Book Review: Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti

Title: Dava Shastri’s Last Day
Author: Kirthana Ramisetti
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: November 30, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this thought-provoking and entertaining debut novel about of a multicultural family, a dying billionaire matriarch leaks news of her death early so she can examine her legacy–a decision that horrifies her children and inadvertently exposes secrets she has spent a lifetime keeping.

Dava Shastri, one of the world’s wealthiest women, has always lived with her sterling reputation in mind. A brain cancer diagnosis at the age of seventy, however, changes everything, as she decides to take her death—like all matters of her life—into her own hands.

Summoning her four adult children to her private island, she discloses shocking news: in addition to having a terminal illness, she has arranged for the news of her death to break early, so she can read her obituaries.

As someone who dedicated her life to the arts and the empowerment of women, Dava expects to read articles lauding her philanthropic work. Instead, her “death” reveals two devastating secrets, truths she thought she had buried forever.

And now the whole world knows, including her children.

In the time she has left, Dava must come to terms with the decisions that have led to this moment—and make peace with those closest to her before it’s too late.

Compassionately written and chock-full of humor and heart, this powerful novel examines public versus private legacy, the complexities of love, and the never-ending joys—and frustrations—of family.

This will sound weird — but I’m tempted to not read any further books for the few days remaining in 2021. Why? So I can end on a high note! I can’t tell you how much I loved Dava Shastri’s Last Day. It feels good to think about ending my reading year with such a terrific 5-star read!

In this sensitive, compelling book, we meet the awesome Dava Shastri at age 70. She’s a world-famous philanthropist, having devoted her adult life to using her billions to support worthwhile causes around the world. She’s also a mother, a grandmother, and a widow, and as the book opens, Dava has called her family to their private island for reasons not yet disclosed.

As the family gathers, she shares her big secret: Dava has terminal cancer, and faced with months of painful treatments that may prolong her life but not sustain it in any sort of quality, she decides to leave on her own terms. A doctor is on stand-by, already on the island. After a final day with her family, Dava will be ending her life via assisted suicide.

The family, naturally, is shocked. They’re even more shocked to learn that Dava’s attorney has already announced her death to the world. Faced with the end, Dava has decided to indulge her curiosity and see how she’s remembered — because hasn’t everyone always wondered about attending their own funeral?

The news, while full of praise for Dava’s generosity, soon turns to gossip and scandal, as a decades-old rumor of an extramarital affair with a rock singer resurfaces in the wake of the death announcements. Dava is dismayed that these old stories have taken over the headlines, so instead of the tributes she expected, she’s faced once again with the rumors she could never quite shake.

As the book progresses, each of Dava’s four adult children tries to come to terms with Dava’s legacy and their own relationships to their powerful, hard-working, often absent mother. In devoting her life to serving others, Dava’s homelife by necessity came second. And while she raised her children to follow in her footsteps and devote themselves to the family foundations and charitable causes, each has to face their own soul-searching to find their purpose in life — and to figure out whether Dava is someone they want to emulate or rebel against.

There are so many lovely moments, as the siblings explore their connections, their own marriages and relationships, and their place in the world. Even the grandchildren have important roles to play, as they get a final chance to learn the truth about their grandmother — who she is, what her life has meant, and what paths she’s blazed for them.

Dava herself is a fascinating character, a self-made woman whose life contains heartbreak and challenge and ultimate success. She often enigmatic, and at first seems to be a woman who places too much emphasis on physical comfort and luxuries, but we soon learn that there’s so much more to this powerful, determined woman.

The one element that rang a little oddly for me is the setting — the main events surround Dava’s last day take place in 2044. I suppose this is so that the author could root some of Dava and her children’s earlier years in our own contemporary times. The fact that it’s 2044 in this book isn’t particularly explored, beyond a couple of references to climate and the ease of accessing Dava’s chosen end-of-life medical treatment.

Other than that, there’s really not a false note in this beautiful book. I loved the characters, the relationships, the secrets that emerge, and the lovely way the stories all tie together by the end.

This would be a fabulous book group selection — there’s so much to think about and discuss!

Dava Shastri’s Last Day seems to have been an under-the-radar release for the end of 2021. Fortunately, I stumbled across a mention of the book in a year-end list, and the beautiful cover caught my eye. I’m so happy to have read this book, and will be sharing it with lots of friends and family.

Book Review: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Title: The Charm Offensive
Author: Alison Cochrun
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.

Full disclosure: I have never, ever watched an episode of The Bachelor. I don’t believe people can find true love via a TV reality dating show. But, grudgingly, I suspended my disbelief in order to read The Charm Offensive, and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

In The Charm Offensive, Charlie makes for an unpredictable and unconventional “prince” for the fairy-tale based dating show Ever After, supposedly the most successful and popular dating show on TV. Charlie is a former tech genius who was fired from his own company. His publicist thinks putting him out there as a romantic lead on a hugely-watched show will rehabilitate his image… and hopefully, make him seem employable again when it’s all over. Are you feeling skeptical about this plan? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, Dev is a production team member of Ever After, tasked with “handling” the twenty women cast as potential love interests for Charlie. But after the initial filming attempt goes horribly, with Charlie barely able to talk on camera, Dev is reassigned to be Charlie’s handler. It’s Dev’s job to prep Charlie for the grueling weeks ahead, getting him into prince mode and making sure he’s ready to be on camera and at the center of attention.

The more time Dev and Charlie spend together, the more their chemistry and connection grow… but not without challenges. Charlie, it becomes clear early on, suffers from debilitating panic attacks and OCD, and he can barely keep things together when he’s under stress, which is pretty much constant on the set of Ever After. Dev deals with recurring depression himself, but his preferred persona is “Fun Dev” — he’s always, always upbeat and on when he’s around his coworkers and the cast, not wanting anyone to see beyond the surface.

Dev is out and proud, but he’s concerned about his growing attraction to the gorgeous Charlie. Charlie is… enigmatic. Because of his differences, Charlie has never seen himself as worthy of love, and he’s never explored romance or sexuality. As he spends time with the women competing for his heart, as well as spending almost 24/7 with Dev, he starts to acknowledge the attraction and the feelings he has — all for Dev. Yet his contract with the show requires him to continue playing out the romantic fantasy with the women competing to be his princess, and as for Dev, his career is on the line if he allows himself to act on his feelings for Charlie.

Charlie and Dev are very sweet together, and they share moments of vulnerability and honesty, as well as some absolutely swoon-worthy kisses. At first glance, the premise of The Charm Offensive makes this book seem like it’ll be mostly airy and light, but there’s actual depth here. Both Charlie and Dev have mental health issues to address, and Charlie is someone who’s neuro-atypical in a world that doesn’t quite know what to make of him or how to make room for him.

Additionally, Charlie hasn’t had an opportunity in his life to ever really consider love or orientation, and it’s refreshing to see the characters in this book talk about the spectrum of ways a person can be, discussing not just straight vs gay, but also delving into demisexuality, being aro/ace, graysexual, and more. There are some deeper moments of soul-searching that enable the characters to move beyond easy definitions and labels and make them feel like well-rounded, well-developed individuals.

The concept of Ever After is so ridiculous that it’s actually really funny, with the contestants competing in quests like rescuing Charlie from a tower and kissing frogs, the prince handing out tiaras at the weekly crowning ceremonies, and even the absolutely vital moment of riding up on a white horse. Still, the nagging little logical part of my brain couldn’t help thinking that there is actually no way that a show like this would cast someone like Charlie, who’s never been on camera, can’t speak publicly, is unbelievably awkward, and has just no game when it comes to the women. I couldn’t buy the idea that the show would gamble on him as its lead — it makes no sense, and it also makes no sense that this is the best idea Charlie’s publicist has for rehabbing his image and getting him another job in tech.

Putting that aside, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about The Charm Offensive. The writing is often very funny:

These are not appropriate morning-yoga thoughts. He tries to focus on things that calm him: Excel spreadsheets, quiet libraries, one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, 90-degree angles.

Dude, except for the 90-degree angles, I so relate.

Also puzzle-themed, I actually think Charlie could be my soulmate in another universe:

“This is your idea of a romantic time?”

… Dev asked Charlie what he would do with his ideal afternoon. So now they’re working on a jigsaw puzzle while watching the first season of The Expanse…

Most of all, Dev and Charlie are both great characters, and I loved seeing their connection grow. This is a sweet, funny, and thoughtful look at love and communication and choosing happiness. The geeky sci-fi and puzzle bits are just icing on the cake!

Audiobook Review: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar

 

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar (with a foreword by Stephen King)
Narrator: Maggie Siff
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Print length: 223 pages
Audiobook length: 4 hours, 37 minutes
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this thrilling sequel to the New York Times bestselling novella by Stephen King and award-winning author Richard Chizmar, an adult Gwendy is summoned back to Castle Rock after the mysterious reappearance of the button box.

Something evil has swept into the small Maine town of Castle Rock on the heels of the latest winter storm. Sheriff Norris Ridgewick and his team are desperately searching for two missing girls, but time is running out.

In Washington, DC, thirty-seven-year-old Gwendy Peterson couldn’t be more different from the self-conscious teenaged girl who once spent a summer running up Castle Rock’s Suicide Stairs. That same summer, she had been entrusted—or some might say cursed—with the extraordinary button box by Richard Farris, the mysterious stranger in the black suit. The seductive and powerful box offered Gwendy small gifts in exchange for its care and feeding until Farris eventually returned, promising the young girl she’d never see the box again.

One day, though, the button box suddenly reappears but this time, without Richard Farris to explain why, or what she’s supposed to do with it. Between this and the troubling disappearances back in Castle Rock, Gwendy decides to return home. She just might be able to help rescue the missing girls and stop a dangerous madman before he does something ghastly.

With breathtaking and lyrical prose, Gwendy’s Magic Feather explores whether our lives are controlled by fate or the choices we make and what price we sometimes have to pay. Prepare to return again to Stephen King’s Castle Rock, the sleepy little town built on a bedrock of deep, dark secrets, just as it’s about to awaken from its quiet slumber once more.

Gwendy is back!

In the 2017 novella Gwendy’s Button Box (reviewed here), we meet teen-aged Gwendy — a young girl whose life is forever changed by the mysterious box entrusted to her by a stranger. The box doles out treats and rewards, but also has the power to cause very, very bad things to happen.

In this 2nd book, Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Gwendy is all grown-up. After becoming a bestselling author, Gwendy became determined to make a change in the world, and is now a US Congresswoman. While her photojournalist husband flies around the world to cover developments in war zones, Gwendy works hard in her DC office. She’s had a successful life and has made real achievements, but always wonders: How much of what she’s accomplished did she do herself, and how much is thanks to the box?

She’s shocked and horrified when the box suddenly reappears in her life, right before her return to Castle Rock for Christmas with her parents. She has enough worries in her life already — her mother has recently finished cancer treatments, her husband is halfway around the world in the midst of a rebel uprising, it’s the eve of Y2K, and the hardliner new President seems to be blustering his way toward war. Tucking the box into her carry-on, Gwendy heads home, but the power and temptation of the box is never far from her mind.

While Gwendy’s Button Box was co-authored by Chizmar and King, in Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Chizmar is flying solo. And honestly, it still feels very King-like! There’s mounting tension, a small town with secrets and bizarre occurrences, weird happenings that may be supernatural, but also plenty of ordinary humans going about their business and having better or worse days than usual.

Gwendy is a terrific character, and it’s so interesting to see how her life developed after her eventful and traumatic teens. I’m glad I got around to this book, as #3 — Gwendy’s Final Task — will be published in May 2022. This new book will be the final in the Gwendy trilogy, and appears to be full novel-length, as well as co-written once again by Chizmar and King.

I listened to the audiobook of Gwendy’s Magic Feather, and loved it. Maggie Siff (Tara from Sons of Anarchy) is the narrator, and her voice is just perfect for Gwendy’s story.

This is a terrific 2nd book in a fascinating trilogy, and I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up!

Book Review: The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Vanished Days
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; hardcover purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the autumn of 1707, old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England. At the same time, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to bring the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.

Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun paying out money sent up from London to settle the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier–an ill-fated venture that left Scotland all but bankrupt.

When the young widow of a Darien sailor comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged. One of the men assigned to investigate has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are blinding him to the truth.

The Vanished Days is a prequel and companion novel to The Winter Sea, with action that overlaps some of the action in that book. The Vanished Days goes back in time to the 1680s and introduces the reader to the Moray and Graeme families.

I’ve loved every one of Susanna’s books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters–sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!–DIANA GABALDON, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

From international bestselling author Susanna Kearsley comes a historical tale of intrigue and revolution in Scotland, where the exile of King James brought plots, machinations, suspicion and untold bravery to light. An investigation of a young widow’s secrets by a man who’s far from objective, leads to a multi-layered tale of adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.

Susanna Kearsley is a go-to author for me, but sadly The Vanished Days did not quite live up to my expectations.

The Vanished Days loosely connects to the wonderful book The Winter Sea — the timelines of the two books overlap, and some key players from The Winter Sea either appear in The Vanished Days or get a substantial mention. There’s even a quick appearance by the descendant of characters from another of the author’s books, Mariana (which I also loved).

The Vanished Days is narrated by Adam Williamson, a young sergeant temporarily staying at the home of his former captain. The action is centered in Edinburgh in 1707, when Adam is asked to stand in for his friend in carrying out an official inquiry into a woman claiming to be the widow of a man lost during the ill-fated Scottish colonization attempt at Darien (in Central America).

The woman’s name is Lily, and she claims to have been secretly married to a man named Jamie Graeme, descendent of a prestigious, well-known family with suspected Jacobite ties. Lily produces a marriage certificate, but the witnesses to the document are deceased and there are no friends or family members who would have known about the marriage. As Adam begins to investigate, we learn more about Lily’s history through scenes going back to the 1680s, as Lily shares the sad story of her childhood and beyond.

Woven throughout the story as well are political machinations and highly dangerous scheming related to the Jacobite cause, which all contribute to Lily’s current situation — the unraveling of which proves to be much more complicated and potentially dangerous than seemed likely when the investigation first began.

While there are many episodes and elements that I enjoyed about the story, an overall sense of disconnect and overabundance of details made this a confusing read. I had a hard time keeping the historical elements straight, not to mention the lengthy and intricate descriptions of Edinburgh’s neighborhoods and streets and landmarks.

Clearly, the author has done a tremendous amount of research for this book, and her mastery of the time and place is clear. Unfortunately, the piling on of detail doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading. I never felt that I had a terrific grasp of the characters’ inner lives, and this became especially problematic toward the end of the book, when certain revelations that should have had bigger impacts just left me shrugging. If I’d been more invested or felt like I had a better sense of these characters’ motivations and connections, I suspect I might have been blown away.

Still, there are set-pieces and elements of the story that are more successful than others. A big section of Lily’s younger years has a Dickensian feel to it, as she falls in with a found family composed of a petty criminal and the orphans he adopts to further his criminal pursuits. I liked a lot about this, but still struggled to feel that the overall book represented a cohesive whole.

I do love Susanna Kearsley’s books — I wonder if part of my disconnect with this one has to do with the timeline of the setting. In pretty much every other book of hers that I’ve read, there’s been a dual timeline, with a contemporary story interwoven with a historical one. In The Vanished Days, there are once again two timelines, but both are historical and within a relatively short span from one another. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t feel as strong a connection to the material, maybe because I lacked a more accessible entry point.

I don’t regret reading The Vanished Days by any means — but by comparison, I’ve re-read many of the author’s earlier books, and I can’t see myself returning to this one.

Book Review: Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Title: Wish You Were Here
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: November 30, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a deeply moving novel about the resilience of the human spirit in a moment of crisis.

Diana O’Toole is perfectly on track. She will be married by thirty, done having kids by thirty-five, and move out to the New York City suburbs, all while climbing the professional ladder in the cutthroat art auction world. She’s not engaged just yet, but she knows her boyfriend, Finn, a surgical resident, is about to propose on their romantic getaway to the Galápagos—days before her thirtieth birthday. Right on time.

But then a virus that felt worlds away has appeared in the city, and on the eve of their departure, Finn breaks the news: It’s all hands on deck at the hospital. He has to stay behind. You should still go, he assures her, since it would be a shame for all of their nonrefundable trip to go to waste. And so, reluctantly, she goes.

Almost immediately, Diana’s dream vacation goes awry. The whole island is now under quarantine, and she is stranded until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, she must venture beyond her comfort zone. Slowly, she carves out a connection with a local family when a teenager with a secret opens up to Diana, despite her father’s suspicion of outsiders.

Diana finds herself examining her relationships, her choices, and herself—and wondering if when she goes home, she too will have evolved into someone completely different.

How you feel about Wish You Were Here will be almost completely dependent on whether you feel ready for a deep-dive into living through the early months of the COVID pandemic via fiction. For me, my overriding response was — it’s too soon. And I suspect many readers will feel this way as well.

In Wish You Were Here, Diana has a career on the cusp of a huge success, a wonderful boyfriend, and a life carefully planned out. Then COVID happens. Diana and her boyfriend Finn had a dream vacation to the Galapagos planned for March 2020, when the book opens. But Finn, a resident at a New York hospital, has his time off cancelled as the virus begins to escalate and New York moves into crisis mode. Since the vacation was already paid for, Finn insists that Diana go anyway, and she agrees.

As Diana arrives at her destination, she’s moving against the flow. Tourists are scrambling to get the last ferry back as the island Diana is heading toward closes down. Still, she’s there already, with a prepaid hotel reservation. Might as well keep going! When she arrives, though, even the hotel has closed, the town seems to be shut down, and Diana — without her luggage, with minimal cash, and no knowledge of Spanish — is stranded.

But as time passes, with only spotty cell reception and inconsistent access to Wi-fi, Diana finds refuge with a local woman and her family, a troubled teen girl and the girl’s father Gabriel, a former tour guide. As this family takes Diana under their wing, she finds connection with them, and grows to love her time on the island, even as she becomes increasingly disturbed by her inability to contact Finn, only occasionally getting email downloads that include his frantic, troubled descriptions of working day and night in the heart of a crisis.

This book is… a lot. Finn’s emails are just too real — I had family members working in New York hospitals in the thick of things last year, and re-experiencing the description of the crisis via fiction is difficult and unpleasant. Not to say that Jodi Picoult is any less than the terrific storyteller she always is — just that there’s way too much realism in this book to make it work as an escape of any sort.

I enjoyed the descriptions of life in the Galapagos, although I marveled at Diana’s incredibly poor decision-making, especially deciding to go forward with staying on the island while every other tourist with sense was leaving. She was fortunate to find people willing to help her, and I couldn’t help but doubt that in real life, things would have gone as smoothly as they did.

There is a twist, and it’s a BIG one, at about 60%… and I don’t know why I was so surprised. I mean, I HAVE read Jodi Picoult books before. I should have remembered that there’s always a twist. I didn’t see this one coming, and it’s a doozy… and I won’t say anything further about it or talk about the rest of the book, because I think it’s worth reading this book in as unspoiled a state as possible. (That said, I imagine that many reviews will spoil the twist up front, so I recommend avoiding those or proceeding with caution.)

Wish You Were Here is in many ways a rumination on finding joy in life, in being present, and about learning and reconnecting with what truly matters. In the heart of a pandemic, in a time with fear running rampant and isolation a key factor of life, it’s connections and purpose and love that matter, not the next meeting or work project or purchase. All this is encapsulated in Diana’s experiences, and while none of her revelations are earth-shatteringly new, they’re still presented in a way that feels affirming and hopeful.

As I said, for me, Wish You Were Here was too current to make for an enjoyable reading experience. The details on experiencing COVID, from the perspectives of health care workers and survivors and families of people who lost their lives, feel ripped from the headlines — and that, I think, is where I struggled with this book. I’ve spent the past year and half reading the newspapers and watching coverage and being inundated with COVID discussions; reading fiction with the same subject is not at all relaxing.

Maybe if this book were to be handed to me in five years, I might feel differently. As of now, despite the book being highly readable and the fact that I was interested in the characters and how their lives would turn out, I can’t say that I’m glad to have read it. Mostly, it felt like a return to a recent bad dream, and I struggled at times to stick with it — not because it’s not well-written (it most assuredly is), but because I’m just not ready to receive COVID stories as entertainment, no matter how seriously it’s presented or how good the intentions.

As I wrote at the start, I think for each reader, it’ll come down to a question of whether it’s too soon to read a COVID novel. For me, it was. Your mileage may vary.

Book Review: Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Velvet Was the Night
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: August 17, 2021
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Noir/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a “delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir” about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find.

1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.

Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.

Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.

Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.

Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes. 

I’ll keep this brief: Velvet Was the Night is an atmospheric noir dive into Mexico City of the early 1970s, a time of student uprisings, police and secret forces and foreign agents, class divisions and criminal underworlds and anarchic collectives. Into this setting, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia inserts a tale of a missing person, a lonely young woman who gets in over her head, and the young thug who dreams of a more glamorous life, set to the tune of great American crooners like Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin.

Maite is 30 years old, an unmarried secretary looked down upon by her family, who finds delight in old records and romantic serial comics, and who secretly steals small tokens from her neighbors in order to find a source of vicarious excitement in her otherwise lonely and uneventful life.

When her neighbor Leonora asks Maite to look after her cat for a few days, she has no idea that soon she’ll be questioned by thugs, government agents, and Leonora’s ex-lover, all searching for film that Leonora might have left behind — photos of police brutality at a student protest. Out of annoyance at Leonora’s disappearance — leaving her behind with an unwanted cat and without her promised payments — Maite begins to try to track down Leonora, but soon finds herself caught up in a tightening web of criminals and spies, somehow envisioning herself living within a romantic adventure story without truly realizing the danger she’s in.

Meanwhile, Elvis is an enforcer with the Hawks, secretive cells of young goons who infiltrate protests and student collectives on behalf of the government, to squash political activism and threaten those who step out of line, using brutality and any means necessary to achieve their goals. Elvis has nothing else in his life, but he dreams of rising out of this seedy life to a position where he can be respected and can enjoy fine music and beautiful things.

Maite and Elvis’s paths eventually cross, as the tension builds, and each discovers hidden links about Leonora and her connections.

The storytelling embraces the grittiness of a noir setting, while bringing to life the feel of 1970s Mexico City. Through the characters, we get a good feel of the economics and politics of the time, as well as the casual way an otherwise uninvolved person can stumble into intrigue and mortal danger.

I did find the political elements and names of the various secrets forces somewhat confusing, not being particularly familiar with the history of that place and time. I was able to follow along well enough, but occasionally felt like I was missing something.

Velvet Was the Night is action-oriented, yet also conveys a well-defined character study of two very different people, Elvis and Maite, showing their inner lives, their thwarted dreams, and their overwhelming loneliness.

I enjoyed the book, especially because I listened to the audio version, with great narration by Gisela Chipe. At times, I felt the constant car chases and fistfights and scenes of intimidation were too much, and it was much too obvious where the hidden photos were, but overall, this is an entertaining read/listen — a book with a setting that’s very different from most of the other reading I did in 2021.

Book Review: A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw

Title: A History of Wild Places
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: December 7, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind. 

Author Shea Ernshaw has two previously published YA novels (including Winterwood, reviewed here). In A History of Wild Places, her adult debut, her powerful writing once again provides for a compelling read.

We open with Travis Wren, a man whose gift enables him to see visions of people’s pasts through touching items they’ve left behind. At the end of his rope after a series of personal misfortunes, he takes one last missing persons job, to search for bestselling children’s author Maggie St. James, who disappeared without a trace five years earlier. As Travis follows a trail of clues into the remote woods of Northern California, he finds evidence of an isolated community, then disappears himself.

As the story continues, the plot focuses on Pastoral, the isolated community that Travis had stumbled across some years earlier. Within the world of Pastoral, the community lives in harmony, led by their leader Levi, enjoying back-to-nature living, the beauty of their surroundings, self-sufficiency, and a simpler way of life. The drawback, however, is that no one enters or leaves Pastoral, not since an infection in the forest surrounding the community threatens to kill or infect anyone who steps across the boundary.

For Theo, his wife Calla, and her sister Bee, it’s a quiet but joy-filled life, with simple pleasures and routines, marred only by the fear of the pox lurking in the woods and even in a rainfall. They’re content in their lives together, even knowing that there are external threats and limits.

Our clothes are in endless need of mending, of stitching, an ongoing effort to make everything last for one more season.

Whatever we have is all there will ever be.

There’s an ominous sense hanging over Pastoral. The residents love one another and admire their leader, but the fear of contamination pervades everything they do, and they are essentially trapped within their own borders. Those who’ve tried to leave have been found dead or dying, bearing distinct signs of the pox. It’s quite clear that leaving equates to death, and that the people of Pastoral must accept their fate, to live permanently where they are, with what they have.

Events take a more dire turn when a baby is born prematurely. The infant will not survive with medical help, but there’s none to be had. Venturing to the nearest town to bring back help might save the baby, but would doom the entire community by introducing outside infection. The community’s split reaction to getting help precipitates a more dangerous turn of events, and this leads to Theo, Calla, and Bee each questioning what they know and what they think they know.

The cobwebs of tiny mistruths, little papercut deceptions, rooted in our joints and slung between rib bones.

How does this relate back to Maggie and Travis? I won’t tell, but trust me, the explanations and answers are fascinating.

I loved the moodiness of the entire novel. The author does a masterful job of portraying both the natural peace and beauty of Pastoral and its paranoia and fear. There’s a sense of impending danger in even the most ordinary of scenes.

No matter where you go, there are cracks in the plaster, nails coming loose, you just have to decide where you want to piece yourself back together. Where the ground feels sturdiest beneath your feet.

Likewise, I really appreciated the unfolding character arcs throughout the novel, as the characters learn more about themselves and their own secrets, as well as the bigger mysteries and secrets surrounding Pastoral as a whole.

The resolution is well-earned, with surprising twists that are justified by the build-up. Pretty much the only piece of this book that didn’t quite ring true for me has to do with Maggie’s novels, which are described as a bestselling children’s series — but based on the excerpts included in the book, I couldn’t get the appeal or why they’d be so influential. Maybe we just don’t see enough of them to get the full picture.

I’d definitely recommend A History of Wild Places. The writing is beautiful and evocative, and the plot is full of intricate characters and sharp twists. A can’t-put-it-down reading experience!

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Audiobook Review: Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophia Cousens

Title: Just Haven’t Met You Yet
Author: Sophie Cousens
Narrator: Charlotte Beaumont
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of This Time Next Year comes a heartwarming and hilarious tale that asks: What if you pick up the wrong suitcase in an airport, only to fall head over heels for its unseen owner?

Laura’s business trip to the Channel Islands isn’t exactly off to a great start. After unceremoniously dumping everything in her bag in front of the most attractive man she’s ever seen in real life, she arrives at her hotel only to realize she’s grabbed the wrong suitcase from the airport. Her only consolation? The irresistibly appealing contents of the case: a copy of her favorite book; piano music; and a rugged, heavy knit fisherman sweater only a Ryan Gosling lookalike could pull off. The owner of this suitcase is Laura’s dream man–she’s sure of it. Now, all she has to do is find him.

The mix-up seems written in the stars. After all, what are the odds that she’d find The One on the same remote island where her mom and dad had first fallen in love, especially as she sets out to write an article about their epic romance? Commissioning surly cab driver Ted to ferry her around seems like her best bet in both tracking down the mystery suitcase owner and retracing her parents’ footsteps. And if beneath Ted’s gruffness lies a wit that makes their cab rides strangely entertaining, so much the better. But as Laura’s long-lost luggage soulmate proves difficult to find–and as she realizes that the love story she’s held on a pedestal all her life might not have been that perfect–she’ll have to rethink her whole outlook on love to discover what she really wants. 

In Just Haven’t Met You Yet, main character Laura’s belief in meant-to-be true love fuels her professional success, but leaves her constantly dissatisfied in every romantic relationship. Laura writes and produces segments on how couples met, swooning over chance encounters that seem like destiny. She was also raised with the ultimate story of written-in-the-stars love — her parents met one summer when her mother tracked down the other half of an old coin that was in her family’s possession, and through the coin, met Laura’s father. Laura grew up with her parents’ beautiful love story as a model for how love should really be.

When Laura needs a story to pitch at work, she lands on an idea related to her own past: Retracing her parents’ love story by going to the island of Jersey and following in their footsteps, recreating all the magical elements of that special summer when they first feel in love. Sadly, her parents’ marriage was cut short by her father’s tragic death when Laura was three years old, and Laura is still grieving her mother’s death only two years prior to the start of this story, but she believes that visiting Jersey will help her feel closer to her parents and may even help her find closure and a way to move forward.

What Laura doesn’t expect is to land in a meet-cute of her own. Arriving at her hotel in Jersey after a tense cab drive with a driver she was rude to, Laura discovers that she grabbed the wrong suitcase at the airport. But as she looks inside the suitcase to find the true owner’s identity, she seems to discover the man of her dreams — a copy of her favorite book, sheet music for songs by her favorite singer, the perfect fisherman’s sweater, a thoughtful gift for the suitcase owner’s mother… every single item manages to check her boxes for her perfect match.

Laura embarks on a search for the suitcase owner, at the same time being ferried around the island by the same grumpy cab driver. Hijinks ensue, lost family members share secrets, and Laura finds herself torn between a man who’s perfect on paper and another who seems to grab her heart.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is light-hearted and fun, with silly, goofy moments interspersed with more introspective interludes. Laura has a lot to sort out, between coming to a clearer understanding of her parents’ relationship to figuring out her own professional priorities to trying to untangle what makes a true soul mate.

My patience for Laura’s adventure was sorely tested at points, as she makes a series of ridiculous decisions that may have been intended to be endearing, but to me, just make her seem idiotically immature. Those scenes threatened to ruin my enjoyment of the book, but fortunately, there are enough other elements that are more charming and engaging, so ultimately I just overlooked the more ridiculous interludes.

The action of the book takes place mainly over one weekend, making the finding-true-love scenario feel somewhat implausible… but because this is such a breezy story, I was happy to just accept it, realistic or not, and go along for the ride.

I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed this book as much in print — but the audiobook experience is really fun. The banter and silliness comes across quite well, and I really liked the characters’ conversations and funny dialogue.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is not at all a serious book — but if you’re looking for light entertainment with a romantic angle, this one works!

Book Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Title: Winter’s Orbit
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

Ugh, ignore the bit in the synopsis about Ancillary Justice meeting Red, White & Royal Blue. I assume that’s just meant to make sure anyone who glances at this book knows that (1) it’s in space! and (b) there’s a royal match between two male characters. But there’s so much more to this book, and it’s worth looking beyond marketing blurbs to learn more.

Winter’s Orbit takes place in the Iskat Empire, seven planets bound together by treaties and ruled by the Emperor from the system’s dominant planet Iskat. The Empire, though, is but a small system in the known universe, which is ruled by the Resolution and accessed by the Iskat Empire through one single space/time link. (Bear with me.)

Every twenty years, the Empire re-ups with the Resolution through a formal ceremony. Without the official reestablishment of the treaty, the Iskat Empire would be on its own, unprotected, and subject to invasion by the powerful armies of the huge conglomerates that control other galaxies. In other words, the Resolution treaty is vital to the Empire’s survival.

A key piece of the treaty renewal is passing muster by the Resolution’s Auditor, an inspector who comes to verify that the planets of the Empire are maintaining their treaties with Iskat appropriately and without conflict. And here’s where the person-focused aspects of the plot come into play.

Treaties within the Empire are cemented by political marriages. In the case of the small planet Thea, it’s through the marriage of Thean representative Jainan to Prince Taam of Iskat’s royal family. When Taam is killed in an accident only months before the treaty renewal, it’s imperative that a new political marriage is arranged. Enter Prince Kiem, the ne’er-do-well, dissolute, party boy of the royal family. He’s not at all interested in a political marriage, particularly to the grieving partner of his dead cousin, but duty calls — and it’s an order directly from the Emperor, so really, there’s no choice.

Where Winter’s Orbit is at its best is in the depiction of Kiem and Jainan’s relationship, from its awkward beginning through all sorts of turmoil and misunderstanding, until finally they break through their miscommunications and cross-purposes and start to truly talk to one another.

Kiem and Jainan are both complex characters, and they alternate POV chapters, so we get to know their inner workings, their doubts and fears, well before either of them start to grasp what the other is experiencing. It works very well — even though we readers may cringe at how badly they’re bungling their attempts to connect, it helps that we’re let into their thoughts and feelings and understand WHY they’re having such a hard time.

If you strip away the sci-fi trappings, in many ways this book can be compared to any novel about arranged marriages. Whether it’s the Tudor reign or books about imperial Japan or any other powerful dynastic settings, there’s something compelling and awful about people’s lives being used for political advantage, but it’s certainly been a reality for generations. I think this is why Winter’s Orbit works so well. It’s not an alien concept to think that Kiem and Jainan’s feelings about a forced marriage would not count — the partnership is for alliance and control and political purposes. Feelings are secondary, if even that.

Given that context, I loved the developing emotional connection between Kiem and Jainan. They’re each wonderful, and I really appreciated the sweetness of their growing bonds and their consideration of one another. The book also explores issues of abuse and trauma, and handles it very well, sensitively showing how it affects the pair’s attempts at connection and intimacy.

The more external plot, about conspiracies and political maneuvering, assassination attempts, rogue military officers, and more, is fast-paced and has plenty of action. There’s never a dull moment.

However… I do wish the world-building in this book had been better explained. You can see by my clumsy attempts at plot summary above that the greater world of Winter’s Orbit is complicated, and we’re thrown into the action from the start, having to piece together the significance of the Empire’s structure, the Resolution, the Auditor, the remnants, and more. To be honest, I’m not sure how much I got it all. I had to make a conscious decision not to worry about the details and just focus on the people aspects, but still, there are pieces that did (and still do) confuse me, and I feel like a little more exposition early on would have helped a great deal.

Beyond that issue, though, I greatly enjoyed Winter’s Orbit. The characters and their relationship are terrific, there’s a low-key explanation of how gender identity works in this world that I found very interesting, and the plot does maintain strong tension in the key dramatic moments.

This is a strong debut by a talented author, and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

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Audiobook Review: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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