Sunday, September 30, 2018

Book Review: "The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I loved every single thing about Taylor Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I had been meaning to read it since it was published last year, but something else always popped up in front of it, until I decided I needed to see what everyone was raving about. And boy, did I ever!!

Evelyn Hugo is a film legend. She is an Academy Award-winning actress, a philanthropist, a fashion icon, and, at her heyday, was one of the most stunningly beautiful women in the world. She retired from film in the late 1980s and mostly stayed out of the spotlight, enduring her share of tragedies. But her mystique still lingers.

When she decides to auction off some of her most iconic gowns to raise funds for charity, Evelyn also decides it's time to give an interview. She chooses to tell her story to Vivant magazine, but demands that a reasonably unknown reporter, Monique Grant, be the one to interview her. No one, Monique included, understands why Evelyn has chosen her, but the actress is utterly unwavering in her demand.

When Monique meets Evelyn, she is dazzled by her beauty, but is moved by her strength and her kindness. Evelyn isn't actually interested in giving an interview to Vivant—she wants Monique to write her biography, publishable after her death, and wants Monique to make a fortune once it's time to make a publishing deal. Although she can't figure out why Evelyn would give this prize to her, and she knows it could endanger her job, Monique jumps at the chance to hear the legend's life story in her own words.

"When you're given an opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn't give things, you take things. If you learn one thing from me, it should probably be that."

In Evelyn's luxurious Manhattan penthouse apartment, she begins unfurling her rise to fame, from growing up in Hell's Kitchen in the 1950s to making her way to Hollywood, from getting her start in movies to her decision to leave acting 30+ years later. Of course, she lays bare the stories behind her seven marriages and the men she took into her life, and the scandals, happy moments, and pain that accompanied those relationships.

Evelyn gives Monique the unvarnished truth and doesn't want to be portrayed as a good person—she knows she was ruthlessly ambitious, hurtful, calculating, and unwavering in getting what she wanted. But at one point, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood, and her intelligence and ambition helped get her there.

As Monique listens to Evelyn's story, and is moved by the complexities of her emotions, she has her own emotional challenges to figure out as well. And as Evelyn's journey helps shape her own decisions, she still wonders why the actress chose her. But Evelyn also helps change Monique's frame of reference in certain ways, how she thinks of situations and people.

"It's always been fascinating to me how things can be simultaneously true and false, how people can be good and bad all in one, how someone can love you in a way that is beautifully selfless while serving themselves ruthlessly."

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is compulsively readable, like one of those television miniseries you can't stop watching. I'm a huge movie fan and love reading stories of "old Hollywood," and Reid captures that mood and environment so perfectly. But this is more than a soapy melodrama—this is a book with surprising depth, thought-provoking in the subjects it touches on, and unapologetic in its portrayal of what women needed to do to succeed in Hollywood.

Reid is an amazing storyteller. I know many have spoken highly of her earlier books and I'm going to have to check those out. But this book was fantastic from start to finish. I devoured the whole book in just a few hours because I couldn't get enough of it, but of course, I'm sad now that it's over. This was a terrific story of love, loss, self-reliance, and the struggle of being true to yourself and having to adhere to the roles society puts you in.

Pick this one up!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book Review: "The Lies We Told" by Camilla Way

"Who will save your soul after all the lies that you told?"
—Jewel, Who Will Save Your Soul

While reading Camilla Way's latest thriller, I couldn't get the above lyric out of my head, along with "Lies lies lies yeah" from The Thompson Twins' Lies. As you might expect from a book with this title, there are lots of twists and turns and times where you have no idea whom you should believe. It makes for quite a read!

In 1986, Beth begins to worry about her young daughter, Hannah. She and her husband had tried for years to have a baby, and Hannah's arrival was truly a blessing. But for some reason, Hannah isn't quite as loving as other children—as she grows older, it appears she almost takes pleasure in causing people pain and worry. Should she actually be afraid of her daughter, or is she overreacting?

In 2017, Clara is worried because her boyfriend, Luke, never came home the night before. She hopes that he just decided to meet up with some friends and drank too much, and is sleeping it off somewhere, but when he doesn't show up for a big meeting at work the next day, her fears start to grow. Luke had a bit of a "stalker," someone who has been sending him threatening texts and emails, but he didn't want Clara to worry about it. Has the stalker gone one step too far?

As Clara's fears grow, and she begins enlisting Luke's family and friends in trying to find him, she starts to discover that there are many secrets she was unaware of, secrets which involve Luke and his family, some of which have been hidden for longer than Luke has been alive. No family is perfect, but sometimes what you don't know about your family could prove to be dangerous.

That's all the plot summary I'll provide, even though I know some reviews give a little bit more. Suffice it to say that Way keeps you guessing, and even someone like me who suspects everyone was surprised a bit! The dual storyline trick tends to wear me out but I thought it worked for this book, as you wracked your brain trying to figure out where the connection would come. (And it does come, so don't worry!)

I've never read any of Way's books before, but she definitely knows how to ration out the suspense to keep you hooked and debating whether to devour the entire book at once or savor it slowly. (I went with the former approach—nearly finished the whole thing in a day!) She's a great writer, although I felt like the book took a little longer to wrap up than I wanted. But The Lies We Told is definitely going to be one of those thrillers you see everywhere as soon as it's published October 9!

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Book Review: "Sea Prayer" by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini's Sea Prayer isn't a book—it's a poem. But it's more than a poem—it is, in essence, a letter written from father to son, a prayer lifted up on the eve of a journey away from their war-torn country, a journey which could prove tremendously dangerous.

In less than 50 pages, Hosseini's words and the beautiful illustrations break your heart. This was inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy believed to have drowned during his family's attempts to flee their country, but it could be anyone's story. The remembrances of better times, reflections of a country once utterly beautiful but now devastated by war and the resulting effects, words that a young boy might not understand now but might grow to appreciate later.

I read this in just a few minutes and it punched a hole in my heart. We often don't take the time to think of what families must go through when they leave their homes which are welcoming no more. We don't think about their fears, their memories which make them reluctant to leave, the dangers they face along the way.

Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, will donate his proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe.

Sea Prayer is short and powerful, and once it is read it will not cease to be felt or forgotten. Thank you, Khaled Hosseini, for reminding us of the emotional and physical costs of immigration.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: "Darius the Great Is Not Okay" by Adib Khorram

What an enjoyable, sweet, and special book!

"What kind of name is Darius Grover Kellner? It was like I was destined to be a target."

Darius Kellner calls himself a "Fractional Persian"—his mother is Persian, and he refers to his blonde, Teutonic father as the Übermensch. But he feels like he doesn't quite fit into either world. He looks like his mother but never really learned to speak Farsi (although his younger sister did), and while he and his father share a love of Star Trek, it seems like mostly Darius disappoints his father, because he's not more athletic, not in better shape, not the Übermensch-in-training he knows his father wants.

The other thing that Darius and his father share is depression, although both manage it through medication. But when Darius gets sad when the more popular kids in high school (aka the "Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy") pick on him or play pranks with him as the subject, when his father disapproves of Darius' in-depth interest in fancy teas (not the factory-made stuff he sells at his part-time job), or when his father criticizes his hair or his eating habits, it seems like his father forgets that Darius has the same problem, which depresses him even further.

But when his family heads to Iran to visit Darius' grandparents (his first trip to his ancestral home), he hopes that things will be different. While he absolutely loves spending time with his grandmother, he feels ill-at-ease around his grandfather, who is terminally ill. He feels his grandfather looks at him as disapprovingly as his father, especially when he learns Darius takes medicine for depression. Plus, he doesn't speak Farsi, and his younger sister has no problem communicating with everyone.

Everything changes when Darius meets Sohrab, the son of friends of his grandparents. With Sohrab, Darius plays soccer (and enjoys it for the first time), visits various historical landmarks and tourist attractions in the area, and learns about both his heritage and his grandparents, who have been a part of Sohrab's life as long as he can remember. More than that, however, Darius finds he can confide in Sohrab and share the things that sadden him or cause him to feel inadequate, and he knows not only does Sohrab listen, but he identifies with the feelings as well.

"The thing is, I never had a friend like Sohrab before. One who understood me without even trying. Who knew what it was like to be stuck on the outside because of one little thing that set you apart."

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is a book about feeling like you don't fit in, and how good it feels when you finally click with someone who helps you realize your self-worth. It's about the assumptions we make which cause us emotional pain, and how if we only expressed our feelings, we'd save ourselves so much anxiety. It's also a book about what it's like to live with depression, and how it can impact everything we do and feel, as well as our relationships.

This is such a special book. It is so full of heart and the characters are so memorable. I was utterly hooked on this book from start to finish, and unbelievably, read the entire book in one day (and I worked, too). Adib Khorram does such a fantastic job telling a simple yet poignant, rich story, and he makes you feel the same emotions the characters do. I enjoyed this book so much I am willing to overlook my one pet peeve, which is that nearly every sentence Darius said started with, "Um." I know this is probably accurate for teenage boys, but it got a little monotonous after a while.

I love books that leave me with a smile on my face. Darius the Great Is Not Okay is definitely one of those. I can't wait to see what's next for Khorram—if this is what he did in his debut, the sky's the limit!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Book Review: "Wildcard" by Marie Lu

Wildcard represents the third series of Marie Lu's I've read to completion, and once again, I am amazed at her talent at building complex, compelling settings and creating characters you empathize with (as well as some you root against). Sure, sometimes the plots get a little bit technical or complicated, but at their core, Lu's books are about human connection, and we can all use a little more of that.

"When the world is murky, guide yourself with your own steady light."

A lot has changed for Emika Chen in a short period of time. It seems like only yesterday she was on the verge of eviction from her NYC apartment, working as a bounty hunter to make ends meet. But when she accidentally hacked into the world-renowned Warcross Championships, she was summoned to Japan, where she became immersed in the virtual world of Warcross; became a celebrity in her own right; got to meet her childhood hero, Hideo Tanaka, who created Warcross; and found herself a target in a plot she didn't quite understand.

As her relationship with Hideo grew closer, she discovered that he was using the NeuroLink algorithm not just as a way for people to get information, and as a way to harness technology for good, but he was using it for nefarious (although understandable) purposes as well. The one person she trusted more than anything has betrayed her, she's being hunted down by assassins who want her dead for somehow affecting the last Warcross Championships, and she's being courted by the dangerous and mysterious Zero and his group of anarchists.

Although Zero had proved a threat to Emika and her friends in the past, now he wants to partner with her to accomplish what she wants—to disable the NeuroLink algorithm, which now has countless citizens in its thrall. To do so, however, means crossing Hideo, and destroying what he has spent his life building. But how much can she trust Zero and his cohorts? What effect will her actions have on her life, Hideo, her friends, and the world? She discovers the truth to be a more tangled web than even she is able to solve, and she needs to figure out whom she can trust—fast.

If you didn't read Warcross, the first book in this series (read my review), the above plot summary probably reads like Greek to you, but suffice it to say, this book is just as fascinating—and perhaps ultimately richer in emotion—than its predecessor. I've tried to keep the description fairly brief because there are a lot of twists and turns and double crosses, some I saw coming, some I didn't.

Lu's talent first shows itself in her imagery, which is so evocative at times you can almost see the book playing itself out in your mind's eye. But as you get deeper into Wildcard you realize how well drawn the characters are, even those in supporting roles, like Emika's Warcross teammates, and you find yourself racing through the book, eager to know how things will unfold.

This book didn't fully capture its predecessor's magic; there were times when the plot dragged a little or got a little too mired in complexity, but ultimately, Lu's storytelling drew me back in fairly quickly. I didn't realize this was the second of a two-book series until I was nearly done with it, which saved me from the usual dilemma of do I read it quickly or do I savor it, but I'm sad it's over, although I'm hoping Lu's next series will be related to this one.

I know the subject matter will rule this book out for some, but if the story intrigues you, I'd encourage you to pick up Warcross first, and let yourself get immersed in this world Marie Lu has created. Hopefully you'll find it as compelling and crazy a ride as I did!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book Review: "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" by Anthony Bourdain

"I don't know, you see, how a normal person acts. I don't know how to behave outside my kitchen. I don't know the rules. I'm aware of them, sure, but I don't care to observe them anymore because I haven't had to for so many years. Okay, I can put on a jacket, go out for dinner and a movie, and I can eat with a knife and fork without embarrassing my hosts. But can I really behave? I don't know."

I can't explain why it's taken me this long—nearly 20 years since it was published—to read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Having attended culinary school, I'm fairly obsessed with all things cooking-related, and consider myself to be a bit of a foodie. I was also an enormous Bourdain fan, religiously watching his television appearances and loving his take-no-prisoners philosophy when it came to adventurous eating (not something we shared, per se). Yet only now, in the few months since his shocking suicide, did I sit down to read his nearly 20-year-old look at his journey to executive chef, the knowledge he gained and the trouble he stepped into, time after time.

While certainly it's a little eerie (and a little sad) to read a memoir by someone who subsequently dies, that didn't spoil my enjoyment of this terrific, brash, funny, and at times introspective, book. Bourdain was a natural storyteller—not only did he use food to tell the stories he (and his bosses) wanted to create, but he also loved to talk about the ways the culinary world has changed through the years, how what restaurants serve (and what people eat) has changed, and how the role of the chef has changed with it.

Unlike many memoirs, Bourdain was never afraid to admit his flaws, his transgressions, his pet peeves, all of which served to make him more human and make his story more compelling. I loved everything about this book—from his days of being a cocky young man thinking he knew more (and could do more) than those who had been cooking for years, to his struggles to find the chef's job in a restaurant where he felt he belonged for more than a few weeks. He doesn't skimp on his addictions to cocaine, heroin, and whatever else he could find, and he was candid about how those problems nearly ruined his life and his career.

While there are moments of vulnerability, there are more moments of humor, mischief, and tons of information about the life of a chef (at least in 2000), and why some restaurants and chefs succeed while others fail. The infamous chapter, "From Our Kitchen to Your Table," in which he warns of some restaurant tricks to get rid of older food (although not all of the things he discusses are still true today), is terrific, if not a little bit disturbing. How can you not love a book in which the author says, "Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living." (I guess if you're a vegetarian or vegan, you might take umbrage...)

I love Bourdain's writing style, so I'll definitely be picking up some of the other books he wrote. Even if you're not an aspiring chef or a foodie or even a home cook, you may enjoy this simply for the pleasure of hearing his words, which are so vivid you probably can imagine him reading them to you. It's a great book for cooking pros and novices alike.

Sure, reading Kitchen Confidential made me sad as I realized once again the magnitude of Bourdain's loss. But I'm also so happy he left such a rich legacy, in print, on television, and of course, in food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Review: "French Exit" by Patrick deWitt

Frances Price has never really given a damn about what people think. A wealthy widow, she looks down on nearly everyone with whom she comes into contact (except Joan, her best friend since childhood). She and her adult son, Malcolm, live in an aging apartment on the Upper East Side and spend money indiscriminately, despite multiple warnings of increasing intensity from their financial advisor.

One day, Frances is told that she is on the verge of losing everything, and she must sell off all the possessions she can if she is to have any money left to live on. She decides her only recourse is to cash her remaining funds into Euros and spend the rest of her days in Joan's unused Paris apartment. Despite being engaged—although his relationship, like much of his life, is in a state of arrested development—Malcolm prepares to head to Paris with his mother, and they also bring Small Frank, the Prices' cat, whom Frances is convinced contains the spirit of her late husband, an immoral and unethical lawyer.

The trio make their way to France on a cruise ship and find themselves in the midst of a few strange encounters. And when they arrive in Paris, although their financial situation is somewhat dire, Frances doesn't seem too concerned, and treats much of her time as an adventure. But ultimately, Frances has an exit strategy, and nothing can dissuade her from carrying out her final plans, not the disapproval of her husband/cat, nor Joan's concerned appearance in Paris.

Frances and Malcolm begin befriending a motley crew of Parisians, who take up residence in Joan's apartment, which becomes even more crowded with the arrival of more unexpected guests from New York. Hijinks ensue, and for the first time, Malcolm is awakened from his doldrums and forced to act. But ultimately, this is a quirky, wry commentary on what it's like to have and have not, and the interesting relationship between mothers and sons.

This was an interesting book, because there was a balance of introspection, character development, farce, and tragedy, and I wasn't sure exactly what Patrick deWitt really wanted us to feel. deWitt does zany well—his first book, The Sisters Brothers is a western of sorts with more than a healthy dose of quirk, and while I didn't read his second book, I heard it was something similar. I read this entire book on a plane so it was definitely entertaining, just a little bizarre.

If you're not a fan of books that get pretty quirky and treat serious topics in a lighthearted way, you're probably wise to steer clear of French Exit. Otherwise, it's an enjoyable read, although a little frustrating, and it paints an interesting portrait of a mother and son who need each other more than they'll care to admit.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Dinner List" by Rebecca Serle

It's one of those icebreaker questions that nearly everyone gets asked at least once in their life: If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would they be?

Sabrina and her college roommate, Jessica, answered that question at some point. Among those Sabrina chose were her father, who moved out when she was very young and she never knew him; Plato, because she was studying philosophy; and Audrey Hepburn, "because I was a nineteen-year-old girl." (Her father, in particular, was a huge Hepburn fan, and in fact, named his daughter for his favorite of Hepburn's films.) She believed, for the most part, that conversation was finished.

On her 30th birthday, she is scheduled to continue the tradition of meeting Jessica for dinner to celebrate. She is utterly shocked to find not only Jessica waiting for her, but a table that also includes Robert, her father; Professor Conrad, her philosophy professor, who served as a type of surrogate father figure; Audrey Hepburn. The table's fifth guest is Tobias. Tobias and Sabrina have had an on-again, off-again relationship for nearly the last decade, and while they can't always make each other completely happy, there's no doubt about just how intensely the two love each other.

"I'm surprised I have the ability for words, because this is insane. Maybe I'm dreaming. Maybe this is some sort of mental breakdown. I blink. I think maybe when I open my eyes it will be just Jessica seated there, which is what I'd been expecting. I have the urge to bolt out the door, or maybe go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face to determine whether or not they're really here—whether we're all really here together."

Once the initial shock of the gathering wears off, and Sabrina resigns herself to the fact that this whole experience might not be real, nor is there any rational explanation for it, she realizes she has until midnight to enjoy the assemblage. Why not take advantage of those who joined her, to address unresolved issues, make peace where necessary, and understand why certain things happened the way they did? Little by little, she realizes one of the guests is there for one particular purpose, a purpose Sabrina is absolutely not ready for.

The Dinner List is fascinating, emotional, and beautifully poignant. Yes, it requires you to suspend your disbelief as you read the book, unless these types of dinner parties happen often in your life. Certainly you can see how the plot may develop, but you may hope, as I did, that Rebecca Serle may have some other magical arrows in store. This is a book for anyone who wishes they had said important things to people who are/were important to them, but couldn't find the courage or the opportunity.

The book alternates between the dinner party and the story of Tobias and Sabrina's relationship, and how it affected those around them. It's a beautiful story on its own, made ever more poignant and hopeful by the circumstances that brought everyone together. This is a tremendously insightful story, with each of the dinner guests weighing in with their perspectives on life, love, loss, family, and regrets.

The Dinner List may not be a book for everyone, but being a total sap, it totally worked for me. I can't even begin to count how many times I've wished I had one more opportunity to get closure with people who are no longer in my life for one reason or another, so the emotions felt very genuine. If you can embrace this concept, think about whom you might want to dine with, and then pick up this book! (Maybe it will make you sob as much as I did, lol.)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Book Review: "Forget You Know Me" by Jessica Strawser

Liza and Molly have been best friends since childhood. Even when Molly was dating, and then married, Daniel, Liza was still a part of their lives, sharing stories of disastrous dates and her real lack of ambition. But when Liza moved from Cincinnati to Chicago for a job, it put a real strain on their friendship, and that strain began working its way into Molly and Daniel's marriage as well.

But one night while Daniel was on business travel, Molly and Liza are determined to remedy their lack of connection. Once Molly's kids are asleep the two settle down to a long Skype chat, complete with wine. For a few minutes, things seem like they used to—and then one of the kids begins crying for Molly. While she attends to her daughter, Liza finds herself staring at the blank computer screen...and then suddenly she sees a masked man, dressed all in black, come into the frame. Liza screams for Molly, tries calling her cell phone, but the intruder closes the computer screen.

Liza is at her wits' end. She is in a panic, constantly trying to reach Molly, and then eventually calling 911 to see if they can make sure everything is okay. But when Molly finally responds—via text, no less—her replies are curt, leaving Liza confused. Suspecting something more complicated is occurring, Liza decides to drive to Cincinnati to see Molly herself, but after driving all night, she is sent away following an angry confrontation that Liza doesn't understand at all.

Meanwhile, Daniel, who returned early from his business trip, doesn't understand why Molly didn't even call him about the intruder, nor can he figure out why Molly would have sent Liza away with such anger. What is she hiding from him? He's curious to know, although he isn't without secrets of his own, secrets which could upend all of their lives.

When Liza returns home and discovers she narrowly avoided a brush with disaster, it sends her into a tailspin when coupled with the apparent dissolution of her and Molly's friendship. She's still determined to find out what Molly is hiding from her, but she also needs to pull her own life together, as everything seems to be spinning out of control.

I had been under the impression that Forget You Know Me was a thriller, but while it has a tension-filled, pulse-pounding start, it becomes an exploration of the stresses, the secrets, and the lies that threaten to tear our relationships apart. It's a book about marriage and friendship, of fear and bravery, of giving voice to the things that threaten to destroy us.

While many of the problems facing the characters become obvious, the mystery of the masked man lingers, although many may figure out his identity. For me, it almost was a distraction once it became apparent that the book wasn't really focused on that incident as much as everyone's problems. At times I felt that the book wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be, and I wondered whether one incident in Liza's life would wind up coming back into the plot as well.

I like the way Jessica Strawser writes, and really enjoyed her last novel, Not That I Could Tell (see my review), which was released earlier this year. I didn't feel that this book was as strong, because the characters aren't all that likable, and because I really didn't know what to expect from the overall story. However, even though it was a tiny bit slow at times, I couldn't stop reading it, because I needed to know where she was going to take the story.

Once you understand this isn't a thriller, you may be able to enjoy the book for its storytelling, and for the twists and turns Strawser throws in. She's definitely a talented writer, one who can take ordinary situations and turn them into drama.

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: "Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating" by Christina Lauren

I've always enjoyed romantic comedies at the movies, but I've never really been a fan of them in book form. But sometime over the last year I found the writing duo that calls themselves Christina Lauren. I was absolutely wowed by Autoboyography (see my review) last year, and then earlier this year I fell for Love and Other Words (see my review), and that will be one of my favorite books of 2018.

Who is this man that I've become?

I don't know, but after reading their newest book, Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating, one thing is clear: I'm all in on the Christina Lauren fan train. Their books may be predictable at times, they may be a little sappy, but I don't care. They are I-wish-I-could-stay-in-this-chair-until-I-finish-this-book readable, and they're utterly heartwarming to boot.

Josh and Hazel have had more than a few meet-not-so-cutes. There was the time in college when Hazel threw up all over his shoes. Or the time when she was dating one of his roommates, and Josh walked in while the two were using the couch, although not for relaxation. And then there was the time when he was her TA, and she wasn't able to turn in a paper because she had to have her wisdom teeth removed, so she wrote him an email while on painkillers, an email he printed and framed.

Hazel is a third-grade teacher, and she may have more in common with her students than she cares to admit. She's a free spirit, eccentric, completely without filter, fun-loving, and not ashamed of anything. She is loyal, loving, and generous to a fault. She'd give you the shirt off her back—literally—but she knows that makes her a difficult romantic prospect. Josh, on the other hand, is a physical therapist, who craves order and calm.

"'I realize that finding the perfect person isn't going to be easy for me because I'm a lot to take,' she says, 'but I'm not going to change just so that I'm more datable.'"

When she and Josh meet again 10 years later, they know they aren't a suitable match romantically, but each grows enamored of the other as a friend. They happily settle into their role as best friends, and begin setting each other up on blind dates, with each one turning out a bit more disastrous than the last.

"The world seems full of men who are initially infatuated by our eccentricities, but who ultimately expect them to be temporary. These men eventually grow bewildered that we don't settle down into calm, potential-wifey girlfriends."

Of course, the more they try to find the perfect person for the other, the more they start to realize how intense their feelings are for each other. But how can they jeopardize the easy rapport, the casual, laid-back friendship they share? What happens if taking the next step is absolutely the worst thing they can do? Is life without Hazel (or Josh) the life they want?

"'But if you changed your mind about something like that,' Emily says, 'I think that's the one thing that could dim her light. We both know Hazel is a butterfly. I think you have the power to take the dust from her wings.'"

You probably know what will happen, and you'd be partly, or perhaps mostly, right. But the appeal of Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating doesn't lie in surprises, it lies in the utter charm of its characters, the utter warmth of its heart, the beauty of its message of being yourself no matter what, and, if I'm being honest, some pretty steamy sex scenes. I didn't want to tear myself away from this book because I couldn't get enough of it.

Some label Christina Lauren's books as "chick lit," and while perhaps as a whole they may appeal more to women than men, the term "chick lit" shouldn't be seen as an insult or somehow connoting they're not well-written. These books are sweet, warm, sexy, sensitive, emotional, and fun, and if that's a bad thing, I'll still line up for more. (Their next book comes out in December, so at least I won't have to wait long.)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review: "Pieces of Her" by Karin Slaughter

It seemed like any other day. Andy was having lunch at the mall with her mother, Laura, celebrating Andy's 31st birthday. They were briefly interrupted when the relative of a former patient of Laura's stopped by with her daughter to thank Laura for all of her help. Then, without warning, gunfire erupted, and the woman and her daughter were shot to death.

As the gunman approached Andy, screaming at her to "do her job," Laura leapt into action. Andy watched her mother move to protect her, disarm the gunman, and then finish him off, coldly, as if she were simply a "killing machine." She knows she is in shock from the trauma of the events, but Andy cannot believe what she saw with her own eyes. Could her mother really have done what she saw her do?

"None of it made sense. Her mother was a fifty-five-year-old speech therapist. She played bridge, for chrissakes. She didn't kill people and smoke cigarettes and rail against the pigs."

In the aftermath of the incident and another encounter which endangers her life, Laura sends Andy away, telling her to flee the small Georgia town Laura has lived in forever. Andy doesn't know what to think, as she cannot get her mind around what she saw her mother do, and the fear that other incidents will follow. But more than that, she can't figure out who her mother really is, and what secrets she's been hiding from her for perhaps her entire life?

What would you do if you found out your mother wasn't the person you thought she was? In Pieces of Her, Karin Slaughter shows you that not only what we don't know might put us in danger, but makes you wonder how you deal with someone who you never really knew.

I have many friends who have been reading Slaughter's books for a long while, but I was wowed by my first experience with her last year, after reading The Good Daughter (see my review). That book really knocked my socks off, but this one? Not so much.

While I found the premise of this book interesting, it never really took off for me. First of all, Andy's character vacillates between near catatonia, where she can't answer anyone's questions or move forward in any way, and there are a number of times where she says one or two words and then can't finish her sentences. Page after page of that gets old, especially when it happens more than once. (One character even asks her if she can speak in full sentences.)

The book picked up speed in the last third, and Slaughter threw in some twists and turns, but the shift in narration between present and past kept either portion of the plot from really picking up momentum. I know others enjoyed this more than I did, so I wouldn't dissuade you from picking this up if you're a diehard Slaughter fan, but for me, this was a thriller that didn't quite thrill. This won't keep me from reading more of her books, but hopefully they'll get my heart racing like The Good Daughter did!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Book Review: "You've Been So Lucky Already: A Memoir" by Alethea Black

One of my favorite quotes is, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind." It's certainly a good philosophy to have in life, but I've also begun applying it when I read memoirs.

I don't read a lot of nonfiction, although I've definitely read more of it over the last few years, mainly memoirs of one sort or another. At times I am utterly amazed at what the individuals recounting their lives have gone through, and overwhelmed not only at their ability to face their challenges, but their generosity in sharing those struggles with the world. Some memoirs are more harrowing than others, but that doesn't mean that every person hasn't had to pull themselves up from their rock bottom.

In her new memoir, You've Been So Lucky Already, Alethea Black recounts not only the unknown-to-her reserves of strength she needed to tap into when dealing with a long struggle with a mysterious illness, but she also touches on her life leading up to that struggle, from her relationship with her father when she was younger to feeling unmoored, unmotivated, and unsure of what path her life should take following his death.

"In some ways it's a comforting thought. All your frustrations, all your joys, all the moments when everything went wrong, when it was hard to believe anything would ever feel normal again, when you actually split off from yourself and observed from a slight distance, which seemed safer, especially when your life exploded right at its midpoint, affording you a crystal-clear view of the heartbreak you caused, the love you absorbed, the deaths that unmoored you, the illness that razed your existence to a pile of terrifyingly beautiful rubble—it's comforting to feel that, somehow, you've borne them all before. And you have this shadowy memory that it was worth it, so you'll do it again. You'll do it all again and again."

This is an emotional read, but it is gorgeously written. Even when Black recounts her lowest moments, visiting specialist after specialist who cannot find anything wrong with her and do not heed her requests to be tested for parasites, experiencing unbelievable pain, fatigue, memory loss, and crushing despair, she uses words so vivid you can almost feel twinges of what she did. There is such a "you are there" feel to this memoir, which leads you to wonder how you would react if you were a friend or family member trying to help her during this period of time.

I read Black's debut story collection, I Knew You'd Be Lovely (see my review) several years ago, and it was one of the best books I read that year. Her storytelling ability, even if it is her own story, has only gotten stronger since then. This was difficult to read at times, but I kept marveling at her generosity in sharing so much of her vulnerability with us.

This is a book about the strength, humor, and intelligence it takes not only to survive one of the most physically debilitating times of your life, but the wisdom of simply surviving and thriving every day. I read this as part of Amazon's First Reads program, and the editor who selected this book said, "This is essential reading for anyone who has struggled in life, who has been ill, who has been labeled a hysteric, or who has loved someone who has sought, fruitlessly, for relief from their pain." Doesn't that apply to almost everyone in some way or another?

Amazon First Reads and Little A provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book Review: "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" by Jenny Han

Lara Jean has written five love letters. There is one letter for every boy she's ever fallen in love with, however brief the infatuation. But she never sent any of the letters to the objects of her affection—she saves them in one of her most prized possessions, a teal hatbox her mother gave her before she died.

"They're not love letters in the strictest sense of the word. My letters are for when I don't want to be in love anymore. They're for goodbye. Because after I write my letter, I'm no longer consumed by my all-consuming love. I can eat my cereal and not wonder if he likes bananas over his Cheerios too; I can sing along to love songs and not be singing them to him. If love is like a possession, maybe my letters are like my exorcisms. My letters set me free. Or at least they're supposed to."

While Lara Jean has loved five boys, she's never had a boyfriend. She's been kissed a few times (mainly in 7th or 8th grade), but she's always been content to watch from the sidelines, even play third wheel to her older sister Margot and her boyfriend Josh (on whom Lara Jean has always had a bit of a crush). But when Margot goes to Scotland for college, Lara Jean suddenly must start taking more responsibility for helping her dad and her younger sister, while buckling down for the all-important junior year of school.

But everything changes in a split second when somehow, Lara Jean's love letters get sent to their intended recipients. Suddenly she finds herself having to confront her feelings, in many cases feelings that had long since dissipated. Yet in an effort to uncomplicate things, she actually makes things even more complicated, and she realizes that there's a fine line between pretending how you feel and really feeling. And either way, someone is bound to get hurt in the crossfire.

"I don't want to be afraid anymore. I want to be brave. I to start happening. I want to fall in love and I want a boy to fall in love with me back."

I haven't seen the Netflix series based on the book, but I really enjoyed To All the Boys I've Loved Before. It's charming, sweet, poignant, funny, even frustrating at times—just like the teenage years. This is one of those books with a lot of heart, one you want to keep reading even though you pretty much know how the plot will unfold, and you don't really care.

Jenny Han is a really engaging writer, and she evoked a lot of nostalgic feelings for me about crushes and jealousy and being afraid to share your true feelings. And more than that, she reminded me of the pain and angst and embarrassment which occurs when your most private thoughts get shared with the object of those thoughts! (Ugh.)

This is the first book in a trilogy. I hope the next two are just as enjoyable, although it will be interesting to see where Han takes her characters. I'll certainly be checking them out!