Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Book Review: "We Are Lost and Found" by Helene Dunbar

Utterly gorgeous and emotionally evocative, Helene Dunbar's We Are Lost and Found feels like pages from a person's diary. It so effectively and beautifully captures the early 1980s in New York City, what it was like to be a teenager struggling with your sexuality and your desire to be loved and be seen, and the uncertainties and fears of the early days of AIDS.

Michael, James, and Becky are best friends. While Michael and Becky are still in high school, James is two years older, and is a performance artist. James is always the center of attention—his ethereal good looks and his magnetic self-confidence tend to pull everyone toward him.

Michael is envious of James knowing who he is. Ever since Michael's father threw his older brother Connor out of the house after he came out, Michael wants to do everything he can to stay under the radar, yet at the same time, he's just dying to tell his parents the truth. In fact, he wants to tell everyone the truth but at the same time, he's not quite ready to make that leap.

The one place Michael feels at home is at The Echo, a gay dance club. There he can lose himself in the music, flirt without consequence, and not have to acknowledge all of the anxieties he carries with him on a daily basis. He doesn't have to be stuck between his parents and his brother, he doesn't have to lie to his parents about where he's going, he just enjoys the few hours he has, simply to be.

When Michael meets Gabriel, he finally feels seen for the first time, by someone who is interested in him, not in using him to get to James. Michael is lost in the flush of first love, despite the fact that he can't really spend time with Gabriel except at The Echo once a week, despite the fact he can't tell his parents why he's happy. And the more his feelings and his desire for Gabriel intensify, the more his fears about AIDS start to consume him. How does anyone know who's safe? Is it safer never to be with anyone than to put yourself at risk, even if it is all you want?

We Are Lost and Found really struck a chord for me. While I was a little bit younger than these characters in the early 1980s, Dunbar really captured that period of time so perfectly. Coming of age and struggling with my sexuality in the midst of anxieties about AIDS was immensely difficult. The fears of how your parents would react to your telling the truth about your sexuality coupled with wanting to be loved (or even just liked) and the general upheaval of being a teenager was difficult enough, let alone wondering if being with a person could lead to a death sentence.

Dunbar is a fantastic writer. I fell in love with these characters and was really rooting for them, and hoped the book didn't take a severely maudlin turn. The book is told in vignettes more than chapters, and Dunbar doesn't use quotation marks to denote dialogue (at least in the advance version I read), but neither of those things bothered me in the slightest. I honestly could have done with more of the book because I was sad when it ended—it probably didn't help that I read the entire thing in one day.

Maybe some of those who lived through those days will remember things differently, but as someone who was close in age to the characters at the time the book took place, We Are Lost and Found was pitch-perfect. A beautiful book so well-told, one that I won't soon forget.

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

This book will be published September 3, 2019.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Book Review: "The First Mistake" by Sandie Jones

Another thriller, another crazy ride.

Truthfully though, the more thrillers I read, the more I feel that my life isn't nearly as screwed up as I think it is sometimes!

Alice had an idyllic life with her husband Tom, a growing business, and a beautiful young daughter. His sudden death at a young age tore Alice apart, leaving her shattered, and unable to regain control of her life for a short while. Ultimately she realized her daughter meant the world to her, and she owed it to her—to the both of them—to pull herself together.

Years later, Alice feels like she has a second chance at happiness. Her second husband, Nathan, has stood by her through thick and thin, indulging her anxieties and her fears. She now has two daughters, and the business she started building with Tom is now flourishing.

But when Nathan starts acting suspiciously, Alice's sense of security starts to erode. Her best friend, Beth, tells her that she has every right to be concerned about Nathan, but Beth is dealing with her own issues as well. And then bombshell after bombshell is revealed, leaving Alice to wonder whom she can trust—and how much of her life and her relationships have been a lie.

Sandie Jones throws a lot of twists into The First Mistake, so I'm being purposely vague on my plot summary, even though many of the surprises seemed well-telegraphed early on. But having read so many thrillers, some of the things I was expecting didn't materialize, and I always love when an author pulls a fast one on me!

This was a quick and satisfying read, although there was definitely more than enough melodrama to go around. Jones created some complex characters, none of whom is entirely likable, but I couldn't tear myself away from the book even as I was getting annoyed with how long it seemed to take for characters to confront one another.

I definitely expect to see the gorgeous cover of The First Mistake in the hands of many readers this summer. Suspicion, jealousy, marital dysfunction, and melodrama? Sounds like the recipe for a perfect summer read. And with Jones as the chef, there's a lot to savor here.

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

This book will be published June 11, 2019.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Book Review: "Things My Son Needs to Know About the World" by Fredrik Backman

Over the last few years, Fredrik Backman has been one of my favorite authors, with Beartown, Us Against You, A Man Called Ove and And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer capturing my heart and winding up on my year-end lists of the best books I've read. So when I had the chance to get my hands on his new collection of essays, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, I jumped on it, despite not having a child.

Once again, Backman's writing is imbued with tremendous heart, emotion, and utter charm. While he's certainly proven his ability to make his fiction utterly compelling from the very first page, this book proves his talent isn't exclusive to fiction, but you can see why his writing has made fans of so many of us.

In Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, Backman gives advice to his young son, about everything from love to finding the right friends to surviving a trip to IKEA. The essays are punctuated with humorous anecdotes of Backman's interactions with his wife, episodes where his parenting skills (and even his thinking skills) are called into question, and declarations of love for his wife and child.

"We want you to be better than us. Because if our kids don't grow up to be better than us, then what's the point of all this? We want you to be kinder, smarter, more humble, more generous, and more selfless than we are. We want to give you the very best circumstances we can possibly provide. So we follow sleeping methods and go to seminars and buy ergonomic bathtubs and push car seat salesmen up against the wall and shout 'the safest! I want THE SAFEST doyouhearme?!'"

These lessons are beautifully universal and have so much meaning. There's also a tremendous amount of humor in the book, humor derived from situations Backman has experienced, like getting a sofa for your first apartment. ("...buy your first sofa secondhand. Not from IKEA. Buy one of those brown leather monstrosities as big as the Death Star...Buy the sofa you want, not the sofa you need...Because sooner or later you'll fall in love. And from then on, every sofa you own will be one long compromise.") He provides advice to live by, all saturated in the immense love he has for his son.

I don't have children, but I found this book tremendously appealing anyway. While some of the essays are more traditionally male-centric, there is a lot of the book that would apply to daughters as well. Some chapters are funnier than others, there's a lot of talk about poop and other messes, and sometimes the essays meander a bit before circling back to the core point, but I enjoyed this.

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World will make a sweet Father's Day gift, particularly for a reasonably new father, although "older" fathers will probably enjoy this, too. I think more than one guy will wipe away a tear—perhaps only in private. I'm looking forward to Backman's next novel (perhaps another Beartown book?), but this is enough to tide me over until then.

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

This book will be published May 7, 2019.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Book Review: "A Stranger on the Beach" by Michele Campbell

In the profound words of Keanu Reeves, "Whoa." This book takes you on quite a ride!

With the completion of her incredible new beach house in the Hamptons, Caroline Stark finally has everything she wants—the lavish showplace of a home, a handsome and successful husband, the perfect family. Even if things aren't quite as storybook as they seem, she's come a long way from being raised by alcoholic parents and working her way through school to support her husband.

One night she sees a man on the beach near her house. He's young, handsome, and rough around the edges. But when her marriage literally falls apart during her housewarming party, and she discovers that all of her money is gone, suddenly this young man is what Caroline needs. Aidan is a local boy with a troubled past, and he offers her more than his shoulder to cry on. At first she thinks she can rely on him to help her solve the situation with her husband, but she quickly sees that he's a bit more unhinged than she realized.

Aidan doesn't quite realize that Caroline is manipulating him, for he has fallen head over heels in love with her. He knows they'll be together once her husband is out of the picture. And when Caroline tells him she needs his help, he knows he'll do anything for her, anything so they can live happily ever after, in that beautiful house on the beach.

In Michele Campbell's A Stranger on the Beach, you see the story unfold through both Aidan and Caroline's eyes, meaning you see some of the same events and situations interpreted in completely different ways. Who is manipulating whom? Is there an innocent victim amidst all of the scheming? And when someone winds up dead, who is to blame?

This book had so many twists and turns, I honestly didn't know how Campbell would tie everything up even as I raced toward the last page. You see such different interpretations of what happens and you have no idea what to believe. I didn't find either character particularly sympathetic, but I couldn't tear myself away, because I absolutely had to see what the outcome would be.

I love a book that keeps me guessing, but I'll admit the plot took so many hairpin turns that I got confused at least a few times. Still, this is one of the most compulsively readable books I've read in a while, and it will be the perfect book to devour while relaxing on the beach this summer. It's like Liane Moriarty crossed with the television show Revenge. This is a little bit soapy, a little bit campy, and a whole lot of crazy—it definitely will be a book everyone is talking about.

The rich may be different, but they're just as screwed up as we are, if not more! A Stranger on the Beach is the proof you need of that.

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

The book will be published July 23, 2019.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Book Review: "Boy Swallows Universe" by Trent Dalton

Eli is growing up in a small Australian suburb in the 1980s. His mother is a junkie and in jail, his father is nowhere to be found, his stepfather is a drug dealer, and his older brother, August, is a mute genius. The only adult in his life is Slim, a former prisoner who holds the record for the most escapes.

"I truly love Slim because he truly loves August and me. Slim was hard and cold in his youth. He's softened with age. Slim always cares for August and me and how we're going and how we're going to grow up. I love him so much for trying to convince us that when Mum and Lyle are out for so long like this they are at the movies and not, in fact, dealing heroin purchased from Vietnamese restaurateurs."

For a 12-year-old, Eli has the mind and heart of an adult. Even though his life is completely chaotic, he craves normalcy—as much as he can get given the situation he's in. He wants to be a journalist, he wants to fall in love, and he wants to be a good man, better than those he's had in his life.

Life keeps getting in Eli's way. It's up to him to care for his brother and to battle a truly dangerous drug dealer, and then work to save his mum. Through it all, Eli sees that there are two paths to follow—the right and the wrong—and although the wrong may be the easier one to follow, he knows he'll never recover if he takes that path.

What's fascinating and eye-opening about Boy Swallows Universe is that Trent Dalton based it on his own childhood and his relationship with his mother. Even though I know people find themselves in really dangerous, sad situations, it's still a bit of a gut punch to realize how closely this crazy story mirrors real life. I didn't know that going into reading this book, so it gave it a dash of added poignancy upon reflection.

I found the characters and their relationships really endearing, but the narrative style of this book put me off. Part of it was the Australian dialect the characters used, and part was the truncated way some of the dialogue flowed. There were times I had to re-read some paragraphs just to be sure I knew what was happening, so that kept me feeling not quite connected.

There is a tremendous amount of heart and charm in Boy Swallows Universe, and some very memorable characters. I know that many people enjoyed this book more than I did, so if it sounds intriguing, definitely give it a shot. It's a thought-provoking, heart-warming, and disturbing story.

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

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Book Review: "Birthday" by Meredith Russo

Meredith Russo, this book absolutely blew me away.

Eric and Morgan have known each other since birth. That's not hyperbole—they were born on the same day in the same hospital, and there was a snowstorm, so both families were snowed in. Their families were close, at least until Morgan's mother died of cancer. But the boys have been best friends their entire lives.

As their 13th birthday approaches, Morgan knows things are changing. What Morgan knows more than anything is that he isn't whom he's supposed to be. He's a football coach's son in a small, rural Tennessee town, and he's trapped in the wrong body. More than that: he's a girl trapped in a boy's body, and he doesn't know what to do.

When you realize a fundamental truth about yourself, you want to share it with those you care about. But how can he share this truth? He's already bullied in school, so that doesn't worry him, at least not as much as the reactions of those he loves. Can he withstand losing his father? Or worse, can he survive losing Eric?

Eric knows that something is wrong with Morgan. Something is different. There's more of a distance between them. He knows the insults that his father and his brothers say about Morgan when he is not around, but he is not giving up on their lifelong friendship. Morgan is more important to him than perhaps anything else.

Told in glimpses spanning six birthdays, Birthday is a powerfully poignant, eye-opening story about self-acceptance, family, friendship, love, and grief, and all of the obstacles that stand in the way of trying to come to terms with who we are and the life we deserve to live. I read this entire book in a few hours, and it will undoubtedly be one that sticks with me for long afterward.

Meredith Russo's prose is so beautiful and evocative, and the emotions it generated made my heart hurt. I'll admit there were times that I found myself reading while trying to cover my eyes at the same time because I was so worried for these characters and what might happen to them, wondered how close to real life Russo might take the plot. This is one of those books that I'd love to see a sequel for because I already miss the characters and want to know where their 19th, 20th, and subsequent birthdays will find them.

I've commented many times before that I am so happy that YA books today deal with so many important issues. Birthday never feels manipulative or sensationalized, it feels utterly authentic and it touched my heart. I hope this book finds its way into the hands of those who need it most, and those who can learn from the journeys taken by the characters.

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

The book will be published May 21, 2019.

Book Review: "Miracle Creek" by Angie Kim

If you've ever watched one of the many iterations of the Law & Order series on television, you know that every episode follows a similar pattern, at least at the start—an incident occurs, every sign points to a particular perpetrator, everyone starts to wonder if they've caught the right person, and as the story veers to its conclusion you're not sure exactly what is going to happen.

This is exactly how I felt reading Angie Kim's debut novel, Miracle Creek, a story that seemed so clear-cut at first had so many layers, so much going on, and I couldn't stop reading it. Were the characters as straight-forward as they were being portrayed, or were they hiding secrets? Would the actual perpetrator ever be brought to justice?

Amazingly, the book's courtroom drama was only a part of this book's appeal—it was a tremendously compelling and poignant story about the struggles of parenting, particularly when your child has special needs, the desire to protect your family and yourself, and the lies we tell ourselves to get by.

"Tragedies don't inoculate you against further tragedies, and misfortune doesn't get sprinkled out in fair proportions; bad things get hurled at you in clumps and batches, unmanageable and messy."

Korean immigrants Young and Pak Yoo run Miracle Submarine, a device that delivers hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) through pressurized "dives." Some believe HBOT can treat diseases like cancer, diabetes, or infertility, and others believe in its effectiveness to help treat children with autism and cerebral palsy. The Yoos have a regular group of customers, but they also have attracted a fairly energized group of protestors, who believe HBOT is a sham, and that Miracle Submarine should be shut down.

One day, in the midst of protests, power outages, and drama among the patients, a fire breaks out and the oxygen tank explodes, killing two patients and injuring others, including Pak and his teenage daughter, Mary. After their investigation, law enforcement apprehends their suspect, and a sensational, emotional trial is about to begin. Everyone wants to put the events of that day behind them and get to the truth.

But what really happened that day? Were the protestors that warned of the threat of fires to blame? Was it the mother of one of the autistic children being treated, had she finally cracked under the pressure of caring for her son? Was it Pak and Yoo themselves, hoping to take the insurance money and cash in on a better life? The lies, the secrets, the painful truths will all collide as everyone tries to make sense of that fateful incident which affected far more lives than at first glance.

Miracle Creek is a beautifully written and emotional story. The further you get into the book, the more you realize that the pervasive pall of sadness than hangs over the story is caused by more than the tragic explosion—it's an emotional heaviness surrounding all of the characters for different reasons, each of which played a contributing factor in what occurred.

Kim does such a masterful job telling this story. There were characters I disliked at the outset that I started to warm up to as the story unfolded, and others that became less sympathetic. There also were a few characters that I didn't feel quite transcended stereotypical roles, but the book would have been much longer if Kim had spent time dwelling on their motivation, too.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Miracle Creek in the months leading up to its publication. That hype really is justified. Much like the incident that is at the book's core, the book itself is far more complex, complicated, and compelling than it initially seems. It's both cerebral and sensational.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Book Review: "Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future" by Pete Buttigieg

Where my reading is concerned, I mainly subsist on a diet of fiction (both mainstream and YA), thrillers, and rom-coms, with the occasional dash of sci-fi/fantasy. But every now and again I choose to sample a little nonfiction, usually in the form of memoirs, when someone that interests or fascinates me writes one.

I first heard of Pete Buttigieg when he ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee. I didn't know much about him other than that he had made real progress as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and he was openly gay. But the more I paid attention to him, the more impressed I became, and I definitely stood up and took notice when he announced the formation of an exploratory committee to run for President in 2020.

Shortest Way Home is more about Buttigieg's journey, both political and personal, than it is a roadmap for his presidential ambitions. He talks a lot about the progress he has helped bring to South Bend, a town once labeled one of America's dying cities. Elected mayor at the age of 29, he brought audacious plans, unbridled energy and enthusiasm, and a passion for service, but he learned a lot from South Bend's citizens as well.

"Good policy, like good literature, takes personal lived experience as its starting point. At its best, the practice of politics is about taking steps that support people in daily life—or tearing down obstacles that get in their way. Much of the confusion and complication of ideological battles might be washed away if we held our focus on the lives that will be made better, or worse, by political decisions, rather than on the theoretical elegance of the policies or the character of the politicians themselves."

Buttigieg doesn't try to take credit for all of South Bend's success, nor does he claim to have cured all of the city's ills. He juxtaposes his work in the city with the major decisions he has made in his life—leaving his home to attend Harvard University, pursue a career as a management consultant, join the Navy, run for political office (his first attempt, a run for state treasurer, was unsuccessful but it taught him a lot), and come to terms with his sexuality—and how each has enhanced him and, in turn, enhanced his ability to lead.

One of the reasons Buttigieg appeals to me is because he doesn't stoop to the negativity that has infected all of us so much today. He has criticisms about the way the country is being run, the hypocritical way some of our leaders try to inflict their own personal views in their governing, and the inaccurate thought that greatness can be achieved only by hearkening back to an earlier time.

"There is nothing necessarily wrong with greatness, as an aspiration, a theme, or even as the basis of a political program. The problem, politically, is that we keep looking for greatness in all the wrong places. We think we can find it in the past, dredged up for some impossible 'again,' when in reality it is available only to those who fix their vision on the future. Or we think it is to be found in some grand national or international adventure, when the most meaningful expressions of American greatness are found in the richness of everyday life."

Shortest Way Home, like Buttigieg himself, gives me hope. His story, and the sequel to South Bend's story that he has been such a vital part of, are fascinating. While there is a long time until November 2020, if you had told 16-year-old me that in my lifetime not only would there be an openly gay, viable candidate for president, but that he would announce his candidacy with his husband at his side, it would have given me hope during a time where I wondered if I would ever fit in.

This is not a preachy book, nor is it filled with political jargon or swipes at the current administration. It's a positive book, by and large, and it's well-written, too. It certainly proves this is a man who can do anything he sets his mind to, and hopefully becoming president is next on his list of achievements!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Overdue Life of Amy Byler" by Kelly Harms

"I have suffered plenty. I am a poster child for low-grade chronic suffering. If an ad agency wanted to make suffering into a thirty-second spot, they would make a time-lapse video of me in my three colors of elastic-waistband teacher pants shoveling eight inches of snow at five a.m. so my kids can get to their early-bird activities on time, then teaching 250 overprivileged kids how to not use computers for porn for ten hours, and then collapsing in front of Outlander too tired to even find, much less turn on, my vibrator at the end of the day."

For the last three years, Amy Byler has been the sole provider for her two children: 15-year-old Cori and 12-year-old Joe. She's barely keeping her head above water financially, working as a school librarian in order to keep her kids in private school, tending to the myriad repair needs of their beautiful yet historic (read: old) Pennsylvania house, and doing all of the disciplining, the chauffeuring, and everything else. That's been the drill since her husband left for a business trip in Hong Kong and decided not to come back.

But now, John is back. He's realized he has been a terrible father and he wants to be a part of his children's lives again. He asks Amy to give him a week with the kids so he can begin seeking their forgiveness. (Much to Amy's chagrin, he accepts all of her criticisms and angry insults, and keeps apologizing, but he doesn't seem too interested in her forgiveness.) Reluctantly, she takes him up on his offer, and heads to New York for a week to attend a library conference.

When Amy arrives in New York, the scene of some crazy college days, she's looking forward to a week of professional development, sleeping in, and reading a ton of books. Instead, she starts to let her hair down a little bit, and even meets a handsome librarian along the way. But she still can't stop worrying about her husband spending time with the kids, whether he's going to make some colossal mistake, or—worse—whether her kids will even miss her.

Her old college friend, now the editor of a lifestyle magazine, convinces/orders Amy to get a total makeover, and sets her on a course for a real vacation from parenting, a #momspringa, if you will. When her husband asks to spend the summer with the kids, Amy's newfound freedom turns into a real adventure followed by the magazine's readers. She takes advantage of all the city has to offer and starts finding herself again, even going on a few blind dates. But when one man threatens to steal her heart, she has to decide whether this "new Amy" will still exist when she returns home, and what it means for everything—and everyone—if she doesn't.

The Overdue Life of Amy Byler was utterly charming, laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and an enjoyably thought-provoking read. Not being a woman or a parent, I may have missed some of the nuances of the story, but I think the book did a great job exploring the challenges women face as mothers, when they sacrifice everything else for their children and supporting their family. But when they do that, do they put their relationship with their spouse at risk, too, or is that something they shouldn't worry about?

I enjoyed many of the characters in this book, from Amy to her former-nun-now-teacher best friend Lena, "hot librarian" Daniel to self-absorbed magazine diva Talia. Sure, the plot is a bit predictable, and I felt like it dragged a bit in the middle, but I was looking for a lighter read and this book definitely delivered. This definitely fits the bill when you've been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion—while there is still poignancy here, Kelly Harms keeps the tone light as she explores serious issues.

Are you in need of a #momspringa? Wish you could have had one? The Overdue Life of Amy Byler will give you the lowdown, and entertain you, to boot.

Lake Union Publishing and Amazon First Reads provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book will be published May 1, 2019.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Book Review: "Immoral Code" by Lillian Clark

I read a lot of YA books, but I must admit, reading Lillian Clark's new book, Immoral Code, was the first time I felt old reading this genre. There are certainly universal themes of friendship, loyalty, and love, but perhaps because the book deals with a lot of technological stuff, some of the lingo used went over my head. (It's embarrassing to admit I'd never heard the term "ace/aro" to describe someone who is asexual and aromantic—I know what these words mean, but I wasn't familiar with the abbreviation. Sigh.)

Nari, Bellamy, Keagan, Santiago, and Reese are a group of five friends on the cusp of high school graduation. Nari is a hacker who wants a career at a major technology company after college. Her boyfriend, Keagan, just wants to be with her and doesn't have many ambitions beyond that. Reese is a talented visual artist who is fierce and fiercely independent. Santiago, despite his parents' objections, is headed to Stanford on a diving scholarship—and hopefully the Olympics. Bellamy is absolutely brilliant, and she dreams of going to MIT.

There's just one hitch in Bells' plan. Her financial-genius father, whom she has never met, makes so much money that he's negated any possibility of her getting the financial aid she needs to attend MIT. As part of the agreement between him and her mother, he only provides a minimal amount of child support each month, so she's not even allowed to ask him for help. How could her dreams be dashed so badly by someone who has never been a part of her life (except her conception)?

Nari is outraged by her friend's situation and decides there's only one way to solve the problem: since Bells' father makes so much money, he probably wouldn't notice if a tiny bit was missing, right? Nari plans to hack into his bank accounts and skim just a little off the top of every million dollars he makes, until she accrues enough to pay Bells' tuition? Seems like an easy plan, right?

Of course, not everyone is a fan of the idea, given it's a crime that could land them all in jail. But why should a man who has never cared one iota for Bells ruin her dreams and her chance for an incredible future? When hacking from a distance doesn't seem to be working, the quintet plans a road trip to hack into his computer in person. It's the ultimate rob the rich, give to the poor scheme.

Despite making me feel a bit curmudgeon-like, this book was a fun ride. I really liked the characters and the way they interacted with each other. While the subject matter of the book was super-technical in parts, I didn't feel like the characters were overly sophisticated or too erudite for their own good—these were, for the most part, highly intelligent teenagers jousting with the verbal swordplay you'd expect from kids like this.

The book shifts narration among all five characters, which did get a little distracting at times. It was helpful to hear how each perceived the events of the book, particularly Nari's scheme, but often the voices seemed more similar than the characters did, so I had to go back and remind myself whose chapter this was. Beyond that, though, Clark's voice is a fresh one, and this take on a heist story was enjoyable.

NetGalley, Random House Children's, and Knopf Books for Young Readers provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Book Review: "Meet Cute" by Helena Hunting

"I always imagined that if I met one of my favorite celebrities, I'd act cool, be all casual about it, treat them like a regular person. Obviously I was very wrong about that."

It's the first day of law school, and Kailyn is ready to kick ass and take names. And then on her way to her first class, she—literally—runs into Daxton Hughes, the television actor she was utterly obsessed with as a teenager...and might still be now. (She still watches marathons of the long-canceled show and has a collection of memorabilia with his face on it.) Her encounter with Daxton quickly strips her of her sophistication, and she can't keep herself from becoming a giggly fangirl.

It turns out that Dax is her law school classmate, too. And once she mortifies herself in front of him and his friends a second time a few minutes later, she pulls herself together, and over the course of law school she shows him that she should be taken seriously.

The two become friends and rivals, with occasional flirtation thrown in for good measure, but Kailyn focuses on school first and foremost so she can catapult her way to a successful job. She's unprepared, however, when Dax betrays her, and she's fine with never seeing him again.

This plan works for five years, until she runs into him at her law firm, when he accompanies his parents on a legal matter. Infuriatingly, Dax is as good-looking as ever, and he seems genuinely happy to see Kailyn. He doesn't understand why she's angry with him all these years later, and it turns out he doesn't remember any of the bad stuff he pulled in law school, which angers her even more. But that doesn't mean she still isn't completely drawn to him, much to her chagrin.

When a tragic incident results in Dax's becoming the legal guardian to his 13-year-old sister, Emme, he is completely unprepared for the responsibilities that raising a teenager entails. After Kailyn is appointed Emme's conservator in the midst of some messy family issues, she's willing to put aside her anger with Dax and help him give Emme the love and care she needs. But she can't ignore the fact that she starts to fall for him, and their fun flirtation starts to give way to something potentially serious. Can she trust that he won't betray her again, and can she handle all of the female attention a former star like Dax attracts?

Kailyn is hiding a secret from Dax, too, one she knows will anger him if he discovers it. She has to decide what's more important to her, her professional ambition or the potential for a relationship with someone she's crushed on since she was a teenager. And she needs to do it fast, before everyone involved gets hurt.

Meet Cute is, like its title says, cute. While it starts out as a rom-com, the story gets a bit more serious than I was expecting, with tragedy, a custody battle, lies, and betrayal. Kailyn and Dax have great chemistry together, and Helena Hunting gives you a great deal of perspective into what makes Kailyn tick.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the dynamic of a woman actually falling for an actor she has been obsessed with for far too long. When Meet Cute explored that angle, the book really hit its stride. Sadly, I didn't feel quite the same way with all of the issues around Dax's struggles to prove he is capable and deserving of being Emme's guardian—while I don't mind when a rom-com feels predictable if there's charm and chemistry, the predictability of the domestic issues irritated me a bit.

Meet Cute was definitely a fun read, though, and Kailyn and Dax's relationship felt genuine as it hit its peaks and valleys. I just wish it was a little, well, cuter.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: "Lock Every Door" by Riley Sager

You know the old saying if it seems too good to be true, it probably is? Well, that's something that Jules Larsen should have thought of when she accepted an assignment as an apartment sitter at one of the oldest and most exclusive NYC apartment buildings, the Bartholomew.

Jules is between jobs and, because her relationship with her boyfriend just ended, between apartments. The Bartholomew was the setting of her favorite book from childhood, so the thought of living in those glamorous, hallowed halls almost seems like a dream. When she sees the enormous, duplex apartment at the top of the building, and learns that she'll receive a salary of $4,000 for each month of her three-month assignment, how could she resist?

Sure, there are a lot of rules. She must sleep in her apartment every night. She can't have anyone over to visit because the residents of the Bartholomew cherish their privacy. No pictures of anything related to the building on social media. She's also not allowed to bother any of the residents.

But even those and other slightly strange rules are enough to dissuade her, given how desperately she needs the money. Even as she starts to learn about the Bartholomew's somewhat-scandalous and creepy past, she feels lucky. When she meets fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, she feels she has found a kindred spirit. As Ingrid shares her feelings about how things about the building frighten her a bit, Jules tries to help assuage her fears (and perhaps calm some of her own).

The next morning, Ingrid is gone. She apparently left the Bartholomew without a word to anyone, and she won't return Jules' texts or phone calls. Little by little, Jules starts to become more worried about Ingrid's safety, and wonders if perhaps there is more to the things Ingrid was afraid of. As Jules tries to dig into Ingrid's disappearance with the help of her handsome neighbor, she starts to discover that things in the Bartholomew aren't as idyllic as they seem—and Ingrid isn't the first one to disappear.

Riley Sager knows how to ratchet up the suspense, and he definitely did so here in Lock Every Door. There is such a pervasive sense of danger permeating through the book from the minute Jules first arrives at the Bartholomew. You know it's too good to be true, you know she shouldn't trust people, but as the reader, you're powerless to shake some sense into her.

The narration shifts between the present and Jules' arrival at the building a few days earlier, so you get glimpses of what will happen but nothing too concrete to fully give it away. Sager's storytelling is taut and reads like a movie, so I could picture what was happening in my mind's eye.

You'll really need to suspend your disbelief here as the book hurtles toward its conclusion. I'll admit I thought things went completely off the rails and I rolled my eyes toward the end. But I know many others loved this book, so perhaps I just thought things got a little too kooky for my own good.

I'm a fan of Sager's writing—his debut novel, Final Girls, was another book that read like a movie I'd totally see. If you like your thrillers on the crazy, slightly gothic side, Lock Every Door is one for you. And don't accept an apartment-sitting gig that seems too good to be true!

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Dutton provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

This book will be published July 2, 2019.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Book Review: "The Girl He Used to Know" by Tracey Garvis Graves

Wow, wow, WOW. This book was amazing.

"It's like everyone around you has a copy of the script of life, but no one gave it to you so you have to go in blind and hope you can muddle your way through. And you'll be wrong most of the time."

Annika Rose is different from other people. She's much more comfortable with solitude, and would much rather be in the company of animals, hiding under her comforter and reading a book, or getting lost in a competitive game of chess than spending time with her fellow undergraduates at the University of Illinois.

She dreams of life as a librarian, surrounded by books, but she often doesn't notice social cues, and she wishes that people would be more direct about what they think and feel rather than make her figure it out. Luckily, Annika has her roommate, Janice, to help her navigate through the confusing and anxiety-provoking world of college.

When Annika meets Jonathan Hoffman in her senior year at a meeting of the school's chess club, she can't quite understand why he's interested in talking to her, or continuing to play her once she beat him, badly. She knows she's attractive (she's been told her face is "aesthetically pleasing") but she's sure that he'd be more interested in someone more comfortable in social situations, a girl who wears makeup and enjoys going to bars and listening to loud music.

But Jonathan keeps coming back, and after a while he makes it clear that he's interested in Annika, and he's willing to help calm her fears and understand the things that make her nervous or anxious, because he wants a relationship with her.

The two fall deeply in love and begin to plan a future together in New York City after graduation. It's not always an easy path—sometimes Annika misses Jonathan's signals, or is unable to do the things he hopes she will—but with Jonathan, for the first time since leaving home, she feels safe, understood, and loved. But even the intensity of their love isn't enough to withstand an unexpected obstacle which tears them apart, leaving them to chart the course of the future on their own.

Ten years later, Annika is living in Chicago and working at a library. She's a much stronger person than she was in college, and she understands her role in what happened in her relationship with Jonathan. But despite keeping up a strong façade, she's utterly unprepared to run into him in a grocery store. He's back in the area after a career on Wall Street and a divorce, and seeing Annika again rekindles all the old feelings. But can he trust his heart to give her a second chance?

Annika is determined to show Jonathan how much she has changed, and is willing to take it slow if that's what it takes. Can a relationship that was so intense the first time pick up where it left off, after so much has transpired between them? Is Jonathan still willing to accept Annika the way she is? Can they move past the things that drove them apart, and can they finally have the future they had dreamed of?

The Girl He Used to Know is an utterly fantastic book which blew me away. Tracey Garvis Graves has created an incredible set of characters, with such complexity and depth, and this love story is a special one. There are so many books out there that similarities with other novels are expected, but I really felt this was a beautifully unique story, despite a few more familiar plot twists.

I read the plot synopsis of this book a few weeks ago, so I honestly didn't remember what it was about when I started reading it. I loved where Graves took her story (although I'll admit I wanted more) and I just love the way she writes. There are moments in this book—not even the highly dramatic ones, but the quieter, "ah ha" moments—that just took my breath away.

Run, don't walk, to get this one.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Book Review: "The Editor" by Steven Rowley

Steven Rowley's The Editor really hit the spot for me. It was utterly charming, it had so much heart, and it dealt with some of my favorite subjects—family dysfunction, struggles with self-confidence, writing, secrets, and the relationships that crop up in the most unlikely of places.

James Smale has always dreamed of being a writer. After having his first few short stories published, he imagined the path to literary success would be easy. But writing a novel never seemed to come easy, and although he hoped inspiration would hit, he wondered if he was destined to be one of those people whose early promise fizzled out. Living in New York City in the early 1990s, it seemed as if he was more suited to random temp jobs than wearing the mantle of a writer.

Then he decided to write about what he knew better than anything—his relationship with his mother, an enigmatic woman whom James believed blamed him for the end of her marriage, since she had to essentially choose between him and his father. He is thrilled when he finds out that a major publisher is interested in publishing his novel.

And then he meets the editor who fell in love with his book—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie, or Mrs. Onassis, as she is known in the office, loves the complexity of the relationships in James' novel, and she identifies with the main character since she, too, is a fiercely protective mother. James is utterly blown away that this infamous woman, whose family was always a fascination for his mother, has taken an interest in his writing, and believes this novel is worth being seen by the world.

But Jackie believes James hasn't dug as deeply into his characters and their story as she thinks he can, and she pushes him to do so. Little by little their working relationship develops into a friendship of sorts, even as he wonders if someone as complex as Jackie can truly be known by someone like him.

The reality of the book is causing serious ripples in his relationship with his mother as well as his relationship with his partner, Daniel. He isn't sure if he can finish it, and then a secret is revealed which makes him wonder if he's telling the right story at all. As everything spirals out of control, James needs to figure out the truth about his relationship with his mother and needs to decide what he wants from his relationship with Daniel, but more than that, he doesn't want to disappoint Jackie.

I thought this was a beautifully written book, brimming with poignancy and complexity. James was complex and utterly appealing even when he was doing things that made him unsympathetic, and I couldn't get enough of his story. But Rowley's treatment of Jackie Onassis, meshing the familiar tropes with fascinating depth. I loved the relationship Rowley created between James and Jackie.

"I'm struck with profound gratitude that our paths have magically crossed for this brief moment of existence; she is, I see now, the only logical editor this book could have had. My book, my valiant quest to understand my own Arthurian legend with Igraine at the heart, to define my own Camelot, in the tender hands of Guinevere herself. My eyes well with tears even though knights are not supposed to cry."

This was a quick, immensely enjoyable read, and I'll think about this book for a while.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Book Review: "The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Dino and July were best friends, absolutely inseparable. Until everything changed, and their friendship ended. For a year, July was dead to Dino, and he focused on his new boyfriend, Rafi, and Rafi's group of friends, although he couldn't help feeling like something was missing. When July died suddenly, Dino was left with unresolved emotions about their friendship and why everything went wrong.

And then the unthinkable happens—July awakens the day before her funeral while at Dino's parents' funeral home. She's not dead, but she's not quite alive, and she's not happy to find herself in Dino's company again. But what could be the reason for her coming back to life, of sorts? As much as they're angry with each other, they team up to figure out what's going on, especially as they realize this problem may have wider implications than they could even imagine.

As July struggles with the side-effects of once being dead, Dino has his own struggles—trying to convince his parents that he doesn't want to go into the funeral business, and feeling like he's not worthy of being loved, which complicates his relationship with with Rafi. More than that, however, he wants to understand why his relationship with July went so wrong, because he knows that as much as she aggravated him, he has missed her more than anything.

What if you got a second chance with someone who once meant so much to you? Would you try to understand what went wrong and resolve your feelings, or would the hurt and the anger be too intense to forgive and forget? Would you be willing to accept some responsibility for what transpired, or would your pride get in the way?

In his newest novel, The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, Shaun David Hutchinson brings his trademark mix of the surreal and the emotional. While there are some crazy elements to the plot, at its heart this is a book about friendship, belonging, regret, self-worth, and accepting our own shortcomings. It definitely made me wish for another chance with some people who used to be an important part of my life.

Hutchinson is one of my favorite authors—We Are the Ants and At the Edge of the Universe are two of the best books I've read in recent years. I love the characters he creates and I find his storytelling mesmerizing.

That being said, this book didn't work as well for me as his previous ones. Even though there was poignancy in the story, I found July's character so off-putting and unsympathetic that I couldn't understand why Dino even wanted to be friends with her, and I felt that there were too many instances of her being mean to Dino, his getting angry, and then coming back to her again.

You can always count on Hutchinson for a story that doesn't seem like all the others, as well as one that touches your emotions. While I didn't feel this book was among his best, it's still another example of why I think he's one of the best YA authors out there right now.