Saturday, November 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Nobodies" by Liza Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Book Review: "Ugly Love" by Colleen Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2019

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

This was so beautiful and thought-provoking!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book publishes February 4, 2020.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Book Review: "The Night Fire" by Michael Connelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Book Review: "The Dearly Beloved" by Cara Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

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

Oh. My. God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Book Review: "The Family Upstairs" by Lisa Jewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Book Review: "Life on Loan" by Ashley Farley

This book was so warm and sweet, it charmed me completely. You can't beat a book that does that!

Have you ever thought of running away from home? (As an adult, I mean.) Was there ever a time when you thought, if only I could leave all of this behind and just take off for someplace else and start over? Sure, it may have seemed impossible to fathom given everything that would need to be done before you could actually run away, but did the thought make you feel better, even for a split second?

When Lena and Olivia meet in an Atlanta airport lounge, both are on the verge of running away from their current lives. Lena has had it with her abusive husband and selfish daughter, and needs to find her own way after having to do everything for everyone else with little appreciation. Olivia has been living in the aftermath of a painful divorce, and the successful blog she has created has put her in an untenable position with two wannabe socialites, so she needs to escape.

The two women knew each other casually in college, but even though they haven't seen each other in years, they each sense a kindred spirit in the other, a soul desperately in need of rescue. When their initial escape plans are foiled by weather, they hatch a plan together.

"For the next thirty days, the month of October, you'll stay in my cottage in the Northern Neck and I'll stay in your waterfront condo in Charleston. We'll indulge ourselves—eat whatever we want, sleep late, and leave our beds unmade if so desired. We'll follow our hearts to wherever they may lead us."

And that's exactly what they do. Their getaways take different paths. Lena is determined to regain confidence in her photography skills and wants to become more dedicated to diet and exercise. When she meets another photographer willing to take her under her wing, she jumps at the chance—although she doesn't know the positive and negative things which will come of such an arrangement. But she falls head over heels in love with Charleston and the possibilities of a life there.

Olivia needs to find the confidence to write again, as she knows there's a novel deep inside her, but she just has to coax it to the surface. Nervous about her financial situation and still reeling from the end of her marriage, time in the sedate Northern Neck of Virginia is exactly what she needs, especially when she meets Alistair, Lena's childhood best friend who lives in the cottage next door. Alistair awakens feelings Olivia hasn't had in so long, but he has issues of his own to deal with. And is a fling what she needs?

Ashley Farley's Life on Loan is tremendously enjoyable, a bit melodramatic, and utterly compelling. I really liked these characters despite their foibles, and couldn't get enough of them. It's always great to root for characters and care about what happens to them, and if nothing in the plot seemed overly surprising, it didn't matter one bit. This was a quick, fun read that would be perfect for the beach, a plane ride, or just relaxing in your favorite spot.

I am fortunate to be part of the blog tour for Life on Loan. My thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours, NetGalley, and Lake Union Publishing for providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. I really enjoyed it!

Monday, November 4, 2019

Book Review: "The Worst Kind of Want" by Liska Jacobs

Pricilla Messing has had it with being the responsible one. She's tired of caring for her elderly mother, especially after having to care for her father before his death. She always took a back seat to the relationship between her mother and her younger sister, who was more beautiful and more exciting. Part of her wants to put her mother in an assisted living facility, sell the house, and start some new adventure, but she feels too tethered to her responsibilities.

When Cilla's brother-in-law calls from Rome, asking for help getting her teenage niece to behave, she jumps at the chance to head to Italy. She's not interested in riding herd on Hannah, however; she's more interested in absorbing every ounce of the glamorous Roman lifestyle, one she used to experience regularly as the daughter of an actress and a producer. She'd much rather be Hannah's friend than her chaperone, and it isn't too long before Cilla finds herself clubbing, drinking and eating to excess, and enjoying all the city has to offer.

Being with Hannah and her brother-in-law, Paul, does force Cilla to confront some painful memories about her difficult relationship with her sister Emily, who died of cancer a few years earlier. Hannah reminds Cilla so much of Emily at that age, and at times she has trouble dealing with the many ways their relationship was fraught with jealousy, resentment, and condescension, while at other times they were tremendously close.

Cilla's time in Rome makes her feel vibrant again, for the first time in a long while. When she realizes that one of Hannah's handsome friends, a teenage boy far younger than the forty-something Cilla, is flirting with her, it energizes her to feel desirable by someone out of her league. But as the flirtation moves to something more serious, Cilla has to decide whether the potential thrill is worth the risks. Is she willing to lose her relationship with her family for an encounter with a teenager, however handsome and flirtatious he might be? Should she risk it all to feel desirable again, no matter the consequences?

The Worst Kind of Want tells the story of a woman at a crossroads in her life. This was an interesting, thoughtful meditation on the mindset of a "woman of a certain age." And perhaps not being in that demographic made this a little more difficult for me to connect with the character, although I've not had that issue before.

Jacobs’ imagery was vivid and poetic and she created some interestingly complex, flawed characters. But in the end, although I read the book quickly, I didn’t feel fully engaged by it. I enjoyed her first novel, Catalina, a bit better.

NetGalley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and MCD provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book publishes November 5.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Book Review: "Nothing to See Here" by Kevin Wilson

This is truly an odd, funny, poignant book about finding a place and people with whom you belong, and how family can spring from the strangest of situations.

"How did people protect themselves? How did anyone keep this world from ruining them?"

Lillian has always accepted that she won’t accomplish much in life. For a brief moment in her teenage years, however, she attended a private high school and befriended Madison, a beautiful but quirky rich girl, and Lillian started to believe she had potential. But Lillian had to leave school in the wake of a scandal and everything went back to the way it used to be. And that’s the way her life went for a number of years until Madison, now the wife of a U.S. senator with greater ambitions, summons her with a proposal.

Madison’s young stepchildren have lost their mother and the right thing to do for appearances’ sake is for them to move home. But these children have been raised horribly, mistreated, all because of one thing—they spontaneously combust when they get agitated and flames ignite their skin without harming them. Is this something they can control? No one has ever really tried to figure it out.

Lillian agrees to serve as the children’s governess of sorts and keep them out of harm’s (and the media’s) way for a while. It is expected that Madison's husband will be nominated as Secretary of State, so the children need to keep a low profile through the confirmation process.

Lillian doesn’t count on how observant and desperate for love and approval the children are, and she doesn’t count on how much she has needed to be needed. She works on winning their trust, making them believe her feelings are true, which Lillian has to believe, too. Fighting for the children’s best interests—no mean feat given how the deck is stacked against them—awakens feelings of love and protectiveness she never imagined she’d feel.

This is a quirky book but it’s one that definitely worked its way into my heart. The characters aren’t sympathetic in many ways but I devoured this. Kevin Wilson, who also wrote The Family Fang, really created a moving story.

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

Book Review: "How the Light Gets In" by Katy Upperman

Katy Upperman's new book, How the Light Gets In, is a story of grief, recovery, letting others in, and learning to forgive—especially yourself.

It’s been nearly a year since Callie’s younger sister Chloe died, and she and her family are still the worse for wear. The two were inseparable for so long. Callie has quit swimming and avoids social contact, spending her days getting stoned and blaming herself for what happened, while her mother spends most days in a depressed, alcohol-soaked haze.

With summer approaching and her father at his wits' end, Callie is given an ultimatum: go to a wilderness survival camp and straighten herself out or go live with her aunt in the small town of Bell Cove and help her get her house ready to become a B&B. While it seems like an easy choice, Bell Cove is where everything happened with Chloe last summer, and Callie isn't quite sure she's ready to reopen those wounds. But it's still better than living in the wilderness!

"Sometimes, I'm desperate to remember, to dissolve into remembering. Sometimes, I want to light my memories on fire, so they burn until nothing's left but ash and despair."

Callie arrives, hurting, resentful, and just wanting to stay in bed for the summer. She doesn’t count on the persistence of her aunt or the appearance of Tucker, a handsome local guy hired to work in the house’s garden. Tucker’s easy, carefree charm is able to make some cracks in Callie’s armor, although she tries not to let herself be vulnerable. But Tucker’s family has secrets of their own.

As Callie fights her attraction to Tucker and her guilt and sadness about Chloe, she doesn’t count on chilling encounters with what appears to be a ghost. Is it Chloe? Will Callie get the chance to resolve the unfinished business she and her sister have? What does this ghost want?

I liked this story very much but thought the mystical, spiritual elements didn’t work as well as everything else. I felt that part of the story dragged everything else down although I understood the point. At its core, this is a story about recovering from grief and finding hope again, and that's what I enjoyed the most.

Upperman is a great writer and I’ll definitely want to read more of her books.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Book Review: "Find Me" by Andre Aciman

Find Me was altogether different than I expected, but it was utterly, gloriously moving.

"...the magic of someone new never lasts long enough. We only want those we can’t have. It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo."

While Find Me is, in essence, a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, for the most part it’s more a book that follows some of the characters. If you go in expecting another whole book about Oliver and Elio you’ll be disappointed.

This is a book about love, longing, all-consuming desire and the fear it might suddenly disappear. It’s also a book about what the heart wants and how strongly it clings to some people and some memories despite the passage of time.

Find Me is a novel with several parts. The first follows Samuel, Elio’s father, as he travels by train to Rome to visit his son, a pianist and teacher. He meets a much younger woman, Miranda, and the two feel a connection more powerful than anything they’ve ever felt. Can the course of your life change so completely because of a stranger?

In the second part, a few years later, Elio has moved to Paris. While attending a concert one evening he meets a much-older man and the two are instantly attracted to each other. Their connection is intense, emotional, and it reminds Elio of the one man he has held in his heart all these years.

The briefer third part follows Oliver as he and his family are preparing to leave their latest academic post. As he considers matters of the heart, he realizes there is one place he needs to be, with the one person whom he still loves completely.

I am and have always been in love with the way Aciman writes. His words are poetic, gorgeous, at times erotic, romantic, and melancholy. That mastery is once again on display in Find Me.

Did I want more Oliver and Elio? Yes. I could’ve used another 100 pages of their story. But this book in its own right is beautiful and poignant, and so worth reading, so I choose to focus on all that it is rather than what it isn’t.

Book Review: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout

Time for an unpopular opinion.

Olive Kitteridge just didn’t work for me. Yes, I know it won the Pulitzer, but interestingly enough, in looking at the list of Pulitzer winners over the last 20-25 years, a number of those books didn’t quite wow me either.

Like a number of Strout’s books, Olive Kitteridge is a series of interconnected stories taking place in the small town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a main character in some, a supporting character some, and just passes through others. On the surface, Olive appears to be your garden-variety curmudgeon, the type who makes up phrases like "sicky-wicky" and exasperates her husband and son. But the more you get to see, you realize she’s far more complex—emotional, she has difficulty expressing what she thinks, and she’s uncomfortable with certain social interactions.

I’ve read a few of Strout’s other books so I do like the way she writes, but this one just didn’t quite draw me in. One reason for that is I couldn’t get the image of Frances McDormand, who played Olive in the television adaptation, out of my mind. I love her as an actress but I found her image in my head while reading a little jarring.

Still, I know how many people love Olive and her stories, so don’t let my negativity deter you.