THE SECRET, BOOK & SCONE SOCIETY Ellery Adams

A few months ago, I entered a “name the cover” contest that Ellery Adams was hosting on Insta.  (If you don’t follow her, you should.  She has fantastic content and gorgeous bookish photos!)  She surprised me by including one of her books in the prize package and what a fun little treat The Secret, Book & Scone Society (Kensington Books 2017) is for anyone who loves books.

Set in Miracle Springs, North Carolina (we all know how much I love an NC setting!), The Secret, Book & Scone Society focuses on Nora, owner of Miracle Books.  Nora, physically and mentally scarred from a past she’d love to forget, has a bit of a gift – she provides alternative healing in the form of literature.  As Nora is a former librarian and current bookstore owner, the novel is chock full of literary references from Harry Potter to Atticus Finch, Water for Elephants to A Man Called Ove, and Shakespeare to Amy Tan. 

When a visiting businessman is found dead on the train tracks, Nora knows something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Nora, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, forms the Secret, Book, and Scone Society – a sisterhood of misfit and broken booklovers with devastating secrets.  The bond that forms between the women while they investigate the death of the businessman is my favorite aspect of the novel.

When another body turns up and one of the members of the Secret, Book, and Scone Society is arrested for the murder, there’s no turning back. But there’s little a group of well-read women with bellies full of comfort food won’t do for each other – and it’s that connection between the group of women that sets this book apart for me.

If you’re looking for a good summer read to add to your stack, this is a solid choice.

SLOW DANCING ON DINOSAUR BONES – Lana Witt

I picked up Slow Dancing on Dinosaur Bones by Lana Witt (Scribner 1996) from a local library sale a few years back.  Intrigued by the title, I tossed it into my purchase pile without hesitation.  ($5 boxes, y’all.  $5 boxes.)  It’s sat on my TBR since.  I finally picked it up and read the blurb, surprised to see it is a southern gothic novel.  (The title and cover had me envisioning a sweet romance, heavy on paleontology.)  I love a southern gothic, and the references to Flannie Flagg and Lee Smith had me quickly settling in with it.

Talk about missed opportunities.  The book had such potential, ticking off each ingredient of a southern gothic with ease but falling victim to trying to be “too much.”  The two main plots don’t work in harmony, and I wish the focus had been Rosalee or the mining company – not straddling between the two.

Set in Pike, Kentucky, this slice of life novel is full of the grotesque characters and dark humor expected with a southern gothic.  Gilman Lee runs a mechanic shop, but he’s better known for his wild parties, bluegrass, bootleg liquor, and womanizing.  Gemma Collet is marked by depression after her body loses all pigmentation due to severe vitiligo as a teen.  Self-loathing and hate make her quite the cynical and difficult person.  Rosalee Wilson, Gilman’s ex-flame with the beautiful voice, had left town after developing a coke habit but has returned clean and on the run.     There’s Ten Fifteen, Gilman’s best friend, whose hands are stuck like the hands of a clock at ten fifteen.  There are literal skeletons and figurative ones.  There’s the mining company trying to cheat folks.  There’s Tom Jett, a philosopher from California who grew sick of the ocean and sought the mountains.  And there’s Frank Denton, the villain who will do whatever it takes to find Rosalee.  And let’s not forget the waste of space that is the drug-dealing banker.

Witt hits the heart of the town best when music is playing, and those sections are some of the best written of the novel.  Rosalee’s attempts to escape Frank and Frank’s hunt for her are intriguing but not fully fleshed out.  Gilman taking on the mining company and the relationship between Pike residents and the company could have carried the novel without the abusive and murderous Frank and Rosalee plotline.  There were a lot of missed opportunities by mushing these two plots together, and it left me a bit disappointed.

This was the type of read that makes me mad because I could see such potential, and it just fell short.  I also don’t think the cover and title work with this story. 

Pity.

WHEN WE LEFT CUBA – Chanel Cleeton

Next Year in Havana was a delight of a read, and I was thrilled to see that Chanel Cleeton let another Perez sister tell her story.  When We Left Cuba (Berkley 2019) follows Beatriz Perez, the sugar heiress turned exile turned spy.  Beatriz’s role in the Cuban Revolution was touched on in Next Year in Havana and some of the rumors of her life also made the pages, but she deserved to have her own story.

Beautiful Beatriz is wild, passionate, and motivated by a love of Cuba and a desire to seek vengeance for her brother’s murder.  Much to her mother’s despair, she refuses to accept any of the proposals that come her way; she doesn’t want to settle down – she wants to go home.  Through a friend of her brother’s, she makes a contact with the CIA and offers her assistance as an asset; if she kills Castro, her brother’s murder will be avenged and the Perez family can return to her beloved island.

She’s beautiful and bold.  Dedicated and deadly. Things become a bit complicated when she finds herself in love with an engaged man, a senator with presidential aspirations.  Politics and passion fumble in the sheets as they both realize they cannot be what the other deserves, what the other needs.  Beatriz will continue to fight for Cuba, putting her life on the line time and time again.  Her beloved senator wants  the beautiful socialite, not a deadly spy, and she cannot fit into the mold he’s carved out for his future – and they both know it.

I’ve said before that my sweet spot for historical fiction is a novel that doesn’t have its heart squeezed out by a heavy-handed romance plot, and while there is plenty of romance and passion in this novel, Cleeton doesn’t let it suck the life out of it – like Beatriz, she understands that sometimes love has to take a backseat.

It’s a delicious novel with a dangerous and delightful heroine.

Read this book.

A COURT OF MIST AND FURY – Sarah J. Maas

When I started A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, I thought it was a trilogy and committed to the first three.  I’ve since learned the series does not stop with A Court of Wings and Ruin, but I don’t know that I’ll continue with the subsequent installments.  I say that partly because of criticism I’ve seen regarding the latest in the series, but also because I don’t know how much further Maas can propel this Beauty & the Beast retelling such that it keeps my interest, and there are just so many books calling to me; maybe I’ll change my mind after reading A Court of Wings and Ruin (whenever that happens), but I’m not adding them to my TBR yet.

Now that the unnecessary intro is out of the way, let’s move on to the review of A Court of Mist and Fury (Bloomsbury, 2016).  Despite being a little on the chonky side, the paperback comes in at 624 pages, she’s a wicked quick read and an excellent follow-up to ACOTAR.  Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, having survived her trials in Under the Mountain.  As a newly minted High Fae, she finds herself struggling to not only remember who she was before her neck was snapped, but also to reconcile that with who she’s been forced to become.  As her marriage to Tamlin approaches, she finds herself in a state of panic.  Then Rhysand appears to ferry her off to the Night Court, the bargain previously made not forgotten.  But much like in ACOTAR, things are not always what they seem.  And there’s a war just on the horizon.  Feyre has already saved the fae once.  Can she do it again?

I wondered in my review of ACOTAR how far Rhysand’s redemption arc would take him, and now I know.  And I get why people adore him.  He’s layered and complex.  Beautiful and brilliant.  Cunning and creative.  And he sees Feyre for what she is.  Loves her for what she is.  Wants her for what she is.  In a battle between the fighter and the dreamer, the dreamer will almost always win the heart of the beauty.

But what about Tamlin, the fighter.  He was clearly presented as the beast that the beauty would come to love in book one.  In book two, he becomes even more of a beast – his aggression, anger, and desire to control and possess Feyre even more apparent.  As intended, the reader hates him.  But is it fair that we discard him as abusive?

Hear me out.  Tamlin is a beast.  He is supposed to be.  But so is Rhysand, and his relationship with Feyre is just as toxic in its own way.  He lies to her.  He manipulates her.  He puts her in situations where he knows she will be in danger without revealing to her his intentions or the hazards.  He uses her.  He tests her.  And I’m only referring to incidences after she chooses to leave Tamlin.  It’s not the same toxicity, but it’s still toxic.  It’s painted with a softer brush because Feyre can get in his head to have it explained after the fact.  She doesn’t get in Tamlin’s head – she’s not privy to those private emotions.  If she were, it wouldn’t change his actions, but it would change how the reader perceives them.

This is a Beauty and the Beast retelling.  As I said in my ACOTAR review, it pulls from various versions of the fairytale – many, actually most, of which were dark.  Tamlin is a monster, but so is Rhys.

And so is Feyre.

And that’s not only okay, it’s what will make me read the third book.  Maas has created a world where, without apologies, the heroes are also the villains, and the beauties are also the beasts.

PAX – Sara Pennypacker

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” – The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Those were the words I couldn’t shake while reading Sara Pennypacker’s Pax (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016).  The fox’s wise words from a beloved childhood classic echoed on each page of Pennypacker’s middle grade book about a boy and his fox.

Peter has raised Pax since he was a kit.  Half wild and wrapped in a blanket of grief and anger following the death of his mother, Peter finds the young kit.  Like Peter, Pax’s mother is dead and he is all alone.  Peter knows the fox will not survive without him, and he defiantly tells his father that he is keeping the animal.

Pax is half tame and devoted to his boy.  They are inseparable, two halves to the same wild coin.  But war is coming, and war makes adults do things they wouldn’t normally do.  Peter’s father enlists and takes Peter to his grandfather’s.  Pax is not allowed to come, and Peter is forced to release his beloved pet into the wild.

In alternating chapters, the reader sees Peter’s guilt and overwhelming sense of responsibility to his fox, to his pet, while also feeling the broad range of emotions that flood through the beautiful fox as he realizes his beloved human had tricked him and what it means to be free.

Peter begins a dangerous journey, intent on finding his fox and bringing him home.  Pax, intent on finding his boy, has an equally perilous journey as he traverses through previously unknown dangers from wild animals to manmade horrors.  The half-wild boy and the half-tame fox are full heart.

I read Pax with the same tightness in my chest that shows up when watching Peter wait, hope, pray for Shadow to appear at the end of Homeward Bound.  This heartbreakingly sweet and tragic story of a half wild boy and his half tame fox is full heart and, while written for children, knows no age.

Read this book.  Love this book.

***The sequel, Pax, Journey Home will be published September 7, 2021!*

THE MAIDENS – Alex Michaelides

Alex Michaelides’s The Maidens (Celadon Books, expected June 10, 2021) is a stocked pond of red herrings that kept me guessing until the end.  My biggest complaint with psychological thrillers and unreliable narrators is that they tend to be very predictable; I don’t read a lot of them for this reason. But I had no such complaints with this novel; The Maidens had me on edge and second-guessing my gut (and Mariana’s) with each turn of the page.  I simply couldn’t put it down.

The novel is set at Cambridge University, and I’m not sure if the university aspect reminding me of my brief time at Oxford (we had ‘scouts’ not ‘bedders’) or the literary references, which are very Tennyson heavy, spoke to my dorkalicious self the loudest, but I was immediately hooked.

Recently widowed, Mariana Andros is a group therapist who is struggling with her own grief, anger, and trust issues.  When her niece, a student at Cambridge, calls her in a panic following the murder of a classmate and friend, she rushes to the girl’s side.  The murdered girl is part of a secret society, known as the Maidens, and led by Edward Fosca, a charming and handsome (and American) professor of Greek tragedies. Mariana knows he is a murderer – she just can’t prove it.  She stays in Cambridge to hunt a killer – finding his calling cards in pinecones and postcards with ancient Greek phrases from the very tragedies he teaches.  When another Maiden is found murdered, Mariana’s obsession with proving the beloved professor guilty reaches its boiling point – she will stop him from killing again even if she must destroy everything in her path to do so.

An elite university. A secret society of beautiful young women.   A handsome professor.  Bloodied bodies with cryptic calling cards.

A tragedy befitting the Greeks.

Read this book.

*I haven’t read The Silent Patient, but I know there is some cross-over with some of the minor characters.  The scene has been set for a third book that can have the first two collide – and I’m here for it.

** A huge thank you to Celadon Books for getting this ARC in my grubby lil’ paws.  For those local to me, keep an eye out.  I’ll be slipping one of these ARCS in a little library!

GARDENS IN THE DUNES – Leslie Marmon Silko

It is only fitting that I picked up Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999) just days after learning of Larry McMurtry’s passing.  The two authors were friends, and the book opens with a special thanks to him for “all the books and encouragement.”  I heard echoes of Gus in Grandma Fleet, particularly in the line “Dying is easy – it’s living that is painful,” which made this quite the special book for me indeed.

Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) is a prominent author in what is considered the First Wave of the Native American Renaissance.  She has multiple poetry and essay collections, but only three novels.  Ceremony (1977) was required reading in AP English back in 1999, and it was my introduction to this remarkable storyteller.  I fell in love with Almanac of the Dead (1991) after finding it on a syllabus for an upper-level literature class that was full by the time I was able to pick classes at UNC.  (I frequently packed my shelves with books for classes I wasn’t able to take.)  When I saw Gardens in the Dunes (2000) at the used bookstore, there was no hesitation; Leslie Marmon Silko is a Storyteller, and her words dance to a drumbeat until your heart calls out in the same rhythm. 

Set in a particularly interesting time in US history – the Ghost Dance religious movement that began in 1889ish – Gardens in the Dunes is a story of sisters, faith, womanhood and resilience.  

Sister Salt and Indigo are the last of the Sand Lizard people, a unique tribe that has always done things their own way.  Their mother ran off with the Messiah after a spiritual dance was interrupted by the police and the people, including the Mormons cast out from their church after the ban on polygamy, scattered.  Grandma Fleet is arrested but quickly released, and she returns to the dunes and the girls where they wait for word of their mother.

After Grandma Fleet dies, Sister Salt and Indigo are apprehended by the Indian police.  They determine that Sister Salt, who has just started menstruating, is too old, and she is sent to the reservation.  Indigo is sent to an Indian boarding school in California, where she promptly runs away.  While hiding in a flower garden, she sees an unusual creature and quickly befriends it.  The owner of what Indigo soon learns is a monkey, is a wealthy and recently married white woman.  When she learns that the boarding school has closed for the summer, she convinces her husband, Edward, that the child should stay with them and be trained as a maid until the school reopens in the fall.  Indigo joins the couple as they head east to visit their families before they travel to England and Europe.  Edward has plans in Corsica that he intentionally hides from his wife, but Hattie is so full of love for her new charge that she doesn’t notice.  Prior to their overseas journey, Edward’s sister gifts Indigo a beautiful (and unhappy) parrot that Indigo names “Rainbow.”

With her parrot by her side and her white girl’s clothing, Indigo still prefers to sleep on the floor.  She still weeps for her mother and Sister Salt.  She still plots her escape.  She describes the sand dunes to Rainbow.  She never once forgets she is of the Sand Lizard people and the dunes are her home.

Edward is a scholar and researcher, and his knowledge of plants has allowed him to traverse the world.  His very scientific view of plants stands in stark contrast to Indigo’s knowledge, which was passed down to her by Grandma Fleet.  Indigo becomes quite impressed at the gardens they encounter on their journey, and she delights in gathering seeds and bulbs with the hopes of bringing them to the gardens in the sand dunes.

Indigo is resilient and grows where planted, ready to weather the storms until she can get home. 

The novel primarily follows Indigo, but does switch to others, including Hattie, Edward, and especially Sister Salt.  The cards aren’t necessarily as kind to Sister Salt, but she also grows where planted.  She builds a life for herself at the encampment by the river, making money and hoping to hear word of Indigo and their mother.  She befriends a black chef, Big Candy, and soon finds herself pregnant.  As a child born of a Sand Lizard woman is always a Sand Lizard child, Sister Salt knows she’s pleasing her ancestors and hears the call of the dunes urging her to return home. 

Sister Salt makes relationships that will alter the course of her life, and her child’s, forever.  One woman, Delena, is a fortune teller with a dog army and a passionate mission of her own.  Delena’s story is one I wanted more of, and this novel certainly set the scene for a continuation of what is bound to be a stand-off between Delena and her dog army, and Big Candy – both of whom are driven by equally strong forces.  Theirs is a story begging to be told.

Gardens in the Dunes tells the story of two sisters, the last of their kind, during the Ghost Dance, and it is captivating to the very last word – home.

Read this book.

THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS – Zeyn Joukhadar

“A person can be two things at the same time,” Itto says. “The land where your parents were born will always be in you.  Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.”

The power of storytelling is something that will forever unite us.  Regardless of where on the map you call home, regardless of the languages you speak and the language of your heart, regardless of the color of your skin and the faith that brings you peace, stories are universal. We are more alike than we will ever be different, and stories remind me of that. 

*Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars marvelously captures the unifying role of storytelling in The Map of Salt and Stars with a dual timeline where the story of  young girl fleeing Syria in 2011 is juxtaposed against one of the “old stories” of Rawiya and the mapmaker from the 1100s.  (While Rawiya was crafted from Joukhadar’s brilliant mind, the mapmaker she joins and The Book of Roger are very much real.)

Nour’s world is one of color, each sound having a different shade, and Baba’s voice creates the most beautiful shades for her stories.   The story of Rawiya, a brave young woman who pretends to be a boy so that she can apprentice under renowned mapmaker Al-Idrisi, is her favorite.  Born to Syrian parents living in New York, Nour’s knowledge of Syria is built on the words of her father and the maps of her beautiful mother.  When her beloved Baba loses his fight with cancer, her mother, craving an anchor and home, returns the family to Syria.

Nour struggles in a country that feels like a stranger.  Her Arabic is rudimentary, and her grief is immeasurable.  She recites the stories her father had fed her as she grieves in a land he’d loved but she doesn’t know.  The family is tossed into further turmoil when a shell destroys their home and they are forced to flee, their refugee journey mirroring Rawiya’s as she helped chart the world.  After Nour’s sister Huda’s injuries from the bombing become infected, Nour’s mother sends Nour and her other sister, Zahra, to continue the journey to safety without them.  Nour’s mother, a mapmaker, gives her a special map with hidden messages painted in the colors Nour sees with sounds.  The map will take them to safety.  

Each section of the novel opens with a love letter, printed in the shape of the country Nour (and Rawiya) are making their way through.  The concrete poetry is not only a beautiful way to open each new part of the journey, it also captures the grief and heartache of people who are forced to flee their homes due to political unrest and bloodshed.  “I carry the memory of borders in my skin.”

We are forever more alike than we are different, and stories like Nour’s and Rawiya’s have the ability to open hearts and minds to a very serious refugee crisis that too many would rather turn a blind eye to. Joukhadar’s writing is full of heart and home and the stories that make us – it’s a beautiful novel.

Diversify your shelves.  Open your hearts.

Read this book.

*The author was formerly known as Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, and I don’t have a reprint of the book. He now is known as Zeyn.*

EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS – Jennifer Ann Shore

Everywhere, Always (2021) is the first non-vampire novel by Jennifer Ann Shore that I’ve read.  Admittedly, romance isn’t my genre of choice as I prefer it to be more of a subplot.  When I do read a novel where the love story is the central plot, I want it to be quick and sweet with non-cookie cutter characters.  Everywhere, Always certainly delivers.

Despite having zero vampires, a lot of the aspects I enjoyed from Metallic Red show up in these pages as well.  It’s partly Shore’s writing style, but it’s more so in her characters; Shore writes extremely likable and unique young adults who are consistent in their actions and whose growth organically happens.

Everywhere, Always quickly sets up a Gilmore-Girls-esque relationship between Avery and her mother. Within the first ten pages, the reader is presented this beautiful relationship that has defined Avery’s existence.  That quick insight is necessary to further emphasize the fish-out-water experience Avery has when her mother dies and she finds herself in her extremely wealthy (and until now unknown to her) father’s home.  Avery is thrust into a world that is so foreign to her, but she adapts with relative ease because her mother has taught her how to adjust her stance when life switches up the pitches.

The romance is sweet, but the relationships Avery creates with her brother and his friends are even sweeter.  From Scrubs references to Shakespeare quotes to bags of candy and crossword puzzles, she opens herself to love and be loved and finally allows herself to heal.

If you’re looking for a sweet, YA romance, look no further.  Everywhere, Always is certainly sweet, but not cloyingly so.

Read this book.

MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY – Fredrik Backman

“But they do what they can.  They construct words of forgiveness from the ruins of fighting words.”

I’ve read countless books over the years.  Countless. There have been books I loved, books I hated, books I enjoyed, and books that were entirely forgettable.  I am a reader, and every reader knows that once in a while, there is a book that finds you when you need it most.  A book that gets in your blood, your heartbeat finding the cadence of the words as if they were intended just for you. A book that soars with the power of storytelling. Readers forever seek these gems out, each one fondly etched in a memory.

This book was that.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a talent who remained unknown to me until a little over a year ago when A Man Called Ove found its way to my shelves.  It was absolutely brilliant, and I made a mental note to add more Backman to my TBR.  I finally got around to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2013, translated 2015) and can confirm that Backman is firmly rooted in this reader’s heart. 

Elsa is 7, and a bit different.  Her grandmother is 70 years older and quite crazy.  Elsa’s granny has shattered gender norms and societal norms, as well as the patience of numerous doctors, nurses, and police officers.  (The novel opens after Elsa’s granny threw “turds” at police officers following a B&E at the zoo.  I’d explain why, but it’s complicated, as Elsa would say – and it would break your heart.)

Elsa has been raised on a steady diet of absurd and fantastical, with her granny giving her the stories that define her young life.  When her grandmother dies, Elsa finds herself cast as a character in her grandmother’s most heartbreaking and courageous of fairytales.  In the role of protector, she begins a treasure hunt to find and deliver the letters that contain her grandmother’s apologies.  With each letter, more of the fairytale and Elsa’s role in it is unveiled.

It’s a beautiful book about life and death, mothers and daughters, love and forgiveness, and the power of stories.

Read this book.