Book Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Title: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family–and a new love–changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

This witchy book is sweet, a bit romantic, and very whimsical. It’s a bit Mary Poppins, a bit House on the Cerulean Sea… and just a wee bit naughty too (more on that later).

Mika is a young, kind-hearted witch who grew up in loneliness and isolation — because the biggest rule for witches is to stay very, very far away from one another. When witches gather, so does magic, and when a lot of magic gets concentrated in one place, all sorts of unwanted outcomes can result — and when there are big magical accidents, it attracts attention. As history has shown, attention can be very bad for witches, so it’s best to just avoid it at all costs.

But Mika is lonely, and to keep herself amused and engaged, she creates a web series where she pretends to be a witch offering videos on potion-making. It’s cute and silly, and she doesn’t expect anyone to actually believe her… but of course, as the synopsis points out, someone does.

She’s invited to Nowhere House, where three young, orphaned witches are being raised by an assortment of adult caretakers. They’re sheltered and fed and clothed (and completely doted upon), but they have no control over their magic, and no one to teach them. Without some sort of intervention, the adults in charge are afraid of what might happen. Mika seems to be the answer to their prayers.

Before long, she’s made herself a part of the household, captivating the girls with her magical abilities, and captivating the sexy librarian with her sweetness and smiles. There are some outside threats to their happy household, but I felt pretty confident throughout that nothing too bad could happen, given the light, bubbly tone of the book.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches could almost be a children’s story, if the point-of-view characters changed a bit and if you stripped away the romance. There are some adorable scenes of wide-eyed wonder, as Mika shows the girls the possibilities of a life infused with magic — like, for example, when she arrives at Nowhere House with an entire koi pond in the backseat of her car.

The romance elements are for the most part understated, although (as I hinted earlier) there is one scene that’s fairly steamy in nature (not anatomical, in terms of graphicness, but more than just implied). Side note: I was annoyed that the characters did NOT use a condom! Most contemporary romances incorporate safe sex practices into the sex scenes these days, so it’s very noticeable (and not okay!!) when one doesn’t.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, with many different ethnicities, national origins, genders, ages, and orientations represented. I appreciated that this element was all very matter of fact, too — the diversity is just part of the whole, and not presented in a “hey, I’m being so hip and inclusive!” sort of way (if that makes any sense).

Overall, the mood and tone of this book is light, cheery, and yes, very whimsical. Nothing terrible ever happens, the characters are delightfully quirky, there are plenty of silly little moments, and there’s an overarching sense of wonderful awe whenever magic is involved.

This is a sweet, quick read, good for when you’re looking for a fanciful diversion with lovable characters. A great choice to read with a mug of hot cocoa and some fuzzy slippers!

Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Title: Book Lovers
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 377 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming….

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.

If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

I’ll keep this brief — at this point, when I see a cute contemporary romance cover and discover the book is by Emily Henry, it’s going to be a must-read for me. Book Lovers caught my eye immediately (I mean, the title alone! who can resist?), and it was a perfect pick for reading during a vacation week.

In Book Lovers, main character Nora is a hard-edged, polished, driven literary agent who is unrelenting when it comes to making deals for her clients. Her nickname is the Shark — but don’t call her that to her face. While she represents highly successful authors, including those who write heart-warming love stories about small-town romances, she knows absolutely where she fits in the trope: She’s the one left behind.

You know how it goes: A big city character heads to a small town for some vague business purpose, falls unexpectedly in love with the local farmer/baker/craftsperson, and gives up city life for a life full of purpose, love, and baked goods in the country — breaking up with their former city boyfriend/girlfriend along the way. And that city boyfriend/girlfriend who gets dumped is Nora. It’s happened to her again and again, and she’s over it.

But Nora also has a soft spot for her younger (and very pregnant) sister, so she reluctantly agrees to a three-week sisters’ trip to a small town in North Carolina, where her sister Libby is determined to milk the experience for every romance-worthy trope possible. What they do not expect is for (a) Nora’s New York business nemesis Charlie to also show up in the same town and (b) for all the sparks that fly between Nora and Charlie.

The plot has much more depth than you might expect. Emily Henry excels at creating funny, quirky, unusual characters, then giving them rich backstories that humanize them and expose the pains and sorrows behind their facades. The same is true here, and it makes Nora much more likable than she initially comes across, so much so that I became very invested in her happiness and well-being.

I liked Nora and Charlie together as a couple — their banter is adorable! And while it takes them a while to get past the outer animosity to their inner deep connection, it’s totally worth the journey. The sisters’ relationship is just as important as the romantic relationship, and I really appreciated how lovingly their connection is portrayed.

The writing is light and fast-paced, but there’s plenty of emotion to unpack too. I truly enjoyed Book Lovers — although I’m a little mad that the author managed to burst the bubble of all my small town romance fantasies! The book trope talk is so much fun, there are plenty of references to real books (which made me really happy), and I love that the author includes “Nora and Libby’s Ultimate Reading List” at the back of the book!

Book Lovers is a perfect choice for a summer beach book! Don’t miss it.

Shelf Control #324: Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane

Shelves final

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

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

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

Title: Don’t You Forget About Me
Author: Mhairi McFarlane
Published: 2019
Length: 433 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

If there’s one thing worse than being fired from the grottiest restaurant in town, it’s coming home early to find your boyfriend in bed with someone else.

Reeling from the indignity of a double dumping on the same day, Georgina snatches at the next job that she’s offered—barmaid in a newly opened pub, which just so happens to run by the boy she fell in love with at school: Lucas McCarthy. And whereas Georgina (voted Most Likely to Succeed in her school yearbook) has done nothing but dead-end jobs in the last twelve years, Lucas has not only grown into a broodingly handsome man, but also has turned into an actual grown-up along the way, with a business and a dog.

Meeting Lucas again not only throws Georgina’s rackety present into sharp relief, but also brings a dark secret from her past bubbling to the surface. Only she knows the truth about what happened on the last day of school, and why she’s allowed it to chase her all these years… 

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition in early 2020.

Why I want to read it:

Summer is the perfect time for reading light romances, and this one seems ideal to pick up while lounging on a patio chair or with my feet in the sand…

I don’t specifically remember buying it, but it’s in my Kindle library, so I suppose I grabbed it on a day when there was a price break. I’ve been seeing recommendations for this author for a while now, and have been wanting to try her books. The synopsis sounds like fun, even though the title is giving me an irritating ear worm.

This sounds like the kind of book I’d want to read on vacation or on a plane — not that there’s anything wrong with that! I just tend to go for upbeat, enjoyable books during the summer months — nothing demanding or heavy, just pure entertainment to leave me in a happy mood.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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

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

Have fun!

Blog tour + Audiobook Review: Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Dreaming
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased/Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Return to Tokyo for a royal wedding in Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Dreaming, the sequel to the Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller Tokyo Ever After

When Japanese-American Izumi Tanaka learned her father was the Crown Prince of Japan, she became a princess overnight. Now, she’s overcome conniving cousins, salacious press, and an imperial scandal to finally find a place she belongs. She has a perfect bodyguard turned boyfriend. Her stinky dog, Tamagotchi, is living with her in Tokyo. Her parents have even rekindled their college romance and are engaged. A royal wedding is on the horizon! Izumi’s life is a Tokyo dream come true.

Only…

Her parents’ engagement hits a brick wall. The Imperial Household Council refuses to approve the marriage citing concerns about Izumi and her mother’s lack of pedigree. And on top of it all, her bodyguard turned boyfriend makes a shocking decision about their relationship. At the threat of everything falling apart, Izumi vows to do whatever it takes to help win over the council. Which means upping her newly acquired princess game.

But at what cost? Izumi will do anything to help her parents achieve their happily ever after, but what if playing the perfect princess means sacrificing her own? Will she find a way to forge her own path and follow her heart?

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour celebrating the release of Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean. Many thanks to Macmillan Books for the chance to participate!

Tokyo Ever After was one of my favorite reads of 2021, and the sequel, Tokyo Dreaming, definitely lives up to expectations!

In Tokyo Ever After, we met Izumi Tanaka, Northern California teenager who suddenly discovers that her long-lost bio dad is the Crown Prince of Japan. Whisked off to reunite with the father she’s never known, Izumi faces a steep learning curve when it comes to fitting in as a member of the Imperial Family, especially with the eyes of all of Japan tracking her every move.

As Tokyo Dreaming begins, Izumi is in a very good place in her life. She’s finished high school, has become more acclimated to life in Japan, has learned how to behave like a real princess, and even has a happy relationship with the boyfriend of her dreams, her former bodyguard Akio. And best of all? Her parents have been reunited and despite their almost twenty years apart, have rekindled their love for one another. A royal wedding is on the horizon!

But Izumi and her mother don’t quite fit the mold of Imperial family members quite perfectly enough, and it’s clear that her parents may not actually get the official approval they’ll need to move forward with getting married. Izumi realizes that she can make a difference: If she polishes up her princess act and starts doing a better job of being perfectly in line with expectations, it’ll help her parents secure the stamp of approval.

But, as Izumi discovers, being a perfect princess may mean pushing aside her own interests and wishes for the sake of appearances, and that doesn’t actually bode well for her long-term happiness.

The plot of Tokyo Dreaming is not super high-stakes — it’s impossible not to expect a happy ending, so even though there are obstacles, I never expected them not to be overcome. The fun of this book is seeing how Izumi manages her life, from befriending her twin cousins — formerly nicknamed The Shining Twins (as in Stephen King, not because they’re glittery) — and discovering that they’re not as evil as she once thought, to gaining acceptance to a prestigious Japanese university, to losing her boyfriend but possibly finding another. Sigh — yes, there’s a love triangle, but it’s handled very well, and the author does a good job of letting us into Izumi’s feelings and showing us why it would be so hard for her to make a choice.

I loved the depiction of Japanese culture (I was practically drooling over all the amazing-sounding food!), as well as the vicarious pleasure of experiencing life as an Imperial Princess, with amazing clothes and experiences and first-class everything!

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, adapting to royal life but still the down-to-earth American girl she’s always been at heart. I love her relationship with her parents, and it’s lovely to see how her bond with her father has built after their years of not knowing each other. And the twins absolutely grew on me too!

The audiobook is a treat. Narrator Ali Ahn is amazing at portraying Izumi, her friends, her family members, the stiffly formal household staff members, even giving voice to the tabloid press! Plus, it’s fun to hear so many words and phrases in Japanese (and there’s enough context and/or translation to ensure that nothing is lost for those who don’t understand Japanese).

Together, Tokyo Ever After and Tokyo Dreaming are immersive, warm-hearted, fun-spirited books with terrific characters and a great plot progression. Tokyo Dreaming’s ending seems to tie up all the plot points, so I’m assuming the story is done at this point… but I’d be totally okay (i.e., jumping up and down happy) if another book in the series came along.

I highly recommend checking out both of these books this summer!

About the author:

When Emiko Jean isn’t writing, she is reading. Before she became a writer, she was an entomologist, a candlemaker, a florist, and most recently, a teacher. She lives in Washington with her husband and children (unruly twins). She is also the author of Empress of all Seasons and We’ll Never Be Apart.

Find out more at https://www.emikojean.com/

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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