Review: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Lately I am capable of 3 things:

  1. Staring into nothing with no energy to do anything
  2. Ordering delivery because I can’t seem to make myself cook
  3. Reading romance novels. 

The last few weeks have been hard. I’ve fallen into a bit of a Pandepression. All of the Covid news, the state of America, and the friends and family that have now decided that masks, social distancing and behaving safely are optional have put me in a funk. 

Escapism is harder to come by 4 months in. Fantasy sometimes does the trick. I’m still working slowly through Ferrente’s wonderful Neopalitan novels, but worry what will happen to my state of mind when I finish. 

In their place I have picked up every romance novel that sounds remotely interesting. 

I’m just lucky that Kevin Kwan, of Crazy Rich Asians fame came out with a new book this month. It was right on time for me. 

Sex and Vanity is a modern and decedent retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. Instead of an Edwardian vacation in Florence, Kwan finds his versions Lucie, Charlotte, and George in Carpi for the wedding of the decade. Propriety, desire, and insecurity drives the story as we weave through 8 years of Lucie’s life. 

Kwan does an excellent job updating source material that can feel out of touch to modern readers. With that said, A Room with a View is a harder sell in modern times. Sex and Vanity follows the same line, all the major plot points are still there, but where as Lucy originally feels like a more modern woman in the Forster text Kwan’s Lucie feels repressed, aimless, and generally unlikeable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for unlikeable characters, except Sex and Vanity is full of them. Charlotte, while intolerable in View, is a new level of awful in Capri. Cecil is comically awful. It is hard to see how George, the one character to make a positive impression in most, if not all of his scenes wants to be associated with any of these people. 

Kwan succeeds in giving readers decadent societies and socialites with elaborate backstories. Sex and Vanity is its best when it strays from Forster’s influence. The wedding on Capri, Puppy Yoga, and an over the top proposal give the story life. Even Lucie’s experienced as a mixed Chinese American gives new breath to this overly stuffy story. 

After all Kwan is at his best when showcasing microaggressions in society amongst the glitz and glamor. Lucie could have done with some more introspection, and a story that wasn’t surrounded by family expectation and romance. 

Or…readers really just deserved a story about Freddie and George having the summer of their lives in the Hamptons. 

Regardless, Sex and Vanity is a fun story with deliciously detestable and fun characters. It scratches that travel itch I think most of us are starting to experience as travel still feels a bit unsafe, and lets you live like one of the 1% for a few hundred pages. 

Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

I have never been a huge fan of renaissance fairies. In theory they sound wonderful for my historical fiction loving self. Old timey costumes, some vague medieval setting, josts and turkey legs and historic looking jewelry all sound great. I spent so much of my life doing theatre and reading Shakespeare that I want to love a good Ren Fest. I really do. 

But I don’t love crowds, or dust clouds and dirt. I don’t like dressing up in costumes and paying an arm and a leg to walk around what is essentially a faire ground playing at time travel.  

So I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started Well Met. Jen DeLuca’s lovely romance is set in a small town in Maryland famous for their local Renaissance Faire. Emily is in town to help her sister incapacitated sister and teenage niece. It helps that she needed to leave Boston anyway after a bad break up. When her niece decides she wants to be a part of this year’s Ren Faire Emily steps up to chaperone and finds that maybe small town life isn’t so bad, and that the neurotic faire runner, Simon, may be more fun than he looks. 

I adored everything about this book. I couldn’t put it down. Like had it on multiple devices and was reading it as my boyfriend drove me to and from eye appointments. The plot isn’t exactly unique. Girl meets boy. Girl thinks boy is a bit of an uptight asshole. Girl falls for boy…while he is wearing a pirate costume…but DeLuca creates a beautiful town in Willow Creek, Maryland and inhabits it with vibrant people of all walks of life. That is the beauty of Willow Creek’s Faire – everybody participates in some way. 

It also helps that Emily is a relatable twenty something out of a bad relationship. She is working at finding her confidence and trying to find her niche. Simon is a bit up tight but has *Tragic Backstory Syndrome* and is also a very well versed English teacher. Plus the “I hate you but maybe I just want to bang you” mood is REAL. Really, all of my favorite tropes are here in a very real feeling world ready for tears and superman speed reading. 

On top of everything Well Met is a very cute, very satisfying read. There is real character growth for both our main duo and supporting characters. There is enough research into Faire life to make it feel real. There is handfasting and taverns and stage combat. Really, just take my word for it and go read Well Met.

Series Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas

Last week a good friend popped into our Pandemic check in thread to demand we all read this series. She devoured the books over a few days, which is saying something as I know her daughter is wonderful and headstrong and all of 2 years old with a ton of energy.  I was between books at the time and hadn’t yet found something to fully hold my attention. 

Plus the ebook was like $6 and that is well within my budget. So I started to read A Court of Thorns and Roses. 

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Another friend joined our reading frenzy and we were more or less moved to a lesser group thread so our constant texting didn’t bother our less invested friends. 

So now I sit here, full book hangover in place wondering what I just read and how can it possibly be over. 

As always, let me back up and give you some ACoTaR background. 

Cue a world split in 2 by an invisible wall. Below the wall. Humans, above Faerie – complete with magic and immortality and their own problems. When Feyre ends up breaking an unknown section of the treaty separating the two people she is now called to the Faerie lands, to Prythian, where magic cannot solve everything and there are people who need saving. 

Of course there is a love story (or two…or more.) There are swoon worthy scenes and some very steamy moments that made me want to cheer for sex positivity in YA publishing. It is also a story full of hope, of fighting for a better future. It is full of characters learning their own worth, dealing with past trauma, and learning to love themselves. 

Sarah J. Maas builds an atmospheric world in Prythian. It was a bit of a shock to finish the last book in the series proper (A Court of Wings and Ruin) to know that my time among the various courts was coming to a close. 

It feels like I have just now come up for air. My friends and I had a social distanced meeting to discuss our favorite characters, favorite plotlines, twists and turns of the story. It was the most time any of us has spent talking in person without mentioning the current pandemic. It was refreshing. 

So I know I’m behind in singing my praise for one of Maas’ signature series, but I’m here now and looking for all of the merch and fanart.

On Blogging and Gardening

Over the last week I’ve read so many fantastic books. I’ve spent plenty of time out in the sun with pages and pages of engrossing stories. I’ve had ideas for blog posts, and zippy lines to include in reviews pop into my head. 

I’ve also been tired. For better or worse the Sarah that could stack plans on top of plans with barely time for a commute in between is gone. I need my me time after socializing (safely, from a distance.) I need more quiet and less obligation. I spend more time fiddling around in my kitchen making snacks, sugary treats, and elaborate dinners. Deadlines are only pressing for me when they come from work or family. Unfortunately that means blogging sometimes falls to the wayside. 

It’s how I currently need to spend my time. The slowness is important. My motivation is elsewhere. It is in my garden; which is starting to perk up with rain and sun; It is with my afternoon walks full of fresh air and wildlife; It is with my boyfriend as we watch reality shows on Netflix and cheesy movies before bed. My motivation is with things that give me hope, that let me see there is a future still even amongst the crazy that is the world, especially the United States in this moment. 

As I was planting my tomatoes, basil, and zucchini last month several friends sent me the same quote. In years past I would have found it saccharine and useless. This year I hold it in my heart. 

“To plant a garden is to believe in the future.” 

I see it often attributed to Audrey Hepburn. I’m always skeptical of quote origin. In truth it doesn’t matter if one of my favorite actresses uttered those words. Right now as the days feel endlessly long and the sun beats heavy it is what I need to hear. 

And my garden is a perfect metaphor for this blog. It requires attention and tending. It takes time and patients. There is so much work on the back end (reading, weeding) before anything thrives (reviews, fresh food.) Sometimes the work is fun. Sometimes it isn’t. It is often rewarding. There is always a lesson to be learned, even with flop posts and overwatered plants. 

This is all to say blog posts will still be coming, but they’ll be at a slightly different pace. Summer is a time for living away from a screen, so if I don’t hit 2 posts a week it is fine. I’ll still be here, still blog hopping, just on my own time.

On Reading On a Schedule

I was never very good at the books-for-homework thing. Assigned reading stressed me out. I am such a mood reader that the idea that I have to sit down and read X number of pages a day was a struggle. In high school my grades reflected my lack of interest in keeping to an external reading schedule, despite being a vorochuse reader. 

Fast forward to 2020. I’m (probably) done with school forever. I have an advanced degree. I did the work. I finished the reading on time. I no longer feel pressured to finish books in a timely fashion. Even my regular book club schedule usually allows for a full month to read something I am already interested in. 

These are the perks of running book clubs. I very rarely struggle through the reading. 

Anyway, That was all true until this week. You see, one of my book clubs fell of schedule. We’ve been meeting biweekly through the course of this pandemic and have so far had no problem doing the reading. But summer is here and even though we are a bunch of women who rarely leave the house other obligations are starting to pop up. Work is getting buiser. We’ve had to adjust. So instead of waiting a month to read a book we were all excited about we decided to meet this week.

This week being only 7 days since our last meeting. 

This week meaning I had 7 days to read a 430 page book. While I was already in the middle of another book. And had just started reading A Court of Thrones and Roses Before Bed. 

Needless to say I had to put myself back on that school schedule. Instead of accepting interruptions from my boyfriend or regular virtual game nights with friends I have spent my nights reading. I feel the pressure and I can honestly say I have no interest in going back to an externally paced reading schedule. It is truly not for me. 

Also, I am loving The City We Became but it is VERY heavy and I just want to go back to my YA romances and pretend the world isn’t happening. Is that really so much to ask?

Now I am off to go sit in my new favorite reading spot and continue my homework…er group reading.

Review: Catherine House By Elisabeth Thomas

Anyone have a soft spot for Dark Academia? I know it isn’t just me. 

I love reading about educational settings. The more elite and weird the better. I love uniforms and uppity students studying things that will make them somehow less employable then when they started their courses. I love moody old estates housing young adults who are both too stressed and drunk to have logical thought. I love the cult like feeling of these books. They make me want to pull out my tweed skirt, my cardigan with the elbow patches and walk through an old campus. 

If you’re like me and love all aspects of dark academia then please go pick up Catherine House. 

Catherine House is about a school. A school called Catherine. Catherine is highly selective, with a strange application process. It has a reputation of being both more difficult to gain admission to and more elite than any of the Ivy’s. Once accepted to Catherine your tuition and boarding is covered for your 3 years of study. The only catch – you leave your old life behind. Trinkets, cell phones, music…nothing from the outside world is permitted. It is next to impossible to communicate with loved ones. Catherine requires its students to eat, breath and sleep Catherine.

As readers we are introduced to Catherine through Ines, an incoming student who is looking to run away from her old, troubled life. At first I was skeptical of Ines as narrator. She seemed too aloof to fall for the school’s scheme, with too many hard edges. I’m happy to say I was wrong. What follows is a descent into Catherine’s seedy underbelly, and Ines’ descent into something that could be called madness. 

Thomas excels at creating an entirely real setting and populating it with real characters. Ines’ community ebbs and flows as her story progresses. Her community also shows the varying degrees of commitment to Catherine’s mission. There are certainly different levels of kool aid drinking going on. 

The classes sound both interesting and too obtuse for my media fried brain. Everything about the New Materials concentration is equal parts bizarre and engrossing. Catherine House is the type of book that makes me want to study something entirely obscure just to say I have. 

Go read Catherine House. As a bonus you’ll add diversity to your bookshelf with a debut book by a Black woman. It is a perfect escape from this time and also oddly timely. 

Honestly I can’t sing praises for Catherine House loudly enough.

On Why I Don’t Give Stars

If you’ve been following me for five minutes or five months you may have noticed something. 

I don’t rate my books. At least not here. 

You won’t find stars, tea cups, hearts, or whatever other brand specific icons other bloggers use to rate their reads. 

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why other people rate books. They’ve just never really rang true to me. I can have a ton of brilliant things to say about a story, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. When pressed (by goodreads) I could give a book 2 stars but only have praises for it here. I see the same things on other blogs. Four star reviews filled with nothing but complaints or low star reviewed books that sound like a fun time but maybe aren’t very popular. 

It starts to feel like the star ratings can’t be trusted. I would rather read through a review and get a full feeling for a book than just go off of stars. 

This hasn’t always been my opinionI will say that years ago, in the first iteration of this blog, I gave star reviews. I found that when I looked back on my old reviews my “ratings” would change. They felt arbitrary compared to actually describing the workings of story, character, and writing. 

I’m older now, with a full time job, a house, and adult responsibilities. I’m going to write reviews the way I want. Stars be damned.

Review: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This weekend I did something I rarely do. I talked to my mom about a book. She isn’t a reader. She likes that I read, she likes my job, she thinks all of these qualities are good things but she would much rather doddle in the kitchen or work in her garden than pick up a book. 

It’s okay. We’re different people. 

Anyway, I was talking to her about The Book of Longing. She wasn’t the first person I approached. She wasn’t the last. But she was the biggest departure from my traditional bookish circle. 

I spent the whole weekend with Kidd’s latest story in my heart and on my mind. It weighed on me. 

Looking back I don’t know what else I expected to happen. 

The Book of Longings is the story of Ana, the wife of Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. The one on the cross, with all of those churches. Jesus. Except Jesus is only here to play second fiddle to Ana and her wonderful story as a scribe, a believer, and a woman of her own mind. 

I went into Longings skeptical. In the wrong hangs this story could either be fanatical fanfiction or straight sacrilege.  I’m happy to say I was proven wrong. While the novel has a slow (and slightly horrific) start it really finds its stride in the marriage of Ana and Jesus. They are a good match, with character and living situations informed by diligent research and understanding of the time.  I spent my first reading session picking through the Authors Note at the end of the text. I needed some comfort about the level of research and intention. In a similar way that I cannot seem to bring myself to read Setterfield’s new novel about an alternate reality for Hilary Clinton I could see the purpose and power in Kidd’s work. I highly recommend reading the authors note for The Book of Longings if you are skeptical, also if you want to know more about the research process and about histories both real and liberally adapted. 

Now for the actual story. 

I found myself engrossed in the political drama, the religious inspirations, and the day to day tasks of a house wife in equal measure. Ana’s longing to be a voice and to share the stories of silenced women is honorable in any age, but especially in the first century. She is iconic in her own right – clever, educated, and compassionate. Kidd managed to create a character bigger than her historically significant (hello understatement) husband. Go Sue Monk Kidd. 

I also appreciated the treatment of sensitive material. I was not looking forward to reading about the crucifixion. I was raised Lutheran with very religious parents. I’ve taken to praying more during this crazy time and finding some solace in thinking about faith in a more holistic way. I was still worried about how a modern author would treat the bases of Christianity. 

I wasn’t disappointed. I was upset. I was horrified. I don’t do well with body horror in any context. But the scenes were tasteful. They were powerful. They were important for Ana. In the same way I appreciate how the rest of Ana’s long and successful life was portrayed. I started The Book of Longings thinking that I was hitching my horse to a character I couldn’t get behind for the sake of a sensational story and found myself routing for an incredible and fully developed character in a precarious place in time and history that could stand on her own two feet. 

Honestly I can’t recommend this book enough. I have major reading hangover right now and not even my recent package from my local indie bookstore can seem to snap me out of it. Maybe tomorrow I can fall in love with a new book but today I will honor Ana and continue to talk about her strength and voice with anyone who will listen.

On a Season of Books

Suddenly it is June. The grass is green. The trees have their leaves. By the time this publishes my garden should be firmly in the ground with lots of potential veggies waiting to make their way from the back of my yard to my kitchen table. 

I’m not sure I could have imagined this – the nice weather, open windows, long days – at the end of March when so much was uncertain.  I also couldn’t imagine this last week with the pain, protests, and worry.  I’ve spent much of the last several days talking with family and friends who may not understand the need for this unrest. It isn’t perfect but I feel I am getting through to some people. This is a reminder that activism doesn’t just exist online with black squares, but within our communities, with the people we interact with daily.

In some sad ways life is starting to feel more normal. Bad news is a constant but there are also . neighborhood walks, zoom meetings, and baking. Curb side pick up for groceries and not running out for that one sort of important ingredient are pretty firmly ingrained in my psyche. The future is still foggy but it feels like at least when the fog clears there will be S’mores and bon fires. Michigan’s Stay at Home order lifts at the end of the week and I can confidently say I don’t know what that means for me. I will not be returning to restaurants and I am not going to be on the frontlines of museum staff returning to work. I will still only interact with family and friends in outdoor spaces and will attend more virtual social hours and trivia nights. 

There will also be books. 

This spring I finished 23 books. That is more than half of my yearly reading goal. In fact I am only 5 books from completing said goal. The year isn’t even half over. It’s crazy.  

I found pandemic reading to be a real comfort. I now truly savor my reading time. I have gone back to my physical books. I have given myself the space to say I cannot focus right now and put on an episode of something mindless (or MASH. usually MASH.) 

I found solace in historical fiction. Reading about time travel and real travel made me feel more connected to the world. Love stories brought me lots of comfort. On top of that some virtual author events let me connect with some amazing writers without leaving the comfort of my couch, or putting on jeans. 

I’m sure my reading life will continue to adapt and grow as the world works to find a new normal. I know there will still be blog hopping, fun novels, and friends. There will be afternoon snacks and late night ice cream from the freezer. There will be more unknowns but I am confident that we will adapt. 

Here’s to summer, sun, and stories.

Review: Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

First off, a bit of a disclaimer. I don’t read a ton of crime fiction. I don’t love mysteries. Suspense is not a genre I am overly fond of. For this reason I am asking you take the following review with a grain of salt, a glass of wine, and some compassion. It is a bit scattered. My overall feelings on this book are a bit scattered as well. 

So why did I read a crime novel? Especially one that appears to tick all of my “nope, will pass” buttons?

The simple answer is, as is usual, book club. 

Let me back up. The Invisible Guardian centers around the murders of several girls. Amaia Salazar is sent back to work a case in her hometown, a place she swore she would never return, to advance her career. There she finds struggles with other investigators, repressed anxiety about her family life, and a mythology around her home region that seems to interfere with her case. 

I should start by saying that I actually enjoyed this reading experience quite a bit. There was a little frustration from my general dislike of mysteries, but I was compelled to keep reading and enjoyed the twists and turns. 

With that said, I hated Amaia. I am not particularly fond of characters that are unbending. I don’t think they read very true to life. This is especially true of Amaia, who’s backstory we learn should bring her to be a little bit more compassionate, and a little more understanding of the interest in mythos that surrounds her big case. Amaia believes in some instances of the supernatural but is amazingly unkind when people open up to her with their own very personal stories. 

Now, for the crimes. Someone is going around a small region in Spain killing young women and doings some fairly disturbing things with their bodies. I will be very honest and say that crimes like this are the reason I cannot watch shows like SVU or Criminal minds anymore. I had a very hard time getting past the horrific violence against women in this novel. Amaia, while upset because she is a detective and one of the “good guys” doesn’t seem to relate to these crimes on a deeper level. My excitement for having a woman lead this investigation dropped quite quickly when I realized she would act like “one of the guys”. 

And my final big “meh” was the ending. I get misdirects in crime fiction. I understand the fun is solving the mystery ahead of the main character. Invisible Guardians doesn’t give you any of that satisfaction because the resolution doesn’t make a lick of sense. It detracts from all of the fun and just left me and my book club with a confused hour of discussion. 

Books like this make me glad I decided not to do star reviews. Clearly I was not in love with this book but I did enjoy my time with it. Sometimes I think the difference between good and enjoyable is important. This is one of those times.