Shelf Control #264: The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Other Family
Author: Loretta Nyhan
Published: 2020
Length: 285 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the bestselling author of Digging In comes a witty and moving novel about motherhood, courage, and finding true family.

With a dissolving marriage, strained finances, and her life in flux, Ally Anderson longs for normal. Her greatest concerns, though, are the health problems of her young daughter, Kylie. Symptoms point to a compromised immune system, but every doctor they’ve seen has a different theory. Then comes hope for some clarity.

It’s possible that Kylie’s illness is genetic, but Ally is adopted. A DNA test opens up an entirely new path. And where it leads is a surprise: to an aunt Ally never knew existed. She’s a little wild, very welcoming, and ready to share more of the family history than Ally ever imagined.

Coping with a skeptical soon-to-be-ex husband, weathering the cautions of her own resistant mother, and getting maddeningly close to the healing Kylie needs, Ally is determined to regain control of her life. This is her chance to embrace uncertainty and the beauty of family—both the one she was born into and the one she chose.

How and when I got it:

I seem to have added a lot of e-books to my Kindle collection in 2020. Hmm, why would that be? This is a 2020 title that must have been offered at a price break at some point, so I grabbed a copy.

Why I want to read it:

There’s something about the description that really appeals to me. First off, I have a daughter with a chronic illness that results in a compromised immune system, so this aspect of the plot immediately makes me feel sympathetic toward the characters and makes me want to know more.

On top of that, the discovered-family element is quickly becoming a favorite trope for me. Having recently read one memoir and one novel where the secrets uncovered by DNA testing shake families up, I’m very interested in seeing how this plays out in different scenarios. In this case, having the health history elements seems to add another layer to the discovery, and I’m so curious to see how it all plays out.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!



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Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!

Audiobook Review: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop by Jenny Colgan

Title: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2013
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 31 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rosie Hopkins is looking forward to Christmas in the little Derbyshire village of Lipton, buried under a thick blanket of snow. Her sweetshop is festooned with striped candy canes, large tempting piles of Turkish Delight, crinkling selection boxes and happy, sticky children. She’s going to be spending it with her boyfriend, Stephen, and her family, flying in from Australia. She can’t wait.

But when a tragedy strikes at the heart of their little community, all of Rosie’s plans for the future seem to be blown apart. Can she build a life in Lipton? And is what’s best for the sweetshop also what’s best for Rosie?

A Christmas-themed book is such a non-typical reading choice for me — unless it’s a book by Jenny Colgan, and especially if it includes favorite characters and is a follow-up to a favorite book!

I absolutely adored Sweetshop of Dreams, and just needed to keep main character Rosie in my life a little longer, so naturally, I couldn’t resist starting Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop right away.

This 2nd book in the series (it’s a trilogy) picks up about a year after the events in the first book. Rosie is happily settled in the little town of Lipton, running the town sweetshop, living with her beloved boyfriend Stephen, and feeling happier than she’s ever felt in her her life.

As Christmas approaches, things are looking good. Rosie’s family is about to arrive from Australia (although she hasn’t quite gotten around to telling Stephen yet). Stephen has just started his dream job teaching at the little local primary school. They’re happy in their cozy cottage, and Rosie is relieved to know that her great-aunt Lillian is happy too in her retirement home, where she merrily raises holy hell amongst the old folks and is as feisty as ever.

But tragedy strikes due to a freak accident that injures Stephen and threatens the future of Lipton’s school. As Stephen recovers and Rosie’s family hits town, tensions rise and eventually come to a head. Meanwhile, because of the accident, an elderly man suffering from dementia ends up in Lipton, and appears to have connections to the town that no one could have imagined.

Once again, Jenny Colgan’s book strikes just the right note of joy and love, while blending in dramatic complications and moments of fear. The tensions play out throughout the plot, but we readers can rest easy knowing that the author would never truly leave us in devastation. There are sweet secrets revealed, plenty of feel-good family moments, adorableness from small children, dramatic rescues, and plenty of romantic highlights too.

As the 2nd book in a trilogy, Christmas at Rosie Hopkin’s Sweetshop left me very happy, but also eager to read more about these characters — most of who I’d like to either hang out with or give big hugs to, or both.

This was a quick and cheery listen that also packs in emotional moments and enough worries and sorrow to keep it from going too far over the line into a nonstop sugary utopia. I’ve loved both books about Rosie, and need to start #3 immediately! Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

Title: Sweetshop of Dreams
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Beverley A. Crick
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: 2012
Print length: 422 pages
Audio length: 12 hours 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A delicious rom-com about finding yourself and breaking out of routines, The Sweetshop of Dreams is full of tempting desserts, family secrets, and second chances.

Rosie Hopkins has gotten used to busy London life. It’s…comfortable. And though she might like a more rewarding career, and her boyfriend’s not exactly the king of romance, Rosie’s not complaining. And when she visits her Aunt Lilian’s small country village to help sort out her sweetshop, she expects it to be dull at best.

Lilian Hopkins has spent her life running Lipton’s sweetshop, through wartime and family feuds. When her great-niece Rosie arrives to help her with the shop, the last thing Lillian wants to slow down and wrestle with the secret history hidden behind the jars of beautifully colored sweets.

But as Rosie gets Lilian back on her feet, breathes a new life into the candy shop, and gets to know the mysterious and solitary Stephen–whose family seems to own the entire town–she starts to think that settling for what’s comfortable might not be so great after all.

A one-sentence review: I loved this audiobook!

Need more?

Jenny Colgan’s books inevitably lift my spirits and get me deeply involved in her characters’ lives, and Sweetshop of Dreams is no exception.

Rosie is an auxiliary nurse, working busy hospital shifts and living in a small London flat with her boyfriend Gerard, who’s maybe a little too comfortable with their living arrangements. She thinks he’ll propose… eventually… but meanwhile, it’s been years, and he seems perfectly content with the status quo.

But after Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian injures her hip, Rosie’s mother Angie asks her to go stay with Lilian for a little while. Someone needs to get Lilian moved into a care facility and get her ancient sweetshop prepped for sale. And since Angie is currently living in Australia with Rosie’s brother’s family, it falls on Rosie to see to the family obligations in England.

Off Rosie goes to the small country village of Lipton, thinking she’ll be in and out in a matter of weeks. What she finds, though, is that Lilian’s shop hasn’t been opened in a few years, and that Lilian herself is underfed and weak, having stubbornly refused outside help or to leave her cozy little cottage. Rosie dives in, tending to Lilian and cleaning up and reopening the shop — because how can she put it on the market to sell unless she can demonstrate that it’s a viable business?

The longer Rosie stays in Lipton, the more she becomes involved in village life. Even though she sticks out like a sore thumb at first, with her city ways and clothes that can’t withstand the country weather, she eventually makes friends and finds a new purpose in life.

In a dual-timeline approach, we also get little snippets of Lilian’s life during the 1940s, as the young men of the village head to war and Lilian helps her father with the sweetshop. Through these flashbacks, we learn about why Lilian has been alone all these years and what caused the heartbreak she experienced so long ago.

Rosie is a lovely character, upbeat and curious and not afraid to jump in when a pair of hands are needed. Although she’s there for the shop and for Lilian, she also becomes friends with the village doctor, who involves Rosie in his most challenging case — which leads to a whole new set of possibilities for Rosie after she finally dumps her city boyfriend.

I really enjoyed Lilian as a character as well, and found myself so moved by her backstory and her experiences. The book treats Lilian with great respect as she ages, and I found her relationship with Rosie to be just so sweet and lovely.

And the sweetshop!!! Can I just say right now that I’d love to live inside it for a year or so? It sounds so bright and wonderful, full of nostalgic treats and joy and happiness. This book makes village life seem like something idyllic and peaceful and funny and wonderful.

The audiobook narrator, Beverley A. Crick, does a terrific job with Rosie and Lillian, but also masterfully conveys the voices and personalities of the other village residents, from small schoolboy to grumpy old farmers. Listening to this book was such a treat!

Sweetshop of Dreams does include a love story for Rosie, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the sole focus of the book. Instead, this book is a sweet mix of romance, quirky characters, family bonds, and a celebration of community, and it’s utterly enjoyable.

As with the best of Jenny Colgan’s books, Sweetshop of Dreams kept me enchanted by the setting and the people, and left me wanting to spend more time with all of these characters. Luckily for me, there’s a follow-up Christmas book (Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop), and while I don’t normally read Christmas books, I just can’t resist this one!

Audiobook Review: Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

Title: Meg & Jo
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Shannon McManus, Karissa Vacker
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The timeless classic Little Women inspired this heartwarming modern tale of four sisters from New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.

Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.

One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

And a Little Women retelling wouldn’t be nearly as convincing if it didn’t start with that memorable opening line!

Dangle a Little Women retelling in front of me, and naturally I’m going to read it. And while Meg & Jo has been on my TBR for a while now, I finally got the motivation to dive in thanks to my book group, since this is our February pick.

In Meg & Jo, the March sisters are all grown up and living their own lives. Meg has settled into married life with her husband John and their adorable two-year-old twins, staying put in the family home town in North Carolina. Jo moved to New York years back to pursue a journalism career, but after being laid off from her newspaper job, she’s working as a prep cook at a fancy restaurant while secretly writing a food blog. Beth is in school studying music, and Amy has an internship in the fashion world.

Meg & Jo is narrated in alternating chapters by (obviously) Meg and Jo, and it’s their stories that are the focus of this book. (Beth and Amy are still there, mostly in the background and in their occasional appearances as they visit home, but they’re not POV characters in this book.)

As the book progresses, we learn that neither Meg nor Jo is truly leading their best lives. Meg is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband gave up his teaching and coaching job to work at a car dealership so he could better support their growing family once they found out Meg was pregnant. Neither one is entirely happy. Sure, they love each other and their children, but Meg pressures herself to do it all as payback for John working so hard, not realizing how she’s shutting him out and denying him the opportunity to be a true partner. Meanwhile, John is working at a job that means nothing to him, and can’t bring himself to talk to Meg about it. The communication problems between Meg and John are the central challenge they face.

As for Jo, her blog is doing well, but she’s frustrated. She likes working in the restaurant, but it’s not exactly advancing her writing career. As the story progresses, she falls into a romantic relationship with Eric, the renowned chef and owner of the restaurant, but secrets and a lack of clear intention seem to doom the romance before it can really bloom.

Complicating Meg and Jo’s separate lives further is family drama back home. The March parents live on the farm passed down through Abby’s (Marmee’s) side of the family. Abby runs the farm and the home herself, while her husband Ashton seems to devote all his time to his calling, serving as chaplain and counselor to military vets. When Abby becomes injured, her farm duties fall to Meg — and once Meg takes over, she starts to realize the precariousness of the farm’s future.

As the sisters return home for their mother’s recuperation and for the holidays, they come together to support and love one another. Secrets are revealed, there are plenty of surprises, and ultimately, there are promises of future happiness for Meg and Jo.

So… did I enjoy Meg & Jo? Yes, for sure! It took some getting used to, but seeing the March family transplanted into modern-day lives was quite fun and for the most part, really engaging. I did want to give Meg a good shake from time to time — it was so obvious to me that her attempts to take the household burdens off of John were actually alienating him. The book does a good job of showing how she was modeling her approach to doing it all on what she saw in her own parents’ marriage and internalized as the way things should work, and I was actually proud of Meg when she finally started to understand that accepting John as a true partner was the key to their future happiness.

Jo could be pretty clueless about certain things, and OF COURSE keeping her blog a secret was going to come back to bite her. I had a hard time believing some of the fallout, good and bad, once her secret came out. I did like her relationship with Eric, although I would have liked to see it given a little more time to grow before the big blow-up.

Beth and Amy seem to be basically true to their Little Women depictions, although (150-year-old spoiler alert!) Beth is alive and well in Meg & Jo! I held my breath for about half the book, waiting for her to develop a horrible illness, but thankfully, the book didn’t go there. Beth is gentle and sweet, very shy, and is committed to her musical career. Amy is spoiled, flighty, and impulsive, just as you’d expect.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Amy calling Jo out on trying to put them all into boxes, reminding Jo that in real life, people aren’t just one thing. I loved that their argument started over Pride and Prejudice – Jo sees Meg as Jane, and herself as Lizzie — but what roles does that leave for Beth and Amy? Amy rightfully resents that Jo can’t see her as anything but the pampered, entitled child she once knew. I loved the coming to terms that starts to occur between the sisters.

Another big difference between Little Women and Meg & Jo is how the March parents are depicted, especially the father. In Little Women, Mr. March is largely absent, off in the war and doing God’s work. They miss him terribly, but know he’s following an important path and never seem to resent him. In Meg & Jo, Mr. March comes off as kind of a jerk, at least when it comes to being a husband and father. Yes, he has a calling to tend to the men and women who are suffering after giving so much to their country — but he absolutely neglects his family in order to do so, leaving his wife and children to manage on their own and taking no responsibility for their financial or physical well-being.

Meg & Jo is a little longer than it needs to be, and some interludes at the restaurant and on the farm could have been tightened up a bit. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook rather than reading a print copy, since that helped me feel less like the story was dragging (and I could listen at a faster speed when it was!) The audiobook has different narrators for Meg and Jo, but honestly, their voices are very similar, so if I picked up in the middle of a chapter, it wasn’t obvious from the narrator whose chapter I was on.

As a Little Women fan, I was happy to experience Meg & Jo and see the author’s vision of a modern-day March family. While the story is a little light-weight at times, I enjoyed the characters and their challenges, and it was amusing to see how their 19th century lives could be translated to the 21st century. A follow-up, Beth & Amy, is due out this spring, and I will definitely be reading it!

Book Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Title: My Italian Bulldozer
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Abacus
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series returns with an irresistible new novel about one man’s adventures in the Italian countryside.

Paul Stuart, a renowned food writer, finds himself at loose ends after his longtime girlfriend leaves him for her personal trainer. To cheer him up, Paul’s editor, Gloria, encourages him to finish his latest cookbook on-site in Tuscany, hoping that a change of scenery (plus the occasional truffled pasta and glass of red wine) will offer a cure for both heartache and writer’s block. But upon Paul’s arrival, things don’t quite go as planned. A mishap with his rental-car reservation leaves him stranded, until a newfound friend leads him to an intriguing alternative: a bulldozer.

With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts the offer, and as he journeys (well, slowly trundles) into the idyllic hillside town of Montalcino, he discovers that the bulldozer may be the least of the surprises that await him. What follows is a delightful romp through the lush sights and flavors of the Tuscan countryside, as Paul encounters a rich cast of characters, including a young American woman who awakens in him something unexpected.

A feast for the senses and a poignant meditation on the complexity of human relationships, My Italian Bulldozer is a charming and intensely satisfying love story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start. 

Once again, a book group selection is responsible for me reading a charming book that I probably never would have encountered otherwise. Yay, book group!

In My Italian Bulldozer, writer Paul Stuart heads to Tuscany for a few weeks of rest and relaxation while finishing his newest foodie book. His girlfriend of four years has just dumped him, and he’s in need of a change of scenery, so what better choice than to head to the site of the delicious food and wine he’s writing about?

The trip does not go as planned. Immediately upon arrival, he has some rather comical mishaps with the rental car company. When no cars are available, a new acquaintance connects him with a commercial vehicle rental agency, which is able to offer him the only rental they have: a bulldozer. With no other option, Paul sets off on the road to Montalcino, the rural hilltop village where he’ll be staying, enjoying the vantage point of his rather odd ride.

Once settled in Montalcino, Paul begins to meet the locals, who seem to take a shine to him right away. He quickly becomes a regular at the coffee houses and restaurants, and also meets an American woman who sparks his interest. Picnics, meals, and all sorts of outings via bulldozer make up his days, and he also makes great progress with his book.

My Italian Bulldozer isn’t exactly a plot-heavy book. It’s a peaceful, calming story about a man’s encounter with a quieter way of life, giving him time to think and reflect on what really matters and what he wants. It’s sweet, charming, and quirky, a quick read, and altogether a very good book for the holiday season.

Describing a book as “nice” doesn’t really sound like great praise, but this book really and truly is nice. The people are sympathetic and likable, the setting is lovely, the food and wine sound delicious, and the adventure is on the mild side. I had a nice time reading My Italian Bulldozer. It didn’t make me work hard to enjoy it, it went by fast, and was enjoyable all the way through.

Perhaps not (definitely not) the most exciting book I’ve read all year, but I’m glad I read it, especially as a way to cleanse my palate after some heavier, less pleasant reading. I’d recommend My Italian Bulldozer as a sweet diversion for when you’re looking for a pick-me-up.

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Received as a gift
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

It’s impossible to read American Dirt without awareness of the controversy surrounding this book seeping into the reading experience. Which is okay — it’s controversial for a reason, and I actually had no intention of reading this book, until a family member gave it to me as a gift. So, with hesitation, I jumped in.

American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia’s life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family’s backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed. Recognizing their immediate danger, Lydia flees with Luca, knowing that the cartel won’t stop hunting them and that their only chance at safety is to head north to the US and try to cross the border.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the escalating violence in Acapulco as well as across all of Mexico, as the cartels exert more and more power. Lydia’s husband is a reporter who specializes in profiling cartel violence. Lydia herself runs a bookstore, where she ends up befriending a seemingly kind, intellectual man… who turns out to be none other than the head of the cartel ruling Acapulco. When Sebastian’s expose of Javier runs, it sets off a course of tragedy and violence that leads directly to the massacre of their family.

Lydia and Luca’s journey is harrowing, as they join the crowds of migrants riding La Bestia, the network of freight trains that run through Mexico, which migrants risk life and limb to ride atop in the hopes of making it north. Along the way, they face physical danger from the train itself as well as severe threats from police and cartel soldiers who round up migrants and inflict torture, death, and demands for ransom as part of their standard operating procedures.

Is this a good book? Not really, no. It’s dramatic for sure, and a compelling read, but it’s hard for me to actually praise it. Despite problems (more on those in a second), it’s a fast read that’s hard to put down once started. Yet the book really is more melodrama than anything else, indulging in nonstop violence and horrific situations, and presenting a portrait of Mexico as a place with not one ounce of safety or happiness.

The friendship (almost romantic) with Javier is unnecessary and feel soap opera-worthy. What are the odds that the wife of the journalist who exposes him would also be this man’s good friend and close confidante?. Why does Lydia, a woman grieving her slaughtered family, need to be also burdened by what-ifs about putting trust in Javier’s friendship?

Teen sisters Soledad and Rebeca become traveling companions for Lydia and Luca. We’re hit over the hit repeatedly with how remarkably beautiful the girls are — and, the book makes clear, how their beauty singles them out to become targets of rapists, again and again and again throughout the book. Why is their beauty relevant? Don’t women not at this pinnacle of beauty also get raped? Not in American Dirt.

The coyote who takes Lydia, Luca, and a group of others across the border is, of course, one of the good ones. He’s a coyote with a soul. Despite his tough talk and enforcement of rules, one tragedy one this journey in particular is enough to transform him and change him permanently. Really? As if he’s never lost anyone on a crossing before?

These are just a few examples, but I found the whole story to be over the top and voyeuristic. I could go on (why does it matter that Luca is a geography protege?), but I’ll turn instead to my other annoyances with this book, namely the writing.

First, the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph between Luca and Lydia, with no sense of why, and it’s confusing and distracting. Lydia will be thinking about something, and it’s not until midway through the following paragraph that a reference to Mami alerts us that we’re now seeing Luca’s perspective. Other character’s points-of-view are randomly included, seemingly so that the author can offer us first-person narratives of terrible experiences that Lydia wasn’t present for.

Also, the writing itself and the author’s descriptions are often over the top or simply incomprehensible. A few examples, but I could really open up the book practically at random and find more:

She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother.

Her face is splotchy but dry, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fisherman have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek. Mami is contorted.

In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.

Your mileage may vary, but repeatedly throughout the book, I had to pause to try to turn the author’s imagery into a picture in my mind that actually made sense. It didn’t always work.

I’m not directly addressing the controversy about the author, I realize, and that’s simply because it’s been covered elsewhere in depth. For more, I recommend:
The Seattle Review of Books: “The Dirt on American Dirt”
Tropics of Meta: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck
Vulture: “Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?”
New York Times: “American Dirt is Proof the Publishing Industry is Broken”

I with the author had explained more about her sources or the research that went into writing this book. The migrant experience is a compelling and important topic, but I don’t feel that American Dirt is the right book for really learning about it.

It does, however, make me want to seek out more authentic accounts by #ownvoices authors. I know there’s a lot to learn — I just don’t think American Dirt is the book to learn from.


Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Title: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

At age 35, Nora Seed makes a choice that should be fatal. Estranged from her best friend and from her brother, let go from an unfulfilling job, with a broken engagement in her past, she’s finally pushed too far when she learns that her beloved cat has died. Nora’s life once seemed full of promise, but now, she sees nothing ahead of herself but more loneliness and bleakness. So she decides to end her life.

But in the moments between life and death, Nora ends up in the Midnight Library, a seemingly magical place where choices are endless. In this infinite library, each volume on the shelves represents a different path her life might have taken. Nora is full of regrets for all the missed opportunities and seemingly wrong decisions she’s made during her lifetime, and in fact, one of the key books in the library is the Book of Regrets, capturing everything in Nora’s life that she wishes she could have done differently.

Under the guidance of Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian who represented kindness and safety at a difficult time in her life, Nora chooses different volumes of her life to try again. In each, she inhabits the life she might have had if she’d chosen differently. From sticking with the swimming career that could have led her to the Olympics, to signing the recording contract with the band that might have launched her into international stardom, to a life pursuing her academic career in philosophy while also raising a daughter with a man she loves, Nora gets to experience alternate realities and how she might feel in each different version of her life.

As in real life, there are no easy answers. While Nora seeks the right life, each ends up with flaws. If only she could find the one that’s perfect for her, she’d be able to stay in it… but with each, there comes a point where she returns to the library to try again.

Over the course of the book, Nora learns to let go of regret. She also learns the importance of perspective — that what she sees isn’t necessarily true for the people she’s interacting with, and that each person’s life can have far greater impact than they realize.

The Midnight Library is so meaningful, and so beautifully written. There are life lessons throughout, but never in a way that feels preachy or patronizing. Nora’s experiences feel real, and in each version of her life, it becomes clearer and clearer that the right life doesn’t equate to perfect happiness, as no life can be nothing but happy. Ultimately, it’s about choosing to live, to find purpose, and to find connection. As Nora progresses, we’re able to journey with her and discover some truths that make perfect sense, yet are rarely said.

I really loved this book, and will be pushing it into the hands of several bookish friends. Highly recommended — it’s uplifting and life-affirming, and left me feeling hopeful and renewed.

For more by this terrific author, check out my reviews of:
The Humans
How To Stop Time
The Dead Fathers Club

Book Review: West End Girls by Jenny Colgan

Title: West End Girls
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication date: January 5, 2021 (originally published 2006)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

They may be twins, but Lizzie and Penny Berry are complete opposites. Penny is the life of the party—loud and outrageous, while quiet and thoughtful Lizzy is often left out of the crowd. The one trait they do share is a longing to do something spectacular with their lives, and as far as these two are concerned, there’s no better place to make their dreams come true than London.

Presented with a once-in-a-lifetime house-sit at their grandmother’s home in a very desirable London neighborhood, it finally seems like Lizzie and Penny are a step closer to the exciting cosmopolitan life they’ve always wanted. But the more time they spend in the big city, they quickly discover it’s nothing like they expected. They may have to dream new dreams…but are they up to the challenge?

Jenny Colgan has become a go-to author for me for when I need something bright and uplifting to cheer me up or lighten my day. West End Girls, to be published in early 2021, is actually a re-release of a book from earlier in her career, and it shows.

Lizzie and Penny are non-identical twins who at age 27 live with their mother in a cramped apartment, work at dead-end jobs, and have no prospects. When their paternal grandmother, with whom they’ve had no contact since their childhood, moves into a care facility, she offers her Chelsea flat to the girls, provided they protect her stuff while she’s away.

Jumping on the opportunity, Lizzie and Penny show up at their swanky new address, only to discover that Gran was basically a hoarder. Still, while the inside of the flat is a mess, they’ve arrived in an exclusive London neighborhood and are determined to launch new lives.

Penny is obsessed with looks and landing a rich man, and sets out to do so by going to clubs, being outrageous, dressing provocatively, and throwing herself into a wealthy crowd. Lizzie, the shy one, just wants a job, and ends up being hired by a cafe owner who’s large, gregarious, and a true talent in the kitchen.

During their time in London, both Penny and Lizzie experience romantic ups and downs, disappointments, career opportunities, and awkward social scenarios. They’re often in opposition to one another, but when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs.

West End Girls is a fairly predictable rags-to-riches story, with each sister getting what she needs by the end — which isn’t necessarily what she thought she wanted at the start. It’s cute and light, but not problem-free.

Some of the pop culture references are dated (which makes sense, considering this book was first published in 2006), but thankfully, there aren’t enough of these to be seriously distracting. The book is much less body positive than it would be if written today, I suspect. Lizzie is overweight at the start of the story and dresses drably to hide her pounds, having survived on microwaved dinners for two many years. As Georges, the cafe owner, teaches her how to find her way around a kitchen and appreciate quality food, she ends up slimming down and getting healthier, and toward the end, even gets a wardrobe, hair, and makeup makeover. Which, good for Lizzie if she feels better about herself, but I felt like I was hearing about Lizzie’s weight and how much better she looked slimmer a bit too often for my taste.

Jenny Colgan’s more recent books have a depth and richness that I love, with wonderful settings, quirky and funny characters, and some true emotional heft. Here, I got entertainment, but not that much more.

Still, West End Girls was a fun way to spend my weekend reading hours, and I had a good time with it. It just made me look forward to summer 2021, when Jenny Colgan next new book will be released!

Shelf Control #235: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Light We Lost
Author: Jill Santopolo
Published: 2017
Length: 328 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

He was the first person to inspire her, to move her, to truly understand her. Was he meant to be the last?

Lucy is faced with a life-altering choice. But before she can make her decision, she must start her story—their story—at the very beginning.

Lucy and Gabe meet as seniors at Columbia University on a day that changes both of their lives forever. Together, they decide they want their lives to mean something, to matter. When they meet again a year later, it seems fated—perhaps they’ll find life’s meaning in each other. But then Gabe becomes a photojournalist assigned to the Middle East and Lucy pursues a career in New York. What follows is a thirteen-year journey of dreams, desires, jealousies, betrayals, and, ultimately, of love. Was it fate that brought them together? Is it choice that has kept them away? Their journey takes Lucy and Gabe continents apart, but never out of each other’s hearts.

How and when I got it:

I bought it at least a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I first heard of The Light We Lost when it was selected as a Hello Sunshine book group book. I tend to shy away from most celebrity book clubs, but I find that the Reese/Hello Sunshine books tend to be really, really good!

From the Hello Sunshine website:

“This book is all about different kinds of love – the kind that engulfs you like a wildfire and the kind that keeps you warm like a hearth fire. This love story spans decades and continents as two star-crossed lovers try to return to each other.

Life, motherhood, and distance get in the way. Will they ever meet again? This book kept me up at night, turning the pages to find out. Can’t tell you the ending but definitely have tissues close by!! I loved it!” x Reese

This definitely sounds like something I’d enjoy. I haven’t read much contemporary fiction lately, and I like the sound of a love story that spans years and years.

Now that this book is on my mind again, I think I’m going to bump it higher up my to-read list.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!