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

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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 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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Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.

In Anxious People, an ill-prepared and not very talented bank robber inadvertently seeks shelter in an apartment that’s open for viewing, turning a failed robbery into a hostage situation. For the people at the apartment viewing, being held hostage (by a robber none view as particularly dangerous) is the least of their worries.

The eight people present at the apartment all have stories to share, which we learn over the course of the book. How and why they all end up at this apartment on New Year’s Eve is complicated, and as they open up to one another, we see common threads of worry over relationships, living up to expectations, family drama, success, and finding meaning in life.

The narrative jumps around in time, taking us back 10 years to a suicide that occurred on a bridge visible from the apartment balcony, through the events of the day of the viewing, plus the police interviews that take place after the hostages are released.

We also get to know two police officers in this small Swedish town, Jim and Jack, father and son, whose professional interactions are more than a little influenced by their sometimes difficult personal relationship and their shared losses and fears. The deeper they delve into the witness statements, the more the bank robber’s motivations and actions become clear, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what happened once the hostages were released.

Naturally, Jim did his best to act like he definitely had experience, seeing as dads like teaching their sons things, because the moment we can no longer do that is when they stop being our responsibility and we become theirs.

This was a quick, captivating read, and yet the level of whimsy in the storytelling is set very, very high. Your tolerance for this kind of quirky, whimsical storytelling will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book. For me, it was mixed. I’ve loved some of Fredrik Backman’s books in the past, yet there’s at least one (My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry) where I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because of the whimsy factor. It was just too much.

He presses his thumbs hard against his eyebrows, as if he hopes they’re two buttons, and if he keeps them pressed at the same time for ten seconds he’ll be able to restore life to its factory settings.

Here, the quirky storytelling leads to some very funny observations and comments, yet it’s all a bit much as a whole. The writing veers toward the precious at times, which tried my patience. A lot. I often enjoy quirky writing, but the sheer volume of it throughout Anxious People made it tough for me to enjoy.

Overall, I really liked the strange bunch of characters who find unexpected common ground through this one weird experience, an experience that teaches them all about how lives becomes mingled and how random occurrences can lead to profound change.

The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. We’re trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you’re supposed ot insert USB-leads. We’re looking for something to cling onto, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach out children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.

This wasn’t my favorite Backman book (I’d have to go with A Man Called Ove or Beartown), but I do look forward to continue reading his books, and have at least two from his backlist that I still need to read.

Anxious People is recommended for readers who enjoy character studies and quirkiness, with a smattering of deeper life lessons threaded throughout.

Book Review: The White Coat Diaries by Madi Sinha

Title: The White Coat Diaries
Author: Madi Sinha
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Print length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Grey’s Anatomy meets Scrubs in this brilliant debut novel about a young doctor’s struggle to survive residency, love, and life.

Having spent the last twenty-something years with her nose in a textbook, brilliant and driven Norah Kapadia has just landed the medical residency of her dreams. But after a disastrous first day, she’s ready to quit. Disgruntled patients, sleep deprivation, and her duty to be the “perfect Indian daughter” have her questioning her future as a doctor.

Enter chief resident Ethan Cantor. He’s everything Norah aspires to be: respected by the attendings, calm during emergencies, and charismatic with the patients. As he morphs from Norah’s mentor to something more, it seems her luck is finally changing.

When a fatal medical mistake is made, pulling Norah into a cover-up, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect the secret. What if “doing no harm” means risking her career and the future for which she’s worked so hard?

In this debut novel, written by a physician, we get a close-up-and-personal view of the life of a medical intern through the eyes and experiences of Norah Kapadia.

Norah is just starting out as an intern at the prestigious Philadelphia General Hospital, hoping to live up to her personal dream of becoming a doctor that her late father would be proud of. Internship, as we all know, is one of the roughest years in a young doctor’s professional development. Insane hours, lack of experience, lack of sleep — all contribute to the frenetic pace and intense pressure on Norah and the other interns in her cohort. Not all will make it through the year.

In addition to the professional challenges, Norah is also dealing with a demanding family who basically want her to quit, take a boring lab job, and devote herself to her hypochondriac mother’s 24/7 care. Nothing she does is good enough, despite her huge achievements thus far.

As an intern, Norah learns that her stellar book learning and years of studying to the exclusion of having a life have not truly prepared her for the real work of treating patients in a hospital. She makes some big mistakes, but so do the others, and their supervising residents vary between supportive and absolutely demeaning.

The tone of the book is very mixed. From the synopsis above, with its comparison to Scrubs, you might expect this book to be comedic in tone, and while there are some humorous episodes, it’s really not a funny book overall. In fact, it’s pretty dire at times, and the situations facing Norah and the other interns can be distressing and disturbing.

We’ve all heard about interns’ crazy hours and lack of sleep. Here, in The White Coat Diaries, we see how it feels to be an intern, and it’s not pretty. The mistakes can be devastating, and I found the lack of compassion and true caring about patients pretty upsetting. There’s one patient who gets passed from department to department and is known by the hospital staff as “Fat Dan”, and honestly, if that’s based on a real life experience, that’s just a really sad commentary on the state of medical practice today.

I wanted to like Norah, but she makes some very questionable decisions in her personal life that really affected my view of her. And then there’s the major ethical crisis stemming from a critical medical mistake (mentioned in the synopsis), which is horribly handled and left me feeling that none of the characters, including Norah, had any integrity whatsoever. From that point onward, it was very difficult to care about Norah or any of the characters in the slightest.

I also felt that Norah’s home life and family should have been explored further. We get snippets of her background and how her Indian-American upbringing affect her career choices and work ethic, but I wished it had been a little more fleshed out and developed.

Overall, The White Coat Diaries is a fast and absorbing read, but definitely isn’t as light or cheerful as the cover and description might make it seem. If The White Coat Diaries is a somewhat accurate depiction of the intern experience, then we should all be very worried about the future of the medical profession in the US.

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 325 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him… 

I’ll be blunt — this book annoyed the hell out of me. It’s super hyped, has tons of buzz, and I have friends who’ve insisted that I just had to read it. When my book club picked it as our August book, I knew my time had come.

In brief, this is a psychological thriller about Alicia, a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and has been confined to a mental institution ever since. From the time she was discovered near her husband’s bloody body, she hasn’t spoken a word. Alicia, a talented artist, made only one communication since Gabriel’s death — a self-portrait, with the mysterious word “Alcestis” written at the bottom.

Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who became fascinated by Alicia’s story and the ensuing notoriety. Years later, he has the opportunity to work at the hospital where she’s a patient, and there he dives into her case, determined to understand why she hasn’t spoken in six years.

From the start, I was annoyed by Theo, and because he’s our point of view character, I felt impatient with the book as a whole. Theo overcame a horrible childhood to achieve professional success, and yet from the moment he transfers to the Grove, he seems to be flouting every rule of professionalism in his obsession with uncovering Alicia’s secrets.

It’s clear that there’s more to the story of the murder than what people accept as the truth. As Theo digs, several potentially shady people emerge as either witnesses or possibly perpetrators of some terrible acts. Aaaaaand… I won’t say too much more about the plot.

The resolution to the mystery took me by surprise, but I felt that the author only managed to achieve this through some sleight-of-hand involving the plot timelines that left me feeling manipulated, rather than pleasantly shocked by the cleverness of it all.

Theo’s actions often make no sense in the big picture, and I’m not sure that I buy the crime scene set-up and explanation as presented either. Yes, it’s twisty and full of unexpected revelations, but I felt too often that I was being “handled”.

I know I’m in the minority on this one. My book group seems to have loved The Silent Patient, and so did my husband and a few other friends. It’s a very quick read, and I was never bored — I think I tore through this book in about a day and a half, and reached a point where I couldn’t put it down.

So yes, it’s an absorbing read and I needed to keep going once I started. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why I gave it three stars.

Book Review: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Switch
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Eileen is sick of being 79.
Leena’s tired of life in her twenties.
Maybe it’s time they swapped places…

When overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Eileen is newly single and about to turn eighty. She’d like a second chance at love, but her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen.

Once Leena learns of Eileen’s romantic predicament, she proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love. Meanwhile Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with gossiping neighbours and difficult family dynamics to navigate up north, and trendy London flatmates and online dating to contend with in the city, stepping into one another’s shoes proves more difficult than either of them expected.

Leena learns that a long-distance relationship isn’t as romantic as she hoped it would be, and then there is the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – school teacher, who keeps showing up to outdo her efforts to impress the local villagers. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, but is her perfect match nearer home than she first thought?

Switching lives is a fiction trope that’s always fun and entertaining, and that’s true for the new novel by Beth O’Leary.

In The Switch, a grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch lives for two months, each being stuck in a frustrating rut. For Eileen, she’s 79 years old, her lackluster husband has just left her for another woman, and she already knows all the single men her age in her little village. She’s ready to get back out and start dating, but the pickings are slim.

Meanwhile, Leena is afraid that she’s torpedoed her career after suffering a major panic attack in the middle of a client pitch. Her boss (kindly, I thought) insists that Leena take a 2-month paid holiday to rest and recenter herself.

Both Leena and Eileen are dealing with loss and grief, in addition to their career/dating woes. Leena’s younger sister Carla died a year earlier after a battle with cancer. Leena has been quietly falling apart ever since, and Eileen has thrown herself into looking after her daughter Marion, who is fragile and shaky. On top of all this, Leena isn’t speaking to Marion, since she blames her for allowing Carla to stop treatment rather than pursuing an experimental option in America.

Once Leena is forced to take time off, she comes up with the idea of switching places with her grandmother. While there are no eligible men for Eileen where she lives, there are plenty in London, and Leena realizes that the peace of the village might provide her with a fresh start.

Naturally, they’re both fish out of water. Eileen moves in with Leena’s twenty-something flatmates and immediately begins making waves, insisting on getting to know the neighbors, rather than observing the time-honored city dweller tradition of ignoring everyone around you. Eileen does not take no for an answer, and soon has the entire building socializing and coming together for a good cause. Not only that, but her online dating profile leads her to a few good prospects, including a suave, attractive actor who’s clearly just looking for a no-strings lover — something Eileen is all too eager to give a try.

For Leena, small-town life is not as quiet as she’d anticipated. She’s expected to fill Eileen’s role on town committees, to socialize with Eileen’s friends, and to pitch in whenever needed. The town gossip immediate includes Leena and her misadventures, but she’s determined to break through some of the walls that the town’s grumpier residents put up.

Of course, each woman ends up finding love — and I can’t really say it’s where you’d least expect it, because I could see the love stories coming from a mile away. Leena starts off with a serious boyfriend, but it’s easy for the reader to see the couple’s issues, even if Leena doesn’t, and naturally the right guy is right under her nose, once she opens her eyes.

The Switch is a warm book, definitely lightened up by Eileen’s quirkiness and feistiness. I enjoyed Leena’s interactions in the village too. The emotional beats related to Carla’s death and the aftermath of her loss are often powerful, although the plot thread showing Leena and her mother finding their way back together could have benefited from more showing and less telling.

Overall, this is a sweet, lovable book. It’s perky and charming, and even though it’s mostly predictable, I still found it a hug-worthy, engaging read — just the right blend of lightness and real-life emotion to make it a good summer escape.

Excerpt: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

The Switch by Beth O’Leary
Flatiron Books
336 pages
To be published August 18, 2020

I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour for Beth O’Leary’s upcoming new release, The Switch! I loved her debut novel, The Flatshare, and today I’m thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released new book.

Synopsis:

A grandmother and granddaughter swap lives in this charming, romantic novel by Beth O’Leary, hailed as “the new Jojo Moyes” (Cosmopolitan UK).

Eileen Cotton’s husband of sixty years left her four months ago, and good riddance. After all these decades of sleepy village life, Eileen is ready for an adventure. She’d like a chance at real love, too – and she wonders if maybe the right man is up the road in the big city…

Eileen’s granddaughter (and namesake) Leena lives in bustling London, where she is overworked, overscheduled, and overcaffeinated. When Leena collapses and her office sends her on a mandatory vacation, she wants to escape to her grandmother’s inviting, picture-postcard little village.

So they decide to switch lives.

Eileen will take Leena’s flat, Leena’s laptop, and Leena’s glitzy twenty-something London lifestyle. She’ll learn all about dating apps and swiping right, the best coffee shops, and paper-thin apartment walls. Leena can have Eileen’s sweet cottage, her idyllic Yorkshire village, her little projects to help her neighbors, and her nice, quiet life. But neither finds that her new life is exactly what she’d imagined.

Will swapping lives help Eileen and Leena become more truly themselves, and can they find true love in the process?

Excerpt:

I do a quick half-hour of research before I start on Grandma’s dating profile. Apparently, what makes for a successful profile is honesty, specificity, humor, and (more than any of those other things I just said) a good profile picture. But as soon as it’s set up, I realize we have a problem.

There is not a single person her age registered to the site in under an hour’s drive from here. It’s not just that Grandma doesn’t know any eligible gentlemen in the area – there aren’t any. Bee bemoans the lack of good men in London, but she has no idea how lucky she is. When there are eight million people in your city, there’s going to be someone single.

I turn slowly in my chair to look at my grandmother.

When I think of Grandma, I always think of her as an absolute force of nature, bending the world to her will. I can’t imagine there’s a more youthful old lady out there. Her boundless energy has never shown any signs of running out as she enters her late seventies – she really is extraordinary for her age.

But she doesn’t look like that Grandma right now.

She’s had a truly terrible year. The death of one of her only two granddaughters, supporting my mum through losing her daughter, then Grandpa Wade walking out on her… It hits me quite suddenly that I think of my grandma as invincible, but that’s so ridiculous – nobody could go through what she’s been through unscathed. Look at her, sitting here, contemplating dating Basil the bigot. Things are not right at Clearwater Cottage.

Which I’d already have known if I’d come home once in a while.

I reach for the laptop again. Every time I remember that I can’t go to work on Monday I feel wretched, useless, afraid. I need something to do, to help, to stop me thinking about all the ways I’ve messed up.

I change the search area on the dating site, and suddenly: hello, four hundred men between the ages of seventy and eight-five, looking for love.

“I have an idea,” I tell her. “Hear me out, OK? There’s hundreds of eligible men in London.”

—-

There’s a long silence.

“This seems a bit crackers,” Grandma says eventually.

“I know. It is, a bit. But I think it’s genius too.” I grin. “I will not take no for an answer, and you know when I say that, I one hundred percent mean it.”

Grandma looks amused. “That’s true enough.” She breathes out slowly. “Gosh. Do you think I can handle London?”

“Oh, please. The question, Grandma, is whether London can handle you.”

About the author:

Beth O’Leary worked in children’s publishing before becoming a full-time author. She is also the author of The Flatshare. She can be found on Instagram @BethOLearyAuthor and Twitter @OLearyBeth.

Many thanks to Flatiron Books for including me in the blog tour and providing a review copy! I’ll be sharing my thoughts once the release date gets closer.

Doesn’t this sound terrific?

Book Review: What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Title: What You Wish For
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.

Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.

When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.

Samantha Casey loves her life on Galveston island. The librarian at a progressive, sunny, creative elementary school, she enjoys her students and her community, and absolutely loves Max and Babette, the school’s founders who have also become a surrogate family to her.

But when Max dies suddenly at his 60th birthday party, he leaves behind a community in chaos. The school’s board of directors, headed by Max and Babette’s horrible son-in-law, announces that he’s bringing in a new principal — and it’s a name from Sam’s past, Duncan Carpenter.

Years earlier, Sam taught at the same school as Duncan, where he was the teacher at the heart of all the fun. Duncan could be counted on to juggle on the playground, wear crazy shirts, institute wacky traditions, and in general act as the chief joy creator at the school. For Sam, the problem was that she was head over heels for Duncan, but as far as she could tell, he was barely aware of her existence. Her unrequited crush on Duncan was what finally prompted her to move away and start over, and life has been good since then.

It’s startling for Sam when Duncan shows up at the start of the school year and is nothing like she remembers. Instead of Hawaiian shirts and crazy ties, he wears a grey three-piece suit, has a respectable hair cut, and seems to care only about the school’s security measures. He deems the colorful murals in the hallways and cafeteria visually distracting, cancels all field trips, and seems intent on turning the school into a grey-walled prison.

Sam and Duncan butt heads from the beginning, but eventually they start to warm up to each other. After Sam helps Duncan home after a medical appointment, the relationship thaws even further, and finally Babette comes up with a challenge, in which Duncan has to do one joyful thing, as assigned by Babette, every day if he wants to keep his job. As he carries out his tasks, his partner ends up being Sam more often than not, and the two grow close despite their personal baggage and misunderstandings.

There’s a lot of good in What You Wish For, so let’s start there. Sam is just a lovely person, and her devotion to helping kids learn and develop a lifelong long of reading is wonderful. She chooses everyday to overcome the darkness of her past and embraces celebration, color, and joy. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming attitude, shared by Babette and Sam’s best friend Alice, and indeed the whole school seems to thrive in this vibrant approach to childhood and being open to experience.

I need to give a special shout-out to Alice, who is amazing. She’s the school math teacher, and wears a different math-themed t-shirt every day, and is just all around fabulous.

Sam’s personal background and the painful experiences she’s carried with her her whole life are well-described and very sympathetic. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that while Sam embodies joyful living, she’s also very much hampered by a sense of fear and shame that keep her from allowing anyone to get too close to her, particularly in a romantic sense.

I did have some issues with this book, so I’ll share those as well. Duncan is so clearly a changed man when he shows up in Galveston, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why. (No spoilers from me, sorry!) When the truth is revealed to Sam, the details are still impactful, but it’s not like it’s a surprise in any way.

The school board’s chair, Kent Buckley, is a man described as someone you always refer to by both first and last name… and really, why? Even his in-laws? It’s just weird. Anyway, he’s awful (as he’s supposed to be), and I couldn’t quite buy that such a wonderful school would allow a jerk like that to pull all the strings and make the big decisions.

I also didn’t really feel Sam and Duncan’s romance. They go from antagonists to friends to more pretty quickly, and while it turns out that he also had feelings for her back in their earlier days teaching together, I’m not sure that I could see them overcoming their differences quite so easily. In any case, they just really don’t have much chemisty, so I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship.

What You Wish For is a quick read, and while it deals with grief and other serious matters, there’s a sweetness too in the sense of community and the absolutely lovely and supportive way that the school at large forms its own extended family.

Book Review: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Title: Party of Two
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 23, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A chance meeting with a handsome stranger turns into a whirlwind affair that gets everyone talking.

Dating is the last thing on Olivia Monroe’s mind when she moves to LA to start her own law firm. But when she meets a gorgeous man at a hotel bar and they spend the entire night flirting, she discovers too late that he is none other than hotshot junior senator Max Powell. Olivia has zero interest in dating a politician, but when a cake arrives at her office with the cutest message, she can’t resist–it is chocolate cake, after all.

Olivia is surprised to find that Max is sweet, funny, and noble–not just some privileged white politician she assumed him to be. Because of Max’s high-profile job, they start seeing each other secretly, which leads to clandestine dates and silly disguises. But when they finally go public, the intense media scrutiny means people are now digging up her rocky past and criticizing her job, even her suitability as a trophy girlfriend. Olivia knows what she has with Max is something special, but is it strong enough to survive the heat of the spotlight?

Jasmine Guillory has quickly become one of my go-to authors for when I want a light, upbeat romance, for so many reasons. Her women are strong, determined, and professional; the relationships are relationships among equals; her cast of characters is always diverse and well grounded; and hey, the books are just fun!

Party of Two takes place in the author’s established world, first introduced in The Wedding Date. This is the 5th book in the series, although I use the term “series” loosely. Yes, characters from earlier books show up, and the characters are all connected — but on the other hand, the books absolutely work as stand-alones. You can read Party of Two on its own and enjoy it fully.

So… Party of Two.

This is the story of Olivia Monroe, a super-smart lawyer who’s left the corporate law environment to strike out on her own, opening a boutique law firm in LA with her friend and colleague Ellie. In her first week in LA, Olivia meets an attractive guy in her hotel’s bar, where they share a good conversation about cake, among other things — but this is LA, and Olivia assumes a guy this good-looking must be an actor, and she just isn’t interested in dating actors, thank you very much.

Imagine Olivia’s surprise when she later turns on the news and realizes the hot guy from the bar is actually an up-and-coming United States Senator, Max Powell. Obviously not for her. Can’t trust a politician, after all, and Olivia has no desire for a public spotlight.

Still, when they run into each other at a fundraising event a few weeks later, their connection is still there — and Max finds that he’s just as smitten with Olivia as he was when they first met. After courtship via baked goods, the two cautiously begin a cross-country romance, which soon blossoms into much more than the fling that Olivia was expecting.

The writing in Party of Two is funny, emotional, and on point. Olivia has some scathing views of the men she typically meets:

“I was in too many relationships in my late twenties and early thirties with men who got mad at me for how much I was working, or required so much of my time to, I don’t know, sympathize with them about their mean lady boss or tuck them into bed when they had a man cold or whatever.”

Man cold. Snicker.

She’s a very self-aware, determined woman who doesn’t compromise her integrity and doesn’t give in easily to big gestures, and yet…

“… I still get that fucking gooey look on my face when he texts me! I can tell I get it! I try not to get it! But the goo just spreads over my face and I can’t make it stop!”

One of the things I love about these characters (besides their chemistry and adorableness together) is that they’re socially aware and committed individuals who want to do good in the world. Max’s key goal in the Senate is to push through a justice reform bill, and he spends time learning and listening to people who’ve suffered from a broken system. Likewise, Olivia devotes herself to volunteer work in a food pantry, and is passionate about food insecurity and offering hope and resources to underprivileged and disenfranchised youth.

One of the key stumbling blocks between Max and Olivia is his tendency to rush forward without full consideration of risks. As a wealthy white man who has never truly known adversity, Max expects the world to work out for him. But as Olivia points out:

“… you just leap in to something without thinking about the implications, say the first thing comes to your mind, and smile and charm your way out of every hole you dig yourself in. I can’t do things like that. I’m a black woman, I don’t ever get the benefit of the doubt in the way someone like you does. I can’t afford to make split-second decisions and assume they’ll work out.”

Not that this is a heavy book in any way. The romance is sweet and sexy, and clearly, these two crazy kids are meant for each other. It’s totally engaging to see how they handle heavy-duty professional lives (which in Max’s case, comes with a lack of privacy and an ever-present spotlight) and balance these with their need for intimacy and space, and the ability to carve out time alone together to nurture and grow their relationship.

Party of Two is delightful, romantic summer reading, but with a grounding in the real world that makes it feel relevant. It delivers a message without pounding readers over the head, but consistently enough to keep the social justice theme prominent throughout the love story aspects of the plot.

As I mentioned, this book absolutely works on its own, but if you want to place it within the context of Jasmine Guillory’s other books, Olivia is the older sister of Alexa, the lead character in The Wedding Date.

Highly recommended!

Audiobook Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on bestseller lists for at least a year now, as far as I can tell. And the fact that this was a Reese’s book club pick doesn’t hurt at all when it comes to creating buzz. So is it worth all the hype?

Now that I’ve read it, I can give an answer: Definitely yes.

Where the Crawdads Sing is lovely, rich, sad, and powerful. It tells the story of Kya Clark, a girl who is abandoned at a very young age and yet manages to raise herself in the North Carolina marsh she calls home.

Kya’s family lives in a shack in the marsh, scrabbling for daily sustenance and terrorized by their abusive, unreliable father. Kya’s older siblings have already left, and as the story opens, Kya is six years old, watching her mother walk away, never to return. Kya is left behind with her father and older brother, but even her brother doesn’t stay long. Soon, it’s just Kya and her father, and he disappears for days on end, or shows up drunk or angry, and simply can’t or won’t care for his child.

And so, from the age of six, Kya raises herself. She loves her home and the marsh and the birds and wildlife that are her truest friends. She scrapes by on the pennies her father provides. Eventually, even he leaves, and she is completely alone, surviving by digging mussels and selling them to the local sundry store owner, a warm and caring man named Jumpin’ who comes to love Kya as a daughter.

Despite the love and support of Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, Kya is alone. When a truant officer comes to take her to school, Kya only lasts one day, feeling embarassed and tormented by the town kids who call her “Marsh Girl” and make fun of her. From then on, it’s just Kya in the marsh.

She does have one friend, a boy named Tate who once upon a time was friends with her brother. Tate is fascinated by Kya and takes it upon himself to teach her to read, opening up the world of science and biology and learning to her. Kya embarks on her lifelong passion to know and understand the marsh, collecting specimens and documenting them through writing and painting, turning her old shack into a personal natural history museum of sorts.

The story alternates between chapters following Kya’s life from early childhood onward and chapters set later, in 1969, when a local young man is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Chase Andrews had a history with the Marsh Girl, and although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence, she becomes a person of interest in the case, fueled by years of the townspeople’s harsh opinions and suspicions and gossip about her.

While I was less interested in the murder plot for most of the book, by the last third, the two story elements come together as the plot centers around the court case and resolution.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving and lyrical reading experience. I loved the descriptions of the marsh and the way the natural world is so much a part of who Kya is and how she looks at life. Kya’s life is horribly sad, yet also beautiful in its own lonely way. It’s incredible to think that a child could survive like that on her own all those years, yet she does. Between her natural intelligence and her lifelong study of her natural surroundings, Kya adapts and manages to thrive, despite her loneliness and sorrow throughout the years.

The audiobook narrator does a very good job of breathing life into the characters, especially Kya, using her voice to show her maturing over the years yet maintaining the core of who she is.

My one issue with the audiobook is that I feel I missed out a bit on certain written passages. Kya is passionate about poetry, and the poems she recites throughout the book are worth spending time on and contemplating a bit, but because I listened to the audiobook, they passed by a little too quickly for actual reflection. I think I’ll need to borrow a print edition so I can page through and spend more time on certain passages.

I won’t get into spoilers, so I can’t say more about the ending than that I was mostly satisfied and that the ending worked out pretty much as I expected despite a few red herrings — although there was at least one loose thread that I would have liked an answer to.

Overall though, the murder/mystery elements are not the most essential part of this book, in my mind. Yes, it was interesting, and yes, I felt that the ending made sense. But the biggest impact for me was the emotional resonance of Kya’s life, her loves, her relationships, and her incredible personal and professional achievements.

Kya is a woman to admire, one who overcomes extreme adversity to carve out a life for herself that’s meaningful and joyful.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a powerful and beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Book Review: 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

Title: 500 Miles From You
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the beloved Scottish Highland town of Kirrinfief, which readers first met in The Bookshop on the Shore, and adds a dash of London’s bustling urban landscape. 

Lissie, is a nurse in a gritty, hectic London neighborhood. Always terribly competent and good at keeping it all together, she’s been suffering quietly with PTSD after helping to save the victim of a shocking crime. Her supervisor quietly arranges for Lissie to spend a few months doing a much less demanding job in the little town of Kirrinfeif in Scottish Highlands, hoping that the change of scenery will help her heal. Lissie will be swapping places with Cormack, an Army veteran who’s Kirrinfeif’s easygoing nurse/paramedic/all-purpose medical man. Lissie’s never experienced small-town life, and Cormack’s never spent more than a day in a big city, but it seems like a swap that would do them both some good.

In London, the gentle Cormack is a fish out of the water; in Kirrinfief, the dynamic Lissie finds it hard to adjust to the quiet. But these two strangers are now in constant contact, taking over each other’s patients, endlessly emailing about anything and everything. Lissie and Cormack discover a new depth of feeling…for their profession and for each other.

But what will happen when Lissie and Cormack finally meet…?

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite of mine, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of her new book, 500 Miles From You. This author’s books always make me smile, and her books set in the Scottish Highlands give me a major case of wanderlust each and every time.

In 500 Miles From You, we start by meeting Lissa, a nurse who specializes in follow-up care, spending her days driving around London from patient to patient to make sure they’re following doctor’s orders, taking their medications, and getting the treatment they need. As the story opens, Lissa witnesses a terrible hit and run that’s a deliberate attack, leaving a 15-year-old boy dying on the street.

Side note: The synopsis above, from Goodreads, refers to Lissie and Cormack. In the book, it’s Lissa and Cormac. Just FYI — I don’t want you to think I’m getting the characters’ names wrong!

Lissa is unable to shake off the horror, and finally, her hospital’s HR team strongly urges her to participate in a professional exchange program. She’ll be sent to a rural area to use her skills in a different environment, and a nurse from that area will come take her place in London to gain experience in urban medicine.

It doesn’t seem like an offer Lissa can refuse, and between her new assignment and her required ongoing therapy sessions, the exhange may be her only opportunity to heal and recover before her PTSD completely derails her career and her life.

Meanwhile, Cormac will leave his beloved town of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands — where literally everyone knows your name — to live in Lissa’s nursing quarters in London and take over her set of patients. The two never meet, but they exchange patient notes, and over time, develop an email and text rapport beyond the professional requirements.

In my opinion. Lissa gets the much better end of the deal! As always, Jenny Colgan has me falling in love all over again with her depiction of life in the Highlands — the peace and quiet, the quaint small town, the local busybodies, the sense of connection. And frankly, while Cormac eventually finds reasons to like London, the descriptions of the noise, the dirt, the unfriendliness, the bustle all make it clear why Cormac yearns for home.

Lissa’s PTSD is portrayed sensitively. As a medical professional, she intellectually understands her reactions, but that doesn’t mean that she can instantly deal with it. Her progress is slow, and we see how her London habits keep her from fitting in or being accepted when she arrives in Kirrinfief. Eventually, of course, she opens up to her surroundings and to the way of life in a small village, and finds more than she could have thought possible.

Cormac, a former army medic, carries around with him the memories of Fallujah that eventually make him seek a civilian career. While he can relate to Lissa’s trauma, his own past still remains mostly undisclosed. I finished the book wishing we’d learned a little more about Cormac’s army experiences.

The back and forth between Cormac and Lissa is quite cute, and the book ends with all sorts of mishaps that turn their intended first in-person meetings into a series of catastrophic missed chances. But yes, there’s a happy ending — how could there not be?

The texts and emails between Lissa and Cormac are funny and sweet, and the story is a nice twist on the “two strangers fall in love without ever meeting” trope. Somehow, though, I was left wanting more. I felt that their connection needed more time to grow, and wasn’t given quite enough room to develop and breathe — and I was left wanting to see more of them together once they finally connected, rather than ending with their meeting.

This is the 3rd of Jenny Colgan’s loosely connected stories set in Kirrinfief. Characters from both The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore show up here (and become friends with Lissa). It’s lovely to see them all — I just wish they’d actually had bigger roles to play, since I enjoy those characters so much.

Overall, this is another winning romantic tale from a terrific author, balancing tough situations and emotions with lighter, more joyous moments and memorable characters.

And how could I not love a book where this happens:

He was wearing an open-necked white shirt made of heavy cotton and a pale green-and-gray kilt. […]

“Stop there, ” said Lissa, smiling and taking out her phone camera. “I want a pic. You look like you’re in Outlander.”

500 Miles From You can work as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with The Bookshop on the Corner, which is a wonderful introduction to Kirrinfief and its quirky characters. Either way, don’t miss these lovely stories!