ARC: Class of ’59

Class of '59 is the latest installment in the American Journey series. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When Mary Beth McIntire settles into a vacation house on June 2, 2017, she anticipates a quiet morning with coffee. Then she hears a noise, peers out a window, and spots a man in 1950s attire standing in the backyard.

In the same house on March 21, 1959, Mark Ryan finds a letter. Written by the mansion’s original owner in 1900, the letter describes a basement chamber, mysterious crystals, and a formula for time travel. Driven by curiosity, Mark tests the formula twice.

Within hours, Mary Beth and Mark share their secret with her sister and his brother and begin a journey that takes them from the present day to the age of sock hops, drive-ins, and jukeboxes. In CLASS OF ’59, the fourth book in the American Journey series, four young adults find love, danger, and adventure as they navigate the corridors of time and experience Southern California in its storied prime. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve reviewed several of John Heldt’s books in the past (you can see those reviews here, here, here, and here). This book is the fourth installment in his American Journey series, a time travel/romance series which brings couples together against the backdrop of famous times and places in America’s past.

Unlike earlier books in the series, Class of ’59 opens with the main characters discovering the time-traveling tunnel without the help (or knowledge) of the professor. Mark, a collegiate boy living in the late 50s, discovers an unbelievable story about time travel hidden in a desk in the new house his family moved into. When he tries it out, he finds himself transported to the same house almost sixty years into the future, where he meets Mary Beth and her sister. The two girls make the trip back to 1959 and experience the glory days of southern California, participating in school dances and meeting stars in Hollywood.

Of course, the two girls find themselves falling in love with Mark and his brother. The romances are sweet, if a little rushed. But after a few weeks of bliss, the four new friends find themselves in danger, and they have to quickly make choices that will affect the rest of their lives.

Class of ’59 had a few of the same problems I encountered in the last book, namely the use of descriptors rather than names and some flowery sentiments (how many times do we need to be reminded that Mark views Mary Beth as “stunning” or “beautiful” or “never ceases to amaze” him?). Still, if you can get past those details and enjoy the romance and the historical setting, you might give this book a try. And if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the American Journey series, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mini Review: Never Let Me Go

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy slowly reveal their secrets in the strange, thought-provoking novel Never Let Me Go. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book was not at all what I expected. It started out with an idyllic childhood at Hailsham, where Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy were at boarding school. But as the book goes on, you can see that there is something else going on in their lives–a secret that only now that the three friends are adults can they truly understand. I won’t reveal what the secret is for fear of spoilers, but I will say that it ended up being more sci fi related, instead of the relational drama I was expecting.

Never Let Me Go is a book that will definitely make you think, but it just didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because I was expecting a totally different kind of book; maybe it’s because I hated several of the characters (fortunately, our narrator Kathy is not nearly as irritating as some of the other characters). Whatever the reason, this just wasn’t the book for me.

Rating: Meh

The Tilted World

The Tilted World is a great historical fiction drama about a little-known natural disaster in the United States. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The year is 1927. As rains swell the Mississippi, the mighty river threatens to burst its banks and engulf all in its path, including federal revenue agent Ted Ingersoll and his partner, Ham Johnson. Arriving in the tiny hamlet of Hobnob, Mississippi, to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents on the trail of a local bootlegger, they unexpectedly find an abandoned baby boy at a crime scene.

An orphan raised by nuns, Ingersoll is determined to find the infant a home, a search that leads him to Dixie Clay Holliver. A lonely woman married too young to a charming and sometimes violent philanderer, Dixie Clay has lost her only child to illness and is powerless to resist this second chance at motherhood.

Then a deadly new peril arises, endangering them all. Now, with time running out, Ingersoll, Ham, and Dixie Clay must make desperate choices, choices that will radically transform their lives-if they survive. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I love historical fiction, but I haven’t read much lately, as most of the historical fiction books that have come out recently have taken themselves very seriously. (That’s not always a bad thing, but I’m not often in the mood for any book that can be described as “sweeping.”) The Tilted World, on the other hand, is not only great historical fiction, but also has fascinating characters and drama that will keep you turning pages.

Dixie Clay, a young woman married to an alcohol distributer in the midst of Prohibition, has become a moonshiner herself, using the constant activity to keep her from dwelling on the death of her infant son. Ingersoll is a revenuer who comes across an orphan baby and unwittingly hands him over to Dixie Clay. Both are fun characters, and their interactions provide some great moments.

But the real drama comes from the historical background. In the 1920s, there was a huge amount of rain that swelled the Mississippi river, and the subsequent flooding produced one of the greatest natural disasters the United States has ever seen–and I had never heard of it before picking up this book. I loved the backwoods Southern town that featured so heavily in the book, and I loved learning about this real-life disaster that had somehow escaped my knowledge.

There is some language and sexual content, so be aware if those aren’t your things. Otherwise, The Tilted World is a lot of fun. It has interesting characters, a great setting, and a historical backdrop that will inform you about one of this country’s greatest forgotten disasters.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Oh Dear Silvia

Comedian Dawn French writes a dark but funny look at a woman in a coma and the people whose lives she has affected. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Who is in Coma Suite Number 5? A matchless lover? A supreme egotist? A selfless martyr? A bad mother? A cherished sister? A selfish wife?

All of these. For this is Silvia Shute who has always done exactly what she wants. Until now, when her life suddenly, shockingly stops.

Her past holds a dark and terrible secret, and now that she is unconscious in a hospital bed, her constant stream of visitors are set to uncover the mystery of her broken life. And she must lie there, victim of the beloveds, the borings, the babblings and the plain bonkers.

Like it or not, the truth is about to pay Silvia a visit. Again, and again and again… (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve been a fan of Dawn French ever since watching her hilarious show, The Vicar of Dibley. (If you want to watch it, it’s currently on Netflix. So funny! And if you haven’t seen it, you might remember Dawn French as the Fat Lady in the painting that guards Gryffindor in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.) So when I found out that she has also started a writing career, I knew I had to check her books out. Although Dawn French has written a memoir which I really want to read, this contemporary fiction book made its way into my hands first.

Oh Dear Silvia is a quick read. It’s darker than I expected (Dawn French is a comedian after all, and the cover blurbs made the book out to be a comedy), but it is still a bit funny. Silvia is in a coma for the entire book, so we get to see her life and actions from the viewpoint of her ex-husband, current lover, family, nurse, and housekeeper rather than from her own. Each character has been affected differently by Silvia’s strong personality, but as we go through the story, Silvia’s darkest secret is revealed and many of her actions start to make sense.

My biggest complaint is that the dialects were a bit much. There is a Jamaican character and an Indonesian character, and the written dialects straddle the line between funny and offensive. I’m never a big fan of dialect in books, but this was more bothersome than usual.

Oh Dear Silvia is an easy read that’s both fun and dark, with a twist that’s interesting but not overly shocking. If you’re a Dawn French fan who decides to read this book, go in realizing that it’s not going to provide constant laughs.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Roundup: August Edition

Quick reviews of The Little Paris Bookshop, Sold, and Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Sold

Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.

Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution. Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words— Simply to endure is to triumph.

Written in spare and evocative vignettes, this powerful novel renders a world that is as unimaginable as it is real, and a girl who not only survives but triumphs. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that human trafficking is an issue close to my heart. I put off reading this book because I knew it would make me sad and outraged. It did, of course, but that’s not all there is to this book.

Sold is made up of short, almost poetic chapters. Yes, it is heart wrenching and painful, but it is also beautiful and hopeful. If you’re curious about how young girls get trafficked in Nepal, this book (fictional, but based on the author’s firsthand research) is a beautiful way to start.

If you want to know how you can support girls and women who have escaped human trafficking situations like this, check out my post on the subject here.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

December 1941. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill arrives in Washington, D.C., along with special agent Maggie Hope. Posing as his typist, she is accompanying the prime minister as he meets with President Roosevelt to negotiate the United States’ entry into World War II. When one of the First Lady’s aides is mysteriously murdered, Maggie is quickly drawn into Mrs. Roosevelt’s inner circle—as ER herself is implicated in the crime. Maggie knows she must keep the investigation quiet, so she employs her unparalleled skills at code breaking and espionage to figure out who would target Mrs. Roosevelt, and why. What Maggie uncovers is a shocking conspiracy that could jeopardize American support for the war and leave the fate of the world hanging dangerously in the balance. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Guys, I really didn’t like this book. Even though this is the fifth book in the Maggie Hope series, there’s a lot of exposition and very little action. You would think I would be able to get behind Maggie as a woman doing dangerous work at a time when that was far from the norm, but she’s pretty boring herself. She hardly does anything other than take notes for Winston Churchill and follow Eleanor Roosevelt around.

Even these famous historical characters–FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill–don’t seem familiar. I’m not a historical expert, certainly, but some of the things that these real-life characters said rang false. This totally took me out of the reading experience. I’m definitely not interested in reading any of the other books in this series.

Rating: Meh

The Little Paris Bookshop

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve been seeing this book everywhere, and I finally got around to reading it after a friend of mine bought her own copy and demanded I read along with her. And it was not at all what I thought it was going to be!

The Little Paris Bookshop has beautiful writing, and the setting (France) is pretty gorgeous itself. After Perdu finally reads the letter that his lover left him so many years ago, he begins a symbolic journey down the river, pursuing his memories of Manon. I got annoyed at Perdu sometimes because of his stubbornness, and the book was very sad in places, but I liked his companions (Max, Samy, and Cuneo).

Be forewarned that there is some sexual content, but if you’re good with that, you might enjoy this book about the power of books to heal us. I personally found this one beautiful but forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classics Link Up: Slaughterhouse-Five and A Room with a View

The latest classic books I've checked off my list: A Room with a View and Slaughterhouse-Five. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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You might remember the classic book challenge that I’m doing myself (and you are welcome to participate too! Just post your links in the comments below with your latest classic book reads). These two books are the latest on my list (I actually finished A Room with a View just before I created my list, which is why it doesn’t appear there).

A Room with a View

One of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated novels, A Room With a View is the story of a young English middle-class girl, Lucy Honeychurch. While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness. A Room With a View is a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is sweet, reminiscent of Jane Austen. After a life-changing trip to Italy, Lucy has to decide which man to marry–Cecil, a protective and traditional man, or George, who refuses to live by society’s rules. I must say, I was confused about feminist overtones–I’ll admit, this is one of those classic books that I’m not sure I’m getting completely. Have any of you studied A Room with a View? I’d love your perspective on it!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

This is one of those classic books that I’m pretty sure everyone except me has already read. It’s actually an easy read, and the structure is interesting–Billy Pilgrim, the main character, thinks he has become “unstuck in time,” and his reminiscences shoot from one phase of his life to another, all centering on his experiences in Dresden during WWII.

Despite the ease of reading and the occasional humorous (or at least absurd) scene, the book tackles huge topics about the effects of war. It’s very reminiscent of Catch-22 (although it didn’t make me nearly as angry as that book did; Slaughterhouse-Five was more resigned and hopeless). It’s an unsettling look at the bombing of Dresden and its effects on the humanity of soldiers.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Have you read either of these books? What classics have you read lately? Don’t forget to leave your links in the comments!

ARC: A Decent Woman

A Decent Woman is a fascinating story of two Latina women struggling to live in male-dominated Puerto Rico. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife, the only one in La Playa. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past while she continues to hide a more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest Padre Vicénte and the young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must fight to preserve her twenty-five-year career.

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children who marries a wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. When she’s attacked during her pregnancy, she and Ana become allies in an ill-conceived plan to avoid scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor. (Summary via publisher)

I knew very little about this book before I started reading it. To be honest, I knew very little in general about life in Puerto Rico at the turn of the century. So I found this book really interesting and informative as it covered the lives of Latina women in a place and time that was very harsh on them. It was painful to read about how much these women suffered–there is rape, abuse, painful childbirth, cheating husbands, prostitution, and unfair laws to be dealt with.

Despite the culture that these women live in, Ana is a strong, independent woman. A former slave with a dark past, she now spends her days as a midwife, despite the new trend toward taking laboring women to hospitals where male doctors can care for them. Ana overcomes the sexism, racism, and classism that threaten to take away her livelihood, one step at a time.

Serafina has different struggles. Ana delivered her first two babies and kept her abusive husband from doing too much harm. But when Serafina remarries into a wealthy, upper-class family, she soon finds that this new life has challenges and pains of its own.

If you want to read a book that discusses the struggles and triumphs of women in a male-dominated, chauvinistic society, this book is for you. If you want to learn more about the culture of Puerto Rico one hundred years ago, this book is for you too. It’s interesting, painful, and eye-opening.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Oh yes, I'm reviewing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (I liked it!) | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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If you haven’t heard about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new Harry Potter play that was just released in book form, well, you’ve probably been living under a rock. It has been hyped beyond all belief, and early readers have had wildly varying reactions. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy from my library the day after the book was released, so I’m sharing my thoughts with you. (**Mild spoilers follow, so don’t read on unless you’re okay with that.**)

When I started reading this book late one evening, I thought I would only read the first act or two. Then I decided to read just a few more scenes… and then the next act… and, readers, you know how that ended. All that to say, this is a fun read with interesting characters, and it’s a quick read because it’s a play, rather than a several hundred page tome like the original novels.

First, let’s discuss the plot. Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione are all in their late 30s, preparing to send their children off to Hogwarts. Albus Potter befriends Scorpius Malfoy, and the unlikely pair of friends team up using a Time-Turner to go back in time and right the wrongs Albus feels his father committed. Meanwhile, Harry struggles with being a father and Ministry of Magic worker, as well as with feelings of guilt toward all who sacrificed so that he could live all those years ago.

Because the plot hinges on time travel, I was a bit skeptical when I picked it up. I thought the story would be ridiculous or overly convoluted. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was able to use this plot device. Some of the events were a bit… questionable in terms of the likelihood of them actually happening (more on that later), but on the whole, it provided a fun way to look back at memorable events and characters from the original series. (We even get a cameo from Snape, who is just as dry and strangely lovable as ever.)

The characters, however, were the thing I was most worried about. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are some of the most beloved characters ever written, and many Harry Potter fans grew up alongside them. And I must say, this is where the play falters a bit. Still, Albus and Scorpius, children of these beloved characters, are really great. Albus has a huge chip on his shoulder (reminiscent of Harry in some of the later books), and Scorpius is a nerdy, quirky boy who remains loyal to his friend even when their fathers’ history threatens to interfere.

The adult characters were fairly consistent with the original series characters. Harry is brooding and conflicted and sometimes lashes out at the people who care most about him. Draco is even better than he was in the books–he is still imperious but actually gets a bit more depth and becomes more sympathetic in this play. But unfortunately Ron and Hermione–especially Hermione–get very little page time. They may be the Ron and Hermione we know and love, but we see so little of them that it’s hard to tell. As a life-long Hermione fan, this was my greatest disappointment with the play.

Now, there is one huge exception to this consistency (**spoilers ahead**)–Cedric Diggory. As a friend of mine pointed out, his new life as a Death Eater in one of the alternate histories Albus and Scorpius inadvertently create was totally out of character for him.

Many of my friends who have read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have discussed how this play reads like fan fiction. I have to agree. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there are many nods to the original series and to popular fan theories, but it’s a good thing to know before you read it. Also realize that the play doesn’t have nearly the depth in terms of character or world building as the books do; it’s much more simplistic. This is mostly the fault of the format–a play can’t have long paragraphs of description, and the inflection is brought by the actors–so I wonder if those who have panned the book would enjoy it in its original form. I would love to see the play myself!

So, to summarize: I actually really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s a quick, fun read in which you can revisit the magical wizarding world and the characters you know and love. There are some inconsistencies in world building and characterization, but if you can look past a few flaws, it’s a fun ride. I’m glad I read it.

Have you read the book? What did you think about the characters and the plot? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: All-Butter ShortDead

All-Butter ShortDead is a fun, short prequel to H.Y. Hanna's Oxford Tearoom mystery series. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Gemma ditches her high-flying job and returns to Oxford to follow her dream: opening a traditional English tearoom serving warm buttery scones with jam and clotted cream… Only problem is–murder is the first thing on the menu and Gemma is the key suspect! And the only people Gemma can turn to for help are four nosy old ladies from her local Cotswolds village – not to mention a cheeky little tabby cat named Muesli. Who was the mysterious woman Gemma met on the flight back from Australia and why was she murdered? Now Gemma must find the killer, solve the mystery and clear her name if she’s to have her cake–and serve it too. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I’ve enjoyed each of the Oxford Tearoom mysteries (you can read about them here, herehere, and here), so I was thrilled to discover that H.Y. Hanna recently released a short prequel to the rest of the series, detailing how Gemma returned to Oxford, opened a tearoom, and discovered her knack for solving murders.

Whether or not you’ve read the rest of the series, this is a really cute and fun introduction to Gemma and her life as a tea shop owner. If you have read the other books in the series, you’ll find several nods to future events and characters who will become important in later stories. Speaking of which, the characters are great as usual. Gemma’s spunky best friend Cassie, her infuriating and oh-so-proper mother, and the Old Biddies all make an appearance.

Gemma being suspected as a murderer and not being sure how to start investigating is fun. Because Gemma was the last person to see the victim alive, the police have looked no further for suspects, and Gemma is driven to discover the real murderer and clear her name (with the prodding of the Old Biddies, of course). One aspect of the plot is a bit cliche (I won’t say more for fear of mild spoilers), but the author pulls it off and manages to make it fun rather than groan-inducing (at least for me).

A side note: Just so you know, this book is currently free on Amazon! If you’ve been interested in exploring this series, this is a quick, free way to get started. (I don’t get anything for promoting this, although I am on the author’s review team. All opinions are my own, and I truly think that if you’re into cozy mysteries, you’ll love this series.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: Death at the Paris Exposition

Death at the Paris Exposition is a great historical fiction mystery filled with gorgeous fashion, socialites, and murder. #spon | NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Amateur sleuth Emily Cabot’s journey once again takes her to a world’s fair–the Paris Exposition of 1900. Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer is named the only female U. S. commissioner to the Exposition and enlists Emily’s services as her secretary. Their visit to the House of Worth for the fitting of a couture gown is interrupted by the theft of Mrs. Palmer’s famous pearl necklace. Before that crime can be solved, several young women meet untimely deaths and a member of the Palmer’s inner circle is accused of the crimes. As Emily races to clear the family name she encounters jealous society ladies, American heiresses seeking titled European husbands, and more luscious gowns and priceless jewels. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Death at the Paris Exposition is the sixth book in the series, but this was my first experience with Emily and her adventures. If you’re like me and pick this book up out of order, don’t worry–it won’t take away from your enjoyment and understanding of the book.

This story revolves around Bertha Palmer (a real, historic Chicago socialite) and her family’s troubles. Emily, our main character, is Mrs. Palmer’s social secretary, and as such, she and her family have been invited to Paris to see the 1900 Paris exposition. But as these rich and privileged people (and the many lower-class people surrounding them) prepare for the upcoming festivities, their fun is marred by several thefts and a couple of murders.

The author does a fantastic job of exploring Paris at the turn of the century. I loved the descriptions of fashion at the Paris exposition, especially. The characters spend a lot of time at the House of Worth, a couture house in Paris, and each of the women’s dresses are described in vivid detail.

While the setting is well fleshed out, some of the characters are not. Bertha Palmer is an interesting character, but her (fictional) counterparts, like the Johnstones, are often static. An unfortunate side effect of the focus on fashion does portray some of the women as shallow, since they think of little other than the newest gowns and their efforts to snag a high-class European husband. Even Emily’s own husband gets little page time, even though he spends most of his time in the same social circles.

Still, the mystery was engaging, and I was definitely surprised by the ending. This is a fun book for those who want a historical mystery that’s rich in detail and don’t mind if some of the characters fall flat.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

 P.S. Want to know what other mysteries I’ve been enjoying lately? Check out Crashed, The Likeness, and Till Death Do Us Tart.
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