Review of “The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae” by Stephanie Butland

Butland. Stephanie. 2018. The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019.

Paperback | $17.99 | ISBN-13: 978-1250217011 | 416 pages | Women’s Fiction

I received an ARC through a Goodreads Giveaway. I have chosen to voluntarily post a review. All opinions are my own.

4 stars

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is not something I would ordinariy pick up, but it sounded interesting, so I’m glad I got the chance to read an ARC. While I can’t say it’s made a massive impact on my personal choices regarding the subject at hand, it did give me an intimate picture of what it’s like to be the recipient of an organ, on a couple of different levels, and how it can help in shifting one’s personal worldview.

Ailsa is a compelling and relatable heroine. I too had health issues growing up that required surgery to correct, although they weren’t to the degree where I needed a transplant like she did. However, I could relate to her post-transplant arc as she begins to document her life, carefully analyzing many of her major choices. I also rooted for her as she began to be more spontaneous, not overthinking every choice, which is something that played a role in the current state of her family dynamic.

There was also a great exploration of her love life, both her past with her now deceased former lover, Lennox (mostly through flashbacks) and her current one with Sebastian, an actor and major tabloid fixture, who also happens to have gotten a transplant, in his case his cornea. The flashbacks themselves are well done, and I liked how it highlighted her growth in a relationship as she pursues one with Seb.

The one thing I did want to see a bit better handled was the issue of her weight, particularly in regards to Sebastian’s (apparently) evolving opinions about fat women. For the most part, her weight issues resulting from the steroids she’s taking are handled in a realistic way, but with all the buildup in the tabloid articles that mention her, culminating in a scandalous revelation of Seb’s past expression of opinions on fat women, I felt this is where I could have used more in terms of him atoning, aside from the implication that he’s grown from it.

But otherwise, this is a great book that tackles tough topics in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy handed. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a hard-hitting contemporary.

Review of “You” (You #1) by Caroline Kepnes

Kepnes, Caroline. You. 2014. New York: Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2018.

Paperback | $17.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501195433 | 425 pages | Thriller

4 stars

I had no plans to read or watch You at first, but it did intrigue me that, in response to the show, but when I happened to see it on the library shelf the other day, I recalled the headlines the show’s star, Penn Badgley got for his responses to fans who romanticize his character, given that while I’ve felt a lot of investment in complex villains’ story arcs in the past, I never fell in love with them like so many other seemed to. Thus, in the spirit of trying something new, I took a leap of faith and decided to give this one a shot.

Joe is a compelling character, and one I enjoyed following, in spite of the book’s other flaws. He has an out of this world thought process, leading him to become a stalker, kidnapper, and, ultimately, a murderer, and there’s something so fascinating about that descent.

And due to his state of mind, I feel like this is one of the books where the off -the-wall writing style Kepnes employs, a mix of first and second person, works. It may not work for everyone, especially if they have issues with either POV, but I think this one of the rare times where it engrossed me instead of putting me off.

If there is a drawback, it’s that the other characters by comparison are so poorly drawn. I felt fear for what would happen to them only because it meant yet another step down into darkness for Joe, but otherwise, most of the major characters were irredeemably bad, and not just because Joe paints them that way. Beck is the worst, and he’s obsessed with her. She apparently has an MFA, but Joe is so much more intelligent than her, at least that’s the perspective I got. Their first meeting is them bonding over books, but there’s other incidents with her vapid friends and mentions of the other vapid guys she was interested in, and how she apparently posts everything on social media, making her a very easy target for Joe.

It definitely falls into the trend that has been cropping up with the popular thrillers in the last few years (e.g. Gone Girl), where all the characters suck, but some suck more than others, so if you need redeemable characters, this book is probably not for you. But it appealed to the demented part of me that loves to delve into the mindset of a serial killer, and I’m sure there are others out there who are also interested in that. On a style level it also is a great story with an unreliable narrator, so lovers of those should pick this up as well.

Review of “Lost and Found Sisters” (Wildstone #1) by Jill Shalvis

Shalvis, Jill. Lost and Found Sisters. New York: William Morrow, 2017.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062448118 | 371 pages | Women’s Fiction

4 stars

I had never read Jill Shalvis before, but had heard good things about her as an author from many of my romance reader friends. Being a bit at a loss as to where to start and wanting to start with a slightly less daunting series, I picked up Lost and Found Sisters, the first in a series that represents her foray into Women’s Fiction territory. As such, I did not expect to get a full sense of how she crafts a romance, and I did not, given that it is the weakest part of this book, in my opinion. However, she did draw me in with a compelling story with relatable characters and a fun small-town setting.

As the title suggests, the relationship between newly discovered sisters is at the heart of the novel, and I felt their building relationship was conveyed beautifully. I love the way Quinn, who has recently faced the loss of the sister she grew up with, tries to reach out to Tilly, who is initially closed off. And while Tilly is troubled by her mother’s death, I loved seeing her walls come down and come to rely on Quinn and worry about her leaving.

And while I wasn’t the biggest fan of the romance, I didn’t mind Mick as a character, especially the greater sense of the community perspective he brought to Wildstone, the way he really loves his mom, and (of course!) his dog, Cooper, who definitely needed more page time.

This is a nice funny book that’s perfect for the idyllic, hot summer days, and one I would recommend to fans of small-town contemporaries, be they in contemporary romance or women’s fiction.

Review of “The Library of Lost and Found” by Phaedra Patrick

Patrick, Phaedra. The Library of Lost and Found. Toronto, Ontario: Park Row Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $24.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0778369356 | 348 pages | Women’s Fiction

5 stars

The Library of Lost and Found was another book I found on happenstance through looking through the library catalog for more books about librarians, so I was sold even before I knew what it was about. But once I actually picked it up and read the blurb, I was even more intrigued, a sentiment which compounded as the story unfolded.

I love the impact books and stories play within the narrative in connecting and reconnecting people, a phenomenon I experience daily, although not in quite the same way as explored in the book. And the little fairy stories interspersed throughout provide a sense of youth and wonder to an otherwise rather serious and emotional narrative, demonstrating that we’re never too ol for fairy tales.

One of the other central themes, however, was family, and the conflicts within it, and I love how each of the family members was so well-drawn and nuanced. I felt I related a lot to Martha in the sense that she kind of tries to keep her head down, even though she is a bit overworked and underpaid, and you can kind of see why due to the glimpses of her domineering father, and how hurt she was when her grandmother Zelda, who she was closer to, apparently died, especially as Zelda was (and is, when she resurfaces in the present narrative) so full of life. But I also love that there were portions that explored Martha’s parents’ marriage and what led to the estrangement, and further revelations suggesting that her father did have more substance and more of a connection to her than she originally thought.

This is a delightful comfort read, and one I would definitely recommend to other bibliophiles, as well as to other fans of heartfelt family-centric women’s fiction.

Review of “The Memory House” by Rachel Hauck

Hauck, Rachel. The Memory House. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0310250965 | 374 pages | Christian Fiction/Historical Fiction

5 stars

The Memory House is another poignant dual timeline novel from Rachel Hauck, and I loved the exploration of grief and the differing reactions to the tragic loss of a loved one explored through the interwoven narratives, whether it be memory loss or holding onto memories, both of which prevent the person from moving forward and growing.

And this is one of the rare times where I found the contemporary arc as compelling as the past one, if not more so. While I have not faced loss in the same way Beck has, I could empathize with her struggles and how her mind essentially shut out memories of that time due to her grief, and I found it poignant how this grief manifested in her present life, with her choosing a career as a police officer in the NYPD. I also loved how there were some parallels and contradictions with her childhood friend and love interest Bruno’s life, as he faces some discoveries about the fate of his own father.

It juxtaposes very well with Everleigh and Don’s story, and how she is holding onto the memory of her late husband, even as she’s developing feelings for someone else, and I also love the reveal of the blood ties between the two women, which is at the center of why Everleigh left the house to her, along with the deeper spiritual connection.

This a deeply emotional book, one that deals with the struggle to move on after a monumental loss. I would recommend it to readers of deep, introspective multi-generational novels.

Review of “Pulp” by Robin Talley

Talley, Robin. Pulp. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Teen, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-133512906 | 406 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

Pulp was a random find at the library, while searching for books to read in honor of Pride Month. I recalled hearing about the author Robin Talley as a great author of YA LGBTQ+ fiction, and the cover appealed to me, along with the blurb, which spoke about a genre that I had not heard about before: lesbian pulp fiction.

And fortunately, it lived up to the hype. And a large part of it was the fact that there were two equally engaging characters in the dual timeline format, which can be hard to pull off at times. But I loved the way Janet’s and Abby’s stories played off one another, highlighting the struggles LGBTQ+ people in the fifties faced, in comparison to the way they have much more freedom to be “out,” though things aren’t necessarily completely perfect.

One of the engaging things for me about Abby’s narrative was how diverse it was both in terms of race and sexuality. I feel like racial diversity is often very well-done, but even in LGBTQ+ books, it’s hard to see more than one or two LGBTQ+ characters, and they’re usually the central couple. In this case, not only is Abby a lesbian and her former girlfriend, Linh, is bi, but there is also a member of their group who is non-binary, among others who identify as something other than cis and het.

And this combination of diversity also led to very compelling discussions about the pulp books themselves and their own lack of intersectionality (everyone is white), as well as how the censors often made it so there lacked any gray area, with characters often turning straight at the end (if they didn’t outright die). It’s great that it started that dialogue about how the times have changed in terms of the thinking about the lives of LGBTQ+ people and their portrayal in media.

I think what makes Abby’s story the better of the two for me, though, is its multifaceted nature. It’s not just about her journey with her project and resolving the mysteries surrounding Marian Love, but about figuring out the domestic dramas both in relation to her own sexuality and separate from it, and how it plays into the idea that happily ever after isn’t always about being with one person forever. She has one of the best sibling relationships with her brother, for example, which really strengthens even as everything else at home is falling apart, and one of my favorite moments is them having a heart-to-heart following the reception of bad news from their parents.

Janet’s story was great, if a bit more cliche, coming-of-age without much in the way of surprises, and that’s my only complaint. But, juxtaposed with the rest of the narrative arc of the book, I feel like her story still felt satisfying.

This is an absolutely amazing book, and one that I think pretty much everyone should read.

Review of “Unmarriageable” by Soniah Kamal

Kamal, Soniah. Unmarriageable. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524799717 | 342 pages | Contemporary/Multicultural/Austen Retelling

5 stars

Unmarriageable captures the perfect balance when it comes to an Austen retelling of conveying the underlying themes in a way that remains recognizable, but also providing something new that means it’s not only worth reading, but it also feels like the author truly got to play with it and make it their own. And the result is not only entertaining, but also incredibly educational and eye-opening.

Kamal goes into the parallels she saw between 19th century English society and modern Pakistani society in her author’s note, thus serving as the inspiration for this book. And it was fascinating to look at some of the double standards and contradictions of Pakistani society, especially concerning women’s education and the way marriage for women by a certain age was stressed much more than for men, and even more hauntingly, with recent news closer to home, the issues concerning sexual freedom and reproductive rights, and even how wealth and privilege gives people more options in that regard.

And even more so than these underlying themes, I love how Kamal translated the characters and their vibrant personalities into this retelling, and even further developed some of the character arcs. I loved the further development as Alys as a feminist in particular, challenging the idea that marriage, particularly marriage without love, is the only option for women, as opposed to having a career. But on the flip side, I was also moved by Sherry and how she managed to get a happy ending in her own way, despite pursuing an arranged marriage.

This is definitely a must-read for Austen fans, especially those who are looking for a new perspective on Pride and Prejudice.

Review of “The Accidental Beauty Queen” by Teri Wilson

Wilson, Teri. The Accidental Beauty Queen. New York: Gallery Books, 2018.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197604 | 293 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

4 stars

The Accidental Beauty Queen was a random find while perusing my library’s catalog, looking for other books with librarian characters. Upon reading the blurb and some reviews, I was intrigued and thought it had a fun premise.

It ended up being a fun read, with a combination of a lot of fun things. While it is a little on-the-nose at times, and the author clearly wears her influences very close to her chest, from Miss Congeniality and beauty pageants to Harry Potter and Jane Austen geek-dom, to the point of borrowing elements from all of the above, some to a greater degree than others, it’s still a great read if you go in prepared for a light read and nothing particularly groundbreaking.

What I absolutely adored was seeing these two sisters grow through observing something of the other, whether it be a facet of the other’s life or their behavior. Charlotte shares the popular opinion that pageants are vapid and dumb, and is very much a stereotype of brains over beauty, but I love how she sees how much good those in the pageant circuit are doing and how hard some (like Ginny) are working to better themselves through trying to earn money for higher education through these competitions. And Ginny learns what it is to be a good person and sister through observing Charlotte.

This is an absolutely adorable book, full of humor and heart. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light-hearted romantic comedy, especially if you love book nerd culture or beauty pageants…or, as the book’s underlying message suggests, both.

Review of “The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali” by Sabina Khan

Khan, Sabina. The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali. New York: Scholastic Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1338227017 | 326 pages | YA Contemporary

4.5 stars

To preface this review, I am including a content warning. The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali deals with and/or portrays the following: racism/colorism, homophobia, Islamophobia, hate crimes, rape and domestic abuse, starvation, drugging, forced marriage, starvation, and sickness and death.

That being said, Sabina Khan does her utmost to portray these issues in the most poignant manner possible, particularly when it comes to the evolving conversation around South Asians and LGBTQ rights. I rooted for Rukhsana from the beginning, in that she had this impossible choice in choosing to be with who she loves and being ostracized by her family and their society, and choosing to do what her parents wanted, and at best only being able to be with her girlfriend in secret as she was forced into a marriage she didn’t want.

I also really enjoyed exploring the family’s perspectives on Rukhsana’s marriage, and it unfolding on how it was such an ingrained tradition that actually had some dark secrets for both her mother and grandmother. This did leave me feeling a bit disconcerted, due to this plot point unfolding through her grandmother’s journal entries which she shares with Rukhsana, and it led to a couple of the graphic, sensitive issues I was not prepared for coming to the forefront. It made sense in the context of their culture and societal structure, but they were still painful to read, and would especially caution potential readers about those. However, as with the other topics, I do feel Khan did her best to depict them as sensitively as possible.

All that being said, this is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. However, it is one that discusses important issues that are important today. And I would recommend anyone who is prepared to engage with this book and the topics it discusses to do so.

Review of “Next Year in Havana” by Chanel Cleeton

Cleeton, Chanel. Next Year in Havana. New York: Berkley, 2018.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399586662 | 382 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

Next Year in Havana was a surprise, considering I wasn’t that interested in the book when it came out, but a year of consistently hearing about it (and Cleeton’s recent visit to one of the online book clubs I’m in) and the impending release of the follow-up led to me giving into my building curiosity. And, having finished it, I’m pleased to have read it.

I love that, in the sea of historical fiction and time-slip books that involve one or both of the World Wars in some way, this one stands out in dealing with an event that isn’t covered much, perhaps due to it still being somewhat recent in some people’s memory. But I love that Cleeton was able to tap into her own family history for this novel and create a unique and moving story focusing quite a bit on Cuban politics, past and present, without it feeling too heavy handed.

This is also one of the rare dual timeline novels that manages to invest me in both past and present equally, both enjoying the parallels in Marisol and Elisa’s lives as well as seeing them as individuals. Elisa’s is definitely more familiar and even tropey in its sense of being ill-fated, which is often the case for the past arc in stories of this type, but the setting along with her and her love interest, Pablo’s, opposing goals give it a unique slant, inspiring belief in that love even if it is not meant to be.

And while the romance for Marisol has its parallels with Elisa and Pablo’s, I didn’t resonate with it nearly as much. What I really liked was this feeling of discovery of a part of her heritage that she did not feel connected with before, as well as some unexpected revelations about her grandmother and her heritage she did not expect. I think that is something that is relatable for a lot of people born and raised in the U.S. or otherwise outside their family’s country of origin, and I love the way Cleeton captures that feeling of connecting with your roots.

This is a wonderful, moving book, and one I think a lot of people can connect to on some level. So, while it is a book I would recommend if you love historical fiction and want to read something in a different time period, I would also recommend it for those who love stories about family histories and reconnecting with one’s roots.