Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Book Review: "The Proposal" by Jasmine Guillory

Freelance writer Nikole Paterson is spending a beautiful weekend day at a Dodgers game with Fisher, the guy she has been dating for the past few months, and a bunch of his friends.

"She didn't have anything against baseball, exactly. It was just that she'd rather be spending this beautiful spring day at home with her laptop and a glass of bourbon on the rocks than outside at a baseball stadium with a warm beer. But when the hot dude you were sleeping with wanted to go to a Dodgers game for his birthday, you sucked it up and went along with him and his bros."

The game takes an unexpected turn when Fisher surprises her with a marriage proposal on the Jumbotron, in front of the entire stadium. It isn't fake surprise with which Nik reacts to this proposal—it's utter disbelief. (Plus he spelled her first name wrong.) She and Fisher haven't even said they love each other (and she doesn't love him), much less discuss marriage. But there Fisher is, on one knee in the middle of the stadium, holding a princess ring. She has no choice but to turn him down, disappointing the entire crowd, not to mention raising the ire of Fisher and his bros.

Of course, she wants to crawl into a hole and hide, but there she is, still in her seat as the game goes on. When the camera crew starts to descend upon her, a guy watching the action from a few rows up takes pity on her, and he and his sister extricate Nik from the imminent media feeding frenzy, and spirit her out of the stadium to the relative safety of her best friends.

It turns out Carlos is a pediatrician—and a damned sexy one on top of that, not that Nik noticed. (Well, that much.) But Carlos also spends a lot of his life protecting and caring for his widowed mother, his sister, and the other women in his family, so the rescue role comes easy for him. However, Nikole's beauty isn't lost on him, but he knows better than to let on that he's even remotely attracted to her.

"If she had to pick a strange man to rescue her, at least it was one who was outraged by the right things."

In the days and weeks following the proposal fiasco, Nik finds herself leaning on Carlos more and more, and she can't get him out of her head. Her friends keep encouraging her to have a rebound romance with the sexy doctor, but she isn't sure she needs the complications. For his part, Carlos can't stop thinking of Nik either, and isn't sure exactly what she wants from him—but he knows what he'd like from her.

When the sparks between them finally ignite, they agree that all either of them wants is something casual. They enjoy each other's company, great food, and pretty hot sex. Beyond that, they have an easy, comforting companionship, and each provides the other with the support and encouragement they need. It's the perfect situation—nothing serious, just fun and lots of terrific sex.

You can probably guess how the rest of the book will unfold, and you'd probably be mostly right. But even predicting what will happen (and I wasn't 100 percent right, as I expected a little more melodrama) didn't take away from the appeal of The Proposal. As she did with her first book, The Wedding Date (see my review), Jasmine Guillory hooked me from the very first page. Her characters may have some flaws, but they're just so charming, so much fun, the kind of people I'd probably hate in real life but inexplicably love reading about.

This year has brought many pleasant literary surprises, and chief among them is how much I've come to like so-called "chick lit," or women's fiction. These books have been the perfect foil after too many emotionally laden or intellectually exhausting books, and they've helped bring balance after I start looking at everyone suspiciously because I've read too many thrillers and crime novels at once.

I find the term "chick lit" a bit denigrating, as if the authors writing in this genre don't deserve the same respect as writers of more general fiction. The fact is, much like the young adult genre, there are some terrific, talented writers out there worthy of notice and renown. This year, I've become a huge fan of writers like Guillory, Christina Lauren, and Taylor Jenkins Reid.

I've said on more than one occasion (more like 100 occasions) that I'm a gigantic sap. I'm so glad there are books like The Proposal which are fun reads that also appeal to the sappy part of me. Now I have to wait until July 2019 for Guillory's next book!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan

"How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them?"

George Washington ("Wash") Black is an 11-year-old slave growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. He has felt the cruelty of his master and his overseers, and seen the violence with which other slaves are treated. But when the master dies, there is little time to rejoice, as the new master appears to be equally, if not more, twisted and sadistic.

Wash is surprised and frightened when he is pulled from the fields to become the manservant to the master's eccentric brother. Christopher Wilde, or Titch, as Wash calls him, is a man of science, a man desperate to study the natural world around him and make brilliant discoveries. Titch treats Wash as his research assistant, and under Titch's tutelage, Wash's talent for nature drawing begins to flourish.

Titch's greatest dream is to soar through the skies in the Cloud-Cutter, a balloon-like contraption he has designed. No one, Wash included, believes it will ever be able to leave the ground or travel far, yet Titch is determined to make sure it is ready for the right conditions. And when a man dies, and Wash is the leading suspect, Titch and Wash know they must disappear far from Barbados—and they hope the Cloud-Cutter will help them get on their way.

The two make their way across the Atlantic, traveling up the east coast of the U.S., up into Canada and eventually, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. All the while they live in fear that the bounty hunter searching for Wash will find them, but they fail to understand that black men are treated the same way no matter where they are.

"It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I'd been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth's bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only—I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered."

When Titch and Wash are separated, Wash realizes for the first time that he is the only person he can count on to save himself and change his life's circumstances. His journey takes him through Canada, to England, Amsterdam, and the windswept deserts of Morocco. Amazingly, he learns the lessons it takes men their entire lives to learn (if that), lessons about betrayal, love, identity, independence, and self-worth.

Washington Black is a tremendously thought-provoking look at a boy who becomes a man as most of the world looks at him as less than that. Wash knows he is more than people believe he is, yet proving that to them—and himself—causes more emotional pain, and puts him at great risk. He is a tremendously fascinating character, one it will be very hard to forget.

Esi Edugyan is a magnificent storyteller, and in addition to the suspenseful, emotional, powerful parts of her story, she does a fantastic job with imagery as well, as her characters travel across the world. This book is a meditation on what freedom truly is, and how we are just as responsible for freeing ourselves as those whom have kept us captive. It is a story that will make you think, it will make you angry at times, and in the end, it will make you feel.

I've never read anything of Edugyan's before, but I was tremendously impressed with her talent. This isn't necessarily a fast-paced book although it never felt slow. I just immersed myself in Wash's incredible journey.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: "Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood" by Andrew Rannells

I've always thought that Andrew Rannells was my spirit animal.

Seriously, when I first saw him perform in his Tony Award-nominated role in The Book of Mormon, I thought to myself, if I were younger, thinner, and more talented, I could totally be him. But since I'm none of those things, I've become a big fan, having seen him in both Book and Falsettos on Broadway, and watched him on television in both Girls and The New Normal. (He's also a really fun guest on the late night talk show circuit.)

Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to read an advance copy of his memoir, Too Much is Not Enough (the title comes from a lyric from the song "Fame"), I jumped at it. While I was expecting a humorous, heartfelt chronicle of how Rannells made it to Broadway and what it's like to be famous, this book was much more than the former, and didn't really touch on the latter.

This book isn't your typical celebrity memoir of brags and name-dropping. It's actually a more universal story about pursuing your dreams even when everything is telling you that you might want to reconsider. It's also a story about coming to terms with who you are and the need for self-acceptance, or at least getting to the point where you don't give a s--t about what people think. And at the same time, it's the story about navigating the challenges of familial relationships, and how to cope when your family is far away.

Of course, much of this book is Rannells' story about moving from Omaha to New York City in 1997 and enrolling in the theater program at Marymount Manhattan College, and how everything didn't quite turn out the way he thought it would. School wasn't the magical, inspirational classes he saw in Fame, he was living in squalor, and Broadway casting directors weren't quite welcoming him with open arms. (How was he even supposed to find them?)

You also get the story of his childhood, how he became interested in theater and his desire to be a star grew, his relationships with his family, and the always rocky road of coming to terms with his sexuality, and the dysfunctions which accompany finding your way out of the closet and into your first sexual encounters and romantic relationships. (Often the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Rannells tells his story in a witty, often-sarcastic, conversational style which I'm sure belies the anxiety, despair, and depression he felt as things were occurring. There are moments when Rannells recounted incidents which left him emotionally vulnerable, and I'll admit I choked up a time or two. He also sprinkles in a liberal dash of pop culture references which I absolutely loved, and at times he literally made me laugh out loud.

Discussing his fondness for certain color sashes with his altar boy outfit, he said, "Red was my favorite; that was for feast days of martyrs. I think it appealed to me on two levels: I've always loved a martyr story...and I love a classic pop of color. I was dramatic and stylish even as a fourth grader."

Other than being familiar with some of his work, I didn't know much about Rannells, so I really enjoyed learning about his early life. The book ends with his first big break on Broadway, five years before The Book of Mormon, so I found his story really relatable, more about dreams, disappointments, family, friendships, and the search for love and self-acceptance—not to mention wardrobe struggles, figuring out how to call out sick from your job when you have multiple auditions, and trying not to collapse from hunger when you have no money.

I devoured this book in a day. It was so terrific to read a celebrity memoir that was funny, self-deprecating (without trying too hard), and quite enjoyable, one that leaves you feeling like a bigger fan than you might have been when you started. I'll definitely appreciate his performances even more in the future, because I know how hard he worked to get where he is.

Crown Archetype provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

It was a dark and stormy night...

Well, not exactly. But it is a dark night in 1887, the solstice night, the longest night of the year.

"As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."

A crowd has gathered at The Swan, an ancient inn on the Thames River. The crowd is prone to storytelling, and no one tells a story like Joe Bliss, the husband of the Swan's landlady. But that night a story all its own takes shape—a wounded man comes staggering in and collapses, caught by some of the men at the inn. He appears to be carrying a doll or puppet of some sort, but the crowd is once again shocked when they discover it's not a puppet, but the lifeless body of a small child.

"Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious."

When Rita Sunday, the town's most reliable medical personnel, arrives, she takes care of the unconscious man and mends his wounds, and then examines the little girl. No one is sure what the little girl's connection is to the man, but a pall falls over the crowd at her untimely and tragic death. And then, a few hours later, she starts breathing again. No one, not even Rita, who searches for a scientific answer, understands how this could have happened.

Who is this little girl? To whom does she belong? Where is she from? How is she connected to the wounded man? No one can find out any answers, especially because the little girl is mute and cannot provide any information. But of course, that doesn't stop those from near and far from inventing stories that explain her situation. And while fictions grow and become more elaborate, there are three families who believe the little girl belongs to them, and each has a complicated story about how they know this to be so, stories as twisted as the Thames itself.

First and foremost, Once Upon a River is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It is beautifully told, and Diane Setterfield weaves together folklore, magic, myth, and good old tall tales as she unfolds this mystery. But beyond the questions that arise about the little girl, this book tells other stories as well, revealing long-held family secrets, regrets, recriminations, and suspicions.

This is a dense book with a lot of characters. It took me a little while to get everyone straight in my head, because there are a few narratives unfolding at once. While I usually read really fast, the pacing of this book was a little slower, so I couldn't rush through it, and while I felt like it plodded a little bit from time to time, in the end, the pacing worked. If you rush through the story, you'll miss some of the richness of the plot.

Setterfield knows how to set a mood, how to create fascinating characters, and how to tease out just enough suspense to keep you always wanting more. Once Upon a River is a special story, and I could totally see it as a television movie or miniseries, because so often the book came to life in my mind's eye.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: "P.S. I Still Love You" by Jenny Han

This series is so sweet and enjoyable, it definitely makes me smile. Such a nice change of pace to read a book like this every now and again!

"'Lara Jean, I think you half-fall in love with every person you meet. It's part of your charm. You're in love with love.'"

Lara Jean and Peter were just pretending to have a relationship. Somewhere along the way, she got a little forgetful about what was real and what was make-believe. But Peter was just going along with it, right? He couldn't possibly like her the way that she likes him, could he?

When they decide to start dating, Lara Jean is excited and nervous, at the same time. She loves the way being with Peter makes her feel, but she's afraid he'll hurt her or expect too much from her, so they make a contract which includes a promise not to break each other's heart. Of course, she's still not happy about his relationship with Genevieve, his ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean's former best friend, but she's trying not to dwell on it too much. She should trust Peter when he says there's nothing going on beyond helping a friend through tough times, even if she feels like sometimes he'd drop everything for Gen, but not for her.

When a video of Lara Jean and Peter is made public, she is horrified by the things people assume about her. She is touched by how much Peter is bothered by it, but he insists Gen had nothing to do with it, even though Lara Jean knows it was her. Even more than the embarrassment factor, Lara Jean is irritated by the double standard that exists between girls and boys.

"Boys will be boys, but girls are supposed to be careful: of our bodies, of our futures, of all the ways people judge us."

Unexpectedly, another boy from Lara Jean's past reappears, awakening feelings from when they were younger, and confusing her. Is it possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time, even if you're not acting on those feelings? How do you know whether the way you feel about a person is based on nostalgia or real life?

Two guys vying for her attention, worrying that her widowed dad needs to start dating, dealing with betrayal and uncertainty in her relationship with Peter—it's a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone someone with as much sensitivity and heart as Lara Jean. But she's determined to make the most of her life, even if not everyone will be happy with the decisions she makes.

I really enjoyed To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the first book in the series (see my review), and I felt the same way about this second book. It was great to return to Lara Jean's world and all of the characters I enjoyed in the first book, and that same charm and heart was here as well.

I haven't watched the television series based on these books, but I've heard it's good, too. Jenny Han created such a great cast of characters, characters I root for (and against, depending on the person). P.S. I Still Love You, like its predecessor, hooked me from the very first page. Of course, I want to dive right into the third and final book, but I'm going to wait a bit, because then I'll have nothing to look forward to in regard to this series! (Such a hardship, reading is.)

Is it predictable? Sure. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. For a fun, sweet, enjoyable, romantic diversion, dive in to this series.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review: "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens

It seemed like everyone had read this one already and couldn't stop raving about it. For some reason, despite all the hype, I just wasn't sure about this one—I thought it was going to be like the Jodie Foster movie Nell, about a feral girl alone in the woods who speaks her own language and somehow gets all tangled up in the real world.

While there is a little bit of the girl-against-the-world thing, I needn't have worried. This book is heartfelt, warm, and endearing, and utterly deserving of the praise and love being heaped on it. It is definitely a story that will live in my mind for a long time.

In the 1950s, Kya is a young girl growing up in a ramshackle cottage in the marshes off the North Carolina coast. She is the youngest of five children, the daughter of a wounded WWII veteran prone to drinking and violence perpetrated on his wife and children. One day when Kya was six years old, her mother left, followed by each one of her siblings. Left to fend for herself, she learns early that she is the only one she can count on, and turns to the gulls and other marsh creatures for companionship, until she befriends a couple who runs the gas and tackle shop where she refuels her boat.

"Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress."

As Kya grows older, rumors swirl in town about the "Marsh Girl," and it becomes a show of bravery to run through the marsh, tag her house, and run freely home. But Kya is so much more than the little girl once ridiculed on her one day of school. She is sensitive, inquisitive, intelligent, and passionate about the marsh and the creatures that inhabit it. When she meets a young man willing to open more of that world up to her, she can't get enough, although it leads to the vulnerability of opening her heart as well.

"'It ain't just that. I wadn't aware that words could hold so much. I didn't know a sentence could be so full."

When Kya finds someone that she believes loves her for who she is, she is fearful about leaving the marsh but willing to do so for love. Yet once again, she learns she is the only one she can truly depend on. And in 1969, when Chase Andrews, once the town's football hero and the son of a prominent business owner, is found dead, the townspeople suspect Kya, as they have never believed her more than "marsh trash" even though she has proven herself capable of so much more.

"For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed. Not you or one member of my family. Now I've finally learned how to deal with that and how to protect myself."

Where the Crawdads Sing is a love letter to nature, but it is also a beautiful story about what you can accomplish when people believe in you and instill you with that confidence. At the same time, it's a story which causes us to examine our prejudices against those who are different from us, how readily we want to believe the worst about people we don't even know. It's also a story about the beauty of human relationships, and how much they give us, even through the simplest of interactions.

Delia Owens has created an amazing, thought-provoking book. Her use of imagery is so lyrical, almost poetic, that you can see the marsh, the gulls, the feathers, in your mind's eye. As great as that is, her characters are incredibly special. Even the characters who seem the least complex have surprising moments, but characters like Tate, Jumpin', Jodie, and of course, Kya, are simply amazing.

There is a simple beauty to this book and so much heart. Read this and you, too, will be thinking about these characters for a long time afterward.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Lost Girls of Paris" by Pam Jenoff

C'est magnifique!!

In 1946, shortly after World War II ended, Grace Healey is living in New York, fleeing for an anonymous life in the city after the tragic death of her husband. One morning on her way to work she takes a detour through Grand Central Station, where she trips over a suitcase hidden beneath a bench.

She can't resist opening the suitcase, and when she finds a group of photographs, each of a different woman, she can't seem to explain why she has this powerful need to keep them.

Grace soon finds out that the suitcase belonged to Eleanor Trigg, a British woman who ran operations for a group of female spies during the war. These women were deployed throughout Europe, given missions as radio operators, couriers, and other necessary positions to help defeat the Nazis. Twelve of these women—the women in the photographs Grace found—never returned home. This motivates Grace to try and figure out what happened to them, and what Eleanor Trigg was looking for in New York City.

Grace's quest to uncover the truth is juxtaposed with the story of two other women. We follow Eleanor as she is tapped to create this program that brought women into the war as special agents, then tries to understand what is going wrong as her agents are being captured and messages are being compromised, and then, after the war, she, too, wants to understand what happened to the women under her supervision. The book also follows Marie Roux, one of Eleanor's special agents, a young mother who wasn't really sure she was cut out for this type of mission, yet found her bravery and strength just when she needed it most.

The Lost Girls of Paris is inspired by true events. It really does a great job putting a human face on those courageous people, particularly young women, who risked everything to help defeat those seeking to destroy the world.

I am not one who typically reads historical fiction—in fact, I think I've read one other work of historical fiction this year. But when I was offered a chance to read a pre-publication copy of The Lost Girls of Paris, something about the book intrigued me. I thought it was an excellent book, full of rich characters, suspense, emotion, and historical details, all of which made it a tremendously fast read. (I read the entire book in one miserably rainy day.)

I'm new to Pam Jenoff's books, but I was really impressed with her storytelling ability and the evocative imagery she used. I felt the different conditions Marie found herself in, I heard the noises of the city as Grace encountered the suitcase at Grand Central Station. The book took a little bit to build up momentum, but it really hooked me, as I hoped I'd get answers to all of the questions the characters raised.

If you're not a fan of historical fiction, don't be dissuaded from reading The Lost Girls of Paris. It's an excellent novel, a great character study, and even has some suspense, as you wonder how everything will be resolved. If you are a fan of this genre, you probably already want to read it! (And if not, you should!)

Park Row Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: "My Lovely Wife" by Samantha Downing

If you're looking for a heartwarming love story, a tale of two people whose marriage is so full of love and devotion...find another book. This was one crazy, tension-filled, suspenseful book that had me shaking my head and wondering what would come next!

On the surface, they seem like the perfect family. He is a tennis pro at the local country club, she is a successful, high-end real estate agent. They have two teenage kids who play sports, do reasonably well in school, and only give them a bit of backtalk now and again. They eat dinner together every night—no cell phones at the table—and they are totally involved in their children's lives.

But when you've been married for a while, how do you keep the passion burning? How can you keep your spouse from being tempted by the fruit of another? Every couple has their own tricks, their own strategies. Theirs just happens to be a little bit more, umm, unorthodox.

The beauty of this book comes from the surprises that lurk when you least expect them, so I'm keeping my plot summary to a bare minimum. Promotions for My Lovely Wife have described it as a cross between Dexter and Mr. and Mrs. Smith; I found it a little more of the latter (boy, what Brad and Angelina could have done with these roles in their heyday) and not so much of the former. But forget about comparisons, because this is a book all its own.

Samantha Downing has taken a genre that is getting a little tired and predictable at times, and thrown in some "wait, she's not going to do that, is she?" along with more than a few "oh, wows," and sprinkled in a few "holy craps" to boot. I certainly don't want to think that there are people out there like this couple, but given the book's depiction of the media and our crazy world, anything is possible.

What a wild ride this was. My Lovely Wife keeps you flipping those pages because you absolutely must know what happens next, and you cannot get enough of this story and these crazy, amoral characters. I'm sure there are people who won't like this, but it made a believer of me!!

NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: "Matchmaking for Beginners" by Maddie Dawson

What a terrific, sweet charmer of a book this was!!

Every family has at least one oddball, one eccentric. Free-spirited Blix Holliday is her family's black sheep, and that doesn't bother her one bit, because she doesn't like them much anyway.

She believes there's a perfect match for everyone, she believes in thought energy, watching people's auras, and her ability to wish things into existence—and she has a book of spells to prove it. Now in her 80s and terminally ill, she wants to live whatever time she has left on her own terms, surrounded by joy and those she loves.

"This is a family that is rotten at its core, no matter what the decor tells you. I see things as they are, right through the fakery and pretense. I can still remember when this place really was authentically grand, before Wendy Spinnaker decided to throw thousands of dollars into some kind of fake restoration of its façade. But that sums up this family's philosophy of life perfectly: plaster over the real stuff, and slap a veneer on the top. Nobody will know. But I know."

When she meets Marnie MacGraw, her great-nephew's fiancée, she immediately feels the two are kindred spirits. Both share some of the same abilities, like the ability to see when two people are destined for one another. But Marnie just wants a normal life—husband, kids, a house in the suburbs—so she doesn't believe Blix when she tells her that there's a great big life out there waiting for, an exciting one far beyond the comforts she craves.

"The subversive truth about love is that it really is the big deal everyone makes it out to be, and it's not some form of security or an insurance policy against loneliness. It's everything, love is. It runs the whole universe!"

Marnie's marriage ends shortly after it began (and it never quite began), but she still can't believe that Blix was right, and that she's capable of exciting things. Little by little, she pulls her life back together and starts to trust her heart again, only to be thrown for another loop, when she learns that Blix has died and bequeathed her brownstone in Brooklyn. (Of course, the bequest isn't as straightforward as she expected.) But it's not just the house—Blix has "left" Marnie all of her pet projects; namely, her friends who are all desperate for love but they just don't see themselves as ready, or even worthy.

So now Marnie finds herself in Brooklyn, uprooting her life and those closest to her once again. She's looking for a quick resolution to the whole brownstone issue, so she can get back to Florida and the plans she's made for her future. She doesn't understand how Blix thought her capable of greatness, because she just wants ordinary comforts. Yet as she settles into her life in Brooklyn and deals with some unexpected surprises and challenges, she starts to realize that perhaps Blix's work needs to be carried on—and maybe she's the one who needs to do it. The only challenge is, she needs a little of this work herself.

"Everybody wants love, and the ones who appear to want it the least actually need it the most."

This was one of those books that feels like a great big hug. It hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go, and I found myself utterly immersed in these characters. Is it predictable? Sure. Did it matter? Not in the slightest. This book was the perfect antidote to the heavy books I've read most recently, and it not only made me smile, but it made me tear up through the smiles, too.

I thought Maddie Dawson did such a terrific job creating quirky and complex characters. Not everyone is likable (just like real life), and not everyone is 100 percent good or selfless (again, just like real life), but even though the book made me believe that just a little touch of magic and mysticism can exist in our world, it also was tremendously believable, because quite often the people who can be difficult to love are the ones who need that love most.

Three cheers for Matchmaking for Beginners. When you need something to charm you, pick this one up.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book Review: "Sadie" by Courtney Summers

"Thirteen, Mattie. I kept you alive for thirteen years. Waking her up in the morning, making her meals, walking her to the school bus, waiting for her at its stop when the day was over, grinding my bones to dust just to keep us holding on and when I lay it out like that, I don't know how I did it. I don't know where, underneath it all, you'd find my body. And I don't care. I'd do it all again and again for eternity if I had to. I don't know why that's not enough to bring her back."

Man, this book is going to haunt me for a while!!

Sadie's whole life was her younger sister, Mattie. They lived in a small Colorado town in the middle of nowhere, where no one really ever wanted to stay if they could escape. Sadie didn't know her father, and her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who favored Mattie, but never had her life together long enough to really care for her.

Sadie made raising Mattie her primary responsibility. They had something of a surrogate grandmother in May Beth, the woman who owned the trailer park in which they lived, but for the most part, the two of them were on their own in between sporadic appearances from their mother and her various boyfriends. Mattie worshiped her older sister and knew she could depend on her.

But as Mattie approached her teenage years, she began challenging Sadie more and more. And when their mother left for good, sending a postcard from Los Angeles, Mattie wanted nothing more than to go find her, and she didn't understand why Sadie didn't want to go. So one day, when Mattie was 13, she left, ostensibly to find her mother. Three days after going missing, Mattie was found murdered.

Mattie's death destroyed Sadie. But she isn't going to sit idly by, mourning her sister. She's going to find the man she knows is responsible and kill him.

"I'm going to kill a man. I'm going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren't supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It's no less than he did to Mattie, so it's no less than he deserves. I don't expect it to bring her back. It won't bring her back."

Sadie goes on a lonely journey across the state of Colorado, telling no one where she has gone, putting herself in harm's way again and again, in order to find her sister's killer. She is only 19 years old.

Courtney Summers has created an absolutely incredible, haunting, poignant sucker punch of a book. It's sad, hopeful, disturbing, thought-provoking, and it hurt my heart, but it was amazing. Sadie is one of the most unforgettable characters I've seen in some time, and even if her methods weren't always above-board, her motivations were. She was still a young girl at heart, forcing herself into a very adult role, and there are moments in Sadie that illustrate that dichotomy so well.

The book alternates two different forms of narration—Sadie's first-person account and a podcast, which picks up the girls' story from the very beginning and follows until Sadie's own trail has grown cold. West McCray, the podcast creator and narrator, interviews those Sadie encountered on her journey and doesn't exactly know what story he's really following until it might be too late.

Sadie is easily one of the best, most affecting books I've read all year. Summers did a fantastic job. And while Sadie is a novel, stories like these, sadly, are all too true.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Book Review: "The Life We Bury" by Allen Eskens

It's been said you should never think you know everything about a person's struggles because they may be struggling in ways you could never imagine. There's also the old saying that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Both of those concepts get healthy exploration in Allen Eskens' bleak yet wonderful The Life We Bury.

Joe Talbert is struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. He can barely afford college yet he's determined to stay there as long as he can, but he has to deal with the demands of his bipolar alcoholic mother, who often leaves him to tend to Jeremy, his autistic brother. Sometimes the tug-of-war between family and college is more than he can bear, yet he is wracked with guilt at the thought of leaving his brother in his mother's irresponsible and erratic care.

He gets an assignment in English class to interview a stranger and write a biography of them. Procrastinating for far too long, he goes to a nearby nursing home in the hopes of interviewing one of the residents. Instead, he winds up meeting Carl Iverson, a terminally ill man recently released from prison after more than 30 years, who was medically paroled to the nursing home. A Vietnam vet, Carl was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl.

When Carl and Joe begin talking, Carl makes it clear he will not lie to Joe. He simply wants to tell Joe his story, and Joe wants to understand why if Carl and his friend Virgil both insist that Carl is innocent, things went so awry during his trial and Carl never tried to correct the situation in all this time. How can he reconcile the man's heroism in Vietnam with the grisly crime scene pictures and the testimony presented against him?

"No sin could be greater than a sin that cannot be rectified, the sin you never get to confess. So this...this conversation with you...this is my dying declaration. I don't care if anybody reads what you write. I don't even care if you write it down at all...I have to say the words out loud. I have to tell someone the truth about what happened all those years ago. I have to tell someone the truth about what I did."

The more Joe and Carl talk, the more interested Joe becomes in the events of 30 years ago. He and his neighbor, Lila, begin combing through the files from the trial and start uncovering threads that never had been pursued at that time. But why didn't Carl give his attorney this information? Why did he simply give up and let the jury convict him?

The Life We Bury is both a compelling mystery and a moving character study of a young man dealing with more than his share of problems, who is determined that truth and justice get their due. His efforts aren't entirely magnanimous—he's hoping that his actions might help alleviate some guilt he's been carrying around for a long time. But by putting everyone else, including his brother, first, does he destroy his own chances to move beyond the bleak existence he's had for so long.

Allen Eskens is a fantastic writer, a fact I discovered when I read his amazing The Deep Dark Descending (see my review) last year. The Life We Bury was his debut novel, and it was pretty great itself, although I'll admit that I rolled my eyes a tiny bit that two college students would suddenly fancy themselves detectives.

That quirk notwithstanding, Eskens hooked me from the very first sentences, and even though I had some idea of how the book would resolve itself, that didn't affect my enjoyment at all. I loved Joe's character, and found his struggles between family and doing his own thing to be very familiar.

You can bet I'll be reading Eskens' other books now that I loved the first two I've read. He's a great combination of storyteller and master of suspense, and that makes for some great reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: "The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls" by Anissa Gray

First of all, how cool is the title of this book?

This powerful, poignant debut novel examines how easy family ties can go from comforting to smothering, and how the scars of youth can still prove damaging long into adulthood.

"If, as a mother, I am my father's daughter, and I hate everything about him, what am I as a sister, who was all the mother they had?"

Althea was little more than a teenager when her mother died, leaving her to be a surrogate parent for her three younger siblings, Viola, Joe, and baby Lillian. Their father was a traveling preacher, mercurial on good days and violent on bad ones, wanted little to do with his children, but Althea wasn't really sure how to do more for her siblings than simply follow their mother's example. Sometimes that worked, but sometimes her siblings chafed under her discipline.

When Althea met Proctor, he offered protection—from the responsibilities of surrogate parenthood and from her fears about her father. Although they had two daughters of their own, Althea never felt like she "got" motherhood, often struggling with her relationships with her daughters, especially her oldest, Kim. Althea and Proctor became pillars of the community, owning a restaurant and leading many fundraising events for different charities.

But in an instant, everything fell apart. Proctor and Althea were arrested, guilty of crimes that left their entire community feeling angry and betrayed. They went from being respected to being ostracized, and that treatment extended to their girls as well. Suddenly Lillian is given responsibility for raising the girls, and while she does the best job she can, she has her own problems, her own issues to deal with. And when Viola arrives, trailing the debris of her own life, they try to see if two broken people can help bring normalcy to two teenage girls who have had their lives pulled out from under them.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls was an emotional read, difficult at times yet full of hope. It's a story of how our lives can be affected just as much by things unsaid as they are by things that are said. It's also a story about how the people we need the most can also be the people who cause us pain, sometimes inadvertently. And it's also a story about how important it is to have people in our corner, and sometimes those people are not whom we're expecting.

Reading this book, it was often hard to believe that this was Anissa Gray's debut novel, because the storytelling was so self-assured. Many of the characters were so rich and complex, and Gray slowly peeled back their layers so it almost felt as if you were getting to know them in real life. Strangely, however, Proctor and Althea remained a bit of an enigma to me, so even though they were at the center of the book, they never felt like fully formed characters, and I didn't understand what made them do what they did.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is definitely one of those books you'll think about long after you've finished reading it. It's the arrival of an incredible literary talent, and I look forward to following Gray's career.

NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book Review: "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braithwaite

"I can't pinpoint the exact moment I realized that Ayoola was beautiful and I was...not. But what I do know is that I was aware of my own inadequacies long before."

Korede is a nurse in Nigeria, dedicated to her patients and well-respected by her superiors. But no matter what her achievements are, she knows she'll always play second fiddle to her younger sister, Ayoola. Ayoola is the pretty one, the favorite—and she's a psychotic murderer.

One night Ayoola summons Korede to her boyfriend's house. Ayoola says he attacked her and in self-defense, she stabbed him. It doesn't matter what the facts really are—who would disbelieve Ayoola? Korede is the sensible one, the calm one, the logical one who takes charge of the situation. She knows how to clean up the blood so no traces are found. She knows how to get rid of the body. It seems she has had a great deal of practice with this sort of thing, since this is the third boyfriend Ayoola has killed.

"Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer."

Ayoola isn't the slightest bit remorseful about what happened. She's ready to move on, find another man to charm. Korede thinks she should lie low for a while, even though she knows it won't be long before Ayoola bats her eyes and more men will come running. But this time Ayoola sets her sights a bit closer to home, as she alights on Tade, a handsome, kind doctor Korede works with. He's also the doctor that Korede has been secretly in love with, but she knows she's no match for Ayoola's charms.

As Korede watches Ayoola ensnare Tade, she feels powerless and frustrated. What she wants more than anything is just to reveal her sister's nefarious side, but she knows Ayoola will turn the evidence against her. She wishes she could just escape this life, but she has an obligation to protect her sister. With no one to turn to, she vents her anger and fears to the only person who will listen—a patient who has been in a comatose state for years. But she knows all too well what will happen if she doesn't stop it.

"I am the older sister—I am responsible for Ayoola. That's how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry."

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a darkly funny yet disturbing story of familial obligation. It packs a powerful punch for a book that is less than 300 pages long, and that is because Oyinkan Braithwaite has created two complex, fascinating, not necessarily likable characters. You get glimpses of family history in order to understand where Ayoola developed her murderous tendencies. You both feel for Korede and want to shake her for allowing herself to be so fully manipulated.

More than that, however, you'll want to know how this book ends. I had lots of suspicions and wasn't disappointed where Braithwaite took her story. It's certainly a troubling book about a woman so fully overshadowed by her sister that she's forced down a path she never would have taken, but it's also commentary on how unfairly women are compared to one another, with the most attractive one almost always winning out.

I really enjoyed this, and read the entire book in a day. It certainly is a bit farcical, yet at the same time, you could believe this actually might happen, particularly in a society that treats women as second-class citizens. Braithwaite's storytelling was dead-on (no pun intended), and I look forward to seeing what comes next for her career.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book Review: "Fatal Blow" by James L. Thane

It's a tale as old as time: a woman realizes her husband is being unfaithful to her, and she needs to decide how to handle it. Does she confront him? Ignore the evidence, because at least he's some other woman's problem now? Or should she try to punish him for his transgressions?

When Becky Miller discovers that her husband Walter is having an affair with a cocktail waitress, she tries to figure out what her next move should be. After spying on the email communication between her husband and his mistress, when the woman's threats to end the relationship if he doesn't leave Becky turn to suggestions that they'd be better off if Becky were out of the picture, Becky realizes she needs to act—fast.

When a female corpse is fished out of a drainage canal, Phoenix homicide detective Sean Richardson and his partner Maggie McClinton need to figure out who she is and what happened to her—no mean feat given that the corpse is missing its head and arms. DNA tests reveal the corpse is Becky's, and after doing some digging, her husband is identified as the leading suspect in her apparent murder.

But while it seems like a fairly open-and-shut case, despite Walter's vehement protests of innocence, there are definitely some anomalies that Sean and Maggie can't figure out. The deeper they dig, the more complicated the case actually becomes. It turns out Becky, who is quite the fan of crime novels, created a scheme or two before her apparent death. And as both Sean and Maggie deal with personal challenges of their own, this case is more work than they bargained for.

I really enjoyed this book and found it both a compelling crime novel and a well-written story to boot. I figured things out before the facts started to be revealed but found myself devouring the book anyway, as I wanted to find out how James Thane wrapped everything up.

While this is the third book in Thane's Sean Richardson series, it's the first one I've read, and I'll definitely be going back to read the first two books. I really enjoyed these characters and their complexities—Thane drew them as much more detailed than your typical detectives. In particular, Sean had some emotional issues to deal with, but they didn't leave him damaged or brooding, just trying to cope and move on, and that made his character refreshing.

Fatal Blow is a well-told, solid, and compelling crime novel as well as an enjoyable character study. You might not have heard of Thane or read any of his books, but if you're a fan of this genre, you should add him and this series to your reading list.

The author provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: "Every Note Played" by Lisa Genova

When I read Lisa Genova's Still Alice nine years ago, I remember how much it wrecked me emotionally. I was on a business trip and remember sitting on the bed in my hotel room, sobbing, as I finished Genova's story of a woman fighting through Alzheimer's disease.

Perhaps it was the memory of the sniveling mess I was that kept me from picking up any of Genova's other books, but enough time had elapsed, so I decided to read her newest book, Every Note Played. Once again, she balances her knowledge of neuroscience with her immense creativity and empathy to create a memorable story of someone struggling with a neurological disorder, and how their struggle affects those around them.

Richard is a famed pianist, traveling the world and performing for crowds to great acclaim. It is the piano first and foremost for him—which posed a challenge to his marriage and his relationship with his daughter, who is now in college. But although he's mostly alone, that doesn't faze him, since anything is essentially a distraction from his music.

"Maybe human beings are capable of only so much passion. The pie has only so many pieces. For Richard, all but a sliver is devoted to piano. He loves women, appreciates them as much as any man, but ultimately they find themselves achingly hungry with him. And he refuses to feed them. His artistry for playing piano seduces them. His lack of artistry as a man is why they leave."

When his right hand starts disobeying him, not hitting the right notes, or taking too much time to move from note to note, he gets a horrible diagnosis: ALS. While the realization that he probably won't make it until his 50th birthday, and the fact that he'll be fully dependent on people for the most basic activities not too long from now is overwhelming, knowing his days at the piano are limited may be the toughest cut of all. Before long, his right arm becomes paralyzed, quickly followed by his left.

As the disease quickly runs its course and leaves him weaker and at risk of death with every day, he knows there will come a time in the not-too-immediate future that he'll need round-the-clock care. His ex-wife Karina agrees to take care of Richard and let him move back in to their old house, even though she's still angry with him for many things that occurred during her marriage, from infidelity to her being forced to abandon her own musical dreams so he could pursue his.

"Richard always seemed invincible to Karina, as if he could conquer anything, and he did. He was an unstoppable force that awed and intimidated her and, at times when she was most vulnerable, trampled her. Now he's the vulnerable one, and she can't help but wonder what it would feel like to sit at the other end of the table."

In Every Note Played, Genova follows Richard's decline and his coming to terms with his imminent demise, as well as how Karina and their daughter Grace deal with his illness. Beyond the disease, however, Genova looks at the years of resentment, anger, betrayal, and regret that Karina felt regarding her relationship with Richard, as well as his feelings about her. The book is full of things both characters want to say to each other but are afraid to, and how the way we navigate relationships is often shaped by our earlier relationships.

As you might imagine, this is an emotional read, full of realistic detail about the physical toll that ALS takes on a person, as well as all of the possible side-effects that treatments cause. As difficult as reading about the physical challenges is, reading about how what it's like to come to terms with the fact that you're going to die much sooner than you thought, with things remaining unsaid.

The one challenge I had with the book was that while I certainly felt sympathy for Richard, he was far from a sympathetic character, and I had difficulty feeling much sympathy for Karina because she seemed fairly detached at times. Regardless, this was a tremendously well-told, emotional story that will stick with me for some time.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book Review: "Trust Exercise" by Susan Choi

Wow, this one didn't work for me at all. Given how much I read I guess it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

Susan Choi's newest book, Trust Exercise, is a marvel of language and imagery, but on the whole, I found it confusing, a bit meandering, and once Choi flipped the script on the plot, I wondered whether what I was reading was actually happening or if it was a figment of the characters' imagination.

The book took place in the early 1980s at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts. The first-year students are ready to being learning Stagecraft, Shakespeare, the Sight-Reading of Music, and, of course, acting, where their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley, puts them through a variety of trust exercises, challenging their sensory perceptions and awakening their emotions.

Two students, Sarah and David, fall for each other, and begin a passionate yet mercurial relationship in full view of their fellow students. But neither of them are ready for the ramifications of a relationship, and they're not prepared for the manipulations of their peers—or Mr. Kingsley, for that matter. In an effort to drown out the pressures of everyday life, Sarah makes a decision which has major ramifications, ramifications that ripple long into the future.

And then Choi speeds up the timeline and sets the book in the future, and the whole narrative goes hazy, so you're not sure if what you read actually happened, or if Choi simply wants you to question the storyline. But that's not her only gimmick, as she throws yet another twist into the plot that once again left me shaking my head.

Susan Choi has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and certainly there's no doubt about her writing ability. But unfortunately, Trust Exercise never worked for me. I have seen some really positive reviews, however, so it may work for someone else.

NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Book Review: "Becoming" by Michelle Obama

"I was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I'd be sliding into some glamorous, easy role. Nobody who has the words 'first' and 'black' attached to them ever would. I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I'd need to climb my way into favor."

God, do I miss the Obamas.

Since I've had the right to vote, two presidents have energized and excited me—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That's not to say that I agreed with everything they did, or that there weren't times when they disappointed me. But in both cases, their candidacy and then their campaigns for re-election motivated me enough to volunteer, excited me enough to be fraught with nerves as election results came in, gave me cause for celebration, and left me sad when their terms ended.

Reading Michelle Obama's new memoir, Becoming, reminded me of those times. It also reminded me just what a fan I've been of hers since watching her and her daughters when President Obama declared his candidacy for the White House almost 12 years ago, since hearing her speak at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. I was always wowed by the sheer joy she appeared to have for the job of First Lady, despite the overwhelming amount of cruelty she and her family were subjected to throughout her husband's two terms as President.

With Becoming, she gives you a glimpse into her childhood and her relationship with her parents, which definitely impacted the way she carried herself throughout her life and how she raised her two daughters. It tells of her ambitions, her desire to help make the world a better place (one clearly shared by her husband), the challenges of marriage and motherhood, and how she dealt with her husband's political ambitions. She talks of her desire to make an impact as First Lady while at the same time ensuring her daughters' lives were as "normal" as they could possibly be, and the successes, frustrations, and disappointments she experienced.

I love the matter-of-fact way she shares her feelings and experiences, revealing emotions and fears and moments of anger, as well as the moments of sheer joy, as mother, as wife, as daughter, and as First Lady. While she certainly reveals instances when she felt she wasn't treated fairly by the media or by those unhappy with her husband (or her), this isn't a tell-all book. She is critical of those that deserve her scorn, but even when she didn't see eye to eye with people, she didn't tear them to pieces.

For the most part, the Michelle Obama you've seen at public appearances, on television shows, and in photos, is the Michelle Obama you get in Becoming. And that feels just right. This is a woman who loves her life, loves her country, and most importantly, loves her husband, her children, and her family. She doesn't overinflate her importance or her contributions as First Lady but she realizes she held a position few women have through history, and to be the first black woman to be First Lady made her a role model in the eyes of so many. It may have been a position she wasn't always comfortable with, but it is a role in which she absolutely shone.

"For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments when I still feel insecure or unheard. It's all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there's more growing to be done."

There was much to enjoy about this book, much to think about, and much to savor. And, at least for me, much to reminisce about.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: "The Wedding Date" by Jasmine Guillory

I'm definitely a big romantic sap, so I guess I'm surprised it's taken me this long to get hooked on the romance genre. I certainly believe in true love, in destiny, but I also look for bright spots in a world that is so angry, so upsetting, so perplexing, so it's no wonder these books have been appealing to me. Beyond that, however, the books I have read over the last year have been well-written, enjoyable, fun, sexy, and utterly compelling, so who could ask for anything more?

I first heard of Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date when I saw that Roxane Gay said it was one of the best books she's read in a while. Given that I like the way Gay writes, if she recommends something, I didn't think I should pass it up. And she didn't steer me wrong!

Drew is a pediatrician from LA, forced not only to attend the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, but to serve as a groomsman as well. And to make matters worse, his "plus-one" canceled the night before. The thought of showing up without a date, dealing with the stares and the probing questions of everyone in the wedding party makes him sick. But he figures he'll just hook up with one of the drunk bridesmaids and the weekend will be over.

But on his way up to his hotel room in San Francisco, the elevator gets stuck. He's not alone, however; his fellow passenger is Alexa Monroe—curvy, vivacious, chief of staff for the mayor of Berkeley. Alexa doesn't normally fall for random white guys in elevators, but something about Drew (other than his sexy good looks) makes her agree to be his date for the wedding by the time the elevator starts up again. She'll break out of her work-only funk, he'll have a beautiful woman on his arm pretending to be his girlfriend—it will be fun, right? And after the weekend, he'll head back to LA and that will be that.

Of course, Alexa and Drew have more fun than they even imagined...and it lasts all weekend long. Drew has already told Alexa he "doesn't do girlfriends," so she's not expecting much after he returns home to LA. But they cannot stop thinking about each other. Both want nothing more than to be together, even as both of their jobs get crazy. They start trading visits, and can't keep their hands off each other, and they just enjoy the simple pleasures of being together.

The more this continues, the deeper Alexa's feelings develop for Drew. But she doesn't expect him to feel the same way, although she's afraid to ask him how he feels, since she doesn't think she wants to know the truth. Drew realizes he's never felt this way about anyone before, but he knows once they get more involved, Alexa will hate him, just like all his other exes have. So why take the chance of ruining it?

If by reading this plot summary you think you can guess how the rest of the book will unfold, you're probably right. But the book's predictability doesn't detract from its appeal at all—you can't stop reading because you want to know what will happen, you want to shake Drew and Alexa for not being honest and telling each other how they feel, and you worry some ridiculous artificial barricade will keep them from being happy.

This is a lighthearted, sexy, fun romp of a book, but it doesn't shy away from tackling issues like race, privilege, and self-confidence as well. Guillory hooked me from the meet-cute in the first few pages all the way to the very end. I rooted for these characters, hoped they wouldn't do anything too stupid in an effort to protect themselves, and longed for a happy ending, all the while just tearing through the book.

If you find enjoyment in stories like these, if you're a romantic like me, consider The Wedding Date. I'll definitely be picking up Guillory's newest book (The Proposal) very soon.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: "Elevation" by Stephen King

When I decided to read Stephen King's new novella, Elevation, at around 11:00 p.m. last night, I will admit I wondered what I was thinking. Would my reward for checking out King's latest be a nightmare or two?

I needn't have worried. While Elevation is a little eerie, it's more a story about interpersonal relationships, about how one small action can ripple and truly make a difference in the lives of so many. And while King is a master of triggering our fears and creating horrifying situations, the kinder, gentler King provided thought-provoking moments and moments of poignancy, too.

Scott Carey has been losing weight pretty steadily. There's little argument he could stand to lose a few pounds, but he seems to be losing weight every day, no matter how much he eats or how little exercise he does. It's not just that—he weighs the same amount whether or not he's fully dressed, even if his clothes are laden down with coins or other heavy things. He knows it could be something serious, but he's more convinced it's something mysterious, and he has no interest in being kept in the hospital while he's poked and prodded over and over again.

With nowhere else to turn, he confides in his old doctor and friend, Doctor Bob. Doctor Bob cannot believe what he's seeing, although he can't think of a logical explanation for what Scott is going through. Once he realizes he can't convince Scott to go to his real doctor (Bob has been retired for some time), he's willing just to observe what's going on, so someone other than Scott knows what he's going through.

"You could feel weight, yes—when you were carrying too much, it made you ploddy—but wasn't it, like time, basically just a human construct? Hands on a clock, numbers on a bathroom scale, weren't they only ways of trying to measure invisible forces that had visible effects? A feeble effort to corral some greater reality beyond what mere humans thought of as reality?"

As much as Scott is focused on his weight loss issues, he's also flummoxed by the tension between him and his neighbors in Castle Rock, a married lesbian couple who moved to town to open a vegetarian Mexican restaurant. Their dogs seem to be fond of leaving their calling cards on his lawn, and he'd like it to stop, but he had no idea that simple request would cause such bad blood between him and one of the women. While her wife is friendly, she is icy cold—and isn't interested in anything Scott has to say, even if he's trying to be hospitable or helpful.

Little by little, Scott realizes what a difficult battle these women face in a town that doesn't mind if they "keep to themselves," but the fact that they say they're married, and want to be part of public life—well, that just won't do. As Scott confronts his own prejudices and tries to help the townspeople realize how backwards their thinking is, it actually causes more tension—until he makes a split-second decision during the town's annual 12K race, which changes everything.

Scott's own problem doesn't go away; in fact, it starts escalating. But suddenly he's surrounded by a group of people who once thought the worst of each other and themselves, and they help him accept the reality of an unreal situation, and decide how to handle things once "zero day" arrives.

Elevation is utterly compelling, and at 160 pages, I couldn't stop reading until I finished. I had no idea what to expect, and given my experience reading King's books, I kept waiting for everything to go off the rails. While it was a relief that it didn't, at the same time, I'm not sure if the book was meant to be more a story of human kindness with a little oddity thrown in than anything else.

Perhaps it could have used a little bit of a jolt, although it might have altered the heart of the story. I'm just going to assume that in the midst of a world growing ever more angry, more divided, more disappointed, and more pessimistic, King provided the antidote we needed—the reminder that the smallest action can make a positive change.

It's a good message, and at least I didn't have to worry about Pennywise the Clown visiting my dreams.

Book Review: "Dark Sacred Night" by Michael Connelly

Sometimes when an author who has written many books in a series introduces a new character, I worry that the effect may be kind of like when sitcoms of the past introduced a new, young character (e.g., Cousin Oliver in "The Brady Bunch"), and it essentially ruins the series.

When Michael Connelly introduced LAPD Detective Renée Ballard in last year's The Late Show (see my review), my fears were proven unfounded, because Ballard was such a complex, flawed, fascinating character (much like Harry Bosch), which made her the perfect addition to the world he had created. Still, I wondered whether Connelly would switch off between protagonists, ease back on the Bosch novels, or do something altogether different.

In his latest novel, Dark Sacred Night, Connelly pairs Bosch and Ballard together, although he lets them deal with their own challenges as well. The results are as electrifying as you'd imagine they'd be, and Connelly once again proves that, 31 books in, he is one of the most dynamic crime writers out there.

Ballard is working the night shift, otherwise known as the "late show," still struggling to be an outspoken female detective in a department that doesn't prize those who make ripples, particularly women. One night she finds a stranger rifling through old files—it turns out that stranger is retired detective Harry Bosch, who is looking for information that might finally help him crack a cold case he's working on in his spare time.

The more Ballard hears about the case, in which then-15-year-old Daisy Clayton, a runaway who wandered the streets of Hollywood, was found dead, her body bleached so as to not give up any clues, the more Ballard wants to see if she can help Bosch uncover the truth after so many years. The two share leads and theories, and chase many possibilities in search of Daisy's killer, although it seems unlikely after all this time that they'll be able to find closure.

Meanwhile, each has their own cases to deal with, and when the going gets tough (and dangerous), these outsiders discover that they can count on each other when they needed it most. But can Ballard look the other way when Bosch bends the rules so hard they break a bit?

This book was really a rollercoaster ride. Connelly took a little time to set things up, and then the plot takes off. There's a little bit of downtime, and then the momentum kicks into high gear. You wonder whether each case that Ballard or Bosch works on is somehow going to be the one that causes trouble, and you wonder whether they'll be able to solve Daisy's murder. But most importantly, you wonder how well these two forces will work together, given their independent streaks as well as their overall badass nature.

While it was great to have Ballard and Bosch together, and I hope that happens again, reading Dark Sacred Night reminded me just how terrific these characters are on their own, and once again demonstrated Connelly's talent for suspense, action, and character development. I lost track of the Bosch series a few years ago, but I definitely have to get back into it as I wait for Connelly's next book.

There are tons of crime writers out there, but Connelly is the real deal, and one of the best currently writing. You can read Dark Sacred Night even if you've never read any of his books—and I bet you'll be hooked!!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: "Nine Perfect Strangers" by Liane Moriarty

Ugh. This one really fell flat for me.

The idea of self-improvement is often an appealing one, but it takes so much work, so when someone offers us a quick solution, how can we not jump on it?

That's what is bringing nine people to Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort in a remote part of Australia. They're coming to lose weight, to detox a bit from the alcohol they've become fond of, to get lots of spa treatments and massages, and to get a jump on the problems that have been plaguing them. In 10 days, the resort promises, they'll feel totally changed.

Frances Welty, once a best-selling romance author, is one of those coming to Tranquillum House. She knows she needs to lose some weight and come to terms with menopause, the imminent decline of her career, and the hurt and humiliation she feels after a romance has gone awry. She's been nursing a bad back, a cold, and a vicious paper cut, and she hopes the pampering and the light fasting will help solve her problems.

Ben and Jessica are a young married couple whose relationship has definitely seen better days. All Ben seems to care about is his fancy new sports car (well, it's a Lamborghini, so can you blame him?) while Jessica has spent tons of money on plastic surgery to make herself look better (at least in her eyes), yet her husband doesn't ever tell her how great she looks. They're hoping some marriage counseling might make the difference.

Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe, are a family that certainly looks healthy. But they're carrying around a lot of grief, anger, regret, fear, and guilt related to a tragedy that happened just three years ago. While it might have been a better idea to go on a cruise or some other vacation, they hope that the time to meditate and reflect might help them move past these issues.

These people and others expect that their stay won't be all pampering and relaxation, but they're not prepared for all that the health resort is going to throw at them. It's going to take some work to make change happen, but they have no idea just how far the director of the resort is willing to take things. It's going to be more than fasting, yoga, massages, and hikes in the beautiful countryside. In some sense, their very survival may be at stake—certainly their willingness to fight for themselves will be challenged.

I had high hopes for Nine Perfect Strangers given how much I enjoyed some of Liane Moriarty's previous books, including Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret. But this one never took off for me; in fact, the pacing was so slow it felt like I was reading it for 10 days, as long as these characters were planning to be at the health resort!

First of all, when a book introduces 11 characters to you and provides in-depth backstories for most of them, that's a lot to wade through. There definitely were some interesting characters to follow with fascinating (and sometimes sad) stories, but I could have done with half of them, because the constant shifting of narration made it difficult to keep any sort of rhythm.

But honestly, the whole situation with the director of the resort and her decision to take things in a new direction I found utterly laughable. I was waiting to see just how over-the-top Moriarty would take things, and found some of it really hard to believe. I did like the way she tied things up with some of her characters, but I was really disappointed on the whole.

I hate when you've been waiting for an author you like to come out with a new book and it disappoints. The good news for me is, there are still some of Moriarty's earlier books I haven't read, so I look forward to those. And who knows? You may enjoy this one more than I did.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book Review: "Roomies" by Christina Lauren

After reading two particularly heavy books, I needed something a little lighter, something that wouldn't leave me emotionally debilitated. Once again this year, I turned to Christina Lauren, two writers whose work I've become a tremendous fan of. (This is the fourth book of theirs I've read this year; the fifth, Autoboyography, was among the best books I read last year.)

I know when I pick up a book of Lauren's I'm bound to find a charming, poignant, utterly engaging, sexy story, full of appealing characters. The plots may be predictable but I usually have a smile on my face when I'm done reading their books, and Roomies was no exception to that rule.

Holland Bakker knows she wants more out of her life, but she doesn't know how to get it. She has always dreamed of being a writer but for some reason can't seem to coax a single word out of her brain. She has depended upon the kindness of her uncles—one of whom is the musical director for one of Broadway's hottest shows—for her NYC apartment and her job, which doesn't fulfill her, but at least she feels part of something.

The only thing that has given her joy over the last six months is her weekly jaunts into the subway station near her house to listen to a street musician whose guitar playing absolutely dazzles her. (The guitarist himself is pretty dazzling, too.) She's never made any contact with him beyond putting money in his guitar case every time she sees him, but she's getting obsessed enough with him that she's even given him a name—Jack.

One night, armed with the courage only alcohol can provide, Holland decides to speak to him—and then fate intervenes, when a homeless man comes after her, wanting her cell phone. The next thing she knows she winds up on the train tracks. Although her musician crush rescued her from a dangerous fate, he disappears before the cops can question them. When she runs into her savior at a concert a few days later, she learns that the Irishman's real name is Calvin—and he's even more talented (not to mention even sexier) than she thought.

In an effort to repay Calvin for his heroics, and help her uncle out of a bind, she gets Calvin an audition for her uncle's Broadway show. He wows everyone, and gets offered a plum position in the orchestra which is sure to make him a star. The only problem? Calvin is in the country illegally, since he let his student visa expire a number of years ago and never did anything about it.

In an effort to help both her uncle and Calvin, Holland makes an impulsive decision and suggests that she and Calvin get married so he can get his green card. She's not willing to admit that she actually has feelings for him, but she figures, how bad could it be to have him around for at least a year? Of course, the fact that she finds him increasingly more sexy every day complicates things, but the chemistry between the two is palpable. But are Calvin's feelings real, or is he just trying to act more authentic to pass their immigration interviews?

"It's not until he's said those words that I understand what really draws me to this. It's unlike anything I would ever do. I am shit at taking risks; I'm bored to hell with my life already, and I'm only twenty-five. Maybe the reason I can't write about fictional life is because I haven't actually lived."

From reading this plot summary, you may have suspicions about how the book will unfold, and you'll probably be right. But that doesn't lessen Roomies' appeal. Holland and Calvin seem utterly believable and completely likable, and I found myself quickly getting invested in their story. You want to root for these characters, you want to shake them when they do stupid things or when they don't say the things they should. And that's the appeal of Lauren's storytelling.

Roomies took a little longer to get rolling than some of their other books, but it's still a fun read, and it once again shows me why Christina Lauren is becoming one of my favorite go-to authors.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: "A Charm of Finches" by Suanne Laqueur

Tell me about it. I think I just pulled myself together emotionally, and I finished this book last night!!

Two weeks ago, I read Suanne Laqueur's An Exaltation of Larks (see my review), and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. Amazingly, people told me that as good as this book was, I needed to read Laqueur's follow-up, A Charm of Finches, because it was even better. Some even called it the best book they've read so far this year.

Honestly, that sounds about right. I am loath to compare books, but I can honestly say that A Charm of Finches reminds me a bit of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (an easy pick to be the best book I've read this decade), although it didn't leave me a total emotional wreck. This book is a little more brutal than its predecessor, but it's also a little bit more hopeful, and it illustrates life's beautiful and painful moments so expertly.

"I think love is a big wisdom made up of small understandings."

Javier Landes has never believed himself worthy of love. That's why he was an escort for so long—it was so much easier to keep people at arm's length than allow them to see how vulnerable he truly is. After his first two attempts at love went horribly awry, he's not sure what he wants—until he meets Steffen Finch. They're clearly attracted to one another and enjoy each other's company, but as their relationship intensifies, they both pray they've found the one, although they can't believe how easy it all seems.

"From any direction, any angle, Stef rested on Jav's eyes the way a classic rock song always sounded good to your ears, even for the eight millionth time. You knew the words, you sang without thought, you air guitared or drummed on some available surface. Because you couldn't not. Your ears heard and your soul obeyed. Jav looked at Stef and goddammit, his soul started singing."

An art therapist working with male victims of sexual assault, Stef is excellent at his job, but he's always sought a connection, both physical and emotional, to help bring him back from the brink where his clients' problems take him. The more time they spend together, Stef realizes that Jav provides those connections for him—he just hopes that the anxieties of Jav's past don't keep him from falling as deeply as he wants to.

Stef's newest client is Geno Caan, a young college student whose brutal sexual assault left him psychologically shattered, physically broken, and more alone than he could ever imagine. The things Geno saw and experienced make it unbelievably hard to trust anyone, yet little by little he lets down his guard to let Stef in. But the more Geno becomes attached to Stef, the lines between professional and personal get blurred, and threaten both Stef's relationship with Jav and Geno's recovery.

There is so much more to A Charm of Finches than I've described. It's a beautiful story of finding love and self-worth, of realizing it's okay to depend on others, and of how redemptive that love can be. It's also a story of courage in the most desperate of situations, how our strength somehow allows us not to fully break and keeps us from losing the very best of us, even if it's buried deep under our scars.

This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times (on a plane, no less). Laqueur's ability to pull you into her books so completely, to feel such attachment to her characters that you can't stop thinking about them when you're finished reading, is absolutely dazzling.

Suanne, now that you've hooked me, please say there's another book coming in this series. Don't leave me without Jav and Stef, not to mention Alex and Val, Roger, Stav, Trelawney, Ari, and Deane—how's a person supposed to cope?

Read these books. You've simply got to.

The author provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Book Review: "What We Owe" by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde

Wow. This book packs one hell of a punch.

"There is no future. Think if people knew. You put so much time into planning for the future and then it doesn't even exist. Who would have thought."

Nahid is diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, although the doctors don't know how long it will take for the disease to work its course. As a nurse, she understands what it's like for a patient to receive this type of diagnosis, but she is utterly unprepared for the range of emotions she feels—grief, fear, despair, and overwhelming anger.

As she grapples with her diagnosis, she looks back on the difficult life she has lived. From her days as a participant in the Iranian Revolution, where she experienced significant loss, to living as a refugee in Sweden, her life has always been about sacrifice, none greater than the sacrifices she made for her daughter, Aram.

Now, as Aram tries to take care of her mother, and readies for the birth of her own child, Nahid vacillates between gratitude and jealousy—jealousy that life has been easier for her daughter than her, and jealousy that Aram will live while she will die. But at other times, Nahid is sensitive, tender, wanting only to see her grandchild born before she dies.

"Maybe pain moves in a circle. Maybe I caused her pain to avenge my own."

What do we owe our children? Are the sacrifices we make on their behalf enough? Is it wrong to expect anything in return? And why does it seem that life never gets easier for some, that some people never get the chance to be truly happy and instead spend their lives reliving the difficult and painful moments they have lived instead of experiencing true joy?

What We Owe is a powerful, at times gut-wrenching meditation on these questions. It's a look at how one woman tries coming to terms with the difficult life she has lived, the reflections on whether all that she has suffered has been worth it, and whether that should mean something in the end. At the same time, this is a story about the often-difficult relationship between mothers and daughters, and how guilt and emotion gets caught in the crossfire.

Golnaz Bonde told this story so effectively. There were times I marveled at her turn of phrase (kudos to Elizabeth Jane Clark Wessel, who translated the book) and how well she nailed the range of emotions Nahid felt. It's a difficult book, because occasionally Nahid's anger borders on toxic, and she lashes out at Aram, but then you realize where this anger is coming from, and its history in her system.

This is a tremendously thought-provoking book, one that would be excellent for a book club or discussion group, because in Bonde's hands, there is so much to ponder.