Shelf Control #145: The Unexpected Waltz

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Unexpected Waltz
Author: Kim Wright
Published: 2014
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the author of the critically acclaimed debut Love in Mid Air comes this moving novel about a middle-aged widow who finds her feet by embracing a new hobby: ballroom dancing.

Kelly Wilder becomes recently widowed from a much older wealthy man with whom she spent her married life doing charity work, building a lovely home, and, as she says, “pretending to be a whole lot more conservative and stupid and nicer than I really am.”

Now, with too much time and money on her hands, Kelly has absolutely no idea what happens next. So on a whim she signs up for a ballroom dancing class, and slowly, step by high-heeled step, begins to rebuild her life with the help of friends old and new: Nik, a young Russian dance teacher who sees the artistic potential she left behind; Carolina, a woman in hospice, anxious to experience a whole lifetime in a few months; and Elyse, Kelly’s girlhood best friend who knows all of her past secrets—including the truth about the man who long ago broke Kelly’s heart.

In the vein of Jennifer Weiner’s novels, Unexpected Waltz is a deeply felt story about moving on after loss and finding a new walk—or dance—of life through the power of second chances.

How and when I got it:

This is one of those mysterious books that I don’t remember buying! I know it’s been on my Kindle for a while now, which means at some point I decided I needed it — but I have no memory of actually getting it. Still, I’m glad it’s there!

Why I want to read it:

I love sweet stories about dancing — I’m thinking of movies like Shall We Dance, with great dance numbers and a moving, uplifting plot about personal change, opening up, finding yourself, etc. The description of The Unexpected Waltz makes it sound like a lovely read… and maybe it’ll prompt me to consider ballroom dance lessons, something I’ve always intended to try some day.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever? In Liane Moriarty’s latest page-turner, nine perfect strangers are about to find out…

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer – or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

Combining all of the hallmarks that have made her writing a go-to for anyone looking for wickedly smart, page-turning fiction that will make you laugh and gasp, Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers once again shows why she is a master of her craft.

Guys, I hate to say it. This book is kind of a mess.

An entertaining mess, most of the time… but a mess all the same.

For way too much of my read, I couldn’t figure out what this book wanted to be. Is it a thriller? Is it a character study? Are we meant to be worried about these people? Amused by them? Even now that I’ve finished, I can’t quite put my finger on what the point of it all was.

The plot here revolves around nine people who, for their own reasons, choose to spend ten days at a health resort that promises personal transformation as an outcome. Some seek weight loss, others rest and healthy eating, others peace and isolation. Over the course of the novel, we get to know more about these nine people as individuals — their challenges, their current situations, and their frustrations. The nine include Frances, the romance writer whose career is in trouble; Tony, a former athlete; Lars, a divorce attorney; Ben and Jessica, a newly rich young couple whose marriage is in trouble; Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe, a couple and their young adult daughter dealing with grief; and Carmel, a divorced mother of four with some serious body-image issues. The character development is somewhat uneven — while we spend a lot of time with Frances, not all are given time to become anything more than a bare-bones type, rather than a fully-drawn person.

The crux of the drama here is Masha, the enigmatic, charismatic owner of Tranquillum, who takes a fanatical interest in ensuring her guests’ transformations, and is determined to introduce her new breakthrough protocol, no matter what.

Masha is the most problematic part of Nine Perfect Strangers. Her actions are bizarre and ominous, and she comes across as almost a cartoon mad scientist/evil genius. Early on, we learn that most of the guests haven’t really done their homework before committing to this non-refundable, highly expensive health retreat, and the information online isn’t particularly helpful — the TripAdvisor reviews seem to be either 1-star or 5-stars, so love it or hate it, I guess. Here’s where I kept getting a thriller vibe — it’s implied from the start that something dark is happening behind the scenes, that Masha’s motives aren’t pure, that the people here will be manipulated or endangered in some way. But at the same time, we spend an awful lot of time learning about everyone’s personal problems and seeing how they hope to change their lives, so it’s never quite clear whether these people are benefiting from their experiences or if they should run screaming into the night.

Masha’s methods take a turn for the crazy, and there’s a huge issue around consent. Trying to be vague here, but once it’s clear what’s going on, the book becomes more and more difficult to read, because these people are in danger from a madwoman and it all goes on for way too long, with some really weird developments along the way. And then it all gets wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end, and the closing chapters focus on the transformations these people all went through… so it’s not really a thriller after all, even though there was a ton of crazy shit going down?

So yeah, a mess. Not to say it’s not readable — I was caught up in the story and tore through it pretty quickly. But still — the characters never felt like much more than cookie-cutter types, the plot veers into territory that makes it unbelievable, and the book as a whole seems to be having an identity crisis.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret), but Nine Perfect Strangers just isn’t a win for me.

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The details:

Title: Nine Perfect Strangers
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: November 6, 2018
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Insta-Reaction: Outlander, Season 4, Episode 4

Season 4 is here! My intention is to write an “Insta-Reaction” post for each episode soon after viewing, to share some initial thoughts, questions, reactions — you name it.

Warning:

Spoilers

I may be talking about events from this episode, other episodes, and/or the book series… so if you’d rather not know, now’s your chance to walk away!

Outlander, episode 404: “Common Ground”

The official synopsis (via Starz):

Having been led by providence to Fraser’s Ridge, Jamie, Claire and Young Ian begin to build a home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the 20th Century, Rober tries to reconnect with Brianna.

My take:

Major plot points:

  • The Frasers say goodbye to Fergus and Marsali and depart for the mountains.
  • They reach Fraser’s Ridge and start to build a home there.
  • Their Cherokee neighbors aren’t thrilled to have them around.
  • After killing a bear-monster (you’ll see), Jamie reaches an accord with the Cherokee and they agree to live in peace with one another.
  • Meanwhile, in 1971, Roger finds evidence that Claire found Jamie and that they settled in North Carolina. He shares the news with Brianna.
  • According to Brianna’s roommate, Brianna has gone to visit her mother. Uh oh…

Insta-reaction:

Episode 404, “Common Ground”, is yet another slow-build episode — not that that’s a bad thing; it’s just tonally different than the hectic pace of episodes from previous seasons. In this episode, the emphasis is on Claire and Jamie’s journey to establish their new home. Yes, there’s some danger and excitement along the way, but your enjoyment of this episode might be directly proportional to how much you enjoy watching people chop down trees, smoke meat, and use a whetstone. (I liked it! Call me an armchair woodswoman, I guess.)

First off, there’s a tender good-bye. Marsali is now visibly pregnant, and she tearfully confesses to Claire that she misses her mother. It’s a sweet moment, as Marsali acknowledges the bad blood between Claire and Laoghaire, and Claire actually says something nice about (the evil witch) Laoghaire by reassuring Marsali that she was a good mother, and that Marsali will be too. It’s a shame that Claire won’t be present to care for Marsali during the birth. Meanwhile, Jamie needs more settlers for Fraser’s Ridge, and Fergus’s mission is to recruit people, preferably Scots, and preferably some of Jamie’s Ardsmuir men. So can we finally get Murtagh??? Please?? After the baby is born, Fergus and Marsali will move to the Ridge as well.

Off the Frasers go, with Young Ian and Rollo, to pursue the American dream. Jamie is super excited to stake out the new homestead and plan the cabin he’ll build, but the group is unsettled by a visit from some Cherokee, who glare at them menacingly and then depart. Are they threatening the Frasers? Will there be violence? One of the horses is injured by (what they assume to be) a bear, and some nights later, Jamie encounters the bear in the woods, only to realize that it’s a man dressed up as a bear with deadly claws. The man-bear tries to kill Jamie (he’d already severely wounded John Quincy Myers), but Jamie manages to kill the man-bear instead.

 

Jamie brings the man’s body to the Cherokee camp, and it turns out that one of their men speaks English. He explains that the dead man was exiled from the tribe and went mad. Jamie and the Cherokee declare their intentions to live in peace, and later, some members of the tribe come to visit at Fraser’s Ridge. An older woman describes a vision she’s had of Claire’s future, both of Claire’s growing power as a healer and a more ominous statement about something (unnamed) that will happen that won’t be Claire’s fault. Not that that’s creepy or anything.

And wait, there’s more! In 1971, Roger is back at Oxford, missing Brianna — he hasn’t seen her since their big fight at the festival in North Carolina. As he reads a book about Scottish settlement in colonial North Carolina, he comes across a picture of a place identified as Fraser’s Ridge. He reaches out to the book’s author, and receives documents back including a copy of the document signed by James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, a plan of their land, and a letter describing Fraser’s Ridge and a woman named Claire who was a healer. At last — proof that Claire survived her trip through the stones and reunited with Jamie! Not only that, but basically an address for where Claire and Jamie settled. Roger calls Brianna with the news, in a very awkward trans-Atlantic phone call. Brianna is thrilled, but there’s clearly a lot of unspoken emotion between Roger and Brianna.

By the end of the episode, Roger makes two more unexpected discoveries. First, Fiona gives him a copy of an obituary from a newspaper in the 1770s, relating the deaths of James and Claire Fraser. The year is illegible. Roger decides not to tell Brianna — why burden her with knowing that her parents only had a few years together before dying tragically? When he tries to call Brianna again, her roommate Gail answers. Didn’t Roger know? asks Gail — Brianna left a few weeks ago to go to Scotland to visit her mother. Uh oh! It seems that a certain red-head is on her way to Craigh na Dun!

Insta-reaction wrap-up:

I really liked the outdoorsy feel of the episode, seeing Jamie’s joy at building a home for his family, and Claire’s delight in working with Jamie to start something new and special. Ian was adorable as always… and Rollo! Well, Rollo is always amazing. Good dog, Rollo.

I love that Claire and Jamie are never far away from expressing their love, devotion, and attraction at any given moment. These two are just perfection.

The show is being very careful to be sensitive in its portrayal of the Cherokee. So far, so good. Let’s see how this progresses.

I was waiting for Jamie to wrassle a bear like he does in the book — but I suppose it would be pretty tricky to actual film something like that, and we wouldn’t want to add any real scars to all the prosthetic scars Sam Heughan already has to deal with. So the substitution of a crazy man who thinks he’s a bear is okay by me… although I do miss the book scene of Claire slapping the bear with a fish. What a great scene! (Go look it up if you haven’t read it!)

I’m liking Roger and Brianna’s story so far this season too. They’re getting enough screen time to start building up interest, but not enough at this point to frustrate viewers by taking away from Claire and Jamie time.

 

And furthermore…

Claire finally broke out her britches! I was thinking early in the episode how annoying it must be to chop and build and haul things in the middle of the woods while wearing full skirts and petticoats… and by the end of the episodes, Claire’s in pants and looking SO much more comfortable.

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The Monday Check-In ~ 11/26/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

In adult fiction:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: An excellent look at the Trojan War from the women’s perspective. My review is here.

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan: Sweet, romantic, escapist fun. My review is here.

Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren: Funny, sexy, modern romance. My review is here.

In young adult/middle grade:

The Agony House by Cherie Priest (illustrated by Tara O’Connor): A clever ghost story that incorporates a comic book into the narrative. My review is here.

In audiobooks:

Squire (Protector of the Small, #3) by Tamora Pierce: I adored book #3 in the Kel quartet. What an ending!

Outlander, baby!

I’m writing reaction posts for each episode of season 4… but was too tired last night to finish up the most recent episode and put any coherent thoughts together. So, stay tuned for Episode 404, “Common Ground” (aired 11/25/2018) – my reaction post for last night’s episode will be up later today.

Fresh Catch:

So yeah, I guess my Tortall obsession is getting a bit out of control… Couldn’t resist adding these two to my growing Tamora Pierce collection.

And look! My awesome hubby got me an early Hanukkah present:

So excited! Now I just need time to settle in and read it… all 700+ pages!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: I’ve read about 200 pages so far, and I still have no idea where this book is going and what it’s trying to be. Not that I’m not enjoying it — just feeling a little puzzled.

Now playing via audiobook:

Lady Knight (Protector of the Small, #4) by Tamora Pierce: This series is amazing. And if you want to know more about Tamora Pierce and why women of all ages love her books, check out this piece from Tor.com.

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads — getting close to the end for both!

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week, aiming to finish in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December.

So many books, so little time…

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive…

My Thoughts:

Similarly to her work in the terrific I Am Princess X, in The Agony House author Cherie Priest tells a gripping story with comic book illustrations mixed in to tell a piece of the tale. When Denise discovers the hidden comic book in the creepy attic of her new house (which she bluntly refers to as a “craphole” at all times), the book seems to be a clue to the unexplainable events happening to the family as they try to make the old place livable once again.

Denise is a great main character — clearly very smart, devoted to her family, but unhappy with being dragged away from her friends back in Houston and forced to live in this awful house. As she settles in and gets to know some of the teens in her neighborhood, we get a picture of the devastation left by the Storm (as they refer to it), even after so many years. The book deals with issues around economic hardship, gentrification, and privilege, not in a preachy way, but by showing the struggles and resentments of the characters and the new understandings they need to reach in order to get along. The social lessons here feel organic and important to the story, and I appreciated seeing the characters come to terms with one another in all sorts of interesting ways.

I’d place The Agony House somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. The main characters are high school seniors, but the events and the narrative would be fine for younger readers, middle school or above, so long as they’re okay with ghosts and spookiness. I really enjoyed the comic book pages and how they relate to the main story, and thought it was all very cleverly put together. As an adult reader, I saw the plot resolution twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t lessen the satisfaction of seeing it all work out, and I think it’ll be a great surprise for readers in the target audience.

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The details:

Title: The Agony House
Author: Cherie Priest
Illustrator: Tara O’Connor
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them…right?

Ah, what fun! In my head, I don’t think of myself as someone who enjoys contemporary romance reading… but my recent track record seems to prove me wrong, over and over and over again.

Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating is a totally delicious and enjoyable story about two people who are determined to stay firmly in the friend zone… but we all know that intentions can be very different than what happens in real life.

In alternating chapters narrated by Hazel and Josh, we see these two come together in their late 20s, reunited by Josh’s sister, who just happens to be Hazel’s best friend. Hazel declares to Josh that she’s going to be his best friend too, and things certainly seem to head in that direction.

Let’s talk about Hazel for a moment. She is very out there, and at first, I was a little put off. Would I be able to handle a friend like that — someone who blurts, has no filters, and lives purely in the moment, going with what feels good and not worrying about tidiness or public opinion? She really would be hard to take — and yet, as the book progressed, I came to love her more and more. First of all, Hazel is all heart. She’s an elementary school teacher, for goddess’s sake! She loves 8-year-olds, with all their chaos and creativity and mess. When Josh first sees her in her classroom, he’s reminded of Ms Frizzle, and that’s really so on the nose. She’s a whirlwind of energy and good will, and it’s just impossible not to be charmed.

Josh is a little harder to pin down. He’s the older child of Korean immigrant parents whom he loves, he’s a successful physical therapist, and he’s a serial monogamist. He believes in committed relationships, and likes his world neat and sensible.

Josh and Hazel are clear that they’d be disastrous romantic partners, but they turn into excellent friends. Hazel pushes Josh’s boundaries and makes him laugh; Josh appreciate’s the Hazel-ness of Hazel without ever telling her to tone it down. Their series of blind dates, in which they each set up the other and then go on a double-date, are predictably epic failures, but it takes an awfully long time for Josh and Hazel to acknowledge that they’d rather be with one another than with anyone else.

My typical complaint with contemporary romances is about the communication factor. Surely, in real life, people would be just a little bit clearer about their feelings and intentions, right? There’s a lot of time wasted during which Josh thinks Hazel is interested in an ex-boyfriend and Hazel thinks Josh thinks that she should pursue things with the ex. They’re both wrong, of course, having completely misread each other and not spoken clearly enough to set each other straight. Of course, if everyone said everything they were thinking directly and without delay, there’d be no drama and no big payoff, so there you go.

This book surprised me in all the right ways. Sure, we know exactly where Josh and Hazel are headed, but it’s so much fun to see how they get there. I gobbled up this book in one day, and was left hungry for more. Apparently, I’ve been missing out by never having read this author (actually, two authors writing together) before, but I plan to rectify the situation as soon as I can!

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The details:

Title: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

For fans of Sophie Kinsella, Jojo Moyes, and Jennifer Weiner, a moving, laugh-out-loud novel—with recipes!—about a young woman who begins her life anew as a baker in Cornwall.

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it.

This is my third Jenny Colgan book — and in each, the pattern seems to be: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. And hey, it may be a pattern, but it works!

In Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly and her grumpy ex have been driven into bankruptcy by the failure of their graphic design business (he’s the designer, she handles the office). With no money, the relationship in tatters, and no place to live, Polly chances upon a flat for rent in Mount Polbearne, a location she remembers fondly from childhood field trips. Polbearne is an island attached to Cornwall by a causeway that’s only accessible when the tide is out. The town features a fishing fleet, a pub, some worn-down local businesses, and for Polly, a place of refuge to lick her wounds and retreat from the world.

It’s Polly’s love of bread that finally draws her out of her shell. The one and only bakery on the island is run by a grumpy old woman, Polly’s landlady, who makes atrocious bread but refuses to allow anyone to sell anything else. Polly starts baking as a hobby, to relieve her own stress and anxiety, but as her baking becomes popular with the local fishermen, she starts to find a place for herself in this isolated community.

Little Beach Street Bakery is quite a fun read. Polly is a relatable young woman, who has been through tough times but still maintains enough hope to start rebuilding. She’s goofy too — after rescuing an injured puffin, she develops a quirky relationship with the bird and the two become inseparable. (Side note, I’ve only just discovered that the author has written some children’s books about Polly and Neil the Puffin — how adorable is that?)

The love story in this book takes a while to build, and Polly makes a big mistake along the way. (Not her fault — he didn’t tell her he was married! Ahem.) But eventually, she realizes who it is that she really loves and wants, and after a prolonged period of misunderstanding, there are fireworks. (Yes, there really are fireworks!)

Along the way, we meet a host of quirky locals, get immersed in the battle between newly arrived trendy folks who want to modernize and the old-timers who want to keep things as they are, experience the trauma of waiting for the fishing fleet to come home after a storm, and get to know a beautiful little corner of the world. It’s no wonder Polly loves it there!

This is pure escapist delight. Who wouldn’t want to run away to a remote, gorgeous location and find true love, friendship, and a way to turn a favorite pastime into a successful and fulfilling career?

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Sometimes, light and frothy is just the right choice! Once again, many thanks to my book group for picking this book for discussion. After a bunch of heavier reads, it’s nice to turn to something that just feels good.

A note on the covers: The image at the top of this post is the cover of the Kindle edition, which I find a little funny, since Polly is a bread baker and never once mentioned baking cupcakes. The audiobook image — with loaves of bread, a jar of honey, and a view of the sea — is a much better fit for the story, in my humble opinion. And just yummy.

And a final comment: There are two follow-up books, Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery and Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery. I’m not planning to read them immediately (SO much else to read right now!)… but I’ll definitely keep them in mind for when I need a nice little reading getaway.

 

 

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The details:

Title: Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 13, 2014
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #144: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: 2017
Length: 432 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

How and when I got it:

I found a used copy at the big library sale last year.

Why I want to read it:

Well, like everyone else, I loved A Man Called Ove. I haven’t read anything else by Fredrik Backman, and I’ve been wanting to — and I’ve heard nothing but great things about Beartown. Plus, with a sequel released this year, I’m falling behind! Have you read Beartown? If so, what did you think? And what other Backman books do you recommend?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.

The opening lines of The Silence of the Girls let us know that this is not just a retelling of the glory of Achilles:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we call him “the butcher.”

The Silence of the Girls is narrated by Briseis, a noble woman of Lyrnessus who is taken into captivity by the Greeks when her city is sacked during the endless Trojan War. The men, including Briseis’s husband, father, and brothers, are slaughtered. Male children are killed; even pregnant women are run through with swords to prevent them giving birth to sons. The women who survive the attack are now prisoners, slaves and war prizes, at the mercy of their fierce captors.

Briseis is claimed by Achilles, the godlike warrior who leads the Greek armies throughout the long war against Troy. Through Briseis’s eyes, we see the grit and gore behind the glamour of the Greek heroes — men like Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus, about whom legends and poems and ballads have been written. History is written by the victors — but who writes about the women? The women represented here by Briseis are not fighters. They have everything at stake in the war, but absolutely no power. As the book demonstrates over and over again, the women are the true victims here: They are the ones who are raped as part of the division of loot when a city is sacked; they are the ones forced into servitude; they are the ones sacrificed to appease the gods or to mourn a hero’s death or to settle a score.

This book tells the other side of the story, showing life in camp, the daily struggles of the enslaved women, and how powerless they are to change their own fates. The women are at the mercy of their captors, and their lives have no meaningful security other than what’s given to them and what can easily be taken away.

In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis gives voice to all the silent women victimized by war. These women have been erased from the narrative, so that the story that is told is all about brilliant military conquests and the struggles of men:

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

Is this meant to be a direct rebuke to the narrative focus of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which focuses on the love between Achilles and Patroclus? Having only recently read The Song of Achilles, I must say that it’s jarring to go from that book to The Silence of the Girls. The Song of Achilles is just such a beautifully written book, and I loved the love between Achilles and Patroclus. It’s hard to let go of the glory of that book and re-read the same events through a much different lens, as we’re forced to do in The Silence of the Girls.

I found The Silence of the Girls a powerful read, compelling but brutal and difficult to stomach. The writing is straight-forward, although I was a bit confused by the inclusion of several chapters told from Achilles’s perspective. In a book that’s supposed to be expressing the voices of the women, I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to include his point of view. The events as narrated by Briseis differ in some key ways from their portrayal in The Song of Achilles, so readers of that book should be aware that an open mind is needed.

War is hell… and as The Silence of the Girls makes clear, the hell of war doesn’t stop at the edge of the battlefield. In giving voice to the silent women. The Silence of the Girls unveils a fresh perspective on classic myths and legends, and makes sure that those who suffered aren’t written out of history. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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The Monday Check-In ~ 11/19/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Still in the midst of family stuff, but all is well. How’s that for vague? The upside of the semi-craziness of the past week is that I ended up with a lot of sit-around-and-wait time on my hands, which of course translates to sit-around-with-a-book time for me.

What did I read during the last week?

The Human Division (Old Man’s War, #5) by John Scalzi: This is a set of interconnected stories rather than a novel, but it’s still set in the Old Man’s War universe and quite fun. I have one more book left in the series, and then I’ll write up some thoughts to wrap things up.

Pulp by Robin Talley: A terrific YA story set in both contemporary and historical time periods. My review is here.

Elevation by Stephen King: A surprisingly moving novella. My thoughts are here.

In graphic novels:

Saga, volume 9: Wow, this one really hurt me. That ending! And I’m more than a little heart-broken that the creators are taking a one-year break before returning to the story. I need more Saga, now!

Runaways: Best Friends Forever: The new Runaways run, written by Rainbow Rowell, continues to be light and fun.

Outlander, baby!

I’m writing reaction posts for each episode of season 4:

Episode 401, “America the Beautiful” (aired 11/4/2018) – check out my thoughts here.
Episode 402, “Do No Harm” (aired 11/11/2018) – my reaction post is here.
NEW: Episode 403, “The False Bride” (aired 11/18/2018) – my reaction from last night is here.

Pop culture goodness:

I saw TWO movies this weekend!

Quick take: I loved the music and the performance scenes, but wish there’d been more actual insight into Freddie as a person. A lot, whether about Freddie himself or Queen as a band and family, felt too surface-y. Actually, this movie made me realize that I’d be perfectly happy with a 2-hour long movie of Queen’s performances! *scurrying off to watch Queen videos on YouTube*

Quick take: Hmm. Quite a lot of spectacle, but I’m not sure what the movie was hoping to achieve. It’s pretty dark, losing most of the quirkiness of the first Fantastic Beasts movie in favor of dark-wizard doings. My copy of the screenplay book arrived this week, but I didn’t want to read it until I’d seen the movie. And now that I have, I’ll pick up the book and see if reading the story gives me a different feeling. Overall, my issue with the Fantastic Beasts franchise is that they’re kind of kids’ movies (or so it would seem), but since all the characters are adults, we lose the sense of wonder that the Harry Potter films provided as we saw this incredible world through young, unjaded eyes. The Hogwarts scenes in this new movie stand out as lovely little moments, but they’re really just minor snippets. (But hey, it was fun to see a different take on Hogwarts robes!) Overall, the movie is very dark and crowded, and definitely the middle of a story that’s still has plenty left to unveil. Maybe it’ll take a repeat viewing to find the charm that must be there.

Fresh Catch:

This week’s new book arrivals:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: I’m at about the half-way point. It’s fascinating to read this book about the Trojan War so soon after reading The Song of Achilles.

Now playing via audiobook:

Squire (Protector of the Small, #3) by Tamora Pierce: I do most of my audiobook listening while out walking, and there just hasn’t been much of that this past week… hence a lack of any real progress with this book, despite loving it. I hope to get back to it this coming week.

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads — getting close to the end for both!

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week, aiming to finish in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December.

So many books, so little time…

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