Book Review: Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

Title: Where the Lost Wander
Author: Amy Harmon
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this epic and haunting love story set on the Oregon Trail, a family and their unlikely protector find their way through peril, uncertainty, and loss.

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually…make peace with who they are.

Where the Lost Wander is a beautiful story of love and tragedy, set in the era of westward expansion and wagon trains.

We know from the prologue that terrible events are coming, as we see a group of wagons attacked by a band of Shoshoni warriors, leaving all dead except Naomi and her infant brother, who are taken captive. How this came about, who these people are, and what happens next will be revealed over the course of the story that follows.

Naomi May is a young woman traveling west with her parents and younger brothers as part of a large wagon train. At St. Joseph in Missouri, their point of departure, she meets John Lowry, a young man of mixed heritage who’ll be traveling with the train, along with his prized set of breeding mules.

As the wagon train makes its slow journey, they face danger from every direction — perilous river crossings, cholera, accidents, hostile encounters with other travelers — but along the way, Naomi and John grow closer, falling in love despite their own personal backstories. I came to care deeply about these characters and to wish for their happiness, but experienced a growing sense of dread as well, knowing from the prologue that tragedy was coming, but not knowing when.

Where the Lost Wander is beautifully written, full of emotion as well as history. The author strikes a good balance in presenting both the dreams and desires of the emigrants and the devastating impact of the white man’s encroachment onto Native lands. The tribes encountered are portrayed with sensitivity, and we get to know certain people as individuals, giving us entry into a way of life that’s under constant threat.

Naomi and John’s story, from initial attraction to trust and longing and finally, to love and commitment, is moving and well-told. Given the era and the setting, we know this cannot be a happy, pain-free story, but I couldn’t stop hoping for good outcomes and peace for these characters, even in the most dire of situations.

Overall, this is a well-researched, vivid depiction of a time in America’s history that’s in many ways well-known, but here, presented with so much more nuance and perspective than in typical tales of the Old West. Highly recommended.

Via Amy Harmon’s author website: https://www.authoramyharmon.com/wherethelostwander.html

A note on the audiobook: The audiobook (11 hours, 46 minutes) is narrated by Lauren Ezzo and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who read as Naomi and John. It’s a lovely performance, with each one capturing the emotions of their characters and giving dramatic, expressive expression to the more descriptive passages. I enjoyed it very much, and while I referred back to the print version for clarity on places and people, I’m glad I chose to experience this book via audio.

Book Review: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Title: Anatomy: A Love Story
Author: Dana Schwartz
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: January 18, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction / Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A gothic tale full of mystery and romance about a willful female surgeon, a resurrection man who sells bodies for a living, and the buried secrets they must uncover together.

Edinburgh, 1817.

Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.

Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.

When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.

Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.

But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.

I have to be honest — I was 100% drawn to this book because of the cover! I mean… gorgeous, right? Unfortunately, my impression based on the cover led me to expect something intense, dramatic, perhaps tragic… and while there’s a lot that works about this book, the initial impressions don’t really pan out.

Anatomy takes place in Edinburgh in 1817, presenting a view of the state of medicine and society at that time. The wealthy and titled live comfortable, oblivious lives, while the poor suffer and starve, and sickness spreads through the city without much in the way of effective medicine to stop it.

In this world, physicians may be respected, but surgeons certainly are not. Their work is considered only steps above butchery. To learn the art and science of surgery, anatomists must rely on “resurrection men”, grave robbers who dig up fresh corpses to earn a living.

Jack Currer is one such resurrectionist, a teenaged boy who supports himself through this gruesome and dangerous work, while dreaming of a better life. 17-year-old Hazel Sinnett is a young lady, niece of a viscount, comfortably settled in her family’s gorgeous home, pampered, and expected to marry her cousin, to whom she’s been unofficially engaged since childhood.

But Hazel nurtures a secret dream of becoming a physician, and she’s determined to pursue it, no matter the obstacles. Disguised in her late brother’s clothing, she begins attending classes at the Royal Edinburgh Anatomists’ Society in preparation for the physicians exam, but is soon discovered and tossed out.

Undeterred, she decides to continue studying on her own. With the rest of her family conveniently away for several months, she arranges for Jack to bring her bodies to study, and soon opens the doors of her family home to any poor people who need medical attention. While her practice flourishes, she gains skills and knowledge, and is soon a doctor in all but certification.

But something sinister is happening in Edinburgh. Other resurrectionists of Jack’s acquaintance have gone missing, and the business of digging up graves becomes more dangerous by the day. Amidst the danger, Hazel begins joining Jack on his work in the graveyards. As they spend time together, they develop trust and friendship, and then stronger emotions, although their difference in social station would seem to be insurmountable.

I was excited to read Anatomy, as the early history of modern medicine is truly fascinating. This is not the first book I’ve read set in this time and place, with a similar focus on the work of anatomists. However, while I expected that the plot would be mostly about the challenges of a young woman pursuing a career in science — something off-limits to her because of her gender and her social status — that’s not really what the book delivers.

Instead, the book takes a turn toward more of a thriller, with disappearances and sinister deaths, and there’s a supernatural/fantasy element that I wasn’t expecting — and honestly, that threatened to ruin the story for me. I loved reading about Hazel’s burning desire for an education and to do good in the world, but the climax and resolution negate the sense of historical reality established earlier in the book.

Also, this may be my own fault, but I assumed this was adult fiction. Only as I got further along did it occur to me that this might actually be YA — and yes, it’s listed as such on NetGalley, so I suppose I just didn’t notice that ahead of time. Maybe this is why the plot ended up feeling a little trite and simplistic to me. I wanted rich historical fiction; instead, I got a watered-down historical setting that focuses on romance and a fantastical element that’s just weird.

As for the romance — well, Hazel and Jack are both very likable characters, and I appreciated that they could develop feelings for each other, but their first kiss is anything but romantic:

Hazel pressed her shoulders up against Jack, partly to avoid the chill leaching from the moist earth through her jacket, but partly because his warmth — the solidity of his presence — made her less dizzy with fear. It anchored her. They were there, together. Whatever — whoever — was out there, neither of them would have to face it alone.

Wondering where this is taking place?

She had kissed Jack Currer in a grave, and he kissed her back, and even with everything else they had faced, that moment was the hardest Hazel’s heart had beaten the entire night.

I think if I’d realize this was a YA book, I might have had more tolerance for it as I was reading it. As it was, I felt a little let down by the realization that the intense, presumably adult drama I’d been expected had turned out to be a teen-aged love story with an otherworldly twist.

I would read more about anatomists in the early 1800s or historical fiction about Scotland in that time period or about women trying to study medicine at a time when they weren’t permitted to do so — in a heartbeat! Sadly, this book didn’t deliver what I’d hoped for.

Anatomy has a great setting and interesting premise, but the overall structure and content of the story was a letdown for me. It’s not a bad read at all, but this is a prime example of expectations getting in the way of enjoyment. Perhaps if I’d more accurately anticipated the tone and content, I might have appreciated it more.

I’m going to be looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on this book. It did keep me turning the pages, even though I found many aspects borderline ridiculous. Your mileage may vary.

Book Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Title: Winter’s Orbit
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

Ugh, ignore the bit in the synopsis about Ancillary Justice meeting Red, White & Royal Blue. I assume that’s just meant to make sure anyone who glances at this book knows that (1) it’s in space! and (b) there’s a royal match between two male characters. But there’s so much more to this book, and it’s worth looking beyond marketing blurbs to learn more.

Winter’s Orbit takes place in the Iskat Empire, seven planets bound together by treaties and ruled by the Emperor from the system’s dominant planet Iskat. The Empire, though, is but a small system in the known universe, which is ruled by the Resolution and accessed by the Iskat Empire through one single space/time link. (Bear with me.)

Every twenty years, the Empire re-ups with the Resolution through a formal ceremony. Without the official reestablishment of the treaty, the Iskat Empire would be on its own, unprotected, and subject to invasion by the powerful armies of the huge conglomerates that control other galaxies. In other words, the Resolution treaty is vital to the Empire’s survival.

A key piece of the treaty renewal is passing muster by the Resolution’s Auditor, an inspector who comes to verify that the planets of the Empire are maintaining their treaties with Iskat appropriately and without conflict. And here’s where the person-focused aspects of the plot come into play.

Treaties within the Empire are cemented by political marriages. In the case of the small planet Thea, it’s through the marriage of Thean representative Jainan to Prince Taam of Iskat’s royal family. When Taam is killed in an accident only months before the treaty renewal, it’s imperative that a new political marriage is arranged. Enter Prince Kiem, the ne’er-do-well, dissolute, party boy of the royal family. He’s not at all interested in a political marriage, particularly to the grieving partner of his dead cousin, but duty calls — and it’s an order directly from the Emperor, so really, there’s no choice.

Where Winter’s Orbit is at its best is in the depiction of Kiem and Jainan’s relationship, from its awkward beginning through all sorts of turmoil and misunderstanding, until finally they break through their miscommunications and cross-purposes and start to truly talk to one another.

Kiem and Jainan are both complex characters, and they alternate POV chapters, so we get to know their inner workings, their doubts and fears, well before either of them start to grasp what the other is experiencing. It works very well — even though we readers may cringe at how badly they’re bungling their attempts to connect, it helps that we’re let into their thoughts and feelings and understand WHY they’re having such a hard time.

If you strip away the sci-fi trappings, in many ways this book can be compared to any novel about arranged marriages. Whether it’s the Tudor reign or books about imperial Japan or any other powerful dynastic settings, there’s something compelling and awful about people’s lives being used for political advantage, but it’s certainly been a reality for generations. I think this is why Winter’s Orbit works so well. It’s not an alien concept to think that Kiem and Jainan’s feelings about a forced marriage would not count — the partnership is for alliance and control and political purposes. Feelings are secondary, if even that.

Given that context, I loved the developing emotional connection between Kiem and Jainan. They’re each wonderful, and I really appreciated the sweetness of their growing bonds and their consideration of one another. The book also explores issues of abuse and trauma, and handles it very well, sensitively showing how it affects the pair’s attempts at connection and intimacy.

The more external plot, about conspiracies and political maneuvering, assassination attempts, rogue military officers, and more, is fast-paced and has plenty of action. There’s never a dull moment.

However… I do wish the world-building in this book had been better explained. You can see by my clumsy attempts at plot summary above that the greater world of Winter’s Orbit is complicated, and we’re thrown into the action from the start, having to piece together the significance of the Empire’s structure, the Resolution, the Auditor, the remnants, and more. To be honest, I’m not sure how much I got it all. I had to make a conscious decision not to worry about the details and just focus on the people aspects, but still, there are pieces that did (and still do) confuse me, and I feel like a little more exposition early on would have helped a great deal.

Beyond that issue, though, I greatly enjoyed Winter’s Orbit. The characters and their relationship are terrific, there’s a low-key explanation of how gender identity works in this world that I found very interesting, and the plot does maintain strong tension in the key dramatic moments.

This is a strong debut by a talented author, and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

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Audiobook Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Ever After
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it’s always been Izumi—or Izzy, because “It’s easier this way”—and her mom against the world. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after? 

If you’re a fan of The Princess Diaries, have I got a book for you!

In Tokyo Ever After, Japanese American high schooler Izumi stumbles across her long-lost father’s true identity — he’s none other than the (George Clooney-esque) Crown Prince of Japan! Raised by her single mother in a predominantly white small town in California, a place where Izzy always felt like something of an outsider, she suddenly finds herself whisked across the ocean to meet her father and be introduced to life as a member of the Japanese Imperial family.

Talk about whiplash.

Izzy’s casual, self-deprecating, none-too-serious approach to life does not help her succeed in Japan. Suddenly, her every move is scrutizined by the imperial-obsessed press. From her unscheduled airport bathroom break to her leggings and sweatshirt to her failure to wave to the crowd, Izumi is picked apart and criticized, literally from the moment she steps foot in her new country.

Nothing is easy. Her clothes, her manners, her gestures — all have to be replaced with behavior and looks befitting a princess. Not to mention the fact that despite being descended from Japanese immigrants to America, she grew up speaking English only, so language lessons are a must as well. And while Izumi’s father is warm and eager to get to know the daughter he never knew he had, certain members of the household are not thrilled by this new arrival, and will do anything to undermine her.

Tokyo Ever After is a delightful listen, with an entertaining mix of modern teen angst, humor, and texting with an entirely new culture and way of life. As Izumi learns more about Japan and life as a royal, so do we. The lessons and introduction to the imperial family are never dull or heavy handed; as Izumi experiences each new fascinating sight and taste and wonder, we readers/listeners get to experience it along with her.

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, not perfect by any means, but full of hope and willing to give this new twist in her life a real chance. She’s flawed (not a very good student, no compelling hobbies, not all that much going on in her life outside of her amazing set of friends — known affectionately as the AGG, the Asian Girl Gang), she’s not intentionally disobedient but has a hard time with the level of compliance required of young princesses, and she’s not entirely okay with putting up with slights for the sake of etiquette.

There’s a love interest, of course — the super attractive young Imperial Guard assigned to head Izumi’s security team. Akio is introduced as stiff and surly, but Izumi soon discovers the sensitive, poetry-loving soul hidden beneath that gruff (and muscled) exterior. A relationship between a princess and a commoner is not okay as far as Japanese tabloids are concerned, and when their budding romance is exposed, the plotline of the book comes to a head as Izumi must decided where she belongs and where her future lies.

The key themes of the book — family, fitting in, understanding identity, finding a way to belong without giving up who you are — are all well developed, but the writing never hits us over the head screaming important message here. Instead, through Izumi’s adventures and challenges, we’re along for the ride as her journey helps her find her own voice and figure out what matters, and how to stay true to herself while also welcoming tradition and family expectations.

The audiobook narration by Ali Ahn is just terrific. First off, it’s so much fun to hear the bits and pieces of Japanese dialogue, as well as Izumi’s attempts to learn the language. Also, the narrator’s voices for Izumi and her friends are really distinctive and well-done, giving each a shot of personality and conveying their humor, even while reading aloud their text exchanges.

Overall, Tokyo Ever After is a treat to read and listen to. The story is fun and upbeat, yet includes emotional connection and thoughtfulness too. Highly recommended.

The sequel to Tokyo Ever AfterTokyo Dreaming — is due out in May 2022, and honestly? It can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Izumi!

And finally… can we just take a minute to appreciate the gorgeousness of these covers??? These might be my favorites this year!

Audiobook Review: People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Title: People We Meet on Vacation
Author: Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 364 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased (Kindle); Library (audio)
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Two best friends. Ten summer trips. One last chance to fall in love.

Poppy and Alex. Alex and Poppy. They have nothing in common. She’s a wild child; he wears khakis. She has insatiable wanderlust; he prefers to stay home with a book. And somehow, ever since a fateful car share home from college many years ago, they are the very best of friends. For most of the year they live far apart—she’s in New York City, and he’s in their small hometown—but every summer, for a decade, they have taken one glorious week of vacation together.

Until two years ago, when they ruined everything. They haven’t spoken since.

Poppy has everything she should want, but she’s stuck in a rut. When someone asks when she was last truly happy, she knows, without a doubt, it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. And so, she decides to convince her best friend to take one more vacation together—lay everything on the table, make it all right. Miraculously, he agrees.

Now she has a week to fix everything. If only she can get around the one big truth that has always stood quietly in the middle of their seemingly perfect relationship. What could possibly go wrong?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Beach Read, a sparkling new novel that will leave you with the warm, hazy afterglow usually reserved for the best vacations. 

Poppy and Alex are a delightful pairing in all the right ways. They’re diametrically opposed when it comes to lifestyle and goals. Poppy dreams of travel and freedom; Alex dreams of home and family and being settled. He’s uptight, she’s loose and open. And yet, they bond so tightly that everyone and everything else in their lives are extraneous. So long as they have each other, even if they only see each other during their annual summer trips, then their lives are good.

But something went wrong two summers ago, and they haven’t talked since. And for Poppy, nothing makes sense any more. She has her dream job, working for a high-end travel magazine and basically getting paid to go anywhere in the world and enjoy the hell out of it… but her life has been pretty joyless ever since Alex was removed from the equation.

People We Meet on Vacation is framed around “this summer”, but interspersed chapters take us back to “10 summers ago”, “5 summers ago”, etc. Through these chapters that show past history, we get to experience the depth of Alex and Poppy’s connection, why they mean so much to one another, and get hints of why they are the way they are, as we learn more about their families, their upbringings, and their formative years.

I loved the chemistry and the adorable banter between the two. They’re funny in so many unexpected ways. Any scene that they’re both in absolutely shines.

At the same time, there’s plenty of harder times in the mix as well. Why did their friendship fall apart? Why do they seem to have such a hard time identifying what they want? Why do none of their romantic partners ever work out for them?

The travel segments add crazy fun, as most of their plans end up derailed or taken in unexpected directions, and their random adventures and encounters keep the entertainment value of this novel high.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the masterful Julia Whelan, and it was a delight. I can see why people become fans of certain audiobook narrators. I’ve now listened to more than a few audiobooks narrated by Julia Whelan, and she’s truly gifted. Here, her voices for Poppy and Alex are perfectly tuned to their personalities, and her delivery of their funnier exchanges made me laugh out loud.

I have to admit that it was touch and go for me for the first few chapters. The introduction of Poppy’s best friend, a social media influencer, made me want to duck out, and their discussion of “millennial ennui” was practically the nail in the coffin… but since I really enjoyed my last book by this author (Beach Read), I decided to stick with it. And I’m glad I did!

People We Meet on Vacation is surprisingly insightful for a book with such an upbeat cover and title. It allows its characters to dig into their wants and needs (while also showcasing their outstanding chemistry and dynamics), including introspective moments that give greater depth to the story without ever weighing it down.

This ended up being an excellent audio experience — highly recommended!

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Book Review: The Pick-Up by Miranda Kenneally

Title: The Pick-Up
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 250 pages
Genre: YA contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When Mari hails a rideshare to a music festival, the last thing she expects is for the car to pick up a gorgeous guy along the way. Mari doesn’t believe in dating–it can only end with a broken heart. Besides, she’s only staying at her dad’s house in Chicago for the weekend. How close can you get to a guy in three days?

TJ wants to study art in college, but his family’s expectations cast a long shadow over his dreams. When he meets Mari in the back of a rideshare, he feels alive for the first time in a long time.

Mari and TJ enter the festival together and share an electric moment but get separated in a crowd with seemingly no way to find each other. When fate reunites them (with a little help from a viral hashtag), they’ll have to decide: was it love at first sight, or the start of nothing more than a weekend fling? 

Miranda Kenneally, author of the terrific Hundred Oaks series, is back with a fresh new stand-alone YA novel. The PIck-Up is a quick read with sweet romantic moments as well as more serious reflections on family and damaged relationships.

When TJ and Mari meet in a ride-share, their immediate attraction gives each a fresh burst of hope and excitement, and as they spend time together at the music festival, their connection seems instant and electric. At first, seeing them separated by the crowd and trying to find one another again, despite not exchanging contact info, I thought we were in for a story about missed connections and long searches. But thankfully, this wasn’t that!

Instead, TJ and Mari do manage to reconnect, thanks to the intervention of their friends, and commit to spending more time together over the weekend.

They each bring baggage, though. TJ is in Chicago for the weekend staying with his older brother, to whom he always compares himself and finds himself lacking. TJ’s family expects him to study business when he starts college in the fall, but he secretly yearns to pursue his passion for art.

Meanwhile, Mari is staying with her dad, stepmom, and stepsister for the weekend before returning to her home in Tennessee. Her parents divorced after her father’s affair with the woman he ended up marrying, and Mari’s mother is so consumed by anger and bitterness that she takes it out on Mari. Her verbal abuse has taken a frightening turn to the physical, and Mari both wants to stay with her father and is scared to mention it, for fear that it’ll just make things with her mother even worse.

As TJ and Mari spend time together, they each experience the highs of early attraction and emotional connection, but each also has to contend with their own fears and insecurities.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between TJ and Mari as narrators, and it’s a really effective way to show how their perspectives on the same events can be different and still make sense to the person experiencing it. While they’re both struggling with family issues, Mari’s are much more serious, and her scenes of confronting her father with her feelings and her fears are deeply affecting.

While there are plenty of serious matters portrayed throughout The Pick-Up, there’s also a lot of fun, from scenes at the festival to a Ferris wheel ride to goofy beach shenanigans. Mari and TJ have chemistry, and I really enjoyed Mari’s stepsister as a character as well.

Miranda Kenneally has a gift for creating well-drawn teen characters who feel real. They’re not idealized — they’re complicated and messy and emotional, and that’s what makes them so compelling to read about.

I really enjoyed The Pick-Up, just like I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read by this author. Check it out!

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Buy now at Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Book Review: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Title: Instructions for Dancing
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: June 3, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this romantic page-turner from the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star, Evie has the power to see other people’s romantic fates–what will happen when she finally sees her own?

Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

This YA book made me so, so happy. It’s sweet and sad, and makes me want to dance!

To understand Evie, the main character, you need to know a few key facts: Evie is a high school senior, and a former fan of romance novels. Evie is also the daughter of recently divorced parents. A year ago, Evie’s parents split up, and Evie discovered that her father was having an affair. Now she lives with her mother and younger sister, bottling up her anger at her father and refusing to see him, and she’s absolutely sworn off romance and love stories.

What I’ve learned over the last three weeks is that all my old romance novels ended too quickly. Chapters were missing from the end. If they told the real story—the entire story—each couple would’ve eventually broken up, due to neglect or boredom or betrayal or distance or death.

She’s seen it in real life — two people who were supposedly in love end up with nothing but pain and betrayal and ashes of a relationship. Why should she believe in happily ever afters?

Given enough time, all love stories turn into heartbreak stories. Heartbreak = love + time.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Evie winds up with a dancing instruction book that leads her to the La Brea Dance Studio, a small studio whose main clientele seem to be pre-wedding couples trying to master their first dance. The studio is owned by an older couple who are magnificent dancers and who’ve clearly been in love all their lives. While there, Evie meets X, the couple’s teen-aged grandson who’s recently dropped out of his senior year of high school and moved to LA to pursue a music career.

When Fifi, the domineering dance instructor, ropes Evie and X into being partners in an upcoming amateur ballroom dance competition, the two become friendly and then eventually acknowledge their chemistry, which grows along with their hustle, salsa, and tango skills.

“Anyway, you can play to thank us. Every good bonfire needs a hot guy playing guitar.” “You don’t have to play,” I tell him. “But you still have to be hot,” Cassidy says. “I don’t mind doing both,” he says with a grin.

Meanwhile, Evie has come into a strange gift: When she sees a couple kiss, she gets a flash of their entire romance — how they met, how they are in that moment, and what’s to come. This means that she sees the end of the relationships, not just the swoony romantic bits. And for Evie, that’s just further proof that love doesn’t last… so why even bother?

It’s not hard to predict that Evie and X will get together, but I won’t ruin things by going into further detail on how they connect, what obstacles they face, and how it turns out. Let me just share some observations instead:

I loved that this isn’t a by-the-numbers romance, with a meet-cute, initial attraction, getting together, obstacle/break-up, and happy ending. Yes, some of these beats are included, but the overall flow of the book is different enough to keep the reading unpredictable.

Evie’s family life is given equal weight to the romance elements, and this is critical. Evie’s perception of love and commitment have been perhaps permanently scarred by her parents’ divorce, but as the novel progresses, she learns more about long-term love and relationships, and learns that situations aren’t all one way or their other. By learning to let go of her bitterness, she’s able to start allowing some shut-off family connections back into her life, and she can’t help but acknowledge that this is much healthier for her.

“You think because your father and I didn’t last, our love was any less real?”

A harder lesson for Evie is X’s approach to life — saying yes to experiences, living in the moment, and grabbing joy when it’s in front of you. Evie is so consumed by endings that she’s unable to appreciate the middle parts — all the smaller and larger moments that make time together so valuable, no matter how long or short that time might be.

It doesn’t matter that love ends. It just matters that there’s love.

I feel like this would make a great movie, since my one complaint about the book is that I wanted more dancing scenes! At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it’s hard to make a written dance scene compelling, and while the author does a great job with this, I could only satisfy my need by diving down a dance video rabbit hole on YouTube.

Instructions for Dancing is a moving, well-written, thoughtful YA novel with some beautiful moments as well as heartbreak. With captivating characters, a hint of magic (that goes unexplained, but somehow doesn’t distract from the contemporary feel of the plot), great dance moments, and even some humor, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed!

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Audiobook Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Road Trip
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators: Josh Dylan, Eleanor Tomlinson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Print length: 398 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 15 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel by the author of the international bestseller The Flatshare.

What if the end of the road is just the beginning?

Four years ago, Dylan and Addie fell in love under the Provence sun. Wealthy Oxford student Dylan was staying at his friend Cherry’s enormous French villa; wild child Addie was spending her summer as the on-site caretaker. Two years ago, their relationship officially ended. They haven’t spoken since.

Today, Dylan’s and Addie’s lives collide again. It’s the day before Cherry’s wedding, and Addie and Dylan crash cars at the start of the journey there. The car Dylan was driving is wrecked, and the wedding is in rural Scotland–he’ll never get there on time by public transport.

So, along with Dylan’s best friend, Addie’s sister, and a random guy on Facebook who needed a ride, they squeeze into a space-challenged Mini and set off across Britain. Cramped into the same space, Dylan and Addie are forced to confront the choices they made that tore them apart–and ask themselves whether that final decision was the right one after all.

In The Road Trip, exes Dylan and Addie are forced into spending time together on a road trip from hell. In sections alternating between “Now” and “Then”, we see the awful hours spent in the car as well as flashbacks to their first days of romance — and most importantly, learn how they went from swooningly in love to completely estranged over the last few years.

Addie and Dylan first meet in the most romantic of settings, a huge villa in the south of France where Dylan is vacationing and Addie is the summer caretaker. There’s an immediate attraction, and within days they’re spending every waking moment together (as well as every night in bed together). Even when they’re joined by a swarm of Dylan’s buddies (including his posh but toxic best friend Marcus), Dylan and Addie are inseparable.

When the holidays are over, they pick up their relationship back in England, but not without hiccups. Addie is a teacher in training, and Dylan is still trying to find himself. He’s a poet, and wants to pursue a graduate English degree, but his domineering, emotionally abusive father wants him to either join the family business or be cut off entirely. On top of this, Marcus wants Dylan by his side constantly and resents Addie’s presence, and does what he can to pry the two apart.

Meanwhile, in the “now” portions of the story, the cramped Mini and its passengers encounter hazards and accidents and a variety of unfortunate escapades they make them later and later to the wedding. The upside of the crowded car and the endless hours on the road is that Dylan and Addie are literally thrown together, and are finally forced to confront the circumstances that drove them apart. Emotions run high, truths are shared, and ultimately, the couple have an opportunity to face the problems that came between them and to admit to the deep love that still exists.

The Road Trip is not nearly as light and fluffy as I’d expected it to be, but it works remarkably well. The “now” side of things is mostly light-hearted and comical — there’s spilled breast milk and a random trucker and an ill-timed pee break and a musty motel room without enough beds… not to mention a mad dash to save the bride from a stalker and getting lost in a faux castle. It can be quite silly, but the more we get to know the characters, the more endearing it all is.

In the “then” parts of the story, Addie and Dylan go through tremendous ups and downs, and these sections are much more wrenching than the “now”. The author gives a sensitive portrayal of two young adults with enormous chemistry and a deep love between them, yet shows that other people and other problems can derail even the most devoted of couples. A love story that starts in a summer villa has the feel of a perfect fantasy romance, but when it has to survive in the real world of jobs and family and unreliable friends, the fantasy elements fall away and the couple’s love faces its hardest tests.

I listened to the audiobook, and it was wonderful. There are different narrators for the Addie and Dylan sections, and can I just take a minute to fangirl over the fact that Eleanor Tomlinson narrates Addie??? Eleanor Tomlinson is the actress who played Demelza in the BBC series Poldark, and she’s wonderful. Her narration gives so much character and expressiveness to Addie. I’m not sure whether I’d have enjoyed it nearly as much in print — the narration is that good!

Overall, The Road Trip is often touching, sometimes very sad, quite a bit silly, and frequently very romantic. There’s a nice mix of serious and fun moments, and the framing of a hellish road trip works very well as a contrast to the sweetness and then sorrow of the earlier days of Addie and Dylan’s relationship.

The characters are all well-drawn and nicely detailed, from leads Addie and Dylan, to an array of supporting characters including sad-sack Rodney, unsteady and mostly unlikeable Marcus, Addie’s wild sister Deb, and the very over-the-top bride Cherry. Their banter and arguments and lighter moments feel very in tune with how they’ve been depicted, and I really enjoyed the time spent with them.

The Road Trip is a great summer read, and I especially recommend the audiobook edition. Enjoy!

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org



Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silva Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a sweeping romance with a dash of magic.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina—and himself—that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

A book doesn’t have to be long to be a completely immersive reading experience. Case in point: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — a 320-page novel that left me feeling utterly transported.

The Beautiful Ones was originally published in 2017, but is being reissued this month via Tor Books, with a gorgeous new cover. I hope this book gets tons of attention — it’s definitely one of my top reads of the year.

From the very first page, we’re swept up in a love story that feels desperate, epic, and heart-pounding all at once.

Ten years earlier, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, Hector and Valerie, fell madly in love. But their relationship was unsanctioned and seemingly faced impossible hurdles. Hector was a young, poor performer, but Valerie was one of the “Beautiful Ones” — a descendent of an old-money upper class society family. Valerie’s family, however, having lost its fortune, was relying on Valerie marrying wealth in order to redeem them from impending disaster. Hector and Valerie pledged to marry and became secretly engaged, and then he left to seek his fortune — only to receive a letter from Valerie several months later, letting him know she’d married someone else.

The world of The Beautiful Ones is familiar in many ways, yet with its own oddities. It has a Victorian feel to it, with a huge emphasis on manners, class distinctions, reputation, and social connections. At the same time, this is a world where people may have rare talents, such as Hector’s telekinesis — which elevates him to heights of fame and admiration, but which in a woman is considered somewhat gauche, a bit of a magic trick that polite women don’t display in public.

“Nina, if you want to play these games in the privacy of your room, I will not chide you, but in the presence of others, you should restrain yourself…

“It is not normal. It is a performance at a fair, like the freaks they display for a few coins…

“I don’t mean you. I mean, in general, these are carnival games, these are things unfit for ladies.”

The story is centered in the city of Losail, considered the epicenter of fashion and society. There’s a continent called Iblevald where Hector spends ten years exploring and performing, which sounds tropical and dangerous, with cities as well as undeveloped areas. Losail sounds like it could be in France (certainly, many of the names are French or French-inspired), but this is really a world that’s not ours, so the comparisons only go so far.

As the story begins, Hector returns from his ten years abroad, now a wealthy and famous man, appearing in performances in Losail to great fanfare. Why Losail? Because that’s where he’s heard that Valerie and her husband live, and after all these years, he’s still obsessed. He knows she’s married, but he can’t help himself — he has to see her, be near her once again.

As he attends his first social engagement, he’s crushingly disappointed to learn that Valerie is not present, but instead ends up meeting Antonina — who prefers to be called Nina — Valerie’s husband’s young cousin who is staying with the couple as she enters her first social season. Nina is sweet, impulsive, not held back by manners, and very, very curious. She also has talents of her own — telekinetic powers that come out when she’s particularly emotional, usually without her control, which have earned her scorn and a nickname (the Witch of Oldhouse) back in her country village.

Nina is starstruck and full of admiration for Hector, but he sees her as a means to an end — getting close to Valerie again. As Hector starts to court Nina, he’s clearly using her, but even as his obsession with Valerie continues, Nina’s essential goodness begins to impress him in unexpected ways.

But then Nina smiled. It was like looking down and finding the first green sprouts rising from the frozen, black earth. Almost invisible and yet there, heralding spring.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stick to major themes instead of plot points from here on out. The Beautiful Ones has the breathless feel of a romantic tragedy, but there are also moments of joy and sweetness and emotional connection. The obsession that at first had me thinking of Wuthering Heights turns into something else, and I loved both Nina and Hector’s emotional journeys over the course of the book.

The book includes chapters from different points of view, and it’s fascinating and illuminating to be inside Nina, Hector, and Valerie’s heads. Each are very, very different, and the intentions (and manipulations) that become apparent can be moving or shocking, depending on whose POV we’re focused on in any given moment.

I was thoroughly spellbound as I read this book, and found it hard to focus on anything else in my life until I could sit back down and keep reading. There’s so much drama and tension, and it all builds to an unforgettable set of confrontations and consequences.

Nina herself is a fabulous character, with hidden depths, a core of steel, an undeniable curiosity and intelligence, and a heart that wants nothing more than to love and be loved. She makes this book so enjoyable, and you can’t help rooting for her happiness at every turn.

I love the elegance and the urgency of The Beautiful Ones. There’s a tense, dramatic mood created right from the start, and I couldn’t help fall under the spell of the beautiful writing and the magical atmosphere that builds from page to page.

The Beautiful Ones is a must-read! Don’t miss it.

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Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!