Book chat: ‘Hugo & Rose’ by Bridget Foley

Hugo & RoseThis book was . . . not quite what I was expecting.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, you know; surprises are exciting. Interesting. Compelling.

But sometimes they’re jarring. And with Bridget Foley’s Hugo & Rose? Well, I felt jarred. I’m still jarred, in fact.

To start, the cover is just so pretty and whimsical, you know? And reading the description — about a stay-at-home mom who has dreamed of the same man and their adventures every night since childhood — made me think of the imaginary friends who once accompanied me at recess, lending an ear to all my troubles and taking my side in sister fights.

But this was . . . darker. Textured. Nuanced. I liked that, but it startled me. In a good way, perhaps? But I’m still not sure. It’s not too often that I’m left with such mixed feelings on a story. Have I been ambivalent about a novel in the past? Absolutely. But I’m not suffering from a lack of opinion on Hugo & Rose — just a lack of clarity.

So Rose — our dear, troubled Rose — is in a bit of a rut. She deeply loves Josh, her doctor husband, and their three children — but Josh’s hours are long and his attention short, and the boys can be a bit much to handle. Now in her mid-thirties, Rose struggles to believe she’s an aimless woman with a baby on her hip. It’s in her dreams that she finds relief, escape, fulfillment: her dreams with Hugo.

After a bike accident knocks her unconscious as a child, Rose finds herself on Hugo’s island locked in eternal struggle to get to a glistening city on the horizon. Like “Lost” without the other castaways, Rose and Hugo help each other fight off enemies and battle evil forces — both seen and unseen. While they start their time there as kids, they grow together into adulthood. No matter how they may look in reality, their island selves are strong, lean, tan. More beautiful. Powerful.

Following a kids’ soccer match in a nearby Colorado town, Rose succumbs to temptation and takes her bawling boys for fast food on their drive home. It’s there that she first sees Hugo perched in a take-out window, hunched and weary at work. He’s thicker in the middle, balding, less enigmatic — but definitely Hugo.

Hugo in real life.

Shocked and inexplicably drawn to this strange not-stranger, Rose tumbles down an obsessive path. Foley excelled at showing Rose’s deepening preoccupation with this man, eventually demonstrating what can happen when reality and fantasy collide. There is a touch of magical realism to Hugo & Rose — a little suspension of disbelief. But Foley is a talented writer, and I felt the transitions between the island and reality were well done.

While I didn’t always like Rose, I did appreciate her challenges and nuanced personality. Who hasn’t longed to feel like a better, stronger version of themselves? I could sense her physical and mental exhaustion in Foley’s descriptions, feeling a very suburban desperation in it all. That’s why sleep is so welcome for Rose . . . well, until it isn’t.

The story becomes increasingly sinister — almost frightening. While I didn’t always enjoy it, I was invested in the characters’ fates and racing to finish. At times I wanted to slap some sense into Rose, desperately not wanting her to ruin everything good and whole in her life, but our heroine has spent so much time feeling powerful on an island and powerless in reality; it’s easy to see why escapism appeals to her.

The twists and turns were not ones I saw coming. Though I wondered how the island would be explained, of course, I wasn’t preoccupied with knowing all the hows and whys. It’s fiction, not science. Hugo’s back story is a fascinating, tragic one, but I was glad that Foley never took the easy route to cast him entirely as a villain. No one here is a saint, and no one just a sinner.

I wasn’t always in love with the story, but Foley made me care about her characters. There’s no denying Hugo & Rose makes — and leaves — an impression.

3 out of 5

Pub: May 5, 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Digital review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


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Book review: ‘Lost Lake’ by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost LakeHearing Sarah Addison Allen has a new novel out is enough to send me running for the bookstore. I fell in love with her work in Garden Spells, then had my devotion solidified with The Sugar Queen and The Peach Keeper. Her blend of magic, love and family is often a delight, and I always look forward to losing myself in her work.

All this to say I went into Lost Lake with high expectations . . . and, sadly, they just weren’t met. Despite an intriguing-enough premise and some sweet (if shallow) characters, I never connected with the story or felt any allegiance to this unusual crew of vacationers and locals alike in Lost Lake, Georgia.

Our main cast is comprised of Kate and Devin, a mother-daughter duo grieving the unexpected loss of Kate’s husband. Wanting to escape from her cold mother-in-law and the constraints at home, Kate wakes up from a year of despondency with the idea of visiting her aunt Eby on the lake Eby has called home for decades.

Once a happening resort area, Lost Lake has fallen into disrepair — and become a victim of changing economic times. With Eby’s beloved husband gone, she no longer feels the passion she once did for the area . . . but can’t bear to leave it behind, either. With dreams of traveling the world again in her retirement, Eby has plans for Lost Lake — but so do other Georgia residents. And they may not go down without a fight.

Like all of Allen’s works, Lost Lake benefits from a sense of the surreal — but nothing in this novel floats quite like her other books. We feel for Kate and Devin as they navigate their sudden loss, but Kate always seemed detached and unyielding to me. I just didn’t bond with her.

But Eby? Eby was priceless. Still kicking rump in her would-be retirement years, I loved the genesis story of how she and George came to meet, marry and defy their families’ expectations by opening up Lost Lake. The stories from their honeymoon in Europe were the definite highlight of the novel for me, and I enjoyed the tale of how they met Lisette — a friend who has also makes her home at Lost Lake — through a mishap in Paris.

If the story had centered on those three, I would have been happier . . . or less annoyed, anyway. Honestly, most of Lost Lake was pretty forgettable for me. It lacked Allen’s trademark warmth, her zing and zip; it felt like a husk of a story instead of a full-blooded novel, and it suffered for that. It was entertaining enough when Kate and Devin finally connect with Eby, but I never bought into Kate’s romance or felt any desire to move forward.

I listened to Lost Lake on audio . . . and I think that’s the only reason I finished it. Though it pains me to pan an Allen novel, this one just lacked life. The story was more interesting when we delved into the past . . . but we had to keep returning to the present. A bummer how that works.


2.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘The Wedding Bees’ by Sarah-Kate Lynch

The Wedding BeesShe goes where the bees take her.

But, you know, not in a crazy way. Just in a free-falling, go-with-the-flow, flutter-where-the-wind-takes-her way.

It’s been more than a decade since Sugar Wallace escaped Charleston with a broken heart and thirst for change. Traveling the country in a series of madcap moves with only a beloved beehive bequeathed to her by her grandpa, Sugar eventually finds herself in New York City — a location chosen by Elizabeth the Sixth, her queen.

On her first day, Sugar stumbles across a kindly out-of-work doorman she mistakes for a homeless person and the man over whom he has stumbled: Theo Fitzgerald. With his Scottish accent and loud printed shirts, Sugar has a hard time ignoring Theo — especially as an electric current passes between them. As Sugar settles into life in New York with a motley cast of shy, surly, well-meaning neighbors, she may decide running isn’t her only choice after all.

Sarah-Kate Lynch’s The Wedding Bees: A Novel of Honey, Love, and Manners is a delightful read from start to finish. Sugar is our lighter-than-air heroine who gives and gives of herself while expecting — and wanting — nothing in return, and it’s hard not to feel enchanted by her. From her meet-cute with Theo to her homegrown honey to her slowly-unraveling stories of another life in South Carolina, Lynch’s novel captured my attention and held me inside each delicious word.

In addition to the love story and Sugar’s tumultuous past, the strength of the novel stems from the well-sketched, interesting characters that populate Sugar’s world: Ruby, a sweet but hollow-eyed girl obsessed with love stories, always seeming to vanish before Sugar’s eyes; Nate, a talented and passionate chef relegated to slinging hash for a monster of a boss; and Lola, a single mother making ends meet in an unconventional way. And then there’s George, and Mr. McNally, and Mrs. Keschl.

They’re friends. And they come to be Sugar’s biggest supporters.

The Wedding Bees reads like a modern fairytale — and it’s easy to picture Sugar as a tall, beautiful, long-haired princess floating among the peasants. But she doesn’t act that way. Wholly grounded by the guilt of past decisions and unwilling to accept the love flowing right into her fingertips, our heroine is skeptical, worried, consumed — like a normal person would be, basically. Though most “normal” folks wouldn’t rely on a bee wandering a globe to determine their next move.

As you’d expect from a book with such a title, Sugar’s hive plays a pivotal role in the story. Once “saved” by them during a major turning point in her young life, the bees are bonded to Sugar in the same way she’s bonded to them. They need each other, play off each other; they’re a constant, a mainstay, and they want to see her happy. Though getting into the queen’s head requires a little suspension of disbelief, that’s not difficult to do.

Honestly, this story delighted me — and it was just the quick, fun but memorable read I love. With its touch of magical realism, fans of Sarah Addison Allen and contemporary fiction will find The Wedding Bees to be both a sweet and sustenance.


4 out of 5!

Pub: Jan. 28, 2014 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘From the Kitchen of Half Truth’ by Maria Goodin

From the Kitchen of Half TruthAfter a tumultuous and fantastical childhood, Meg May craves logic. Reason, order and methodology have led her into the world of science — and the arms of a serious, straight-forward boyfriend. Now 21, she feels miles away from the world she once inhabited with her mother in the English countryside — but she’s being called back. Meg’s mother is dying.

Sweet, big-hearted cook Valerie May provided the love her daughter craved — but not the answers. Fed stories about their past that sounded more like fairy tales than memories, Meg is desperate for the truth about her biological father and her mother’s illness. She feels time running between her fingers, threatening to dissolve completely, before Valerie is truly too sick to be truthful — but even fact-finding, logic-loving Meg can’t predict how her mother’s tales will unravel.

Maria Goodin’s From the Kitchen of Half Truth is a haunting, often meandering story of one young woman’s quest to learn her roots — and it can be a little hard to define. On one hand, Goodin’s writing is reminiscent of Sarah Addison Allen: full of magical realism and incongruous details; lilting and lovely, like a cool evening breeze. In the next breath, we’re given Meg’s point of view — and shes’ so cold and odd and detached from life, and somehow clinging to this too-old-for-her drip of a boyfriend.

Though I felt her frustration with Valerie, I couldn’t help but be on Val’s “side.” Meg grows up with one loving, present parent, but she can’t help questioning her mother’s stories about a deceased pastry-chef father and other extended family. Valerie’s stories are truly outlandish, and often sound like the ramblings of a delusional madwoman. No one could hear her tales and think, even for a moment, that she’s sane. I mean, seriously.

And yet. Valerie’s denial regarding her advanced illness and impending death softened me to her, and I felt Meg’s desperation for answers deep in my gut. As the story progresses and Meg continues her quest for the truth, I was eager to fit the pieces together myself — and felt Goodin masterfully guided us through the Mays’ history. The transitions never felt wonky. Valerie’s anecdotes about Meg’s childhood were balanced with the present, even though Meg in the present isn’t someone I really wanted to befriend.

I guess that’s what kept this in “good” territory instead of “great”: Meg rubbed me the wrong way. I felt for her, but not with her. Even the emotionally-charged scenes toward the end didn’t move me the way they would have if, say, Meg hadn’t seemed like such a shell of a person. I felt the love interest introduced partway through was just a distraction, though I did appreciate some of Meg’s transition by the close. And, you know, I might have teared up during one pivotal, community-oriented scene.

First published under the title Nutmeg in the U.K., Goodin’s take on motherhood, truth and love was interesting. Fans of magical touches and family dramas with a touch of mystery might find From the Kitchen of Half Truth to be an intriguing story. Goodin’s creativity was awesome — even if the lead character didn’t win me over. I wouldn’t hesitate to read her work again.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402279485 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


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

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 Sugar Queen’ by Sarah Addison Allen

sugar_queenSarah Addison Allen’s The Sugar Queen is one seriously delightful, magical story — and I gobbled it up in two sittings! I probably would have devoured it whole if, you know, real life hadn’t gotten in the way (it always seems to do that!).

Josey Cirrini has been dealing with her mother’s firm disapproval for as long as she can remember — and now, at 27, she’s finally realizing that we can’t try to atone for past mistakes forever, and there certainly comes a time to move forward. She probably wouldn’t have reached this conclusion if Della Lee Baker, a local waitress and ne’er-do-well, hadn’t taken her closet hostage, moving in with a stack of her own worries and a demand to stay for as long as she needs to. After Della Lee discovers Josey’s secret stash of candy (oh, delicious candy!) and paperbacks, the two are bonded through their secrets — and the threat of blackmail.

At Della Lee’s (often tough) encouragement, Josey slowly begins to widen the tiny world in which she’s been sequestered in Bald Slope, North Carolina as the only daughter of local developer and hero Marco Cirrini. She meets Chloe, the owner of a local cafe, and the two strike up an immediate friendship which strengthens as Josey realizes Chloe’s connection to mailman Adam, whom Josey has longed for since the moment she first saw him.

Filled with mystery, suspense, romance and plenty of surprises, I absolutely loved The Sugar Queen. The dynamics between Josey and her mother were intense but realistic, and I adored troubled Della Lee, whose heart was always in the right place. I really related to Chloe and Jake’s relationship — the pull of first love, the intensity of finding someone so special to you. The effort it takes to forgive them for their mistakes… which turns out to take no effort at all. Addison Allen’s descriptions of their relationship really struck a chord with me.

And though magic is a recurring theme through the novel, it never seems strange or unrealistic — it feels right, an awesome and whimsical touch in a very fantastic story. Was it a tad predictable at times? Perhaps — but that bothered me little. I knew the journey getting there would be worth it, and there still plenty of unexpected moments to keep me flipping the pages fast.

I loved Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, and I have to say that I found this one just as entrancing — if not more so. She has a way of immediately drawing you into a story, surrounding you as though you’re caught in a silvery snowstorm. Highly recommended!


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553384848 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg