Monday, April 12, 2021

The Syrena Legacy Series by Anna Banks

When Emma literally stumbles into a violet-eyed stranger on the boardwalk of a Florida beach, it's definitely not love at first sight, more like humiliation at first sight.  The encounter is quickly forgotten, though, when Emma's beach trip ends in tragedy.  That is, until the handsome stranger shows up again in her New Jersey high school classroom.  

Galen is a Triton royal given leave to live life on land and be a Syrena ambassador to humans.  When he spots Emma using a gift that has disappeared from among his people, he can't believe it, and he really can't believe she doesn't know she even has the gift.  Determined to find out her secret, he follows her home, but he has to admit that it's not the importance of Emma's gift to his people that attracts him to her.

Unbelievable hijinks ensue as Emma and Galen's relationship blossoms from suspicion to love.  Soon Emma is exploring a world she never knew existed and is suddenly plunged into the dramas of mermaid-kind that strike even closer to home than she could ever have imagined.  

When I'm looking for something a little lightweight and fast reading to enjoy, YA romance is what I

reach for.  The premise of Of Poseidon is a little absurd, but Banks sells it and I couldn't pull myself away from Emma and Galen and their star-crossed romance.  The main character's irritating penchant for childish verbal ticks ("ohmysweetgoodness" or "fan-flipping-tastic") tested my patience, but the fast moving plot saved me from putting this down.  The second book, Of Triton, is arguably the better of the two with Emma maturing into her new life and Galen's chapters revealing more of the Syrena world.  

The second book has a satisfying conclusion, while the third, Of Neptune, shoots off in a new direction, a direction with an overprotective love interest and the beginnings of what looked to be an irritating love triangle, not to mention the return of "ohmysweetgoodness."  I decided within 60 pages that while Banks wrote a trilogy, I was happy to leave this series a duology.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

On the afternoon of her daughter Ruby's high school graduation, Flora Mancini, while hunting for an old family photo, stumbles across a lost wedding ring, a ring that was supposed to have been lost and forgotten at the bottom of a pond for years, but somehow has reappeared.  The discovery of the ring throws Flora's life into turmoil and casts her history with her husband, Julian, into doubt.  Flora always thought she and Julian were the real thing, now she's not so sure.  Over the course of the book, Sweeney weaves the present with the past of Flora and Julian and their friends Margot and David, creating a rich drama of family and relationships that comes to a reckoning at the very place where the photo that lead Flora to the ring was taken. 

Poor Good Company seems to be having a rough go of it in Goodreads reviews.  People seem to think it doesn't live up Sweeney's smash hit debut, The Nest.  Lucky for Good Company, I suck at reading books, so I haven't even read the much-acclaimed The Nest, so Good Company gets to stand on its own merits.  And it has them!  Frankly, the way that the plot unfolded, acquainting readers with the characters and the histories by spending time with each character reminded me a bit of Maggie O'Farrell's style, which I love.  I love a story with layers that slowly pulls them off until the characters and their stories feel real, and I long for their redemption as much as they do. I love the slow burn of this style, and I love the payoff, the moment of redemption or the moment when that redemption at least seems possible.  I think Good Company accomplishes that without making things that are hard seem too easy.  

In addition to what Sweeney does with her characters, I appreciated her talent for setting the scenes.  The book takes place primarily in three places - California, where Flora and Julian are finally both making a good living after years as struggling theater actors; New York City, where both characters got their start in the theater; and Stoneham, an idyllic upstate New York farm that hosts a yearly outdoor, avant-garde theater production.  Sweeney captures the languor of a countryside summer interrupted by the excitement of a theater production.  She brings to life a California that was meant to be a temporary stop for Flora and Julia, but a sun-washed spot where they made a home.  New York and the theater scene is arguably the most well-drawn, and Sweeney captures the excitement of the theater people with big ideas trying to make them work and eke out a living, the scraping and struggling for roles, the living in a miniscule apartment, but also the magic of when it all just works.  

I enjoyed Sweeney's sophomore effort, and if it is, indeed, the lesser of her two novels, then I imagine I'll quite love The Nest!  

(Disclaimer: Review copy received from the publisher via NetGalley, but as ever, all bookish opinions are rendered honestly.) 

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I'm a total sucker for World War II historical fiction, so when the publisher offered me a Netgalley of The Paris Library, it was a no brainer.

We meet Odile Souchet in two stages of life, first in 1939 in Paris, where she has just accepted her dream job at the the American Library in Paris and again in 1980s Montana where a lonely girl named Lily wonders what brought her unusual neighbor to her tiny country town all the way from France.  Young Odile is emotional and impetuous and entirely unprepared for the years of war and occupation that soon overtake her beloved Paris.  Even as she clings to normalcy at the library, where she befriends a rich and quirky cast of characters, her world is changing.  Determined to keep providing books to soldiers and Parisians alike, the staff of the library bands together to stay open, daring even to deliver books to their Jewish subscribers who have been ordered by the occupying Nazis not to enter.

As the war wears on, Odile finds that she doesn't know anyone as well as she thought she did, including herself.  Slowly Odile's eyes are opened to the cold realities of the wartime world even as her blinders to her own privilege fall away.  Unfortunately, when stubborn, outspoken Odile, causes irreparable harm with just a few thoughtless words, her life takes on an unexpected trajectory.

In more modern day Montana, Lily endures a tragedy at home and takes refuge in her newfound friendship with the town's outsider, Odile.  Together the two will finish the learning the same lessons that Odile began to learn in wartime Paris.  Together they'll learn the power of forgiveness and what it means to truly put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Admittedly, I've been a little tired of the dual narrative historical fiction with a modern day perspective thrown in, but I warmed to it over the course of the book.  What's remarkable about this plot device in The Paris Library is that the modern day perspective really pulls its own weight and doesn't become an interlude to hurry away from to get back to the historical story.  Lily is an honest, genuine character and her budding friendship with and curiosity about Odile provides a generous framework for the historical story.

Charles beautifully brings to life her Paris Library characters who are based on the real people who heroically kept the library open through the years of the occupation.  She excellently captures their comradery and the magic of the place Odile loves so much.  Odile herself is a bewilderingly naive character that it took me a little work to like, but as the story proceeds, her coming of age, while slow, is ultimately believable.

 The Paris Library should satisfy World War II fiction lovers and book lovers alike.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Reviewlettes: Unpopular Opinions

So, one of the things 2020 has brought me unusually high number of books read.  Since I am a garbage blogger but still a blogger in my heart, I feel compelled to comment on all the books I read on the internet before I give them away.  This ends pretty poorly for me considering I reviewed all of maybe five books in 2020, so I'm pretty much just floating around on a wave of books I'm never likely to get around to reviewing.  By way of assuaging my guilt and perhaps letting a few books get out the door and on to their next adventure: reviewlettes!

I read The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue with unfairly high expectations since I count his The Stolen Child among my very favorite books.  Unfortunately, it did disappoint.  It tells the story of Jack Peter and his parents.  Jack Peter is on the spectrum and draws monsters that somehow manifest into real life.  Unsure about how to handle an increasingly violent Jack Peter who refuses to leave the house, his put-upon parents and best friend, Nick, are now harassed by all manner of things that go bump in the night.  It's eerie, and it has an interesting twist, but the characters often felt strange and wooden.  A subplot about a shipwreck seemed unnecessary and odd word choices kept jolting me out of the story.  All in all, the book felt like it was trying very hard to accomplish something, but the something is uncertain and the pieces just never quite added up.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
 by Kim Michele Richardson was a book club selection, and for once, I have the unpopular opinion on it.  Most of my book group loved it, but I was underwhelmed.  The Book Woman tells the story of Cussy Mary, a packhorse librarian in Kentucky during the Great Depression and also the last of the blue people of Kentucky, marked out as different by the strange blue hue of their skin.  This story had a lot of potential, and Cussy Mary is definitely a lovable character, but the story felt too shallow, electing to cover a fantastic range of topics instead of digging deep into one or two.  If it had only been about packhorse librarians and blue people, it might have been more satisfying  Instead it covered profound poverty, racism, educational failures, union sentiment, medical experimentation, unexpected love, being true to yourself, and more.  The book is riddled with tragedy, but I didn't know the characters well enough to be affected by it.  Richardson clearly did a lot of research into this time and place and the people who lived there and then.  Unfortunately, it felt like she was so attached to all of the research that nothing was left out and the book felt stretched thin.  Nonetheless, this book is well-loved, so I might just be the odd one out on this one.

is the first book I've ready by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and.....I didn't really like it.  Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, a couple in Nigeria whose happily ever after is dismantled when the two have very different immigration experiences, Ifemelu to the United States and Obinze, illegally, to the UK.  As Ifemelu plans her return to Nigeria and imagines being reunited with Obinze, the story unpacks their histories.  I think this book is Important with a capital I, but as storytelling goes, it fell flat.  I appreciated the many insights into our ingrained white American biases presented within the framework of Ifemelu's blog and experience.  Much of this was very eye opening.  I appreciated, objectively, the high quality of the writing.  My biggest problem with the book may have been that I just didn't like Ifemelu.  Her social circles in the U.S., both white and black, were irritatingly pretentious.  Her self-destructive tendencies were aggravating.  I grew weary of the story not seeming so much a story as a message I was supposed to be getting.  I think there's a good non-fiction book hiding in this fictional narrative, and I wish that had been the focus.  I look forward to reading other books by this author, but this one didn't quite work for me.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Switch by Beth O'Leary

On my short list of good things about 2020 (it's a very short list), I'd have to say audiobooks would rank pretty high.  Audiobooks are kind of a recent thing for me.  I always thought they felt a little bit "cheaty" as reading goes, plus, I just don't seem to absorb things as well when I listen to them as when I read them, so I always figured a good story would be lost on me if I listened to it.  While they'll never replace my love of the written word, I've really appreciated listening to stories this year.  When you're living alone through a pandemic, it's kind of nice to hear another voice.  It's even nicer when the other voice is reading you an absorbing story.  

I snagged a "listen now" copy of The Switch by Beth O'Leary from NetGalley.  I tend to try to make my audio listening a little lighter weight than my reading because I truly do have the attention span of a flea when listening, particularly when multitasking, which audiobooks were pretty much made for multitasking, no?  Anyhow, The Switch totally fit the bill for me.

Leena Cotton is at a loss when she has a breakdown at a work meeting and is forced to take a 2 month sabbatical.  (Seriously, though, why can't this happen to me?)  Having recently lost her sister to cancer and become alienated from her mother in the process, she can't fathom what she will do with two months where she can't lose herself in work.  Meanwhile, Leena's grandmother, Eileen, has been left by her philandering husband at the age of 79.  She'd love to get back out there and meet a new man, but the dating pool in her small Yorkshire village is, well, puddle-sized.  

When Leena discovers her grandmother's list of eligible bachelors in the village, all of whom have been found wanting, she decides her grandmother should try online dating.  Unfortunately, the online dating landscape has little to offer.  That is, unless Eileen goes to London.  An idea is born, and suddenly Leena and Eileen are swapping lives.  Leena will take over her grandmother's spot on the neighborhood watch committee and handle all of her projects, like planning the May Day festival, while Eileen will try out London life, moving into Leena's flat with Leena's roommates Fitz and Martha.

In alternating point of views, narrated perfectly by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Allison Steadman, the two women navigate the unknown, carving out places for themselves in their new surroundings. Each finds her new life challenging but rewarding, and each brings a little of herself to her new situation and leaves the lives of those around her better for it.  Leena finds herself falling for a handsome country schoolteacher while Eileen has a fling with a West End theater actor only to find that maybe she's looking for love in the wrong place after all.  

The book is filled with quirky, lovable, believable supporting characters, and the two Cotton women are admirable main characters.  While definitely part of the romance genre, The Switch goes deeper to explore the need for genuine human connection among friends and even among strangers while also exploring themes of healing after loss.  The Switch is a a lighthearted but by no means fluffy feel-good novel.  

Highly recommended, especially on audio!