It's time to share reviews of the best ARCs I received this month. The following all received 3 stars or higher.
The Secret Ingredient Of Wishes- Susan Bishop (September 6) 4.5 stars
I'm a little swoony over this one. I love books with magical elements but this went next level on me with the premise by giving us someone with an ability who has never had anyone teach her how to use her gift. Rachel can grant people's wishes but she's never understood how or why it works (or doesn't work, as it were) and when she's young, she wishes her brother would disappear after he annoys her one day. He does disappear and no one in her family or town remembers him but her. After that, she ends up in a mental institution to receive help and her family falls apart. She ignores all the wishes coming her way and tries to get on with her life, until one day she accidentally grants her best friend's daughter's wish. She flees town and ends up in a town called Nowhere and it seems as if she was fated to be there. It was lovely to see Rachel get to know the townspeople and learn about Catch's gift for baking secrets in pies, as well as her friendship with hunky neighbor Ashe. As the novel progresses, she begins to take more chances on herself and on others. And slowly, she begins to wonder if her ability to grant wishes isn't a curse but a gift after all. She has to learn some lessons the hard way but I loved seeing her gain confidence and become more fully who she is. The town itself is interesting and Catch's side story was quite compelling. My only complaint is how quickly it wrapped up. I needed more! The last chapter could have easily been further developed. But maybe it's leaving us open to a sequel. I can only hope.
Generation Chef: Risking It All For A New American Dream- Karen Stabiner (September 13) 5 stars
This is a must-read for people who love food memoir or who dream about opening a restaurant some day. Stabiner's writing style is reminiscent of Laura Hillenbrand. Her research and access to Jonah Miller and the staff at Huertas makes for one compelling narrative. I loved getting to see everything that goes into starting a restaurant in NYC, from finding the right space to hiring to what goes into creating a menu. Miller is an interesting figure, everything you'd expect a 26 year old chef-owner to be. The sacrifices he made and all of his hard work and dedication ultimately led him to opening Huertas and through the course of the book, we find out whether the restaurant will prevail through the ups and downs. This would have been interesting as it stands but Stabiner also features other chefs' experiences and what went into the successes and failures of their respective restaurants. She also sprinkles in anecdotes from restaurant critics and Culinary Institute of America teachers, along with statistics and insights about the restaurant industry. Absolutely fascinating.
A Song To Take The World Apart- Zan Romanoff (September 13) 3.5 stars
Based on the description, I thought it was very clear what this book would be about- and indeed that's why I wanted to read it- but some reviews are treating this as a spoiler so I'll let you fill in the blanks. Lorelei's grandmother tells her she must not ever sing but never tells her why. Indeed, she doesn't think much about it or how quiet their house is until she and her best friend sneak out to a concert and the music brings out an unusually strong reaction from her. She wants to sing and softly tosses off a few lyrics into the wind as they're leaving the club but- surprise- the lead singer hears her while he's loading equipment after the show. And since they go to the same high school, it doesn't take long before he finds her and they start dating. It's a story about first love but it's also about reckoning with our families and our gifts. Lorelei wants to sing more than anything else but Oma's dark warning is never far from her mind and this carries us through the bulk of the plot.
Lorelei's family was fascinating. She is a second generation German immigrant and Oma and her parents don't speak much about the time before they came to the US. Her mom works all the time and her dad is distant. She often feels invisible to them, though she has a great relationship with her older twin brothers. (The brother subplot was one of the strongest aspects of this novel.) At times, Lorelei drove me nuts but I think she was only responding (or not) as a teen girl would. Her decisions had huge ramifications for the people around her and it was interesting to see her make sense of it all. What awakens in Lorelei ultimately ends up transforming her family and I wish the author had developed this a little further. An enjoyable read.
The Bookshop On The Corner- Jenny Colgan (September 20) 4 stars
I've enjoyed Colgan's other books so I was excited to see what would happen when she took her characters out of bakeries and plopped them into a more book-ish setting. The result was pure catnip for this book nerd! I loved seeing Nina take more control over her life and how her decision to start a book truck gave her more confidence, which then extended to every other area of her life. I also loved Colgan's emphasis on finding our place and how it might be a city for one person or the country for another. Seeing Nina settle into a small town and get to know the people (and love interests!) was delightful. This made me want to visit Scotland without delay.
The Wonder- Emma Donoghue (September 20) 5 stars
The Wonder takes its inspiration from cases of Fasting Girls who claimed to be able to go long periods of time without eating and that this imbued them with religious powers or favors. Lib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, comes to a small Irish town to watch over an 11 year old Fasting Girl for 2 weeks to see if a miracle has occurred or a scam. Anna and her family are devout Catholics and Anna believes her fast is of God and that she survives on manna from heaven. She has not eaten anything since she turned 11 four months prior. Lib has no such faith and is angry that the family, the church, and the town would try to profit over this misguided girl. What would such a miracle mean to Anna's family and the town? As Lib sees how unwell Anna becomes each day, she grapples with the ethical dilemma of letting a child go without food for two weeks if indeed someone has been covertly feeding her for the 4 previous months.
The Wonder raises excellent questions of faith, doubt, and miracles. The story is densely layered, with facts and clues doled out to us in a perfectly paced manner, not only about Anna and her family but Lib herself. I raced through the last 80 pages wanting to know whether Anna would die, if Lib would ignore the rules of the watch, and just whether a miracle had occurred after all. The way Donoghue brought it all together at the end blew me away. Masterfully done.
Sparking The Fire- Kate Meader (September 27) 4 stars
I am sad to see this series come to an end! The first book was my introduction to Kate Meader and I have been dreaming about hot Chicago firefighters ever since. (I'm slightly disgruntled I never met any hot firefighters when I still lived in Chicagoland so this is the next best thing.) Sparking The Fire starts off with a bang when we first meet Wyatt and Molly. They have a hot relationship for one week and then their paths don't cross again until 5 years later. I have been so curious about Wyatt's story and I loved finding out more about him, from what he experienced in the military to why he ultimately became a firefighter, as well as why he holds himself slightly back from his family. I also loved seeing Molly become more empowered and confident about getting her life back on track, even if she resisted Wyatt's efforts to help her more than I thought she should. Just because you're capable of handling certain things doesn't mean you should turn down help from the people who care about you. One of the things I like best about this series is how the Dempseys look after one another and this especially came to life in this one as they adjusted to a new member of the family. I loved seeing how Wyatt and Molly's relationship progressed and how each character grew as they dealt with baggage from their respective pasts. I was rooting for them the whole way. A truly enjoyable conclusion to Hot In Chicago!
Disclosure: Affiliate links contained in this post. I received an ARC of The Secret Ingredient Of Wishes, Generation Chef, A Song To Take The World Apart, The Wonder, and Sparking The Fire from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received an ARC of The Bookshop On The Corner from William Morrow Paperbacks in exchange for an honest review.