Review: “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman

Beartown

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a pretty fast reader. As a kid, when I used to drag my parents to bookstores, I would often finish a book in the time it took them to buy me more books. A pitfall of my speedy reading is that I sometimes miss the small pleasures that come from the “non-important” parts of the story. Ever since I started blogging, I would like to believe that I have become a more mindful reader. Thankfully, that didn’t manage to put a significant dent in my reading speed. Till I put my hands on Beartown.

Today, I’m participating in my third Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. My first time around, I stayed up for the entire duration and finished 7 books. The next time, I was overconfident and fell asleep around Hour 4. This time, I was all set with a list of nine books. But 10 hours in, I just finished my first book and I am not feeling the slightest twinge of regret. Because Beartown is so brilliant that I wanted to savor every single sentence of it, competitive reading be damned.

As an author, Fredrik Backman has this talent of crafting an intricate novel about human nature revolving around characters that might otherwise come across as mundane. I read A Man Called Ove before it was a New York Times bestseller and the source material of an Oscar-winning film. The protagonist was this gnarly, antisocial curmudgeon that people went out of their way to avoid. But by the time I finished the book, I was completely in love with him. I mourned the passing of his beloved wife and I cheered when he found a new “family” in an evolving Sweden.

Anybody who reads Beartown will also find themselves rooting for its characters, a hard feat to achieve since the book has over ten protagonists. Mr Backman has surpassed himself because he manages to get the reader to care not just for its characters, but the entire town as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean every single character is likable. But the reader comes away with an in-depth understanding of what motivates every single person in Beartown. Though much darker than Mr Backman’s other works, Beartown is undoubtedly his magnum opus.

Beartown is the story of an isolated Swedish town at the edge of the woods that is slowly but surely dying. The residents believe that there is only way to save their home: a national victory for their local ice hockey team, that will bring much-needed investment  and publicity to revitalize the area.

To that end, the entire community pins their hopes and dreams on Kevin, the star player. But when a rape accusation by one of their own, on the day of their big game, leaves the team floundering, things take a dark and menacing turn. The book is full of scenes that bring a tear to one’s eye, or make the reader scream with outrage or chuckle at Mr Backman’s sharp and darkly comic insights. The events that unfold are told from the perspective of different characters, adding layer upon layer to this maze of a novel.

There is another noteworthy and unusual technique used by Backman: repetition, but not for repetition’s sake. Various phrases, sayings, even sounds, when repeated skillfully offer new, dazzling interpretations at different points in the story. The character that’s speaking at that particular moment or the sequence of events unfolding then and there are what colour these phrases, thus creating a looping narrative that continually draws the readers in and makes them feel the full implications of what’s going on. The narrative continually emboldens the heavy, darker tone of the novel which, while not as light as his previous novels (though none of Mr Backman’s works can truly be considered light), still preserves its basic human-ness and even persevering, uplifting spirit.

Lastly, for me, Beartown was an outstanding story for its shrewd observations on how society deals with rape allegations, especially in the context of sportsmen and teenagers. I wish I could pepper this entire review with the quotes I highlighted while reading the book, but that would result in around half of the book being reproduced here. Beartown is a must-read for anyone who loves a good, smart and yet touching story.

 I was provided an Advance Reading Copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “Pillow Stalk” (Mad for Mod Mystery #1) by Diane Vallere

Pillow Stalk

47-year old interior decorator Madison Night has modeled her life after Doris Day because they share a birthdate and a passing resemblance. Having moved to Dallas after a breakup, she is rebuilding her life by running her mid-century design store, swimming every morning and petitioning the local film society to hold a Doris Day film festival. But when a woman resembling her is murdered, Madison finds herself entangled in a 20-year old murder mystery, with all fingers pointing to her new best friend as the prime suspect.

As the bodies start piling up, Madison is reluctantly paired up with the surly yet hot Lieutenant Tex Allen, who is hiding some secrets of his own. Always at odds with each other, they uncover an international conspiracy, a campaign to destroy all Doris Day movies and six minutes of film that change everything Madison thought she knew about her life.

While all of this sounds terribly dramatic and exciting, I found the story to be mostly mediocre. Having seen one Doris Day movie about ten years ago, my interest in the 1950s has been more of the Mad Men variety. Plus, I have zero interest in the life of a decorator, let alone one who has modeled herself on a seemingly goody-two-shoes actress. The “love triangle” is heavily hinted at throughout the story but amounts to nothing. While Ms. Vallere does occasionally manage to throw in some twists that surprised me, the denouement was so outlandish that it took away from whatever little I liked about the book, i.e. Madison Night’s Shih Tzu, Rocky.

Since it is the opening book in a series, I won’t judge it too harshly. Hopefully, things will pick up steam in the next couple of installments.

Review: “Royal Affair” (Royals in Exile #2) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Affair

So despite not being a huge fan of the opener in this series, I decided to give Royal Affair a shot straight away. The premise was a bit cliched and, TBH, I wasn’t a huge fan of the story for about half of it. But I stuck wth it and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. #AlwaysFinishABook

Princess Charlotte Sinclair has always been the wallflower. The traumatic death of her parents and the subsequent exile in North Carolina has left her socially awkward and desirous of wanting a normal life. But when journalist Brooks Walker exposes her family, instead of being outraged like the rest of her siblings, Charlotte is fascinated by his take-no-prisoners, brash style of journalism. When they meet at a charity ball, she propositions him to have an affair with her in exchange for access to her secrets.

Despite coming from an illustrious family, Brooks Walker carved a name out for himself by building a media empire based on honest journalism, no matter how many people it pissed off in the process. When the sweetest of the Sinclairs suggests they have an affair, he readily agrees. However, he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the passion they share and starts to care for Charlotte. When an old enemy of the royal family resurfaces and gives Brooks the biggest scoop of his career, he must decide where his loyalties lie.

Again, I have to reiterate that I did not like this book in the beginning. I thought Charlotte was too naive and Brooke was too much of a wolf. Also, I believed there wasn’t any building up to the affair itself. Ms. Valentine writes like the first chapter is the fifth and the readers are supposed to know things not even mentioned in the previous books in the series.

However, in the later half of the book, there is a lot of character development. The motivation behind the protagonists’ unnatural obsession with each other is explained. Secondary characters are introduced to humanize Brooks, who I still think was portrayed as too jaded to convincingly fall in love with the princess he was supposed to use a source. As usual, there is a flurry of shocking revelations about the Sinclair family. There is A LOT of sex throughout the story, but it really doesn’t add anything to the plot.

Thankfully, this time the banter, as well as the inner monologues, were hilarious and made me actually like the characters. The conflicts were still superficial and resolved too quickly and easily to be of any consequence. But when Brooks and Charlotte finally got together, it seemed largely believable. I was fascinated by the hints dropped about Theo’s and Imogen’s upcoming stories. Hopefully, the next books in the series will actually be great and not fizzle out into mediocrity like the first two.

Review: “Royal Scandal” (Royals in Exile #1) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Scandal

At 19, Crown Prince Colin St Claire–sorry, Sinclair–is forced to go into hiding in small-town America with his siblings after a violent uprising in his homeland results in the death of his parents. There he meets spunky Della Hughes, 17, who treats him with a candor he finds refreshing. So, obviously, he doesn’t tell her he’s royalty. Moreover, he lets her believe he is the father of his two youngest siblings. A decade passes and now Colin is taking steps to reclaim his family’s rightful place. For that, he is required to marry a woman of the Parliament’s choosing but he has someone else in mind.

Della Hughes has been in love with her best friend Colin for as long as she can remember. Practically a co-parent to his “boys” and a part of the Sinclair family, she feels taken for granted because Colin has shown no interest in her as a woman over the past ten years. Imagine her surprise when she finds out he’s a prince and needs her to marry him to secure a real-life throne for his siblings.

Their deep friendship and love for each other (which is blindingly obvious to the rest of the world but not to them) makes them enter into a marriage of convenience, which quickly turns into a passionate union. However, as Colin and Della open up their hearts to each other, both are hiding secrets from the other which they think can destroy their relationship. Set against the backdrop of a litany of shocking revelations about the St Claire family and kingdom, this is, first, a story of how the St Claire family come to terms with their place in the world and then, a modern fairytale romance.

The book has a very contemporary feel to it, with numerous references to Beauty and the Beast and Stranger Things. Colin and Della are fairly progressive protagonists. They do, however, overthink the hell out of their problems, creating barriers where none were necessary on their path to finding true love. The book was unexpectedly sexy and it was slightly disconcerting (but not unenjoyable :P) to read graphic scenes when there was so much family drama in the air. Since Royal Scandal is the opening book in a series, Ms. Valentine laid the ground for a lot of subplots that would be developed in the upcoming stories. However, they sometimes took away from the centrality of Colin and Della’s romance.

Overall, Royal Scandal was an entertaining, if slightly messy, take on a modern fairytale romance. I am excited to see what lies in store for the rest of the St Claire family.

Review: “The Thing About Love” (FBI/US Attorney #7) by Julie James

The Thing About Love

Before I launch into a super gushy review extolling the awesomeness of Julie James’ latest installment in her FBI/US Attorney series, I would like to take a moment to say that I am not a fan of the cover. While a part of me appreciates the journey that has been from sexy midriffs to sexy stilettos in one hand to just a stiletto with shattered lollipops, no part of me gets the point.

That completely useless tangent aside, The Thing About Love is as close to perfection as contemporary romance gets. The protagonists, FBI Agents John Shepherd and Jessica Harlow, have been at loggerheads since they trained together at Quantico. Constantly one-upping each other, imagine their surprise when they are assigned an undercover assignment soon after their move to Chicago.

In her six years with the Bureau, Jessica had known only one person who’d planned to try out for HRT: a guy in her training class who’d been recruited for the FBI directly from the Army Rangers. And not to dwell on the past or anything—another good theme for this year—but she and that guy in her training class had…well, one might say they hadn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye.

Or, one might also say that he’d irritated the hell out of her.

Posing as business executives at a romantic seaside resort, it doesn’t take long for John and Jessica to recognize their missteps from the past and act on their attraction. But does their relationship have a future if John gets his dream job in the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team?

As always, it was an absolute delight to return to Ms. James’ Chicago and read about past favorite characters in passing. John Shepherd was the perfect feminist hero in almost every respect and I can’t help but find him toe-curlingly sexy.

She was his partner, they were working together undercover, and that meant she needed to continue chugging along with this charade, pretending as though she were somehow oblivious to the things that every other woman saw.

Like the deep blue of his eyes. Or the stubble that was already forming along his angular jaw. Or the thick, dark blond hair that begged to have a woman’s fingers running through it.

Or how, right now, as he stood across from her in that hotel room, with the top button of his white collared shirt undone in an ruggedly sophisticated look, and his tall, broad-shouldered frame perfectly filling his gray tailored suit, he was—bar none—the most attractive man she’d ever laid eyes on.

Jessica Harlow was a badass as well, constantly working twice as hard as everybody else so that she is not taken lightly by those who can’t see past her pretty face. Ms. James has done a fantastic job of describing the details of FBI training and operations. Despite the seriousness of their profession, the characters always have a hilarious inner monologue.

Now, normally, John tried to be generous while sparring and not take advantage of the fact that he had considerably more training and experience than his opponent. But when their defensive tactics instructor blew the whistle and Linguistics PhD came charging at him—fists flying and trash-talking John in some foreign language as an attempt to psych him out, John had no choice but to (a) take a moment to try his hardest not to laugh and (b) take the guy immediately down to the ground and get him into a handcuffing position.

John and Jessica have become one of my top Julie James couples. From not wasting time on cliched hangups to respecting each other personally and professionally, they constantly brought out the best in each other. The Thing About Love is a truly progressive contemporary romance from an author in top form.

I received an ARC by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Guest Post Review: “Whispers Through A Megaphone” by Rachel Elliott

Whispers Through A Megaphone

Hey guys! I have swamped with a lot of work these days, so I decided to bring my oldest friend, partner-in-crime and fellow book nerd, Lubna Amir, to do a guest post. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I do!

When Aishwarya asked me to review a book for her, I was thrilled. Since childhood, she has been the source of new books for me. From contemporary romance to teenage fiction, thrillers to sci-fi, my book journey would be incomplete without her.

Coming to Whispers through a Megaphone. Nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 (which is a great way to discover books by the way), Ms. Eliot’s book is rich in both character and humor. A psychotherapist herself, her book showcases a depth and quirkiness that not many possess. Both Miriam and Ralph are battling their own issues, and Ms. Eliot takes what could be a dark and twisty book and makes it wonderfully humorous.

Miriam hasn’t left her house in 3 years, is immensely socially awkward, literally talks in whispers, and has suffered childhood trauma at the hands of a crazy and mostly absent mother (she was once found sweeping the corridors of Miriam’s school, naked). Being told to stay quiet all the time, Miriam has grown into an adult who whispers. She, however, does have some connection to the outside world through her friend, Fenella. The narrative truly begins when Miriam decides she wants to reenter the normal world and do things like shopping and Zumba.

Ralph is the father of 16-year-old twins and is unhappily married to Sadie, a closeted lesbian. When one day he opens the doors of the closet, literally, and discovers that his wife never loved him, that he cannot relate to his sons, and that his life is a mess, Ralph packs his bags and moves to a shack in the woods with a cat called Treacle. A chance meeting with Miriam leads to the start of an unlikely friendship, and the story of when Miriam met Ralph.

What I really loved about the book was the switch in perspectives – maintaining this shift without a narrational break is a difficult task, but Ms. Eliot manages it quite well. This is also where her background as a psychotherapist comes in play. Whispers through a Megaphone is written in a way which makes the reader delve into the psyche and the quirks of the human mind – and realize that at the end of the day, we all are a little dysfunctional.

It’s a great debut novel, and Ms. Eliot’s books (I’m hoping for more!) are going to be a regular feature on my bookshelf from now on. From the whimsical to the crazy, with a little bit of childhood abuse thrown in, Whispers through a Megaphone is a good read!

Review: “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains

If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I should tell you guys that I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. It was mostly fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, L.M. Montgomery and the Great Illustrated Classics series. That is until I reached the 3rd grade and was introduced to the literary genius of William Shakespeare. Over the years, as I moved from lapping up the Charles Lamb kiddie version to the unabridged works of the Bard of Avon himself, I realized why this man is considered one of the greatest ever.

If We Were Villains quote

Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.

The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.

Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.

The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.

I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence. 

If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.

That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Review: “Your Wicked Heart” (Rules for the Reckless #0.5) by Meredith Duran

Your Wicked Heart

All Amanda Thomas ever wanted in life was to travel. Taking up a secretarial job after the death of her parents, she didn’t expect to find herself stood up at the altar in Greece by a viscount. When she goes to confront him, she encounters a dangerously handsome man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton. While Amanda is still reeling from this shocking development, the man unceremoniously kidnaps her and locks her in a cabin on the next ship back to England.

Spence has been traveling all over Europe looking for his cousin Charles when he hears that a man has been using his name and letters of credit. Following the trail all the way to Greece, he encounters the impossibly pretty Amanda who claims to be affianced to the man who’s stolen his identity and sounds a lot like his missing cousin. Believing her to be a charlatan, he forcibly takes her with him on his search for Charles.

While aboard the ship and sharing a cramped cabin, Amanda realizes that the man she had agreed to marry to flee her cruel employer was an impostor. Spence still thinks of her as a fraud at best and a gold-digger at worst till she honestly tells him that all she intended to offer her husband in return was respect, affection, honesty and support. Ever since the death of his parents while he was young, Spence had grown cynical and world-weary living with his brutish uncles and a slew of wastrel cousins. The story is about how a jaded man falls in love with a steadfast woman who makes him see the world with fresh and hopeful eyes.

Even though the novella consists of a little over a hundred pages, Ms. Duran has done an admirable job of developing the plot, resulting in a well-fleshed out romance. The banter is witty, the character development is realistic and the sex scene was written in such a reverential tone that it became the highlight of the story for me. Despite the era, Spence was a man who believed in the importance of consent when it came to sexual relations, making him a better protagonist than about 90% of all romance heroes. Amanda managed to come across as a mature woman with a realistic outlook on life despite being a straitlaced virgin. And the story contained enough twists to make the HEA not seem inevitable.

I haven’t read many romance novellas but Your Wicked Heart was an outstanding example of the genre.

Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.