Review: Pumpkinheads

PumpkinheadsRainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Pumpkinheads

Deja and Josiah are high school seniors who have worked at the local pumpkin patch every fall for the past three years. They don’t interact much in winter, spring, or summer, but when they’re working together at the Succotash Hut, they’re firm friends. This year, introspective Josiah is contemplating the bittersweet fact that tonight is his last night at the patch; in response, outgoing Deja declares that they need to make the most of it by having an adventure. She encourages Josiah to finally approach his longtime crush, the girl who works at the Fudge Shoppe, but Josiah will only do it if Deja comes along for moral support. Their mission takes them all over the pumpkin patch, from the various food vendors to the bumper cars to the corn maze. Along the way, they reminisce about how they first met and about how much they’ve enjoyed their time at the patch. When Josiah finally catches up with the Fudge Shoppe girl, he realizes that he needs to accomplish one more mission before leaving the pumpkin patch behind.

I’m a big Rainbow Rowell fan, so I was predisposed to like this book even though I don’t normally read graphic novels. And I will say that, while Faith Erin Hicks’s art is very cute and charming, it didn’t add very much to the story for me. But I think I’m just not a very visual person, so your mileage may vary! Anyway, I very much enjoyed the story, which perfectly encapsulates that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia that comes with the end of an era. I also loved the contrast between Josiah and Deja in their attitude toward change: Josiah is a melancholy, head-in-the-clouds type, whereas Deja is more pragmatic and confident. She gives him the kick in the pants he needs to get out of his own head, while his gentleness and sincerity disarm her. I completely bought their friendship and enjoyed watching it develop as the story unfolded. The plot is not particularly suspenseful, but there were times when I genuinely didn’t know how everything would turn out. (I had certain hopes, but I wasn’t sure until a fair way into the book.) Overall, this is a lightweight but very enjoyable story, and I’d love to see it as a movie!

Review: Well Met

Well MetJen DeLuca, Well Met

Emily Parker has just moved to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, to care for her sister, who was seriously injured in a car accident, and her teenage niece. But she’s also hoping for a fresh start, having left nothing behind her but a jerk of an ex-boyfriend and an unfinished English degree. Following her niece Caitlin’s lead, Emily soon becomes involved with the local Renaissance Faire, where she has a lot of fun learning about history, working on her British accent, and creating her new identity as a tavern wench. The only bad aspect of her new life is Simon Graham, the organizer of the Faire, who always seems to be criticizing and judging her. But in his Faire persona as a roguish pirate, he’s a completely different person — one who flirts shamelessly with Emily’s character. To Emily’s chagrin, she discovers that she likes their role-playing, and Simon himself, a lot more than she thought. But is their connection real or only an act? And when the Faire ends, what will happen to their relationship?

This is a fun, light romance set in the unusual world of a Renaissance Faire, and I really enjoyed it for the unique setting. I’ve been to the Maryland Renaissance Festival and would love to go back; who could resist the combination of history, theater, and roast turkey legs? So I was predisposed to be charmed by this book. I found Emily a likable character overall, although she does seem to make snap judgments about Simon that she doesn’t make about anyone else. At one point she describes herself as having “emotional whiplash” about him, and I definitely experienced that also, as she kept changing her mind about him. I liked Simon too — I love a straitlaced hero with a sense of humor, and a knowledge of English literature is certainly a bonus! — but he remains a little mysterious because everything is told from Emily’s first-person point of view. The obstacles to their romance aren’t particularly huge, and sometimes I just wanted them to communicate already; on the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with minimal angst, where the characters are all basically good people doing their best. Overall, I did enjoy the book and am glad to see that DeLuca is planning a sequel set in the same world!

Review: Life and Other Inconveniences

Life and Other InconveniencesKristan Higgins, Life and Other Inconveniences

Emma London is a single mom raising her teenage daughter, Riley, in Chicago. She adores Riley, but the rest of her family is more complicated: her mother took her own life when Emma was a child, and her father has never really been in the picture. Then there’s her grandmother, Genevieve, a wealthy fashion designer who cared for Emma after her mom died but kicked her out when she got pregnant before graduating from high school. Emma and Genevieve have been estranged ever since, so when Genevieve calls Emma to reveal that she’s terminally ill, Emma doesn’t have a lot of sympathy. Nevertheless, when Genevieve hints that Riley might inherit a fortune in her will, Emma decides to go back to her Maine hometown with Riley in tow, to care for Genevieve in her last days. In the course of the visit, Emma and Genevieve come to understand each other a little better, and they both deal with some unresolved issues in their pasts.

I’ve read several of Kristan Higgins’s lighthearted romance novels and really enjoyed them. Recently she’s moved into women’s fiction, and I’ve been more lukewarm on those books, although I still quite liked If You Only Knew and On Second Thought. This book, however, just irritated me. There’s nothing lighthearted or joyful about it; everyone is miserable, and they basically stay miserable until the very end. I’ve already described Emma’s sad backstory, but every other character is dealing with multiple tragic problems, too: Genevieve is not only dying, but she’s devastated by the loss of her husband and her older son. Miller, Emma’s love interest, is mourning his dead wife and trying to raise a hostile three-year-old alone. Emma has a sister who can’t live on her own due to a rare genetic disorder. It’s all just too depressing, especially when I’ve historically looked to this author for light and fluffy reading! I also didn’t love that the majority of the book is told in flashbacks; there’s very little forward motion to the plot, just a slow unfolding of past tragedies. In short, I’m not a fan of this one, and Higgins is no longer a must-read author for me.

Review: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Bookish Life of Nina HillAbbi Waxman, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Nina Hill has a quiet, predictable life, and she likes it that way. She works in an independent bookstore in LA’s Larchmont Village and runs a book club for young female readers. She has some friends in her coworkers and her weekly pub trivia team, but her favorite activity is staying home and reading. Everything changes, however, when Nina learns that her father, whom she never knew, has died and left her something in his will. He’s also left her an assortment of relatives: stepmothers, siblings, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. Most of them are eager to welcome Nina with open arms, but Nina is uncomfortable with suddenly having a family, and she isn’t sure if she can — or even wants to — incorporate them into her life. Then there’s the issue of her trivia nemesis, Tom, whom Nina initially dismisses as a dumb jock; they have nothing in common but their love of trivia, yet they also find each other infuriatingly attractive. But can they make a relationship work despite their differences?

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but I find I don’t have much to say about it a few weeks later. I do remember the writing style; while I normally like plain, unobtrusive prose, this book definitely has a cheeky, quirky style that I mostly enjoyed. On the other hand, the actual plot fell flat for me. The big conflict is supposed to be that Nina is extremely introverted and is thus uncomfortable with her brand-new family. But the thing is, she’s not all that uncomfortable, and everyone accepts everyone else pretty much right away. One of her aunts is hostile at first and kicks up a fuss about the will, but Nina isn’t bothered by it, and eventually the aunt comes around. The romance with Tom is also pretty dull, although to be fair, the book isn’t primarily a romance. I think my biggest issue is that I expected Nina to be more bookish and more introverted than she was. She seemed to perceive herself as incredibly unusual, but her levels of bookishness and introversion are pretty common among readers, at least in my experience! So maybe I was just a little let down by the premise. Overall, this was a good-not-great book for me, but I’d consider reading more by Waxman.

Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake Starts OverLinda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over

Eveleth “Evvie” Drake has been essentially hiding in her home ever since her husband, Tim, died in a car crash. Everyone in the small town of Calcasset, Maine, loved Tim and assumes that Evvie is isolating herself because of grief. Only Evvie knows that Tim had a dark side and that on the day of his death, she was actually in the process of leaving him. Now she’s having trouble making decisions about her life, so when her best friend Andy suggests that she take in a tenant, she goes along with it. Meanwhile, Dean Tenney is a major league baseball pitcher who suddenly can’t pitch anymore. He’s tried everything he can think of to get his mojo back, to no avail. Now that his career as a baseball player is apparently over, he needs to get out of town and figure out what to do next. When he rents the apartment attached to Evvie’s house, the two gradually become friends and maybe more. But will their respective baggage keep them apart?

I really enjoyed this book, although it’s not quite what I was expecting. I think I was anticipating a light and fizzy rom-com, but this book has a quieter, more contemplative feel. While the relationship between Evvie and Dean drives the plot, most of the conflicts they face are internal. Both of them are in a place where their lives have changed unexpectedly, and they’re floundering as they try to figure out what’s next. And while their growing affection makes them happier, it doesn’t magically fix everything in their lives — something I really appreciated about this book. The characters and conflicts are utterly grounded in reality, and I found both Evvie and Dean very relatable. I believed that these characters genuinely like each other and that their love will last because it’s based on a true friendship. All in all, I liked this book and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy their romance on the realistic side.

Review: Arcanos Unraveled

Arcanos UnraveledJonna Gjevre, Arcanos Unraveled

Anya Winter is an adjunct professor at Arcanos Hall, a magical university hiding in plain sight in Madison, Wisconsin. As a mere hedge witch, she’s neither powerful nor prestigious, but she doers have a talent for knitting magical artifacts. She also seems to have a talent for getting into trouble: first the magical shield protecting Arcanos from the mundane world is sabotaged, then Anya’s student needs help hiding a dead body, and finally Anya is blamed for the shield’s malfunction and banished from Arcanos altogether. In order to reclaim her place at the university, she’ll need to figure out what’s really going on, even if it means teaming up with a mysterious, frustrating, and handsome engineer named Kyril. Together, they uncover a nefarious plot that will have consequences for the entire magical world.

I found this book an enjoyable read, but there was a little bit too much going on for my taste. Or rather, the book keeps offering glimpses of interesting things — how the knitting magic works, for instance, or what is the broader political situation in Anya’s world — but never really develops them. I don’t normally read for setting, but I would have appreciated some more world-building here. Also, a few plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved: for example, what became of the woman in the red leather dress? There’s a bit of a romance between Anya and Kyril, but it feels very superficial (he’s so annoying! Yet so handsome!). There’s also Anya’s ex-boyfriend, who is such an obvious slimeball that it made me doubt Anya’s intelligence. Overall, I liked the premise and the basic outline of this book, but I wanted more from it.

Review: Good Riddance

Good RiddanceElinor Lipman, Good Riddance

“Daphne Maritch doesn’t quite know what to make of the heavily annotated high school yearbook she inherits from her mother, who held this relic dear. Too dear. The late June Winter Maritch was the teacher to whom the class of ’68 had dedicated its yearbook, and in turn she went on to attend every reunion, scribbling notes and observations after each one—not always charitably—and noting who overstepped boundaries of many kinds. In a fit of decluttering (the yearbook did not, Daphne concluded, “spark joy”), she discards it when she moves to a small New York City apartment. But when it’s found in the recycling bin by a busybody neighbor/documentary filmmaker, the yearbook’s mysteries—not to mention her own family’s—take on a whole new urgency, and Daphne finds herself entangled in a series of events both poignant and absurd.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I’d never read anything by Elinor Lipman before, but a combination of the plot summary and cute cover interested me enough to pick it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it very enjoyable, mainly because I didn’t connect with any of the characters or understand the decisions they made. For example, why does Daphne go along with Geneva’s filmmaking plan sometimes and resist at other times? Also, the characters all seem very two-dimensional. Geneva is presented as a talentless nightmare (which is how Daphne sees her), and that characterization is never given more nuance. Daphne’s father is “the nicest guy in the world,” and that statement is never questioned. I kept wanting some depth, some irony, some surprise, but none ever came. As for the “mystery” of the yearbook, in one sense the solution is incredibly predictable, but in another sense June’s obsession with the class of ’68 is never actually explained. I did breeze through the book in about three hours, but that’s really the only positive thing I have to say about it.

Review: The Proposal

ProposalJasmine Guillory, The Proposal

Nikole Paterson is at an LA Dodgers game with her boyfriend Fisher. She’s been seeing him casually for about five months, but she doesn’t consider their relationship particularly serious. So she’s shocked when Fisher urges her to look at the JumboTron just as it’s flashing a proposal to her, from him — and her name isn’t even spelled correctly! Nik is completely mortified; luckily, Carlos Ibarra is sitting just a couple rows behind her, sees the whole thing, and decides to help extricate her from the situation. Grateful for the save, Nik invites Carlos for a drink with her and her friends. Then they start texting each other, and soon they’re getting to know each other (and, ahem, “know” each other) and spending a ton of time together. Neither one of them is looking for a serious relationship, but as they grow closer despite themselves, they realize they’ve accidentally fallen in love.

I liked but didn’t love Guillory’s previous novel, The Wedding Date, and I find myself having a similar reaction to this book. It’s definitely a fun read, and both Nik and Carlos are likable characters whom I wanted to succeed and be happy. But as in The Wedding Date, there’s very little conflict: this is a book about nice people who are almost uniformly nice to each other. Now, I enjoy books with minimal angst and characters who communicate well; but Nik and Carlos’s relationship is so drama-free that it’s a little boring to read about, honestly. A lot of interesting conflicts lurk beneath the surface — Carlos’s belief that he has to be the rock his family depends on, for example, or Nik’s past relationship with an emotionally abusive man — but they’re barely touched on in the novel. Instead, the only obstacle between them is that they both want a casual fling, then realize they have Feelings. So while I found this a pleasant enough read, I definitely wanted more in terms of dramatic tension.

Review: Crazy for You

crazy for youJennifer Crusie, Crazy for You

Thirty-something Quinn McKenzie is stuck in a rut. She has great friends, she likes her job as a high school art teacher, and she’s dating the football coach, whom everyone in town recognizes as a total catch. But she still wants a change, and change arrives in the form of an adorable stray dog. Quinn wants to adopt the dog, but her boyfriend doesn’t. This small disagreement soon leads to a much bigger fight, and Quinn begins to realize that her seemingly great life is based on her always sacrificing what she wants for the sake of other people. Her friends and family are initially horrified at the change in Quinn, but she eventually inspires them to make changes in their own lives. In the most exciting change of all, Quinn is beginning to look at her longtime friend Nick in a whole new light, but it seems her old life isn’t quite ready to let her go. . . .

I’ve found Jennifer Crusie’s books to be somewhat hit-or-miss, but this one was definitely a hit for me! I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though, for several reasons. There’s quite a bit of profanity and a few pretty graphic sex scenes, so if those elements would bother you, steer clear. Also, and more importantly, there is stalking and violence against women in this book, which makes it quite a bit darker than I was expecting. However, all that said, I liked this book a lot, and it’s almost entirely due to the relationship between Quinn and Nick. I love a friends-to-lovers romance, especially when one or both of the people involved are very reluctant to act on their feelings for fear of ruining the friendship. In this case, I totally bought into the romantic tension between these characters and was rooting for them all the way. So this book worked really well for me, but I realize not everyone will feel the same!

Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.