Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: "A Mark on My Soul" by Jordon Greene

Sometimes when reading a book the plot is so unrealistic that I can't stretch my disbelief as far as I need to in order to appreciate it. Other times, however, the plot of a novel is far too realistic that it makes me sad and/or angry because reality is far too depressing.

Reading Jordon Greene's A Mark on My Soul left me angry and sad, not because I didn't like it or it wasn't well-written, but rather the plot was far too real, far too common, and that's really depressing.

Noah Andrews has just started his senior year of high school in North Carolina. He's thinking about college, particularly how much he'd love to attend the University of Illinois, which has a terrific architecture school. He's thinking about what life will be like if his two best friends wind up at their first-choice schools, which are totally different from his. More than that, however, he's thinking about how to tell his parents, his friends, everybody, his big secret: he's gay.

"Dammit, it should be easy to come out. I mean, Mom and Dad aren't a problem. I'm not worried they'll disown me or tell me some crap like I'm going to hell or take away my stuff. I'm just afraid they'll look at me differently. I don't know, like I'll be their gay son Noah instead of just Noah. I just want to be Noah Andrews, the simple, slightly nerdy, socially awkward guy, minus the big-ass secret."

After many false starts, Noah finds the courage to tell his two best friends, then his parents, and then he feels comfortable enough to share his secret with those who follow him on social media. Sure, he gets some pathetic responses from a few people, but for the most part, people praise his bravery for finally being able to tell the truth about himself.

On the same night he publicly comes out, he receives an email from a classmate who says that he admires him and, more importantly, that he likes him. He even thinks Noah is hot. At first the boy is too afraid to reveal his identity, because he's not ready to come out. But the more they correspond, the closer they get despite the anonymity, so they finally make a plan to meet. And just when Noah feels like he has it all, the prejudice and homophobia of the real world intrude in far too many ways.

Even though you may be able to see where the plot of A Mark on My Soul is going, I decided to be fairly vague so you can let it unfold for you. There are definitely elements of Love, Simon in this story (at one point Noah even quotes Jennifer Garner's pivotal scene from that movie). However, much of the plot is far more troubling, raw, and disturbing than that, and that's because the things that happen actually happen every day in our country.

Greene is a tremendously talented writer and he has created characters that I cared about, characters whose happiness I found myself invested in. There were a number of times where I wanted to shake some of the characters and make them see the truth that was happening right in front of them, but that doesn't happen in real life either.

A Mark on My Soul isn't a feel-good read, but it is a vitally important one. I hope this book makes people realize that the world may be better for LGBT kids than it was 5, 10, 20 years ago, but there is still more homophobia, more hatred, even close to home, than there should be. It needs to stop. Now.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Book Review: "Waiting for Tom Hanks" by Kerry Winfrey

"...I'm starting to think that the movies I've dedicated my life to may have lied to me. Nora Ephron herself may have indirectly lied to me. Tom Hanks, as much as I've trusted him, may have lied to me. Because I have it all: the sympathetic backstory, the montage of humiliations minor and major, unrealized career aspirations, the untamed pre-makeover hair. But still, I wait. Single, lonely, Hanks-less."

Annie Cassidy believes in love. Or more accurately, she believes in the love she has seen in the romantic comedies she grew up watching. She and her mother used to watch all those movies, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s to the holy grail, the movies written by Nora Ephron which starred Tom Hanks—Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.

Annie knows that her parents, who are both deceased, had a storybook romance, and she believes one is waiting out there for her, too. All she needs to do is to find her Tom Hanks, the steadfast, kind, romantic man from the movies, maybe one who even owns a houseboat. She's even ready for their meet-cute.

When Annie gets a job on a movie being filmed in her town, as an aspiring screenwriter of rom-coms, she feels like this may be the break she needs. She meets the film's handsome leading man, Drew Danforth, but isn't impressed by his prankster ways, or that he always seems to be around to witness her most embarrassing moments. She discovers that he's a far more sensitive, complex man than she imagined, but no matter how much she may be attracted to him, he is not her Tom Hanks, especially since he'll be leaving town as soon as filming is complete.

Are Annie's expectations unrealistic, or can she find the man she's been waiting her whole life for? Have the movies she loves so much given her false hope, and caused her to pass over the right person? Annie makes some surprising and painful discoveries, and she wonders whether it's even worth wanting romance, or whether she should just give up waiting for it.

Waiting for Tom Hanks is absolutely adorable and it reads just like a romantic comedy. You can pretty much tell what's going to happen from the very start, but the characters are goofy and charming (including several of the supporting characters) that you may find yourself completely hooked, like I did. Kerry Winfrey knows her rom-coms, and honestly, this book would make the perfect movie.

Sure, the book is a little hokey, but it was such a fun read that I devoured it in the course of a plane ride. I'm definitely looking forward to Winfrey's next book, because I just enjoyed this so much! If you're a rom-com fan, or just a fan of romance, Waiting for Tom Hanks may be for you!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Book Review: "Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens" by Tanya Boteju

Tanya Boteju's debut novel, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is an unabashedly charming book about finding yourself and being true to who you are. It's a book with humor, sensitivity, and so much heart, and it definitely left me with a smile on my face. (It's much less conspicuous to smile on a plane while reading rather than cry your eyes out!)

Nima Kumara-Clark has just finished her junior year of high school, but she doesn't see much excitement on the horizon this summer outside of hanging out with her best friend, Charles. She's longing for something to shake her life up, and given that she's spent a few years nursing an obsessive love for Ginny, her straight best friend, it doesn't appear that love is in the cards for her either.

One night during the local summer festival, she has a chance encounter with Deidre, a drag queen, who takes her to her first drag show. Nima is quickly taken under Deidre's wing, and she feels tremendously comfortable for the first time in her life, which is a change from her usual awkwardness. She is also utterly unprepared for the way the show makes her feel, especially when she sees a performance by Winnow, a sexy drag king.

"With each passing moment, I'd get that feeling you sometimes have the moment you're about to flip the final page of a really good book, when your anticipation for what happens next overwhelms you, but you also know that turning the page means you're closer to an end. This was a story I didn't want to end."

It seems as if Winnow shares the same attraction and feelings for Nima once the two meet. Nima has been disappointed too many times before, and she's not sure if she's ready to fully acknowledge her sexuality or let her guard down again. But she's also unafraid to let another opportunity to find love pass her by.

As Nima's friendship with Deidre deepens, and her interest in Winnow grows (as does the number of awkward encounters between them), she also has to deal with a number of other issues—Charles' jealousy of this new "life" she has found, the confusing behavior and mood swings of a childhood friend-turned-bully, and the re-emergence of her mother, who left Nima and her father more than a year ago with no explanation. It's a lot of emotional pressure for a young woman on the cusp of embracing her true self and taking the first few steps toward self-acceptance.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a fun read, and some of the characters are so tremendously vivid that they capture your heart. There's so much spirit in this book, but there's also a lot of emotion, as the characters have to come to terms with their identity, acknowledge the pain caused by others, and find the courage to step outside their comfort zone.

I enjoyed this book very much, and read it during the course of a plane ride. I did feel there were many issues that were left unresolved, including what was going on with Gordon, and Nima's relationship with her mother. That was a little frustrating. I also wasn't really sure about Deidre—was she a drag queen, a trans woman, or something else? I can only hope that Boteju might have a follow-up book planned to provide some answers.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens will leave you smiling, humming, and, depending on where you are when you're reading this, dancing. This book is full of positivity and hopefully, when it falls into the right hands, may help lots of teenagers and adults begin the journey toward self-acceptance.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Grace Year" by Kim Liggett

Kim Liggett's upcoming novel The Grace Year feels like a mashup of The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of The Hunger Games mixed in for good measure. Yet at the same time, it's an immensely unique and disturbing story all its own.

"They call us the weaker sex. It's pounded into us every Sunday in church, how everything's Eve's fault for not expelling her magic when she had the chance, but I still can't understand why the girls don't get a say. Sure, there are secret arrangements, whispers in the dark, but why must the boys get to decide everything? As far as I can tell, we all have hearts. We all have brains."

Girls are told that they are dangerous, that they possess the power to lead men into destructive temptation, much as Eve did to Adam. They are led to believe that they have "magic"—that their bodies give off a certain essence when they're on the cusp of their 16th birthday. So all of the 16-year-old girls are sent away for one year, their so-called "grace year," and they're expected to release their magic into the wilderness so they can return purified and ready for marriage if they've been selected, or ready for life as a laborer if not.

Tierney James has always lived her life caring little for convention, not listening to the commands of her mother or the insults of the other women and girls in the community. She's not interested in getting married, in being the property of a man—she looks forward to living a life working in the fields, spending time at one with nature. She's known by many as "Tierney the Terrible" for her wild ways, and no one expects her to be chosen for marriage anyway. But when she is chosen, she is uncertain that she wants that kind of life for herself, although refusing will have grave consequences for her and her family.

The girls are sent into the wilderness and left to fend for themselves. They must deal with the brutal elements, forage for their own food, and avoid the so-called "poachers" that lurk in the woods, who wait for one wrong step so they can kill a girl and sell her essence to the black market. But as the girls begin to form a society of sorts, Tierney realizes it's not the wilderness or the poachers that pose the biggest threat to their survival—it's each other.

"We hurt each other because it's the only way we're permitted to show our anger. When our choices are taken from us, the fire builds within. Sometimes I feel like we might burn down the world to cindery bits, with our love, our rage, and everything in between."

The Grace Year is at turns violent, disturbing, sad, defiant, sexy, romantic, and hopeful. It is a story of young women being made to believe they are dangerous yet deficient, that their only true worth will be recognized if they marry and have children, and that they need to destroy each other in order to secure a happy future for themselves and their families. It is also a story of how much men fear women and seek to control them to overcome those fears.

As outrageous as this story is on many fronts, there are definitely places in which the book is eerily prescient of what is happening in our society today. Liggett did a great job ratcheting up the tension in the book, and creating characters I found myself rooting for, as well as some I was definitely rooting against.

At times, I found the violence in the book to be really disturbing, and after a while, the cruelty of the girls' was very hard to read about. The violence may be a trigger for some, because at times it's fairly graphic. But even when I had difficulty with the book, there was something about the story that I couldn't turn away from.

Reading The Grace Year definitely got me thinking, and I'm certainly thankful that we're not in this kind of situation in our society today. This is one of those books that I won't be able to get out of my mind for a while.

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

This book will be published October 8, 2019.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book Review: "We Are Okay" by Nina LaCour

"I wonder if there's a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn't yours anymore."

Marin (pronounced like the county in California) was once surrounded by people who loved her. She was raised by her grandfather since her mother's death when she was young, and Marin and her best friend, Mabel, were inseparable. She even was close to Mabel's parents, who treated her a bit like she was their own daughter.

But Marin fled her California home in the wake of a discovery and a tragedy, and now she is poised to spend Christmas by herself in her dorm room in chilly New York. Although her roommate has helped Marin navigate the many awkward moments and uncertainties of freshman year in college, she still considers herself to be a loner, unworthy of the attention people are paying her and unsure of how to interact with people.

What Marin is most apprehensive about during the holidays is facing Mabel, who is coming to visit from California for three days. The two haven't spoken since Mabel left for college, just before the tragedy that sent Marin running. Mabel doesn't understand what happened to her friend, and why she hasn't responded to almost all of her texts, calls, and emails. And no one understands why Marin left her old life behind.

Marin isn't sure she's ready to share the truth with anyone, let alone Mabel. If she does, she also will have to confront her feelings, which have mostly remained hidden all this time, and she may have to accept how much things have changed. She's also afraid to let her guard down and leave her heart open, for fear that once again she might be left with nothing.

What happened back in California that made Marin run and not look back? Why is she willing to be alone rather than share her pain, her fears, her grief with those who love her? Why would she rather be alone than try to make friends and move on with her life?

Nina LaCour's We Are Okay is nearly 250 pages long, but it packs a potent, emotional punch. This is a thought-provoking, tremendously poignant book that so deftly explored how grief and betrayal can truly destroy a person, and how when we need rescuing the most we're unwilling to let anyone help. At the same time, the book painted a fascinating picture about friendship, and how it can bring both joy and pain.

I loved the book that LaCour wrote with David Levithan, You Know Me Well, and this book cemented my admiration of the way she writes. I was a little confused by some elements of the plot and it took a while for Marin to reveal—to Mabel and to the reader—the reasons behind her actions. (I'll admit I still was unclear for longer than I should have been!) But those issues notwithstanding, this book left me a teary-eyed mess when I read it in one sitting on a flight.

Books about friendships and how they shape us—for better or worse—always appeal to me, and We Are Okay is an excellent addition to that oeuvre. Pick it up for the emotion; stay for LaCour's sensational storytelling.

Book Review: "We Contain Multitudes" by Sarah Henstra

This book, to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, utterly undid me. We Contain Multitudes was exactly what I hoped it would be: a gorgeously moving, beautifully told, thought-provoking story of friendship, love, truth, and secrets. I read most of this on a plane ride and it was the first of two books I read that had me in tears, which is always a condition I try to avoid on airplanes!!

Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky is a football player repeating his senior year of high school, a quiet giant with a bit of a penchant for fighting. As part of an assignment for English class, he is paired with Jonathan Hopkirk, a quirky, fiercely intelligent sophomore with a passion for Walt Whitman's poetry, who is bullied nearly every day at school because of his sexuality and his desire to dress as if he were living in Whitman's day.

Kurl and Jonathan are expected to write each other letters once a week. The two couldn't have less in common at the outset—Jonathan knows nothing about football and has formulated lots of assumptions about Kurl based on gossip from his sister and her best friend, while Kurl isn't really interested in answering Jonathan's questions, and he really doesn't understand why Jonathan would be so willing to make himself a target for bullies, why he continues to dress the way he does.

Little by little, the boys' relationship begins to deepen. Both learn that there is so much more to the other than meets the eye, but each realizes that there are secrets they are keeping, secrets that could prove just how vulnerable they are. Each experiences true epiphanies about themselves and each other, but they experience a tremendous amount of pain and anguish in the process.

The entire book is narrated in letters from the two boys, although in some letters they recount events in full. Sarah Henstra does such a great job creating two distinctively different writing styles for the two, and I found myself becoming as eager to read each new letter as they were waiting for the letters to arrive.

We Contain Multitudes is immensely poignant, even tremendously sad at times. Both Jonathan and Kurl have so many issues to confront, some within themselves, some within their families, and some at school. The book does get a little violent at times (although not gratuitously so), so it may be difficult for some to read. But there are so many moments of sheer beauty in this story as well, I couldn't put the book down even as the story became sadder.

Some of the plot may not be surprising, but there definitely were surprises to be had. Henstra is so talented, and she has created two characters that I hope we'll see again, because I want to know where they wind up and how life treated them. We Contain Multitudes is one of those absolutely beautiful books I won't soon forget.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Book Review: "The Unbreakables" by Lisa Barr

"Life is messy, love is messier. But pain is the messiest of all. And yet in brokenness, there is rebuilding, a rising from a fall."

When a book starts getting a lot of hype, I always get a little apprehensive that I may be the outlier. Will I be the person that's disappointed by the book that everyone says is so excellent?

Where Lisa Barr's new novel, The Unbreakables, is concerned, I needn't have worried. This is a smart, sexy, emotional story about a woman losing and then finding herself again, learning just how strong she can be, and recapturing dreams she thought had passed her by. I really loved this book and found it so compelling from start to finish."

It's Sophie's 42nd birthday and she's looking forward to celebrating with her husband, Gabe, her two best friends, and their husbands. It's the way it always is—the six have been practically inseparable since high school and college, and Sophie and her two best friends have helped each other through so many ups and downs.

During dinner, the conversation turns to gossip, namely the recent release of data from a website catering to married people looking for an affair. The group eagerly tears into the list to see who in their area will be deservedly exposed. It's all fun and games, until it takes a personal turn, when Gabe's name appears on the list, as the top cheater in their town, no less.

Sophie is devastated, and she quickly learns that Gabe's infidelity isn't the only betrayal she faces. When her college-age daughter calls from Paris, where she is studying abroad, and is having her own emotional crisis, Sophie decides to leave the chaos of her life behind her and join Ava in Paris.

After helping get Ava back on track, Sophie decides to venture to Provence, and is determined to recapture the life that has passed her. Her time in France reawakens her self-esteem, her sexual desires, and her dreams of being a sculptor, dreams that she had thought were all but gone.

But as Sophie tries to put the pain of Gabe's infidelity and the betrayals she experienced behind her, her "real life" keeps intruding. Can you really stop caring about the people who were part of your life for so long? Do you really want to? If not, how can you regain control so that you're never left so shattered?

An epigraph at the start of one of the sections of The Unbreakables includes a quote from Frida Kahlo which says, "At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can." This is tremendously fitting for this book, because Sophie learns that she is stronger than she imagined, but that sometimes it takes falling apart to become stronger.

There are definitely familiar elements in this book, and there might not be a lot of surprises, but the beauty of this story is in Sophie's journey, and the people that surround her. It's a pretty sexy book as well, as Sophie starts to get her, well, groove back.

I had heard from a number of people that this book is even better if you go into it knowing very little about the plot so the story can unfold around you, as Sophie's life unfolds around her. I've kept the plot description fairly simple because I agree with that advice. Lisa Barr does an excellent job charting Sophie's journey, and she made this story funny, exciting, sensual, thought-provoking, and poignant.

Definitely read this one!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review: "Swipe Right for Murder" by Derek Milman

Swipe Right for Murder is utterly preposterous, possibly more prescient than I'd like to acknowledge, and immensely sensitive. It's an homage to classic films where the mostly innocent man finds himself caught in a web of suspicion and trouble, yet at the same time it reads more like a movie with someone like Shia LaBeouf.

Seventeen-year-old Aidan is a high school senior, desperate to find someone to love. His parents have kept their emotional distance since he came out of the closet, allowing him to go to boarding school. He has good friends, yet he always feels that they treat him like a kid and don't take him seriously.

With a free night at a posh hotel in New York City, Aidan does what any horny teenager might—looks for a hookup on a "dating" app. After a disastrous encounter with a closeted classmate, he finds an older man. And when Aidan wakes up in the man's hotel room in the middle of night, everything has gone awry—the man is dead, Aidan gets a mysterious phone call from a man addressing him as someone else, and he threatens Aidan and his family if he doesn't "give it" to him. But as menacing as the call is, the man also seems to know more about the issues that Aidan struggles with emotionally, and taps into his greatest regrets and fears.

The phone call catapults Aidan into a severe case of mistaken identity, putting him on the run from the authorities (who may or may not be the good guys), his family, and a shadowy terrorist group with an interesting set of priorities. Along the way, he meets a handsome stranger whose loyalties are confusing, he struggles with his own fears and issues, and he has to tap into his inner action hero more than a time or two. Will he help save the day? Does he want to stop the terrorists from their mission—which at its core isn't wrong, even if their methods are?

Swipe Right for Murder is full of twists and turns, double crosses, and lots of jarring action. But at the same time, there is a lot of raw emotion in this book, too, as Aidan is forced to confront some of his greatest anxieties, fears, and regrets. Many of the feelings Aidan has are familiar to those whom have come to terms with their sexuality and/or struggled with self-esteem and the desire to be loved. There are some tremendously powerful scenes interspersed with the craziness.

"I hate this thing inside myself, this need to become attached to people, this brutal loneliness that drives me, drives all my mistakes."

This book really reads like a movie, but it was very uneven for me. At times it was just so utterly ludicrous and complicated that I considered stopping but then there would be a powerfully poignant scene and I just kept on with it. I think if you can completely suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the ride, it may be a fun book for you. There's no disputing Derek Milman's ability to tell a good story; there was just far too much going on for me here.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published August 6, 2019.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: "Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer" by John Glynn

Self-esteem can be a powerful weapon, but a lack of it can cause us more problems than we could ever imagine. At age 27, John Glynn was seriously suffering from a general feeling of unworthiness, a debilitating sense of loneliness that he couldn't explain, nor could he determine its source. He wondered if he would ever find someone to love, someone to be with, and if he did, would they love him back? His parents told him to be patient, but with many of his college friends pairing up, he worried that happiness might be unlikely.

John had always been driven by companionship and camaraderie, even growing up with his cousins. So in 2013, when the opportunity arose to join a few friends in a share house in Montauk, he jumped at it, and little did he know how much it would change his life.

The house, nicknamed the Hive, slept up to 31 people, and was a hub of activity every summer weekend. It didn't take John to feel like he was fitting in on his weekends at the Hive, maneuvering between different groups of friends, helping them with their own relationship-related crises, and spending the majority of the days in a sunburned, drunken haze. But there still was a nagging, almost paralyzing feeling that something—and someone—was missing, and it threatened to derail all of his happiness that summer.

But then he met another new member of the Hive, and things started to come into focus for John for the first time. With this new connection came a feeling of happiness, of possibility, but at the same time, new anxieties cropped up, accompanied by his old friend, unworthiness. John isn't sure what all of this means and he's afraid of the upheaval pursuing this person could cause, but he also can't imagine the possibility of not doing so.

Out East is a moving story about a man's struggle to find himself and his self-worth, and discover that until he believes himself deserving of love he might never find it. At the same time it's a tremendously compelling look at how our relationships with family and friends throughout our childhood influence what we search for in adulthood. I also was struck by the fact that a young man who appeared to have it all from the outside—good looks, a good job, a loving and supportive family, a friendly personality—could struggle so much with believing he was worthy.

While it is a memoir, I found Out East to provide a tremendously entertaining look at the culture of excess that pervades many house shares in areas like the Hamptons. It felt like watching a soap opera or reality program in which these confident, beautiful people who appear to have it all are as much a mess as everyone else (if not more), and their drunken escapades. There are relationship crises galore, hook-ups, and fun memories to observe from the reader's vantage point, all of which made me glad I'm older and perhaps a little sad I didn't experience this lifestyle at least once in my life, even in a minor way.

I really enjoyed this book. Glynn didn't pull any punches in sharing his emotions or how he might have been perceived during that time, and his honesty really shined through. He's a terrific writer because he even made me care about people with whom I had barely anything in common, and I wondered what would come of them in the future.

If you're looking for a terrific memoir that feels like a beach read, pick up Out East. You may feel like you wandered into a frat party, but you'll discover so much more if you stay.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book Review: "Like A Love Story" by Abdi Nazemian

Wow, this book hit very close to home for me.

It's 1989 in New York City. Reza has just moved with his mother to live with his wealthy new stepfather and stepbrother, and attend his final year of high school. He knows he likes boys but all he sees in the media are images of people dying of AIDS, so he knows he has to keep his true self hidden.

Judy has always been her own person, an aspiring fashion designer with a bold sense of style. She spends all of her spare time with her best friend, Art, and her uncle, Stephen, who is dying of AIDS and is a prominent member of ACT UP. The one thing Judy wants to find is love, but she doubts she'll ever find anyone to love her for who she is.

Art is out and proud, a talented photographer who tries to put the constant bullying of his peers and the disdain of his parents behind him. He documents the work of the ACT UP activists through his photographs. Stephen is his role model, and he spends so much time learning from him. Art wants to find someone to love him, but love and sex in the midst of so much uncertainty around AIDS frightens him.

Reza and Judy start dating, and Art feels like a third wheel. But Art and Reza are drawn to each other. Reza tries desperately to fight his attraction to Art, because he doesn't want to disappoint his mother and he worries that acknowledging his sexuality will doom him to a death sentence of AIDS. Art wants Reza, but knows that Judy is happy with him, and he doesn't want to betray his one true friend.

"There may be no harder place to be queer than high school, a place of bullies and slurs, a place steeped in rituals of heterosexuality. Who's dating who? Who kissed who? Who will be homecoming king and queen? Who will be your prom date? And you have to play along, because if you don't, your difference has a spotlight on it."

Abdi Nazemian's incredibly moving, heartfelt Like A Love Story so accurately captures what it was like to come to terms with your sexuality during the early days of the AIDS crisis. You were tremendously fearful of even kissing someone, because you worked out elaborate circumstances in your head by which you could contract the disease. And if you got AIDS, who would love you? Your family would abandon you, the government would gouge you on the price of drugs, and you would be a pariah? So why not hide your true self instead, pretend to be "normal"?

This is a book about friendship, family, fear, acceptance, and finding love. It's a story about finding the courage to be yourself even in a world full of fear, and finding your people, who will love you and accept you no matter what. It's also a beautiful love letter of sorts to those who came before us, who loved fearlessly and joyfully, who finally lived the lives they dreamed of, without worrying what people thought of them, and it's a tribute to all of the people who died of AIDS and lost loved ones and lived in courage rather than fear.

I had been waiting for this book to be released and I jumped on it the day it was published. I loved every single minute of Like A Love Story. It's gorgeous and funny and sad and beautifully written, and all too many times I found myself nodding, recognizing myself in certain situations. Nazemian put every ounce of his heart into this story and it shows, and I'm definitely going to go back and read his earlier books, because I love the way he writes.

I love books that effectively capture a specific time and place, and Like A Love Story did that. It is an important, hopeful book that deserves every accolade it receives.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Book Review: "Montauk" by Nicola Harrison

It's 1938, and a large number of New York City's wealthiest residents descend upon Montauk, Long Island to spend the summer in this new East Coast playground. The wives will spend the entire summer there at the luxurious Montauk Manor, a hotel by the sea, while many of their husbands will return to their business interests in the city and then come to Montauk on weekends.

Beatrice Bordeaux is among those wives who will spend their summer in Montauk, but she is surprised to learn that her husband Harry will be leaving her during the week. One of the main purposes of this trip was that the couple could rekindle their marriage and hopefully become pregnant with the baby that has eluded them for five years. Although Bea would like to relax and read, Harry wants her to socialize with the other society matrons, so that he may find a foothold for his investment interests in Montauk.

While Bea is taken by the beauty of Montauk, she quickly grows bored of the women's talk of frivolous things, even charitable activities that seem more self-serving than generous. She befriends Elizabeth, the Manor's laundress, whose down-to-earth nature reminds Bea more of the life she knew before she met Harry, even though such a friendship would be frowned upon.

Bea is also disillusioned by the state of her marriage. Harry seems less and less interested in being with her, only wanting her to help advance his interests and make appearances at his side. When she discovers that Harry is not the devoted husband she thought he was, she begins to do things that interest her, regardless of whether they're appropriate for a married woman (or a woman at all). She also strikes up a friendship with a handsome, sensitive man who is Harry's complete opposite, a man who has a connection to her life before Harry, a time when everything changed.

As she and Harry drift further apart, and she takes her future in her own hands, she is ready to follow her heart for perhaps the first time in her life. But the course of happiness never runs smoothly, and she has to decide whether to do what she wants or do what might be best for everyone, or the risk might be too great.

Montauk is an interesting, beautifully written look at a time in history where a woman was expected to do what she was told, not to ask questions, and simply be happy being cared for by her husband. "Good wives" simply were willing to sit idly by as their husbands did as they wished, and they should be content with filling their days with superficial and social activities. Nicola Harrison did a great job capturing that time, and her descriptions of Montauk and the grandeur of the Manor created vivid images in my mind.

The story was a bit more predictable than I hoped it would be, and as it sped toward its climax things became really melodramatic, but I still found Montauk an enjoyable read. There are some interesting characters in the book, particularly Bea's friend Dolly, who flouted many of the conventions of her time and was pretty fascinating, and I liked Bea's sass and intelligence.

I was fortunate to be part of the pop-up book tour for Montauk. Thanks to BookSparks and St. Martin's Press for providing an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: "Keep This to Yourself" by Tom Ryan

Once there were five friends in the small town of Camera Cove—Mac, Ben, Connor, Doris, and Carrie. They were inseparable, and they thought they'd be friends forever. But as often happens, as you grow up, your interests change and suddenly the friendships you couldn't live without when you were young don't matter as much, if at all.

But Mac and Connor remained friends, even though Connor was the golden boy—popular, artistic, the object of attraction for many of the girls in their high school—and Mac was shy, newly out of the closet, and ready to leave Camera Cove. Then without warning, a brutal serial killer known as the Catalog Killer terrorized the town. Three random people were poisoned to death and the police had no clues.

Connor was the killer's fourth victim, and after that murder, it appeared the killer left town, a drifter, like many had suspected. So many people were devastated by Connor's death, particularly Mac, who even a year later, can't believe his friend is gone. Yet he can't seem to find the strength to move on with his life, even though the town is ready to shake off the fear which has been its burden since the killer first struck.

One night Mac finds a note that Connor wrote him on the night he was killed, asking him to meet him where his body was eventually found. The more that Mac thinks about how that night could have gone so differently, the more he begins to suspect that perhaps Connor actually knew who the killer was, and perhaps it wasn't a stranger. What would Connor have told him that night? Would they both have survived?

No one is interested in reopening the case, not even the police, so Mac takes it upon himself to begin looking into the murders, trying to figure out what four seemingly random people might have had in common that led to their deaths. With the help of a sexy relative of one of the victims, Mac tries to figure out whether Connor had uncovered the truth—and if so, can he solve the same mystery—without the same result?

I really enjoyed Keep This to Yourself. It was a mystery with lots of twists and turns, combined with the all-too-familiar themes of childhood friends growing apart, wanting to fit in and be loved for who you are, and wanting life to return to a simpler, more innocent time. I loved the way Tom Ryan meshed the mystery and YA elements of this book, which made it more appealing to those who don't consider themselves fans of YA.

I tend to be really cynical when I read mysteries because I suspect everyone. I will admit—and perhaps I was just not thinking as sharply as I usually do—that I was surprised at how Ryan wrapped everything up, which is a good feeling to have. I really liked Mac and Quill's characters, and almost wish the book was longer so I could see how things developed afterward.

This was my first LGBTQ read for Pride Month and it was the perfect start. I'm definitely going to be looking to see what Tom Ryan writes next, because it takes a talented storyteller to create a compelling mystery amidst other plotlines.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Book Review: "Hope and Other Punchlines" by Julie Buxbaum

"I know better than anyone that you can't always draw a straight line from the who you once were to the who you are now."

Abbi Hope Goldstein celebrated her first birthday on September 11, 2001. While that doesn't make her completely unique, one fact does: on that fateful day, a photographer captured her, wearing a birthday crown and holding a red balloon, while the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed behind her.

That photo, entitled "Baby Hope," became an iconic symbol of that day. It truly gave people hope, and as Abbi grew older, she continued to be the subject of intense media curiosity. Strangers would stop her on the street and hug her, crying, sharing their memories of 9/11. It's hard to be infamous for something you didn't have any control over, and living in the New Jersey town that experienced the greatest number of casualties outside of NYC that day, she can never seem to escape the legacy of "Baby Hope."

But this summer, just before she turns 17 and starts her senior year of high school, she's determined to do something for herself. She signs up to be a counselor at a day camp two towns away, where no one will know her as anyone but Abbi. It's the perfect plan before she has to confront some issues she's dreading.

It turns out that Noah Stern, who is one year behind her in school, has decided to be a counselor at the same camp. Not only does he know that she is Baby Hope, he believes it was his destiny to meet her. His life changed, too, on 9/11, and he convinces/blackmails Abbi into helping track down the other people who were in her iconic photo. But neither of them is being completely honest about the impact of that day on their lives.

As they work to carry out Noah's plan, their relationship begins to deepen, but the secrets that both are hiding could be a barrier too great to overcome. Hope and Other Punchlines is a powerful, poignant story about trying to move away from the shadow of your past, and finding the strength to make a fresh start. But at the same time, the book shows us that everything that occurs in our life makes us the person we are, even if we'd rather not acknowledge those things and their effect on us.

"Something happens when the story you tell yourself turns out not to be your story at all. You have to figure out what to replace it with. Something needs to grow in the space left behind."

I found this book absolutely beautiful—it's emotional but it's funny, too. Even when I thought there really wasn't another angle by which to approach 9/11, Julie Buxbaum found a gorgeous story which sprung from those left behind. The burden that these kids carried on their shoulders, for different reasons, really moved me, and I was completely invested in this story from start to finish. In fact, I read the entire book in just a few hours.

I had never read any of Buxbaum's books before although I've always meant to, since I'm such a YA fan. Now for sure I'll definitely be picking her earlier books up. But I can't recommend Hope and Other Punchlines enough. It's a story of family, friendship, love, loss, guilt, grief, and, of course, hope.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book Review: "One Small Sacrifice" by Hilary Davidson

"Instinct's not a superpower. It's made of experience and memory and belief."

Alex Traynor was a famous photojournalist known for capturing pictures of some of the world's most brutal and haunting scenes of conflict and unrest. But after he was kidnapped, he began suffering from PTSD and turned to drugs to help quell the visions he seemed to see whether his eyes were open or closed.

At the end of his rope and high on drugs, he decided to kill himself. Yet at the end of the night, Cori Stanton—his friend and drug-dealer—was the one who wound up dead. Alex doesn't remember a thing about what happened, but while there certainly were signs that something suspicious might have happened to her, the police never were able to prove that Alex was responsible for her death, so it was ruled a suicide.

NYPD detective Sheryn Sterling has never stopped believing Alex killed Cori, and she's never taken her eye off him, despite warnings to the contrary. Even one year later, she's the Inspector Javert to Alex's Jean Valjean, waiting for the moment when she can sneak in and snag him.

When Alex's fiancée, Emily, a dedicated doctor, goes missing shortly after having a loud argument with Alex, Sterling is sure that he had something to do with Emily's disappearance. Alex's stories just don't seem to add up, or they have a lot of missing pieces, and Sterling knows all too well how much of a ticking time bomb a person with PTSD can be.

Alex doesn't understand what could have happened to Emily, but he can't understand why she'd leave him. Did she really think he was responsible for Cori's death and could no longer be with him? Was she being intimidated by someone else? Or was she somehow involved in some other scheme, and could that have put her in trouble? The problem is, Alex isn't sure where to turn to figure out the truth behind Emily's disappearance, since he knows the police don't trust him. How can a man with PTSD and a shaky memory find answers?

The more Sterling and her partner investigate Emily's disappearance, the more muddled things become. Could her instincts have been wrong all this time, or is Alex better at hiding his tracks than she thinks? And if Alex wasn't responsible for Cori's death and isn't responsible for Emily going missing, who was?

Hilary Davidson's One Small Sacrifice is a mystery full of twists and turns, as well as fascinating characters. At first I wasn't sure if I liked Sterling's character and what appeared to be her single-mindedness, but as the story picked up I realized there was more to her—and to many of the characters—than I initially suspected.

I don't know if anything in the book really surprised me, but I still really enjoyed the way Davidson teased out the plot, throwing out lots of information that complicated my ability to figure out what really happened.

This is apparently the start of a series (the second book is due out in 2020), and I'll definitely pick up the next book, as well as check out some of Davidson's earlier work, because she created a compelling story. There were a lot of interesting side-plots in the book which made the story even richer.

Thomas & Mercer and Amazon First Reads provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book will be published June 1, 2019.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Book Review: "The Simple Wild" by K.A. Tucker

I'll admit, I have a straight-up obsession with Alaska. Of course, I'm far from the roughing-it type, so my appreciation of the "Last Frontier" comes from the pictures I've seen from those on Alaskan cruises, books like The Great Alone or The Smell of Other People's Houses, and movies.

I must say, that when a character in K.A. Tucker's book The Simple Wild said she loved Alaska because of what she saw in the movie "Into the Wild," I actually laughed out loud, because I felt seen.

Anyway, all this preamble is just to say that The Simple Wild already had a bit of a head-start with me because of its setting, but Tucker's story of romance, family dysfunction, forgiveness, and desperately trying not to make the same mistakes your parents did really blew me away. I've been on a bit of a roll with romance/rom-com novels lately, and this one was just as spectacular as everyone told me it was.

Calla Fletcher is a bit out of sorts—she's just lost her job and her relationship with her boyfriend seems to be going nowhere. Then she gets a phone call that her estranged father, Wren, has cancer. Calla hasn't seen her father since she was two years old, when she and her mother left their rural Alaska home because her mother could no longer handle the isolated lifestyle. And while she talked to her father periodically throughout her childhood, they haven't spoken in a number of years, and she essentially felt he chose his life in Alaska over her.

With nothing really going on in her life, and the opportunity to try and get to know her father before it's too late, Calla decides to head to the Alaskan wilderness, where he runs a charter plane company. She is utterly unprepared for how different life is in Bangor, Alaska from her life in Toronto—the spotty wi-fi, the constraints on water usage, how much everything costs—but she is captivated by the beauty of the place. But her father is very guarded, and she can't seem to understand why he keeps avoiding her. She's only in Alaska for a week—shouldn't he be taking the time to get to know her again? Or doesn't he care that she came all this way?

Little by little, Calla begins to understand why Wren could never uproot his life, even for her and her mother. She gets to know the people he's chosen to surround himself with, especially Jonah, the cocky pilot with the chip on his shoulder, and a host of incorrect assumptions about Calla. He's convinced she's too pampered to last in Bangor, and is ready to fly her home at the first sign of distress—if she can ever get her luggage in the first place. She doesn't understand why Jonah resents her so much, although he does encourage her to get to know her father.

Determined to prove Jonah wrong, and realizing that the time she has with her father is truly limited, Calla begins to settle in to Alaskan life, and starts to form a relationship with her father again. She learns more about his relationship with her mother, and how they never truly stopped loving each other, even though she has gotten remarried and built a new life. More and more, Calla's combative relationship with Jonah begins to soften into friendship, with hints at something more intense. But Jonah will never leave Alaska, and like her mother, Calla cannot fathom a life here. She's determined not to make the same mistakes her mother did, no matter how much her hunger for Jonah grows.

While nothing surprising happens in The Simple Wild, I was completely hooked from start to finish, and devoured the book in just a few hours. I was totally invested in these characters and their lives, and found myself getting emotionally invested right along with them. Granted, I have a lot of emotional vulnerability regarding my own father's death five years ago, but this book really touched me. I love books which celebrate both the families we choose along with those we're born into.

Far from just being poignant, however, this book is funny, ridiculously sexy, and a love letter to Alaska. Tucker is a great storyteller, but she painted such vivid pictures of the beautiful surroundings as well as the mundane parts of rural, small-town life. She also did a great job capturing the exhilaration and the danger associated with flying such small planes in unstable conditions. It really added another dimension to the story.

If you're looking for a book that is both a story of family relationships and a love story, pick up The Simple Wild. Hopefully you'll marvel at Tucker's storytelling and the absolute charm of this book as much as I did.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: "Drawing Home" by Jamie Brenner

"Someday you will find your own superpower."

Henry Wyatt was once one of America's most famous artists, but after years of success he decided he was more interested in a quieter life in beautiful Sag Harbor, where he could enjoy fishing, spending time with good friends, and being a regular at the bar at The American Hotel.

Choosing this life over a life of celebrity and excitement in New York City wasn't something his good friend and former business partner, Bea Winstead, ever understood about Henry, and it strained their decades-long relationship.

When Henry suddenly dies while sitting at the hotel bar at the start of Memorial Day weekend, Sag Harbor's residents are saddened by the loss of their most notable neighbor. Much to the surprise of everyone, Henry leaves his entire estate, including the beautiful waterfront home he designed himself, to Penny Mapson, a teenage girl and the daughter of The American Hotel's front desk manager, Emma, who grew up in Sag Harbor and has practically been in the hotel her entire life.

While over the last few years, Henry and Penny had struck up a friendship of sorts, and he gave her drawing lessons at the bar, no one understands why he would make such an impulsive decision about the disposition of his estate. Bea is the most aggrieved party, since Henry had once promised her the house and all of his work, and she descends upon the town, determined to right this most grievous wrong. She's convinced that somehow Emma had gotten her hooks into Henry and defrauded him, and she'll stop at nothing to prove that she's right—no matter who gets hurt in the process.

As Emma tries to figure out what this utterly unexpected windfall could mean to her and Penny's life, everything else seems to be falling apart. Henry's death has made it even harder for Penny, who is struggling with OCD and is becoming more rebellious to express her displeasure at being stuck in this small town. Her boss is unhappy with the burst of publicity that is following Emma as a result of Henry's bequest to Penny. And to top it off, her ex (and Penny's dad) resurfaces, suddenly wanting to be closer to his daughter. (Could it have anything to do with the house she just inherited?) The last thing Emma has energy for is to battle Bea over Henry's will.

In her effort to prove her suspicions, Bea combs through Henry's work that he had done since settling in Sag Harbor. She finds that Henry has left sketches scattered all around the town, and she's convinced that if she tracks all of them down and studies them, she'll find some clue that explains Henry's actions. It isn't until she gets Penny involved, and begins understanding what Henry was working on in his last days, that she starts to realize what Henry's intentions really were.

Jamie Brenner's Drawing Home is a wonderfully compelling story about friendship, love, art, and both the positive and negative aspects of small-town life, not to mention how the family we choose sometimes means more to us than the family we're born into. It's a book about the importance of communication, of second chances, and of not being afraid to lean on others when we're at our most vulnerable—as well as actually admitting we're vulnerable in the first place.

This is the first of Brenner's books I've read and I really enjoyed it. This was such a captivating, beautiful story, full of emotion and even a little intrigue, as I wondered what would possess Henry to leave Penny his estate? I will admit I found two of the characters in particular immensely annoying through a good portion of the book, but in the end, I really appreciated the progress they made.

I've never been to Sag Harbor, but Brenner's use of imagery really helped me envision it, and it couldn't have been more appropriate for a holiday weekend! She is an excellent storyteller, and I'm definitely going to check out some of her earlier books, because I can see why so many people are fans of her work!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Book Review: "Twice in a Blue Moon" by Christina Lauren

I wish I could bottle the feelings I experience when I'm reading a book by Christina Lauren. First there's anticipation, as I've now read eight of their books, and I just love the way they tell a story. Then there's excitement, as the main characters encounter one another and begin the awkward dance of attraction and emotion, tinged with the reluctance of acknowledging their feelings.

Excitement gives way to complete emotional immersion, and I find myself rooting for the characters to find their happily ever after. Then, of course, there's satisfaction, which quickly gives way to sadness...because I realize I'll have to wait at least six months for their next book! (Boy, am I fortunate they've been giving us two books a year lately!)

Their newest book, Twice in a Blue Moon, has now become my favorite. There's a love story, of course, but it's coupled with complicated family issues and the added appeal of the entertainment world. It's ironic, too, that a book which in part takes place on a movie set is one of the books I'd most love to see adapted for the big or small screen!

Tate Jones and her grandmother are on a trip to London to celebrate Tate's 18th birthday and her impending departure for college. Apart from the early days of her childhood, Tate has lived with her mother and grandmother in a small Northern California town, where everyone knows everyone and tourists are plentiful in season. She's always longed for more, but since she bears a secret that the world would die to know—she's the long-lost daughter of a famous film actor—she has always had to live life quietly.

While Tate enjoys everything about London, early on in her trip she meets Sam Brandis, a handsome college student on a similar vacation with his grandfather, who raised him. Tate and Sam are drawn to each other immediately, and over the course of a few late nights spent talking (and more), they fall in love with each other. Tate gives Sam her heart, and at the same time, shares the secret of who her father is, and all of the facts and feelings she's kept hidden deep inside. Within a day or two, her truths are exposed for the world to see, and she never sees Sam again.

Fourteen years later, Tate has made a name for herself as an actress. She's been lucky professionally, but romantically, not so much. She is set to make a movie with her father for the very first time, a movie she believes might change the course of her career, and perhaps the dynamics of her relationship with her father. And when she steps on to the set, one of the first people she sees is the one who betrayed her trust all those years ago, leaving her life and heart in turmoil.

Twice in a Blue Moon is a story of whether love can withstand anything thrown in its path, and whether a second chance is really ever possible. It's a story of the complicated relationship between fathers and daughters, particularly when both are in a business where image is everything, as well as a story of the sacrifices parents are willing to make for their children. The book also explores the idea of whether there's really one true love out there for everyone, or whether you can find it in yourself to move on.

Christina Lauren's books are always full of humor, emotion, steamy sex, chemistry, and an immense amount of heart, and Twice in a Blue Moon is no exception. Most importantly, though, the way they tell a story (Christina Lauren is the pen name for the collaboration of two writers who are best friends) is so compelling that I can never seem to tear myself away, even though I know I might be left without one of their books for a while.

I can't recommend this or any of their other books enough. Love and Other Words was my favorite until now, mainly because, like this book, I tend to like love stories that have some emotional history to them. But every single one of their books that I've read have left me in awe of their talent and left me a little teary-eyed at the end.

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

This book will be published October 22, 2019.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Missing Season" by Gillian French

Clara is used to being the new girl, as her family moves quite often to follow her dad's construction jobs. But she's never a big fan of the adjustment period, waiting to see how people will treat her, whether she'll be the loner with no friends or be lucky and make a friend or two, only have to abandon the relationship when she moves away again. It never fails.

When she moves to Pender, a depressed New England town, she expects it to go the same way it always does. She's surprised when she strikes up a friendship with Bree and Sage, and they start including her in things, like cutting out of school to grab lunch, hanging out at the skate park to watch the boys—even some high-level pranks. She and Bree even have a crush on the same guy—the mysterious Kinkaid, who comes and goes as he pleases, breezing by on his skateboard.

The thing about Pender, though, is that kids have disappeared, or have been found dead through the years, particularly around Halloween. While the adults in town have a perfectly good explanation for these tragedies—drug overdose, getting hit by a freight train, running away from town—the kids have another explanation. They believe it's the work of the Mumbler, a monster man who lives out by the marshes, for whom they leave offerings from time to time.

People—including Kinkaid—say they've seen the Mumbler, but Clara doesn't believe the legend is true. However, she's starting to think something isn't quite right in town, especially when another girl from school disappears. In the midst of the chaos, she finds herself unable to resist Kinkaid's appeal, despite the problems it might cause in her friendship with Bree. But her desire to help Kinkaid solve his own problems may prove to be what harms the potential for their relationship to go anywhere.

As the town tries to figure out an explanation for the latest disappearance, Clara is starting to feel more afraid, but she doesn't know whom to fear—the Mumbler, or something worse, someone more real? And when another girl even closer to home goes missing, Clara finds herself in the middle of a dangerous situation—one she might not survive.

I thought The Missing Season had a very Stephen King-like vibe when I started reading it. You know, small New England town, unexplained disappearances, grisly deaths, etc.? But the book is more than just a story of a potential monster—it's a complex story about growing up, friendship, love, family, and the decision whether or not to speak up when things don't seem right.

I felt this sense of impending doom as I read this book, and French really did a great job with her imagery, as the whole book seemed very dark and creepy. Like I do with most mysteries and thrillers, I suspected absolutely everyone, and while I'll admit I wasn't thrilled with the ending, I thought this was a really compelling read. I liked the balance of YA and mystery/thriller very much.

This is scary but not too scary, and a good story to boot. If you like this genre, pick up The Missing Season. And stay away from the marsh!!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Book Review: "How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom" by S.J. Goslee

Even though it reminds me of the late 1990s/early 2000s movies like She's All That, She's the Man, or 10 Things I Hate About You (albeit with a gay twist), S.J. Goslee's new book, How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom could easily be made into a movie right this second and still feel totally relevant and fresh. It's a sweet, slightly goofy book that's not perfect, but it's definitely a fun read.

Nolan Grant Sheffield is a slightly eccentric high school junior who would be more than happy just to ride the school year out without making any waves. He's perfectly happy hanging out with his best friend Evie, working at a greenhouse, and drawing, as well as tolerating (okay, maybe even enjoying) his adoptive family's ultra-competitiveness. Sure, he gets bullied a bit at school (gym class is torture), and he's not-so-quietly nurturing a crush on Si O'Mara, a gay football player at his school who is also president of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

However, he's never kissed anyone, much less been in a relationship. And his older sister Daphne is determined to change that—and much of Nolan's life—before she heads off to college in the fall. But Daphne's take-no-prisoners style isn't something Nolan is ready for when it comes to his life, especially his (lack of a) love life.

"Technically, to any outsider, this might look like Daphne is doing a favor for me. Technically, any outsider would be wrong."

Daphne wants to be sure Nolan is prepared for college, so she encourages/forces him to get involved in some extracurricular activities. And then, when her own relationship status changes, she essentially threatens him to find a date to the upcoming Junior-Senior Prom—or she'll find one for him.

From this point on, things go totally awry for poor Nolan. Suddenly he finds himself in the midst of fake dating, a menacing ex-girlfriend, an after-school art program with younger kids, and volunteering to help with the art for the prom as well as the after-prom party. And all the while, he's utterly confused about his feelings for two guys, confusion that bubbles over to Daphne and others as well.

How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom is a little bit zany but certainly a little bit predictable as well, although Goslee definitely kept me guessing until the very end with a few things. But while I liked the twists, one major one confused me, because the characters never fully discussed their feelings until the very end, and even then I wasn't sure what precipitated that. (I'm being purposely vague because I don't want to spoil things, although other Goodreads reviews do give more plot away.)

Goslee's books (I also enjoyed her first book, Whatever) are utterly charming, fun reads. They're not full of angst like so many other YA books, and they definitely treat sexual orientation in a matter-of-fact way rather than as a cause for drama. (Even an instance in which a male character begins dating another male after a two-year-relationship with a female character is met with confusion, but not ridicule.) Her dialogue is fresh without being pretentious or so sarcastic you think you're listening to stand-up comedians rather than high school students.

While I do wish that the characters were a little more fleshed out here so I could understand why they behaved the way they did, I enjoyed How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom quite a bit, and read the book in one day. It really charmed me, reminded me a little bit of my high school days and, at the same time, made me wish they resembled the book a little more, too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review: "Courting Mr. Lincoln" by Louis Bayard

Having lived not too far from his memorial for more than 30 years, Abraham Lincoln is definitely one former president I think of fairly often. Daniel Day-Lewis' masterful, Academy Award-winning portrayal (in Lincoln) also lives in my mind—so much so that I was hoping Steven Spielberg might've changed history and let him survive that fateful night at Ford's Theater.

I've even envisioned him as a vampire hunter.

All this to say, as much as I feel like Mr. Lincoln is a familiar historical figure, I wasn't prepared for the mesmerizing poignancy and humor of a younger Lincoln in Louis Bayard's terrific new book, Courting Mr. Lincoln. And the former president himself wasn't the only one to get a spin different than the way he has usually been portrayed—almost all I've heard of Mary Todd Lincoln chronicles her mercurial nature and her paralyzing grief, but in Bayard's hands she is a fascinating character.

Courting Mr. Lincoln opens with a young Mary Todd arriving in Springfield, Illinois in 1840, where she is to live with her married elder sister until she finds a suitable husband. But Mary is an intelligent young woman with a quick tongue and a wicked sense of humor, qualities not prized in women of that time. She also has a tremendous knowledge of politics, which she isn't afraid to demonstrate in conversation, and she knows it will be difficult to find a man who is her intellectual equal.

She first thinks she has found it in shopkeeper Joshua Speed, a handsome and charming young man more than willing to hold up his end of a conversation. She certainly knows it won't be Speed's roommate, Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer and local politician who has never quite scrubbed the "country" off of him. Tall, gangly, and awkward, he'd rather blend into the background then stand out, but his gift of oratory wins him more than a few fans. But little by little, Mary finds herself surprisingly charmed by this man, whose awkwardness belies his quick wit and kind heart.

While those around Lincoln know he needs a suitable spouse if he is ever to run for higher political office, it is difficult to permeate his relationship with Speed, who literally made Lincoln the man he is, teaching him to dress and carry himself properly, showing him how to dance and handle himself in social situations. The friendship between Speed and Lincoln is closer than nearly any bond, and neither is sure they want to end it for the sake of propriety or Lincoln's ambitions.

This is a fascinating, moving book about friendship, family, social obligations, ambition, and love. Each of these is difficult to navigate now, much less in the 1840s, and Courting Mr. Lincoln demonstrates the challenges that Mary, Speed, and Lincoln each faced in choosing between what was expected of them and what they wanted for themselves. Reading this book, you can only wonder how much Lincoln truly wanted to be president, and how much he did what others wanted of him instead.

The book's narration alternates between the three characters, and is at turns funny, poignant, and utterly compelling. Even though I knew inevitably what would happen, I still wondered how Bayard would get his characters to their ultimate destination, or, much like I wished of Spielberg, whether he'd alter the course of history for the sake of the story. (I don't know which would have made me love the book more, honestly.)

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but I really loved this book. It's a special story that made these characters seem vivid and almost modern even against the backdrop of the 1840s. I'd love to see this story made into a movie, if for no other reason than I'm sad the book has ended.

Bayard is a tremendously talented storyteller. It's hard to believe I've never read any of his other books, but I'm going to need to remedy that!!

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Review: "Lights All Night Long" by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Brooding yet hopeful, Lydia Fitzpatrick's debut novel, Lights All Night Long, is a gripping story about family, envy, and being caught between loyalty and the desire to make a better life for yourself. It is tremendously atmospheric, which is no mean feat considering the book really takes place in two completely separate places—Russia and Louisiana.

Ilya is 15 years old and lives in a small town in Russia with his mother, grandmother, and his older brother, Vladimir, whom he idolizes. Vladimir is a bit of a ne'er-do-well, more content to chase girls and commit petty crimes than go to school, but he knows Ilya is the smart one. The two dream of one day leaving their bleak surroundings for America, a country they only know through pirated VCR movies from the 1990s.

When an exchange program between the refinery in Ilya's town and an energy company in a small Louisiana town is created, Ilya's teacher knows there is only one student deserving of a chance to go to America, and it is him. Ilya is excited to finally go to America but is sad about leaving his brother behind, and Vladimir is torn between jealousy and wanting the best for Ilya. But the America that greets Ilya is very different than he imagined, and he's not quite sure what to make of his cheerful, religious host family, although they want him to feel comfortable.

Ilya tries to settle in and make the most of this new opportunity, but he can't stop worrying about Vladimir, who was arrested just before Ilya left for America, after he confessed to the brutal murder of three young women. Ilya knows there's no way that his brother could be a murderer, although he did fall prey to a powerful and dangerous new drug that started holding many in their town in its thrall. His mother wants him to forget about Vladimir and concentrate on building a better life, but he can't give up on a brother who taught him so much—good and bad—and with whom he dreamed of coming to America.

When Sadie, the oldest daughter of his host family, begins taking an interest in him, Ilya shares his worries about his brother and his suspicions that somehow Vladimir is taking the fall for someone else. The two of them begin to dig deeper into the facts and the innuendo surrounding the murders and the events leading up to Vladimir's confession, while at the same time, Sadie shares with Ilya some powerful secrets of her own.

Lights All Night Long shifts between Ilya's life in Louisiana and the year leading up to when he went to America. You see how Vladimir changed once Ilya was tapped to be the exchange student, how Vladimir wanted the chance for himself despite never having made the effort, yet he also was proud of his brother. Ilya's desperation to find the truth leads to painful discoveries, but ultimately, hope that he can save his brother from the things that might do him harm.

While I felt like the book took a while to really get moving, in the end I really enjoyed this story. It was definitely more of a mystery than I had anticipated, which is fine, and I thought the story would concentrate more on Ilya's life in Louisiana than recounting the past, but it all worked for me, mainly because Fitzpatrick is a terrific storyteller. As I mentioned earlier, she was able to vividly capture both the chill of Ilya's Russian town and the heat of the Louisiana bayou, and she deftly captured Ilya's experience adjusting to life in America.

It's often hard to realize how lucky we are when we're confronted with a crisis at the same time. Lights All Night Long is a moving story of the sacrifices we make for those we love, sacrifices which go unnoticed until it might be too late. With this book, Fitzpatrick proves that she's definitely an author to follow in the future to see what she does next.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Friend Zone" by Abby Jimenez

You might be tempted to write Abby Jimenez's new book The Friend Zone off as fluffy "chick-lit," assuming it's not much different than the countless other books like it out there.

You'd be wrong. Sure, there is romance, humor, talk of soulmates and futures, but there is also an extra layer of emotional complexity in this book. It made me want to devour the book even quicker than I did, and now that I'm done, I can't believe I have to wait until 2020 for Jimenez's next book!!

Josh and Kristen's meet-cute doesn't quite follow the traditional pattern: Josh, a recent transplant from South Dakota to Los Angeles, actually rear-ends Kristen when she has to stop suddenly in traffic. Kristen isn't any damsel-in-distress either—she's covered in coffee from the fender-bender and isn't afraid to let Josh know what a crappy driver he is, using every bit of flowery language she has at her disposal.

When they realize a little while later that Josh will be the best man at Kristen's best friend's wedding, both reluctantly admit they'll enjoy the prospect of spending time together. There's no doubt they're attracted to one another, and Kristen is awaiting the return of her Marine boyfriend, who will be moving in with her anyway, so there's no risk to their friendship.

The problem is, Kristen can't get enough of Josh, and the feeling is definitely mutual. Having been raised with six older sisters, Josh is more sensitive to what a woman wants—he knows that she needs to eat before she gets "hangry," they have the same sense of humor, and he even loves her little dog, Stuntman Mike. And the truth is, Kristen isn't even sure that her boyfriend Tyler is what she wants anyway, and the closer it draws to his discharge from the military, the more she starts to panic.

For his part, Josh has fallen in love with everything about Kristen. He can tell she doesn't seem into her boyfriend's return, and he knows they have serious chemistry? So why does she continue to keep him at arm's length?

Kristen has a debilitating medical condition, and it appears the only answer is a procedure which will make having children impossible. Josh has said more than once how he can't imagine not having a huge family of kids. How could Kristen deprive him of that, force him to choose her and give up his dreams? She wants him to have the life he so desperately desires, but she won't tell him why she keeps pushing him away, even when it's obvious how strongly she feels for him.

What I loved so much about The Friend Zone is the complexity of its characters and their relationships. Even when the book took a surprisingly emotional turn, the characters remained utterly true to themselves and the story, and I became even more invested. Sure, Kristen's reluctance to share the truth with Josh gets really frustrating, but the way he handles it, and the way the other characters in the book do as well, felt realistic and not part of some glossy romantic fantasy.

This is definitely a book I'd love to see adapted for a movie or television series, because I loved this story. (Plus, I wouldn't mind seeing how some casting director envisions firemen/ex-Marines Josh and Brandon, as well as Kristen and Sloane. Especially the firemen, but whatever.) Jimenez's writing is funny and charming and hooked me from the get-go.

I've really been enjoying my forays into this genre over the last year. There are some really talented writers out there and while it's easy just to think "chick lit" is fluffy and meaningless, you might want to adjust that belief. And The Friend Zone might be one that can help convince you.

Forever provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published June 11, 2019.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Book Review: "The Scent Keeper" by Erica Bauermeister

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Erica Bauermeister's incredibly memorable new novel, The Scent Keeper.

Scents provide some of our most potent memories, our strongest sense of time and place. It could be perfume or cologne worn by someone you love, a freshly baked treat from childhood, even the smell of the air after a rainstorm. Bauermeister's beautifully told book is an illustration of a life lived through embracing one of our strongest senses.

Emmeline lives in a cabin on a remote island with her father. It's a marvelous existence for a young girl—she has an entire island to herself to explore, and she and her father live off the land, enjoying all that nature has to offer. He teaches her how to use her senses more than anything else.

During the winter things get tough as food becomes more scarce, but she loves when her father tells her fairy tales and stories. In their cabin they are surrounded by little glass bottles which contain papers that have mysterious scents on them. Her father doesn't explain where they come from, or what the machine that creates these scent papers is, but he gives her powerful advice: "People lie, Emmeline, but smells never do."

But when she discovers the truth about the island on which they live, everything starts to change, and her father becomes more and more obsessed with the scent papers stored in their cabin, to the detriment of everything else, including himself. Without warning, Emmeline is suddenly thrust into the real world, forced to interact with people other than her father, and having to experience first-hand the violence, betrayal, and pain that people cause each other, willingly and unwillingly.

"There had been a time in my life when I had felt grown-up, capable. Now I was too scared of the world outside to leave the house. I stayed in my room mostly, telling myself the stories from my father's book of fairy tales. The girl in the red cloak, running through the trees. The genie waiting in the bottle, growing more powerful with time. The children, lost in the woods with only breadcrumbs to help them. I spoke the words in my mind, as if they could tell me how to navigate this place I'd found myself in, but the best they could do was help me forget. Still, I returned to the stories, wishing for something that would never come. An ending that had already happened."

When Emmeline learns the secrets her father kept hidden from her, she is determined to find out the truth about him and her background. She finds a world far beyond any she had imagined, where she can use her sense of smell professionally, and she finally feels like she belongs. But she also confronts one of her father's most powerful pieces of advice again, "People lie, but smells never do."

At first I felt as if The Scent Keeper was similar to Delia Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing—a story of a young girl who is more in-step with nature than people thrust into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable world. And while there are elements of that in this story, this is also a book about the family we're born into and the family we choose, understanding what—and whom—to fight for, and how our senses give us insight into human behavior we may never recognize unless we let them.

I thought this was a fascinating and beautiful book, full of gorgeously lyrical imagery (how else could Bauermeister make you understand the scents that swirled around Emmeline and the other characters) and a powerful if familiar story of love, trust, family, and our relationship with the natural world. I enjoyed reading this book immensely, even when I wanted to shake the characters for not saying what they were thinking or feeling.

This is definitely a book that made me think about the connection between scent and memory, and how when I remember certain events or people in my life, I often associate a particular smell with them. The Scent Keeper is thought-provoking and memorable.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published May 21, 2019.

I will be hosting a giveaway for this book on my Instagram page, at www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Book Review: "Don't Date Rosa Santos" by Nina Moreno"

"We try with all we have. We fight hands we can't see. We stomp against the earth and whisper all the right prayers, but sometimes it isn't meant to be. You believe life will always be as it is, and you make plans, but the next thing you know, you're climbing into a sinking boat in the dead of night because the land you love is no longer safe. The sun sets, he doesn't swim above the water again, and time runs out."

Rosa Santos has been raised to believe that the women in her family are cursed by the sea, especially when it comes to love, and the men who get involved with them are doomed. When her grandparents migrated from Cuba when her mother was just an infant, storms hit their boat, and only Rosa's grandmother and mother survived. Eighteen years later, the young man her mother loved (and Rosa's father) left on his boat for a routine day of work and never returned.

Since then Rosa has been afraid of even going near the water—and has steered clear of relationships. She lives with her grandmother, Mimi, in a small Florida town where everyone knows everyone's business. Mimi works as a curandera, the person everyone turns to for help with illness, crises, and everything in between. Rosa's mother drifts in and out of town, unable to stay for too long in the place where her heart was broken, and causing friction with Mimi whenever she returns.

What Rosa wants more than anything is answers. She wants to know more about what Cuba was like for her grandmother, why she'll never speak of that time or of the family left behind. She wants to understand why her mother can't stay in one place, why she can't be the mother she's always needed. And more than anything, she wants to understand the whole idea of the Santos "curse," especially when she meets Alex Aquino, the brooding sailor with tattoos of the ocean and a passion for baking.

How do you get a fresh start when everyone around you knows everything about you, and is watching your every move? Can we really overcome the challenges of our past, and outrun the "curses"? Is love worth risking everything for, especially the potential that you could "doom" someone else?

Don't Date Rosa Santos is an utterly charming, sweet book about family, love, grief, and heritage, and is, in many ways, a love letter both to Cuba and to small-town America. The characters are fun and complex, and even if there aren't too many surprises to be had in the book, I got hooked pretty quickly and read the entire book in one day.

Nina Moreno has created a magical place, and her characters are quirky and memorable. It does feel a little like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and the relationships between mothers and daughters are special. (Plus, Alex sounded hot.) This was a fun read without a tremendous amount of angst, which was a nice change of pace for me!

NetGalley and Disney-Hyperion provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Review: "I Wish You All the Best" by Mason Deaver

Yes, yes, YES. I loved this book so much!

Ben De Backer has finally decided it's time they come out to their parents as nonbinary. While Ben knows their parents, particularly their father, are difficult and have strong religious beliefs, in the end Ben thinks that their parents should be okay with their coming out. Ben is their child after all, right?

Ben couldn't have been more wrong. Their parents kick Ben out of the house and with nowhere to turn, not even shoes on their feet, Ben turns to their estranged sister, Hannah, who left home 10 years ago and never looked back.

Although it takes a moment for Hannah and her husband, Thomas, to understand what nonbinary even means, there's no question that they will take Ben into their home. Hannah feels so much guilt about leaving Ben behind with their parents all those years ago, and Ben only knew she was married via social media. But Hannah is determined to help Ben deal with the stress of accepting their identity coupled with their parents' rejection.

"Like, what do you do when your parents kick you out of your house? When your entire life is upheaved, all because you wanted to come out, to be respected and seen, to be called the right pronouns?"

As Ben tries to settle into a new high school for one last semester before graduation, they hope to keep a low profile. But that plan is quickly thwarted when Ben meets Nathan Allan, whose charm and humor make him seem almost larger than life. Nathan wants to be Ben's friend and doesn't understand why they keep pushing him away, so little by little Ben's defenses come down and they open up to the idea of Nathan's friendship, and in turn, Nathan's best friends as well. It's difficult, though, to be close with people from whom you're keeping your true self secret, but Ben isn't interested in the possibility of rejection again.

While Ben tries to reconcile their conflicted feelings toward Hannah and deal with panic attacks and anxiety, they're also frightened by how much Nathan is starting to mean to them. Can Ben find the courage to let Nathan know the truth about them? Would Nathan push them away? And even if Nathan were interested in them, is it worth exploring when Nathan is set to leave North Carolina for college in just three months?

Dealing with just one of these issues is tough for anyone, but all of them compounded prove immensely challenging for Ben. They find themselves turning more and more to their therapist and Mariam, their only nonbinary friend, with whom Ben speaks via Skype and text. Mariam has made a career from their experiences accepting their identity and living their life openly, and they want Ben to do the same.

I Wish You All the Best is a beautiful, moving book about everyone's right to be happy with who they are, and their need to be surrounded by love and friendship. It's such an amazing story about how you can't tackle all of your problems on your own—only by letting people in can you start to achieve happiness and self-acceptance. At times it's a difficult book to read, because of the emotions and challenges Ben has to deal with, and how difficult it is for them to communicate how they feel, but it seemed immensely realistic, and I found myself hoping that Ben would find their way through this.

Mason Deaver brought so much humor, emotion, and hope to this book. These characters were amazing. I read the entire thing in just a few hours and loved it so much. I really found it a tremendous learning experience for me, because I'll admit I don't know nearly enough about nonbinary people. I hope this book gets into the hands of those who need it most.

If you follow my reviews you know how much I marvel at the tremendous amount of talent in the YA genre in particular. I love the courage and boldness with which these authors tackle difficult subjects, and I am so thankful that there are so many authors like Deaver willing to share their own struggles with readers in the hope they can reach those who need to hear, and see, that progress and happiness and acceptance may seem impossible to fathom, but it truly is possible.