Book Review: Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel about family, hope, and learning to love against all odds. 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to uproot her life and move to Boston, it’s an emergency of a kind Cassie never anticipated.

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the handsome rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because she doesn’t fall in love. And because of the advice her old captain gave her: don’t date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping…but will she jeopardize her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt, affecting novel about life, love, and the true meaning of courage.

Things You Save in a Fire is, at first glance, a pretty standard contemporary romance — but it’s also an exploration of trauma, forgiveness, institutionalized sexism, and so much more.

Cassie, at age 26, is a decorated, respected firefighter, an established, well-loved member of an Austin firehouse. Her life falls apart on the night when she’s receiving an award for outstanding bravery, when the presenter ends up being someone from her past, and she completely loses it on stage, leaving the presenter in the hospital and herself on the verge of being fired.

She does have a way out of the situation. Her mother had earlier called Cassie and asked her to come stay with her in her small town outside of Boston. Cassie’s mother Diana left her and her father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, and since then, the two have had a distant, unpleasant relationship. Now, though, Diana has lost sight in one eye after surgery, and asks Cassie to stay with her for a year to help her out with the things she can no longer do on her own. Cassie initially refuses, but after her meltdown, she sees an opportunity to request a transfer to the local fire station and start again.

The crew in the new town is much different than the fairly progressive Austin station. The guys (and yes, they’re all male) are old-school Boston firefighters, who see no place for a woman in their house. Cassie is determined to prove herself, and fortunately, she has years of training and hard work behind her, so it’s quickly clear to the other firefighters that she’s the best of the bunch. Still, someone is unhappy with her being there, and starts an underhanded campaign of stalking and harassment to drive her away. The question is, who’s behind it?

Complicating matters are Cassie’s unwanted but undeniable feelings for the rookie, who is kind, attractive, and very attentive to Cassie. Cassie has ruled out romance or relationships from her life long ago, but she’s having a hard time fighting the chemistry with the rookie — despite knowing that getting involved with another firefighter will torpedo her career for good.

There are hints early on about the trauma in Cassie’s past, but she doesn’t think about it or discuss it until much later in the book. Still, we can see the aftereffects and it’s clear that she’s suffered for all these years, even though she thinks she’s compartmentalized her past and that it doesn’t affect her in her present. The relationship with Diana is puzzling at first, and initially, I had no sympathy for Diana. What kind of mother abandons her child like that for the sake of an affair? As we learn, there’s much more to the story. Cassie’s baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness in her relationship with her mother is what eventually enables her to embrace the possibility of greater empathy and connection elsewhere in her life.

I was fascinated by the depictions of life in a firestation, and had nothing but admiration for Cassie’s mad skills and her practical, hard-as-nails approach toward earning her spot. At the same time, it’s hard to read about a workplace and lifestyle that so clearly resists the entrance of women in every way possible — which makes Cassie’s determination all the more impressive.

The theme of forgiveness is quite lovely. Cassie learns that forgiveness is possible, even (and especially) when it’s hard, and possibly the last thing you actually want to do. By practicing forgiveness, Cassie opens herself to connections that she otherwise might never have known, and her life is ultimately enriched in ways she’d never thought she’d experience.

The action in the last third of the book really heats up (no pun intended) as there’s a big fire that the crew battles that has awful consequences. Once I got to this part, I simply couldn’t stop reading until the end!

I enjoyed this powerful story very much, and really appreciated the unusual perspective provided by a tough, troubled young woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated environment. Above all, the relationships and Cassie’s growth are what make this book so special. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Things You Save in a Fire
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

When an Earth-like planet is discovered, a team of six teens, along with three veteran astronauts, embark on a twenty-year trip to set up a planet for human colonization—but find that space is more deadly than they ever could have imagined. 

Have you ever hoped you could leave everything behind?
Have you ever dreamt of a better world?
Can a dream sustain a lifetime?

A century ago, an astronomer discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star. She predicted that one day humans would travel there to build a utopia. Today, ten astronauts are leaving everything behind to find it. Four are veterans of the twentieth century’s space-race.

And six are teenagers who’ve trained for this mission most of their lives.

It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years locked in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong.

And something always goes wrong.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is set during our lifetime, but in a world in which space exploration has advanced much further than in our own. There have already been successful human missions to Mars and Europa, and now, the ultimate goal is being frantically pursued.

Terra-Two is an Earth-like planet light years away, uninhabited but with atmosphere, geology, and natural resources suited for human life. With advanced technology, it will be possible for an initial expedition to reach Terra-Two with a 23-year flight.

The UKSA (United Kingdom Space Agency) is leading the way, and they’ve come up with a controversial approach: Train children from the age of 11 or 12 in an intensely competitive learning environment, so that by age 18, when the expedition is ready to launch, there will be a crew with a senior team and a younger generation in training. After all, even if they launch as teens, they’ll be in their 40s by the time they land. And once they land, it will be their role to prepare Terra-Two for the colonists coming after them.

As the book opens, we meet the students at Dalton Academy, the space training institution. They’re all fiercely smart, but motivated by different dreams and goals. There’s the rich pretty boy who’s the all-star athlete, who seems to have the easiest, most cushioned life; the twins, who each have secret dreams and desires motivating them; the beautiful girl who speaks over 20 languages but has her own demons, and more.

When an unexpected tragedy occurs the day before launch, the remaining crew is thrown into tumult, and a last-minute substitute is both elated at his opportunity and miserable over feeling like he’ll never be accepted or be good enough.

The book really gets going once the mission has launched. One striking element is how well we readers get a sense of the practically unbearable claustrophobia and monotony of being stuck in a contained vessel with the same small group of people FOR DECADES. Can you imagine how awful that must be, knowing that these other nine people are the only ones you’ll ever see or interact with for twenty-three years? I don’t know how they could manage to not go completely bonkers. (It’s not a spoiler to say that there are some pretty spectacular meltdowns and conflicts along the way — these are high-strung teens, after all.)

The plot of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is fascinating and thrilling. I’m a sucker for a good space story, and I loved reading about the terror and the challenges of prolonged space flight, as well as the intricate interpersonal relationships that ensue when you have a small group in an enclosed space for such a long time.

I did feel that the book was possibly longer than it needed to be. At 500+ pages, it’s a lot, and sections dragged. Again, I don’t feel it’s a particular spoiler to say that the book does not cover all 23 years, but rather focuses on the lead-up to launch and mainly the first year after that — but it does wrap up in a way that’s both hopeful and satisfying (although one character’s conclusion particularly bothered me, but that’s by intention.)

Is it realistic that a space agency would train teens in this way and then send them into space? Well, maybe not — but even in this book,, we see that this is a controversial program that leads to international inquiries and protests. And because these are teens, despite their advanced training, there are moments of disobedience, rule-breaking, and emotional upset that wouldn’t occur with a more mature crew, yet serve here to create some of the drama between characters that drives the story.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, and by the halfway point, just couldn’t put it down. It’s a great story, very unlike anything else I’ve read lately, and I’m really glad I gave it a chance. If you like stories of space exploration, check this one out!

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The details:

Title: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
Author: Temi Oh
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: August 13 2019
Length: 544 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

“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.

Cover for Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land by artist Sarah Anne Langton

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lior Tirosh is a semi-successful author of pulp fiction, an inadvertent time traveler, and an ongoing source of disappointment to his father.

Tirosh has returned to his homeland in East Africa. But Palestina—a Jewish state founded in the early 20th century—has grown dangerous. The government is building a vast border wall to keep out African refugees. Unrest in Ararat City is growing. And Tirosh’s childhood friend, trying to deliver a warning, has turned up dead in his hotel room. A state security officer has identified Tirosh as a suspect in a string of murders, and a rogue agent is stalking Tirosh through transdimensional rifts—possible futures that can only be prevented by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

From the bestselling author of Central Station comes an extraordinary new novel recalling China Miéville and Michael Chabon, entertaining and subversive in equal measures.

My Thoughts:

Wow, what a crazy read! I can’t say I’ve ever come across Israeli science fiction before, and I enjoyed the heck out of this one.

The initial premise is intriguing — and based on true events. Back in 1904, the Zionist Congress, led by Theodore Herzl, sent an expedition to Uganda to explore land that had been proposed as a site of a future Jewish state. In our (real) world, that didn’t work out particularly well, and the idea was shelved in favor of pursuing a homeland in the “holy land”, resulting in modern-day Israel. In the world in which we begin Unholy Land, the Africa expedition was a success, resulting in the birth of Palestina, a Jewish homeland located between Uganda and Kenya. Certain of our realities exist in this world as well — native populations displaced by the creation of the state, resulting in ongoing border crises and refugee camps, a border wall, debate over the Right of Return, and never-ending peace negotiations.

But wait! There’s more. Certain people are able to travel between alternate realities, including one like our own, one in which the entire Middle East is at peace and unified after the horror of a limited nuclear event which destroyed Jerusalem, and other, more exotic and frightening worlds. There are Kabbalistic elements involved which mingle with discussion of quantum physics, and it’s all packaged up inside a very noir-feeling detective/spy plot.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in Palestina — the language, the culture, the food, the geography. The author does an incredibly inventive and persuasive job of making it seem like a real and viable country, while also demonstrating that in this world or any other, certain problems and challenges and misfortunes seep through no matter what.

The entire plot is somewhat mind-boggling, and I think I’ll need to let this one percolate for a bit and then return and read it all over again. It’s a quick read, but with plenty to think about. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Unholy Land
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

 

A rich, heartwarming and completely charming debut that reminds us that sometimes, you don’t find love–love finds you.

Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here, he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.

Ellie Jacobs is a lonely housewife, her days filled with walks and poetry she writes in secret.

One day, she comes across Dan’s barn and is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherry wood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.

Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily, drifting deeper into his world. But when she accidentally discovers a secret, she must make a choice: keep it from him and risk their friendship, or change the course of their lives forever

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a sweet, lovely debut novel that crept up on me and then completely entranced me! Such a magical and deceptively simple tale.

Told through alternating chapters, we get to see the world through Dan and Ellie’s eyes. Dan is unusual, to say the least. He loves his solitude, the peace of Exmoor, the woods and streams and pebbles all around him, and most of all, the hand-carved harps that are his passion and his livelihood. He view the world and understands interactions completely literally — he’s presented here as someone who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never actually stated. He functions well, but lacks the ability to interpret many of the social constructs and behaviors that others take for granted.

A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because the rest of her clothes were sad colors.

Ellie is an unfulfilled housewife in her 30s, a woman whose father’s death has prompted her to make a list of things to do before she’s 40 — and one of these is to learn to play music. When she happens upon the Harp Barn, she’s astonished by Dan’s workmanship and the beauty of his harps, and is intrigued by Dan himself. Dan insists on gifting her with a harp, but Ellie’s husband Clive forces her to return it, believing that she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. But Dan then insists that the harp is and always will be Ellie’s, and tells her he’ll keep it for her, for her to play whenever she wants.

It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else.

Thus begins a warm and unusual friendship between two people whose paths would likely have never crossed. Each adds to the other’s life. As Ellie gets to know Dan better, she digs into his world and his assumptions about the people in it, opening his eyes to new and different aspects of his life that he’d never realized before.

(Being vague here… no spoilers!)

Although the book started slowly for me, I was soon swept away by the lovely writing and the wonderful characters. At first, I was afraid that Ellie and the Harpmaker would feel too much like a clone of The Rosie Project and other recent reads about people who present with social difficulties and/or on the spectrum. Not so. Very quickly Ellie and the Harpmaker won my heart in its own way, erasing thoughts of comparisons to other books from my mind.

Sometimes the ifs work for you and sometimes they work against you. Sometimes you think they are working for you whereas in fact they are working against you, and sometimes you think they are working against you whereas in fact they are working for you. It is only when you look back that you realize, and you don’t always realize even then.

I grew to love Dan and Ellie, and felt all the feels as I read about their journeys, alone and together. Ellie’s marriage is frustrating to read about and I wanted to give her a good shake, but she becomes more self-aware as the book progresses, and I was proud of her for the realizations she finds along the way. Dan is simply lovely — a giving, creative, uncomplicated person who only knows how to be good. He’s really marvelous, and someone I won’t soon forget.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book! Ellie and the Harpmaker is a delicious read that left me hungry for beautiful music and a forest to wander through.
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The details:

Title: Ellie and the Harpmaker
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Vacation reading wrap-up (summer 2019)

I haven’t done a vacation wrap-up post in a while… mainly because I haven’t had a real vacation (i.e., travel plans not involving family health visits) in AGES! As vaactions go, this week’s was a mini — just four days, but hey: I found sunshine!

My husband and I drove down the California coast to San Luis Obispo county, where we spent a few days hanging out in beach towns, enjoying balmy weather, good food, and even venturing into ocean water that was just a shade warmer than ice. But seriously, it was a good time, even if a bit too short.

And now I’m back, waiting for my laundry to finish (yes, I lead an exciting life), so I thought I’d share a taste of the reading I did these past few days. Because hanging out in beach towns means lots of time basking in the sun on comfy chairs, beach mats, and towels — book in hand, sunglasses on face, not enough sunscreen on body. (Ouch).

Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read on vacation, with my take on the vacation-worthiness of each book. The number of little beach umbrellas reflects my own personal feelings about whether or not this is a good choice for tucking into your beach-tote!

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Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev: A modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice (obviously), set in the Bay Area and featuring the unlikely pairing of world-class neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and up-and-coming master chef DJ Caine, whose initial meeting is fraught with haughtiness and false impressions. As it turns out, Trisha is the only doctor offering a cure for DJ’s beloved sister’s brain tumor, so despite their mutual dislike, the two are forced together again and again. I liked that the author didn’t follow the P&P plotline 100% — there are plenty of familiar beats, but the story here stands on its own and isn’t shoehorned into unnatural shapes just to make it fit the pattern. I also like that it’s Trisha who’s in the Darcy role here, hiding behind her snobbiness and self-image and repelling the very person she finally realizes she wants to attract. The story moves quickly, has some key emotional moments, LOTS of mouth-watering descriptions of DJ’s culinary creations, and definitely succeeds as a love story with plenty of modern twists. Quite fun — I’m hoping Sonali Dev writes more in this world!

A five-umbrella vacation read for sure! Between the romance and the food, what more could you want?

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We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. This book (and this author) have been recommended to me repeatedly — so I finally tossed it in my beach bag and gave it a go. What a weird but oddly compelling story! We Are All Completely Fine is about a group therapy session for people who’ve survived encounters with the supernatural, and have the scars to prove it. Each of the group members has their own horrifying story to tell, and all are joined together through their process of sharing and healing, ultimately banding together to fight off a big bad coming after one of their own. It’s a short read, easily digestible in one sitting. I really liked it, and now that I’ve dipped my toe into his work, I’ll definitely be reading more by Daryl Gregory!

Giving this one 4 beach umbrellas — easy to read on the beach, but the subject matter didn’t really meld well with the bright light of day.

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I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin: I went at this story a little bit backwards — this is book #1 of 2, but I read #2 first (reviewed here). Oh well. It still works! In this first book, we meet Ava and Gen, two best friends embarking on their freshman year of college on opposites sides of the country. The story is told through their emails and texts, which really capture their personalities and their quirky friendship. It’s light and sunny, but also contains moments of self-discovery, pain, and challenge, as the two characters discover new aspects of themselves and question whether their friendship still works as they grow into their college selves.

Another 5-umbrella read — once you start, it’s impossible to stop!

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And that’s it! Not too shabby for a four-day vacation!

Now I need to go plan my next get-away… I’m not ready for a return to reality just yet.

Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Finding Fraser by KC Dyer

 

“Jamie Fraser would be Deeply Gratified at having inspired such a charmingly funny, poignant story—and so am I.”—Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series

Escape to Scotland with the delightful new novel that readers have fallen in love with—inspired by Diana Gabaldon’s #1 New York Times bestselling Outlander series.
  
     I met Jamie Fraser when I was nineteen years old. He was tall, red-headed, and at our first meeting at least, a virgin. He was, in fact, the perfect man.

     That he was fictional hardly entered into it…

On the cusp of thirty, Emma Sheridan is desperately in need of a change. After a string of failed relationships, she can admit that no man has ever lived up to her idea of perfection: the Scottish fictional star of romantic fantasies the world over—James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.

Her ideal man might be ripped from the pages of a book, but Emma hopes that by making one life-altering decision she might be able to turn fiction into fact. After selling all her worldly possessions, Emma takes off for Scotland with nothing but her burgeoning travel blog to confide in.

But as she scours the country’s rolling green hills and crumbling castles, Emma discovers that in searching for her own Jamie Fraser, she just might find herself.

For any devoted Outlander fan, Finding Fraser is sure to ring true — if only escapist fictional escapades ever really happened in real life.

Emma, at 29, is frustrated by her career (or lack thereof), her love life (or lack thereof), and her prospects in general. Why can’t she ever find a man who even comes close to the perfection of Jamie Fraser? Fed up and in need of a change, Emma sells everything and — against the sensible scolding of her younger but more practical sister — heads off across American towards the plane that will take her to Scotland.

Needless to say, all sorts of mishaps ensue, even before she leaves the country. Emma has a variety of run-ins with Outlander fans of the sane and not-so-sane variety, actually meets Herself (that would be the beloved author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon) but bursts into tears when it’s finally her turn to greet her, has the unpleasant experience of seeing a stripper in a kilt and fake red wig, and meets some die-hard Braveheart fans who are willing to defend their story with knitting needles and other pointy objects.

… the very thought of meeting Herself in the flesh made my hands start to shake. She was the woman who created Jamie Fraser, who built him up from clay — or from ink and paper, at least. She has gone on to beat him, wound him, torture him in every possible way, and still nurture his unending love for Claire over the course of the entire series.

Emma doesn’t have all that much of a plan when she arrives in Scotland, other than using her Outlander paperback as a guide to follow in Claire’s footsteps and, hopefully, meet the kilted Scottish warrior of her dreams. Real life rarely follows careful plans, much less dreams, so Emma’s path is not smooth, and she encounters all sorts of challenges that could easily have sent her running back to the safety of her overbearing sister and a steady (boring) job.

Instead, she decides to stick it out, and finds a way to stay in Scotland, earn enough to pay for room and board, make friends and start to build what feels like home, and yes, fall in love. But is he the man of her dreams, or just a stand-in for what she really wants?

Finding Fraser is engaging and endearing. Of course, Emma’s plans are impractical and unlikely, but she throws herself into them, even when down to her last bit of cash and after having all her belongings stolen. She starts a blog, thinking to chronicle her journey, and develops a cheering squad of followers who encourage her not to give up hope. Readers will identify early on who the true love interest should be, but it takes Emma the entire book to catch up. Meanwhile, she ends up  in a relationship with a guy who is clearly just so, so very wrong — except for the looks and the fact of being Scottish. I wanted to give Emma a good shake every time she starts to realize that maybe Hamish isn’t such a great catch after all… and then talks herself into giving him another (and another and another) chance.

It was super sweet to see her find a home for herself, make friends, and start to feel a part of the town where she rather haphazardly ends up. Her stay is ended abruptly by immigration woes that seem a bit shoe-horned in for the sake of drama, but that’s okay. The real point is Emma’s search for her own perfect Jamie… and her ultimate realization that what she really needed all along was to find her own inner Claire.

What I hadn’t really thought about — beyond tracing the journey in the front of the novel — was Claire’s part in the love story. Claire’s heart was true, but there was never any doubt that the woman had standards. Jamie literally lived through hell and more to meet those standards. Even living with uncertainty and chaos all around her, she knew what she wanted.

Finding Fraser is a delightful summer read, perfect for a chair on the beach or a cozy hammock. It’s light and fluffy, but full of heart and more than a little humor. It’ll definitely hit the sweet spot for Outlander lovers. Wouldn’t we all love to hop a plane and go find our own Jamie?

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The details:

Title: Finding Fraser
Author: KC Dyer
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 1, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin

 

In this hilarious follow-up novel to the New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone But You, long distance best friends Ava and Gen have finally made it to the same time zone (although they’re still over a thousand miles apart).

Through their hilarious, sometimes emotional, but always relatable conversations, Ava and Gen are each other’s support systems through internships, relationship troubles, questionable roommates, undercover reporting, and whether or not it’s a good idea to take in a feral cat. Please Send Help perfectly captures the voice of young adults looking to find their place in the world and how no matter how desperate things seem, you always have your best friend to tell it like it is and pick you back up.

First things first: When I requested this book from NetGalley, I had no idea it was a sequel. Despite my qualms, I decided to read it anyway, and I”m glad I did. While it might have been nice to have read the first book, not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this cute, quirky, quick read. (More on this later…)

Please Send Help is written entirely in texts and emails between two best friends, Ava and Gen. Recent college grads, both are now facing grown-up life as they pursue their career dreams. Ava, in New York, is interning with a comedy show, dying to gain real-life experience as a writer while working her (unpaid) butt off. Gen, in Florida, is trying to break into serious journalism, but the only job she could find is at a small-town newspaper with nothing much at all to cover and no room for advancement at the family-run paper.

Ava and Gen have history together, and their bond is immediately apparent. Ava is coping with anxiety that stops her in her tracks from time to time, and because of Ava’s previous experiences related to mental health, Gen tends to worry about her well-being — especially once Ava gets disastrously involved with her older boss, who’s so clearly a player who preys on young interns. Meanwhile, Gen is bi, out and proud, from a dysfunctional family and with no parental support whatsoever, trying to find connections as well as a juicy story in a backwards, socially conservative town where she has no chance of fitting in.

I loved the humor of the texts. Both Ava and Gen are wickedly, crassly funny, even when freaking out, making absurd decisions, or talking about insane events in their lives.

Tabby finally gave in to her gluttony and came inside. I jumped up and shut the door. She did NOT like that but I have put vodka on all of my scratches so I’m sure I’m fine.

These two are definitely not perfect. But they get one another, and they’re there for one another — and even when they ignore good advice or act out in particularly questionable ways, they still are there to comfort, pick each other up, and kick a little ass if that’s what needed to shake some reality into each other’s minds and hearts.

Genre/library shelf-wise, I’m not quite sure where I’d put this one. NetGalley lists it as teen/YA, but since the characters are 22-ish (I think), I wouldn’t have thought to consider this young adult. (Side note — why are young adult novels mostly about teens and not about actual young adults — which is what Ava and Gen are?) So sure, put it on the YA shelf if you want, but just know that it’s about women in their 20s figuring out life, sex, STDs, and more. Not what I’d typically consider teen fare!

Please Send Help is heaps of fun. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by finding out it’s book #2. Now that I’ve finished it, I think I’ll try to track down the first book (I Hate Everyone But You, set during Ava and Gen’s college years). I’d imagine that the topics of the girls’ families, mental health, sexuality, and more are explored in greater depth in that book, whereas here they’re mostly backstory to the struggle to be independent and start a career and a life in a new city.

BUT, please don’t feel that you can’t read Please Send Help without reading the first book! Please Send Help works perfectly well as a standalone. I’m living proof that you can read this book without any prior knowledge of the characters and their stories. I really did feel like I got to know Ava and Gen through this book, and would love to hear what happens next in their lives! *fingers crossed for a book #3*

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The details:

Title: Please Send Help
Author: Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Two perfect audiobooks: The Song of Achilles & Circe by Madeline Miller

Sometimes I read (or listen) to a book, feel completely blown away by it, and yet find myself without words to do it justice, other than the usual gushing of “oh my gods” and “this is incredible” and “this book is so gorgeous!”.

And that’s exactly the boat I’m in now, having just finished my 2nd of two books (audiobooks) by the oh-so-talented Madeline Miller, who I swear I’ll follow to the ends of the earth at this point to get my hands on more of her astonishing writing.

Last year, I finally got to The Song of Achilles:

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.

Audiobook narrator: Frazer Douglas
Length: 11 hours, 15 minutes
Published: 2011

This is such a powerful, gorgeous listen. I loved the story itself, the author’s use of words to describe the glory and beauty of Achilles, and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I felt immersed in the time and place, caught up in the tale of warring men and the gods who played with them or favored them.

 

 

And now, I’ve just listened to Circe too:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Audiobook narrator: Perdita Weeks
Length: 12 hours, 8 minutes
Published: 2018

I know a lot of people have said they preferred The Song of Achilles, and maybe it’s just because it’s so much more recent for me, but I have to say that I adored Circe so, so much, and may even have a slight preference for this book. (Although, really, how can you choose? They’re both excellent).

I love Circe as a character — her passions, her struggles, her pain, her yearning. Her tales spans centuries and hits all the major story beats we know from Greek mythology, yet Circe herself feels fresh and alive in this version of the story, a woman constantly striving to make sense of her own divinity and find a place in the world. It’s heartbreaking and bold and just lovely.

The narrators of both of these books are excellent, each in their own way. There’s something about these myths and legends that really makes them feel right as a listening experience, like listening to a bard or an ancient storyteller. While I think I’ll revisit both of these books in print eventually, I’m so glad that my first encounter with each was through the audiobook version.

Take A Peek Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“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)

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

My Thoughts:

I’m trying to reflect on the reading experience separately from my feelings about the ending, so here goes: Wilder Girls has a terrific, terrifying premise: On an island off the coast of Maine, the student at a girls’ boarding school are starving, fierce, and desperate after eighteen months of isolation and quarantine. They’re all infected by the Tox, experiencing flare-ups in which their bodies are modified and distorted and changed — scales here, spiny growths there, gills, and spikes and other random mutations taking over their bodies. Once it’s bad enough to go to the infirmary, the girls never return.

For most of the book, the plot delivers. Conditions worsen. The girls don’t know if they’re being fed lies. The wild parts of the island seem to be closing in. We also get brief chapters from Byatt’s perspective, as outsiders attempt to treat her, maybe cure her, although her condition becomes more and more extreme, and the treatments seem cruel and painful.

I was wrapped up in the story and really intrigued by the overall plot. So what was my problem with this book? Either the ending is unsatisfyingly incomplete, or this is a set-up for a continuation. I don’t know which, and that’s part of the problem! We’re left hanging at the end, with only the most partial of explanations about what the Tox really is, what caused it, and what it means for the surviving girls. I really needed more from the ending — so while I was caught up in the story and enjoyed the book overall, when I finished reading the final pages, I felt frustrated and annoyed.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts! If you’ve read Wilder Girls, what did you think of the ending?

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The details:

Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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