Take A Peek Book Review: The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Title: The Cactus
Author: Sarah Haywood
Publisher: Park Row
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

In this charming and poignant debut, one woman’s unconventional journey to finding love means learning to embrace the unexpected.

For Susan Green, messy emotions don’t fit into the equation of her perfectly ordered life. She has a flat that is ideal for one, a job that suits her passion for logic, and an “interpersonal arrangement” that provides cultural and other, more intimate, benefits. But suddenly confronted with the loss of her mother and the news that she is about to become a mother herself, Susan’s greatest fear is realized. She is losing control.

Enter Rob, the dubious but well-meaning friend of her indolent brother. As Susan’s due date draws near and her dismantled world falls further into a tailspin, Susan finds an unlikely ally in Rob. She might have a chance at finding real love and learning to love herself, if only she can figure out how to let go.

 

My Thoughts:

I borrowed the audiobook of The Cactus from my library on a whim, based on its being available and also being a Reese’s Book Club pick (because I do seem to like most of their selections). This was an enjoyable, diverting story, although I’m not sure that I loved it. Susan is set in her ways, negating emotion at every turn, always aiming for efficiency and neatness. When her life turns upside down, she’s forced to start letting others in, and learns some hard truths about her own childhood. 

The cactus metaphor is a little heavy-handed, in my humble opinion. We get it: Susan is prickly, defensive, making sure others don’t get too close… but with proper attention and nurturing, she’s still capable of flowering. Geez.

I mostly enjoyed Susan’s brand of no-nonsense bossiness and solitude, although some of her behaviors are a bit extreme. The love story didn’t grab me — I didn’t feel convinced by the relationship and its development. I was much more interested in Susan’s family history and its dysfunctions, and how her childhood experiences slowly turned her into the woman she’d become. 

The Cactus is a fairly light read, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my priority recommendations.

A novella two-fer: Heartwarming holiday tale and nuns in space

It’s time for another two-fer post — a quick wrap-up of two recent reads. In this case, I borrowed two novellas from the library this week, and while they’re quite different, I definitely enjoyed them both.

 

The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman: Definitely not as Christmas-y as you might think from looking at the cover. This is a sweet (veering close to the edge of overly sentimental) tale of a man having to assess what makes a life valuable, and what it means to trade a life for a life. The prose is clear and simply stated, and there are illustrations throughout that emphasize the loveliness of the small moments that make a life. This is a quick read, and the little hardcover I borrowed from the library would make a really nice gift for fans of the author.

Length: 65 pages
Published: 2017
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather: This science fiction novella is set on board a living ship, the space-voyaging convent Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. The nuns on the ship travel to the outer reaches of the four systems, ministering to the sick and performing rites and rituals, largely independent of government and church politics. I was fascinated by the concept of the ship as a living creature — this novella would be worth reading just for the descriptions of the ship’s biology! The lives of the sisters hold more secrets than is immediately apparent, and their interactions with one isolated colony planet thrust them into the middle of an interstellar power play that is likely to result in devastation.

I really enjoyed the plot of Sisters of the Vast Black. I think I would have liked it even more as a full-length novel. Events seem somewhat rushed in this shorter form, and likewise, I would have preferred a little more time to get to know the characters as individuals. Still, despite these minor quibbles, I heartily recommend this sci-fi adventure. Nuns in space!! Really, what more do you need to know?

Length: 176
Published: 2019
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Two quick 4-star reads for the end-of-the-year rush! Check ’em out.

Book Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Twisted Ones
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

The set-up of The Twisted Ones hooked me from the start. Freelance editor Mouse heads off to her dead grandmother’s isolated home to prepare it for sale, but upon arrival, discovers it’s stuffed to the rafters with newspapers, coat hangers, clothing, and all sorts of useless junk. If it were me, I probably would have made a run for it at soon as I pushed open the front door and saw the mess waiting inside, but Mouse decides to stick it out. After all, she can work anywhere, and her father has offered to split the sale proceeds with her when it’s all done.

Accompanied by her beloved but not entirely bright coonhound Bongo, Mouse gets to work. When she discovers an old journal kept by her long deceased stepgrandfather, things get weird. Mouse was well aware that her grandmother was a hateful, mean woman who was universally despised, but through the diary, she learns even more about her cruelty. What’s more, she also sees hints of madness or dementia through her grandfather’s writings, particularly through his repetition of lines that seem to have become a sort of mantra for him:

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…

When Mouse and Bongo accidentally find an impossible hilltop through the woods in the backyard — when there aren’t actually any such hills in the area — things get weirder. Strangely carved stones and menacing trees are clear indications that things are not normal. As Mouse encounters more and more oddities, the woods near her grandmother’s house and the things they contain become even more menacing.

This was a terrifically creepy read. One ray of sunshine to note up front: As my friend who recommended this book pointed out, Mouse opens the first chapter with Bongo by her side as she looks back on the events she’s about to describe. So, for those who might enter in fear of something awful happening to a very good dog, rest assured, Bongo will be fine! Somehow, this seems important to know from the get-go.

I really enjoyed Mouse’s narrative voice. She’s plainspoken, but not without a sense of humor. As she recounts the events that occurred, she recognizes that most people would assume she’s lost touch with reality, but she feel compelled to tell the story anyway.

I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though I know you won’t believe me.

It’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me either. Everything I have to say sounds completely barking mad. I’ve run it through my mind over and over, trying to find a way to turn it around so that it all sounds quite normal and sensible, and of course there isn’t one.

As the story progresses, I found myself telling Mouse to get in her truck and drive away as quickly as possible, which really would have been the smart thing to do. When she finally decides to do just that, there’s a very good reason why she doesn’t, and the big showdown at the end practically begs to be made into a horror movie (that is sure to keep viewers from ever getting a good night’s sleep again, especially if they’re attempting to sleep in a cabin in the woods).

Something about the answers to the book’s mysteries didn’t quite feel as monumental to me as I expected, which is why I only went with 3.5 stars. Still, it’s a terrific, engrossing read that provides plenty of creepy, scary atmosphere and plenty of reason to be afraid of the woods, the dark, the woods in the dark, and anything that comes tapping at your door.

Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon

Title: The Deep
Author: Rivers Solomon (with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes)
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

 Reading The Deep is little reminiscent of an Octavia Butler novel, where the reader is immersed in a strange new world with creatures never seen before and a culture that is both alien and familiar.

The wajinru are sea people, breathing through the water, able to live in the deepest depths, fierce predators yet also sentient beings with intricately built communities and families. And yet, the peace of the wajinru is a facade, as they’re only able to enjoy their lives by being ignorant of their people’s horrifying past.

Only the Historian remembers, and because she remembers, she suffers. Yetu is this generation’s Historian, and the memories are literally killing her. She has no space for herself, being so completely filled with her people’s memories of pain and suffering. Her entire body is like one exposed nerve, and each sound and ripple of sea current cuts at her. Once a year, she is able to unburden herself through the ritual of Remembrance, when she shares the history with the people so that they remember for a brief time and know once again who they are. But after the ritual, it’s Yetu’s responsibility to take back the memories and bear them in solitude once more.

The story of The Deep has a unique origin, having started as a musical creation by James Stinson and Gerald Donald which was then reimagined and reinvented by the group clipping. (Daveed Diggs et al), which further developed the mythology of the wajinru and turned it into something else. Here, author River Solomons takes the story further, from music into a novella.

The Deep‘s musical origin shows in the richness and cadences of the language. It’s odd and different and new, and the wajinru themselves, while similar to what we think of as mermaids, are really something new too.

Here’s the clipping. version of The Deep:

This slim book is hypnotic and lovely and sad, and really should be experienced.

Book Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Title: Evvie Drake Starts Over
Author: Linda Holmes
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn’t correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy’s childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and he can’t figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button.

When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken–and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. But before they can find out what might lie ahead, they’ll have to wrestle a few demons: the bonds they’ve broken, the plans they’ve changed, and the secrets they’ve kept. They’ll need a lot of help, but in life, as in baseball, there’s always a chance–right up until the last out.

 

Evvie Drake is not your typical widow. She’s hidden herself away not out of grief, but from fear that everyone will discover that she’s NOT actually grieving. Evvie’s late husband Tim was her high school sweetheart, a respected town doctor, and behind closed doors, a nasty man with a tendency toward gaslighting and emotional abuse. Evvie’s little secret is that the night Tim died, Evvie was packing her car and getting ready to leave — but now, the whole town treats her with kid gloves and tells her how much they loved her husband, and she just can’t seem to shake the feeling that she’s at fault somehow.

Meanwhile, Dean is the current ultimate failure in sports, going overnight from star pitcher to a guy who can barely throw a ball. He’s been mocked and publicly humiliated, so finding a haven in a little town in Maine seems like a good idea. When Evvie rents him her spare rooms, it’s a good solution to both of their most immediate problems, and pretty soon they fall into an easy friendship, each understanding that the other has been hurt badly and just needs a little room to breathe and recover.

Of course, their connection develops into more, but it’s complicated. As the story progresses, they both have to face certain truths, and discover that moving forward can only truly happen when they let others in and start dealing with and sharing their secrets.

This book has been popping up on my recommendation lists ever since its release in June, and as with most hyped books, I was resistant. I’m so glad I finally gave in and grabbed a copy when I saw it at the library!

The writing is light and breezy and engaging, even when dealing with the more serious and troubling issues concerning Evvie’s marriage. The author presents a realistic look at Evvie’s process of shock, guilt, anger, and loss, and follows her through her coming to terms with what’s holding her back and seeking help. Likewise with Dean, there are no easy answers or fixes. As much as Evvie wants to find the solution to Dean’s pitching problem, it’s not something within her power, no matter how badly she wants to help him. Dean too has to go through a process of loss and anger in order to find acceptance and a way to move on.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is filled with likeable characters and small-town charm. I loved the New England town with its quirky characters and deep connections. where everyone knows everyone… and probably knew their grandparents too. Evvie’s relationship with her best friend Andy feels authentic, and I struggled along with Evvie as their paths seemed to diverge and their friendship suffered under the weight of Evvie’s secrets. Evvie and Dean’s relationship was pretty much pitch-perfect (*groan* — sorry for the baseball pun!) — rather than subjecting us to the dreaded insta-love scenario, the author allows their friendship to grow and blossom into romance with all the caution and hesitation that people in such precarious points in their lives might experience.

I really enjoyed this book, and heartily recommend it! There’s real emotion and some sad and painful moments, but there’s love and joy and friendship and family too, and overall the vibe is hopeful and a celebration of being open to life and connection. Don’t miss Evvie Drake!

Warning: This book may make you want to move to a small coastal town, get a dog, live by the water, and attend local sporting events. Proceed at your own risk.

Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Audiobook Review: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

Title: The Dinner List
Author: Rebecca Serle
Narrator: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Length (Print): 288 pages
Length (Audio): 5 hours, 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

We’ve been waiting for an hour. That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends within her utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, The Dinner List is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

I picked up The Dinner List on a whim — I was ready to start a new audiobook, and wanted something that would be a quick, non-taxing listen. This popped up on my “recommended” list on the library website, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.

The Dinner List is set in a cozy New York restaurant, where Sabrina is meeting her best friend Jessica for dinner in honor of Sabrina’s 30th birthday. But when she arrives at the restaurant, she discovers that it’s not just dinner for two. Joining them are Sabrina’s former college professor Conrad, her estranged father Robert, and her ex, Tobias. Also, Audrey Hepburn.

And yes, Audrey Hepburn is deceased, as is Robert. But they’re still attending Sabrina’s dinner.

How is this possible? Like Sabrina, we readers just need to go with it and see how the dinner unfolds.

Set over the course of a five-hour dinner, interspersed with chapters tracing the history of Sabrina’s 10-year relationship with Tobias, The Dinner List is an examination of love, loss, friendship, growing up, regrets, resentment, and ultimately, forgiveness and compassion.

Jessica reminds Sabrina that way back when, as college roommates, Jessica insisted that Sabrina play the dinner list game with her: What five people, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with, if you could have anyone at all? Here, in the flesh, is Sabrina’s list. As the group orders their meals and shares bottles of wine, connections are examined, and Sabrina is given the opportunity to reflect on all the events, big and small, that led to where she is today.

I had the rare experience of having to constantly reevaluate my feelings about this book as I went along — listening to the audiobook really was an evolution of reactions. Early on, I was annoyed. The author narrates the audiobook, and her delivery just doesn’t compare to the professional, highly engaging narration I’ve grown used to in audiobooks. Beyond that, the plot confounded me. How is this possible? Is it all a dream? What’s the point? How will this dinner be explained?

But as I listened further, I stopped trying to analyze the situation and just went with the experience, and was surprised to realize that somewhere along the way, my initial annoyance has changed completely, and I was now both charmed and absorbed by the characters, their stories, and the overarching themes. I even got used to the narration, to the point where the author’s voice seemed to fit Sabrina’s mindset and no longer distracted me from the content.

The further along the story goes, the more compelling the story becomes. The chapters focusing on Sabrina and Tobias tell a modern love story, full of passion and devotion, but also the realities of being 20-somethings struggling to make it in a grown-up world and figure out what they want out of life. Somewhere at about the mid-point of the book, there’s a particular revelation that really threw me for a loop yet made complete sense in terms of the overall feel of the book — and this is where my emotions really got involved and I started worrying that I would be a soggy mess by the end.

And I wasn’t wrong about that. The downside of listening to audiobooks when out in public is dealing with the teary eyes and sniffles that come with emotionally charged storylines. So yes, I was kind of hideous by the end.

In the moment of impact we think it’s possible to go back. We’re so close to the previous minute; how hard would it be to just turn back the clock? To just quickly undo what has just been done?

If you’d asked me to rate this book based on the first hour or so of listening, I probably wouldn’t have gone higher than 2.5 stars… so I’m as surprised as anyone to see how highly I ended up rating this book.

Granted, the presence of Audrey Hepburn** — while a cute hook — didn’t feel all that necessary to me, and occasionally came off as a bit twee. Likewise, Conrad (the professor) isn’t exactly essential either, although in a way these two serve as guides for the dinner, steering the conversation and asking the difficult questions that are necessary for Sabrina to confront in order to understand her past and how to move forward.

Overall though, I think this was a terrific audiobook, and I’m sure it would be equally as good in print format. I was unexpectedly moved by the emotionally rich scenario and the unfolding relationships, and found the story bittersweet, touching, and memorable.

I look forward to reading more by Rebecca Serle, starting with her upcoming new release, In Five Years, coming out in 2020.

**A side effect of listening to The Dinner Party is my utter conviction that I need to watch Roman Holiday and Sabrina (and probably more Audrey Hepburn movies) ASAP.

Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Length: 458 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Ninth House was one of the biggest, buzziest releases of fall 2019. Author Leigh Bardugo is a wildly popular YA author, and with Ninth House, she ventures into adult fiction with a bang, getting hyped by the master, Stephen King, among other notables. 

Whoo boy, with praise like that, how can a mere human like me ever attempt to write a review?

Let’s give it a try.

In Ninth House, we’re plunged right into the action as Alex Stern hides out alone with a grave injury, contemplating what went wrong and what happens next. But what exactly happened, and what is this thing called Lethe that we see her thinking about? All will be revealed…

Alex arrives at Yale completely unprepared. She’s an impoverished high school dropout, a former drug user and dealer, and the sole survivor of a brutal mass murder. She’s offered a fresh start with a full scholarship to Yale, courtesy of Lethe House. 

Yale’s most famous exclusive society is Skull & Bones, but there are actually many more. In Ninth House, the Ancient Eight are bastions of the rich and famous and their up and coming offspring, and each house has its own connection to the arcane. The houses’ powers are what fuel their alumni’s fortunes and influence, and they each have distinctive rituals that keep their magic topped up and charged. Lethe, the ninth house, is not one of these. Rather, Lethe was founded as a watchdog — they’re the ones who monitor the rituals and make sure they keep within the bounds of the rules, preventing uncontrolled magic from escaping into the world, and keeping the Grays (ghosts) from crossing over from beyond the Veil.

While Lethe members don’t have magic themselves, they have access to a vast store of knowledge and materials that allows them to carry out the warding and protective functions that keep the houses’ rituals operating mostly within determined limits. Alex is different, though. She doesn’t need Lethe’s elixirs to see beyond — she’s been cursed all her life by her ability to see and interact with Grays. And now that she’s at Yale, she’s caught up in unprecedented Gray activity, as well as a murder on campus that could be unrelated… or it could be the key to a sinister plot that threatens the magical equilibrium.

Alex is a fabulous lead character. She’s edgy and wild, but has a past that torments her and secrets that she’s only now coming to terms with. She’s brave even when terrified, and despite being a loner, manages to make connections with her roommate and a fellow Lethe member in ways that support all the best elements of true female friendship. 

The magical systems are fascinating, but — a warning for the squeamish — do not read this book if you have a weak stomach! There are some pretty disgusting scenes, with copious amounts of blood, body parts, guts, and more. Ick — but it’s not gratuitous. The violence and horror completely serve the plot, and I normally don’t mind horror, but there were a few places that left me feeling like I needed to scrub my brain in order to remove some particularly unpleasant images.

I do have a few quibbles — chiefly, this book is so detail-heavy that unless you’re prepared to either take notes or read straight through (stock up on coffee!), there’s almost too much to keep track of. Each house has its powers, its players, its agenda, its rituals… and we really do need to be able to distinguish one from the other in order to follow Alex’s investigation and the conspiracy it reveals. None of this is a negative, but it does feel overwhelming to try to pick up the pieces of the plot again after taking a break to — I don’t know — maybe sleep or work or eat.

Do I recommend Ninth House? Absolutely! It’s a mesmerizing, engrossing read. But I do suggest picking a time to read it when you have time to dive in and really concentrate. 

Book Review: If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser

“WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”

In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis.

DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn’s family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry?

In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.

A bit of context: My teenaged son is not, and has never been, a recreational reader. He’ll read what’s required for school, and that’s it.

So when he picked up this book without being forced to, then came to me and told me I had to read it… well, clearly I needed to see what it was that had made such an impression on him.

If If Grow Up is a tough, clear-eyed look at inner city life, as seen from the perspective of DeShawn. We meet DeShawn at age 12, still a child but growing up fast. He lives in the projects with his grandmother and older sister, and knows to drop to the floor when there’s the sound of gunshots and to steer clear when the Douglass Disciples are coming through.

Death and violence are everyday facts of life. DeShawn goes to school, but there’s little point when the teachers rotate out as soon as they can get a better assignment and most of the kids are there just to pass the time until they too can join a gang. DeShawn is determined to get an education and stay out of gang life, but with each passing year, his choices narrow further.

This book is devastating in so many ways. The author shows the hopelessness of inner city life, where children grow up without parents, where parents bury children caught in the crossfire, where murderous gang leaders may also be the only supportive adult figure for many of the kids who so desperately need someone to guide them. Through DeShawn, we see year by year as the goal of a better life dwindles away into impossibility, and we also see the inevitability of gang life for a kid who’s forced to think about feeding his hungry family at much too young an age.

While parts of the book, especially the ending, felt kind of preachy, I had to remind myself that If I Grown Up is firmly aimed at teen readers, and that I needed to let go of my adult reader perspective and think about what this book might mean to a teen who hasn’t seen real life reflected on the page in this way before.

I know my son was really affected by the story. I’ve never seen him not be able to put down a book, or find a book so meaningful that he both wants to read it again and wanted me to read it right away so we could talk about it. And that really says a lot.

I’ve never read anything by this author before, but apparently he’s quite a prolific writer of realistic YA fiction, and I plan to check out more of his works. I’m hoping If I Grow Up will be a catalyst for my reluctant reader son to continue reading books that he connects with.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: If I Grow Up
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 24, 2009
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Romantic two-fer: The Wedding Party and The Flatshare, two contemporary romances to lift your spirits

Sometimes, light-sweet-cute-hot is exactly what a reader needs. Right? I had a terrific time this week reading these two contemporary romances…

Title: The Wedding Party (The Wedding Date, #3)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend

2. They hate each other

After an “Oops, we made a mistake” kiss, neither one can stop thinking about the other. With Alexa’s wedding rapidly approaching, Maddie and Theo both share bridal party responsibilities that require more interaction with each other than they’re comfortable with. Underneath the sharp barbs they toss at each other is a simmering attraction that won’t fade. It builds until they find themselves sneaking off together to release some tension when Alexa isn’t looking.

But as with any engagement with a nemesis, there are unspoken rules that must be abided by. First and foremost, don’t fall in love.

Maddie and Theo are successful professionals, both dedicated to family and friends, and both in need of love and companionship. Despite sharing a best friend, they manage to take an instant dislike to one another at their first meeting, and only tolerate each other for Alexa’s sake. But with Alexa’s wedding coming up, they’re forced to spend more time together, and after an initial, spontaneous, one-time-only sexual encounter, they’re both aware that their chemistry is off the charts.

It’s totally engaging and charming to see Maddie and Theo battling their attraction and reluctance to admit feelings, when it’s so obvious that their connection is deep and real. And though they keep insisting to themselves that this is physical only, with an agreement to stop hooking up once the wedding is over, it’s clear that Maddie and Theo make each other happy in a way no one else can.

The Wedding Party fits in with the author’s The Wedding Date series, as characters from the previous two books (especially Alexa and Drew from book #1) appear in this book. I think The Wedding Party could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, although it’s even more fun to see the connections established in earlier books continue here.

As with Jasmine Guillory’s other books, I’m occasionally frustrated by how much lack of communication contributes to the couple’s obstacles. They really should be better at this, considering what they do for a living! Still, the book overall is a really fun read, and I loved the characters, the adorableness of their relationship, and their smoking hot sparks. Can’t wait for the next book, Royal Holiday!

Title: The Flatshare
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 28, 2019
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Tiffy and Leon share an apartment. Tiffy and Leon have never met.

After a bad breakup, Tiffy Moore needs a place to live. Fast. And cheap. But the apartments in her budget have her wondering if astonishingly colored mold on the walls counts as art.

Desperation makes her open minded, so she answers an ad for a flatshare. Leon, a night shift worker, will take the apartment during the day, and Tiffy can have it nights and weekends. He’ll only ever be there when she’s at the office. In fact, they’ll never even have to meet.

Tiffy and Leon start writing each other notes – first about what day is garbage day, and politely establishing what leftovers are up for grabs, and the evergreen question of whether the toilet seat should stay up or down. Even though they are opposites, they soon become friends. And then maybe more.

But falling in love with your roommate is probably a terrible idea…especially if you’ve never met.

What if your roommate is your soul mate? A joyful, quirky romantic comedy, Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare is a feel-good novel about finding love in the most unexpected of ways.

Oh, this is just too cute. And also surprisingly touching and serious at times.

Tiffy is broke, newly single, and desperate for a decent place to live. Leon needs cash. A flatshare seems like a great solution — their schedules never overlap, so why not share this cozy, one-bedroom apartment? (Okay, for me, the sharing-a-bed piece would be a dealbreaker, but it seems to work for these two so long as Tiffy sleeps on the left and Leon on the right). As they start communicating via Post-It notes, they begin to get to know one another and to open up in all sorts of charming and quirky ways, and instantly establish a funny, easy rapport.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though. Tiffy is just starting to realize how emotionally manipulative and abusive her ex-boyfriend was, and Leon is devoted to helping his wrongfully accused brother win an appeal of the conviction that landed him in prison. As the book progresses, we explore more of each of these issues, and the author does a great job of presenting the turmoil and trauma involved while balancing the serious moments with the book’s overall light-hearted appeal.

The narrative shifts between Tiffy and Leon’s POVs in alternating chapters. Tiffy is exceptionally funny and delightful, and Leon is sweet, devoted, and somewhat shut off from dealing with his emotions. When they finally meet in person, they’ve already established a connection that binds them together, and the physical chemistry is just icing on the cake.

The Flatshare deals with some serious issues, but is overall a charming, sparkly romance that left me feeling uplifted and entertained, start to finish. Bonus points for some truly unique, stand-out characters and a really off-beat set-up!

Both of these books are nominated for the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Romance. I don’t usually think of Romance as “my” genre, but between these two books and three others I’ve read from the list of opening round nominations, I may have to own up to being a romance fan! (As well as a sci-fi/fantasy/horror geek, a devourer of historical fiction, and… you know what? Why bother with labels? I’ll read anything!)