Audiobook Review: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner

Title: That Summer
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Narrator: Sutton Foster
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Big Summer comes another timely and deliciously twisty novel of intrigue, secrets, and the transformative power of female friendship, set on beautiful Cape Cod.

Daisy Shoemaker can’t sleep. With a thriving cooking business, full schedule of volunteer work, and a beautiful home in the Philadelphia suburbs, she should be content. But her teenage daughter can be a handful; her husband can be distant, her work can feel trivial, and she has lots of acquaintances, but no real friends. Still, Daisy knows she’s got it good. So why is she up all night?

While Daisy tries to identify the root of her dissatisfaction, she’s also receiving misdirected emails meant for a woman named Diana Starling, whose email address is just one punctuation mark away from her own. While Daisy’s driving carpools, Diana is chairing meetings. While Daisy’s making dinner, Diana’s making plans to reorganize corporations. Diana’s glamorous, sophisticated, single-lady life is miles away from Daisy’s simpler existence. When an apology leads to an invitation, the two women meet and become friends. But, as they get closer, we learn that their connection was not completely accidental. Who IS this other woman, and what does she want with Daisy?

From the manicured Main Line of Philadelphia to the wild landscape of the Outer Cape, written with Jennifer Weiner’s signature wit and sharp observations, THAT SUMMER is a story about surviving our pasts, confronting our futures, and the sustaining bonds of friendship.

That Summer is a beautifully crafted story about women’s lives, women’s friendship, raising daughters, and keeping secrets. It’s going to be very hard to talk about without revealing major plot points, so I’m going to go light on content and talk instead about themes and how it made me feel.

First off, though — even though I tend not to include or want to read content warnings, I do think it’s important for readers to know in advance that this book includes sexual assault as a major plotline. While it’s handled sensitively and thoughtfully, please know that if this is a subject you find triggering in fiction, then this isn’t going to be a good reading experience for you.

Onward with That Summer! I won’t go into how or why, but the chance encounter described in the synopsis is much more intentional and meaningful than Daisy knows. As the book unfolds, we learn about Daisy’s early life, her choice to marry very young rather than complete college, and how her life has been shaped by her husband’s decisions. We also get to know Diana very well, and she is not what she seems… but while the initial set-up may seem like the start of a psychological thriller, it’s instead an exploration of the turning points in a young woman’s life and how an entire trajectory can be derailed by moments of tragedy and violation.

Beyond the POV chapters told from Diana and Daisy’s perspectives, there are also chapters where the action is seen through the eyes of Beatrice, Daisy’s 14-year-old daughter. These are fascinating as well, especially as the older women reflect back on their own tumultuous teen years and how those years shaped the women they’d become.

The writing in That Summer is lovely, especially the way the author so skillfully and thoughtfully shows us each main character’s inner world and how they experience the world around them. I loved getting to know both Daisy and Diana — and this is a big achievement, as the initial set-up led me to believe that Diana, clearly hiding something and with a secret agenda, would be a sinister or unlikable character, which is absolutely not the case.

The book is very much informed by the #MeToo movement and the moments of reckoning catching up with perpetrators of sexual assault. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ reactions to the seemingly daily news coverage of one celebrity or public figure after another being exposed for their bad behaviors — including the reactions of male figures in the characters’ lives, which vary from anger to disbelief to internalized guilt.

Sutton Foster is the narrator of That Summer, and I loved listening to her voice the varied characters. The book is a pleasure to listen to, as well as to read.

As I said, I’m going to keep this short because I just don’t want to delve into the plot any further, so I’ll wrap up simply by saying that I found this book moving and important, with a story that feels current and powerful, and character voices that truly shine. Don’t miss it.

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Title: The Bookshop of Second Chances
Author: Jackie Fraser
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A woman desperate to turn a new page heads to the Scottish coast and finds herself locked in a battle of wills with an infuriatingly handsome bookseller in this utterly heartwarming debut, perfect for readers of Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Thea Mottram is having a bad month. Her husband of nearly twenty years has just left her for one of her friends, and she is let go from her office job–on Valentine’s Day, of all days. Bewildered and completely lost, Thea doesn’t know what to do. But when she learns that a distant great uncle in Scotland has passed away, leaving her his home and a hefty antique book collection, she decides to leave Sussex for a few weeks. Escaping to a small coastal town where no one knows her seems to be exactly what she needs.

Almost instantly, Thea becomes enamored with the quaint cottage, comforted by its cozy rooms and shaggy, tulip-covered lawn. The locals in nearby Baldochrie are just as warm, quirky, and inviting. The only person she can’t seem to win over is bookshop owner Edward Maltravers, to whom she hopes to sell her uncle’s antique novel collection. His gruff attitude–fueled by an infamous, long-standing feud with his brother, a local lord–tests Thea’s patience. But bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting, leading Thea to develop feelings she hasn’t felt in a long time. As she follows a thrilling yet terrifying impulse to stay in Scotland indefinitely, Thea realizes that her new life may quickly become just as complicated as the one she was running from.

When Thea discovers that her husband has been cheating on her with her close friend, her carefully ordered life falls apart. And when said husband and said friend declare their intention to start a life together, Thea moves out of her house, packs her belongings, and has to figure out what’s next.

Answers are provided by the news that a distant relative, a great-uncle she barely knew, has left his Scottish home to her, along with a nice sum of money to go with it. At loose ends, Thea heads to Scotland to see the property and decide what to do with it, intending to spend at most a few weeks assessing the place and making plans to sell it.

She doesn’t count on how lovely the place is, or how charming the small village nearby. Uncle Andrew left behind an impressive book collection, including many rare and valuable editions, so Thea contacts the local bookseller, a grumpy man named Edward, to arrange to sell some of the books. Edward is indeed grumpy, but he’s also quite engaging and very attractive, not to mention being the estranged brother of the lord whose estate borders Thea’s new home. All in all, Thea finds him fascinating, and they develop an easy rapport, only enhanced once she takes on a job working in Edward’s bookstore.

As the months pass, Thea finds herself falling into a comfortable rhythm in her new home, but she’s still not over the betrayal of her marriage and the sense of self-doubt it’s left her with. Still, as she gets to know Edward, she eventually realizes that life may have a few surprises left for her… even the possibility of a new romance.

It’s refreshing to read a book about love between mature adults, and also a nice change to have a lead character be a woman in her mid-40s. Thea is lovely, but she’s experienced and not naive, and feels that the romantic part of her life is over with, now that her husband has left her. She doesn’t expect to find new opportunities or to have a dashing local find her attractive, and she certainly doesn’t expect that this little town in Scotland may turn out to be a place where she’ll find happiness.

The Bookshop of Second Chances is a lovely, engaging read. The dialogue is often quite funny, and Thea herself is a delightfully practical, blunt-speaking, and intelligent character to spend time with. The dynamics between Edward and his brother Charles are fraught, silly, and often humorous, but there are also some real issues there to navigate, and it was interesting to see those play out.

The main romantic storyline between Thea and Edward is well-paced, as she spends a great deal of the book not looking for more than friendship while she heals from the pain of her marriage and learns to trust and be optimistic again.

All in all, this is a sweet, entertaining, and thoughtful take on finding new purpose and new love in middle age. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it heartily!

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Book Review: Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau

Title: Donut Fall in Love
Author: Jackie Lau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 26, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A baker provides the sweetest escape for an actor in this charming romantic comedy.

Actor Ryan Kwok is back in Toronto after the promotional tour for his latest film, a rom-com that is getting less-than-stellar reviews. After the sudden death of his mother and years of constant work, Ryan is taking some much-needed time off. But as he tries to be supportive to his family, he struggles with his loss and doesn’t know how to talk to his dad—who now trolls him on Twitter instead of meeting him for dim sum.

Innovative baker Lindsay McLeod meets Ryan when he knocks over two dozen specialty donuts at her bakery. Their relationship is off to a messy start, but there’s no denying their immediate attraction. When Ryan signs up for a celebrity episode of Baking Fail, he asks Lindsay to teach him how to bake and she agrees.

As Lindsay and Ryan spend time together, bonding over grief and bubble tea, it starts to feel like they’re cooking up something sweeter than cupcakes in the kitchen. 

Donut Fall In Love is a sweet (because BAKING), light romance that follows the celebrity love interest trope. It’s fairly formulaic plot-wise, but the character specifics, the setting, and the families make this book stand out as something special.

Lindsay runs a donut shop with her best friend Noreen, where they specialize in high-end, super-fancy treats, like matcha tiramisu and chocolate espresso donuts. Their baked goods are not just delicious, they’re works of art.

Ryan has returned to Toronto to spend more time with his family, anxiously watching reviews of his latest film to see what it will mean for his career. And as he notes, as an Asian actor, the movie industry seems to see the success or failure of his rom-com as a litmus test for whether an actor of Asian descent can pull off a romantic lead role. He feels the weight of representation on his shoulders, and worries not just about his own career, but whether his so-so box office results will spell doom for other Asian actors.

When Ryan is asked to appear as a celebrity contestant on a popular TV baking show (Baking Fail), he instantly thinks of the cute bakery owner he (literally) ran into the previous week, and asks Lindsay for baking lessons so that he doesn’t completely humiliate himself on national TV.

Lindsay, while also of Asian descent, was raised by a mother whose family emphasized assimilation, so she grew up without speaking the language that her grandparents grew up with. While Lindsay and Ryan’s backgrounds have many differences, they share a sense of otherness from growing up in largely white communities, and soon learn that they have much more in common than ethnic background and experiences with tokenism and racism.

Their weekly baking lessons become a highlight for both of them, as they laugh, flirt, and bake together, and they each realize that their enjoyment of each other’s company might be more than just friendship. Plus, their chemistry is undeniable, and while Ryan is the one who’s famous for being a sex symbol, the attraction is clearly, strongly mutual.

As is typical in celebrity-in-love-with-a-regular-person romances, Lindsay deals with self-doubt. Ryan is super hot, as is obvious from the popular hashtag #StarringRyanKwoksAbs. How can such a gorgeous man with a stunningly perfect body possibly be interesting in an ordinary, not-perfect person like her?

Ryan and Lindsay are very cute together, and soon find themselves intimately involved. But as they learn, sex might be easy, but true intimacy, trust, and emotional connection are much harder.

I liked a lot of aspects of Donut Fall In Love. Both Ryan and Lindsay are dealing with grief over the death of a parent, and the author portrays the lasting impact of these losses very thoughtfully and sensitively. I also appreciated the depiction of the impact of the casual racism disguised as humor that Ryan and other Asian actors must deal with, as well as the off-handed cruelty that internet commenters seem to have no problem throwing around, as if the people on the receiving end aren’t actually real people at all.

The characters’ family relationships are also well depicted, although I did feel that Ryan’s difficult relationship with his father was fixed rather suddenly and without a whole lot of processing.

I feel like I should have a steaminess index for when I review romances, but haven’t come up with a scale yet! In any case, this book has a mostly light and flirty tone, but when sex happens, it’s explicit, so be forewarned if that’s not your style when it comes to romance reading.

Overall, I really liked Donut Fall In Love. Yes, the plot is somewhat predictable and by the book, but the unique personalities and donut-filled settings make the story a tasty treat.

My main complaint? I feel like this book should come with a gift card to a bakery. It made me crave sweets on every page! Gimme donuts. Gimme donuts now.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

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Novella review: Rizzio by Denise Mina

One more for Novella November!

 

Title: Rizzio
Author: Denise Mina
Publisher: Pegasus Crime
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Hsitorical fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the multi-award-winning master of crime, Denise Mina delivers a radical new take on one of the darkest episodes in Scottish history—the bloody assassination of David Rizzio  private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, in the queen’s chambers in Holyrood Palace.

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power.

Rizzio is nothing less than a provocative and thrilling new literary masterpiece.

Who knew a crime story from 1566 could be so compelling?

In the skilled hands of Denise Mina, the story of the real-life murder of David Rizzio comes to life, full of political scheming, betrayals, and intricately choreographed action sequences.

From the very first paragraph, it’s clear that this will be a powerful, masterfully told story:

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight. He wants his wife to witness the murder because David Rizzio is her closest friend, her personal secretary, and she’s very pregnant and Darnley hopes that if she sees him being horribly brutalised she might miscarry and die in the process. She’s the Queen; they’ve been battling over Darnley’s demand for equal status since their wedding night and if she dies and the baby dies then Darnley’s own claim to the throne would be undeniable. They’re rivals for the crown. She knew that from the off. He wants it done in front of her.

How’s that for cold-hearted brutality? I love how this opening paragraph tells us so much about the situation, the motivations, and what’s at stake, with just just a few brief, stark sentences.

This tightly woven book traces the events immediately before and after Rizzio’s murder, exquisitely painting a picture of the precariousness of women’s power, the deadly nature of the battle between religious factions, and the inability of these scheming, devious men to recognize that women matter.

While the short length of this novella means that everything unfolds quickly, the writing is immersive and detailed enough to give us insight into the minds of the key players and to make the situation remarkably clear.

While I know the basics about Mary, Queen of Scots, I clearly don’t know enough, and reading this novella has piqued my interest all over again. One of my tasks in 2022 will be to find a good non-fiction book about her life and reign — I know there are plenty of novels and TV/movie depictions, but I also know that most, especially the on-screen versions, take a ton of liberties with the historical record.

I’d heard good things about Denise Mina previously, but this is my first time reading one of her books. Her writing and use of language is so on point and keen here, expressive but with nothing extraneous.

Rizzio is a quick, sharp tale of historical murder, and the terrific writing makes it sing. I came across this book after hearing two beloved authors, Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon, recommend it during an interview, and I’m so glad I followed their advice and gave it a try. Highly recommended, for crime fans as well as fans of historical fiction.

Audiobook Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Ever After
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it’s always been Izumi—or Izzy, because “It’s easier this way”—and her mom against the world. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after? 

If you’re a fan of The Princess Diaries, have I got a book for you!

In Tokyo Ever After, Japanese American high schooler Izumi stumbles across her long-lost father’s true identity — he’s none other than the (George Clooney-esque) Crown Prince of Japan! Raised by her single mother in a predominantly white small town in California, a place where Izzy always felt like something of an outsider, she suddenly finds herself whisked across the ocean to meet her father and be introduced to life as a member of the Japanese Imperial family.

Talk about whiplash.

Izzy’s casual, self-deprecating, none-too-serious approach to life does not help her succeed in Japan. Suddenly, her every move is scrutizined by the imperial-obsessed press. From her unscheduled airport bathroom break to her leggings and sweatshirt to her failure to wave to the crowd, Izumi is picked apart and criticized, literally from the moment she steps foot in her new country.

Nothing is easy. Her clothes, her manners, her gestures — all have to be replaced with behavior and looks befitting a princess. Not to mention the fact that despite being descended from Japanese immigrants to America, she grew up speaking English only, so language lessons are a must as well. And while Izumi’s father is warm and eager to get to know the daughter he never knew he had, certain members of the household are not thrilled by this new arrival, and will do anything to undermine her.

Tokyo Ever After is a delightful listen, with an entertaining mix of modern teen angst, humor, and texting with an entirely new culture and way of life. As Izumi learns more about Japan and life as a royal, so do we. The lessons and introduction to the imperial family are never dull or heavy handed; as Izumi experiences each new fascinating sight and taste and wonder, we readers/listeners get to experience it along with her.

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, not perfect by any means, but full of hope and willing to give this new twist in her life a real chance. She’s flawed (not a very good student, no compelling hobbies, not all that much going on in her life outside of her amazing set of friends — known affectionately as the AGG, the Asian Girl Gang), she’s not intentionally disobedient but has a hard time with the level of compliance required of young princesses, and she’s not entirely okay with putting up with slights for the sake of etiquette.

There’s a love interest, of course — the super attractive young Imperial Guard assigned to head Izumi’s security team. Akio is introduced as stiff and surly, but Izumi soon discovers the sensitive, poetry-loving soul hidden beneath that gruff (and muscled) exterior. A relationship between a princess and a commoner is not okay as far as Japanese tabloids are concerned, and when their budding romance is exposed, the plotline of the book comes to a head as Izumi must decided where she belongs and where her future lies.

The key themes of the book — family, fitting in, understanding identity, finding a way to belong without giving up who you are — are all well developed, but the writing never hits us over the head screaming important message here. Instead, through Izumi’s adventures and challenges, we’re along for the ride as her journey helps her find her own voice and figure out what matters, and how to stay true to herself while also welcoming tradition and family expectations.

The audiobook narration by Ali Ahn is just terrific. First off, it’s so much fun to hear the bits and pieces of Japanese dialogue, as well as Izumi’s attempts to learn the language. Also, the narrator’s voices for Izumi and her friends are really distinctive and well-done, giving each a shot of personality and conveying their humor, even while reading aloud their text exchanges.

Overall, Tokyo Ever After is a treat to read and listen to. The story is fun and upbeat, yet includes emotional connection and thoughtfulness too. Highly recommended.

The sequel to Tokyo Ever AfterTokyo Dreaming — is due out in May 2022, and honestly? It can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Izumi!

And finally… can we just take a minute to appreciate the gorgeousness of these covers??? These might be my favorites this year!

Book Review: All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

Title: All of Us Villains
Author: Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. The Tournament begins.

Every generation, at the coming of the Blood Moon, seven families in the remote city of Ilvernath each name a champion to compete in a tournament to the death.

The prize? Exclusive control over a secret wellspring of high magick, the most powerful resource in the world–one thought long depleted.

This year, thanks to a salacious tell-all book, the seven champions are thrust into worldwide spotlight, granting each of them new information, new means to win, and most importantly: a choice – accept their fate or rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.

All of Us Villains, like a certain incredibly successful YA book trilogy, centers on a fight to the death. Participating families each choose a champion, and their tasks is simple: Kill all the other champions, or be killed yourself.

For centuries, the seven key families of Ilvernath have participated in the tournament, a deathly serious competition that occurs once each generation, heralded by the arrival of the Blood Moon. Each of the seven families chooses, by their own means, the person to represent the family interests. The winning family gains control over high magick, which is available to no one else — in fact, none but the victorious family can even perceive it, yet alone use it.

With such high stakes, it’s no wonder that the families are obsessed with winning. Some families groom their offspring from childhood with a single-minded focus on victory at all costs. Some engage in desperate attempts to curry favor with the spellmakers and cursemakers whose devices and enchantments can mean the literal difference between life and death for the competitors. And there’s one family who has never, ever won, but still they compete — and it’s rumored that this family is the one which did the unthinkable and shared the secrets of the tournament’s existence through the scandalous book, A Tradition of Tragedy.

Now the whole world is watching to see the newest round of the tournament unfold, and the champions are under immense pressure and scrutiny like never before. Additionally, government agents from outside Ilvernath seem to be very, very interested in the tournament and its outcome… and meanwhile, seven teens from seven families are preparing to face their fears and kill their opponents in a bloody, unbreakable competition.

In All of Us Villains, we gain entry to this strange and dangerous world through four main characters. As we alternate chapters between these characters’ points of view, we learn more about their families, their backgrounds, their own personal stakes, and most importantly, just how far they’re willing to go to stay alive and win glory for their families.

The tournament, as described in this fast-paced, thickly-detailed novel, is disturbing and dark and incredibly dangerous. The champions are all skilled, to one extent or another, in casting spells and curses, and must rely on their magical talents, as well as their wits, their ability to manipulate, and their powers of persuasion, to both form alliances and yet make sure they’re the last one standing. (Kind of like Survivor, but with death and magick.)

In The Hunger Games, the districts’ tributes are chosen at random, forced to compete as ongoing punishment by the Capital. No one actually wants their children to compete. Not so in All of Us Villains. Here, it’s all about power. The seven families are party to the curse that created the tournament so many centuries earlier. Without the tournament, the high magick becomes unreachable to everyone, something the families cannot tolerate — so they groom their children and celebrate their selection as champions, then send them out to win or die.

What kind of people think it’s an acceptable loss to put forward their own children in the hopes of attaining power? Clearly, none of the families could be considered good-hearted, although the champions’ own weighing in on the scale of good vs evil is up for debate.

I found myself completely captivated by this compelling, dangerous fight to the death. The story is so dire, and the contestants are all so doomed. There’s no way out, and they know it. They also all know that their families are sending them into this tournament to kill or be killed, and no matter how confident some families are about their chances, the fact remains, six of the seven will be dead before the tournament ends.

The action is non-stop, but there’s compelling character development too — at least for the four characters whose points of view we get to experience. As for the other three competitors — well, it’s hard to care about them too much when we only see them from the outside, and while we get hints of personality, they’re clearly not the ones to pay attention to.

While I couldn’t put the book down, there are a few reasons why this doesn’t quite rise to 5-star level for me:

  • It’s a bit over-complicated. We need to learn the distinguishing characteristics of the seven families, keep the competitors straight, learn about the tournament’s Relics and Locations, understand the difference between common magic, raw magic, and high magic, and keep track of an endless list of curses and spells. It’s a lot. I’m not usually a fan of character lists or glossaries at the start of books, but here, it would have been helpful.
  • The four main characters have a tendency to blend together. Their motivations and backstories are important, but pieces seem to shift too often — and maybe this is really just part of the previous bullet point, but it gets to be too much to track.
  • This is not a complete story!! This is perhaps my biggest complaint. I didn’t know before I started, and there’s nothing on the cover or in the description to state this… but this is only book 1! The book ends, but the story doesn’t conclude. We end at a turning point, but it feels just like a random stopping point in the action rather than the end of a section. As of the end of the book, the tournament is still ongoing! Book #2 (no name yet, as far as I can see) is listed as due out in 2022 (per Goodreads), but it’s a little frustrating to get this absorbed in a story and then have it abruptly… end. Argh.

Of course, if I didn’t feel invested, I wouldn’t mind so much that the story just stops. So, my response is decidedly mixed: I really got into the story, but I’m really frustrated that this is only the first part!

One more minor quibble: I have the hardest time with the book’s title! It nibbles at my comfort… it doesn’t quite feel grammatically correct to me, but I suppose that depends on how it’s meant. Is it the start of a sentence — “All of us villains… went to the supermarket”, for example? In that case, it’s wrong. Is it just a description of the group — “all of us villains” — kind of just hanging out there as a phrase? I don’t love it; don’t know quite what to do with it. Is it a more elegant statement of who they are — “All of us. Villains.” or “All of us, villains.” I could live with that, but then the title is missing punctuation. Someone stop me. I know I’m being ridiculous.

In any case…

Overall, this book is one to read in one huge sitting, if you can. It’s easy to become obsessively involved with the intricacies of the plot and the complex inner workings of the characters. There is such a sense of doom hanging over the whole thing — this is the least cheerful YA story I’ve read in a long time! Still, it’s a terrific read, and I suppose my intense frustration is just another sign that I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

Will I remember the details by the time the sequel arrives? Probably not, but that’s what re-reading is for.

If you’re looking for a weird tale of magic and murder, set in a world that’s very similar to our own in so many ways, but with a deadly difference, definitely check out All of Us Villains.

PS – For more about All of Us Villains, check out this discussion with the authors over on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog. So interesting!

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Book Review: The Sweetest Remedy by Jane Igharo

Title: The Sweetest Remedy
Author: Jane Igharo
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When a woman travels to Nigeria to attend the funeral of the father she never knew, she meets her extravagant family for the first time, a new and inspiring love interest, and discovers parts of herself she didn’t know were missing, from Jane Igharo, the acclaimed author of Ties That Tether.

Hannah Bailey has never known her father, the Nigerian entrepreneur who had a brief relationship with her white mother. Because of this, Hannah has always felt uncertain about part of her identity. When her father dies, she’s invited to Nigeria for the funeral. Though she wants to hate the man who abandoned her, she’s curious about who he was and where he was from. Searching for answers, Hannah boards a plane to Lagos, Nigeria.

In Banana Island, one of Nigeria’s most affluent areas, Hannah meets the Jolades, her late father’s prestigious family–some who accept her and some who think she doesn’t belong. The days leading up to the funeral are chaotic, but Hannah is soon shaped by secrets that unfold, a culture she never thought she would understand or appreciate, and a man who steals her heart and helps her to see herself in a new light. 

In Jane Igharo’s newest novel, family is family, even when least expected.

Hannah is a successful writer living in San Francisco near the single mother who raised her. She’s passionate about her career and her volunteer commitments at a local youth center. She’s also fed up with clueless, entitled men who try to hit on her by commenting on her “exotic” beauty or think it’s flattering to ask her about her ethnicity.

When Hannah attends an upscale cocktail party with her best friend, she’s pretty much over it all, until she meets a lovely man who seems to really see her, but their connection is cut short when he’s called away on something urgent. Soon after, Hannah’s mother shares painful news as well: She’s just been informed that Hannah’s father, a man Hannah met only once in her life, has died suddenly. What’s more, his final request was for Hannah to attend his funeral in Nigeria.

Hannah’s feeling are complicated and painful. She’s always known who her father was — a wealthy, powerful businessman from Nigeria. She’s googled his family and has seen photos of her siblings, none of whom know she exists. She has memories of his one visit to see her in San Francisco, and she knows that he’s always provided financially — and generously — for her… but why did he never actually want her? Why was she never good enough?

With a push from her mother, Hannah agrees to go to Nigeria, and the experience is astounding and life-changing. The Jolade family is not just well-off — they’re extremely wealthy, and their home is a gated estate in the exclusive Banana Island area of Lagos. Hannah learns upon arrival that the family has not been told anything about her, so when she shows up in their midst, their reactions are shock, anger, and resentment.

Still, their father has stipulated that the family must stay at the estate with Hannah until after his funeral or they’ll be cut out of his will, and so begins a two-week period where awkwardness and hostility slowly make way for new connections and emotional exploration.

As Hannah develops relationships with each of her siblings, she gains greater understanding of who her father was, why he made the decision he made, and how she fits into this world that’s so strange to her. Her journey is lovely and thoughtful, and also includes romance, as the man she’d met in San Francisco ends up being important to the Jolade family as well.

I loved reading about Hannah’s experiences, and admired her courage so much. She’s thrust into a world that she knew of as a child, but always viewed as a fairy tale, out of her reach. She describes herself at one point as the child looking through the candy story window, seeing a beautiful world but unable to participate. At the same time, she feels guilty too, not wanting to hurt the mother who devoted herself to her upbringing by embracing a world that she’s not a part of.

The book is mostly told through Hannah’s perspective, but also includes chapters from the points of view of other family members, and this approach really works. It allows us to see the other sides of the story — the emotional upheaval of not only losing your father, but also discovering the deep secret he’s kept, and being forced at the same time to accept a stranger into your midst and treat them as family.

We also see Hannah’s experiences in Nigeria, as she learns to connect with a piece of her own heritage, feeling alien yet finding ways to embrace what Nigeria means to her, and to see beyond the expensive lifestyle she initially encounters to understand the family’s history and deeper connections to the people of Lagos.

The love story is affecting and feels real, but it doesn’t take over or dominate the story. I see this book as much more about identity and family than about the romance, although all these elements come together in a really beautiful way.

The Sweetest Remedy is moving and lovely, with a storyline that’s well-written and evocative, and a main character you can’t help but wish the best for. I really loved this book. Don’t miss it!

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Audiobook Review: Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Matched
Series: Well Met, #3
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 19, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 30 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mother April Parker has lived in Willow Creek for twelve years with a wall around her heart. On the verge of being an empty nester, she’s decided to move on from her quaint little town, and asks her friend Mitch for his help with some home improvement projects to get her house ready to sell.

Mitch Malone is known for being the life of every party, but mostly for the attire he wears to the local Renaissance Faire — a kilt (and not much else) that shows off his muscled form to perfection. While he agrees to help April, he needs a favor too: she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner, so that he can avoid the lectures about settling down and having a more “serious” career than high school coach and gym teacher. April reluctantly agrees, but when dinner turns into a weekend trip, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s been just for show. But when the weekend ends, so must their fake relationship.

As summer begins, Faire returns to Willow Creek, and April volunteers for the first time. When Mitch’s family shows up unexpectedly, April pretends to be Mitch’s girlfriend again… something that doesn’t feel so fake anymore. Despite their obvious connection, April insists they’ve just been putting on an act. But when there’s the chance for something real, she has to decide whether to change her plans — and open her heart — for the kilt-wearing hunk who might just be the love of her life.

An accidentally in-love rom-com filled with Renaissance Faire flower crowns, kilts, corsets, and sword fights. 

Welcome back to Willow Creek, home of the best small-town Renaissance Town in the state of Maryland (and beyond?)!

Willow Creek is also the home of April Parker, a 40-year-old single mother who’s about to become an empty-nester once her teen-aged daughter Caitlin graduates high school and leaves for college. April is strong and self-sufficient, but she’s spent the past 18 years focused on raising her daughter and never really looking beyond her own walls. She’s well respected and liked, but has few close friends, never got involved at Caitlin’s school, and never found time and energy outside of work and child-raising to make Willow Creek feel like a true home.

We first met April in book one of this terrific series (Well Met), when her younger sister Emily came to town to help April after a devastating car accident. In that book, Emily was the main character, and April was in a supporting role. Here, April takes center stage, and it’s great fun to get to know her.

April is determined to sell her house and get the hell out of Willow Creek once her daughter is off to college. She doesn’t have a firm plan in mind, just starting over somewhere closer to where she works. Things start to change when April is out at the (only) local dive bar one night and is being hit on by a jerk, and Willow Creek gym teacher and total hottie Mitch Malone comes to her rescue. Posing as her date, he chases off the obnoxious dude, and then propositions her (no, not like that): Would she be willing to pose as his girlfriend at an upcoming family event? He’s tired of feeling looked down upon by the rest of his big family, and being in an established relationship with a great woman like April will help matters (he hopes).

April likes Mitch well enough, although they’re not exactly close. He’s good friends with her brother-in-law, and she knows he’s a decent guy, even though he has a reputation for being a huge flirt and sleeping around. They make a deal: April will be Mitch’s fake girlfriend, and in turn, he’ll help her out with her home renovation projects.

Naturally, the more time they spend together, the more the sparks start to fly. The two connect as friends, but also begin to feel a strong attraction. April has her doubts — yes, Mitch is kind and supportive (and hot), but he’s also almost 10 years younger, has lots of women’s names in his online calendar, and probably wants kids some day. What could he possibly see in her, beyond a short-term fling? This thing between can’t possibly mean anything… can it?

The books in this series are delightful, and Well Matched is no exception. I liked having a (somewhat) older woman in the lead romantic role — it’s interesting to see how she navigates rediscovering an interest in relationships, figuring out what comes next for her and what she wants now that “full-time mom” is no longer going to be her main definition.

April and Mitch as a couple have great chemistry, and even though it’s frustrating as a reader waiting for them to realize that their fake relationship has turned into something real, it’s still fun to watch their journey. I did find myself very annoyed with April later in the book, as she makes some choices that are counterproductive and are hurtful to Mitch. Mitch is written as an outwardly boisterous, non-serious character with a much deeper inner core, and while this book obviously had to end with a Happily Ever After, I couldn’t help but feel that in real life, after how April acts, an HEA would be unlikely.

My other chief complaint is that there isn’t enough of the book set at Faire! Yes, there’s some, and Mitch’s infamous kilt makes its annual appearance, but this is just a small segment of the book, and considering that Faire is the main connecting theme of this series, I wanted more.

That aside, Well Matched is a terrific read, and I love the audiobook narration, which really captures the bantering and the fun elements so well — and also the silliness of the Faire accents of the characters when they’re dressed up in their corsets, carrying swords, and engaging in medieval flirtation and jousting!

The end of the print edition of Well Matched includes a sneak preview of the upcoming 4th book, Well Traveled, due out in fall 2022, with Mitch’s cousin Lulu in the lead role. Can’t come soon enough for me!

Book Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Title: A Spindle Splintered
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Fairy tale/ fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered brings her patented charm to a new version of a classic story. 

THIS is the way to write a novella — short, sweet, spare, and totally on point.

In A Spindle Splintered, we meet Zinnia Gray on the cusp of what she’s sure will be her last birthday. Thanks to her rare genetic condition, her death is inescapable, and as she explains to people who ask her about future plans, she’s just running out the clock.

Because of her condition, Zinnia has tried to accelerate as much of her life as she can, finishing high school and then college early, getting a degree in folklore, never forgetting that for all her life, she’s been in the process of dying. And maybe because of that, fairy tales in general and Sleeping Beauty in particular are her obsessions.

Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White.

Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.

In a moment of utter weirdness, Zinnia pricks her finger on the spinning wheel her best friend Charm (short for Charmaine) has set up for her birthday. Suddenly, Zinnia finds herself between worlds, finally landing in one in which an impossibly beautiful princess is calling for help. Primrose is a more traditional version of a Sleeping Beauty, cursed at birth to fall into a 100-year slumber on her 21st birthday — but thanks to Zinnia’s intervention, her doom seems to be avoided, yet she’s left to face a different sort of doom, getting married off to the perfect prince, much to her dismay.

Primrose and Zinnia set off on a quest to break both their curses, but nothing is really as it seems. The story culminates in a terrific action sequence and ends with plenty of surprises, while also leaving the door open for further tales.

I love the writing, the characters, the inventiveness of the storytelling, and the overall attitude and tone. I don’t always get along with novellas, often feeling like I’ve been left without the full picture and that I’ve read a synopsis rather than a full story. That’s not the case in A Spindle Splintered.

This novella reads just like a fairy tale, plus the modern elements make the characters relatable and bring humor even to totally grim (Grimm?) situations.

“Well, Harold,” I say gently. “They’re lesbians.”

(I’m not going to provide any context for that quote — just know that it’s perfect and made me laugh.)

The book has beautiful woodcut illustrations from the traditional Arthur Rackham versions of the story. You can see some of these here — scroll down to get to the woodcuts. These illustrations enhance the magical fairy tale elements of the story, and make the entire book feel classic, even in the more contemporary scenes.

I loved A Spindle Splintered, and can’t wait for the next book in the author’s Fracture Fables series,:

A Mirror Mended
To be released June 2022

A Spindle Splintered is a delight. Don’t miss it!

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Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Author: Catriona Ward
Publisher: Nightfire
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a shocking and immersive read perfect for fans of Gone Girl and The Haunting of Hill House.

In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three.

A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time.
A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory.
And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.

An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all.

The Last House on Needless Street is going to be a tough one to review. Before delving into the subject matter, I’ll recap my reading experience. I was confused at first. I quickly became turned off and repulsed. Then baffled again. I thought about putting the book down and walking away. Then I wanted to know if what I’d guessed was at all accurate. Then I wanted to know what actually happened… and ultimately, I saw it through all the way to the end, barely able to look away for the final third. But it’s not an exageration to say that for most of the book, the question of whether or not to continue was constantly on my mind.

This has to be one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in the last few years. It’s practically impossible to get a good grasp on what’s happening. The story involves a missing child, as well as a main character, Ted, whose behavior is creepy and suspicious from the get-go… yet we know that he was investigated years ago when the child disappeared, and no evidence was found to link him to the supposed abduction.

So is Ted a kidnapper, abuser, and a murderer? If so, how has he gotten away with it? How does he manage to keep his daughter Lauren hidden away? Why does his cat seem to love him, even though she has a rich inner life of her own?

I can’t say too much for fear of getting into spoilers, and trust me, you do not want to know anything further about the plot if you’re considering reading this book.

For about the first half of the book, if you’d asked me for a rating, I’d have said two stars, maybe three at a stretch. And even here, having finished the book and settling on 4.5 stars, I’m still not certain that really reflects my reading experience.

On the one hand, I have to give endless kudos to the author, who concocted a complicated and utterly creepy and confusing story, and yet manages to make the pieces fit together by the end. The story as a whole is masterfully woven together — a truly impressive feat.

On the other hand, this was probably the least enjoyable reading I’ve done in ages. There’s absolutely nothing fun or pleasurable about reading this horrifying tale. I’ve read my fair share of horror and psychological thrillers, and even at their most disturbing or gruesome, most of them are still books that I’ve enjoyed reading, one way or another. I can’t say that I enjoyed even a little bit of The Last House on Needless Street.

And yet… I have to recognize that this book is incredibly well crafted and tells a twisty tale unlike any other I’ve read. Do I recommend it? Yes and no. Yes, it’s fascinating and, after a certain point, oh-so-hard to put down. But it also wrecked my mood this weekend by forcing me to spend time in the truly dark places the story explores.

Your mileage may vary. This book will not be for everyone, not by a longshot. But I do have certain friends whose taste in books is basically — the grimmer, the better… and for them, this might be perfect.

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