Angela Amman

Sweet Pease – A review

Sweet Pease reviewSweet Pease bursts at the seams with characters I’d love to know — or maybe even be. A visiting English professor whose focus on his novels sometimes leads him to say the wrong thing and a sassy pastry chef who dishes out advice while putting together snacks for her friends collide in Sweet Pease, but Ewan and Kate are surrounded by friends and family members who make Thornton, Vermont feel more like a glimpse into a real world than a fictional one.

Readers of Cameron D. Garriepy’s first novel, Damselfly Inn, or several of her short stories, will recognize some of the characters in Sweet Pease, though the delectable novel can also be read as a stand-alone. (Though I guarantee if you start with Sweet Pease, you’ll want to read Damselfly Inn as soon as you finish.)

Garriepy’s novels fall into the romance category, and readers will find themselves falling in love with her characters as they fall in love with each other, making the plot twists and turns all the more intriguing — and heartbreaking.

Kate Pease grew up in Thornton, escaped small town living for a while in Paris, and firmly landed back in a place where she still runs into her kindergarten teacher, one of the only people still allowed to call her Katie. In her first Thornton novel, Garriepy explores the idea of an “outsider” making a home in a small town, and Sweet Pease flips that concept around to look at small town life from the eyes of the consummate insider.

When Ewan comes to town to research a novel and impart a little of his creative writing knowledge to the town’s college students, he complicates Kate’s life by becoming more than a passing fling. He’s drawn to Thornton’s stories, but Kate can’t be sure he doesn’t see the town — including Kate and her beloved friends and family — as more fodder for his books.

Sweet Pease looks at love through the lens of people who aren’t sure they need romance to be successful and happy in their lives. Both Kate and Ewan relish their thriving careers, and Garriepy does an excellent job of staying true to their professional passions while kindling the flame on their personal ones. When Sweet Pease ends, I hated leaving Thornton. Thankfully Garriepy promises to come back (at least) one last time in the future third novel in this compelling series.

Learn more about Cameron D. Garriepy and purchase her books on her author site.

*Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy for consideration for review. All opinions are my own.

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The Thing with Feathers – A review

review of The Thing with Feathers I shouldn’t be reading. It’s true. We went away for a single night, and the house is in shambles after a Tuesday night Halloween. The kids assert Halloween should always be on a Friday or Saturday, and I kind of agree, unless of course the day after can be declared a holiday.

So, I should be doing a million things besides reading.

Still, I always tell the kids I won’t stop them from reading if they’re really engrossed in a book. With a major project submitted for review, I let myself open a book I started last week, expecting to make a little progress before turning to other tasks.

I became engrossed in The Thing with Feathers by McCall Hoyle and didn’t stop reading until I hit the Acknowledgements. Then I read those, because there’s something lovely about seeing who an author recognizes and thanks. In those acknowledgments, I learned the main character of this young adult novel shares a name with the author’s mother, and that made me love the book all the more.

Emilie Day doesn’t take risks. She’s had enough loss in her life. Epilepsy took her sense of safety in her own body, and cancer took her father away from their family. She lives, reads, and homeschools with her mother and her service dog, Hitch, in their cozy beach house in the Outer Banks. Every once in a while, she socializes with her eight-year-old neighbor. Unfortunately, in Emilie’s opinion, her therapist — and mother — think it’s time she wander away from her comfort zone and right over into the high school in town.

With a head crammed full of teen movie references and a lot of background reading, Emilie thinks she knows exactly what she’ll find in high school — and she wants no part of it. Armed with a deal with her mom that involves a 90 day trial period, Emilie reluctantly tries school.

She discovers herself making friends, particularly Arya and Chatham. She tries to keep her distance, and at the same time struggles to find common ground with her mother, who seems to be ready to date again after her father’s death. Slowly, Emilie learns that her preconceived notions about the “normal” people she meets at school might not be as clear-cut as she thinks. But her sense of self-preservation might not let her lower her defenses in time to find her place outside her protected bubble.

Emilie’s grief over the loss of her father throbs in the background of her reluctant steps toward independence. Hoyle’s portrayal of Emilie shines when she teeters between emotions, and her moments of grief made me cry with their honesty and unexpected pain.

The Thing with Feathers prefaces each chapter with an Emily Dickinson quote, and Emilie’s insight into Dickinson helps her get more in touch with her own life.

I highly recommend The Thing with Feathers. Young and adult readers can peer into the life of someone living with a chronic brain disorder and see, hopefully, how alike, flawed, and utterly beautiful we all have the potential to be.

Read more about McCall Hoyle on her website and see where you can purchase The Thing with Feathers.

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Happy Dreams – A review

In Happy Dreams (authored by Jia Pingwa and translated by Nicky Harman) Happy Liu leaves his rural Chinese town for the city of Xi’an, where he believes he may find love — and the recipient of his donated kidney.

Happy bestows his name upon himself, willing a state of perpetual happiness into existence with his sheer optimism. In the city with his friend Wufu, who left behind a wife and children in order to help them financially, Happy sees beauty in even the most dire circumstances. Accepting his simple wants and tastes, Wufu doesn’t share Happy’s quest for a better life, but he stands by his friend no matter how much he misses his family.

Jia Pingwa’s descriptions of Happy and Wufu’s lives settles into a rhythm, much like they must have lived their days. Accustomed to the expectations of life in the country, the men learn to navigate the back channels of Xi’an, working as trash pickers. Wufu establishes himself as the physically strong friend, working hard and letting Happy lead the way when it comes to where to live, eat, work, and socialize. Happy Dreams slides easily into the rhythmic beauty of their days, though the reality would seem harsh — and even cruel — to many of us.

My one complaint about Happy Dreams is its pacing. I felt that the first half of the book delves deeply into setting the scene and the characters’ motivations without giving many hints about the plot or conflict. At one point, I wasn’t sure a tangible conflict would arise at all and began to wonder if I was simply reading a book about a man whose self-perception never quite meets his reality. (Not that I wouldn’t have read that book. It just didn’t seem to fit the description I’d read.)

One of Happy’s prized possessions is the pair of beautifully heeled shoes he brought with him from the country, shoes he believes will one day be filled by the love of his life. When he finally connects with Meng Yichun, a woman with whom he feels connected, the story picks up its pace and brings forth the social inequities lurking in the background of Happy Dreams during the first half of the book.

Happy Dreams explores the lives of the people we don’t always see. Through Happy’s eyes, Jia Pingwa shows us the hope living, literally, amongst the garbage of a city, and how treacherous urban life can be for those unsure how to navigate it.

HAPPY DREAMS by Jia Pingwa is now available.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I received a copy of Happy Dreams for consideration for review. 

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Mothers and Other Strangers – A review

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell, but the novel starts with a killer opening line, so I knew I had to read it.

“My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.” (Gina Sorell, Mothers and Other Strangers)

As you might expect, Sorell presents a lot of information for the reader to unpack. Anecdotes and family history, and a dead mother who kept her secrets so close her own daughter can’t be sure what’s real and what’s not anymore.

The book starts with Elsie wading through bits and pieces of her deceased mother’s life, literally and figuratively. Estranged from her mother, Elsie hadn’t even known of Rachel’s illness, and processing the death on top of the secrets she begins to uncover threatens to send her barreling toward depression — if she isn’t already there. Determined to find out the truth about her mother, and about her own past, threatens Elsie’s present relationships, but she becomes stronger with each step she takes toward unearthing her family’s secrets.

As we learn more about Elsie’s history with her mother, readers see why she has difficulty trusting the people around her — and why she’s so unforgiving of her own shortcomings. Rachel’s involvement with a cult-like spiritual group left scars on Elsie’s past and threatens her present as the group brings up more mysteries and questions than it answers.

The Seekers, Rachel’s spiritual “family,” reminded me of what I’ve read about Scientology, especially regarding the idea that past mistakes must be revealed over and over again until they can no longer hurt you. Juxtaposed with the very real hurt the Seekers inflicted upon Elsie in her youth, the aim of the group grows more sinister and infinitely more complicated as Mothers and Other Strangers unfolds. I obviously can’t speak to what happens behind that rumored Scientology curtain, but I enjoyed the speculation Sorell puts forth in her book.

One of the things I loved about Sorell’s book is her focus on Elsie. Although it’s clear Rachel and her secrets hold crucial keys to Elsie’s past and present, the emotional focus of the book remains on Elsie. Especially in books that simultaneously tell past and present stories, readers become accustomed to a split narrative and a split emotional investment. In Mothers and Other Strangers, Sorell makes it clear that uncovering the past won’t have any impact on the relationship between Elsie and Rachel, but it just may impact the way Elsie feels about her future.

You can purchase Mothers and Other Strangers on Amazon.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. 

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