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: The Friend Zone

Friend ZoneAbby Jimenez, The Friend Zone

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS! Highlight the white text in the second paragraph to read them.***

This contemporary romance novel focuses on Kristen Peterson, an outspoken entrepreneur who creates and sells accessories for small dogs, and Josh Copeland, a firefighter and ex-Marine. Kristen and Josh meet cute when she slams on her brakes and he rear-ends her; they then learn that their respective best friends, Sloan and Brandon, are getting married to each other. As Kristen and Josh spend more time together, they can’t deny their mutual attraction. But Kristen has a boyfriend who’s currently deployed overseas. And even if she weren’t dating someone else, she has a secret that makes her fundamentally incompatible with Josh: she has a medical condition that will make her unable to have children. Since Josh has stated that he wants a big family, Kristen knows she has to keep Josh in the “friend zone,” but the closer they become, the harder it is for her to deny her true feelings for him.

So, despite the good buzz surrounding this book, I must confess that it annoyed me on a number of different levels! First of all, the title is completely misleading. It gives the impression that this is a friends-to-lovers romance, but the attraction between Kristen and Josh is there from the start, and it doesn’t even take them that long to act on it. Second, Kristen keeps her medical issue a secret for far too long, so that the main obstacle to the romance is her failure to communicate, not the fact that Josh wants kids and she can’t have any. Third, a huge tragedy occurs near the end of the book, and that’s what brings Kristen and Josh together at last. But the event seemed totally unnecessary and emotionally manipulative to me. And finally, I was truly enraged by the resolution of the infertility conflict, which is that against all odds, Kristen gets pregnant after all! I know such things are medically possible, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention for having an infertile heroine, and if I’m an infertile woman reading this book and the heroine gets pregnant in the end, I’m going to be PISSED! So yeah, I didn’t enjoy this book, and I feel like the title and description are misleading for multiple reasons. I’m getting mad again just thinking about it!

Review: How to Find Love in a Bookshop

How to Find Love in a BookshopVeronica Henry, How to Find Love in a Bookshop

This story begins with the death of Julius Nightingale, proprietor of Nightingale Books in the village of Peasebrook, near Oxford. When he passes away following a sudden illness, his daughter Emilia inherits the bookshop. Though she receives a lucrative offer from a real estate developer to sell the shop, she decides to take over the management of the store and continue her father’s legacy. But she is surprised to learn just how powerful that legacy was to the community of Peasebrook. As she meets Julius’s friends and customers — like Sarah, the owner of the local stately home, whose relationship with Julius was more complex than anyone suspected; or Thomasina, the painfully shy teacher who can’t muster up the courage to ask out the handsome man she met in the cookbook section — Emilia realizes that Nightingale Books can be her legacy, and her home, as well.

This book is hard to describe because it’s very light on plot; it’s essentially a collection of vignettes about the various residents of Peasebrook and their relationships to one another and to Nightingale Books. All these stories are ultimately sweet and uplifting, despite the fact that the book begins with a death and that many of the characters are grieving. Almost everyone finds love in the end, although surprisingly few of the romances have anything to do with books. That might be my biggest complaint about the novel — there’s not very much about books or bookselling in it. Rather, the store is the backdrop for these various character-driven stories to unfold. I also felt that there were a few too many characters; I would have preferred fewer storylines and more depth. But despite these shortcomings, I actually really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who likes a pleasant, feel-good read!

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: Bel Canto

Bel CantoAnn Patchett, Bel Canto

In an unnamed Latin American country, the government is hosting a birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman who is deciding whether to build a factory there. Since Mr. Hosokawa loves opera, the world-famous soprano Roxane Coss has been invited to sing. The party begins beautifully but is shockingly disrupted when members of a terrorist organization burst into the vice president’s home and take everyone hostage. The terrorists are looking for the president, but he’s not at the party; he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. As a result, the attackers don’t know quite what to do next, and the hostage situation stretches on for days and even weeks. As time passes, the gap between prisoners and captors begins to narrow, and everyone trapped in the vice president’s house is eventually united by their appreciation for beauty and their common humanity.

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. While the inciting incident is a hostage crisis, the novel is neither thrilling nor fast-paced. Rather, it’s very contemplative in tone and spend a lot of time exploring the thoughts and feelings of the various people trapped in the house, both prisoners and guards. It’s hard to single out one protagonist, as the narrative pays equal attention to at least six or seven people. Normally this would frustrate me, but here I think it helps to reinforce the novel’s theme of people from very different backgrounds finding common ground. I liked that even the minor characters are given depth and dimension; no one is a prop or a plot device. Also, as a musician (though not an opera buff by any means!), I very much enjoyed the emphasis on the power of music to bring people together, even if that message does get a bit too heavy-handed at times. Overall, I feel like I’m still processing this book, and I’m sure I will be thinking about it for some time to come.

Review: The Wall of Winnipeg and Me

Wall of Winnipeg and MeMariana Zapata, The Wall of Winnipeg and Me

For the past two years, Vanessa Mazur has been the personal assistant to professional football player Aiden Graves. She’s cooked his meals and cleaned his home, answered his emails and scheduled meet-and-greets with his fans. And in all that time, Aiden has never thanked her for her hard work; in fact, he barely acknowledges her at all. So Vanessa is determined to quit, but when she finally musters the courage to resign, Aiden surprisingly wants her back. And when she resists becoming his assistant again, he makes an even more shocking proposal: she should marry him to help him gain permanent residency (he’s Canadian), and in return he’ll pay off her massive student loans and buy her a house. Vanessa finds the deal appealing but is reluctant to enter into an in-name-only marriage — especially when she finds Aiden so frustratingly attractive.

I find myself with mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I found it a fast and compelling read, despite it being quite long for a contemporary romance (more than 600 pages!). I like a marriage-of-convenience story and a slow burn, so the plot is right up my alley. On the other hand, I do think the book is a little too long and repetitive; better editing could have tightened it up substantially. I also didn’t totally love Aiden as a hero. I have no problem with the strong, silent type, but I want my heroes to grow throughout the novel; love should make them change for the better. In this case, while Aiden opens up to Vanessa very slightly, I never felt like I truly got to know him. And his treatment of her in the beginning is pretty inexcusable; I definitely wanted more groveling from him about that! He also does some things that Vanessa reads as “protective” but that I would consider to be controlling. So overall, the romance just didn’t work for me.

Review: The Flatshare

FlatshareBeth O’Leary, The Flatshare

When Tiffy Moore is dumped by her boyfriend, she needs a new place to live right away. So when she spots an ad for an inexpensive flatshare, she jumps at it, despite the unconventional terms of the agreement. Leon Twomey, the current renter of the flat, works nights and weekends as a palliative care nurse. So he only needs the flat from 9am to 6pm, while Tiffy is at work; meanwhile, she can use the flat while he’s gone. They’ll never even have to meet each other. But then Tiffy leaves a note and some leftover baked goods for Leon, and he leaves a thank-you note in response, and soon they’re corresponding via Post-It notes left all over the flat. And while they seem to have little in common—Tiffy is gregarious and messy, while Leon is quiet and self-contained—their correspondence deepens into a close friendship, and maybe even more. But their complicated lives threaten to derail their fledgling romance: Leon’s brother is in jail fighting a wrongful conviction, and Tiffy’s ex doesn’t want to let her move on.

Despite the somewhat contrived premise, this book is an adorable rom-com that I would wholeheartedly recommend! The story is told in alternating chapters from Tiffy’s and Leon’s points of view. While some reviewers had trouble getting into Leon’s clipped, stilted narrative style, I thought it made for a great contrast to Tiffy’s bubbly voice. The notes between Tiffy and Leon are a joy to read, making the relationship between the characters believable despite their not meeting in person until halfway through the book. I also liked that they both seem like real people: they have jobs (and we actually see them doing those jobs!) and friends and family members whom they care about. The secondary characters are a bit less dynamic—Tiffy’s scary lawyer best friend, Leon’s bitchy girlfriend—but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the main story so much! The book does deal with some serious issues, but it remains light and optimistic overall. In other words, it’s a perfect summer read!

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on LoveJennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love

Hugo Wilkinson is feeling trapped. He loves his parents and his five siblings, but he’s never particularly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with being a sextuplet. Now all six of them are heading off to their hometown university in the fall, but Hugo is beginning to wonder if it’s truly the right path for him. On top of everything else, he was supposed to be going on a romantic train trip across America with his girlfriend this summer, but she’s just dumped him, and all the tickets and hotels are in her name. Now Hugo is stuck — unless he can find another girl named Margaret Campbell who’d be willing to go with him. Meanwhile, Mae (full name Margaret) Campbell is an aspiring filmmaker in need of a little adventure. She decides to take Hugo up on his offer, and as they travel across the country together, their immediate connection deepens into something that surprises them both.

As someone who finds the idea of traveling across America by train both appealing and romantic, of course I couldn’t resist this book! And as I expected, it was a fun and charming read, although not particularly substantial. I think the book spends a little too much time setting up the plot, trying to make the whole scenario plausible, when in reality we all know it’s implausible and are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief — otherwise we wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place! I also didn’t quite buy into Mae’s internal conflict, which is about learning to let her guard down and be vulnerable — but the book never explains why she’s so guarded to begin with. Hugo’s conflict, about balancing his family’s expectations with his own wants and needs, was much more believable for me. I did like the sweet romance and the uniqueness of the road trip, but ultimately this isn’t a book I will ever revisit.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial KillerOyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer

Have you heard this one before? Two girls walk into a room. The room is in a flat. The flat is on the third floor. In the room is the dead body of an adult male. How do they get the body to the ground floor without being seen?” This quote from early in the novel basically sums up its premise: Korede’s little sister, Ayoola, has been killing her boyfriends, and Korede protects her by scrubbing the crime scenes and disposing of the evidence. Ayoola claims she’s justified in her killings — that the men attacked her, and she was just defending herself. But Korede is beginning to have doubts; and when Ayoola starts flirting with the object of Korede’s desire, Korede must decide whether to reveal Ayoola’s secrets or remain loyal to her sister at all costs.

This book certainly has an eye-catching title and hook, but it’s not really a serial killer book at all. We get very little insight into Ayoola’s motives or feelings about what is happening. Rather, this is a book about sisters, and it’s a fascinating study of Korede’s complex relationship with Ayoola. I completely understood Korede’s feelings: her frustration at not understanding her sister; her jealousy that Ayoola is beautiful and desired by men, even the man Korede herself loves; her protectiveness and loyalty despite the monstrosity of Ayoola’s actions. I also enjoyed the writing style; Korede’s deadpan narration gives a lightness to the grim subject matter. I don’t think plot is this novel’s strong point. Despite the high body count, nothing really happens. But overall, this was a fun and thought-provoking read for me, and I would definitely try another book by this author.

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.