General Non-Fiction · History

Review: How Iceland Changed the World

Title: How Iceland Changed the World
Author:Egill Bjarnason
Page Count: 288
Publication: May 2021

[Amazon | IndieBound | BN | Find it at your local library]

(Other reviews: New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly)

My partner and I drive about 10 hours one way to go to our cabin in Northern Michigan. On the trip, instead of Spotify playlist and podcasts, we started listening to audiobooks to while away the time. This last trip, we choose How Iceland Changed the World.

Iceland, the tiny island country with a population (371K) less than my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI (500K for the urban area, 1.1M for the metro). I have a thing for Vikings and you really can’t get more Vikingesque than Iceland.

Iceland also has it’s own stars: they are one of the most literate population on earth and the number of authors as well as musicians such as Björk, John Grant (transplant from the US), as well as some of the best entries for Eurovision including a punk-rock children’s band is nearly 2:1. Plus, one of my favorite TV series, Trapped, is based in Iceland.

But Iceland is more than just music and literature and cool TV shows. It has given us much in the world such as:

  • Longest running (over 900 years) of legislative assembly
  • Sagas
  • First woman president in the world who was democratically elected
  • One of the first women prime ministers
  • One of the first countries to almost close the gap of equal pay for men and women
  • Runs almost completely on renewable energy
  • It was used to simulate the moon landing in the ’60s
  • It was instrumental in the foundation of Israel
  • Tolkien’s muse was a nanny from Iceland
  • It has no standing army
  • Instrumental in WW2 with it’s position in the north Atlantic with occupation of Brits and the Yanks.

And a lot more.

How Iceland Changed the World is a trip through a 1,200 year odyssey that breathes fire into this icey land. We learned so much there was a lot of “ahas!” and “holy shit, really?” as the narrator went on. Who knew that Iceland’s terrain was perfect to simulate the moon landing and when it tried to ban alcohol, its’ hand was forced when Spain only promised to buy cod from Iceland if Iceland took on Spanish red wine. ALSO! Beer, but not wine or hard alcohol, was illegal in the country until the early ’00s.

Crazy, right?

I would highly recommend this as an audiobook over print since the narrator gives it a nice Icelandic flair with names and the deprecation of the author about the history of this tiny giant of country.

LGTBQI+ · Romance

Review: Boyfriend Material

Title: Boyfriend Material
Author: Alexis Hall
Page Count: 432
Publication: July 2020
Series: Boyfriend Material #1

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find at your local library]

(Other reviews: Publisher’s Weekly, EW)

Reviewed by Natalie

The premise is a little thin: Luc “needs” a boyfriend to get back donations for his company’s big annual event. It’s a bit silly, BUT the rest of the story?

GLORIOUS!

Luc is a mess; he’s beyond a mess. His only stability are his friends (who he neglects very badly) and his mom. He has no belief in himself at all and trusts no one. Then there’s Oliver. Oliver is a straight-laced barrister. Luc’s complete opposite. They agree to fake date for Luc’s event and for Oliver’s parent’s upcoming anniversary party. We all know how fake dating works in this type of book: real feelings start to grow. There is so much about this book to like: Oliver’s amazing friends, the witty banter between Luc and Oliver, and of course, the romance. You root for these two through the entire book. They are perfect for each other; they just don’t know it! I found myself laughing out loud at some of the banter between the two heroes.

This is one of those books that fills you with happiness for days after reading it. I highly recommend it!

 

General Fiction

Review: The Last Chance Library

Title: The Last Chance Library
Author: Freya Sampson
Page Count: 336
Publication: August 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find at your local library]

I’m going to admit right off the bat that when I started reading this book, I had a reaction. You could argue it was not a nice reaction but dammit, I’m tired of stereotypes when it comes to librarians! (I’m looking at you Tomes Scones and Crones.)

But there is also a thing I’m not shy or an introvert. Well, sometimes I can get shy but people read that as being standoffish. But introvert? Not to the point of June.

But perhaps is that because I’m not like June that initially I had a hard time sympathizing with her. “SPEAK UP, WOMAN!” I wanted to yell at her. “GET YOURSELF TOGETHER!” “GROW A PAIR!”

As I got more and more frustrated, I came to the conclusion that I cannot dismiss someone in so much pain and someone whose lost their way.

And that is the genius of Sampson’s work to get you to fall in love with June and want her to become herself and grow while at the same time not seeing overly sappy and sweet. It’s a tight balance to become a real, living, and breathing character as opposed to becoming a caricature.

June grew on me and I went from being grumpy about her to cheering her on. I’m not going to lie but the ending made me cry and June makes choices that you didn’t think she would make, namely how she chooses to liver her life but that’s the good about the book: it is sweetly surprising. Also, the slight romance really does help June grow and become more confident.

If you’re looking for a book that’s sweet and a bit warm to the heart and not complicated, it’s this book. The story is not going to excite you or make you want to change your life but that’s totally okay. Sometimes all we need in our is that sweetness and heart when the world seems so bleak and tired.

 

General Fiction

Review: The Midnight Library

TItle: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Page Count: 304
Publication: September 2020

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find at your local library]

(Other reviews: New York Times, NPR, Washington Post)

Reviewed by Natalie

TW: Suicide attempt, depression

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you had made different choices? Do you regret some of the choices you made? Nora Seed finds out. After a suicide attempt, Nora gets the chance to live the lives she would have had based on the different choices she would have made in life. I won’t spoil it by saying what she learns and what happens, but it was definitely an eye opening and thought provoking book.

I’ve always said that when I die, I’d love to see a movie of what my life would have been like if certain things went different ways. After reading this book, I am not so sure if I want that anymore. Again, I realize I am discovering this book later than most people, but it’s a 5 star title for me.

I loved the set up of the book, the growth of the character and what she begins to realize about her life, the honest depiction of depression and suicidal ideation (and attempt), and the concept of second chances. Though the beginning was bleak, the ending left me hopeful for Nora and myself.

LGTBQI+ · Paranormal · Romance

Review: Payback’s a Witch

Title: Payback’s a Witch
Author: Lana Harper
Page Count: 352
Publication: October 2021
Series: Thistle Grover Witches #1

[Amazon | IndieBound | BN | Find it at your local library]

(Other reviews: Library Journal, BookPage, and Kirkus)

I continue on with my witchy books! It’s the spoopy season so shoot me.

Full of sass, sexy, and humour, Payback’s a Witch tickled me from both ends and I mean that in a very good way. The writing was slow at first and after the rush of The Ex Hex, that could be understandable. The Ex Hex throws you headlong into the story and there are no actions spared

Not so much with Payback’s a Witch and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We meet Emmy Harlow as she comes back to town for once in a generation tournament between the four witch families in Thistle Grove after a self-imposed exile in Chicago. In Chicago, she has not only become what she believes is herself but also her magic has waned and doesn’t fuck with her life like it does in Thistle Grove. But once she finds out that the man-boy who broke her heart has also broken the heart of two other witchy friends, hell is about to get loose.

But I must discuss what most reviews seem to want to not discuss: the hot sex, slow, and steamy build of a sexy relationship between Emmy and Talia. Harper builds this delicious slow and sexy world between Emmy and Talia that you can feel the spark from the page. You want to be either Emmy or Talia (it doesn’t matter much who) and be a part of that coupling. You do, you really do.

I’m not sure why the queer romance between Emmy and Talia is rarely mentioned in reviews as the book has gotten starred reviews around the publishing world. It’s not gratuitous. Emmy doesn’t come back to Thistle Grove “OH HOO I IZ A LESBIAN” and Talia isn’t stereotyped either. They are just hot (and fall in love) with each other and that’s what most important. I’m so, so thrilled that while we’re not given much of Emmy’s past relationships and that falling for a girl was just as natural as drinking coffee. Representation is important.

I also really liked how the world felt real. The witchy behaviour and the paranormal lives didn’t feel artificial or over the top. That’s always a concern for me when I read paranormal books that the world isn’t believable. Does magic exist? Sure, why not. There is no real reason why it can’t exist. There is so much about our world we have yet to understand or seems magical so that if people can cast spells and make inanimate things talk, why not?

From Bad to Cursed, book #2 in the Thistle Grove Witches series, comes out in May 2022 and I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty impatient. I read the first chapter and I was like, “Goddammit!” when the sample ended. I hope to god the ARC shows up on Netgalley or there will be hell to pay.

The tl;dr: Read it. Read it for the fun. Read it for the HEA (which Harper dangles at first in front of us). Read it for the romance. Just read it.

SFF · YA and Teen

Review: The Novice: Summoner: Book One

TItle: The Novice: Summoner: Book One
Author: Taran Matharu
Page Count: 384
Publication: May 2015
Series: Summoner #1

[Amazon | IndieBound | BN | Find it at your local library]

(Other reviews: The Guardian, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly)

Reviewed by Natalie

Orphan boy? Check. Finds he has a hidden ability? Check. Two of my favorite tropes ever.

Fletcher is the apprentice to a blacksmith and a legitimately good kid. His life is a simple one and he enjoys it except for the local rich kid and his friends who constantly bully him. When he finds himself in possession of a Summoner’s Book, he uses it, thinking it won’t work. To his shock, it does and he becomes the new owner of a salamander-like demon. Once that happens, he’s off to Summoning school to learn all the spells needed (yes, the school is a big castle-like structure. What other kind would it be?) While at Vocans, Fletcher learns the art of summoning and makes some new friends. He’s not perfect, he makes mistakes, but he also feels horrible when he does. Not everything is wonderful at Vocans though. There are conspiracies to attempt to stop, nasty fellow students to deal with, and much more. The book ends on a cliff-hanger guaranteed to make you want to read book 2 (which of course I did).

As I was reading, I kept thinking, “how have I not read this book earlier?” Yes, it’s nothing new to the fantasy genre, but the storytelling is very well done and I truly liked Fletcher as a character. I couldn’t help but want to root for him from the first page. It’s a quick read, with just enough world-building and backstory to give the reader a sense of the place, but not too much that it bogs down the story. I definitely recommend reading Fletcher’s story.

Mystery · Paranormal

Review: Tomes Scones and Crones

Title: Tomes Scones and Crones
Author: Colleen Gleason
Page Count: 298
Publication: October 2021
Series: Three Tomes Bookshop #1

[Amazon | IndieBound | BN | Find it at your local library]

As it is the spooky season, my foray into reading witchy books continues.

I read Gleason’s The Clockwork Scarab (the series where Sherlock Holmes’ niece and Bram Stoker’s sister solve crimes), and I recall really liking it but I never went forth to read the sequels. I think most of you reading this get it: too many books and not enough time. By happenstance, an author friend who happens to be friends with Gleason promoted Tomes Scones and Crones on Facebook and once I recognised the name AND that Gleason is a Michigan girl, I got my hands on an arc.

Which brings us to Tomes Scones and Crones which throws in some Macbeth witchy delight coupled with a magical bookshop in an adorable village with adorable villagers along with the hunky police detective located in N. Michigan with an over the hill (48!) librarian as the protagonist. At first thought:The Scottish play is great! I’m an over 40 librarian! I spend half a year living in a small village in N. Michigan. Is Gleason in my brain!?

Maybe.

Tomes Scones and Crones has a lot going on: it’s got a group of punky crone witches, fictional characters that come to life, an adorable village, a beyond dream of a bookshop, a villain that isn’t really scary, and new friends. The premise is great but the execution of some of it not so much.

First, there is the main character who is the over the hill librarian. Gleason was either writing tongue in cheek, which could be a possibility, or she really believed this archetype of a librarian was the real deal. Not gonna lie, sometimes I wanted to shake her because her attitude towards being a librarian was not what 21st century library science is about and it is TOTALLY OKAY TO EAT AND DRINK WHILE READING IN A LIBRARY! Most libraries allow snack and closed drinks to be near books. Second, the reason how Jaqueline lost her job is also a bit sketch and wouldn’t fly in 2021s sensibilities even though the book was written in the 2020s and not the 1950s. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Third, the mystery wasn’t really satisfying. And the throw in of another character acting a part of the plot felt a bit gratuitous and half-haphazard as if Gleason came up to a point and needed some filler for the story.

You may be thinking, is there anything to like about this book? Of course! The punky crone witches are a lot of fun, the bookstore premise sounded amazing, and the new burgeoning relationship between Jacqueline and her new friends seemed real. I loved how Gleason stylized the yoga instructor and the baker as real people and not characters. The flirt flirt romance with the Thor like police detective wasn’t so bad either.

Taken as a whole, the book IS a fun frothy and quick read and while Gleason has many books under her belt, I’m giving her some leeway on this series because it is a new series and she’s still ironing the kinks out. I do recall that with The Clockwork Scarab, I remember feeling a bit “quois?” about some of the scenes but I loved the idea so much I stopped overthinking and let it just go.

I’ll do the same for the Three Tomes Bookshop series as book two is coming out in the spring. There is a wonderful world to play in, like I said, Gleason has set up some great building blocks now it is only time before she truly shines.

Paranormal · Romance

Review: The Ex Hex

Title: The Ex Hex
Author: Erin Sterling (Rachel Hawkins)
Page Count: 320
Publication: September 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

(More serious reviews: Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Not to be confused with the band Ex Hex.)

Reading this book has been a blur.

First, I’ve been following Rachel Hawkins / Erin Sterling on Twitter for some time so I have must have read something by her to follow her and her tweets are entertaining. (Also, this is how I follow most authors and journalists and then discover later on I cannot remember how I found them. This is not Hawkins (nee Sterling).)

Second, I saw The Ex Hex tweet promoted by another author that Hawkins (nee Sterling) maybe retweeted? Or I saw it in the wild? Nevertheless, when I read the description, I knew this book had to be mine.

(BTW, I am the proud owner of having library cards through three different systems and the average wait time is about 12 weeks per system.)

Paranormal romances can go in a variety of different ways: some bad (I’m looking at you Laurell K Hamilton and Stephenie Meyer) or good (hello J.R. Ward and Charlaine Harris). There really is no defining rule of what makes a great or awful story. You want charisma and heat between the characters, a fetching storyline that isn’t so up in itself you need note cards and sharpies to keep track, and a believable world.

This is why I love The Ex Hex. It’s got a pinch of Practical Magic mixed in with some Sabrina the Teenage Witch with the fun of Bewitched and a bit like Harry Potter but when Hawkins (nee Sterling) described it as “Hocus Pocus (But They F***),” which you know, is what sold me.

I’m a sucker for cozy romances – like cozy mysteries but with more skin and sex and less Jessica Fletcher. Hell, anything cozy. One day I want to own a bookstore in the Cotswolds with a sexy man at my beck and call while I solve mysteries in my free time. Alas, that is not to be but with books, I can be anywhere and do anything I want.

This is where The Ex Hex comes in. A fun romp of a witch who after a bad breakup, preforms what she doesn’t think is a spell but is a spell on the ex she has just dumped. Nearly a decade later, they are thrown back together when he comes back to Graves Glen, GA for Founder’s Day to give a speech and all that rot. But the curse is real! And Rhys is fucked and not really in a good way (well, he and Vivi do get it on considerably but that is later in the story). They must lift a curse and do it by the end of Halloween. Oh no! How will they survive?

The Ex Hex made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I wanted nothing more to snuggle up on a hot cocoa by my side as I read. I could feel the whispering of fall at the back of my neck as I took in this charming story. My basic bitch was coming out in full force and look, I’m a basic bitch and this fills all the notches.

This book isn’t about a girl not understanding who she is, Vivi knows exactly who she is, or that she’s an underdog, she isn’t. It does fall in with a second time around romance trope which is fine when done well and here it is. The sex scenes build and it’s not gratuitous, which is a relief. Rhys isn’t a superhero coming to swoop in to save the day or a bad boy except Rhys has very good hair that does That Thing which makes VIvi swoon. They are just two normal people crushing on each other hard and have a task to complete.

The ending is nice and tidy (mostly) and the couple gets their HEA. The only thing I would ding this book on is that while Hawkins (nee Sterling) does a great job of blending in Rhys’ Welshness with Vivi’s southern charm, there isn’t enough of a backstory as to WHY his ancestor left Wales and came to America and that is very relevant to the story as the relationship between the two families, Rhys’ and Vivi’s, goes way back since the time of the town’s founding. So, why did Penhallow leave Wales? Why is Rhys’ father a dick? What’s up with Wells and Bowen? And what about Gwyn and Aunt Elaine? Hawkins (nee Sterling) has created a believable world where she can play around with the other characters. She gave them relatable and whole lives that intersect with Vivi and Rhys and are formed and not cookie cutter cut outs. Hawkins (nee Sterling) has written across many genres but I get the feeling here, and I’m probably not wrong, she had a lot of fun with this story and that there is much more in the world of Graves Glen in the future.

I also give points towards Hawkins (nee Sterling) using Welsh/British-isms (torch for flashlight; mate instead of dude). It is what has struck me about this book is she also pays attention to the culture she’s writing about and not just winging it.

Let’s cut to the chase: So dear reader, if you want a fast, fun, sassy, and enjoyable read with believable characters and setting, pick up The Ex Hex. I read the first half in one sitting before bed one night and I would have gone on if I hadn’t had to work in the morning. If that doesn’t sell you, you have a rotten and cold heart compatible with Rhys’ father Simon (the dick).

General Fiction

Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You

Title: Beautiful World, Where Are You
Author: Sally Rooney
Page Count: 368
Publication: September 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

Note: If you are looking for a traditional review, let me point you to The New York Times,  Washington Post, and NPR as you will not find that here.

You’d be hard pressed in the beginning of September to not find either a glowing review or an ad for Beautiful World, Where Are You, the Irish wunderkind Sally Rooney’s third book. You may remember her from Normal People (now a series on Hulu which made me ugly cry) and Conversations with Friends. I’ve read both and enjoyed them. Rooney’s first two books were both widely acclaimed hence the “wunderkind” moniker since she’s barely broken 30 with three successful books under her belt and while I’m nearing 50 and find it difficult to maintain a chapter of my own fiction. Some days, I hate the bitch.

One thing that hung in the air between me and the book is how prescient Beautiful World, Where Are You must encapsulate echoes of Rooney’s own life. One of the main characters is Alice, a tortured novelist whose first two books were beyond successful and she hops from literary festivals winning literary prizes, where she feels exhausted and overwhelmed after each event. The weight of her fame and her inability to access her own self, or accessing it too much, lead to her nervous breakdown where she now recovers on Ireland’s western coast where she knocks around in a big and drafty rental house.

I wondered as I continued on with BWWAY if this was not Rooney’s way of communicating that yes, she writes wonderfully nuanced, Hemingway like prose that suffers from lots of acclaim and as one person put it about BWWAY, “Twilight for literary lovers.” How must, or can, one person take that level of scrutiny success and noise because they happened to write beautiful and nuanced stories that capture the heart of the current climate both politically, emotionally, and mentally?

What is that like, I wondered as I read to be Rooney: did she think she would become this successful or was she merely filling a gaping void she saw that needed some kind of plug? Was BWWAY a way to communicate to her critics that look, you’re putting me under a lot of stress and I’m on the verge here so fuck off – which seems entirely possible. Was Eileen, Alice’s best friend, a stand in for someone or something? Rooney is notoriously private and is not on social media which seems difficult to comprehend in this day and age. Granted my partner is also not on social media and I often have to explain what and how to him networks work but he’s a 42 year old body with a 105 year old mind. What is also odd is that social media,  hell the internet as a whole, is the way that authors work and communicate. The notorious aesthete Salman Rushdie is on Twitter. Paulo Coelho has over 2 million followers on Instagram. These are two men over 60 who are cultivating a following while producing literary prize work. And it’s not just Rushdie and Coelho but award winning authors such as Margaret Atwood interacts with her 2M fans on Twitter and the estate of Ursula K. Le Guin keeps her alive on Twitter and Instagram.

Where is Rooney? Does it really matter if she’s on the internet or not?

Let’s cut to the chase: Should you read BWWAY? Yes. Her prose is clear and accessible. The lives of Alice and Eileen and Felix and Simon are recognizable. The questions Rooney asks, outside of telling her critics to fuck off, are relatable. But keep in mind that the frailty of her characters could be a symptom of the world as they struggle to figure it out themselves. The older generations have left us younger ones with a mess and finding the beauty in the world is a small and grand feat at once. Take slow deep breaths, do not get sucked into how BWWAY pacing has you turning pages with haste, and relish that the beautiful world is out there and we need to just look and appreciate it.

General Non-Fiction

Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear

A libertarian Walks into a Bear
Title: A Libertarian Walks into a Bear
Author: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Page Count: 288
Publication: September 2020

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

I hate libertarians.

When I say “hate,” I mean I want to throat punch their selfish asses. 90% of libertarians I have met or come across tend to cling onto the Ayn Rand (a hack), The Federalist Papers (if they are “academic” libertarians who like writing by dead white guys whose concerns rejected the notion of equality for anyone not white or male), and the 1st and 2nd Amendments. The premise of libertarianism seems a bit, not much but a bit, sane enough: limited interference by the government with self-rule at the helm, images of Orwell’s salient 1984 dancing like sugar plums in their heads to keep them on the straight and narrow. Socialism, democracy, republicanism, and every other ism is a pox upon humanity. Man, as Rand was known to wank, is only so much free as the property they own and living by their own moral aptitude or as we know it, capitalism.

So we find ourselves in Grafton, NH, a free hold for libertarians of all kinds who come to live in the near wild state of New Hampshire with the promise of limited government. Townies, I think at first a bit amused and then horrified, find their town and its services gutted after motion after motion by the now majority libertarian council and town folk reject proposal after proposal. Potholes are not filled, water sanitation becomes sketchy, schools are severely underfunded, and let us talk about the fire department. Oh, yes, they even gutted the fire department BECAUSE TAXES with the ideology that someone, anyone, will step up and buy the truck, train or hire the fighters, because that is what life is like in Grafton: Being selfless is for wussies, bring on the selfish!

I’ve spent nearly 300 words raging against the movement and not so much the book itself, which I would decry, is very good. A Libertarian Walks into a Bear was recommended to me by Brendan who sent me to read The Town That Went Feral, a review of the book over at The New Republic (which, tbh, reads more as a long form article then a review but who am I to judge?). Intrigued, I libraried the book and here we are.

Hongoltz-Hetling takes you through the foundation of Grafton as a freehold, it’s more colorful characters, and then there are the bears! We’re introduced into a brief history of bear activity in New England, specifically into NH, and how with management by the DNR, black bears have started to grow and flourish once more and they love Grafton. Especially the Doughnut Lady who started out leaving donuts for the bears and then it turned into feeding frenzy of bears waiting, docile even, for her daily feedings, but with grains now and doughnuts on top. Bears, at the most, were known to stay away from human life but with people in the area actively feeding the bears, the bears have grown bolder to stealing farm and domestic animals, even while the humans are still standing there.

There was even a bear attack on a human, which is thought to have been rare, but now is no longer.

The freeholders in Grafton dove tails nicely with the story of the overrunning bears as each runs on a parallel path towards the same goal: destruction of a once quirky town where there hellbent on living free, doing what they like, and who gives a fuck at the outcome?

Well, we should give a fuck even if the freeholders do not.

A Libertarian Walks into a Bear is a wonderfully constructed tale of a two utopias gone absurdly wrong and a larger parable of what happens when we stop caring.