Review: Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

A paperback copy of Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is being held up in front of a stretch of toes in the sand on the beach.

Alexis:

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe follows two main characters: Anna Kate and Natalie. When Anna Kate’s grandmother passes away, she returns to her family’s hometown, a small Alabama town called Wicklow, to take over Granny Zee’s cafe. She’s only planning on staying for the summer, but she has some long-time family drama to unravel.

Meanwhile, Natalie returns to Wicklow with her young daughter after her husband dies in a tragic accident. While she’s working on gaining her independence, she has to live with her parents, and try to reconcile with her mother, who never got over Natalie’s brother’s death. 

I enjoyed this one! It was the perfect beach read. Webber’s writing flows well, and I found myself impressed by how well she handles such a large cast of characters. Wicklow is charming, and the people fun and quirky (think Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls). I especially enjoyed reading from Anna Kate’s POV as she bakes pies and learns about her family. The themes of grief, losing a family member, and reconnecting with family are resonant throughout the book.

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is considered magical realism, but unlike some other magical realism books I’ve read, I would consider this one lightly magical realism; the cafe and pies are the only real elements. 

While I think Webber’s dialogue is overall written very well, there were definitely some melodramatic speeches that weren’t very realistic. I also wanted to get to know the two love interests better; I feel like their characters sputtered out too much by the end. And there was a weird tie in with a cat at the end that was strange and not entirely explained. Lastly, there was also a reference that Natalie was a part of the Daughters of the Confederacy (yikes!)

Other than that, I think if you’re looking for an easy, heartwarming book set in a charming Southern town with lots of descriptions of pie, then I’ll think you’ll enjoy this one.

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐💫/5

Review: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Alexis:

Hi, everyone. I’m finally done with my first year of grad school, and you know what that means– I get to read for fun again!

Deeplight starts out as a slow burn. At first, it turned me off a little bit, but I know Frances Hardinge; she’s one of my favorite authors! She is a masterful worldbuilder, and she spends the first 100 pages exploring the world of Deeplight and letting you dig into the mind of her characters in order to set up a powerful punch later.

Synopsis: Deeplight follows Hark, a fifteen-year-old boy who’s a little lost in the world. He just feels like a sidekick to his longtime friend, Jelt, until he’s put on trial for a crime and sold as an indentured servant. If you couldn’t tell from the front cover, the story is set on an island, called Lady’s Crave, where thirty years ago, the sea gods “turned on one another and tore each other apart.” If the islanders are lucky, they can find relics of the dead gods called “godware,” which are powerful and valuable. Hark just so happens to find a heart, which saves the life of Jelt. But when it starts to change Jelt, and not in a good way, Hark searches for answers with the help of a girl named Selphin and an old priest named Quest. 

I think this is the first book I’ve read by Hardinge that has a boy narrator instead of a girl. I will admit: I kind of wish the story was told from the perspective of Selphin, a girl he meets on his journey. I connected with her character a little more than Hark. 

The plot picks up a ton during the second half of the book, and I found myself really appreciating how she set up the world in the first half. Hardinge’s plot always goes in a direction I’m not expecting, and her books (including this one!) are always the epitome of fantasy, always delving deep into her dark, imaginative world and filling them with masterful descriptions. And this is why she’s one of my favorite authors!

I love the morally grey characters, and how Hardinge focuses on a toxic friendship, a topic not often explored in fantasy. I think the character arcs were great. Hardinge also created a world where deaf culture is normal and accepted, and the characters often use sign language to talk to each other. Overall, this book is a well-drawn, imaginative sea story that travels in unexpected, vivid directions. 

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 

 

Review: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Anna:

This book is crazy…but very smart. Following the breakup with her long term boyfriend, Lucy takes up her sister’s offer of living in her beach house in Venice Beach for the summer and house sitting her sister’s beloved dog. There’s only one requirement- she must attend a sex addiction group therapy. But she leaves that all behind when she meets the fantastical and beautiful merman named Theo.

The first thing to know going into this book is that it features lots and lots of sex. Honestly, this book probably has the most explicit sex scenes I’ve ever read. That’s all I’m going to say about that, but I can’t review this without acknowledging that that’s a substantial part of the book.

There are pretty much spoilers throughout the rest of the review.

I hated Lucy from the start and had trouble feeling any sympathy for her throughout. First of all, she’s definitely taking advantage of her graduate program by putting off her book on Sappho that the department is paying for. When she meets Theo she finally starts writing the book again. The department likes the new direction, but pulls her funding and suggests she pursue a trade publisher instead, which I found hilariously karmatic.

From the first chapter, Lucy continually judges and puts down other women based on their appearance. She nicknames two women in her group Butterface and Cickenhorse, and even wishes for her ex’s new girlfriend to have a miscarriage. This made me wonder if Broder is intentionally calling to attention Lucy’s woman-hating behavior or being unfeminist for the sake of being funny.

Dominic the diabetic coonhound is by far the best character in the book, and I loved the descriptions of Lucy bonding with him when she first get to Venice. And then Lucy has to go and kill him. She gives him high doses of tranquilizers so she can have uninterrupted sex with Theo. I automatically dock a point from my rating if a dog dies in a book. I understand that he represents unconditional love, but I’m sick of the dead dog/loss of innocent trope and resented that he had to die.

Okay, okay. Here are some things I did like. I was really impressed by the use of the unexplained specs in Sappho’s work as a parallel to the blankness and emptiness Lucy feels without love and sex in her life. This shift to meditation on classical thinking complicated and difficult to follow, but ultimately succeeded, and there were some beautiful paragraphs about myth, love and emptiness.

I also really liked the dark twist ending with Theo. This worked really well, because the reader is left to wonder if Theo really existed at all, or if he was a symbol for suicide/depression/abuse. And, ultimately she says no to the fantasy of Theo and saves herself.

But kills the dog.

I think the story has merit, but I found some of the details gratuitous and anti-feminist, and the characterization frustrating. I feel like I need to read middle grade or something to cleanse my palate now.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 books