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!

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay

Title:The Printed Letter Bookshop
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Love, friendship, and family find a home at the Printed Letter Bookshop

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a captivating story of good books, a testament to the beauty of new beginnings, and a sweet reminder of the power of friendship.

What a difference a year makes!

And reading moods certainly make a difference too.

Last year, I received an ARC of The Printed Letter Bookshop via NetGalley. And I was excited to read it, because I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books previously. But according to my Goodreads post, I DNFd this book at about 25%, saying that I just wasn’t interested and couldn’t get into it.

This could probably be an entirely different post about reading according to a schedule (I was trying to read ARCs on or before publication date) and feeling obligated when choosing what to read… but suffice it to say, for whatever reason, this just wasn’t the right book for me at that particular time.

So here I am, a year later, and I received an ARC of Katherine Reay’s soon-to-be-released newest book (Of Literature and Lattes) — and as I started reading it, I realized (a) it’s set in the same town as The Printed Letter Bookshop, and (b) while it appears to be focusing on different characters, there’s definitely crossover. And even though I was already five chapters in, and enjoying it, I decided it was time to go back to The Printed Letter Bookshop and give it another try.

Whew. All that is just context for the actual review! So here goes…

The Printed Letter Bookshop is charming! It’s a look at women’s friendship, centered around a bookshop located in small-town Winsome, Illinois, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, but worlds away in terms of the cozy, quaint, close-knit nature of the community.

When the store owner Maddie dies, her two colleagues and close friends Janet and Claire are devastated by her loss, and then immediately have to begin worrying about their future of their beloved store. Maddie leaves all her belongings, including her house and the bookshop, to her niece Madeline, a hard-charging young lawyer who hasn’t visited Maddie in years.

Madeline doesn’t want the store or any permanent link to Maddie. While they used to be close, some rift between Maddie and Madeline’s parents years in the past caused horribly hurt feelings, and Madeline has never forgiven Maddie. Now, though, Maddie’s holdings are her responsibility, and they come at a time when Madeline’s professional life has taken a sudden detour.

Madeline’s plan is to get in, get the store’s finances in shape, and sell. But life seems to have other plans.

Once she begins to get involved at The Printed Letter Bookshop, Madeline starts to understand how much it means to Janet, Claire, and the town. She also gains fresh insight into Maddie as a person, how badly she misunderstood her parents’ estrangement from Maddie, and just how much she herself needs a fresh perspective on her own life.

Janet and Claire are also POV characters. Each has her own reason for being drawn to Maddie, who gave them purpose and connection by welcoming them into the bookshop. They each have troubled home lives, but through their work at the bookshop, they reinvent themselves and start to understand where their lives’ turning points were, and how to choose different directions.

Although the book opens with Maddie’s funeral, she’s a large presence throughout the story. She’s a warm, lovely person who truly understands the way books can transform lives. She has the knack of finding the right book for each person who enters The Printed Letter Bookshop, and as her parting gift to Madeline, Janet, and Claire, leaves each a list of books to read — no explanation, just a list. And for each woman, the book list helps her grow and change.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a lovely book. I’ve seen it shelved as Christian fiction (publisher Thomas Nelson specializes in Christian content) — but if I hadn’t known that, I don’t think I’d classify this book that way. (Full disclosure: I am not Christian, and would not normally read books classified at Christian fiction. I’m glad I didn’t see a “label” before picking up this book!)

There are discussions about faith and God in the book, but I never felt like those discussions dominated the novel or that I was being hit over the head with religion. Instead, these themes are a part of the women’s journeys, as they think about their lives, their families, their relationships, and the meaning of it all. While their beliefs don’t align with my own, I was actually quite moved by some of their inner processes and how they decide, each in their own way, to make important changes in their lives.

There’s also a love story for Madeline, but that’s probably the part that I cared about least in this book. I mean, it was nice, but I didn’t get a good feel for the relationship or how it grew, and didn’t feel all that invested in that piece of the plot.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to give this book another chance! It’s a quick, engaging read, with heart, emotions, and LOTS OF BOOKS. (The author helpfully includes a list of all the books mentioned or referred to in the story at the back of the book… and we all know how awesome books about books can be!)

And now, I feel ready for Of Literature and Lattes.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.

Book Review: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

Title: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt
Author: Andrea Bobotis
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Some bury their secrets close to home. Others scatter them to the wind and hope they land somewhere far away.

Judith Kratt inherited all the Kratt family had to offer—the pie safe, the copper clock, the murder no one talks about. She knows it’s high time to make an inventory of her household and its valuables, but she finds that cataloging the family belongings—as well as their misfortunes—won’t contain her family’s secrets, not when her wayward sister suddenly returns, determined to expose skeletons the Kratts had hoped to take to their graves.

Interweaving the present with chilling flashbacks from one fateful evening in 1929, Judith pieces together the influence of her family on their small South Carolina cotton town, learning that the devastating effects of dark family secrets can last a lifetime and beyond. 

Miss Judith Kratt has lived in the imposing family home in Bound, South Carolina all her life. Now in her mid-70s, she lives contentedly with Olva — an African American woman who seems to be both servant and companion, the two women having spent their entire lives together. Judith has the idea to start an inventory of the house’s objects, all of which seem to hold a piece of the family history.

The Kratt family rose from nothing with Judith’s father, a bully of a man who strong-armed and cheated his way into a fortune in the cotton and mercantile business. He ruled his family and his town with an iron fist, inspiring fear and obedience whever he went.

In alternating chapters, we visit Judith’s memories of her teen years, going back to the fateful year of 1929 when her family’s fortunes changed dramatically.

Meanwhile, in the present of 1989, a local man and his six-year-old daughter take shelter in the Kratt home after being pursued by the grandson of Daddy Kratt’s former business partner. We see the cycles of hate and violence being carried through the generations, as the descendants of the grown-ups from Judith’s childhood still carry their forefathers’ handed-down grudges.

Judith seems odd and standoffish at first, but the more we learn about her childhood, the more her strange life starts to make sense. There are powerful family secrets buried in her and Olva’s pasts, and these secrets are still weighty enough to change lives all these years later.

As Judith makes her inventory, we come to understand the meaning of all the difference objects in her house, and how they relate to the family tragedy. It’s a clever and strangely moving approach to showing the weight of memories, and how those can add up to an entire life defined by the past.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt isn’t exactly what I expected, especially based on the book cover (which was what originally caught my eye). The image made me expect a work of historical fiction, maybe 1950s era or thereabouts, about Southern belles and their families. That’s not this book at all, though.

Instead, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is about a 15-year-old girl and the older woman she becomes, and the family secrets that shadow her entire life. This book is my book group’s pick for March, and I can wait to hear what everyone else thought and to pick apart the tangled web of secrets with them. Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.

Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Title: The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Author: Christy Lefteri
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: May 2, 2019
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The unforgettable love story of a mother blinded by loss and her husband who insists on their survival as they undertake the Syrian refugee trail to Europe.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo–until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all, they must journey to find each other again.

Moving, powerful, compassionate, and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling. 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a harrowing story, following a refugee couple who flee the Syrian civil war and then endure the dangers and harsh conditions facing the refugee population in Europe.

The synopsis is a tiny bit misleading — the main character here is Nuri. And while his wife Afra is a key part of the story, the entire novel takes place through Nuri’s eyes and perspectives.

The storyline jumps back and forth quite a bit along Nuri and Afra’s timeline. We meet them at a B&B in England, where they reside with other refugees awaiting their asylum hearings. From here, we go back in Nuri’s memories to the family’s peaceful life in beautiful Aleppo, where he finds pleasure every day in the apiary he shares with his cousin Mustafa.

But when war breaks out, their happy lives are completely shattered, as is the city itself. They live amidst the rubble of their lives until the danger and tragedy escalates to the point where they either need to flee or die.

Nuri and Afra undertake the perilous journey from Syria across the border into Turkey by means of hired smugglers, but safety is still a long way off. From dirty, decrepit shelters to life-threatening sea crossings to living in a park with only a blanket to call home, the experience is terrifying and soul-deadening, on top of which the couple is dealing with the loss of their beloved son and everything they’ve ever valued in their lives.

Author Christy Lefteri’s depiction of the refugee experience is informed by her years volunteering with refugee relief organizations, where she witnessed first-hand the horrors that follow refugees into their new lives. The story is unflinching, and Nuri and Afra’s journey often seems too much to bear.

In terms of minor quibbles, once Nuri and Afra make the decision to leave Syria, they seem to be able to do it relatively quickly and easily. They connect with a smuggler and make it across the border right away. I had to wonder how realistic that is — could this couple, at this advanced stage of the war, really have gotten out like that? Also, working in Nuri and Afra’s favor is the fact that they have plenty of money, so being able to pay smugglers never seems to be an issue. Again, I wonder how realistic this is, and how their journey might have gone differently if they didn’t have the financial resources to make it happen.

As an illustration of the terrors of the refugee experience, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is highly effective and quite powerfully moving. I did somehow feel that the emotional connection to Nuri and Afra was off — while I felt horror while reading of their losses and suffering, I didn’t necessarily feel connected to them as people, especially Afra, who we really only get to know through Nuri’s eyes, not as an individual on her own.

We’ve all seen the news coverage for years now about the terrible conditions that refugees endure. And while the people on the news are real people, not fictional, it’s through fiction like The Beekeeper of Aleppo that we can get a more internal view of individual pain and hope and loss.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an important read. The subject matter is often difficult to take, yet it’s important that we see these lives and not look away. I’m very glad that my book group chose this book for our January read — I’m really looking forward to the discussion, and definitely recommend the book for others looking for a thought-provoking novel on a very current and weighty subject.

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Title: Such a Fun Age
Author: Kiley Reid
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Such a Fun Age? Such a good book!

I’ve been seeing glowing reviews for this book on all sorts of book blogs over the last few weeks, and the hype has only intensified now that Such a Fun Age has been chosen as the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick.

Debut author Kiley Reid highlights a complex web of issues surrounding race, income inequality, social power, and more in this intriguing look at the intersections of family and privilege.

25-year-old Emira is a college grad who’s at loose ends, never having found her passion or true calling. She makes ends meet — barely — by working as a part-time typist and babysitting three days per week for a precious little almost-three-year-old named Briar.

Briar’s parents, Alix and Peter, are recent transplants from New York to Philadelphia. Alix is a social media influencer who has somehow parlayed her talent for getting corporations to send her free stuff in exchange for media coverage into a career as an inspirational speaker and advocate for women’s voices. She lives for the attention and perceived power, loves the image of herself as an influential, visionary women’s leader, and doesn’t particularly have the attention or patience for a small child.

Alix and Peter are white and affluent; Emira is African American and living payday to payday, relying on her more successful friends’ generosity and worrying about her upcoming 26th birthday when she’ll lose her health insurance coverage as her parents’ dependent.

Emira and Briar have an amazing bond. It’s not that Emira loves kids — she just gets Briar and adores her, and the feeling is mutual.

The action starts as Emira is out partying with friends and gets a frantic call from Alix. There’s an emergency at the house, and they need Emira to come take Briar out for a bit. Yes, it’s 10 pm, but this is truly urgent. Emira agrees, and takes Briar to a favorite location, the snooty upper-class (and very white) neighborhood market, where Briar loves to look at the bins of nuts and teas.

Things go wrong, and quickly. Another shopper is suspicious of the young black girl in the party dress toting around a small blonde child. Security intervenes, and things get ugly, and the incident is captured on video by a do-gooder bystander. The incident is awful and upsetting, and Emira just wants to put it behind her once it’s over.

At the same time, Alix develops an odd fascination with Emira, who is unfailingly polite but not particularly interested in Alix. Alix sees herself in a saviour role, wanting to help Emira, bond with her, enrich her life, and become her bestie. She’d love to convince herself and all her friends that Emira is part of the family. But why this growing obsession? What’s behind her need to know and be involved?

As the story progresses, things get more and more complicated. The point of view shifts between Alix and Emira, so we get very different reads on the same situations. And when an unexpected connection between Alix and Emira’s new boyfriend is revealed, complication escalate even further.

It’s a fascinating story. The characters are multi-faceted and often surprising. Honestly, it’s really difficult to like Alix even a little bit, even understanding some of the pain and difficulty in her background. Emira’s boyfriend Kelley also has issues, and despite seeming like a mostly stand-up guy, there are certainly some questions about his interpretation of events, his motivations, and his choices.

Emira is very much a woman of the times, 20-something, economically unsteady, wanting more but not sure what or how to move forward, torn between practicality, her own interests, and what everyone else seems to think is best for her.

The author captures so much about the chasms in today’s society in terms of race and social status and affluence. She shows the privilege that pervades self-identified liberals’ attitudes and the (perhaps) unwitting arrogance that makes a person of wealth and influence feel that they know how best to help someone with less.

I loved the writing and the zippy dialogue, as well as the plot that races through the story without short-changing the characters and their conflicts. It’s fascinating to see how different characters’ memories and interpretations of the same events can be so wildly different.

I’m not surprised to see this book being picked up as a book group choice both by mega-star clubs like Reese’s and by casual groups too. In fact, that’s my one complaint — where’s a book group when I need it?

It’s maddening to have no one to talk about this book with. There’s so much to discuss and pull apart and argue over! This is a book that I’ll definitely be pushing into the hands of as many of my bookish friends as possible.

The Monday Check-In ~ 12/30/2019

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

Life.

I got on skis for the first time in about 5 years! And I wasn’t… awful. It was actually pretty fun. My husband, kiddo, and I enjoyed a few days away in the mountains, skiing by day and relaxing by night.

I didn’t do much reading, but that’s okay! It was nice to have time together as a family.

What did I read during the last week?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Absolutely a five-star read. This is the one and only book I finished this past week, and it may actually be my last complete book for 2019, which is not at all a bad way to end the year. I’ll try to write a review this week when I get some breathing space… but suffice it to say, this book is beautifully written, often funny, frequently heart-breaking, and simple a must-read.

Pop culture:

Along with the rest of the human population, I saw the new Star Wars movie this past week. I liked it, didn’t love it… but then again, I’m not a die-hard fan, so deep dives into mythology and the greater meaning of events are somewhat lost on me. I went to be entertained, and I was.

Fresh Catch:

No new books this week. Not that I lack for reading material…

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan: This non-fiction account of a major mountaineering disaster is fascinating so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman: Continuing my re-read of the first two books in the trilogy, before starting #3. I barely had any listening time this past week, so my progress is more like baby steps. I hope to finish this week so I can start The Toll finally.

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. I really like the writing, and I’m finding the characters really funny.

So many books, so little time…

boy1seria

The Monday Check-In ~ 12/23/2019

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

What did I read during the last week?

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn: Contemporary romance — my review is here.

Shrill by Lindy West: This collection of essays is a must-read. My review is here.

I read three graphic novels this week:

  • Poe: Stories and Poems by Gareth Hinds: Great illustrations for a selection of Poe’s best-known pieces really bring the stories to life. This might be a good choice for a teen reader who scoffs at reading anything that smacks of “classic literature” (like my own reluctant reader…)
  • Runaways, volume 4: But You Can’t Hide by Rainbow Rowell: The Runaways series is always fun, and it’s nice to revisit these characters, although the plot itself isn’t particularly memorable or earth-shaking in this volume.
  • The Magicians: Alice’s Story by Lev Grossman and Lilah Sturges: For fans of The Magicians, this book tells the same story as volume one of the trilogy, but from Alice’s perspective. It’s nicely done, but the story feels a bit repetitive, since we already know it all. (Also, I can’t help getting the TV series characters stuck in my mind as the definitive characters, so it’s jarring to see them illustrated so differently here.)

In audiobooks, I finished my re-read of Scythe. The audio version was terrific!

Pop culture:

I went to see this movie. It was excellent.

Fresh Catch:

Yay, Goodreads! I won a giveaway, and the book arrived this week!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: My husband started this book last week, and convinced me to read it too, even though I thought I had all my end-of-year reading already figured out and lined up. Liking it so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman: Continuing my re-read of the first two books in the trilogy, before starting #3. The audiobook narrator is great!

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. I’m liking it so far, although it seems like the rest of the book group isn’t all that into it. Let’s hope it picks up as we go along.

So many books, so little time…

boy1seria

Take A Peek Book Review: Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

“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.

Title: Love Lettering
Author: Kate Clayborn
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synopsis:

In this warm and witty romance from acclaimed author Kate Clayborn, one little word puts one woman’s business—and her heart—in jeopardy . . .

Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing beautiful custom journals for New York City’s elite. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Like the time she sat across from Reid Sutherland and his gorgeous fiancée, and knew their upcoming marriage was doomed to fail. Weaving a secret word into their wedding program was a little unprofessional, but she was sure no one else would spot it. She hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid . . .

A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out—before he leaves New York for good—how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline, a fractured friendship, and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other about their lives, work, and regrets, both try to ignore the fact that their unlikely connection is growing deeper. But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late . . .

My Thoughts:

This is a mostly sweet urban romance, featuring the creative Meg and the numbers-focused Reid, who initially seem like total opposites. Meg’s hand-lettering business is taking off, but she’s feeling blocked and uninspired until she and Reid begin exploring the city together, looking at all the hidden lettering scattered on signs throughout different neighborhoods, playing intricate games with their discoveries, and getting to know one another in unexpected ways.

There are complications, of course, but the story is fairly straightforward and light. I did enjoy Meg’s female friendships, especially how she learns to confront and argue constructively rather than avoiding the relationships and dynamics that make her uncomfortable. The plot takes a turn toward the end that feels like a tonal shift, although the love story elements remain. I felt somewhat distant from Meg and her business, as it’s so specialized and caters so specifically to a rich clientele who can afford to splurge excessive amounts of money on things like hand-illustrated day planners, and likewise her endless thoughts on the meaning of letters and their shapes didn’t really do much for me.

Still, as a whole, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read, and I think it would be a decent choice for some non-taxing holiday reading.