Book review: ‘Other Words For Love’ by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal

Ariadne “Ari” Mitchell is used to playing second fiddle to her gorgeous, outgoing best friend, Summer, and her older sister Evelyn, whose teen pregnancy solidified their parents’ fears for their teenage daughters. Though she’s now married with a gorgeous husband and son, her distaste for the world still clouds everything. Especially their family.

It’s 1985 in New York City, and Ari is tired of lingering in the background. When an unexpected inheritance allows the Mitchells to send Ari to a private school in the city, she’s excited and nervous about the change — especially as she’ll now be closer to Summer. It’s at her new school that she meets Leigh, an artistic student with a great asset: her older cousins, young men with dreams and ambition still cradled beneath their father’s thumb. Cousins who become impossible for Ari to ignore.

As she forms new bonds and begins to examine what binds her to her family (and she to them), Ari falls in love and grapples with the knowledge that so many things — real, beautiful — will end. But then again, maybe that just places her at the beginning.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal’s Other Words For Love is one of those rare novels that had my heart threatening to fall right out of my chest; the emotions, characters and situations felt so real and stomachache-inducingly familiar. Books about first love usually resonate with me far more than any other subject — it’s something close to my own heart, I guess. And if I had big expectations about this one after reading so many glowing reviews, they were all met. And then some.

Ari is the novel’s backbone — our narrator; our heroine. Told in her matter-of-fact and almost deadpan style, we get to know the Mitchell and Cagney families intimately in a very short time. At 17, Ari finds herself drawn to Patrick, her older sister’s firefighter husband — and who wouldn’t? Patrick is everything Ari longs for: handsome; dependable; family-oriented; strong. And, more than anything, he takes an interest in her . . . too much, Evelyn gripes. Too much of an interest in her.

I spent most of the novel wanting to pop Evelyn in the face, but it was hard to feel angry with her for too long. Clearly grappling with postpartum depression, Ari’s sister is a woman struggling to find a place within her own family . . . and the world. The fact that Ari was continuously swallowed up in Evelyn’s drama was tough to take, but I could see why everyone was concerned. And I appreciated Ari’s compassion — even when Evelyn was behaving like a monster.

Oh, this book . . . it’s hard to even pinpoint why I adored it so much. The love story that transpires had me breathless, remembering, and it’s difficult to not feel tossed right back into the maelstrom of your own first love while dissolving into Other Words For Love. Rosenthal does an incredible job making us love and care for these people — and Ari felt like a friend I could head to Brooklyn and visit. The glittering world of Leigh, Blake and Delsin — Ari’s new friends in the city — was sparkling, yes, but it wasn’t their wealth that made them so appealing to Ari. It was a sense of belonging and comrarderie — and of love — that made their presence like a drug to her.

In the story, Summer accuses Ari of not really being in love — of simply thinking she is — because she’s in a state of limerence, when feelings of romantic love are so intense that your affection becomes obsession. But who doesn’t look back on their first great love and remember those sleepless nights spent replaying every word and look exchanged, and the very first time you kissed? Of the way you felt when you realized your feelings were returned — when you wanted to wake up and shout “I’m in love!” while dancing in traffic on the roof of your car?

If you have a desire to replay that time in your life — or simply read a sweet, understated but beautiful novel — don’t miss out on Other Words For Love. Though labeled as young adult literature, our protagonist is anything but a “typical” teen — and this is anything but a one-note love story.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 038573901X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘I Remember You’ by Harriet Evans

Best friends Tess Tennant and Adam Smith grew up in the tiny English town of Langford, made famous for its connection to author Jane Austen — and for its gorgeous vistas, including the historic water meadows. The meadows have been controlled for years by Leonora Mortmain, the daunting and severe old woman who has taken up permanent residence as an antagonistic old crone in the lives of Langford’s residents.

After many years apart, Tess returns to town from London and finds Adam — handsome, gawky, intelligent — living the same old life has has since the death of his mother, the larger-than-life Phillippa. Tess’s heart breaks at the thought of finding her oldest, dearest friend at a stand-still, but what can she do?

Other than begin teaching a course on classics at a local college. She eventually leads her pupils to Rome on an end-of-term field trip, and it’s there that she meets Peter — a charismatic, gorgeous American who sees something in Tess that she doesn’t yet notice in herself. Torn between her long-ago feelings for Adam and attentive, exciting Peter, Tess flounders. But Adam isn’t himself these days, and when a final secret comes to light, changing the very nature of everything in town — and Adam himself — can Tess embrace a new life? Or is she destined to flounder in the old one — alone?

Harriet Evans’ I Remember You was wildly entertaining, colorful, poignant, heartbreaking — basically everything I look for in a good novel. What I wanted David Nicholls’ One Day to be — a tale of best friends over the years, reuniting and loving and losing — was all found here, and what a thoroughly enjoyable book it was.

Tess was a character with whom I could identify immediately: proud but a bit confused about where she’s headed in life; adventurous, but still with a yearning to find “home.” Adam has been her steadfast friend since they were children, growing up in town together, and everyone assumed they’d eventually find love in each other — but not so. Through a succession of heartbreaks, heartaches and confusion, Adam and Tess lose touch. And when they eventually reunite, nothing is the same.

It’s hard for me to say exactly what I loved about this story. It was emotional, yes, and that’s the biggest boon for me: I felt emotionally invested with these people from the start. Their hurts were my hurts; their successes were my successes. Sweet, lovable Adam was hard not to fall for, too, even when he was off gallivanting through Langford, and Evans managed to perfectly capture the bittersweet feelings of first love. Since a terrible breakup, I’ve seen my first love once more — and reading I Remember You brought on a flood of feeling. (And relief, in my case. Let bygones be bygones.)

The English town in which Adam, Tess, Leonora and many others live really comes to life here, too. Throughout the novel, a huge tension exists between the “old and the new” — the longtime residents who want nothing to change, even as a flood of tourists arrive to visit the Jane Austen Centre, and the new regime: younger people, some transplants from London, who are seeking modern amenities in a quieter setting. I loved the resolution to many of the problems that exist in the narrative, especially regarding the water meadows.

When the setting switches to Rome, though, was equally enjoyable. We all know I’m in love with the British and find them an endlessly interesting lot, so reading about the group of Tess’s students and fellow citizens in Italy was great fun. Even peripheral characters came to life through Evans’ prose, giving us a glimpse of homemakers, playwrights and bartenders alike. Everyone was so colorful.

Not a novel I’ll forget anytime soon — and one that has me itching even more than usual to tromp around an English village. And if Tess and Adam were there to greet me, more the better.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439182000 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Life After Yes’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

Fresh from a weekend in Paris and with a sparkly new engagement ring on her finger, lawyer Prudence Quinn O’Malley should be floating on cloud nine — dancing through the streets singing Disney tunes, twirling in a fit of ecstasy, calling everyone she knows to squeal and cry and start planning every minor detail.

But the reality is that while madly in love with Sage, a kind-hearted i-banker with whom she lives in New York City, Quinn is plagued by doubts as to what this new “yes” — to a new life, a new world, a new marriage — really entails.

Still grieving the loss of her father, a barrel of a man who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Quinn feels adrift. As a high-powered lawyer at a major firm, she’s used to being rational — examining the evidence, gathering as much information as she can. And as Quinn begins to take a hard look at what her life has become and what it means to love, lose and move forward, she runs headfirst into an emotional journey that will change everything.

Every now and then, a novel like Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s Life After Yes finds its way into my life, and it’s moments when I’m reading a book like this — where I feel like my own face is reflected back at me — that I experience what I can only call literary magic.

Maybe it’s that Quinn is a mere two years older than me, grappling with mortality and love and “prudence,” with safety. Maybe it’s that the book is set and firmly ensconced in New York City — and I started it on the train ride back from a long weekend there. Maybe it’s that, as I was reading last night, I had my own “Sage” napping next to me with one arm firmly around my back. And I felt happy. And safe.

Whatever it was, I’ll say this loud and proud: Life After Yes spoke to me. Shouted at me, really, in a way that I haven’t experienced with a novel in a long, long time. For all her moral issues, uncertainties, flaws, contradictions and need for direction, Quinn — or Prudence, as some know her — felt like a real person. Human. Blood. She felt like me.

I sped through this novel in record time, unwilling to put it down, and found myself dog-earing passage after passage about happiness, love, moving forward. Rowley’s prose was deft and poignant, always striking the perfect balance between telling and showing. Nothing is worse than a book that’s all thought and no action, a story where I’m told to care about the characters simply because it’s easier for the author.

This wasn’t that book.

Two of my favorite quotes, because my review can’t — and won’t — do this excellent book justice:

Growing up doesn’t just happen. It’s not a fact; it’s a decision.

This is how happiness comes — in small moments, in fierce flashes. It’s not a state of being, not remotely permanent.

What could have become a sad, maudlin tale — especially given Quinn’s emotional vulernability — became, instead, a story of perseverance, of unexpected moments of joy, of choosing happiness instead of just waiting for it to wash over you. Life After Yes also served as a big “screw you!” to conventional ideas about what our lives “should” be — filled with prudence, balance, careful thinking — and not being afraid to take the giant leaps. Those are the ones that matter.

Do I sound silly, over-the-top and way too excited about this book? Probably. But that’s just because I feel silly, over-the-top and excited just thinking about it. It’s rare to find a novel that seems to stretch its thin, cool fingers into the cockles of your heart and pull out every little thought and doubt you have in there, but Aidan Donnelley Rowley did that. For me.

Fans of women’s fiction, family dynamics, contemporary fiction, just plain good books — pick this one up. I think she’ll do that for you, too.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227999 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson

It’s rare to find a novel that so succeeds in reaching right into your chest and yanking your heart out, but Craig Thompson’s Blankets did just that.

This graphic novel is an autobiographical look at Thompson’s young life, beginning with his early days growing up in a strict Christian household in Wisconsin and sharing a bed with his little brother Phil to entering high school as an awkward adolescent, eventually arriving at church camp — where he meets the lovely and troubled Raina, the young woman with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Blankets is a story of family, pain, suffering, abuse, religion, love — and moving beyond those things to form your own identity.

And it spoke to me — and stuck with me. I borrowed this monster of a novel (600+ pages) from the library, rushing over on my lunch break to grab my copy. By 10 p.m. that evening, after many fits and starts with regular life getting in the way, I’d closed the final page. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget what I saw.

Thompson’s look at love is stunning; his portrayal of his relationship with Raina encompasses so many of the sensations and fears that accompany falling in love for the first time. Walking through this story visually — as opposed to a traditional book — was a really different but enlightening experience. As I hunkered down in my favorite chair with Blankets propped precariously in my lap, my mom walked by and squinted at it.

“What are you reading?” she asked. “Is that a big coloring book?”

No — definitely not. The novel lacks any color at all, but it doesn’t need it; everything is there, inside the bold blacks and whites of Thompson’s lines — and maybe outside them, too. It’s a story about permanence, change and the danger that comes with loving. It’s about loss. And to me? About what we can — and can’t — be for each other. Especially in those early relationships, how can we know which crevices to fill — or how to love each other enough? Can it ever be enough? Can it heal the wounds that opened long before we ever arrived, holding our arms open to this person?

How can we know it’s forever?

We can’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less beautiful.

And now that I’ve waxed philosophical about this novel, first recommended to me by Lu at Regular Rumination, I’ll add for those who don’t traditionally read or enjoy graphic novels: trust me, I’ve been in your ranks for a very long time. And I won’t say that Blankets will completely convert you to the graphic novel genre, because I can’t say that I prefer it to a traditional novel (or ever will). But Thompson’s story is too gorgeous to be missed.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1891830430 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library at Lu’s recommendation

Book review: ‘Where Rainbows End’ by Cecelia Ahern

Life for Rosie Dunne and Alex Stewart, best friends since early childhood, begins and ends with one thing: their loyalty to each other. And over decades filled with career changes and derailments, marriages and divorces, infidelity and trust, parenthood and grieving, they’ve braved barriers across an ocean to remain close and share life’s dalliances, dramas and joys.

Cecelia Ahern’s Where Rainbows End is the story of Alex and Rosie’s lives, told exclusively through letters, emails, instant messages and texts sent between them and their wide assortment of family and friends. Part novel and part confessional, Ahern’s story works effectively to bring to life two people who never stopped loving each other — though destiny seemed to conspire to keep them apart.

It was easy to love Rosie, a young Irish woman who tried so hard to make her parents proud — but struggled mightily to find her footing in life. At the age of 18, she becomes pregnant with Katie, and the two work hard to establish a life for themselves as Rosie bounces from job to job in search of her “calling” — which turns out to involve the managing of hotels, the object of her devotion since childhood. Alex, likewise, comes across as the steadfastly devoted friend and father as he moves from Dublin to Boston, where he begins his career as a cardiologist. Though miles apart, Rosie and Alex keep up with one another by maintaining a steady stream of contact — except when things get too sticky.

Though I knew in my heart of hearts how this story just had to end, it didn’t make getting there any less enjoyable. Spanning more than forty years, Where Rainbows End was a really fun, entertaining read that had me alternately pulling my hair out in frustration and tearing up with joy when things finally began to turn around. Because seriously? Poor Rosie. How much bad luck can one person have?

My only complaint with the novel is, weirdly, also one of the things I liked best about it (can that really be true?): it was long. Any story covering four decades is going to be lengthy, I suppose, but I did start to lose interest somewhere in the thick middle because things just couldn’t seem to get any worse for these folks. So many missed opportunities; so much misfortune. I wanted to play God, wave a magic wand and untangle all the messes before things got worse.

Favorite characters included Ruby, Rosie’s well-meaning but straight-shooting best friend, who seemed to be the only one talking sense at some points; Stephanie, Rosie’s sister who marries a Frenchmen and lives a fascinating life in Paris; and Katie, Rosie’s ambitious and free-spirited daughter, one who loves her mother fiercely but also possesses a sense of adventure not unlike her own mother’s. I also loved seeing a loyal, loving and functional family — Dennis and Alice Dunne, Rosie’s parents, would do anything to help her in her quest to expand beyond Dublin and make hers a life really worth living. Stephanie and Kevin, Rosie’s siblings, were realistically drawn and compassionate, though I wanted to give Kev a good shake a few times!

Fans of women’s fiction and those who love epistolary novels will enjoy the drama and romance of it all — and if you’re a fan of Irish fiction, so much the better!

And on a personal note, I grabbed my copy of Where Rainbows End in the U.K. — which is why I’m stubbornly using the British name and cover of the book! Wedged in my suitcase on the way back from London, the book was a gift for my sister, who enjoyed it as well. I’d forgotten about it until I was cleaning through my paperbacks recently, and just seeing that rainbow cover brought a smile to my face. I’d waited long enough to read it, and I’m definitely pleased I did. Back stateside, we’ll find Ahern’s novel under the name Love, Rosie

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0786891084 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman

if_i_staySettle in for a heartbreaker.

Once you hear the premise of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, it doesn’t take long to realize this isn’t exactly going to be a feel-good read . . . but you’d be surprised how ultimately uplifting this tale can be.

Seventeen-year-old Mia is out for a car ride with her parents and little brother Teddy when the horrific happens: on a slick, snowy street, they’re struck by a truck. Her mother and father are killed instantly, Mia comes to realize . . . as she stands outside the vehicle, looking at her own crushed body and those of her loved ones. Everything happens as if in a dream; Mia watches it all unfold, powerless and voiceless.

After she’s transported to a hospital and her grandparents arrive, desperately trying to talk to her as she remains in a coma, our narrator realizes she has a choice: stay in this terrifying new world without her parents, but with her loving boyfriend Adam and extended friends and family, or leave — rejoining her family in whatever exists in the hereafter.

Forman’s small, sharp novel delves deep into what it means to be a family, including those attributes that both divide and unite us. Told over the course of just one day, If I Stay flashes back to Mia’s life in Oregon and shows us clearly the type of brilliant, focused and loving people her parents were. I loved learning about her dad’s rock star past and could definitely feel the fierce protective quality her mom had for those whom she cared about the most. Knowing, as we do, that neither of them survived the crash adds an entirely different dimension to the story . . . and makes the anecdotes all the more powerful. These recollections have shaped Mia into the person she was — and is — today.

My absolute favorite aspect of the story was definitely Mia and Adam’s love — the sweetness that was the beginning of their romance, and the understanding and compassion they had for one another as it deepened. Joined through their love of music, Mia worries before the accident that Adam’s band’s rocketing success will eventually drive them apart — especially considering Mia’s devotion to the cello (not exactly the most punk-rock of instruments). Forman does a remarkable job of capturing the innocence and obsession of first love, my most favorite of topics!

As you’d expect, themes of death and grief are certainly prevalent — and a few graphic passages didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely rooting for Mia and hoping she’d make the right call, but I don’t know what in the world I would do in her situation — and pray I never have to even go there. I guess that’s why the novel left me with a crater-wide pit in my stomach . . . the realism of the story was scary. Because this trauma? It could happen to anyone. And like the dystopian fiction I’ve been so fond of lately, this story could be our story. Any of us.

But overall, a deeply moving but understated novel that does more with less — and chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters — and all of us.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525421033 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy purchased by Meg

I need you so much closer

death_cab_for_cutieI’ve had boyfriends introduce me to all sorts of music — artists I probably never would have listened to, or appreciated, had I not sat in their cars as songs blasted through our open windows or let the tunes lilt over us on lazy Sunday afternoons. To me, these artists are synonymous with the relationships — and when I think of a man I once loved, I invariably hear the opening chords of Death Cab For Cutie.

Yes — Death Cab is my Break-Up Band Du Jour.

First, their songs are just . . . sad. And melodic. The lyrics are haunting, and they have a tendency to bury themselves in my skin and reappear at strange, unexpected moments. And despite being years removed from the first time I fell in love, I can still close my eyes and let “A Lack Of Color” or “Title And Registration” basically incapacitate me. It’s easy to feel confused and heartbroken anew with the same soundtrack blaring in the background.

So, despite the fact that I want to bawl my eyes out every time their songs pop up on my iPod, why do I keep listening to them?

Well, I love them, first of all. Their music is complex but straight-forward — filled with simple tunes constructed in a unique way. The lyrics seem to pluck right at the heartstring I most don’t want plucked at a particular moment — and remind me why it is I fell in love with their songs — and one man — all over again.

Would I have become so attracted to their music if I hadn’t been introduced to them by someone else? Probably not. His presence in my life — and his absence since — has shaped me far more than I would typically admit. And the music he exposed me to has been my companion since he left.

Is that the rock-hard truth here — that I listen to his music to feel close to him?

This is the part where I’d probably curl up inside myself, shake my head furiously and deny it — probably spouting out a snarky comment or two, rolling my eyes and babbling self-righteously about how I’ve “moved on.”

But that’s dishonest.

So I’ll just play “Transatlanticism” a little louder, burying the speakers deep inside my ears, and go on with the day.