Butterfly Palace by Colleen Coble

Butterfly PalaceAustin, 1904 – Newly orphaned and impoverished Lily Donaldson arrives at the famed Butterfly Mansion in search of a position. As soon as she arrives, she’s tested out by serving at the Marshall’s dinner party, where she recognizes one distinguished guest as her former fiancee Andrew, now hiding under a new identity and wooing Lily’s new mistress Belle. As Lily frets over his reappearance in her life after all these years, she also fears becoming the target of the Servant Girl Killer, who is leaving young women’s bodies all over Austin. After saving one of the killer’s victims, she becomes embroiled in the investigation and its potential connections to an assassination attempt, a counterfeiting ring, and the mysterious incident of arson that killed her father.

I didn’t realize Colleen Coble’s Butterfly Palace was in the romantic Christian lit genre until I popped by Goodreads to add this review. For those of you, who like me, aren’t fans, I would still give this a shot because it’s not overly proselytizing or swoonworthy outside of a few instances where the main characters, Lily and Drew, scold themselves for almost giving in to carnal temptation or become jealous of the other’s flirtations. The book does, however, provide a unique setting for a historical mystery that touches on the social issues of its time.

However, for a book that highlights class differences in the early 2oth-century, Lily’s character unbelievably straddles the barrier between the help and friend of the household. As a modern woman, I enjoyed her, but she behaves unrealistically for a woman in her position, especially in relation to her employer Belle whom she openly defies. Belle, who at first is selfish and vain, has a fabulously feminist growth arc that makes her the heroine of the tale in my eyes.

While the plot showed promise at the beginning, it dragged on for far too long with the addition of superfluous characters and ridiculous red herrings. The mystery’s unraveling was especially poorly executed, rushed and illogical, though I suppose the plot threads were mostly wrapped up. Overall, it was a light read that was mildly enjoyable, but not very thrilling in either the romantical or criminal sense.

3 Stars

The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and FishingMelissa Banks’ The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing had been on my to-read list for awhile, another one of those added from “Best Books for Your Twenties” and “Best Books for Female Ice-Fishers” and other such lists. I didn’t quite know what to expect from it, but whatever my expectation, it wasn’t what I got.

The book was framed as a series of short vignettes, mostly from the life of Jane, from her teenage years through late twenty-something yuppie days in New York City. Jarringly, one chapter from the point-of-view of Jane’s neighbor was also thrown in – I liked it for offering a different perspective from and on Jane, but it felt isolated from the rest of the book.While Bank’s prose often is gorgeous and her witty one-lines fall pointedly from Jane’s mouth, the writing fails to excavate something original amongst the trite issues she digs at.

Plot-wise, to be honest, I loved the beginning and then it went downhill from there. As a teenager, her protagonist Jane’s voice feels simultaneously fresh and jaded, divulging surprisingly insightful impressions of familial relationships and burgeoning romances. But as she grows and becomes entangled with Archie, a much older man whom she is dependent on personally and professionally, I cease to relate to or respect her choices. The woman is man-fishing and husband-hunting in utterly wrong ways, largely trying to conform to what she imagines males want her to bring to their relationship. It’s dated and, worse, strikingly anti-feminist. Banks should’ve stuck to the non-romantic loves, because it’s when Jane discusses her cancer-struck father or her adored big brother that her story is most moving despite the cliche.

In a sea of worthwhile books, TV shows, and films about being a young woman grappling with adulthood and singledom, this is nothing special. Jane can be an everywoman but, in the end, she doesn’t give us any wisdom or hope that we don’t already know and have. Completely forgettable.

2.5 Stars

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty QueensEn route to the Miss Teen Dream pageant hosted by The Corporation, the plane carrying all 50 aspiring beauty queens goes down. The thirteen survivors are stranded on a deserted island, where they struggle to survive until they can be rescued. As their hopes and supplies dwindle, they uncover a nefarious plot involving arms dealing with Kim Jung Il-like dictator MoMo and realize they must become allies instead of competitors in order to save themselves.

Libby Bray’s Beauty Queens is as if the bizarre lovechild of Miss Congeniality and Lord of the Flies starred in the newly infamous The Interview, with pirates, evil corporations, and product placement thrown in for good measure. Don’t let that steer you clear though – this was simultaneously one of the funniest and most feminist books I’ve read.

I don’t want to spoil it too much but Miss New Hampshire is an undercover pageant hater out for an expose, Miss Texas is neurotically focused on the crown, plus there is at least one lesbian, two minorities, and a dumb blonde. While they all come across as one-note and shallow in the beginning, Bray’s point is to expose these characters beyond the stereotypes and liberate them from the confines of beauty and perfection that society imposes on women. At first, it’s difficult to keep track of the girls between the interchangeable usage of their names and states, but they do become unique individuals and it is very empowering once they begin to see themselves and their competitors as such.

The book’s formatting as a televised pageant broadcast is genius, complete with the commercial breaks that promote The Corporation’s other ventures and products while criticizing the media and materialism. One of my favorite parts was the footnotes scattered throughout the text, which often contained cheeky background info or asides from the corporation. I also enjoyed the thinly-veiled allusions to real people, like J.T. Woodland as Justin Timberlake and Ladybird as Sarah Palin. I’ve never read such a humorous take on America’s domineering and unethical relationship with developing nations as Bray’s discussion of arms dealing with evil dictator MoMo, a situation that resembles our former relationship with the likes of Muammar al-Qaddafi and even the early Taliban movement.

The middle section of the story was a little weak since the girl’s mostly continue to develop and are sidetracked by the romantic pirate interlude, which admittedly had it’s own point about teen relationships. The amazing climactic action (pagentry! explosions! man-eating snake!) did make up for it at least. However, I wish the book had ended with the girls had sailing off into the sunset victorious. Instead, we were treated to a weak ending of the girls’ future reunion, but seeing as the whole story could’ve been a made-for-TV movie, it seemed like a conscious decision to have such a cheesy epilogue.

As a satire of modern society, this books hits all the right notes if heavy-handedly. The seemingly-ridiculous premise shockingly works well to expose deep, sensitive issues, such as transgender transitions, racism, misogyny, and the mean girl culture. Quite different from Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy or The Diviners, this is nevertheless an excellent humorous beach read that will also give teens something to think about.

4 Stars

Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a dateStarting from the title, Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My life (so far) without a date got me. As a single woman of approximately the same age as her, I knew I’d relate to her memoir of her own hapless dating experiences.

This is a super-short review because you really have to read it, to be in the mindset, to appreciate it fully. But if you’re anything like me, you will definitely identify with her insights. Heaney tracks her lack of romance from her first crush in elementary school through the post-college present day. As a millennial, I particularly related to her failed attempts at online dating, from the excitement to tedium of creating a profile to the very awkward first date – all experiences that my friends have repeatedly recounted for me.

Like my friends, Heaney’s tend to be the heart of her story of singledom. In particular, her best friend Rylee, whom she refers to as a “lighthouse” (i.e. the type of person whom other people are drawn to), reminded me of a number of friends and acquaintances. Additionally, I (prone to nostalgia) enjoyed her reminiscing about living with other women in a crowded college dorm – I fondly (and sometimes not-so-fondly) bring those stories out at any university reunion, be it with one person over coffee or with a crowd at a tailgate.

While not the most insightful memoir, reading Heaney seems exactly like gossiping with your girlfriends. Sometimes what you really need is an entertaining outsider’s take on the same awkward things you’re going through, a type of literary catharsis, and in those cases, this is the perfect read.

4 Stars

The Beekeeper’s Ball by Susan Wiggs

The Beekeeper's Ball (Bella Vista Chronicles, #2)Susan Wiggs’ The Beekeeper’s Ball  was my October book club read and (surprise, surprise) another non-winner. I still appreciate that the book club encourages me to branch out from my usual preferences, but even they couldn’t save this choice. Our discussion was cut significantly short because no one has anything to say about such an insipid read.

Isabel Johansen is stressed: she’s opening her culinary school, planning her sister’s wedding, and trying to avoid her abusive ex, a celebrity chef who has shown up in her hometown after years to open up his new restaurant. So she’s not thrilled when handsome journalist Cormac O’Neill destroys her bee-keeping efforts, then starts digging into her family’s past. Mac came to write about Isabel’s grandfather’s past in Danish resistance against the Nazis, but the lush atmosphere of Bella Villa and Isabel’s cooking skills and curves entice him to give up his vagabond existence and stay.

Unlike Mac, I had no inclination to stay. In fact, I might not have stuck with this story if I hadn’t had the obligation to. Sonoma Valley sounds like an ideal location for a steamy love story, but it really just didn’t work. Maybe because I wasn’t attracted to Mac, or maybe because Isabel was so constantly vacillating in denial of her feelings. I didn’t really care if they got together or not.

I will admit that, despite her faults, Isabel could be a good cook. The food descriptions made my mouth water. The titular “Beekeeper’s Ball” was the honey-themed wedding of Tess, Isabel’s half-sister . Though the title is a stretch because there was little focus on the wedding despite it’s billing as a major plot-point, it served as a useful vehicle for Isabel’s testing, and thus the book’s listing, of recipes for various culinary creations. I adore honey and learning more about the beekeeping process as well as getting the recipes were the highlight of the book for me.

The other good part was Magnus, Isabel’s grandfather, who recollected his life’s story to Mac. I guess in theory you could bill this as “historical fiction”, which I considered doing because of these asides, but ultimately the flashbacks to World War II are few and fairly disconnected from the main plot. Although I and most of my fellow book-clubbers would have preferred the focus to be on that storyline, it’s really vaguely sketched out, with gaping plot holes. It’s basic purposes are (1) to bring the two leads together though a flimsy plot device and (2) to set up for future books in this series. This was a disappointment because I earnestly wanted to know more about how Magnus survived in the resistance and his growing relationships with Eva and Annaliese.

Unfortunately, I think I am just not a huge fan of this genre. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good romance every now and then, but usually with a dash of intrigue or adventure instead of by itself in a dull setting with duller characters. I would add that this is the second in the series, and I think maybe some of the scenes that felt missing may have been clarified by reading the first book. Not that I will – I just don’t love it enough.

2 Stars

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Since You've Been GoneAs you can tell from the cover, this is one of those light contemporary YA best-friendship stories. I picked up this book primarily because it’s the end of summer and I’m feeling all sorts of Americana nostalgia for sunny days and cold ice cream and hanging out with my friends with no real purpose and no responsibilities in sight. Yeah, I’m a judgmental sucker and confess that I fell for this cover.

In Morgan Matson’s Since You’ve Been Gone, shy, reserved Emily is excited for a memorable summer with her wild, whirlwind of a bestie Sloane. But one day at the end of the school year, she wakes up and Sloane is gone. Without a word, without a note, and without a way to trace her. Emily falls into a funk, passing her days by repeatedly calling and texting and driving past Sloane’s house. Now with no plans making for a lonely summer, Emily receives a list in the mail. A to-do list of random adventures that Sloane wants Emily to accomplish. Desperately, Emily decides to fulfill Sloane’s wishes and follow the instructions in the hopes that they’ll lead her to Sloane. However, on the way she finds new friends and even discovers herself.

Now, the premise was a cute idea, though the to-do/bucket list trend of plot-launching is getting a tad old. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see if Sloane would be found since she came across as so cool. Despite her disappearance, she’s a strong presence throughout the book through Emily’s memories and flashbacks. And she’s essential to the plot because without her, Emily is frustratingly boring. The book starts off so slow because Emily just mopes around wishing for Sloane. While I get that missing a bff is like missing a limb when you’re a teenager, it’s slightly weird that she has absolutely no other friends and actually actively avoids the people who want to befriend her. She only met Sloane about a year before the book starts, yet now its like she’s drowning without her life jacket.

Sloane’s list is meant to push Emily beyond being so dependent on one person to being independent, something that Emily sorely needed. Some of the list was pretty odd but tame, like apple-picking or sleeping under the stars, but it also ranged to the slightly crazy, like kissing a stranger or stealing. As much as I was irritated with Emily in the beginning, I admired how she began to grew over the course of the book, though she needed a push in the right direction sometimes. It was great to uncover the hidden layers of Emily’s character but also to see how she skewed her perception of Sloane and how Sloane needed her as much as she needed Sloane.

Emily luckily has an awesome circle of people to help her through the summer, and they were the highlight for me as a reader. Though her parents are a bit negligent in their artsy forgetful way, they obviously love their kids. Emily also looks out for her younger brother, and I was glad that they bonded in the absence of Sloane and their parents. Her new friends are also really sweet and funny, particularly goofy Collins and love-interest Frank, who is not the typical popular jock or bad boy hero – he’s a nerdy, ambitious class president. It was great that they were supportive of Emily’s growth but the tension of developing those new friendships still felt realistic. In particular, Collins makes a very insightful comment in the end asking if Emily thinks things will always stay the same as in that moment of summer. I can relate to her naive belief that it would, when in all honestly relationships change fluidly over the course of life so the connections they built over the summer may not last through senior year. But in the end, the reader gets a good sense of closure on the list, the summer, and the various relationships without the conclusion being too cliche.

I think this would be a great read for high school and college students, because they need to learn how to challenge themselves and how to deal with life’s challenges. This book serves as a well-written and relatable example. There’s no dystopia or vampires, just kids struggling with real problems. Also recommended for those who love Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” because every time I think of this book, I can’t get it out of my head.

4 Stars

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the DeadLaurel’s sister May is dead. She died young, just months before Laurel begins her freshman year of high school. So when Laurel’s English teacher gives the class the assignment of writing letters to the dead, she chooses to write to Kurt Cobain first. He was her sister’s favorite singer and it helps her feel close to May. But it doesn’t stop there as Laurel writes what she can’t say aloud to Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, and a slew of other famous deceased figures. She talks about starting a new school, getting her first boyfriend, and her memories of May, slowly revealing the truth of the night May died and the moments that led to the tragedy.

Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead is both darker and more touching than I expected. Unlike many young adult or chick-lit books where the climactic reveal isn’t surprising, I wasn’t really sure where the story would go and I found it simultaneously refreshing and realistic. Laurel’s problems are relatable for anyone starting a new school, but compounded by her raw grief over losing the sister she loves and admires but also hasn’t forgiven for leaving her.

The setting was slightly confusing. I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be set in the ’80s or current day or in between. Although some of the dead died recently, the lack of technology  in key instances and vintage preferences of both Laurel and May made it feel like an earlier era. Her friends Tristan and Kristen also seemed a lot more ancient than high school seniors, but that fit a bit better because they became like parents in her life, especially with the physical absence of her mother and emotional absence of her father.

Laurel seemed juvenile at times, which may annoy other readers, but I thought her voice and personality were understandable. She’s young and confused and had lost the person who guided her. That time is fraught for anyone undergoing transitions and questioning their identity, so her reactions didn’t annoy me as much as they might have from a different character, though I was upset that she tried to mold herself into May. However, most annoying was my incomprehension of her chemistry with Sky. Although I’m glad he seemed more responsible and less misogynistic than most YA leading men, they seemed incompatible. He mostly served as a replacement for May in Laurel’s life – May was her rock, and then Sky filled the void May left.

My favorite character was Aunt Amy. Even though she was an intensely devout Christian, she wasn’t portrayed in a negative light. You could see her love for Laurel and her kindness and her desire for romance of her own. I’m also glad that Laurel’s dad was a nice guy. Maybe he didn’t know exactly how to raise her while dealing with his grief, but you could tell he cared. Also interesting was the relationship between Hannah and Natalie, who are Laurel’s best friends and in love with each other. The three of them really grew up together during the plot, learning how to be individuals and stand up for themselves.

Although the pacing is slow and the narrative jumps around in time often, this book is very well-written and not dumbed down despite the age of the protagonist. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend it for a high-school audience since its a little immature for adults and a little too mature for middle-schoolers. It’s perfect for fans of Laurie Halsie Anderson’s Speak or Wintergirls.

4 Stars