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!)

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

From the author of Lost Boy comes a historical fairy tale about a mermaid who leaves the sea for love and later finds herself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the real Fiji mermaid. However, leaving the museum may be harder than leaving the sea ever was.

Once there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

You guys. I LOVED this book.

I was blown away by the story itself, as well as by the gorgeous writing and the passion that comes through on every page.

She loved him almost as much as she loved the sea, and so they were well matched, for he loved the sea almost as much as he loved her. He’d never thought any person could draw him more than the ocean, but the crashing waves were there in her eyes and the salt of the spray was in her skin and there, too, was something in her that the sea could never give. The ocean could never love him back, but Amelia did.

In The Mermaid, we first meet Amelia as a beautiful, wild being of the sea. After being freed from a net by the kind fisherman who finds her, she can’t stop thinking about the look in his eyes, and finds herself leaving the sea to find him. Once reunited, Amelia and Jack fall deeply in love — and while she leaves his seaside shack to swim in the ocean at night, she sees him as her heart and her home… until the day he goes out fishing and doesn’t return.

For ten long years, Amelia watches the sea, mourning yet refusing to believe that her beloved will never return to her. Meanwhile, far off in New York, rumor has reached the ears of P. T. Barnum and his associate Levi Lyman about a beautiful woman in coastal Maine, whom the locals believe to be a mermaid. Barnum dispatches Levi to find her and bring her back to New York, dreaming of the riches that will pour into his pockets once he puts the mermaid on display in his American Museum.

Amelia has other ideas, though. At a time when women defer to men on all matters, Amelia refuses to become any man’s belonging. She sets her own terms and makes the rules for how, when, and how often she’ll be on display. She yearns to travel the world and knows she needs money to do this, which is why she agrees to Levi and Barnum’s plans in the first place — but once she arrives in New York, she begins to realize how difficult it will be to fit into the world of humans and to survive in a crowded, dirty city full of people who see her as a curiosity, or even worse, as an abomination.

“A bird in a cage still knows it’s in a cage, even if the bars are made of gold,” Amelia said softly.

The Mermaid tells a beautiful story of a woman’s strength, while highlighting the devastating circumstances of woman who lack all power in the world. We see friendship, loyalty, and love, as well as greed and disdain and cruelty. Amelia herself is a marvelous character, intelligent and passionate and determined to stand her ground. The magical elements are lovely — mermaids here are not the objectified versions as seen in drawings and sailors’ tattoos, but beings who are indisputably other, not half-fish, half-woman, but people who are wholly something beyond human understanding or definition.

The ocean was a violent place, yes, but it was violence without malice. When a shark ate a sea lion, it did not hate the sea lion. It only wanted to live.

Author Christina Henry draws on the historical record — Barnum really did have an exhibit called the “Feejee Mermaid”, although it was a grotesque fake, not a live woman swimming in a tank of sea water before a mesmerized public — and then builds a story of wonder and magic and love.

I couldn’t help thinking about The Greatest Showman whenever Barnum and wife Charity and the museum appear, although Barnum’s portrayal in The Mermaid is not at all admiring or sympathetic — he’s a greedy con artist looking for the next big attraction, a lousy husband and father, and overall a cold-hearted, scheming man. Still, reading this book made me itch to watch the movie again… and I will, soon.

I really, really loved this book and will want to read it again before too long. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading more by Christina Henry. Earlier this year, I read her newest novel, The Girl in Red, and (big surprise) loved that as well. Time to go back and read her earlier books too!

Click on the image to read my review of this amazing book!

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The details:

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 19, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

 

A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness

Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.

In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.

Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.

After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year for the very first time, I felt a need to stay immersed in Anne’s world a bit longer, and decided to read this prequel book, written by contemporary author Sarah McCoy and published in 2018. I’m often skeptical when modern authors decide to continue or riff off of a beloved older book or series (I’m thinking about the debacle that was Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind, among others).

Can a modern author pull off the tone and feeling of the original? Does the new story add anything in terms of character development? Does it feel true to the heart of the original story?

In the case of Marilla of Green Gables, the answer is YES to all questions. While not completely perfect, Marilla is a worthy addition to the Green Gables saga, and I enjoyed it start to finish.

As readers of Anne of Green Gables know, Marilla is the aging spinster who, along with her older brother Matthew, adopts an 11-year-old orphan girl (while actually thinking they were bringing home a boy to help with the farm), and completely up-ends their orderly life. Anne Shirley is a wonder, and her bright, inquisitive, imaginative nature brings new life to Marilla and Matthew and changes their world forever.

But what do we really know about Marilla from the Green Gables books? We only see her through Anne’s eyes –an older woman who keeps house while her brother farms, who has never left the family home and never married. She’s a pillar of the community and has many close friends… but we really don’t know much at all about her childhood or adult life prior to Anne’s arrival.

Marilla of Green Gables starts when Marilla is thirteen. Her mother Clara is pregnant, her brother Matthew works the farm with their father Hugh, and their home life is simple but happy. Marilla has a growing friendship with a classmate of Matthew’s, John Blythe, who is a few years older than Marilla. They seem to be on the verge of romance, but when Clara dies during childbirth, everything changes for Marilla.

Having promised her mother to always take care of Hugh and Matthew, Marilla knows that she will never leave Green Gables. As her relationship with John strengthens over the years, she feels torn between her feelings for him and her responsibility toward her family. On top of this, there’s growing political unrest in Canada, and the Cuthberts are on opposite sides of the issue from John. Finally, it’s the political disagreements that drive a wedge between Marilla and John, leading to an estrangement that lingers for many years.

Over the years, Marilla becomes more and more involved in the issue of runaway slaves from America, motivated initially by orphaned children she encounters who were rescued from enslavement but are still pursued by bounty hunters. While on the surface a simple farm woman with an ordinary, house-bound life, Marilla becomes involved in the abolition movement and works to arrange shelter as part of the underground railroad.

There’s something really heartbreaking about a prequel. You know where the players have to end up, having read the original story. So, seeing Marilla and John’s romance blooming over the years was incredibly bittersweet. On the one hand, they’re just so lovely together, and their affection and regard for one another is sincere and pure and heartfelt. At the same time, I know that Marilla never marries, and that John must end up married to someone else, since his son Gilbert is Anne’s love interest and eventual husband in the Anne books. It really felt terrible at times to see Marilla’s happiness with John and see her experiencing all the sweet emotions of a young first love — not knowing how it will go wrong, but knowing all along that they simply can’t end up together.

Author Sarah McCoy does a lovely job of emulating the feel and style of the Anne books, reveling in the natural world of Prince Edward Island, the simple joys of a small community in an earlier time, and the daily routines and habits that build a full life. Marilla’s voice and perspective feels clear and authentic — we’re able to see a young Marilla and see the roots of the woman she’ll become someday.

The only jarring note for me was the emphasis on politics. Politics rarely gets mentioned in the Anne series, and here, the unrest within Canada is a large focus and becomes the driving point for the breakdown of Anne and John’s relationship. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; simply that it doesn’t feel all that well aligned with the tone of the original series.

Still, I found the book as a whole delightful. It felt like a revelation to get to know a young Marilla and understand how she became the stern spinster we meet in Anne of Green Gables. I love the depiction of life in Avonlea, and was moved by Marilla’s devotion to improving the life of those less fortunate, including putting herself at risk in order to protect children fleeing enslavement.

Marilla of Green Gables is a lovely addition to the world of Anne of Green Gables. For those who haven’t read the original series, I’d say start with those books, at the least the first three or so, before reading Marilla. While Marilla of Green Gables could stand on its own, I think the heart and soul would somehow have much less impact without the greater context of the Anne series.

A note on the audiobook: Lovely! The narrator captures Marilla’s sweetness, the gossipy nature of Marilla’s friend Rachel, the compassion of John, and all the flavor of the many other characters in the story. Really a terrific listen.

I highly recommend Marilla of Green Gables for any fans of the Anne series, and really applaud author Sarah McCoy for adding a new and interesting storyline while staying true to the essence of the original books.

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The details:

Title: Marilla of Green Gables
Author: Sarah McCoy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 23, 2018
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: Winterwood by Shea Earnshaw

“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.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From New York Times bestselling author of The Wicked Deep comes a haunting romance perfect for fans of Practical Magic, where dark fairy tales and enchanted folklore collide after a boy, believed to be missing, emerges from the magical woods—and falls in love with the witch determined to unravel his secrets.

Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

My Thoughts:

It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Practical Magic — I definitely got an Alice Hoffman vibe while reading this story. The language is very lyrical and has that tinge of magic that elevates it above ordinary storytelling.

Walkers cannot trust our own hearts — our slippy, sloppy bleeding hearts. They are reckless, stupid things. Muscles that beat too fast, that cave inward when they break. Too fragile to be trusted.

The plot itself has a really unique setting — an isolated lakeside community surrounded by forests that becomes completely cut off from the outside world once the snow starts to fall. Shades of The Shining, perhaps? In this remote location, Nora thrives in her own isolation, while keeping an eye on the camp for troubled boys across the lake. As her path collides with the boys from the camp, she becomes enmeshed in a mysterious event and its violent outcome. The ensuing events threaten everyone around the lake, even the woods themselves.

“Trees have a long memory,” I warn, my voice like gravel. The forest remembers who carved names into their trunks, with little hearts dug into the wood; who dropped a cigarette into a clump of dry leaves and scorched their raw bark. They know who broke a limb and tore off leaves and pine needles by the handful just to start a bonfire.

They remember. And they hold grudges.

I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because it’s best to just immerse yourself in the writing and let it flow over you, no preconceptions allowed! The romantic elements of the plot didn’t do much for me, but I did appreciate the interweaving of magic and nature, and a pretty cool twist that comes about 3/4 of the way through the story.

End note: Just being a geek here, but I do need to add that I kept having to remind myself that Walker is the main character’s family name. Every time Nora has a thought about “Walkers” (which is pretty often), I’d start picturing zombies… definitely not what this book is about!

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The details:

Title: Winterwood
Author: Shea Earnshaw
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: YA fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

Seattle, Washington
Larkin Bennett has always known her place, whether it’s surrounded by her loving family in the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest or conducting a dusty patrol in Afghanistan. But all of that changed the day tragedy struck her unit and took away everything she held dear. Soon after, Larkin discovers an unexpected treasure—the diary of Emily Wilson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As Larkin struggles to heal, she finds herself drawn deeply into Emily’s life and the secrets she kept.

Indiana, 1861
The only thing more dangerous to Emily Wilson than a rebel soldier is the risk of her own comrades in the Union Army discovering her secret. But in the minds of her fellow soldiers, if it dresses like a man, swears like a man, and shoots like a man, it must be a man. As the war marches on and takes its terrible toll, Emily begins to question everything she thought she was fighting for.

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

In this dual timeline novel, we follow two separate but interwoven and related threads. The main character in the contemporary timeline is Larkin Bennett, a US Army veteran who receives a medical discharge after being wounded in action in Afghanistan, now suffering from PTSD and the tremendous guilt she feels over the death of her best friend. And as Larkin explores her friends’ personal effects, she finds a family treasure — the diary of Emily Wilson, who fought as a man in the Civil War. Through these two remarkable women, we see devotion to duty and family, as well as the toll that war takes on a person’s soul.

Larkin’s story is moving and tragic. She was never happier than in service to her country, and felt a calling to the military. Her best moments were when she and her friend Sarah were side by side, whether in college, in training, or in Kandahar. But Larkin, when we meet her, is emotionally destroyed by her experiences, turning to alcohol to numb herself and drown out the memories that haunt her every moment.

Larkin’s family is supportive (can I mention how much I love her grandmother and cousins?), and they do what they can to help, but there’s just so much that Larkin has to process on her own, and she resists reaching out for professional help. Her growing obsession with Emily’s diary gives her a purpose, and the more she reads, the more determined she becomes to both tell the stories of military women and to find out more about the real Emily Wilson.

Meanwhile, Emily’s story is equally powerful. After her father and oldest brother ride off to join the Indiana regiment heading to support the Union cause, Emily is left behind on the farm with her younger brother Ben, expected to just wait at home and be content with “women’s work”. When their father is killed and their brother takes ill, they set off to go take care of their brother, and from there, they decide to enlist. Emily is both called to serve and determined to protect Ben at all costs, and together, they join their late father’s regiment and learn to become soldiers.

Emily takes the name Jesse and poses as Ben’s brother, knowing that she must keep her gender a secret. She finds that she’s actually good at soldiering, and starts to love the freedom that comes from being seen as male — the freedom to work, to speak her mind, to not hide her skills, to pursue what she wants.

She would never again settle for a life where her every action, even her thoughts, were controlled by someone else. From now on, no matter where life took her, she would live on her own terms.

The threat of discovery is always present, and the true meaning of going to war doesn’t really sink in until the regiment enters its first battle and Emily gets a close-up view of shooting at the enemy and being shot at.

The general shook his head. “I will not send you back to the field. You can no longer impersonate a soldier, do you understand me?”

Emily had to look away from his accusing glare. She had not been impersonating a soldier. She had been a soldier. “Yes, sir.”

The author does an amazing job of weaving together these two stories. Some dual timeline books feel forced, or as if one only exists as a frame for the other. Not so here. You know it’s a well-done approach when both halves of the story feel so compelling that you hate to leave each one to switch to the other. When an Emily section would end, I’d want more… but then I’d get re-involved in Larkin’s story, and couldn’t imagine wanting to read anything else but her story.

Kelli Estes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research into both women serving in the Civil War and into the plight of today’s veterans, especially the staggering rate of PTSD and suicide among women veterans. She provides a list of reference materials as well as information on support for veterans at the end of the book, and is definitely doing a great service herself by calling attention to the issues confronting today’s combat veterans.

She set the diary aside, thinking about Emily’s struggles. They were timeless. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, female veterans faced many of the same challenges that Emily did: being seen as inferior because of her gender, not being able to find work after being discharged from the military, earning less than men, becoming homeless.

Some of the social commentary is really spot-on, such as Larkin’s anger over the general lack of interest and awareness she encounters once back in the US. To Larkin, she was serving in Afghanistan to protect the United States, yet most Americans seem indifferent or unaware of what’s going on there and the sacrifices being made by American service men and women. Likewise, she is understandably infuriated when a clueless man, who spots her wearing an Army t-shirt, asks her whether it’s her father or her brothers who served, failing to recognize the very real service of hundreds of thousands of women.

Today We Go Home is beautifully written and is so very powerful. I tore through this book probably faster than I should have, because I just couldn’t get enough of either Emily or Larkin and had to know how their stories would turn out. The emotional impact is strong and real. By the end, I felt such sorrow for their experiences, and yet hopeful and uplifted as well. And while Emily’s story is set in the past, Larkin’s story has an urgency to it, knowing that brave men and women are still facing the unbelievable struggles that come with serving in war settings and then coming back home afterward.

Don’t miss this amazing book. This goes on my list of top books for 2019.

Other reading resources:

For more on women in the Civil War, I highly recommend two excellent novels:

  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (review)
  • Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall (review)

I don’t think I’ve read any other novels recently about contemporary women serving in the military, but I’d love some suggestions!

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The details:

Title: Today We Go Home
Author: Kelli Estes
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 401 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: One of Us by Craig DiLouie

Known as “the plague generation” a group of teenagers begin to discover their hidden powers in this shocking post-apocalyptic coming of age story set in 1984.

“This is not a kind book, or a gentle book, or a book that pulls its punches. But it’s a powerful book, and it will change you.” – Seanan McGuire

They’ve called him a monster from the day he was born.

Abandoned by his family, Enoch Bryant now lives in a rundown orphanage with other teenagers just like him. He loves his friends, even if the teachers are terrified of them. They’re members of the rising plague generation. Each bearing their own extreme genetic mutation.

The people in the nearby town hate Enoch, but he doesn’t know why. He’s never harmed anyone. Works hard and doesn’t make trouble. He believes one day he’ll be a respected man.

But hatred dies hard. The tension between Enoch’s world and those of the “normal” townspeople is ready to burst. And when a body is found, it may be the spark that ignites a horrifying revolution

One of Us is not for the faint of heart. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful book that leaves an indelible mark, despite being really hard to take at times.

In One of Us, something has happened to human genetics. A sexually-transmitted bacterium that causes genetic mutations has spread like wildfire. By 1970, one in three births is teratogenic — the babies are born with inhuman features, some resembling animals, others mostly human but distorted, such as the boy whose face is upside down.

Prenatal testing has become mandatory, with mandatory abortion of abnormal babies. High school students’ most serious class is health education, where they learn the risks of the bacterium and where abstinence is promoted as the only way to be sure not to pass it along. And the teratogenic babies are never, ever kept by their parents — instead, they’re deposited in homes, where the children are raised in abysmal conditions, watched over, controlled, and kept separate from the “normal” population.

As the book opens, it’s 1984, and the first generation of plague children is in their teens. The question looms — what will happen when then become adults? Do they have rights? What sort of future might await them? Complicating matters further is the discovery that some of the plague children seem to have special powers — like Goof, the boy with the upside-down face, whose funny ability to finish other people’s sentences is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his telepathic abilities.

The plague children are well aware of how the rest of the world views them — and for some, it’s time to demand more. Do they rise up and overthrow their masters? Is non-violent protest the way forward, or is the only way to tear down an unjust world to burn it down completely and rebuild it themselves?

The characters in One of Us are remarkable and unforgettable. Enoch is known to his friends as Dog (Enoch being his “slave name”, according to the group’s intellectual leader, Brain). Dog has the facial characteristics of a dog, but he has the soul of a boy who just wants friendship and freedom and a happy life. Brain is described as looking like a mix between a gorilla and a lion, and his intelligence is off the charts. Then there’s Edward, known as Wallee, who is described as looking like a bowling pin with a face, moving on a mass of roots/tentacles. The plague children’s appearances may be frightening, but inside, they’re still children, and they live life on a daily basis knowing that they’re hated, feared, and shunned.

It’s a powder keg, and yes, it does explode. The build-up makes it clear that violence is inevitable, even as we see all the places along the way where different actions or decisions might have led to different outcomes.

There’s so much to One of Us. It’s an exploration of societal injustice and divisions, and what happens when unreasoning hatred takes the lead. It illustrates the terrible outcomes of an “us vs them” mentality, where a middle ground is never an option. And it’s also just a flat-out terrifying, deeply engrossing story of genetics run amok and what such a world might look like.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for the squeamish — there are some scenes with very high ick factors, so trust me and stay away if you can’t stomach such things.

That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend One of Us. It’s disturbing and awful, and also an incredibly powerful read.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his recent novel, Our War, one of my top reads of 2019.

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The details:

Title: One of Us
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Source: Purchased

Middle Grade Book Review: Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Synopsis:

A violin and a middle-school musical unleash a dark family secret in this moving story by an award-winning author duo. For fans of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Hana’s Suitcase.

It’s 2002. In the aftermath of the twin towers — and the death of her beloved grandmother — Shirli Berman is intent on moving forward. The best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but is crushed to learn that she’s been given the part of the old Jewish mother in the musical rather than the coveted part of the sister. But there is an upside: her “husband” is none other than Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school.

Deciding to throw herself into the role, she rummages in her grandfather’s attic for some props. There, she discovers an old violin in the corner — strange, since her Zayde has never seemed to like music, never even going to any of her recitals. Showing it to her grandfather unleashes an anger in him she has never seen before, and while she is frightened of what it might mean, Shirli keeps trying to connect with her Zayde and discover the awful reason behind his anger. A long-kept family secret spills out, and Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.

My thoughts:

Broken Strings is a layered, thoughtful, and ultimately uplifting book about the power of family, memory, and music. Set only months after the terrible events of 9/11, the story follows Shirli and her middle school classmates, all of whom experienced some of the horror of living through 9/11, whether through images on TV, or seeing the towers fall from across the Hudson River, or having lost friends or family in the attacks.

Now, six months later, the school readies for its spring musical production, Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli is initially disappointed not to get the flashier role of Hodel, the daughter in the musical with the best solo, but she grows to appreciate her role as Golde, especially since it means spending hours working with the adorable Ben, who has the star role of Tevye, Golde’s husband.

Shirli knows from her parents that her grandfather’s parents’ families were originally from Eastern Europe and lived through some of the pogroms that took place in the time period of Fiddler, so she begins to ask him questions in hopes of better understanding the characters. And although she’s aware that Zayde survived the Holocaust and bears a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, he’s never spoken of his experiences to her or to anyone else in the family. But as she visits Zayde, little by little he begins to share the story of what happened to his family during the Holocaust, and why he has never played his violin or even listened to music in all the years since.

There’s so much to love about Broken Strings. First, it’s a sweet story about middle school friendship and crushes, about talent and hard work and ambition, and about dedication to one’s passions. At the same time, it’s about family, the power of love, and the devastation of loss and memories too painful to bring into the light of day. And finally, it’s about the healing power of sharing oneself and one’s stories, about making connections, and about rising above hatred to find common ground in even unlikely places.

The characters are all well-drawn and realistic, and it’s beautiful to see how Zayde influences those around him by reaching across divides and making friends. Shirli is a lovely main character, and I appreciated how well the authors show both her insecurities and her devotion to her friends and family.

Broken Strings is really a special book. Highly recommended for middle grade readers as well as the adults in their lives.

With special thanks to Jill of Jill’s Book Blog, whose wonderful review first brought this book to my attention. Check it out, here.

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The details:

Title: Broken Strings
Authors: Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer
Publisher: Puffin Books
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

Sam Brandis was Tate Jones’s first: Her first love. Her first everything. Including her first heartbreak.

During a whirlwind two-week vacation abroad, Sam and Tate fell for each other in only the way that first loves do: sharing all of their hopes, dreams, and deepest secrets along the way. Sam was the first, and only, person that Tate—the long-lost daughter of one of the world’s biggest film stars—ever revealed her identity to. So when it became clear her trust was misplaced, her world shattered for good.

Fourteen years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress, only thinks about her first love every once in a blue moon. When she steps onto the set of her first big break, he’s the last person she expects to see. Yet here Sam is, the same charming, confident man she knew, but even more alluring than she remembered. Forced to confront the man who betrayed her, Tate must ask herself if it’s possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason… and whether “once in a lifetime” can come around twice.

With Christina Lauren’s signature “beautifully written and remarkably compelling” (Sarah J. Maas, New York Times bestselling author) prose and perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner, Twice in a Blue Moon is an unforgettable and moving novel of young love and second chances.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners and the “delectable, moving” (Entertainment WeeklyMy Favorite Half-Night Stand comes a modern love story about what happens when your first love reenters your life when you least expect it…

If you’d checked in with me a year ago, I would have told you that I’d never read anything by the author duo Christina Lauren. Flash forward to the present, and I’ve now finished my 6th novel by them — and it won’t be my last!

Twice in a Blue Moon is such a sweet, engaging love story. We start off fourteen years in the past, as 18-year-old Tate takes a rare vacation with her grandmother to spend two whole weeks in London after Tate’s high school graduation. Tate lives in a  small Northern California town with her mother and grandmother, and has never been anywhere! She’s thrilled at the idea of the adventure ahead of them, especially knowing that this trip is a total splurge for her grandmother.

And then, they meet Sam, a 21-year-old Vermont farm boy traveling with his grandfather Luther. In a switch worthy of A Room With a View, Tate’s grandma is vocally unhappy about their street-view hotel room, so Luther gallantly offers the women a trade. As the four chat, they find lots of common ground, and become travel buddies, enjoying the sights of London together.

And unbeknownst to the grandparents, Sam and Tate have also been sneaking out at night to hang out in the secluded hotel gardens, stargazing and sharing secrets. Tate has a whopper of a secret to share, one that she’s never told anyone: She’s secretly the daughter of Ian Butler, only THE biggest star in Hollywood (I’m thinking Brad Pitt-level superstar), but ever since her mom left her dad when she was 8 years old, Tate has had no contact with him. And while it’s been burned into Tate’s every waking moment that this is a secret that can’t ever be told, she trusts Sam so deeply that she shares the entire story with him… as the two fall deeply into an all-consuming first love.

Of course, it all comes crashing down when Tate discovers that Sam and Luther have checked out of the hotel early, and she proceeds to go outside only to be mobbed by papparazzi. The quiet, anonymous life Tate has treasured is over, and her heart is shattered by Sam’s betrayal.

The story picks up in the present, 14 years later, as 32-year-old Tate, now a successful Hollywood actress, is about to begin filming the movie that may final propel her career from supernatural/action genres into award-level recognition. Plus, the new movie is the first time Tate will be making a movie with her father, and the press is just eating it up. but when she arrives on location, she sees that the screenwriter is none other than Sam, the man who broke her heart so long ago. Tate has to figure out how to pull herself together in her most important career moment without causing a scandal or reverting back into the helpless teenager she left in her past.

Ah, such a terrific story! I think I loved the teen sections even more than the parts about grown-up Tate and Sam. For the first ten chapters, we’re living through a story of first love, and it’s gorgeous. The authors capture the highs and lows of falling in love for the first time, showing the sparks, the wonder, the uncertainty, and then the joy of realizing that feelings are reciprocated, knowing that a connection exists unlike anything else, and feeling so sure that it’s the right time to venture into a physical relationship. All of Tate’s emotions felt spot-on, and I really believed her thought processes as well as the chemistry with Sam and her worries about her future.

I enjoyed the adult storyline as well, but connected with it perhaps a little less. After all, it’s hard to really understand the pressures of a Hollywood star if you’re not actually a part of that world, whereas the ups and downs of first love is pretty universal, I think. Still, the story of the movie-making process, Tate’s emotional investment in the role, and the truth about Sam’s past and his betrayal are all fascinating. I loved the plot of the movie they were filming, and wish the real-life equivalent existed!

Tate’s father is such a piece of work — such a self-involved ass who lives for the camera, and who values his renewed relationship with Tate in exact proportion to the amount of positive press and trending social media posts it generates. And while I kept trying to picture Ian as Brad Pitt or someone of similar star wattage, I couldn’t keep Aaron Echolls out of my mind — the character played by Harry Hamlin on Veronica Mars (my recent obsession), whose personality seems very much in line with Ian’s!

Twice in a Blue Moon is a lovely, funny, emotional read — and while I’m not typically drawn to Hollywood stories, this one had enough grounding in everyday human experiences and emotions to make it relatable and real. Highly recommended! At this point, I will definitely read whatever these authors write next.

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The details:

Title: Twice in a Blue Moon
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

“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.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the deeply-buried truths about themselves. Equal parts classic horror novel and original fairytale, The Bone Houses will have you spellbound from the very first page.

My Thoughts:

Before picking up The Bone Houses, my thoughts were (a) pretty cover!! and (b) yet another zombie story. Well, I was correct about the cover, but The Bone Houses is far from an ordinary book about zombies! In fact, I’d classify this more as a fantasy story than horror, because while there are dead who rise, the story is really about the magical elements and the legacy left behind by the departed fae rulers of the land.

Ryn is a marvelous lead character, strong and dedicated to her family, not afraid to use her axe to defend her town and the people she loves from the dead who rise by night and come into the village. But why are the dead walking, and what do they want? These aren’t your horror movie zombies — there’s no chowing down on the living, for one thing. And while Ryn initially believes that they’re all on the attack, she soon learns that there’s more to them then meets the eye.

Once Ellis arrives, he and Ryn form a partnership to discover what’s really going on and find a way to stop it. There’s more to Ellis’s story than is apparent at first, and as he and Ryn share their stories, both trust and deeper feelings develop between them.

To love someone was to lose them. Whether it was to illness or injury or the passage of time.

It was a risk, to love someone. To do so with the full knowledge that they’d leave someday.

Then to let go of them, when they did.

I loved this book! The magical elements are well done, and there are some ruminations on life and death and the meaning of it all that are quite lovely. Plus, lots of terrific surprises and some truly scary action moments. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The Bones Houses
Author: Emily Lloyd-Jones
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Length: 353 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror/YA
Source: Purchased

Fabulous short treats: A trio of mini-reviews!

These three books delighted me in different ways, so I thought I’d write up a quick post with thoughts on all three.

Title: The Beautifull Cassandra
Author: Jane Austen
Illustrated by: Leon Steinmetz
Release date for this edition: September 11, 2018
Length: 72 pages

Have you read any of Jane Austen’s early writings, collected as her Juvenilia? I hadn’t… but then my daughter sent me this gorgeous edition of The Beautifull Cassandra, a story Austen wrote when she was just twelve years old. It’s a total treat. The story itself is told in 12 chapters, each only a few lines long, with under 500 words in all. The illustrations here are lovely and perfect, and I adored this book so much!

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for an Austen lover, this would make a great choice!

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Title: Snow, Glass, Apples
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: Colleen Doran
Release date: August 20, 2019
Length: 64 pages

I have loved the disturbing short story Snow, Glass, Apples every since reading it in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, so when I heard that an illustrated version was being released this year, I just had to have it.

Wow.

The story is as powerful as ever — taking the fairy tale of Snow White and turning it upside down and inside out. It’s gruesome and scary and disturbing, and gives me a chill right down to my bones.

Add to the power of the story the absolutely stunning illustrations by Colleen Doran… and you have a book that is both beautiful and deeply frightening from start to end.

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Title: Galatea
Author: Madeline Miller
Release date: 2013
Length: 37 pages

After reading and loving both The Song of Achilles and Circe, I knew I had to try this earlier short work by Madeline Miller. As with her other books, the author starts with a premise out of Greek mythology: The sculptor Pygmalion creates a sculpture of a woman so incredibly beautiful that he falls in love with her, and begs the goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life so he can marry her.

In Galatea, we learn what happens next. Sure, Pygmalion got the woman of his dreams — but how does she feel about it? What’s it like to be so completely beholden to your creator, a man who only wants you in still, silent perfection? This story is strange and disturbing, and not easy to put from your mind once you’re done reading. Highly recommended.