Thursday, January 14, 2021

Women on the Run: Everything Here is Under Control and Boop & Eve's Road Trip

Amanda doesn't know where to turn. She is exhausted as a new mother and feels unsupported by her partner Gabe. In desperation, she straps baby Jack into his car seat and drives from Queens back to her hometown in Ohio. She's hoping to find solace and guidance from her childhood best friend, Carrie. Their lives took very different paths after high school, but Carrie seems to know what do as a mother, as a business owner, and as a woman making her way in the world. Amanda's unexpected arrival will force both women to examine what they truly believe about motherhood and friendship, and what kept them apart for all these years. 

Everything Here Is Under Control is a story of contrasts. The story is told from the present and from the past, when Amanda was newly in love and figuring out her life and Carrie was the one with a new baby and spit-up on her shirt. One of my favorite parts was witnessing the two friends realize they had no idea what the other's life was really like--Carrie remembers having no tolerance for hearing about Amanda's carefree life while she was in the trenches of motherhood, and Amanda realizes she was a complete jerk to her friend when she needed her help. There is something simmering under Amanda and Carrie's relationship that readers don't learn until the second half of the book. This new knowledge is jarring and, while it makes their dynamic make more sense, it is strange for the reader to be processing something that the characters have known all along. 

Everything Here Is Under Control
By Emily Adrian 
Blackstone Publishing July 2020
272 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Boop is concerned about her granddaughter. Eve seems perpetually unhappy, especially when her mother Justine brings up going to medical school. Boop wishes Eve could learn some gumption, and to stand up for herself. When Eve gets a cryptic message from her cousin and best friend Ally, grandmother and granddaughter decide to embark on an epic road trip to find out what is going on with Ally, and give them some time to figure out what to do with their own lives. 

I love intergenerational stories, and I was excited to find out more about the amazingly named Boop and her granddaughter. But both women suffered from an inability to speak up--Boop about her past and Eve about what she wants in the future. It seems author Mary Helen Sheriff was unsure whether she wanted to write a lighthearted road trip romp or delve into the pain of depression and unresolved family trauma, so we are left somewhere in the murky middle. 

Boop and Eve's Road Trip
By Mary Helen Sheriff
She Writes Press October 2020
268 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, January 8, 2021

Historical Fiction Mini Reviews: A Tender Thing and Miss Benson's Beetle

Eleanor O'Hanlon is done with her boring life in Wisconsin. When she sees an advertisement for an open call for a show in New York City, she decides to head to the big city and audition. While she is not cast in that show, her audition impresses composer Don Mannheim. He invites her to be the star of his controversial new musical "A Tender Thing." The show tells the story of a biracial couple, and 1950s audiences are furious. As tensions rise both onstage and backstage, Eleanor must decide who she wants to be as an actress and as her own person. 

Emily Neuberger's love for the theatre is evident throughout A Tender Thing. Her descriptions of singing a perfect song or being exhausted after a lengthy rehearsal are excellent. But this story succeeds and fails with Eleanor. She is unexperienced but lucky in almost every way--she miraculously lands a leading role in a Broadway musical with no training, men find her intriguing, and this is the first time she sees the difference between the treatment she receives as a white woman and the treatment her costar Charles receives as a black man. This book might be a good pick for readers who love theatre, but I sometimes found it a bit difficult to read as everything consistently works out for Eleanor.

A Tender Thing
By Emily Neuberger
G. P Putnum's Sons April 2020
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Things are difficult in 1950s London, and Margery Benson is just trying to keep her head down and make it through another day of teaching home economics. When students pass around a nasty caricature of her, she finally snaps. Margery leaves her job and her home to embark on a sacred quest. Ever since childhood, she has wanted to find the mythical golden beetle of New Caledonia. With the unlikely Enid Pretty as her assistant, she sets off for an adventure unlike anything she has ever experienced. 

Miss Benson's Beetle, at its heart, might be a story about finding what gives you joy. Margery has been constrained by society's rules about what a woman should do, despite never finding her place there. Enid has used her looks to make it through life, but living in the jungle with Margery allows her to discover who she wants to be and how she wants to act when her life is not dictated by men. Rachel Joyce writes these two very different women so well, and the story of their growing friendship is compelling. Unfortunately, the book is a bit long and Joyce introduces a third storyline which doesn't add anything to the story. While this is not my favorite Joyce book, I have certainly found a place in my bookish heart for Margery and Enid and their adventures.

Miss Benson's Beetle
By Rachel Joyce
Dial Press November 2020
352 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Also by Rachel Joyce:

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Mini Reviews for the Foodie: Hadley Beckett's Next Dish and Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop

Hadley Beckett is a celebrity chef who is known for her charming Southern personality and her delicious meals. Her competition on America's Fiercest Chef, however, is known for his temper tantrums in addition to his Michelin stars. Maxwell Cavanaugh may have the highest-rated show on the network, but they give him an ultimatum: go to rehab and learn to manage his anger, or lose his show. Maxwell seems on his way out, and Hadley's star is on the rise. When she is invited to appear on the show Renowned, she is thrilled. But there's a catch: the producers want to feature both Hadley and Max. Can the two chefs find a way to get along or will the show be a swan song for them both? 

Hadley Beckett's Next Dish is a fun romance. The two chefs want nothing to do with each other, which of course means they are destined to fall for each other. You will feel as if you are actually on the set of a cooking show, Hadley is a delightful character, and the book moves quickly. The line between charming and cheesy is not always easy to walk, but Bethany Turner does a great job of it here. If you love watching Food Network and are searching for the perfect read for your weekend, this book is for you. 

Hadley Beckett's Next Dish
By Bethany Turner
Revell May 2020
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Vanessa has an usual ability: she can see people's futures and is compelled to tell them what she sees. She tries to avoid getting close to people since telling someone that their boyfriend will cheat or their mother will die from cancer tends to end relationships. When her over-invested family invites a matchmaker to find Vanessa's true love, she discovers that she will never find lasting love because of her gift of seeing the future. Desperate for answers, she travels to Paris to stay with her Aunt Evelyn, who also has the gift of seeing the future. Evelyn seems to have a perfect life--she is chic, owns a beautiful tea shop, and follows all the rules of being a clairvoyant. But Vanessa and Evelyn are about to discover that when it come to love and seeing the future, sometimes they have to make their own rules. 

Vanessa and her story fell a bit flat for this reader. Roselle Lim writes with the kind of easy charm that we love to see in contemporary romance, but the characters felt like archetypes. Vanessa is entirely passive within her own life, her family members aren't distinctive, and the man she meets in Paris seems almost too good to be true. However, the irresistible descriptions of amazing food in both San Francisco and Paris might be enough for the reader who loves both a tasty treat and a happy ending. 

Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop
By Roselle Lim
Berkley August 2020
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mini Reviews of Mini Books: The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The infamous Robin Hood and Maid Marian have settled down. Peace has generally reigned in Nottingham for years, and the Locksleys live happily on their estate with their three children. Robin and Marian return home from court ready to have a conversation with their daughter Mary, who is almost old enough to marry. Before they can come to a consensus, the three children are kidnapped. Robin and Marian call every ally for help, but Mary, John, and Eleanor might just have enough intelligence, bravery, and pluck to save themselves.

I've loved Robin Hood ever since I watched the Disney movie as a child. I'm always looking for new stories to try, and The Ghost of Sherwood was a quick, delightful read. I don't think it stays with readers for too long, but reading this story is an excellent way to revisit beloved characters and imagine how they might have changed with the passage of time. If you love Robin Hood, this would be a great way to spend an hour or two and a fun story to share with the next generation of readers looking to spend some time in Sherwood Forest. 

The Ghosts of Sherwood
The Robin Hood Stories #1
By Carrie Vaughn Publishing June 2020
112 pages
Read via Netgalley

Lau Fung Cheung and Tet Sang are bandits, but they are still men of honor and decency. When a customer becomes hostile with the waitress at a coffeehouse, they intervene on her behalf. But they didn't expect the waitress to follow them, hoping to tag along on their adventures. Guet Imm is a nun in the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, and certainly not a person the bandits expected to live and fight alongside.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was written with a true understanding of how novellas work. The reader knows that there is a wider world at play for these characters, but this particular story is about just a few people, their goals, and their relationships with each other. This is a wuxia-inspired (martial arts) story. While there is some fighting, it is mostly about slowly trusting the people around you and discovering where you belong. Zen Cho excels at subverting your expectations--where you expected a battle, you find an exploration of faith; where you expect a moment of great importance, you find yourself chuckling instead. It's heartwarming to witness Guet Imm and Tet Sang reveal their secrets to each other, but I wish I had felt more of a connection to the characters. 

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
By Zen Cho Publishing June 2020
176 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, September 11, 2020

Review: Inland

Lurie is a man on the run--he's running from his past, he's running from the law, and he's running from the ghosts that won't leave him alone. Nora, on the other hand, is waiting. She is waiting for her husband to bring water to their remote home on the frontier of Arizona, waiting for her older sons to return after a fight, and waiting for the terrible beast that her youngest son saw to make a move.

I was captivated by Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife and I have been anxiously waiting for her to publish another book. I enjoyed Inland too, but the two stories are very different. A western gives a writer a unique vantage to examine how much people need each other, and how we are often very alone. Nora finds herself holding the household together by herself and even when neighbors and friends stop by, she knows that she alone is responsible for the safety and well-being of her family. Lurie recounts his backstory to someone who is unknown for a good portion of the story. He recalls coming to the United States, his loneliness after his father's death, and his experiences joining outlaws, pickpockets, and a group transporting livestock across the Southern states. It is only then that readers learn he has been talking to a camel this whole time.

While Inland is inarguably a Western, it is also a ghost story. We love the creepy feeling of a dark house, but there is something nerve-wracking about the great expanse, when the only thing between you and your closest neighbor is the danger of the desert. The ghosts who haunt the characters in this story aren't malevolent, but there is a feeling of unease throughout--things are not as they should be, and Lurie and Nora aren't sure what they should do next.

The characters and setting of Inland are instantly familiar--we all know the vicious outlaw, the strong woman on the frontier, and the kindly town doctor. But Obreht turns every piece just a bit. It is just enough to throw the reader off-balance and make them desperate to find out what happens next. The United States lacks the mythology of older nations (at least if we are uninformed about the history and folklore of Native Americans). Tea Obreht suggests we can find a communal American story (and American ghosts) on the frontiers of the Wild West. I can't wait to read what she writes next. 

By Tea Obreht
Random House August 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

World War II Mini-Reviews: Paris 7 A.M. and The World That We Knew

In June of 1937, Elizabeth Bishop travels to France with her college roommates. She is not yet a famous poet--she is just a young woman looking for adventure. She misses her mother and looks for solace from her mentor Marianne Moore or at the bottom of a bottle. During her time abroad, Elizabeth will fall in love, discover her passion for poetry, and smuggle Jewish children to safety.

Elizabeth Bishop is a poet loved by many people, myself and the author included. As Liza Wieland looked through Bishop's letters and meticulous journals, she discovered that there was no record of 1937. In this book, she imagines what might have happened during that gap. Unfortunately, it fell very flat for me. Wieland seemed to focus on the feel of Bishop's writing, instead of crafting her character. I didn't get a sense of who Elizabeth was, in reality or as the author might have imagined her. The description of the book is also a bit misleading, since very little of the plot has to do with getting Jewish children out of the country. Elizabeth Bishop was an extraordinary poet, and I hope that readers will read multiple books to better understand both the writer and her work.

Paris, 7 A.M.
By Liza Wieland
Simon Schuster June 2019
353 pages
Read via Netgalley

In 1941 Berlin, a woman knows she must get her daughter out of the country. She uses a somewhat unusual method, asking her rabbi to create a golem to take Lea across the border and keep her safe. The rabbi refuses, but his daughter Ettie is willing to bring the golem to life. Lea and the golem, who they name Ava, flee to France in the hope of finding safety. Ettie leaves home as well, and becomes a resistance fighter determined to avenge the deaths of her friends and family.

Alice Hoffman has a gift for combining myth with reality, and it is particularly vivid here. In a world where bombs are falling and children are murdered, does it seem impossible that a golem could come to life or a girl could communicate with birds? There is a lot going on here; readers follow several characters for years as they travel through Europe, but you will have the rare experience of wanting to stay with one character while wondering what is happening to another. Books about World War II are everywhere, but Hoffman's care for her characters and the intersection of history and fantasy, and cruelty and love make for a gripping read.

The World That We Knew
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster September 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, May 11, 2020

Grammar Mini-Reviews: Dreyer's English and Semicolon

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief at a little-known publishing house known as Random House. He knows a thing or two about ensuring that prose is clear, error-free, and perhaps even delightful to read. Dreyer insists he is not writing an essential style guide (there is probably no such thing). Instead, he shares the rules that aren't quite as concrete as you might think, and the conversations he has in the margins with the writers he works with. (Don't worry, we get over our objections about ending a sentence with a preposition in chapter two).

The first half of the book is a meandering sort of meditation on how to write well. The second half is a list with explanations: what's the difference between affect and effect? How do I spell the name of that author? (It's Virginia Woolf with two O's.) Dreyer's English is a book for writers who want to improve their craft, editors who want a better handle on the why of things, and any reader who is fascinated by language. It's also delightfully funny. The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book. If you find yourself in need of a good style guide (or twelve), you might as well have one that will make you laugh while you figure out if you should be using further or farther.

Dreyer's English:
An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style from the Copy Chief of Random House
By Benjamin Dreyer
Random House January 2019
256 pages
Read via Netgalley

Ceclia Watson used to glory in the rules of grammar and punctuation. She knew that there was right way and a wrong way to use the comma and the semicolon. But as she researched the history of usage, she discovered that things were not as clear cut as she had believed. In Semicolon, she breaks down the origins and history of the much-beloved and much-maligned mark. She examines the ways grammar can become a weapon and how it could change the meaning of a law, and analyzes the much-beloved prose of writers like Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and Rebecca Solnit.

This book is well-researched and easy to read (two things that don't often co-exist). Watson's passion for language, grammar, and punctuation make the reader very interested in this tiny symbol that has both furious detractors and fierce advocates--a tiny dot and curl from a pen can change everything. If you are the kind of person who is interested in how language evolves and how it affects the people who use it, this is the perfect book for you.

The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
By Cecelia Watson
Ecco July 2019
213 pages
From the library