bookish posts reviews

Favorite books from the beginning of 2017

I’ve been reading a lot more than I’ve been writing here, so I thought I’d do a round up of my favorite books from the first quarter of 2017. These are just books I read in January-March.

middle grade

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon: Harriet Hamsterbone continues to basically be the best. Mother Goethel here was genuinely creepy (something I feel Rapunzel retellings often fail to pull off). This series really manages to tackle some big, complicated issues in thoughtful and kid-appropriate ways. So good!

Lumberjanes vol. 5: Band Together: FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX! (someday I will start a Lumberjanes review with something else) (jk, that will never happen) Look, this volume has mermaids, and also lots of confusion about how an underwater mermaid rock band is even possible, and it contains the immortal line, “I don’t want to die confused” so yes.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis: This book is just so comforting (much like a cup of chocolate). While this might sound like faint praise, it’s really not–comforting things are really necessary, and books that lie at the crossroads of smart and comforting are harder to pull off than they look. It’s a unique take on dragons, and I loved Aventurine and her determination.


We Are Okay by Nina LaCour: Okay, I will say upfront that the premise of this book is a bit implausible, BUT please accept it and move on because it is full of LaCour’s most mature, rich writing to date and so many feelings. There’s this feeling that’s common to many young adults of being out of place, of not knowing who you are or how exactly to find out. This book is quiet and specific in its characters and setting and it feels so textured and beautiful.

The Hate U Give by A.C. Thomas: Any praise I have here will be slightly superfluous, but oh this book. I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished. It is so amazing on so many levels, but Starr herself really stood out for me. This is a book about her finding her voice, but at the same time, even on the first page she shines.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: To be honest, I delayed reading this one at first because even though I trust Bow, I wasn’t sure how anything could follow The Scorpion Rules. But this one did. It starts small and quiet, but the tension and the implications build until it becomes an incredibly heartbreaking exploration of identity and love and what it means to be a person. I love sequels that dig deeper into the world of the first book, and that’s just what this one does.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: I reread this one at the beginning of the year, and it was just what I needed. Learning to tread new brain paths, learning to love and be loved. Living in the tension between the old and the new. This book is just a LOT in all the best possible ways.

Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung: I realized as I was typing this up that Lucy & Linh (aka Laurinda in its native Australia) has a lot in common thematically with We Are Okay: growing up and moving to a new place, complicated friendships, feeling unsure of yourself and who you are. But Lucy also deals with class and privilege and race, which tie back into the theme of identity and friendship in really interesting ways.


The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: I’ve discovered that I love good biographies of complex, difficult women, and this one is a great example. “Christine Granville” and her life make for an incredible, infuriating, and achingly sad story.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: While I basically just love all of Laura Florand’s books, this one really hit me in a personal place. It’s a quieter story, more intimate, full of the weight of the past–both family history and historical events. It’s about learning to acknowledge that weight without letting it bind you. And, on a lighter note, I really enjoy the setting and descriptions of the countryside as well.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: I talked about this one quite a lot already, but I’ve found myself thinking about it regularly ever since I read it. The approach to the story is so inventive and thought-provoking, and the sense of what-might-have-been is both inspiring and heartwrenching.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: Math and magic IN SPACE, and family, and culture, and diplomacy, and explosions, all in one short novella that doesn’t have that frustrating too-short-and-too-long feeling that some novellas do. It just makes me happy whenever I think about it, and I can’t wait to read Home.

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Favorite books featuring food

Food can be a really powerful motif in books. It can be a sign of trust or distrust, a tool for worldbuilding, a way to show the preferences and background of characters. But sometimes it becomes really central to the story, even beyond that. Here are a couple of books where the main characters have a really important relationship with food in some way.


Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen: I loved the way the magic of the garden and plants intertwine with the magic of food in this book. The gentle, textured way Allen talks about Claire’s gift and her relationship to cooking make this probably my favorite book by Sarah Addison Allen.

all the Amor et Chocolat books by Laura Florand: No, I mean, I really tried to pick one here. I love The Chocolate Kiss deeply and truly, and I especially love Magalie’s gift, and Aunt Aja’s tea. But then there’s Gabriel’s rose from The Chocolate Rose, and and–basically, if you like food, this is the romance series for you!

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han: One of the (many) things I loved about this book was the way Lara Jean used baking to express herself, and also as an expression of how much she cares about the important people in her life.

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban: This is a bit of an outlier in the rest of this list given that it’s a picture book. But the memory of Albert’s lunch and the very particular way he eats it has remained with me so vividly for so long that I just had to include it anyway.

Relish by Lucy Knisley: I have a few reservations about the kind of–cultural tourism, is maybe the term I’m looking for?–in this book, but I also genuinely enjoy Knisley’s grapic novel memoir. The art is lovely, and each chapter has a hand-illustrated recipe to accompany it!

The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip: I re-read this book last year for my McKillip reading notes series, and I was hungry the entire time. The descriptions of the feasts are mouthwatering, but they’re also sometimes surprising. I loved the sense that McKillip gives of the economy of the kitchens, and the way they are their own world.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley: Rae is, of course, a baker and Sunshine is FULL of things like cinnamon rolls as big as your head and the intriguingly titled Death of Marat (I hear someone has made a recipe for this and I want to try it! baked good and jokes about the French Revolution). Making food is an important part of Rae’s life and McKinley definitely shows that.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier: I’m maybe stretching just a tad here, because this is less focused on food and more on taste–Araenè, one of the main characters, experiences magic as a taste. I loved the way Neumeier used this description to create a sense of magic that’s really vivid and different.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon: I really enjoyed Silver Phoenix and its sequel when they came out a few years ago. One of the things I liked is the fact that Ai Ling unabashedly enjoys food. She thinks about it, she looks forward to eating it. It seems like often characters, especially female characters, aren’t allowed to do that.

bookish posts reviews

A Wish Upon Jasmine by Laura Florand

wish upon jasmineA Wish Upon Jasmine is the 2nd full length book in Florand’s new series, set in Provence. I’ve been really enjoying this series, and this book was no exception–in fact, it might be my favorite so far! Several of the themes carry over from previous stories, especially the relationships within the Rosier family, and the secrets they keep from outsider and from each other.

Jasmine Bianchi’s father was from Provence, and after his death she gets word that she has been given a property in the town where he grew up. She is very good at what she does–creating new perfumes–and yet she’s been unable to shake the image of an old perfume called Spoiled Brat. Provence seems like a place to start over, since she’s still mourning her father and also a brief relationship that ended badly and that she sees as a betrayal. At the same time, she is wary of the Rosiers, based on the stories her dad told her when he was still alive.

Damien Rosier is ruthless, heartless. Everyone knows that. But in fact, he works to protect his family, to protect the town and region and keep it going despite changing times and business practices. And secretly, he wants someone to see him as something other than a shark. He thought Jasmine might have been that person once, but then he took over her company and she disappeared. When she shows up again on his home turf, he knows he will have to tread carefully.

I really loved this one a lot. The characters worked very well for me, despite the fact that the initial set-up might seem a little coincidental. Jasmine wants to hold a grudge against Damien, but one of her gifts is seeing things clearly, and it quickly becomes obvious that the heartless Damien Rosier she has in her head doesn’t entirely match reality. And Damien’s combination of ruthlessness and the feeling of being trapped in that role while no one really sees him also worked really well for me. (Damien = swoon fest, basically.)

I also love the way Florand writes about the land and the family history. It gives the love story a depth and texture that makes the whole thing so rich and beautiful. Each of the three stories in this series so far have looked at different ways of interacting with and reacting to history and responsibility, while at the same time, they have also built on each other, shading in different layers and meanings. Finally–I am very very interested in Antoine Vallier, the lawyer who attempts to go up against Damien. I’ll say no more!

Laura Florand is a Twitter friend and all around lovely person–she offered a review copy of this one, which I happily accepted. However, I am also genuinely a fan of her books and all of the opinions in this review are absolutely my own.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2015, self-published; adult romance

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All For You by Laura Florand

all for youAs previously discussed, I’ve really enjoyed Laura Florand’s books; she’s definitely one of my favorite authors and one I reach for for comfort reading. All For You is the start of a new series–this one is connected to the earlier Amor et Chocolat series, but also introduces some new characters.

I found that I was a little less fond of Joss than some of Florand’s heroes, because he’s so determinedly wrong through so much of the story. He’s a sympathetic character, and I had no doubt that he would eventually work through his issues. But it was also sometimes frustrating to see him not seeing Celie clearly, and to see him reacting in exactly the wrong ways.

That being said, for me Celie was really the heart of the book, with her mixture of toughness and vulnerability. She’s so much someone who cares about other people and yet who also knows her own worth. This doesn’t mean she’s always sure of herself–in fact, she’s quite often not–but I feel like seeing a heroine who won’t commit to a relationship without having that respect is really valuable.

I also found that the overall arc of learning to see each other truly was really important. And I loved the fact that Celie is allowed to be angry, and that the effects of her anger are shown. She’s not always right, but she’s also not condemned for being upset, for pushing back. I really appreciated that she’s allowed to be a little bit spiky. I also loved how much she bosses around her boss Dominique, not letting him get away with much and calling him on his choices when it’s something important.

And as usual, I loved the setting, and the wealth of little details in the writing. The echoes of fairy tales are little less pronounced but definitely there (I noticed one in particular). And Joss and Celie themselves: Celie’s relationship to the chocolate she makes, to the space she works in, Joss’s stubborn imposition of will on everything around him, and yet his willingness to apologize and try to make things right.

Book source: review copy provided by author

Book information: 2015, self-published; adult contemporary romance

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Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand

once upon a roseOnce Upon a Rose is the first full length book in the La Vie en Rose series (there is a prequel novella, “A Rose in Winter,” and connections to the Amour et Chocolat books).

Personally, I’ve found the last few Amour et Chocolat books to be very emotionally intense, focusing as they do on characters who really have to struggle to work out their relationship and their own issues. I’ve liked that a lot, since the intensity fits those characters and stories. Once Upon a Rose is a little quieter, a little less obviously intense, and I found that I really like that too; the different kinds of stories fit different moods. Here there’s a sense of the characters essentially being okay, even if they don’t quite know it yet. Even in the big dramatic moments, I trusted that Matt and Layla cared enough about each other to work things out.

I love the sense of roots and rootedness, which comes up several times as an image. It works really well with the sense of family that pervades the book. It’s not that family is absent in the earlier books, but here it becomes even more central. And for Matthieu, it’s both a blessing and a burden. His journey in this story is of finding himself in relationship to his family and the responsibility of being the heir to the valley. It’s in finding a way to avoid replicating the mistakes of the previous generations, which continue to be felt. His grandfather loves his family, but he defines family too narrowly. It’s a question of how to honor traditions–real, important traditions–and at the same time be yourself.

And for Layla, it’s almost the opposite. She needs to find a place to be rooted and therefore nourished. Almost–and I know this is maybe a weird image, but I think it works–to be cultivated like the rose bushes (she equates herself with them several times). She’s a musician and performer, and part of her story is a powerful look at creativity and the need to rest and be fed in order to create. (I didn’t think of this at the time, but echoes of Gift from the Sea!) That tension between Matt’s need to care for the valley and Layla’s need to have some of it herself drives a lot of the story, both in the obvious plot and in the character stuff that’s happening underneath.

As always, the setting and writing are wonderful. I loved the texture of the descriptions, the rose petals and scents, the stone and thorns. And there are some fun fairy tale echoes, which I will admit it took me awhile to pick up. Florand is really good at these quietly lyrical moments, and they’re definitely present here. I loved every minute of this book, and I’ll be looking forward to whatever story comes next.

Book source: review copy from author
Book information: 2015, self-published; adult contemporary romance

bookish posts reviews

Recent Reading: Short stories, romance, and middle grade

sun kissedSun-kissed by Laura Florand: A new short novel from Florand. This one is a bit different in that it 1) takes place in America and 2) focuses on the older generation, Mack Corey and Anne Winters. I really enjoyed the way Florand explores the different characters, who are more mature and self-confident than their children and their children’s peers in some ways, and yet still very vulnerable in others. I did miss the French setting a bit, but the sea-side is a lovely alternative. I loved the way Mack sees his daughters and sons-in-law; it was great to see some of the other characters from the Chocolat series through his eyes. All in all, this was a lovely endcap to Florand’s earlier stories (though if there are more in the future, I won’t be sad!)

conservation of shadowsConservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: A collection of sff short stories. Lee is Korean-American, and based several of the stories on incidents from Korean history. I found that the sensibility underlying the stories to be clear and beautiful; I can’t speak to how and what has been informed by his heritage, but there’s certainly an awareness of non-western based cultures that is refreshing. I loved the worlds Lee creates, and his characters–often caught between two duties or two loyalties. This is one of the most cohesive anthologies I can remember reading, which I greatly appreciated–while I love short stories, I often feel that collections lack coherence. If I have a complaint, it’s that occasionally the endings felt less forceful than I wanted them to be; not rushed, exactly, but compressed in a way that didn’t quite give me the follow-through I wanted. I don’t know if the fault is in the stories, or in me, but this happened often enough for me to notice it.

clair de luneClair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds: A middle-grade book, which falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism (the tone reminds me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux). I liked the characters and writing a lot, but felt some vague unease about the tidiness of the ending and an occasional hammering-home of points. In general, I think this is one I would have absolutely loved a few years ago; it’s probably a good one for the quieter, dreamy young girls.

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Two recent reads

magic most deadlyAfter the emotional turmoil of my Lois McMaster Bujold week, I needed something light and calming, for a change of pace. Back in the midst of my Cybils reading, E.L. Bates had offered to send me a copy of her debut, Magic Most Deadly. It looked intriguing, so I agreed. And it turned out to be just the light, fun book I was hoping for.

Maia Whitney, the eldest of three sisters, is dull and dutiful. The only excitement in her life came when she lied about her age and joined the VAD during the War. Now that the war is over, she lives at home and cares for her anxious mother and her younger sisters. But then she attends a house party and accidentally witnesses a murder, and everything changes.

I love historical fantasy, as we know, and it’s great to see some that’s set in the 1920s. I really liked the way Bates set up her system of magic and wove it into history, especially the War. Relatedly, I liked how many of the characters still felt shaped by the War and their experiences. I think often there’s a sense of the 20s as an amnesiac decade, when everyone wilfully forgot what had just happened. Here we see that it’s not quite so easy.

Magic Most Deadly is also a mystery, of the amateur detective variety (granted Len has a little more experience, but he’s not actually a detective per se). I suspect that the reader looking for a straight mystery will be disappointed–here, it’s much more the setup for Maia and Len’s relationship. This is not a bad thing at all, but it does mean that the mystery strand is less important than it might be in a different book.

I also liked Maia’s complex relationship with her sisters. While I wished that Ellie had been given a little more depth, I appreciated that the Whitney girls were important to each other, and that Maia cared about her sisters and her relationship with them. Generally, family was given a lot of weight in the story and I liked that a lot.

There were a few things that didn’t work as well for me. Occasionally the prose was a little awkward or stilted. In a larger issue, I wasn’t always sure why Maia cared about magic–I wanted to see more clearly what attracted her to it. I liked that there wasn’t a lot of time spent on worrying about whether it was real or flipping out over the fact that it was, but I wanted to see a sense of wonder or beauty that made her care. Additionally, I wanted to see more of why Len and Maia were attracted to each other.

This is definitely a fun book, and one I’d recommend to people who are looking for a lighter historical fantasy.

Book source: review copy provided by author
Book information: 2013, self-published; adult historical fantasy

chocolate temptation I’ve mentioned the fact that I really like Laura Florand’s books before. I don’t read much contemporary romance, but Florand’s books are auto-buys for me. She offered to let me read her latest, Chocolate Temptation, before it came out and I loved it so much that I bought it as soon as it was available.

This is the latest book in Florand’s Amor et Chocolat series, and the finale for now. It actually overlaps the events of the previous book, Chocolate Heart, which I liked. It’s also the first book in the series to feature a chef who’s a woman (Magalie is doing something quite different, so I’m not counting her).

Florand also treads some tricky territory with protagonists who are working together, where Patrick is Sarah’s boss. For me, she manages to pull it off, mostly because Florand and her characters are well aware of the fact that this is potentially not okay and think about it. There’s also the fact that Sarah chooses, out of the quiet strength she has, which she doesn’t see. This made a big difference; I didn’t feel that she was coerced, despite Patrick’s pushiness.

But basically, I just loved Sarah. I loved that she is quite confident in some areas and doesn’t see her own strength in others. I loved the fact that she cares about her family but also has to find her own way apart from them. I loved that she is grappling with her family history and how it echoes onto her own life.

In all of Florand’s books, there’s a sense that the couple has to figure out the issues that might sink their relationship, and that they’re real issues and big ones. I love that, because it gives the story a depth and interest that goes beyond the initial attraction. This is especially apparent here. I felt that Patrick and Sarah are almost in a negotiation, although that doesn’t have the right personal feel to it. They care about each other and they also have boundaries they’re not willing to go beyond, and they have to find a way to fit their relationship into this space. While also dealing with the baggage that comes with their personal histories. (I loved Sarah’s line about people shaping you when you’re tiny.)

I also appreciated that Sarah looks pretty frankly at issues of sexism and racism–her mother escaped from North Korea, although Sarah herself was born in the US. She has a line about wanting to be a ninja even though they’re Japanese, because at least they’re not golden-haired princesses. I love this. I want more books to be funny and fun, and also look at big things.

I’m not even sure I’m being coherent here, but regardless, Chocolate Temptation was a delight to read and is possibly my new favorite book in the series.

Book source: digital arc provided by the author; subsequently bought
Book information: 2014, self-published; adult contemporary romance