Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla (Pink Carnation #11) by Lauren Willig

Summary from Goodreads:
In the latest Pink Carnation novel from national bestselling author Lauren Willig, rumors spreading among the ton turn deadly as a young couple unites to solve a mystery….

In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.

Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.

The Pink Carnation series is one of those book series where you didn’t even know you wanted the novels in the twisting path it takes to the end (i.e. the novel where our beloved Pink Carnation finds her match) but you do. I certainly do. And none more so than the newest installment, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, because the heroine is the high-energy little sister of our favorite Regency vegetable.

That’s right: Sally Fitzhugh, sister of Turnip, has elbowed her way to the head of the Pink Carnation heroine queue and claimed this book for her own.  (Sally would say she hasn’t elbowed anyone, just been very, very determined.)

Sally, having made her debut on the marriage market, is finding herself a little bored with it all.  She has grown a little apart from her two best friends, Lizzy Reid and Agnes Wooliston, whom we met in Turnip’s book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, and subsequently had their own road-tripping adventure complete with crazed French spy in Miss Gwen’s book, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria (and I should really start calling Miss Gwen “Mrs. Reid” before she comes after me with her parasol).  At a ball held at the Vaughns’ Lizzy dares Sally to walk through the garden into that of the Duke of Belliston (who is rumored to be a vampire, of all things, aside from a recluse). Sally being Sally takes her up on it, determined to reclaim some of the “recklessness” the trio once prided themselves on.

And there is a presence in the mysterious garden, Lucien, the Duke of Belliston, who is amused to find a young lady who, though startled, is feisty and full of words and completely not at all the sort to faint dead away when catching sight of him.  Lucien is a much different sort of gentleman than Sally is used to finding in the ton‘s drawing rooms. He is reserved, severely understated in his personal attire (particularly when compared to Turnip), has a delicious accent from spending the last however-many years in Louisiana with his decidedly un-tonnish Martinque-descended mother’s family, and is in possession of a true family scandal: his parents were killed by poison from the manzanilla tree, attributed to his mother who was acknowledged to be a skilled botanist and not at all liked among Society’s matrons.

For his part, Lucien has no time for tonnish young ladies, no matter how pretty or matter-of-fact or unafraid.  He has returned to London to revenge himself on his parents’ murderer.  However, when Sally saves him from a situation that would have easily landed him in the hangman’s noose – Duke or no Duke – their fates become entwined.  And the outcome is predictably delicious (but don’t eat those manzanilla apples, those aren’t for eating).

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is adorable, as I expected Sally Fitzhugh’s book to be, but it also feels a teensy bit unsatisfying.  It is disconnected from the Pink Carnation/spy plot that developed in Purple Plumeria even though “spies” are introduced into this novel and Mrs. Reid loans our couple the use of her extensive spy-finding experience. It was hugely satisfying to see Turnip as a doting daddy (the scene with Parsnip, Arabella, and jam was so adorable) but I wasn’t happy with only name-dropping for my favorite couples – Geoff and Letty, Miles and Hen, Vaughn and Mary – without any actual interaction with the characters since this is rumored to be our last novel to feature any of them (although the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale does get in a fabulous line).  Readers of Gothic literature will be absolutely delighted with all the bits Lauren has dropped in from Mrs. Reid’s The Convent of Orsino.  

On the Colin-Eloise front, Eloise is back in the US, teaching at Harvard, with Colin visiting for Halloween (in the timeline of the books, we’re still in 2004-2005 in these sections so the Twilight craze is just beginning).  I was really delighted to see Lauren working in the very harsh realities/baises of academia – particularly the possibility that Eloise’s work will be side-lined because it doesn’t read as interesting as her very stuck-in-the-mud, male adviser.

Excellent addition to the Pink Carnation series!  (If you’ve not yet encountered any of the Pink books, start with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation).

PS: there is a great shout-out to The Princess Bride – you’ll have to be looking for it. My copy also had a sneak peek of The Lure of the Moonflower, the last in the Pink Carnation series (for now, although Lauren hasn’t ruled out revisiting side characters in novellas or specials) and, augh, must wait ’till next summer!

Dear FTC: I won an ARC of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Empathy Exams

Summary from Goodreads:
From personal loss to phantom diseases, The Empathy Exams is a bold and brilliant collection; winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

I started hearing buzz about a new collection of essays from Graywolf Press back in the winter.

“But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.”

Holy who knows what this book is amazing go read it now yes please thank you.  Because I don’t think that I can write a cohesive review.  All the essays are amazing, particularly the title essay.

audiobooks · stuff I read

Landline

Summary from Goodreads:
Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble;it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

In one of those random happenstances, we got a review advance of the audiobook for Rainbow Rowell’s new novel, Landline, at the store.  I liked Eleanor & Park and looooooved Fangirl so I decided I would give this one a try.

So, actual novel first.  I don’t like this as much as either of the two YA novels (and we can debate until the cows come home whether we can also put them in “New Adult” which I think should be a much more inclusive category than what it’s currently used for), primarily for the reason that Georgie annoyed the crap out of me with her seeming inability to get her head out of the sand and actually realize how she’s managed to treat her very nice husband as part of the furniture.  And also allow her douche-y, controlling so-called best friend Seth to become the third member of her marriage.

I do not like Seth. At all.  From his first appearance in the book.  I’m pretty sure that was Rowell’s intention but ugggggghhhhhhhh he needs to have his ass kicked repeatedly.

But I did really love the magical-realism of the landline telephone and all the flashbacks Rowell employed to establish her relationship with Neal.  They were in college right around when I was in college so I enjoyed wallowing in all the early-to-mid 90s pop culture stuff.  So that was enjoyable.

There’s a surprise at the end of the book if you’ve read one of Rowell’s other books (not going to say which one).

As to the narrator….it was OK.  Her voice fit Georgie but I didn’t particularly care for her “Neal” or “Seth” voices.

Dear FTC: I listened to an advance listening copy provided to my store by Macmillan Audio.

First to Read · stuff I read

The Hundred-Year House

Summary from Goodreads:
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.

In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.

Old houses seem to have a life of their own.  Laurelfield, the crumbling Chicago estate of an estranged offshoot of the Canadian Devohr family is no different.  The Devohrs seem to be a cursed line, plagued with suicides and mysterious deaths.  The last of the Devohrs are Gracie and her daughter Zee, born Zilla. Zee has returned home (reluctantly) to teach at the local college.  She and her husband Doug live in the Laurelfield carriage house, soon shared by another couple Case and Miriam, Zee’s step-brother and his wife.  Things seem fairly orderly: Zee will teach (and try to get Doug hired at the college) and Doug will finish his monograph of Edwin Parfitt.

Then things start to go weirdly wrong.  Zee is obsessed with forcing out her elderly colleague, then imagines Doug and Miriam are having an affair. An old dress re-appears in a wrong place.  Doug writes and writes but not on his monograph – he is ghost-writing Baby-sitters’ Club-type books.  Case suffers a series of accidents.  Gracie becomes fanatical about guarding the arts colony files from Doug.  Bruce begins hoarding supplies to survive the Y2K meltdown.  Is the house causing all these things to happen?  The ghost of Violet Devohr?

As the wheels begin to come off normality we find that the characters wear their identities like cloaks, one under the other, much like the history of the house reveals that it has been a home, a prison, and a haven of creativity.  Lies are created and lies are uncovered.  Relationships are made and broken.  At the end of each section we step through a doorway in time as the house sheds another layer to let us out into another one of its secrets.  It’s a bit like a counter-part to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  How much crazy is lent by the environment and how much is lent by the inhabitants?

Makkai’s progression through Laurelfield’s history is very interesting.  A reverse first-half of Cloud Atlas, if you will.  I only have one very minor bone to pick and that has to do with a very short (perhaps 10 pages) section where Makkai does a very neat wrap-up of all the previous characters’ lives.  It’s redundant, in my opinion, because readers who pay attention have already pegged what happened, it pulls you out of the established narrative of the book just before you get the very last bit of information that you need.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai is available from Viking Adult on July 10.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via the Penguin First to Read program.

mini-review · stuff I read

Above the East China Sea

Summary from Goodreads:
A Seattle Times Best Book of the Year

In her most ambitious, moving, and provocative novel to date, Sarah Bird makes a stunning departure. Above the East China Sea tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love.

Luz James, a contemporary U.S. Air Force brat, lives with her strictly-by-the-rules sergeant mother at Kadena Air Base in Okianawa. Luz’s older sister, her best friend and emotional center, has just been killed in the Afghan war. Unmoored by her sister’s death and a lifetime of constant moving from base to base, Luz turns for the comfort her service-hardened mother cannot offer to the “Smokinawans,” the “waste cases,” who gather to get high every night in a deserted cove. When even pills, one-hitters, Cuervo Gold, and a growing crush on Jake Furusato aren’t enough to soften the unbearable edge, the desolate girl contemplates taking her own life.

In 1945, Tamiko Kokuba, along with two hundred of her classmates, is plucked out of her elite girls’ high school and trained to work in the Imperial Army’s horrific cave hospitals. With defeat certain, Tamiko finds herself squeezed between the occupying Japanese and the invading Americans. She believes she has lost her entire family, as well as the island paradise she so loved, and, like Luz, she aches with a desire to be reunited with her beloved sister.

On an island where the spirits of the dead are part of life and your entire clan waits for you in the afterworld, suicide offers Tamiko the promise of peace. As Luz tracks down the story of her own Okinawan grandmother, she discovers that, if she surrenders to the most unbrat impulse and allows herself to connect completely with a place and its people, the ancestral spirits will save not only Tamiko but her as well.

Propelled by a riveting narrative and set at the very epicenter of the headline-grabbing clash now emerging between the great powers, Above the East China Sea is at once a remarkable chronicle of how war shapes the lives of conquerors as well as the conquered and a deeply moving account of family, friendship, and love that transcends time.

Very readable novel.  Lots of good historical information about Okinawa history and religious practice that I had zero clues about so I learned a ton. This is a part of Japan that is certainly never brought up in history class. The plotting felt uneven at the beginning trying to balance the two 1st person POVs (and one was occasionally 2 POV at once, so yeah) but it smoothed out after 50p or so.

Apparently the author was an AFB military brat so I’m assuming those sections are pretty accurate.

First to Read · stuff I read

One Plus One

Summary from Goodreads:
American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted stateside, she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation, Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story that reads like a modern-day Two for the Road.

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

Confession time: I have yet to finish Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You.  I’m about halfway through and I’m absolutely terrified of the ending because I’m not sure if I will “like” the ending as a critical reader or whether it will feel trite and manipulative and then I’ll be ragingly annoyed.  There is a level of social realism in Moyes’s writing that conveys an “anything might happen” situation.  So there was a bit of trepidation when I put in my name for a Penguin First to Read DRC of One Plus One and got lucky in the drawing.  Would I like it?  And, more importantly, could I finish it?

The above blurb doesn’t quite do One Plus One justice because it gives a sense of zaniness or a madcap adventure.  And while there are moments of levity and goofy circumstances, this is not a funny rom-com where people dash all over England and Scotland in attempt to get a special child to a contest that she is guaranteed to win and a Happy Ending For All.

No.

Jess is a single mother living on a council estate where she works two low-paying jobs (bartending and cleaning houses) to try and juggle the bills so that she and the kids can eat, pay rent and utilities, and have a bit leftover to take care of the dog and maybe have a small treat now and then.  She is ever the optimist, believing that being a good person and constantly working hard will bring rewards (she even avoids nagging her husband who, two years ago, went to live with his mother in what sounds like a bout of severe depression).  Her current desire is to get the hell out of that council estate because Nicky (her stepson) is being terrorized by a local crowd of bullies who have so terrified the neighborhood that witnesses to the abuse evaporate, even when an attack lands Nicky in the hospital.  If Nicky is beaten for being different (a little alternative, maybe a little glam, a good kid) what will happen to eight-year-old mathematics prodigy Tanzie when she gets to the same school?

Ed, though he works hard, grew up in a solidly middle-class family, went to a good school, and recently sold the software he created with his best friend to make a mint.  He had it all – until he made a spectacularly bad decision in giving an annoying booty call some “financial advice” (caveat: it’s the Queen Bee from college that nerdy Ed couldn’t ever hope to be with and he got played).  Now he’s being investigated for insider trading, ostracized from work, and isolated at his beach house.

Jess is his house cleaner.  Later, he vaguely recognizes her at the pub when she calls him on being a jerk.  Through a series of plot machinations – chiefly, Tanzie’s ability in maths, her acceptance at an elite school, Jess’s desperation to cover the remaining ~2,000£ with a series of poorly thought out bad decisions, and a Maths Olympiad prize that could cover the amount and then some – Ed offers to drive Jess, Nicky, Tanzie, and Norman (the family’s very large, drooly, smelly dog) to Scotland for the maths competition.

And this is where Moyes’s social realism brings the issues of income and social class to a head.  Ed literally cannot wrap his head around why Jess makes sandwiches, avoids incurring expenses, and insists on paying him back.  When she says that he is rich, he demurs.  He describes the banking software he sold as costing the average person less than a penny per transaction (it sounds vaguely like a universal PayPal something or other); when Jess asks Tanzie to do the addition it comes out to over 100£ per year.  Ed protests that this is a rather paltry sum but Tanzie reels off exactly, almost to the penny, how much food and clothing the family could buy and how much Jess could stretch that amount for a family of three.

This conversation is one of the significant points in the book.  It illustrates how much the system makes a family like Jess’s work for every little good thing.  That even in the face of the family’s financial hardship the school that could save Tanzie thinks that a 90% scholarship is enough and that surely Jess could just fork over 2,000£.  The hidden shame that Jess makes all of Tanzie’s clothes rather than buy them.  That the police can hardly be bothered when Nicky is hospitalized.  That Ed doesn’t realize 100£ dribbled out over the course of a year could take a family from poor to destitute.  Tanzie’s list of much needed items, a very pedestrian list to someone like me who, although I have bills and debts, doesn’t have to worry about choosing between paying for the next meal or paying the rent, reads like a calorie count of food items recited by an anorectic.  Each strange set-back on the trip – motion sickness, food poisoning, Tanzie’s broken glasses – seems like another brick in a wall meant to keep the lower classes low.  Even the maths competition is not the rewarding experience that is promised.

Alongside the issues of money and class, Moyes’s also pulls bullying, cyberbullying, the ostracism of females who excel at STEM fields (I don’t have a tidy word for that – it’s feminism but that doesn’t seem to fit right), slut shaming, and deadbeat dads into the mix.  Jess and Ed each make really stupid decisions, then regret them.  Nicky thinks that ignoring his problem will make it go away.  Even Tanzie makes a decision that could have disastrous consequences.  I was moved to tears at one point when Nicky discovers that the kindness of strangers is a real, true thing.  This is a novel about people who live real, messy lives and don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to happen.  They grab onto their opportunities with both hands and if the ending isn’t Happily Ever After it is certainly Happier and More Secure Than We Were.

Jojo Moyes’s One Plus One is out today from Pamela Dorman Books.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via Penguin’s First to Read program.