Jayne’s Best of 2019
This year I didn’t have as many A reads as I did last year but these B+ books are strong ones that almost made it. My list ranges from historical to contemporary, has fiction and non-fiction, and even a picture book of cats. In kinda, sorta chronological order in which I read them, more or less, here goes.
When You Read This by Mary Adkins
Iris Massey is gone.
But she’s left something behind.
For four years, Iris Massey worked side by side with PR maven Smith Simonyi, helping clients perfect their brands. But Iris has died, taken by terminal illness at only thirty-three. Adrift without his friend and colleague, Smith is surprised to discover that in her last six months, Iris created a blog filled with sharp and often funny musings on the end of a life not quite fulfilled. She also made one final request: for Smith to get her posts published as a book. With the help of his charmingly eager, if overbearingly forthright, new intern Carl, Smith tackles the task of fulfilling Iris’s last wish.
Before he can do so, though, he must get the approval of Iris’ big sister Jade, an haute cuisine chef who’s been knocked sideways by her loss. Each carrying their own baggage, Smith and Jade end up on a collision course with their own unresolved pasts and with each other.
Told in a series of e-mails, blog posts, online therapy submissions, text messages, legal correspondence, home-rental bookings, and other snippets of our virtual lives, When You Read This is a deft, captivating romantic comedy—funny, tragic, surprising, and bittersweet—that candidly reveals how we find new beginnings after loss.
One of the best things about the book is that none of the characters are perfect. In fact, most of them make mistakes – both minor and major – and have to deal with those. They don’t always get along or understand each other. And what could have been a depressing story is in fact very funny at times but even then there are reasons for the inclusion of those scenes. The (many) emails from Domino’s Pizza to Smith allowing him to tract his pizza delivery made me laugh but also showed Smith holed up in his apartment and grieving – for a week, living on pizza, to the consternation of the officious co-op president of his condo building.
As seen through the various means of communication, each character has a distinct voice and personality. Unlike another “email” book I recently read, I was never in any doubt about which character was “speaking.” YOPLAY’s ALL CAPS (well, mostly all caps) messages as well as Carl’s perkiness emails were a scream. Iris’s blog posts took me through the gamut of disbelief, fear, anger, hope and then acceptance.
The characters have to work through some heavy stuff: death, regret, guilt, anger. The book gives them the space and opportunity to do so. When they came out on the other side of those feelings, I felt it was believable. This is a book I inhaled in gulps and literally did not put down for hours at a time. It’s also my first A grade for the year. A-
Gimme Some Sugar by Molly Harper
Lucy Brewer would never have guessed that her best friend, Duffy McCready (of McCready’s Bait Shop & Funeral Home) has been in love with her since they were kids. Fear of rejection and his own romantic complications prevented Duffy from confessing his true feelings in high school, so he stood by and watched her wed Wayne Bowman right after high school. Wayne had always been a cheapskate, so it comes as no surprise when he suffers a fatal accident while fixing his own truck.
Even as her family and friends invade Lucy’s life and insist that the new widow is too fragile to do much beyond weeping, Lucy is ashamed to admit that life without Wayne is easier, less complicated. After all, no one knew what a relentless, soul-grinding trudge marriage to Wayne had been. Only Duffy can tell she’s hiding something.
In need of a fresh start, Lucy asks Duffy to put his cabinet-building skills to use, transforming the town’s meat shop into a bake shop. As the bakery takes shape, Lucy and Duffy discover the spark that pulled them together so many years ago. Could this finally be the second chance he’s always hoped for?
I enjoyed the family relationships and loved getting to see Frankie and Marianne on a girls’ night out with Lucy. Those two are dangerous and an example of how Southern women are not all sugar and sweetness. Carl and Duffy’s porch-sitting-while-drinking beer is great too. The eccentricities of the rest of the McCready clan are there yet held a bit more in check and serve to spice up the book without taking it over. Lucy and her son Sam are sweet without being saccharine and thank gawd Sam doesn’t lisp or spurt other insipid child vocal-isms.
Life in Lake Sackett is a mix of both the good and the bad of small towns. Everyone knows everyone and all about your mamma and what you did in school. They’re all related somehow which leads to some problems and in the end, nepotism used the right way to achieve justice. It’s a nice place to raise your child and why Lucy came back home.
Yeah but what about the romance? It’s nice and slow and filled with cupcakes and flirting.
Duffy proves that he’s there for the good, the bad, and the four year old child with the stomach bug. He knows that he loves how Lucy has grown as a person. When the conflict does erupt, it features the issues, worries and things we already know about and Duffy and Lucy already know about but with heightened emotions and stress. It feels natural rather than engineered. And after they both realize they’re sorry and messed up, apologies are truly offered and accepted and – glory be – therapy is discussed to help move forward beyond past events. When they decide that yes, they want a future, they don’t rush it and I feel totally okay with that. A-
Lupin Leaps In: A Breaking Cat News Adventure by Georgia Dunn
Picking up where they last left off in Breaking Cat News, are Elvis, Puck, and Lupin reporting on the breaking news that matters to cats. Cynical, no-nonsense Elvis and shy, sweet, sensitive Puck are the reporter kitties in the field, while the adventurous jokester Lupin serves as anchor cat. Together, they’re back to break headlines on mysterious man “tails,” all things holiday-related, new cat friends, and all the daily happenings in and outside their home.
The super fun “More to Explore” section includes how to draw the BCN news crew, how to draw expressions, how to draw your pet as a reporter, and paper dolls of the crew, along with props and extras!
Two years ago I read about and became a fan of BCN when the first book “Breaking Cat News” was published. News anchor Lupin (adventurous) and field reporters Puck (sensitive) and Elvis (ever so slightly cynical) are there to bring their viewers and fans all the news about their world, their People, and those noisy Ceiling Cats (with subtitles). Whiskers, it’s a bonanza of wonderfulness. A
The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
For two sworn enemies, anything can happen during the Hawaiian trip of a lifetime—maybe even love—in this romantic comedy from the New York Times bestselling authors of Roomies.
Olive Torres is used to being the unlucky twin: from inexplicable mishaps to a recent layoff, her life seems to be almost comically jinxed. By contrast, her sister Ami is an eternal champion . . . she even managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a slew of contests. Unfortunately for Olive, the only thing worse than constant bad luck is having to spend the wedding day with the best man (and her nemesis), Ethan Thomas.
Olive braces herself for wedding hell, determined to put on a brave face, but when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. Suddenly there’s a free honeymoon up for grabs, and Olive will be damned if Ethan gets to enjoy paradise solo.
Agreeing to a temporary truce, the pair head for Maui. After all, ten days of bliss is worth having to assume the role of loving newlyweds, right? But the weird thing is . . . Olive doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, the more she pretends to be the luckiest woman alive, the more it feels like she might be.
The change in their realization of their feelings is nicely done. Little things begin to add up and since they’ve spent basically their entire relationship up until now telling each other exactly what they feel (even though the basis on which those reactions was built was so, so wrong) that they know that honesty is staring them in the face and they accept this. The final conflict is solidly based on what has already been set up so thanks for nothing “out of the blue.” Even though I knew what was coming, it’s done so well that my heart was breaking for them because they both have valid reasons for acting as they do.
Then after the pain (go Olive for standing up for her truth and not knuckling under to everyone else’s wishes), there is – hallelujah – time spent thinking. Olive also contemplates what she really wants from life as well as listens to what Ami truthfully tells her then rewires her view on life. Ami’s actions were powerful and well done, too. By the time Ethan is ready to “grand-gesturing in an ugly shirt, with a fake Mai tai glass,” I absolutely believe that both of them are in the right place, heads on straight, and ready for their HEA. However, I will say that the two-years-later epilogue complete with new POV is fantastic.
Yep, I’m giving this one a big thumbs up and only taking off a little from the grade because I want people to know that the snake bite story is not accurate and not to expect a helpful ranger with antivenin if they ever get bit by a rattlesnake. But still, a puppy is getting a tummy rub and maybe two hedgehogs are getting meal-worms because of this review. A-
No Man’s Land by Kevin Sullivan
A gripping account of how a major air disaster was averted, by the captain and former Top Gun pilot
On routine flight QF72 from Singapore to Perth on 7 October 2008, the primary flight computers went rogue, causing the plane to pitch down, nose first, towards the Indian Ocean – twice.
The Airbus A330 carrying 315 passengers and crew was out of control, with violent negative G forces propelling anyone and anything untethered through the cabin roof.
It took the skill and discipline of veteran US Navy Top Gun Kevin Sullivan, captain of the ill-fated flight, to wrestle the plane back under control and perform a high-stakes emergency landing at a RAAF base on the WA coast 1200 kilometres north of Perth.
In No Man’s Land, the captain of the flight tells the full story for the first time. It’s a gripping, blow-by-blow account of how, along with his co-pilots, Sullivan relied on his elite military training to land the gravely malfunctioning plane and narrowly avert what could have been a horrific air disaster.
As automation becomes the way of the future, and in the aftermath of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 and Lion Air flight JT610, the story of QF72 raises important questions about how much control we relinquish to computers and whether more checks and balances are needed.
My hat is off to the Australian aviation, police, and medical authorities who, acting on protocol, sprang into action to see to and assist the passengers and cabin crew as well as the airline employees who acted as pilot advocates as the investigation began all the way through the final report. What breaks my heart is the long term suffering that so many still now endure both emotionally and physically.
The failure of the automation aboard QF72 pitched all of you into a No Man’s Land for which none of you, despite all your flight training, had been prepared. In the aftermath, a second No Man’s Land of emotional trauma would sideswipe you. The following years in which Air France 447 was lost and a Germanwings plane was crashed due to pilot depression pushed you further.
Frankly, I applaud both your effort to reclaim the profession you love and your realization and willingness to notify the airline that this was now beyond you. The rush seems to be gaining momentum to turn everything over to automation in an effort to keep us safe. But QF72 was saved by the actions of her flight crew and cabin crew. Well done to all of you. A-
Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston
All he ever wanted was to go home. Leaving his life as a noble hostage behind him, Gryff has fled from one danger to another, never safe, always longing for a forbidden return to his conquered Welsh homeland. Held captive by villainous men, his unlikely savior is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen – and the most deadly. Her silence is unnerving, her generosity unexpected, and her pointed warning that she will not be an object of lust is perfectly clear. Nan has no doubt the ragged Welshman she has saved from certain death was born to better things, far different from the servant’s life she’s led. Though the last thing she wants is a companion on her journey to find her cherished sister, she is compelled to help the man with haunted eyes and a mysterious past. But she feels the pull of his fascination every instant, and her own unexpected desire soon takes them places neither could have foreseen.
What I found most interesting though is the relationship between Gryff and Nan – well since this is a romance that’s a good thing. Initially Nan is a mystery to Gryff. Who is this woman who can slay bandits, says little, and allows no man to take liberties? Meanwhile Nan’s simple offerings of kindness to one she doesn’t know and who is, let’s be honest, fairly pitiful when she first encounters him shows much of her character. Later when Gryff questions someone who knows her well about why Nan says so little, the answer is illuminating not only about Nan but also about the position of women and servants in that age.
I enjoyed watching the layers of their characters be peeled back and the little ways in which we learn about them, too. Nothing seemed artificial or inserted to be acceptable to modern readers over historical accuracy. And the means that Gryff uses to convince Nan to accept his offer of marriage is delightfully one that she herself had first told him and that in turn gives the book its title. There are many ways to travel, not all of them simple or obvious or laid out by kings. I had fun traveling along with Nan, Gryff, Fuss (who is adorable) and some characters from past books as they find their own way to happiness and service to those dependent on them. B+
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.
As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.
With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love.
Will it sound weird if I say I’m happy that the eventual amazing sex they have doesn’t fix everything in their lives? Oh, no there’s still conflicts and issues. Since sensitivity readers have read the book and you know what you’re speaking about in terms of autism I will probably sound like a female dick when I say that the process and time spent getting Khai to the point where he was ready and able to express to Esme what she needed to hear took a long amount of time. On the other hand, something that is obviously supposed to be a key part of Khai’s makeup isn’t just zipped over in a few minutes, either. Yes, I realize I’m being contrary here.
But I’ll also say that the finale scenes of Khai racing to make it to the “church” on time had a movie version running through my head and me cheering him on. The resolution of another plot point and epilogue were a little bit sugary sweet plus I am a bit leery about the fact that a daughter’s existence is dropped on Khai this late in the book but I was delighted that Esme discovers her own potential and proves it to herself, her daughter, and to Khai. I enjoyed watching Esme reach for her dream and both she and Khai finding their perfect “One.” B+
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
Meet Nina Hill: A young woman supremely confident in her own…shell.
The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.
When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They’re all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She’ll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It’s a disaster! And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn’t he realize what a terrible idea that is?
Nina considers her options.
1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)
It’s time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn’t convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It’s going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.
It’s funny without being too precious though there are plenty of POV shifts and quick switches. However those are easy to figure out and didn’t bother me at all. There is a lot of pop culture in the story so I’m not sure how well that will age but I will admit to laughing at how the story also pokes fun at a lot of that so maybe it will weather better than I imagine.
I enjoyed the characters and how they were developed. Even the tertiary ones were clear cut and memorable and this was a book that I inhaled quickly. I do wish there had been a little more romance – though Nina – for a brief moment – comes out of her introverted shell to make a Lloyd Dobler public declaration during the quiz final.
This one has lots of feels and heartfelt moments but manages to keep from becoming too sugary sweet with them. I also had a blast reading Nina’s day planner pages and “hearing” from Phil. B+
Breaking Point by John Rhodes
Breaking Point: A Novel of the Battle of Britain
It is August, 1940. Hitler’s triumphant Third Reich has crushed all Europe—except Britain. As Hitler launches a massive aerial assault, only the heavily outnumbered British RAF and the iron will of Winston Churchill can stop him. The fate of Western civilization teeters in the balance.
Johnnie Shaux, a Spitfire fighter pilot, knows that the average life expectancy of a pilot is a mere five hours of operational flying time. Sooner or later his luck will run out. Yet he must constantly summon up the fortitude to fly into conditions in which death is all but inevitable and continue to do so until the inevitable occurs…
Meanwhile, Eleanor Rand, a WAAF staff officer in RAF headquarters, is struggling to find her role in a man’s world and to make a contribution to the battle. She studies the control room maps that track the ebb and flow of conflict, the aerial thrust and parry, and begins to see the glimmerings of a radical strategic breakthrough…
Breaking Point is based on the actual events of six days in the historic Battle of Britain. The story alternates between Johnnie, face to face with the implacable enemy; and Eleanor, in 11 Group headquarters, using ‘zero-sum’ game theory to evolve a strategic model of the battle.
Eleanor Rand is fabulous and if this book is ever turned into a movie, British actresses would battle to play her. Unlike books in which a heroine is described physically down to her knickers, we learn little about what Eleanor looks like but an immense amount about how smart she is and – glory be – she’s allowed to be intelligent. Still better Eleanor has layers and depths. She does make some personal mistakes and it takes her a long time to finally admit what she feels for Johnnie (even though she knows that when he stares up at the ceiling, he’s concentrating) but darn it I loved seeing her unfold as a character and how she loves to lose herself in maths theories.
The Battle of Britain comes alive and I found myself riveted to the air battles 339 Squadron engages in. The descriptions of the various planes, the way they flew, and the tactics each side used were perfectly clear. As Eleanor was telling another character why Hitler needed Kesselring to destroy the RAF before an invasion could begin, then later explained why the RAF only needed to not lose the battle in order to defeat the Luftwaffe, it all made sense. I also appreciated that the RAF pilots were allowed to feel responsibility for the death of their German opponents personally and that Shaux was there to help one newbie with the impact of his actions.
A few things kept this from being an A read for me. Firstly I hated seeing Eleanor taken in by one particular upperclass rotter. Secondly, it’s about war and in war people die and I hated to lose a few of the characters that we did. Plus the scene in the Defiant at the end did strain my credulity just a bit. But what I do like more than makes up for these little niggles. I had a great time reading “Breaking Point” and look forward to the sequel. B+
Christmas Hope by Caroline Warfield
When the Great War is over, will their love be enough?
After two years at the mercy of the Canadian Expeditionary force and the German war machine, Harry ran out of metaphors for death, synonyms for brown, and images of darkness. When he encounters color among the floating islands of Amiens and life in the form a widow and her little son, hope ensnares him. Through three more long years of war and its aftermath, the hope she brings keeps Harry alive.
Rosemarie Legrand’s husband left her a tiny son, no money, and a savaged reputation when he died. She struggles to simply feed the boy and has little to offer a lonely soldier, but Harry’s devotion lifts her up. The war demands all her strength and resilience, will the hope of peace and the promise of Harry’s love keep her going?
What a lovely story this is. I had no idea that les hortillonnages even existed and now having seen images of them, I am in love. They’re charming and an unusual setting for Rosemarie’s little cottage. While neither Harry nor Rosemarie immediately professes love at first sight, it’s obvious that the attraction is there from the start. But Harry is unwilling to promise what he might not be able to do and in true male fashion, holds back most of his feelings in order, he thinks, not to hurt Rosemarie. He also mentally puts her and Marcel in his grandmother’s house (in Canada) before he goes over the top in order to believe them safe and so that he has the fortitude to obey orders and keep fighting.
Wise Rosemarie understands when he tells her that he has to keep her safe – even if just in his mind – to keep going. She also keeps gently pressing until he tells her a crushing burden he bears. The war is not displayed in its gross entirety but there are enough details to illuminate the hell Harry endures and make clear how much he cherishes his time with the woman and child he is coming to love as his own.
The Army is still not finished with Harry even after the last post has sounded and I was madly “flipping” the pages of my ereader to see how Harry and Rosemarie would find each other again. Would she be safe? Would Harry and his friend make it back before being thought deserters? The suspense, road trip delays, and more suspense had me glued to the story. Their resilience and steadfast determination warmed my heart. Then, ah, the happy ending during which Rosemarie, Marcel, and Harry finally do make it to his grandmother’s safe house, filled with love and the comfort of home. A-