Friday, May 31, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book Review: "One Small Sacrifice" by Hilary Davidson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book will be published June 1, 2019.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: "Drawing Home" by Jamie Brenner

"Someday you will find your own superpower."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book will be published October 22, 2019.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Missing Season" by Gillian French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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

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

I've even envisioned him as a vampire hunter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Friend Zone" by Abby Jimenez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book will be published June 11, 2019.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Book Review: "The Scent Keeper" by Erica Bauermeister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book will be published May 21, 2019.

I will be hosting a giveaway for this book on my Instagram page, at

Friday, May 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Book Review: "The Book of Dreams" by Nina George

Powerful, moving, and poetic, Nina George's newest novel, The Book of Dreams, is absolutely exquisite. It's so different from other books I've read recently, and it is one I won't soon forget.

"Maybe we're all stories that someone is reading, and maybe that will save us before we ultimately expire?"

Henri Skinner was once a renowned war reporter whose eyes have seen first-hand the horrors of our world. Shaped by tragedy at an early age, he is a passionate person, one prone to acting before he thinks. On his way to see his teenage son for the first time since he was an infant, he performs a heroic act, only to be struck by a car afterward. He now lies deep in a coma, hearing the voices of those he loves but also reliving his life's memories, as well as exploring the paths not taken.

Sam, Henri's son, is a highly intellectual synesthete (he sees sounds as colors and numbers as sounds) who has dreamed of having his father in his life for as long as he can remember, only to be told by his mother that his father wasn't the type to depend on. When he learns of his father's accident he begins a daily vigil at Henri's bedside. Even though the doctors say they see no sign of Henri's sensing what is going on around him, Sam believes his father hasn't given up yet, and implores him to return to consciousness.

While at the hospital, Sam meets Eddie Tomlin, a woman who was once deeply in love with Henri until he cruelly hurt her. She's moved on with her life but Henri had named her the executor of his living will, so she now must confront her feelings for this man to whom she once gave her entire heart. Eddie isn't sure if she wants Henri to awaken or if she is ready to say goodbye once and for all.

Another patient at the hospital is 12-year-old Madelyn, who has been in a coma since she was in a car accident that killed her entire family. Even though she cannot communicate, does not give any sign that she hears or feels or sees, the hospital continues to treat her, this poor young girl without anyone to look after her. Sam is taken with Maddie, and does everything he can to try and help her back to consciousness, as he tries to do the same for his father.

"There are places where time is thinner, where yesterday, today, and tomorrow converge and we can feel the presence of the dead and the echo of the future."

The Book of Dreams is about the thin line between life and death, of how keeping a person alive is often more for ourselves than the actual person. It's a book about love—both its presence and its absence—and how both can consume you. But more than that, this is a book about relationships, about finding the courage to act, to say the things you've always wanted, to never let regret occupy your mind.

This book is gorgeously written, brimming with vivid imagery and emotion. At times it gets a little confusing, as you're not sure what has happened and what is being dreamed, but the power of this book overcame any of its flaws where I was concerned. In a few days it will be five years since my father died suddenly, and this book, felt a bit like a gift for me, despite how difficult it was to read at times.

I haven't read any of George's other books, but she said in her afterword that her last three novels, The Little Paris Bookshop, The Little French Bistro, and this one form a cycle of novels about mortality and are colored by existential questions about death. I'm definitely going to have to pick her other books up, because this really touched me. It was both a beautifully written and a beautifully felt book.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Book Review: "The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang

"Khai didn't hurt. He felt nothing most of the time. That was exactly why he steered clear of romantic relationships. If someone liked him that way, he'd only end up disappointing them when he couldn't reciprocate. It wouldn't be right."

Khai Diep is handsome, successful, a devoted son and brother. He has his routines and he likes everything in its place. He thinks he's broken because he doesn't feel emotions the way others do, and it has caused his problems. But his family knows it's just the way his autism manifests itself, and they want to help him because they know how special he is.

Because Khai isn't interested in getting involved in a romantic relationship, his mother decides she needs to intervene. On a trip to Vietnam she meets Esme, a young, mixed-race girl working as a maid in Ho Chi Minh City, and is taken by Esme's beauty, her integrity, and her intelligence. She offers Esme the opportunity to come to America and live with Khai for the summer and attend a few family weddings with him, in the hopes that she can make him fall in love with her and decide to marry her. If not, she'll go back to Vietnam.

While she is shocked at first about this offer, Esme realizes this is an amazing opportunity for a new life, for her and her family. Khai is handsome and kind, and she would love to marry him. But seducing him isn't as easy as she thought it might be. Although she is quickly smitten with Khai, he resists her advances even though he is immensely attracted to her. As he realizes that if he doesn't marry her, he'll lose her forever. But Esme wants it all, and won't settle for a marriage of convenience, no matter how much she has fallen in love with Khai.

"It wasn't loneliness if it could be eradicated with work or a Netflix marathon or a good book. Real loneliness would stick with you all the time. Real loneliness would hurt you nonstop."

The Bride Test is an utterly charming, sweet, and poignant rom-com, about the things we're willing to do for those we love, and the sacrifices we're not willing to make. This is also quite a sexy book—the sex scenes are pretty steamy!

I love the characters Helen Hoang created—they're tremendously memorable and likable, and I won't soon forget them. I really enjoy the way she writes, so now I'm going to need to read The Kiss Quotient, too. This is definitely a book that would make a terrific movie, if only because I'd love to see how Khai and Esme (and Quan, too) would look on the big screen!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book Review: "The Favorite Daughter" by Kaira Rouda

Just when I thought I had seen the craziest, most out-there, insane protagonist, along comes Jane Harris in Kaira Rouda's upcoming book, The Favorite Daughter.

Lord. Have. Mercy.

Jane thought she had it all: a handsome husband, two daughters, a beautiful home in an exclusive oceanfront community in California's Ocean County. But the last year has been terrible. She's been consumed with grief since the unexpected death of her oldest daughter, Mary, in a freak accident. All of the anti-depressants she has been taking have left her in a haze, and she's barely been functional, let alone capable of being a good wife or mother.

But that's all about to change. As they get ready to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Mary's death, Jane is ready to take control of her life again. She hasn't been entirely unaware of what's been going on behind her back. She knew that her husband and both of her daughters were trying to keep things hidden from her, but she knows a lot more than they think—and it's high time she let everyone know they can't fool her.

Jane is surprised, however, how much has changed in the year that she was immersed in her grief. Her husband can barely stand to be in the same room, let alone the same house, with her, and her younger daughter is uncomfortable around her, and keeps talking about how ready she is to leave after she graduates high school in just a few days. But as Jane discovers that her husband and daughter have even more secrets, this time Jane will not stand idly by.

When someone starts leaving notes for Jane saying that there was more to Mary's death than a simple accident, and that someone close to her should be looked at more closely, Jane insists the investigation be reopened, no matter the amount of chaos it might cause her family. Could someone have killed Mary in an effort to control a particular situation? How far would they go to keep that a secret?

The Favorite Daughter takes you on a wild ride. I honestly had no idea what to expect from this book because Jane was such a bizarre character. Part of me kept expecting that this would resemble Sandie Jones' The First Mistake in that you'd see the story from Jane's side and then see a wholly different version through someone else's eyes, but apart from occasional barbs from her husband or daughter, that didn't happen. Regardless, she is so unhinged that I found it difficult to determine what she actually was seeing and what was imagined.

This book definitely kept me guessing as it hurtled toward its conclusion. I read the entire book in just a few hours because I needed to see how Rouda would tie everything up.

I really like the way Rouda writes (check out Best Day Ever, too), and in her "Dear Reader" letter that appeared in my advance copy, she explained what brought her to create Jane's character (if it's in your book, I'd recommend not reading this until after you've read the book), and that's fascinating. But these characters all seemed so unlikable, and it almost felt like I was seeing them through Jane's drug-induced haze, so I never understood them thoroughly enough.

If you're looking for a book with one crazy character, pick up The Favorite Daughter. It's quite a read!

NetGalley and HARLEQUIN — Graydon House 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 21, 2019.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Review: "Mrs. Everything" by Jennifer Weiner

Josette (Jo) and Elisabeth (Bethie) Kaufman were sisters who came of age in 1950s Detroit. Jo is a tomboy, more comfortable in old clothes and running around playing sports, while young Bethie was content with being the pretty, talented one, the center of attention. Not much changed as the two approached their teenage years, much to their mother's chagrin. Jo became more outspoken in trying to understand civil rights and social justice, while Bethie starts understanding that her beauty gives her an interesting form of power.

But a family tragedy leads to a traumatic incident for one sister and self-discovery for the other, and both impact their lives and their relationships. As time moves on, Bethie becomes a free spirit, traveling the world, never putting roots down in one place, immersing herself in the counterculture and embracing the idea that women should have whatever they want. Jo, on the other hand, becomes a traditional housewife in Connecticut, raising two daughters and wondering how she wound up living the life she is. Both are content in their own ways but aren't truly happy, but at the same time, aren't sure they are willing to shake things up enough to make change happen.

Mrs. Everything follows Jo and Bethie to the present day, chronicling the journey of these two women as they struggle for happiness, love, and fulfillment, even when they believe they can't have all three simultaneously. They have triumphs and deal with tragedies, they turn toward each other and turn away, and try to be true to themselves and who they are. It's a novel that has an almost epic feel to it.

"'We lose ourselves,' she repeated, forming each word with care, 'but we find our way back.' Wasn't that the story of her life? Wasn't that the story of Bethie's? You make the wrong choices, you make mistakes, you disappear for a decade, you marry the wrong man. You get hurt. You lose sight of who you are, or of who you want to be, and then you remember, and if you're lucky you have sisters or friends who remind you when you forget your best intentions. You come back to yourself, again and again. You try, and fail, and try again, and fail again."

I've never read anything that Jennifer Weiner has written, so when I was offered the opportunity to read Mrs. Everything I jumped at it. Weiner says in a note that appears at the start of my advance copy that she was inspired by Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World and Susan Isaacs' Almost Paradise (two books I loved) to write a book that followed its main characters all the way through their lives. She also said she wanted to write about a character like her mother, whose life moved in unexpected and unbelievable ways.

The arcs that Weiner's characters' lives follow are very believable. These are women whose stories have been told so many times yet they need to be told many times more. This is a fascinating exploration of the roles women play within their families, within their marriages and relationships, and within society. There isn't necessarily anything surprising in this book but that doesn't matter; it's still a powerful book with strong messages.

I really enjoyed the way Weiner writes and felt completely immersed in the story. I felt like things dragged a bit at times, but real life isn't always exciting either. I do read a fair amount of so-called "women's fiction," but this is one book that I'd imagine will resonate more with women than it did with me, although I still felt moved by it.

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 June 11, 2019.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: "Truly Devious" by Maureen Johnson

Stevie Bell has always been a bit different than her peers, much to her parents' chagrin. Much of her childhood and teenage years have been spent feeding her obsession with true crime and mysteries. Her parents wanted her to do the things "normal" teenagers do—hang out with friends, participate in extracurricular activities, maybe even date. But what Stevie wants more than anything is to solve crimes, to one day be as revered as some of the legendary detectives she loves reading about.

When she learns about Ellingham Academy, a prestigious private school in Vermont, she is absolutely desperate to attend. Not only does Ellingham essentially design each student's curriculum around their own interests, but back in the 1930s, the Academy was the scene of one of the most notorious mysteries and unsolved crimes ever. The wife and young daughter of the Academy's wealthy founder were kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars from Ellingham, but he never got his family back. The only clue to the kidnapping was a ransom note in the form of a mocking poem, signed by "Truly Devious."

Stevie wants to solve this mystery once and for all, and her passion for doing so is the criteria that gets her admitted to Ellingham. But even though she has a real purpose, and attends a school that supports that purpose, adjustment isn't as easy as she had hoped. She's never really made friends before, and isn't sure of what to make of her eccentric and creative dorm-mates, including a scientist and inventor, a popular and handsome web-series actor, a novelist, an artist with a penchant for alcohol and the saxophone, and David, a coder, who seemed to get under Stevie's skin from the moment they met.

One night, when she is participating in the filming of a web series about the kidnapping, it appears that "Truly Devious" has returned to the scene of their original crime, when Stevie sees another mocking ransom note. Not long after, someone is found dead—but did they fall prey to an accident, or was it murder? And is the murderer one of her classmates? Despite being warned about playing detective, that is exactly what Stevie does. But along the way she needs to realize that what she discovers may not make her a hero among her peers as she always imagined it would—and it could threaten the future of the school, or at least her enrollment. Is solving the crime worth the potential damage to the one place she finally feels she fits in?

Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious is truly terrific. It's a great read, full of really interesting characters, a dynamic setting, and a compelling mystery that definitely hooked me from the start. I love how the book shifted between the present day and the original kidnapping back in the 1930s, and looked at the way that case unfolded. Ellingham seems like the perfect place to go to school, and I wish a place like that existed when I was younger! (Without the murders and stuff.)

Johnson is a great storyteller. Her use of imagery was so evocative and I could picture the Academy in both past and present. She is also tremendously skilled at creating tension between characters and situations—I really wasn't sure whom to trust and it's rare that I feel that way when reading these books. I also liked the way she had diverse characters without making a big deal out of them; it was just matter-of-fact.

This is the first book in a series, so the ending was a bit of a confusing cliffhanger, but you can bet I'll be picking up the next book, The Vanishing Stair. I really thought this was a lot of fun, and a great read.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Book Review: "The East End" by Jason Allen

This was a crazy book, very different than what I was expecting!

Corey Halpern is a townie, living in the Hamptons with his mother and brother, struggling to make ends meet, and watching the rich people parade in and out during the season. He dreams of nothing more than leaving, of starting a new life far away from the people he resents, far from his alcoholic mother and his drug-addicted, violent stepfather.

Just before Memorial Day weekend, where he's scheduled to work with his mother at the wealthy Sheffields' mansion, he decides to partake in one of his favorite pastimes—breaking into other mansions. He's not all that interested in taking anything; he enjoys the illicit feeling of sneaking in, of taking risks even when the homeowners are asleep while he's there.

Still riding his buzz from one break-in, he heads for the Sheffields'. He is surprised when their youngest daughter, Tiffany, arrives home with her best friend, Angelique, a girl who has caught Corey's eye many times before, but he figures she has written him off because of their different financial situations. He's able to escape their attention, but he decides to hang around and watch Angelique for a while.

Unexpectedly, Leo Sheffield, the billionaire CEO and Tiffany's father, decides to arrive at the house the evening before the rest of his family is scheduled to take up residence. He is joined by Henry, his much younger (and emotionally unstable) lover, for one last rendezvous before he must spend the summer with his family. Under the influence of a great deal of alcohol and cocaine, a freak accident occurs, and Henry winds up dead.

Leo is unsure what his next move is—how can he get caught in this situation when his wife already suspects him of having an affair, albeit not with a man? He's utterly unprepared for the fact that both Corey and Angelique saw at least some of what happened, and for how he'll react to that fact.

What happens over the course of the next 24 hours will change all of their lives, including Gina, Corey's mother. It's a crazy series of events, incorrect assumptions, and threats; people will lose control; and no one is quite sure how things will wind up.

The East End is a well-written but chaotic look at the haves and the have-nots, and how barriers to happiness exist for everyone. There's a lot—almost too much—going on in this book, and I really wondered how Jason Allen would tie everything together in the end. I thought he raised some very interesting issues on which the story could turn, but as it raced toward a breakneck conclusion, I didn't feel as if any of the threads were fully resolved.

I love the way Allen uses language and imagery; his descriptions of Corey's break-ins made me feel the tension right alongside of him, and I could see some of the scenery he described. I just really wasn't a fan of any of these characters—while each had issues that made me feel sympathy for them, their actions were so odious at times I quickly lost those feelings. But still, there is a lot to ponder here.

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for The East End. NetGalley, HARLEQUIN, and Park Row 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.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Book Review: "Me Myself & Him" by Chris Tebbetts

The tagline for this book says it best: "One broken nose. Two versions of the same story. Infinite possibilities."

It's the summer before college, before Chris and his two best friends, Wexler and Anna, all go their separate ways to different schools. One night, while doing a hit of whippets outside the restaurant where he works, Chris passes out face-first, breaking his nose. When his estranged father, a famous physicist in California, hears what Chris did, he demands that Chris come and live with him for the summer and work at his lab—or he won't pay for him to go to the college of his choice.

The thought of having to leave his friends during the last few months they'll spend together, and live with a father he still resents for leaving, is utterly unappealing. But Chris doesn't seem to see any alternative—the college he wants to attend has a great film program and it's his ticket out of small-town Ohio. As he begins to sense a newfound chemistry between Wexler and Anna that will leave him behind, he heads to California, unsure of how the summer will go in all aspects.

But in another timeline, Chris hides the truth of what happened from his parents, just telling them he fell. He gets to keep his job and stay home for the summer, but he's not sure how to handle Anna and Wexler suddenly becoming a couple, leaving him and his sparse romantic prospects even more depressing. He knows he'll never find a boyfriend in his small Ohio town, and why bother when he's about to leave? However, little by little the summer starts to fall apart, as the truth about his accident starts to get revealed and his relationship with his friends becomes strained. Chris wonders if there's another version of him somewhere else, living a better life.

The chapters in Me Myself & Him alternate between Chris' "real" story as he spends the summer in California and deals with his father, and the "other" version in which he stays in Ohio and no one is the wiser about what happened (not really). This is a fascinating, poignant, thought-provoking book which meshes familial dysfunction, the fear of growing apart from your friends, and wanting to be loved for who you are with musings on alternate realities, religion, and fate.

I really enjoyed this book and thought Chris Tebbetts did a great job laying out the story and the alternate path Chris' life could have taken. Even though he's a bit misanthropic, I really identified with so many of his feelings, with wanting things to change but also wanting them to stay exactly the same, wanting your friends to be happy but not wanting your relationships to change, and just wanting someone to be with, all while trying to figure out who you are.

I think of this as the gay, not-quite-stoner version of Sliding Doors. It's utterly entertaining and a really enjoyable read.

NetGalley, Random House Children's, and Delacorte Press provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published July 9, 2019.