Book Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Title: Real Men Knit
Author: Kwana Jackson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

A book about men knitting? Yes, please!

In Real Men Knit, the Strong brothers are all super attractive, muscular, successful men… and they knit. These four adult brothers were all adopted as children by Mama Joy, who rescued them from the foster system and turned them into a family. Mama Joy ran a small Harlem knitting shop that was more than just a play to buy yarn — Strong Knits was a community home away from home, a place to gather, interact, and improve lives.

But when Mama Joy dies, her sons are devastated, and the fate of the shop is up in the air. Perhaps as devastated as the Strong brothers is Kerry, the neighborhood girl who grew up in Mama Joy’s shadow, always present and helping out, and devoted completely to Mama Joy (while totally crushing on Jesse). Now an adult with a degree in art therapy, Kerry works at the community center with neighborhood kids, but agrees to stay on at the shop to help Jesse reinvigorate it and make sure it has a future.

I love any scene where the brothers casually knit. It’s such an “in your face” to stereotypes about male and female hobbies. There’s nothing gender-specific about knitting! And I really enjoyed the brothers’ complicated relationships, their resentments, their sibling squabbles, and their clear and abiding love and respect for Mama Joy.

I also really appreciated reading about the positive change a single dedicated woman can make. Mama Joy used her yarn store as a jumping off point for changing lives, and it’s beautiful to see how many different people were affected by her influence and contribution, in so many different ways.

In fact, it’s only the romance parts of this story that left me feeling a little blah. I really liked all the characters and thought the premise was unique and original, but Jesse and Kerry as a couple didn’t really seem all that special to me. I mean, they were fine, but I wasn’t actually cheering for them or particularly invested in whether they got an HEA.

That said, I did feel invested in the overall story, and wished that it had continued long enough to see how everything turned out with the shop! Of course, there are four Strong brothers, all single, and only one featured in a relationship in this book… might there be more Strong Knits stories still to come? One per brother, perhaps? Because I’d definitely read those!

With gratitude to Reading Tonic, whose review was the first I’d heard of this sweet and satisfying book. If you’re looking for a summer beach read with romance, heart, and a diverse set of characters, Real Men Knit would be a great choice.

Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Book Review: Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay

Title: Of Literature & Lattes
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 12, 2020
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Katherine Reay returns to the cozy and delightful town of Winsome where two people discover the grace of letting go and the joy found in unexpected change.

After fleeing her hometown three years earlier, Alyssa Harrison never planned to return. Then the Silicon Valley start-up she worked for collapsed and turned her world upside down. She is broke, under FBI investigation, and without a place to go. Having exhausted every option, she comes home to Winsome, Illinois, to regroup then move on as quickly as possible. Yet, as friends and family welcome her back, Alyssa begins to see a place for herself in this small Midwestern community.

Jeremy Mitchell moved from Seattle to Winsome to be near his daughter and to open the coffee shop he’s been dreaming of for years. Problem is, the business is bleeding money—and he’s not quite sure why. When he meets Alyssa, he senses an immediate connection, but what he needs most is someone to help him save his floundering business. After asking for her help, he wonders if something might grow between them—but forces beyond their control soon complicate their already complex lives, and the future they both hoped for is not at all what they anticipated.

With the help of Winsome’s small-town charm and quirky residents, Alyssa and Jeremy discover the beauty and romance of second chances.

Of Literature & Lattes is Katherine Reay’s follow-up to The Printed Letter Bookshop, which I finally read and reviewed just last week. In this new novel, we return to the town of Winsome, Illinois — home of an amazing bookstore, lots of cute shops, and people who get what community is all about.

The story follows two main characters: Alyssa, returning with dread to her hometown after a disastrous stint in Silicon Valley, and Jeremy, a grown-up with a sad childhood behind him, looking to spend more time with his daughter and investing everything in a new coffee shop.

For Alyssa, nothing has worked out as intended, and she seems like the walking embodiment of someone having baggage. After her parents’ divorce three years earlier, she sided with her father, cut her mother out of her life, and moved as far away as she could get. Alyssa’s magic with numbers and coding landed her a great job at a medical start-up — but her world crashes down sudddenly when it turns out that the company was nothing but a fraud, and what’s worse, provided false information to people about future diagnoses of awful illnesses.

Wracked by guilt and totally broke, Alyssa has no choice but to head home — where nothing is as expected. Alyssa’s mother is Janet, one of the main characters in The Printed Letter Bookshop, and Janet has changed dramatically. Alyssa expects to be able to hide out at her father’s apartment, but instead, he forces her to face her mother. As Janet and Alyssa spend time together, they form new understandings and realize that they have a lot of work to do to overcome the harmful patterns of their past, if they ever hope to have a relationship in the future.

Meanwhile, life for Jeremy is complicated too. His 7-year-old daughter Becca lives nearby, and he’s relocated from Seattle to be with her. Jeremy invested all his savings into buying the local coffee shop from its retiring owner, dreaming of turning it into a modern, successful business. The problem is, the locals don’t share his vision — and as he transforms the cozy, shabby coffee shop into something sleek and streamlined, the daily traffic plummets.

Jeremy is a good guy and his heart is in the right place, but he has to learn to step back and understand what community is all about if his business is going to survive — and if he’s serious about creating a new home for himself and for Becca.

There’s a lot to love about Of Literature & Lattes. First of all, the town of Winsome is just as charming as in the previous book. It’s an idealized version of small-town homey-ness, and wouldn’t we all love to find a place like that to belong?

The people here seem to really care about one another, and while yes, they are all up in each other’s business a little more than I’d personally care for, this connection comes out in all sorts of ways that are heart-warming and important.

Alyssa and Janet spend a lot of this book at odds, and it’s messy and a little terrible, but also feels real. Their dynamic goes back years, and has as much to do with Janet’s feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction as with their actual relationship. It’s not easy for them to sort out all the ways in which they’ve hurt and misunderstood one another, but over the course of their months together, they make major strides — and find that they both truly want to make things better.

For Jeremy, the relationship with his ex Krista is difficult, and his business isn’t going as he’d hoped. He starts off very focused on his own vision — an outsider who thinks he knows what the town needs. It’s only when he allows himself to admit that he needs to learn that he starts to connect with the community in a real way, realizing that a coffee shop that’s perfect but lacks heart just isn’t going to cut it.

Once again, I really enjoyed the author’s way of weaving personal stories into a bigger picture of a community. I enjoyed seeing the familiar characters from the previous story, as well as meeting Alyssa and Jeremy and seeing how they fit into the greater whole.

While Of Literature & Lattes could work as a stand-alone, I’d recommend reading The Printed Letter Bookshop first. I’m glad I did! OL&L is touching and lovely, but it’s so much richer when set into the context of the larger story, and I think without the previous book, many of the connections would have gone right by me without leaving an impression.

Another heart-warming story from author Katherine Reay — and yes, plenty of book talk too!

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay

Title:The Printed Letter Bookshop
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Love, friendship, and family find a home at the Printed Letter Bookshop

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a captivating story of good books, a testament to the beauty of new beginnings, and a sweet reminder of the power of friendship.

What a difference a year makes!

And reading moods certainly make a difference too.

Last year, I received an ARC of The Printed Letter Bookshop via NetGalley. And I was excited to read it, because I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books previously. But according to my Goodreads post, I DNFd this book at about 25%, saying that I just wasn’t interested and couldn’t get into it.

This could probably be an entirely different post about reading according to a schedule (I was trying to read ARCs on or before publication date) and feeling obligated when choosing what to read… but suffice it to say, for whatever reason, this just wasn’t the right book for me at that particular time.

So here I am, a year later, and I received an ARC of Katherine Reay’s soon-to-be-released newest book (Of Literature and Lattes) — and as I started reading it, I realized (a) it’s set in the same town as The Printed Letter Bookshop, and (b) while it appears to be focusing on different characters, there’s definitely crossover. And even though I was already five chapters in, and enjoying it, I decided it was time to go back to The Printed Letter Bookshop and give it another try.

Whew. All that is just context for the actual review! So here goes…

The Printed Letter Bookshop is charming! It’s a look at women’s friendship, centered around a bookshop located in small-town Winsome, Illinois, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, but worlds away in terms of the cozy, quaint, close-knit nature of the community.

When the store owner Maddie dies, her two colleagues and close friends Janet and Claire are devastated by her loss, and then immediately have to begin worrying about their future of their beloved store. Maddie leaves all her belongings, including her house and the bookshop, to her niece Madeline, a hard-charging young lawyer who hasn’t visited Maddie in years.

Madeline doesn’t want the store or any permanent link to Maddie. While they used to be close, some rift between Maddie and Madeline’s parents years in the past caused horribly hurt feelings, and Madeline has never forgiven Maddie. Now, though, Maddie’s holdings are her responsibility, and they come at a time when Madeline’s professional life has taken a sudden detour.

Madeline’s plan is to get in, get the store’s finances in shape, and sell. But life seems to have other plans.

Once she begins to get involved at The Printed Letter Bookshop, Madeline starts to understand how much it means to Janet, Claire, and the town. She also gains fresh insight into Maddie as a person, how badly she misunderstood her parents’ estrangement from Maddie, and just how much she herself needs a fresh perspective on her own life.

Janet and Claire are also POV characters. Each has her own reason for being drawn to Maddie, who gave them purpose and connection by welcoming them into the bookshop. They each have troubled home lives, but through their work at the bookshop, they reinvent themselves and start to understand where their lives’ turning points were, and how to choose different directions.

Although the book opens with Maddie’s funeral, she’s a large presence throughout the story. She’s a warm, lovely person who truly understands the way books can transform lives. She has the knack of finding the right book for each person who enters The Printed Letter Bookshop, and as her parting gift to Madeline, Janet, and Claire, leaves each a list of books to read — no explanation, just a list. And for each woman, the book list helps her grow and change.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a lovely book. I’ve seen it shelved as Christian fiction (publisher Thomas Nelson specializes in Christian content) — but if I hadn’t known that, I don’t think I’d classify this book that way. (Full disclosure: I am not Christian, and would not normally read books classified at Christian fiction. I’m glad I didn’t see a “label” before picking up this book!)

There are discussions about faith and God in the book, but I never felt like those discussions dominated the novel or that I was being hit over the head with religion. Instead, these themes are a part of the women’s journeys, as they think about their lives, their families, their relationships, and the meaning of it all. While their beliefs don’t align with my own, I was actually quite moved by some of their inner processes and how they decide, each in their own way, to make important changes in their lives.

There’s also a love story for Madeline, but that’s probably the part that I cared about least in this book. I mean, it was nice, but I didn’t get a good feel for the relationship or how it grew, and didn’t feel all that invested in that piece of the plot.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to give this book another chance! It’s a quick, engaging read, with heart, emotions, and LOTS OF BOOKS. (The author helpfully includes a list of all the books mentioned or referred to in the story at the back of the book… and we all know how awesome books about books can be!)

And now, I feel ready for Of Literature and Lattes.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.

Shelf Control #214: Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes

Shelves final

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

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

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

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Sheltering Rain
Author: Jojo Moyes
Published: 2002
Length: 451 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Me Before You, the basis for the major motion picture, comes the touching, unforgettable story of three generations of Irish women faced with the fundamental truths of love, duty, and the unbreakable bond that unites mothers and daughters.

Estranged from her mother since she ran away from her rural Irish home as a young woman, Kate swore a future oath that she’d always be a friend to her daughter, Sabine. But history has a way of repeating itself, and Kate now faces an ever-widening chasm between herself and her daughter. With Sabine about to make her own journey to Ireland to see the grandmother Kate abandoned, Kate is left wondering how they ever made it here, and what she can do to close the gap between them. 

For Joy, seeing her granddaughter is a dream come true. After the painful separation from Kate, she’s looking forward to having time with Sabine. Yet almost as soon as the young woman arrives, the lack of common ground between them deflates her enthusiasm. And when Sabine’s impetuous, inquisitive nature forces Joy to face long-buried secrets from her past, she realizes that perhaps it’s time to finally heal old wounds.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy at a library sale.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read a lot of Jojo Moyes books — but I think there are about five or so of her earliest books that I haven’t read yet. And apparently, this was her very first novel! She’s such a terrific writer, always finding just the right balance between plot and emotions. I love mother-daughter stories, so this sounds like a great choice for me. And then, maybe I’ll work my way through a few more of her books too!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Audiobook Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Print length: 418 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have to admit, my knowledge about the plot of Beartown before reading the book was limited to basically one word: Hockey. I knew it was set in a small town, and that the town’s focus was hockey. Period. I guess I never read a synopsis, and because the book came out a few years ago and I’d heard how much people enjoyed it, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting the audiobook either.

So let’s just be clear up front. I did really enjoy this book. And at the same time, this is one of the rare occasions when I wish I’d known more ahead of time.

I’m not usually in favor of content warnings, and maybe if I’d read a synopsis ahead of time, the content wouldn’t have taken me by surprise quite so much — but I do feel like this book should have had a much more explicit content warning.

So, here’s my content warning: The “violent act” referred to in the synopsis is rape. And I did not at all realize that I was reading a book that would focus so much on rape and its aftermath. I was expecting petty grievances and sports fanatics and small-town politics, perhaps. So the content took me completely off guard. I don’t have personal trauma associated with sexual assault, but I can easily imagine how upsetting it would be for someone who’s survived such violence to be confronted by it unexpectedly in a book.

But let’s get back to the book itself. Because in many ways, Beartown is excellent!

Beartown is a small town in the forest (in Sweden) that’s seen better days… a long time ago. The town has a factory that’s going downhill, and it has an ice rink. The town is fanatical about hockey, and this year, it looks like the juniors team (15 to 17-year-old boys) has a shot at the national final. And if they win? The club’s sponsors have starry-eyed visions of a championship bringing a national hockey academy to Beartown, revitalizing the local economy and once again making the town a real place on the map.

It’s only a game. Everyone who plays it gets told that from time to time. A lot of people try to tell themselves that it’s true. But it’s complete nonsense. No one in this town would have been the same if that game hadn’t existed.

Through the novel, we get to know a huge cast of characters. There are the boys on the team, including superstar Kevin, who’s expected by everyone to turn pro. There’s Kevin’s best friend Benji, a stoner who also throws himself into every moment of the game in defense of his teammates. There’s Amat, son of the rink’s immigrant cleaning woman, finally given a shot to belong and to prove himself.

Then there are the boys’ families — some supportive, some demanding perfection while ignoring their children, some doing what they can, some doing nothing at all.

We also get to know the hockey club’s General Manager and his family; the coach of the A-team and the rising star coach of the juniors; the local pub owner, the school teacher, and so many more.

It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.

Author Fredrik Backman masterfully weaves together all of these people to paint a portrait of a community, with all its flaws and spots of ugliness as well as points of light and kindness. The small-town politics is real and cutthroat when it comes to hockey, and the toxic masculinity simply oozes off the page in various locker room and bar room scenes.

As I said, I expected a hockey story, but Beartown is so much more than that. The attack on the young girl is depicted with sensitivity, but doesn’t shy away from showing us the violence involved and the terror the girl feels.

From there, the focus becomes how the girl’s reporting of the rape triggers a huge and ugly reaction from the town, most of whom see her as a liar, a pathetic girl who got drunk, hooked up with a boy, and then got mad when he rejected her. It’s disturbing to see how far the town goes in portraying her as at fault, and how much abuse and intimidation is thrown at her, at her family, and at the few people who speak up for her.

I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Marin Ireland does a fantastic job with the dialogue and with portraying the different characters, giving them distinct sounds and personalities through her voice.

Maybe because I listened to the book, I became very aware of the author’s use of repetition as a device to drive home certain points. And perhaps in print, I wouldn’t have found it quite so annoying. Throughout the book, there are moments where we get lines of “Bang. Bang. Bang.” representing the sound of hockey pucks. Too much, after a while.

Likewise, I wasn’t crazy about the author’s habit of starting and ending chapters with declarative statements or big questions:

Why does anyone care about hockey?

A long marriage is complicated.

It’s Saturday, and everything is going to happen today.

Pride in a team can come from a variety of causes.

When you love hockey it feels like having your heart scalded.

I’m afraid I’ve focused too much on the negative, which doesn’t truly convey my feelings about this book. I do think Beartown is terrific storytelling. I was completely wrapped up in the plot and the characters — as proven by my tendency to make my walks longer and longer each day so I’d have more time to listen to the audiobook.

Some of these characters made me want to cry. I could really feel the accumulated hurts of so many of them, all the ways in which lifetime experiences add up to more than anyone could anticipate, all the ways in which spoken and unspoken words, actions allowed and forbidden, come back around with unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I was very invested in my favorite characters’ well-being, and wanted desperately to know that they’d be okay. When characters make choices that put them at risk as they stand up to do what’s right, I wanted to cheer, and at the same time, to yell at them to run far away and never turn back.

I guess that’s the sign of a great book — that despite any quibbles with the writing, the power of the characters makes you care so very, very much.

The sequel to Beartown, Us Against You, was released in 2018. And while Beartown felt complete and had a definitive ending, now that I know there’s more, I definitely have to get a copy.!

Audiobook Review: Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Title: Get A Life, Chloe Brown
Author: Talia Hibbert
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Print length: 373 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.

• Ride a motorcycle.

• Go camping.

• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.

• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.

• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior… 

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the main characters, Chloe and Red, and appreciated so much about their story. And yet, there are parts of this book that I simply, literally, could not take and had to fast-forward through.

So, 3-stars is a really apt rating for my experience — squarely in the middle.

Let me back up and explain.

Chloe is an awesome main character. She’s a smart and talented black woman from a wealthy family, and is aware of the privilege she’s grown up with. She’s also chronically ill, suffering with fibromyalgia and continuous pain that leaves her completely debilitated at frequent intervals. Chloe protects herself fiercely; having been burned by a previous relationship and left with awful feelings of abandonment, she’s determined not to be vulnerable that way ever again.

And constantly living with physical pain, Chloe is not a risk-taker. She knows her limits, and sticks with them, until the day she has a near-miss with a drunk driver, and realizes it’s time to do more with her life. Hence her “get a life” list — because Chloe loves her life spelled out in neat and orderly lists, so a list is absolutely necessary if she’s going to make a change.

Meanwhile, Red is the red-headed, white, tattooed, super-hot superintendent of the building Chloe moves into, and while he’s lovely to everyone else, he and Chloe immediately rub each other the wrong way. He’s sure she’s a stuck-up snob, and she’s sure he’s rude and too into his bad-boy image.

Eventually, of course, they experience a breakthrough (thanks to Chloe pursuing a lost cat up a tree, and Red having to enact a seriously adorable rescue of both woman and kitty.) As they start to warm up and trust one another, a physical and emotional connection blossoms, each finding that one special person to help them move forward after painful pasts.

Here’s what I really liked about this story:

  • The playful flirtation and banter between Chloe and Red.
  • How Chloe and Red are each talented in their own fields, and wholeheartedly appreciate one another’s talents.
  • How they support each other’s weak points as well as their strengths, and show caring and concern in all sorts of little and big ways.
  • How freaking cute they are together at all times.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays Chloe’s disability.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays the emotional abuse that’s left Red traumatized.
  • How Chloe and Red learn together how to make room for their differences and their emotional wounds.

So what didn’t I like? Well, I suppose it gets down to my preferences when it comes to romances. I like steam… and I’m no prude… but I don’t need anatomical details when it comes to love scenes. And there’s a LOT of anatomy in this book.

The sex scenes are very graphically described — and again, good for Chloe and Red for having such a great time together! But I prefer my fiction to leave more to the imagination… and when that many body parts and secretions are described that often and in that much detail, that’s just not going to appeal to me. So, somewhere in the 2nd half of the book, I realized I could save myself some agony by using the fast-forward button in 10 second increments until I got to the afterglow, when the plot would safely pick back up.

Like I said, I know that’s just a personal preference, so no judgment for readers who like this sort of thing. It’s just not for me, and that’s too bad, because in the case of Get A Life, Chloe Brown, I really liked the characters and their story. But I found myself wishing that I had a magic editing button on my Audible app to allow me to edit out the explicit scenes and just stick to the plot (although that would have cut this audiobook down to about 60% of its length, I’d guess).

A note on the audiobook — the narrator is quite good! I liked her portrayal of Chloe. She made her so adorable! And Red’s voice was really good too, growly and rough, but also loving and appreciative of the wonder of Chloe Brown.

All in all, a good love story wrapped up in a package that just doesn’t 100% work for me. Which is too bad. There’s a new book coming out about Chloe’s sister, and part of me is intrigued — but after my experiences with this book, I’m not sure I could stand another round of anatomy lessons. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all.

Audiobook Review: The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Bookshop on the Shore
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 13, 2019
Print length: 416 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A grand baronial house on Loch Ness, a quirky small-town bookseller, and a single mom looking for a fresh start all come together in this witty and warm-hearted novel by New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan.

Desperate to escape London, single mother Zoe wants to build a new life for herself and her four-year-old son Hari. She can barely afford the crammed studio apartment on a busy street where shouting football fans keep them awake all night, and Hari’s dad, Jaz, a charismatic but perpetually broke DJ, is no help at all. But his sister, Surinder, comes to Zoe’s aid, hooking her up with a job as far away from the urban crush as possible: working at a bookshop on the banks of Loch Ness. And there’s a second job to cover housing: Zoe will be an au pair for three children at a genuine castle in the Scottish Highlands.

But while Scotland is everything Zoe dreamed of — clear skies, brisk fresh air, blessed quiet — everything else is a bit of a mess. The Urquart family castle is grand but crumbling, the children’s mother has abandoned the family, their father is a wreck, and the kids have been kicked ot of school and left to their own devices. Zoe has her work cut out for her and is determined to rise to the challenge, especially when she sees how happily Hari has taken to their new home.

With the help of Nina, the friendly local bookseller, Zoe begins to put down roots in the community. Are books, fresh air, and kindness enough to heal the Urquart family—and her own?

Love, love, love, love, love.

Jenny Colgan’s books have been reliable, sweet escapes for me, and I’ve loved so many of them — but The Bookshop on the Shore just may be my favorite yet!

Zoe is a lovely main character, who starts the book in an awful situation. She’s about to be evicted from her grotty little apartment, she works in a posh nursery that she can’t afford to send her precious boy to, she can’t find help for the fact that Hari seems to be mute by choice, and Hari’s dad is unreliable and offers no support whatsoever.

The opportunity to be an au pair in the Highlands, providing a roof over her head and a small income, and to run a mobile bookselling business during the owner’s maternity leave, is too good to pass up — and frankly, Zoe is completely out of options.

She and Hari pack up and head to the Highlands, where the dark, neglected manor is in disarray and the children are completely wild, snidely referring to Zoe as “Nanny Seven” when she shows up, since she’s likely to be just one more in a string of hopeless caregivers who the bratty kids manage to drive away.

But Zoe is determined and desperate, and simply refuses to fail. She and Hari settle in. Hari is immediately befriended by Patrick, the precocious 5-year-old of the family, although the older children, 9-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Shackleton, are much harder to win over.

Meanwhile, Zoe takes up the bookselling business when the owner Nina is unexpectedly forced into an early bed rest, and combines her love of books with her startlingly good business sense to develop an entirely new clientele — one that Nina might not entirely approve of, but hey, at least Zoe is making money!

The description may make this seem like pretty standard fare, but I promise, this book is something special! The Urquart children are troubled and troublesome, but with good reason, and their behavior isn’t sugar-coated or made cute. Mary especially has some serious issues to contend with, and it’s heartbreaking to see what she experiences.

Zoe does come off a bit like a magical Mary Poppins/Maria from The Sounds of Music combo — swooping in with her good sense and cheery disposition, steeling herself against hurtful comments and making the children eat healthy, go outdoors, clean up, and all sorts of other positive activities, entirely against their will. Still, behind the scenes, we see Zoe’s vulnerability, and this keeps her grounded as a character and keeps her from seeming too super-nanny-ish.

Gradually, the children warm up to Zoe, and her influence lets light and joy back into the lives of this sad family. Naturally, there’s a love story too, and it’s sweet without being saccharine, and feels well developed and well earned.

Zoe’s anxiety over Hari’s well-being feels very real and all too relatable. To her, her boy is perfect, but at the same time, he’s isolated himself from the world in a way that brings him all sorts of negative attention from well-meaning strangers. Seeing the boy becoming close with the adorable Patrick is just one of the pleasures of this novel.

The narration of the audiobook is delightful, keeping the story moving along crisply, giving personality to each of the characters and making them all distinct and vivid. If you can’t tell already, my favorite is little Patrick, whose use of the word “absolutely” in every sentence is just the cutest thing ever.

There’s real heart-ache in this book, and some moments that had me at the edge of my seat, but also a realistic look at the messy business of raising a family, dealing with children who aren’t perfect, and looking for small ways to make things better, even if just a bit at a time.

Just to put this book in context, it’s set in the same world as The Bookshop on the Corner, with some cross-over characters, but I wouldn’t call it a sequel, and it can absolutely (thanks, Patrick!) be read a stand-alone.

Jenny Colgan’s books tend to have certain elements in common — a lonely or sad main character needing a dramatic change, moving to a small, remote community, meeting lots of quirky characters, finding a place for herself, and falling in love. This is all true of The Bookshop on the Shore, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at all formulaic.

I loved the setting, the characters, the investment in the portrayals of the children, and the way Zoe, Hari, and the Urquarts all change one another’s lives for the better.

A bonus is how much all of these characters love to read! In this book as well as The Bookshop on the Corner, the characters talk about books all the time, and listening to the audiobook, I was often tempted to hit the pause button so I could write down the books mentioned. What a treat!

I’ll use Patrick’s favorite word one more time and say that I ABSOLUTELY recommend The Bookshop on the Shore!

Book Review: In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Title: In Five Years
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Perfect for fans of Me Before You and One Day—a striking, powerful, and moving love story following an ambitious lawyer who experiences an astonishing vision that could change her life forever.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

When Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Kohan is asked this question at the most important interview of her career, she has a meticulously crafted answer at the ready. Later, after nailing her interview and accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, Dannie goes to sleep knowing she is right on track to achieve her five-year plan.

But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.

After a very intense, shocking hour, Dannie wakes again, at the brink of midnight, back in 2020. She can’t shake what has happened. It certainly felt much more than merely a dream, but she isn’t the kind of person who believes in visions. That nonsense is only charming coming from free-spirited types, like her lifelong best friend, Bella. Determined to ignore the odd experience, she files it away in the back of her mind.

That is, until four-and-a-half years later, when by chance Dannie meets the very same man from her long-ago vision.

Brimming with joy and heartbreak, In Five Years is an unforgettable love story that reminds us of the power of loyalty, friendship, and the unpredictable nature of destiny.

Wow.

Excuse me, I need to go dry my eyes for a minute before I can put any thoughts down about this book. There. I’m ready.

In Five Years crept up on me and hit me in my heart. It’s not the book I thought it was going to be, and that’s perfectly okay, because I ended up blown away by how deeply it made me feel.

At the same time, I don’t want to spoil anything for any potential readers, so I’m going to have to keep my comments on the vague side.

You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.

This is not a time-travel story. There is no magical entry into parallel worlds. Yes, Dannie has a weird experience that puts her five years into the future for a brief hour — but call it vision or premonition or whatever you want, I promise that that’s not the point of the story.

The main character of In Five Years is Dannie, a super smart, super successful lawyer who measures out her life in plans and lists and spreadsheets. Her boyfriend David is just like her (even keeping a spreadsheet of restaurants they’ve visited and what they ate), and their future is nicely mapped out. They’ll achieve success in their incredibly competitive fields. They’ll buy a great apartment in a great neighborhood in New York. And after Dannie’s interview with the law firm of her dreams, they get engaged in the perfect setting… so they seem very much on track for their neatly planned out lives.

Until Dannie dozes off and has her strange, five-years-into-the-future experience, where she interacts with a man — not David — in such an intimate and emotional way that, when she wakes, she begins to question everything.

Four and a half years later, Dannie and David are still engaged, but never quite get around to planning a wedding. She’s working at her dream job and absolutely loving it. And then things get weird when her best-friend-for-life Bella introduces her to the new man in her life… and he’s the man from Dannie’s dream/vision/premonition.

But if you think that this is a love triangle sort of book, let me just tell you — it’s not.

The further along I read, the more I understood that the heart of this book is the love between friends. Dannie and Bella are perfect complements to one another — Bella free-spirited and artistic and spontaneous, all things that Dannie is not. But they love each other unstintingly and understand each other deeply, and as the story unfolds from here, their love absolutely shines in a way that’s beautiful and left me in tears.

There. I’m not saying anything further about the plot. I’ll just say that it surprised me and moved me; it wasn’t what I expected, and it completely pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go until I turned the last page.

On a lighter note, two things struck me as funny. One, a seeming inconsistency that made me giggle:

David was snoring next to me, and the upstairs was still, but then it was barely six.

And on the next page:

David is a silent sleeper. No snoring, no movement.

Hmm. I don’t think those can both be true. (But honestly, this is truly a minor quibble, and I only mention it because it made me laugh and broke up the intensity of the story for me, which was a good thing.)

I also loved a couple of little throw-away lines that made me feel like Dannie and I are inhabiting the same world:

Murray Hill isn’t the most glamorous neighborhood in New York, and it gets a bad rap (every Jewish fraternity and sorority kid in the Tri-State area moves here after graduation. The average street style is a Penn sweatshirt)…

Hee. My alma mater rarely gets a shout-out in the books I read. And one more thing that felt like me:

I change into shorts and a T-shirt and a sun hat — my Russian Jew skin has never met a sun it particularly got on with…

Story of my life, Dannie.

But back to being serious…

I loved Rebecca Serle’s previous novel, The Dinner List, and in some ways, I can see some general similarities. Both feature an out-of-the-ordinary twist in the set-up, and in both, it’s the emotional heart of the story that really matters, not the how and why of the strange twist.

In Five Years is a gorgeous, surprising, and emotionally powerful read. Highly recommended.

[And a brief note: When I look at the reviews on Goodreads, I see so much detail about the plot. I recommend reading this book without a lot of foreknowledge, so stay away from Goodreads if that matters to you!]