The Monday Check-In ~ 8/19/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life. 

Well, my hand surgery went well, but now I’m in this big, bulky splint for about ten days,,, following which I’ll be in a hard cast for a month. And typing is just as slow and awkward and frustrating as you might guess, so after I finish this post, I probably won’t do much else online for a while.

Ugh, so many typos! This may not be worth the effort, gonna keep things really brief,,, reviews will (probably) follow once I have better use of my fingers.

 

 

 

What did I read during the last week?

 

Fresh Catch:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
Now playing via audiobook:

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

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The Monday Check-In ~ 8/12/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life. 

Later this week, I’m going under the knife! Nothing too dramatic — I’m having orthopedic surgery on my left hand. It should be a quick in-and-out procedure, home the same day, and then in a cast or splint for several weeks. I’ve been assured that I’ll still be able to type afterward, so yay for that. Still, I imagine that I’ll be less active than usual online for about a week or two, so if I’m not around much, now you know why!

 

What did I read during the last week?

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: Enjoyable YA, but not nearly as captivating as the Lara Jean books. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy, for sure.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center: A lovely, powerful story. My review is here.

Pop Culture:

I spent the weekend binge-watching season 4 of Veronica Mars on Hulu. As I write this, I’m about to watch the season finale, and I’m terrified that something very bad is going to happen to one of the characters I love. Speaking of love… man, do I love this show. I’m highly tempted (meaning I’m not even going to fight the urge) to go back and start again from season 1. VMars for the win!

Fresh Catch:

A couple of used book orders arrived this week:

Plus, the eagerly awaited 4th and final book in the Custard Protocol series was released this week — and yes, I bought myself a brand-new hardcover edition, even though I’ll probably end up listening to the audiobook (since that’s how I enjoyed the other three books in the series).

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Our War by Craig DiLouie: Disturbing because it’s all so plausible. I hope to wrap up in the next few days and will share my thoughts. This is definitely one that needs to be discussed!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I love, love, love this book. This is a re-read, and I’m savoring every moment of the excellent audiobook version (narrated by the author, who is an amazing audiobook narrator, for her own books as well as many others — including the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire).

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel about family, hope, and learning to love against all odds. 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to uproot her life and move to Boston, it’s an emergency of a kind Cassie never anticipated.

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the handsome rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because she doesn’t fall in love. And because of the advice her old captain gave her: don’t date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping…but will she jeopardize her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt, affecting novel about life, love, and the true meaning of courage.

Things You Save in a Fire is, at first glance, a pretty standard contemporary romance — but it’s also an exploration of trauma, forgiveness, institutionalized sexism, and so much more.

Cassie, at age 26, is a decorated, respected firefighter, an established, well-loved member of an Austin firehouse. Her life falls apart on the night when she’s receiving an award for outstanding bravery, when the presenter ends up being someone from her past, and she completely loses it on stage, leaving the presenter in the hospital and herself on the verge of being fired.

She does have a way out of the situation. Her mother had earlier called Cassie and asked her to come stay with her in her small town outside of Boston. Cassie’s mother Diana left her and her father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, and since then, the two have had a distant, unpleasant relationship. Now, though, Diana has lost sight in one eye after surgery, and asks Cassie to stay with her for a year to help her out with the things she can no longer do on her own. Cassie initially refuses, but after her meltdown, she sees an opportunity to request a transfer to the local fire station and start again.

The crew in the new town is much different than the fairly progressive Austin station. The guys (and yes, they’re all male) are old-school Boston firefighters, who see no place for a woman in their house. Cassie is determined to prove herself, and fortunately, she has years of training and hard work behind her, so it’s quickly clear to the other firefighters that she’s the best of the bunch. Still, someone is unhappy with her being there, and starts an underhanded campaign of stalking and harassment to drive her away. The question is, who’s behind it?

Complicating matters are Cassie’s unwanted but undeniable feelings for the rookie, who is kind, attractive, and very attentive to Cassie. Cassie has ruled out romance or relationships from her life long ago, but she’s having a hard time fighting the chemistry with the rookie — despite knowing that getting involved with another firefighter will torpedo her career for good.

There are hints early on about the trauma in Cassie’s past, but she doesn’t think about it or discuss it until much later in the book. Still, we can see the aftereffects and it’s clear that she’s suffered for all these years, even though she thinks she’s compartmentalized her past and that it doesn’t affect her in her present. The relationship with Diana is puzzling at first, and initially, I had no sympathy for Diana. What kind of mother abandons her child like that for the sake of an affair? As we learn, there’s much more to the story. Cassie’s baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness in her relationship with her mother is what eventually enables her to embrace the possibility of greater empathy and connection elsewhere in her life.

I was fascinated by the depictions of life in a firestation, and had nothing but admiration for Cassie’s mad skills and her practical, hard-as-nails approach toward earning her spot. At the same time, it’s hard to read about a workplace and lifestyle that so clearly resists the entrance of women in every way possible — which makes Cassie’s determination all the more impressive.

The theme of forgiveness is quite lovely. Cassie learns that forgiveness is possible, even (and especially) when it’s hard, and possibly the last thing you actually want to do. By practicing forgiveness, Cassie opens herself to connections that she otherwise might never have known, and her life is ultimately enriched in ways she’d never thought she’d experience.

The action in the last third of the book really heats up (no pun intended) as there’s a big fire that the crew battles that has awful consequences. Once I got to this part, I simply couldn’t stop reading until the end!

I enjoyed this powerful story very much, and really appreciated the unusual perspective provided by a tough, troubled young woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated environment. Above all, the relationships and Cassie’s growth are what make this book so special. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Things You Save in a Fire
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

 

A rich, heartwarming and completely charming debut that reminds us that sometimes, you don’t find love–love finds you.

Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here, he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.

Ellie Jacobs is a lonely housewife, her days filled with walks and poetry she writes in secret.

One day, she comes across Dan’s barn and is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherry wood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.

Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily, drifting deeper into his world. But when she accidentally discovers a secret, she must make a choice: keep it from him and risk their friendship, or change the course of their lives forever

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a sweet, lovely debut novel that crept up on me and then completely entranced me! Such a magical and deceptively simple tale.

Told through alternating chapters, we get to see the world through Dan and Ellie’s eyes. Dan is unusual, to say the least. He loves his solitude, the peace of Exmoor, the woods and streams and pebbles all around him, and most of all, the hand-carved harps that are his passion and his livelihood. He view the world and understands interactions completely literally — he’s presented here as someone who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never actually stated. He functions well, but lacks the ability to interpret many of the social constructs and behaviors that others take for granted.

A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because the rest of her clothes were sad colors.

Ellie is an unfulfilled housewife in her 30s, a woman whose father’s death has prompted her to make a list of things to do before she’s 40 — and one of these is to learn to play music. When she happens upon the Harp Barn, she’s astonished by Dan’s workmanship and the beauty of his harps, and is intrigued by Dan himself. Dan insists on gifting her with a harp, but Ellie’s husband Clive forces her to return it, believing that she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. But Dan then insists that the harp is and always will be Ellie’s, and tells her he’ll keep it for her, for her to play whenever she wants.

It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else.

Thus begins a warm and unusual friendship between two people whose paths would likely have never crossed. Each adds to the other’s life. As Ellie gets to know Dan better, she digs into his world and his assumptions about the people in it, opening his eyes to new and different aspects of his life that he’d never realized before.

(Being vague here… no spoilers!)

Although the book started slowly for me, I was soon swept away by the lovely writing and the wonderful characters. At first, I was afraid that Ellie and the Harpmaker would feel too much like a clone of The Rosie Project and other recent reads about people who present with social difficulties and/or on the spectrum. Not so. Very quickly Ellie and the Harpmaker won my heart in its own way, erasing thoughts of comparisons to other books from my mind.

Sometimes the ifs work for you and sometimes they work against you. Sometimes you think they are working for you whereas in fact they are working against you, and sometimes you think they are working against you whereas in fact they are working for you. It is only when you look back that you realize, and you don’t always realize even then.

I grew to love Dan and Ellie, and felt all the feels as I read about their journeys, alone and together. Ellie’s marriage is frustrating to read about and I wanted to give her a good shake, but she becomes more self-aware as the book progresses, and I was proud of her for the realizations she finds along the way. Dan is simply lovely — a giving, creative, uncomplicated person who only knows how to be good. He’s really marvelous, and someone I won’t soon forget.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book! Ellie and the Harpmaker is a delicious read that left me hungry for beautiful music and a forest to wander through.
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The details:

Title: Ellie and the Harpmaker
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin

 

In this hilarious follow-up novel to the New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone But You, long distance best friends Ava and Gen have finally made it to the same time zone (although they’re still over a thousand miles apart).

Through their hilarious, sometimes emotional, but always relatable conversations, Ava and Gen are each other’s support systems through internships, relationship troubles, questionable roommates, undercover reporting, and whether or not it’s a good idea to take in a feral cat. Please Send Help perfectly captures the voice of young adults looking to find their place in the world and how no matter how desperate things seem, you always have your best friend to tell it like it is and pick you back up.

First things first: When I requested this book from NetGalley, I had no idea it was a sequel. Despite my qualms, I decided to read it anyway, and I”m glad I did. While it might have been nice to have read the first book, not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this cute, quirky, quick read. (More on this later…)

Please Send Help is written entirely in texts and emails between two best friends, Ava and Gen. Recent college grads, both are now facing grown-up life as they pursue their career dreams. Ava, in New York, is interning with a comedy show, dying to gain real-life experience as a writer while working her (unpaid) butt off. Gen, in Florida, is trying to break into serious journalism, but the only job she could find is at a small-town newspaper with nothing much at all to cover and no room for advancement at the family-run paper.

Ava and Gen have history together, and their bond is immediately apparent. Ava is coping with anxiety that stops her in her tracks from time to time, and because of Ava’s previous experiences related to mental health, Gen tends to worry about her well-being — especially once Ava gets disastrously involved with her older boss, who’s so clearly a player who preys on young interns. Meanwhile, Gen is bi, out and proud, from a dysfunctional family and with no parental support whatsoever, trying to find connections as well as a juicy story in a backwards, socially conservative town where she has no chance of fitting in.

I loved the humor of the texts. Both Ava and Gen are wickedly, crassly funny, even when freaking out, making absurd decisions, or talking about insane events in their lives.

Tabby finally gave in to her gluttony and came inside. I jumped up and shut the door. She did NOT like that but I have put vodka on all of my scratches so I’m sure I’m fine.

These two are definitely not perfect. But they get one another, and they’re there for one another — and even when they ignore good advice or act out in particularly questionable ways, they still are there to comfort, pick each other up, and kick a little ass if that’s what needed to shake some reality into each other’s minds and hearts.

Genre/library shelf-wise, I’m not quite sure where I’d put this one. NetGalley lists it as teen/YA, but since the characters are 22-ish (I think), I wouldn’t have thought to consider this young adult. (Side note — why are young adult novels mostly about teens and not about actual young adults — which is what Ava and Gen are?) So sure, put it on the YA shelf if you want, but just know that it’s about women in their 20s figuring out life, sex, STDs, and more. Not what I’d typically consider teen fare!

Please Send Help is heaps of fun. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by finding out it’s book #2. Now that I’ve finished it, I think I’ll try to track down the first book (I Hate Everyone But You, set during Ava and Gen’s college years). I’d imagine that the topics of the girls’ families, mental health, sexuality, and more are explored in greater depth in that book, whereas here they’re mostly backstory to the struggle to be independent and start a career and a life in a new city.

BUT, please don’t feel that you can’t read Please Send Help without reading the first book! Please Send Help works perfectly well as a standalone. I’m living proof that you can read this book without any prior knowledge of the characters and their stories. I really did feel like I got to know Ava and Gen through this book, and would love to hear what happens next in their lives! *fingers crossed for a book #3*

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The details:

Title: Please Send Help
Author: Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan

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

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Issy Randall can bake. No, Issy can create stunning, mouthwateringly divine cakes. After a childhood spent in her beloved Grampa Joe’s bakery, Issy has undoubtedly inherited his talent. She’s much better at baking than she is at filing, so when she’s laid off from her desk job and loses her boyfriend, Issy decides to open her own little café. But she soon learns that her piece-of-cake recipe for a fresh start might be a little more complicated than throwing some sugar and butter together.

A smart, quirky contemporary confection of recipes and friendship, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café is about how life might not always taste like you expect, but there’s always room for dessert!

My Thoughts:

When I need a light and fluffy book, sweet as a fresh-baked cupcake, I know Jenny Colgan is my go-to book goddess. Her books tend to combine yummy, tempting treats, plucky heroines, family touches, and a good, lovely romance. Yes, it can feel a bit formulaic if you read enough of her books — but that doesn’t take away from the joy of indulging (much like the joy of scarfing down one of Issy’s amazing confections).

Issy is a little bit clueless when it comes to love, involved in an office romance that turns out to be a terribly-kept secret — with a guy so jerky that he drops her off in a rainstorm to walk to the office rather than driving her all the way there and having them enter together. Ugh, Issy, he’s awful! When Issy is laid off, after a good long mope, she turns to the joy that baking has always given her, and with a little support from her friends and an attractive banker, decides to turned an unused storefront into the bakery of her dreams.

It’s quite fun to read about Issy’s ups and downs, the hard work of opening her cafe, the women who become her fast friends and the ever-widening circle of people whose lives become entwined with Issy and the Cupcake Cafe. Issy is also dealing with the sorrow of her grandfather’s decline, which is quite sad and touching. Her romantic choices are really clunkers, and she’s clearly making bad decisions. Likewise, a misunderstanding with the cute banker gets blown out of all proportion, which doesn’t make sense for two straight-forward, honest people.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Café was Jenny Colgan’s first novel, originally published in 2011, and reissued this summer by Sourcebooks Landmark (with a really sweet cover!). It’s a perfect summertime book, with enough plot ups and downs to keep it entertaining, but not at all heavy or serious. Plus, cakes! Issy’s recipes (and often hilarious commentary) are sprinkled throughout (plus a few more recipes tucked in at the end.) I’m not a cook or a baker AT ALL, so I skipped over the recipes for the most part, but I’m sure someone who is a true foodie will adore giving them a try! (And if you do make Issy’s cakes, can I have some? Please?)

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The details:

Title: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café 
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 2, 2019
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In a powerful debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream.

Holed up with other moms-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory job and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, he’s overjoyed because the doctors confirmed he will finally have the son he has always wanted. To ensure that his son has every advantage, he has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van–only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. They flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit. It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

My Thoughts:

A River of Stars was my book group’s pick this month, and I ended up listening to the audiobook. So, some pluses and minuses: The narrator was pretty good, doing (I’m assuming) a good job with the Chinese phrases, which gave the story a nice, rich feel as a “listened-to” book. While the initial set-up — an off-the-books maternity home for Chinese women of wealth, to ensure that their children would have the advantage of US citizenship — is interesting, the story really picks up once Scarlett and Daisy flee and have to fend for themselves, using their wits and friendship to survive on the run.

When Scarlett and Daisy finally arrive in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the heart of the story really develops. There, they rely on community bonds to make a home for themselves, deliver their babies, and figure out a way to start a life in America while cut off from family, financial stability, and legal status. Scarlett is determined, protective, and entrepreneurial, all traits that can be seen in memories of her earlier years, when she fled her peasant village to seek the opportunities of factory work in a city. Scarlett is inventive and daring, never accepting no for an answer when there’s a way she might better the lives of the people she considers family.

On the negative side, the ending is increasingly implausible (for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into why), and I did feel that the book spends too much time on chapters from Boss Yeung and others’ perspectives, rather than keeping a tighter focus on Scarlett and Daisy.

As a resident of San Francisco, I enjoyed the peek behind the scenes of life in Chinatown, with its rich community and traditions that casual visitors and tourists aren’t privy to. And as a reader who appreciates strong women as main characters, I was fascinated by Scarlett’s determination and ambition, and how these brought her from her poor village to her brand new life in America.

A River of Stars is an engrossing read about unusual characters, and I ended up really liking the story of their search for a good life for their babies. Well worth checking out!

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The details:

Title: A River of Stars
Author: Vanessa Hua
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Olive is always unlucky: in her career, in love, in…well, everything. Her identical twin sister Ami, on the other hand, is probably the luckiest person in the world. Her meet-cute with her fiancé is something out of a romantic comedy (gag) and she’s managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a series of Internet contests (double gag). Worst of all, she’s forcing Olive to spend the day with her sworn enemy, Ethan, who just happens to be the best man.

Olive braces herself to get through 24 hours of wedding hell before she can return to her comfortable, unlucky life. But when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning from eating bad shellfish, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. And now there’s an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs.

Putting their mutual hatred aside for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs. But when Olive runs into her future boss, the little white lie she tells him is suddenly at risk to become a whole lot bigger. She and Ethan now have to pretend to be loving newlyweds, and her luck seems worse than ever. But the weird thing is that she doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she feels kind of… lucky.

My Thoughts:

Over the past year, I’ve become a fan of the writer duo known as Christina Lauren. Their books tend to be light and breezy, with lots of sass and romance, and The Unhoneymooners fits the mold. Olive ends up on an all-inclusive 10-day luxury vacation in Maui after the disaster of her sister’s wedding reception, and figures she’ll just grit her teeth and put up with Ethan’s company if that’s what it takes to enjoy some gorgeous beaches in paradise. Naturally, she and Ethan begin clicking in all sorts of ways, and before long they discover that their mutual dislike is founded on misunderstandings, missed cues, and some deliberate misdirection from an unlikely source.

Olive and Ethan are, naturally, totally adorable together, and their island escapades are silly and sexy. My quibbles with this book are around the unlikeliness and sheer ridiculousness of some of the set-ups for the plot. Ami’s obsession with freebies is, well, odd, and the fact that no one blinked twice about going along with her schemes is a little worrying. I found it really unlikely that Olive’s new boss — from back home in Minnesota — would show up at the exact same Maui resort as she did, and I just didn’t think her reasons for deception were all that convincing. (I’m also not convinced that his later decision to fire her for dishonesty based on something that happened in a casual setting prior to employment would really hold up, but hey, that’s me allowing my day job to creep into my book enjoyment!).

My main quibble with The Unhoneymooners, and with Christina Lauren books in general, is the tendency to create female characters with awesome professions and then never see them actually doing much in a work setting. Olive never makes it farther than the HR office in this book, and while we learn that she’s a virologist with a Ph.D., we mainly just see her awkward, ditzy self. Even when contemplating work and career, it’s not particularly serious or the topic of much discussion beyond a brief mention or two. Okay, yeah, this is a romance, so career is SO not the point, but still — I’d prefer to see these accomplished women doing what they’re great at!

That aside, the authors are great at building a mood, playing up passion and romance, and not being afraid to inject humor into any setting. In fact, humor and snark are really cornerstones of Olive and Ethan’s relationship here. and that’s part of what makes them so cute together. I also loved Olive’s big, over-involved, supportive family… and how could I not enjoy the hell out of a book that includes a passage like this one:

I stare up at him, hating the tiny fluttering that gets going in my chest because he knows the Harry Potter reference.  I knew he was a book lover, but to be the same kind of book lover I am? It makes my insides melt.

Sigh. Now THAT’s romantic.

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The details:

Title: The Unhoneymooers
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.

Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward – with hope and pain – into the future.

Once again, my book group has chosen an emotional, thought-provoking book that’s sure to prompt some passionate discussion. We seem to really know how to pick ’em this year!

In An American Marriage, Celestial and Roy are a devoted couple, but they’re still finding their groove as husband and wife after a year and a half of marriage. Their levels of trust seem to rise and fall, and in some ways, despite the obvious love between them, they’re still learning and growing together and establishing who they want to be together.

When Roy is accused of a violent crime and then convicted, they end up separated by his incarceration, facing a sentence that’s many years longer than their time together as a married couple. At first, Celestial visits regularly and they communicate constantly through letters, but over time, the physical separation becomes emotional separation as well — and when Roy’s conviction is overturned, he no longer knows if he has a wife to return to.

This book contemplates marriage, love, commitment, as well as the role of race in American society and the American justice system. Roy and Celestial are young, upwardly mobile African American professionals, but their run-in with the law in rural Louisiana — while awful and ghastly and unjust — doesn’t seem at all far-fetched in today’s society. Sadly, as shown through the experiences of the characters in this book, the threat of incarceration for African American males is very real and not avoidable simply by living a good and honest life.

Spoilery bits ahead:

I’ve said in other reviews that truly thought-provoking books evoke emotions, then make us question our emotions and get involved in internal debates. An American Marriage definitely had that effect on me.

Here come the spoilers:

While Celestial and Roy seem committed at the beginning of his prison time and determined to stick together no matter what, their relationship is eroded by time, distance, and the simple fact that they no longer share a life and experiences. After a few years, Celestial reaches the point where she stops visiting and finally tells Roy that she can no longer be his wife, even though she does not file for divorce. When Roy is released, he takes the lack of divorce papers as a sign that he has a marriage to return to, although he finds out soon enough that Celestial is in love with another man and planning to remarry.

Part of me was really angry with Celestial. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. The reader, and Celestial, know absolutely that Roy is innocent of the rape for which he’s convicted. He’s sent away from her through a miscarriage of justice, not through any fault of his own. It made me really upset to see Celestial abandon Roy. BUT, at the same time, every time the narration switched to her point of view, I began to (unwillingly) feel sympathy. Celestial and Roy had only a short time together as husband and wife, and by the time a few years of his sentence passed, they’d been apart longer than they’d ever been together. They never really got to find out what sort of marriage they’d have. Roy is stuck in prison for all those years, but Celestial is out in the world, pursuing her artistic passions and starting to make a name for herself. Maybe if they’d been on this journey together, their marriage would have grown along with their developing talents and careers, but here, every change for Celestial means a change away from the marriage that’s had no chance to be anything other than stagnant.

It’s not at all fair to Roy — nothing that’s happened is fair in any way — but I had to grudgingly admit that Celestial had impossible choices to make and didn’t deserve to face what was supposed to be a 12-year sentence with no life of her own.

So while I was often angry with Celestial, I also made a point of trying to understand her actions and to feel pity for her experiences, not just for Roy’s. It was hard, because he’s the one victimized by a false conviction and my sympathy was naturally drawn to him. As I said, I had a full-fledged internal debate going on, and it was next to impossible to fault one or the other without also immediately feeling sorry for them.

In terms of the plot itself, I did have one minor quibble — Roy was convicted on rape charges, and the woman who accused him was raped by someone, just not by Roy. Why wasn’t there a rape kit done? Shouldn’t a DNA analysis have been able to clear him right away?

Even so, the story is tragic and so, so sad. Roy has a moment when he’s thinking about the trial and how the woman who accused him looked straight at him while describing the attack in the courtroom, telling her terrible story while being 100% sure that Roy was the rapist. Roy remembers feeling shame and guilt, despite knowing that she has the wrong man, simply from realizing how strongly the woman is convinced that this is who Roy is.

The book is told from multiple perspectives, mainly Roy’s and Celestial’s, and the audiobook uses different narrators for their pieces. Both do a very good job conveying their personalities, although it’s sometimes disconcerting hearing the “Roy” narrator doing Celestial’s voice when narrating a conversation between the two of them, and vice versa.

Overall, I’m very happy to have had the experience of listening to An American Marriage, and recommend it highly, whether in print or audio. There’s much to think about and digest, and I think this story will really stick with me. Looking forward to discussing it with my book group!

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The details:

Title: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Narrators:  Sean Crisden, Eisa Davis
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 29, 2018
Print length: 308 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 59 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Readers of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will also like this tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

Be careful reading Only Child. There’s a good chance it’ll rip your heart out.

As Only Child opens, six-year-old Zach is crammed into a closet in his classroom, listening to popping sounds from somewhere outside the door his teacher is desperately holding closed. When the police finally move in and escort the children to safety in a nearby church, Zach can see that there are some people lying on the floor in the school hallway, and he sees splashes of red, even though the police officer keeps telling the kids to keep their eyes forward and not look around. When Zach’s mother arrives at the church to get him, we hear the terror in her voice as she asks Zach where his brother is. At that moment, the world begins to fall apart for Zach and his parents.

Zach’s older brother Andy is one of nineteen fatalities in a horrific school shooting, along with many of Andy’s classmates and the school principal. The shooter is the mentally ill adult son of the school’s long-time security guard Charlie — a man who has cared for the children of McKinley Elementary for 30 years.

How do we learn about these events? Through Zach. Only Child is narrated throughout by Zach Taylor, so we see all events unfold from this six-year-old’s perspective. We’re with Zach as he undergoes confusion, discomfort, misunderstanding, and terror. Zach’s first-person narration lets us into his thoughts, as he sorts through his feelings about Andy, who wasn’t always the kindest of brothers. We also can feel Zach’s terror at thoughts of returning to school, his boundless loneliness in his house, and his need for parents who are so wrapped up in their own grief and horror that they can’t always see what’s going on with Zach.

Look, this book is heart-breaking, no two ways about it. At the same time, I found it hard to spend the entire book looking at the world through Zach’s eyes. I had a similar response to Room. It’s a powerful story, but the limitations caused by having a child narrator can be frustrating. We never know more than Zach knows. We can only participate in conversations that Zach’s present for, so even though he does a fair bit of lurking in hallways to hear what his parents are talking about, we only ever get bits and pieces.

I had a hard time too suspending my disbelief in places where Zach recounts what he’s heard on TV or comments made by adults he’s overheard. His inner thoughts are a little precious on occasion, and maybe a bit more sophisticated for his age than is truly believable. My other complaint (sorry, I realize I’m being a curmudgeon): As you might expect in a story told by a six-year-old, I think I heard more than enough about pee, poop, snot, and puke. Oh my, little boys can be gross. (Sorry, truly.)

Still, I was very engaged by the story and the characters throughout. I had the unusual experience while reading this book of trying to analyze why I felt certain ways about characters, and forcing myself to embrace empathy even when I was having a visceral reaction against a particular person. For example, Zach’s mother comes across as pretty awful for much of Only Child, when viewed through the lens of Zach’s fears and unmet emotional needs. She’s unable to see past her own fury and loss to truly see Zach’s suffering, consumed by the need to get revenge on the parents of the shooter, pursuing TV interviews and making  lots of noise about their role and their responsibility for the children’s deaths.

Meanwhile, I typically have little sympathy for unfaithful spouses in novels, but despite the fact that we learn that Zach’s dad was having an affair prior to Andy’s death, he comes across as the supportive, loving, gentle parent who’s present for Zach and who attempts to find a way toward healing. I ended up liking the father much more than the mother, and had to continually remind myself that there’s no wrong way to grieve. She was not being a good mother to Zach following the shooting, but who among us can say how we’d behave in that unimaginable, terrifying type of situation? As much as I wished for better for Zach — like for his parents to be on the same page long enough to get him counseling — I couldn’t hate the mother for being swallowed up by her pain and grief.

Kudos to the talented young narrator of the audiobook, Kivlighan de Montebello, who does a terrific job with Zach’s voice, really giving life to Zach’s emotions. The audiobook is an immersive listening experience, and in places the raw emotions of the characters are almost too painful to hear.

I’m thankful to my book group, as always, for choosing terrific books to read and discuss. I finished Only Child right in time for our discussion, and can’t wait to share impressions and thoughts with my bookish friends. Only Child is a powerful, timely, deeply affecting book, and I strongly recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Narrator: Kivlighan de Montebello
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 10 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library