That Inevitable Victorian Thing

by E. K. Johnston
First sentence: “Helena Marcus had not given much though to her marriage.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+ section of the bookstore).

In the world of this book, the British Empire has taken over the world (mostly, except for the States, which has basically dissolved into ruin), and the way marriages are made are done by entering genetic codes into the computer. (At least, that’s the way I understood it.) There’s room for love matches, but mostly the society wants the best genetic diversity, so most people match through the genetic system. I was never really able to pinpoint time — the girls were still “debuting” into society, there were corsets and balls, but there was also an internet-like thing, airplanes, trains and cars. It was a weird mashup of historical and futuristic.

There are three characters — Helena, who’s basically promised to August, the son of some sort of shipping mangnate, and Margaret, who’s the crown princess, but she’s in disguise. It’s set in Canada, whichi is nice… but nothing really happens. I read about 2/3 of this, and got frustrated with the lack of things happening — I think she was going for an Austen-like feel, but it just wasn’t doing it for me — and then skipped to the end. I’m not sure I missed much.

I liked the idea of this, but the execution just fell short.

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Audiobook: The Reckless Oath We Made

by Bryn Greenwood
Read by Alex McKenna, Kirby Heyborne, and a full cast
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some drug use and drinking, and one tasteful sex scene. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Zee hasn’t had the best life: her mother is a hoarder, a habit only made worse by her father being sent to prison for a robbery gone wrong when Zee was eight. For most of her 26 years, it’s been her and her sister against the world. And Zee — whether by waiting tables or by running marijuana from Colorado for the wrong sort of people — is going to make it work. Somehow.

But then, she meets Gentry. An autistic man who speaks in Middle English and abides by a Code of Chivalry who was told by one of his voices — the witch — that he is to be Zee’s Champion. It doesn’t make much sense to Zee, but when her sister is kidnapped from the El Dorado prison during an outbreak, Gentry is the only person Zee can turn to.

From there starts a heartbreakingly sweet and tender story of the love that grows between Zee and Gentry. But it’s more than a love story (which it is, at its heart), it’s a story of trust and family and forgiveness. The audio is wonderfully done; I loved both of the main narrators — Zee and Gentry — but also all the side characters that got chapters in this wild, compelling story. And yes, the ending made me cry. There was so much heart and acceptance and love in this book that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters. Maybe it was an “I wouldn’t have liked it if I had read it” book (the audio really is excellent), but I think it’s just a really good story. Or at least my kind of good story.

The Peacock Emporium

by Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “It was the third time in a week that the air-conditioning had gone out at the Hospital de Clinicas, and the heat was so heavy that the nurses had taken to holding battery-operated plastic fans over the intensive-care patients in an effort to keep them cool.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including f-bombs, and some talk of sex. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this is kind of hard to describe. It’s a mother-daughter story — Suzanna has always lived with the shadow of her mother’s flighty-ness; she left Suzanna’s dad and ran off with a salesman, and then died shortly thereafter. And it’s about class — because of her mother, and long memories of the town, Suzanna’s always felt like an outsider in her privileged English family. It’s about relationships and choices: Suzanna’s husband, Nick, has been on her case to have a baby, which she’s not happy about. It’s about friendship: Opening up her “Peacock Emporium” in the small town where she grew up, Suzanna makes a good friend in Jessie, and discovers what it Means To Live. And it’s about new love: Argentinian Alejandro moves to town and Suzanna realizes that maybe she’s been with the wrong man for 10 years.

I didn’t dislike it; I finished it, after all. And Moyes is a good writer. This one kept jumping back and forth in time, which made it kind of difficult to tell ages and time periods, but I didn’t mind it all too much. I didn’t love it, though. I guess nothing happened for most of the book, and then everything came down in the last 100 pages and maybe it felt rushed? I’m not entirely sure. I read this in bits and pieces over several months, which also may have contributed to me not really getting into the book.

Or maybe it’s just that adult fiction, sometimes, just doesn’t do things as well as it could. Not the best book out there, but not the worst either.

Hope and Other Punch Lines

by Julie Buxbaum
First sentence: “Tuesday, the least descriptive day of the week.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of teenagers drinking and hooking up, but none actual. There are two f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Abbi Hope Goldstein has a terrible claim to fame: On 9/11, a photographer snapped a picture of her, at age 1, being rescued by a worker from the Twin Towers, running away from the destruction. She was named “Baby Hope” by the media, and her picture splashed across the country as a sign of hope and reliance. Which meant, over her seventeen years of living, she’s had a lot of awkward encounters. Mostly, though, this summer — especially as she’s developed a worrisome cough that’s probably linked to the 9/11 attacks — she just wants to be a normal teenager.

Except there’s Noah: his dad died in 9/11 (they’re both from New Jersey), and Noah’s mom — though remarried now — has always been reluctant to talk about his dad. This summer, though, Noah wants to get answers from what he’s always suspected: his dad was in the background of the Baby Hope picture, and he wants to know what happened. And so when he runs into Abbi at a summer camp they’re both working at, he thinks it’s Fate and goads her into helping him contact all the people in the photo.

It sounds like a lot, and in some ways it’s a heavy book. It deals with loss and survivors guilt and grief — and not just the overarching 9/11 loss; there’s also loss of friendships, as Abbi has dealt with the dissolution of her friendship with her former best friend (nothing malicious; they just grew apart). But, in many ways, this is a typical teen romance. Noah is sweet and dorky and charming (and who doesn’t love a lovable guy in a teen romance) and his best friend, Jack, is the best. Abbi’s problems don’t seem too heavy; she is dealing with a lot but Buxbaum doesn’t ever let that control the narrative.

It was definitely a charming read, one with depth and heart.

Audio book: Three Sides of a Heart

Stories about Love Triangles
Edited by Natalie C. Parker
Read by Almarie Guerra, Bahni Turpin, James Fouhey, and Lulu Lam
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are some stories with f-bombs, and some talk of sex and drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The idea behind this short story collection was “love triangles”, but as Natalie Parker mentions in her introduction, that was interpreted in many different ways. Many of the stories were standard two boys one girl or two girls one boy, but I think I liked the unusual ones best. I only skipped two: “Work in Progress” by E. K. Johnston and “The Historian, the Garrison, and the Cantankerous Cat Woman” by Lamar Giles. I don’t know if it was the story or the audio narration, but I found myself tuning out and so I just skipped them. As for the rest, my favorites were Parker’s story “Cass, An, and Dra” which not only played with Cassandra as as seer, but had a lesbian couple and a gender fluid person as the love triangle. I also really enjoyed Brandy Colbert’s “Hurdles” because the character is making a difficult choice between two good things and Colbert ends the story with the choice unmade. I also thought Brenna Yovanoff’s story, “Vega” was clever: it was between a girl, a boy, and the city of Las Vegas, which is an interesting look at a love triangle.

The collection was uneven, but to be honest, that’s the way I often feel about short story collections. I thought the idea behind the collection was an interesting one — definitely good for summer! — and I enjoyed where some of the authors went with it.

Evvie Drake Starts Over

by Linda Holmes
First sentence: “Go now, or you’ll never go, Evvie warned herself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 25, 2019
Content: There is some talk of sex, and a handful of f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Evvvie (as in Chevy) Drake was unhappy in her marriage. She’d been with her high school sweetheart for nearly half her life, and it had gotten to the point where she couldn’t take his emotional abuse anymore. Except on the day that she decided to leave, he was killed in a car accident. No one ever knew about her decision.

Fast forward two years, and she hasn’t been able to get out from under her dead husband’s shadow. He was a beloved doctor in town, and since no one ever knew about the abuse, his memory is perfect. Which leaves Evvie wondering what that made her for wanting to get away. Enter Dean, a friend of Evvie’s best friend, Andy, who’s suffering from the “yips”: once a major league pitcher, he can’t throw a game anymore. He moves into the apartment in Evvie’s huge house, and the two of them set about figuring out each other. And maybe — just maybe — healing in the process.

Oh this was a delight. Seriously. Even if you don’t listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour (why don’t you?), there is reason to pick this up. It’s sweet and charming, with just enough depth to keep it grounded and from being too saccharine. I adored all the characters, from Evvie’s and Andy’s relationship (they’re really Just Friends, yay!) to the way Evvie and Dean developed. And the fact that Evvie got some female friends along the way, too. It was so incredibly satisfying watching Evvie blossom through the course of the book. And the love story was charming and sweet and oh-so-satisfying as well. I’ve always thought that Holmes knows her stuff when it comes to romance, and this just proves that she knows how to write is as well as she knows how to write about it.

An absolutely perfect summer book.

Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.