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Book Review: The City Baker’s Guide to County Living by Louise Miller

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Olivia Rawlings is a renowned baker at an exclusive Boston dinner club when she sets the room on fire instead of her Baked Alaska. That public embarrassment is the tip of the iceberg, so she flees to rural Vermont for a weekend away, but it becomes somewhat permanent when she begins to work for a woman who owns an inn. Even though she tells herself it’s temporary, Olivia soon finds herself drawn to the people in the small town of Guthrie, and she finds herself drawn to Martin, a man who says little but clearly feels a lot.

The first half of this debut novel by real-life pastry chef Loiuse Miller is charming, smart, and oftentimes very witty. A fresh take on the fish-out-of-water story, Olivia is a charming heroine with a sidekick in her giant dog. There’s a lot to like in this story about a city girl finding new life in the country, and the characters who populate the small town in Vermont provide much of the novel’s charm, even as they engage in petty jealousies and rivalries.

The slow-burn romance between Olivia and the mysterious Martin is also fairly compelling, with a genuine chemistry between the two characters. Although the end of the novel feels a bit too tidy (and maybe even overly-saccharine), the start of this romance is certainly interesting enough to keep the pages turning. An unhurried romance, as well as an unhurried plot, help illustrate the slower way things happen in rural life.

It’s not until the end of the book that the story goes off the rails slightly. What was a strong, smart, witty novel turns into one that’s a wee bit too sweet, and the ending is so tidy and provincial that it’s almost as though it’s two separate novels. Still, Miller is an author with promise, and it’s an enjoyable, if not totally believable, ride.

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller. Pamela Dorman Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

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Drew Nichols and Alexa Monroe meet in an elevator when it stops working. They’re strangers, but when they leave the elevator some time later, Alexa has agreed to go to a wedding as Drew’s fake girlfriend. Destined to be a one-night thing, the two find themselves drawn to each other and embark on a long-distance fling that might actually have the makings of something real.

Guillory’s debut novel is a charming and sexy look at a fake romance that becomes totally real. Fully realized characters help flesh out this at times cyclical romance, creating a captivating story. The characters in this are likable, with hopes and dreams, and their chemistry leaps off the page. Readers will root for their deserved happy ending.

While on the whole the novel is fairly light in its tone and content, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the two main characters are in an inter-racial relationship. Alexa experiences racial aggressions throughout the book, and when she tells Drew about them, he accepts what she says as fact, which is refreshing. In this, the book is more grounded than others, and it’s an appreciated touch.

A fast-paced plot keeps the pages turning, and the genuine chemistry between the leads makes it compelling. While the two start out their relationship as a casual hookup, their connection deepens in a satisfying way, and while there are plenty of love scenes, Guillory engages in a lot of fade-to-black writing, so this doesn’t fall into the “erotica” category.

Romance readers, rejoice: this modern-day rom-com is completely engrossing and really, really fun. I loved it.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. Berkley: 2018. ARC received from NetGalley.

 

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Book Review: Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

Heather, the Totality (October 2017) by Matthew Weiner

Mark and Karen have built their family and their own marriage around their daughter Heather. Beautiful, smart, and compassionate, the world adores her as much as they do. But she’s so magnetic that she attracts unsavory elements as well, and it isn’t long before everything the Breakstones have worked for is in jeopardy.

Matthew Weiner’s (yes, the Mad Men guy) debut novel is very slight and is best read in a single sitting. A whip-fast pace helps this novel go down easier, but the fact remains that it’s short on many merits, including believable characters, and believable situations. Clearly aiming to fall into the “literary” side of fiction, it certainly succeeds in being “pretentious.”

The novel is on the whole not a particularly challenging read. While Weiner does well enough creating a sense of genuine suspense, it takes more than half of the book to get to the point, which is way too long in a novel that’s only 140 pages long. There’s also way too much time spent on the entire history of the Breakstones’s marriage, a marriage that is super boring and whose details don’t relate in any way to the central crux of the story. All of this seems to contradict the novel’s lofty aims of being one of those sparse suspense novels that are so eerily effective. By weirdly trying to do both, Weiner succeeds at neither.

There’s also the fact that the people populating this story are bizarrely vague in their characterization. There’s no real consistency in any of their actions or personalities, and the reader is not given much to go on, either. The result is that it’s hard to care about what fate awaits any of them.

The writing leaves a lot to be desired, too. Told in a stylized narration that will rankle most readers (there are a few critics out there who seem to think it’s brilliant, but they’re definitely in the minority). There’s virtually no showing done here. Instead, Weiner tells his readers–again and again–and the result is kind of like reading stage directions for a play. This reads like a treatment for a movie script more than it does a novel.

A total disappointment, and a hard pass. Maybe put it in the hands of hardcore Matthew Weiner fans, but even they deserve better.

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner. Little, Brown & Company: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Best Books of 2017

I read over 400 books this year, if I’m including picture books. I read a lot of stuff, and some of it was great. Some of it was terrible. These are the best books I read this year.

33375622Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: A collection of short stories that blends realism and science fiction, humor and horror. These stories are all knockouts, racing towards conclusions while keeping the reader riveted. Subversive, feminist, and unforgettable. I can’t wait to see what Machado does next.

30231763 Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller: Another short story collection makes the list, with Mary Miller’s excellent collection of stories about women on the brink of something. At times claustrophobic, and at other times blisteringly acerbic, this collection of women all in search of different things was one of the best and most accomplished collections of the year. I loved it.

30304222There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker: A collection of poetry that uses pop culture references (and a lot of Beyonce references) to explore black womanhood in modern day America. This is intersectional feminism at its most sharp and inciting, and it’s a must-read, even for those who don’t dabble much (or at all) in poetry. 33876540

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter: Part legal thriller, part coming-of-age novel, the debut novel from actress Krysten Ritter knocked my socks off. She hooked me from the first pages and didn’t let up until the story’s gripping, violent end. This is a knockout of a novel, one that demands to be read. I can’t wait to see what Ritter offers next, whether it’s a film or TV project or another novel. Seriously, go read this one.

32940879Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed: The island is the only safe space left in a world that is burning. The fathers run the island, and their daughters are the wives-in-training in this dystopian fiction piece from Jennie Melamed. The book is a gripping account of a patriarchy gone wholly wrong (well, I mean, all patriarchal societies are), and Melamed’s tight prose makes this a haunting read, especially given the current political climate. Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale abound, but this one stands on its own.

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Grit by Gillian French: Darcy Prentiss and her sister and their cousin work the blueberry fields in the summer in rural Maine. Darcy knows how to have a good time, and her reputation reinforces that. But all of this is her way of distracting her from the secrets she’s keeping, including one about the disappearance of her ex-best friend. This slow burn of a novel had me riveted from the start. It was a surprise of a book, one I just picked up out of a stack of new arrivals at the library, and I was so pleasantly surprised.

32075671The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Starr Carter is there when her best friend is shot and killed by a cop. He wasn’t armed, but the media surrounding the event becomes an absolute circus. Starr isn’t sure whether standing up and saying something is the right thing to do. One of the most buzzed about books of the year, this fresh, smart, moving take on racialized police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement is required reading.

 

 

What did I miss?

 

 

 

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Favorite Picture Books of 2017

2017 was the year I got really, really into picture books. I tried to read as many new ones as I could get my hands on, and I started figuring out which authors were my favorites, as well as really sharpening the library of titles I can choose from when it comes to storytimes. These are my favorite picture books of 2017:

34137106A Different Pond by Bao Phi: This semi-autobiographical picture book features Phi as a young boy, fishing with his father in Minneapolis. The story is contrasted with Phi’s father talking about fishing in his homeland of Vietnam. Gorgeous images accompany Phi’s lovely prose. It’s a striking, moving story, and it features some beautiful pictures of Minneapolis’s Lake Street.

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Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin: A little girl brings her stuffed fox to the playground, and a real fox steals away with it. The illustrations in this wordless picture book are so beautifully drawn, and the story so sweet that it’s impossible not to be sucked into it. Totally marvelous.

31145060Stay: A Girl, a Dog, and a Bucket List by Kate Klise: Eli the dog has been with Astrid the girl since she came home from the hospital as an infant. Astrid is getting older, and so is Eli, so Astrid decides they need to complete a bucket list of experiences together. These things include eating together at a restaurant and sliding down a slide at the playground. This novel, written and illustrated by a pair of sisters, made me ugly cry. But it’s also one of the sweetest, smartest picture books I read this year. The story perfectly encapsulates the love between humans and canines, and I completely loved it.

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The Storm Whale in Winter by Benji Davies: Noi is waiting at home while his dad takes one last journey to the sea to fish before winter settles in. But a storm comes in and Noi’s dad doesn’t return, so Noi sets out to look for him. When Noi gets stuck in the icy sea, his whale friend comes to the rescue. I actually read this sequel before Davies’ original tale, and I loved both so much. A sweet story about friendship and family, this moving little book is guaranteed to satisfy kids and adults alike.

31145118Out! by Arree Chung: Everyone in the family is ready for bed after a long day, except for the baby. When Jo Jo the dog goes to check on the baby, she finds that the baby wants OUT. Shenanigans ensue. Repetition of the same word and fun, colorful illustrations make this a crowd-pleaser, and yes, I love picture books about dogs. It’s a whole thing.

 

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell: A girl gets lost in the snow on her way home 29102937from school and encounters a wolf pup, separated from its pack. She helps him find his family, and then they return the favor. This simple, nearly wordless picture book had me crying, and so much of that is due to Cordell’s ability to express a myriad of feelings in his pen-and-ink-and-watercolor illustrations. I loved this compelling book about kindness.

What picture books stood out to you this year?

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Book Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

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Aviva Grossman is a young and impressionable congressional intern when she falls for her married boss. A mistake in and of itself, but then she blogs about it, and it gets discovered, and she’s basically run out of town. So she moves to Maine, changes her name, and raises her daughter to be strong. But when she decides to run for public office herself, she finds that her past mistakes aren’t so easily erased.

Gabrielle Zevin offers a fresh, funny, and compelling take on slut shaming and modern society in Young Jane Young. Told in five parts from the perspectives of five smart and very different women, this is a delight of a book that whizzes by and leaves the reader thoroughly satisfied. Although Zevin presents a story that’s very familiar, she does so with a freshness and cleverness that makes it new again. 

Comparisons to Monica Lewinsky abound here, but Zevin does it so carefully that it’s a powerful connection to real-life source material that doesn’t overwhelm this story’s original narrative. Because there are five different narrators, parts of the story are revisited over and over again, but because they’re seen from different perspectives, it doesn’t feel as though the story ever lags. It just helps add further dimension to characters that feel real and very human.

I loved this one. It’s inspiring and full of strong female characters. It’s funny and warm, and Zevin has crafted one of the best critiques of slut-shaming I’ve ever seen. It skewers the sexism inherent in our society, and it does so beautifully. Recommended.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin. Algonquin: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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Eliza Mirk’s real life is quiet and friendless. But online, she’s got a core group of friends and is the author of the insanely popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. No one knows that she’s the writer except for her two best friends. When she meets Wallace Warland at school and discovers that he’s a MS fan as well as the most popular writer of the series’ fanfiction, the two slowly start to become friends or maybe more. But she doesn’t tell him who she is, and she’s stacking a house of cards that’s sure to fall down at some point.

This smart, sweet, captivating novel about high school misfits who find each other through their shared love of fantasy is a standout. Zappia has created not only one memorable world, but another fully-realized world within a world. Fans of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl will find a great readalike here, with a ton of depth and complexity.

What stands out in this novel is Zappia’s commitment to showing the how painful and self-absorbing mental illness can be while also developing characters who are more than just their illnesses. Wallace and Eliza’s relationship is unusual to say the least, but it is realistic and absorbing. Their relationship with one another, as well as their own grappling with their own issues, helps illustrate the feelings of helplessness that young people so often experience.

Incredibly respectful to fandoms the world over, this is a memorable read. Teens are likely to tear through this one more than once (I had a seventh-grade girl tell me she’s on her fifth read of it the other day), and it’s very likely to find a fervent audience. I enjoyed the hell out of this one. One of my favorite reads of 2017.

Recommended.

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Greenwillow Books: 2017. Library copy.