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

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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: 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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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…

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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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Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

 

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Dear Mrs. Bird is the story of plucky heroine Emmaline Lake, who dreams of becoming a war correspondent but mistakenly ends up with a job as a typist for a women’s magazine — a magazine which tends to feature pieces on cooking, sewing, and romantic fiction. Part of Emmy’s job is to sort the incoming letters addressed to Mrs. Bird, the fiercely old-fashioned “editress” who won’t tolerate letters on forbidden topics (such as love, marriage, or intimacy), and whose main advice to readers seems to be to buck up and stop feeling sorry for oneself.

Emmy feels compassion for the writers of these ignored letters, and despite being young and inexperienced herself, decides that these women clearly need someone to respond and encourage them. She begins secretly corresponding with the letter writers, sending them letters back offering warmth and practical guidance, and even dares to sneak a few of the Unpleasant letters and her responses into the printed magazine, knowing that Mrs. Bird never reads the finished product.

Meanwhile, Emmy works as a volunteer for the fire service, answering the desperate phone calls that come in reporting fires during each air raid, and is determined that she must make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. Despite the horror of the bombings, Emmy manages to enjoy life as well, living with her best friend Bunty, celebrating Bunty’s engagement, and even meeting a charming young man of her own.

Things go wrong, of course. Emmy’s life is thrown completely off course by one particularly horrific air raid… and as expected, her secret life as an advice columnist can’t stay secret forever.

I really enjoyed Dear Mrs. Bird for its breezy, “keep calm and carry on”, chin-up tone, blending a sense of fun with the knowledge that the war is ever-present and ready to steal away one’s home and friends and family. Emmy is an engaging main character, a little naive but always well-intentioned. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but her heart is in the right place, and she’s completely devoted to her friends and to her country. It’s lovely to see Emmy’s compassion for the sad, worried letter-writers — she understands that they write to “Mrs. Bird” because they have no place else to turn, and she takes it upon herself to make sure that they’re heard and given some measure of practical guidance and hope.

The bombing of the Café de Paris, a key turning point in the story, is a true event, and that makes it even more powerful in the context of the book. It’s but one horrific incident in the London Blitz, but it serves to illuminate the personal tragedies and the immediacy of the destruction experienced by the people of London during that awful time. In Dear Mrs. Bird, the author shows the uncertainty of living daily life, going to work and going out with friends, knowing that on any night when the skies are clear, the world may come crashing down around you.

I did wish for a little more at the end of the book. I would have liked to know what happened next, and how the remainder of the war years went for Emmy, Bunty, and their circle of friends. Likewise, while there’s a resolution for the plot about Emmy’s secret letter writing, I wanted more — how did it work out? What happened next? I guess that’s a pretty good sign that the book captured my interest!

The other element I wished for a bit more of was the letters themselves. There are several featured throughout the book, but I think the storyline and Emmy’s input would have benefited from even more — more letters, more of Emmy’s responses. The author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating, as she discusses being inspired by the advice columns from women’s magazines of the era. It’s hard to imagine, sitting here in our relatively peaceful times, that columns such as “Dear Abby” would be filled with letters not just about romance and dating, but about the difficulty of falling in love and raising children while bombs are falling and one’s loved ones are off on the front lines.

Dear Mrs. Bird strikes a balance between plucky optimism and can-do spirit and the sorrow and worry of life on the homefront while a war rages on. It’s a tough tone to maintain, but author AJ Pearce pulls it off beautifully. I was engaged by the plot and the characters, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with Emmy. It’s a quick read, and highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: Dear Mrs. Bird
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #97: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

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 Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise
Author: Julia Stuart
Published: 2010
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Brimming with charm and whimsy, this exquisite novel set in the Tower of London has the transportive qualities and delightful magic of the contemporary classics Chocolat and Amélie.

Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live there). It’s no easy job living and working in the tourist attraction in present-day London.

Among the eccentric characters who call the Tower’s maze of ancient buildings and spiral staircases home are the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore, who just found out she’s pregnant; portly Valerie Jennings, who is falling for ticket inspector Arthur Catnip; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew, who secretly pens a series of principled erot­ica; and the philandering Ravenmaster, aiming to avenge the death of one of his insufferable ravens.

When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest­ing. Penguins escape, giraffes are stolen, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent people running for their lives. Balthazar is in charge and things are not exactly running smoothly. Then Hebe decides to leave him and his beloved tortoise “runs” away.

Filled with the humor and heart that calls to mind the delight­ful novels of Alexander McCall Smith, and the charm and beauty of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a magical, wholly origi­nal novel whose irresistible characters will stay with you long after you turn the stunning last page.

Published in the UK in August 2010 as Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo.

How and when I got it:

I really don’t remember how I ended up with a copy of this book, but I suspect I glimpsed it at a library sale and fell in love with the cover and title!

Why I want to read it:

That title! That cover! Really, it’s just all so very cute and charming — it makes me want to give it a big cuddle! I think the plot sounds adorable. This sounds like a perfect mid-winter curl-up-under-a-quilt kind of book.

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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!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Before I Met You

Book Review: Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met YouWhen 11-year-old Elizabeth moves to the island of Guernsey with her mother and stepfather, she has no idea that she’s about to meet a woman who will change her life. Arlette, Elizabeth’s stepfather’s mother, is the grande dame of the crumbling old mansion, always immaculately dressed, with an air of sophistication and glamour that seems out of keeping with a woman who’s spent her entire life isolated on an island. She takes an immediate shine to Elizabeth, renames her Betty (a much snazzier name, to be sure), and takes her into her heart as a full-fledged granddaughter.

Years later, Betty is a young woman who takes care of the ailing Arlette in her final days, deferring the possibility of university somewhere more glamorous in order to live with Arlette and be by her side 24/7. And when Arlette passes, she leaves a strange bequest. To be sure, Betty is mentioned favorably in Arlette’s will and receives a nice amount of money and worldly goods — but a mystery woman is also mentioned, someone that no one in the family has ever heard of. The last known address for this person is in London, and Betty sees this as an opportunity to set out on an adventure while also honoring Arlette’s wishes. Finally free and somewhat independent at age 23, Betty heads to London, sets herself up in a cramped Soho studio, and dives into life in the big city.

Before I Met You employes the device of a split narrative, so that we follow Betty in 1995 and Arlette in 1920, both young women entering London’s excitement on their own, looking for purpose, for connection, and for fun.

In Arlette’s timeline, we see the world of the jazz age, as Arlette is taken up by the fun-loving class of painters and musicians, the “Bright Young People” of the day, and is swept away on a current of passion, excitement, and danger. Betty’s story, by comparison, is somewhat tamer. She’s a fish out of water, trying to play detective to track down Arlette’s mysterious heir, but at the same time trying to support herself and feel a part of life in the big city.  In bits and pieces, we see both young women start to establish themselves and find their own way, and their stories are vaguely parallel in some ways.

Ultimately, of course, we know to expect a tragedy of some sort in Arlette’s story. Why else would she end up living her life back on Guernsey, with her entire London adventure a complete unknown to those who knew and loved her? Tragic and awful events do occur, and it’s not until the end of the book that we fully understand why Arlette’s life turned out as it did.

Meanwhile, Betty works at unpleasant jobs, meets a rock star (for real), parties quite a bit, has a creepy downstairs neighbor, and attracts the attention of a dreamy guy who sells record albums in the market outside her building. As she explores the clues to Arlette’s past, she gains confidence and starts to figure out what she really wants, and who she wants to be with.

Given the drama of Arlette’s story, it’s hard to stay interested in the Betty interludes, which take up a greater portion of the narrative. As a main character, she didn’t strike me as particularly deep, and she seems to make a string of not very well thought out decisions. The tonal shifts are a bit jarring: In Arlette’s story, we’re immersed in the glamour of the 1920s, and the narrative takes on a dramatic and somewhat elegant tone. But in the Betty sections, there are moments of absolute crassness that feel like too abrupt a shift from the style in the other timeline, so that it was often  hard to make the shift between stories and continue to feel involved in both timelines.

Overall, I enjoyed Before I Met You quite a bit. Once the London storylines get underway, it’s easy to get swept up in the swift storytelling, and I often had to force myself to put the book down rather than reading straight through. As I’ve said, I found Arlette’s story much more compelling than Betty’s, which is problematic in a split-narrative story. Ideally, both halves of the story should carry equal weight, so that the reader feels excited to pick up the threads of the plot each time the focus shifts. Instead, I found Betty’s challenges and dilemmas rather trivial when compared to Arlette’s pieces of the story, so that it was always a bit of a let-down to return to the 1990s-era sections.

That said, I was very interested in the central mystery of the book, and found a few twists in the resolution that I really hadn’t foreseen or even guessed at. Arlette is  wonderful character, both strong and tragic, and I did love seeing the tight bond between Arlette as an old woman and Betty as a displaced young girl. Their relationship and its impact on Betty is moving and lovely, and I think that even when I found myself shaking my head at Betty’s choices in London, I was able to continue feeling warmly toward her in large part due to the respect I had for her because of her dedication to Arlette.

If you enjoy dual timeline stories and reading about young women — in any era — finding their way in the world, then I’d suggest checking out Before I Met You.

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The details:

Title: Before I Met You
Author: Lisa Jewell
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction (contemporary/historical)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Atria via NetGalley

Book Review: Lady of Ashes

Book Review: Lady of Ashes By Christine Trent

Lady of Ashes

Violet Morgan is a respectable wife in Victorian London, who also happens to be London’s only female undertaker. Married to a puzzling man who inherited his family’s business, Violet is the one who truly has a passion for making sure the deceased are treated with honor, that their families are supported and guided, and that each funeral is arranged and managed in accordance with the deceased’s station in society. Mustn’t skimp on funeral plumes, glass carriages, or professional mourners!

As the Civil War erupts across the pond, the ripples extend to the United Kingdom as political interests and financial scheming impact all levels of London society, from Windsor Palace all the way to Morgan Undertaking. Violet’s husband and brother-in-law become entangled in seemingly nefarious dealings, and as her husband starts to come unhinged, Violet must find a way to maintain her dignity and her business reputation despite the disintegration of her marriage.

Lady of Ashes is crammed full of plot, so much so that it feels a bit overstuffed. In and of itself, Violet’s establishment in the male-dominated undertaking profession would have been quite interesting. However, the books constantly shifts focus, bringing in US and British politics, the foibles of the monarchy, an orphaned waif, a romantic plot line, and a murder mystery. Ultimately, it’s really just too much.

Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy in Lady of Ashes. Violet is an interesting character, strong and assertive and committed to her profession at a time when society — and the Queen — made clear that a woman’s place is in the home. Seeing Violet navigate her way against the current, stand up for herself, and carry out her undertaking duties with compassion and grace is quite compelling, and if that had remained the chief focus of the book, I think it would have worked much better.

Instead, a great deal of space is devoted to the politic maneuvering of the US ambassadors to the court of Queen Victoria, the high seas dramas involving blockade runners and naval ships, and the marriage of Victoria and Albert. Even Violet’s story is not smooth, as we jump from her marital woes to a train wreck to her adoption of an orphan without much in the way of transition, and each new development in the narrative feels like an abrupt change in the point of the storyline.

Still, I did come away from Lady of Ashes with some interesting new tidbits of historical data. For example, who knew that embalming became more widely practiced in the US during the Civil War, when the bodies of battlefield casualties had to be preserved for their long train journeys home for burial? I also learned a great deal about royal funeral rites, societal rules regarding mourning fashion, and plumbing and foundation problems in Victorian London. The author has clearly done a ton of research for this book, and provides a comprehensive bibliography of historical sources for further reading.

Do I recommend Lady of Ashes? Yes, but with reservations. Violet is a terrific character, and the portrayal of funerary rites in Victorian England is morbidly intriguing. Much of Lady of Ashes is quite fascinating, but overall, I believe it would have been a better book with a tighter focus. As it is, there’s just too much crammed into the plot for it to feel cohesive, and sadly, the end result is that the story feels scattered.