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:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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.

Book Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Title: Evvie Drake Starts Over
Author: Linda Holmes
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn’t correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy’s childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and he can’t figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button.

When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken–and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. But before they can find out what might lie ahead, they’ll have to wrestle a few demons: the bonds they’ve broken, the plans they’ve changed, and the secrets they’ve kept. They’ll need a lot of help, but in life, as in baseball, there’s always a chance–right up until the last out.

 

Evvie Drake is not your typical widow. She’s hidden herself away not out of grief, but from fear that everyone will discover that she’s NOT actually grieving. Evvie’s late husband Tim was her high school sweetheart, a respected town doctor, and behind closed doors, a nasty man with a tendency toward gaslighting and emotional abuse. Evvie’s little secret is that the night Tim died, Evvie was packing her car and getting ready to leave — but now, the whole town treats her with kid gloves and tells her how much they loved her husband, and she just can’t seem to shake the feeling that she’s at fault somehow.

Meanwhile, Dean is the current ultimate failure in sports, going overnight from star pitcher to a guy who can barely throw a ball. He’s been mocked and publicly humiliated, so finding a haven in a little town in Maine seems like a good idea. When Evvie rents him her spare rooms, it’s a good solution to both of their most immediate problems, and pretty soon they fall into an easy friendship, each understanding that the other has been hurt badly and just needs a little room to breathe and recover.

Of course, their connection develops into more, but it’s complicated. As the story progresses, they both have to face certain truths, and discover that moving forward can only truly happen when they let others in and start dealing with and sharing their secrets.

This book has been popping up on my recommendation lists ever since its release in June, and as with most hyped books, I was resistant. I’m so glad I finally gave in and grabbed a copy when I saw it at the library!

The writing is light and breezy and engaging, even when dealing with the more serious and troubling issues concerning Evvie’s marriage. The author presents a realistic look at Evvie’s process of shock, guilt, anger, and loss, and follows her through her coming to terms with what’s holding her back and seeking help. Likewise with Dean, there are no easy answers or fixes. As much as Evvie wants to find the solution to Dean’s pitching problem, it’s not something within her power, no matter how badly she wants to help him. Dean too has to go through a process of loss and anger in order to find acceptance and a way to move on.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is filled with likeable characters and small-town charm. I loved the New England town with its quirky characters and deep connections. where everyone knows everyone… and probably knew their grandparents too. Evvie’s relationship with her best friend Andy feels authentic, and I struggled along with Evvie as their paths seemed to diverge and their friendship suffered under the weight of Evvie’s secrets. Evvie and Dean’s relationship was pretty much pitch-perfect (*groan* — sorry for the baseball pun!) — rather than subjecting us to the dreaded insta-love scenario, the author allows their friendship to grow and blossom into romance with all the caution and hesitation that people in such precarious points in their lives might experience.

I really enjoyed this book, and heartily recommend it! There’s real emotion and some sad and painful moments, but there’s love and joy and friendship and family too, and overall the vibe is hopeful and a celebration of being open to life and connection. Don’t miss Evvie Drake!

Warning: This book may make you want to move to a small coastal town, get a dog, live by the water, and attend local sporting events. Proceed at your own risk.

Audiobook Review: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

Title: The Dinner List
Author: Rebecca Serle
Narrator: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Length (Print): 288 pages
Length (Audio): 5 hours, 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

We’ve been waiting for an hour. That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends within her utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, The Dinner List is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

I picked up The Dinner List on a whim — I was ready to start a new audiobook, and wanted something that would be a quick, non-taxing listen. This popped up on my “recommended” list on the library website, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.

The Dinner List is set in a cozy New York restaurant, where Sabrina is meeting her best friend Jessica for dinner in honor of Sabrina’s 30th birthday. But when she arrives at the restaurant, she discovers that it’s not just dinner for two. Joining them are Sabrina’s former college professor Conrad, her estranged father Robert, and her ex, Tobias. Also, Audrey Hepburn.

And yes, Audrey Hepburn is deceased, as is Robert. But they’re still attending Sabrina’s dinner.

How is this possible? Like Sabrina, we readers just need to go with it and see how the dinner unfolds.

Set over the course of a five-hour dinner, interspersed with chapters tracing the history of Sabrina’s 10-year relationship with Tobias, The Dinner List is an examination of love, loss, friendship, growing up, regrets, resentment, and ultimately, forgiveness and compassion.

Jessica reminds Sabrina that way back when, as college roommates, Jessica insisted that Sabrina play the dinner list game with her: What five people, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with, if you could have anyone at all? Here, in the flesh, is Sabrina’s list. As the group orders their meals and shares bottles of wine, connections are examined, and Sabrina is given the opportunity to reflect on all the events, big and small, that led to where she is today.

I had the rare experience of having to constantly reevaluate my feelings about this book as I went along — listening to the audiobook really was an evolution of reactions. Early on, I was annoyed. The author narrates the audiobook, and her delivery just doesn’t compare to the professional, highly engaging narration I’ve grown used to in audiobooks. Beyond that, the plot confounded me. How is this possible? Is it all a dream? What’s the point? How will this dinner be explained?

But as I listened further, I stopped trying to analyze the situation and just went with the experience, and was surprised to realize that somewhere along the way, my initial annoyance has changed completely, and I was now both charmed and absorbed by the characters, their stories, and the overarching themes. I even got used to the narration, to the point where the author’s voice seemed to fit Sabrina’s mindset and no longer distracted me from the content.

The further along the story goes, the more compelling the story becomes. The chapters focusing on Sabrina and Tobias tell a modern love story, full of passion and devotion, but also the realities of being 20-somethings struggling to make it in a grown-up world and figure out what they want out of life. Somewhere at about the mid-point of the book, there’s a particular revelation that really threw me for a loop yet made complete sense in terms of the overall feel of the book — and this is where my emotions really got involved and I started worrying that I would be a soggy mess by the end.

And I wasn’t wrong about that. The downside of listening to audiobooks when out in public is dealing with the teary eyes and sniffles that come with emotionally charged storylines. So yes, I was kind of hideous by the end.

In the moment of impact we think it’s possible to go back. We’re so close to the previous minute; how hard would it be to just turn back the clock? To just quickly undo what has just been done?

If you’d asked me to rate this book based on the first hour or so of listening, I probably wouldn’t have gone higher than 2.5 stars… so I’m as surprised as anyone to see how highly I ended up rating this book.

Granted, the presence of Audrey Hepburn** — while a cute hook — didn’t feel all that necessary to me, and occasionally came off as a bit twee. Likewise, Conrad (the professor) isn’t exactly essential either, although in a way these two serve as guides for the dinner, steering the conversation and asking the difficult questions that are necessary for Sabrina to confront in order to understand her past and how to move forward.

Overall though, I think this was a terrific audiobook, and I’m sure it would be equally as good in print format. I was unexpectedly moved by the emotionally rich scenario and the unfolding relationships, and found the story bittersweet, touching, and memorable.

I look forward to reading more by Rebecca Serle, starting with her upcoming new release, In Five Years, coming out in 2020.

**A side effect of listening to The Dinner Party is my utter conviction that I need to watch Roman Holiday and Sabrina (and probably more Audrey Hepburn movies) ASAP.

Oh so pretty! The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss

 

The story is supposed to be over.

One enchanting romance. Two lovers keeping secrets. And a uniquely crafted book that binds their stories forever.

When Evelyn Morgan walked into the village bookstore, she didn’t know she would meet the love of her life. When Brendan Thorne handed her a medieval romance, he didn’t know it would change the course of his future. It was almost as if they were the cursed lovers in the old book itself . . .

The Thorn and the Blossom
 is a remarkable literary artifact: You can open the book in either direction to decide whether you’ll first read Brendan’s, or Evelyn’s account of the mysterious love affair. Choose a side, read it like a regular novel—and when you get to the end, you’ll find yourself at a whole new beginning.

I’m in love.

With the gorgeousness of this book.

The Thorn and the Blossom is just a treat to hold and unfold. Yes, unfold. It’s described as a “two-sided love story”, and that’s literally what it is. This book has two hardcover covers, but no spine. It opens accordion-style, so you can read it from either end. The two versions of the story complement each other. Each side is about 35 pages, so this is a quick read, but utterly enchanting.

Okay, so I’ve described the outside of the book. What about the inside? Is the story itself any good?

YES.

Two stories are told here — one from Evelyn’s perspective, and one from Brendan’s. When we first meet Evelyn, she’s finishing her graduate work in medieval literature. She’s had a somewhat rocky past, but now on a brief holiday in Cornwall, she’s enjoying a fresh burst of energy and inspiration. When she meets Brendan, he introduces her to a local folk tale, and this meeting, and the story she discovers, change her life.

Brendan is also pursuing graduate studies in literature, breaking away from his home in Cornwall to pursue his dreams. After their initial meeting, a long time passes before Evelyn and Brendan meet again… but they seem destined to reenter one another’s lives.

I love the ambiguity of the story. Are they meant to be the embodiment of the fairy tale characters, or are they simply two compatible people who become obsessed by the same story? Does Evelyn hallucinate, or is she blessed (cursed?) with the second sight spoken of in tales? Is what she sees real? What do she and Brendan really mean to one another?

I read the Evelyn story first, and then the Brendan story, and I really liked the way both stories developed and being able to see how they match up and where they diverge. I wonder how the story would have felt if I’d read Brendan’s side first, not knowing the other pieces to the story?

Maybe I’ll come back to this unique book after a few months, read it the other way, and see if my impressions change!

Meanwhile, let me just say that I really loved reading and experiencing this beautiful book.

And now, I must read more by this author!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Thorn and the Blossom
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: January 17, 2012
Length: 85 pages
Genre: Fantasy/romantic fiction (??)
Source: Purchased

Shelf Control #185: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

Shelves final

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

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

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

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Cotillion
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published: 1953
Length: 355 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The three great-nephews of irascible Mr. Matthew Penicuik know better than to ignore his summons, especially when it concerns the bestowal of his fortune. The wily old gentleman has hatched a freakish plan for his Country-bred stepdaughter’s future: his fortune will be lovely Catherine Charing’s dowry if she married one of his great-nephews. To spirited Kitty, the conditions of her guardian’s will before she could inherit a tuppence were intolerable.

In spite of the unwelcome attentions of greedy suitors, who are scrambling for her hand, Kitty is not wholly averse, but only if the right cousin proposes. Unfortunately, Kitty during her secluded life pining, has set her heart on handsome and virile Jack Westruther, a confirmed rake. Jack, who is well aware of her attachment, however, made it quite clear that he would marry her only when he had sown his last wild oat and seems to have no inclination to marry her anytime soon. But Kitty has other ideas… and anxious to hasten matters she devises a plan. Kitty convinces modest and carefree cousin Frederick Standen to pose as her fiance, hoping thereby to make Jack jealous and to see a little more of the world than her isolated life on her great-uncle’s estate has afforded her.

Her plan takes her to visit Freddy’s family in London, where her kith and kin embroil her in their romantic troubles, sprinkling witty banter with Parisian phrases. Cousin Lord Foster Dolphinton has fallen for a merchant’s daughter in conflict with his mother. Meanwhile, her French cousin, Camille, a professional gambler, try to win the heart of beautiful Olivia Broughty, in turn the object of cousin Jack’s dishonorable intentions. Resourceful cousin Freddie turned out to be more of a man than Kitty anticipated. And when Kitty’s generous heart leads to all sorts of unintended troubles, there is only one man who can rescue her from more than one dreadful fix and pick up the pieces of her plotting. Now, Kitty herself wonders who is really right for her….

How and when I got it:

I went on a bit of a Heyer buying binge in 2017.

Why I want to read it:

Georgette Heyer is one of those authors that I heard people talk about for years before actually reading anything by her. When my book group read one of her books back in 2017, I could see what all the fuss what about. Her books are sweet and light and romantic, full of period detail and tons of escapades involving marriage and courtship, rakes and ladies, scandals and scheming. Cotillion is one of the ones that I bought in a buying binge after I’d read a few more of her books. I think I read 5 or 6 that first year, and haven’t gone back yet for more… but I do intend to, especially since I have another 10 or so on my shelf.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Or do you have other Georgette Heyer books to recommend?

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!

Shelf Control #184: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Shelves final

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

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

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

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: The Royal We
Author: Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
Published: 2015
Length: 496 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy when I stumbled across it in a thrift store.

Why I want to read it:

I seem to remember seeing some positive reviews on various blogs when The Royal We came out. I’m not really someone to ooh and aah over royalty, but this does sound like good escapist fiction, so it might be worth a try. Although… for a plot that sounds pretty light and fluffy, it’s got a hefty page count! The length of the book may be why I haven’t actually picked it up to read yet.

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!

Shelf Control #171: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

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: The Lotus Eaters
Author: Tatjana Soli
Published: 2010
Length: 389 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A unique and sweeping debut novel of an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War, as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men.On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two lovers make their way through the streets to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. Linh, the Vietnamese man who loves her, must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties of heart and homeland. As they race to leave, they play out a drama of devotion and betrayal that spins them back through twelve war-torn years, beginning in the splendor of Angkor Wat, with their mentor, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, once Helen’s infuriating love and fiercest competitor, and Linh’s secret keeper, boss and truest friend.

Tatjana Soli paints a searing portrait of an American woman’s struggle and triumph in Vietnam, a stirring canvas contrasting the wrenching horror of war and the treacherous narcotic of obsession with the redemptive power of love. Readers will be transfixed by this stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war.

How and when I got it:

Honestly, I have no idea when or where I got this book! (Although it’s always a safe bet that I found it at a library sale…)

Why I want to read it:

I heard about this author from a friend who’d read a more recent book of hers, and when I looked it up, the synopsis of this one really appealed to me. A love story set during the Vietnam War sounds powerful (and probably quite tragic), and something about it really draws me in. Now that I’ve “re-discovered” it on my shelves, I’m looking forward to reading it!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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

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

Have fun!

Audiobook Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn


SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD 

The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England

Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home–how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

I feel like I could just make a list of relevant adjectives and leave my review at that:

Powerful.

Beautiful.

Moving.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Not enough? Okay, here goes, with a bit more commentary.

I remember hearing something about The Salt Path when it was released, but didn’t really know what the book would focus on or whether it was really for me. Having just finished the audiobook, I can emphatically state that yes, this IS a book for me, and I suspect for many others too.

In The Salt Path, author Raynor Winn shares the painful story of how she and her husband Moth lost their family farm after a lengthy legal battle stemming from an investment with a friend. While not all that much detail is given about the case itself, it sounds as though this long-term friend was fairly shady and went after Ray and Moth to cover his expenses when the project tanked. Not able to afford counsel in the drawn-out court case, the couple had no choice but to represent themselves, and ultimately ended up losing everything on what seemed to be a technicality.

Given a week to vacate their home, Ray and Moth are thrown into despair, compounded by a visit that week to a doctor who confirms that Moth suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that will kill him after a painful decline at some point in the near future. If this were fiction, a reader might be tempted to protest the melodrama of having characters lose their homes and livelihood AND get a terminal diagnosis all in the same week, but this is real life, and it really happened this way.

The choices available to the couple are slim. They’re left with public benefts that amount to about $60 a week, and can go on the wait list for public housing — but because Moth’s illness isn’t in end stages just yet, they don’t have priority. They can stay with family and friends temporarily, but are afraid of becoming burdens and outstaying their welcomes. And then a strange whim occurs to them as they’re sorting through the remains of their old life — why not just walk? Now in their 50s, Moth and Ray haven’t done any serious outdoor adventuring in many, many years, but the idea of walking the South West Coast Path grabs hold of them as a way of being somewhere, with a purpose, rather than completely buckling under the weight of their bad luck and inauspicious prospects.

And so, they gather gear, put most of their belongings into storage with friends, and set out to walk the Coast Path. It’s not easy. Moth’s illness is painful, to the point that he can barely get out of bed some days. And yet, they’re determined to walk rather than sit still. As they move forward, they face ongoing shortages of food, scraping by on their meager weekly allowance (and eating lots of noodles), camping wild wherever they can find a spot to pitch the tent, and slowly, mile by mile, falling into a rhythm that has a beauty all its own.

Ray and Moth have a marriage that the rest of us can only envy. Together since their teens, the love between the couple is strong and unbreakable, shining through Ray’s writing on every single page. It’s heart-breaking to hear Ray’s thoughts on how much this man means to her, and what the future might hold for both of them as his disease progresses.

Meanwhile, each chapter brings fresh insights and wonders. Parts of the book read like an ode to the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes they see on their journey. It really sounds spectacular. There’s also sorrow and harsh realities — the author includes statistics and background information on homelessness in the UK, and shows how the official numbers are only a small representation of the true homeless population.

Homeless themselves, Ray and Moth again and again face the general dislike and fear that most people seem to feel toward the homeless. They meet many people along the path — fellow hikers, local residents, random strangers. When seen as older backpackers with presumably enough wealth to take weeks away from the world to walk the path, they’re applauded and warmly greeted. But when Moth explains to previously friendly people that they’re homeless, the others shrink away from them and can’t seem to distance themselves fast enough.

The writing is simply beautiful. Ray shares her pain and her sorrows, but also reveals the growing sense of belonging that she finds through the path:

The country towered above me, a blank empty space containing nothing for us. Only one thing was real, more real to me now than the past that we’d lost or the future we didn’t have: if I put one foot in front of the other, the path would move me forward and a strip of dirt, often no more than a foot wide, had become home. It wasn’t just the chill in the air, the lowering of the sun’s horizon, the heaviness of the dew or the lack of urgency in the birds’ calls, but something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burned in by the sun, driven in by the storm. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and grown stronger with every headland.

A note on the audiobook: Narrator Anne Reid is lovely, making the story feel alive and vibrant, capturing the emotion of Ray’s first-person narration in a way that makes it feel like a friend telling you a story. Really a treat to listen to.

There’s so much to love about The Salt Path. I found Ray and Moth’s journey and their devotion to one another so inspirational. And, this book really made me want to get out and walk a long path some day!

Don’t miss this book. It’s a beautiful work, and is worth taking the time to savor.

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The details:

Title: The Salt Path
Author: Raynor Winn
Narrated by: Anne Reid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: March 22, 2018
Length (print): 288 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

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

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

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

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh. Now THAT’s romantic.

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The details:

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

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Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which First Son Alex falls in love with Prince Henry of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends…

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

Swoon.

Swoony swoon swoon.

For whatever reason, probably based on the cover, I thought this was going to be a sweet, light YA romance. But considering that the main characters are in their 20s, two healthy, lusty, consenting adults, I’m not sure how to categorize this. Is this what’s meant by new adult? Can we just agree that this is fiction featuring young-ish grown-ups, and forget about putting it on the correct shelf?

Red, White & Royal Blue is a delicious mix of sexy romance, hearts-and-flowers-worthy first love, politics, scandals, and plenty of hot and heavy action between two very attractive 20-ish young men. Who are, you know, royalty and the American version thereof.

Alex is the son of the first woman president, now up for reelection. He’s a smart-aleck who acts out plenty, but at heart he’s a policy geek who dreams of a career in politics for himself, following in the footsteps of his mother and his Congressman father. Henry is the second son of the heir to the British throne, the younger brother who’s handsome and pampered and kept very isolated from authentic experiences and relationships. The two have collided repeatedly over the years and are, at best, frenemies (without the friendship part), but after a public spectacle involved smooshed royal wedding cake, Alex and Henry are thrown together in a public relations ploy to defuse the media focus on their supposed fight.

As they start spending time together, Alex and Henry develop a strange connection via late night phone calls and texts, discovering unexpected shared life experiences and connecting through the strange reality of living life in a fishbowl, always under the scrutiny of the press and the public. When their fake friendship develops into true friendship, Alex finally realizes (after a surprise New Year’s kiss) that his friendly feelings for Henry run deeper than expected, and also, he finally understands that he’s bi and just never actually faced it.

Things blossom pretty quickly between Alex and Henry, and their encounters are hot and steamy and full of passion. But there’s also a lot of hiding and creating false narratives to throw their families and the public off their trail, and it’s exhausting. In this day and age, you wouldn’t expect coming out to be such a big deal, but Alex and Henry are not at all people in normal circumstances. The tabloids are already obsessed with their every move. What would happen to US/British relations if the truth was revealed? What would it mean for the President’s chances at reelection? What what it mean for the British monarchy to have an heir to the throne (third in line, in fact) publicly acknowledge that he’s gay?

Red, White & Royal Blue handles the issues with humor, political savvy, and a surprising depth of feeling. It’s hard not to feel sorry for both Alex and Henry. Each faces different sorts of pressure, and while either on their own coming out might be news for a bit, putting the two of them together can only lead to an explosion of scandal. Alex and Henry are adorable together, and their romance is lovely and funny and passionate in all the best ways. At the same time, it’s amusing to see the scurrying of secret service and campaign managers who need to keep the two in line, and how simple things like dating require NDAs and removals of cell phones just to get off the ground.

The politics is really entertaining too. First off, yes, it’s just as awesome as you’d think to have a story about a woman in the White House. I loved the President’s relationship with her kids, how no-nonsense she is, and yet how she comes through when she needs to. Seeing the royal family in action is a whole other set of fun, especially as the younger generation confronts the Queen about what they want out of life and what they’re willing to do to get it.

I was a little doubtful at the beginning, but pretty quickly, I was swept up in the giddy fun and the super-cute romance of the story. There are definitely lots of pretty steamy, detailed sex scenes, so ya know, if you prefer your fictional romances to be more flowery and less sweaty, you might think twice about picking up this book. But otherwise, prepare to swoon! Red, White & Royal Blue is escapist romantic fiction that hits lots of high points, starring very public figures without losing out on the personal, emotional connections that make a good love story.

And a final word — Red, White & Royal Blue would be adorable as a movie! Netflix, are you listening?
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The details:

Title: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley