Take A Peek Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

My Thoughts:

This is a fun, light read — just enough thoughtfulness to offset the goofiness of spray tans, bedazzled ballgowns, and parading in front of judges in a bikini. Charlotte describes her sister Ginny as the “pretty one” — the Meg to her Jo, the Jane to her Lizzie — but in reality, they’re identical twins. There isn’t really a prettier sister — it’s all about self-image and what each sister does with her looks and her talents.

Charlotte is delightfully bookish and nerdy, dropping Harry Potter lines at a moment’s notice, thrilled at the idea of picking up a sorting hat to bring back to the children’s library where she works. Ginny is Instagram-famous and seemingly all about the looks. By having to literally walk in Ginny’s shoes, Charlotte of course learns that there’s more to her sister’s world than she thought, and also discovers elements of herself that she’d buried for years.

It’s all a bit silly and full of wish-fulfillment. In reality, could someone new to pageant life pull off a successful impersonation of an experienced, trained competitor? Does it make any sense that Charlotte could come up with a talent act that not only works, but wins? Of course not.

Still, it’s fun to see Charlotte apply her geekiness to the pursuit of a crown for her sister. Not unpredictably, everything ends up going wrong, but the sisters’ relationship is strengthened by it all. An unnecessary love story adds a romantic element to the plot, but it really doesn’t need to be there.

On the plus side, The Accidental Beauty Queen is a good reminder that all choices are valid, and that women who compete in pageants are not by default shallow mean girls. The book shows the individuality of many of the competitors and allows them to emerge as strong women rather than as stereotypes. Likewise, we see that there are some worthy causes associated with the pageant world, including a fictional organization that mirrors some real-life organizations that organize pageants for disabled, ill, and special needs youth, enabling them to feel proud and beautiful and deserving of appreciation.

I’ve never been interested in pageants (and would have said that I’m turned off by the idea of being judged based on appearances). My overall feelings haven’t changed, but this book did help me see another side. The twin-switch is definitely unrealistic, but it’s a fun bit of fantasy that makes the book an easy, entertaining read.

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The details:

Title: The Accidental Beauty Queen
Author: Teri Wilson
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive…

My Thoughts:

Similarly to her work in the terrific I Am Princess X, in The Agony House author Cherie Priest tells a gripping story with comic book illustrations mixed in to tell a piece of the tale. When Denise discovers the hidden comic book in the creepy attic of her new house (which she bluntly refers to as a “craphole” at all times), the book seems to be a clue to the unexplainable events happening to the family as they try to make the old place livable once again.

Denise is a great main character — clearly very smart, devoted to her family, but unhappy with being dragged away from her friends back in Houston and forced to live in this awful house. As she settles in and gets to know some of the teens in her neighborhood, we get a picture of the devastation left by the Storm (as they refer to it), even after so many years. The book deals with issues around economic hardship, gentrification, and privilege, not in a preachy way, but by showing the struggles and resentments of the characters and the new understandings they need to reach in order to get along. The social lessons here feel organic and important to the story, and I appreciated seeing the characters come to terms with one another in all sorts of interesting ways.

I’d place The Agony House somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. The main characters are high school seniors, but the events and the narrative would be fine for younger readers, middle school or above, so long as they’re okay with ghosts and spookiness. I really enjoyed the comic book pages and how they relate to the main story, and thought it was all very cleverly put together. As an adult reader, I saw the plot resolution twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t lessen the satisfaction of seeing it all work out, and I think it’ll be a great surprise for readers in the target audience.

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The details:

Title: The Agony House
Author: Cherie Priest
Illustrator: Tara O’Connor
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Take a Peek Book Review: Destiny’s Plan

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

DestinysPlan72

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

When Raquelita Muro and Matthew Buchanan meet by chance on a Greyhound bus between Texas and Tallahassee, neither suspects Fate is about to take over.

Raquelita, a gentle girl under the heel of her abusive mother, finds this kind young man a miracle.  Matthew, an idealistic young soldier, discovers this sweet-natured girl is an angel in need of a guardian.  However, the next stop on Matthew’s journey is Fort Benning to report for deployment to Vietnam, while Raquelita’s destination is set at her mother’s whim.  Regardless of the forces tearing them apart, they discover a way to secretly span the distance, to end up closer than ever.  But Fate is rarely kind.  The vagaries of war—and the unstable tempers of Raquelita’s mother—intervene, leaving both ill-fated lovers feeling there is no hope for their love.

Set in the turbulent era of the Vietnam War, Raquelita’s and Matthew’s story is one of love, loss, lost faith, shattered memories, deferred dreams and broken promises.  Will Fate tear apart these two damaged souls, leaving them desperately alone forever, or will they finally overcome Fate, their bond stronger than they ever thought possible?

My Thoughts:

Debut author Victoria Saccenti has written a complex, heart-wrenching tale of a chance meeting that changes lives, and the intricate ways that bonds of family and obligation can both hurt and heal. The love story here is startlingly sudden, but also quite sweet, as Raquelita and Matthew recognize their connection within moments of meeting and somehow manage to establish a bond so strong that it can withstand physical and emotional trauma.

Destiny’s Plan has a plot that spans eras and continents, as the author weaves in not only the Vietnam War but also goes back to an important family episode during the Spanish Civil War. The author has clearly done her research, as the historical elements are well presented. Not only do we get the facts of a deployment to Vietnam and what that might look like, but we also get the sights and sounds of the late 1960s through the inclusion of the music, fashion, and political and social upheavals of the time.

Raquelita’s life is hard and complicated. One of the pieces of the story that I most enjoyed was getting to know the members of her family, from her damaged and cruel mother Isabel to her mysterious godfather Xavi, her loving father Emilio, and the aunt, uncle and cousin who give Raquelita a chance to experience a normal, loving home life. Raquelita’s younger sister Marité is adorable, and I understand she’ll be the central figure in her own book next.

Another element that really appealed to me in Destiny’s Plan was the fact that love is shown in different ages and stages in this book. Yes, Raquelita and Matthew are the main characters and love story, but we also see several more mature adult relationships as well, and it’s both unusual and refreshing to see true love, emotional and physical, shown as not only the territory of the younger generation.

A slight disclaimer: I’m not usually a romance reader, and so I don’t have much in the way of comparison. I have a feeling that the plot elements that didn’t really work for me in this book are probably things that would appeal to someone who enjoys romances — but as this is not a preferred genre for me, I had to push myself a bit to get over it. Likewise, I was a bit taken aback by the many explicitly intimate scenes, but again, I think I just generally don’t read romances and didn’t know what to expect.

Overall, I’d say the time period gives this book an interesting and unusual flavor, and the characters are well-developed and memorable. If you enjoy swooningly romantic stories with underlying drama and painful obstacles, check out Destiny’s Plan!

To learn more about the author, check out my spotlight post here.

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The details:

Title: Destiny’s Plan
Author: Victoria Saccenti
Publisher: Smashwords Editions
Publication date: September 15, 2015
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased

Take a Peek Book Review: The Brontë Plot

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

Bronte

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy’s secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James’s wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy’s predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen’s wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters’ beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that’s been waiting for her all along.

 

My Thoughts:

I’ve enjoyed author Katherine Reay’s previous two novels, Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane, and I had high hopes for The Brontë Plot as well. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting elements, the overall story just doesn’t hold up.

Lucy is a flawed character, someone with obvious talent and enthusiasm, but who makes questionable choices when it comes to achieving her ends. Her actions eventually catch up to her and cause a rupture with the people she cares most about, but her trip with Helen seems to represent a second chance — even though Lucy goes right on fabricating stories to suit her needs even while trying to start fresh.

Lucy’s relationships with James and with her boss Sid are engaging, and it’s hard not to care while she deals with the fall-out once James discovers her dishonesty. Still, it’s difficult to feel a whole lot of sympathy for a main character who takes such foolish actions, and I felt that the resolution of the various conflicts and disappointments was a bit too easy.

The pacing of the book seems to sag once Lucy sets off for England with Helen, where far too much time is spent on the details of their tourism, their hotel accommodations, and their meals. I was never particularly engaged by the family secrets that Lucy and Helen seek to come to peace with, and the literary theme, walking in the footsteps of the Brontës and their contemporaries, with constant references to Jane Eyre, Heathcliff and Catherine, and more, felt forced and not an organic part of the story.

The author creates interesting, multi-faceted characters in this book, but the plot itself didn’t really go anywhere, in my opinion. While I’ll continue to follow this author and hope to read more by her in the future, I’d say The Brontë Plot is mostly skippable.

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The details:

Title: The Brontë Plot
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley

Take a Peek Book Review: Lizzy & Jane

A quick note: I thought I’d try out a new book review format! My “Take a Peek” reviews will be short and (I hope) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little “peek” at what the book’s about and what I thought. Tell me if you like!

Lizzy and Jane

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lizzy and Jane never saw eye to eye. But when illness brings them together, they discover they may be more like Austen’s famous sisters after all.

Lizzy was only a teenager when her mother died of cancer. Shortly after, Lizzy fled from her home, her family, and her cherished nickname. After working tirelessly to hone her gift of creating magic in the kitchen, Elizabeth has climbed the culinary ladder to become the head chef of her own New York restaurant, Feast. But as her magic begins to elude her, Paul, Feast’s financial backer, brings in someone to share her responsibilities and her kitchen. So Elizabeth flees again.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her gift, Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

As she tends to Jane’s needs, Elizabeth’s powers begin to return to her, along with the family she left behind so long ago. Then Paul tries to entice her back to New York, and she is faced with a hard decision: stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane, or return to New York and the life she worked so hard to create?

My Thoughts:

Lizzy & Jane is both sad and hopeful, a look at two sisters who have a seemingly impassable chasm between them after years of resentment, estrangement, and loneliness. Elizabeth is adrift in the world; she thinks that she’s put her painful family history behind her and that she’s found success as a top New York chef, but as the story opens, she’s forced to admit that her life just isn’t working any more.

Reunited with her sister and her father, Elizabeth slowly starts to find joy in her cooking again, as she cares for her sister, her sister’s kids, and even the other chemo patients she meets while keeping Jane company. As Elizabeth begins to open herself up to forgiveness and reconciliation, she finds her life taking on new meaning and finds a passion and purpose that she didn’t even know she needed.

I loved how neatly the author ties together literature and cooking in this lovely (and delicious) novel. I’m not a foodie, but even I appreciated Lizzy’s knack for understanding a person’s food tastes based on what they love to read. I don’t know if I’m quite convinced that it would work in real life, but in the context of fiction, it’s simply inspired!

Overall, I really enjoyed Lizzy & Jane. The main character is flawed and wounded, and it’s lovely to see her reconnect with her sister and rediscover herself in the process. The love story is a tad predictable, but still delicious in its own way. The portrayal of the fraught relationship between the sisters feels realistic and sensitive, and I couldn’t help cheering for the characters (and occasionally wanting to give them a little kick to get them talking again!). Filled with real emotion, satisfying personal growth, and a group of supporting characters who each add a little spice to the story, Lizzy & Jane is a great choice for anyone looking for a book to make you feel.

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The details:

Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 339 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley