Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Marilla Before Anne

Everyone knows and loves the story of Anne, the plucky orphan who won the hearts of the people of Avonlea and her adoptive parents Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. But who was Marilla before the events of Anne of Green Gables? When we first encountered Marilla in that book, she was a dour woman determined to shut everyone out. Louise Michalos imagines Marilla as a teenager and young woman, as she falls in love and suffers great tragedy.

I am a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery's characters and stories. I love the books and am reading the first to my daughter. I've enjoyed both the movies from the 1980s and the recent Netflix miniseries. I know that people who love Anne and Green Gables feel very strongly about changes, and your appreciation of this story will depend on how you feel about a revelation that will change everything  you knew about Marilla. 

In Marilla Before Anne, Louise Michalos does a lot of things well. It's lovely to get some back story on the characters you know and love, especially the relationships between Marilla and Matthew and Marilla and Rachel. But the major change Louise Michalos has made to Marilla's story means that the story of the Cuthberts is forever changed. If you are willing to have the story changed so drastically, Marilla Before Anne is a wonderful way to spend some more time with the characters you already love. But if you hold very tightly to the tale that you've always known, this probably isn't the book for you.

Marilla Before Anne
By Louise Michalos
Nimbus Publishing May 2021
256 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Mini Reviews: Home Now and The Liturgy of Politics

Lewistown, Maine had been a relatively thriving small town. But then the mill closed and people started to leave. Residents wondered if the streets would ever be full of shops and neighbors again. Slowly, the town started to fill with new residents, until 1/6 of the town's population was made up of Muslim refugees. Cynthia Anderson looks at the ways the town came together and split apart across racial and religious lines by examining the experiences of people from a Congolese refugee applying to college in the US to members of an anti-Islamic group. What can one town teach us about the way we treat immigrants and the things we hold most dear? 

Anderson's goal in writing Home Now is a laudable one. She saw all the ways that her life and her family were like those of the refugees she interviewed, and she integrates a good deal of that into her book. But I often felt like it lacked a direction. Anderson could recount stories from long-time residents and refugees who just arrived this week for many years to come, and the conclusion would be the same--it is difficult to live in community with other people and all too easy to blame our difficulties on others. But if you are looking for an interesting glimpse into the ways we can find space for everyone's culture and traditions within one city's limits, this might be a good read for you. 

Home Now:
How 6000 Refugees Transformed An American Town
By Cynthia Anderson
PublicAffairs October 2019
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

There are two things we're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table: religion and politics. Nothing makes people argue faster than presenting opposing views on these topics. But Kaitlyn Schiess argues that our faith should inform our politics, and that the structure of our churches is shaped by politics (even if we refrain from talking about the president at the church potluck). While liturgy may be an unfamiliar concept to some people, the idea is that we are shaped by what we repeat--whether that is watching our favorite pundit on the news or attending church. This book directs readers to ask themselves, "what am I being formed to love?"

Scheiss began writing this book while she was studying at a seminary during and following the 2016 election. While she and her fellow soon-to-be pastors did not want to tell people how to vote, they recognized that our faith shapes our politics and our politics shape our faith. She believes that if Christians keep their allegiance to God above allegiance to any party or politician, the ways we should act (and vote) can become clearer. This book may make readers uncomfortable, and that's a good thing. While the ideas may challenge readers, the writing is not overly academic. The Liturgy of Politics just might make people re-evaluate what is forming them and how their beliefs and actions impact the people in their communities. 

The Liturgy of Politics:
Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor
By Kaitlyn Schiess
InterVarsity Press September 2020
220 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Review: Black Sun

In the city of Tova, the priests and leaders of the Sky Made clans are preparing to celebrate the winter solstice. Sun Priest Naranpa has finally ascended to the position she has worked towards for years, but her new role allows her to see all of the cracks in their system. Far away from the glamour and prestige of the city, a sailor named Xiala is asked to transport a strange passenger to Tova. The man on her ship is Serapio, who has great power and great anger towards the priests. He is on a mission to make them pay for their sins against the Crow people. 

This story takes place on the Meridian, inspired by the Incans and Puebloans before European colonizers arrived. The world created on these pages is beautiful and sweeping, and you will feel like you are on the cliffs of Tova or sailing the dangerous seas with Xiala. There is a perfect balance here between an expansive world and a focus on the characters. Each one of them is grappling with finding their place in a system and culture they did not create, as well as the ways they are perceived by the people around them. 

Rebecca Roanhorse has nimbly walked the line between giving readers all the information they need while preparing them for a second book where all these storylines will converge. Black Sun is a book you won't want to put down, and I can't wait to find out what happens to  Naranpa, Xiala, and Serapio in the sequel (expected in April 2022).

Black Sun
(Between Earth and Sky #1)
By Rebecca Roanhorse
Gallery/Saga Press October 2020
461 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, November 5, 2021

Mini Reviews: A Spy in the Struggle and The Nobodies

Yolanda Vance is used to working hard, but she also believes in honesty. When her law firm gets raided by the FBI, she turns over evidence against them and goes to work as an agent instead. The FBI is watching a group of black activists who claim that a local corporation is intentionally hurting their neighborhood, and Yolanda is the perfect person to send undercover. As she discovers what is really going on, she is caught in the impossible position of doing her job and hurting people she has come to care for or breaking the rules and fighting back. 

I really liked the premise of this book--why don't we have more stories about women (particularly women of color) who are detectives and spies and agents? Aya de Leon does a wonderful job of showing through Yolanda's experiences that it is not always easy to know who is good and who is bad. Unfortunately, the character of Yolanda fell flat for me; it seemed that the author hadn't really decided who Yolanda was outside the parameters of this story. 

A Spy in the Struggle
By Aya de Leon
Kensington Books December 2020
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Joan Dixon doesn't really want to be working at a place where her bosses are a decade younger than she is, but it's hard to be a working journalist and Bloom was hiring copywriters. As she adjusts to working at the tech start-up, she starts to make friends among her coworkers. But the good times don't last--Joan discovers there may be a major problem with her idyllic company. This could be the story of a lifetime, but it could also destroy her only steady job in years and the relationships she has been building.

The Nobodies is unfortunately not my favorite Liza Palmer novel. Joan is a tough character to follow, as she seems to fumble everything in her own life. But Palmer really captures the feeling of failure well. When Joan's latest story is rejected by an editor or an attempt to make a friend goes awry, it's enough to break your heart and bring back every terrible memory of your own rejection. If you love a book set in the world of tech start-ups or a story about a woman determined to make her own way in the world, The Nobodies might be the perfect pick for you. 

The Nobodies
By Liza Palmer
Flatiron Books September 2019
266 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Review: Great Circle

Marian Graves is a woman accustomed to close calls. As an infant, she and her brother were rescued from a sinking ocean liner. The orphans are sent to live with their uncle, and Marian transports alcohol during Prohibition to keep food on the table. As a teenager, she drops out of school and makes a dangerous bargain to achieve her goals of learning to fly and circumnavigating the globe. 

Great Circle is a massive read, and not just in number of pages. Shipstead includes more characters and settings and plot points than most authors could fit between two covers, and she mostly succeeds in making them all cohesive. It's intentionally huge--the characters are people who want to span the globe or be remembered forever. 

Marian has known from an early age exactly what she wants to do, and she is unwilling to let anything or anyone come between her and her goal. This lack of consideration leads to problems, which are highlighted through the secondary story of Hadley Baxter, a young actress who is researching Marian as she prepares to portray her in a movie. While the women are living decades apart, both struggle with the spoken and hidden expectations of women when it comes to sex, money, power, and control over their lives. 

Shipstead is a writer who has left nothing to chance. While her novel is expansive, nothing is careless. I imagine that a second or third read would reveal connections that we all missed the first time around. Reading Great Circle means deciding to travel the world, cross centuries, and meet characters from bootleggers to WWII pilots to 21st century movie stars. It's evident that Maggie Shipstead loves her characters and you too will find that you need to know what Marian does next.

Great Circle
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf May 2021
627 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Review: Smile

Sarah Ruhl ushered three things into the world during the same year--a play that opened on Broadway and her twin babies. After spending months on bed rest and closely monitoring her pregnancy due to cholestasis of the liver, her babies were delivered safely. But the next day, her lactation consultant noticed her face was drooping and Ruhl learned that she had Bell's palsy. Then her babies are rushed to the intensive care unit. When they all finally go home, Ruhl wonders if she is living in a fairy tale--did she trade the face she didn't know to cherish for the safe delivery of her children? 

This story is both deeply personal and terribly universal. Ruhl writes about the number of women who become depressed while on bed rest, women who develop severe conditions during pregnancy or after giving birth, and the parents who anxiously wait for answers about their babies. Many parents can remember the specific exhaustion of waking up to feed a baby or the uncertainty in helping an older child navigate a changed family. Hopefully, all of us can remember the moments when someone showed up for us like they do for Ruhl--for an important achievement at work, to drive us home from the hospital, or to walk our newborn in soothing circles while we catch a few moments of sleep.

I first experienced the magic of Sarah Ruhl's words when I read some of her plays for a theatre class in college. Playwrights, by necessity, are sparse writers. There is not a lot of room for extra words when actors must keep the audience interested in what is happening onstage. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the right words and facial expressions to convey meaning, it was devastating for Ruhl to not be able to pronounce p sounds as she read to her daughter or smile to convey warmth and friendliness. "I felt inside a paradox: I thought I could not truly reenter the world until I could smile again; and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldn't reenter the world?"

Smile is indeed the story of a particular face. It's also a chronicle of a mother with an intense career and a woman who has to navigate a health care system that often fails its patients. Ruhl is funny and relatable and there are moments it seems ridiculous that she can make a story about her pain so compelling and delightful to read. I'm glad she decided to share this story with the world and hope that it will help more people discover both her prose and her plays. 

Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
Simon and Schuster October 2021
256 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Review: The King of Infinite Space

Jackson Dane has died and turned his son Benjamin's world upside down. Ben's mother has remarried, he's seeing his lost love Lia in his dreams again, he's not sure who he can count on, and no one knows what will happen to the theatre empire his father built. His best friend Horatio comes to help, and the two start to wonder if Ben's father actually committed suicide. Lia is working at the Three Sisters' Floral Boutique and starting to suspect that there may be something strange about her employers. None of them can predict what will happen at the theatre's annual gala, as they discover truths about themselves and what really happened to Jackson Dane. 

If you know your Shakespeare, you recognized right away that The King of Infinite Space is a retelling of Hamlet. Trying to bring a new spin to a beloved Shakespearean play is a tricky endeavor, but Lyndsay Faye rises to the occasion (as she usually does). Instead of just working with one play, she pulls in characters and elements from multiple Shakespearean tales. This story is imbued with all the darkness and longing of the original work, but it is still accessible to people who have never seen the play. 

The reader gets to experience multiple points of view, as readers hear from Lia (Ophelia), Benjamin, and Horatio. Each of these characters is given new depth and angles. Ben is a philosophy student who is equally charming and manic as he wonders about the purpose of life and love. Horatio, a political science professor, is an anchor and balance for Ben's swings. Lia is an artist, who is trying to decide just how much she wants to depend on her relationship with Ben. 

Lyndsay Faye writes beautifully; her descriptions both bring New York City and the New World's Stage Theatre to vivid life. You can't help but root for and care for these characters, even as they make decisions that will definitely end badly. The King of Infinite Space is a book for anyone who loves Hamlet, anyone who loves a mystery (and yes, there are twists even for those who know the play well), and for anyone who loves a good story about the tragedies and yearnings of life. 

The King of Infinite Space
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons August 2021
381 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Nonfiction Mini Reviews: It's Not Your Turn and Share Your Stuff

There are some seasons of life when it seems everyone other than you is finding success. And you? You are still waiting for that phone call, that breakthrough, or that promotion. In It's Not Your Turn, Heather Thompson Day teaches us that time spent waiting does not have to be time wasted. This author is not talking about waiting hypothetically; she shares times in her own life when she was the one waiting. 

It's hard to see what is happening in our lives with clarity because we have so much access to the curated version of everyone else's lives. God wants to change our hearts and our circumstances, but that only happens when we remove ourselves from the competition no one else knew was happening. Alongside stories from her own life, Day reminds us that not getting our breakthrough right away might just mean we aren't ready yet--we need more time or experience or insight than we have right now. Trials and waiting are good, even holy, work. 

The difficulty of writing a book like this is that it is hard to give one-size-fits-all advice on life. Some parts of this book feel like a Christian living book, while others are closer to pop psychology. In some chapters, Day urges readers to be content with the small things and then encourages them to network and expand in other chapters. But I think this book will be helpful for some people. Day does a good job of reminding us that God is still in charge and we can grow and be blessed in the process of waiting for the next breakthrough. 

It's Not Your Turn
What to Do While You're Waiting for Your Breakthrough 
By Heather Thompson Day
IVP June 2021
216 pages
Read via Netgalley 

When you are a child, friendships are easy. You walk up to the other child waiting to use the slide or hang their backpack in their cubby and ask if they want to be friends. Then you run off to play blocks together and all is well. But for grownups, it can be a bit more challenging. Laura Tremaine had moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles and was searching for real friends. She started by writing a blog and confessing the truth of her life as a new mom. Sharing online led to sharing in person, and Tremaine stumbled upon a magic formula for building relationships--ask good questions, listen well, and share your own stuff first. 

Laura Tremaine provides readers with ten questions to help their relationships go from casual to deep. She shares her own answers to those questions about who she is, what she is afraid of, what broke her, and who taught her how to be. Tremaine is very open about her own successes and struggles, and this book truly reads like a friend telling you stories about their life.

This book is part memoir and part guidebook, as Tremaine transitions to a discussion at the end of each chapter by providing readers with things to discuss with their friends. Share Your Stuff could be a valuable guide for the person looking to deepen their friendships.

Share Your Stuff. I'll Go First.
10 Questions to Take Your Friendships to the Next Level
By Laura Tremaine
Zondervan February 2021
224 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, October 18, 2021

Review: No Cure for Being Human

We live in a culture that promises that we can control our lives--we can get that dream job, lose those pesky ten pounds, and find love if we just follow certain steps. But of course, nothing is certain. Kate Bowler was 35 years old when she was told she had stage four colon cancer and just a fourteen percent chance of living for the next two years. Like the professor and scholar that she is, she set off to figure out how to live when life is precious but not guaranteed.

This is Kate's second book about her experiences with cancer (you should also read her book Everything Happens for a Reason). No Cure For Being Human focuses on her time in a clinical trial, when she got on a plane to Georgia every week to receive harsh drugs that might save her life. A large part of this narrative is Kate trying to understand what it means to be a good patient when her doctors leave her in the dark about a test result or her mother begs her to rest. 

Reading Kate Bowler's words feels like a gift each and every time because she gives us all permission to admit that we are not in control. She is brilliant, hilarious, and earnest, like when she recalls arguing with the manager of a hospital gift shop about selling books that promise she will get better. Just a few pages later, she writes about leaving the hospital and tearfully asking her dad how she will know she is living the right way in light of her limited time. 

In writing this review, I basically re-read this book and wrote down lines from every other page. This book recognizes that sometimes having faith is not enough. We need to speak out loud the reality that we are scared that we won't have enough time, that we won't accomplish everything we hoped to, that our children or friends won't know how much we loved them. While most of us are not wondering if we will see next year, the reality is that time is finite for all of us. "No matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves, we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more." If we focus on this truth instead of the catchy slogans about living our best life, will we actually see what is important? Kate Bowler (and I) think we just might. 

No Cure for Being Human
(And Other Truths I Needed to Hear)
By Kate Bowler
Random House September 2021
224 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land

Throughout time, an unlikely group of people are united by their interest in a single text: an ancient Greek tale about a shepherd named Aethon who turns into different creatures and travels to a city in the clouds. In the future, a young woman is all alone on a spaceship and painstakingly recording the tale of Aethon. In 2020, an elderly man prepares to put on a play of Aethon's adventures with a group of children, unaware of the danger waiting on the lower level of the library. And in the 15th century, a young girl finds comfort in the tale of Aethon as the city of Constantinople is under siege. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr carefully weaves these lives together to remind us all about the importance of story and how we are all connected.

Anthony Doerr found great acclaim in 2014 with his book All the Light We Cannot See. If you enjoyed that book, you will find multiple points of view, a sweeping epic, and beautiful writing in Cloud Cuckoo Land too. In fact, his newest book is even more sweeping with five storylines (plus the text about Aethon) that will take you across centuries and countries. 

As a reader, your tolerance for epics may vary. I found this book to be a very engaging read, but I also thought it was a bit long and too neatly wrapped up. Doerr is trying to say some very specific things here, but I wonder if it would have been even more powerful if there were fewer perspectives and some things were left unresolved.  

Cloud Cuckoo Land is not a casual reading experience. At almost 700 pages, a reader has to commit to this journey with these characters and trust that Doerr will carry them through it. But if you can do that, it's worthwhile to experience this love letter to stories that asks why we keep stories alive and why that matters.

Cloud Cuckoo Land
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner September 2021
656 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, February 11, 2021

How Then Shall We Live? Mini Reviews of Books About Life and Faith

D. L. Mayfield is not writing to make anyone comfortable, even herself. As she got to know her neighbors, who were mostly refugees, she realized that her belief that God rewarded people who followed the rules was not true for these people who had been through so much. In The Myth of the American Dream, she calls Christians out for confusing the work of our faith with our striving for affluence, autonomy, safety, and power. 

When she taught English to students who had recently arrived to the United States, she realized that a bag of donated clothes or a grammar worksheet would not fix the trauma and oppression that these people had experienced. Mayfield challenges her readers to look beyond these momentary transactions and ponder what it looks like to be a good neighbor, to realize that we are not flourishing when our neighbors are suffering. Our good intentions are not enough in the face of policies like redlining, gentrification, and prejudice in hiring that keep people from owning a home or earning the kind of income that we do. "Love is a concrete way of living in the world that prioritizes others, and other's people's children, over our own." The Myth of the American Dream asks us to open our eyes to more; it is a book that will convict you to rethink what you ask from God and change how you live as a good neighbor to the people around you.

The Myth of the American Dream:
Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power
By D.L Mayfield
IVP May 2020
192 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sister Helen Prejean is perhaps best known as the "Death Penalty Abolitionist Nun," especially after her bestselling book Dead Man Walking. She fights for the dignity of those in prison, and works towards a day when the government will not execute any people, regardless of their crimes. But Sister Helen was not always on fire for justice. As a young woman, she was a nun at St. Joseph Parish, where she was surrounded by other white, middle-class people in the church and the school where she teaches. Her life is generally comfortable, until she has a moment of epiphany--what would it be like to so inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus that you were willing to be ridiculed, to go to prison, to lose everything? 

Dead Man Walking is Prejean's story of protesting the death penalty, but River of Fire reveals how she got there. It gives a unique perspective on the changes within the Catholic Church during the second half of the 20th century, as well as Sister Helen's own journey from someone who focused on the spiritual to someone who focused on people who are suffering on earth. This book is easy to read because, as it turns out, nuns aren't that different from you and me. They have doubts, make mistakes, and struggle in their relationships with God and with other people.

River of Fire:
My Spiritual Journey
By Sister Helen Prejean
Random House August 2019
294 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Review: The Dearly Beloved

Charles, Lily, James, and Nan are a dynamic quartet. The two men are ministers at the Third Presbyterian Church. They approach their faith very differently, but each man balances the other at work and in life. Their wives are very different as well--Lily does not believe in God at all after the death of her parents while Nan grew up in the church and loves being a part of a congregation. The four of them must work together to guide their church and each other through the tumult and changes of the mid-20th century. 

The Dearly Beloved is a beautiful story about a lifetime of faith. It's easy to put religious people in one of two camps--either they are devout, perfect people who live quiet lives or they are hypocrites who think themselves above the virtues they espouse. Instead, these characters are real people. They have doubts and challenges, and sometimes find it difficult to interact with people who believe the same things they do. But they are people who keep trying--they show up again for their spouse, their friends, their children, and their church.

This is a life novel--there are no explosions or intrigue; instead, readers get to peek into the everyday moments of a couple having an argument, a pastor having a crisis of faith, and a mother wondering what her child will grow up to be. It's a story about truly knowing people, and walking alongside them as they go through the highs and lows of life. As someone who is married to a minister, I appreciated the kindness with which Cara Wall wrote about the oftentimes unique situations ministers and their families experience. She is a beautiful, incisive writer and I will eagerly read whatever she writes next.

The Dearly Beloved
By Cara Wall
Simon and Schuster August 2019
353 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sci-Fi Mini Reviews: Recursion and This Is How You Lose The Time War

Scientist Helena Smith believes that memories are crucial. In fact, she is working on a new technology that would allow people to preserve their most cherished memories forever. But police officer Barry Sutton sees the danger of memories, especially when he encounters a woman suffering from False Memory Syndrome. This woman remembers an entire life that no one else believes is true, and her inability to align her memories with that of the world around her drives her to suicide. Barry and Helena team up to find out how and why memories are changing. But how can they find a solution when they can't trust their own memories?

Blake Crouch is one of the most interesting writers working in science fiction today. His books consistently make me think about the limits and ethics of technology and when I finish one of his stories, I always want to discuss it with someone. What could be more human or more emotional than a book about keeping our memories? Recursion is a book for sci-fi/speculative fiction readers, mystery readers, and anyone who loves a great story. 

By Blake Crouch
Crown Publishing June 2019
324 pages
Read via Netgalley

It's just another mission, just another world laid to waste during war. But one thing is different--Agent Red finds a letter among the ashes that tells her to burn it before reading. Blue and Red, on opposite sides of the battlefield, find themselves embarking on an unlikely correspondence. Each is committed to victory for their own side. But as they write to each other, it's unclear which is more dangerous--that their correspondence will be discovered and they will be executed as traitors, or that their relationship will grow beyond the confines of a letter. 

This Is How You Lose The Time War was one of the most heralded sci-fi stories of 2019, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Each author writes from the vantage of one character: Blue, whose world is one of forests and bacteria, and Red, who fights for a world of clockwork devices and bombs. Their relationship begins as a gleeful taunt, a way to proclaim victory over a worthy opponent. But the two agents begin to care for each other, knowing they cannot win the war and save the one they love. My complaint is that we get so little time with these characters before we jump to the other side, another perspective, another country, another strand in time. There is no question that this book is an impressive feat but the problem is always time--I wanted more time to spend with Red and Blue and see how their relationship grew and where they went next. 

This Is How You Lose The Time War
By Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Saga Press July 2019
209 pages
Read via Netgalley 

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