Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Book Review: "Leslie F*cking Jones" by Leslie Jones

Leslie Jones is a human dynamo. She has tremendous presence—her voice and her height make you stand up and take notice. She comes across as brave and brash, seeming almost impervious to any barriers that stand in her way. But as you learn in her new memoir, Leslie F*cking Jones (like it could be called anything else?), her confidence stems from the challenges she faced in her life, the battles she had to fight to achieve her dreams.

For the most part, whether or not you'll enjoy this memoir depends on how you feel about Leslie Jones herself. This is not a polished, obviously ghostwritten book; Jones' voice is authentic, her language is peppered liberally with curse words and slang, and at times the narration seems to go off on tangents, the way people often do when they tell stories. As she puts it, "Hey you guys—some of the stories about my childhood are vague because a bitch is fifty-five and I've smoked a lot of weed. A lot of it is hazy, but I will give you the best recollection of it that I can."

While parts of the book are definitely hysterical, it's an emotional read as well. Jones faced some very difficult things growing up: her alcoholic father moved their family around a lot, and in many places she faced racism as well as bullying for the color of her skin, her family's lack of money, and her lack of polish. And tragedy certainly followed her into adulthood, as did brushes with poverty, fighting for a chance onstage, and trying to pursue fame without changing who she was.

One of the things that surprised me about this book and Jones herself is the importance she places on being a role model for Black girls and women, letting them know they're beautiful and worthy. It's a lesson she learned when she was younger and it never left her, even in the toughest of times.

At times the book gets a little too specific and detailed so chapters drag, but it's still an entertaining and powerful read.

"In the end, what I learned in the pandemic, and since, is what so many of us learned: life is life. It's not supposed to be easy all the time, and it's never as easy as we want it to be."

Monday, September 25, 2023

Book Review: "A Love Song for Ricki Wilde" by Tia Williams

I'm a bit of a Tia Williams stan, so when I got a random email from NetGalley offering “Read Now” access to her upcoming book, you bet I jumped on that chance, even in the middle of a work Zoom call.

“Leap years are strange. And because February 29 exists only every four years, it is a rare, charged day. In the old days, back home, folks whispered that it was an enchanted time. When the veil between this world and the other was gossamer thin.”

Ricki Wilde was born into a wealthy Black family in Atlanta, with her father being the famed owner of a nationwide chain of funeral homes. And while her future is laid out for her–following in the footsteps of her three older sisters and taking over her own franchise, not to mention tapping into a trust fund–Ricki isn’t interested in this path. Instead, her creative, impulsive, and rebellious nature causes significant friction between her and her family.

When she announces her dream of opening a flower shop, her ambitions are ridiculed by her family. So she quits her receptionist job at one of the family funeral parlors and decides to make her own way. But a chance encounter with a nonagenarian widow, Ms. Della, opens up an unexpected opportunity.

Ricki takes Ms. Della’s offer to move into the ground-floor apartment of her Harlem brownstone, and opens her floral boutique, Wilde Things, in the storefront portion of the space. Ricki is mesmerized by Harlem, and is fascinated by the history that existed in that neighborhood, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance.

Owning her own shop Is exhausting work, but for the first time in her life, Ricki is following her dreams without her family’s criticism. And in Ms. Della, she finds a surrogate grandmother, who recognizes Ricki’s need for love and encouragement.

One February night, she is drawn by the scent of night-blooming jasmine in a nearby community garden. She knows it is not the season for jasmine to bloom, but she cannot resist. And then she encounters a handsome, mysterious stranger who upends her world.

I’m going to leave the plot description fairly vague, although once you start reading, everything becomes clear fairly quickly. Suffice it to say that Williams imbues her upcoming book not only with steamy romance, but also lots of history of the Harlem Renaissance, and some magical realism.

This wasn’t my favorite Williams book–that honor still goes to Seven Days in June–but I’m always captivated by her storytelling. I felt like the pacing dragged a bit here, but I enjoyed all of the characters except for Ricki’s family, who were fairly one-dimensional. (But Ms. Della was absolutely fascinating.)

Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for this advance copy. The book will publish February 6, 2024.

Book Review: "Dark Ride" by Lou Berney

“I like being ordinary. I enjoy the lack of pressure.”

Hardy “Hardly” Reed isn’t particularly ambitious or motivated, but that doesn’t seem to faze the 21-year-old one bit. He spends his days hanging out with his friends, getting high, and works as a scarer at a run-down amusement park. Even though his brother chides him for making nothing of his life, Hardly doesn’t care. He loves having no pressure or obligations.

One day, while looking to defer payment on a traffic ticket, he sees two young children sitting by themselves on a bench. When he goes over to check on them and see if they’re okay, they seem almost catatonic, not acknowledging his presence. Then he notices identical injuries on both children, and when their mother approaches, she quickly gets the children away from Hardly’s inquiring gaze.

Faced with a situation like this, Hardly would usually walk away and not give this situation another thought. But for some reason, the children’s expressions haunt him, so he calls Child Protective Services and leaves a message about what he saw. And while that should be the end of it, he gets no response from CPS, and the more research he does, he becomes convinced that CPS won’t be of any help. He knows in his heart that the only person that can help these kids is him, despite the fact that he barely takes care of himself.

As Hardly tries to figure out exactly who is abusing the children and the best way he can help, his friends and family try to dissuade him from getting further involved. But for the first time in his life, Hardly has discovered something–and someone–to fight for. He may not be the best person for the task, but he’s determined not to let the children down, even when he discovers he has gotten himself entangled in a situation far beyond anything he imagined.

I first discovered Lou Berney when I found his amazing thriller, The Long and Faraway Gone, several years ago, shortly after seeing another author I loved naming Berney one of the best authors he had read. I’ve read all of Berney’s books, so I was tremendously excited about this one.

Once again, Berney tells an incredible story. While I’m always a little dubious about books when ordinary people suddenly become investigators, Hardly is the most unlikely of protagonists, and his single-minded focus seems to make sense the more we learn about him.

I was utterly captivated by Dark Ride. I loved the choices Berney made here, instead of taking the expected paths that I feel would have ruined the story. I’ll definitely be waiting for his next book.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Book Review: "Terrace Story" by Hilary Leichter

Have you ever read a book that you definitely enjoyed despite the fact that you weren't really sure what it was about? That was definitely the case for me with Terrace Story, Hilary Leichter's new book. It was beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking, somewhat confusing at times, and a little bit trippy.

In "Terrace," the first of four connected stories, Annie, Edward, and their infant daughter, Rose, have to downsize into a much smaller, cramped apartment. They are definitely saddened by this move, because instead of the view of the outdoors that they had in their old apartment, their view is now an air shaft. But one day, when entertaining Annie's coworker Stephanie, they find a beautiful terrace inside a closet. Suddenly their view has changed, and they are absolutely thrilled.

They quickly discover that the terrace only seems to appear when Stephanie visits them. They are torn between wanting to keep inviting her over and feeling bad that they're using her to keep having access to the terrace. But everything good comes with a cost, and one night everything changes for the small family, with repercussions for the future.

Some of the stories follow related characters—"Folly" focuses on a married couple, and the woman is a descendant of Rose; while "Cantilever" takes place in the distant future, with a young woman working at a space station, when she is visited by an older woman who says she wanted to meet her. "Fortress" is about Stephanie, and tracks her from childhood to a point in the future.

I found "Folly" the oddest story, and I wasn't exactly sure what Leichter was trying to say with that one. The other stories made more sense (although "Fortress" was definitely a bit confusing) and they definitely provoked emotional reactions.

Leichter is a tremendously talented writer. I'd love to do some research into what inspired her to write this book, because that knowledge might inspire me to re-read this at some point. This is definitely not a book for everyone, but I'd imagine fans of literary or experimental fiction may enjoy it.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Book Review: "My Roommate is a Vampire" by Jenna Levine

Cassie Greenberg is on the verge of being evicted from her apartment. As an artist, she just can't seem to make ends meet, even with two part-time jobs. When she spots an ad to share a beautiful, spacious apartment for an unbelievably cheap price, she knows it's probably too good to be true, but she really doesn't have a choice except to move in.

And then there's her new roommate: Frederick J. Fitzwilliam. Although he's in his mid-30s, he speaks like a character from Downton Abbey and dresses like he stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. He sleeps during the day and works during the night, so while they don't see each other that often, Frederick leaves Cassie beautifully hand-written notes all over the apartment. He asks about her day, gives her encouragement about everything she's struggling with, and praises her art. Plus, he's absolutely gorgeous—whenever Cassie sees him, she gets totally tongue-tied. (Especially on the few occasions she's seen him shirtless.)

One day, she comes home unexpectedly to find several bags of blood in the refrigerator, which she knows weren't there earlier. Then Frederick's friend, Reginald, actually drinks one of the bags in front of her. And then he forces Frederick to tell Cassie the truth: he's a vampire. After she gets over her initial shock and horror, Frederick explains he would never harm her. And then he asks her a favor: can she help teach him about the modern world? He needs to find a way to blend in with society, not stand out.

She reluctantly agrees, and he proves to be a willing student. As the attraction between the two grows, Cassie has to wonder what the future could hold for the two of them. Can love blossom, or are they doomed for heartbreak?

This was a really cute book. The characters definitely had chemistry, and boy, did Frederick sound hot! I loved the banter between Frederick and Reginald as well. I could have done without one subplot that didn't seem to advance the story much, but it didn't dull my enjoyment. Definitely a fun read!

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Book Review: "The Roommate Pact" by Allison Ashley

The blurb on the cover of The Roommate Pact reads, “Anyone who wants to swoon needs to read this book!” And I must say, while many blurbs are way off the mark, this one is pretty accurate!

Claire is an ER nurse who can’t seem to find a relationship that will last. She’s outspoken and a little wild, and that apparently intimidates men. One drunken evening, panic about being single forever leads her to propose a pact: if neither she or her sexy firefighter roommate, Graham, can find a mate by the time they’re 40, they’ll get together—as friends with benefits.

As gorgeous as he is, Claire could never be in an actual relationship with Graham. He’s relationship-phobic, and not only does he have a dangerous job, but he loves taking risks—climbing mountains, etc. She never would want to settle down with someone like him and constantly fear him getting hurt, or worse. But as the chemistry between them intensifies, would it hurt if they started the benefits part of their friendship a little early?

When Graham gets badly hurt while rock climbing, Claire becomes his caregiver for a while. If that means sleeping in his bed to ensure he’s safe, or taking care of his little dog, Gertrude (who hates Claire), then so be it. And as they draw closer and closer, how can they keep from falling for each other, which neither was supposed to do?

The characters have fantastic chemistry. I couldn’t get enough Graham—he’s definitely one of those characters whose cockiness masks so much depth—and Claire was fantastic. If you read Ashley’s last book, Would You Rather (which I really enjoyed), the main characters from that book are Graham and Claire’s best friends. This really was a great book—steamy, fun, romantic, and emotional.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Book Review: "The Summer of Songbirds" by Kristy Woodson Harvey

I'm not emotional, you are. (Well, maybe it's me.)

As some of you may know, I spent 10 summers at a sleepaway camp in New York's Catskills Mountains. It was such an incredible experience, being a camper and eventually a counselor, and some of the friendships I made all those years ago still remain. That's one of the reasons that I couldn't wait to read Kristy Woodson Harvey's newest novel, The Summer of Songbirds.

When she was six years old, Daphne met her two best friends, Lanier and Mary Stuart, at Camp Holly Springs, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother. The camp is owned by Daphne's aunt June, who is excited that her niece will get to experience the joys of a summer getaway given the difficulties she has faced in her childhood.

The three women remain the best of friends even in their 30s, and have helped each other through some challenging times. But Daphne faces two difficult dilemmas—one personal and one professional. Both require her to keep secrets from one of her best friends, and have the potential to ruin her future. Does she choose happiness or friendship?

As plans for Lanier's wedding progress, she starts having suspicions about her fiancé, which dampens some of her happiness, and makes her nostalgic for her first love. And when she discovers two things being kept from her, she doesn't know where to turn, and wonders if she should end a friendship that has lasted most of her life.

Meanwhile, June has a secret of her own: this very well may be the last summer of Camp Holly Springs, because she can no longer keep the camp afloat financially. She's owned the camp for 30 years, and it's really been the only thing in her life, as she's sacrificed nearly everything else. But when Daphne, Lanier, and Mary Stuart find out that the camp might close, the three women spring into action to do all they can to save this place that means so much to them.

What I love so much about Kristy Woodson Harvey's books is that she creates likable yet flawed characters that you truly care about. Like many books, there aren't a lot of surprises, but I found myself hooked on this story. I thought about how I'd react if the camp I spent so much of childhood at faced closure (I doubt that's possible because the camp owner now owns 4 or 5 camps, but still). Harvey is a definite auto-buy author for me, and I will eagerly await her next book! (Many thanks to my friend Heather for hosting a giveaway with Gallery Books that I was lucky to win!