Mini-Reviews: Key, Midnight, Birds

Lia Louis, The Key to My Heart

Since the tragic death of her husband, Russ, two years ago, Natalie has been struggling. Once a professional pianist, now she can only play at the dilapidated public piano in St. Pancras station, where she can be anonymous and ignored. When a mysterious person starts leaving sheet music there for Natalie — music that has special meaning for her and Russ — she tries to discover who’s responsible. Along the way, she slowly begins to work through her feelings of guilt and loss. I enjoyed this one; despite the sad premise and the very realistic-feeling portrayal of grief, the book has an uplifting and even sometimes humorous tone. A romance eventually develops, but the novel’s main focus is Natalie’s personal growth. I’d recommend this one if you like your women’s fiction with a little gravitas, though Dear Emmie Blue is still my favorite book by this author.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall, a student of magick at Oxford’s Merlin College, has just been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. His pompous, disagreeable tutor forces him to retreat to the tutor’s country estate till the scandal blows over. Gray resents this change in his circumstances — that is, until he befriends the tutor’s daughter, Sophie. They soon discover that the plot against Gray is part of a much larger scheme that could throw the entire kingdom into turmoil; meanwhile, Sophie learns some surprising truths about her identity. I originally read this book in 2014 but couldn’t remember a thing about it, so I decided to reread it before continuing with the series, and I’m so glad I did! I loved the fantastical alt-Regency setting, Sophie and Gray are both wonderfully likable characters, and the plot is intriguing (albeit a bit slow-moving). In short, I loved this book and am so glad I decided to tackle this series this year!

Sarah Addison Allen, Other Birds

This quiet, magic-infused novel centers around the inhabitants of the Dellawisp, an old condo building tucked away in the small town of Mallow Island, South Carolina. The residents are estranged sisters Lizbeth and Lucy, artist Charlotte, chef Mac, newcomer Zoey, and building manager Frasier. They all have difficult pasts and are all keeping secrets. But as they slowly get to know one another, they discover friendship, love, and the strength to let go of their (sometimes literal) ghosts. I’m a Sarah Addison Allen fan, and this book delivers her trademark evocative writing and sympathetic yet flawed characters. There are POV chapters for almost every character, which feels like a bit too much…but I’m also not sure whose POV I’d want to take out. I really liked this one overall and would recommend it if you’re in the mood to sink into a slow-paced, magical world.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Review: First Frost

First FrostSarah Addison Allen, First Frost

***Warning: Spoilers for Garden Spells.***

It’s been ten years since the events of Garden Spells, and the Waverley clan has changed in unexpected ways. Claire has given up her catering business to run a much more profitable and far-reaching candy company. But while the candy company keeps her busy and brings in good money, Claire finds herself anxious and uneasy most of the time. Meanwhile, Sydney is married to Henry and desperately wants to give him a son, but so far she’s been unable to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her daughter Bay is now a teenager balancing her desire to fit in with her unique Waverley gifts. She has also fallen in love with local golden boy Josh Matteson, whose parents have big plans for him — plans that certainly don’t include Bay. As the Waverley women prepare for their annual celebration of the first frost, all these tensions continue to rise; and the arrival of a traveling magician with a sinister secret may break apart their family forever.

I love all of Sarah Addison Allen’s books, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed this one! Part of me wishes she hadn’t written a sequel to Garden Spells, which I think stands very well on its own. But on the other hand, it was nice to follow up with the Waverleys and see what happened after the happily-ever-after. One thing I really liked was that SAA doesn’t rehash the conflicts from the first book. Garden Spells mainly dealt with the development of Claire and Sydney’s relationship from near-strangers to close sisters, and in this book, that relationship remains solid. At the same time, the past definitely informs the present — for example, Bay’s relationship with Josh is certainly affected by Sydney’s prior relationship with Josh’s father. So in my opinion, this book is a really good sequel: it has certain themes in common with its predecessor, but it doesn’t tell the same story. I wasn’t a big fan of the traveling magician, who didn’t really add very much to the novel. But overall, I liked this book and would definitely recommend it to fans of Garden Spells!

Review: Lost Lake

Lost LakeSarah Addison Allen, Lost Lake

The tiny vacation resort of Lost Lake in Suley, Georgia, means different things to different people. For Eby Pim, it’s a tangible reminder of her happy life with her now-deceased husband, George; but it’s also an increasingly burdensome property to maintain, and Eby has decided to sell it. For Eby’s longtime friend and constant companion, Lisette, Lost Lake is a refuge, and she vows she’ll never leave. And for Kate Pheris, widowed one year ago and just now waking up from her grief, Lost Lake is a memory of the best summer she ever had. When Kate impulsively decides to revisit Lost Lake with her daughter, Devin, she is immediately drawn to Eby and the other colorful inhabitants of the surrounding town. Kate and Devin’s arrival also catalyzes several important changes in Suley, including the resolution of a long-buried tragedy and the banishing of an old ghost. Eventually Kate is able to help Eby create a new future — and maybe even find one for herself.

As a longtime fan of Sarah Addison Allen, I couldn’t resist buying her newest book immediately (in hardcover, no less!) and devouring it as soon as possible. Fortunately, this book contains all of SAA’s trademark elements: a community of strong women with interconnected lives, decades-old secrets that are gradually revealed, understated romance, and a hint of magic. I especially loved the flashbacks to Eby’s life with George in Europe; they were so romantic and lavishly described that they made me want to hop on the next plane to Paris! I wasn’t terribly fond of the storyline with the alligator…I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’ll just say that the magical element was a bit too prominent for me. Overall, this is not my favorite SAA novel (that would be The Sugar Queen), but it is a lovely, relaxing read that I would definitely recommend to fans of this genre.

Review: The Girl Who Chased the Moon

The Girl Who Chased the MoonSarah Addison Allen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon

When 17-year-old Emily’s mother dies, leaving her an orphan, Emily moves in with her grandfather in her mother’s hometown of Mullaby, North Carolina. Almost immediately, Emily begins to notice strange things about the town — starting with the fact that her grandfather is literally a giant who stands over 7 feet tall. Then there are the mysterious lights that appear outside her window at night, which nobody seems to want to talk about. But most importantly, Emily soon discovers that the entire town is hiding a secret about her mother, something that has the potential to change Emily’s life forever.

I’m starting to suspect that Sarah Addison Allen is a sorcerer of some kind; her novels all have this luxurious, magical quality that transcends ordinary experience. Or to put it less pretentiously, I love her books, and this one is no exception! I enjoyed the glimpse of life in a small town, with all its idiosyncratic personalities and inexplicable traditions. My favorite character was Julia, Emily’s next-door neighbor and the best baker in town. There’s plenty of romance and mystery in this book, and it’s a perfect read for a lazy summer afternoon. This is not my favorite novel by Sarah Addison Allen — that would be The Sugar Queen — but it was still a lovely experience. Can’t wait for her new book, which is coming out next year!

Review: Garden Spells

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison AllenSarah Addison Allen, Garden Spells

Everyone in the small town of Bascom, North Carolina, knows that there’s something strange about the Waverleys. Flowers bloom in their garden all year round, and the apple tree in their yard has certain unusual properties. Claire Waverley has lived in Bascom since childhood and is happy to embrace her special role as a Waverley. By contrast, her sister Sydney left town after high school and has been constantly on the move ever since. The two sisters have never gotten along; but when Sydney unexpectedly returns to Bascom with her daughter Bay in tow, they must find a way to heal their relationship and face the consequences of their respective pasts.

I love Sarah Addison Allen’s books, and Garden Spells is certainly no exception. Allen’s writing is lush, magical, and romantic; while I’m normally not a big fan of flowery descriptions, in this case they contribute to the vivid atmosphere. Both Claire and Sydney are well-drawn characters in whom I became very invested, and the secondary characters are also quirky and interesting. I especially liked Evanelle, an elderly Waverley woman who is occasionally compelled to give people random objects that they later turn out to need. My only quibble is that Bay seems a bit precocious for a 5-year-old, but it didn’t bother me that much. I’d definitely recommend this book, and Sarah Addison Allen in general, to people looking for light fiction with a unique twist. Unfortunately I only have one of her books left to discover, The Girl Who Chased the Moon. Hopefully she’ll write another one soon!