Book Review: Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel

Title: Just Like Mother
Author: Anne Heltzel
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A girl would be such a blessing…

The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the past two decades, Maeve has worked hard to build a normal life in New York City, where she keeps everything—and everyone—at a safe distance.

When Andrea suddenly reappears, Maeve regains the only true friend she’s ever had. Soon she’s spending more time at Andrea’s remote Catskills estate than in her own cramped apartment. Maeve doesn’t even mind that her cousin’s wealthy work friends clearly disapprove of her single lifestyle. After all, Andrea has made her fortune in the fertility industry—baby fever comes with the territory.

The more Maeve immerses herself in Andrea’s world, the more disconnected she feels from her life back in the city; and the cousins’ increasing attachment triggers memories Maeve has fought hard to bury. But confronting the terrors of her childhood may be the only way for Maeve to transcend the nightmare still to come…

Just Like Mother is a creepy thriller about young survivors of a mother-worshipping cult, who in turn grow up to be damaged and potentially dangerous adults. I was drawn to this book by the synopsis — but quickly realized that this book was more manipulatively disturbing than necessary.

Maeve and Andrea are raised by the Mother Collective, but their cult is raided and disbanded after 8-year-old Maeve flees and turns them in. As an adult, Maeve is a talented editor who lives a lonely, disconnected life, until a DNA test reunites her with Andrea once again.

Andrea is now the head of a tech and lifestyle company with a seemingly limitless fortune, and she wants nothing more than to spend time with Maeve, although discussion of their early years is strictly forbidden. As Maeve spends more time with Andrea and her husband at their isolated country home, things get weird… and that’s about all I’ll say about the plot.

The story goes in awful, frightening directions, but honestly, I didn’t find any of it credible. The plot is designed to shock and disturb, but didn’t present enough insight into the characters or situation to make any of it truly believable. (For example, I never did understand Andrea’s company and how she came to be so successful — it does involve robot baby dolls, though, which… ew).

This book absolutely should include content warnings: Rape, imprisonment, loss of bodily autonomy, abuse… the list goes on. It’s unpleasant and anyone triggered by these topics should definitely avoid this book.

Why two-stars instead of just one? Well, I did keep reading. The book held my attention, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. The ending is pretty terrible, but by the time I got there, I didn’t expect any other outcome.

So many elements feel familiar in this book — shades of everything from Stepford Wives to Rosemary’s Baby to Gone Girl, among other examples. I think the author was probably going for terrifyingly creepy, but for me, the overriding feeling was being pissed off and disgusted.

I can’t say that I recommend this book at all… but if you have read it, I’d love to hear other points of view!

Book Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev

Title: The Emma Project
Series: The Rajes
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma gets a fresh Indian-American twist from award-winning author Sonali Dev in her heartwarmingly irresistible Jane Austen inspired rom com series.

No one can call Vansh Raje’s life anything but charmed. Handsome—Vogue has declared him California’s hottest single—and rich enough to spend all his time on missions to make the world a better place. Add to that a doting family and a contagiously sunny disposition and Vansh has made it halfway through his twenties without ever facing anything to throw him off his admittedly spectacular game.

A couple years from turning forty, Knightlina (Naina) Kohli has just gotten out of a ten-year-long fake relationship with Vansh’s brother and wants only one thing from her life…fine, two things. One, to have nothing to do with the unfairly blessed Raje family ever again. Two, to bring economic independence to millions of women in South Asia through her microfinance foundation and prove her father wrong about, well, everything.

Just when Naina’s dream is about to come to fruition, Vansh Raje shows up with his misguided Emma Project… And suddenly she’s fighting him for funding and wondering if a friends-with-benefits arrangement that’s as toe-curlingly hot as it is fun is worth risking her life’s work for.

The Emma Project is the 4th book in author Sonali Dev’s Jane Austen-inspired series about the powerful, wealthy Raje family. The Rajes, descended from Indian royalty, are fabulously rich and highly influential, especially now that their son Yash has been elected California’s newest governor. (See Incense and Sensibility for Yash’s story).

In The Emma Project, the youngest of the Raje clan takes center stage. 26-year-old Vansh is the “prince” of the family, extremely good-looking and pampered by all of his older sisters and cousins. Vansh has spent the last several years flitting around the world, from project to project lending a hand to all sorts of socially responsible causes, but never settling on just one thing.

After working to support Yash’s campaign, Vansh decides to stick around for a bit, and soon catches the attention of a powerful tech billionaire who wants to fund a project for Vansh — by pulling funding from Naina’s important work. Naina’s work is her whole life, especially since her association with the Rajes ended with public scandal after her fake romance with Yash came to light. (It’s complicated; again, see Yash’s story in the previous book).

Naina is furious over the loss of funding, and she accuses Vansh of engaging in an “Emma project” — basically, like Austen’s Emma, taking on a project for the sake of making himself feel good and alleviating some boredom, but lacking a true commitment or perspective on what others may need.

Over time, Vansh and Naina begin to work together, and become aware of a crazy hot chemistry between them too… but with Naina essentially ostracized by Vansh’s family and being burdened by all sorts of relationship issues due to growing up with an abusive father, any sort of romantic future between the two seems highly unlikely.

Except… there’s that chemisty to deal with, and they just can’t avoid it for long.

Perspective shift between Vansh (the Emma character) and Naina (Knightley), so we get to understand each character’s feelings and why they behave the way they do. All the various Rajes make appearances, often to meddle and complicate situations even further, and there’s a sub-plot about Vansh’s cousin Esha that’s a weird distraction from the main story (and makes very little sense), which seems to be a stand-in for the Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill storyline from Emma.

I’ve enjoyed most of the books in the Rajes series, but this one was was only so-so. The characters’ inner lives, especially Naina’s, come across as overwrought after a while. The endless ruminations on feelings about relationships and love truly started to get on my nerves. I also couldn’t understand why the Raje family treated Naina the way they did — from a plot perspective, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Vansh and Naina have a lot of heat between them, which fine, I’m happy two adults are enjoying themselves so much! However, there’s a restaurant scene that absolutely made me roll my eyes over its ridiculousness, and I had a hard time suspending my utter disbelief enough to get through the rest of the book.

From the author’s notes at the end, it sounds like The Emma Project is the final Raje book. Too bad — I guess we won’t be getting Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey retellings! As a whole, I’ve enjoyed this series, even though I ended up not as engaged with this last book.

Audiobook Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Title: By the Book
Series: Meant to Be, #2
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Narrator: Sarah Hollis
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 42 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.

All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?

But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

Everybody, sing along!

There’s something sweet and almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
And now he’s dear and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

In By the Book, Disney publishing comes through with another endearing fairy tale adaptation, thanks to the clever imaginings of Jasmine Guillory. It’s Beauty and the Beast with a modern, grown-up spin, set in the world of publishing, and it’s all very, very charming.

For Izzy, every day is like the one before…

When she first landed her job at TAOAT Publishing (that’s Tale As Old As Time, of course), she was starry-eyed and thrilled to finally be entering the world of books. But a couple of years on, she’s stuck as an editorial assistant, with a boss who doesn’t take the time to give feedback, and a coworker who slyly undermines Izzy’s confidence under the guise of sympathy.

While attending an industry conference in LA, Izzy gets her moment to do something bold: Her boss is frustrated by celebrity Beau Towers, who has yet to deliver even a word of his memoir under contract. He refuses to even respond to emails. Izzy boldly offers to knock on the door of his Santa Barbara mansion and offer her assistance in person.

Once she arrives, she’s wowed by Beau’s gorgeous home — so beautiful it’s practically enchanted! — but less impressed by his surly demeanor. Still, by the time their initial confrontation takes place, it’s too late for her to make her flight back to New York, so she’s stuck as a guest for the night. Her room is gorgeous, and she falls so deeply in love with the luxurious bathtub that she feels like it’s talking to her.

I talk to inanimate objects like my teacup and the candlestick because Beau Towers doesn’t talk to me, and I feel like at any moment the teacup and candlestick will start, like singing and dancing for me.

By the next day, Beau grudgingly agrees to let Izzy stay and offer him writing pep talks, and they soon settle into a routine of writing together in his vast and breathtaking library.

This library was all her library dreams come true. […] Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined every wall, with those rolling ladders so you could reach each and every book.

Beau’s assistant cooks up amazing food for them, and Izzy even grudgingly tries the gray stuff — an energy drink — and it’s delicious!

FYI, Beau’s wifi password is Lum1ere!

Are you singing along yet? Don’t worry, I found myself breaking into song throughout this adorable book…

Of course, there are ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings, but Izzy comes to realize that underneath his beastly behavior, Beau actually is quite a prince. Izzy’s warmth and kindness melt his heart, and by the time she comes swooping down the main staircase in a long yellow dress, he’s completely smitten.

The romance is sweet, but maybe because of the fairy tale element, it’s also completely predictable. Of course it’s all going to work out! Of course they’ll find happiness despite their differences! Izzy’s career challenges are neatly resolved by the end as well, and every aspect of the story gets tied up with a pretty HEA bow.

I enjoyed the flirtation, the California scenery, and the glimpse into the world of publishing. I did find the stakes fairly low throughout the book, and the revelation of the bad guy’s deviousness is completely predictable (although this Gaston stand-in does not brag about his chest hair, spitting abilities, or use of antlers for his interior décor, and no one’s actual life is on the line, so he’s not quite as despicable as the Disney version).

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s most well-done and breezy, although the narrator’s habit of laughing whenever the lines in the books say “she laughed” got on my nerves after a while. Ignoring that, though, it was a really fun listen, and didn’t require a huge amount of focus or concentration in order to follow the story.

There are a ton of cute little nods to the Disney movie — from someone commenting that they feel like they should be wearing a tea cozy to Beau telling Izzy to “be my guest” to the flight attendant named Angela offering tea and cookies– and these all made for sweet giggle-inducing interludes throughout the book.

I mean, in the end, what’s not to enjoy about a Beauty and the Beast retelling? After all, it is…

… a tale as old as time.

As for what’s next in this series…

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t wait to find out which adaptation is in store for us!

Book Review: Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

Title: Something Wilder
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Growing up the daughter of notorious treasure hunter and absentee father Duke Wilder left Lily without much patience for the profession…or much money in the bank. But Lily is nothing if not resourceful, and now uses Duke’s coveted hand-drawn maps to guide tourists on fake treasure hunts through the red rock canyons of Utah. It pays the bills but doesn’t leave enough to fulfill her dream of buying back the beloved ranch her father sold years ago, and definitely not enough to deal with the sight of the man she once loved walking back into her life with a motley crew of friends ready to hit the trails. Frankly, Lily would like to take him out into the wilderness—and leave him there.

Leo Grady knew mirages were a thing in the desert, but they’d barely left civilization when the silhouette of his greatest regret comes into focus in the flickering light of the campfire. Ready to leave the past behind him, Leo wants nothing more than to reconnect with his first and only love. Unfortunately, Lily Wilder is all business, drawing a clear line in the sand: it’s never going to happen.

But when the trip goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the group wonders if maybe the legend of the hidden treasure wasn’t a gimmick after all. There’s a chance to right the wrongs—of Duke’s past and their own—but only if Leo and Lily can confront their history and work together. Alone under the stars in the isolated and dangerous mazes of the Canyonlands, Leo and Lily must decide whether they’ll risk their lives and hearts on the adventure of a lifetime.

Christina Lauren books are always great fun, but Something Wilder didn’t quite reach the enjoyable heights of some of their previous books — at least, not for me.

In Something Wilder, we get a second chance romance as Lily and Leo are reunited after an abrupt separation ten years earlier left each of them feeling dumped by the other — a situation based on misunderstandings and missed communications, not actual intent. The truth of the matter is, neither has ever gotten over the loss of their first and only true love.

But time marches on, and Lily is left making ends meet — barely — by taking urban cowboy wannabes out on adventure tours through the canyons of the west, recreating old Wild West outlaw routes and seeking out (fictitious) hidden treasures. When Manhattan-based coder Leo sets off on his annual guy trip with a bunch of college buddies, he doesn’t know exactly where they’re headed — but when he arrives at the cowboy camp, all his old memories and feeling come rushing back as soon as he sees Lily.

Once Lily and Leo are thrown together, they face the fact that they’ll be spending the next week in close quarters. Super awkward! Fortunately, their resentment and pain are soon confronted — I was glad that it didn’t take them the whole book to finally clear the air and understand why things happened the way they did.

The plot of Something Wilder is built about the adventure trip that Lily and her best friend Nicole lead the guys on. Lily’s business is leading groups on treasure hunts on horseback, solving puzzles and discovering a hidden “treasure” that she plants for them — essentially, a Wild West scavenger hunt.

Lily’s father Duke was a famous expert on the mysteries of the Old West, and one of the biggest legends he focused on was about Butch Cassidy, who was rumored to have stashed away his loot from all his various heists somewhere along the region’s remote trails. Legend has it that this stash is still out there, waiting to be found. Duke devoted most of his life to tracking down the loot, and his obsession made him an absentee father who was never around when his daughter needed him. Lily always resented Duke’s determined focus on treasure hunting, but now, Butch Cassidy’s long-lost riches may be the only hope she has left if she wants to save her family ranch.

In this mix of these Wild West shenanigans are some modern day bad guys. One of the members of Leo’s group is an extremely unlikeable uber-macho type who thrives on conspiracy theories and online craziness, and he’s convinced that the treasure is real and that Lily is the key to finding it. Things take a turn toward gritty violence once his true goals become clear, and from there, the plot turns into a desperate adventure tale. (Note: the synopsis says the trip goes “horribly and hilariously wrong” — no idea what whoever wrote that blurb thought was hilarious. Not at all a funny situation.)

While there’s romance, once Leo and Lily clear the air and recognize that their feelings are still simmering not too far below the surface, the main arc of the plot is about the treasure hunt. And I gotta say… I just wasn’t that into it. Yes, it’s fun to see the city slickers on horseback, and the descriptions of the canyons made me want to go on an adventure of my own — but the plot is much too much about the heist and the conspiracy and incipient danger and violence. Not really my kind of story.

A few of the characters are fun, but several are pure cookie-cutter assholes, and the story itself was too action-focused to suit my tastes. The parts I liked best had to do with Lily and Leo, their family stories and complications, and their give and take about whether renewing their relationship was even a possibility. And yes, I enjoyed their steamy reunion too — romantic and sexy without being overly graphic or detailed.

Christina Lauren’s books are always enjoyable, and I breezed through Something Wilder in about a day and a half. The adventure plot wasn’t to my taste, but it’s still a fun read, and I can easily recommend this book for a sunny day of beach reading.

Book Review: Seasonal Fears by Seanan McGuire

Title: Seasonal Fears
Series: Alchemical Journeys, #2
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Melanie has a destiny, though it isn’t the one everyone assumes it to be. She’s delicate; she’s fragile; she’s dying. Now, truly, is the winter of her soul.

Harry doesn’t want to believe in destiny, because that means accepting the loss of the one person who gives his life meaning, who brings summer to his world.

So, when a new road is laid out in front of them—a road that will lead through untold dangers toward a possible lifetime together—walking down it seems to be the only option.

But others are following behind, with violence in their hearts.

It looks like Destiny has a plan for them, after all….

Seasonal Fears returns to the complicated world of alchemy made real first explored in the author’s 2019 novel Middlegame. In Middlegame, the story centered on Roger and Dodger, two people with an inexplicable connection who come to embody the living personifications of Math and Language.

In Seasonal Fears, alchemists are once again at work, and the impact on the main characters is huge. Melanie has been frail since birth, with a severely damaged heart, a lifetime of illness and medical treatments, and slim chances of living past her teens. But her best friend since kindergarten (and later, her boyfriend) Harry will never give up on Melanie. He loves her; she loves him. Her death may be inevitable, but he’ll never leave her for as long as she remains alive.

Meanwhile, we learn early on that the seasons themselves have living personifications — humans who come to embody Winter and Summer through a complicated and usually bloody coronation process. Alchemists have been aware of Winter and Summer kings and queens for centuries, but it’s only in modern times that they’ve tried to steer the process by creating the perfect vessels for the seasons in their labs.

As Melanie and Harry prepare to attend their high school Valentine’s Day dance, they both undergo a shocking process and learn that their destinies lie beyond tragic high school romance tropes. Accompanied by their Attendants, they start a journey toward the coronation of the seasons, each a candidate for becoming a season Incarnate.

Sound complicated? It is.

Seanan McGuire is an absolute favorite author, and I love her writing style, her characters, and her snark. But here in Seasonal Fears, these factors often become overshadowed by the incredibly confusing plot elements. The seasons, the embodiment of alchemical doctrines, the impact on the natural world, the coronation process… it’s a lot, and I often simply could not wrap my brain around the overarching concepts.

That said, the plot does zip along, with moments of horrific violence as well as quieter moments of emotional connection and elements of wonder and magic. Still, this is a big, dense book, and I’m not sure that the whole ends up being greater than its parts. Also, the end felt strangely anti-climactic.

Apparently, if the series continues, there’s an intention for there to be five books in total. Right now, having finished Seasonal Fears, the idea of continuing seems exhausting. Ask me again, though, when the next books comes out! Since I do tend to read everything this author writes, there’s a good chance I’ll have recovered enough by then to keep making the effort with these alchemical stories.

Book Review: The Summer Place by Jennifer Weiner

Title: The Summer Place
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When her twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter announces her engagement to her pandemic boyfriend, Sarah Danhauser is shocked. But the wheels are in motion. Headstrong Ruby has already set a date (just three months away!) and spoken to her beloved safta, Sarah’s mother Veronica, about having the wedding at the family’s beach house on Cape Cod. Sarah might be worried, but Veronica is thrilled to be bringing the family together one last time before putting the big house on the market.

But the road to a wedding day usually comes with a few bumps. Ruby has always known exactly what she wants, but as the wedding date approaches, she finds herself grappling with the wounds left by the mother who walked out when she was a baby. Veronica ends up facing unexpected news, thanks to her meddling sister, and must revisit the choices she made long ago, when she was a bestselling novelist with a different life. Sarah’s twin brother, Sam, is recovering from a terrible loss, and confronting big questions about who he is—questions he hopes to resolve during his stay on the Cape. Sarah’s husband, Eli, who’s been inexplicably distant during the pandemic, confronts the consequences of a long ago lapse from his typical good-guy behavior. And Sarah, frustrated by her husband, concerned about her stepdaughter, and worn out by challenges of life during quarantine, faces the alluring reappearance of someone from her past and a life that could have been.

When the wedding day arrives, lovers are revealed as their true selves, misunderstandings take on a life of their own, and secrets come to light. There are confrontations and revelations that will touch each member of the extended family, ensuring that nothing will ever be the same.

From “the undisputed boss of the beach read” (The New York Times), The Summer Place is a testament to family in all its messy glory; a story about what we sacrifice and how we forgive. Enthralling, witty, big-hearted, and sharply observed, this is Jennifer Weiner’s love letter to the Outer Cape and the power of home, the way our lives are enriched by the people we call family, and the endless ways love can surprise us. 

Jennifer Weiner excels at depicting families in all their messy glory — day-to-day life, tensions, love, secrets, and joy — and making it all feel significant and real. In The Summer Place, we meet a large family through the eyes of each of its members, and learn how deeply secrets can run and how much damage they can do, even in a family fully of love and acceptance.

The Summer Place takes place post-pandemic. People are going out again, reuniting with far-flung family members they’ve only seen on FaceTime for two years, experiencing life outside the home and shaking off the long stagnation of quarantine.

For Sarah Levy-Weinberg, it’s a relief, but problems linger. Sarah spent the pandemic working from home alongside her endodontist husband, her stepdaughter Ruby and Ruby’s boyfriend Gabe, and her two younger boys — and the impact on her marriage has not been good. Sarah and Eli had been doing great, but something changed during these two years. Eli, once loving and attentive, has become distracted and cold, and refuses to talk to Sarah about why. It’s driving her crazy, and so are all those little habit of Eli’s that might not have bothered her so much if they weren’t stuck in the house together ALL DAY LONG.

Like his flipflops. Oh my, there’s something so real about the descriptions of Sarah being driven absolutely bonkers by hearing Eli’s slap-slapping footsteps as he paces while he works. I mean, who can’t relate to that sense of utter craziness brought on by someone else’s innocent but totally annoying habits?

When Ruby announces her engagement, the plot wheels are set in motion. The family will gather at grandmother Ronnie’s Cape Cod house for the wedding, and each person who’ll be there will be bringing secrets that they may or may not want to reveal to others.

The story is told through chapters from the points-of-view of most of the main characters, including not just Sarah, but also Ruby, Gabe, Eli, Ronnie, Sarah’s brother Sam, and more. We don’t know everything right from the start, but as the book progresses, we learn about each character’s past, the decisions that haunt them, the choices they regret, and the secrets and shame that they carry with them.

The plot is not terribly complex — this is a character-driven novel, and I enjoyed getting to know each of these people and their inner lives. We can judge characters’ actions or disagree with their choices, but through the lens of the point-of-view chapters, it’s impossible not to empathize and at least understand the reasons for what they’ve done and what they’ve hidden or given up.

There are perhaps too many coincidences in The Summer Place, which make some of the big reveals feel a bit contrived. How likely is it that these people, whose paths cross accidentally in the story, would have secret connections that go back decades? Not very… but it’s okay. Even if I had to suspend my disbelief in parts, I still really enjoyed how the various story threads were woven together to form a cohesive whole.

In each section of the book, there’s a brief interlude narrated by, of all things, the Cape Cod house itself. I’m not a fan of this kind of anthropomorphism, and thought it was a bit hokey… your mileage may vary. Thankfully, these interludes are short and don’t feel weighty, so they didn’t negatively impact my reading experience as a whole.

The Summer Place exists in the same general world as That Summer, which I absolutely loved. To be clear, The Summer Place is not a sequel and is absolutely a stand-alone… but for those who’ve read That Summer, some familiar names and places will pop out.

The Summer Place is not as emotionally impactful as That Summer, which has much heavier themes and consequences (and which I really loved). Still, I did very much enjoy The Summer Place. The characters are relatable and feel grounded in the world we know.

Families are messy. Family members can be annoying. Lives aren’t always logical, and everyone, no matter how happy or successful, carries regrets and what-ifs and secrets they’d prefer to forget about. As The Summer Place shows, even families with messy and unpredictable connections and weird communication patterns love and need each other, and if that love is strong enough, bad choices and unintended consequences won’t keep a family from coming together and sharing life’s ups and downs.

And oh, the glory of a beach house in summer! Reading this book made me yearn for a slow, unscheduled summer of my own. Beach house, swimming, good food, good books… a relaxed appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. It feels very far away from reality for me… but it’s certainly nice to dream about!

Book Review: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant

Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.

What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.

Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)

From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.

Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.

But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?

In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.

I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?

I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.

The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.

I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.

This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).

Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.

Book Review: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

Title: The Book Woman’s Daughter
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bestselling historical fiction author Kim Michele Richardson is back with the perfect book club read following Honey Lovett, the daughter of the beloved Troublesome book woman, who must fight for her own independence with the help of the women who guide her and the books that set her free.

In the ruggedness of the beautiful Kentucky mountains, Honey Lovett has always known that the old ways can make a hard life harder. As the daughter of the famed blue-skinned, Troublesome Creek packhorse librarian, Honey and her family have been hiding from the law all her life. But when her mother and father are imprisoned, Honey realizes she must fight to stay free, or risk being sent away for good.

Picking up her mother’s old packhorse library route, Honey begins to deliver books to the remote hollers of Appalachia. Honey is looking to prove that she doesn’t need anyone telling her how to survive. But the route can be treacherous, and some folks aren’t as keen to let a woman pave her own way.

If Honey wants to bring the freedom books provide to the families who need it most, she’s going to have to fight for her place, and along the way, learn that the extraordinary women who run the hills and hollers can make all the difference in the world.

I loved the 2019 novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and was excited to hear that a sequel would be released this year. Sadly, The Book Woman’s Daughter doesn’t quite live up to the first book.

The story picks up about 15 years after the end of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The first book’s main character, Cussy Mary Lovett, and her husband Jackson are raising their adopted daughter Honey in the backcountry hills — but the people of Kentucky have a long memory, and, it seems clears, a long-lasting capacity for hatred.

Cussy Mary is a Blue, one of the clan of Kentucky Appalachian dwellers with a genetic condition that gives them blue skin. The Blues are despised by white Kentuckians and are viewed as “colored” — and because Cussy is married to a white man, the two are accused of miscegenation. Although they live in isolation in the back woods, the law still catches up with them. As The Book Woman’s Daughter opens, Honey’s parents are arrested, treated violently, and soon thereafter sentenced to two years each in prison.

The law isn’t done with the family, though. Honey, at age 16, is a minor. The county has issued an order for Honey to be taken into custody and sent to a reform institution, where she can be held until age 21, doing hard labor and essentially a prisoner of the state. Honey makes a last-minute escape from the sheriff and social worker who come to seize her, and from there, must depend on the kindness and support of the mountain folk who loved her parents, including an old woman who assumes guardianship of Honey and a moonshiner whose family offers her shelter.

Things don’t go well for Honey, and she’s repeatedly forced to find new ways to survive and support herself, eventually taking up her mother’s former profession as a pack horse librarian. As the area’s new Book Woman, Honey travels the trails and mountains on her mule, but encounters trouble even there as she becomes embroiled in the struggles of a woman suffering abuse at her husband’s hands.

The book follows Honey’s efforts to find a place for herself, protect herself, and ultimately seek emancipation in order to keep herself out of the clutches of the state that wants to lock her up. Her journey involves some terrible experiences and danger, but she also finds new friends along the way and gains a better understanding of the plight of women in that time and place.

The Book Woman’s Daughter introduces us to the world of Appalachia in the mid-1950s, clearly not a welcoming world for women, especially those who don’t fit the traditional mold. It’s a place of economic woes, with children starving in the backcountry and men (and the occasional women) sacrificing their health to the coal mines — the only option for those seeking work and wages.

Honey is an endearing character, and I appreciated her determination, her commitment to her parents and her love of family, and her sense of right and wrong.

I did feel that the book lacks in terms of bringing the setting to life. I suppose there’s an assumption on the part of the author that readers will have read the first book, but even as someone who had read it, I would have liked this book to spend a little more time describing the way of life, the landscape, and the overall sense of the time and place. Instead, we’re dropped into a setting that doesn’t get fleshed out enough, and I always felts something was missing.

My other quibble with this book is a certain flatness. The events move along, and some are moving or frightening, but overall, I couldn’t quite get emotionally engaged. Honey’s parents are almost entirely off the page, which is a shame — they’re the connection to the first book, but they’re rarely seen, and this second book doesn’t create enough of a link back to their story.

I’m still glad to have read The Book Woman’s Daughter, but it didn’t capture my feelings or imagination the way The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek did. Still, for those who read the first book, it’s worth reading this follow-up to see what happens next for the family.

Book Review: True Biz by Sara Nović

Title: True Biz
Author: Sara Nović
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A transporting novel that follows a year of seismic romantic, political, and familial shifts for a teacher and her students at a boarding school for the deaf, from the acclaimed author of Girl at War.

True biz (adj/exclamation; American Sign Language): really, seriously, definitely, real-talk

True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.

This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy. Absorbing and assured, idiosyncratic and relatable, this is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection. 

This book was an impulse read for me… and I’m so glad I gave in to my whims! True Biz was the Hello Sunshine book club pick for April, and while I don’t always follow celebrity book clubs, I find the Reese picks often include terrific stories I might not have come across otherwise. Such is the case with True Biz.

In this excellent novel, we follow the lives of the River Valley School for the Deaf’s headmistress, a hearing woman named February whose parents were deaf, as well as several of the school’s students. As the book opens, we learn that three students have disappeared from the school, leaving their cell phones behind. This is potentially a catastrophe, and a police search is launched. From this opening, we go back six months to learn how these events unfold.

The school, located in the Ohio rust belt, has served generations of deaf students, providing a safe haven, a home, a community, and a chance for education and language not available in mainstream programs. Some of the students come from families with long histories of deafness; for others, they’re the outliers in their families, and receive varying levels of support — or sometimes, almost none at all — before coming to RVSD.

While True Biz tells a compelling story about the lives of the characters and their personal stakes and struggles, it also provides a window into the Deaf community. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been ignorant about many of the issues described in the book, and the most shocking and eye-opening for me was the discussion about language deprivation and cochlear implants.

As depicted by the characters in this book, while cochlear implants (technical devices that include a piece implanted in a baby or child’s head, that allows sound signals to bypass the ears and be received and decoded by the brain) are often seen as miraculous solutions to a problem, they represent something potentially cataclysmic to the Deaf community. As part of “fixing” deafness, the recommended approach for implanted children is to make them completely reliant on the implants so they’re forced to learn to interpret sounds and speak out loud. Often, this means denying them access to American Sign Language.

But CIs are often imperfect, and for some children, don’t work well enough for them to get by or truly learn to master verbal English. Without ASL, the children are essentially language deprived — they grow up without mastery of any language and suffer throughout their education and beyond because of this.

The other large issue with CIs seems to be the impact on the Deaf community itself. By “fixing” deafness, the devices (and those who advocate for them) seem to be pushing an agenda that erases the Deaf world, which is a culture unto itself, with a rich history and linguistic traditions.

I loved that the book includes illustrations of ASL words, as well as explanations of grammar and syntax, historical notes, and all sorts of other information about the Deaf community that I had little to no awareness of. As I said earlier, I’m somewhat embarrassed that so much of the cultural elements portrayed in this book are new to me, and that’s something I want to remedy.

A note on presentation and style: Initially, I was put off by the lack of quotation marks when characters speak — in general, a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fiction. Here, though, the stylistic choices appear to be deliberate. Depending on the placement and format of the different lines being spoken, we can tell by looking at the way the words are written whether the characters are speaking ASL or English, when a signing character finger-spells a word, and when a character misses a word that’s being spoken out loud or signed. It’s very effective and very clever.

I also want to point out that while I’ve mostly written about the issues depicted and brought to life in the book, the characters and plot are excellent and make for engrossing, compelling reading. In fact, my only complaint is that the ending felt too abrupt, as if the author simply decided to stop rather than go a little bit further in the timeline and wrap it up. I was left with questions about what comes next and feeling unsatisfied… but that’s okay.

The reading journey was enjoyable every step of the way, and I came to really care about the characters of True Biz. A lovely book — I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

Title: Nettle & Bone
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

This is my 4th book by T. Kingfisher, and I’ve never once been disappointed! Nettle & Bone is another terrific tale from this gifted author.

I’m not sure why I expected horror (well, it was probably a misinterpretation of the cover), but this isn’t that! Nettle & Bone is a fairy tale about curses and kingdoms and doomed princesses — but forget all the traditional stories about dashing princes riding to the rescue. Here, the rescuer is none other than one of the princesses, the overlooked third daughter of a king and queen whose tiny kingdom is constantly threatened by the larger kingdoms along its borders.

To save their kingdom, the royal couple marry off their oldest daughter Damia to Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom, but soon after their marriage, the princess dies. The Northern Kingdom still has its eyes on the smaller kingdom’s ideally located ports, and to keep their land safe, the king and queen send their second daughter Kania to be the prince’s new bride. The prince longs for the day when he and his heirs are the sole rulers of both kingdoms, and to that end, he insists that the third daughter, Marra, remain unmarried, so that there will be no competing heirs to the thrown.

Marra is perfectly content with this arrangement, and spends the next years of her life as an “almost” nun at a convent that’s much more about female empowerment than strict rules or deprivations. Over time, however, Marra becomes aware that something is seriously wrong with Kania’s marriage. Fearing for her sister’s life, Marra sets out to save her, enlisting the aid of a dustwife (a woman with the ability to speak to the dead), a godmother, and a disgraced knight whom she frees from enslavement to the fae.

With her strange band of allies, Marra sets off to the Northern Kingdom, determined to rescue her sister, break an ancient curse, and protect her own kingdom… and hopefully, not get killed along the way.

Nettle & Bone is often funny, and the author has a light touch with humor and clever dialogue. At the same time, Kania’s situation is disturbing and serious, and the book manages to balance the adventurous tone with the heavier themes related to Marra’s quest and its dire nature.

The situations the band of allies encounter are often absurd, but quite entertaining, and I loved how the fairy tale tropes used here receive fresh, new twists.

T. Kingfisher excels at depicting creepy scenes too, as is evident from the book’s opening lines:

The trees were full of crows and the woods were full of madmen. The pit was full of bones and her hands were full of wires.

From this opening, I expected a much more sinister feel overall to the book, and was happily surprised to find many lighter-spirited moments and even downright silliness amidst the high stakes perils and quests.

All in all, Nettle & Bone is a terrific read. The author has another new book coming out this summer, and meanwhile, I have a few of her backlist books yet to read on my Kindle!