Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Book Review: "Hold Still" by Nina LaCour

"How amazing it is to find someone who wants to hear about all the things that go on in your head. You just think that things will stay the way they are. You never look up, in a moment that feels like every other moment of your life, and think, Soon this will be over."

Caitlin and Ingrid were best friends. They were practically inseparable, sharing a love of photography, music, laughing at themselves and others. One night they were talking about their futures, and the next morning, Ingrid was dead, having committed suicide.

Ingrid's death shakes Caitlin at her very foundation. Ingrid didn't leave a note, but Caitlin realizes there were so many times where she should have said something to Ingrid when she noticed her erratic moods, her cutting herself, her crying jags. Could she have saved her friend?

When school resumes in the fall, Caitlin has to navigate her way without Ingrid for the first time. She's a jumble of emotions—anger, loneliness, guilt, grief—and doesn't like being an object of curiosity to her classmates, who want to know how Ingrid killed herself and whether she left a note. Even their favorite photography teacher treats her like a pariah.

Then Caitlin finds Ingrid's journal under her bed, where Ingrid presumably left it for her to find. As she reads Ingrid's words, she begins to understand more clearly just how troubled her friend was, how she struggled to find self-worth, tried to will the boy she liked to reciprocate her feelings, and how she wanted Caitlin to understand what she was feeling but was afraid she'd treat her differently or worse, not want to be friends with her.

"Maybe there is no right thing to say. Maybe the right thing is just a myth, not really out there at all."

Nina LaCour's exquisite, emotional debut novel, Hold Still, chronicles Caitlin's first year of living without her best friend. It is a year of trying to comprehend this loss, wanting to lean on people yet not wanting to let anyone else in or be vulnerable, and a year of understanding there was little that could have been done to prevent Ingrid's death. It's a story about how to find the strength to move on, to identify rays of hope again, and realize that making new friends isn't betraying the memory of the one you lost.

This book is also a tremendously candid look at the effects a suicide has on the lives of those left behind. From parents to friends to teachers to crushes, everyone is affected in some way, and LaCour beautifully explores the range of emotions and actions that are caused by such a tragedy. I expected this book to make me cry and it certainly did, but it wasn't as maudlin as I feared it might be—it is powerful and immensely poignant.

I've been a fan of LaCour's writing since reading You Know Me Well, a book she wrote with David Levithan, a few years ago. Last month I read We Are Okay, and was again captivated by her tremendous storytelling ability. She is a writer whose work you really need to read, for its beauty and its emotional power.

On the off chance that someone reading this review is in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, please know that there are people standing by to listen to you and help you. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, the Trevorlifeline for LGBTQ+ Youth at 866-488-7386, or if you are in the U.S., you can text "HOME" to 741741, which will reach the Crisis Text Line.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Chain" by Adrian McKinty

It seemed like any other morning. Rachel's 13-year-old daughter Kylie was waiting at the bus stop while she headed to a doctor's appointment. On the way she received a call from an unknown number. The call told her that Kylie had been kidnapped, and she was now part of The Chain.

Rachel was given explicit instructions. She has to pay a ransom electronically and then kidnap another child as her daughter had been kidnapped. If she follows the instructions to the letter, and the family of the child she kidnaps do the same, then Kylie will be released. Any deviations from this script, any calls to the police or FBI for help, any trying to outsmart those in charge will result in Kylie being killed, if not Rachel as well.

"You've never experienced fear until something or someone puts your child in danger. Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing that can happen to you is for something to happen to your kid. Having a child instantly turns you into a grown-up."

Rachel is utterly overwhelmed by the tasks that lay ahead, but she has no choice. She never imagined she'd be the type of person to kidnap a child, be willing to sacrifice their life for her daughter's, but protecting your child makes you do unbelievable things. When your life is falling apart completely, how do you convince the world that it's just another day, that you're perfectly fine?

I'm giving a fairly vague plot summary because it's best to let things unfold without much knowledge or expectation. Adrian McKinty's The Chain has an amazing concept at its core—talk about the worst kind of pay-it-forward you've ever seen! Rachel and some of the others involved are tremendously believable even as the things that they are doing are utterly unbelievable, but it makes you wonder how you might react if faced with the same situation.

The book starts with a bang, but the pace starts to lag after a bit. At times the narrative gets a little too technical, and I'm never a big fan of when a book needs to spend a lot of time explaining the evil plot. And while the pace picks up toward the end, I found the conclusion tremendously predictable and a little ridiculous, which is saying a lot considering how crazy the whole concept is.

I've seen a few friends rave over this book, so maybe my cynicism with thrillers is showing again. McKinty is a talented writer and I love the concept he has come up with. If this interests you, I'd definitely encourage you to read it—July seems to be the month for me to challenge a lot of highly rated favorites!!

Monday, July 29, 2019

Book Review: "The Magnificent Mrs. Mayhew" by Milly Johnson

When was the last time you couldn't get enough of a book and wanted to devour it in one sitting, yet when you were finished, you were sad? That happened for me with Milly Johnson's newest book, The Magnificent Mrs. Mayhew. I wasn't familiar with Johnson's writing, but apparently she's known as "the Queen of Feel-Good Fiction" in the UK, and boy, they're not kidding!

Sophie Mayhew was raised to believe that a woman's purpose is to serve her husband, that the best thing she can do as a wife is to be a supportive and valuable spouse. And that's exactly what she has done for the last 14 years for her husband. John F. Mayhew is immensely handsome, politically shrewd, and ruthlessly ambitious, and with his glamorous, intelligent wife "Sophie the Trophy" by his side, he's one step away from becoming prime minister.

Sophie remembers when her relationship with John was full of passion rather than photo opportunities, spontaneity rather than scheduled appearances and carefully scripted remarks. But this is the role she agreed to, so even if she has had to sacrifice the things that bring her joy, even if her husband and her own family don't appreciate her for anything more than being the dutiful wife, she knows she is key to her husband's success. Even if the public and the media scrutinize her every move, her every outfit, her every expression, John is destined for greatness. That should be enough for her.

Then one day, scandal breaks. Sophie hears the allegations and is sad and angry, but not totally surprised. John's PR specialist assures them the scandal will go away quickly once Sophie lets the world know she stands faithfully by her man. Yet for some reason, Sophie can't bring herself to recite her prepared remarks and toe the line she always has. Instead, the words that spill out are spontaneous—and certainly not what John or his team wants anyone to hear. When everyone begins closing ranks around her to mitigate the damage, Sophie decides to flee to a small town on the coast where she spent the best summer of her life as a teenager.

"Sophie the Trophy was hardly known for being her own woman. If anything, she was the enemy of strong women. She existed in the shadow of her husband, she was good enough to work for him but not good enough to be given a wage for it. She bowed to his will, and for her pains he humiliated her in the worst way possible while lecturing the British public on keeping their own houses in order."

Sophie changes her appearance and assumes a new name, and hopes to keep a low profile. But she is shocked at how friendly the townspeople are, and how quickly they are to provide her food, supplies, smiles, simply because they recognize a person in need of help. For the first time in years, she starts to feel appreciated for her personality and her gifts, not scrutinized and criticized at every turn. And she realizes how horribly she's been mistreated, not only by her husband, but by her own family.

As she befriends Tracey, the owner of the local pub, and her brother, Elliott, the vicar, she comes to terms with the sacrifices she has made in her life. She doesn't know if she's ready to give up everything, or if she still loves her husband, but she knows that she feels freer and happier. As her feelings become more complicated, she knows she can't stay forever, but she doesn't know if she can step back into her old role, or if she's willing to give up everything she's known in order to really be herself.

"Kindness was not a weakness, it was an essential part of being a human being, a gift to be bestowed upon others, a strength."

Nothing that happens in The Magnificent Mrs. Mayhew is surprising; you've certainly seen this story before. But Johnson has created characters that you'll want to root for and characters you'll loathe, and I for one couldn't get enough of this book. Watching Sophie blossom on her own and realize she could have a life where she could make her own decisions and do what makes her happy for once was heartwarming, and I loved her interactions with Tracey, Elliott, Luke, and others.

If you like "feel-good fiction" then be sure to pick up a copy of The Magnificent Mrs. Mayhew. I read the entire book in a matter of hours, and now I'm missing the characters!

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster, and NetGalley for giving me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review! See a Spotlight/Excerpt from the book at

Spotlight/Excerpt: "The Magnificent Mrs. Mayhew" by Milly Johnson

On Sale: July 29, 2019

Purchase Link:

Milly Johnson, the Queen of Feel-Good Fiction and The Sunday Times bestselling author, is back with a "glorious, heartfelt novel" (Rowan Coleman, New York Times bestselling author) about a woman trying to find her own place in the world, who through love, loss, and the kindness of strangers, discovers everything she needs in a village by the sea.

Behind every successful man is a woman.
Behind the fall of every successful man is usually another woman.

Sophie Mayhew seems to have the perfect life. The glamorous wife of a rising political star who is one step away from the highest position in the government, she matches her husband in looks, pedigree, and money. But he has made some stupid mistakes on his way to the top, and some of those mistakes are just now threatening to emerge. Still, this can all be swept under the rug so long as Sophie the Trophy plays her part in front of the cameras. But the words that tumble out of Sophie’s mouth one morning on the doorstep of their country house are not the words the spin doctors drilled into her head.

Bursting out of the restrictive mold that has been tightening around her since birth, Sophie flees to a small village on the coast, a safe haven from her childhood days, where she intends to be alone. But once there, she finds a community that warms her soul and makes her feel as if she is breathing properly for the first time in her life. Sophie knows she won’t be left in peace for long, though, so she must decide: where does her real future lie?

Milly Johnson is The Sunday Times bestselling author of numerous novels about the universal issues of friendship, family, love, betrayal, good food, and the little bit of that magic in life that sometimes visits the unsuspecting. Milly is a columnist for her local newspaper and is also an experienced broadcaster on radio and TV. She can be booked via the Women Speakers Agency for motivational speaking events. Milly is patron of several charities, including Yorkshire Cat Rescue and The Well at the Core. Her publishers call her The Queen of Feel-Good Fiction, and together they are aiming to spread as much joy as possible with every book published. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter @MillyJohnson.


Chapter 1


As Sophie stood in the middle of them all, the moment strangely crystalized for her, as if time had frozen solid and she was able to study everything at leisure, appreciate how odd it was to be surrounded by familiar people in the house she had lived in for eight years and yet still feel as if she had been dropped from a great height into a roomful of strangers.

She saw her mother seated, holding a cup of tea in one hand and the accompanying china saucer in the other, talking to her father, who was standing, one hand slotted stiffly in his jacket pocket; his default pose, as if he were a catalogue model. Mother was talking to him and Father had a polite smile of concentration on his face. Standing next to him, her parents-in-law, Clive and Celeste, looking serious and focused as if they were building up to jumping out of a plane. Sophie’s husband, John, deep in conversation with the top pick of his aides: Parliamentary Assistant (London) Rupert Bartley-Green; Senior Communications Director and Press Officer Len Spinks; Chief of Staff Edward Mayhew, who also happened to be John’s eldest brother; and Executive Office Manager (Cherlgrove) Findlay Norris. Between his two governmental bases and the office that looked after his investment and property portfolio, John had more staff than the POTUS, although there was an opening for a girl Friday (London) now, since his last one was currently enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame. The “people” of breakfast and daytime TV, and every program that attracted those the media chose to concentrate its temporary but brightest lights on, were no doubt already negotiating appearance fees with her “people.” Why is it always someone in that junior assistant/intern/researcher role who topples the boss? thought Sophie. Weren’t there enough cautionary tales of littered corpses to warn any man in a high-profile position—who really should know better—what dark and treacherous waters he elected to dip into when he chose a pretty, young, ambitious swimming companion? A pond with a hundred signs around it, all lit up with massive red neon lettering and strings of exclamation marks: warning. danger. come any closer and you’re a bloody idiot!!!!!

It would have been easy for the other woman to fall in love with her husband, though; if that were what it was. John could sell ice to the Eskimos, coal to Newcastle, toys to Santa, and all the other clichés. Charm personified, absurdly handsome, moneyed, intelligent, refined—oh yes, John F. Mayhew was the full package. Sophie could guess how quickly Rebecca Robinson would have become ensnared in his net, even thrown herself into it willingly, because she had done the same thing fourteen years ago, when she was eighteen.

She’d met him at the Christmas Ball when she was in her first year at Cambridge University, studying French, and he was in his last year studying business and politics. He’d been absolutely wrecked on champagne and told her he was going to marry her, before his friends dragged him off for yet more alcohol. She didn’t think much about it until Valentine’s Day, when their paths collided again at a private party. She spotted him long before he noticed her, which gave her the luxury of studying him unseen. He wasn’t her dream type at all, but he was extremely magnetic, and from the way he held himself, it was more than obvious he knew what his best qualities were. He was long limbed and lean, and she imagined him as a human equivalent of a well-bred racehorse, something pampered and valued. Greek-statue profile, midbrown hair that flopped into his eyes— and what eyes they were: puppy-brown, intense, seductive. Eventually, as if detecting the heat in her gaze, his eyes swept around to hers, locked, and she felt powerless, as if she were a hen and he a fox. He sliced through the banks of students that stood between them, mouth stretching into a killer smile, and when he reached her, said:

“Well, if it isn’t you again. Where have you been hiding yourself?”

And from that moment they were a couple. Sophie forgot all about swooning over the rugby player who was in her class, which was a shame because he would end up captaining England and was a thoroughly nice chap, but John F. Mayhew engulfed her brain and was all she could think about.

John F. was going to be richer than Croesus and prime minister one day, he said, and she didn’t doubt that he would be. She could easily forecast his future: top of the tree in his chosen profession, women would adore him, men would want to be him, magazine reporters would queue up outside his door to take photos of the beautiful home he lived in. His children would be perfect and well behaved. Maybe they’d be her children, too. Maybe this was the man her old headmistress Miss Palmer-Price told her would be the one to carry her along in the grip of his force field. The “F” stood for Fitzroy, he told her postcoitus in bed on the night he took her virginity. His great-great-great-grandfather— Donal F. Mayhew—and his best friend, Patrick, had decided to escape the great Irish famine by emigrating to America in the late 1840s. But an Irish heiress fell hook, line, and sinker for the strong and handsome—if impoverished—gypsy Donal and he changed his mind about going. Donal and his wife eventually moved to London, where his determination both to shake off the label of male “gold digger” and to better himself drove him to build up a fortune in his own right selling property, metal, alcohol, ship parts; anything legal or illegal to trade in order to make a profit. Across the pond, Patrick’s family’s fortunes improved with every generation, too. His great-grandson John F. Kennedy became president of the United States of America. The Kennedys, John said, had stolen the idea of using the “F” from the Mayhews, and in doing so had cursed themselves. As if he couldn’t get any more fascinating, traveler magic was thrown into the mix.

By April Sophie could not imagine living without John F. Mayhew; then in May she found that she’d have to, because he dumped her for the fabulously rich wild child Lady Cresta Thorpe. Sophie was heartbroken. John graduated with honors and spent a year touring the world with Cresta, who had dropped out of university, far preferring to indulge her habits of clubbing, cocktails, and cocaine. His life, so she gleaned from gossip, was shining and golden as hers slipped further into the dark and depressing. Her coursework suffered and she started self-medicating with alcohol to blot out the pain. She also realized that the girls she’d thought of as friends weren’t that hot in a crisis. She had never been good at gathering friends. The beautiful, insubstantial people were attracted to her, but the really nice people found her own good looks intimidating.

It took Sophie a long time to get over losing John F. Mayhew, partly because she didn’t have a group of hard-core pals to help chase him out of her heart. She buried her true feelings deep as she had been taught to at school, threw herself into her studies, never let anyone see how wounded she was. Her heart had just about healed by the time she graduated, give or take the scar he had left.

Months later, Sophie had been working as a temp at the London headquarters of the glossy magazine Mint when she heard that they were to run a feature on a young, successful investment banker, a high-risk taker and up-and-coming politician, at home in his recently acquired, stupidly expensive bachelor penthouse. His name was John F. Mayhew. Sophie’s heart started to race. She wangled it so she accompanied the reporter and the photographer, desperate to show herself off at her best to him: content, happy, preened, and perfect— unattainable and indifferent. Or so she thought.

He was overjoyed to see her, ridiculously so, and she was gracious enough not to dampen his delight with a long-overdue rebuke for dumping her so callously. He asked her out to dinner and she accepted, merely for old times’ sake, sure that if he asked to see her again, she would politely refuse, walk away, having shut the door firmly in his face this time.

He had never forgiven himself for the caddish way he had behaved, he said in Le Gavroche. He’d been glamoured by Cresta’s glitzy veneer, but it was mere infatuation. He hadn’t realized how much he felt for Sophie until he lost her. Sophie was in love with him all over again before the dessert menus had been delivered to them.

Six months after the photos of his bachelor pad had been published, John F. Mayhew had moved out and into Park Court, a beautiful, if run-down, country residence—a wedding present from his parents for himself and his new bride-to-be, the sublime Miss Sophie Calladine. She ignored that little voice inside her that warned her about the speed of all this, the worm burying into her happiness. Is this the real deal, Sophie, or are you just grateful to be loved?

To a woman starved for affection, the full spotlight of his attention was blinding, disorientating—of course she knew this. She had gulped it like air seeping through a hole in a vacuum. For that reason, it would be too easy to let that worm convince her that genuine love was not her primary reason for accepting John’s marriage proposal: but it was, it really was. It had to be said, though, that her heart was whooping considerably that she had also earned parental approval for her choice of husband, and she could even hear the echoes of applause from her old headmistress, nodding consent from the afterlife: I knew you’d be a credit to St. Bathsheba’s in the end, Sophie, like your sisters and your mother before you. But she did love him very much. Enough to have sacrificed her own wants and needs on his altar for the past eight and a half years. Enough to be standing here with her heart ripped open in this roomful of people who were looking at her to mend her marriage. Because by doing that, Sophie Mayhew would mend everything.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Book Review: "Girls Like Us" by Cristina Alger

What a pleasure it is to read a thriller that doesn't have an unreliable narrator, one which keeps you guessing about every single plot point because you don't know what is true and what is a figment of their imagination!

FBI agent Nell Flynn returns to her childhood home in Long Island's Suffolk County for the first time in 10 years when her father, Martin, a homicide detective, is killed in a motorcycle accident.

Nell and her father were never close, particularly after her mother was brutally murdered when Nell was seven. Even though she followed in Martin's footsteps and became a cop, their relationship was always a bit strained and never really went beyond the exchange of polite information and conversation.

"Dad had an unshakable, almost evangelical sense of right and wrong. But there were contradictions. He loathed drugs but felt comfortable pickling his liver in scotch....The criminals he most despised were abusers of women and children, but I once saw him strike my mother so hard across the face that a red outline of his hand was imprinted on her skin. Dad had his own code. I learned early not to second-guess it. At least, not out loud."

Returning home to Suffolk County awakens a lot of memories for Nell, and she's anxious simply to scatter Martin's ashes, get his house ready to sell, and never return again. But her father's partner, whom she knew from high school, asks for her help investigating the murder of a young woman whose body was found mutilated in a park. It seems this murder is connected to another murder uncovered about a month earlier, which means there very well could be a serial killer on the loose in Suffolk County.

It turns out that Martin was investigating the first murder when he died. While the police seem to have a suspect who looks good for both murders, or at least was involved somehow, they couldn't seem to make the charges stick the first time, but they hope to nail him this time. Nell, however, sees that there are definitive doubts about this man's guilt, yet the police don't seem interested in pursuing any other avenues in terms of a suspect.

The more Nell starts to dig into the lives of the two young women, the more she realizes that there is definitely a second suspect—her father. There are too many coincidences and too many connections. But could her father have been capable of murder? And if he murdered these two women, was he guilty of murdering her mother all those years ago? That question fills Nell with rage and sadness, especially because her seven-year-old self was her father's alibi.

As Nell conducts her own secret investigation, she discovers the murders were part of a much larger operation, involving allegations of police brutality, blackmail, corruption, and prostitution, involving people far beyond Suffolk County. It's easy for the police to write off the two young women as victims because they were undocumented and occasionally worked as escorts, but Nell is determined that their deaths not be in vain—but she doesn't realize what a hornet's nest she's stirred up.

Girls Like Us drew me in from the very first pages and didn't let go until the last. I read the book in one sitting, and stayed up late last night (or this morning, technically) to finish it. There certainly were a few twists I didn't see coming, one which confused me in the way it was initially presented and one which disappointed me a bit, but Cristina Alger didn't let up with the book's pacing until the very end.

Nell is a fantastic character and I wouldn't mind seeing her featured in another book. I've been a big fan of Alger's writing since her first book, and I love the way each book she has written is somewhat different. I had been waiting to read Girls Like Us for a while, and I'm so glad it was as good as I hoped it would be.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Book Review: "The Last Book Party" by Karen Dukess

"But how could you live and have no story to tell?"

This quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky is the epigraph to Karen Dukess' terrific debut novel, The Last Book Party, and it couldn't be more appropriate. Dukess' book is both a coming-of-age story and a look at the loss of idealism, the siren song of art and those who create it, and an exploration of the always fascinating dynamics of families and their relationships.

In the summer of 1987, Eve Rosen has a fairly boring job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, not quite the way her parents envisioned her using her degree from Brown. Despite the fact that she does little more than type her boss' correspondence and deal with those authors he is avoiding, the job represents an opportunity to be exposed to writers and their craft, something that as an aspiring writer, she hopes will rub off on her.

Unfortunately, however, she can't seem to get anywhere with her writing, and is envious of those she views as talented and lucky enough to get their work published.

When she is invited to a party at the Cape Cod home of once-renowned writer Henry Grey and his poet wife, Tillie, she jumps at the chance to do something utterly out of character for her. The Greys have a summer home in the same town as Eve's parents, yet the two couldn't be more different.

"Henry and Tillie and the rest of the older set looked loose and happy in a way that made them seem not only younger than my own parents, though they were ostensibly the same age, but ageless, as if being artists and writers freed them from anything as conventional as growing old."

She is drawn to Franny, the Greys' handsome, artistic son, but he leaves Cape Cod for the remainder of the summer. Exhausted by the dead-end nature of her editorial job, she agrees to spend the rest of the summer working as Henry's research assistant, a task she hopes will finally serve as the creative catalyst she needs to get her writing going again.

But the more time she spends at the Greys', and as she gets to know a young writer slated for a bright future, the more she realizes that it isn't someone else who inspires you to succeed—it's you who needs to inspire yourself. She also discovers that her perspectives on relationships—both parental and romantic—are shaped by far more factors than she ever considered possible.

As the summer draws to a close, and the Greys' famed "Book Party," where the guests dress as literary characters, arrives, Eve sees how easy it is to make decisions on what you see rather than what you know, and she realizes that she is the only one who can chart the course for her future. It's a sobering lesson in the midst of a summer she thought was magical, but comes to realize that perhaps she just didn't look closely enough.

I really enjoyed The Last Book Party. Dukess did a great job creating some fascinating characters and drawing you into their universe much as the Greys did Eve. There were certainly some familiar elements to this story but Dukess threw in some of her own twists, and I like the way she explored the juxtaposition between the dynamics of Eve's family with the Greys.

Interestingly enough, I saw some similarities between Eve and myself, in that I know how easy it is to find excuses not to pursue your dreams but yet wax poetic about how if only things were easier, maybe you'd accomplish what you dreamed of. I also understand that when you dream of writing it's far too easy to give up when the words or ideas don't flow, but that is precisely when you should push yourself, although that's easier said than done.

Dukess accurately captured the time period of the story without making it feel too heavy-handed, and she added enough drama without making the story campy. This really was such an enjoyable book and a quick read, one I'd definitely recommend.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book Review: "The Wedding Party" by Jasmine Guillory

Jasmine Guillory has really become one of my go-to authors when I'm in the mood for a great rom-com. Her books are fun to read as well as well-written and steamy, and I find her characters so appealing that it feels like hanging out with friends, especially because the characters in all three of her books are linked in some way.

Her newest book, The Wedding Party, follows that age-old story of two people who can't stand each other yet one crazy night something changes. Maddie and Theo have known each other for years through their mutual best friend, Alexa.

There's no denying that they find each other physically attractive, but they're seriously turned off by their personalities. Maddie thinks Theo is pedantic and condescending, Theo thinks Maddie is superficial and a bit of a bitch. They do everything they can to avoid one another, or stick to mere pleasantries if they have to interact.

When an emotionally vulnerable Alexa takes Maddie to Theo's birthday party, it's the last place she wants to be, and Theo isn't thrilled to see Maddie there. But why can't they take their eyes off each other? Why are they thinking of each other that way? It must be the alcohol. When Maddie agrees to drive Theo home and somehow she challenges him to show her his dance moves, one thing leads to another, amazing night and morning ensue.

But once the afterglow dissipates, Maddie realizes underneath the sexual skill and the hot body, it's still condescending Theo, and Maddie can't help but get an attitude, even when he tries to say the right thing. They acknowledge this was a mistake, and Alexa must never know about it. Until it happens again, and it's even better and hotter than the first time.

When Alexa asks both Maddie and Theo to be in her wedding party (as bridesmaid and bridesman), the two realize they're going to be thrown together constantly, and suddenly, that seems like a good thing, since they can't stop thinking about each other. They agree that they can continue to spend time together as long as they still keep it a secret from Alexa, and they need to recognize that this is a time-limited deal: once the wedding is over, they can go their separate ways and go back to hating each other.

It should come as no surprise that this situation turns out to be far more complicated than they imagined. How can you be so drawn to someone that makes you so angry half the time? Where is the line between love and hate? Does telling people about a relationship you've kept secret have the potential to change the dynamics?

When an incident occurs that shakes both Maddie and Theo, they need to examine their feelings and decide whether their relationship has a future, or if they're just not right for each other. But first they have to survive the wedding...

We've seen this story so many times before, but in Guillory's hands it still feels fresh and appealing, and you find yourself rooting for Theo and Maddie. I know I wanted to smack both of them at least a few times when they either misinterpreted something the other said, or said the wrong thing. I like the way Guillory kept the plot from getting too melodramatic or slapstick-y, so while elements of the story are certainly familiar, she didn't resort to clichés to advance the action.

This may be the sexiest of all three of her books, and I'd really love to see an adaptation of this on television or in the movies, because it would be great to see what everyone looks like after forming pictures of them in my head. (You don't need to read Guillory's books in order, although characters from the first two books do appear.)

If you're a fan of hate-you, love-you romances, this will definitely be up your alley. I for one can't wait for her next book now!!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Book Review: "Never Look Back" by Alison Gaylin

"Is there a way to stop something that's mean to be, even if it's something you don't want?"

In 1976, teenagers April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy went on a killing spree in the Inland Empire area of Southern California. Twelve people—some known to the killers, some random victims—were killed before the couple died in a fire at a religious compound.

While the story of the murderers was tabloid fodder for a while and they even were the subjects of a made-for-television movie, they soon faded into the peculiar history of serial killers and were mostly forgotten. But not by Quentin Garrison, who has a personal connection to Gabriel and April's crime spree years ago, and he believes that was responsible for his lousy childhood.

Quentin is now a podcast producer focused on true crime, and both his husband and his best friend/co-producer convince him he should tie up the whole story as a way to bring himself closure. Yet when he receives a call from what appears to be a reliable source, saying that April Cooper is actually still alive and living in New York, Quentin is unsure whether closure will ever really be possible. Does he want April to be alive after all these years?

Meanwhile, Robin Diamond is a controversial film reviewer for a popular entertainment website. She's never afraid to ruffle the feathers of their readers with her opinions, even if it brings crackpots to the surface. She's having doubts about her husband lately, but isn't sure if she really wants to know what has him working late and texting at all hours of the day and night. Regardless of all she's going through, she's not prepared for a phone call from Quentin asking about her mother's identity. And when a home invasion leaves her mother fighting for her life, she doesn't know what to believe.

How well do we know our parents? Are they entitled to have secrets from us about their lives before we born, no matter how bad those secrets might be, or do we deserve full honesty? Can the truth really set us free, and is closure really possible?

I loved Alison Gaylin's new thriller, Never Look Back. As I've stated many times before, I tend to be really hard on thrillers because I suspect everyone and over-analyze everything, so it takes a lot to surprise me. Gaylin definitely threw some twists and turns into her plot, and while not everything was shocking, the combination of mystery, suspicion, emotions, and character development really made this a compelling read.

The book shifts narration between Quentin, Robin, and 15-year-old April (told in letters). There are lots of interesting connections that fall into place and lots of questions to answer. It's sad to see just how destructive secrets can be, potentially hurting not only those who have been keeping those secrets, but also having a ripple effect on others.

Gaylin is a highly regarded thriller writer, but this is the first of her books I've read. I'm definitely going to read some of her earlier books, because I love the way she tells a story, and the plot and her characters were so well-developed. This book starts on a slow burn, but as it picks up steam, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: "The Gifted School" by Bruce Holsinger

It's always nice when fiction illuminates the worst in people, isn't it?

Rose, Samantha, Azra, and Lauren have been best friends for years, in many cases since their kids were infants. The four women and their families have weathered many crises—death, divorce, troubles with their children and their marriages, etc. While there are certainly interesting dynamics among the four of them, there doesn't seem to be anything that can keep them apart.

When word gets out that their affluent town of Crystal, Colorado is building a school for gifted children, all four women react to the news differently, especially when they learn there will be a limited number of slots available at every grade level, and decisions will be made based both on test scores and other factors.

Samantha has always believed her daughter, Emma, is practically perfect in every way, so for her it's a given that Emma will be accepted. Rose's daughter Emma, who is best friends with Samantha's daughter, may be smarter, but she isn't as driven or as competitive as the other Emma. But what would happen if one Emma got in and the other didn't? They've been inseparable since infancy.

While Azra's twin sons, Charlie and Aidan, have focused more on soccer than academics, there's no reason they shouldn't be considered for the school as well, despite the misgivings of Azra's trust-fund yet hippie-esque ex-husband. Since her husband's death, Lauren has focused most of her energy on her son, Xander, who actually is gifted, but at the expense of her older daughter, Tessa, who has dealt with challenge after challenge without the support of her mother.

"Parents always want to manage the narrative instead of letting kids write their own."

Following the perspectives of multiple characters, including several of the group's children, The Gifted School is a melodramatic yet insightful look at how competition and envy can bring out the worst in adults, laying bare secrets long kept hidden, in some cases pitting spouse against spouse and friend against friend. The book also examines the pros and cons of schools for gifted children, the biases of testing and other admission-related decisions, and the thin line between striving for equity and creating quotas for traditionally under-represented populations.

I expected the book to be a little more campy and entertaining than it was. While some twists are telegraphed early on, Bruce Holsinger did throw in one twist that upended the characters, and it really didn't feel genuine to me. I thought that Holsinger makes some interesting arguments, but the majority of his characters were so unlikable it was difficult to have any sympathy for them.

There's a lot going on in The Gifted School. There were a lot of storylines to follow, and while I understood the points Holsinger was trying to make, I could have absolutely done without the whole storyline featuring the group's cleaning lady and her family, because it kept dragging the story away from its core.

Holsinger is a talented writer, and his storytelling definitely kept me reading. Those of you who enjoy stories of people acting horribly to each other to advance their children's best interests (or perhaps their own) might enjoy The Gifted School a bit more than I did.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: "Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune" by Roselle Lim

What a wonderful book this was, full of emotion, hope, food, love, and even a little magic. But be warned, you'll be craving Chinese food long after the book has ended!!

Seven years ago, Natalie left her home in San Francisco's Chinatown after she and her mother disagreed about Natalie's choice to become a chef. She wasn't willing to give up her dream and her mother forbade her, so Natalie left and hasn't spoken to her mother since that day. While Natalie hasn't quite succeeded, she has had the chance to cook in many different parts of the world and realize how important cooking really is to her.

"The best cooks doubled as magicians, uplifting moods and conjuring memories through the medium of food."

She is summoned home when her mother dies suddenly. Although she had emotional problems and was agoraphobic, her death came as a surprise to those friends who cared for her. Natalie is devastated that she never had the chance to make amends and let her mother know how much she loved her despite their disagreement.

She is also surprised at how much her neighborhood has declined—all of the businesses that used to flourish are now in decline and disrepair, and a overly zealous real estate agent is pressuring the tenants to sell so the neighborhood could be gentrified and converted into something new.

Natalie's biggest surprise, however, is that she has inherited her grandmother's small restaurant, which occupied the ground floor of the building she and her mother lived in. Natalie's mother refused to follow in her grandmother's footsteps, but in her will she decided to encourage Natalie's dreams after all, and encouraged her to reopen the restaurant, which was once the anchor of their community.

The local seer tells Natalie she must cook three dishes of her grandmother's for three of their neighbors who are having trouble. How can Natalie figure out which dishes to cook, and for whom? Will cooking these dishes actually make a difference? And why should Natalie care, when her neighbors left her and her mother to fend for themselves throughout her childhood?

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune is a story about finding the courage to pursue your dreams no matter who stands in your way, and not giving up even when it seems every obstacle is trying to thwart you. It's also a book about finding your place in your community, and recognizing that caring about a person doesn't always mean agreeing with all of their choices. In the end, this is also a powerful story about secrets and how surprising it can be to learn the truth about things.

"Dreams, even modest ones, had a steep price. Mine had cost me my mother and given me the silence of seven years. Now that silence could never be breached."

I tend to enjoy books with a little bit of magic thrown in to the plot. Roselle Lim uses evocative imagery to convey the healing and restorative power of Natalie's cooking, as well as to describe emotions. Her words are truly gorgeous and create such wonderful mind pictures. Parts of this story warmed my heart, and parts made me cry.

Sure, the story gets a little bit melodramatic from time to time, and you pretty much can predict nearly everything that will happen in this book. But that barely mattered for me because of how much charm Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune had, how it tugged at my heart, and how the recipes included in the book made my stomach growl.

This is a quirky, sweet, tremendously endearing book that may be the perfect change of pace you're looking for. It's definitely a book I'll remember!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book Review: "Going Dutch" by James Gregor

There's often a tremendous amount of anxiety around being single. No one wants to be alone, especially when it seems as if all of their friends are coupling (or even throupling). But when date after date seems to go nowhere, how do we handle our feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and fear that we're destined to spend the rest of our lives by ourselves?

This is just one of the crises plaguing Richard, the protagonist of James Gregor's debut novel, Going Dutch.

In addition to unrequited love for his flaky best friend, and a string of bad dates from dating apps, Richard is dealing with significant writer's block on his graduate thesis, which he must continue to make progress on or he'll lose his fellowship, which covers his tuition and living expenses. Certainly the fear of losing his funding and having to drop out of school should motivate him, but he can't seem to move forward.

When Anne, one of his classmates, offers to "help" Richard overcome his writer's block by writing his papers, it proves both a solution and a dilemma. All Anne really seems to want is his companionship, and her lifestyle is far more opulent than Richard's, so it seems like a fairly easy decision. His conscience nags him from time to time that he's actually committing academic dishonesty, but Anne doesn't seem particularly interested in his contributions, and she doesn't seem to mind doing the work.

The lifeline she throws him becomes a bit more complicated, however, as her desire for his company grows. She knows he is gay, but she's not interested at all in that aspect of his life. She wants more and more of his time, and doesn't like when she's not his singular focus. Richard can't exactly pinpoint how he feels about her—he's not romantically interested in her, but there's something about her he finds appealing.

"Anne's energy was jarring but invigorating, an inconclusive mix of maturity and immaturity. She was like a child let loose in the restraint and focus of an adult. But she was also like a mother who hands you a heavy towel and squeezes you after you've wrapped it around your shoulders, telling you to dry your hair because you lose heat through your head. At odd moments he found himself enchanted."

Things get more complicated when Blake, a lawyer with whom Richard had one frustrating date, suddenly reappears and is very interested in him. Richard is excited about the prospect of a relationship he has longed for, but how can he balance his desire to be with Blake with his obligation to spend time with Anne, given the academic hold she has over him?

Going Dutch definitely raises some interesting questions and provides timely social commentary on dating in the gay community. I just really didn't enjoy this book because I found every single one of the characters completely off-putting. While Gregor provides some insight into Richard's psyche, he is so manipulative and unappealing that I didn't much care what happened to him, and I felt the same way about Anne, Blake, Patrick, even Anne's periodic roommates.

I liked the way Gregor writes, but this book just didn't work for me, perhaps because I've known people whose behaviors and actions resemble those of some of the characters.

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book publishes August 20, 2019.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Book Review: "Ask Again, Yes" by Mary Beth Keane

The repercussions of a decision or an action can have ripple effects for years to come. No better is this demonstrated than in Mary Beth Keane's new novel, Ask Again, Yes. This story of how much we owe those we love and how much we should endure for the sake of family is tremendously thought-provoking and emotional.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are both rookie policemen for the NYPD in the 1970s. They build a friendship of sorts based on their mutual Irish heritage, although it is not a solid friendship because Francis is much more focused on being a good cop than Brian is. Still, the two wind up living next door to each other with their wives and children outside the city.

While Francis' youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian's son Peter, only six months apart in age, become inseparable friends, the Stanhopes—particularly Anne, Brian's wife—keep the Gleesons at a distance. Anne isn't interested in building a relationship with her neighbors, and she is definitely against the idea of Peter and Kate becoming closer as they grow into their teenage years.

One night, an explosive situation rocks both families and changes everything, inflicting irrevocable damage. Kate and Peter both are forced to make choices they might not have otherwise, and bear more burdens than they should at that age. But regardless of the circumstances, neither is far from the other's mind or heart, despite how much they are encouraged to move on.

Over the course of 30-plus years, the fallout from that one night continues to wreak havoc with many lives. But rather than let it control them forever, it is up to Kate and Peter to do what they can to shed that burden. But that is easier said than done, especially with the memories of those days which keep weighing on them.

"They'd both learned that a memory is a fact that's been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognizable to anyone else who was in that room, anyone else who was standing on the grass beneath that telephone pole."

Ask Again, Yes is a story about love, both romantic and familial. It's a story about resentment, about familial obligation, and whether you should choose your own path or do what's best for everyone else. It's also a story about not letting your past define you, and trying to find strength to rebuild even when all you want to do is curl into a hole.

This book has a lot of emotions running through it, lots of situations that might cause you to think, "What would I do in this situation?" Keane is an excellent storyteller and she has created characters with real flaws, characters you wish you could shake some sense into from time to time.

Perhaps because this book was more character-driven than plot-driven, it moved very slowly for me. I didn't want to stop reading it, but I kept hoping that it would grab me completely. I will admit I did get a bit emotional toward the end so it did resonate for me, but it just didn't quite blow me away as much as it has others. But given the feedback I've seen, you may want to give this one a try!!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Saturday Night Ghost Club" by Craig Davidson

There's a tremendous sense of nostalgia that pervades every page of Craig Davidson's The Saturday Night Ghost Club. Not only does the book take place in the 1980s, but the storytelling seems to hearken back to a simpler time, when we were far less aware of the horrors that could take place in our very own communities, horrors which didn't involve monsters or ghosts or creatures from another dimension.

"Looking back, I am struck by how precious little it takes to convince an unwilling outsider and the new kid in town to agree to any plan, even one that involved following a gangly middle-aged man into haunted territories."

Jake Baker grew up in Niagara Falls in the 1980s. The town, which came alive in the summer thanks to tourism but was fairly deserted in the winter, was one of those places where not much happened, where people had to live to pursue a better life, and everything—and nearly everyone—had seen better days. A loner who was often bullied by his peers, Jake spent a lot of time with his uncle Calvin, a kind but somewhat goofy and eccentric man who owned a shop in town specializing in the occult and the mysteries of the beyond.

It was Uncle Calvin who helped Jake wrangle the monsters hiding in his closet, let him watch scary movies (at least until his parents found out), educated him on the existence of ghosts and other shadowy creatures, and taught him that there were mysteries in this world that didn't have easy answers. The summer Jake was 12 years old, he became friends with Billy, the new boy in town, and Dove, his erratic, mesmerizing older sister, and Calvin welcomed all of them into "The Saturday Night Ghost Club," a group determined to look into some of the more mysterious stories of their town.

But the more they start looking into these mysteries, the more Jake becomes confused by Calvin's behavior and his lengthy disappearances. He learns what it is like to have a friend you can depend on, and he is drawn to Dove and her brave yet uneven mood swings and actions. And then Jake learns that behind many mysteries there are real truths, truths we may not be ready to bear the burden of knowing, yet we must all the same.

"The brain is the seat of memory, and memory is a tricky thing. At base level, memories are stories—and sometimes those stories we tell allow us to carry on. Sometimes stories are the best we can hope for. They help us to simply get by, while deeper levels of our consciousness slip bandages on the wounds that hold the power to wreck us. So we tell ourselves that the people we love closed their eyes and slipped painlessly away from us. That our personal failures are the product of external forces rather than unfixable weaknesses....Tell yourself these stories long enough and you will discover they have a magical way of becoming facts."

Although The Saturday Night Ghost Club delves briefly into matters of the occult, ghost stories, and the like, at its heart, this is a coming-of-age book about a boy who learns perhaps earlier than he needs to about the horrors that both defy explanation but are, at the same time, very real. This is a book about the bonds of friendship, about understanding fellow misfits, and how people who are truly good at heart may have their own battles to fight.

I thought the book started a bit slowly but once it shifted away from the ghost stories and the occult and focused on relationships and the real stories, it grabbed my heart completely. Davidson did a terrific job telling this story and it felt very true to its time and place, yet at the same time when the chapters shifted to look into the future, those felt very real as well.

While the book is compared to Stranger Things and Stand By Me, I would only make that comparison in terms of their stories about friendship. And while reading The Saturday Night Ghost Club, I was reminded of my favorite quote from Stand By Me: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Book Review: "The Bookish Life of Nina Hill" by Abbi Waxman

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or follows me on any of my social media feeds that reading is one of the most immense joys of my life. Whenever I am asked by someone how I read so many books, I explain in part that reading helps me decompress—days when I don't get the chance to read even for a few moments leave me feeling out-of-sorts and much more tense.

Perhaps that love for reading is one of the many reasons I was utterly charmed by Nina Hill, the title character of Abbi Waxman's wonderful, thought-provoking new novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. At times the book—and Nina herself—are almost too quirky for words, but her story captured my heart from the first few sentences, and I don't think it will leave me anytime soon.

"Nina had looked around and realized she would never run out of things to read, and that certainty filled her with peace and satisfaction. It didn't matter what hit the fan; as long as there were unread books in the world, she would be fine. Being surrounded by books was the closest she'd ever gotten to feeling like the member of a gang. The books had her back, and the nonfiction, at least, was ready to fight if necessary."

Nina lives a life that leaves her content. She loves her job in a bookstore, she enjoys competing on her tremendously successful trivia team (even though they keep getting banned from different bars), and she keeps her life meticulously planned, even though she's happy to make any excuse to miss yoga and just read instead. Her life may be reasonably solitary, and she may have trouble at times dealing with anxiety (which has plagued her since she was a child), but even when she wonders if there is more she should want from life, she just picks up another book.

The only child of a single mother who left the nanny to raise her, Nina learns one day that the father she never knew existed (beyond the fact that she wasn't immaculately conceived) knew she existed, and has recently died, leaving her a beneficiary in his will. Beyond that, however, she suddenly finds that she has brothers and sisters of all ages (her father was married three times), not to mention nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and great-nephews (some of whom are actually older than she is). Most of them are thrilled to discover a new relative, and Nina is shocked to find how much she enjoys being part of a family.

Nina is also a little thrown when she realizes she has feelings for Tom, a member of her trivia team's fiercest rival. He's handsome, seems to have a terrific personality, and he knows a lot about sports, which is a subject she's woefully weak on. To top it off, Tom is interested in getting to know her better. But Nina isn't sure she has room in her life for a relationship, what with her job, her new family, and the time she sets aside for reading every day. Plus, the more she realizes how strongly she feels for him, the more afraid she gets, which doesn't feel good at all.

When a crisis arises that threatens the job she loves and frictions in her newfound family intensify, Nina wants to do what she's always done in the face of trouble: retreat into solitude. She isn't sure if she is able to open her life up to Tom the way he wants her to, and she's not even sure she's ready for the myriad challenges that family can bring.

Can we change the habits that bring us comfort and security if it means opening our lives up to someone else? How do we allow ourselves to trust someone else when we've always been independent and self-reliant? And, more importantly, can a voracious reader truly find happiness with someone who barely reads?

There's so much to enjoy about The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. Nina is definitely a unique character who is sometimes difficult to sympathize with, but how can a bookworm like me not love someone like her? This is a story about connection, about opening yourself up to trust and care about others, about family and friendship and finding community, and about a healthy obsession with trivia. But of course, it's also a book about the immense joy of books and reading, and the wonderful feeling of sharing that joy with others.

"It was the same way with everything Nina experienced; fictional characters were as real to her as the people she met and touched every day."

I found this book so wonderful, and even if I was occasionally irritated by the quirkiness of it all, Waxman's humor, her heart, and the beautiful characters she created snapped me back to reality pretty quickly. This definitely goes on my list of memorable books about reading and bookstores, and I know it's one I won't forget anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Book Review: "Evvie Drake Starts Over" by Linda Holmes

If you're looking for a book to charm you completely and worm its way into your heart, you don't have to look any further than Linda Holmes' debut novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over. Boy, did I thoroughly enjoy this one!

It's been nearly a year since her husband died in a car accident, and Evvie (like "Chevy," not "Stevie") Drake has spent most of the time holed up in her house, trying to stay out of the public eye. Her husband was a beloved physician in their small Maine town, and she is rarely in the mood to hear everyone's continued condolences and their encouragement that she seems to be holding up well.

Everyone, including her own father and her best friend, Andy, think she spends her days trying to get her grief under control. She's not interested in correcting them and letting them know the truth.

Andy's childhood best friend, Dean Tenney, was a major league baseball pitcher. He was in a few World Series championships and was well known for his pitching skill. Until one day he couldn't pitch anymore. He wasn't injured, he wasn't exhausted, he wasn't ready to be done with baseball—he just couldn't seem to throw straight no matter how hard he tried. And he tried. Everything. But after a while he got tired of the world second-guessing and ridiculing him, so he just walked away.

When Andy proposes that Dean move into the apartment at the back of Evvie's house, it sounds like a good deal for the both of them. Evvie can pick up some extra money since she hasn't been working much over the last year, and Dean can find a quiet place to reset himself, outside the glare of the media. They settle on the perfect deal: Evvie won't ask him anything about baseball, and Dean won't ask her anything about her marriage or her husband.

"The amount of time people who have just met are supposed to look directly at each other, particularly without talking, is a unit that's both very short and very precise. When you exceed it, you get suspicious, or you get threatened, or you get this flicker of accidental intimacy, like you've peeked at the person naked through a shower door."

As the two start to build a friendship, however, those rules start to go out the window. Evvie tries to understand what is keeping Dean from pitching the way he used to, and tries to determine if he really is satisfied with giving it all up. And for his part, Dean begins to realize all of the secrets and emotions that Evvie has kept bottled up for so long regarding her marriage and her relationship with her late husband.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where their relationship might be headed, and of course, there are complications along the way. How do two people who have gotten so used to keeping their lives so private begin to trust in one another, and how do they help each other without pushing too hard? Can a relationship between two people who are just beginning to truly know themselves really succeed?

"Your head is the house you live in, so you have to do the maintenance."

No matter how predictable some of the plot of Evvie Drake Starts Over is, this book is pretty wonderful. I enjoyed these characters, flaws and all, and I found their backstories just as fascinating as the road that Holmes unfurled for them throughout the book. Both Evvie and Dean have had their share of damage and hard-knocks, and it isn't easy to realize that you can't always fight every battle on your own, nor do you have to fight every single battle.

At times the book moved a little slower than I hoped it would, but I still couldn't tear myself away. This book does deal with some serious issues, but it also has a tremendous amount of humor and hope, not to mention a few pretty steamy sex scenes. I wouldn't mind a return visit to Maine, to Evvie and Dean and Andy and Monica.

This book is the perfect solution for you if you've been reading a bunch of heavier books recently. It will make you chuckle and it may even make you tear up with happy tears, but it will definitely give you someone to root for.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Review: "Breathe In, Cash Out" by Madeleine Henry

Allegra Cobb has spent nearly two years working as an analyst at one of the most well-known banks. Between working an unbelievable amount of hours each week, redoing PowerPoint slide decks and bar charts for her supervisors, and trying not to lose her mind, she dreams of quitting her job to start her own yoga practice—just as soon as her year-end bonus comes in.

She's spent most of her life being an overachiever, driven by a father whose primary mechanism of communication and affection was coaching her to victory. She went to Princeton, excelled at every sport she played, and she even won gold at the American Yoga National Competition. But now she's tired of being treating like a slave by her bosses, working until 4:00 a.m. some days only to be right back at her desk before 9:00 a.m., and she's ready for it all to be over.

All she needs to do is be patient and wait for the year to come to an end. It appears, however, that won't be easy. She's just slept with a hot man from her yoga class—who is now her new boss on a major deal. She's also just met Skylar, one of her yoga idols, and she's taken a real interest in Allegra. The thing is, however, Skylar wants to help her begin to focus more on herself, become more centered and intentional about her goals and her yoga practice. That doesn't seem to reconcile itself with the hellish pace at which Allegra spends her workweek.

As Allegra tries to balance her daily responsibilities with following Skylar's advice, she finds she's successful at neither. And the results are spectacular—spectacularly bad, that is. If things keep up the way they're going, she might get fired before she gets her bonus, which, of course, will leave her nowhere. She's alienating her closest coworker and burning the candle at both ends is also taking its toll on her physically. What do you do if you fall asleep when you attempt meditation?

The closer Allegra gets to bonus day, the more confused she becomes about what path she should take. Should she follow Skylar or set her own path? Is she crazy to abandon a promising—if destructive—career in finance to pursue her dreams? And perhaps more importantly, what is her father going to say when she tells him she's quitting? It's enough to make even the most centered person feel completely off-kilter.

Breathe In, Cash Out is a humorous look at the cutthroat world of finance and the first-world problems of young people making six-figure salaries right out of college yet feel they are overworked and underappreciated. (Wow, I might have totally sounded like a grumpy old man just then.) It's also a fascinating look at how easy it can be to self-destruct when you're not 100 percent focused, and how sometimes it just takes one person's belief in you and your dreams to help you pull yourself together—however briefly.

Madeleine Henry worked for Goldman Sachs and then started her own yoga practice, so she definitely knows of what she writes. She has a breezy, funny writing style, and even though I didn't understand a lot of the terms her characters used when talking about the finance world, I found myself fully immersed in this story. The plot is a little bit predictable but Henry still created enough uncertainty in exactly how far Allegra might fall, or whether she'd decide to pursue her dream in the first place.

Things did get a little repetitive toward the middle, and there are times when I almost wanted to read the book with my hands over my eyes because I was waiting for everything to simply explode, but this was a tremendously fast and fun read. The marketing for the book compares it to The Devil Wears Prada, and while there may be a few similarities, this is an enjoyable book on its own.

Trust me: you'll see Breathe In, Cash Out in a lot of people's hands this summer and fall. I am just trying to think about who could play Allegra in the movie version.

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

This book publishes July 9, 2019.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book Review: "The Printed Letter Bookshop" by Katherine Reay

" often isn't the events that haunt us, though those hold power and can harm us, it is the choices we make within those events we carry all our days."

Madeline Cullen's aunt Maddie was the owner of the Printed Letter Bookshop in Winsome, a small town outside of Chicago. One of Madeline's fondest memories was spending a few weeks working with her aunt and uncle in the quaint, beloved store, until a family incident caused a seemingly irreversible rift.

Almost 20 years later, Madeline is shocked to learn that her aunt left her the store, her house, and all of her possessions. Even more of a surprise, however, is that the store is in serious debt—while her aunt was fantastic to her customers, she wasn't much of a businesswoman. When Madeline leaves her prestigious law firm, she makes the decision to try and get the store back on a more solid financial footing to make it more attractive for purchase.

"That's what books do, Maddie used to say; they are a conversation, and introduce us to ourselves and to others."

Madeline isn't counting on the fierce loyalty of the store's two employees, Janet and Claire. Both are dealing with issues of their own, not to mention their grief over losing their friend, and they aren't eager to see Maddie's legacy sold to the highest bidder. For her part, Madeline is surprised by how much she comes to love the store, and even as it continues to struggle financially, she starts to hope for a miracle to turn things around.

The more time Madeline spends in the bookstore, the more she realizes that her assumptions about her aunt were drastically incorrect. She's more determined than ever to try and make things work, but setback after setback make that possibility even less of a reality. But where does she belong? What path should she follow for the rest of her life? And what would the end of the bookshop mean for Janet and Claire?

I love books about bookstores almost as much as I love bookstores themselves. Katherine Reay's The Printed Letter Bookshop is a terrific new addition to that genre. But in addition to the story about the special relationship between bookseller and customer, and how bookstores often are the heart of communities, this is a book about second chances and the choices we make based on misconceptions.

Beyond that, this is a book about friendship, love, and hope. The plot is a little predictable, but I was charmed from the start, and I couldn't put this down. I really enjoyed the characters Reay created, and how she wasn't afraid to give each flaws which made them more realistic and more interesting.

Thanks (I guess) to a case of insomnia, I read this in just a few hours. I went to sleep with a smile on my face, wishing there was a place like The Printed Letter Bookshop in my town. But at least I got to read about it.

NetGalley and Thomas Nelson Fiction provided me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Book Review: "Summer Hours" by Amy Mason Doan

"Whatever we'd been swimming away from, whatever we sensed lurking inside that gold nylon graduation cap above us, maybe we'd been right to fear it. We say we'll never be like them, but it happens. It happens gradually. We give in a little here, put off the hard decision there, say we're paying our dues. We forget to swim against the current."

It was the three of them—Becc, Eric, and Serra—against the world in high school. Becc and Eric always had an unspoken connection but his emotional issues caused him to keep her at arm's length, and when they went away to college, he barely kept in touch with her for reasons she couldn't understand.

A scholarship student at Berkeley, Becc always did what was expected of her—she took the right classes, got good grades, did the right things. In an effort to prove she's not the perfect girl everyone thinks she is, she pursues an affair with Cal, an older man with a connection to her life before college. While at first the relationship and the need to keep it a secret excites her, after a while she just wants to be a regular college student.

When Becc's secret is revealed, it destroys her friendship with Eric and any chance the two might have for happiness. It puts her scholarship at risk, and it also has the potential to hurt her pursuit of a journalism career, something she has spent years trying to pursue.

Ten years later, Becc is driving to Oregon through California for Serra's wedding. She is not alone, although her passenger is someone from whom she has been estranged for years, although he agrees to help Becc assemble a special wedding present for Serra. Along the way, they reopen old wounds and try to find explanations for their behavior and actions years ago. But some hurts, some decisions, require more than simple excuses and could haunt them forever.

Summer Hours is told in alternating chapters between the mid-1990s and 2008, tracing the genesis of Becc's decisions and her relationships, and then examining the aftermath of those decisions years later. Amy Mason Doan does a terrific job painting a portrait of how the lines of friendship can be stretched into romance, and where the pain points lie. It's also a look at the way a young woman's confidence can be shaped by her relationships, until she realizes she has more control than anyone.

Doan did a great job creating fully fleshed, complex characters—not just Becc, but Eric and Cal as well. I also was really taken by her use of imagery—I could see the beauty of Catalina and the California coast as she described them. I really enjoyed this book and love the way that Doan writes. This is the first book of hers I read and it definitely won't be the last.

As you might imagine, Summer Hours is a great summer read, although you can read it anytime. You'll want to experience Doan's writing and this terrific, well-thought-out story which will make you feel and make you think, and then you'll want to share it with your friends.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Book Review: "This is Home" by Lisa Duffy

This was a terrific book!

Sixteen-year-old Libby Winters is surrounded by family. She has lived with her father, Bent, in the middle-level apartment of a triple-decker house, since her mother died. Because Bent is a policeman and often works nights, his two sisters, Lucy and Desiree, are tasked with watching over her, which generally means smothering her or encouraging her rebellion, depending upon which aunt is in charge.

For her part, Libby is tired of everyone giving her advice or worrying about her, and she longs for the opportunity to be her own person.

When Quinn moves in to the apartment downstairs, Libby immediately chafes at the idea of another person crowding her. But when she realizes that Quinn has issues of her own to deal with, the two begin to depend on one another—although their lives are vastly different, both are weighed down by the pressures of life and disappointed by those around them.

Quinn's husband John, who deployed to Iraq shortly after they got married, returns home after two tours, the man her husband has become isn't someone she recognizes. He suffers from PTSD, which he refuses to acknowledge, choosing instead to self-medicate with copious amounts of alcohol.

When John disappears after revealing his plans to return to Iraq, John sends Bent, his former platoon leader, to bring her to his home. At first, Quinn doesn't want someone else to do her husband's bidding, but she begins to rely on Bent more and more as events in her life become more uncertain.

"It occurred to her that over the years, she'd accumulated things to show her existence: a birth certificate, a marriage license, a college degree...but she'd never really thought about herself outside of these narrow margins—who was she after all? Especially now, with the hours stretching in front of her and nowhere to be?"

As Libby deals with problems which challenge a long-time friendship, and tries to figure out the revival of an old attraction, Quinn must figure out what she wants from John, for her future, and from others that seem to occupy her mind and her heart.

Lisa Duffy's This is Home is a beautiful, emotional story about family, friendship, parenthood, and the struggles and challenges love can cause. Duffy does a great job capturing how PTSD affects not only the individual suffering from it, but those around them, and the ripple effects it can cause.

There is a lot going on here, and not every storyline gets resolved neatly, if at all. But Duffy has created such memorable, complex characters, and no one is without flaws or struggles. It will be a while before I can get them out of my mind.

This is Home is a book that has gotten a lot of hype, and it's great to see just how worthy it is of this praise. Read it!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Book Review: "Lot" by Bryan Washington

"It didn't take long to see that there's the world you live in, and then there are the constellations around it, and you'll never know you're missing them if you don't even know to look up."

Lot, Bryan Washington's new story collection, is raw, potent, and packs a powerful, emotional punch.

Taking place in Houston before and after Hurricane Harvey, many of the stories focus on one young man, the son of an erstwhile Latino father and a black mother, as he grows into adulthood, confronts the prejudice and the social and economic realities of the community he lives in, this community of immigrants.

At the same time, he comes to terms with his sexuality, although he never views his encounters with other boys and men as anything more than physical.

There are stories exploring the complicated relationships in broken families, the expectations of masculinity, the treatment of women as often little more than sexual objects and maids, and the menial and dangerous jobs boys and men living in these neighborhoods turn to. Washington's stories explore what makes a community, what makes a family, what makes a life.

Washington's stories aren't quite happy. Even those that appear to have a more positive spin have a tinge of sadness or elements of disaster or trouble just around the corner. But many of the stories work despite their tone because of Washington's tremendous writing ability—his use of language, his talent with imagery which conjures images of setting and character in your head.

While I didn't love all of the stories, some really stuck with me, including: "Alief," in which a community reveals a neighbor's affair to her husband but is unprepared for the destruction that might cause; "610 North, 610 West," where a son is brought face-to-face with his father's infidelity; "Shepherd," which tells of how the visit of a cousin from Jamaica causes chaos among family members; "South Congress," about an interesting relationship between a local drug dealer and a teenager who barely speaks English; and my favorite story, "Waugh," about a group of young hustlers.

I'm a big fan of short stories, although I've not read many collections this year. I was definitely struck by the power and poignancy of Washington's voice, and I think Lot hints at the amazing career ahead of him.