Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 540 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

AMBITION WILL FUEL HIM.

COMPETITION WILL DRIVE HIM.

BUT POWER HAS ITS PRICE.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes. 

When the news first came out that a new Hunger Games book was on the way, 10 years after the release of Mockingjay, I knew I’d have to read it. And then, as the first synopses and excerpts starting coming out, I was probably as confused and nervous as all the other Hunger Games fans.

A book about President Snow? Really?

Did we really need this particular character’s backstory? And given what a horrible person he is, would a novel about his early years manage to satisfy readers or make us care?

Fortunately, Ballad (sorry, I’m just not going to keep typing out the full LONG title) exceeds expectations and shows that the talent of Suzanne Collins can make a man we all despise into a compelling lead character.

Coriolanus Snow is 18 years old when we meet him at the start of Ballad. It’s been ten years since the war ended, and he lives in his family’s luxurious home in the Capital. Or at least, it was luxurious once upon a time, when the Snow fortune was thriving and Coriolanus’s parents were still alive.

The war was brutal and cruel, and the streets of the Capital are still filled with the rubble left behind. The Snow family’s home is falling apart at the seams, and when District 13 was bombed into oblivion, ending the war, the Snow industries located there were also obliterated, leaving the once wealthy family destitute. Now, years later, Coriolanus lives in the shabby home with his elderly grandmother (referred to as the Grandma’am) and his cousin Tigris, where they subsist most days on cabbage soup.

Fortunately for Coriolanus, he’s a stellar student at the Academy, where his uniforms are provided and he’s guaranteed hot meals during the school day. He hides his poverty and hunger from everyone around him, determined to continue to portray himself and his family as upper crust, top tier, best of the bunch. After all, as he and Tigris reassure one another:

Snow lands on top.

This year, for the first time, Academy students are going to be given an exciting new assignment: Each of the top year students will be assigned as a mentor to a tribute in the Hunger Games. This is a chance for Coriolanus to shine. If he’s successful, if his tribute does well, he’s more likely to get the prizes and recognition that will get him a University scholarship. And his dreams definitely include University — the education and access will be necessary for his goal of restoring the Snow family to power, maybe all the way to the Presidency someday.

But first, he has to make sure his tribute does well. And it’s not looking so good. He’s assigned the girl tribute from District 12, the least prestigious assignment possible. And she’s an odd one — a girl dressed in poofy rainbow skirts with a beautiful voice and a magnetic presence, but clearly not a threat in any sort of way. Still, Coriolanus will have to work with what he’s given, and he begins to scheme and plan for how to push Lucy Gray Baird into the spotlight and into the public’s affection.

That’s a lot of synopsis, and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll stop here and talk about the pieces that really stood out for me in this book.

First, it’s truly fascinating to see life in the Capitol in the post-war years. In The Hunger Games trilogy, we only see the Capitol through Katniss’s eyes. It’s a cruel, spoiled place, full of pampered, shallow people, a place where other people’s suffering is entertainment for the masses.

Here in Ballad, the Capitol is a shelled, damaged city trying to rebuild and reestablish its absolute control. The black market is thriving, old families are starving and fading away, and social standing is the only possible avenue to regain what was lost.

The Hunger Games, ten years after their creation, are just one facet of the Capitol’s attempt to dominate the districts, and they’re pretty meager at that. The Games are held in a bombed-out sports arena, where the tributes are basically just dumped with a pile of weapons and left to kill one another. No high-tech tricks or elaborate sets, no cannons or anthems, not even any removal of bodies. The dead lie there until it’s all over, and it never does take very long.

What’s more, the tributes of these early Hunger Games don’t get any of the special preparation or luxury guest accommodations that Katniss experiences all those years later. They’re transported to the Capitol in cattle cars and housed at a cage at the zoo, given neither food nor water. It’s Coriolanus who draws attention to them, realizing that his tribute will benefit from having the public love her, finding ways to create interest and encouraging people to bring food to the caged tributes, who might otherwise starve to death before they ever enter the arena.

One of the truly fascinating aspects of this book is seeing the hated President Snow as a vulnerable teen. He’s not hateful when we meet him. He’s a young man who has to put on a good show while his private world falls apart, every single day. He’s driven and determined, but loves his family, and isn’t terrible at his core.

It’s his ambition that drives him forward, and he does have people he cares about. He also struggles with the morality of the Hunger Games, although as he views Panem’s actions from the perspective of a Capitol family, he has no sympathy for the rebels who caused such devastation in his home. Under the tutelage of the Academy professors, he hones his thinking on control and the social structure of Panem, and finds ways to push aside any personal disgust or moral ambivalence when it gets in the way of his goal to ensure the survival and triumph of the Snow family legacy.

Lucy Gray is a wonderful character, as is Sejanus, Coriolanus’s school friend who is decent to the core. Sejanus’s family is from District 2, but moved to the Capitol thanks to their enormous wealth — but no one lets Sejanus forget that he’s District, and he himself can’t seem to fully accept the Capitol’s approach to ruling the Districts. Sejanus’s morality is both a guidepost and an irritant to Coriolanus, and their contrasting journeys over the course of Ballad is a key part of what makes this novel so compelling.

(If I had more of an education in the classics, here’s where I’d go into the symbolism of the characters’ names… but alas, all I can do is say that looking up Coriolanus and Sejanus on Wikipedia was very interesting!)

As a side note, I know people were commenting/complaining about the lengthy title of this book. And yes, I’ve opted to just call it Ballad instead of typing it out over and over again. That said, ballads and snakes and songbirds are all significant within the book and factor strongly into certain plot points, so it’s definitely not an arbitrary title!

There’s so much more to say about Ballad, so much food for discussion, but I’ll stop going into details and just encourage you to discover it for yourself! I could not put this book down. The author does an amazing job of taking an established villain and showing us the nuances and all the shades of gray in his development. Coriolanus wasn’t always the man we know in the Hunger Games trilogy; Ballad illustrates who he once was and how he became the person he ended up.

A terrific read. Don’t miss it!

Audiobook Review: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Warrior
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Print length: 469 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Much-honored Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound.

As soon as I finished the audiobook of Akata Witch, I knew I had to listen to the sequel too. And after a lot of starting, stopping, and continuous interruptions, I finally made it through to the end!

Akata Warrior is a longer book and audiobook than Akata Witch. Akata Witch introduces us to the characters and world of the story, and does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting up the story and providing an exciting and dangerous quest for the main characters as they grow into their powers.

In Akata Warrior, a year has gone by, and the four friends — Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha — are advancing in their magical studies. Their abilities are becoming more developed as they work with their assigned mentors. Sunny, our main character whose point of view we inhabit throughout the story, is being mentored by the formidable Sugar Cream, a regal older woman with unmatched powers, who sets rigorous standards for Sunny while introducing her to esoteric powers and abilities.

Sunny continues to have visions of a coming apocalypse, but doesn’t understand why or what her role is supposed to be. Danger to her older brother forces her to break Leopard Society (magic society) rules, and the ensuing punishment pushes her forward on a path toward a quest that she doesn’t fully understand.

As in Akata Witch, seeing the four friends together is a treat. They’ve all grown up, and their interactions and roles are more mature, yet they’re still in their teens and must abide by the rules set for them. At the same time, their magical abilities mean that they’re able to take on riskier tasks, and they show examples of ingenuity again and again throughout their adventure.

As I mentioned before, Akata Warrior is considerably longer than the first book, and it shows in the pacing. While the characters spend at least half the book on their quest, each episode along the way feels very lengthy and drawn-out, to the point where the action seems to sag a bit from time to time. It’s still engaging and exciting, but I would have preferred for a faster pace and less time spent on logistics.

Still, all in all, the world of Akata Witch and Akata Warrior is rich and fascinating. The author has an amazing ability to bring the Nigerian setting to life through her descriptions of sights, smells, colors, textures, and the food. Oh, the food! So many descriptions of eating and the dishes that sound amazing!

Akata Warrior has the same audiobook narrator as Akata Witch, and I just loved listening to her voice. Her accents and intonations for the different characters are wonderful, and each person comes across as an individual. For whatever reason, every time Chichi has a line of dialogue, it instantly brought a smile to my face!

I really enjoyed both of these books. I haven’t heard that there are plans for another book in the series, but a reader can hope, right? I do love these characters, and would love to follow along on further adventures.

Book Review: Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another, clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Rico Silva, that’s what.  

Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster. 

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. 

But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…? 

In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.

Persuasion is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so of course I was going to read this modern romance that riffs on Persuasion‘s themes!

Recipe for Persuasion is a loose follow-up to last year’s Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. The Raje family is still the center of the story, but here, the focus shifts to Ashna Raje, who was a supporting character in the previous novel.

Before getting too far into discussing Recipe for Persuasion, I want to get one thing straight, which is that the blurb above is very misleading. I think if you go into this book expecting a heartwarming romantic comedy or a fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy, you’ll be both disappointed and quite possibly very confused.

Because at no time in my reading of Recipe for Persuasion did I feel it was a comedy. Not at all.

Which does not mean it was not a good read. I actually enjoyed it very much. But readers should know that this is a much sadder and darker story than the synopsis would make it out to be.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Ashna and Rico were high school sweethearts, very much in love, but each with a ton of baggage related to family expectations and demands. They dreamed and planned for a life together, but ended up apart after a really terrible set of circumstances, and the faulty communications at the time which led each to believe that the other had betrayed him/her.

(Yet another example of bad communications leading to heartbreak, which is a standard trope of the genre, and which drives me bonkers as a plot point… but I digress.)

Now, twelve years later, Ashna is a French-trained chef who’s struggling to keep her late father’s classic Indian restaurant viable, and Rico is a superstar soccer player forced into early retirement by a devastating knee injury.

When Rico is reminded of Ashna while attending a friend’s bachelor party, he decides to Google her. And when he learns that she’ll be appearing on Cooking with the Stars, he makes sure to get a slot on the reality show as her cooking partner. Rico is looking for closure, a way to get past the hurt from all those years ago when Ashna turned him away, giving into family pressure that he just wasn’t good enough for the high-class Raje family.

Meanwhile, Ashna is consumed by the guilt and trauma that accompanied her father’s death, experiences horrible panic attacks when she tries to cook anything not on her father’s original menu, is estranged from her super-feminist mother… and has never, ever gotten over Rico.

Their first meeting on set for the cooking show involves a near-miss with a very sharp knife, and suddenly, they’re a viral internet sensation. The pressure is on. Each wants to win… and also to prove to the other that they’re totally fine, which is so not the case.

Over the course of the book, we learn much more about Ashna’s past. Especially powerful are the chapters told through her mother’s point of view, which show her experiences as a young woman and the horrific situation she was forced into. Here’s where content warnings might be important: Someone expecting a romantic comedy probably won’t be prepared for scenes of abuse and rape, and I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to encounter these scenes while expecting a light romance.

This piece of the story is handled very sensitively, but of course, it’s awful and heartbreaking to read about. It also explains so much about Ashna’s experiences as a child, her parents’ marriage, her lingering resentment toward her mother, and her inability to move forward in a meaningful way in any sort of adult relationship. There’s really a lot to unpack here.

On a brighter note, Ashna and Rico have great chemistry, and I really enjoyed the scenes that show their teen years and the early stages of their romance. Because she is so traumatized, Ashna isn’t exactly a fun character (sympathetic, yes, but not fun), but luckily, Rico is — with his swagger, charm, and man-bun, he’s clearly supposed to be walking sex appeal, and this definitely comes through in the writing.

The San Francisco setting is a big plus for me, and I enjoyed revisiting the Raje family members from Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. As for Austen elements — the general themes of Persuasion are present, but not in such an obvious way that it feels like a retelling. As with Persuasion, the young lovers are separated in response to family pressure, but not really in the same way as in the Austen novel. Still, it’s an interesting way to weave the classic into a modern romance, and bonus points to the author for having Rico quote Frederick Wentworth’s “half agony, half hope” line!

Overall, Recipe for Persuasion is a very good read, although the balance between truly painful memories and emotions and the bustle of a reality show doesn’t always work in terms of tone. Still, I really enjoyed Ashna and Rico’s journey back to one another (there’s never any doubt, after all, that they’ll find love again)… and who can resist a book that lovingly describes so much amazing food?

Maybe that’s my main complaint, when all is said and done: This book should come with samples! I want to try every dish and cup of tea that’s described in Recipe for Persuasion.

Book Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Title: Real Men Knit
Author: Kwana Jackson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

A book about men knitting? Yes, please!

In Real Men Knit, the Strong brothers are all super attractive, muscular, successful men… and they knit. These four adult brothers were all adopted as children by Mama Joy, who rescued them from the foster system and turned them into a family. Mama Joy ran a small Harlem knitting shop that was more than just a play to buy yarn — Strong Knits was a community home away from home, a place to gather, interact, and improve lives.

But when Mama Joy dies, her sons are devastated, and the fate of the shop is up in the air. Perhaps as devastated as the Strong brothers is Kerry, the neighborhood girl who grew up in Mama Joy’s shadow, always present and helping out, and devoted completely to Mama Joy (while totally crushing on Jesse). Now an adult with a degree in art therapy, Kerry works at the community center with neighborhood kids, but agrees to stay on at the shop to help Jesse reinvigorate it and make sure it has a future.

I love any scene where the brothers casually knit. It’s such an “in your face” to stereotypes about male and female hobbies. There’s nothing gender-specific about knitting! And I really enjoyed the brothers’ complicated relationships, their resentments, their sibling squabbles, and their clear and abiding love and respect for Mama Joy.

I also really appreciated reading about the positive change a single dedicated woman can make. Mama Joy used her yarn store as a jumping off point for changing lives, and it’s beautiful to see how many different people were affected by her influence and contribution, in so many different ways.

In fact, it’s only the romance parts of this story that left me feeling a little blah. I really liked all the characters and thought the premise was unique and original, but Jesse and Kerry as a couple didn’t really seem all that special to me. I mean, they were fine, but I wasn’t actually cheering for them or particularly invested in whether they got an HEA.

That said, I did feel invested in the overall story, and wished that it had continued long enough to see how everything turned out with the shop! Of course, there are four Strong brothers, all single, and only one featured in a relationship in this book… might there be more Strong Knits stories still to come? One per brother, perhaps? Because I’d definitely read those!

With gratitude to Reading Tonic, whose review was the first I’d heard of this sweet and satisfying book. If you’re looking for a summer beach read with romance, heart, and a diverse set of characters, Real Men Knit would be a great choice.

Book Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Title: The Jane Austen Society
Author: Natalie Jenner
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

The Jane Austen Society is historical fiction set in post-war England, in the small town of Chawton. The main estate of the village has been in the Knight family for generations, and centuries earlier, became the home of Jane Austen’s brother and Jane herself.

But after World War II, the last remaining members of the Knight family are Frances Knight, a woman in her 40s who never leaves her home, and her ailing, elderly, unpleasant father. With Mr. Knight’s demise looming, the future of the estate is at risk — and if the estate passes out of the family hands, so too will the priceless objects and books that once belonged to Jane Austen.

The characters of the book all seem to have some sort of special connection to Jane Austen, her fiction, and her memory. Through their love of her fiction, the various characters find common ground, and ultimately band together to find a way to save the cottage that was once Jane’s home and to preserve the books that were an important part of her life.

As these people form the Jane Austen Society, we get to know them as individuals as well. There’s the widowed doctor who may be ready for love again, the young war bride who suffers unimaginable loss, the local farmer who never got to pursue his dreams of higher learning, and the teen-aged girl whose passion for Austen leads to some truly amazing discoveries.

And then there’s the outsider, a Hollywood star whose love for Jane Austen and her admiration of the author’s works and life inspire her to imagine a different sort of career and life for herself, other than being a property of the studios who want to make money off of her beauty — but only until she ages out of starlet status.

I enjoyed The Jane Austen Society and its characters, but I can’t say that I felt particularly invested. The story develops slowly, and it was only at around the midpoint that I started to feel any sort of excitement building.

This is a quiet sort of story, and it’s lovely to see how these very different group of people, all suffering and struggling to recover from loss after the war, find new purpose and connection through their love of literature. I really enjoyed all of their conversations about the meaning they find in Austen’s works, which characters they most relate to, and how the characters’ actions help them understand elements of their own life.

I wished for something more, somehow. It’s a sweet book, but just lacked a real oomph as far as I was concerned. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It was a nice read, and I didn’t mind it a bit, but I also couldn’t quite care very strongly about the stakes or how the various personal entanglements would all work out.

The Jane Austen Society is a good choice for fans of historical fiction, and of course, for fans of Jane Austen! And after reading this book, I’m feeling the need to go reread a little Austen myself… maybe Persuasion or Mansfield Park this time around?

Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Audiobook Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Sword of Destiny
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 58 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.

In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Ready to toss another coin to your Witcher?

Geralt is back! In this second collection of Witcher stories, Geralt of Rivia once more battles monsters, saves people who can’t save themselves, fights his inner demons — love and destiny — and returns again and again to the people who are central to his life.

This set of six stories covers a lot of ground, some already familiar from the Netflix series, some new to me, and all delightful. As with the previous collection, The Last Wish, there are some fairy tale references included that make these stories extra fun.

While each story stands on its own, there are key characters (Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri) who appear repeatedly. While the stories seem to be presented roughly chronologically, they’re only loosely connected — yet I’m guessing as a whole that they’re important in laying the groundwork for the novels that come next in the book series.

As for the stories themselves, the book opens with the wonderful The Bounds of Reason, which corresponds to the 6th episode of the TV series, “Rare Species”, aka the one about the dragons. The plotline isn’t exactly the same, but the main points hold true, and it’s awfully fun.

There’s also a story that focuses on Geralt and Yennefer, a story set in Brokilon Forest where Geralt and Ciri meet for the first time, a Little Mermaid-ish tale, and more. Throughout, the recurring theme is Geralt’s struggle to understand destiny — does it exist? Are we obligated to follow it? Is destiny enough to bring two people together, or does it require something more?

I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, as I did with The Last Wish, and I loved it. Narrator Peter Kenny does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I just love his voice for Geralt, although all are quite good, and even when there’s a crowd scene or a big action sequence, there’s never any doubt who’s speaking.

As an added plus, the narrator SINGS in the story about a mermaid, since that’s what mermaid language sounds like. It’s amazing.

Now that I’ve finished Sword of Destiny, I abolutely intend to continue with the series, and most likely I’ll stick with audiobooks. Blood of Elves is up next. Can’t wait!

Book Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

Title: If It Bleeds
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: April 21, 2020
Length: 447 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author, legendary storyteller, and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new and compelling novellas —Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat, and the title story If It Bleeds— each pulling readers into intriguing and frightening places.

A collection of four uniquely wonderful long stories, including a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestseller The Outsider.

News people have a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. And a bomb at Albert Macready Middle School is guaranteed to lead any bulletin.

Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective agency is working on the case of a missing dog – and on her own need to be more assertive – when she sees the footage on TV. But when she tunes in again, to the late-night report, she realizes there is something not quite right about the correspondent who was first on the scene. So begins ‘If It Bleeds’ , a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestselling The Outsider featuring the incomparable Holly on her first solo case – and also the riveting title story in Stephen King’s brilliant new collection.

Dancing alongside are three more wonderful long stories from this ‘formidably versatile author’ (The Sunday Times) – ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, ‘The Life of Chuck’ and ‘Rat’ . All four display the richness of King’s storytelling with grace, humor, horror and breathtaking suspense. A fascinating Author’s Note gives us a wonderful insight into the origin of each story and the writer’s unparalleled imagination.

The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.

Call me crazy, but Stephen King books are my version of comfort food. When I need distraction from the drama of daily life, I know I can sink into a King book and get carried away from everything weighing me down.

So getting a library e-book download of If It Bleeds this week was just perfect timing! Also very surprising, as I’d expected to be on the hold list for months… so thank you, San Francisco Public Library!

I approached If It Bleeds a little hesitantly, as short stories are really not my thing. Still, there was the book, just waiting for me on my Kindle, so how could I resist?

I’m so glad I dove right in! If It Bleeds consists of four novella-length stories, all unrelated, and all very different in content and tone. And each was a treat!

The story that garnered the most pre-publication buzz is the title story, If It Bleeds (which appears 3rd in this collection). If It Bleeds stars Holly Gibney, whom even Stephen King refers to as a favorite character! Holly was first introduced in the Bill Hodges trilogy, and then was a key character in The Outsider (the adaptation of which aired on HBO recently).

Here, Holly is the lead in her own story. She is horrified by news of a terrible mass murder by bombing at an elementary school — and then is hooked by a discrepancy she notices in the appearance of the local newscaster who was first on the scene. Holly is never one to let go of details, and as she investigates, she becomes personally involved in tracking down and stopping a monster.

It’s a good story, very suspenseful, although I’m not sure how much sense it’ll make to someone not familiar with The Outsider. It’s not an exact sequel, but the earlier novel definitely informs the way Holly’s case unfolds and what she knows.

As for the other stories… well, I loved them!

In order of preference, my least favorite would be the final story in the book — although don’t get me wrong, I still really liked it! Rat is the story of a writer who’s never been able to finish a novel, although he has published some highly regarded short stories and is an English professor. When a new story idea appears to him, he’s sure it’s his novel at last, and decides to retreat to his family’s remote backwoods cabin to work on it in isolation before the inspiration disappears.

Rat is an interesting look at creativity, the writing process, a writer’s fear, and the superstitions and bargaining that may accompany a fickle gift. Stephen King does love to feature writers as main characters, and then put them in dangerous, awful situations. Is the writer here really experiencing the disturbing things he thinks are happening, or is he losing his grip on his sanity? Read the story and decide!

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the first story in the collection, and feels like classic Stephen King. It combines his patented nostalgic look back at childhood with a small-town setting, the loss of loved ones, and a piece of technology that changes everything. It’s a story about growing up and saying good-bye, but also just a good, spooky, odd ghost story. Very cool.

Finally, the 2nd story in the book, which was my favorite of the bunch. The Life of Chuck is weird and wonderful, and I adored it. Told in three sections that move backward chronologically, this story is surprising and captivating, and strangely moving too. I don’t want to give away a single thing about it! Definitely check it out!

All in all, a terrific collection! As I mentioned, I don’t typically seek out story collections, even from my favorite authors, so I’m really grateful that I happened to be able to get this from the library.

And true confession time: I loved it so much that I ended up using an Amazon gift card to treat myself to my very own hard copy!

If It Bleeds is a great addition to Stephen King’s huge body of work. If you thought he might possibly run out of original stories to tell… this book shows that that’s not at all likely to happen. A must-read for King fans!

Book Review: Defy or Defend by Gail Carriger

Title: Defy or Defend (Delightfully Deadly, #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A vampire hive descending into madness. A beautiful spy with a sparkly plan. The bodyguard who must keep them from killing each other.

New York Times bestselling romantic comedy author Gail Carriger brings you a charming story of love, espionage, and Gothic makeovers set in her popular Parasolverse.

SPY

Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott, code name Honey Bee, is the War Office’s best and most decorative fixer. She’s sweet and chipper, but oddly stealthy, and surprisingly effective given the right incentives.

VERSUS KNIGHT

Sir Crispin Bontwee was knighted for his military service, but instead of retiring, he secretly went to work for the War Office. Mostly he enjoys his job, except when he must safeguard the Honey Bee.

Neither one is a vampire expert, but when the Nottingham Hive goes badly Goth, only Dimity can stop their darkness from turning bloody. And only Crispin can stop an enthusiastic Dimity from death by vampire.

In a battle for survival (and wallpaper), Dimity must learn that not all that sparkles is good, while Cris discovers he likes honey a lot more than he thought.

“This intoxicatingly witty parody will appeal to a wide cross-section of romance, fantasy and steampunk fans.” ~ Publishers Weekly, starred review (Soulless)

Spinning off from the Finishing School series, featuring deadly ladies of quality, this story stands alone, but chronologically follows Poison or Protect before the start of the Parasol Protectorate Series. It’s Cold Comfort Farm meets Queer Eye meets What We Do In The Shadows from the hilarious author of the Parasol Protectorate books, perfect for fans of Julia Quinn, Jodi Taylor, or Meljean Brook.

Hurray for Gail Carriger, the almighty parasol, and the ongoing legacy of the Finishing School!

In the Finishing School books (which are AMAZING and which you need to read RIGHT NOW), we meet a group of school girls who are trained in the fine arts of flirtation, social niceties, and assassination (among other important skills).

The author treated us to the 2016 novella Poison or Protect, the first in what I hope will be a long continuing series (Delightfully Deadly). Poison or Protect was all about Preshea, one of the Finishing School girls who as an adult has made a career out of her deadly skills.

Now, with Defy or Defend, we get Dimity’s story! Dimity was one of the quieter characters in the Finishing School books, a good and loyal friend, a fan of sparkling jewels and accessories, not entirely sure that a career in espionage was really what she was looking for.

Picking up her story several years later, Dimity is a young lady with a talent for unearthing all sorts of wonderful intelligence by way of her charm and flirting abilities. She’s a star performer when it comes to undercover work, but she doesn’t ordinarily deal with the supernatural set until she’s assigned a special new case.

The Nottingham vampire hive is in disarray, with their queen in seclusion, their drones all departed, the remaining few vampires in grave danger of going Goth — that is, becoming overly morose and tending toward wearing disturbing amounts of black velvet. This won’t do. A hive out of control is a menace, and if they can’t be fixed, the Bureau for Unnatural Registry may have to send an agent to end the hive and its vampires once and for all.

Dimity is on the job, along with Sir Crispin Bontwee, a former military man who works in intelligence as safety — that would be the muscle, basically. He’s assigned to protect Dimity while she does the more delicate work of infiltrating and saving the hive.

I could go on and on and tell you all the clever and adorable ways in which Dimity saves the day. (Wallpaper and bustles are involved, among other things. And lots of tea, of course.) But I won’t — I’ll leave you to discover the joys of this sweet, lovely story!

Defy or Defend is a completely wonderful and welcome addition to the larger world of the Parasol Protectorate. As always, the author gives up quippy dialogue, great fashion, silliness galore, and unexpected treats. (And there just might be a certain muscular man performing ballet in a tight bathing costume…)

The tone is sexy with just a little steam, nothing particularly graphic but certainly some sexual content described in non-explicit terms. Which is fine — the characters are warm and likable and we just want them to be happy!

As a bonus for fans of Carriger’s world, a few other familiar faces show up for fun cameos. I suppose that’s one of the perks of writing about immortal supernatural beings — you can set your story in whatever decade you’d like, and still have a favorite character make an appearance!

Defy or Defend is really a fun read, and will definitely lift your spirits. Here’s hoping for many, many more Delightfully Deadly books ahead!