mini-review · stuff I read

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

32075861._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Sarah Perry’s award-winning novel, set at the end of the nineteenth century and inspired by true events.

Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne’s spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.

The Essex Serpent is a book that I had a galley for, didn’t get to it, bought it when it came out, didn’t read it, ran across the audiobook on the library Overdrive site, gave it two tries to get through it, and finally polished off the last 50 pages by aforementioned hardcover.

On premise, and a lot of the individual writing, the story in The Essex Serpent ought to be so far up my wheelhouse its not funny.

Victorian? Check. Mysterious monster? Check. Ladies being awesome? Check. Absolutely gorgeous cover? Check, check, and check.

But it just wouldn’t READ. It plods along back and forth from London to Aldwinter, letters sent and letters received. I found it very hard to care about the motivations of the characters and I could definitely have done without the surgeon plot line. Eliminating him would have taken out at least one of the dudes who seem placed in this book solely to want into Cora Seabourne’s knickers 🙄

Dear FTC: You saw it above.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh (The Union of the Rakes #1)

42872108Summary from Goodreads:
In the first book in Eva Leigh’s new Union of the Rakes series, a bluestocking hires a faux suitor to help her land an ideal husband only to be blindsided by real desire…

Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to “build” the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace’s colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.

In exchange for funding his passage on an expedition leaving London in a few months, Sebastian allows Grace to transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace’s feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, real attraction. If only she hadn’t hired him to help her marry someone else…

Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he’s faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart.

I missed a few of Eva Leigh’s recent releases so I perked up when I heard that she had a new series starting – The Union of the Rakes. (omg, what) My Fake Rake is the first offering and it has one of my favorite tropes – friends to lovers! – AND the hero and heroine are total library nerds. Oh, my research dork babies. How I love them.

SO.

My Fake Rake is a reverse My Fair Lady plot, with a few nods to Pretty Woman thrown in for good measure (ahhh, the boat scene at the end! No spoilers!). Herpetologist Lady Grace Wyatt has had a long-standing, unrequited crush on a famous naturalist. When the wandering gent returns to Town, he mentions in passing to Grace (omg, he doesn’t deserve her, what a dense twerp) that he is in the market for a wife before he leaves on his expedition to Greenland in about a month. Grace is determined to make the drip notice her so she enlists her friend Sebastian, a bespectacled social scientist with social anxiety, to help her. And, what is the best way to get a guy to notice you? Get courted by a sexy rake, of course!

Cue what is the funniest thing I have read in forever: Grace and Sebastian do library research in forty year old conduct books to make Sebastian over into a rake. It is hi-larious. Luckily, Sebastian’s best friend from school is the Duke of Rotherby, the rakiest rake to ever rake, who catches them trying out some (ill-advised) rake-moves and saves them from embarrassing themselves. It’s delicious.

There is a wrinkle in the plan: Sebastian has been nursing an unrequited love for Grace. But he won’t ruin his friendship by getting in the way of Grace’s goals. But then Grace suddenly sees Sebastian in a new light as Rotherby’s Rake Lessons progress (the “goodness he’s hot without his spectacles” scene *sigh*). She, also, doesn’t want to ruin their friendship. The tension. You can cut it with a knife.

I love this book so much. Leigh really presents how fear of rejection and fear that you’ll ruin your best relationship can derail the best laid plans. Leigh also cleverly seeded in little bits of the other four heroes in this series – The Union of the Rakes – and I would like the rest of the books now please. (If you are not a Prologue reader, you will want to read this Prologue because it is a real Prologue, not just a mislabeled Chapter 1.)

My Fake Rake is out today, November 26!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and you can bet I pre-ordered this on my Nook immediately after finishing it.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Act Like It, Pretty Face, and Making Up by Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #1-3)

28208878._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A sharp-witted heroine and an infuriating-but-swoon-worthy leading man bring down the house in this utterly charming contemporary romance debut from Lucy Parker

This just in: romance takes center stage as West End theatre’s Richard Troy steps out with none other than castmate Elaine Graham

Richard Troy used to be the hottest actor in London, but the only thing firing up lately is his temper. We all love to love a bad boy, but Richard’s antics have made him Enemy Number One, breaking the hearts of fans across the city.

Have the tides turned? Has English rose Lainie Graham made him into a new man?

Sources say the mismatched pair has been spotted at multiple events, arm in arm and hip to hip. From fits of jealousy to longing looks and heated whispers, onlookers are stunned by this blooming romance.

Could the rumors be right? Could this unlikely romance be the real thing? Or are these gifted stage actors playing us all?

After starting with book 4 in the London Celebrities series (oops) I hopped back to the beginning to start with Act Like It. I really enjoyed this fake relationship plot between a good-natured, publicly-minded actress (Lainie) and a grouchy, patrician, git of an actor (Richard) who have to start appearing to be an item so ticket sales for the play they’re in won’t tank. So much good banter and a look inside the theatre world of West End London. I really liked how Richard softens, but doesn’t entirely lose his “people are insufferable” vibe while Lainie gets a little bit of an edge to her. Also, bro actors are the worst. (I kept imagining Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the main characters. 😻)

30631124._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Highly acclaimed, award-winning author of Act Like It Lucy Parker returns readers to the London stage with laugh-out-loud wit and plenty of drama

The play’s the fling

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie—and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance—if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad-tempered and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately, their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career, it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

I polished off Pretty Face as my second book in the July 2019 24in48 readathon!

I really loved this second book in the London Celebrities series. Lucy Parker takes aim at the shit actresses have to deal in the acting profession. Lily Lamprey, because she plays a sexy, sultry, somewhat loosely-moraled star of a Raging Twenties television show, is almost summarily dismissed out of hand by demanding theatre director Luc Savage for his groundbreaking new play about the Tudor queens. Breathy floozies (which is a kind paraphrase) should not portray Queen Elizabeth I. Lily can hold her own, though, and she nails her audition – and Luc’s attraction. Which is a problem when you are the much-older boss. And then you have to hire your recently-married ex-girlfriend to play Bloody Mary due to a casting change. Cue headaches.

Luc and Lily are great characters. I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about the age difference – Luc is in his early forties and Lily her mid-twenties – but it is handled so well on the page. Lucy Parker writes such wonderful adults in her books, who have jobs and careers and stakes but who also learn to deal with their emotional crap in very real ways. Pretty Face is probably my favorite in this series and I would love to see the actual play described in this book as a real production. Great to see an early version of Freddy from The Austen Playbook and Lainie and Richard back in a short scene (Richard gives great advice when he remembers to not be an actual git).

36533218._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Once upon a time, circus artist Trix Lane was the best around. Her spark vanished with her confidence, though, and reclaiming either has proved… difficult. So when the star of The Festival of Masks is nixed and Trix is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, it’s exactly the push she needs. But the joy over her sudden elevation in status is cut short by a new hire on the makeup team.

Leo Magasiva: disgraced wizard of special effects. He of the beautiful voice and impressive beard. Complete dickhead and—in an unexpected twist—an enragingly good kisser.

To Leo, something about Trix is… different. Lovely. Beautiful, even though the pint-size, pink-haired former bane of his existence still spends most of her waking hours working to annoy him. They’ve barely been able to spend two minutes together for years, and now he can’t get enough of her. On stage. At home. In his bed.

When it comes to commitment, Trix has been there, done that, never wants to do it again. Leo’s this close to the job of a lifetime, which would take him away from London — and from Trix. Their past is a constant barrier between them.

It seems hopeless.

Utterly impossible.

And yet…

I had a weirdly hard time getting into Making Up. I think I was initially put off by the animosity between Leo and Trix at the beginning of the book, since we met them both in the previous book Pretty Face and they were both likeable characters. It’s uncomfortable for a bit plus Trix’s boss (and Leo’s, since he joins the makeup team) at The Festival of Masks is such a shit that it’s very grimace-inducing. I put the book aside for a while. But once Leo and Trix clear the air (that was a hot scene by the end *fans self*) the plot loosened up and I really came to like this couple. Plus, this is a very different aspect of stagecraft, with an aerial Cirque du Soleil-like show compared to the other three books in the series that are more oriented around playacting.

I’m going to give a brief trigger warning for this book – Trix has experienced psychlogical abuse in a previous relationship and that manifests on the page in vivid panic attacks.

And now I’m all caught up and ready for Headliners (book 5, due out January 2020, I lucked into a digital galley approval on Netgalley, but I am contemplating a re-read of The Austen Playbook to get ready for Sabs and Nick).

Dear FTC: I bought all my copies of this series on my Nook.

stuff I read

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

43261190Summary from Goodreads:
“If I know why he is the way he is then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am,” says Alex Tuchman, strong-headed lawyer, loving mother, and daughter of Victor Tuchman—a power-hungry real estate developer and, by all accounts, a bad man. Now that Victor is on his deathbed, Alex feels she can finally unearth the secrets of who he is and what he did over the course of his life and career. She travels to New Orleans to be with her family, but mostly to interrogate her tightlipped mother, Barbra.

As Barbra fends of Alex’s unrelenting questions, she reflects on her tumultuous life with Victor. Meanwhile Gary, Alex’s brother, is incommunicado, trying to get his movie career off the ground in Los Angeles. And Gary’s wife, Twyla, is having a nervous breakdown, buying up all the lipstick in drug stores around New Orleans and bursting into crying fits. Dysfunction is at its peak. As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward—with one another, for themselves, and for the sake of their children.

All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.

All This Could Be Yours is composed of the most dysfunctional of dysfunctional people. Victor (the father) is terrible and even though he is comatose in his hospital bed he is everywhere in this narrative, Barbra (the mother) is emotionally withdrawn and obsessed with her appearance, Alex (the daughter) is angry at her mother and can be vindictive, Greg (the son) deals with the situation by refusing to show up, and Twyla (the daughter-in-law), as it turns out, is having a breakdown because of something she has done. Now, there is nuance to each of these stories, of course – except Victor, there is no nuance to a guy who is the Jewish version of a Mafia property developer and who idolizes The Sopranos. The trick is that Jami Attenberg is such a good writer she can take a book that is stocked with particularly unlikeable characters and make the story compelling. I kept on reading because a) I wanted know if Victor was going to get it in the end and b) to see if the other characters straighten themselves out (maybe? I think by the end of the book most of them have managed to shake Victor’s grip). The granddaughters, Sadie and Avery, are excellent and I wished they had made more appearances in the book.

This is also an excellent book to read if you like fiction where the setting feels like a character. New Orleans as a location plays a huge part in the story as several characters wander around the city, or escape it. The weather, specifically the humidity and heat of the Mississippi River delta, plays into this.

The only thing I really didn’t like was that it was a bit hard to follow as the narrative shifted from present to past and between characters. There was a long chapter in Barbra’s point-of-view that gave us a long chunk of backstory but it jumped around as she power-walked around the nursing unit.

I do have to give a trigger warning for domestic violence on the page. I also have to note that one character (and two others to a lesser degree) has internalized fatphobia and feminine beauty standards to an extreme and so there are a number of comments about women’s appearances that feel quite a bit squicky.

All This Could Be Yours published on October 22.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Unicorn Whisperer by Dana Simpson (Phoebe and Her Unicorn #10)

43821537Summary from Goodreads:
Welcome back to the hilarious and heartwarming world of Phoebe and Her Unicorn, where readers of all ages can always find a friend to lend a magical helping hand — or hoof.

For 9-year-old Phoebe Howell and her sparkling companion, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, every day is an adventure. In this latest installation of Dana Simpson’s award-winning Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, Phoebe navigates the challenges of school life with a little help from her unicorn friend, who is always ready with the perfect spell for the occasion. But as the magic spells mount up, both Phoebe and Marigold find themselves wondering if sometimes they might be taking things just a little too far…

87ecd9ed-80f5-4038-8ef0-e35d1c5cc151Another adorbs collection of web comics from Dana Simpson. I love the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold and the way the fourth panel in a strip has an excellent stinger. This collection also has some really great strips with Phoebe and her hipster dad, so cute. There did seem to be an odd jump at one point where all of a sudden Phoebe and Marigold needed to return Dakota’s boots without any previous mention in this volume of Dakota’s boots as a plot point. So I do wonder if we’re missing a strip or two.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book. Gotta have the whole set!

Austenesque · stuff I read

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall

The Bride of Northanger Blog Tour Banner FinalHello! Today marks the last few stops on the #Janeite blog tour for Diana Birchall’s new Austen Variation, The Bride of Northanger, stopping here with a review (waves!) and also a spotlight at My Love for Jane Austen. Many thanks and hugs to Laurel Ann of Austenprose for organizing the tour and visit her review and kick-off post for a list of other participating blogs for interviews and more reviews.

48205456._SY475_BOOK DESCRIPTION:

A happier heroine than Catherine Morland does not exist in England, for she is about to marry her beloved, the handsome, witty Henry Tilney. The night before the wedding, Henry reluctantly tells Catherine and her horrified parents a secret he has dreaded to share – that there is a terrible curse on his family and their home, Northanger Abbey. Henry is a clergyman, educated and rational, and after her year’s engagement Catherine is no longer the silly young girl who delighted in reading “horrid novels”; she has improved in both reading and rationality. This sensible young couple cannot believe curses are real…until a murder at the Abbey triggers events as horrid and Gothic as Jane Austen ever parodied – events that shake the young Tilneys’ certainties, but never their love for each other…

Diana Birchall’s new sequel to Austen’s Northanger Abbey opens the night before Catherine Morland’s wedding to Henry Tilney as Henry arrives at the Morland family home to dutifully inform them that the Tilney family appears to operate under a curse: that the wife of the eldest Tilney son will die young (apparently the family was cursed during the Dissolution). Catherine, now rid of her youthful flights of fancy, dismisses this so-called curse. Henry is, of course, the second son and furthermore, as rational, modern people, they don’t believe in curses. So Catherine and Henry marry and settle into a pleasant life at the vicarage…until General Tilney (and his ominous wedding gift) summons the young couple to a strange dinner party at Northanger Abbey. This sets off a year full of mysterious events, ghostly sightings, and deaths worthy of Catherine’s horrid Gothic novels.

And those deaths are firmly in the realm of gruesome twists of fate, serving up grisly demises for several familiar characters. Birchall made an interesting choice in this novel, to both attempt the ironic tone Austen used when poking fun at Gothic fiction and go full-Gothic at the climax of the plot. It starts out very light, with Catherine enjoying married life and expanding her reading – and education – by reading works of philosophy and history under Henry’s direction. Even the initial trip to the Abbey stays on the lighter side with a glimpse of a possible ghost to tickle Catherine’s imagination. The plot, though, begins to delve into horrors that steadily pull away from the recreation of Austen’s tone. In one scene Catherine is made to sit a vigil over a dead body since no one else from the family is available to do it and the sequence of events is quite unnerving, far more so than searching a cupboard to find a mysterious document (which turned out to be a laundry list) or speculating whether General Tilney killed his wife. Each further mishap gets a bit more squicky-making. (Sorry about the vagueness, but there are quite a lot of twists to the plot that I’m trying to avoid spoiling.) The plot of The Bride of Northanger is much closer to a true Gothic novel in the vein of The Castle of Otranto or The Mysteries of Udolpho than Austen’s lively send-up. If you’ve read any of the Gothics that Catherine so enjoyed then you’ll recognize a number of the plot elements.

The book reads quite well. I took it with me on a short trip and read almost the whole thing on a two-and-a-half hour plane ride. It was fun to see so many of the original characters again, so despite my wish to have a bit more Austenian irony and a few less deaths it was quite enjoyable.

The Bride of Northanger is out now!

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book via the blog tour organizer.

food · mini-review · stuff I read

Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

43835491Summary from Goodreads:
This collection of intimate essays by some of America’s most well-regarded writers explores how food can help us cope in dark times―whether it be the loss of a parent, the loneliness of moving to a new country, the heartache of an unexpected breakup, or the fear of coming out. Luscious, full-color illustrations by Meryl Rowin are woven throughout, and accompanying each story is a recipe from the writer’s own kitchen.

Lev Grossman explains how he survived on “sweet, sour, spicy, salty, unabashedly gluey” General Tso’s tofu after his divorce. Carmen Maria Machado describes learning to care for herself during her confusing young adulthood, beginning with nearly setting her kitchen on fire. Claire Messud tries to understand how her mother gave up dreams of being a lawyer to make “a dressed salad of tiny shrimp and avocado, followed by prune-stuffed pork tenderloin, served with buttered egg noodles” for her family. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers a childhood friend―who later died as a soldier in Nigeria―with a pot of fragrant jollof rice. What makes each tale so moving is not only the deeply personal revelations from celebrated writers, but also the compassion and healing behind the story: the taste of hope.

Eat Joy is a charming, and sometimes heart-breaking or heart-warming depending on subject, collection of essays and recipes from respected authors like Alexander Chee, Porochista Khakpour, Lev Grossman, Carmen Maria Machado, Anthony Doerr, Edwidge Danticat, and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Some recipes are definitely new to me and I want to try them – Mira Jacob provides a chai recipe, Rakesh Satyal has one for pie (I have yet to master pies) – but others are just something simple that brought comfort at a tough time, like Dina Abu-Jaber’s pita+yogurt+z’atar (one is literally boxed brownie mix, that’s it).

This would be a perfect addition to a cooking-themed holiday basket you might be planning.

Dear FTC: I read a review copy sent to me by the publisher. Thank you so much to Catapult pitching it to me.

mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.