9.10.2019

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (ARC Review)


After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
Publisher: William Morrow (September 3, 2019)
Description from the publisher:
A little more than a century from now, our world has been utterly transformed. After years of slowly overtaking the continent, rising floodwaters have obliterated America’s great coastal cities and then its heartland, leaving nothing but an archipelago of mountaintop colonies surrounded by a deep expanse of open water.
Stubbornly independent Myra and her precocious seven-year-old daughter, Pearl, fish from their small boat, the Bird, visiting dry land only to trade for supplies and information in the few remaining outposts of civilization. For seven years, Myra has grieved the loss of her oldest daughter, Row, who was stolen by her father after a monstrous deluge overtook their home in Nebraska. Then, in a violent confrontation with a stranger, Myra suddenly discovers that Row was last seen in a far-off encampment near the Artic Circle. Throwing aside her usual caution, Myra and Pearl embark on a perilous voyage into the icy northern seas, hoping against hope that Row will still be there.
On their journey, Myra and Pearl join forces with a larger ship and Myra finds herself bonding with her fellow seekers who hope to build a safe haven together in this dangerous new world. But secrets, lust, and betrayals threaten their dream, and after their fortunes take a shocking—and bloody—turn, Myra can no longer ignore the question of whether saving Row is worth endangering Pearl and her fellow travelers.

Holy moly, was this story compelling! I haven't read a post apocalyptic novel in a long time as I have found that since becoming a mother, it's harder for me to enjoy dystopian books. This could perhaps have to do with the fact that I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy when my firstborn was just a few months old and I WILL NEVER FORGET THAT EXPERIENCE - not in a good way. Despite the fact that After the Flood stares my worst fears of motherhood straight in the eye, Montag's novel has a much more action packed, empowering and, ultimately, hopeful feel than the bleakness and horror that is The Road. 
Certainly, there are some harrowing moments as Myra navigates this world of violence, child slaves, pirates, gangs and the concept of breeding ships (shudder). But I felt as if these details illustrated the desperate circumstances of this new world, while also propelling the plot forward. It's impossible to imagine putting myself in her shoes and think of what I might do to survive, to protect my children. And yet Montag's beautiful writing (unsurprisingly, she is an award winning poet) resonates so strongly that I absolutely felt connected to Myra and understood her motivations. I dogeared so. many. pages. Here are a few choice quotes.

"Children think we make them, but we don't. They exist somewhere else, before us, before time. They come into the world and make us. They make us by breaking us first."

"I knew it was sometimes easier to love ghosts than the people who were around you. Ghosts could be perfect, frozen beyond time, beyond reality, the crystal form they'd never been before, good moments to surface in my memory."

"'I keep thinking grief feels like climbing a staircase while looking down,' she said. 'You won't forget where you've been, but you've got to keep rising. It all gets farther away, but it's all still there. And you've only got one way to go and you don't really want to go on rising, but you've got to. And that tightness in your chest doesn't go away, but you somehow go on breathing that thinner, higher air. It's like you grow a third lung. Like you've somehow gotten bigger when you thought you were only broken.'"

I was rooting for Myra and those aboard her ship so fiercely that I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to learn their fate, and my heart was in my throat for the last fifty pages that were filled with battles, sacrifices, and surprises I didn't see coming. This was a highly satisfying read on all fronts: fast paced and compelling plot, complex and ever changing character dynamics, beautiful writing, and themes on love and hope that will stick with me for a long time. It will definitely go on my list of favorites for the year.
Many, many thanks to William Morrow for the gifted copy!


9.04.2019

Books I Read in August

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Kinsley
This was my first Kinsley graphic novel, but will definitely not be my last! This was such a heartwarming, funny, sweet and drool-worthy account of her coming of age through art and food. I especially loved reading about her time in the Chicago foodie scene, obviously.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
I didn't realize going into this novel that it is straight up Harry Styles fan fiction. I mean, I find him to be pretty darn attractive, don't get me wrong - but, I thought that this was just okay. It was a fun concept of an older woman dating a man nearly half her age, who happens to be the lead singer of her daughter's favorite boy band. There were a lot of cultural themes to analyze. One of the main ones is how we probably wouldn't bat an eye if the gender roles were reversed. But it felt repetitive, leaned heavily on steamy scenes and just sort of fizzled out at the end.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
This was a solid and creepy thriller. Full review here.

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand
There have been pretty mixed reviews on Elin's latest summer novel. I can see how some of the Levin sisters (who's POV we get with each chapter) might be harder to connect with, but I still thoroughly enjoyed her first take on historical fiction. Indeed, from the vantage point of the year 2019, the mindset and choices that some of these women make exactly 50 years in the past seem hard to grasp. But I flew through this story just like all of her other books, and Jessie's account of the summer, as a newly minted 13 year old and all of the big feelings that come with the territory, captured my heart - as did Elin's acknowledgments that included the story of her and her twin brother's birth in the summer of 1969.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This was a novel that touched upon the global immigrant crisis, but I had mixed feelings about it - full review here

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary
What a surprise this novel was! I went into it thinking I was in for a light romance with a cute concept: two people who share a flat with opposite working hours and never cross paths, except for the clues and post it's they leave in their wake. O'Leary deftly wove in some heavier themes about toxic relationships and how they affect victims and their families, giving this a little more heft. The tone is still upbeat and it is still a very sweet romance - highly recommend.


Books I Read in July

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
I listened to this on audio and it was FANTASTIC. At first the lilting Appalachian voice the narrator utilizes took me a little getting used to, but it is used to great effect. This story of a young violinist who finds herself part of a professional ensemble that ends up being a sham (Milli-Violini!), exceeded all my expectations. I thought I was getting into an expose on a well known composer and her descent into this scam, and it ends up being just the backdrop to this woman's absolutely fascinating and inspiring wit and worldliness. From her upbringing in rural West Virginia, to college at Columbia, to her study abroad in Egypt during 9/11 and crisscrossing the country with her ensemble, she uses all of her experiences to make so many profound observations about life and culture. Definitely a favorite book of the year!

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
This graphic novel was in my daughters library haul and I remembered hearing good things, so I gave it a read and thoroughly enjoyed it - as did my son and husband. At first I was a little confused, as it starts off as guidebook that gets cut off mid sentence and delves into the illustrated panels. Then I realized that each chapter begins with a little bit of what would be the Lumberjanes guidebook (very similar to any scouts guide) and goes into a hilarious corresponding story. I got a major Gravity Falls vibe from the stories, which is a good thing - fantastical and earthy, all in one.  I also love that there are a few LGBTQ lead characters but that their stories are not driven by their sexual orientation, it’s just one part of their who they are. Bravo!

Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
Didn't love this one - full review here.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
I was looking for something light and fun to read, but not necessarily beach-y since we were NOT having beachy weather at the time. Caraval fit the bill PERFECTLY. Even though it gets quite a bit cheesy in parts, I really enjoyed this fun, adventurous, atmospheric fantasy novel. FYI, it is definitely not in The Night Circus wheelhouse, as described by some. It felt reminiscent of reading The Selection series by Kiera Cass - not similar stories, but that addictive brain candy feeling - I will probably read the next two!

Endling The Last by Katherine Applegate
This was my read aloud with my daughter this month and it was more in HER wheelhouse than mine! She loves stories about animals, dragons, fantasy, etc. and that's not where my interests lie - even when I was a kid. Alas, this was a cute concept of a world ruled by several mythical creatures and due to some dastardly evil plans, our heroine (a dog like creature called a Dairne) believes herself to be the last of her kind. She makes all sorts of friends and has many exciting adventures trying to find her place in the world and perhaps more of her kind. My daughter enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the fact that I thought it a little heavy on confusing political intrigue for kids and we've begun reading the sequel. 

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Friends have been recommending Ruth Reichl's work for years, and now I am finally realizing how wonderful her writing is! Yes her descriptions of food were fantastic, but this one about her time at Gourmet magazine was particularly fascinating and juicy, learning about the publishing world. 

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
I really enjoyed this one! Full review here.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
Pilcher's books are so reliably wonderful and heartwarming. I was a little dubious about starting a 900+ page book over the summer - it doesn't scream fast and breezy. But her writing and storytelling just flows so effortlessly and I breezed through this quintessential and epic coming of age story that spans the time before, during and after WWII. Judith Dunbar will go down as one of my all time favorite characters - a must read.

8.27.2019

The Beekeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (ARC Review)

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Publisher: Ballantine Books (August 27, 2019)
Description from the publisher: 
Nuri is a beekeeper and Afra, his wife, is an artist. Mornings, Nuri rises early to hear the call to prayer before driving to his hives in the countryside. On weekends, Afra sells her colorful landscape paintings at the open-air market. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the hills of the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo—until the unthinkable happens. When all they love is destroyed by war, Nuri knows they have no choice except to leave their home. But escaping Syria will be no easy task: Afra has lost her sight, leaving Nuri to navigate her grief as well as a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece toward an uncertain future in Britain.
Nuri is sustained only by the knowledge that waiting for them is his cousin Mustafa, who has started an apiary in Yorkshire and is teaching fellow refugees beekeeping. As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss but dangers that would overwhelm even the bravest souls. Above all, they must make the difficult journey back to each other, a path once so familiar yet rendered foreign by the heartache of displacement.

This novel delves into timely and important subjects with great heart. Lefteri spent several years working in Greece as a UNICEF volunteer, helping refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Her empathy and passion for their cause is more than evident in her writing, which essentially felt like an amalgamous character study of those she most certainly encountered in her work. Perhaps that's where I felt a little disconnected from this book, as it was hard for me to feel an urgency to pick it up without a good deal of narrative drive. The book begins where Nuri and Aftra end up, so there isn't a question if they will make it to their ultimate destination. There is also a sort of plot twist that is not at all a surprise, and I'm not sure if it was meant to be, or if it was to illustrate the state of Nuri's PTSD. The illustrative imagery and symbolism of the bees, flight, and our dream life versus reality was lovely, as was the push and pull of husband and wife finding their way back to each other after immense loss.
"I realize I have forgotten to love her. Here is her body, here are the lines on her face, here is the feel of her skin, here is the wound across her cheek that leads into her, like a road, all the way to her heart. These are the roads we take."
In the end I would say that stories of refugees are something we could use more of, not less, and I respect Lefteri for putting this work into the world. Increasing awareness, creating empathy for those that happen to be born into a different life, or a life that could just as easily become ours is so vital these days. I honestly think it would have been a more impactful read had it been written by someone of Syrian descent or had been a nonfiction account. Since I've already started looking for some recommendations, I think that this book had an impact on me, regardless. So far the recs I've seen are: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe, We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled by Wendy Pearlman, and The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar.
Thank you so much to the folks at Penguin Random House/Ballantine for a complimentary advance copy!


8.20.2019

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (ARC Review)

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Publisher: Atria Books (August 13, 2019)
Description from the publisher:
In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

Gothic novels are not usually my jam, but the buzz around The Doll Factory had me intrigued. I'm glad I gave it a chance, as I breezed through this oh so creepy and thrilling story.
Macneal's highly atmospheric Victorian era London leaps from the page, no question. But what I most appreciated about this novel was the richly layered characters, some becoming more empathetic and others becoming more and more sinister as the plot thickens. Silas is a villain that I won't soon forget, and felt reminiscent in many ways of Joe from Caroline Kepnes' You. But, unlike the aforementioned You, the object of obsession in The Doll Factory is given a complex personality. I felt a great deal of empathy for Iris, and the intricacies of her relationship with her sister, with Louis and with the requisite street urchin with a heart of gold, Albie - who also has a much more robust inner life than a typical Victorian scamp.
There is also a clear theme on feminism and the plight of an unmarried young woman that felt like a fresh take on historical fiction from this time period.
“she has been careful not to encourage men, but not to slight them either, always a little fearful of them. She is seen as an object to be gazed at or touched at leisure … something for which she should be grateful. She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make the men feel snubbed.”
This novel has a little something for everyone: multi dimensional characters, rich atmosphere, historical fiction, mystery, thrills, suspense, with a little horror thrown in (taxidermy description is not for the faint of heart). My only reservation would be for a reader that wants to be invested in romance. Yes there is a love story, but I did not feel invested in it, and I thought Iris could do better. 
Many thanks to Atria books for the complimentary review copy!


7.25.2019

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center (NetGalley Review)


Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (August 13, 2019)
Description from the publisher: 
Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she's seen her fair share of them, and she's a total pro at other people's tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to give up her whole life and move to Boston, Cassie suddenly has an emergency of her own.
The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie's old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren't exactly thrilled to have a "lady" on the crew―even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the infatuation-inspiring rookie, who doesn't seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can't think about that. Because love is girly, and it’s not her thing. And don’t forget the advice her old captain gave her: Never date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping...and it means risking it all―the only job she’s ever loved, and the hero she’s worked like hell to become.

I quite enjoyed How to Walk Away last summer by Katherine Center, and was excited to read her latest this summer! Things You Save in a Fire did not disappoint, it lived up to it's predecessor and in some ways exceeded my expectations.
From the first pages I was drawn in by Cassie's inner monologue, and the witty dialogue she dishes out with her fellow firefighters. She is immediately likeable as the hero of this story: fierce, strong, hard working, yet so very vulnerable. The reason she has to leave Texas goes beyond her ailing mother, and makes for a dramatic opening scene in the book which hints at something that has shaped her entire adult life. That the process of confronting her trauma didn't hinge entirely on a romance was absolutely refreshing. Though, I absolutely adored the sweet and slightly cheesy romance with the rookie! If you are looking for a sweet romance, you will be completely satisfied! And if you also enjoy complex family relationships, there is definitely something there, too. The journey of forgiveness and understanding with her mother, as well as a mysterious harasser within the fire department, was so compelling and thought provoking.
"Maybe you need to find something new to add to your life, instead of just clutching so hard to the past that you strangle it."
Upon reading the acknowledgements, I realized that Katherine Center's husband is a firefighter and thought that was pretty cool. She must've had the absolute straight scoop and it was certainly interesting to learn a little bit about what it might be like inside a fire station. Also, if you read How to Walk Away, you might recognize Cassie from the early part of the book!
Thank you so much to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review - as well as my local Seattle bookstagrammer community for the hard copy from our book swap!

7.18.2019

Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty


Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
Publisher: Harper Books (July 23, 2019)
Description from the publisher:
Twenty years ago, Abigail Sorenson’s brother Robert went missing one day before her sixteenth birthday, never to be seen again. That same year, she began receiving scattered chapters in the mail of a self-help manual, the Guidebook, whose anonymous author promised to make her life soar to heights beyond her wildest dreams.
The Guidebook’s missives have remained a constant in Abi’s life—a befuddling yet oddly comforting voice through her family’s grief over her brother’s disappearance, a move across continents, the devastating dissolution of her marriage, and the new beginning as a single mother and cafĂ© owner in Sydney.
Now, two decades after receiving those first pages, Abi is invited to an all-expenses paid weekend retreat to learn “the truth” about the Guidebook. It’s an opportunity too intriguing to refuse. If Everything is Connected, then surely the twin mysteries of the Guidebook and a missing brother must be linked?
What follows is completely the opposite of what Abi expected––but it will lead her on a journey of discovery that will change her life––and enchant readers. Gravity Is the Thing is a smart, unusual, wickedly funny novel about the search for happiness that will break your heart into a million pieces and put it back together, bigger and better than before.

This was one of those odd books that was not at all my kind of read for about 90 percent of the pages, and I adored the last 10 percent. I am a big supporter of DNF'ing (did not finish) books that I don't enjoy, but sometimes there's a mystery that I want to get to the bottom of and I just keep going. The mystery in Gravity is the Thing is indeed solved, and with a magnificent sucker punch ending that completely changed my thoughts on this novel in the final few pages. So, I'm having a bit of conundrum on my overall opinion...
First, here's what didn't work for me. The story is told in a dual timeline, present day with revealing glimpses to the past that slowly reveal how Abi came be a single mother. Normally I really love a dual timeline, yet the structure of the past timeline utilizes Abigail's yearly 'reflections' (her responses to each year of chapters she receives from The Guidebook) which are written in  'stream of consciousness' style. She learned this particular technique during a class she took with her long lost brother, so it makes sense to employ, yet it is all over the place and just didn't flow. The present day sections are not much improved, even setting aside the absurd plot device that brings her together with her current love interest. The storylines seem disjointed and I felt as if so much could have been eliminated to improve the pacing. Whole sections are dedicated to Abigail reading several different self-help books and applying their advice in her everyday life. These were cute asides, but had nothing to do with the plot or character development and felt tedious. I would have liked more development with her love interests, of which I didn't feel terribly invested. 
What DID work for me, however, was the writing - there were some absolutely lovely and astute passages amid what felt like ramblings. And, the plot threads that Moriarty pulls together in the end to solve the mystery of Abigail's missing brother, are so well done. The reveal was so poignant and it just broke my heart. In the end, the absurdness of The Guidebook, and the gathering of characters who received the chapters, was needed to deliver said ending. I just think she could have drawn straighter lines to get there. Overall I wouldn't give this a hearty endorsement, because it took too much work to get to the resolution. I'd recommend this for readers who might enjoy stream of consciousness philosophical musings on self help.
Many thanks to Harper Books for a complimentary copy for review!