Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs
By Amy Poeppl
Published July 21, 2020 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

Publisher’s summary:
The “quick-witted and razor-sharp” (Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Jones & The Six) author of Limelight and Small Admissions returns with a hilarious and heartfelt new novel about a perfectly imperfect summer of love, secrets, and second chances.

Bridget and Will have the kind of relationship that people envy: they’re loving, compatible, and completely devoted to each other. The fact that they’re strictly friends seems to get lost on nearly everyone; after all, they’re as good as married in (almost) every way. For three decades, they’ve nurtured their baby, the Forsyth Trio—a chamber group they created as students with their Juilliard classmate Gavin Glantz. In the intervening years, Gavin has gone on to become one of the classical music world’s reigning stars, while Bridget and Will have learned to embrace the warm reviews and smaller venues that accompany modest success.

Bridget has been dreaming of spending the summer at her well-worn Connecticut country home with her boyfriend Sterling. But her plans are upended when Sterling, dutifully following his ex-wife’s advice, breaks up with her over email and her twin twenty-somethings arrive unannounced, filling her empty nest with their big dogs, dirty laundry, and respective crises.

Bridget has problems of her own: her elderly father announces he’s getting married, and the Forsyth Trio is once again missing its violinist. She concocts a plan to host her dad’s wedding on her ramshackle property, while putting the Forsyth Trio back into the spotlight. But to catch the attention of the music world, she and Will place their bets on luring back Gavin, whom they’ve both avoided ever since their stormy parting.

With her trademark humor, pitch-perfect voice, and sly perspective on the human heart, Amy Poeppel crafts a love letter to modern family life with all of its discord and harmony. In the tradition of novels by Maria Semple and Stephen McCauley, Musical Chairs is an irresistibly romantic story of role reversals, reinvention, and sweet synchronicity.

Musical Chairs is a really funny and delightful book, and it’s a perfect lightweight summer read.

Bridget Stratton has her summer all planned out. She’s spending it at her house in the 52753733country, her new boyfriend will be joining her, and she and her best friend and musical partner Will are working on adding a new member to their classic music trio, and she’s expecting a delightful summer. But then her boyfriend dumps her, the new member of the trio turns out to be a raging prima donna, her adult children both return home, and her elderly father makes a surprising announcement. Now her perfect summer has blown up in her face.

This book is a perfect beach read (even if you’re not going anywhere near the beach this summer because of the coronavirus). It’s a really interesting look at the world of classical music. Bridget’s father is a very famous composer, and although Bridget is a talented cellist, she’s always lived a bit in his shadow. Most musicians don’t make much money, but Bridget has a lot of family money, so her career in music hasn’t caused her any financial hardship. On the other hand, Will, who doesn’t have anything to fall back on, is always strapped for cash, and he’s about to lose his cheap Greenwich Village apartment (the Holy Grail of NYC real estate) because the building is being sold.

I loved the relationship between Bridget and Will. They’ve been best friends since college, and their relationship is completely platonic. Will has stood in as a father figure to Bridget’s children (she is a single mother), and she does her best to help him out financially (she’s very sensitive to the disparity in their financial situations). Their friendship is really well done, and it’s a nice balance to the romantic tribulations in the book.

This book is perfect summer escapism, and it was just what I needed during my quarantine time.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Again Again

Again Again
By E. Lockhart
Published June 2, 2020 by Delacorte Press

Publisher’s summary:
In this novel full of surprises from the New York Times bestselling author of We Were Liars and Genuine Fraud, E. Lockhart ups the ante with an inventive and romantic story about human connection, forgiveness, self-discovery, and possibility.

If you could live your life again, what would you do differently?

After a near-fatal family catastrophe and an unexpected romantic upheaval, Adelaide Buchwald finds herself catapulted into a summer of wild possibility, during which she will fall in and out of love a thousand times—while finally confronting the secrets she keeps, her ideas about love, and the weird grandiosity of the human mind.

A raw, funny story that will surprise you over and over, Again Again gives us an indelible heroine grappling with the terrible and wonderful problem of loving other people.

E. Lockhart is a really interesting writer, and I like that she tried something different with each book. At first, Again Again seems similar to Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series, which is about the romantic tribulations of a teen girl at an exclusive private school. But it quickly turns into something else.

AgainAdelaide Buchwald is spending the summer after her junior year in the small town where she goes to boarding school, living with her father (a teacher at the school) and taking care of five dogs as her summer job. Her boyfriend has just dumped her, and she’s on academic probation and has to finish a big project over the summer so she doesn’t fail out. Her family life is strained because of her younger brother’s addiction to opioids. When she meets a cute guy, it seems like the perfect summer romance to take her mind off her problems. Or maybe not.

Again Again explores the idea that there are parallel worlds, where the same event might have different consequences. We see Adelaide meet a guy, have a summer romance, blow the romance, and meet someone else. She shuts her brother Toby out, or she comes to terms with him and they repair their fractured relationship. In another life, Toby doesn’t become an addict.

The things I liked best about this book is that it really captures the transitory nature of teen romance. Adelaide has an ex she’s pining for and at least two possible new love interests, but it’s basically a given that the relationships aren’t forever. So many romances in YA are all consuming, and Again Again‘s treatment of romance felt much more realistic.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

 

Review: The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly
By Jamie Pacton
Published May 5, 2020 by Page Street Kids

Publisher’s Summary:
Kit Sweetly slays sexism, bad bosses, and bad luck to become a knight at a medieval-themed restaurant.

Working as a wench―i.e. waitress―at a cheesy medieval-themed restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, Kit Sweetly dreams of being a knight like her brother. She has the moves, is capable on a horse, and desperately needs the raise that comes with knighthood, so she can help her mom pay the mortgage and hold a spot at her dream college.

Company policy allows only guys to be knights. So when Kit takes her brother’s place and reveals her identity at the end of the show, she rockets into internet fame and a whole lot of trouble with the management. But the Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. As other wenches join her quest, a protest forms. In a joust before Castle executives, they’ll prove that gender restrictions should stay medieval―if they don’t get fired first.

 

The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly is so much fun and just what I needed while I’m stuck at home during the current pandemic. It’s cute and entertaining, and while it’s a light read, it also deals with sexism, poverty, and some tough choices.

KItKit works at a cheesy, medieval-themed restaurant, where she’s stuck as a serving wench (that’s what they call the waitresses). She wants to be a knight because it pays better and also because she has a knight obsession, but women aren’t allowed to play that role. One night, she takes her brother’s place as a knight and she can’t resist revealing her identity (stating “I am no man” from Lord of the Rings). The “girl knight” quickly goes viral, and Kit tries to push for a change in the company’s sexist policy, forming a band of people who want to change to rules.

Kit is in a tough place. She wants to shake things up, but she also desperately needs her job because she and her family are the working poor. Her dad left after stealing the money her mother had saved for the kids’ college funds, and he doesn’t pay child support. Her mother never finished high school and works two jobs to try to keep up with the mortgage. Kit’s older brother also works two jobs and goes to community college. Kit has a plan to get ahead, but she needs money for college and her path out of town is starting to look impossible. The author does an excellent job showing how tough Kit’s choices are and how grinding poverty can be.

Kit is a likeable, imperfect heroine. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but her mistakes make sense in the context of the story. She’s a tough feminist who’s been dealt a rough hand in life, but she’s doing her best to make things better. This is a very fun book with an important message. It’s also pretty diverse: Kit’s love interest is half Indian, her best friend is African-American and bi, and one her co-workers is nonbinary.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Death Is in Her Hands

Death Is in Her Hands
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Published April 21, 2020 by Penguin Press

Publisher’s Summary:
A novel of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home.

While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to area, having moved her from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, ‘Death in Her Hands’ asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both guide us closer to the truth and keep us at bay from it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, only this time the stakes have never been higher.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a really interesting writer, and I appreciate what she was trying to do in Death in Her Hands, but it just didn’t work for me. The concept is an interesting one: a woman is walking her dog in the woods near her home, when she finds a handwritten note: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It Moshfeghwasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”

Vesta is a widow. She lives in a cabin in the woods with just her dog for company. She’s recently moved to the area and doesn’t know anyone, nor is she interested in getting to know anyone, as she views her neighbors as beneath her (there’s a lot of classism and fat-shaming in her narrative). Bored and lonely (although she won’t admit it), she becomes obsessed with the note and decides to solve the mystery of Magda. She invents a story in her mind, but the line between her invention and reality starts to blur. The story also has her reminiscing about her past and her marriage to a controlling husband. How much of the story she invents is based in her own reality?

I liked how unreliable Vesta is as a narrator. The majority of the book is her interior monologue, and it’s all over the place. But this is also where the book didn’t quite work for me. Is it trying to be murder mystery? Is it the story of a woman losing her mind? It’s a bit of both, but I feel like it didn’t really succeed at either. I found the ending rather abrupt, and although I don’t mind books where not everything is wrapped up with a nice, neat bow, the ending felt unfinished to me. I think this book is going to be either love it or hate it for most people, so if you think it sounds interesting, don’t let me review deter you. This is definitely a matter of preference.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Good Girl, Bad Girl

Good Girl, Bad Girl
By Michael Robotham
Published July 23, 2019 by Scribner

Michael Robotham is a a prolific mystery writer, and I’ve been wanting to try one of his books. Good Girl, Bad Girl was my first Robotham, and it was quite good.

Good GirlPsychologist Cyrus Haven is assisting on two difficult cases. Teen figure skating champion Jodie Sheehan is murdered, and Cyrus is called in to help by an old friend. He’s also been asked to consult on whether a young women in a secure children’s home should be allowed to go free. Evie Cormack was discovered in a secret room in the home of a man who’d been tortured and murdered. She has no name and no past. She was so malnourished that determining her age wasn’t possible, and no one is sure if she’s 18 yet. Evie wants to be on her own, but the authorities think she’s a danger to herself and others. Cyrus, who has his own tragic past, finds Evie fascinating. She has the unique ability to tell when people are lying, something that most people find creepy, but Cyrus is interested in.

This was an engrossing mystery, and I stayed up too late at night reading because I couldn’t put it down. I did find that the mystery of Jodie’s death, although clever, wasn’t terribly original. It’s the story of a popular, pretty, girl-next-door type who has secrets, which has been done before. For me, it paled in comparison to Evie’s story, which is only just beginning to be explored. I get the feeling that this is a setup for a new series featuring Cyrus and Evie. The pairing of the troubled psychologist and the human lie detector is an interesting one. Cyrus’ past trauma makes him want to help Evie, and as unnerving as Evie can be, she’s also very much a scared child inside. More books with this pair sounds intriguing.

Trigger warning for mentions of rape, sexual abuse, and violence against children, attempted rape, descriptions of torture.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: Wild and Crooked

Wild and Crooked
By Leah Thomas
Published June 4, 2019 by Bloomsbury

In the small town of Samsboro, Kentucky, a high school golden boy named James Ellis was murdered by another high school student, Gary Spence. Seventeen years later, the son of the murdered boy and the daughter of the murderer meet and become friends.

Wild and CrookedGus Peake and Kalyn Spence have both had rough childhoods. Gus’s dad was murdered when he mother was only a few months pregnant. He was born with cerebral palsy, and his disability and his tragic backstory are all that anyone in his small town sees when they look at him. His mother is also extremely overprotective and treats him like a child. Kalyn has grown up half-wild, with a mother who’s got some issues (I have to question the life choices of someone who seeks out a relationship with a convicted murderer), and she acts out a lot.

The two meet and become friends without knowing who the other is (Kalyn is attending school under a pseudonym and Gus has a different last name than his father). They’re both misfits, and their growing bond is very sweet. It’s completely platonic, as Kalyn is a lesbian (Gus is pansexual). That bond is tested when they learn each other’s identities and when evidence surfaces that suggests that Gary Spence may not be guilty.

I’m fascinated by the aftermath of tragedy and how people deal with bad things years after the fact, and I’m drawn to books with this sort of story. It was interesting getting to see both sides of the aftermath of a murder, what it’s like to be the son of a murder victim and what’s it like to be the daughter of the murderer. It’s also an insight into mob mentality: the townspeople of Samsboro don’t take kindly to the suggestion that Gary Spence might be innocent, and there’s a huge public outcry. Basically, everyone is awful to Kalyn in the name of supporting Gus, support he doesn’t want or need. I had all the feels in the last third of the book as these two characters go through so much. It’s also an interesting look at the power dynamics of “justice” when the victim is a rich golden boy and the alleged murderer is a poor kid.

My only complaint is that the solution of the mystery is a little disappointing, but this isn’t really a mystery, and in the end, what really happened is only a small part of the bigger picture. This is really Gus and Kalyn’s story.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 

Review: Romanov

Romanov
By Nadine Brandes
Published May 7, 2019 by Thomas Nelson

The story of the fate of the the last Tsar of Russia and his family is one that is still fresh in the public consciousness. It’s been 100 years since their tragic deaths, but there are countless books on the topic. Romanov is a young adult version of the story with magic added.

RomanovGrand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (Nastya to her family) is imprisoned with her family after the Russian Revolution. She and her family don’t know what their fate will be. They expect that her father, the former Tsar, will be put on trial, or exiled to a remote part of Russia. The Tsar tells Nastya to guard a Matryoshka doll that contains a spell that will help the family. In this version of the revolution, the Bolsheviks are going around killing any spell masters, and the doll may hold the family’s last chance at salvation.

The first half of the book tells the story of the family’s imprisonment, first in Tobolsk, under conditions of some comfort, and then at Ekaterinburg, where the conditions were much grimmer. Nastya is the fourth of five children and the youngest daughter. She’s know in the family as imp (shvibzik) for her love of mischief and practical jokes. She works to keep her family’s spirits up, especially her brother Alexei, who is in constant pain from injuries related to his being a hemophiliac.

I enjoyed this part of the book. The sense of claustrophobia and the family’s uncertainty about the future are well done, and the sense of pervasive anxiety works well for the story. The family is hoping that the White Army (the counter-revolutionary forces) will rescue them, but with no news from outside their prison, everything is uncertain. The magical elements only come into play in the second half of the book. At that point, the tone changes quite a bit, as we go from historical events into the realm of the speculative. I enjoyed the magical elements, but I’m still not sure I like the way they were worked into the history. It was interesting, but it didn’t quite work for me.

Nastya is an entertaining character. I’ve always been interested in the real Anastasia (because of the legends that she survived her family’s slaughter), and her portrayal in Romanov feels true to life. She’s a bit of trouble-maker and acts before she thinks, but she loves her family and wants to do anything she can to save them. Her relationships with her father, Alexei, and the next oldest sister Maria are all very nicely done. Her romance with a Bolshevik guard is somewhat less convincing, but it’s at least historically probable as there are accounts of the Grand Duchesses having flirtations with the guards during their captivity.

There were a couple of historical inaccuracies that bugged me. Tsar Nicholas II is portrayed as a very saintly figure. And while yes, he was a loving husband and father, and he cared about his country, he was also a criminally incompetent ruler, and that’s really glossed over. The book is told through Anastasia’s point of view, so of course, she thinks highly of her father, but I wish there had been some acknowledgment that he was a less than ideal ruler. It’s also mentioned multiple times that Rasputin, the healer who held great influence over the imperial family because of his ability to help Alexei, was murdered by the Bolsheviks. Rasputin was actually murdered by another member of the Imperial family, an aristocrat, and a right-wing politician. But I’m a Russian history nerd, so this may not bother other readers.

I did enjoy the book, although I wish the magical elements had been a bit more integrated into the story from the start. The second half of the book is very exciting, and I liked how the author added magic to known historical events.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

 

 

Review: The Lovely and the Lost

The Lovely and the Lost
By Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Published May 7, 2019 by Freeform

Kira is a former feral child. She remembers almost nothing before the time she was rescued in the woods by Cady, her adoptive mother, just that she was on her own, trying to survive. Cady trains dogs for search-and-rescue, and she’s the best in the business. Kira, her brother Jude, and their friend and neighbor Free are all learning to train dogs for search-and-rescue.

Lovely and LostCady is estranged from her father, but when she gets a call that he needs her help searching for a child who’s lost in a vast national park, she agrees to go home to help, and brings the kids along. Kira gets caught up in the search for the missing child, and it triggering fragments of memories. It soon becomes obvious that the missing child didn’t just wander off, she was kidnapped, so there’s a mystery element to the story.

The characters all have some baggage. Kira has PTSD from her traumatic childhood experiences. Even though she’s been living in a safe environment with a loving family for many years, the scars of her past are still there. She doesn’t like being touched, eye contact is hard for her, and she relates better to dogs than people. Cady hasn’t been back to her hometown in 18 years and has a fraught relationship with her father. Joining Kira in the search is local boy Gabriel, who has a criminal past and secrets of his own.

The book is fast-paced and very readable. I wasn’t really expecting this to be a mystery, but that part of the plot was very well done and left me guessing until the end. There were a lot of twists and turns, and whenever I thought I had things figured out, I was way off base.

Kira was a fascinating character. She can be prickly and difficult. She loves her family, but the emotional interactions are really difficult for her. Her PTSD is triggered by searching for the missing child, and she’s on edge for most of the book.

I found the info about search and rescue missions really interesting. The vastness of the wilderness where the child disappeared seems insurmountable, but the dogs and humans on the search team are able to do so much. It was really fascinating. I loved reading about the bonds between the searchers and their dogs.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Review: You Must Not Miss

You Must Not Miss
By Katrina Leno
Published April 23, 2019 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

She did not want Ben to kiss her because if he did that, he might get the wrong impression: that she was the type of girl who should be kissed. And she wasn’t. She was the type of girl who should be run from.

After reading Summer of Salt last year, I became a big fan of Katrina Leno’s work. I’m making my way through her back catalog, and I grabbed at the chance to read an ARC of her latest book, You Must Not Miss. It’s a very different book than her previous work. Her You Must Not Missother books have a slightly cozy, magical feel, but You Must Not Miss is all sharp edges.

Magpie’s life has fallen apart. She caught her father in bed with her mother’s sister, her sister took off, and something terrible happened at a party the same night. Now her best friend hates her, everyone at school calls her a slut, and she’s stuck in a house with her alcoholic mother. Her life is a mess, and the only thing she can control is what she writes in her notebook. Her notebook is her constant companion. She writes about a place called Near, a world where her life is still good, where her father didn’t cheat, where her best friends still likes her. Near is a perfect world, and Magpie wills it into existence.

Then he saw the yellow notebook that she had hurriedly closed when he walked into the classroom. He touched its cover and Magpie felt the touch on the inside of her body. The notebook as as much a part of her as her blood, her soft tissues, her large intestines. It was as if he’d run his fingernails across her heart. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

You Must Not Miss is a gripping, creepy little book, and I’m still thinking about, weeks after I finished it. Magpie isn’t a nice character, but she is a compelling one. The force of her rage makes a whole other world. Her rage is a palpable thing, big enough to create something magical and also terrifying. Teenage girls are so often belittled, disregarded, and ignored. Consider what rage can do, and there you have Magpie. You Must Not Miss is a difficult read in some ways. There will be times that you cringe and rage and feel so much for Magpie. It’s dark and weird, and it’s the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a teen.

I received an ARC from another blogger.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on Love
By Jennifer E. Smith
Published March 5, 2019 by Delacorte Press

Sometimes you just want a book that you will make you feel happy, and Field Notes on Love was that book for me. It’s got a very original meet cute story and people falling in love against the backdrop of a cross-country train trip.

Hugo has a major problem. As a last hurrah before starting college, he and his girlfriend Field Notes on Lovewere going to take a train trip across the United States. For Hugo, who’s never been outside the UK, this is a big adventure. Then his girlfriend dumps him and he finds out that all the reservations for the trip are under her name and nontransferable and nonrefundable. So, Hugo turns to the internet to look for a traveling companion with the name Margaret Campbell.

Enter Mae (full name, Margaret Campbell). Her dream was to go to the University of Southern California for film school. She got into USC, but not the film school and she’s trying to reassess her work, not understanding why it didn’t measure up. She’s in a weird place, and when she sees Hugo’s post, she decides to go for it, and they take the cross-country trip together.

This book was really delightful. Hugo and Mae are great characters. They’re both at a crossroad in their lives. Hugo is a sextuplet. He’s never been on his own, and he’s supposed to be starting college with his five siblings in a few weeks. Suddenly, he’s not sure this is the path he wants and he’s feeling trapped. In an effort to move past the failure of her film school application, May decides to start a film while they’re traveling, and she and Hugo interview their fellow passengers about love. She’s got some barriers set us, but with the encouragement of her sassy grandmother, she opens herself up.

Field Notes on Love is a really cute, fun travel romance. It’s perfect for anyone who loves travel and trains (if you find trains romantic, this is definitely the book for you).

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.