Mini Reviews: All’s Well, The Bride Test, & Good NeighborsAll's Well by Mona Awad
Published by Simon and Schuster on August 3, 2021
Pages: 368
Source: Received from publisher
four-stars

From the author of Bunny, which Margaret Atwood hails as “genius,” comes a “wild, and exhilarating” (Lauren Groff) novel about a theater professor who is convinced staging Shakespeare’s most maligned play will remedy all that ails her—but at what cost?

Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now, she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised and cost her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.

That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.

With prose Margaret Atwood has described as “no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged…genius,” Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All’s Well is a “fabulous novel” (Mary Karr) about a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.

As you’ve likely guessed, all is not well with Miranda Fitch.

Former stage actress turned struggling theatre professor, Miranda is being crushed under the weight of her excruciating chronic pain and her failed marriage. With her increasing dependence on pain pills jeopardizing her career, the one thing that gives shape and meaning to Miranda’s life, things appear to be headed for a tragic end that would have even Shakespeare impressed. When three mysterious, mystical men appear before Miranda in a dive bar, will they be her salvation or will they usher in the final curtain?

This book stressed me out y’all. Stressed me OUT! Between a high-stakes production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a freakish and frankly kind of evil “miracle cure,” and Miranda’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality, I wasn’t sure what to make of Mona Awad’s latest novel. In a testament to Awad’s stunning prose, I honestly felt like I needed to take the day off after reading this. That’s how intense the reading experience was.

It’s been many years since I’ve read All’s Well That Ends Well (I’ve never seen a stage production), but I do think that basic familiarity with the OG-version helped me to better appreciate All’s Well. Miranda’s great vision for her production is a central part of the text, so if you want to enjoy Awad’s darkly comic prose, then I highly recommend reading a plot summary of Shakespeare’s original beforehand. Trust me when I say that it really takes the drama up a notch.

As much as I appreciated the theatre talk and the witchiness of All’s Well, it’s Awad’s depiction of chronic pain that really impressed me. Miranda’s experience with her various ailments was nothing short of harrowing. She’s barely hanging on as the onslaught of the red webs of pain just keep coming, crashing over her like waves on the beach. As someone who has a chronic illness, it was hard for me to read. The magical, mystical bent that the story took during the second act was almost as challenging because it made explicit how completely unwilling Miranda was to accept her new reality. 

Fellow spoonies, beware: while ultimately hopeful, All’s Well delves into the connection between the body and the mind, and how that connection can be damaged or severed under the strain of chronic illness. Best to go in knowing that ahead of time.

Mini Reviews: All’s Well, The Bride Test, & Good NeighborsThe Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Published by Jove on July 5, 2022
Pages: 300
Source: Received from publisher
five-stars

From the USA Today bestselling author of The Kiss Quotient comes a romantic novel about love that crosses international borders and all boundaries of the heart...

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions--like grief. And love. He thinks he's defective. His family knows better--that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can't turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn't go as planned. Esme's lessons in love seem to be working...but only on herself. She's hopelessly smitten with a man who's convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme's time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he's been wrong all along. And there's more than one way to love.

If marrying a stranger meant that you could change the lives of your entire family, including your daughter, would you?

Esme Tran would. When a wealthy Vietnamese woman from America picks Esme out at work and begs her to marry her son, the young mother is stumped. The hypothetical groom, Khai Diep, is handsome and successful. So why does he need a mail-order bride…one picked out by his mother, no less?

Khai isn’t perfect by any means, but he is a catch, and Esme knows it. When she meets Khai and finds that she genuinely likes the guy, the training wheels come off: she’s gonna try her best to make him honestly, truly, fall for her. Helen Hoang really understands her characters, and so I understood them as a reader. Esme in particular leapt off the page – her struggles and triumphs felt like a friend’s, and I was so invested in seeing her succeed. Esme’s insecurity about her circumstances affecting how she’s perceived and Khai’s fear that he was literally incapable of love felt real to me. The celebration of culture and community, even when it isn’t perfect, also felt real.

The Bride Test is a romance, but it really has self-love at its heart. Accepting who you are, valuing where you come from and what you have to offer, knowing what you deserve and rejecting anything less…it’s easier said than done. Experience has taught Esme that she isn’t good enough, and so she starts her relationship with Khai by telling some pretty major fibs. Her journey to self-love is admirable, and her refusal to sacrifice those gains when she’s in a really tough spot made me love her even more. Esme knows that some principles are almost impossible to uphold when you’re really desperate, and she fights tooth and nail to protect that part of herself.

In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I’ll keep my critique vague and say that I wish the “big secret” was revealed earlier in the story. With less than 15 pages remaining in the book, there wasn’t enough time for Emse and Khai to really discuss it. I felt a little disappointed that Hoang rushed this aspect, since she treats ever other issue in the story with such care. The sweet epilogue helped to flesh the whole thing out but it would’ve been much more solid as a one or two-chapter arc.

Overall, The Bride Test is a romance that celebrates the heart, tenacity, and compassion its remarkable heroine. Khai wasn’t bad or anything, but let’s be honest: Esme is a total scene-stealer.

Mini Reviews: All’s Well, The Bride Test, & Good NeighborsGood Neighbors by Stephanie Burgis
Published by Amazon Digital Services LLC - KDP Print US on January 31, 2022
Pages: 254
Source: Received from author
three-half-stars

When a grumpy inventor meets her outrageous new neighbor in the big black castle down the road, more than one type of spark will fly!

Mia Brandt knows better than to ever again allow her true powers to be discovered. Ever since her last neighbors burned down her workshop in a night of terror and flame, she's been determined to stay solitary, safe, and - to all outside appearances - perfectly respectable...

But Leander Fabian, whose sinister castle looms over her cozy new cottage, has far more dangerous ideas in mind. When he persuades Mia into a reluctant alliance, she finds herself swept into an exhilarating world of midnight balls, interfering countesses, illicit opera house expeditions, necromantic duels, and a whole unnatural community of fellow magic-workers and outcasts, all of whom are facing a threat more ominous than any she's confronted before.

Luckily, Mia has unnatural powers of her own - but even her unique skills may not be enough to protect her new found family and help her resist the wickedly provoking neighbor who's seen through all of her shields from the beginning.

This novel-length collection includes all four stories and novellas originally published on Stephanie Burgis's Patreon in 2020-2021: Good Neighbors, Deadly Courtesies, Fine Deceptions, and Fierce Company.

Good Neighbors is a charming, feel-good collection of short fiction set in an 18th century-inspired world full or magic and romance.

When Mia’s peculiar magic is discovered, she and her father are chased out of their home by an angry mob. In the wake of this displacement, Mia and her father settle tentatively on the outskirts of a small community right next to a necromancer’s castle. Mia is delighted: none of the townsfolk will come anywhere near her home and she’ll finally be left to her own devices. But it turns out that Leander Fabian, the necromancer next door, may have need of Mia’s particular talents…

Composed of four novellas and stories, each section of Good Neighbors has a distinct feel. There’s the frothy-fun fantasy of manners that explores the attraction between Mia and Leo; a heist caper where Mia orchestrates the rescue of magical creatures from the anti-magic Purifiers; and we even get a glimpse of hometown hero political drama when an unlikely ally steps up to aid the magical townsfolk. In less-skilled hands, I think the wide range of themes and structures could have turned out to be quite the hodge-podge, but Burgis pulls it off.

As much as I enjoyed the spooky magical elements, it’s really the social underpinning that made Good Neighbors such a delightful read for me. Mia and her friends struggle to find acceptance and to secure the same rights and freedoms that their non-magical neighbours enjoy. The parallels to real-world events are perhaps a little heavy-handed, but not unwelcome. At its core, this collection explores what it means to be in community with others and encourages readers to consider how to be a “good neighbour.”

Recommended for readers looking for a cozy fantasy

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