Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Title: Fools and Mortals
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition. 

Don’t you just love when a book takes you by surprise and ends up becoming a favorite?

Fools and Mortals is my book group’s pick for September, and I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading it. My impression was that it would be a dry read that I’d have to work to get into, and I just wasn’t in the mood. But, being a responsible book club member (ha!), I decided to give it a go.

As you can tell from the 5-star rating, I loved it. Once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. So let me tell you more about it.

Fools and Mortals is a story about William Shakespeare’s acting troupe at the Theatre in London, told through the perspective of his younger brother Richard. Richard ran away from home in Stratford as a young teen to escape a cruel apprenticeship, but his brother isn’t exactly warm and welcoming.

A very lovely-looking young man, by age 21 Richard has spent years as a player at the Theatre, although not a full member (Sharer) with a stake in the earnings. When he performs, he earns money. When there’s no part for him, or when there are no performances due to bad weather, he gets nothing. Richard lives in a dingy boarding house, constantly threatened with being thrown out if he can’t pay his back rent, and resorts to petty thievery to keep from starving.

On stage, he specializes in women’s parts, but he wants to be taken seriously. He yearns to be allowed to grow up, cut his hair, grow a beard, and take on the significant male roles that will allow him greater status as an actor. But Will doesn’t seem to have any interest in his brother’s goals, and when he finally promises him a man’s role, there’s still a trick involved that means Richard will end up playing a woman once again.

Meanwhile, there’s intrigue and action afoot. Will has earned a commission to write a play to be performed at the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter — the play that will become A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will is also working on an Italian play, which will be Romeo and Juliet.

But rival companies are also building huge theaters, and original scripts are invaluable in the theater world. If another company can get their hands on one of Will’s plays, they’ll be able to perform it and Will will have no way to get it back or claim it.

So when the new scripts go missing, there’s plenty of suspicion, and Richard is one of those accused of stealing the scripts in order to make some needed money. It’s up to Richard to get them back, but doing so is likely the most dangerous thing he’s ever done.

I won’t go further into the plot itself, but trust me — it’s fascinating! I loved the characters and the behind the scenes look at how a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream came into being. Through Fools and Mortals, we get to see the complicated business of patronage and protection, the terrifying power of the Persuivants (known as Percies) — the vehemently Puritanical force who have the power to arrest and convict anyone suspected of heresy — as they threaten the players, and the deadly serious competition and scheming related to gaining and keeping players and scripts.

William Shakespeare himself comes off as cold and heartless when it comes to his brother, but of course, we do get to see his brilliance as well. I was enthralled by the descriptions of how the players learn their parts, figure out the staging, interact with their audiences, and more.

Fools and Mortals reminded me of the (sadly) short-lived TV series Will that was on TNT a few years ago. Will was a little over-the-top at times, but the parts that focused on the players and the productions were terrific, and having seen the show, I was better able to visualize some of what was going on in Fools and Mortals.

This book was such a treat! So thank you, once again, to my book group, for getting me to read a book that I probably would have completely missed otherwise.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, historical fiction, the Elizabethan era, theatrical history, or really, just plain good writing, check out Fools and Mortals!

Book Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Title: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club…especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucinda van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished— and so has their friend and employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save the Empire? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

Now THIS is how you end a trilogy! Author Theodora Goss delivers another rolicking escapade with the brave women of Athena Club, adding even more “monstrous” women to the mix.

For those new to these books, the main characters are all the daughters of famous men — mad scientists and members of the Alchemical Society, who used their own daughters as subjects of their dastardly experiments. Their goal? Biological transmutation. The outcome? Unusual women with strange, hidden talents and gifts, such as Beatrice Rappaccini, who thrives on rain and sunshine and gives off poison with her breath, and Catherine Moreau, transformed from a wild, free puma into a young woman with decidedly sharp teeth and claws.

This found family also includes the two daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, each one representing a different facet of his personae, Justine Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, and a young housemaid named Alice who turns out to have unusual powers of mesmerism.

In this 3rd book, the woman of the Athena Club have just returned from their adventures in Vienna and Budapest (described in book 2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) — but there’s no time to rest! Alice and Sherlock Holmes are missing, and there seems to be a terrible plot underway involving evil mesmerists, an Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of powerful, treasonous men who want to overthrow the Queen and purify the British Empire.

Luckily, our band of heroines are on the case, and they go chasing off to Cornwall to rescue their friends, save the Queen, and defeat the bad guys once and for all! It’s all high-spirited fun, with the quips and bickering that the characters seem to love so much.

I thought this was a terrific wrap-up for the trilogy, with heightened adventures and plenty of surprises and adrenaline-rushes. There are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, as the circle of acquaintances grows and grows with each book, but it’s all good fun.

If I had to choose, I’d still say that the first book in the trilogy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is really and truly the best, because of the emphasis on the main characters’ origin stories and their creation of a family of their own. But that doesn’t take away from how satisfying the other two books are, or how well all three fit together to create one glorious whole.

If you enjoy sparkling, witty characters in a Victorian setting, with touches of the fantastic and supernatural, then you just must check out the Athena Club books!

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Title: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Print length: 736 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies. 

Oh, what fun! One of my most enjoyable reads this past year was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, book one in the Athena Club trilogy. In it, we met the daughters of famous men — men who conducted monstrous experiments in the name of science, and left behind daughters bearing the scars of their work.

In book #2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, this found family of heroic women is at it again. They’ve banded together to form a home and a family, finding happiness and belonging that they’ve never had elsewhere. A plea for help from Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Murray, sets the plot in motion. A young woman named Lucinda Van Helsing is missing, and her father, Dr. Van Helsing, is suspected of being in league with the nefarious Society of Alchemists.

This kicks off the Athena Club’s next adventure, as they head to Vienna and then Budapest to rescue Lucinda and reveal the terrible conspiracies at the heart of the Society of Alchemists.

Along the way, there’s travel aboard the Orient Express, a meeting with Irene Adler (of Sherlock Holmes fame), circus performances, a battle with vampires, and a break-in/break-out from an asylum.

Our heroes show the pluck and bravery that make them so special, whether it’s the careful planning of Mary, or Beatrice’s special brand of poison, or Catherine’s claws, or Justine’s strength and moral fiber, they work well together while pursuing the cause of justice and freedom for the victims and survivors of the mad scientists.

I love how author Theodora Goss turns these famous stories on their heads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have been published as a novel, but the Athena Club understands that it’s a true story, with Justine Frankenstein as living proof. Count Dracula makes a memorable appearance, but he’s not at all the person you’d expect. Sherlock Holmes is one of Mary’s mentors, but he only appears in the beginning parts of the story — it’s Irene Adler whose wits and abilities get a chance to shine.

My only quibble with European Travels is the length. At 700+ pages, it’s a bit of a daunting reading experience, and since the book itself is divided into two parts, perhaps it would have been better as two separate books. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I’d taken a break in between parts I & II — unfortunately, a little reading fatigue set in, so by the end, I was slightly less engaged, and I think that’s due to the size of the book — because the plot itself is exciting and creative throughout.

That’s really just a minor complaint. This book is definitely worth the time and effort!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny the characters can be. Young Diana Hyde is a bratty, brave teen with no manners, and she can be counted on to disrupt any serious moment by acting out in some outrageous fashion or another. Plus, the writing is just so much fun. The story we’re reading is meant to be Catherine Moreau’s novelization of the Athena Club’s adventures — and at regular intervals, her narrative is interrupted by the other characters adding their own opinions and criticisms of Catherine’s version of events. It’s clever and silly and just so delightful.

As a whole, I loved this book, and I love the series so far. With dynamic, strong, quirky characters and a plot full of intrigue and action, it’s a truly compelling read.

Can’t wait to dive into the third and final book, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl!

Shelf Control #208: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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!

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Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Published: 2014
Length: 599 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy when it first came out.

Why I want to read it:

Fingersmith is one of my all-time favorite books, and while I haven’t loved other Sarah Waters books quite as much as I love that one, I think she’s an amazing writer. Fun fact: Way back when I started doing Shelf Control posts, a Sarah Waters book (Affinity) was the 4th book I featured! And before you ask — no, I haven’t read that one yet either. Sigh. In any case, I do want to read The Paying Guests — I really want to know what the disturbances are that the synopsis mentions! I guess I just haven’t yet found myself in the mood to start this book, despite reading several really good reviews.

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!

Book Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:

The Wedding Date

The Proposal
The Wedding Party

 

Book Review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________

The details:

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

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

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

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

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

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

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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Shelf Control #170: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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.png

Title: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published: 2017
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A lively, sexy, and thought-provoking East-meets-West story about community, friendship, and women’s lives at all ages—a spicy and alluring mix of Together Tea and Calendar Girls.

Every woman has a secret life . . .

Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.

Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.

As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a Kindle edition when there was a one-day price drop, about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I thought this book sounded completely charming when I first heard of it… and apparently Reese Witherspoon agrees with me, because it ended up as one of her book club selections. I’m always drawn to immigrant stories, and I love the idea of a women’s writing class exploring erotica as a way of expressing themselves and forming a community.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan



From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody—the mighty Mrs. Braithwaite—who resolves to find, and then rescue, her missing daughter

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.

But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

Readers will be charmed by the unforgettable Mrs. Braithwaite and her plucky, ruthless optimism, and find in The Spies of Shilling Lane a novel with surprising twists and turns, quiet humor, and a poignant examination of mothers and daughters and the secrets we keep. 

Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, one of my favorite reads of the past couple of years — and she strikes gold yet again with her newest novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. Here, we meet the intimidating Mrs. Braithwaite, pushed out of her leadership position with her village women’s volunteer corps after one too many criticisms and commands aimed at the other women. Feeling utterly rejected, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to go visit her 21-year-old daughter Betty, who left the village to take up a clerical position in London, seeking excitement and a sense of purpose during wartime.

However, when Mrs. Braithwaite arrives at Betty’s lodging house, she finds out that no one has seen her daughter in at least four days, and while no one else seems particularly panicked, Mrs. Braithwaite is sure that Betty must need rescuing. And nobody stands between Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter! She sets out to find her daughter, coercing poor Mr. Norris to help her out, and uses her cyclone energy to push, demand, and bully people into giving her information.

It turns out that her motherly instincts were indeed correct and Betty is in trouble, of a sort that Mrs. Braithwaite could not have anticipated. And despite the tumultuous, strained relationship between mother and daughter, Mrs. Braithwaite charges into action to save Betty, only to end up needing saving in return.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, full of can-do spirit as well as intrigue and double-crossing. Mrs. Braithwaite is an absolute delight as a main character. How many books do we get to read that feature a 50-something-year-old proper Englishwoman as an action hero? She is just a force of nature, and will not let anyone stand in the way of her taking care of her daughter. Of course, Betty is far from helpless, as Mrs. Braithwaite learns, and between the two of them, we see a pair of strong women whose courage makes a difference in the British war effort.

The Spies of Shilling Lane has a light-hearted feel at times, as the action sequences aren’t simply smooth Jame Bond maneuvers, but rather are full of errors and accidents and fumbling about. Mrs. Braithwaite and Mr. Norris are such an unlikely pair of secret agents, tracking down clues, picking locks, and befriending the local criminal element, all in pursuit of a rather nasty bunch of evil-doers. At the same time, the reflections on the mother-daughter relationship, the pressures of societal expectations, and the damage that can be done by overbearing family members are all well described and add resonance to the characters’ feelings and reactions.

It’s also incredibly harrowing and moving to see the air raids and the devastation that results, and I first found myself really loving Mrs. Braithwaite because of her interactions with an injured young woman whom she discovers as she’s searching for Betty.

All in all, I’d say that The Spies of Shilling Lane is an excellent look at remarkable women during wartime. There are plenty of moments that made me smile, as well as scenes of tension and suspense. Mrs. Braithwaite is so delightful — I’d love to read about more of her adventures!

If you enjoy women-centered historical fiction, definitely check this one out!

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The details:

Title: The Spies of Shilling Lane
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page

 

We’re never too old to make new friends—or to make a difference.

Rosemary Peterson has lived in Brixton, London, all her life but everything is changing.

The library where she used to work has closed. The family grocery store has become a trendy bar. And now the lido, an outdoor pool where she’s swam daily since its opening, is threatened with closure by a local housing developer. It was at the lido that Rosemary escaped the devastation of World War II; here she fell in love with her husband, George; here she found community during her marriage and since George’s death.

Twenty-something Kate Matthews has moved to Brixton and feels desperately alone. A once promising writer, she now covers forgettable stories for her local paper. That is, until she’s assigned to write about the lido’s closing. Soon Kate’s portrait of the pool focuses on a singular woman: Rosemary. And as Rosemary slowly opens up to Kate, both women are nourished and transformed in ways they never thought possible.

In the tradition of Fredrik Backman, The Lido is a charming, feel-good novel that captures the heart and spirit of a community across generations—an irresistible tale of love, loss, aging, and friendship.

What a lovely, lovely book!

A lido, for the benefit of my fellow Americans who’ve never encountered the word before (other than via references to the Lido Deck on The Love Boat re-runs), is an outdoor pool. And in The Lido, it’s so much more than simply a place to swim. For the Brixton neighborhood, the lido is a fixture dating back to pre-World War II, a place where members of the community of all walks of life come together to exercise, to raise children, to chat with friends, to interact with neighbors. But as with so much in this day and age, a community gathering center that doesn’t bring in big bucks has a hard time lasting, so when a development company wants to buy the property and turn it into upscale housing and tennis courts — well, of course that’s a tempting offer for a cash-strapped local council.

And yet, there are people like 86-year-old Rosemary, who has had the lido as a centerpiece of her life for more years than she can count. Her memories of her late husband — and really, their entire love story — are inseparable from the memories of the moments they spent together at the lido. The lido remains the true constant in Rosemary’s life, and in the lives of countless of her neighbors. The potential loss of the lido is like one more death for Rosemary, and seems to represent the final, shattering blow for a woman who’s lived through so much and has already lost the love of her life.

George is in the way the mist sits on the water in the morning, he is in the wet decking and the brightly colored lockers and in the sharp intake of breath when she steps into the water, reminding her that she is still alive. Reminding her to stay alive.

For Kate, the lido starts off as merely a newspaper assignment, but as she comes to know Rosemary, Kate begins to connect with the community that’s sprung up around the lido, and even rediscovers her own joy of swimming, something lost to her as an adult who is often overwhelmed by anxiety and panic. Kate becomes invested personally in saving the lido, and through her deepening friendship with Rosemary, finally finds a community that she belongs to.

But there was something about Kate that made Rosemary think she was in great need of a swim.

Rosemary and Kate are both wonderful characters. Rosemary is strong and wise, but still mourning her beloved George. Kate is a vulnerable young adult who has had the confidence drained out of her over the years — but Rosemary and the lido seem to give her a new purpose and a new sense of self, enabling her to emerge from her shell and truly connect.

I loved the chapters filled with Rosemary’s memories of her courtship, romance, and early years with George — and also the memories of their more mature years, such as the time they snuck into the lido late one night for a midnight swim and then couldn’t get back over the fence to sneak away. The depiction of the fire brigade rescuing this 70-something-year-old couple is priceless.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints, not just those of Rosemary and Kate, but also nameless characters such as a pregnant woman and a teenage boy who each find meaning in their lido swims. We even see certain events through the eyes of a fox — and crazy as that might sound, it absolutely works.

Most of all, the friendship between Rosemary and Kate is simply beautiful. The two women are separated by sixty years of life, but they’re brought together by their loneliness, and find in one another someone to listen, to care, to be there for, and to laugh with.

Kate thinks of the first time she swam with Rosemary, how the old woman seemed to become young in the water, and how she, Kate, felt the unsteadier one. She had felt then that Rosemary’s strength was tucked away beneath her dry-land clothes, a hidden power unleashed not by a cape but by a navy blue swimsuit.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book! The Lido paints a gorgeous picture of the power of community, the importance of connections, and how great a gift friendship can be, not matter how surprising the package it comes in.

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The details:

Title: The Lido
Author: Libby Page
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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