meng Jin – 2.5*

//published 1972//

Another bust for the traveling book club, Little Gods was unbelievably depressing.  (Don’t worry, for the next round of traveling book club, I signed up for romcoms and fantasy, so hopefully I’ll get some books that don’t make me dread picking them up!)  This was a weird story told from random viewpoints (and written without quotation marks, why) about (??? sort of???) a young woman whose mother has died, and now the young woman is journeying back to China to try and find out more about her mother.  In many ways, the book is way more about the mother, who was a brilliant scientist (although not so brilliant at relationships). Throughout, there is loads of scientific theory (so boring, and basically felt like the author showing off how intelligent she is) that really bogged the story down.  Literally zero characters were remotely likable.  Every single parent hated their children, and every single child hated its parents.  No relationships actually were built on respect or love or anything like that – everyone was just in it for what they could get out of it, and, big surprise, none of them worked out.  It felt like there was no point to this story (or at least not one that I could find), and I thought it was never going to end.

That said, there was some lovely writing in between the science, and while the characters were thoroughly unlikable, they were well drawn.  For people who actually like Novels, in all their grimness, there may be something to like here.

Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater – 4.5*

//published 1990//

It had been way, way too long since I had picked up a Pinkwater book.  His books are basically impossible to describe, and definitely aren’t for everyone, as they are full of absolute nonsense.  In this one, a boy ends up traveling through space, time, and other with his uncle (who may not actually be related) and his dog (who is super grumpy).  If you’ve ever thought that maybe time was like a map of New Jersey and space was like a poppyseed bagel, this may be the book for you. It’s also a great read if you love popsicles.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster – 4.5*

//published 1912//

I really love this epistolary novel, published way back in 1912.  Judy has grown up in an orphanage, but is now old enough to be sent out on her own.  One of the trustees, who desires to remain anonymous, decides to send Judy to college because he has read one of her English papers from high school and believes she has talent that should be cultivated.  While he pays for everything, he asks that in return Judy write him one letter a month to update him on her progress, stating that letter-writing is an excellent way to develop creative writing skills.  Thus, the entire book, except for the introductory chapter, is comprised of Judy’s letters to her benefactor, whom she has never met and only saw in shadow as he was leaving – a shadow that looked like it was made entirely of long legs and arms, leading to her nickname for him, Daddy-Long-Legs.

This book is honestly just plain delightful.  Judy is going to girls’ college (no coed at the time), but has never really spent so much time around “regular” girls, so much of her education is more than just reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  Her enthusiasm for life and adventure, and lack of family, means that she writes to Daddy-Long-Legs far more than once a month, and her warmth (and illustrations) make for wonderful reading.  For me, the only thing that keeps this from being a full five stars is that there is one point in this story where Daddy-Long-Legs feels a smidge manipulative, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but in the end it’s just such a fun story, and Judy is such a wonderful character, that I’ve read this one time and again.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster – 5*

//published 1915//

The sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, I honestly love Dear Enemy even more.  The story centers on Judy’s best friend from college, Sallie McBride (who is also the writer of all the letters in this book).  Judy has purchased the orphanage where she grew up and hires Sallie to help turn it into a happy, healthy place to raise children instead of the sad institution it has always been.  Sallie is a wonderful character who really matures throughout the story.  I love how she wants be a frivolous person who doesn’t do anything useful, but her natural inclination to care for others and do a job well slowly takes over.  The romance in this story is also done so very well, and I really appreciated Webster’s exploration into the difference between a relationship built on mutual trust and respect and one built on an exchange of desires (i.e. you be my nice society wife and I will provide you with money and nice clothes).  Considering when this book was published, it was a rather bold statement to make, that a woman could and even should look for more from a marriage than mere financial security, yet Webster also doesn’t go too far – she still treats marriage as a delightful partnership when done right.

This story is full of escapades and adventures and Sallie’s temper and I love every page – highly recommended.

April Minireviews (in May)

So once again I’m super behind on reviews.  Here we are in May, and I have written basically zero April reviews!  So even though my memory is a little hazy on some of the ones I read earlier in the month, here we go!

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs (finished April 7) – 4*

//published 2018//

This is one of the hazy ones.  I picked up this book because the subtitle was “A Novel in Clues,” which intrigued me.  However, the clues were sadly lacking, and even the mystery wasn’t as engaging as I wanted it to be.  It’s definitely more novel-y than thriller-y, and there is a LOT of math in this book.  It is really more of a straight novel, looking at a family after the sudden death of the patriarch. There is a bit of suspense, but it is not the driving force of the story. Still, I did overall enjoy the story and the characters, even if this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.  There were also a lot of dark themes throughout, which I wasn’t completely prepared for – child abuse, vigilante justice, drug abuse, suicide, etc.  In a way, this story was a lot more about the main character coming to grips with her family, both adopted and not, and her place with them, than it was about Isaac’s mysterious equation.  While I did give this book 4* for being a read that kept my attention, it wasn’t a book that I wanted to go back and read again.  And I still feel a little ripped off about the misleading “novel in clues” bit!

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery (finished April 8) – 5*

//published 1909//

Frankly, I’m always going to give every book in this series 5* because I have no objectivity.  I’ve read these books since I was a little girl, over and over, and I love every page of them.  A while ago some other blog that I follow was reading these books for the first time (I honestly can’t remember which blog this was or I would link to it) and she seemed to feel that there was a real up and down to the series.  If I remember correctly, she liked about every other book and felt like the rest were filler content.  However, in my own prejudiced way I absolutely love this entry to the series.  Here, Anne has set aside her personal ambitions to do the right thing for the people she loves – and comes to find that it was the right thing for her as well.  While not preachy, there is an overall reminder throughout the story that sometimes life doesn’t go the way we had planned out, and that’s not always a negative thing.

If I have a criticism of this story, it’s that I would love to have more stories involving Anne’s group of friends.  They are such a fun crowd, and it would have been nice to Diana’s romance mature instead of just sort of appearing.  Still, this is still a book that I love and thoroughly enjoyed revisiting.

Leave It To Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse (finished April 10) – 5*

//published 1924//

No one can make me feel better about life than Wodehouse.  From the opening chapter of “Dark Plottings at Blandings Castle” through the delights of “Sensational Occurrence at a Poetry Reading” and “Almost Entirely About Flower-Pots” (followed by “More on the Flower-Pot Theme”), this book made me laugh out loud on more than on occasion.  Yes, Psmith himself can be a bit much, but the overall story is so fun and full of such fun characters and completely absurd situations that I could barely put this one down while I was reading it.  It’s another reread that just gets better every time I revisit it.

Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark (finished April 12) – 4*

//published 1996//

Despite the fact that I quite enjoy mystery/thrillers, I’ve read almost nothing by MHC.  Recently, I got an entire box of mysteries, including several of her stand-alone titles, and this was the first that I picked up.  The first chapter opens with the main character, Maggie, trapped inside of a coffin (SO CREEPY).  From there, we go back in time a few weeks to find out how she ended up there.  The hook of that opening, knowing that that doom is yet to come, is absolutely fantastic, and the pacing from there is perfect.  While I really enjoyed this story a lot, there’s a supposed romantic relationship between Maggie and one of the other characters that felt like the big weak point of the story and was what kept me from giving this more than 4*.  A lot of the climax hinges on his desperation to find her, but I couldn’t quite find that believable since we hadn’t really had much interaction between the two of them during the rest of the book.  Still, this was a great one-off read that made me quite intrigued to read some more of Clark’s writing.  Plus, it randomly took me to Rhode Island for my #ReadtheUSA2020 challenge, which was a great bonus!

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (finished April 13) – 4.5*

//published 2013//

If you’re noticing a reread theme in April, you would be correct.  When I’m feeling stressed or not really feeling like reading, I go back to revisit old friends.  I find books that I’ve loved in the past to be comforting and safe to read.  I’ve been wanting to reread Fangirl for quite some time.  I had only read it once before and I really liked it, and I was curious as to whether or not I would still enjoy it the second time around.  The answer – yes!  I may have even enjoyed it more.  I’ve read several of Rowell’s books, and genuinely feel like this age of character is her sweet spot.  She captures Cath’s insecurities and uncertainties so well, while making Cath be more than just those things.  I really love how romance isn’t the driving story here – instead, we also see a lot of family relationships that Cath is trying to learn how to balance as she heads into adulthood.  I would absolutely love to have a story during this exact period of time focused on Cath’s twin, Wren, who was also going through a lot of growth and change during this time, although in a completely different way.

One thing that kind of made me roll my eyes a few times was the fact that Cath and her sister have lived in Omaha all their lives and are now going to school in Lincoln, but they act like the other students there are basically a bunch of hicks instead of cool city people like Cath and Wren are.  And like… Omaha is NOT that big of a city (I’ve been there), and Omaha and Lincoln are not that far apart, so that felt a little random to me.  However, overall this is book is so funny and well-written that I was able to forgive it a few small issues and just roll with what was happening.

A Man Called Ove // by Fredrik Backman

//published 2014//

This is one of those books that I’ve seen floating around the blogosphere for a long time.  Every time I would read a review of it I would think,  Would I like this book?  Maybe I should read it.  Sometimes I would add it to my TBR, but then I would take it back off because I just wasn’t convinced that it would be a book I would actually like.  It sounded like it might be kind of sad, and we all know that I don’t really enjoy reading books that are kind of sad.

But then I decided to participate in the #AuthoraMonth challenge on Litsy, which I talked about when I reviewed Beartownbecause Backman both wrote Beartown and was January’s author.  And since I didn’t hate Beartown – in fact, I found it to be a rather compelling read – I decided to pick up Ove, even though multiple people told me that it was a very different kind of book.

And it was a very different kind of book, but I ended up loving it.  I’m not sure I’ll exactly be able to explain why I loved it, and I also can’t explain why loving this book has not particularly made me want to read anything else Backman wrote.  It’s honestly kind of weird!  But overall this was a read that made me both laugh and cry, and that honestly doesn’t happen very often.

My review is going to have some mild spoilers, so if you like to go into a book knowing nothing, don’t read any further.  I’m not going into every nitty-gritty detail, but it’s hard to talk about this book without talking about some of the events within it, but in fairness part of the delight of this book is watching it gently unfold in front of you.  But if you want the skinny: 4.5* and my favorite new read of January (as opposed to rereads).

Continue reading

Beartown // by Fredrik Backman

//published 2016//

One of Litsy’s many reading challenges is #AuthoraMonth.  In December, anyone who wanted to participate voted on which authors to include for the year, and the top twelve candidates were each assigned a month of 2020.  I haven’t even heard of half the authors that were chosen, so I’m going to try to read a book or two for each author every month.  Backman is January’s author, and he’s one of those writers whose books I have seen around and have thought I should read, but just never have.  I decided to read  Beartown and A Man Called Ove, which seem to be his two most popular works, plus I remembered that Stephanie really loved Beartown a lot. I enjoyed both books (I just finished Ove last night), even if Beartown did somewhat emotionally destroy me!

I’m really behind the bandwagon on Beartown, so most of you have probably already read it.  But in case you haven’t, it’s a story that takes place in Sweden (and was originally written/published there) in a very, very small town that is slowly disappearing.  One of the few things left in this town is its hockey team, which, this year in particular, is brilliant.  The team is two games away from winning the national championships.  If they do, it can mean so many good things for the town and for specific players and their families.  The tough part is that this is the junior team – all of this pressure is on the shoulders of a handful of teenagers.

Trying to describe and summarize this book is almost impossible, because it’s about so many different things.  Hockey yes, but I wouldn’t describe it as a sports book.  I know basically nothing about hockey, yet I’m still thinking about this incredibly poignant book weeks after finishing it.  It’s really a book about human nature, and the people who live in this small town, and hockey is just the catalyst for everything.

I’m not sure that city people will “get” this book to its fullest.  Unless you’ve lived in and experienced a small town that is dying, house by house, year by year, I don’t think you can be hit with the full impact of what Beartown is facing.  It sounds melodramatic to say that winning the championship could “save the town” – but it’s true.  And it’s that kind of pressure that makes Beartown so gripping.  There is a lot more at stake here than just some kids getting to feel good about winning a game, and Backman does an amazing job building up those other stakes.

There is a LOT of stuff going on in this book.  There are soooo many stories and characters and situations woven throughout this book, and it’s all done brilliantly.  There is a cast of five million characters yet I never had any trouble keeping them straight.  Backman’s skill is in making each and every one of those characters someone that you can, even if it’s only for a brief moment, empathize with.  No matter how much of a jerk they are, no matter what they do or say, he always manages to give you at least one second of time where you can see what this person is thinking and why they are thinking it and even though you know they are so, so wrong, you can’t help but think I get it.  And that’s what makes this book so powerful.

There is a situation in this story where it’s one person’s word against another, and sides are taken, and people are full of rage, and it’s all done quite well.  The reader already knows the truth about the situation, and so the reader knows who to believe, and the reader is led to view those who don’t believe that person as wrong.  Yet I found myself thinking a lot about this, because at the end of the day it was just one person’s story against another, and I wonder how this story would have read if Backman hadn’t told the readers the truth of what happened until the end – how would I have viewed everyone then.  Situations like this are complicated and delicate and confusing and almost impossible to find the truth in, and I almost wonder how it would have read if the reader never did know what really happened.

Anyway. This wasn’t exactly a happy story.  There were so many times that reading this book made me feel both angry and depressed.  Yet at the same time, Backman’s writing somehow manages to keep his story from drifting into the “hopeless” territory.  I loved everyone, even the people who weren’t very lovable.  I don’t usually read books and think “This should be a reading club book!” but I thought that about this one.  There is a lot to unpack and discuss and contemplate, yet at its heart it is still an excellent story – it doesn’t read like a book that was written so that people would have things to discuss at book club.

In the end, 4* for Beartown, a book that I didn’t really love, yet can’t stop thinking about.

 

Stoner // by John Williams

//published 1965//

As I have mentioned here before, I’m currently part of a Litsy traveling book club called LMPBC (Litsy Mark-up Postal Book Club).  It’s divided into groups of four – each member chooses a book to read/annotate, and then once a month everyone in the group mails their book to the next person on the list.  You read that book, marking it up as you go, and then mail it to the next person, until you get your own book back.

All that to say, I probably wouldn’t have read  Stoner on my own, but since it was an LMPBC pick, I stuck it out.  I don’t regret reading it, but it’s definitely a downer of a book, and those of you who visit here regularly will know that I’m more of a happy-book kind of girl.

The title for Stoner is from the last name of the book’s main character – William Stoner, born in 1891 to a poor farmer and his wife in Missouri.  The book follows Stoner’s life from his birth, through his education and career at the University of Missouri, all the way to his death in 1956.  It’s a very linear narrative, for the most part following Stoner’s life year by year, touching on events important and small, gradually building a picture of a regular, everyday man.

Because Stoner isn’t someone who is important, or who accomplishes something great, or who learns a major lesson and changes his life.  He’s just a poor farmer’s son who becomes an English professor.  Williams tells us from the very beginning that

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.  …  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particularly esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This was a masterful book.  Despite the fact that I didn’t really enjoy it, and wasn’t even sure if I liked the main character, I wanted to keep reading.  Nothing huge happens to Stoner, yet I couldn’t stop wondering what was going to happen next.  I found myself filled with rage at small injustices, wanting to shake Stoner for not standing up for himself, and feeling completely heartsick about his marriage.  Despite not having any great events, it was not a neutral book.  Honestly, I was exhausted when I finished it – completely wrung out from all the feelings.

I’m not sure what else to say about it.  There were times that I wanted to shake Stoner for being so passive about what was happening with his life and family.  He marries a rather dreadful woman – one who appears to have some serious mental health problems – and does everything he can to make her happy, yet at the end of his life, blames himself for their miserable marriage.  He has an affair with the great love of his life, yet lets her walk away in order to avoid scandal and complications.  (Not that I agree with him having an affair in the first place, but even in this “rebellion” he’s still incredibly passive about everything.)  At the end of the book, Stoner really made me look at my own life and wonder where I just let things slip by because it’s easier than fighting for what’s best.

Not a happy book.  Not even a book I can exactly recommend.  Yet a deeply thoughtful, beautifully written, intense book that will stick with me for a long, long time.