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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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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.

 

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Book Review: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

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Moving from Hawaii to Nebraska was supposed to give high school senior Makani Young a chance to start over. Her past is full of dark secrets, and she’d like to keep it that way. She’s found friends and has started dating Ollie Larson, but just when she thinks things might start to go her way, her classmates start getting murdered in really gruesome ways. Can Makani confront her past and maybe save some lives at the same time? Or is she next?

Perkins takes a sharp turn out of the YA romance genre to explore YA horror with a bloody, fast-paced slasher story. While Perkins doesn’t shy away from the violence in this one (seriously, it’s super, super gory) and it’s clear that she has a love of horror movies, her talents at writing budding love stories still manage to shine through here. This overshadows the slasher storyline significantly.

Makani’s burgeoning relationship with Ollie is sweet, compelling, and believable. They have a nice rapport and chemistry that jumps off the page. Perkins works hard to not reveal Makani’s secrets nor the killer’s identity in an attempt to ramp up the tension, it’s the two teen’s relationship that allows readers to feel any connection to the characters. The result is a mixed bag: it’s not a scary read, but it is a bloody one.

The novel’s very bloody end wraps things up, providing the killer’s identity as well as their motivations, but it feels like almost too little too late. While teens are likely to gobble this one up quickly, there’s not a lot of substance here, and it could have been a lot scarier than it was. Still, it’s an interesting direction for Perkins to go, and it will be equally interesting to see what she does next.

There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton Books for Young Readers: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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Joan and her son Lincoln are spending a late afternoon at the zoo, enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. It’s just before closing, and as Joan and her son leave the zoo, she sees something so horrible that she turns around and runs back into the zoo, looking for a place to hide. The next three hours are spent trying to keep Lincoln alive as they are literally hunted. Relying on her knowledge of her son and of the physical layout of the zoo, Joan will stop at nothing to keep him safe.

Part literary fiction, part suspenseful thriller, readers will not want to stop turning pages until the very end of this taut, well-crafted novel. Told in real-time over the course of the few hours they are trapped in the zoo, this novel whizzes by as fast as the bullets that are being spewed in the zoo. Although the majority of the novel is told from Joan’s perspective, readers also get glimpses into the other people in the zoo, including one of the shooters.

The crafting of the characters in addition to the tight pacing of this novel make it a standout. Her prose is strong, and her characters are well-developed, allowing readers to get inside the minds of the people who populate this book. Timely, poignant, and terrifying, this is a standout novel of 2017.

Not for the faint of heart. Although the novel’s descriptions of violence are not particularly graphic, the premise alone will hit too close to home for some readers (and animal lovers will have a hard time with this one especially). The ambiguous ending also means that some readers will be left disappointed or angry. But readers who love their thrillers complex and literary will tear through this one. Recommended.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips. Viking: 2017. Library copy.