Shelf Control #264: The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan

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!

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

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

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

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

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

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

How and when I got it:

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

Why I want to read it:

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

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

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!



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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.
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Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Good Sister
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one and Fern is the quirky one. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

I have not been disappointed in a Sally Hepworth book yet, and The Good Sister is no exception! Talk about a page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down, and finished this compelling story in one day.

Rose and Fern are adult sisters who’ve only had each other to rely on for as long as they can remember. Rose is calm and responsible and protective; Fern has sensory issues and struggles to understand the nuances of interpersonal communications, completing missing nonvisual cues and unable to take words as anything but literal.

When Rose shares with Fern her heartache over infertility, Fern decides to have a baby for Rose. And when she meets a sweet guy at the library where she works, Fern realizes that he’s a good candidate for the baby’s father.

Things don’t always go as expected, and as Fern becomes attached to the man she calls Wally, Rose becomes uneasy about the relationship and the feeling that Fern is pulling away from her.

Man, this book is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory!

Told through Rose’s diary entries and Fern’s first-person narration, we learn bits and pieces about the sisters’ bond, their painful childhood, and their memories of their mother. We also learn more about why and how Fern became so dependent on Rose, and why neither of them consider Fern to be reliable or trustworthy.

It’s only as we get deeper into the story that we start to realize that neither sister is telling the whole story, and that what we’re hearing might not be the true picture of certain key events. Puzzling out the pieces and figuring out what’s true and what’s a lie makes this an incredibly engrossing read.

I especially loved Fern’s character. She’s unusual and has certain needs when it comes to interacting with the world, but she’s also very loving in her own odd way. And hey, she’s a librarian! And a really great one — despite her outward prickliness and tendency to ignore people who ask for help with the library photocopier, she’s terrific at helping people find what they need, whether it’s the right book or a bit of distraction, a way to calm down or even just some basic toiletries so they can use the public showers.

The plot of The Good Sister has some very clever twists and turns, and honestly, I just could not stop reading once I started. I won’t say more about the story, because it’s just too much fun to experience it without advance clues or information. Sally Hepworth has written yet another engrossing story with memorable characters, and I heartily enjoyed it. Don’t miss The Good Sister!

Book Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.

Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?

In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.

When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.

But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.

While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.

The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.

I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.

Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.

Shelf Control #252: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

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!

Title: The Stranger’s Child
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Published: 2012
Length: 564 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, a charismatic young poet, to visit his family home. Filled with intimacies and confusions, the weekend will link the families for ever, but its deepest impact will be on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne.

As the decades pass, Daphne and those around her endure startling changes in fortune and circumstance, reputations rise and fall, secrets are revealed and hidden and the events of that long-ago summer become part of a legendary story, told and interpreted in different ways by successive generations.

Powerful, absorbing and richly comic, ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is a masterly exploration of English culture, taste and attitudes over a century of change. 

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy on a whim, at least 6 or 7 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This was a total impulse buy! On a weekend trip with my daughter, we happened to find a really great bookstore, and this book was prominently displayed on their front rack. I loved the look of the cover, and while I didn’t feel like the back copy gave me a whole lot of information, I just needed to buy it!

I think the main reason I haven’t actually read the book yet is its length. It’s a big book! I do still want to get to it eventually, which is why it hasn’t ended up in my library donation piles just yet.

Have you read this book? Does it sound like something you’d want to read?

Please share your thoughts!


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

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

Have fun!

Book Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Title: Florence Adler Swims Forever
Author: Rachel Beanland
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets in this stunning debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Manhattan Beach and The Dollhouse.

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to divulge something that happens in the very first chapter, is it?

When I picked up Florence Adler Swims Forever, my expectation was that the main story line would focus on Florence and her training to swim the English Channel. Wouldn’t you think so, based on the title, the cover, and the synopsis? Well, if so, you’d be as misled as I was.

While the opening chapter is about a day at the beach, as told by 7-year-old Gussie, who adores her aunt Florence, by the end of the chapter, Florence has drowned. She’s pulled lifeless from the ocean where she went for just her typical long swims, and despite heroic efforts by the beach lifeguards, Florence is beyond saving.

Florence’s sister Fannie is hospitalized on bedrest with a high-risk pregnancy, and doctors warn that any stress or upset might cause Fannie to lose the baby. Their mother Esther decides on a plan: They will keep Florence’s death quiet, keep all announcements out of the papers, have a private family burial — and will not tell Fannie that her only sister has died.

Fannie and Florence had quarreled right before the books opens, and Fannie is left to believe that Florence is still angry at her, not communicating or visiting with her sister before leaving for France to start her big swim. The family brings the nurses and doctors of the maternity ward into the circle of secrecy, and by moving her to a private room and limiting her access to news of the outside world, they’re able to keep Fannie in the dark for the remaining months of her pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the Adler family must struggle through their private grief, running a successful bakery business, dealing with an untrustworthy son-in-law, and hosting Anna, a European refugee with a connection to Esther’s husband Joseph, who’s desperate to find a way to get her parents out of Germany before it’s too late.

This book has so much going for it. The Altantic City of 1934 setting is a wonder, showcasing life in that particular time and place with attention to detail and evocative descriptions. The beach environment, the ritzy hotels, the large Jewish community all feel vibrant and alive, as do the people themselves, with their relationships, their struggles for success, the aftermath of the Depression and the rising tensions about the increasingly desperate plight of the Jews in Europe.

Through small moments, such as characters discussing the price of bread or going to a restaurant for a business meetings, we get an idea of the economics of the time, as well as the chasms between haves and have-nots. We also get a good picture of Atlantic City development, and the lingering anti-Semitism that pervades even a location with such a large Jewish population.

There are also some truly eye-popping moments. For example, did you know that up through the end of the 1930s, premature babies in incubators were displayed as sideshow attractions at World’s Fairs and along the boardwalk? It’s true! I couldn’t believe it when the scene was described in this book, but yup — I had to stop and Google it, and discovered that this was how incubator technology was established before being adopted as standard medical procedure, and that thousands of premature babies were saved through these exhibits. Crazy, right? (Read more here, if interested.)

The subplot about Anna’s parents is sad and scary and eye-opening as well. We all know what happened to German Jews as Hitler rose to power, and it’s heart-breaking to get this view of the practically impossible steps that friends and relatives had to go through in order to try to secure visas for their loved ones. Without money or political connection, there was basically no chance. We really feel Anna’s anguish and frustration as she keeps attempting to rescue her parents, only to find the bar moved higher every time she approaches the stated goal.

While the Adler family’s story is compelling and I loved the historical setting, there are just a few elements that left me wanting more. There a romance that develops over the summer showcased in this story, and I just couldn’t feel it. I never truly felt the connection between the characters, so it was hard to buy into their love story and its outcome.

Likewise, we’re told that the hotel mentioned in the synopsis is well known for anti-Semitic policies, but we don’t actually see that demonstrated. The owner, who’s the father of one of the POV characters, is supposed to be nasty and ruthless, but again, I didn’t truly get that from his portrayal.

Florence Adler Swims Forever takes place over the summer months following Florence’s death. The ending left me wanting more. I’ll be vague here (no more spoilers!), but I felt pretty cheated by not getting to see a particular scene I had assumed would be included. I’d also hoped to get a definite answer about Anna’s parents and whether they’d be rescued, but because the story ends where it does, that remains an unknown.

I will say that the author’s notes at the end are illuminating, as they help to ground the events of the story, which may come across as far-fetched in places, in her own family’s history.

All in all, I found Florence Adler Swims Forever to be a compelling, absorbing read, despite feeling like I needed a little more from the characters and the story as a whole to move this into 5-star territory. Still, I definitely recommend this book, and can see it being a great book group choice as well — there’s so much to think about and discuss.

Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 30, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

This creepy, disturbing gothic novel lives up to all the rave reviews!

Mexican Gothic takes place in 1950s Mexico. We first meet Noemi Taboada coming home from a fancy party. She’s the pampered, pretty daughter of a wealthy family, at odds with her parents who want her to marry well (and soon), while what she really wants is to enroll in university to pursue a masters degree.

As the story starts, Noemi’s father shares with her a disturbing letter from her beloved older cousin Catalina. Catalina recently married a man she’d only known briefly and moved with him to his family’s isolated mountain estate. In her letter, Catalina seems to be rambling and incoherent, talking about hearing things in the walls and begging for help. Catalina’s husband explains her ravings away as a side effect of tuberculosis, and insists that she’s getting good medical care. But Mr. Taboada is worried enough that he decides to send Noemi as his ambassador to check up on Catalina’s well-being and nurse her back to health — or bring her back to Mexico City, if needed.

Noemi’s arrival at the Doyle estate is shocking. High up an isolated, treacherous mountain road, the mansion, High Place, is shambling and neglected, shrouded in mist and in a state of disrepair. Noemi is greeted by Florence, cousin to Catalina’s husband Virgil, a domineering, strict woman who asserts herself in charge not only of the house’s routines, but of Catalina’s care as well.

The house is dismal, and so are its occupants. There’s a no-talking rule at dinner, Noemi is forbidden from smoking, there’s no electricity and cool baths are encouraged, and the place is altogether repressive and awful. The only bright spot is Florence’s son Francis, a young man about Noemi’s age, who appears to be sympathetic and supportive, eager to help Noemi and keep her company.

Noemi’s visits with Catalina are severely restricted, and Catalina seems to be kept drugged most of the time. The doctor who sees her once a week doesn’t think anything is wrong, and the family is dismissive of Noemi’s prodding to call in a psychiatric specialist or to get another opinion.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because man, is it good! The atmosphere is grim and creepy in all the best ways. Strange insular family? Check. Decrepit old house? Check. Windows that don’t open and mold on the walls? Check and check.

Like in any good gothic novel, the setting is mysterious and threatening, and our brave heroine has no easy means of escape as she’s drawn further and further into the sick and twisted family secrets that have entrapped her cousin and now seem to be pulling her in as well.

And those secrets? Well, gross and disturbing and menacing don’t even quite encompass what’s going on in that terrible house. I love the growing sense of terror, the sickness at the heart of the family history, the interplay between these wealthy English landowners and the people of the surrounding areas, and the desperation that drives Noemi as she comes closer and closer to finally seeing the truth.

The moodiness of the book put me in mind of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and even Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt. If you’re a fan of creaky old houses with terrible secrets, this book should be right up your alley. It’s not blood and guts horror exactly — more of the quietly creeping chill that turns into growing terror as more and more awful things happen.

Mexican Gothic is so well written, so dramatic and well-plotted. I loved it, even thought it completely creeped me out and kept me turning the pages in a non-stop anxious frenzy. I can’t wait to read more by this author!

Book Review: How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior

Title: How the Penguins Saved Veronica
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A curmudgeonly but charming old woman, her estranged grandson, and a colony of penguins proves it’s never too late to be the person you want to be in this rich, heartwarming story from the acclaimed author of Ellie and the Harpmaker.

Eighty-five-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. When she sees a documentary about penguins being studied in Antarctica, she tells the scientists she’s coming to visit—and won’t take no for an answer. Shortly after arriving, she convinces the reluctant team to rescue an orphaned baby penguin. He becomes part of life at the base, and Veronica’s closed heart starts to open.

Her grandson, Patrick, comes to Antarctica to make one last attempt to get to know his grandmother. Together, Veronica, Patrick, and even the scientists learn what family, love, and connection are all about.

You guys. This book is so delicious!

Hazel Prior’s debut novel, Ellie and the Harpmaker, was one of my favorite reads of 2019. And now she’s back with a brand new book, and magic strikes again!

Veronica McCreedy is a fussy, unfriendly, skeptical 85-year-old woman, living in her huge house in Scotland. She likes to be left alone, is sure that her memory is perfect (it’s not), and is, in general, fed up with the world, her housekeeper Eileen, and the hand life has dealt her.

While watching a nature program one evening, she stumbles across a documentary series focusing on penguins, and is instantly smitten. At the same time, Veronica’s memories of her ancient past are reawoken when Eileen finds a dusty old padlocked chest in a storage room — reminding Veronica of the secrets she herself has kept locked away for so many years.

High on the list of secrets is the fact that she once had a child, and now decides to find out if she might in fact have any living relatives. With Eileen helping navigate the internet and the outside world, Veronica discovers a 20-something grandson, but meeting Patrick turns into a disappointing experience.

Needing meaning in her life, Veronica turns back to the penguins, becoming especially enamored of Adelie penguins and fascinated by the team of scientists researching these penguins on Locket Island in Antarctica.

Well, what’s a stubborn 85-year-old to do? Veronica sends an email to the research station announcing her imminent arrival, and off she goes! The 3-person research team is dismayed by their unwanted visitor, who flatly refuses to turn around and go home. And when she missed the chance to leave by the same boat that brought her, they have no choice but to adapt to Veronica and keep her comfortable and safe for the three weeks until the next boat arrives.

Meanwhile, Veronica is enthralled by the flock of penguins and insists on rescuing an orphaned penguin chick. While she isn’t a huge fan of the rudimentary living style or the abruptness of one of the scientists, all in all, she’s determined to stay, enjoy, and make a difference.

There’s so much more, but I’ll let you discover the rest on your own! A key piece that I haven’t discussed is that over the course of the novel, Patrick gets the opportunity to read diaries written by Veronica at age 15, which explain so much about her own past as well as his. Through the diaries, and later, through time spent together with the penguins, Patrick and Veronica finally manage to forge a relationship and a possible future as a family.

Ah, this was such a lovely, cheery, delight of a book! Veronica is as crusty and grumbly as you’d expect, and it’s no surprise really that her tough exterior hides a (difficult, quirky, demanding) heart of gold. As we read Veronica’s diaries with Patrick, we learn about the heartbreak and sorrow that she’s lived with all her life, and it’s impossible not to ache for her and the tragic experiences she’s endured.

Of course, one of the delights of the book is the penguins! Through Veronica’s eyes, we get to learn about penguin conservation, the research project, and what mischief baby penguins get up to. Really, they are utterly adorable. I loved the setting so much, and the scientists are sweet and smart, obsessed, and quite adorable too.

How the Penquins Saved Veronica is just the uplifting sort of read I needed this week. It’s sweet and touching — don’t miss it!

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: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

Title: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt
Author: Andrea Bobotis
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Some bury their secrets close to home. Others scatter them to the wind and hope they land somewhere far away.

Judith Kratt inherited all the Kratt family had to offer—the pie safe, the copper clock, the murder no one talks about. She knows it’s high time to make an inventory of her household and its valuables, but she finds that cataloging the family belongings—as well as their misfortunes—won’t contain her family’s secrets, not when her wayward sister suddenly returns, determined to expose skeletons the Kratts had hoped to take to their graves.

Interweaving the present with chilling flashbacks from one fateful evening in 1929, Judith pieces together the influence of her family on their small South Carolina cotton town, learning that the devastating effects of dark family secrets can last a lifetime and beyond. 

Miss Judith Kratt has lived in the imposing family home in Bound, South Carolina all her life. Now in her mid-70s, she lives contentedly with Olva — an African American woman who seems to be both servant and companion, the two women having spent their entire lives together. Judith has the idea to start an inventory of the house’s objects, all of which seem to hold a piece of the family history.

The Kratt family rose from nothing with Judith’s father, a bully of a man who strong-armed and cheated his way into a fortune in the cotton and mercantile business. He ruled his family and his town with an iron fist, inspiring fear and obedience whever he went.

In alternating chapters, we visit Judith’s memories of her teen years, going back to the fateful year of 1929 when her family’s fortunes changed dramatically.

Meanwhile, in the present of 1989, a local man and his six-year-old daughter take shelter in the Kratt home after being pursued by the grandson of Daddy Kratt’s former business partner. We see the cycles of hate and violence being carried through the generations, as the descendants of the grown-ups from Judith’s childhood still carry their forefathers’ handed-down grudges.

Judith seems odd and standoffish at first, but the more we learn about her childhood, the more her strange life starts to make sense. There are powerful family secrets buried in her and Olva’s pasts, and these secrets are still weighty enough to change lives all these years later.

As Judith makes her inventory, we come to understand the meaning of all the difference objects in her house, and how they relate to the family tragedy. It’s a clever and strangely moving approach to showing the weight of memories, and how those can add up to an entire life defined by the past.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt isn’t exactly what I expected, especially based on the book cover (which was what originally caught my eye). The image made me expect a work of historical fiction, maybe 1950s era or thereabouts, about Southern belles and their families. That’s not this book at all, though.

Instead, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is about a 15-year-old girl and the older woman she becomes, and the family secrets that shadow her entire life. This book is my book group’s pick for March, and I can wait to hear what everyone else thought and to pick apart the tangled web of secrets with them. Definitely a recommended read!

Take A Peek Book Review: The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

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

Title: The Cactus
Author: Sarah Haywood
Publisher: Park Row
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Synopsis:

In this charming and poignant debut, one woman’s unconventional journey to finding love means learning to embrace the unexpected.

For Susan Green, messy emotions don’t fit into the equation of her perfectly ordered life. She has a flat that is ideal for one, a job that suits her passion for logic, and an “interpersonal arrangement” that provides cultural and other, more intimate, benefits. But suddenly confronted with the loss of her mother and the news that she is about to become a mother herself, Susan’s greatest fear is realized. She is losing control.

Enter Rob, the dubious but well-meaning friend of her indolent brother. As Susan’s due date draws near and her dismantled world falls further into a tailspin, Susan finds an unlikely ally in Rob. She might have a chance at finding real love and learning to love herself, if only she can figure out how to let go.

 

My Thoughts:

I borrowed the audiobook of The Cactus from my library on a whim, based on its being available and also being a Reese’s Book Club pick (because I do seem to like most of their selections). This was an enjoyable, diverting story, although I’m not sure that I loved it. Susan is set in her ways, negating emotion at every turn, always aiming for efficiency and neatness. When her life turns upside down, she’s forced to start letting others in, and learns some hard truths about her own childhood. 

The cactus metaphor is a little heavy-handed, in my humble opinion. We get it: Susan is prickly, defensive, making sure others don’t get too close… but with proper attention and nurturing, she’s still capable of flowering. Geez.

I mostly enjoyed Susan’s brand of no-nonsense bossiness and solitude, although some of her behaviors are a bit extreme. The love story didn’t grab me — I didn’t feel convinced by the relationship and its development. I was much more interested in Susan’s family history and its dysfunctions, and how her childhood experiences slowly turned her into the woman she’d become. 

The Cactus is a fairly light read, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my priority recommendations.