Review | The Christmas Postcards, by Karen Swan

XmasPostcardsWhen Natasha’s toddler daughter Mabel accidentally leaves her beloved toy cow Moolah behind at an AirBnB in Vienna, Natasha turns to social media for help. Thanks to a friend with a family member who works for Harry Styles (!), the post goes viral, and soon, a man named Duffy, who’s trekking the Himalayas, responds with a note to Mabel a photograph of Moolah having the adventure of her life. Soon, Natasha and Mabel find themselves looking forward to Duffy’s emails, and despite knowing nothing about the man, Natasha finds herself increasingly drawn towards the kind stranger.

The Christmas Postcards is a really sweet, heartwarming, and feel-good book. It’s hard not to get drawn into Moolah’s story, as Duffy photographs the toy cow atop a mule, perched on his shoulder, and hanging out on mountain trails. In his emails with Natasha and Mabel, the question arises whether or not Moolah will get to jump over the moon like the cow in the rhyme, and even as an adult, it’s all-too-easy to get sucked into the same childlike wonder and hope, against all odds, that Duffy will somehow manage to make it happen.

There’s a somewhat somber emotional tug to that aspect of the plot as well, since Moolah reminds Duffy of Moodle, a toy cow his beloved sister once owned. The story behind Duffy’s family is gradually revealed, but even from the beginning, there are hints of tragedy that make Moolah’s appearance in his life especially meaningful.

The story does require a bit of suspension of disbelief at times. The plot hinges on a rather massive coincidence that’s easy enough to guess from the start, and that readers must be willing to chalk up to fate in order to get sucked in. Late in the book, Natasha is revealed to make a decision at the end of her hen weekend that I personally found frustrating. The decision was the result of a miscommunication that could’ve been resolved with a bit of patience, but most frustrating is that I think the reasons for her decision were flimsy, even with the miscommunication.

And finally, there’s a big reveal near the end acts as a deux ex machina that resolves a major conflict. The ease with which it resolves the conflict feels a bit anti-climactic, but I’m willing to let that pass because of the overall feel-good tone of the book. My bigger problem with it is that it involves a rather melodramatic twist that the story tries to explain but remains a bit of a stretch anyway.

Still, overall this was a lovely read, and a nice, comforting break.

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Thanks to Publishers Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Feels Like Home, by Angel C. Aquino

FeelsLikeHomeCoverOMG what an emotional roller coaster of feels this book is! A sweet, young adult romance with a very Filipino vibe, lots of Pampanga love, and lots and lots of yummy food, Feels Like Home very much does feel like returning home. The romance between Mickey and Clara is really sweet; they support each other’s dreams and help each other grow as people, and as cheesy as this may sound, I truly felt like they found a sense of home and family with each other.

The Romance
Clara is a super serious and driven journalism student from a large and close-knit family; Mickey is a free-spirited basketball star who doesn’t feel he belongs to either of his parent’s families. Their vibe as a couple is super Filipino: Mickey shows his interest in Clara by teasing her like a little sister; Clara insists “annoying” and says “eww, gross” any time someone jokes about a burgeoning romance. It’s a dynamic I don’t often see in college-age Western romances, but is very much a trope in Filipino rom-coms and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean shows.

I’ll admit that Mickey’s immature style of flirting annoyed me at times (he does a prank on social media that just super turned me off), but I also appreciated how quick he always was to apologize whenever he saw Clara genuinely bothered by something he did. Their open communication, about the teasing and other topics, was one of my personal highlights in their relationship, and went a long way in showing how much their friendship deepened over time.

Beyond that, I also love how supportive they were of each other’s dreams and needs. I love that Mickey went so far as to do a full-on study session with Clara to help her prepare for her audition to be a social media reporter at a local sports station. Clara is a bit less demonstrative with her affections and support, but she does come through for Mickey in a big way near the end, and it almost made me tear up with how happy I was for Mickey at that moment.

The Heroine: Clara
Ahh, Clara… There were times I wanted to yell at her to just chill, already, and there were other times I wanted to hug her and assure her things really aren’t as dire as she seems to believe. I don’t think I was ever as single-mindedly driven as Clara is, but I do remember how everything I did seemed super magnified at 18. Every single action could determine my entire future, and every single mistake could spell my doom.

Aquino also does a great job in setting up Clara’s discomfort, having lived all her life in a quiet rural area in Pampanga, and now living on her own for the first time in mega city Manila. The Plan that’s causing her so much anxiety is also her One Big Chance to achieve her dreams, and especially since she’s only able to afford college because of a scholarship, I can understand why it’s so vital for her to succeed at The Plan.

The Hero: Mickey
Mickey does have his eye-roll-y immature moments, but on the whole, he’s such a super sweet and considerate guy. An early scene where he does a Hulk Smash to cheer Clara up made me fall in love with him myself, and another scene later on where he basically gives her a reality check about her insistence on sticking to The Plan made me want to stand up and cheer. He’s a good guy, and in many ways, such a wonderful boyfriend. Honestly, as much as I understood Clara’s desire to focus on her studies and not get into a romantic relationship, there were also so many moments I wanted to scream at her to <b><i>not let this one go!</i></b>

The Setting
Oh my god, this book had so much Pampanga love, it was wonderful! Clara’s love for, and pride in, her hometown shines through in so many ways. I love the references to Mt Pinatubo, Mt Arayat, a bunch of other tourist destinations, and, of course, all the yummy Pampanga delicacies. I love the tidbit that pork sisig originated in Pampanga, and I love how, even though Clara’s mom usually serves it only at their resort restaurant, there’s a scene where she cooks it for Clara at home to cheer her up. I love learning about Kapampangan mochi (compared to Japanese mochi, it has a chewier skin and caramelized glaze, and is dipped in coconut cream), and seeing the simple halo-halo in-a-cup at Clara’s family’s resort. Aquino does such a beautiful job of making Pampanga — and Clara’s family’s resort — real for us, and I want to visit so badly.

As a 90s kid, I also loved the references to the 1990s Pinatubo eruption. I still remember the thick dust in the air, and the news reports of volcanic destruction, and Clara and Mickey’s investigation into the event for a school assignment brought it all back for me. There’s a great passage about “grey lahar” covering nearby villages, and the “spirit of bayanihan” bringing neighbours together to rebuild. “Lahar” isn’t a term I come across often (or at all, I think, ever since I left the Philippines), and that single word just made the reference feel so real to me.

I also appreciated a scene at a Manila church where Clara encounters an elderly couple speaking Ilocano. I don’t often see Filipino languages other than Tagalog in books, and they’re practically non-existent in Filipino-American novels, so I love that Aquino included not just Kapampangan, but also Ilocano in this novel.

The Families
Family is a huge part of this book, and Aquino sets up a stark contrast between Clara’s and Mickey’s family situations. I love how complex the dynamics in both families are, and how much each main character’s respective family situations played a part in their personal growth. There’s a powerful moment where Clara’s mom tells her that plans change, and not always in the ways we like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sound advice, and I love how it adds a sense of hope to an otherwise difficult situation. I also love the dynamic between Clara and her older cousin Val, and I love how Val adds a touch of levity to counterbalance some of Clara’s super seriousness.

My Verdict
Read this book!

Full disclosure: the author’s a good friend of mine, which means I wouldn’t have bashed this book no matter what. But friendship alone also wouldn’t have made me gush over a book this much. I can honestly say this book made me feel a wide range of emotions. It made me respond on a deep and visceral level, and that to me is a marker of a really good book.

There were times I was super annoyed at Mickey, and other times I was super annoyed at Clara. (There’s one moment in particular when Mickey apologizes and I had no idea why; from my perspective, Clara was the one who had to grovel and beg for forgiveness at that point!) But mostly, I thought the characters felt like real people, with all of the messiness and potential for growth that reality entails.

And because they felt real, even in my moments of annoyance, for most of the book, I was rooting for these characters, both individually and as a couple. I wanted them to grow and be better, and to find what they needed in each other. I think they did by the end of the book, and more importantly, I think they’ll continue to do so long after the book has ended.

And I’m going to be cheering them on all the way.

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Thank you to the author for an advanced e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m also excited for the Kindle copy I purchased, which includes a full-colour map of Clara’s family’s resort!

Review | West Side Love Story, by Priscilla Oliveras

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WestSideLoveStoryA contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet with rival families in competing mariachi bands, West Side Love Story is a sweet romance with familial love right at the heart of it. I love the family dynamics. I love how Mariana and Angelo were both the main caregivers for their younger siblings, and how their love for their respective families influenced and deepened their love for each other. There’s a recurring bit about Mariana teasing that Angelo is ‘a nice guy’, and that phrase just describes Angelo to a ‘T’. He’s super sweet and considerate and caring, and in the midst of all the drama surrounding their families, and all the stress Mariana has to deal with, he just seems like such a wonderful partner to have. I love how openly they communicate with each other, how gently Angelo nudges Mariana to open up when she shuts down, and how they’re both super clear on their feelings for each other in spite of their families’ rivalry.

The mariachi band angle to the classic Romeo and Juliet set-up was cool, but I kinda wish we’d actually seen more of the mariachi songs (e.g. lyrics) that just descriptions of the performance. Those scenes felt a bit thin to me, and I think seeing the lyrics (especially since much is made about how brilliant Cat’s songwriting is) would have helped make the scenes come alive.

I like that Oliveras adds a class component to the Capuleta / Montero rivalry. The Capuletas are in danger of losing their beloved home to an unreasonably tough bank loan, and suspect Angelo’s uncle, Hugo Montero, is pulling strings behind the scenes. The Montero family is also known for gentifying the neighbourhood, which puts them at odds with the Capuletas, and especially with Mariana’s sister Cat, who worries about neighbours and neighbourhood businesses being evicted.

I do wish the reason behind Hugo’s animosity against the Capuletas had been fleshed out more. It’s explained away that he used to be in love with Capuleta matriarch Berta, but after so many years, his grudge just seems petty and small-minded. It makes him an obvious, but also super thinly developed, villain, and I wish there’d been more complexity to that part of the plot.

And finally, as a musical theatre fan, the little nods to lyrics from West Side Story were a total delight.

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Thanks to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Mariana Capuleta and Angelo Montero’s relationship starts with an anonymous kiss at a New Year’s Eve party, and quickly develops into something deeper and more tender. Both are the primary caregivers of their younger siblings, and both feel their responsibilities to their families very deeply. Both families being Hispanic adds even more layers to the family rivalry dynamic, and Oliveras heightens the tension by adding a marked financial imbalance between both families: the Capuletas are in danger of losing their beloved home to a high-pressure bank loan, and Angelo’s uncle Hugo