Sunday, September 22, 2019

Book Review: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

What a terrific graphic novel!!

Deja and Josiah are best friends—at least from September 1 through Halloween, and at least while they’re working together at the pumpkin patch. (They don't see each other at all except during that period of time.) Tonight is the last night they’ll work together since both will head off to college next fall.

Josiah can’t imagine a world without the pumpkin patch. Deja doesn’t quite feel THAT strongly, but she’ll miss Josiah, and all the activity, and all of the great food. (Maybe especially the food?)

But tonight, Deja has a plan. It’s not going to be just a typical night. She’s gotten them a shift at a different post rather than the Succotash Hut, where they’ve worked the last three years. She’s determined that Josiah is finally going to talk to the girl in the fudge shop that he’s been mooning over for years. And she’s going to get all of her favorite foods.

Sounds perfect, right?

Of course, nothing quite goes as planned. Along the way they’ll run into a candy-apple-stealing punk, flee an escaped animal, say goodbye to old friends, explore what brought them together as friends, and come to some interesting realizations of their own.

This was so much fun, so charming, and had such a terrifically warm story, and the illustrations really made it feel like fall! Sometimes graphic novels are spare in their narration but this one really worked for me.

I'm a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell's (her new novel comes out 9/24 so I am super excited about that, too) and Pumpkinheads had so many of her trademarks, including a story that had so much heart. I read the book in one sitting and was sad that I was finished.

This is perfect for Halloween lovers and saps like me who love stories of friendship. But you probably shouldn't read this one on an empty stomach!

Book Review: "Bluebird, Bluebird" by Attica Locke

Brooding, atmospheric, and thought-provoking, this was a great read that totally sucked me in.

Darren is a Texas Ranger, a job over which he is constantly conflicted given that he is black and his home state isn’t known for their indulgence of racial minorities. He's kept at arm's length at work as well—trotted out when it's good for public relations but kept out of some sensitive circumstances.

When Darren responds to a call for help from a family friend, it gets him into trouble professionally, since he acted as a Ranger in a personal situation, and personally, since his continued work as a Ranger angers his wife.

A friend in the FBI suggests he head out of town and let the dust settle, and instead look into two murders that have recently rocked the small town of Lark. Both a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman have been pulled from the bayou waters a few days apart, and while some believe the murders are related to people getting involved with those they shouldn’t, the issues that are at play in Lark run much deeper than that.

In trying to figure out who and what was behind the murders, Darren unwittingly stirs up a hornet’s nest of old resentments, racial tensions, love affairs, the blending of bloodlines, and the need to keep secrets. But he also discovers that some of what is driving things forward in Lark hit closer to home than Darren wants to admit. He has to explore his own desire to keep working as a Ranger and decide whether he is willing to give his all to his marriage, given that his wife would rather him return to law school.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a great read. Attica Locke ratchets up the tension and introduces so many possibilities you don’t know what to think. Her characters all have some flaws and don’t pretend otherwise but they’re fascinating to read about. This is a book about love, family, race, loyalty, jealousy, and so much more.

At times the pacing was a little slower than I’d like but I still couldn’t get enough of this. Locke just released a second book featuring Darren, so I’m excited about that, too.

Book Review: "The Flatshare" by Beth O'Leary

This book was just sweet and fun and it made me happy!

Tiffy is in need of a place to live, since she’s lived in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment for far too long, even after he’d begun dating someone else. But since she’s in a low-paying job, there aren’t a lot of options, so a flatshare opportunity makes the most sense.

Leon is a hospice nurse who works nights, and she works days, so they’ll literally never see each other, which is what convinces her to take this opportunity, even if it means sleeping in Leon’s bed (although never with him). Leon's no-nonsense girlfriend Kay handles the transaction, thus ensuring Tiffy and Leon don't even meet. And since Leon will be spending weekends with Kay, there's no reason for any interaction.

The two interact via post-it notes and memos, which grow from basic requests to much more personal conversations. And as each deals with their own crises—Tiffy’s ex can’t seem to let go and is becoming increasingly more possessive, and Leon’s brother is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—amazingly, they are each other’s greatest support, despite having never met each other.

When a missed alarm clock leads to their meet-cute (and meet-wet), they begin to fall for each other. Tiffy brings a free-spiritedness to Leon’s methodical ways, and Leon helps stabilize Tiffy, especially as she begins to realize how much harm her former boyfriend was causing her.

Can love flourish when two people spend more time apart than together, and when they’re so different from one another? When you’ve been hurt before, can you let someone else in and let down your guard?

I really enjoyed this book. Sure, it was predictable, but it was just so (to use a British colloquialism) lovely. At first I was a little off-put at Leon’s way of speaking when he narrated, but ultimately it fit perfectly with his personality.

The Flatshare explored some important issues plus it charmed me completely. It was more than a typical rom-com but yet it never aspired to be anything lofty, just a good story. Can you ask for anything more?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Book Review: "The Rest of the Story" by Sarah Dessen

I've been a huge YA reader for some time now, and as I have selected books through the years, I've seen Sarah Dessen's name pop up. For some reason I had never read any of her books, although she certainly had been named as an author worth reading. So when her newest book, The Rest of the Story, was released, I figured it was time I remedied my unfamiliarity with Dessen's work.

WTF have I been waiting for? All I know is, if her other books are as good as this one, I am seriously going to have to devour her backlist, stat. It's been a while since a nearly 450-page book left me wanting more when I was finished, wishing it was longer so I could spend more time with the characters and know what happened to them after the story ended. But all of this happened with this book.

"There were lots of ways to love someone, I guessed, both by remembering and forgetting."

Emma Saylor's mother was at times both larger than life and withdrawn. She died five years ago, when Emma was 12, but her parents were divorced much earlier than that, and she lived with her father and grandmother.

While there are many things about her mother that Emma has forgotten, she always remembered the stories her mother used to tell her about the lake community where she grew up and met Emma's father. But while it was one big lake, it was like two separate worlds—her mother grew up in working-class North Lake, while her father worked at the yacht club on the prestigious Lake North side.

When Emma goes to stay with her mother's family for a few weeks one summer, it is the first time she has been back to the lake since she was four or five years old. Her large family—maternal grandmother, aunt, cousins—have never forgotten her, but Emma has little memory of any of it. Yet the more time she spends there, the more she feels like she belongs, the more she learns about her mother's life, her parents' relationship, and the stories that she has never heard.

"The past was always present, in its way, and you can't help but remember. Even if you can't remember at all."

While she was born with two names at birth, Emma Saylor, her mother used to call her Saylor, but it's a name she stopped using years ago. But she realizes that Saylor is just as much a part of her, and since that's the name her new-found family calls her, she feels a connection to her past that she hadn't before. And that bridge between the past and the present is embodied in the relationships she builds with her cousins, and the friendship she rekindles with Roo, the boy who was her very best friend when they were little, and whose spell she can't seem to resist now.

It's hard to be caught between two different worlds, especially when there is so much history that transpired which left those you cared about full of hurt and sadness. Yet Emma is determined to have the life her father wants to give her, while at the same time, she doesn't want to lose her connections to her past, or the people who were such a special part of it. But that won't be easy, and others may get hurt in the process.

I literally was hooked on this book from the very first sentence. Even though there were a few instances in which the foreshadowing was a little too obvious and you knew eventually what would transpire in certain situations, Dessen captured me completely with this story and these characters. Having lost my birth mother at a very young age, I identified with some of the characters a great deal, and it made the story even more poignant and emotional.

I love the way Dessen writes. Her characters aren't too witty and sophisticated that they seem like caricatures or transplants from a John Green novel. And while there might not be a lot of surprises, I just felt right at home in the middle of the story. And as far as I'm concerned, you can't ask for more than that.

So, Dessen fans, which one of her books should I read next?

Book Review: "Frankly in Love" by David Yoon

Frankly in Love is a fascinating look at love, friendship, cultural identity, parent-child relationships, and prejudice. I had been waiting for this book to come out for a while, and David Yoon certainly didn't disappoint me!

Frank Li is smart and funny, a first-generation American who tries hard to be a good son and a good friend. His parents want him to study hard and especially meet a nice Korean girl, so he doesn’t get disowned like his older sister.

Of course, life doesn’t happen the way we plan, and when Frank falls for his classmate, Brit, he wishes he could just be with her and not have to deal with his parents’ prejudice. Instead, he and Joy, the daughter of his parents’ friends, who is dating a Chinese student, concoct a scheme to help them both. They pretend to date in order to have the freedom to spend time with their real dates. But of course, they don't clue either their boyfriend or girlfriend into the scheme, or why it's even necessary.

When his life takes an unexpected turn, Frank must decide what’s most important in life—doing what’s right or doing what makes him happy—and if he can reconcile the two. He also must come to terms with his parents’ view of the world, and how it shapes his own identity. This is really thought-provoking, as it examines how everyone has some level of prejudice, and how it often comes from fear of losing one’s own cultural identity.

Yoon is a terrific writer. This book is funny and emotional, and even difficult to read at times, because you just wish Frank could say what he needs to to those who need to hear it, instead of causing problems by avoiding difficult subjects. Like many YA books, the characters are far more witty and erudite than real teenagers—but these are the smart students, so maybe this is the way these kids talk nowadays? (He asks as he tells those rotten kids to get off his lawn.)

David Yoon and his wife, Nicola Yoon, the amazing author of The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, are quite the YA power couple. You must read both of their books!!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: "Her Secret Son" by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Suspenseful and poignant, this is a powerful look at what makes a family—genetics or love.

Josh and Grace have been together for a number of years now. They’re deeply in love and Josh couldn’t love Grace’s seven-year-old son, Logan, any more if he were Josh’s biological child.

When Grace dies in an accident, Josh’s life is turned upside down. Not only is he overcome with grief, but he needs to help Logan come to terms with his mother’s death. Given all the turmoil in both of their lives, it seems like the perfect time for Josh to formally become Logan’s legal guardian. He and Grace had discussed it but something always seemed to get in the way. But as Josh searches for information on Logan’s birth, he is overwhelmed at what he uncovers about Grace, not to mention Logan.

How can this be the woman he loved? He starts realizing that there were real reasons Grace never wanted to formalize his guardianship of Logan. But why? What kept her from revealing the truth to him?

"If Dad had been there, he'd have talked in clichés, said I was completely off my rocker and I should let sleeping dogs lie. Trouble was, over the years I'd found when those sleeping dogs eventually woke up, they'd grown into oversize, snarling beasts that bit me in the ass. The only way to tame them was to get in control, and that would happen only if I had more of the missing pieces to Grace and Logan's puzzle."

Even though his life is rocked, he’ll do everything in his power to fight for Logan. He’ll stop at nothing—no matter what that means.

There were lots of twists and turns in this book which kept me guessing. I didn’t love all of the decisions that Josh made, and there were one or two surprises that blindsided me. But at its core I couldn’t get enough of this story of love, emotion, grief, and the bond between father and son.

Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours, Hannah McKinnon, and MIRA for providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Pick this up!!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book Review: "After the Flood" by Kassandra Montag

"When I think of those days, of losing the people I've loved, I think of how my loneliness deepened, like being lowered into a well, water rising around me as I clawed at the stone walls, reaching for sunlight. How you get used to being at the bottom of a well. How you wouldn't recognize a rope if it was thrown down to you."

This book was utterly amazing. Beautifully written, bleak, tremendously poignant, and full of lyrical imagery and memorable characters, it is hard to believe that After the Flood is Kassandra Montag's debut novel. But the more you read, the more you become fully immersed in this story you realize that debut novel or not, this is one of those books you'll think about and talk about for years to come.

Just over a century from now, our world has been taken over by massive flooding which obliterated much of the landscape, leaving only mountains and random pieces of land scattered through our world, with whole cities left underwater. Myra and her young daughter Pearl live off their small boat, fishing and salvaging to make ends meet, finding people to trade with in the few outposts that are left. It's a bleak existence and Myra always exercises an abundance of caution, because the floods left many lawless people in their wake.

For seven years, Myra has mourned her older daughter, Row, every single day. Row was taken from Myra by her husband just before a massive flood hit their home in Nebraska. Myra had wanted to wait until her grandfather finished building the boat they would use to keep them safe; Myra's husband was afraid and impatient, so he took Row and never came back. Myra knows the chances that Row is still alive are very slim, and she should just focus all of her energy on keeping Pearl safe and happy, but she can't stop dreaming of the moment when she might have both of her girls together for the first time.

"The world will break you, but it's when you break yourself that you feel you really can't heal."

When Myra hears that Row (or at least someone resembling her) was spotted recently at a settlement near Greenland, she is desperate to risk everything to bring about a potential reunion with her daughter. She connects with Daniel, a troubled yet kind man with secrets and regrets of his own, and then they have to find another ship on which to make the perilous journey. When they meet Abran and his crew, she knows she has to hide her real reasons for wanting to travel so far, but she has no choice but to deceive them in order to rescue her daughter.

But there is no guarantee the ship will make it all the way there, because along the way they must battle the elements, bands of raiders bent on revenge for earlier slights, and the uncertainty of whom among them should be trusted. What will they find when they arrive at this colony? Will there be disease, killers, a lack of resources, or, perhaps worst of all, no trace of humanity?

After the Flood certainly is bleak and I kept waiting for things to completely fall apart, yet there certainly is an element of hope in the book as well—hope that Myra will be able to find Row, hope that the ship will make it where it needs to go relatively unscathed, hope that they can perhaps build a new community when they arrive. I honestly couldn't get enough of this story.

This reminded me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in its exquisite telling of how far a parent would go for their children, but Montag's imagery, her language, and her weaving of present and past made the story unique at the same time. The pacing may seem a little slow at times but it worked well for me.

Simply put, this book is worth all the hype it will get. I won't be able to put it out of my mind anytime soon.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Book Review: "The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone" by Felicity McLean

If you're looking for a mysterious, quirky book that may leave you with more questions than answers, Felicity McLean's The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone may be just the ticket for you!

"We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of dome half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn't the one we were trying to recall to begin with."

In the summer of 1992, Tikka Malloy and her older sister, Laura, were living in a suburban Australian town. Tikka was 11-1/6 years old, and she and Laura spent most of their time with their best friends, Ruth, Hannah, and Cordelia Van Apfel. At the time, the country was obsessed with the Lindy Chamberlain case (she of the "dingo took my baby"), but that summer, something major happened to Tikka and Laura: one night during a school concert, all three Van Apfel sisters disappeared.

Despite an exhaustive search, no sign of the girls was ever found. Did their odd, strict, evangelical parents have something to do with their disappearance? Did they run away? Was a stranger responsible? The town, and the Malloy sisters, are left with no answers, a fact that haunts them all these years later.

When 20 years later Tikka returns to Australia to see her sister, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, of course their memories turn to the Van Apfel girls' disappearance. And it is only with years of perspective on the mystery that Tikka and Laura begin to make sense of some events which occurred before the girls went missing, and they can finally start to process clues they might not have understood when they were younger.

This is a fascinating, well-told book which switches back and forth between 1992 as the girls' disappearance unfolds, and 2012, as Tikka tries to come to terms with the events of that summer. McLean creates some truly memorable characters to inhabit this story, and she certainly raises more than a healthy share of questions about what happened to the Van Apfel girls. (Ultimately the reader is left with two potential scenarios.)

What's interesting about this book is the fact that so much is seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Tikka, so you're not quite sure if what is being presented is accurate or simply her perceptions of what occurred. That adds to the mystery and poignancy of the story, as does the feeling of guilt that Tikka and Laura share, for perhaps not divulging all of the things they knew back then.

McLean does such a terrific job with evocative imagery; Australia is, of course, such a fascinating and beautiful place, and McLean certainly helps you to see everything in your mind's eye. She also has created such a unique story, full of answers and questions, and it's one that will stick in my mind for some time to come.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone will make you think and it will fill you with nostalgia for the simpler days of your youth and childhood friendships. But it will also haunt you a bit and make you wonder how you might react if you were faced with the same situation that Tikka and Laura were.

Algonquin Books provided me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "Well Met" by Jen DeLuca

Huzzah, Jen DeLuca! Huzzah indeed!!

Emily’s life is kind of at a dead end. Her fiancĂ© ended their engagement, leaving her with nowhere to live, and really no prospects. When her older sister is in an accident, Emily drops everything—not that it's too big a sacrifice—and heads to Willow Creek, a small town in Maryland, to care for her sister and her teenage niece, Caitlin.

Taking care of all of her sister and niece's needs makes Emily feel like she has a purpose again. Since her sister is so much older, they're finally getting the chance to build a relationship. And when Caitlin wants to work at the town’s renaissance faire for the summer, Emily has to accompany her, but she doesn't mind. She gets to play a serving wench at the faire’s tavern and she finds herself enjoying all of it.

All of it except Simon. During the year he's an English teacher, but he also runs the faire, which was his older brother’s legacy. He doesn’t tolerate any suggestions for changes and he certainly isn’t interested in Emily’s ideas or even her jokes. In fact, it seems like he just wants Emily to leave as quickly as possible.

But when the faire officially begins, something inexplicable happens. Why does Simon’s pirate character take such delight in flirting with Emily’s wench? It only seems to happen when they're in character. Is all of this just for show, or is there something else happening here?

As Emily struggles with her feelings for Simon, and tries to figure out her future in Willow Creek, she'll realize that living in a small town and having everyone know her business might not be as bad as she thought. But more than that, she'll discover that sometimes loving somebody means giving them the space to figure out their own problems and solutions, no matter how much you want to help.

I loved this book. Sure, it was predictable, but the fact is, it was fun, charming, romantic, sexy, and emotional, too. DeLuca captured the setting and tone of a renaissance faire so perfectly I felt like I was right there in the woods alongside everyone. Beyond that, reading Well Met made me crave one of those giant turkey legs, too!!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: "You Asked for Perfect" by Laura Silverman

Before I talk about the many reasons I loved this book, can we discuss that Laura Silverman shares her grandmother's matzo ball soup recipe at the end? I cannot wait to make it because matzo ball soup is one of my favorite things IN THE WORLD.

Okay, I'm done.

"When I signed up for classes freshman year, no one told me that straight As, volunteer hours, and time in the arts aren't enough. No one told me I'd have to know every answer to every test and also be a 'unique individual' following my life's calling at seventeen."

Ariel Stone is a senior in high school. He's expected to be the valedictorian of his class—although that's a very hard-fought battle with his friend and rival, Pari—he's first-chair violinist, a volunteer at an animal shelter, a model congregant at his temple (despite looking at his phone when the services drone on a bit), a loving son and brother, and a devoted best friend. He's planning to apply to Harvard and he knows he can't let down his guard one iota senior year or they may reject him.

"I used to get good grades with minimal effort. And I bought into the hype, thought I was awesome. But then the AP classes stacked up. And as the work pressed down on me, I saw through my own bullshit. No one just gets As in all their classes. It's a lie we were telling each other and ourselves."

For some reason, the pressure is starting to get to Ariel and his carefully built plans are starting to crack, little by little. He's studying as hard as he always has, giving everything to all of his classes, yet he's struggling more and more and he doesn't know why. When he fails a calculus quiz, which could jeopardize his chance of being valedictorian (not to mention getting into Harvard), he enlists Amir, a fellow student and family friend, to tutor him.

Ariel discovers that he really doesn't like calculus, but he enjoys spending time with Amir. They are attracted to each other and have real chemistry together, but Ariel can't imagine adding the pressures of a relationship to everything else he's struggling with. However, he wants to be with Amir, so he adds it to his ever-growing list of commitments and obligations. It will all work its way out, right?

You Asked for Perfect is a tremendously accurate depiction of the pressures facing young adults today, pressures that they sometimes put on themselves. At times reading the book made me a little tense because I felt such empathy for Ariel and his friends as they struggled with their challenges. Silverman did such a great job capturing those emotions, the desperate need to be successful in everything, to be a good son and brother and boyfriend and friend on top of it all, that you can't help but lose your grip.

This book moved me. I really cared about these characters and honestly, would love to see what happened to them after the story ended. Silverman imbues this book with so much heart and emotion, and I couldn't get enough of it—I devoured the book in just a few hours. There were so many places where she could have gone for melodrama and she didn't, and that is really the mark of a talented and assured storyteller. I also loved the way that there was so much diversity among the characters yet Silverman didn't make a big deal out of it.

While I wasn't near valedictorian in my high school class and Harvard wasn't an option for me, I still identified with many of the emotions and situations Ariel dealt with. You Asked for Perfect made me think and it made me feel, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Book Review: "Last Summer" by Kerry Lonsdale

Whoa.

Ella Skye is a journalist for Luxe Avenue magazine, a job which allows her to interact with celebrities, politicians, artists, scientists, anyone making news. She's never been above using her sex appeal, her intelligence, and her cunning to get what she wants—even her husband Damien, the handsome, high-profile owner of an internet security firm.

But one night she wakes up in the hospital, dealing with a story even she doesn't want to handle. Apparently she was in a car accident and she miscarried her baby after more than five months of pregnancy. She discovers that not only can't she remember the accident or the events leading up to it, but worse than that, she doesn't even remember being pregnant.

Her selective amnesia is devastating to Ella, and it puts a serious strain on her relationship with Damien. It's almost as if he doesn't believe that she can't remember being pregnant, like somehow she's forgetting on purpose. Months after the accident her memory is no better.

"Our minds can be sneaky. They'll plant false memories when we can't make sense of something and bury others when we can't deal. Your memories are there, but for whatever reason, you can't retrieve them."

When Ella gets the opportunity to pick back up a writing assignment that had been shelved, focusing on Nathan Donovan, the handsome host of a now-canceled wilderness survival program, she jumps at it. Not only will this exclusive help advance her career at the magazine, but when she realizes she has no memories of this man at all despite having spent two weeks with him, she wonders if somehow he is the key to retrieving her lost memories.

Why can't Ella remember being pregnant? Why can't she remember Nathan, despite the fact that she shared with him some of the most intimate details of her life? Is this amnesia really the result of the accident, or did something else occur? Ella finds herself at a crossroads as she tries to figure out whether she and Damien still have a future, and if she can ever recapture her past.

Kerry Lonsdale's Last Summer was really fascinating and it hooked me from start to finish. While some of the plot is fairly predictable, Lonsdale threw some twists in as well, but it is her storytelling that drives this book. I didn't necessarily like any of the characters the more I got to know them, but I absolutely needed to know how (and if) Lonsdale was going to tie everything up.

Sometimes when I read books I can totally see them as movies, and Last Summer is definitely one of those. It's a compelling story you won't be able to get out of your mind—unless you're Ella, that is!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Book Review: "The Plus One" by Sarah Archer

Kelly is a robotics engineer. She's smart and ready to go places with her career, but her interpersonal skills aren't always the strongest. She winds up making a mess out of her encounters with people, even when she doesn't mean to. Even her best friend Priya thinks she's socially awkward, even though she knows Kelly means well.

"It would be so much simpler if everyone could just do what she did and suppress their emotions, stuffing them in the back of the closet, right next to the childhood traumas and the performing-in-your-third-grade-play-naked-and-then-all-your-teeth-fall-out dreams."

The problem is, Kelly's younger sister is getting married, and their mother, a wedding consultant who owns a bridal shop, is in absolute heaven as she plans and controls every aspect of the wedding. This includes ensuring Kelly has a suitable date, which is an issue of concern for her mother, because Kelly's dating history is, well, shaky.

Kelly doesn't quite understand all of the craziness surrounding her finding a wedding date. She isn't all that interested in dating anyway. But when a night of clubbing with Priya ends unsuccessfully (although she met a handsome man who introduced her to his boyfriend) and the latest blind date her mother arranged ends in disaster, Kelly decides to take matters into her own hands—literally.

Using her engineering skills and the myriad different parts in the robotics lab, Kelly builds herself a wedding date. Ethan is incredibly handsome, courteous, caring, and he grows more intelligent with each interaction. He is utterly devoted to Kelly and, strangely, she feels more comfortable around him, too. Ethan charms those around him, including Kelly's mother, and no one suspects that he isn't human.

Even though the plan is to disconnect him after her sister's wedding, Kelly realizes she enjoys being with someone and having someone care about her, even if he isn't real. As her relationship with Ethan starts to interfere with her relationships and her job, she knows she has to follow her original plan. But she doesn't count on her mother's continued pressure, and she's utterly unprepared for how she's falling for Ethan. How can she simply take him apart when she cares about him so much?

I thought this was an absolutely charming, silly, sweet book. So many of us have felt the pressures Kelly did, and although we might not have the intelligence or skills to engineer the same solution she did, I definitely identified with a lot of the emotions she felt. Sure, I had to suspend my disbelief, and I kept expecting everything to blow up, but I really enjoyed the way Sarah Archer laid this story out.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you knew everything was going to go awry and you were worried about what might happen but at the same time you couldn't look away? That's exactly how I felt reading The Plus One. It almost felt like I was reading with my hands half over my eyes!

This book brought a new, fun twist to the rom-com genre and I really enjoyed it. If you can embrace the fun side of the book without delving too deeply into what's possible, you'll definitely enjoy it, too.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Book Review: "When Dimple Met Rishi" by Sandhya Menon

I’ve been meaning to read this for a few years; now that I devoured it in one night, I don’t know what took me so long. I loved this book and it totally captured my heart!!

Dimple Shah is ready to break away from her traditional parents, who seem to want nothing more than for her to marry an IIH (Ideal Indian Husband) and give them grandchildren. But seeing as she just graduated high school, she’s definitely not ready for that—if she ever will be. She doesn't believe that her value can only be determined by her looks or the type of man she marries; she knows she is intelligent and wants to make a real contribution to society.

Even though her parents let her go to Stanford she knows they’re just hoping she meets the right boy. All her mother is worried about is if she'll remember to wear makeup to class and fix her hair appropriately. But then her parents let her go to a summer web coding workshop, so perhaps they get her just a little, right?

Rishi Patel has the soul and talent of an artist, but as the oldest son, he knows he must do what is practical and pursue a career which will allow him to provide for a family and care for his parents someday. Even though some think them old-fashioned, he is actually enamored of many of the traditions of his culture and doesn't care if it seems weird to follow them.

When Rishi finds out his future wife will be attending a summer workshop, he decides to attend too so he can woo her. He has no idea what he's in for!

You can probably guess where things will go from here. Suffice it to say that When Dimple Met Rishi is a heartfelt, fun, romantic, and thought-provoking look at our obligations to our family and to our cultural traditions. It’s also a terrifically enjoyable, utterly engaging rom-com with memorable characters.

This book really hit the spot for me and I devoured it in a matter of hours. Could I pretty much chart what I thought would happen? Sure, but there were a few surprises, too. These characters had flaws and were so real and appealing, and Sandhya Menon makes you root for them.

Some people have really torn this book apart, particularly Rishi's character, because of his desire to adhere to the old-fashioned traditions. The truth is, there are some teenagers who do feel that way, so I felt that Menon's depiction was actually more realistic than going with the assumption that every teenager rebels against tradition.

When Dimple Met Rishi left me with a smile on my face and maybe a tear or two in my eyes. I’ll definitely be reading Menon’s follow-up now!!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Review: "The Arrangement" by Robyn Harding

Natalie has always wanted to be an artist, perhaps even an illustrator of children's books. She's proud of herself for moving from her small town in Washington to New York City to study, finally getting away from her mother and stepfather and their perfect children, and the possessive boyfriend who wanted to control her.

She loves New York City but is struggling financially. Between tuition, rent, and regular expenses, she can never seem to get her head above water, and in fact, is more in debt than she'd care to be, which doesn't please her two difficult, judgmental roommates, who are searching for any excuse to kick her out. She's working as hard as she can but she doesn't know how it's all going to work.

One day, when discussing her financial woes, a classmate of hers shares a suggestion that has worked for her: become a sugar baby. Nat can put up a profile on a website geared for men looking for attractive younger women to pay for dates and companionship. She could control what she does (and how much she'd get paid for it), and perhaps she could even find a man willing to pay her a monthly allowance to be exclusive.

At first, Nat is absolutely horrified by this concept. There's no way she would find an older man attractive or be willing to do anything, no matter how badly she needs the money. But her opinion changes quickly when she meets Gabe Turnmill, a handsome, powerful attorney who is 30 years Nat's senior. Even though Gabe is paying her to go out with him, she feels like he understands her and views her as more than a sugar baby.

As they spend more time with each other, Nat begins falling in love with Gabe, and she's sure that he feels the same way. But she doesn't know that Gabe hasn't told her the whole truth—that he's actually still married—and he has no intention of walking away from his marriage and his teenage daughter, no matter how attractive he finds Nat and how much she seems to need him.

When Gabe breaks it off with Nat, he expects she'll walk away like all of the other women before her have. He isn't counting on how strongly she feels for him, and how angry she is that he is trying to simply discard her. She thought, despite their arrangement, that things were different, and she vows to make him pay, even while she begs him to take her back. But Gabe isn't going to let anyone jeopardize the life he has built—no matter what that requires.

The Arrangement is a fast-paced, completely addictive story about the thin line between love and obsession, and how easy it is to put aside all logical thought for the sake of sex, love, and/or money. It's the story of protecting yourself and not letting anyone get the best of you, while at the same time it's an insightful commentary on the sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship which is very real in our society today.

While I wouldn't call this a thriller per se, it definitely has some twists and turns, some I saw coming and some I didn't. Robyn Harding doesn't pull any punches when she gives her characters flaws, yet in some small way you feel badly for them when things don't quite go their way. This was one of those books I didn't want to put down, and if I were on a plane I would have easily finished it in one sitting—it's that compelling.

This is the first of Harding's books I've read and it certainly won't be the last. It's a bit of a cross between Pretty Woman and Fatal Attraction, although it's still very much its own book. Pick it up and you probably won't want to put it down!

Book Review: "You've Been Volunteered" by Laurie Gelman

Jen Dixon from Laurie Gelman’s first book, Class Mom, returns for another year as class mom, this time for her son’s third-grade class.⁣

⁣ With Jen as class mom you may not get satisfying answers to all of your questions, and you may get smart-ass replies, but you know her heart is (mostly) in it. And although the PTA president doesn’t always agree with Jen’s communication style, she knows she can count on Jen to do what must be done—even handle the safety patrol.⁣

⁣ When she’s not sending out snarky reminders about permission slips, seeking volunteers for class trips, or haranguing parents about what they need to bring for parties, she’s got more than enough to deal with in her own family. Whether it’s dealing with her son’s suddenly snarky behavior, having to navigate her husband’s increased financial anxiety, or figuring out what’s going on with her two older daughters, Jen’s in-your-face style will get her through—or she’ll fall on her sword.⁣

⁣ This was an enjoyable, amusing book. I chuckled more than laughed out loud, and again, I wondered whether Jen’s behavior would actually fly at a real school. Regardless, Gelman writes in an easy, approachable style, one which engaged me from start to finish.⁣

Book Review: "A Nearly Normal Family" by M.T. Edvardsson

How far would you go to save a family member? Are there lines you wouldn’t cross?⁣

⁣ “It takes a long time to build a life, but only an instant for it to crumble.”⁣

⁣ The Sandells seemed like every other family—Adam was a pastor, Ulrika was a lawyer, and their 18-year-old daughter, Stella, caused them some challenges and stresses through the years. But nothing prepared them for how their lives would be derailed when Stella is arrested for murder—the brutal murder of a man in his 30s, with whom she apparently had some sort of relationship.

⁣ ⁣ At times both parents make split-second decisions to try and save their daughter. Is she really innocent? Are they doing the right thing, or are they really enabling her? Will their actions help or harm their family?⁣

⁣ M.T. Edvardsson pulls the curtain back on this story little by little. First we see things through Adam’s eyes, then Stella’s, and finally, through Ulrika’s. This gives you multiple perspectives on the same events.⁣

⁣ There are lots of twists and turns in this book and I wasn’t sure how everything would tie up. The pacing was a little slow but this was a very compelling read.⁣

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Book Review: "Permanent Record" by Mary H.K. Choi

Pablo Neruda Rind, or Pab for short, is a somewhat-rudderless, half-Korean, half-Pakistani college dropout with a mound of credit card debt. He works the graveyard shift at a 24-hour upscale bodega in Brooklyn and spends a good deal of time wondering what to do with his future.

Should he reapply to NYU despite not being able to afford it (much less afford his rent)? Should he get a job? Should he move back in with his mother, who hasn't yet forgiven him for dropping out?

All of the questions about the path he should take, coupled with the letters and phone calls from bill collectors, tend to overwhelm him. He tries to content himself with inventing unique snack combinations for his Instagram feed. (Snack foods are his jam.) He also is trying to figure out how to navigate his relationships with his tiger mother and his laissez-faire father.

And then one winter morning at 5:00 a.m. during one of Pab's bodega shifts, she walks in. Leanna Smart—former child star who transitioned to pop star and social media celebrity—shows up in his store. Alone. No entourage. But she does accumulate an impressive supply of snacks.

The two trade jokes, roll their eyes at the world, and flirt. This is a relationship destined to go nowhere because they couldn't come from two more different worlds. But they can't resist each other. So they take a leap, which leads them on a journey that is at once spontaneous, magical, emotional, and fraught with trouble.

Permanent Record is funny, poignant, thought-provoking, and a little ridiculous, but it's an insightful commentary on our celebrity- and social media-obsessed culture, and how difficult it is to let someone see your true self. This book started a little slow but definitely picked up steam as it went on.

Mary H.K. Choi's first book, Emergency Contact, was one of the best books I read last year. She has such an ear for dialogue and while the characters here are tremendously erudite, sarcastic, and whip-smart, it works for the book considering who the characters are. I also felt that while some of the situations that occurred were silly the relationships between Pab and his family seemed genuine.

The characters are fun and you root for them, and at the same time, you want to smack them when they're acting like idiots. Pab isn't really very sympathetic through a good portion of the book and his near-total paralysis toward his future and the financial situation he's in, as well as the way he treats people really wore on me a bit.

Choi is a tremendously talented writer, and while Permanent Record didn't quite wow me as her first book did, I really enjoyed it, and read most of it on a long flight. She remains one of the authors whose work I'm most excited to follow.

Simon & Schuster provided an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book publishes September 3, 2019.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Review: "One True Loves" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

As if I wasn't a huge fan of hers after reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and The Six, reading this book has further convinced me that Taylor Jenkins Reid is a freaking goddess, y'all!

Emma Blair wants nothing more than to get as far away from her small New England town and her parents’ dream of her taking over the family bookstore. When she meets Jesse in high school and they fall in love, she finds the key to her dreams.⁣ They move to California and begin exploring the world after college.

⁣ They marry in their 20s, having experienced so much of what they both dreamed of. One day short of their 1st anniversary, Jesse gets on a helicopter for a job. The helicopter goes down and everyone, including Jesse, is presumed dead. Emma is utterly overwhelmed by her grief. She decides to move back home and take the path her parents wanted. Suddenly it all makes sense to her and as the years pass, this life seems right.⁣

"Do you ever get over loss? Or do you just find a box within yourself, big enough to hold it? Do you just stuff it in there, push it down, and snap the lid on it? Do you just work, every day, to keep the box shut?"

⁣ When she connects again with Sam, a friend from high school, a few years after Jesse's death, she realizes she might have another chance at happiness. She knows she'll never be completely over Jesse, but she can't spend her life mourning him either. Emma and Sam fall in love and get engaged, and look forward to their future together.

And then Jesse is found alive, ready to get back to the life he and Emma had before the helicopter crash. Now she has a husband and a fiancé, and she doesn't know what to do about either of them.

⁣ ⁣ "I don't think that true love means your only love. I think true love means loving truly. Loving purely. Loving wholly."

One True Loves is an amazing book about love, grief, family, and finding your way after setbacks. I read the entire book on a plane and loved every incredibly emotional, well-written page.⁣ Sure, I was able to predict where the plot is going to go, but I loved these characters so much I didn't care. I couldn't get enough of this beautiful love story.

If you've never read anything by Taylor Jenkins Reid, you need to remedy that, stat. Now that I fell in love with this book, I plan to explore more of her backlist, since all of her recent work is so fantastic.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Book Review: "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo

"The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance."

Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X was easily one of the best books I read last year. This novel-in-verse moved and dazzled me, and it is a book I still think about quite often. Her new book, With the Fire on High, is written in traditional prose, and I am equally blown away by what Acevedo created.

Ever since she got pregnant her freshman year of high school, Emoni Santiago has always put the needs of others before her—her daughter, her abuela, her best friends. She has always worked harder than anyone else, to prove to everyone that she can make her own way and take care of her daughter, and that one wrong choice shouldn't doom your life forever.

The one place where Emoni feels most alive is the kitchen. When she cooks, she is a dynamo, taking recipes and twisting them in her own novel ways, inspiring those who eat her food with inexplicable emotions and memories. If she has any dreams of her own, one is to someday become a chef, although she knows the amount of work may be too much for a young woman raising a child.

"'Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don't know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I'm happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It's the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty. And something special does happen when I'm cooking."

When Emoni gets the chance to take a culinary arts elective during her senior year, she is more excited than she's really ever been where school is concerned. The chef-instructor is impressed by her creativity and her innate sense when cooking, but he wants her to learn how to follow instructions, to understand the fundamentals of cooking, and she isn't sure that learning is better than actually having the chance to just do. But she can't imagine not having the opportunity to cook every day.

In addition to struggling to care for her daughter, make enough money to help her abuela, and study so she might get into a good college, Emoni also must decide how to handle the attentions of Malachi, a handsome, intelligent transfer student. She also has to deal with the challenges of family, particularly the demands of her baby's father and her own father's tendencies to stay away. But through all of that, Emoni focuses on the magic she can create while cooking, magic which links her own heritage and her connection to her mother, who died when she was born.

With the Fire on High is utterly exceptional, moving, compelling, and so entertaining. This is a book about proving yourself, about the obligations of family, the weight a young woman has to carry, and the things which often go unsaid. It's also a book about courage, support, loss, and staying true to your beliefs, even when everyone around you is trying to convince you to do something different.

Acevedo's prose is truly lyrical and she conveys so much emotion and humor and love in this story. Here's a sentence or two which sums up so much: "Can you miss someone you never met? Of course, the answer is yes."

I really love books about food and cooking, and once again, this one made me hungry. There so many things Emoni and her classmates made that I wanted to taste! But still, I consoled myself with the beauty and heart of this amazing book. Acevedo has a talent that needs to be read, and I can't wait to see what comes next for her!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Book Review: "The Floating Feldmans" by Elyssa Friedland

I love stories about family dynamics and family dysfunction. In Elyssa Friedland's new book, The Floating Feldmans, she brings three generations of a family together with an added twist—they're heading on a cruise to celebrate Annette Feldman's 70th birthday.

Annette decides that it's time for her family to start acting like a family, so she books them all on a Caribbean cruise. She knows there are tensions—she hasn't really forgiven ne'er-do-well son Freddy for calling her a bitch when he got kicked out of college, and her daughter Elise never seems to take her advice or have time for her—but she thinks her birthday is the perfect occasion to bring everyone together.

"She and David had given these children everything, so why did they hate her? She cringed thinking of that word. They didn't hate her. She chastised herself for even thinking it. They loved her, in that biological torrent that eclipses anything environmental. But did they like her? No, probably they did not."

Everyone agreed to go on the cruise—and not just because Annette and her husband were paying—but each is bringing a secret or two, in addition to the resentments they've been harboring for years. And it's not just secrets between the generations—there are secrets between family members as well. Throw all of this into the claustrophobic pressure-cooker of a cruise ship and disaster is sure to strike.

There is a lot going on here—addiction problems, job-related issues, secret relationships, lack of communication, health-related secrets—and ironically, the people they've been the angriest at may be the source of comfort and help in the end. But it's going to take more than midnight buffets to solve these problems!

The Floating Feldmans was a fun, soapy, melodramatic book that once again reminded me why I never want to go on a cruise, especially with my family! You've definitely seen these stories before and you know how everything will unfold, yet in Friedland's hands it doesn't feel like a retread. Amidst the misunderstandings and years-old hurts are real issues and real problems that need to be confronted, things that need to finally be said after going unsaid for so long.

I enjoyed this although I thought the storyline featuring the cruise director was a tangent that wasn't fully formed, so it almost seemed extraneous. This is definitely an engaging story that will hopefully make you thankful your family isn't this crazy!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Book Review: "Thirteen" by Steve Cavanagh

I don't know about you, but I can't resist a thriller with the tagline, "The serial killer isn't on trial: HE'S ON THE JURY!"

Eddie Flynn used to be a conman, but he rehabilitated himself and is now a criminal defense attorney. Through the years his work has put him and those he loves at risk, so he's been debating changing career paths. But then he gets approached to serve as second chair on what is shaping up to be the case of the century: reality television star Bobby Solomon is accused of brutally murdering his actress wife and his chief of security.

Bobby and his wife were on the cusp of major movie stardom. The evidence against him is overwhelming, but he vehemently insists he is innocent. His renowned attorney maintains that the NYPD is trying to frame Bobby for these murders. He believes Eddie can help prove Bobby's innocence by raising doubts about the police's behavior.

Everyone knows this is going to be a tough case, but they don't have any idea what their biggest obstacle is. Joshua Kane is a cold-blooded killer who has actually killed to get himself seated on the jury. He's going to ensure that Bobby is convicted and he won't let anything—or anyone—stop him. As events begin to occur which convince Eddie that there is something truly dangerous happening, he has to figure out how to reveal the real killer without falling prey first. And that won't be easy.

Thirteen had a really cool concept and it featured a pretty ruthless killer. Kane is creepy, easily one of the most memorable villains I've seen in a while. Obviously there's a lot of suspension of disbelief required for this book to work, but it's fortunate that no criminal has thought of the methods Kane used to get on the jury. (Or at least not that we've heard of.)

This is the first book of Steve Cavanagh's I've read, although this is the fourth in his series featuring Eddie Flynn. It definitely can be read as a stand-alone, although now I'm interested in reading his earlier books, because I really like Eddie Flynn's character in particular. Cavanagh definitely threw in lots of twists and turns, some which surprised me and some which I saw coming.

All in all, this was a pretty addicting read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Kiss Quotient" by Helen Hoang

Is my face still red? Boy, this book was seriously STEAMY!! I don't have a problem with sex scenes or anything like that, but I was really unprepared for the intensity of the sex in this book. I guess if I had read the plot summary a little closer I would have known.

Stella Lane is an econometrician. She's most comfortable around her statistics and algorithms. Because she has Asperger's, she's really not comfortable around other people. She's usually very direct and honest, which many people don't like. And where dating is concerned, she fares even worse, because she's no good at small talk and physical contact—and forget about sex. (She likens French kissing to a "shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.")

But with her mother hassling her about grandchildren, pushing her to join Tinder, and setting her up on blind dates, Stella decides to approach her shortcomings in a research-oriented way. She hires an escort to help her improve her confidence as well as her, umm, technical skills. She's unprepared for how handsome, sensitive, and intelligent Michael Phan is, and she's completely unprepared for the feelings he stirs in her.

While Michael has rules about escorting, particularly never seeing a client more than once, Stella does something to him. It's more than her beauty, it's how unaware she is about her sensuality, how focused she is on trying to "master" everything from foreplay to the missionary position and beyond. But as much as he wants to get closer to her, he knows this is just a job, and he has secrets he doesn't want her to know.

As the two draw closer, their feelings for one another become more complicated and they're not sure how to go on. Is it possible their relationship, such as it is, could have a future? Are their feelings for each other true, or are they just borne from their business arrangement?

The Kiss Quotient is a sweet, sexy story about two vulnerable people who are confident with their skills but not sure if they're worthy of love. It's a story about self-confidence and learning to believe you're special and don't deserve to be treated badly. And it's also a story about finding love in the most unlikely of places.

Sure, we've seen stories like this before, although mostly with the genders reversed. That's one of the things I liked so much about this book—Helen Hoang mentions in her author's note that she had a gender-swapped Pretty Woman on her mind for some time before writing this. I also liked the fact that while Stella has Asperger's, and there are certain facets of her personality that factor in the plot, it wasn't the big deal it often is in novels.

I read Hoang's The Bride Test first (even though she wrote it after this one) and I'm really a fan of hers now. I love the sensitivity and complexity she brings to her characters. Even though you know where the story will ultimately go, you enjoy the journey along the way, even if it may make you a little embarrassed to read the book in front of people!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Book Review: "We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories" by R.L. Maizes

I'm a big fan of short stories, but it doesn't seem like there have been many collections this year that have caught my eye. I'll need to remedy that, because every time I read a collection of stories I'm reminded of how much I like this format, and how incredibly writers can create compelling scenarios in just a small number of pages.

I was drawn to R.L. Maizes' debut collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, because of the title, first and foremost. (I do love him, honestly.) But I stayed for the stories. While not all of the 11 stories clicked for me—and one was so short that it seemed like I was missing something—I was so impressed by Maizes' writing, her imagery, and her creativity.

My favorites in the collection included: "Tattoo," about a talented yet struggling artist who turns to tattooing and begins to create designs which become reality; "Couch," which tells of a therapist whose practice—and life—are upended by the purchase of a new couch for her office; "The Infidelity of Judah Macabee," where a man feels betrayed by his cat; "Collections," about an older woman left behind when her companion, whom she cared for, left her with nothing even though she thought of him as her husband; and the title story, which tells of a young man planning to out himself at his bar mitzvah, but isn't sure of the consequences.

Some of the characters in these stories are memorable, some of them are very twisted and even cruel. There are a few stories which might trigger those uncomfortable with animal cruelty, descriptions of animals dying (accidentally and on purpose), murder, and blood. (It's funny, I didn't realize how crazy some of the stories were until I started writing this list!)

The stories I loved in this collection will definitely linger on in my mind. There's no doubt that Maizes is a talented writer with a very bright future, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for her. For those of you who enjoy short stories, you might want to check this collection out!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Book Review: "If I'm Being Honest" by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Cameron Bright, a high school senior, is beautiful, blonde, and popular. She also has a bit of a reputation around school.

"...I've been called that name often enough, under enough breaths, for it not to hurt. Not from a girl like her. It's hardly an uncommon thought here. Cameron Bright's a bitch."

The thing is, while Cameron can be cruel in the way she says things to people, she's really just brutally honest. It's a quality she inherited from her father, whom she never sees, since her parents never lived together, even before she was born. Her father is a tremendous business success, but he's a jerk, and he doesn't mince words—especially not in his interactions with Cameron. Yet she still craves his approval and has planned her future to be closer to him.

One night she's ready to let her good friend Andrew know she has feelings for him. And just as they start getting closer, Cameron has a run-in with Paige, a quirky, moody fellow student, and she lets fly with some cruel insults. Andrew realizes that he isn't interested in being with, well, a bitch, and he suspects that she only wanted to be with him because she finally deemed him socially acceptable.

Devastated by Andrew's rejection, and inspired by her English class's reading of The Taming of the Shrew, Cameron resolves to "tame" herself and prove to Andrew that she's worthy of his attention and has the ability to be a better person. She's determined to make it up to Paige, and then the more she thinks of it, she decides to go back and make amends to all the people she has wronged.

It all seems to start with Brendan, Paige's younger brother, on whom she bestowed a horrible nickname ("Barfy Brendan") years ago, which singlehandedly ruined his social life, leaving him to spend his days in the high school computer lab. As Cameron tries to redeem herself in Brendan's eyes, he wants nothing to do with her at first, until the two start to bond over video games. The more time she spends with Brendan, she realizes that he accepts her, faults and all, and even appreciates her honesty. So why is she trying so hard to change herself for Andrew?

If I'm Being Honest is an utterly charming book about recognizing the fine line between self-improvement and changing yourself completely, and realizing that you shouldn't go changing to try and please someone else. (Thanks, Billy Joel.) It's a story about finding the things that make you happy as opposed to things you believe will make others happy, and believing you are worthy of love and respect.

Sure, you've seen this story before, and you probably can predict how the plot will unfold, but in the hands of Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka, you get hooked on the story from the start. I really liked Cameron's character because she was fairly uncompromising, and while she was a little cruel, it's nice to see a character who speaks her mind, not always with the purpose of hurting others. She has her faults, but there are still so many good qualities in her.

I definitely like the message that this book tries to convey. If I'm Being Honest definitely had me rooting for certain characters and it put me in a good mood, and I was sad when I finished the book. (Plus, any book that has its characters go to The Rocky Horror Picture Show gets points from me!)

This one was a winner!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Book Review: "That's What Frenemies Are For" by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell

Julia Summers is struggling to stay at the apex of her social circle. Even with all of the trappings of luxury she has, from the exceptionally decorated apartment on the Upper East Side to the children in an exclusive private school, she often feels a tiny bit insecure about her social position, so she's always looking for an opportunity to stand out.

Through the years she's been successful, being on the cutting edge of trends she introduces to her friends, or maneuvering to get on certain committees or attend certain events. (Plus, she's not above a cutting insult or two to keep others down.)

This summer she's hit a bit of a rough patch. Their house in the Hamptons needs to be completely renovated so she's stranded in New York City, which means she won't get to attend the parties or be part of the gossip. Plus, her husband's business is in a bit of trouble, which makes them the object of gossip, not the instigators.

But when she meets Tatum, a spin instructor at an up-and-coming boutique gym in her neighborhood, Julia thinks she may have found her next project. Tatum is a small-town girl who moved to New York with big dreams that haven't been realized, and she's desperate to succeed.

Julia realizes that with a makeover, some self-confidence, and some tweaks to her brand, Tatum could reinvent herself and become the type of fitness guru Julia's friends would clamor to patronize. And Julia would get the credit for being the one to bring Tatum to everyone's attention, thus cementing her status as a trendsetter. Plus, Julia can get herself into top shape while everyone's away for the summer. Sounds like a win-win proposition.

Things don't quite go as planned, however. As Julia helps to transform Tatum, she doesn't realize just how rabidly ambitious Tatum is, and how much she desires the kind of life Julia has. She's also unprepared for just how much trouble her husband's business—and her husband himself—may be in, because he doesn't want to discuss it with her.

When Tatum starts shifting the balance of power between her and Julia, she realizes she has what it takes to go even further, and she doesn't care if she leaves Julia in the dust, and she's willing to put her there herself. And when Julia's husband is arrested for fraud and bribery, she suddenly finds herself on the outside looking in, with many of her so-called friends abandoning her.

As Julia tries to readjust her life and cope with her husband's problems and Tatum's agenda, she has to decide whether she wants everything to go back to the way it was, or whether it's time for a bit of a change. Whatever she decides, she's certainly not one to fade away!

That's What Frenemies Are For is a fun, light read, and provides some terrific social commentary. I felt as if Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell did a great job capturing social dynamics of women in certain circles, how precarious your position can be, and how much it depends on what you can offer, whom you know, or what you have. Additionally, having been addicted to spin before I became allergic to the gym (kidding), they really described that culture so perfectly.

I was expecting this to be a little funnier than it was, but I still enjoyed this book. This is the perfect late-summer beach or vacation read—maybe you'll realize that your life is pretty great the way it is, or maybe you'll recognize your social circle in the book. (I don't judge.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Book Review: "The Two Lila Bennetts" by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Given how many books I read, I always love finding one that takes the traditional narrative structure and tweaks it a bit. That's the case with Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke's new thriller, The Two Lila Bennetts, and it's definitely part of the book's appeal.

Lila Bennett is a successful criminal defense attorney. Are some of the clients she defends actually guilty of their crimes? Probably. She doesn't really want to know the answer to that question, but she knows everyone is entitled to a defense, so why shouldn't it be her providing it?

For a lawyer, Lila isn't the most upstanding person. She's definitely made some bad choices, especially in her personal life. She knows she's betrayed some of the people who are closest to her, who've trusted her more than anything, but she can't seem to stop herself. She feels remorse, she really does, but...no one's perfect.

But one night, everything changes—well, sort of. Her life suddenly splits into two. In one life, she is kidnapped, held hostage by someone who knows a lot about her, down to the wine she enjoys a glass or two (or three) of every night. Her captor holds her life in his hands, and demands she atone for her sins, righting her many wrongs. Or else. In the other life, she doesn't get kidnapped, but someone is methodically looking to destroy her, making public all of her misdeeds.

She has to figure out which one of the many people she's hurt and/or betrayed is trying to destroy her, or worse. Will examining her life lead her to be a better person, one who learns from her mistakes, or will she just slip back into her old habits? Does she even want to change? If she does, what does that mean for the life she leaves behind?

One of the strengths of The Two Lila Bennetts lies in the twists and turns that Fenton and Steinke have skillfully crafted, as well as the element of surprise, which explains my briefer-than-usual plot summary. The book alternates chapters between "Free" and "Captured," and the authors ratchet up the tension bit by bit, until you're just dying to figure everything out.

I had never read anything by Fenton and Steinke before, but I really like the way they tell a story, teasing out details little by little. If I struggled with anything, it was that I really didn't like Lila very much, so I had a hard time feeling sympathetic for the ordeals she was going through. But even with an unsympathetic character, the authors made sure I couldn't tear myself away from the book.

This was an addictive thriller that had me racing through to the finish. You'll find yourself hooked on Lila's story, and wondering how it's all going to end. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one wind up as a movie one day!

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Book Review: "Say You Still Love Me" by K.A. Tucker

How many of us would jump at a second chance with a lost love, or wish we had that opportunity at some point in our lives? What would we be willing to risk to see that second chance through?

Piper Calloway is being groomed to take over her father's multibillion-dollar real estate development firm, if he's ever willing to retire. She definitely knows her stuff and can go toe-to-toe with any man in the business, but many believe she's only risen through the ranks of the company because she's the boss's daughter. Since she's beautiful and 29, and a woman, many aren't willing to take her seriously—at their own peril.

As if battling for respect from one of her father's right-hand men isn't hard enough to deal with on a daily basis, she also needs to work closely with David, her ex-fiancé, who is a fellow VP at the firm. He's handsome and intelligent—and he knows it—but Piper's father still hasn't gotten over their ending their engagement, since David is both surrogate son and sidekick. David is just biding his time until Piper realizes the error of her ways.

One day, in the midst of all her daily chaos, she sees a face she hasn't seen since the summer she was 16 years old. Kyle Miller, the handsome, cocky boy who stole her heart when they were summer camp counselors 13 years ago—and then broke her heart when the summer ended and they went their separate ways—has grown into an immensely handsome man. She's never been able to find him on social media, never heard from him again—what is he doing in her building?

"Because, even after all these years, with college and boyfriends, and my career and my engagement to David, Kyle Miller has always been a sliver in my heart, a shadow in my thoughts. A lingering 'what if' that I have never been able to truly shake."

It turns out Kyle is now a security guard in her building, and at first, he didn't seem to even know her name. But when he admits that was an act, he also admits he'd like to keep their relationship formal. Too many years have passed, she's nearly the CEO of the company that owns the building in which he works, and he's just a security guard. Once again, they're on either side of the financial divide, and Kyle would like to keep it that way.

Piper can't seem to shake the feelings that Kyle has reignited. Was this just a summer relationship between two high school kids, not destined to go anywhere, or did it have the potential to be so much more? Why did Kyle cut her off completely, change his name, and disappear, leaving her wondering whether the feelings he told her he had were genuine or just a way to get what he wanted that summer? Can a relationship succeed between two people who are so different that forces will try to keep them apart?

K.A. Tucker's new book, Say You Still Love Me, explores the idea of a second chance years later, when so much has changed, but the people are still the same at their core. Can a teenage relationship from summer camp blossom into something serious, all these years later? Can a relationship in which the participants are so far apart financially ever work? Are there secrets which can keep them apart even now?

The narration shifts between when Piper and Kyle first meet at camp 13 years ago and present day. It also shifts between Piper's attempts to understand Kyle's disappearance and his distance since then and her struggles to succeed outside her father's shadow. It's an exploration of friendship, first love, family, and the secrets that threaten to destroy it all, or which incite us to want to throw it all away.

I read Tucker's last book, The Simple Wild, earlier this year and fell completely in love with it. I was really excited to get the opportunity to read Say You Still Love Me before it was published. I really enjoy the way Tucker writes, and her combination of emotion, humor, and sex is really appealing.

I definitely enjoyed this book, and loved the concept (especially having gone to summer camp for 10 seasons and seen many couples from that time married now), but I honestly could have done without the narration from camp. I felt that part of the story dragged and took far too long to tell. I understood Tucker was setting the scene but it seemed to just be the same things over and over again.

More and more, I'm becoming a fan of rom-coms, and Tucker is definitely an author I'll turn to again and again. Say You Still Love Me was an enjoyable, emotional read that brought a tear to my eye.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book publishes August 6, 2019.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Q&A with Megan Goldin, author of "The Escape Room"


1. How did you become inspired to write The Escape Room?

There were a number of inspirations that led to me writing The Escape Room. First of all, I’d had my third baby and, for the first time since my working life began, I'd taken a year or so out of the workforce to be with him. When I started looking to go back to work, I interviewed for a job for which I should have been a serious candidate as my experience closely matched the job description and I'd done something similar before for a similar company. Instead, the interviewer ate snack food throughout the interview with, let's just say, very bad table manners. He crunched particularly loudly every time that I spoke. I drew on this experience when I wrote about the job interview from hell that Sara Hall went through in The Escape Room. It made me feel powerless. I told friends about what happened and they shared with me their own horror stories in the workplace. It made me want to explore sexism in the workplace in my next novel. It also inspired the idea of a revenge theme. I liked the idea of someone who is beaten down by the system making a comeback.

Around that time I was also stuck in an elevator. I’d gone shopping with my kids. I had a cart full of food. The elevator stopped and the lights went off. It took a couple of minutes until we were able to get out but it was a dark, cold, and frightening couple of minutes in that elevator. I’d been thinking about a setting for this thriller revenge story that I had in mind. It struck me that the elevator was a perfect setting. I was fired up by the challenge of setting a novel in an elevator. It also served my purpose well. I wanted to put my characters in a pressure-cooker atmosphere where animosity would build as they learned each other’s secrets. An elevator was perfect.

2. What was your research process like when writing about the financial industry in the U.S?

When I research my books, I apply journalism skills acquired over the years. That means immersing myself in whatever information I can get ahold of. I read books, newspaper articles, elevator manuals, and even journal studies on human psychology. I also followed forums for investment bankers and others working in the financial industry and some of their social media feeds. I spoke with people who worked in the world of finance and also drew on material that I’d collected in the past. For example, there were big name investment banks in my previous office building and I’d often overhear bankers and brokers chatting in the elevator about their personal lives and work, or in my condominium building where many of them lived. I tend to write and research at the same time as I don’t plan my novels other than the story arc. As the story evolves on the pages while I write, I’ll stop writing for a few hours and branch out to research whatever might be relevant for the novel. In the case of The Escape Room, that included issues such as ‘game theory’ and things as mundane as technical manuals about elevator safety mechanisms and issues related to guns and ballistics. The research is one of the fun parts of writing a novel. I get to learn new things and it breaks up the intensity of writing.

3. Are there any authors that you most look up to?

There is an endless list of authors, from crime and thriller writers, to literary fiction, classics, and non-fiction. Now that I am writing myself, I tend to analyze other books as I read. I look at plot, structure, character, voice, and various other writing techniques. Even as a journalist, I always saw writing as a constant process of learning and refining. I think it’s a lifelong endeavor. Among my favorites is John le Carre. I consider his novels master classes in suspense writing and I often reread them. Yuval Noah Harari's series, starting with Sapiens, was another inspiration behind The Escape Room, as I’d been reading it and watching Yarari's lectures on Youtube. It made me look at office culture through a prism of evolutionary biology. Offices are a modern-day human habit and the backbiting office politics is really a case of survival of the fittest.

4. If The Escape Room was to become a movie, which actor or actress would you like to play some of the roles?

Well, a close friend just suggested Bradley Cooper for Vincent! Or perhaps Colin Farrell, Ryan Gosling or Jesse Eisenberg for Sam and Jules. As for actresses, maybe Jennifer Lawrence for Sylvie, or Anne Hathaway or Margot Robbie for Sara Hall. Lucy could be Emily Blunt.

5. Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?

I am working on my next book. It's also a thriller and it addresses contemporary themes but it's quite different from The Escape Room. I'm a little hesitant about how much to divulge at this point until it's done.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

I'm extremely touched by all the support and feedback that I've been getting from so many bloggers and reviewers who are passionate about The Escape Room and who love the characters. Thank you all so much.

Book Review: "The Escape Room" by Megan Goldin

It's a good thing I'm the boss, because after reading Megan Goldin's new book, The Escape Room, if someone ever suggested a team-building exercise, I'd run in the opposite direction!

Stanhope and Sons is one of the leading financial firms in the country. The deals they close net millions—if not billions—of dollars, and can make or break major corporations.

The firm hires only the best and brightest, and is tremendously choosy. They want people who look like they're worth millions, let alone be trusted to make millions on behalf of their clients. Successful employees make an immense amount of money between salaries and bonuses, yet the firm works them like dogs, at least until you get to the point where you're responsible for wining and dining potential and current clients.

One night four of the firm's leading employees, Vincent, Sam, Jules, and Sylvie, are summoned to an office building in the South Bronx with a directive to attend a meeting at the behest of HR. The past year has been a tough one for the quartet, who seem to have lost a bit of their luster lately, losing money and clients. There are rumors of layoffs, reassignments, so the four know that whatever they have to sacrifice for their job—as they always have—they will, if it means preserving their job and their astronomical salary.

No one is quite sure who summoned them to this meeting, but when they are directed into an elevator, they obey. It turns out the elevator is an escape room, where they must work together as a team in order to solve puzzles and identify clues so they can get out of the elevator before time elapses. The problem is, even though they work so closely together, no one is really sure whom to trust. They're convinced everyone is out simply to protect themselves, since that's what they would do, too.

When the lights in the elevator go out and it starts to get hotter in the confined space, they're desperate to solve the challenge and get out. But when the clues start to remind them of errors they've made and people they've wronged, they begin to realize this isn't just any escape room challenge. Someone is clearly out to get them—but is it one of the four of them, or someone else? How far are they willing to go to escape and save themselves?

There's a lot more to this book than that description but it's best to keep it fairly vague so as not to ruin the surprises along the way. The Escape Room isn't quite what I was expecting, and that doesn't disappoint me. It's definitely more of a slow-burn thriller than one with breakneck pacing, but you still want to know how Goldin is going to tie everything up. This is definitely a more cerebral book but not a boring one by any means.

I've never done one of those escape room challenges, and I don't think I'm in any hurry to do one after reading The Escape Room. I've seen this book get a lot of hype leading up to its release earlier this week, and it's definitely deserving of buzz. As long as you're comfortable with a slower pace and storytelling that will stimulate your mind more than rev your heart, you'll enjoy this one!

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for The Escape Room. Thanks to St. Martin's Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Check out some Q&A with Goldin at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2019/08/q-with-megan-goldin-author-of-escape.html.