Book review: ‘Hothouse Flower’ by Margot Berwin

Lila Nova lives in a drab, drab world. Stuck in a mediocre job in New York City, Lila installs herself in a new apartment after divorce — and settles into her colorless world. It’s not until she meets David Exley, an easy-on-the-eyes plant-seller, that she begins to breathe life back into her days . . . and that may come in the form of vegetation and love.

But greed gets the better of Lila when she stumbles across a special Laundromat brimming with plants — and meets its owner, Armand, a sort of shaman in possession of the mystical and highly-prized Nine Plants of Desire. Their friendship grows stronger — as do Lila’s own plants — until one terrible misstep destroys the Laundromat and its treasures. Consumed with guilt, Lila will do anything to right the wrongs she’s helped commit — even if it means traveling to the rain forest alone and tracking down salvation herself.

In your own backyard, start out by placing a terracotta pot in direct sunlight. Grab seeds for magical realism, women’s fiction and erotic romance (!), bury into the rich soil, water and cultivate . . . what sprouts will be Margot Berwin’s Hothouse Flower, an incredibly strange but engrossing read that killed a six-hour plane ride for me in no time.

Lila is a damaged, crazed and especially vulnerable woman. As she tries to change and move on, she feels a kinship with the plants she purchases from David Exley — an unusual man who doesn’t seem interested in our heroine until he discovers her connection to the Nine Plants of Desire. Desire is a funny word in this book, because it’s everywhere . . . love and raw sensuality run through the novel like a current, drawing readers into a supple world where plants inspire amour and urges won’t be denied. I’ll be frank: I didn’t expect so much sex in this book, but sex was there to be had. All over the place. Like, a lot.

Ahem.

But there was plenty more to this story, too. The novel takes an incredibly weird turn halfway through as we journey to the Yucatan Peninsula with Lila and Armand, and it’s there that we learn more about the Nine Plants and their properties. The descriptions were absolutely intoxicating: dreams the plants can help you discover; fears you can overcome; love you can inspire, all with a cutting from a fern. It’s too fantastical to be believed, though, right?

Right?

Lila doesn’t think so — and, confronted with hard proof, she knows Armand’s crazy stories about the plants must be true. Hothouse Flower is richly atmospheric and interesting, but it also left me deeply unsettled — especially after a certain drug- and dog-related scene toward the latter part of the novel (awful). It felt sort of like an acid trip: all Technicolor scenes, strange occurrences, magical plants and sexy sex time in the rain forest. What started out as a simple post-divorce story in New York City morphed in a wholly unexpected way . . . and I’m not sure I dug it.

But I did tear through this like the hounds of hell were on my trail, and that’s saying something. I consumed the entire book on my plane ride home from London — hours in which I could have been getting some precious and much-needed sleep. Once I’d started, I couldn’t set it down (except to get a little in-flight milky tea; caffeine and I go way back).

Say what you will about it, but I doubt you’ll ever read another book like Hothouse Flower — like Armand’s plants, the premise and product are one-of-a-kind. And that makes it worth a read for me.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0307390543 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

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Book review: ‘The Girl Who Chased The Moon’ by Sarah Addison Allen

Emily Benedict arrives in a small North Carolina town fresh on the grief train from her mother’s passing. Moving in with a grandfather she never knew — Vance Shelby, a real-life giant — becomes an unexpected adventure. Once her own mother’s home, Mullaby is full of interesting characters and tiny, inexplicable magical moments.

At the house next door, Julia Winterson has busied herself caring for a bustling restaurant business. After her father’s death years before, Julia returns to Mullaby — a place she fled decades ago — to take care of his business and debts before returning to Baltimore, where she’s steadfastly worked to build a new life. Julia gives herself two years to pay off her father’s debts, planning to sell his successful barbeque joint and run far away from a past that still haunts her. But Sawyer Anderson let her get away once — and he definitely isn’t planning on watching her flee again. Especially not if that means her delicious desserts — and their feelings — will disappear.

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased The Moon, the third of her magical stand-alone novels, is a sweet if on-the-surface story of two women discovering details about the past as they struggle to move forward in the present. Once she arrives in Mullaby, Emily realizes the depth of the secrets her mother kept from her in life. And Julia has worked steadfastly to convince herself that she was never in love with Sawyer and that their shared history doesn’t matter, but it’s obvious to everyone — including the reader — that the well of her feelings runs deep.

While I read this novel quickly — it’s breezy — I have to admit that I expected more from the talented Ms. Allen. From the beginning, the more compelling narrative was Julia’s — and her memories, especially from high school, were buried beneath a less-interesting “mystery” surrounding the Coffeys, a well-to-do family with an unfortunate connection to the Shelbys. Of course, Emily doesn’t know anything about this when she meets Win Coffey, an attractive if broody young man who can’t seem to stay away from her — though he probably should.

Julia and Sawyer’s love story was, by far, the most fun and entertaining part of the novel. I loved their banter, though I ultimately found their back-story pretty thin. Most of what I “felt” while reading was just by interjecting my own emotions into the narrative, remembering first love and the pain of an eventual break-up. Without my own experiences, I feel like even the Sawyer-and-Julia moments would have fallen flat.

Though the book is short — less than 300 pages — I still found the pacing too slow. Secrets were revealed but very slowly, and I became intensely frustrated by Win’s cryptic responses to everything Emily asked . . . and the fact that we would wait many pages without any new tidbits of information. The evolution of their friendship felt a little contrived and unnatural to me, and I failed to see where their attraction stemmed from. I pictured Win as a Logan Huntzberger (for the “Gilmore Girls” fans) or a Chuck Bass (for my “Gossip Girls”), but Emily was just a wisp of a girl who never seemed to deal with the actual grief of losing her only parent. She seemed dull, confused and, honestly, uninteresting.

The town of Mullaby was interesting, but I never felt like I was actually there; the town was like a movie backdrop set up in the middle of the desert. I could see that I was supposed to be immersed in a scene, but my eye just kept wandering to the exposed periphery.

But as with her other novels, Allen’s strengths come in describing food. Like The Sugar Queen, one of my favorite books, the descriptions of desserts and sweets were intoxicating. Sawyer’s “sweet sense” was a really fun touch and added another magical element to the tale, which wasn’t nearly as focused on the inexplicable as her first two books.

Fans of contemporary or Southern fiction who appreciate tiny magical touches might enjoy Allen’s tale of family, love and redemption. Being a mighty fan of Allen’s from her Garden Spells days, I expected more from her latest novel, but readers new to her work shouldn’t hesitate to pick up some of her sweet stories. The Girl Who Chased The Moon didn’t earn a spot on my coveted favorites shelf, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend a weekend. And wow, I loved looking at that gorgeous cover!


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553807218 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ by J.K. Rowling

A great, fast read for fans of J.K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter series, The Tales of Beedle the Bard features five folklore vignettes: “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” “Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” and “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” The final story is, of course, instrumental in the seventh and final chapter of Harry’s life, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Each has a moral for wizards and Muggles alike, which are reflected upon after the tale by Albus Dumbledore from his private notes on the stories. Hermione Granger, we’re told, translated the tales from the ancient runes.

Easily readable in an hour or two, I made my way quickly through the book and found it enjoyable. As these are basically childrens’ tales with commentary by J.K. Rowling and Dumbledore, powerful wizard and Harry’s mentor, you’re not going to find anything earth-shattering in these pages. But that’s not the point of them. They’re mostly light, fun stories that read like a Mother Goose tale — except for young witches and wizards instead of Muggles (non-magical humans, for the non-Harry-initiated). They reminded me a bit of my favorite Bernstein Bears books as a child, each with its own message to share. While “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” was surprisingly gruesome for a children’s story, it wasn’t really anything too traumatic.

Any fan of Potter will be delighted to relive one hundred pages with Dumbledore’s running dialogue, and there’s some insight to be gained about the Wizarding world from Beedle, who lived in the fifteenth century. If you’re not into Harry, there probably won’t be much here for you. But all Rowling fans will be delighted to spend another evening reliving the magic that originally brought us all to Potter in the first place.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545128285 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg