THE SCENT KEEPER – Erica Bauermeister

“We are the unwitting carriers of our parents’ secrets, the ripples made by the stones we never saw.” 

And so begins Erica Bauermeister’s The Scent Keeper (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), one of the most tender and magical bildungsroman tales I’ve ever read.  Elements of this coming-of-age story reminded me of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, or rather reading the novel made me feel as I did the first time I read Big Fish – it’s a feeling you don’t forget.  There’s something about the magic and the sweetness and the sorrow in a book like this that settles on the reader, an unassuming delight.

The novel opens and ends with the narrator, Emmeline, speaking to her unborn child, and the story sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue is one we imagine will be the child’s most favorite of fairytales; it is certainly one of mine.

Emmeline grew up on a remote island with her father.  She doesn’t remember a time before the island.  Her father teaches her how to use her senses, especially scent, to survive and thrive on their little island.  She remembers the joy.  The forager’s feasts. The mermaid parties. Cleo. The smell of the cabin and the air as the first violets bloomed.

And she remembers the magic.  The Nightingale.  The scent paper.  The memories trapped in bottles.  The moment she learned her father had lied.  The moment she betrayed him.  The madness.  The loss.

Following an unspeakable tragedy, Emmeline is forced to leave the island.  She is taken in by an older couple at Secret Cove, and Colette’s warmth and Henry’s gruff tenderness are exactly what the fragile girl needs.  As she emerges from her grief and settles into a routine, she becomes haunted by her father’s secrets.  Who was he?  Who is she?

In her quest to find answers, she falls in love.  But neither the answers nor the love are easy, and both lead her into the city.  There, memories and the secrets collide.  Emmeline is reminded that “people lie, but smells never do” and she knows the smells, the cedar, the sea salt, the cinnamon, will take her home.

The Scent Keeper is a quick and easy read that is full of warmth and heart.

Read this book.

AMERICANAH – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Love was a kind of grief. This was what the novelists meant by suffering.” (Americanah, 583)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Originally published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) has been around a bit but only recently made its way to the top of my TBR.  The novel puts forth some Zadie Smith White Teeth and On Beauty vibes simply due to plotlines of immigration, multiracial relationships, and relationships in academia, and much like both of those novels, I would readily recommend it. Well, I’d recommend it to the booklovers like me who have a DTM TBR (difficult to manage to be read pile) and haven’t gotten to it yet.

Americanah is about love.  Romantic love.  Lust masquerading as love.  Love of country.  Fragile and fleeting love.  Love of family. Forever love. Love of self.  It’s a hard-hitting love story, and one of the best I’ve read.

The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is the heart of the novel, but they spend the majority of the 588 pages disconnected and oceans apart.  Their story shows the strength of the ties that bind, and how some love can go dormant while other types of love simply die.

Obinze’s love story with America is one of longing, an unrealized obsession akin to a high school crush.  He grows up and the American dream loses its luster and appeal; when he can have it, he doesn’t want it anymore.  He fails in England and is deported back to Nigeria, a crushing experience that laid the groundwork for the powerful and corrupt man he becomes.

Ifemelu loses a part of herself when she arrives in America, but she carves out an identity and a voice as a Non-American Black.  When she returns to Nigeria, she does so having been marked by her years abroad – the good, the bad, and the ugly. She struggles with reconciling who she became in America with who she was growing up in Nigeria and who she’s supposed to be now that she’s back.  Her love story for Nigeria is a tortured one, but one she romanticizes the further removed she is from her home. 

Ifemelu was never fully happy in America, never fully happy with Curt or Blaine, because something was always missing – like eating a banana without peanuts. That something may have been Obinze or it may have been Nigeria, but it was most certainly love.

Read this book.

THE MASK FALLING – Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s The Mask Falling (2021 Bloomsbury Publishing), the highly anticipated fourth book of the Bone Season series, is without question my favorite of the series.  The series is now more than half-way complete (there will be seven books), and we’re getting the thump! thump! of its heart in this novel.  I have said since the first of the series that Shannon is an extremely talented writer, and each book is better than the one before it.  Her writing was already noteworthy back in 2013, but how she’s grown as an adult and as an author is noticeable evident in this fourth installment.

Shannon is a master at world building, but what pulls me to her writing has always been how she writes her flawed and brilliantly broken characters – especially her women.  Paige Mahoney turns a mere twenty in this book, but Scion was never a place to be a child or a teen and she’s wrapped in the brittle hardness and distrust common of a forced early adulthood.  The Mask Falling starts to show the chinks in her mask as the reader sees just how fragile she is both physically and mentally. 

Paige was tortured in The Song Rising, and she’s suffering both from pneumonia due to the water aspiration and from PTSD.  The Mask Falling affords her some brief time to rest and heal in France, where she falls further in love with Arcturus and that flame continues its slow burn.  But she’s not on a romantic holiday, and she knows she is expected to assist the Domino Program to earn her keep.  She also knows that their financial assistance would be crucial to the success of the Mime Order and she must convince them that their two causes can fluidly coexist.  Driven by a sense of duty and a rashness of youth, she sets out before she is ready.

It’s reckless, and Paige’s emotional fragility results in her doubting something she’d always believed to be true.  By the time she remembers the red drapes, the wheels are already in motion.  It would seem a bit out of character had Shannon not done such an excellent job of character development – by the time Paige makes that particular misstep, we know she’s physically and mentally spent.

The Mask Falling is both the warmest and the most chilling of the series.  As with the other three, I’m avoiding too much detail as these books deserve to be devoured without spoilers.

Read this book.

THE SONG RISING – Samantha Shannon

In August of 2012, I read about this young woman, an unpublished unknown still at University, who signed a 6-figure deal for the first three books in a proposed seven book series.  In October of 2013, I read that book.  I moved the review/reaction over to this blog and it should be linked below, but a quick summary is that I absolutely loved Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season.  In August of 2015, I read and reviewed the second installment, The Mime Order.  Again, I absolutely loved it.  In 2017, I order a signed collector’s edition of the third installment, The Song Rising.  I thought I hadn’t read it because I hadn’t reviewed it, but I quickly realized that I had indeed read it (and rated it on Goodreads!) I went through a couple of years where I didn’t post consistently.  Pity.  But that’s neither here nor there as I’ve read it again to prepare for the fourth installment, The Mask Falling, which arrived on my doorstep on pub day last month! And let me just say that I love Paige Mahoney.

Shannon is an extremely skilled author.  She excels at character development and world building (her talents are on splendid display in this series and her high fantasy), and how she’s maintained the heart of these characters and Scion over the course of so many years is simply remarkable.  Where so many series tend to quickly fall apart after the first book, The Bone Season series continues solidly along. 

The slow burn of Paige and Warden over three books is such a welcomed delight.  The romance, the heat, doesn’t get in the way of the plot, and it moves organically with the rebellion. (Unlike in some books that shall remain nameless!)

The tortured relationships between Paige and her father and Paige and her father-figure in Jaxon are brought to a head in the third book, and Shannon gives us one scene in particular, a scene where Paige refuses to look away, that I’d forgotten then remembered.  That particular scene, to me, is one of the hardest hitting, albeit relatively brief, scenes in a book that is littered with bruises and blood.

Much like the first two of the series, The Song Rising doesn’t get bogged down in the darkness and despair. The circumstances that positioned Paige as Underqueen and leader of the Mime Order have certainly left their marks, but there remain some wonderfully endearing moments and gestures that breathe a lightness and joy into this bloody and bruised steampunk dystopian world.

Neither this nor high fantasy are genres I read a lot of, but I will read anything Samantha Shannon writes.

Read this series.

HIEROGLYPHICS – Jill McCorkle

Photographed on a quilt made by my grandmother.

Jill McCorkle’s Hieroglyphics (2020 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) is a patchwork quilt made with scraps of guilt, trauma, secrets, family, survival, and mortality.  At its heart, it is a novel of the things we cling to to remember and be remembered.

Lil and Frank have retired to North Carolina from the brisk winters of Boston.  Frank had spent half his childhood in the state, and his childhood home has been calling to him.  He hopes the current residents, a young woman and her son who are renting the home, will let him come inside.  Despite his requests, he hasn’t had much luck and his time is running out.

Lil worries about him.  She’s concerned about his obsession with the house, but she’s more concerned about his health and forgetfulness.  In an effort to help him and herself remember, she leaves written reminders throughout their home and spends her days sifting through old diary entries and bits and pieces she’s written over the years – her immortality finding life in the words she leaves behind.  All but one word.  Their word.

Shelley doesn’t know what to make of the old man when he asks if he can come inside and see the house.  As a court stenographer, she’s seen the horrendous things even the most harmless looking folks have done.  More importantly, her own childhood experiences of trauma and abuse have her question intentions. She doesn’t let him in.

Harvey is an interesting kid.  He’s obsessed with murders and murderers, Lizzie Borden in particular, and he thinks there is a ghost in the house.  He was born with a facial deformity, and he hides his scar behind fake mustaches.  Shelley does her best, but she’s a single mom struggling to overcome the crap hand she was dealt, and she’s overwhelmed.

This is McCorkle at her best, and Hieroglyphics will settle around your shoulders like a faded and worn quilt passed down from generation to generation.

Read this book.

YES, YOUR MAJESTY – Jennifer Ann Shore

*Snow has zero to do with this book. Just wishful thinking on my part for a snow day. 🙂

I read Metallic Red (2020) by Jennifer Ann Shore back in October, and I absolutely adored it.  When the sequel, Yes, Your Majesty, became available for pre-order, I didn’t hesitate; I was eager to get back to Mina’s world.  Mina, a half-human / half-vampire, had just become Queen of Appalachia at the close of Metallic Red and how that would impact relationships with humans, her parents, and the royals was something I couldn’t stop thinking about.

The novel opens with Mina watching Charlie and Eloise graduate.  She is far removed from the festivities, watching from behind a fence with two bodyguards.  It immediately sets the tone for the novel; Mina, hardened by the actions of her parents and the death of her uncle, has become more of a vampire than she’s ever appeared before.  She’s closed off, overwhelmed, and guarded.  Much like Metallic Red was written in a style that reflected the split existence Mina was living, Yes, Your Majesty shivers with a coldness of responsibility that has settled over Mina.

I wanted more.  I wanted Mina to embrace the human-side a bit more and give the reader a glimpse into her thought process over the criminal actions of her father and the subsequent banishment of both her parents.  I wanted more of the struggle within Mina between the human world and the vampire world, more importantly between Charlie and Theo.  The book steamrolls quickly into the choice having been made without really appearing on the pages.  I think that was a missed opportunity.  I would have enjoyed seeing Yes, Your Majesty focus on the unveiling of vampires to humans, Mina’s early stumbles as a royal and with other royals, the choice between Charlie and Theo, and an introduction to the debt owed to the witches.  The hunt for the 300-year-old vampire could have been fleshed into a third book that I would have read with glee.  (That’s partly because I’m not ready to say goodbye to Mina and her mixed group of friends.)

That said, I still loved this novel. Shore has given her readers a female teenager whose life and actions aren’t determined by a desire to win the affections of a man.  In fact, Mina alienates the men in her life as she rises to the challenge of being queen.  That balance is something Mina struggles with throughout the novel, and I was ecstatic to see that she finds a way to balance her personal relationships with her business endeavors without forsaking herself.  The social commentary is strong within this novel. Shore touches on gender roles, US healthcare, discrimination, and privilege by using the voices of her young and bold characters.  It’s an excellent way to avoid “preachiness” while building memorable characters.

I hope this isn’t the last I see of Mina and Eloise, but if it is, this was a really fun ride.

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA – Chanel Cleeton

I picked up Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana (BERKLEY 2018) a few months ago because of the cover and the title.  While I wish the “Reese’s Book Club” label wasn’t on it, this cover, in particular the colors, is quite captivating; the fact that the story itself outshines the cover is high praise.  Next Year in Havana is a delicious historical fiction novel that doesn’t have its heart squeezed out by a heavy-handed romance plot – and that’s my sweet spot for historical fiction.

Running dual timelines, the novel follows Elisa, the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, who finds herself in love with a revolutionary who stands for everything her family isn’t, and her granddaughter, Marisol, who is going to Cuba to spread her ashes.  Elisa raised Marisol, filling her head with the stories and songs of her beloved home.  It is Elisa’s wish that her ashes be spread in Cuba.  She doesn’t tell Marisol where, only that Marisol will know.  Marisol, with her grandmother’s ashes hidden in her luggage, enters the country she feels she already knows only to learn Cuba isn’t exactly like the one in grandmother’s stories and that her grandmother wasn’t exactly the woman she was led to believe.

Elisa had buried her love and her secrets in a box in the same yard her father had buried the family’s riches before fleeing to Florida.  Both she and her father hoped to return to claim them one day.  Neither would, leaving their secrets to be held by Cuba until delivered to their rightful heir.  For Elisa’s box, that’s Marisol.  Elisa’s oldest friend (and Marisol’s host) gives her the box that she’d helped Elisa bury so many years ago.  With the box, Marisol is given a warning not to judge Elisa too harshly.  Confronted with her grandmother’s surprising past, Marisol sets out to find more about the revolutionary who’d claimed her grandmother’s heart. 

This is the story of two people from different sides of a revolution who fell in love in 1958.  In 2017, the domino effect of that love is finally realized.  It’s a love story, but it’s also story of Cuba and family.  It’s a story of revolution and displacement.  It’s a story of secrets and survival.

It’s a lovely read.

THREE DARK CROWNS – Kendare Blake

“I will kill my sisters just as easily, Natalia,” Katherine says.  “I promise.  Though perhaps when I am finished, they will not look like they are sleeping.”

Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen 2016) has been on my radar for a few years, but it only recently made its way to my physical TBR.  I enjoy YA fantasy, and I tend to use them as comforting candy reads and palate cleansers.  (That’s not saying they’re all sweet and shallow by any means.)   Three Dark Crowns is one heck of an intense fantastical ride that is far from charming and teeters on the overly dramatic – but it sure is fun.

The island of Fennbirn is a magical place set apart from the mainland.  Ruled by the Goddess, there is a queen who will birth triplets.  At birth, the talents of the triplets are named by the queen before she leaves the island with her consort.  Only one of the triplets will become rule, and she will be crowned after killing the other two.  The triplets are separated as children, raised within their talents, and the killing starts following their 16th birthday.

Katherine is the poisoner queen, and poisoner queens have ruled for a hundred years.  The only problem is Katherine isn’t that great at it. She’s excellent at poisoning, but awful at being poisoned.  Despite years of training, she has not built up the strength or resistance expected.

Arsinoe is the naturalist queen.  Rough and ready like a feral beast, she runs with Jules and Jules’s familiar Camden.  Jules is one of the strongest naturalists in years, as evidenced by her big cat familiar.  Arsinoe’s familiar has yet to come to her.  Much like Katherine is an awful poisoner, she’s not great at being a naturalist.

Mirabella, backed by the Temple, is the elemental queen.  She is powerful, commanding storms with ease.  All expect her to defeat her sisters.  It’s why the Temple has backed her.  They want control, and Mirabella is by far the strongest in her gifts.

Can three sisters raised to kill each other learn to trust each other? Can the Temple be stopped?  Will Arsinoe’s and Katherine’s gifts awaken in time?  What exactly is the cost of low magic?  The first in the series leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but a thirst for the rest of the story.

It’s a hell of a fun fantasy soap opera.

GLAMOUR GIRLS – Marty Wingate

My “women at war” reading list has continued into 2021, finding me in England during WWII with Marty Wingate’s Glamour Girls (January 12, 2021, Alcove Press).  Wingate, a cozy mystery writer, slid quite easily into the historical genre, and Glamour Girls is a quick and easy read with much of the violence of war (and pleasures of sex) happening off page.  In addition to war-time depictions, Wingate does grapple with rather heavy topics of the time (homosexuality, premarital sex, children born outside of wedlock, gender norms, societal norms, etc.); but her tone remains light and any conflict is brief and readily resolved, a formula to her writing that is very much reminiscent of a comfortable cozy.

The novel centers around Rosalie (Rags to her brothers) Wright, a young girl who longs to leave the farm life for the skies.  For her eleventh birthday, she convinces her adoring father to take her to the Flying Circus.  He pays for her to go up twice, and she is hooked.  Her father promises her flying lesson when she is old enough.  For the next several years, she saves her money and, much to her mother’s chagrin, never gives up on her dream of being a pilot.  When the novel opens, she’s had several lessons but has been grounded just a few flight hours short of getting her license due to the war; her instructor says the planes will be needed for things a bit more important than teaching a girl to fly.  Rosalie’s nearly given up until she reads an article about Pauline Grower, a pilot who had been appointed to the Women’s Division of the Air Transport Auxiliary – the head of the women ferry pilots who assist war efforts by ferrying planes to where the Royal Air Force needs them.  She’s initially denied due to her incomplete experience, but through sheer determination and grit, she’s admitted.

The women ferry pilots, known as Glamour Girls or Attagirls, are a remarkable lot – both the fictional women in Wingate’s novel, and the very real women who inspired the novel.  These women would fly numerous hours a day, ferrying planes to where they were needed.  Once they landed, they might have enough time for a cup of tea before they were up in the skies again.  They weren’t trained on all the planes, but they flew all the planes.  Their knowledge came from Ferry Pilots Notes, with new pages being added as new planes joined the war.  The women had to fly the planes low, their only navigation a knowledge of English typography and their own eyesight.  The planes were unarmed, and the women would have to use their skill and quick-thinking to maneuver away from enemy planes and other dangers.  Often the planes being ferried needed repairs, rendering them not the safest.  Engines cut midflight and emergency landings were a common occurrence in the open fields of the English countryside.  These women pilots were phenomenal, taking to the skies to risk their very lives for home and country despite being doubted and disrespected by many.

Rosalie loves what she does; she is never more comfortable than she is in the skies.  Through her experiences as a ferry pilot and her relationships with other pilots, including the brief love triangle with Snug and Alan Chersey, Rosalie finds her wings and her voice.  It’s an uplifting story about a remarkable woman who came running when needed.

Glamour Girls is a light read about a heavy time in history.  Inspired by a true story, it shines a light on the bravery and joy of the Attagirls, as well as the risks and sacrifices they took for home and country.  A huge thank you to Alcove Press for getting this ARC into my hands.  The novel is available for pre-order now and will be released on January 12, 2021.   I would recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction as well as fans of sweet romance and cozy mysteries.  It’s a comforting candy of a read that reminds us how resilient and amazing women truly are.

YELLOW WIFE – Sadeqa Johnson

I love a good historical novel, particularly a well-researched novel that stands out both for its writing style and for a unique story that doesn’t feel regurgitated.  While I admittedly gravitate more toward historical fiction with hints of magical realism (Remembrance and Conjure Women from last year being excellent examples), Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (1/12/2021) was a highly anticipated read for me.  I was absolutely floored when Simon & Schuster sent this gorgeous ARC several months ago, and I’d been waiting for the perfect time to savor it.  And savor it I did.

Despite being a slave, Pheby Delores Brown was born into a world that treated her quite a bit differently than it did the darker slaves that called the plantation home.  The cherished mulatto and the daughter of a highly respected medicine woman, she was consistently reminded that she was descended from Cameroon royalty and a slave in name only.  The Master’s sister doted on her, teaching her to play the piano and read – treating her more like a beloved niece than a house slave.  The Master was also a bit smitten with the beautiful girl.  He promised her and her mother that he would give her freedom when she turned eighteen.  Once free, she could go North and further her education. 

But the Master’s wife isn’t exactly keen on Pheby or her beautiful mother.  Armed with power and jealousy, Missus Delphina snatches the dream and breaks the promises made by her husband; Pheby is taken to Devil’s Half Acre, a notorious slave jail in Richmond, to be sold.  There, her delicate upbringing and light skin catch the eye of the Jailer and life pivots yet again.  While she is treated much differently than many others who pass through Devil’s Half Acre, Pheby remains a slave and her existence (and happiness) is subject to the whims of a white man known as “Devil” and “Bully.”

Based loosely on historical events, Yellow Wife is about the parts of life that are neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong.  It’s about a shared history and the contradictions of human nature.   More importantly, it’s about survival, family, and the choices we make. 

Read this book.