Sunday, September 22, 2019

Book Review: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

What a terrific graphic novel!!

Deja and Josiah are best friends—at least from September 1 through Halloween, and at least while they’re working together at the pumpkin patch. (They don't see each other at all except during that period of time.) Tonight is the last night they’ll work together since both will head off to college next fall.

Josiah can’t imagine a world without the pumpkin patch. Deja doesn’t quite feel THAT strongly, but she’ll miss Josiah, and all the activity, and all of the great food. (Maybe especially the food?)

But tonight, Deja has a plan. It’s not going to be just a typical night. She’s gotten them a shift at a different post rather than the Succotash Hut, where they’ve worked the last three years. She’s determined that Josiah is finally going to talk to the girl in the fudge shop that he’s been mooning over for years. And she’s going to get all of her favorite foods.

Sounds perfect, right?

Of course, nothing quite goes as planned. Along the way they’ll run into a candy-apple-stealing punk, flee an escaped animal, say goodbye to old friends, explore what brought them together as friends, and come to some interesting realizations of their own.

This was so much fun, so charming, and had such a terrifically warm story, and the illustrations really made it feel like fall! Sometimes graphic novels are spare in their narration but this one really worked for me.

I'm a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell's (her new novel comes out 9/24 so I am super excited about that, too) and Pumpkinheads had so many of her trademarks, including a story that had so much heart. I read the book in one sitting and was sad that I was finished.

This is perfect for Halloween lovers and saps like me who love stories of friendship. But you probably shouldn't read this one on an empty stomach!

Book Review: "Bluebird, Bluebird" by Attica Locke

Brooding, atmospheric, and thought-provoking, this was a great read that totally sucked me in.

Darren is a Texas Ranger, a job over which he is constantly conflicted given that he is black and his home state isn’t known for their indulgence of racial minorities. He's kept at arm's length at work as well—trotted out when it's good for public relations but kept out of some sensitive circumstances.

When Darren responds to a call for help from a family friend, it gets him into trouble professionally, since he acted as a Ranger in a personal situation, and personally, since his continued work as a Ranger angers his wife.

A friend in the FBI suggests he head out of town and let the dust settle, and instead look into two murders that have recently rocked the small town of Lark. Both a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman have been pulled from the bayou waters a few days apart, and while some believe the murders are related to people getting involved with those they shouldn’t, the issues that are at play in Lark run much deeper than that.

In trying to figure out who and what was behind the murders, Darren unwittingly stirs up a hornet’s nest of old resentments, racial tensions, love affairs, the blending of bloodlines, and the need to keep secrets. But he also discovers that some of what is driving things forward in Lark hit closer to home than Darren wants to admit. He has to explore his own desire to keep working as a Ranger and decide whether he is willing to give his all to his marriage, given that his wife would rather him return to law school.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a great read. Attica Locke ratchets up the tension and introduces so many possibilities you don’t know what to think. Her characters all have some flaws and don’t pretend otherwise but they’re fascinating to read about. This is a book about love, family, race, loyalty, jealousy, and so much more.

At times the pacing was a little slower than I’d like but I still couldn’t get enough of this. Locke just released a second book featuring Darren, so I’m excited about that, too.

Book Review: "The Flatshare" by Beth O'Leary

This book was just sweet and fun and it made me happy!

Tiffy is in need of a place to live, since she’s lived in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment for far too long, even after he’d begun dating someone else. But since she’s in a low-paying job, there aren’t a lot of options, so a flatshare opportunity makes the most sense.

Leon is a hospice nurse who works nights, and she works days, so they’ll literally never see each other, which is what convinces her to take this opportunity, even if it means sleeping in Leon’s bed (although never with him). Leon's no-nonsense girlfriend Kay handles the transaction, thus ensuring Tiffy and Leon don't even meet. And since Leon will be spending weekends with Kay, there's no reason for any interaction.

The two interact via post-it notes and memos, which grow from basic requests to much more personal conversations. And as each deals with their own crises—Tiffy’s ex can’t seem to let go and is becoming increasingly more possessive, and Leon’s brother is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—amazingly, they are each other’s greatest support, despite having never met each other.

When a missed alarm clock leads to their meet-cute (and meet-wet), they begin to fall for each other. Tiffy brings a free-spiritedness to Leon’s methodical ways, and Leon helps stabilize Tiffy, especially as she begins to realize how much harm her former boyfriend was causing her.

Can love flourish when two people spend more time apart than together, and when they’re so different from one another? When you’ve been hurt before, can you let someone else in and let down your guard?

I really enjoyed this book. Sure, it was predictable, but it was just so (to use a British colloquialism) lovely. At first I was a little off-put at Leon’s way of speaking when he narrated, but ultimately it fit perfectly with his personality.

The Flatshare explored some important issues plus it charmed me completely. It was more than a typical rom-com but yet it never aspired to be anything lofty, just a good story. Can you ask for anything more?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Book Review: "The Rest of the Story" by Sarah Dessen

I've been a huge YA reader for some time now, and as I have selected books through the years, I've seen Sarah Dessen's name pop up. For some reason I had never read any of her books, although she certainly had been named as an author worth reading. So when her newest book, The Rest of the Story, was released, I figured it was time I remedied my unfamiliarity with Dessen's work.

WTF have I been waiting for? All I know is, if her other books are as good as this one, I am seriously going to have to devour her backlist, stat. It's been a while since a nearly 450-page book left me wanting more when I was finished, wishing it was longer so I could spend more time with the characters and know what happened to them after the story ended. But all of this happened with this book.

"There were lots of ways to love someone, I guessed, both by remembering and forgetting."

Emma Saylor's mother was at times both larger than life and withdrawn. She died five years ago, when Emma was 12, but her parents were divorced much earlier than that, and she lived with her father and grandmother.

While there are many things about her mother that Emma has forgotten, she always remembered the stories her mother used to tell her about the lake community where she grew up and met Emma's father. But while it was one big lake, it was like two separate worlds—her mother grew up in working-class North Lake, while her father worked at the yacht club on the prestigious Lake North side.

When Emma goes to stay with her mother's family for a few weeks one summer, it is the first time she has been back to the lake since she was four or five years old. Her large family—maternal grandmother, aunt, cousins—have never forgotten her, but Emma has little memory of any of it. Yet the more time she spends there, the more she feels like she belongs, the more she learns about her mother's life, her parents' relationship, and the stories that she has never heard.

"The past was always present, in its way, and you can't help but remember. Even if you can't remember at all."

While she was born with two names at birth, Emma Saylor, her mother used to call her Saylor, but it's a name she stopped using years ago. But she realizes that Saylor is just as much a part of her, and since that's the name her new-found family calls her, she feels a connection to her past that she hadn't before. And that bridge between the past and the present is embodied in the relationships she builds with her cousins, and the friendship she rekindles with Roo, the boy who was her very best friend when they were little, and whose spell she can't seem to resist now.

It's hard to be caught between two different worlds, especially when there is so much history that transpired which left those you cared about full of hurt and sadness. Yet Emma is determined to have the life her father wants to give her, while at the same time, she doesn't want to lose her connections to her past, or the people who were such a special part of it. But that won't be easy, and others may get hurt in the process.

I literally was hooked on this book from the very first sentence. Even though there were a few instances in which the foreshadowing was a little too obvious and you knew eventually what would transpire in certain situations, Dessen captured me completely with this story and these characters. Having lost my birth mother at a very young age, I identified with some of the characters a great deal, and it made the story even more poignant and emotional.

I love the way Dessen writes. Her characters aren't too witty and sophisticated that they seem like caricatures or transplants from a John Green novel. And while there might not be a lot of surprises, I just felt right at home in the middle of the story. And as far as I'm concerned, you can't ask for more than that.

So, Dessen fans, which one of her books should I read next?

Book Review: "Frankly in Love" by David Yoon

Frankly in Love is a fascinating look at love, friendship, cultural identity, parent-child relationships, and prejudice. I had been waiting for this book to come out for a while, and David Yoon certainly didn't disappoint me!

Frank Li is smart and funny, a first-generation American who tries hard to be a good son and a good friend. His parents want him to study hard and especially meet a nice Korean girl, so he doesn’t get disowned like his older sister.

Of course, life doesn’t happen the way we plan, and when Frank falls for his classmate, Brit, he wishes he could just be with her and not have to deal with his parents’ prejudice. Instead, he and Joy, the daughter of his parents’ friends, who is dating a Chinese student, concoct a scheme to help them both. They pretend to date in order to have the freedom to spend time with their real dates. But of course, they don't clue either their boyfriend or girlfriend into the scheme, or why it's even necessary.

When his life takes an unexpected turn, Frank must decide what’s most important in life—doing what’s right or doing what makes him happy—and if he can reconcile the two. He also must come to terms with his parents’ view of the world, and how it shapes his own identity. This is really thought-provoking, as it examines how everyone has some level of prejudice, and how it often comes from fear of losing one’s own cultural identity.

Yoon is a terrific writer. This book is funny and emotional, and even difficult to read at times, because you just wish Frank could say what he needs to to those who need to hear it, instead of causing problems by avoiding difficult subjects. Like many YA books, the characters are far more witty and erudite than real teenagers—but these are the smart students, so maybe this is the way these kids talk nowadays? (He asks as he tells those rotten kids to get off his lawn.)

David Yoon and his wife, Nicola Yoon, the amazing author of The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, are quite the YA power couple. You must read both of their books!!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: "Her Secret Son" by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Suspenseful and poignant, this is a powerful look at what makes a family—genetics or love.

Josh and Grace have been together for a number of years now. They’re deeply in love and Josh couldn’t love Grace’s seven-year-old son, Logan, any more if he were Josh’s biological child.

When Grace dies in an accident, Josh’s life is turned upside down. Not only is he overcome with grief, but he needs to help Logan come to terms with his mother’s death. Given all the turmoil in both of their lives, it seems like the perfect time for Josh to formally become Logan’s legal guardian. He and Grace had discussed it but something always seemed to get in the way. But as Josh searches for information on Logan’s birth, he is overwhelmed at what he uncovers about Grace, not to mention Logan.

How can this be the woman he loved? He starts realizing that there were real reasons Grace never wanted to formalize his guardianship of Logan. But why? What kept her from revealing the truth to him?

"If Dad had been there, he'd have talked in clichés, said I was completely off my rocker and I should let sleeping dogs lie. Trouble was, over the years I'd found when those sleeping dogs eventually woke up, they'd grown into oversize, snarling beasts that bit me in the ass. The only way to tame them was to get in control, and that would happen only if I had more of the missing pieces to Grace and Logan's puzzle."

Even though his life is rocked, he’ll do everything in his power to fight for Logan. He’ll stop at nothing—no matter what that means.

There were lots of twists and turns in this book which kept me guessing. I didn’t love all of the decisions that Josh made, and there were one or two surprises that blindsided me. But at its core I couldn’t get enough of this story of love, emotion, grief, and the bond between father and son.

Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours, Hannah McKinnon, and MIRA for providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Pick this up!!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book Review: "After the Flood" by Kassandra Montag

"When I think of those days, of losing the people I've loved, I think of how my loneliness deepened, like being lowered into a well, water rising around me as I clawed at the stone walls, reaching for sunlight. How you get used to being at the bottom of a well. How you wouldn't recognize a rope if it was thrown down to you."

This book was utterly amazing. Beautifully written, bleak, tremendously poignant, and full of lyrical imagery and memorable characters, it is hard to believe that After the Flood is Kassandra Montag's debut novel. But the more you read, the more you become fully immersed in this story you realize that debut novel or not, this is one of those books you'll think about and talk about for years to come.

Just over a century from now, our world has been taken over by massive flooding which obliterated much of the landscape, leaving only mountains and random pieces of land scattered through our world, with whole cities left underwater. Myra and her young daughter Pearl live off their small boat, fishing and salvaging to make ends meet, finding people to trade with in the few outposts that are left. It's a bleak existence and Myra always exercises an abundance of caution, because the floods left many lawless people in their wake.

For seven years, Myra has mourned her older daughter, Row, every single day. Row was taken from Myra by her husband just before a massive flood hit their home in Nebraska. Myra had wanted to wait until her grandfather finished building the boat they would use to keep them safe; Myra's husband was afraid and impatient, so he took Row and never came back. Myra knows the chances that Row is still alive are very slim, and she should just focus all of her energy on keeping Pearl safe and happy, but she can't stop dreaming of the moment when she might have both of her girls together for the first time.

"The world will break you, but it's when you break yourself that you feel you really can't heal."

When Myra hears that Row (or at least someone resembling her) was spotted recently at a settlement near Greenland, she is desperate to risk everything to bring about a potential reunion with her daughter. She connects with Daniel, a troubled yet kind man with secrets and regrets of his own, and then they have to find another ship on which to make the perilous journey. When they meet Abran and his crew, she knows she has to hide her real reasons for wanting to travel so far, but she has no choice but to deceive them in order to rescue her daughter.

But there is no guarantee the ship will make it all the way there, because along the way they must battle the elements, bands of raiders bent on revenge for earlier slights, and the uncertainty of whom among them should be trusted. What will they find when they arrive at this colony? Will there be disease, killers, a lack of resources, or, perhaps worst of all, no trace of humanity?

After the Flood certainly is bleak and I kept waiting for things to completely fall apart, yet there certainly is an element of hope in the book as well—hope that Myra will be able to find Row, hope that the ship will make it where it needs to go relatively unscathed, hope that they can perhaps build a new community when they arrive. I honestly couldn't get enough of this story.

This reminded me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in its exquisite telling of how far a parent would go for their children, but Montag's imagery, her language, and her weaving of present and past made the story unique at the same time. The pacing may seem a little slow at times but it worked well for me.

Simply put, this book is worth all the hype it will get. I won't be able to put it out of my mind anytime soon.