Saturday, May 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Missing Season" by Gillian French

Clara is used to being the new girl, as her family moves quite often to follow her dad's construction jobs. But she's never a big fan of the adjustment period, waiting to see how people will treat her, whether she'll be the loner with no friends or be lucky and make a friend or two, only have to abandon the relationship when she moves away again. It never fails.

When she moves to Pender, a depressed New England town, she expects it to go the same way it always does. She's surprised when she strikes up a friendship with Bree and Sage, and they start including her in things, like cutting out of school to grab lunch, hanging out at the skate park to watch the boys—even some high-level pranks. She and Bree even have a crush on the same guy—the mysterious Kinkaid, who comes and goes as he pleases, breezing by on his skateboard.

The thing about Pender, though, is that kids have disappeared, or have been found dead through the years, particularly around Halloween. While the adults in town have a perfectly good explanation for these tragedies—drug overdose, getting hit by a freight train, running away from town—the kids have another explanation. They believe it's the work of the Mumbler, a monster man who lives out by the marshes, for whom they leave offerings from time to time.

People—including Kinkaid—say they've seen the Mumbler, but Clara doesn't believe the legend is true. However, she's starting to think something isn't quite right in town, especially when another girl from school disappears. In the midst of the chaos, she finds herself unable to resist Kinkaid's appeal, despite the problems it might cause in her friendship with Bree. But her desire to help Kinkaid solve his own problems may prove to be what harms the potential for their relationship to go anywhere.

As the town tries to figure out an explanation for the latest disappearance, Clara is starting to feel more afraid, but she doesn't know whom to fear—the Mumbler, or something worse, someone more real? And when another girl even closer to home goes missing, Clara finds herself in the middle of a dangerous situation—one she might not survive.

I thought The Missing Season had a very Stephen King-like vibe when I started reading it. You know, small New England town, unexplained disappearances, grisly deaths, etc.? But the book is more than just a story of a potential monster—it's a complex story about growing up, friendship, love, family, and the decision whether or not to speak up when things don't seem right.

I felt this sense of impending doom as I read this book, and French really did a great job with her imagery, as the whole book seemed very dark and creepy. Like I do with most mysteries and thrillers, I suspected absolutely everyone, and while I'll admit I wasn't thrilled with the ending, I thought this was a really compelling read. I liked the balance of YA and mystery/thriller very much.

This is scary but not too scary, and a good story to boot. If you like this genre, pick up The Missing Season. And stay away from the marsh!!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Book Review: "How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom" by S.J. Goslee

Even though it reminds me of the late 1990s/early 2000s movies like She's All That, She's the Man, or 10 Things I Hate About You (albeit with a gay twist), S.J. Goslee's new book, How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom could easily be made into a movie right this second and still feel totally relevant and fresh. It's a sweet, slightly goofy book that's not perfect, but it's definitely a fun read.

Nolan Grant Sheffield is a slightly eccentric high school junior who would be more than happy just to ride the school year out without making any waves. He's perfectly happy hanging out with his best friend Evie, working at a greenhouse, and drawing, as well as tolerating (okay, maybe even enjoying) his adoptive family's ultra-competitiveness. Sure, he gets bullied a bit at school (gym class is torture), and he's not-so-quietly nurturing a crush on Si O'Mara, a gay football player at his school who is also president of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

However, he's never kissed anyone, much less been in a relationship. And his older sister Daphne is determined to change that—and much of Nolan's life—before she heads off to college in the fall. But Daphne's take-no-prisoners style isn't something Nolan is ready for when it comes to his life, especially his (lack of a) love life.

"Technically, to any outsider, this might look like Daphne is doing a favor for me. Technically, any outsider would be wrong."

Daphne wants to be sure Nolan is prepared for college, so she encourages/forces him to get involved in some extracurricular activities. And then, when her own relationship status changes, she essentially threatens him to find a date to the upcoming Junior-Senior Prom—or she'll find one for him.

From this point on, things go totally awry for poor Nolan. Suddenly he finds himself in the midst of fake dating, a menacing ex-girlfriend, an after-school art program with younger kids, and volunteering to help with the art for the prom as well as the after-prom party. And all the while, he's utterly confused about his feelings for two guys, confusion that bubbles over to Daphne and others as well.

How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom is a little bit zany but certainly a little bit predictable as well, although Goslee definitely kept me guessing until the very end with a few things. But while I liked the twists, one major one confused me, because the characters never fully discussed their feelings until the very end, and even then I wasn't sure what precipitated that. (I'm being purposely vague because I don't want to spoil things, although other Goodreads reviews do give more plot away.)

Goslee's books (I also enjoyed her first book, Whatever) are utterly charming, fun reads. They're not full of angst like so many other YA books, and they definitely treat sexual orientation in a matter-of-fact way rather than as a cause for drama. (Even an instance in which a male character begins dating another male after a two-year-relationship with a female character is met with confusion, but not ridicule.) Her dialogue is fresh without being pretentious or so sarcastic you think you're listening to stand-up comedians rather than high school students.

While I do wish that the characters were a little more fleshed out here so I could understand why they behaved the way they did, I enjoyed How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom quite a bit, and read the book in one day. It really charmed me, reminded me a little bit of my high school days and, at the same time, made me wish they resembled the book a little more, too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review: "Courting Mr. Lincoln" by Louis Bayard

Having lived not too far from his memorial for more than 30 years, Abraham Lincoln is definitely one former president I think of fairly often. Daniel Day-Lewis' masterful, Academy Award-winning portrayal (in Lincoln) also lives in my mind—so much so that I was hoping Steven Spielberg might've changed history and let him survive that fateful night at Ford's Theater.

I've even envisioned him as a vampire hunter.

All this to say, as much as I feel like Mr. Lincoln is a familiar historical figure, I wasn't prepared for the mesmerizing poignancy and humor of a younger Lincoln in Louis Bayard's terrific new book, Courting Mr. Lincoln. And the former president himself wasn't the only one to get a spin different than the way he has usually been portrayed—almost all I've heard of Mary Todd Lincoln chronicles her mercurial nature and her paralyzing grief, but in Bayard's hands she is a fascinating character.

Courting Mr. Lincoln opens with a young Mary Todd arriving in Springfield, Illinois in 1840, where she is to live with her married elder sister until she finds a suitable husband. But Mary is an intelligent young woman with a quick tongue and a wicked sense of humor, qualities not prized in women of that time. She also has a tremendous knowledge of politics, which she isn't afraid to demonstrate in conversation, and she knows it will be difficult to find a man who is her intellectual equal.

She first thinks she has found it in shopkeeper Joshua Speed, a handsome and charming young man more than willing to hold up his end of a conversation. She certainly knows it won't be Speed's roommate, Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer and local politician who has never quite scrubbed the "country" off of him. Tall, gangly, and awkward, he'd rather blend into the background then stand out, but his gift of oratory wins him more than a few fans. But little by little, Mary finds herself surprisingly charmed by this man, whose awkwardness belies his quick wit and kind heart.

While those around Lincoln know he needs a suitable spouse if he is ever to run for higher political office, it is difficult to permeate his relationship with Speed, who literally made Lincoln the man he is, teaching him to dress and carry himself properly, showing him how to dance and handle himself in social situations. The friendship between Speed and Lincoln is closer than nearly any bond, and neither is sure they want to end it for the sake of propriety or Lincoln's ambitions.

This is a fascinating, moving book about friendship, family, social obligations, ambition, and love. Each of these is difficult to navigate now, much less in the 1840s, and Courting Mr. Lincoln demonstrates the challenges that Mary, Speed, and Lincoln each faced in choosing between what was expected of them and what they wanted for themselves. Reading this book, you can only wonder how much Lincoln truly wanted to be president, and how much he did what others wanted of him instead.

The book's narration alternates between the three characters, and is at turns funny, poignant, and utterly compelling. Even though I knew inevitably what would happen, I still wondered how Bayard would get his characters to their ultimate destination, or, much like I wished of Spielberg, whether he'd alter the course of history for the sake of the story. (I don't know which would have made me love the book more, honestly.)

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but I really loved this book. It's a special story that made these characters seem vivid and almost modern even against the backdrop of the 1840s. I'd love to see this story made into a movie, if for no other reason than I'm sad the book has ended.

Bayard is a tremendously talented storyteller. It's hard to believe I've never read any of his other books, but I'm going to need to remedy that!!

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Review: "Lights All Night Long" by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Brooding yet hopeful, Lydia Fitzpatrick's debut novel, Lights All Night Long, is a gripping story about family, envy, and being caught between loyalty and the desire to make a better life for yourself. It is tremendously atmospheric, which is no mean feat considering the book really takes place in two completely separate places—Russia and Louisiana.

Ilya is 15 years old and lives in a small town in Russia with his mother, grandmother, and his older brother, Vladimir, whom he idolizes. Vladimir is a bit of a ne'er-do-well, more content to chase girls and commit petty crimes than go to school, but he knows Ilya is the smart one. The two dream of one day leaving their bleak surroundings for America, a country they only know through pirated VCR movies from the 1990s.

When an exchange program between the refinery in Ilya's town and an energy company in a small Louisiana town is created, Ilya's teacher knows there is only one student deserving of a chance to go to America, and it is him. Ilya is excited to finally go to America but is sad about leaving his brother behind, and Vladimir is torn between jealousy and wanting the best for Ilya. But the America that greets Ilya is very different than he imagined, and he's not quite sure what to make of his cheerful, religious host family, although they want him to feel comfortable.

Ilya tries to settle in and make the most of this new opportunity, but he can't stop worrying about Vladimir, who was arrested just before Ilya left for America, after he confessed to the brutal murder of three young women. Ilya knows there's no way that his brother could be a murderer, although he did fall prey to a powerful and dangerous new drug that started holding many in their town in its thrall. His mother wants him to forget about Vladimir and concentrate on building a better life, but he can't give up on a brother who taught him so much—good and bad—and with whom he dreamed of coming to America.

When Sadie, the oldest daughter of his host family, begins taking an interest in him, Ilya shares his worries about his brother and his suspicions that somehow Vladimir is taking the fall for someone else. The two of them begin to dig deeper into the facts and the innuendo surrounding the murders and the events leading up to Vladimir's confession, while at the same time, Sadie shares with Ilya some powerful secrets of her own.

Lights All Night Long shifts between Ilya's life in Louisiana and the year leading up to when he went to America. You see how Vladimir changed once Ilya was tapped to be the exchange student, how Vladimir wanted the chance for himself despite never having made the effort, yet he also was proud of his brother. Ilya's desperation to find the truth leads to painful discoveries, but ultimately, hope that he can save his brother from the things that might do him harm.

While I felt like the book took a while to really get moving, in the end I really enjoyed this story. It was definitely more of a mystery than I had anticipated, which is fine, and I thought the story would concentrate more on Ilya's life in Louisiana than recounting the past, but it all worked for me, mainly because Fitzpatrick is a terrific storyteller. As I mentioned earlier, she was able to vividly capture both the chill of Ilya's Russian town and the heat of the Louisiana bayou, and she deftly captured Ilya's experience adjusting to life in America.

It's often hard to realize how lucky we are when we're confronted with a crisis at the same time. Lights All Night Long is a moving story of the sacrifices we make for those we love, sacrifices which go unnoticed until it might be too late. With this book, Fitzpatrick proves that she's definitely an author to follow in the future to see what she does next.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Friend Zone" by Abby Jimenez

You might be tempted to write Abby Jimenez's new book The Friend Zone off as fluffy "chick-lit," assuming it's not much different than the countless other books like it out there.

You'd be wrong. Sure, there is romance, humor, talk of soulmates and futures, but there is also an extra layer of emotional complexity in this book. It made me want to devour the book even quicker than I did, and now that I'm done, I can't believe I have to wait until 2020 for Jimenez's next book!!

Josh and Kristen's meet-cute doesn't quite follow the traditional pattern: Josh, a recent transplant from South Dakota to Los Angeles, actually rear-ends Kristen when she has to stop suddenly in traffic. Kristen isn't any damsel-in-distress either—she's covered in coffee from the fender-bender and isn't afraid to let Josh know what a crappy driver he is, using every bit of flowery language she has at her disposal.

When they realize a little while later that Josh will be the best man at Kristen's best friend's wedding, both reluctantly admit they'll enjoy the prospect of spending time together. There's no doubt they're attracted to one another, and Kristen is awaiting the return of her Marine boyfriend, who will be moving in with her anyway, so there's no risk to their friendship.

The problem is, Kristen can't get enough of Josh, and the feeling is definitely mutual. Having been raised with six older sisters, Josh is more sensitive to what a woman wants—he knows that she needs to eat before she gets "hangry," they have the same sense of humor, and he even loves her little dog, Stuntman Mike. And the truth is, Kristen isn't even sure that her boyfriend Tyler is what she wants anyway, and the closer it draws to his discharge from the military, the more she starts to panic.

For his part, Josh has fallen in love with everything about Kristen. He can tell she doesn't seem into her boyfriend's return, and he knows they have serious chemistry? So why does she continue to keep him at arm's length?

Kristen has a debilitating medical condition, and it appears the only answer is a procedure which will make having children impossible. Josh has said more than once how he can't imagine not having a huge family of kids. How could Kristen deprive him of that, force him to choose her and give up his dreams? She wants him to have the life he so desperately desires, but she won't tell him why she keeps pushing him away, even when it's obvious how strongly she feels for him.

What I loved so much about The Friend Zone is the complexity of its characters and their relationships. Even when the book took a surprisingly emotional turn, the characters remained utterly true to themselves and the story, and I became even more invested. Sure, Kristen's reluctance to share the truth with Josh gets really frustrating, but the way he handles it, and the way the other characters in the book do as well, felt realistic and not part of some glossy romantic fantasy.

This is definitely a book I'd love to see adapted for a movie or television series, because I loved this story. (Plus, I wouldn't mind seeing how some casting director envisions firemen/ex-Marines Josh and Brandon, as well as Kristen and Sloane. Especially the firemen, but whatever.) Jimenez's writing is funny and charming and hooked me from the get-go.

I've really been enjoying my forays into this genre over the last year. There are some really talented writers out there and while it's easy just to think "chick lit" is fluffy and meaningless, you might want to adjust that belief. And The Friend Zone might be one that can help convince you.

Forever provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published June 11, 2019.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Book Review: "The Scent Keeper" by Erica Bauermeister

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Erica Bauermeister's incredibly memorable new novel, The Scent Keeper.

Scents provide some of our most potent memories, our strongest sense of time and place. It could be perfume or cologne worn by someone you love, a freshly baked treat from childhood, even the smell of the air after a rainstorm. Bauermeister's beautifully told book is an illustration of a life lived through embracing one of our strongest senses.

Emmeline lives in a cabin on a remote island with her father. It's a marvelous existence for a young girl—she has an entire island to herself to explore, and she and her father live off the land, enjoying all that nature has to offer. He teaches her how to use her senses more than anything else.

During the winter things get tough as food becomes more scarce, but she loves when her father tells her fairy tales and stories. In their cabin they are surrounded by little glass bottles which contain papers that have mysterious scents on them. Her father doesn't explain where they come from, or what the machine that creates these scent papers is, but he gives her powerful advice: "People lie, Emmeline, but smells never do."

But when she discovers the truth about the island on which they live, everything starts to change, and her father becomes more and more obsessed with the scent papers stored in their cabin, to the detriment of everything else, including himself. Without warning, Emmeline is suddenly thrust into the real world, forced to interact with people other than her father, and having to experience first-hand the violence, betrayal, and pain that people cause each other, willingly and unwillingly.

"There had been a time in my life when I had felt grown-up, capable. Now I was too scared of the world outside to leave the house. I stayed in my room mostly, telling myself the stories from my father's book of fairy tales. The girl in the red cloak, running through the trees. The genie waiting in the bottle, growing more powerful with time. The children, lost in the woods with only breadcrumbs to help them. I spoke the words in my mind, as if they could tell me how to navigate this place I'd found myself in, but the best they could do was help me forget. Still, I returned to the stories, wishing for something that would never come. An ending that had already happened."

When Emmeline learns the secrets her father kept hidden from her, she is determined to find out the truth about him and her background. She finds a world far beyond any she had imagined, where she can use her sense of smell professionally, and she finally feels like she belongs. But she also confronts one of her father's most powerful pieces of advice again, "People lie, but smells never do."

At first I felt as if The Scent Keeper was similar to Delia Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing—a story of a young girl who is more in-step with nature than people thrust into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable world. And while there are elements of that in this story, this is also a book about the family we're born into and the family we choose, understanding what—and whom—to fight for, and how our senses give us insight into human behavior we may never recognize unless we let them.

I thought this was a fascinating and beautiful book, full of gorgeously lyrical imagery (how else could Bauermeister make you understand the scents that swirled around Emmeline and the other characters) and a powerful if familiar story of love, trust, family, and our relationship with the natural world. I enjoyed reading this book immensely, even when I wanted to shake the characters for not saying what they were thinking or feeling.

This is definitely a book that made me think about the connection between scent and memory, and how when I remember certain events or people in my life, I often associate a particular smell with them. The Scent Keeper is thought-provoking and memorable.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published May 21, 2019.

I will be hosting a giveaway for this book on my Instagram page, at www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Book Review: "Don't Date Rosa Santos" by Nina Moreno"

"We try with all we have. We fight hands we can't see. We stomp against the earth and whisper all the right prayers, but sometimes it isn't meant to be. You believe life will always be as it is, and you make plans, but the next thing you know, you're climbing into a sinking boat in the dead of night because the land you love is no longer safe. The sun sets, he doesn't swim above the water again, and time runs out."

Rosa Santos has been raised to believe that the women in her family are cursed by the sea, especially when it comes to love, and the men who get involved with them are doomed. When her grandparents migrated from Cuba when her mother was just an infant, storms hit their boat, and only Rosa's grandmother and mother survived. Eighteen years later, the young man her mother loved (and Rosa's father) left on his boat for a routine day of work and never returned.

Since then Rosa has been afraid of even going near the water—and has steered clear of relationships. She lives with her grandmother, Mimi, in a small Florida town where everyone knows everyone's business. Mimi works as a curandera, the person everyone turns to for help with illness, crises, and everything in between. Rosa's mother drifts in and out of town, unable to stay for too long in the place where her heart was broken, and causing friction with Mimi whenever she returns.

What Rosa wants more than anything is answers. She wants to know more about what Cuba was like for her grandmother, why she'll never speak of that time or of the family left behind. She wants to understand why her mother can't stay in one place, why she can't be the mother she's always needed. And more than anything, she wants to understand the whole idea of the Santos "curse," especially when she meets Alex Aquino, the brooding sailor with tattoos of the ocean and a passion for baking.

How do you get a fresh start when everyone around you knows everything about you, and is watching your every move? Can we really overcome the challenges of our past, and outrun the "curses"? Is love worth risking everything for, especially the potential that you could "doom" someone else?

Don't Date Rosa Santos is an utterly charming, sweet book about family, love, grief, and heritage, and is, in many ways, a love letter both to Cuba and to small-town America. The characters are fun and complex, and even if there aren't too many surprises to be had in the book, I got hooked pretty quickly and read the entire book in one day.

Nina Moreno has created a magical place, and her characters are quirky and memorable. It does feel a little like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and the relationships between mothers and daughters are special. (Plus, Alex sounded hot.) This was a fun read without a tremendous amount of angst, which was a nice change of pace for me!

NetGalley and Disney-Hyperion provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!