Monday, September 30, 2019

Book Review: "Pretty Guilty Women" by Gina Lamanna

A little soapy, a little melodramatic, and tremendously thought-provoking, Gina Lamanna's Pretty Guilty Women feels like a non-Australian version of Big Little Lies.

Everyone has gathered at an exclusive resort and spa for the wedding of Whitney and Arthur. Whitney has invited her three best friends from college—Ginger, Emily, and Kate—even though they've not spoken much in all the years that have passed. (Especially Ginger and Emily, who still harbor a serious grudge from those carefree days of their youth.)

Emily is a barely functioning alcoholic, although she drinks to blot out the painful memories of events she wishes she could have prevented. When she meets a handsome man on the plane ride to the wedding she thinks there may be a chance that the week won't be all bad, but her eyes are opened pretty quickly.

Ginger married her college boyfriend and they have three children. The idyllic family life she dreamed of isn't quite the reality she has, and she finds herself barely hanging on at times. But she's determined that the wedding will be a chance for her to show off her family, even as they're all causing her to lose her sanity, especially her teenage daughter who seems to be maturing faster than Ginger can handle.

Kate is a successful lawyer, but all the money in the world can't buy the baby she wants more than anything. She and her handsome boyfriend are a beautiful couple on the outside, but multiple attempts to conceive have frayed their relationship to its core.

In separate encounters, the three women meet Lulu, a woman of nearly 70 years old who has been married five times, but who realizes her fifth husband may very well be the love of her life. But he seems to be hiding something, and she hopes it isn't that he's ready to end their marriage.

One night, a man is found dead. Who is he, and why did Emily, Ginger, Kate, and Lulu all admit that they're the one who killed him, and that they acted alone? Who are they trying to protect, and why?

Pretty Guilty Women juxtaposes the police interrogation of the four women and other bystanders at the resort with profiles of each of their lives and the challenges they face, and then the narrative starts to move toward the murder. There are lots of twists and turns, lots of events which lead to even more questions. While I didn't find the actual victim particularly surprising, the mysteries kept on coming.

I didn't love this quite as much as I hoped I would, as I usually enjoy books like these. I found the multiple narrative threads exhausting to follow after a while, and it took some time before things really came to a head. The book did touch on some very serious issues and raise some interesting questions, though, and Lamanna created some fascinating, flawed characters.

If it were still beach season, this might be the perfect beach book!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Book Review: "Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption" edited by Daniel Jones

Boy, did this book hit the spot so perfectly!!

"Because real love, once blossomed, never disappears. It may get lost with a piece of paper, or transform into art, books, or children, or trigger another couple’s union while failing to cement your own. But it’s always there, lying in wait for a ray of sun, pushing through thawing soil, insisting upon its rightful existence in our hearts and on earth."

A column that has appeared in the New York Times since 2004, "Modern Love" is an exploration of love in its many forms—romantic, familial, filial, platonic—and the way it is manifested both positively and negatively.

This book is a collection of those columns. Some hit more common themes—rebuilding after a relationship or marriage ends, the excitement and despair of dating, dealing with parental disapproval, getting a second chance at love.

Others are more unusual—the woman bringing her husband (soon to become her wife) to the first stage of gender reassignment surgery, the woman writing an "ad" of sorts to find her husband a new love after her impending death, the fears of a mother of a teenage boy with autism as he begins seeing girls in a romantic and sexual way.

The columns differ in length, style, tone, and topic, yet there is beautiful emotion in each one. Some made me smile, some made me cry, and some made me wonder just where these writers who shared such a moment of their lives are now. Some are written by well-known people (there's a column by Andrew Rannells he published in his own memoir earlier this year) and some are written by "everyday" people.

I devoured this book in a matter of hours, as it read like fiction. This truly was a special gem I’m so excited I stumbled upon. Perfect for those who love love, or the saps among us.

Book Review: "Wayward Son" by Rainbow Rowell

That feeling when you’ve been anticipating a book for over a year and it’s, well, lackluster...

Some background: a few years ago Rainbow Rowell wrote an amazing book called Fangirl. One of the main characters in that book wrote fan fiction about a Harry Potter-esque character named Simon Snow and his nemesis/crush Baz (think Draco Malfoy).

Rowell then wrote Carry On, which followed Simon and Baz, Simon’s best friend Penny, and their battles to save the magickal world.

This book is the sequel. It chronicles what happened after the events in Carry On, what it’s like to be the Chosen One when what it seems like you were chosen to do is all but done, and how to move on.

Simon and Baz are in love with each other but they’re reluctant to fully express it. And Simon has been so depressed and unable to do magick that it’s taking a toll on all of them. So Penny decides they need a road trip to America and they’ll go see an old friend, Agatha (Simon's ex-girlfriend of sorts), who’s in San Diego.

What they get is far much more than they bargained for. Their magick, their relationships, their lives will be tested by circumstances they would never have expected, as they try to rescue their friend and each other.

I love these characters. Simon and Baz make my heart melt and there were so many tender moments I loved between them. But those moments were fleeting, and their relationship is in such stress, that it was hard to enjoy the highs as much as I wanted to.

This book is narrated by five or six people, which also irritated me, because I didn’t feel enough of a distinction between their storytelling. And the whole storyline with Agatha really didn’t catch my interest until the end.

I’m disappointed but of course I've hyped this book up for a year, so it's partially my fault. This clearly has been written to set up a third book, which of course I’ll still read, because I love the way Rowell writes and I can’t get enough of Simon and Baz. Others have felt differently so if you’re a fan of the series give it a go and let me know what you think.

Book Review: "The Second Chance Supper Club" by Nicole Meier

Nicole Meier's new book is a story about reconnecting (with family and yourself), finding your path to happiness, and food. (Perhaps not necessarily in that order, lol!)

Julia is the host of a national morning show. She’s at the pinnacle of a career she’s fought so hard for, yet every day she’s pressured to be better, pick up more viewers, do something different. When that pressure becomes too much to bear, she takes a risk that winds up exploding in her face.

Licking her wounds she leaves NYC and her fiancé and heads home to Arizona and the comfort of her older sister, Ginny, despite the fact they haven’t spoken in years and Julia hasn’t visited at all since their parents died.

"This wasn't going to be easy, to face her present demons in the shadow of her past."

Ginny is struggling, too. Once a successful chef in NYC who left the culinary world to deal with her parents’ death, she also sacrificed her relationship with her partner and the father of her daughter, who refused to leave New York. She now operates a secret supper club from her house. It’s her passion but it barely breaks even, and it’s the cause of never-ending friction between Ginny and her daughter, Olive, who hates the pressure her mother puts on her.

Needless to say, Julia’s arrival reopens old wounds and brings secrets to light. But her presence also forces all three women to come to terms with their own struggles and desires.

It’s the mark of a great writer when they can hook you on a story for which you can pretty much predict the outcome. Meier does a terrific job immersing you in the story, creating characters you root for despite their flaws, and whetting your appetite at the same time. This was a quick read but a heart-warming one.

I’m a sucker for stories about family dynamics. Throw food in the mix and I’m so there!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Book Review: "The Infinite Noise" by Lauren Shippen

Sixteen-year-old Caleb Michaels is handsome, popular, and athletic, running back on his high school football team. But lately he's been struggling emotionally and he can't figure out why. It's almost as if he is drowning in so many emotions all at once and he doesn't know where they're coming from, but he's finding it harder and harder to take.

When an encounter with a classmate turns violent and he doesn't even remember the situation escalating, Caleb begins counseling. Through therapy he discovers there's a reason for his mood swings—Caleb is an Atypical, a person with enhanced abilities, and his ability is extreme empathy, meaning he feels the emotions of everyone else around him. While that is a difficult enough challenge for anyone, being an empath in high school is harder than anything, because what more is high school than a hotbed of emotions?

As he tries to navigate through the challenges posed by this newly discovered ability, Caleb keeps noticing that he's being consumed more and more by the emotions of one classmate in particular, Adam. Adam is smart, sensitive, a loner, who tries to keep to himself to avoid being bullied, yet he doesn't quite understand that doing so keeps him isolated from those who might be his friend. Even though Adam thinks Caleb would never want to be his friend, he does recognize elements of a kindred spirit that he hopes could someday blossom into something special.

In an effort to understand why Adam's emotions in particular affect him so, Caleb's therapist encourages him to become Adam's friend. This opens up both boys to more vulnerability than they're prepared for, and they realize that they have more in common than they could imagine. But at the same time, it also illustrates to Caleb that there's a danger in feeling too much, especially when you're in high school, where to survive, emotions need to be hidden more than anything else.

Lauren Shippen's debut novel, The Infinite Noise, is based on her popular podcast series, "The Bright Sessions." I'd never heard of that before but apparently Caleb and Adam's characters appear in that, although I didn't feel like I was missing anything when I read this. I loved the concept behind this book very much and found it tremendously creative.

I've said a number of times that I tend to be drawn to books that make me feel, so certainly a book about an empath would fit the bill! There was so much I enjoyed about the book, and I thought Shippen captured the emotional quagmire that is high school so perfectly. Her characters weren't too erudite or witty to be believed and their relationships felt natural.

The one challenge in reading a book in which so much emotion is expressed is that at times the pacing dragged a bit, because you tended to see the same things happen again and again. There were only so many times I wanted to see bullying and the characters being cruel and Caleb struggling with how to react. But other than that, and despite the somewhat-fantastical nature of this book, much of it felt truly genuine, particularly the interactions between Caleb and Adam.

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

This book will publish September 24, 2019.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Book Review: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

What a terrific graphic novel!!

Deja and Josiah are best friends—at least from September 1 through Halloween, and at least while they’re working together at the pumpkin patch. (They don't see each other at all except during that period of time.) Tonight is the last night they’ll work together since both will head off to college next fall.

Josiah can’t imagine a world without the pumpkin patch. Deja doesn’t quite feel THAT strongly, but she’ll miss Josiah, and all the activity, and all of the great food. (Maybe especially the food?)

But tonight, Deja has a plan. It’s not going to be just a typical night. She’s gotten them a shift at a different post rather than the Succotash Hut, where they’ve worked the last three years. She’s determined that Josiah is finally going to talk to the girl in the fudge shop that he’s been mooning over for years. And she’s going to get all of her favorite foods.

Sounds perfect, right?

Of course, nothing quite goes as planned. Along the way they’ll run into a candy-apple-stealing punk, flee an escaped animal, say goodbye to old friends, explore what brought them together as friends, and come to some interesting realizations of their own.

This was so much fun, so charming, and had such a terrifically warm story, and the illustrations really made it feel like fall! Sometimes graphic novels are spare in their narration but this one really worked for me.

I'm a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell's (her new novel comes out 9/24 so I am super excited about that, too) and Pumpkinheads had so many of her trademarks, including a story that had so much heart. I read the book in one sitting and was sad that I was finished.

This is perfect for Halloween lovers and saps like me who love stories of friendship. But you probably shouldn't read this one on an empty stomach!

Book Review: "Bluebird, Bluebird" by Attica Locke

Brooding, atmospheric, and thought-provoking, this was a great read that totally sucked me in.

Darren is a Texas Ranger, a job over which he is constantly conflicted given that he is black and his home state isn’t known for their indulgence of racial minorities. He's kept at arm's length at work as well—trotted out when it's good for public relations but kept out of some sensitive circumstances.

When Darren responds to a call for help from a family friend, it gets him into trouble professionally, since he acted as a Ranger in a personal situation, and personally, since his continued work as a Ranger angers his wife.

A friend in the FBI suggests he head out of town and let the dust settle, and instead look into two murders that have recently rocked the small town of Lark. Both a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman have been pulled from the bayou waters a few days apart, and while some believe the murders are related to people getting involved with those they shouldn’t, the issues that are at play in Lark run much deeper than that.

In trying to figure out who and what was behind the murders, Darren unwittingly stirs up a hornet’s nest of old resentments, racial tensions, love affairs, the blending of bloodlines, and the need to keep secrets. But he also discovers that some of what is driving things forward in Lark hit closer to home than Darren wants to admit. He has to explore his own desire to keep working as a Ranger and decide whether he is willing to give his all to his marriage, given that his wife would rather him return to law school.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a great read. Attica Locke ratchets up the tension and introduces so many possibilities you don’t know what to think. Her characters all have some flaws and don’t pretend otherwise but they’re fascinating to read about. This is a book about love, family, race, loyalty, jealousy, and so much more.

At times the pacing was a little slower than I’d like but I still couldn’t get enough of this. Locke just released a second book featuring Darren, so I’m excited about that, too.

Book Review: "The Flatshare" by Beth O'Leary

This book was just sweet and fun and it made me happy!

Tiffy is in need of a place to live, since she’s lived in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment for far too long, even after he’d begun dating someone else. But since she’s in a low-paying job, there aren’t a lot of options, so a flatshare opportunity makes the most sense.

Leon is a hospice nurse who works nights, and she works days, so they’ll literally never see each other, which is what convinces her to take this opportunity, even if it means sleeping in Leon’s bed (although never with him). Leon's no-nonsense girlfriend Kay handles the transaction, thus ensuring Tiffy and Leon don't even meet. And since Leon will be spending weekends with Kay, there's no reason for any interaction.

The two interact via post-it notes and memos, which grow from basic requests to much more personal conversations. And as each deals with their own crises—Tiffy’s ex can’t seem to let go and is becoming increasingly more possessive, and Leon’s brother is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—amazingly, they are each other’s greatest support, despite having never met each other.

When a missed alarm clock leads to their meet-cute (and meet-wet), they begin to fall for each other. Tiffy brings a free-spiritedness to Leon’s methodical ways, and Leon helps stabilize Tiffy, especially as she begins to realize how much harm her former boyfriend was causing her.

Can love flourish when two people spend more time apart than together, and when they’re so different from one another? When you’ve been hurt before, can you let someone else in and let down your guard?

I really enjoyed this book. Sure, it was predictable, but it was just so (to use a British colloquialism) lovely. At first I was a little off-put at Leon’s way of speaking when he narrated, but ultimately it fit perfectly with his personality.

The Flatshare explored some important issues plus it charmed me completely. It was more than a typical rom-com but yet it never aspired to be anything lofty, just a good story. Can you ask for anything more?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Book Review: "The Rest of the Story" by Sarah Dessen

I've been a huge YA reader for some time now, and as I have selected books through the years, I've seen Sarah Dessen's name pop up. For some reason I had never read any of her books, although she certainly had been named as an author worth reading. So when her newest book, The Rest of the Story, was released, I figured it was time I remedied my unfamiliarity with Dessen's work.

WTF have I been waiting for? All I know is, if her other books are as good as this one, I am seriously going to have to devour her backlist, stat. It's been a while since a nearly 450-page book left me wanting more when I was finished, wishing it was longer so I could spend more time with the characters and know what happened to them after the story ended. But all of this happened with this book.

"There were lots of ways to love someone, I guessed, both by remembering and forgetting."

Emma Saylor's mother was at times both larger than life and withdrawn. She died five years ago, when Emma was 12, but her parents were divorced much earlier than that, and she lived with her father and grandmother.

While there are many things about her mother that Emma has forgotten, she always remembered the stories her mother used to tell her about the lake community where she grew up and met Emma's father. But while it was one big lake, it was like two separate worlds—her mother grew up in working-class North Lake, while her father worked at the yacht club on the prestigious Lake North side.

When Emma goes to stay with her mother's family for a few weeks one summer, it is the first time she has been back to the lake since she was four or five years old. Her large family—maternal grandmother, aunt, cousins—have never forgotten her, but Emma has little memory of any of it. Yet the more time she spends there, the more she feels like she belongs, the more she learns about her mother's life, her parents' relationship, and the stories that she has never heard.

"The past was always present, in its way, and you can't help but remember. Even if you can't remember at all."

While she was born with two names at birth, Emma Saylor, her mother used to call her Saylor, but it's a name she stopped using years ago. But she realizes that Saylor is just as much a part of her, and since that's the name her new-found family calls her, she feels a connection to her past that she hadn't before. And that bridge between the past and the present is embodied in the relationships she builds with her cousins, and the friendship she rekindles with Roo, the boy who was her very best friend when they were little, and whose spell she can't seem to resist now.

It's hard to be caught between two different worlds, especially when there is so much history that transpired which left those you cared about full of hurt and sadness. Yet Emma is determined to have the life her father wants to give her, while at the same time, she doesn't want to lose her connections to her past, or the people who were such a special part of it. But that won't be easy, and others may get hurt in the process.

I literally was hooked on this book from the very first sentence. Even though there were a few instances in which the foreshadowing was a little too obvious and you knew eventually what would transpire in certain situations, Dessen captured me completely with this story and these characters. Having lost my birth mother at a very young age, I identified with some of the characters a great deal, and it made the story even more poignant and emotional.

I love the way Dessen writes. Her characters aren't too witty and sophisticated that they seem like caricatures or transplants from a John Green novel. And while there might not be a lot of surprises, I just felt right at home in the middle of the story. And as far as I'm concerned, you can't ask for more than that.

So, Dessen fans, which one of her books should I read next?

Book Review: "Frankly in Love" by David Yoon

Frankly in Love is a fascinating look at love, friendship, cultural identity, parent-child relationships, and prejudice. I had been waiting for this book to come out for a while, and David Yoon certainly didn't disappoint me!

Frank Li is smart and funny, a first-generation American who tries hard to be a good son and a good friend. His parents want him to study hard and especially meet a nice Korean girl, so he doesn’t get disowned like his older sister.

Of course, life doesn’t happen the way we plan, and when Frank falls for his classmate, Brit, he wishes he could just be with her and not have to deal with his parents’ prejudice. Instead, he and Joy, the daughter of his parents’ friends, who is dating a Chinese student, concoct a scheme to help them both. They pretend to date in order to have the freedom to spend time with their real dates. But of course, they don't clue either their boyfriend or girlfriend into the scheme, or why it's even necessary.

When his life takes an unexpected turn, Frank must decide what’s most important in life—doing what’s right or doing what makes him happy—and if he can reconcile the two. He also must come to terms with his parents’ view of the world, and how it shapes his own identity. This is really thought-provoking, as it examines how everyone has some level of prejudice, and how it often comes from fear of losing one’s own cultural identity.

Yoon is a terrific writer. This book is funny and emotional, and even difficult to read at times, because you just wish Frank could say what he needs to to those who need to hear it, instead of causing problems by avoiding difficult subjects. Like many YA books, the characters are far more witty and erudite than real teenagers—but these are the smart students, so maybe this is the way these kids talk nowadays? (He asks as he tells those rotten kids to get off his lawn.)

David Yoon and his wife, Nicola Yoon, the amazing author of The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, are quite the YA power couple. You must read both of their books!!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: "Her Secret Son" by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Suspenseful and poignant, this is a powerful look at what makes a family—genetics or love.

Josh and Grace have been together for a number of years now. They’re deeply in love and Josh couldn’t love Grace’s seven-year-old son, Logan, any more if he were Josh’s biological child.

When Grace dies in an accident, Josh’s life is turned upside down. Not only is he overcome with grief, but he needs to help Logan come to terms with his mother’s death. Given all the turmoil in both of their lives, it seems like the perfect time for Josh to formally become Logan’s legal guardian. He and Grace had discussed it but something always seemed to get in the way. But as Josh searches for information on Logan’s birth, he is overwhelmed at what he uncovers about Grace, not to mention Logan.

How can this be the woman he loved? He starts realizing that there were real reasons Grace never wanted to formalize his guardianship of Logan. But why? What kept her from revealing the truth to him?

"If Dad had been there, he'd have talked in clichés, said I was completely off my rocker and I should let sleeping dogs lie. Trouble was, over the years I'd found when those sleeping dogs eventually woke up, they'd grown into oversize, snarling beasts that bit me in the ass. The only way to tame them was to get in control, and that would happen only if I had more of the missing pieces to Grace and Logan's puzzle."

Even though his life is rocked, he’ll do everything in his power to fight for Logan. He’ll stop at nothing—no matter what that means.

There were lots of twists and turns in this book which kept me guessing. I didn’t love all of the decisions that Josh made, and there were one or two surprises that blindsided me. But at its core I couldn’t get enough of this story of love, emotion, grief, and the bond between father and son.

Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours, Hannah McKinnon, and MIRA for providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Pick this up!!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book Review: "After the Flood" by Kassandra Montag

"When I think of those days, of losing the people I've loved, I think of how my loneliness deepened, like being lowered into a well, water rising around me as I clawed at the stone walls, reaching for sunlight. How you get used to being at the bottom of a well. How you wouldn't recognize a rope if it was thrown down to you."

This book was utterly amazing. Beautifully written, bleak, tremendously poignant, and full of lyrical imagery and memorable characters, it is hard to believe that After the Flood is Kassandra Montag's debut novel. But the more you read, the more you become fully immersed in this story you realize that debut novel or not, this is one of those books you'll think about and talk about for years to come.

Just over a century from now, our world has been taken over by massive flooding which obliterated much of the landscape, leaving only mountains and random pieces of land scattered through our world, with whole cities left underwater. Myra and her young daughter Pearl live off their small boat, fishing and salvaging to make ends meet, finding people to trade with in the few outposts that are left. It's a bleak existence and Myra always exercises an abundance of caution, because the floods left many lawless people in their wake.

For seven years, Myra has mourned her older daughter, Row, every single day. Row was taken from Myra by her husband just before a massive flood hit their home in Nebraska. Myra had wanted to wait until her grandfather finished building the boat they would use to keep them safe; Myra's husband was afraid and impatient, so he took Row and never came back. Myra knows the chances that Row is still alive are very slim, and she should just focus all of her energy on keeping Pearl safe and happy, but she can't stop dreaming of the moment when she might have both of her girls together for the first time.

"The world will break you, but it's when you break yourself that you feel you really can't heal."

When Myra hears that Row (or at least someone resembling her) was spotted recently at a settlement near Greenland, she is desperate to risk everything to bring about a potential reunion with her daughter. She connects with Daniel, a troubled yet kind man with secrets and regrets of his own, and then they have to find another ship on which to make the perilous journey. When they meet Abran and his crew, she knows she has to hide her real reasons for wanting to travel so far, but she has no choice but to deceive them in order to rescue her daughter.

But there is no guarantee the ship will make it all the way there, because along the way they must battle the elements, bands of raiders bent on revenge for earlier slights, and the uncertainty of whom among them should be trusted. What will they find when they arrive at this colony? Will there be disease, killers, a lack of resources, or, perhaps worst of all, no trace of humanity?

After the Flood certainly is bleak and I kept waiting for things to completely fall apart, yet there certainly is an element of hope in the book as well—hope that Myra will be able to find Row, hope that the ship will make it where it needs to go relatively unscathed, hope that they can perhaps build a new community when they arrive. I honestly couldn't get enough of this story.

This reminded me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in its exquisite telling of how far a parent would go for their children, but Montag's imagery, her language, and her weaving of present and past made the story unique at the same time. The pacing may seem a little slow at times but it worked well for me.

Simply put, this book is worth all the hype it will get. I won't be able to put it out of my mind anytime soon.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Book Review: "The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone" by Felicity McLean

If you're looking for a mysterious, quirky book that may leave you with more questions than answers, Felicity McLean's The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone may be just the ticket for you!

"We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of dome half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn't the one we were trying to recall to begin with."

In the summer of 1992, Tikka Malloy and her older sister, Laura, were living in a suburban Australian town. Tikka was 11-1/6 years old, and she and Laura spent most of their time with their best friends, Ruth, Hannah, and Cordelia Van Apfel. At the time, the country was obsessed with the Lindy Chamberlain case (she of the "dingo took my baby"), but that summer, something major happened to Tikka and Laura: one night during a school concert, all three Van Apfel sisters disappeared.

Despite an exhaustive search, no sign of the girls was ever found. Did their odd, strict, evangelical parents have something to do with their disappearance? Did they run away? Was a stranger responsible? The town, and the Malloy sisters, are left with no answers, a fact that haunts them all these years later.

When 20 years later Tikka returns to Australia to see her sister, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, of course their memories turn to the Van Apfel girls' disappearance. And it is only with years of perspective on the mystery that Tikka and Laura begin to make sense of some events which occurred before the girls went missing, and they can finally start to process clues they might not have understood when they were younger.

This is a fascinating, well-told book which switches back and forth between 1992 as the girls' disappearance unfolds, and 2012, as Tikka tries to come to terms with the events of that summer. McLean creates some truly memorable characters to inhabit this story, and she certainly raises more than a healthy share of questions about what happened to the Van Apfel girls. (Ultimately the reader is left with two potential scenarios.)

What's interesting about this book is the fact that so much is seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Tikka, so you're not quite sure if what is being presented is accurate or simply her perceptions of what occurred. That adds to the mystery and poignancy of the story, as does the feeling of guilt that Tikka and Laura share, for perhaps not divulging all of the things they knew back then.

McLean does such a terrific job with evocative imagery; Australia is, of course, such a fascinating and beautiful place, and McLean certainly helps you to see everything in your mind's eye. She also has created such a unique story, full of answers and questions, and it's one that will stick in my mind for some time to come.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone will make you think and it will fill you with nostalgia for the simpler days of your youth and childhood friendships. But it will also haunt you a bit and make you wonder how you might react if you were faced with the same situation that Tikka and Laura were.

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

Book Review: "Well Met" by Jen DeLuca

Huzzah, Jen DeLuca! Huzzah indeed!!

Emily’s life is kind of at a dead end. Her fiancé ended their engagement, leaving her with nowhere to live, and really no prospects. When her older sister is in an accident, Emily drops everything—not that it's too big a sacrifice—and heads to Willow Creek, a small town in Maryland, to care for her sister and her teenage niece, Caitlin.

Taking care of all of her sister and niece's needs makes Emily feel like she has a purpose again. Since her sister is so much older, they're finally getting the chance to build a relationship. And when Caitlin wants to work at the town’s renaissance faire for the summer, Emily has to accompany her, but she doesn't mind. She gets to play a serving wench at the faire’s tavern and she finds herself enjoying all of it.

All of it except Simon. During the year he's an English teacher, but he also runs the faire, which was his older brother’s legacy. He doesn’t tolerate any suggestions for changes and he certainly isn’t interested in Emily’s ideas or even her jokes. In fact, it seems like he just wants Emily to leave as quickly as possible.

But when the faire officially begins, something inexplicable happens. Why does Simon’s pirate character take such delight in flirting with Emily’s wench? It only seems to happen when they're in character. Is all of this just for show, or is there something else happening here?

As Emily struggles with her feelings for Simon, and tries to figure out her future in Willow Creek, she'll realize that living in a small town and having everyone know her business might not be as bad as she thought. But more than that, she'll discover that sometimes loving somebody means giving them the space to figure out their own problems and solutions, no matter how much you want to help.

I loved this book. Sure, it was predictable, but the fact is, it was fun, charming, romantic, sexy, and emotional, too. DeLuca captured the setting and tone of a renaissance faire so perfectly I felt like I was right there in the woods alongside everyone. Beyond that, reading Well Met made me crave one of those giant turkey legs, too!!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: "You Asked for Perfect" by Laura Silverman

Before I talk about the many reasons I loved this book, can we discuss that Laura Silverman shares her grandmother's matzo ball soup recipe at the end? I cannot wait to make it because matzo ball soup is one of my favorite things IN THE WORLD.

Okay, I'm done.

"When I signed up for classes freshman year, no one told me that straight As, volunteer hours, and time in the arts aren't enough. No one told me I'd have to know every answer to every test and also be a 'unique individual' following my life's calling at seventeen."

Ariel Stone is a senior in high school. He's expected to be the valedictorian of his class—although that's a very hard-fought battle with his friend and rival, Pari—he's first-chair violinist, a volunteer at an animal shelter, a model congregant at his temple (despite looking at his phone when the services drone on a bit), a loving son and brother, and a devoted best friend. He's planning to apply to Harvard and he knows he can't let down his guard one iota senior year or they may reject him.

"I used to get good grades with minimal effort. And I bought into the hype, thought I was awesome. But then the AP classes stacked up. And as the work pressed down on me, I saw through my own bullshit. No one just gets As in all their classes. It's a lie we were telling each other and ourselves."

For some reason, the pressure is starting to get to Ariel and his carefully built plans are starting to crack, little by little. He's studying as hard as he always has, giving everything to all of his classes, yet he's struggling more and more and he doesn't know why. When he fails a calculus quiz, which could jeopardize his chance of being valedictorian (not to mention getting into Harvard), he enlists Amir, a fellow student and family friend, to tutor him.

Ariel discovers that he really doesn't like calculus, but he enjoys spending time with Amir. They are attracted to each other and have real chemistry together, but Ariel can't imagine adding the pressures of a relationship to everything else he's struggling with. However, he wants to be with Amir, so he adds it to his ever-growing list of commitments and obligations. It will all work its way out, right?

You Asked for Perfect is a tremendously accurate depiction of the pressures facing young adults today, pressures that they sometimes put on themselves. At times reading the book made me a little tense because I felt such empathy for Ariel and his friends as they struggled with their challenges. Silverman did such a great job capturing those emotions, the desperate need to be successful in everything, to be a good son and brother and boyfriend and friend on top of it all, that you can't help but lose your grip.

This book moved me. I really cared about these characters and honestly, would love to see what happened to them after the story ended. Silverman imbues this book with so much heart and emotion, and I couldn't get enough of it—I devoured the book in just a few hours. There were so many places where she could have gone for melodrama and she didn't, and that is really the mark of a talented and assured storyteller. I also loved the way that there was so much diversity among the characters yet Silverman didn't make a big deal out of it.

While I wasn't near valedictorian in my high school class and Harvard wasn't an option for me, I still identified with many of the emotions and situations Ariel dealt with. You Asked for Perfect made me think and it made me feel, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Book Review: "Last Summer" by Kerry Lonsdale


Ella Skye is a journalist for Luxe Avenue magazine, a job which allows her to interact with celebrities, politicians, artists, scientists, anyone making news. She's never been above using her sex appeal, her intelligence, and her cunning to get what she wants—even her husband Damien, the handsome, high-profile owner of an internet security firm.

But one night she wakes up in the hospital, dealing with a story even she doesn't want to handle. Apparently she was in a car accident and she miscarried her baby after more than five months of pregnancy. She discovers that not only can't she remember the accident or the events leading up to it, but worse than that, she doesn't even remember being pregnant.

Her selective amnesia is devastating to Ella, and it puts a serious strain on her relationship with Damien. It's almost as if he doesn't believe that she can't remember being pregnant, like somehow she's forgetting on purpose. Months after the accident her memory is no better.

"Our minds can be sneaky. They'll plant false memories when we can't make sense of something and bury others when we can't deal. Your memories are there, but for whatever reason, you can't retrieve them."

When Ella gets the opportunity to pick back up a writing assignment that had been shelved, focusing on Nathan Donovan, the handsome host of a now-canceled wilderness survival program, she jumps at it. Not only will this exclusive help advance her career at the magazine, but when she realizes she has no memories of this man at all despite having spent two weeks with him, she wonders if somehow he is the key to retrieving her lost memories.

Why can't Ella remember being pregnant? Why can't she remember Nathan, despite the fact that she shared with him some of the most intimate details of her life? Is this amnesia really the result of the accident, or did something else occur? Ella finds herself at a crossroads as she tries to figure out whether she and Damien still have a future, and if she can ever recapture her past.

Kerry Lonsdale's Last Summer was really fascinating and it hooked me from start to finish. While some of the plot is fairly predictable, Lonsdale threw some twists in as well, but it is her storytelling that drives this book. I didn't necessarily like any of the characters the more I got to know them, but I absolutely needed to know how (and if) Lonsdale was going to tie everything up.

Sometimes when I read books I can totally see them as movies, and Last Summer is definitely one of those. It's a compelling story you won't be able to get out of your mind—unless you're Ella, that is!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Book Review: "The Plus One" by Sarah Archer

Kelly is a robotics engineer. She's smart and ready to go places with her career, but her interpersonal skills aren't always the strongest. She winds up making a mess out of her encounters with people, even when she doesn't mean to. Even her best friend Priya thinks she's socially awkward, even though she knows Kelly means well.

"It would be so much simpler if everyone could just do what she did and suppress their emotions, stuffing them in the back of the closet, right next to the childhood traumas and the performing-in-your-third-grade-play-naked-and-then-all-your-teeth-fall-out dreams."

The problem is, Kelly's younger sister is getting married, and their mother, a wedding consultant who owns a bridal shop, is in absolute heaven as she plans and controls every aspect of the wedding. This includes ensuring Kelly has a suitable date, which is an issue of concern for her mother, because Kelly's dating history is, well, shaky.

Kelly doesn't quite understand all of the craziness surrounding her finding a wedding date. She isn't all that interested in dating anyway. But when a night of clubbing with Priya ends unsuccessfully (although she met a handsome man who introduced her to his boyfriend) and the latest blind date her mother arranged ends in disaster, Kelly decides to take matters into her own hands—literally.

Using her engineering skills and the myriad different parts in the robotics lab, Kelly builds herself a wedding date. Ethan is incredibly handsome, courteous, caring, and he grows more intelligent with each interaction. He is utterly devoted to Kelly and, strangely, she feels more comfortable around him, too. Ethan charms those around him, including Kelly's mother, and no one suspects that he isn't human.

Even though the plan is to disconnect him after her sister's wedding, Kelly realizes she enjoys being with someone and having someone care about her, even if he isn't real. As her relationship with Ethan starts to interfere with her relationships and her job, she knows she has to follow her original plan. But she doesn't count on her mother's continued pressure, and she's utterly unprepared for how she's falling for Ethan. How can she simply take him apart when she cares about him so much?

I thought this was an absolutely charming, silly, sweet book. So many of us have felt the pressures Kelly did, and although we might not have the intelligence or skills to engineer the same solution she did, I definitely identified with a lot of the emotions she felt. Sure, I had to suspend my disbelief, and I kept expecting everything to blow up, but I really enjoyed the way Sarah Archer laid this story out.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you knew everything was going to go awry and you were worried about what might happen but at the same time you couldn't look away? That's exactly how I felt reading The Plus One. It almost felt like I was reading with my hands half over my eyes!

This book brought a new, fun twist to the rom-com genre and I really enjoyed it. If you can embrace the fun side of the book without delving too deeply into what's possible, you'll definitely enjoy it, too.