Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Review: "Heartstopper Volume 2" by Alice Oseman

Good lord, these books are so sweet and so wonderful, I swear my heart grew a few sizes reading this today!

The second volume of Alice Oseman's gorgeous, life-affirming, squee-inducing graphic novel, Heartstopper picks up where the last one left off. Charlie and Nick's friendship has been growing closer and closer, and Charlie definitely has a huge crush on Nick, despite the fact that Nick is straight. Or is he?

Nick can't get Charlie out of his mind. He just wants to be with him, and he's happiest when they're together. Why can't he stop thinking about him?

Charlie's friends are afraid that he's making a mistake falling for a straight guy. Even if Nick is nice to him now, his friends are homophobic bullies, and at some point they figure Nick will turn on Charlie. They don't want to see that happen. Charlie thinks Nick is different. At least he hopes he is.

Nick needs to figure out what he wants, and what that means about his identity and his sexuality. Is he gay? Bisexual? Straight? Does he need to make a decision? The one thing he knows is that he wants Charlie.

I remember having crushes like this, but when I grew up (in the dark ages) there weren't options to date or even admit you had feelings for someone of the same sex. But I can only imagine that jumble of emotions Charlie and Nick feel. I also remember the internal pressure of trying to define your sexuality, while at the same time trying to convince yourself that your sexuality is only one component of who you are, and it doesn't change everything.

Heartstopper Volume 2 is just so beautiful, warm, and full of emotions. I can't recommend these graphic novels enough, and you can bet I'll pre-order Volume 3 as soon as I can! (It's due out in early February.) Thanks, Alice Oseman, for creating an amazing and utterly necessary story that I can't stop thinking about!!

Book Review: "Love on Lexington Avenue" by Lauren Layne

This was such a fun read!!

When Claire’s husband dies, it turns her world upside down, especially when she learns he was cheating on her. She meets his mistress and his girlfriend, and surprisingly, all three bond strongly, and vow to protect one another from making a similar mistake with another man.

In an effort to excise her husband’s memories (and stop feeling so bored), Claire decides to renovate their old, cluttered townhouse on the Upper East Side. She also wants to challenge her tendency to be non-adventurous—she feels like she always makes safe choices, always blends in—and she feels it's time to break out of her vanilla shell.

Enter Scott, one of the best contractors in the business. He sees the possibilities in Claire’s house and can’t pass up the job even though it’s much smaller than his usual ones. He plans to ignore Claire’s suggestions to incorporate the color pink into the renovation ideas, however. (She's decided to become more strawberry lemonade than vanilla.)

While she can’t ignore how attractive Scott is, Claire doesn’t like his know-it-all attitude or his seeming indifference to her and what she’s gone through. And while Scott understands how hurt Claire must be he doesn’t think she knows what she wants, and finds her indecisive nature irritating.

As the renovation process continues, the two recognize their attraction to one another and fight it, since both are warned by their friends not to get involved for fear that Claire will get hurt. When both people want different things, isn’t that a plan for disaster?

Well, if you’ve read a rom-com before you know the trajectory of this story. But it doesn’t matter that it follows your expectations—these characters are so winning and the story is just so enjoyable that I couldn’t get enough, and I devoured the book in just a few hours.

This is the second in a series—I haven’t read the first book, Passion on Park Avenue, yet—and the third book, Marriage on Madison Avenue, comes out next year. I’ll be reading both, as Lauren Layne has made a fan of me!!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Book Review: "The New Iberia Blues" by James Lee Burke

"For good or bad, my preoccupation with death and the past had defined much of my life, and a long time ago I had made my separate peace with the world and abandoned any claim on reason or normalcy or the golden mean. Waylon Jennings said it many years ago: I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane."

World-weary New Iberia Police Detective Dave Robicheaux returns in James Lee Burke's 22nd book in this series, The New Iberia Blues. Dave is visiting local boy-turned-film-wunderkind Desmond Cormier at his waterfront estate, looking at the water through binoculars, when Dave thinks he sees a body tied to a giant cross, floating on the waves.

As Dave is more than prone to seeing things that don't exist, like the ghosts of soldiers he fought with and those he killed in Vietnam, he asks Cormier and his odd friend, Antoine Butterworth, what they see. Both claim to see nothing, yet Dave was right: there was a woman floating on the waves, and she has been crucified to a wooden cross.

The woman had apparently worked for The Innocence Project, but was recently more interested in a career in film. Cormier and Butterworth both claim never to have seen her before, but how did she wind up in the water near his house? Meanwhile, Clete Purcel, Dave's loyal yet troubled best friend and former partner, witnessed an escaped death row inmate from Texas running for shelter, and no one is quite sure whether he is guilty of the horrible crimes of which he is accused, or if he happens to be the victim of his overzealous nature.

The crucified woman's murder is just the tip of the iceberg in a series of increasingly ritualistic, grotesque murders which rock Dave and his colleagues. They don't know whether these crimes are the act of a deviant killer who believes in the occult, or if they're simply being staged to appear that way. And as Dave's suspicion of Cormier and Butterworth and their movie-making colleagues grows, he and his colleagues also run afoul of the mob, corrupt cops within their own parish, and a deranged man with a strange honor system. It's more than enough to make Dave question everything he believes in, including his hard-fought sobriety, and puts at risk everyone and everything he loves.

James Lee Burke is one of the finest living writers today. I have been reading his books for 30 years now, and not only is his storytelling top-notch, but few match his talent for imagery and setting as well. When I first started reading his books, he described New Orleans so vividly that when I made my first trip there, I was amazed at how spot-on what I pictured in my mind was to the reality I saw. Here's just an example of his poetic imagery:

"The sunrise was striped with pink and purple clouds, the live oaks a deep green after the rain, the bayou high above the banks, the lily pads and elephant ears rolling with the current. It was a study in the mercurial nature of light and shadow and the way they form and re-create the external world second by second with no more guidance than a puff of wind."

Burke's books are brooding and atmospheric, meditations on good and evil (and man's penchant for both), and the demons that haunt us. They're also stories about fierce love, friendship, and loyalty, and how sometimes our need for self-preservation leads us down paths we'd be better off avoiding. The New Iberia Blues is trademark Burke—full of twists and turns, tremendously thought-provoking and dense with philosophical and psychological insight, and a sometimes troubling look at the horrible things people do to one another, sometimes for no reason at all.

These books aren't as fast-paced as typical crime novels, but they're just so well-written I enjoy the time to marvel at Burke's language and the complexity of his flawed characters. Reading this series for as long as I have always feels like reuniting with old (yet troubled) friends, and I am so grateful to have discovered Burke all those years ago.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Book Review: "Heartstopper Volume One" by Alice Oseman

Alice Oseman's Heartstopper is a beautifully poignant graphic novel about identity, friendship, crushes, and the flush of first love.

Most people in school seem to know that Charlie is gay. He’s taken some bullying for it, and it’s toyed with his self-esteem and what he thinks he deserves in terms of relationships, but for the most part, life isn’t too bad.

One day Charlie gets assigned to a new classroom and sits next to Nick Nelson, who is a grade ahead of him. Nick is tall, muscular, popular, a real “rugby lad.” But while Charlie expects Nick to ignore him, the two quickly strike up a real friendship.

As their friendship grows (Nick even gets Charlie to play rugby), and Nick even rescues Charlie from a potentially messy situation, Charlie can’t believe that he’s crushing on a straight guy. But why is it that Nick can’t stop thinking about Charlie, too?

Ah, this was amazing. It was so endearing, so wonderfully drawn, that I fell in love with this almost immediately. I read it quickly and was sad that it was over—I immediately ordered volume 2, which should arrive Sunday!! (Volume 3 is due out in February.)

The title of this book isn’t quite accurate. I’d call it Heartgrabber, because it took hold of my heart and won’t let go. I've really been loving graphic novels lately and feel like these stories really lend themselves to being told in this format. And as much as I love conjuring up images of what I read in my own head, sometimes it's great to see what the author or illustrator had in mind.

Once again, I’m so happy that books like this exist today, to let LGBTQIA+ kids—and adults—see that who they choose to love doesn’t doom them to loneliness. No one's road is perfectly easy, but it's nice to have books like this as companions along the journey.

Book Review: "Love & Luck" by Jenna Evans Welch

There’s nothing like the beauty of Ireland and some chaotic travel to help ease the pain of a heartbreak!

In Love & Luck, Addie has just suffered a major heartbreak and betrayal for the first time, and what’s worse is, her older brother Ian knows about it, and it’s not long before others do, too. But she and her family are in Ireland for her aunt’s destination wedding so Addie just wants to pretend it never happened—for now.

Ian keeps urging, even threatening, Addie to tell their mother what happened before it’s too late. His nagging reminders push Addie to her breaking point, a fistfight during their aunt’s wedding. Their mother is mortified and angry, and gives the siblings an ultimatum: they can still take their planned trip to Italy to see Addie’s best friend, but if she hears anything about their fighting or arguing, they’ll have to quit their sport teams when they return home.

So with that plan in mind, how is it that instead of Italy Addie is driving around Ireland in a dilapidated car with Ian and Rowan, Ian’s (handsome) Irish friend? Will the copy of Ireland for the Heartbroken that she took from the hotel library and Rowan’s presence help her recover?

"You opened this book because your heart was broken and you wanted it fixed. But that was never the cosmic plan. Hell, it was never my plan. Hearts break open until they stay open. It's what they were made to do. The pain? It's part of the deal. A small exchange for the wild, joyful mess you'll be handed in return."

This was a sweet and charming book, and it definitely entertained me. The whole plot line with Addie’s secret was dragged out a little too long for me, but I really enjoy the way Jenna Evans Welch writes and the characters she creates. Her first book in this series, Love & Gelato, really was terrific, and I'm eagerly awaiting the third book, Love & Olives.

Side effect of reading this book: I want to go to Ireland now!!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Wives" by Tarryn Fisher

Whoa, now that was a crazy ride!!

“Imagining what the future holds proves difficult when factoring in two other women who share your husband.”

Thursday only sees her husband once a week. It’s not an arrangement she likes, but it’s one she has to live with, since Seth has two other wives. She sometimes can’t believe she agreed to this, and at times she wishes she could just have him to herself.

She’s never met either of the other women. She doesn’t even know their names, although Seth shares small tidbits about each from time to time. But when she finds a piece of paper Seth left behind with one of their names on it, she can’t resist. She scours the internet for information about Hannah, and then one day she plans to “bump in” to her, without telling her who she really is.

Seeing Hannah, and talking to her, doesn’t satisfy Thursday’s curiosity: it makes her angrier, more jealous. And when she discovers something about Hannah and Seth’s relationship that alarms her, it presses Thursday to act.

The Wives is tremendously fast-paced and it gets CRAZY. The first half of the book is really excellent and it draws you in completely. I couldn’t stop reading it even though I wasn’t happy with how Tarryn Fisher ultimately resolved things. I'm tough on thrillers so you may be completely or partially surprised with the way things end up. (I'm being pretty vague in my description of the plot because I don't want to ruin any of the twists.)

If you’re looking for a thriller that will hook you from start to finish, one that will leave you at least slightly breathless, The Wives is one for you!!

This book will publish December 30.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Book Review: "A Scarcity of Condors" by Suanne Laqueur

I'm not sure who it was that first told me about Suanne Laqueur's book An Exaltation of Larks, but they said it was one of the best books they had ever read. When I picked it up, I was utterly blown away by it, and I quickly dove into the second book in this series, A Charm of Finches. That one may have been even better, and I remember falling to pieces on a plane as I finished the book, which isn't a good position to be in. (Luckily it was dark.)

You can check out my review of An Exaltation of Larks here; my review of A Charm of Finches is here.

I just read the third book in this series, A Scarcity of Condors, and once again, Laqueur has slayed me. As I said in my last review, her ability to pull you into her books so completely, to feel such attachment to her characters that you can't stop thinking about them when you're finished reading, is absolutely dazzling. I can unequivocally say that these three books are among my favorites of the decade.

Juleón "Jude" Tholet knows how to fight to survive—it's ingrained in his genetics. His father Cleon was imprisoned and brutally tortured during Pinochet's military coup in Chile; his mother Penny fought tooth and nail to get him released, and after one last horrible round of torture left him hospitalized for some time, the two, along with their infant son, fled the country and moved to Canada.

But life in Canada isn't much easier for the family, as Cleon and Penny deal with the aftermath of their life in Chile, and then Jude, a closeted gay teenager, becomes the target of a neighborhood bully who discovers his relationship with his childhood best friend. Jude becomes the victim of a hate crime and their community subsequently turns on the Tholets, forcing them to once again flee their country, this time for America.

Over time, Jude is able to carve out a life for himself in Seattle, becoming a pianist for a professional ballet company. While he has had relationships, he's never let down his guard with someone the way he did with his friend in high school. One night, he and his parents, as well as his younger sister and her boyfriend, take a genetic test for fun. The results, however, are far from funny: Jude discovers that he is not genetically related to his parents.

Penny remembers waking up in the hospital in Chile after giving birth to Jude, following an attack by a soldier. Whose child is Jude, really? Was he switched at birth? Did something else occur? In that case, what happened to their actual child? These questions force Cleon and Penny to revisit those horrible days in Chile to try and uncover the truth, while Jude has to deal with the upheaval of everything he's known his entire life. How can he not be a Tholet?

A Scarcity of Condors looks at the brutal days of Pinochet's terrible reign over Chile—the way lives were brutalized, utterly changed, and, in many, cases, ended. It's a book about how the ties of our chosen family can be stronger than blood, and how much our families can mean to us. It's a book about survival, about finding strength where there should be none, and about how love can help pull us through. More than that, this is a book about new beginnings, about realizing we're worthy of love and happiness, and how one can embrace the past without dooming themselves to live it every day.

This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times. The characters are simply gorgeous, fully drawn and complex, and this book sees the return of two pivotal characters from the last two books. (Boy, I hadn't realized how much I'd missed them.) Laqueur has done her research on the Pinochet days and it shows, yet the book never feels too mired in history, because her storytelling is so superb.

I'll end my review the way I ended my review of Laqueur's last book: Read these books. You've simply got to.

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

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Book Review: "Thin Ice" by Paige Shelton

I've commented before just how much I love books set in Alaska. It doesn't matter what kind of book—the imagery of the wilderness (and wildness), even the danger posed by the elements both animal and meteorological fascinate me. That was definitely one of the characteristics that led me to pick up Paige Shelton's new mystery, Thin Ice, but boy, it's so much more than just its setting.

Beth Rivers is known to the world as best-selling thriller author Elizabeth Fairchild. There are times she really can't believe a woman who started out a secretary to her police chief grandfather in Missouri could be a best-selling author. But when she is kidnapped and held captive in a van for three days, everything changes. She must overcome her fear and the ways her kidnapper has restrained her to escape, or she'll face certain death, if not worse before that.

She is able to escape the van one day but sustains a brain injury in the process. But with her kidnapper still at large, she worries how she can live the rest of her life without being afraid and looking over her shoulder every minute. So when she's (mostly) well enough, she decides she's going to run as far away as possible—to the remote town of Benedict, Alaska. It seems like the best solution, at least until the police find the suspect.

When she arrives in Benedict she discovers that a lot of people come to Alaska to run away from something, so while her presence drums up some curiosity, she probably fits in better than she would in most places. She also finds out that she booked herself a room at a halfway house for women rather than the historic inn she assumed she was, but she takes some comfort in knowing these women aren't violent felons, and the house is run under the watchful eye of Viola, a tough, take-no-prisoners-type of woman.

As she settles in, she finds that the fickle nature of the weather takes some getting used to, but she enjoys the relative isolation the town provides her. At the same time, she starts remembering bits and pieces of her kidnapping, which cause her to experience fear and paranoia, and prevent her from the full recovery she desperately needs. But when the local police chief, who knows her real identity (her pen name was how most people knew her), asks for her help looking into a suicide that doesn't quite look like one, it both gives her an opportunity to stay busy, and it forces her to confront some of the fears that sent her into hiding in Alaska.

I really enjoyed Thin Ice and read it in just a few hours. It's a mystery with lots of twists and turns, and while the culprit wasn't quite surprising (although I suspected the heck out of everyone who appeared in the book, which is my usual way with mysteries and thrillers), I love the way Shelton told her story. I'm hoping the cliffhanger-type ending means this is the start of a new series, because I really enjoyed these characters and the small-town setting.

I'm fairly critical of mysteries and thrillers because there are so many out there and many seem to share similar characteristics. Thin Ice hooked me from the get-go, and while it relies more on character development than action and danger, that's perfectly fine. I hope we'll see more of Beth and her fellow citizens of Benedict in the future.

Book Review: "Regretting You" by Colleen Hoover

I’m fighting some sort of cold/flu thing and my sleep patterns are all messed up, so I read Regretting You in a few hours the other night and early into the morning. Nice to be crying when you can’t really breathe!!

Morgan was 17 when she gave birth to her daughter, Clara. She and her boyfriend Chris got married when they found out she was pregnant, and the course of her life was different than she imagined it would be. Although she wishes she would’ve been able to finish college and get a job, she doesn’t regret the years she spent taking care of her daughter.

Now, 16 years later, she wonders what’s next. Clara seems destined to follow in her footsteps in ways that make Morgan worry she’ll repeat her mistakes. It’s only when Chris gets involved that he can keep the peace between them, and try to keep Clara on the right path.

But when Chris is killed in an accident, it upends their lives in many ways, and Morgan isn’t really sure what to do now. Clara is testing her in every way and Morgan is trying desperately to protect her daughter from truths that might destroy her. Should Morgan sacrifice her relationship with her daughter to protect her, though?

As Clara falls madly in love with a boy that her parents thought was a bad influence, she is buffeted by feelings of anger, grief, and guilt. And Morgan finds herself turning to the one person she shouldn’t, but at 34, doesn’t she deserve a future, too?

"The day I found out I was pregnant, I stopped living life for myself. I think it's time I figure out who I was meant to become before I started living my life for everyone else."

Hoover once again delivers a story with rich character development, strong emotions, and situations that could happen to real people (even though you hope not). There aren’t a lot of surprises in the book but I couldn’t stop reading it, even as it kept getting later and later!

I don’t love it when the plot of a book turns on people’s assumptions and failures to communicate with one another—and boy, is that the case here so much—but Hoover gets you so wrapped up in these characters it doesn’t matter.

This is the fourth of her books I’ve read in the last few months. (I've also read Verity, It Ends with Us, and Ugly Love.) I’m thankful she’s written a bunch, because I am a huge fan!

Book Review: "How to Be Remy Cameron" by Julian Winters

Why didn’t books like How to Be Remy Cameron exist when I was a teenager?

“We have no control over what labels others give us, but we can define who we are by the ones we choose to give ourselves.”

Remy Cameron is a pretty likable guy. He’s a good son (even when his parents get embarrassing), he loves being a big brother, he’s a great friend, and most people admire his courage for coming out at 14.

Remy is a lot of things—he’s a teenager, he’s adopted (he’s African American while his adoptive parents are white), he’s gay and the president of his school's gay-straight alliance—but isn’t he more than just a bunch of characteristics? Yet when he gets an assignment from a teacher he believes is a crucial part of getting into his dream college next year, it throws him for a loop: he has to write about who he is and who he wants to be.

Why is answering that question so hard? Why can’t he see himself as more than the visible things others see him as? His inability to answer the question of who he is starts to affect everything—his schoolwork, his friendships, and could threaten his future. And when he becomes infatuated with a returning classmate struggling with his own identity, and meets someone who might know how he’s feeling, he doesn’t know how to process everything.

I really enjoyed this heartfelt, poignant, thought-provoking book. It’s so difficult to figure out who you are, particularly in high school, and Remy’s struggles both felt familiar and unique.

I’ve said many times before I wish that books like this existed when I was younger because it would have given me hope when I needed it most, hope that I would’ve found acceptance and happiness being true to myself. But I’m so glad these books exist today, because while life isn’t quite perfect, it’s certainly a more accepting world in many places, and you can more often live the life you want.

It's ironic that Becky Albertalli, author of Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda, blurbed this book, because How to Be Remy Cameron reminded me a little of that one, although I felt it had a little more emotional heft. But both are such great books for today's youth to read.

Julian Winters did a really great job creating characters I cared about who were more than typical high school stereotypes—in fact, he turned many of those on their head. This really was so sweet and it made me smile.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Book Review: "A Beginner's Guide to Free Fall" by Andy Abramowitz

A little familial and marital dysfunction, along with a few crises of self-esteem, never hurt anyone!!

Everyone likes Davis Winger. He’s funny, good-natured, a devoted husband and father, a loving brother and son. He has a great job designing roller coasters and other rides, which meshes well with his personality.

When a mishap on a ride he designed occurs, his job is threatened. At the same time, the one lapse in judgment he's made in his marriage comes to light, and suddenly he finds himself without work, living in a dismal apartment, as he tries to figure out how to get his wife back, preserve his relationship with his young daughter, and figure out his next step career-wise.

Meanwhile, Davis’ sister Molly, a journalist for a struggling newspaper, has doubts about her relationship with a younger man and is trying to find inspiration for a story that might help the newspaper gain advertisers again. When she finds that idea she realizes it is simply a manifestation of a major issue in her own life, but she's not quite willing to deal with that, and she's not prepared for the response this story idea will be met with. At the same time, she needs to figure out what she wants from life.

As Davis tries to convince his wife to take him back, and he interacts with a few of his fellow residents at the apartment building, he is in need of perhaps a little humility, while Molly could use an injection of self-esteem.

"We're all terribly unsure of ourselves, he'd said, each one of us tunneling toward something strange."

A Beginner's Guide to Free Fall is an engaging, fun, emotional book with characters I really enjoyed. A few years ago I read Andy Abramowitz’s first novel, Thank You, Goodnight, and liked that, too, so I do enjoy the way he writes and tells stories of everyday people struggling to find their place.

I felt like the book moved a bit too slowly and the characters hemmed and hawed a bit too much before things really got moving. But still, I cared about the characters and wanted to see how everything was resolved. It reminded me a little of a Jonathan Tropper book, although not as uproariously funny.

Amazon First Reads and Lake Union Publishing gave me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book will publish January 1, 2020.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Book Review: "Trace of Evil" by Alice Blanchard

Alice Blanchard's new novel, Trace of Evil is a terrific, atmospheric mystery, full of twists and turns, and it's a great start to what I hope will be a new series.

Natalie Lockhart is a rookie detective in her hometown of Burning Lake, NY—a town which almost rivaled Salem, MA back in the day with the presence of witches. Kids and adults like still dabble in witchcraft, and there’s been some unfounded rumors of satanism through the years.

Like any rookie cop in Burning Lake, Natalie is tasked with looking into the nine cold cases of local transients that have gone missing through the years. But just as she starts making some promising headway, Daisy Buckner, the wife of a fellow police detective, a popular high school teacher, and one of her older sister's best friends, is murdered.

While there appears to be a pretty clear suspect in Daisy’s murder, they end up in a coma shortly after Daisy's body is discovered. But the more Natalie digs into the murder, the more confusing things get, as it appears both Daisy and her husband had secrets of their own, secrets creating an ever-widening circle of guilt and suspicion in the town. Is this case as cut-and-dried as it appears, or are things more complicated than anyone can imagine?

As Natalie fights to uncover the truth, she has her own demons to fight, too, demons stemming from her oldest sister’s murder many years before, and the emotional scars of a childhood attack. She also must figure out which people know more than they're willing to share, about Daisy's life, her murder, and many other questions and issues in the town.

Alice Blanchard has created a terrific set of characters and a vivid mystery which kept me guessing. There was a lot going on here, as the cold cases meshed with Daisy's murder, Natalie's older sister's murder, and an incident from her own childhood. As the book hurtled toward its conclusion, things got a bit confusing at times. There is a lot of violence in the book, more telling than showing, so that may upset some folks.

Regardless of my minor criticisms, Trace of Evil was the start of what I hope will be a terrific series (hopefully with more Natalie and Luke?).

I won a complimentary copy of this book via a Bookstagram giveaway. Thanks to Minotaur Books for making it available!

Book Review: "The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky" by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky is a sweet, sexy, short romp about love and sex and planning a future together.

I absolutely LOVED Mackenzi Lee’s Montague Siblings Series, particularly The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. It was so unique, so fun, so romantic, and so poignant. Monty and Percy are easily one of my favorite literary couples in recent years.

This novella is an amuse-bouche of sorts, coming in at slightly over 100 pages. Here Monty, Percy, Felicity, and the crew of the Eleftheria are enjoying some R&R on the island of Santorini, and all are plotting their next move. While Monty and Percy’s feelings about one another are now out in the open, Monty finds himself nervous for the first time about the next steps in their relationship. Why does the idea of intimacy with Percy scare him when he’s always been a bit of a rogue? Why is he so frightened of Percy's wanting to plan a future together?

"I have never in all my born days been this clumsy about getting tangled up with someone. Perhaps it’s because it’s Percy, the first person with whom I’ve ever made it this far that mattered. Or perhaps it's because in the shadowy corners of my heart, I know I'm the sort of person you romp with for one wild night and then you climb out the window before I wake. The sort of person no one wants to be around unless there's some kind of reward involved, preferably of a sexual nature. Not the sort you bet all your chips on a life with. How long before he realizes that? And how much longer before he regrets wasting his first time on me?"

This is such a sweet, sexy story, complete with the ribald silliness that is a hallmark of these books. The craziness goes on a tiny bit too long, but ultimately, it’s just too darned short!! It’s certainly whetted my appetite for Lee’s next book in the series, which is due out in August 2020.

If you’re a fan of these characters and this terrifically fun, creative series, make sure you get your fix with this book!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Book Review: "Reverie" by Ryan La Sala

When you read as much as I do, at times you wonder whether there are still books out there which are totally original, because quite often books tend to feel similar. And then a book like Ryan La Sala's Reverie comes along, which truly knocked me on my ass with its originality, camp, and downright craziness. I marveled at La Sala's storytelling and the creativity of this story, which is billed as Inception meets The Magicians.

"Reveries are what happens when a person’s imagined world becomes real. They’re like miniature realities, with their own plots and rules and perils."

Kane Montgomery is a high school student who has amnesia following a car accident. He can't remember much, which makes his day-to-day existence even more difficult than it has been, given the fact that he's a gay student in a small town. As he deals with bullying by his classmates and trying to figure out whom to trust, he starts to notice that things in his life don't seem to be adding up. He realizes that among the many things he's forgotten about his life before the accident is that he was part of a group called The Others, who are supposed to help save people from reveries, which are fantasies that become alternate realities.

This is one of those books that is more enjoyable when you don't know much about the plot, and instead you let La Sala transport you into a whole different world of sorts. The characters are truly unforgettable, none so much as Poesy, the drag queen who may or may not be a villainness. She's a sorceress, prone to lofty speech and trickery, and I was utterly FASCINATED every time she appeared in the story.

As crazy of a fantasy as Reverie is, it also deals with some pretty weighty issues, including bullying and homophobia. It's nice to have a book like this in which LGBTQIA+ issues and characters are at the forefront.

I love the way La Sala writes, but at times there was so much going on it was a little difficult to keep focused. I can't even imagine where he came up with these ideas, but this is one of those unforgettable stories that will stay in my mind for a long time. This isn't a book for everyone, but if you like a mash-up of fantasy and camp, Reverie might be right up your alley.

NetGalley and Sourcebooks Fire gave me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Book Review: "In Five Years" by Rebecca Serle

Good god, I loved this book even if it left me crying on the plane!

"You mistake love. Do you think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to be come at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future."

Dannie is a planner. Everything in her life is meticulously mapped out—the job she wants at the law firm she wants, her dream apartment in NYC, when she and her boyfriend will get engaged and married. That’s the way she’s always been.

She and her boyfriend David get engaged the night she interviews for her dream job at a highly prestigious law firm. Everything seems right. She and David have the same vision for their future, they like the same things, they're comfortable in their routines as a couple.

When Dannie and David get home from dinner she falls asleep and awakens to a dream in which she’s in another NYC apartment, wearing a different engagement ring, and she’s with another man. She finds out the dream is taking place five years in the future. And then she wakes up.

Dannie is utterly shaken by this dream. Who was this man? What happened to the future she planned? As time hurtles toward that date five years later she learns a lot about things she can and cannot control, and how those things shape her life. She doesn't know whether to accept the dream as an inevitable reflection of her fate or if she should fight the things that lead to its realization.

In Five Years was an amazing, emotional story full of twists and turns. It was a story about love in its many forms, friendship, ambition, and destiny. Truly an unforgettable book, and one I read in about two hours while waiting at the airport and on my plane.

Rebecca Serle is an amazing writer. Her last book, The Dinner List, also blew me away and left me an emotional mess. She's definitely an author worth reading.

My thanks to Atria Books for providing an advance copy of this book via a Bookstagram giveaway. The book will publish on March 3, 2020.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book Review: "Reputation" by Sara Shepard

Did you ever see the recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live where they spoofed soap operas and telenovelas? They make every single incident overly melodramatic, with pauses, emotional outbursts, and campy looks.

As it roared toward its conclusion, I felt like Reputation was very similar to that sketch. Every single character had one, if not multiple secrets, and as each one was revealed I felt like dramatic music should be turned up as the other characters reacted.

Aldrich University is a small school in Pittsburgh on par with the better-known Ivy League schools. One day hackers break into the university's email system and expose countless faculty, students, staff, even those who work in the university hospital, by dumping their emails into a searchable database. The same thing happened with Harvard, Yale, and other schools, but that's no consolation to those affected by the email dump.

Among those exposed was Dr. Greg Strasser, a handsome, successful surgeon who is married to Kit Manning-Strasser, the daughter of the university president and a development officer at the school. Apparently Greg's emails contained multiple communications with someone called "Lolita," and they get pretty sexually explicit. Even though Kit and Greg's marriage was on shaky ground, the public discovery of her husband's betrayal embarrasses and upsets her, and is one of the things which throws her off balance at the school's fundraising gala. Yet when she awakens at home from a strange stupor after the gala, she finds Greg suffering from a serious stab wound, and he dies from his injuries shortly thereafter.

Who killed Greg? Was it Kit, in the midst of a jealous, drunken rage that she doesn't remember? Or was it one of the myriad others in town who had issues with him? Kit's sister Willa, an investigative journalist, returns home to help Kit, but also can't resist doing some digging into the hack as well as Greg's murder. But it turns out Willa has her own secrets, too, including why she fled town so long ago and rarely returns.

Reputation is a soapy, campy look at the secrets and lies of a small town and those who inhabit it. It's a story of infidelity, betrayal, jealousy, attempted blackmail, questions about paternity, sexual assault, and so much more. No one is safe from prying eyes, and no one is wholly innocent, so you really don't know whom you should suspect.

Sara Shepard, who created the Pretty Little Liars series, is no stranger to gossip and scandal, and she demonstrates her skills with great aplomb here. I was hooked on the book from the start, but somewhere around the middle I felt like there were just so many crazy secrets and scandals that it got a bit ridiculous, and I really didn't care about the characters. Talk about a bunch of seriously screwed-up people!

"Maybe the best reputation is no reputation. Maybe it's best not to care whatsoever how people see you. Maybe the only thing that really matters is how you see yourself."

If you're a fan of soap opera or melodrama, you'll definitely find something to sink your teeth into with Reputation.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Book Review: "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse" by Charlie Mackesy

This unforgettable book with the memorable title is a book about friendship, kindness, and self-esteem told in the most special of ways.

First there is a boy. He is alone. He comes upon a mole, whom it seems loves cake more than anything else. The mole becomes the boy’s friend and companion, his coach and confidante. The boy shares his fears, the mole shares advice and his love of cake.

When they meet the fox, it is caught in a snare. Instinctively both the fox and the mole know if the mole frees the fox, the fox should then kill it, but if the mole leaves the fox in the snare, it will die. Sometimes you can override your instincts, and the fox becomes a (mostly silent) companion on their wanderings. Then they meet the horse, who has hidden some of its special abilities for far too long.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse isn’t as much a story as it is a book of advice, encouragement, and lessons accompanied by whimsical hand-drawn illustrations. The advice and lessons are beautiful and meaningful, and the entire book is a genuinely heartfelt experience.

"What do you think is the biggest waste of time?"

"Comparing yourself to others," said the mole.

The book is written in a handwriting-type font so it’s a little difficult for even older eyes to read, so this is definitely a book that should be read together and shared. Almost every page has something special on it.

I really think this will be the perfect gift for those you want to share a message of encouragement or love with. It’s similar to Winnie the Pooh in its content but not so much in narrative or illustration. This will be one you won't be able to forget.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Book Review: "We Met in December" by Rosie Curtis

Rosie Curtis' We Met in December was a cute rom-com that almost felt like a Hallmark movie (in a good way).

"The trouble with me is I've always been a daydreamer. Always been a sucker for a romantic film, always loved a book with a good old-fashioned happy ever after ending."

Jess is embarking on a new adventure in her life. She’s moved away from her hometown to London, leaving her beloved grandmother and her melodramatic mother, to pursue a dream job in publishing and live in a group house in Notting Hill, for far less rent than she should pay, since the house is owned by her friend Becky.

When she meets Becky’s other housemates, she is immediately attracted to Alex, a handsome man who ditched a successful career as a lawyer to train as a nurse. But even though the mere sight of him makes her insides feel fizzy, Becky has a strict no-relationships policy in the house. Jess moves into the house after the holidays only to discover that Alex seems to be having a dalliance with Emma, another of their housemates. While she is sad about losing her (unrealistic) chance with the man of her dreams, she’s content to let their friendship grow.

As she tries to get hold of her new job and fend off her best friends’ attempts to set her up, she wishes Alex were available. But every time it seems he might be, complications ensue. Should she wait forever for something that probably won’t happen, or should she try and find someone for her? Will she find someone who catches her fancy and her heart more than Alex does?

We Met in December is narrated by both Jess and Alex. If you’ve read any rom-coms you know what will happen, but that doesn’t take away from the book’s charm. The whole friends-to-lovers theme is enjoyable and the characters are fun and memorable.

But while the spark between Jess and Alex was definitely evident, this book didn’t quite wow me as much as I had hoped. Those who shy away from steamy romance will find this book a good departure, as there's romance but no sex scenes. It’s definitely sweet and fun, though, and I know others have loved it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Book Review: "Forever, Interrupted" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid does it again—she weaves a beautiful story and tears my heart out in the process!

"Things happen in your life that you can’t possibly imagine. But time goes on and time changes you and the times change and the next thing you know, you’re smack in the middle of a life you never saw coming."

When Elsie meets Ben at a pizza place one night she has no idea how significantly her life will change. The two are attracted to each other instantly but their connection goes far beyond that. They can’t get enough of each other and want to spend every waking moment in each other’s company.

Their relationship truly is a whirlwind, and unbelievably, six months later they get married. And then one night two weeks later Ben is killed in an accident, and the life they had planned is now over.

Elsie is consumed with grief. How could she have known Ben for such a short time yet felt so completely known and loved? To complicate matters, Ben never told his mother, despite their closeness, that Elsie existed, let alone became his wife.

As Elsie tries to figure out how to face life without Ben, she tries to bridge the gap with his mother, to see if somehow grieving together, even with someone she doesn’t know, might help them both.

This is a beautiful story. It’s emotional but not as maudlin as I thought it might get. The book alternates between tracing the course of Elsie and Ben's relationship and the present day, as she navigates her new reality.

"No matter how strong you are, no matter how smart you are or tough you can be, the world will find a way to break you. And when it does, the only thing you can do is hold on."

I love the way Reid writes. This is the third book of hers I've read this year, and two of them will definitely be on my year-end best list, with this one close behind. I’m making my way through her backlist—two more to go, I think!!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Nobodies" by Liza Palmer

When life knocks you to your knees, you can completely fall to pieces or you can hang on to at least a shred of self-esteem and dignity. Joan Dixon may be closer to the former than the latter at this point, since her journalism career continues to go nowhere, she's had to move back in with her parents, and she's applying for jobs that are far, far more junior than she should consider. But what choice does she have?

After landing an internship at a newspaper right out of high school, she thought she'd have a glorious career as a journalist, but it never materialized. And when a meeting with her old mentor leaves her wondering if she ever really had any talent, she's considering any opportunity, even working as a bar back (she apparently only needs to show one breast, which seems like a good compromise for her).

Joan applies to be a junior copywriter at Bloom, a startup tech company in Los Angeles founded by two college best friends, which is about to go public. She's easily one of the oldest people working there and she finds the culture intriguing, bewildering, and frustrating. She should feel good about the office's fancy coffee machine and the unlimited supply of snacks and beverages, but how can she reconcile a workplace where the employees care more about why the cafeteria stopped carrying a certain variety of ramen noodles than serious issues?

Even as she becomes close with her team, and may even be in the midst of a flirtation with a colleague, the journalist in Joan can't rest. So when she can't quite figure out what Bloom does beyond the buzzwordy descriptions she gets, she asks questions. When the answers to those questions don't satisfy her she starts to dig deeper. And then she realizes there may be some reality behind her sneaking suspicions.

When Joan starts doing some surreptitious investigating, she starts to wonder whether she's subconsciously trying to sabotage her chance at stability. Does she really think there's something worth digging into, and even if it is, could it be worth the possibility of hundreds of people losing their jobs if what she finds signals the end of Bloom? And when her newfound friends join in to help her investigation, should she let them risk their jobs just for the sake of companionship?

The Nobodies is an interesting character study about a woman relentless in her pursuit of her dreams who worries she might not have the stuff to make her dreams come true. Joan is so focused that throughout her life she's neglected relationships, friendships, family, and she wonders if all of those sacrifices were worth it given that she's left with nothing. But does that mean she should give up for good?

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed Liza Palmer's storytelling ability. I'll admit I had trouble figuring out just what Bloom did, too, so Joan's investigation was interesting, but it went on a little longer than it needed to. I loved the supporting characters in this story perhaps a little more than Joan herself, but I was still completely drawn into her story.

Book Review: "Sick Kids in Love" by Hannah Moskowitz

This book was utterly amazing and so not the tearjerker I was expecting!!

"I guess when I met him I felt some kind of camaraderie. Here was someone who was just going to deal with the everyday slog of being sick for the rest of his normal-length life until he died of something completely unrelated, just like me. That’s a weird and special and boring kind of existence that you don’t get to share with a lot of people."

Isabel and Sasha meet cute in the infusion room of a hospital. She’s being treated for her rheumatoid arthritis, he has a genetic illness few have heard of, Gaucher disease. She’s immediately attracted to his carefree, easy manner, but she’s definitely not interested in dating. Sasha thinks she’s adorable. They figure they’ll see each other again in a few months when their treatments overlap.

But they encounter each other much quicker, because he breaks his arm and is back in the hospital when she’s volunteering. (Her father helps run the hospital, so she's there a lot.) For Isabel, whose intensity is driven by fear and anger and insecurity, who can never make a decision without crowdsourcing and overthinking, Sasha is an oasis of humor, calm (even when he’s struggling), and of course, handsomeness. She has sworn off dating (not for any particular reason, but she said she wasn't going to do it), but when all signs point to a relationship with Sasha, she isn't sure what to do.

Their friendship intensifies, as for the first time both understand exactly how the other feels about doctors who don’t listen, impatient nurses, people who don’t take your illness seriously or expect you to do more than you can. Sasha falls in love with Isabel but she’s afraid to let down her guard.

I may be morbid, but one of my favorite books of the decade is The Fault in Our Stars, so I jumped into this book ready to have my heart torn to pieces. And it was, but not for the reasons I expected. These kids are ALIVE despite their illnesses and have differing ways of dealing with that and those around them. Their love story is both unique and familiar, and just so beautiful (although they are, at times, more sophisticated than your average teenager).

I read this Sick Kids in Love in a matter of just a few hours. After I finished I discovered that Hannah Moskowitz wrote a book called Gone Gone Gone about seven years ago, and I also loved that. So she’s definitely a writer you need to read, even if reading about ill teenagers isn't your thing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Book Review: "Ugly Love" by Colleen Hoover

"Love isn't always pretty, Tate. Sometimes you spend all your time hoping it'll eventually be something different. Something better. Then, before you know it, you're back to square one, and you lost your heart somewhere along the way."

When Tate first meets Miles, her initial impression isn't a positive one, despite how handsome he is. Of course, the fact that he's passed out in the doorway of her brother's apartment where she's about to move in—and so drunk that she can barely move him out of her way—doesn't help, and neither does the fact that he calls her "Rachel," and then starts to cry, asking for forgiveness.

All Tate can think is, "I have no idea who Rachel is or what he did to her, but if he's hurting this bad, I shudder to think what she's feeling."

Once Tate gets to know Miles, who is one of her brother's best friends, she can't stop thinking about how handsome he is, and how much she's attracted to him. But he remains a mystery to her, and even as the chemistry between the, intensifies, he doesn't show any interest in opening up to her, either emotionally or physically. However, once they're honest with another about their mutual attraction, but before they embark on a no-strings-attached relationship, Miles sets two basic ground rules:

"Don't ask about my past," he says firmly, "And never expect a future."

Since Tate is in nursing school and working around the clock otherwise, the idea of simply having sex with Miles sounds like a good one. She doesn't have time for a relationship and he doesn't want one—seems perfect, doesn't it? But she is unprepared for how she feels after they have sex, how she realizes she wants more of an emotional connection with Miles, and she doesn't like that he doesn't communicate with her unless he's in town, and isn't interested in even becoming real friends.

The deeper Tate falls for Miles, the more she wants to understand why he has put up such a barrier to letting himself get emotionally involved, to actually feel something deeply for another person. Yet he refuses to answer her questions, and the minute he senses she's getting too attached, he wants to end things rather than let down his guard, no matter how much it hurts Tate.

Is it truly possible to turn one's emotions off and not feel anything for a person you're in a sexual relationship with? Does a person ever truly "deserve" not to be happy? How willing can one person be to constantly let themselves be hurt? Colleen Hoover's Ugly Love is an emotional exploration of a woman fighting her attraction for a man determined not to fall in love with her, but she can't seem to understand why he keeps her at arm's length.

The book shifts narration between Tate in the present time and Miles about seven years earlier, so you can see how their relationship plays out and little by little, Hoover clues you in to what happened to Miles to make him act the way he does. It's an interesting juxtaposition, but the narrative style with which Hoover tells Miles' part of the story is a little odd, so it makes those chapters a little more difficult to comprehend.

This is now the third book of Hoover's I've read, and I'm so impressed with how easily she can draw you in to her stories and how she touches your emotions so completely. It is also super, super steamy, so for those of you who don't like to read a lot of sex scenes, you may want to pass on this one.

Ugly Love didn't quite have the emotional punch for me that This Ends with Us did, but it did make me cry, and I know it will stick in my head for a while. She's truly becoming one of my new favorite authors, even though I'm super late to the party!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Gravity of Us" by Phil Stamper

This was so beautiful and thought-provoking!!

Cal is a successful social media journalist with over half a million followers. But he doesn’t just make wry or cynical observations, or talk about the latest trends or restaurants in his Brooklyn neighborhood or in NYC. He really uses social media to make a difference, and played a huge part in getting younger people interested in the last presidential election. And people noticed—he landed an internship with BuzzFeed he can’t wait for.

But his whole life is about to be turned upside down. Call’s father has just been selected as an astronaut for a possible NASA mission to Mars, so the agency is relocating all of the astronauts and their families to Houston, to try and recapture the camaraderie of the early days of the space program.

Cal isn’t prepared for the media frenzy surrounding the space program, and although he’s technically not supposed to do any more social media broadcasting from Houston, he can’t resist putting his own spin on things, which puts him in the middle of a battle between NASA and a trashy media program that somehow has gotten an exclusive to cover the astronauts.

Life isn’t all bad, though, as Cal meets Leon, the son of another astronaut, and they fall for each other quickly and intensely. But Leon has his own struggles to deal with, and when Cal realizes he needs to use his online fame to right some wrongs, he doesn’t realize how that might put other things at risk, including his relationship with Leon.

Can we save those we care about or do we have to let them do that themselves? What are our obligations to those we love?

Phil Stamper’s book is so good, full of the flush of first love, the emotional struggles many have to deal with, and the excitement of getting to explore unknown territory. I have been trying to get an ARC of this for a while so I was so excited to finally get it. His writing is fantastic, and this story is compelling from start to finish. It's always nice to find a story where the characters' sexuality isn't cause for scandal or emotional crisis, it's just another aspect of their lives.

NetGalleyand Bloomsbury USA provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book publishes February 4, 2020.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Book Review: "The Night Fire" by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard return in another fantastic installment of Michael Connelly’s new series pairing two police detectives—one mostly retired, one fully immersed in her job—dogged in their pursuit of finding the truth.

When Bosch’s mentor from his early LAPD days dies, his widow gives Bosch the crime book from an unsolved murder 20 years earlier. Why did he have it all these years? Was he trying to solve the case, or was he trying to hide something? Why is a key piece of evidence blacked out in the murder book—was that from the original detectives or something Harry's mentor did?

Bosch teams up with Ballard to try and figure out what really happened—was it really just a drug deal gone wrong? Meanwhile, Ballard wants to stay on a case she was the first to respond to—a young, homeless man burned to death in his tent on the street—but it turns out there was more to this man than anyone realizes. But to get involved means tangling with her former supervisor, with whom she has a bad history.

As the two both work the cold case and Ballard tries to keep her hand in the fire investigation, Bosch also works on a third case, to try and find a murderer in an effort to ensure he didn’t help set one free. The bond between the two of them deepens, they have to confront their own issues, and realize the truth is not as clear as they thought.

Connelly is truly one of the best crime writers out there. I’ve always loved Bosch, and Ballard is a fantastic, complicated character, so their pairing is dynamic. There’s a lot going on here, so at times it got a little confusing, but Connelly’s writing brings you back into the story.

You can read this as a stand-alone or as part of the series. But if you like crime novels, you should check out his earlier Bosch novels. (There are so many of them!) You'll see what an amazing storyteller he is.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Book Review: "Always and Forever, Lara Jean" by Jenny Han

I held off reading this last book in Jenny Han's "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before" trilogy for a while because I didn’t want it to end. And while I'm sad that it's over, it ended really well!

It’s the spring of senior year of high school. Lara Jean can’t believe how much her life is going to change in just a few months, but in her own true style, she has everything planned out. Once she gets accepted to UVA, where her boyfriend Peter will also be attending, they can continue their relationship and she can have the college experience she’s always dreamed of. Since she lives only 15 minutes away from the campus, it won't be a major adjustment to be away from home, so she won't miss watching her younger sister grow up or anything else.

The last few months of high school will see some exciting moments—prom, beach week, spirit week, her dad’s relationship with their neighbor is intensifying, and her older sister will bring her new boyfriend home for a visit. But those same months will also see increasing tension, as Lara Jean tries to figure out her college plans and, most importantly, what they mean for her relationship with Peter. Her mother and her sister always said, "Don’t go to college with a boyfriend." Peter’s mom wants to be sure he enjoys college without the burden of a relationship, too, and isn't shy about telling Lara Jean that.

Should she and Peter break up? Should they try and see if their relationship can last through college? Are they meant to be? How is she going to manage being away from home? Can she handle everything changing so drastically?

Han really created a terrific series, with characters I’ve gotten to know and which feel like old friends. This is a sweet book, full of fun, emotion, and enjoyable moments. Sure, it's predictable, but that doesn't matter, because it's just so engaging. I read the entire book in just a few hours.

So what do I do now that I’m done with the series? Guess I better watch the adaptation on Netflix, which I’ve avoided until now.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Book Review: "Color Outside the Lines: Stories about Love" edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines is a collection of YA stories celebrating all kinds of love.

I was really excited when I first heard of this book, for several reasons. I’ll admit the first reason was the promise of a new story from Adam Silvera, as I’ve been going through withdrawal until his new book comes out next year.

But I also really love short stories, and was excited about the idea of a collection focused on stories about interracial and LGBTQ+ relationships. Those relationships are certainly more prevalent in YA fiction than elsewhere, and it’s so great to see them depicted so fairly and so well.

This is an interesting collection because the stories aren’t just fiction or romance; some are science fiction, historical fiction, or fantasy. I definitely felt the collection was much heavier on the interracial side than the LGBTQ+ side, which really provided me a different area of focus.

As with any story collection, there were ones I absolutely loved, ones I totally didn’t get, and some that were simply good and entertaining. (The Adam Silvera story was adorable but way, way too short for him to get top billing.) The best thing is that many were written by authors with whom I’m unfamiliar, so I’ll get to check their other work out now.

Among my favorites were: "Turn the Sky to Petals" by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was about a musician and a dancer both suffering from the physical demands of their talent; "Your Life Matters" by L.L. McKinney, which told of an interracial lesbian couple battling a father with reasonably racist beliefs, with a superhero twist thrown in; "The Coward's Guide to Falling in Love" by Caroline Tung Richmond, about two best friends, and one is trying to get their nerve up to move their friendship to something else; "What We Love" by Lauren Gibaldi, in which two high school students are brought together by their desire to enact revenge on a bigoted classmate; "Five Times Shiva Met Harry" by Sangu Mandanna, about random interactions which could propel a couple to get together or stay apart; and "Sandwiched in Between" by Eric Smith, in which an interracial couple deals with Thanksgiving at both of their houses, and realizes no one is completely innocent of bigotry no matter how well meaning.

These stories were thought-provoking and entertaining, and as I've said many times, I'm so glad that YA literature is so willing to explore social issues and the idea that love is love is love. I wish it was like that when I was younger!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Book Review: "The Bromance Book Club" by Lyssa Kay Adams

The Bromance Book Club is adorable, sweet, and sexy, giving a new twist to the rom-com. This one was definitely lots of fun!

Gavin Scott should be on top of the world. He’s a star for the Nashville Legends, a Major League Baseball team, he’s playing really well, and he has a beautiful wife and adorable twin daughters. But things between him and his wife, Thea, haven’t been good for a while, and she just kicked him out of the house, saying she wants a divorce.

But Gavin’s teammate and best friend knows how much his marriage means to him, so he recommends group counseling—the group being a number of local guys who have been in the same situation as Gavin and wanted to save their marriages. The key, they say, isn’t apologizing or declaring your love. It’s getting to know your wife again, reconnecting with her and recapturing the romance and passion you once had.

And the best learning material? Romance novels, because they can help you woo her the way she’s always dreamed. But the most important thing is you can't share any of this information with your wife!

It sounds like a ridiculous idea, but Gavin doesn’t see much alternative. Thea is ready to end their marriage permanently, and his ego and pride keep getting in the way of what he’s learning. He doesn’t realize that they both have to change, however, if this plan will work. Not only are there issues between them which need work, but each of them has their own issues they need to deal with as well. It's not going to be easy, that's for sure!

This book was really adorable and pretty sexy, too. I thought it was a fun twist on the story we see so often, given that we're dealing with romance between a married couple. I love that Lyssa Kay Adams made Gavin real instead of your stereotypically sexy baseball player, and I liked most of her characters. (I will say I’m not a fan of those who sabotage relationships for whatever reason, and if you read this you’ll know who I mean.)

If you're a rom-com fan, you should definitely plan to add The Bromance Book Club to your list!!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Book Review: "The Dearly Beloved" by Cara Wall

This one sneaks up on you with its gorgeous, contemplative story which grabs hold of your mind and your heart. Wow, how I loved this!

"Love is the enjoyment of something. The feeling of wanting something deeply, of wanting nothing more. Our love of God is not as important as our faith in God. Love wanes. Faith cannot. One can have faith and anger, faith and hate. One can believe deeply and still rail against God, still blame God. In fact, if one can hate God it is a sign of deep faith because you cannot hate and at the same time doubt God's existence."

James and Charles meet in 1963 when they are both interviewing to become the minister of an historic church in Greenwich Village. They couldn’t be more opposite from one another—Charles views his call as one to guide his congregation, to support them and help them understand events of the world, while James views his as a call to action, that God is served by changing the world.

The two are hired as co-ministers, which seems to suit them fine, and they become immensely close. The same cannot be said of their wives. James’ wife, Nan, a minister’s daughter, understands the role of the church in their lives, while Lily, Charles’ wife, has a definitive lack of faith shaped by a childhood tragedy that causes her to withdraw, even resent at times, the life her husband has been called to. Nan immerses herself in the church, Lily wants as far away from it as possible.

The Dearly Beloved follows the four through decades of friendship, love, loyalty, resentment, jealousy, and of course, faith. The challenges of the world, the tragedies and triumphs of their own lives will test and reaffirm their faith through the years.

This book was simply amazing. I cannot believe that this is Wall’s debut novel. It’s not a book that requires any knowledge of religion or faith—it’s more an exploration of how faith means different things to different people, and how it appears and disappears at different times in our lives.

James and Charles are the easier characters to embrace. I found Nan and Lily difficult to like for a while, until I understood their place in the story and realized the complexities Wall bestowed upon her characters.

I honestly think this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s one of those that feels like the "great American novel," just a triumph of storytelling. That's something I don’t find too often these days.

Book Review: "Notes from a Young Black Chef" by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein

A memoir AND recipes? I’m so here for that.

Writing a memoir before the age of 30 may seem a little premature, but the life Kwame Onwuachi has led up to this point, and his accomplishments in the culinary world, a community not known for its diversity at the top, is noteworthy. (He is currently the chef of an acclaimed restaurant in Washington, DC, Kith/Kin, and he was recently named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine.)

In Notes from a Young Black Chef, Onwuachi talks about his difficult childhood, shuttled between his mother, who struggled with making ends meet as a caterer, and his physically and verbally abusive father. When his mother was unable to control his trouble-making tendencies, he was sent to Nigeria to live with his paternal grandfather, and it was there he began to appreciate his heritage and the culinary delights of African cooking.

He was smart but rebellious, which led to him being kicked out of school after school. He followed a risky path—joining a gang, dealing drugs, always staying one step ahead of the law, until his drug-dealing operations led to him being kicked out of college. While he always had an affinity for food and cooking (even at a young age he used to help his mother in the kitchen), it wasn’t until he worked as a cook on a ship serving those cleaning up after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that he realized the culinary world was where he felt the most passionate, the most at home.

Onwuachi discusses starting a catering company, his journey through culinary school and learning from some of the greatest kitchens, being on "Top Chef," and the highs and lows involved with opening his first restaurant in Washington, DC, a tremendously ambitious project that taught him a great deal about the business and himself. (It was not the same restaurant he operates now.)

It’s funny; most of the memoirs I tend to read are those written by chefs, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. As you might imagine, someone who has accomplished so much before the age of 30 isn’t always going to be humble, but Onwuachi never stops recognizing that were it not for the path he chose, he might not be alive now. (His "Acknowledgments" page is particularly poignant.)

I read this very quickly and, thanks to the descriptions of the food he cooked and the recipes he shared, I was really hungry afterward! If you enjoy books written by chefs or about the culinary world, definitely pick up Notes from a Young Black Chef.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Book Review: "It Ends with Us" by Colleen Hoover

Oh. My. God.

Colleen Hoover, I don’t know why or how it’s taken me so long to read your books, but that is a mistake I will quickly rectify after reading this one!! I have officially joined your fan club.

"...sometimes, no matter how convinced you are that your life will turn out a certain way, all that certainty can be washed away with a simple change in tide."

Lily Bloom is in need of solitude so she escapes to the roof deck of a Boston apartment building late at night. Her reflection is broken by the appearance of a handsome man who needs to blow off steam—and kicks a lounge chair into submission. This is Ryle Kincaid, a neurosurgery resident who is having a disastrous day. Ryle and Lily are immensely attracted to one another but he admits relationships don’t interest him, so when Lily tells him she won’t just sleep with him, they part ways.

But as their paths keep colliding, and they cannot shake the pull of their attraction, they agree to try a relationship, because they know there is no way they could simply have sex and walk away. They realize how strong their connection is, that their feelings are more than lust, but actually love, and they begin planning to build a life together, as Lily pursues her dream business opportunity at the same time.

Lily’s love for Ryle reminds her of her first love during high school, Atlas, who left town to join the military and she never heard from him again. As her relationship intensifies with Ryle, an utterly unexpected incident forces her to confront feelings she never thought she would. And at that moment, she sees Atlas again, which further confuses her heart and her mind, and threatens the life she and Ryle have built.

This is a powerful, emotional novel about courage, all-consuming love, empathy, and the realization that doing something bad doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, but loving someone doesn’t mean you have to love all of their flaws. This book has some steamy sex and some scenes of violence which may be a trigger for some.

I devoured this book in a few hours and it seriously choked me up. I won’t be able to get this one out of my head for a long time, and I now must read the rest of Hoover’s books!!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Book Review: "Get a Life, Chloe Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a rom-com that really made me think. (Plus: super steamy.)

Chloe Brown is feisty and independent, but the chronic pain of her fibromyalgia leaves her choosing the safe path more often than not, and she doesn't let people help her for fear she’ll be a burden.

"She hadn't always been like this, a tongue with the tip bitten off, her feelings squashed into a box. But help and concern, even from the people she loved—even when she needed it—had a way of grating. Of building up, or rather, grinding down. Truthfully, guiltily, sometimes simple gratitude tasted like barely sweetened resentment in her mouth."

When she nearly escapes being hit by a car, Chloe realizes her life has lacked excitement, so she—a compulsive list-maker—puts together a list of items she wants to accomplish. Things like enjoy a drunken night out, go camping, and have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.

Although she and her building’s superintendent, the handsome Redford (Red) Morgan, seem to hate the very sight of each other, there’s much more to him than meets the eye. He’s artistic, kind to everyone (but her), and sexy as hell. Chloe starts to realize that maybe Red can help her cross some items off her list—perhaps in exchange for creating a website to sell his art.

Of course, if you read rom-coms, you know how often hatred masks chemistry and strong attraction to one another, and Chloe and Red are no different. But there’s far more to this story than meets the eye. Both are vulnerable, both bear the painful scars of past hurts which keep them from moving on. Can they allow themselves the luxury of giving in to their feelings, no matter what the risk?

"Love isn’t safe, as that story proves. But is it worth it?"

What struck me about this book is the amount of depth Talia Hibbert gave to both of her main characters, not just Chloe. It’s one of the first rom-coms I’ve read where the male character is as vulnerable as the female, and it really deepened the narrative and my investment in the story. I also thought Chloe’s fibromyalgia was treated with real seriousness—it’s rare you see a character in a rom-com deal with this sort of challenge, and I know that these are real battles that those living with fibromyalgia have to deal with on a daily basis.

This was really enjoyable, although as happens so often in this type of book, I wanted to shake these characters into saying what’s on their mind instead of assuming the wrong thing, to save all of us grief. But that won't stop me from eagerly awaiting Hibbert’s follow-up, which will feature one of Chloe’s sisters.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Book Review: "The Family Upstairs" by Lisa Jewell

Dark, twisty, and creepy, I devoured Lisa Jewell's new book in the matter of a few hours.

Libby is about to turn 25. She’s thinking about finding the right man, taking the next step in her career, making her limited amount of savings last. Adopted at a young age, she always knew she’d be getting some sort of inheritance from her birth parents on her 25th birthday but figured it might be something small and sentimental, if even that.

She’s shocked to discover she’s inherited a house—no, a once-grand mansion. More than that, she’s shocked to find what appears to be the truth about what happened to her parents, that they were part of some mysterious suicide ritual and she was found in the house by police. No one was ever able to figure out exactly what caused her parents to kill themselves, and where the rest of the people living in the house went.

Meanwhile, a woman who has been down on her luck for quite a while, living on the streets with her children, depending upon the kindness of strangers and playing her fiddle for money, gets a text message that says, "The baby is 25." What is behind this text that motivates her to put a plan in motion to get her and her family to London?

In a third narration, a boy some 20 years earlier watches his family and his life fall apart with the arrival of strange visitors who bring many bizarre changes to the household, and they leave utter chaos in their wake. They also awaken a range of emotions in the boy.

These three narratives combine as Libby, with the help of a reporter, tries to come to terms with her tragic history, and figure out what happened the night her parents died. She truly can't fathom that she's inherited such a large house, and she also could have sworn that someone was in the house one night when she was looking around. But who could it be?

I’m being mostly vague with my plot summary because while not everything was surprising to me, Jewell throws in lots of twists and turns, and it's much better to let the plot unfold at your speed. I thought the book started really slowly and toyed with putting it down, but once I got a little bit further in it picked up steam and then I couldn’t put it down.

I like when a book is told in multiple perspectives but there are a lot of characters to keep straight. More than a few times I had to stop and remember which character was which. But in the end, The Family Upstairs is a creepy yet altogether believable story that would make an interesting and compelling movie, and Jewell is a skilled storyteller.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book Review: "Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances" by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Let It Snow is a trio of somewhat-interconnected short stories about the highs and lows of love against the backdrop of a massive snowstorm.

In Maureen Johnson’s "The Jubilee Express," a girl’s holiday plans are derailed again and again. First, her parents are thrown in jail unexpectedly, then her train to Florida gets stuck in the copious snow, and she escapes the chaos of the train by heading to a Waffle House for refuge, where she meets a young man with his own troubles. But as if all Jubilee experienced wasn't enough, she must deal with the apparent disinterest of her seemingly perfect boyfriend, which she doesn't quite understand. It makes for quite a holiday!

John Green’s "A Cheertastic Christmas," told with Green’s trademark these-characters-are-more-erudite-than-me style, follows a group of friends trying to get to a Waffle House in the midst of the storm because of the unexpected appearance of a troop of cheerleaders seeking escape from their train. (This appeals to two of the three friends.) However, their mission to make it to the Waffle House before other invited males is foiled by the elements, their rivals, and the changing dynamics in their group of three.

In "The Patron Saint of Pigs," Lauren Myracle tells the story of Addie, a girl despondent about the end of her relationship (her fault). But the thing is, Addie could use a serious lesson in putting the needs of others first. It takes a strange customer and a teacup pig to help her find her way.

I don’t tend to read a ton of holiday books but this book (and these authors) really tempted me. Johnson’s story is the most straightforward and is therefore my favorite. Green’s is truly madcap and funny, and I really do love the way he writes even if his characters are funnier than nearly every adult I know, but there is only so much zaniness I can take in a story. It's literally a caper.

Myracle’s story had too many disparate parts that didn’t quite come together for me, and I felt as if everyone was trying too hard. It was an interesting concept but at one point there were so many characters in the story that I was quite confused.

Let It Snow was a very quick, fun read and it definitely put me in the spirit of the holidays, even if I’m hoping the "wintry mix" forecast for early next week here passes us by. They've also adapted the book into a Netflix movie which premieres November 8.