Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Title: The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Author: Christy Lefteri
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: May 2, 2019
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The unforgettable love story of a mother blinded by loss and her husband who insists on their survival as they undertake the Syrian refugee trail to Europe.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo–until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all, they must journey to find each other again.

Moving, powerful, compassionate, and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling. 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a harrowing story, following a refugee couple who flee the Syrian civil war and then endure the dangers and harsh conditions facing the refugee population in Europe.

The synopsis is a tiny bit misleading — the main character here is Nuri. And while his wife Afra is a key part of the story, the entire novel takes place through Nuri’s eyes and perspectives.

The storyline jumps back and forth quite a bit along Nuri and Afra’s timeline. We meet them at a B&B in England, where they reside with other refugees awaiting their asylum hearings. From here, we go back in Nuri’s memories to the family’s peaceful life in beautiful Aleppo, where he finds pleasure every day in the apiary he shares with his cousin Mustafa.

But when war breaks out, their happy lives are completely shattered, as is the city itself. They live amidst the rubble of their lives until the danger and tragedy escalates to the point where they either need to flee or die.

Nuri and Afra undertake the perilous journey from Syria across the border into Turkey by means of hired smugglers, but safety is still a long way off. From dirty, decrepit shelters to life-threatening sea crossings to living in a park with only a blanket to call home, the experience is terrifying and soul-deadening, on top of which the couple is dealing with the loss of their beloved son and everything they’ve ever valued in their lives.

Author Christy Lefteri’s depiction of the refugee experience is informed by her years volunteering with refugee relief organizations, where she witnessed first-hand the horrors that follow refugees into their new lives. The story is unflinching, and Nuri and Afra’s journey often seems too much to bear.

In terms of minor quibbles, once Nuri and Afra make the decision to leave Syria, they seem to be able to do it relatively quickly and easily. They connect with a smuggler and make it across the border right away. I had to wonder how realistic that is — could this couple, at this advanced stage of the war, really have gotten out like that? Also, working in Nuri and Afra’s favor is the fact that they have plenty of money, so being able to pay smugglers never seems to be an issue. Again, I wonder how realistic this is, and how their journey might have gone differently if they didn’t have the financial resources to make it happen.

As an illustration of the terrors of the refugee experience, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is highly effective and quite powerfully moving. I did somehow feel that the emotional connection to Nuri and Afra was off — while I felt horror while reading of their losses and suffering, I didn’t necessarily feel connected to them as people, especially Afra, who we really only get to know through Nuri’s eyes, not as an individual on her own.

We’ve all seen the news coverage for years now about the terrible conditions that refugees endure. And while the people on the news are real people, not fictional, it’s through fiction like The Beekeeper of Aleppo that we can get a more internal view of individual pain and hope and loss.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an important read. The subject matter is often difficult to take, yet it’s important that we see these lives and not look away. I’m very glad that my book group chose this book for our January read — I’m really looking forward to the discussion, and definitely recommend the book for others looking for a thought-provoking novel on a very current and weighty subject.

Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Title: Such a Fun Age
Author: Kiley Reid
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Such a Fun Age? Such a good book!

I’ve been seeing glowing reviews for this book on all sorts of book blogs over the last few weeks, and the hype has only intensified now that Such a Fun Age has been chosen as the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick.

Debut author Kiley Reid highlights a complex web of issues surrounding race, income inequality, social power, and more in this intriguing look at the intersections of family and privilege.

25-year-old Emira is a college grad who’s at loose ends, never having found her passion or true calling. She makes ends meet — barely — by working as a part-time typist and babysitting three days per week for a precious little almost-three-year-old named Briar.

Briar’s parents, Alix and Peter, are recent transplants from New York to Philadelphia. Alix is a social media influencer who has somehow parlayed her talent for getting corporations to send her free stuff in exchange for media coverage into a career as an inspirational speaker and advocate for women’s voices. She lives for the attention and perceived power, loves the image of herself as an influential, visionary women’s leader, and doesn’t particularly have the attention or patience for a small child.

Alix and Peter are white and affluent; Emira is African American and living payday to payday, relying on her more successful friends’ generosity and worrying about her upcoming 26th birthday when she’ll lose her health insurance coverage as her parents’ dependent.

Emira and Briar have an amazing bond. It’s not that Emira loves kids — she just gets Briar and adores her, and the feeling is mutual.

The action starts as Emira is out partying with friends and gets a frantic call from Alix. There’s an emergency at the house, and they need Emira to come take Briar out for a bit. Yes, it’s 10 pm, but this is truly urgent. Emira agrees, and takes Briar to a favorite location, the snooty upper-class (and very white) neighborhood market, where Briar loves to look at the bins of nuts and teas.

Things go wrong, and quickly. Another shopper is suspicious of the young black girl in the party dress toting around a small blonde child. Security intervenes, and things get ugly, and the incident is captured on video by a do-gooder bystander. The incident is awful and upsetting, and Emira just wants to put it behind her once it’s over.

At the same time, Alix develops an odd fascination with Emira, who is unfailingly polite but not particularly interested in Alix. Alix sees herself in a saviour role, wanting to help Emira, bond with her, enrich her life, and become her bestie. She’d love to convince herself and all her friends that Emira is part of the family. But why this growing obsession? What’s behind her need to know and be involved?

As the story progresses, things get more and more complicated. The point of view shifts between Alix and Emira, so we get very different reads on the same situations. And when an unexpected connection between Alix and Emira’s new boyfriend is revealed, complication escalate even further.

It’s a fascinating story. The characters are multi-faceted and often surprising. Honestly, it’s really difficult to like Alix even a little bit, even understanding some of the pain and difficulty in her background. Emira’s boyfriend Kelley also has issues, and despite seeming like a mostly stand-up guy, there are certainly some questions about his interpretation of events, his motivations, and his choices.

Emira is very much a woman of the times, 20-something, economically unsteady, wanting more but not sure what or how to move forward, torn between practicality, her own interests, and what everyone else seems to think is best for her.

The author captures so much about the chasms in today’s society in terms of race and social status and affluence. She shows the privilege that pervades self-identified liberals’ attitudes and the (perhaps) unwitting arrogance that makes a person of wealth and influence feel that they know how best to help someone with less.

I loved the writing and the zippy dialogue, as well as the plot that races through the story without short-changing the characters and their conflicts. It’s fascinating to see how different characters’ memories and interpretations of the same events can be so wildly different.

I’m not surprised to see this book being picked up as a book group choice both by mega-star clubs like Reese’s and by casual groups too. In fact, that’s my one complaint — where’s a book group when I need it?

It’s maddening to have no one to talk about this book with. There’s so much to discuss and pull apart and argue over! This is a book that I’ll definitely be pushing into the hands of as many of my bookish friends as possible.

Take A Peek Book Review: Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald

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

Title: Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins
Author: Katarina Bivald
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

From New York Times bestselling author Katarina Bivald comes a charming tale of a ramshackle roadside motel: a heartwarming story of love, friendship, community, and the art of living, even when it’s already too late.

The Pine Creek Motel has seen better days. Henny would call it charming, but she’s always seen the best in things. Like now, when she’s just met an untimely end crossing the road. She’s not going to let a tiny thing like death stop her from living fully—not when her friends and family need her the most.

After the funeral is over, her body is buried, and the last casserole dish is empty, Henny is still around. She’s not sure why, but she realizes she has one last opportunity to help her friends discover the happiness they once knew before they lose the motel and cabins they’ve cherished for years.

My Thoughts:

Katarina Bivald’s 2016 novel about small-town life, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, completely charmed me, and I picked up Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins expecting a similar reading experience. Sadly, it didn’t really work out that way for me.

In this new novel, we see the town of Pine Creek, Oregon through the eyes of Henny Broek, who’s dead as of page one, having been hit by a truck on a day when she was feeling particularly happy. Henny doesn’t really understand how she can be dead yet still stick around, but she decides to embrace the opportunity to spend more time with her friends and loved ones, hoping to make sure that they all end up happy. And happiness for this group of misfits centers on the motel, where Henny has worked ever since her teens, a place that has always felt like her true home.

The story is long and rambles quite a bit. We’re supposed to be getting to know Henny through her friends’ experiences and memories, but she and the rest of the characters remain somewhat unknowable. There are hints of personalities, but I didn’t feel that I got a grasp on most of them. The love story here is confusing, and Henny’s purpose is as well. The book makes it seem as though Henny herself is bringing about changes in people’s lives, but as we see throughout the book, Henny is a ghost who can only tag along and observe. I know it’s meant to be charming to see the town and these quirky characters through Henny’s eyes, but honestly, it only made sense to me about half the time.

There’s a subplot about a conservative Christian group’s protests against the motel on grounds of immorality, which mirrors a campaign against gay rights that occurred in the state during Henny and her friends’ high school years. Why a local group would suddenly decide to protest the motel seems pretty arbitrary, and the deus ex machina resolution to the protests is fairly random too.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. If I hadn’t been reading a review copy, I might not have stuck around to the end. I did find moments that made me smile and liked some elements, but overall, this book is messy and too long and lacks a strong focus. What a disappointment.

Take A Peek Book Review: Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

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

Title: Love Lettering
Author: Kate Clayborn
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

In this warm and witty romance from acclaimed author Kate Clayborn, one little word puts one woman’s business—and her heart—in jeopardy . . .

Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing beautiful custom journals for New York City’s elite. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Like the time she sat across from Reid Sutherland and his gorgeous fiancée, and knew their upcoming marriage was doomed to fail. Weaving a secret word into their wedding program was a little unprofessional, but she was sure no one else would spot it. She hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid . . .

A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out—before he leaves New York for good—how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline, a fractured friendship, and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other about their lives, work, and regrets, both try to ignore the fact that their unlikely connection is growing deeper. But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late . . .

My Thoughts:

This is a mostly sweet urban romance, featuring the creative Meg and the numbers-focused Reid, who initially seem like total opposites. Meg’s hand-lettering business is taking off, but she’s feeling blocked and uninspired until she and Reid begin exploring the city together, looking at all the hidden lettering scattered on signs throughout different neighborhoods, playing intricate games with their discoveries, and getting to know one another in unexpected ways.

There are complications, of course, but the story is fairly straightforward and light. I did enjoy Meg’s female friendships, especially how she learns to confront and argue constructively rather than avoiding the relationships and dynamics that make her uncomfortable. The plot takes a turn toward the end that feels like a tonal shift, although the love story elements remain. I felt somewhat distant from Meg and her business, as it’s so specialized and caters so specifically to a rich clientele who can afford to splurge excessive amounts of money on things like hand-illustrated day planners, and likewise her endless thoughts on the meaning of letters and their shapes didn’t really do much for me.

Still, as a whole, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read, and I think it would be a decent choice for some non-taxing holiday reading.

Book Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Title: Royal Holiday
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley 
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Vivian Forest has been out of the country a grand total of one time, so when she gets the chance to tag along on her daughter Maddie’s work trip to England to style a royal family member, she can’t refuse. She’s excited to spend the holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn’t expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain private secretary, his charming accent, and unyielding formality.

Malcolm Hudson has worked for the Queen for years and has never given a personal, private tour—until now. He is intrigued by Vivian the moment he meets her and finds himself making excuses just to spend time with her. When flirtatious banter turns into a kiss under the mistletoe, things snowball into a full-on fling.

Despite a ticking timer on their holiday romance, they are completely fine with ending their short, steamy affair come New Year’s Day. . .or are they?

Thank you, Jasmine Guillory, for giving us the romance heroine we never knew we needed: Vivian Forest, a 54-year-old African American social worker — hard-working, devoted mother, caring professional, and all-around amazing woman! And let me just say this part again: Vivian is IN HER 50s. When’s the last time you read a fun, upbeat love story with a woman in her 50s as the star? I’m guessing the answer is never.

Royal Holiday is the fourth in the author’s loosely connected Wedding Date series — the connection being that the stories’ characters are all linked by friendship or family, although each can easily be read as a stand-alone. Here, Vivian is the mother of Maddie, the lead character in the previous book (The Wedding Party), who in turn is best friends with the lead character from the first book (The Wedding Date). It’s fun to see how the characters’ lives connect and weave together, but as I said, reading the other books isn’t truly required to enjoy each one, and that’s especially true with Royal Holiday.

The basic plot: Maddie, a successful stylist, is asked to fill in last minute as the stylist for a member of the British royal family for the Christmas holidays, and asks her mother to come along. Vivian rarely travels or takes vacations, but she and Maddie always spend Christmas together, and with a bit of prodding, she agrees to go. Staying at the Sandringham estate is magical, and Vivian is delighted by the beauty and splendor… and is instantly attracted to the very handsome Malcolm, Private Secretary to the Queen, when he appears at the guest cottage on the estate and offers to give her a tour.

Vivian and Malcolm connect right away, bringing out each others’ playful sides as well as listening and appreciating one another as people, and they also find each other incredibly attractive. As Vivian’s holiday with Maddie draws to a close, Malcolm asks Vivian to stay on in London for a few more days — and while Vivian is the type to draw up pro and con lists for all decisions, she goes with spontaneity this time around and accepts Malcolm’s invitation.

Ah, this book is such a delight! The romance and chemistry between Vivian and Malcolm is sparkling and fun and sexy… and yes, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this book features attractive 50-somethings having a romantic and physical relationship that includes sex and flirtation and public kissing, and it’s glorious. 

Granted, there’s not much conflict or dramatic tension in Royal Holiday. There are a few minor disagreements and misunderstandings, but the main source of tension is whether the relationship should be a holiday fling or if they’re willing to consider a long-distance relationship — and even then, there really isn’t much question that it will all work out.

I really like how seriously Jasmine Guillory takes her characters’ careers. Vivian is absolutely committed to her work, and it’s refreshing and inspiring to read about how much she cares for her patients and how energized she is by her ability to help people and improve lives. The big dilemma for Vivian much of the book is being up for a big promotion at work that would provide a higher salary and more prestige, but would mean focusing her time on administration rather than on direct care. I love how deeply Vivian feels about her work and the seriousness with which she weighs her decision. And at no time is it suggested that she chuck it all to move to London to be with Malcolm — they each have careers, and their challenge is how to make their relationship possible without either abandoning the work that is so meaningful to them.

All that may make this sound more serious overall than it actually is. Above all else, Royal Holiday is a sweet, romantic, joyous romp, full of happiness and appreciation and heart. I can’t say enough good things!

Except maybe one last comment: Vivian Forest rocks! More of her, please!!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:

The Wedding Date

The Proposal
The Wedding Party

 

Book Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

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

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

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

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

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

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

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reading resources:

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

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

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

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The details:

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

Book Review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

Aubiobook Review: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

From Rob Thomas, the creator of groundbreaking television series and movie Veronica Mars, comes the first book in a thrilling new mystery series.

Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is not a simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

My Thoughts:

More Veronica Mars? Yes, more Veronica Mars!

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last couple of months, chances are you’ve seen me chatting up my VMars obsession, which was reignited by the new season of the TV series, then further fueled by going back and re-watching the show from the beginning. I capped it off by watching the 2014 Veronica Mars movie… so naturally, what came next was the first of two Veronica Mars books, written by series creator Rob Thomas.

And in case you’re wondering — no, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line does NOT read like a cheap novelization. Instead, it’s a complex, well-developed detective story that kept me on the edge of my seat. And of course, the true delight is getting to spend more time with the characters we know and love.

As a bit of context, the plot of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is set about two months after the events of the movie. (Seriously, go watch the movie if you haven’t!). Veronica is back in Neptune, turning her back on a lucrative law career and a boring relationship (bye, Piz!) in New York to join her father in the family business, Mars Investigations. And if you think Papa Mars is happy about that, think again! Keith explodes in anger, furious that Veronica has given up the safety of corporate law to wade back into the seedy, dangerous PI business. Of course, his anger is really a mask for fear. He’s terrified that Veronica will end up hurt, or worse, and with good reason. She just does not know how to back down when she’s chasing a lead, no matter the danger involved.

What about Logan? Well, Veronica and her true love Logan Echolls reunited in the movie, and they’re still together, building a relationship, in this book — although “together” is a relative term, since he’s in the Navy and away on a mission for the duration of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. Still, it warms my little heart to know that these two crazy lovebirds are back in each other’s lives.

As to the mystery fueling the plot, it centers around the lunacy of spring break in Neptune, a magnet for drunken rowdiness for college students from all over, who descend on Neptune and party like there’s no tomorrow. And for one unlucky girl, there isn’t — a college freshman named Hayley goes missing after a wild party at a fancy mansion. Once national attention becomes focused on the debauchery of Neptune, the town’s leaders realize they need the girl found in order to protect the lucrative Neptune spring break business, so they hire Mars Investigations to find her (because the local sheriff is both corrupt and incompetent, don’t ya know.)

Keith is out of commission, having been severely wounded in a car crash (in the movie) and still recovering, so Veronica jumps in and takes the lead on the case. Her investigations lead her to college campuses, the rich and powerful of Neptune, and even to a Mexican drug cartel, putting her own life in grave danger (naturally). A second girl goes missing, and this time, it’s personal — it turns out that Aurora is the underage stepdaughter of Veronica’s mother, a woman who abandoned her years ago and whom she hasn’t seen in over a decade.

The plots twists are just as good and unpredictable as any Veronica Mars fan might expect. And Veronica herself is as much of a reckless bad-ass as ever, with plenty of smarts and a handy Taser to back her up. Not to mention her good friends in her corner — Wallace and Mac are back, as are some other old favorites, such as the DA Cliff and even the ridiculous Dick Casablancas.

The writing is terrific, with all the quippiness that makes Veronica Mars so much fun.

Sometimes, if it looks like a murderous duck and quacks like a murderous duck… well, you know.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is tons of fun. If you’re thinking about reading it — I can’t stress this enough! — pick up the audiobook! Kristen Bell does the narration, and it’s perfect. I mean, you really can’t get any better than having the actress who plays Veronica Mars reading the Veronica Mars novel. She does a good job with the supporting characters too, although it’s a little weird to hear Kristen Bell doing Keith and Logan, but I got over it.

If you’ve never watched Veronica Mars, then likely this is all gibberish to you (although what are you waiting for? Go watch the TV series, and be sure to start at the beginning!) This book is a total treat for fans, and I would guess that even folks not familiar with VMars might enjoy the detective story here.

As for me, in case it isn’t already clear, I loved it. There’s one more book available, and I can’t wait to start it!

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The details:

Title: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line 
Author: Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Narrator:  Kristen Bell
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication date: March 25, 2014
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 42 minutes
Printed book length: 324 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased (Audible)