Book Review: An Observant Wife by Naomi Ragen

Title: An Observant Wife
Author: Naomi Ragen
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In this rich and compassionate novel, An Observant Wife, Naomi Ragen continues the love story between newly observant California-girl Leah and ultra-Orthodox widower Yaakov from An Unorthodox Match.

From the joy of their wedding day surrounded by supportive friends and family, Yaakov and Leah are soon plunged into the complex reality of their new lives together as Yaakov leaves his beloved yeshiva to work in the city, and Leah confronts the often agonizing restrictions imposed by religious laws governing even the most intimate moments of their married lives. Adding to their difficulties is the hostility of some in the community who continue to view Leah as a dangerous interloper, questioning her sincerity and adherence to religious laws and spreading outrageous rumors. In the midst of their heartfelt attempts to reach a balance between their human needs and their spiritual obligations, the discovery of a secret, forbidden relationship between troubled teenage daughter Shaindele and a local boy precipitates a maelstrom of life-changing consequences for all. 

In An Unorthodox Match, we were introduced to Leah, a 30-something woman who turns to ultra-Orthodox Judaism after leading a mostly secular life, desperate for meaning and true connection to something greater than herself. As she enters the religious community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, she comes to care for a widowed man named Yaakov and his motherless children.

Here, in An Observant Wife, we follow Leah and Yaakov as the story continues with their wedding and early marriage. Leah has found true love with a good and kind man who loves her back, and she’s found fulfillment by becoming a mother to his young children, whom she loves unreservedly. She’s also made piece with his 17-year-old daugher Shaindele, who in the first book was set on sabotaging the relationship, but has now come to accept and even appreciate Leah’s innate goodness and the joy she’s brought back to their little family.

While Leah is committed to her family and to the complicated rules of behavior that come with with life in the religious community, the community does not truly accept her. Seemingly innocent moments get blown out of proportion and become the fodder for increasingly hostile gossip. When Shaindele is unwise and gets involved in a secret relationship with the black sheep son of a powerful family, the scandal can only be contained by agreeing to a harsh set of decrees from her school principle, but these in turn put Shaindele at risk. And when Leah and Yaakov take a stand to protect her, their entire way of life, as well as their family’s safety, is on the line.

Without going into detail, I will say that once again the author delivers an insider’s look into a world that feels like a completely alien culture. Even as someone raised in an observant Jewish household, I find this setting among the ultra-Orthodox startling and eye-opening. The rules governing every single moment of one’s life seem oppressive and often degrading to me, yet the author does an effective job of conveying how the people within the community find meaning and reinforcement of their faith by virtue of these guidelines for how to live a proper life.

The book perhaps spends too much time on introspection, as we follow the thoughts and feelings of not just Leah, but also Yaakov, Shaindele, and the family’s grandmother, Fruma Esther. It’s interesting to see how they deal with their lives and their religious obligations, but the plot can bog down when there are pages of contemplation and inner turmoil.

The plot takes some dramatic turns, and by the end, I was very invested in the characters’ well-being and their relationships. I did feel that the wrap-up was a little too neat and ideal, but the path to get there was certainly worthwhile.

Overall, An Observant Wife is a fascinating look into a world that can feel like a throwback to an earlier century for a 21st century reader, yet it’s set very much in the contemporary world of the ultra-Orthodox. I really came to care for the characters and could appreciate their devotion to their way of life, even while knowing that the religious elements that would absolute send me running in the other direction if they ever applied to my own life.

This book and An Unorthodox Match are both worth reading — the unusual setting and the memorable characters bring this world and its people to life.

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Audiobook Review: Miss Kopp Investigates by Amy Stewart

Title: Miss Kopp Investigates (Kopp Sisters, #7)
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication date: September 7 , 2021
Print length: 320 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher; audiobook via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Life after the war takes an unexpected turn for the Kopp sisters, but soon enough, they are putting their unique detective skills to use in new and daring ways. 

Winter 1919: Norma is summoned home from France, Constance is called back from Washington, and Fleurette puts her own plans on hold as the sisters rally around their recently widowed sister-in-law and her children. How are four women going to support themselves? 

A chance encounter offers Fleurette a solution: clandestine legal work for a former colleague of Constance’s. She becomes a “professional co-respondent,” posing as the “other woman” in divorce cases so that photographs can be entered as evidence to procure a divorce. While her late-night assignments are both exciting and lucrative, they put her on a collision course with her own family, who would never approve of such disreputable work. One client’s suspicious behavior leads Fleurette to uncover a much larger crime, putting her in the unlikely position of amateur detective.  

In Miss Kopp Investigates, Amy Stewart once again brilliantly captures the women of this era—their ambitions for the future as well as the ties that bind—at the start of a promising new decade.  

The Kopp Sisters books are a mix of historical fact and fictional storytelling, as author Amy Stewart follows the lives of three real sisters and brings them to glorious life through her excellent writing.

In Miss Kopp Investigates, the 7th book in the series, the three Kopp sisters have returned home to New Jersey in the aftermath of World War I, but all is not well. Their older brother Francis has died suddenly, leaving behind a pregnant wife (Bessie), two children, and piles of debt. The sisters are grieving their loss, but they’re also the Kopp sisters — which means that they absolutely do not wallow or give up. Instead, they stand beside their bereaved sister-in-law and come up with plans to support her and the children, even though this means giving up their own dreams.

For Constance, who’s been the lead character in the series so far, this means turning down her dream job, a position with the Bureau of Investigations in Washington training women in law enforcement. For Norma, the bossy, curmudgeonly sister whose crazy ideas about messenger pigeons ended up working brilliantly during the war, it’s a return to New Jersey instead of staying in Europe to do relief work with a friend. And for Fleurette, the youngest sister who dreams of stardom on the stage, it’s abandoning her hopes of moving out and preparing for her return to her singing career.

Alas, poor Fleurette also has a damaged voice after a bad case of strep throat, and her once-beautiful voice isn’t coming back to her as it was. Now, with a new plan to support Bessie, Fleurette feels sad and unfulfilled and as though all her hopes are gone. Enter John Wood, a slick-talking divorce lawyer already acquainted with the Kopps, with a proposition for Fleurette. Why not use her acting skills in a new and different way? Divorces in New Jersey can only move forward if there’s cause, and he has clients who need evidence of adultery, even if none actually occurred. Fleurette’s role would be to be photographed (fully clothed!! nothing actually unseemly!!) being embraced by a man as if caught in the act. Her face would not be shown, she’d be protected by one of the law firm employees at all times, and she’d earn very good money for her efforts.

At first, Fleurette is shocked… but then she starts to think about it as playing a role. She’d pick her own costumes and characters, put in an evening’s work, and would earn enough to really contribute to the household. Why not?

I was surprised to discover that Miss Kopp Investigates focuses on Fleurette’s adventures — her first time as the lead character. Constance is mostly in the background, and while Norma is her grumpy, bossy self here, she’s also secondary. I admit that I was a little hesitant about spending that much time with Fleurette, who has often seemed shallow and self-centered in previous books, but I ended up being delighted by her fresh voice and her determination (as well as her occasional silliness and vanity).

Without going too much further into the plot details, I can say that Fleurette’s story takes some unexpected turns, and while her pursuits are done on her own and in secret, her story still intersects throughout with her sisters’ and with their shared goal of supporting and protecting their brother’s family.

The author once again provides snappy dialogue and distinct characters — both the Kopp sisters as well as the supporting and minor characters — and roots it all in a portrayal of post-war life that feels real and well-researched.

The plot zips along, and while settling back into post-war life is perhaps not quite as exciting as the war years, it’s still entertaining to see how the Kopp sisters fend for themselves and chart their own course.

The audiobook is wonderful, with the talented Christina Moore once again absolutely shining as she brings Constance, Norma, and Fleurette to life. Listening to her speaking as Norma, we immediately know exactly what sort of person she is — tough, take-charge, no backing down, and probably a nightmare to actually live with. Likewise for Fleurette — the narrator absolutely nails her youth, her vision of herself and what she yearns for, just by speaking in her voice.

Amy Stewart has shared that this is the last Kopp Sisters book, at least for a while. She hasn’t said she’ll never go back to their stories, just that she has no plans to do so at this time and will be working on other projects. While that’s very sad news and I hope she does end up continuing this series, Miss Kopp Investigates also ends in such a way that we readers can feel satisfied with where we’re leaving the family. As the author has said, she’s leaving them in a good place, and we can still have the pleasure of imagining what’s next!

I do love this series, and recommend the books whenever I can. If you’ve read this far, you’ll absolutely want to read Miss Kopp Investigates! And if you’re an audiobook listener, then do check out the audiobooks for the Kopp Sisters series. You’ll be in for a treat!

_________________________________

The series so far:
Girl Waits With Gun
Lady Cop Makes Trouble
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit
Kopp Sisters on the March

Dear Miss Kopp


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Signed copies available via Downtown Brown Books

Book Review: The Pick-Up by Miranda Kenneally

Title: The Pick-Up
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 250 pages
Genre: YA contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When Mari hails a rideshare to a music festival, the last thing she expects is for the car to pick up a gorgeous guy along the way. Mari doesn’t believe in dating–it can only end with a broken heart. Besides, she’s only staying at her dad’s house in Chicago for the weekend. How close can you get to a guy in three days?

TJ wants to study art in college, but his family’s expectations cast a long shadow over his dreams. When he meets Mari in the back of a rideshare, he feels alive for the first time in a long time.

Mari and TJ enter the festival together and share an electric moment but get separated in a crowd with seemingly no way to find each other. When fate reunites them (with a little help from a viral hashtag), they’ll have to decide: was it love at first sight, or the start of nothing more than a weekend fling? 

Miranda Kenneally, author of the terrific Hundred Oaks series, is back with a fresh new stand-alone YA novel. The PIck-Up is a quick read with sweet romantic moments as well as more serious reflections on family and damaged relationships.

When TJ and Mari meet in a ride-share, their immediate attraction gives each a fresh burst of hope and excitement, and as they spend time together at the music festival, their connection seems instant and electric. At first, seeing them separated by the crowd and trying to find one another again, despite not exchanging contact info, I thought we were in for a story about missed connections and long searches. But thankfully, this wasn’t that!

Instead, TJ and Mari do manage to reconnect, thanks to the intervention of their friends, and commit to spending more time together over the weekend.

They each bring baggage, though. TJ is in Chicago for the weekend staying with his older brother, to whom he always compares himself and finds himself lacking. TJ’s family expects him to study business when he starts college in the fall, but he secretly yearns to pursue his passion for art.

Meanwhile, Mari is staying with her dad, stepmom, and stepsister for the weekend before returning to her home in Tennessee. Her parents divorced after her father’s affair with the woman he ended up marrying, and Mari’s mother is so consumed by anger and bitterness that she takes it out on Mari. Her verbal abuse has taken a frightening turn to the physical, and Mari both wants to stay with her father and is scared to mention it, for fear that it’ll just make things with her mother even worse.

As TJ and Mari spend time together, they each experience the highs of early attraction and emotional connection, but each also has to contend with their own fears and insecurities.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between TJ and Mari as narrators, and it’s a really effective way to show how their perspectives on the same events can be different and still make sense to the person experiencing it. While they’re both struggling with family issues, Mari’s are much more serious, and her scenes of confronting her father with her feelings and her fears are deeply affecting.

While there are plenty of serious matters portrayed throughout The Pick-Up, there’s also a lot of fun, from scenes at the festival to a Ferris wheel ride to goofy beach shenanigans. Mari and TJ have chemistry, and I really enjoyed Mari’s stepsister as a character as well.

Miranda Kenneally has a gift for creating well-drawn teen characters who feel real. They’re not idealized — they’re complicated and messy and emotional, and that’s what makes them so compelling to read about.

I really enjoyed The Pick-Up, just like I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read by this author. Check it out!

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Book Review: When Sorrows Come (October Daye, #15) by Seanan McGuire

Title: When Sorrows Come (October Daye, #15)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Print length: 384 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Toby’s getting married! Now in hardcover, the fifteenth novel of the Hugo-nominated, New York Times-bestselling October Daye urban fantasy series.

It’s hard to be a hero. There’s always something needing October “Toby” Daye’s attention, and her own desires tend to fall by the wayside in favor of solving the Kingdom’s problems. That includes the desire to marry her long-time suitor and current fiancé, Tybalt, San Francisco’s King of Cats. She doesn’t mean to keep delaying the wedding, it just sort of…happens. And that’s why her closest friends have taken the choice out of her hands, ambushing her with a court wedding at the High Court in Toronto. Once the High King gets involved, there’s not much even Toby can do to delay things…

…except for getting involved in stopping a plot to overthrow the High Throne itself, destabilizing the Westlands entirely, and keeping her from getting married through nothing more than the sheer volume of chaos it would cause. Can Toby save the Westlands and make it to her own wedding on time? Or is she going to have to choose one over the other?

Includes an all-new bonus novella! 

I’m willing to put a stake in the ground and state definitely that all October Daye books deserve at least 4 stars. (Well, maybe not quite books 2 & 3, but the series was still finding its footing at that point, so we’ll just pretend those were growing pains.)

15 books in, I’m at that difficult point in a series where I love the characters so, so much that I just want them all to be perfectly happy all the time. But where’s the excitement in that? So naturally, even though this book is very much about our lead character’s wedding, knowing October Daye, it absolutely can’t go off without a hitch. And lots of blood.

In When Sorrows Come, Toby and Tybalt are finally almost at their wedding day. Toby very much wants to marry Tybalt, but also very much does not want anything to do with wedding planning. Just tell her when to show up, basically. And so, the whole gang is off to Toronto, to the demesne of the High King, to celebrate the couple’s big day.

And of course, they stumble right into a nefarious plot to overthrow the High King, complete with Doppelgangers, assassination attempts, and a household thrown into chaos. What’s Toby to do but wade into the thick of things, figure out the deadly plot, and still make it to her wedding in one piece?

The story is action-packed, but also leaves time for Toby to reflect on how her relationship with Tybalt has grown over time, her relationships with the other members of her found family, and what might come next in the tangled world of Faerie.

All the favorite characters are here, Toby has some lovely reunions with long-lost connections, and there are some teary-eyed sentimental beats that left me feeling swept away. Plus, as I mentioned, buckets of blood.

When Sorrows Come includes the humor and wit that feature in all Seanan McGuire books. I adore the writing! Some choice selections from minor moments:

One entire wall was ovens and stoves and open holes leading to oceans of flame that probably had some reasonable name like “pizza ovens” or “big fucking baking place,” but looked to me a lot more like gateways into the human concept of Hell.

… and …

Maybe the knowe understood that we really weren’t civilized people and was just trying to save us the embarrassment of me forgetting which fork was supposed to go in my salad versus which fork was supposed to go in the person I was trying to kill.

… and …

If everyone got to stab someone on my wedding day except for me, I was going to be even more annoyed than I already was.

… and …

Being fae doesn’t make you immune to being a massive nerd. It just gives you more time to really plumb the depths of your potential nerdery.

You get the idea.

I gave this book 4.5 stars instead of 5, mainly because the sedition plotline really is a way to prolong the lead-up to the wedding, and the more it stretched on, the more annoyed I got at the delay. Just let Toby and Tybalt get married already!

Needless to say, the book ends with the wedding, and includes a bonus novella at the end, “And With Reveling”, set at the wedding reception, that adds a nice little finish filled with humor and love.

It’s often a fear that in an ongoing series, once the wedding happens, the story is basically done. But clearly, Toby and Tybalt getting married doesn’t equate to a Happily-Ever-After, The End, Nothing More to Say. There are many challenges and adventures ahead of them, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

After their Land of Disney honeymoon.

In case it isn’t perfectly clear, this is my favorite urban fantasy series, and I recommend it to one and all. Start at the beginning with Rosemary and Rue (which I just re-read via audio this week), and keep going. It gets better and better, and you’ll love the characters as much as I do.

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Travel reading wrap-up (fall 2021): A batch of mini-reviews — high school drama, Aztec vampires, and classics retold

I’ve just returned from a one-week trip (which was all sorts of awesome), and realize that I’ve fallen way behind on my reviews. Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away (and the week before, when I was already in pre-trip mode). As always, a mix of genres, topics, and new vs old.


Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado: A YA story starring a plus-sized Latina high schooler who dreams of a first kiss, even while feeling like she’ll never measure up. The story emphasizes the importance of true friendship and trust, as well as body positivity. Charlie experiences a first relationship, has her relationship with her best friend tested, gains confidence as a writer, and learns to stand up for herself and not let others’ negativity undermine her belief in herself. While there are some plot points that I found frustrating (such as a mother whose toxicity about Charlie’s weight is never truly resolved, and unnecessary break-ups with both her boyfriend and her best friend), I loved the lead character enough to make this a really enjoyable read overall.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: This is my 3rd book by this author, but it definitely won’t be my last. Certain Dark Things is a gritty, noir-ish story of vampires, gangs, and drug runners in Mexico City. The main character is a teen boy who devotes himself to helping a lone Aztec vampire escape the city and the various other clans of vampires who want to see her and her people wiped out. It’s a fascinating spin on the world of vampires, and while I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the origins and natures of the different vampire species, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s dark, fast-paced, and surprising.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers: I guess I should have read the full synopsis, instead of deciding after just the first sentence that this book sounded like fun. The main character wakes up alone in a Las Vegas hotel room with a vague, hung-over memory of having married an adorable woman the night before. All she has to go on is a note left by the woman with a radio station listed. Grace decides to track down the mystery woman… but for the most part, despite the potential rom-com set-up, this is a story about a woman trying to find her place in the world, figure out who she’s meant to be, and understand her relationships with family and friends. Maybe because I went into it with incorrect (or incomplete) expectations, I was mostly frustrated and annoyed by the depth’s of the main character’s introspection and occasional selfishness.

Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle: This YA retelling of Romeo and Juliet offers a fresh perspective — that of Rosaline, the girl Romeo loved before meeting Juliet. Here, the teens are seniors at an upscale California high school. Rose has been looking forward to reuniting with Rob, her best friend and boy next door since they were small children, especially since their near-kiss right before he left for his summer job. But within a few days of school starting, Rob dumps Rose for the new girl in town — the mysterious Juliet, who also happens to be Rose’s cousin. I really liked the way the author turned the classic story into a contemporary YA drama, and found her portrayal of Rose very thoughtful as well as being a creative twist on a tale that’s been told and retold so many times. When You Were Mine follows some, but not all, of the original’s storyline, and the little differences keep this book fresh and engaging. Sure, I have a few quibbles and would have liked to see a few plot points handled differently, but overall, this is quite a good read.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi: Another classic retold! This twist on Pride and Prejudice centers on the “Bennet Women” — the young undergraduate women living in Bennet House at Longbourn College. EJ (the Elizabeth stand-in) is a senior studying engineering and the RA of Bennet House, who holds the values and standards of Bennet House dear to her heart. Her best friends are a trans woman, Jamie, who’s our Jane stand-in, and Tessa, who has a smaller role and seems to be taking the place of Charlotte Lucas. While hitting the major plot beats of P&P, it’s a fresh take full of woman power and feminism, with a nicely diverse cast and some clever approaches to the expected storylines. I really appreciated how EJ’s education and aspirations were given prominence. Here, marriage isn’t a goal or even talked about much — it’s about finding love and respect while also finding themselves, pursuing their dreams, and not giving in to the many ways the world outside of Bennet House might want to limit their opportunities or pull them down.

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

That’s my reading round-up! And now, back to all the ARCs and other books calling my name…

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Audiobook Review: Heroes by Stephen Fry

Title: Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined
Author: Stephen Fry
Narrator:  Stephen Fry
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 1 minute
Genre: Myths & legends
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this sequel to Mythos, legendary author and actor Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes – Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Heracles.

Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths. Whether recounting a tender love affair or a heroic triumph, Fry deftly finds resonance with our own modern minds and hearts.

Illustrated throughout with classical art inspired by the myths, this gorgeous volume invites you to explore a captivating world with a brilliant storyteller as your guide.

• Each adventure is infused with Fry’s distinctive voice and writing style.
• Connoisseurs of the Greek myths will appreciate this fresh-yet-reverential interpretation, while newcomers will feel welcome.
• Retellings brim with humor and emotion.

“Mostly Chiron saw in the child, and the young man he became, boundless courage, athleticism, intelligence, and ambition. He saw too lots of words beginning with ‘self,’ which gave him pause. Self-belief, self-possession, self-righteousness, self-confidence, self-love. Perhaps these characteristics are as necessary to a hero as courage.”

In Heroes, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in both tender love affairs and heroic battles, and reveals each myth’s relevance for our own time.

If you have any interest at all in the stories of Ancient Greece… and/or if you enjoy listening to Stephen Fry telling a great story… then Heroes is a must-listen!

Heroes is the 2nd in a 3-book series by Stephen Fry, retelling the myths and legends of Ancient Greece with intelligence and humor. The first book, Mythos, was an absolute delight, starting with the origins of the world, the Titans and the rise of the Olympians, and putting a fresh twist on stories we’ve all heard so many times over the years.

Now, in Heroes, he picks up with the world of Ancient Greece once again, this time focusing on the mortals and semi-mortals who go off on epic quests, with either the assistance or the obstruction of the gods.

Many, if not all, of these stories were already familiar to me to some extent, but here, Fry delves deep into the details, tracing each heroic arc from origin to (potential) downfall. He cites conflicting narratives as needed, but he’s clearly done his research and has put together his own preferred versions of the stories.

Heroes includes the stories of Perseus, Heracles, Oedipus, Orpheus, and Theseus, with lots of characters and side stories and fun tangents. The book is informative and entertaining, but never feels like listening to a lecture. Instead, it’s storytelling at its finest, with a master storyteller lending his narrating skills to keep the stories flowing and fresh.

As with Mythos, I couldn’t resist treating myself to a copy of the hardcover edition of Heroes, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a beautiful book, with maps, illustrations of classical art to go with the stories, and an overall lovely presentation.

Still, while the physical book is gorgeous, I think you’d be missing out by reading it in print rather than listening to the audiobook. These are stories that are meant to be told, and in the voice of Stephen Fry, it’s an engaging and magical performance.

Upcoming listen: Book #3, Troy

Book Review: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Title: Instructions for Dancing
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: June 3, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this romantic page-turner from the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star, Evie has the power to see other people’s romantic fates–what will happen when she finally sees her own?

Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

This YA book made me so, so happy. It’s sweet and sad, and makes me want to dance!

To understand Evie, the main character, you need to know a few key facts: Evie is a high school senior, and a former fan of romance novels. Evie is also the daughter of recently divorced parents. A year ago, Evie’s parents split up, and Evie discovered that her father was having an affair. Now she lives with her mother and younger sister, bottling up her anger at her father and refusing to see him, and she’s absolutely sworn off romance and love stories.

What I’ve learned over the last three weeks is that all my old romance novels ended too quickly. Chapters were missing from the end. If they told the real story—the entire story—each couple would’ve eventually broken up, due to neglect or boredom or betrayal or distance or death.

She’s seen it in real life — two people who were supposedly in love end up with nothing but pain and betrayal and ashes of a relationship. Why should she believe in happily ever afters?

Given enough time, all love stories turn into heartbreak stories. Heartbreak = love + time.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Evie winds up with a dancing instruction book that leads her to the La Brea Dance Studio, a small studio whose main clientele seem to be pre-wedding couples trying to master their first dance. The studio is owned by an older couple who are magnificent dancers and who’ve clearly been in love all their lives. While there, Evie meets X, the couple’s teen-aged grandson who’s recently dropped out of his senior year of high school and moved to LA to pursue a music career.

When Fifi, the domineering dance instructor, ropes Evie and X into being partners in an upcoming amateur ballroom dance competition, the two become friendly and then eventually acknowledge their chemistry, which grows along with their hustle, salsa, and tango skills.

“Anyway, you can play to thank us. Every good bonfire needs a hot guy playing guitar.” “You don’t have to play,” I tell him. “But you still have to be hot,” Cassidy says. “I don’t mind doing both,” he says with a grin.

Meanwhile, Evie has come into a strange gift: When she sees a couple kiss, she gets a flash of their entire romance — how they met, how they are in that moment, and what’s to come. This means that she sees the end of the relationships, not just the swoony romantic bits. And for Evie, that’s just further proof that love doesn’t last… so why even bother?

It’s not hard to predict that Evie and X will get together, but I won’t ruin things by going into further detail on how they connect, what obstacles they face, and how it turns out. Let me just share some observations instead:

I loved that this isn’t a by-the-numbers romance, with a meet-cute, initial attraction, getting together, obstacle/break-up, and happy ending. Yes, some of these beats are included, but the overall flow of the book is different enough to keep the reading unpredictable.

Evie’s family life is given equal weight to the romance elements, and this is critical. Evie’s perception of love and commitment have been perhaps permanently scarred by her parents’ divorce, but as the novel progresses, she learns more about long-term love and relationships, and learns that situations aren’t all one way or their other. By learning to let go of her bitterness, she’s able to start allowing some shut-off family connections back into her life, and she can’t help but acknowledge that this is much healthier for her.

“You think because your father and I didn’t last, our love was any less real?”

A harder lesson for Evie is X’s approach to life — saying yes to experiences, living in the moment, and grabbing joy when it’s in front of you. Evie is so consumed by endings that she’s unable to appreciate the middle parts — all the smaller and larger moments that make time together so valuable, no matter how long or short that time might be.

It doesn’t matter that love ends. It just matters that there’s love.

I feel like this would make a great movie, since my one complaint about the book is that I wanted more dancing scenes! At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it’s hard to make a written dance scene compelling, and while the author does a great job with this, I could only satisfy my need by diving down a dance video rabbit hole on YouTube.

Instructions for Dancing is a moving, well-written, thoughtful YA novel with some beautiful moments as well as heartbreak. With captivating characters, a hint of magic (that goes unexplained, but somehow doesn’t distract from the contemporary feel of the plot), great dance moments, and even some humor, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed!

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Book Review: Feral Creatures by Kira Jane Buxton

Title: Feral Creatures
Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: August 24, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction/ horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this stunning follow-up to Hollow Kingdom, the animal kingdom’s “favorite apocalyptic hero”is back with a renewed sense of hope for humanity, ready to take on a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (Helen Macdonald).

Once upon an apocalypse, there lived an obscenely handsome American crow named S.T. . . .

When the world last checked-in with its favorite Cheeto addict, the planet had been overrun by flesh-hungry beasts, and nature had started re-claiming her territory from humankind. S.T., the intrepid crow, alongside his bloodhound-bestie Dennis, had set about saving pets that had become trapped in their homes after humanity went the way of the dodo. 

That is, dear reader, until S.T. stumbled upon something so rare—and so precious—that he vowed to do everything in his power to safeguard what could, quite literally, be humanity’s last hope for survival. But in a wild world plagued by prejudiced animals, feather-raising environments, new threats so terrifying they make zombies look like baby bunnies, and a horrendous dearth of cheesy snacks, what’s a crow to do?

Why, wing it on another big-hearted, death-defying adventure, that’s what! Joined by a fabulous new cast of animal characters, S.T. faces many new challenges plus his biggest one yet: parenthood. .

A quick take on this book:

I feel like I should write a proper review, but I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I absolutely loved Hollow Kingdom, which introduced us to ST and his post-apocalyptic world of rotting humans, domestic animals waiting to be freed, and tigers wandering the streets of Seattle.

In this follow up, ST is once again our narrator, with chapters narrated by whales, spiders, and cats thrown into the mix. The story picks up with ST now in Alaska, having found the last remaining MoFo (human) — a small baby girl with no one to raise her but ST and his friends. ST is determined to protect Dee no matter what, hiding her away from the world and keeping her safe — but by isolating her, is he depriving her of the ability to discover her own true nature?

Through the raucous escapades of ST and allies, the action moves from Alaskan wilderness to the Bering Sea and back to Seattle, with deeply funny and illuminating encounters with orcas and owls and polar bears along the way. But all is not well in the wild kingdom. Trees are dying, and the MoFos seem to have evolved from shambling zombies into Changed Ones — animal/human hybrids who are freakin’ scary and weird AF.

ST’s narration is fabulous as always, a mix of vulgarity, impressive vocabulary, insightful introspection, and crazy digressions. The writing in Feral Creatures veers between emotional impact and laugh-inducing craziness from moment to moment.

In a once-beautiful winery that was now a den of doom, with fur fizzed up and an arched spine, stood a domestic shorthair cat. A fire starter. The Bruce Lee of felines. A tabby that had sired an entire generation of Seattleite cats — generation FU — and was probably singlehandedly responsible for the eradication of at least one entire songbird species. There was Genghis, with greasy punk rock fur and an arthritic gait purchased at heavy discount from the Ministry of Silly Walks. There wasn’t a bison brave enough to tell him that the earth’s twirling had caught up with him.

I enjoyed a lot about this book… and yet at times, I just couldn’t wait to be done. Maybe because this is a sequel, there’s less room for surprise and delight based on the premise, and the story’s action starts to feel drawn-out and repetitive at times. Even while loving the writing, I did have to continually pull myself back from the brink of boredom when chapters went on too long, and even found myself considering DNFing at times.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though. Even when I grew tired of parts of the story, something amazing (like the arrival of a heard of musk oxen) would pull me back in.

I was experiencing acute déjà poo — the feeling that I’d heard this crap before.

Definitely read Hollow Kingdom first — but if you loved that book, then you’ll want to read Feral Creatures too. My impatience with the book may have more to do with my own reading mood than with the book itself, so take a look and see what you think!

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Audiobook Review: The Stand-In by Lily Chu

Title: The Stand-In
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 15, 2021
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 10 hours 55 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible Plus Catalog
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to upend your life:
–Get fired by gross, handsy boss
–Fail to do laundry (again)
–Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress
–Fall head-first into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly “friendly” boss, and yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: Due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself… and her heart.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original in which an ordinary woman suddenly gets the chance to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fun Cinderella story, but it helps to suspend disbelief A LOT to truly enjoy it.

When we meet Gracie, she has a job she hates thanks to a boss who sexually harasses her constantly — but rather than making a fuss or going to HR to report him, Gracie tries even harder to blend into the background, dressing dully and using makeup that’s neutral and not the least bit eye-catching. Gracie’s mother, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, drilled into Gracie’s head that she should always try to fit in, not stand out.

But when Gracie is mistaken for Chinese actress Wei Fangli in a coffee shop, her world changes dramatically. Caught on camera by a paparazzo on a day when she’d called in sick, Gracie is fired by her creepy boss and plunges into despair. How will she afford the nursing home her mother needs if she has no income? With her mother’s dementia steadily progressing, Gracie feels the pressures mounting, and none of her daily planners and apps seem to help her get her life under control. (Remember the bit about the planners — this is important later.)

Gracie is approached by Wei Fangli and her super-hot costar Sam Yao with a proposition: Because of their similar looks, Fangli wants to hire Gracie — for a huge amount of money — to be her public double. Gracie will dress and act like Fangli and attend social engagements in her place, allowing Fangli to just focus on her theater performances and otherwise avoid the pressure of a public life.

Against her better judgment, Gracie accepts the offer. She needs that money! But she soon learns that she likes it, too. She gets to dress in gorgeous clothes, live in a luxury hotel suite, and spend lots and lots of time with Sam. Yes, she feels guilty for essentially lying to everyone she meets as Fangli, but she keeps reminding herself that she’s doing it for her mother.

The Stand-In is a fun fairy tale of a story, with echoes of The Prince and the Pauper too. Wouldn’t every “ordinary” person love the chance to walk in a celebrity’s (high-priced designer) shoes? I wouldn’t say the plot is believable — I mean, they can’t really be that identical, can they? But it’s certainly amusing to see Gracie trying to master the art of posing on a red carpet, being photographed from every angle, and speaking as if she’s used to being the center of attention.

There are some interesting ideas too about public personas and what it means to always be on, especially as compared with someone like Gracie who’s been taught all her life not to make waves. Additionally, Grace is a biracial woman living in Toronto who doesn’t speak Mandarin, yet is impersonating a Mandarin-speaking Chinese actress and is also trying to connect with a mother who slips more and more into the language of her youth. Gracie has to deal with issues related to identity and race, on the one hand being seen as Chinese rather than Canadian, yet being seen by Chinese people she interacts with as not Chinese enough.

There’s also a love story, of course, and while it comes across as absolute wish-fulfillment (the sexiest man in the world falling for an ordinary woman!), it does have some very sweet moments of flirtation, sharing secrets and wishes, and making connections. Also, Sam really is a great character, and it’s easy to see how some of his big romantic gestures might make anyone with a heartbeat swoon.

I really liked Gracie’s blossoming friendship with Fangli and the ways in which they end up helping and supporting one another. I wasn’t crazy about the plotline revolving around Gracie inventing a daily planner. While I suppose the point is to show Gracie finding a way to take control of her own life and make a splash as a businesswoman, there’s too much time spent on her figuring out ways to organize her tasks and to-do lists.

Plotwise, The Stand-In really is more romantic fairy tale than real-life contemporary drama. A lot of the developments are ridiculous if you think about them too hard. If you can put aside the need to say “but this could never happen!”, it’s still a fun listen. I would also add my main quibble about the plot — the old “listening through a doorway and jumping to conclusions” romance trope. This makes me batty — a character overhears a conversation, immediately misinterprets what they hear, and then take dramatic action based on this misinterpretation. It’s just so dumb. At least verify what you think you’ve heard!! Sigh… but then where would the drama be?

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s a treat to listen to Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. This is her first full-length audiobook — you can read more about her experience recording it here. Overall, I think she does a good job voicing the different characters and making them distinct. The one complaint I have is that in dialogue scenes, it can be hard to tell whether Gracie is thinking a response to herself or saying the response to the other person — her voice isn’t actually different for asides, so it does get confusing.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original and is available (free) as part of the Audible Plus Catalog. For those who have access, I recommend giving it a listen. The story is sweet and engaging, and despite the fairy tale-esque twists and revelations, the characters are really special and will stick with you.

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Book Review: Yours Cheerfully by AJ Pearce

Title: Yours Cheerfully
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: August 10, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

London, November 1941. Following the departure of the formidable Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles (now stationed back in the UK) is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, is bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends.

In this follow-up to Dear Mrs. Bird, the story of Emmy Lake continues — although Yours Cheerfully works perfectly well as a stand-alone. Emmy is a young woman who’s just learning the journalism ropes at Woman’s Friend magazine, while also juggling her wartime volunteer work as part of the fire watch, spending time with her best friend Bunty, and squeezing in precious visits with her boyfriend Charles whenever he can get leave. It’s 1941, and the war dominates every aspect of life in London.

As the story opens, the British Ministry of Information convenes a briefing for representatives of women’s magazines, urging them to do their patriotic duty by promoting recruitment of women workers to support the war effort. For Emmy, this represents a chance to advance in her journalism career, but as she visits a munitions factory as part of her research, she learns that there’s a darker side to women’s factory work: For those with small children, childcare can be difficult to impossible to find, and women who sneak their children into the factories so they can watch them face immediate firing.

Emmy learns as well that some of these women are war widows or have husbands missing in action, so that the factory work is not only patriotic, but is essential to their families’ financial survival.

Despite the magazine needing to keep up the positive portrayal of woman’s war work, Emmy can’t help feeling that she’s letting their readers down by not advocating for more attention to the needs of the workers — especially since there are supposed to be government-funded nurseries, but only if the factory owners make the effort to make the arrangements, and apparently, many of them don’t bother.

The story of the factory workers with whom Emmy becomes friends becomes a main thread of the plot of Yours Cheerfully. Interspersed with this is Emmy’s friendship with Bunty, recovering from injury and terrible loss after events in Dear Mrs. Bird, and the story of Emmy’s romance with Charles. There are sweet romantic moments, as well as a depiction of the challenges of everyday life during war and the fragility of every moment of happiness, knowing sorrow could be just around the corner.

I enjoyed Yours Cheerfully, although it starts very slowly. My interest was slow to engage, but eventually I was drawn in by the story of the factory workers, whom we come to know as individuals, each with their own backstory, and by the ups and downs faced by Emmy and Charles as they try to juggle courtship and engagement with the realization that Charles is likely to be sent overseas at any moment.

Yours Cheerfully is a quiet book — even the moments of greater action, such as a march to promote nurseries for the munitions workers, are fairly mild affairs. The characters are all lovely, but the book doesn’t build a great sense of drama or urgency. It’s a very nice read, but I can’t say I ever felt compelled by the plot or totally engrossed.

Overall, Yours Cheerfully provides a thoughtful look at women on the homefront during war, depicting the bravery embodied in carrying on during a time of heightened tragedy and crisis, and the power of friendship and joy to see the characters through the worst of times.

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