Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

First Star I See Tonight

first star I see tonight
by: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest addition to her Chicago Stars series, a contemporary romance series about the players and coaches of the fictional Chicago Stars football team.

I really enjoy Phillips’ writing and this was no exception.  It’s a light-hearted romp, with humor and spirited characters and just a touch of reality.  This installment follows Cooper Graham (who has either two first names or two last names), a retired quarterback breaking into the nightclub business and Piper Dove, the struggling PI who’s been hired to follow him.  It’s written in third person from both their perspectives.

Cooper was a nice, if lighthearted, take on a retired athlete – someone who hasn’t lost everything but still hasn’t found himself. He’s a great male lead: competitive, kind, and just a tad bit overbearing.  He’s definitely the kind of male hero it’s fun to daydream about without ever turning into the guy you’d never want to meet in real life. He actually listens to Piper and, even though the set up is ripe for it, Phillips never allows him to override Piper’s wishes with a

Piper is strong and confident and frustrated by the sexism of the world.  Her father raised her to be the toughest of women and then was unhappy when she wanted to use her skillset to make a living. Though this isn’t the conflict that’s driving Piper, it has clearly influenced her and I really appreciated Phillips’ inclusion of it. I think most women would can relate to a loving dad who wants to raise a tough little girl and then gets frustrated that she never turns into a dainty little lady.  She’s also a little impulsive in a way I didn’t always appreciate, just because she was generally so

Like a lot of Phillips’ work, the book has a bit of adventure and a dash of danger (which does work to push the characters into an “AHA!” moment). The plot moves really quickly without ever losing the fun of it all, something that Phillips particularly excels at. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but being able to see it didn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book.

But there is a major element that I struggle with in Phillips’ writing that is really troubling for me.  She often includes characters of color as side characters and I feel like she often leans heavily on stereotypes to develop the characters.  They’re often developed characters just…they do feel based on stereotypes. And there’s often a hint of a white savior component.  In this book, she choose to include Muslim characters from an unnamed Middle Eastern…and the white main characters literally save one of the Muslim characters from a cartoonishly evil Middle Eastern Prince.

Now, Phillips does make a point to say not all rich Middle Eastern princes are villains, and she uses the opportunity to (a little clumsily) introduce several important components of Islam in a fairly positive and respectful light.  I do applaud that she clearly thinks bringing in more diverse characters in romance novels is important – it absolutely is. I believe Phillips had positive intentions. And at this point in time, there is certainly some benefit to even a clumsily done inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim woman into mainstream American romance.

But that doesn’t excuse it from its faults, either, or from the fact Muslim women, like all women, deserve to be developed as individual characters in novels, informed, but not defined, by their culture, religion, and/or heritage, and certainly not written based on stereotypes or brought in as a convenient plot point to prove how good the main (white) characters are.  And this isn’t the first time Phillips has handled inclusion of characters of color quite clumsily; she has several books with cringeworthy moments with black characters.  (Though this is certainly the most egregious example.)

So despite how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I don’t want to demonize Phillips for trying and failing, because honestly the genre as a whole is not inclusive and generally not trying. However, I’m also not comfortable recommending the book.

If you decide to read it, maybe pick up Huda Fahmy’s upcoming book Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth of Life in a Hijab as well.  Fahmy writes and draws amazingly funny comics about her own life and I am so excited about her book coming out!  (and, hey, pick it up if you’re not reading First Star I See Tonight, too.)

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

The Traveling Tea Shop

traveling tea shop
by: Belinda Jones

I picked up The Traveling Tea Shop at the library when I was looking for a light, fluffy read to get through my cold with.  This looked like a good bet, and it definitely paid off.

It’s written in first person and follows the adventures of Laurie Davis, a sweets-obsessed British travel agent living in New York. She’s contacted by Pamela Lambert, legendary British bake show host, to organize a baked goods tour of New England. Pamela shows up with her mother and rebellious daughter, forcing Laurie to deal with her own family issues as she’s exposed to theirs.

The story is – oh, I hate this term, but classic chic-lit. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that it’s light and fun, but there’s a focus on relationships and personal growth within the characters. A perfect beach read for those of us in the southern hemisphere, and a nice cheer up novel for those heading into the depths of winter.

Character wise, it’s good but not great. My favorite character actually left halfway through the novel, which was disappointing. It’s pretty realistic about normal flaws that people have; in particular one of the character has a serious conflict-aversion problem portrayed very well in a kind but negative light.  And the main character is implied to be plump or perhaps plus sized without any of her problems stemming from her self-esteem or a lack of body acceptance.

The resolutions and the ah-ha moment of the main character is a bit over the top for my taste, though. Everything does get resolved and, I think, in a fairly realistic manner – nothing is neatly tied up, but the characters can look hopefully towards the future and I liked that aspect.  But at the same time, a few of the moments and thought processes feel a bit contrived.  Not enough to ruin the story, just enough that it dipped a toe into the Hallmark movie pond.

The romance story lines were really well-done; they were secondary to character development and moved romantically but not unrealistically quickly. I love a book that can have a romance without making it the most important part of a woman’s life – Jones does a great job with this balance.

There is a big focus on baked goods and in that aspect, it’s very well-researched.  (Mostly. Popovers are more associated with Maine than New Hampshire in my experience.) I actually can’t eat wheat, so I am not a huge baked goods fan, but I liked all the descriptions – if you are a fan of baked goods, this might make you really hungry! It includes a lot of real American cooks and places and they’re well-described (mostly – the White Mountain National Forest elevation is way off). It made me really homesick for New England, actually! The author is British and she did some excellent research into iconic baked goods and restaurants of New York and New England.

But…the author is British writing about America and even though the main characters are British, she still missed a few things Americans are going to pick up on. Pound cake is a common American baked good; scones are not. The vast, vast majority of American restaurants and hotels do not serve afternoon tea*, much less with a tiered platter of baked goods.  Virtually every establishment and person in this novel has afternoon tea. We sort things into category; we don’t ‘sort a problem out.’ It wasn’t all-pervasive (the author was wise in choosing British characters) but American readers will definitely spend a few minutes going “wait…what?”

The characters seem to spend a lot of time unsupervised in commercial kitchens, which seems highly, highly unrealistic. but that’s a minor peeve.

If you’re looking for a beach-read type novel with realistically flawed people and a tiny bit of cheesiness, then this book is absolutely for you! If you don’t like a pinch of too-tidy revelations, are jerked out of the story by cultural inaccuracies, or don’t like extensive descriptions of food and places in your escapism novels, then alas, this may not be the book for you.

*specialty tea or British cuisine restaurants might, but you’d have to specifically look for such a place. I lived in Boston for four years and never went somewhere with a set afternoon tea service, nor have any of my friends – they exist, but you’d have to seek them out.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Ruins of Us

by: Keija Parssinen

I finally made it back to the library yesterday and this book caught my eye (yesterday was grey and rainy so I spent the rest of the day reading it; it was not small but a quick read nonetheless.)  I read the back and was intrigued by the plot synopsis, though the quotes were uninspiring.  I gave the first page a shot, anyways, and was quickly hooked.

The Ruins of Us is the story of an American woman, Rosalie, who married a wealthy Arab man, Abdullah, and, 25 years and 2 kids into their marriage, discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife (and hidden it from her.) Rosalie, who genuinely loves her husband, her adopted country, and her life as a nonpracticing Muslim, finds herself at an impasse right as her son finds himself influenced by a religious man with dangerous beliefs.

At its core, this book is about a failing marriage, a middle-aged love story.  Abdullah and Rosalie both love each other but are dealing with the realities of growing older and facing the inertia of their life together.  It’s a true love story, though not a romance.  Abdullah is a good guy, if spoiled, and Rosalie is a good woman, if somewhat made passive by a life of convenience.  The book doesn’t focus as much on cultural differences as I would expect; Rosalie is pretty well assimilated into the Arabic culture and truly doesn’t mind the restrictive laws of Saudi Arabia. (She is also more than a little protected by Abdullah’s status and wealth; this, I think, plays a lot into her worldview and decisions.)

The book is also fairly realistic about the realities of Saudi’s current political state; Rosalie knows about all the limitations put upon her but is not ever scared of Abdullah abusing them or her. The aftereffects of 9/11 are talked about, as are the, er, foibles of the ruling family. Again, though, the family is quite wealthy and sheltered, so while evils, injustices, and cultural differences are acknowledged, many of them aren’t explored in depth.  (Which feels very realistic of an upper class family, honestly.  The characters are not unsympathetic to the challenges others face; it’s just that the draconian laws don’t affect them as much.)

The major exception to this is the son, who is struggling with being an obviously mixed child.  The anger and resentment he feels is funnelled into a burgeoning fanaticism, clearly driven more by emotional need than by belief.  I actually really appreciated this storyline, as it makes the reader sympathesize with the motivations (though not the actions) of such a person. And through the sympathesizing, you can begin to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed.

This book flew by.  I couldn’t believe how much I just wanted to know what happens next.  I found the ending mostly satisfying; the ends were tied up and though I’m not sure what ending I wanted, the ending I got was believable.  It’s actually fairly light reading, fast-paced, interesting but not incredibly complicated characters, a (for Americans) foreign and (for anyone not uber-wealthy) fantastic setting.

Though realistic about its setting, I didn’t feel like the book veered into Islamophobia – in fact, at times it addressed the negative impact 9/11-empowered Islamophobia had on the characters, especially the children.  All of the characters were flawed but sympathetic (it’s told in third person limited, and every main character gets at least one chapter) and Abdullah is not painted as a monster because of his religion; he’s likeable and self-centered (and that’s attributed more to his power and wealth than anything else.) (let me know if you felt differently, of course!)

Overall, this felt more like a love story dealing with a multicultural couple than a book committed to exploring vast cultural differences.  It made for a fun, fast, interesting read; a Harlequin novel all grown up and dealing with real people and cultures instead of caricatures.

So if you’re looking for an insightful read about the realities of being an American in a Islamic country, a slow and introspective read on an unusual marriage, or beautiful prose with a complex emotional landscape, alas, this book is probably not for you.  But if you want something fun and easy to read, with an unusual setting and premise, that treats stereotypical romantic leads as real people with real problems, and does so without demonizing, I’d highly recommend The Ruins of Us.

Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

Mambo in Chinatown

mambo in chinatown
by: Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card.  I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention.  Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.

Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money.  She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things.  One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it.  Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.

I greatly enjoyed this novel.  It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience.  She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel.  I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.

Charlie herself is a really wonderful character.  She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable.  Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with.  I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.

I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor.  And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western.  I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.

The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable.  Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all.  But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel.  The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.

Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.