Book Review: Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay

Title: Of Literature & Lattes
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 12, 2020
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Katherine Reay returns to the cozy and delightful town of Winsome where two people discover the grace of letting go and the joy found in unexpected change.

After fleeing her hometown three years earlier, Alyssa Harrison never planned to return. Then the Silicon Valley start-up she worked for collapsed and turned her world upside down. She is broke, under FBI investigation, and without a place to go. Having exhausted every option, she comes home to Winsome, Illinois, to regroup then move on as quickly as possible. Yet, as friends and family welcome her back, Alyssa begins to see a place for herself in this small Midwestern community.

Jeremy Mitchell moved from Seattle to Winsome to be near his daughter and to open the coffee shop he’s been dreaming of for years. Problem is, the business is bleeding money—and he’s not quite sure why. When he meets Alyssa, he senses an immediate connection, but what he needs most is someone to help him save his floundering business. After asking for her help, he wonders if something might grow between them—but forces beyond their control soon complicate their already complex lives, and the future they both hoped for is not at all what they anticipated.

With the help of Winsome’s small-town charm and quirky residents, Alyssa and Jeremy discover the beauty and romance of second chances.

Of Literature & Lattes is Katherine Reay’s follow-up to The Printed Letter Bookshop, which I finally read and reviewed just last week. In this new novel, we return to the town of Winsome, Illinois — home of an amazing bookstore, lots of cute shops, and people who get what community is all about.

The story follows two main characters: Alyssa, returning with dread to her hometown after a disastrous stint in Silicon Valley, and Jeremy, a grown-up with a sad childhood behind him, looking to spend more time with his daughter and investing everything in a new coffee shop.

For Alyssa, nothing has worked out as intended, and she seems like the walking embodiment of someone having baggage. After her parents’ divorce three years earlier, she sided with her father, cut her mother out of her life, and moved as far away as she could get. Alyssa’s magic with numbers and coding landed her a great job at a medical start-up — but her world crashes down sudddenly when it turns out that the company was nothing but a fraud, and what’s worse, provided false information to people about future diagnoses of awful illnesses.

Wracked by guilt and totally broke, Alyssa has no choice but to head home — where nothing is as expected. Alyssa’s mother is Janet, one of the main characters in The Printed Letter Bookshop, and Janet has changed dramatically. Alyssa expects to be able to hide out at her father’s apartment, but instead, he forces her to face her mother. As Janet and Alyssa spend time together, they form new understandings and realize that they have a lot of work to do to overcome the harmful patterns of their past, if they ever hope to have a relationship in the future.

Meanwhile, life for Jeremy is complicated too. His 7-year-old daughter Becca lives nearby, and he’s relocated from Seattle to be with her. Jeremy invested all his savings into buying the local coffee shop from its retiring owner, dreaming of turning it into a modern, successful business. The problem is, the locals don’t share his vision — and as he transforms the cozy, shabby coffee shop into something sleek and streamlined, the daily traffic plummets.

Jeremy is a good guy and his heart is in the right place, but he has to learn to step back and understand what community is all about if his business is going to survive — and if he’s serious about creating a new home for himself and for Becca.

There’s a lot to love about Of Literature & Lattes. First of all, the town of Winsome is just as charming as in the previous book. It’s an idealized version of small-town homey-ness, and wouldn’t we all love to find a place like that to belong?

The people here seem to really care about one another, and while yes, they are all up in each other’s business a little more than I’d personally care for, this connection comes out in all sorts of ways that are heart-warming and important.

Alyssa and Janet spend a lot of this book at odds, and it’s messy and a little terrible, but also feels real. Their dynamic goes back years, and has as much to do with Janet’s feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction as with their actual relationship. It’s not easy for them to sort out all the ways in which they’ve hurt and misunderstood one another, but over the course of their months together, they make major strides — and find that they both truly want to make things better.

For Jeremy, the relationship with his ex Krista is difficult, and his business isn’t going as he’d hoped. He starts off very focused on his own vision — an outsider who thinks he knows what the town needs. It’s only when he allows himself to admit that he needs to learn that he starts to connect with the community in a real way, realizing that a coffee shop that’s perfect but lacks heart just isn’t going to cut it.

Once again, I really enjoyed the author’s way of weaving personal stories into a bigger picture of a community. I enjoyed seeing the familiar characters from the previous story, as well as meeting Alyssa and Jeremy and seeing how they fit into the greater whole.

While Of Literature & Lattes could work as a stand-alone, I’d recommend reading The Printed Letter Bookshop first. I’m glad I did! OL&L is touching and lovely, but it’s so much richer when set into the context of the larger story, and I think without the previous book, many of the connections would have gone right by me without leaving an impression.

Another heart-warming story from author Katherine Reay — and yes, plenty of book talk too!

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay

Title:The Printed Letter Bookshop
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Love, friendship, and family find a home at the Printed Letter Bookshop

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a captivating story of good books, a testament to the beauty of new beginnings, and a sweet reminder of the power of friendship.

What a difference a year makes!

And reading moods certainly make a difference too.

Last year, I received an ARC of The Printed Letter Bookshop via NetGalley. And I was excited to read it, because I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books previously. But according to my Goodreads post, I DNFd this book at about 25%, saying that I just wasn’t interested and couldn’t get into it.

This could probably be an entirely different post about reading according to a schedule (I was trying to read ARCs on or before publication date) and feeling obligated when choosing what to read… but suffice it to say, for whatever reason, this just wasn’t the right book for me at that particular time.

So here I am, a year later, and I received an ARC of Katherine Reay’s soon-to-be-released newest book (Of Literature and Lattes) — and as I started reading it, I realized (a) it’s set in the same town as The Printed Letter Bookshop, and (b) while it appears to be focusing on different characters, there’s definitely crossover. And even though I was already five chapters in, and enjoying it, I decided it was time to go back to The Printed Letter Bookshop and give it another try.

Whew. All that is just context for the actual review! So here goes…

The Printed Letter Bookshop is charming! It’s a look at women’s friendship, centered around a bookshop located in small-town Winsome, Illinois, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, but worlds away in terms of the cozy, quaint, close-knit nature of the community.

When the store owner Maddie dies, her two colleagues and close friends Janet and Claire are devastated by her loss, and then immediately have to begin worrying about their future of their beloved store. Maddie leaves all her belongings, including her house and the bookshop, to her niece Madeline, a hard-charging young lawyer who hasn’t visited Maddie in years.

Madeline doesn’t want the store or any permanent link to Maddie. While they used to be close, some rift between Maddie and Madeline’s parents years in the past caused horribly hurt feelings, and Madeline has never forgiven Maddie. Now, though, Maddie’s holdings are her responsibility, and they come at a time when Madeline’s professional life has taken a sudden detour.

Madeline’s plan is to get in, get the store’s finances in shape, and sell. But life seems to have other plans.

Once she begins to get involved at The Printed Letter Bookshop, Madeline starts to understand how much it means to Janet, Claire, and the town. She also gains fresh insight into Maddie as a person, how badly she misunderstood her parents’ estrangement from Maddie, and just how much she herself needs a fresh perspective on her own life.

Janet and Claire are also POV characters. Each has her own reason for being drawn to Maddie, who gave them purpose and connection by welcoming them into the bookshop. They each have troubled home lives, but through their work at the bookshop, they reinvent themselves and start to understand where their lives’ turning points were, and how to choose different directions.

Although the book opens with Maddie’s funeral, she’s a large presence throughout the story. She’s a warm, lovely person who truly understands the way books can transform lives. She has the knack of finding the right book for each person who enters The Printed Letter Bookshop, and as her parting gift to Madeline, Janet, and Claire, leaves each a list of books to read — no explanation, just a list. And for each woman, the book list helps her grow and change.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a lovely book. I’ve seen it shelved as Christian fiction (publisher Thomas Nelson specializes in Christian content) — but if I hadn’t known that, I don’t think I’d classify this book that way. (Full disclosure: I am not Christian, and would not normally read books classified at Christian fiction. I’m glad I didn’t see a “label” before picking up this book!)

There are discussions about faith and God in the book, but I never felt like those discussions dominated the novel or that I was being hit over the head with religion. Instead, these themes are a part of the women’s journeys, as they think about their lives, their families, their relationships, and the meaning of it all. While their beliefs don’t align with my own, I was actually quite moved by some of their inner processes and how they decide, each in their own way, to make important changes in their lives.

There’s also a love story for Madeline, but that’s probably the part that I cared about least in this book. I mean, it was nice, but I didn’t get a good feel for the relationship or how it grew, and didn’t feel all that invested in that piece of the plot.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to give this book another chance! It’s a quick, engaging read, with heart, emotions, and LOTS OF BOOKS. (The author helpfully includes a list of all the books mentioned or referred to in the story at the back of the book… and we all know how awesome books about books can be!)

And now, I feel ready for Of Literature and Lattes.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.

Book Review: In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Title: In Five Years
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Perfect for fans of Me Before You and One Day—a striking, powerful, and moving love story following an ambitious lawyer who experiences an astonishing vision that could change her life forever.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

When Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Kohan is asked this question at the most important interview of her career, she has a meticulously crafted answer at the ready. Later, after nailing her interview and accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, Dannie goes to sleep knowing she is right on track to achieve her five-year plan.

But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.

After a very intense, shocking hour, Dannie wakes again, at the brink of midnight, back in 2020. She can’t shake what has happened. It certainly felt much more than merely a dream, but she isn’t the kind of person who believes in visions. That nonsense is only charming coming from free-spirited types, like her lifelong best friend, Bella. Determined to ignore the odd experience, she files it away in the back of her mind.

That is, until four-and-a-half years later, when by chance Dannie meets the very same man from her long-ago vision.

Brimming with joy and heartbreak, In Five Years is an unforgettable love story that reminds us of the power of loyalty, friendship, and the unpredictable nature of destiny.

Wow.

Excuse me, I need to go dry my eyes for a minute before I can put any thoughts down about this book. There. I’m ready.

In Five Years crept up on me and hit me in my heart. It’s not the book I thought it was going to be, and that’s perfectly okay, because I ended up blown away by how deeply it made me feel.

At the same time, I don’t want to spoil anything for any potential readers, so I’m going to have to keep my comments on the vague side.

You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.

This is not a time-travel story. There is no magical entry into parallel worlds. Yes, Dannie has a weird experience that puts her five years into the future for a brief hour — but call it vision or premonition or whatever you want, I promise that that’s not the point of the story.

The main character of In Five Years is Dannie, a super smart, super successful lawyer who measures out her life in plans and lists and spreadsheets. Her boyfriend David is just like her (even keeping a spreadsheet of restaurants they’ve visited and what they ate), and their future is nicely mapped out. They’ll achieve success in their incredibly competitive fields. They’ll buy a great apartment in a great neighborhood in New York. And after Dannie’s interview with the law firm of her dreams, they get engaged in the perfect setting… so they seem very much on track for their neatly planned out lives.

Until Dannie dozes off and has her strange, five-years-into-the-future experience, where she interacts with a man — not David — in such an intimate and emotional way that, when she wakes, she begins to question everything.

Four and a half years later, Dannie and David are still engaged, but never quite get around to planning a wedding. She’s working at her dream job and absolutely loving it. And then things get weird when her best-friend-for-life Bella introduces her to the new man in her life… and he’s the man from Dannie’s dream/vision/premonition.

But if you think that this is a love triangle sort of book, let me just tell you — it’s not.

The further along I read, the more I understood that the heart of this book is the love between friends. Dannie and Bella are perfect complements to one another — Bella free-spirited and artistic and spontaneous, all things that Dannie is not. But they love each other unstintingly and understand each other deeply, and as the story unfolds from here, their love absolutely shines in a way that’s beautiful and left me in tears.

There. I’m not saying anything further about the plot. I’ll just say that it surprised me and moved me; it wasn’t what I expected, and it completely pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go until I turned the last page.

On a lighter note, two things struck me as funny. One, a seeming inconsistency that made me giggle:

David was snoring next to me, and the upstairs was still, but then it was barely six.

And on the next page:

David is a silent sleeper. No snoring, no movement.

Hmm. I don’t think those can both be true. (But honestly, this is truly a minor quibble, and I only mention it because it made me laugh and broke up the intensity of the story for me, which was a good thing.)

I also loved a couple of little throw-away lines that made me feel like Dannie and I are inhabiting the same world:

Murray Hill isn’t the most glamorous neighborhood in New York, and it gets a bad rap (every Jewish fraternity and sorority kid in the Tri-State area moves here after graduation. The average street style is a Penn sweatshirt)…

Hee. My alma mater rarely gets a shout-out in the books I read. And one more thing that felt like me:

I change into shorts and a T-shirt and a sun hat — my Russian Jew skin has never met a sun it particularly got on with…

Story of my life, Dannie.

But back to being serious…

I loved Rebecca Serle’s previous novel, The Dinner List, and in some ways, I can see some general similarities. Both feature an out-of-the-ordinary twist in the set-up, and in both, it’s the emotional heart of the story that really matters, not the how and why of the strange twist.

In Five Years is a gorgeous, surprising, and emotionally powerful read. Highly recommended.

[And a brief note: When I look at the reviews on Goodreads, I see so much detail about the plot. I recommend reading this book without a lot of foreknowledge, so stay away from Goodreads if that matters to you!]

Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner



Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943–aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences.

The Last Year of the War is the moving story of true friendship that lasts a lifetime, despite years of separation. Told through the eyes of Elise, the story opens in 2010 when Elise is in her 80s, suffering from the losses associated with Alzheimers, feeling pieces of herself and her life being stolen away from her. When her housekeeper teaches her to use Google, Elise uses it to look up her friend Mariko, a girl she last saw during the last year of World War II. And having found her, Elise decides to go see her, despite the memory lapses that cause her to repeatedly lose her focus and her purpose for traveling.

From there, we go back to Elise’s adolescence. As the American-born daughter of German immigrants, Elise enjoys her ordinary life in Davenport, Iowa, up until the day her father is arrested as an enemy of the United States:

As I watched the black car that held my father disappear around the block, the strongest sensation I had was not that this couldn’t be happening, but that it was. It was like being awakened from a stupor, not falling into a nightmare. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone then. Not even to myself. It was only in the years that followed that I realized this was the moment my eyes were opened to what the world is really like.

Eventually, the family is reunited at the Crystal City Internment Camp in Texas, where they, along with hundreds of other German-American and Japanese-American families, are assigned to remain throughout the war years. Life in the camp isn’t awful for Elise, because she finds Mariko — also an American-born daughter of immigrants. They attend the mixed school together and become deeply connected friends, sharing their dreams, their hopes, and their fears, and making grand plans for the life they’ll spend together after the war, moving to New York and pursuing their adult lives side by side.

It’s not to be, sadly — first Elise’s family and then Mariko’s are chosen for repatriation. Despite being American citizens, Elise and her brother Max along with her parents are sent to Germany in exchange for Americans being held there. Suddenly, in what will be the final year of the war, the family is thrust into a war zone. While Elise’s father’s family is there to welcome them and offer them a home, it isn’t home for Elise, who doesn’t even speak the language. From the safety of American soil, Elise finds herself in a strange land, where bombs fall over night as the Allied armies get closer and closer, and where the day after a bombing raid reveals nothing but death and destruction.

Throughout this time, it’s the thought of Mariko and their friendship that gives Elise hope, until the day a letter from Mariko arrives, telling Elise that she’s being forced to marry and that her family forbids any further contact. Heartbroken, Elise struggles to find a way to move forward, until a meeting with an American GI after the German surrender opens up new opportunities for her.

Enough synopsis! I won’t give away any further plot details. The Last Year of the War is a very compelling story, and Elise is a very sympathetic character. It’s almost impossible to imagine, sitting her in the comfort of the 21st century, that an American citizen could be torn away from her country like this and sent into a war zone, but the key events in this book are drawn from the historical record. The Crystal City camp was a real place, and repatriation of Japanese and German immigrants and their families really did happen.

I was actually shocked to discover that German-Americans were sent to internment camps — I’d only ever read about Japanese-Americans and their treatment during WWII. It might be just ignorance on my part, but it seems like that element of the war years has never been as publicly known and reported. I was equally shocked to learn about the repatriation of families to Japan and Germany. It seems incredibly cruel to send these people into war-torn countries for no reason other than the fact of their birthplaces — or in the cases of Elise, Mariko, and their siblings, the birthplaces of their parents.

Based on the synopsis of the book, I’d expected to have Elise and Mariko share the historical pieces of the story, but the book is actually Elise’s story, told through her memories of her war years and beyond. We learn about Mariko through Elise’s perspective, so once the girls are separated, we only know what happened to Mariko when Elise finds out more. This doesn’t diminish the power of the story — Elise’s experiences are powerful and fascinating on their own — but it was a little out of alignment with my initial expectations.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love this book, because I absolutely did. I learned pieces of history that were new and surprising to me, and beyond that, I got to meet characters who are richly drawn, deeply relatable, and full of hopes, fears, and passions that resonate. Elise goes on to live a life of purpose and meaning, but never forgets Mariko and what their brief time together meant to her.

My only wish might be that Elise and Mariko had more time together once they were reunited. These pieces of the story are so powerful, but we only get small segments of this time, as a framing device for the historical pieces of the story.

All in all, I’d say that The Last Year of the War is a must-read for fans of historical fiction or for anyone who wants to learn more about an unseen chapter of the war. It’s a wonderfully rich story of two friends and how a connection like theirs can change lives. Highly recommended!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Last Year of the War
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley