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: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Meet Me at the Cupcake CaféJenny Colgan, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Isabel “Issy” Randall has always loved baking. Her Grampa Joe owned a successful chain of bakeries and taught Issy everything he knew, including a deep love of giving pleasure to others through food. So when Issy is laid off from her boring office job, she decides to open her own bakery—after all, how hard can it be? Of course, she quickly realizes that starting a business is more difficult than she’d anticipated, and she faces a variety of problems, from the hostility of the local business community to the lack of foot traffic on her street to the astronomically high rent for the café’s space. Luckily, she has the support of her best friend Helena, her new friend and employee Pearl, and her bank loan officer Austin. Eventually Issy’s business starts to take off, as does a potential romance with Austin. But interference by a big-shot property developer — who also happens to be Issy’s ex-boyfriend — may derail both her professional and her personal life.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jenny Colgan’s books in the past, so I was excited to pick this one up. It pretty much follows the Colgan formula: the female protagonist starts out with an unfulfilling job and an unsatisfactory boyfriend, loses both, pursues a new career she’s passionate about, and finds love in the process. But while the other Colgan books I’ve read (The Café by the Sea and The Bookshop on the Corner) have a certain emotional depth that makes them more substantial than a generic chick-lit novel, this one was missing that depth, for me. I found Issy’s friend Pearl, who deals with poverty and class insecurities, much more interesting than Issy herself. But I did like that this book focuses a lot on the difficulties of opening a small business; Issy doesn’t just magically succeed because she’s a great baker. So the book feels a little more grounded in reality than, say, a Hallmark movie. Overall, this was a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more by Colgan, but it’s not my favorite of her books.

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: 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.