Friday, January 31, 2020

Book Review: "Cartier's Hope" by M.J. Rose

I love it when a book surprises you, not just with how compelling the story is but also with how layered the plot is, that it's so much more than you expected. That was definitely the case with M.J. Rose's newest book, Cartier's Hope.

New York, 1910. Vera Garland is the headstrong daughter of the owner of one of leading department stores. Much to her mother's chagrin, she has chosen to pursue a career as a journalist, a field that has not historically been amenable to women, paying them much less than their male counterparts, taking prime story assignments away from them, and relegating them to the traditional "soft" subjects like fashion and gossip.

But Vera has taken a different track, working under a pseudonym and wearing a disguise, and her undercover work on controversial topics such as abortion have received admiration from other female reporters, who could never imagine that the courageous reporter is actually Vera.

With New York City abuzz due to the arrival of the Hope Diamond at Cartier's jewelry store, society elite are mesmerized by the stone and the legends of bad luck that surround those who have possessed (and even touched) it. Still reeling from the death of her father, who always championed her bravado and willingness to fight for what she believed in, Vera discovers deep secrets and a blackmail scheme which appears to have led to her father's death. Devastated and angry, she vows revenge.

Determined to make the blackmailer, a ruthless magazine publisher known for blackmailing businessmen into buying advertising to guarantee his silence, pay for his sins, Vera decides to use the legends of the Hope Diamond's curse to her advantage. She creates a scheme which she hopes will "uncover" a scandal that the publisher can use to blackmail the famed jeweler, Cartier—and then the scheme can be turned on its head to expose the blackmailer.

It's a complicated and dangerous plan which requires keeping secrets from many she cares about. In order to succeed, she turns to a charismatic Russian jeweler for help. Yet as she does her research and pulls her facts together, she finds herself drawn to this man who has secrets of his own. For so long she's guarded her heart from love and the need for a man in her life; how ironic that her feelings are changing because of a man from whom she has to hide the truth about her plans and her identity?

Cartier's Hope is an utterly fascinating novel of historical fiction with a little bit of mystery thrown in for good measure. It's a fascinating look at a time just before the world changed dramatically, with World War I and women getting the right to vote both on the horizon. I also loved the look into New York society during that era and the role of women in journalism.

I've often said that I'm not a big fan of historical fiction, yet every time I've read a book in this genre lately, I've loved it. I loved the complexity of Cartier's Hope, the family dynamics, the secrets, the issues that would have been so controversial during that time. But more than that, I just loved the way M.J. Rose writes, and how she immediately pulled me into this story and didn't let go until the book's conclusion. Vera is a fascinating character I wouldn't mind seeing again.

I'm honored to have been part of the blog tour for Cartier's Hope. Atria Books and Get Red PR provided me an advance complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book Review: "The Lost Night" by Andrea Bartz

How reliable are our memories, particularly of a traumatic time? Andrea Bartz's mystery, The Lost Night, effectively explores that question.

In 2009, just as the U.S. economy was collapsing, a group of friends in their early 20s spend their days partying, drinking hard, listening and playing music, and falling in and out of hookups and relationships. At the center of the group is Edie—beautiful, mercurial, pulling all into her web. Everyone wanted to be noticed by her, wanted her approval.

Lately Edie had seemed a bit troubled; she and her boyfriend had broken up even though they kept living together. But everyone was still stunned when one night, while a massive concert and party was going on up on the roof of their building, Edie was found dead, gun in her hand, suicide note on her computer.

Ten years later, Lindsay, the outsider of the group, reconnects with Edie’s old roommate, Sarah, when Sarah moves back to town. Sarah is the one who found her, and at the time insisted there was no way Edie could’ve killed herself.

When Sarah tells Lindsay that contrary to what she has believed for 10 years, Lindsay wasn’t with them at the concert prior to Edie's being found, it shakes her to her core. Lindsay becomes obsessed with figuring out what she did that night, and when she finds evidence that she might have seen Edie just before she killed herself, she worries that perhaps Sarah was right—maybe Edie's death wasn't a suicide. But might she have had a role somehow?

"Distressed, we construct realities that feel just as real as the world around us. Whose brain had concocted a new version of that night—mine or Sarah's?"

This was a very compelling mystery which captures the arrogant invincibility we feel when we’re younger and the unreliability of memories. I was surprised with how things resolved themselves (I usually don't trust any character in a mystery or thriller because I'm so convinced everyone is responsible, but for some reason I didn't suspect this person at all.)

The Lost Night is well written, albeit a little melodramatic. I couldn’t stop reading it, and devoured the whole book in a few hours, and not just because I had insomnia.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Book Review: "The Field Guide to the North American Teenager" by Ben Philippe

This was such a fun, endearing, and thought-provoking book.

Subject: Norris Kaplan, a Black French-Canadian high school student who is forced to move from Canada to Austin, Texas when his mother takes a university job there. Leaving his home, his best friend, hockey fans, etc., is bad enough, but for a teenager with overactive sweat glands, moving to Texas is like hell on earth. (Maybe hotter?)

"Of all the things Norris disliked about leaving his life behind, his mother's paranoid insistence that they become apolitical while living in Texas had provided Norris with the most enjoyment. It's not that you can't have an opinion, she had told him. You just need to have less of them. People won't always know when you're joking."

He’s prepared to hate everything and everyone, and he’s always been the type to keep people at a distance with heavy doses of sarcasm. (I totally feel seen here.) But armed with his knowledge of American movies and television he’s ready to mesh with all of the typical stereotypes.

Sure, he encounters the bitchy cheerleaders, the Neanderthals that are the jocks, the people who like to say "eh" to mock his Canadian accent. But he also finds friends in unlikely places, and is mesmerized by Aarti, the “manic pixie dream girl” whose mercurial nature confuses Norris.

While Norris is busy eviscerating everyone with quips and insults he doesn’t realize he’s just as guilty as his fellow students of making snap judgments about him. And his fervent desires to go back home to Canada leaves him too blind to see the good things and the good people right in front of him.

"We all mess things up. It's what you do with the mess that matters."

I really enjoyed this book. Norris, while he has some flaws, is a great character, and I'd love it if Ben Philippe would bring him and his entourage back for another book sometime in the future. I loved the way Philippe showed the depth of other characters as well.

Even if you've never had trouble fitting in, if you've never been homesick, or if you've never kept people at arm's length with sarcasm and wit, I think you'll enjoy The Field Guide to the North American Teenager. This really was such a fun read.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Book Review: "The Sun Down Motel" by Simone St. James

If you like creepy, crazy, and twisty, Simone St. James' newest book, The Sun Down Motel is one for you!

In 1982, Viv wants to escape her oppressive home life and move to New York City, but instead she winds up in the tiny upstate town of Fell. She takes a job as the night desk clerk at the Sun Down Motel, which despite having been open for only a few years, has definitely seen better days.

It’s not long before some creepy things start happening at the motel. Viv also learns that a number of young women have been murdered in Fell over the last several years, and she becomes obsessed with solving the unsolved murders, immune to the danger she’s putting herself in. She tries to convince a local police officer of her discoveries and isn't quite taken seriously, so she decides to investigate on her own.

Twenty-five years later, in 2017, Carly, Viv’a niece, comes to Fell. One night in 1982, her aunt vanished, never to be heard from again. Carly is determined to figure out what happened, why her aunt’s disappearance took four days to notice. Given the monotony and sadness in Carly's own life, she decides to settle down in Fell for a short while.

Tracing her aunt’s footsteps, even taking the same shift at The Sun Down Motel, Carly starts noticing some crazy things happening. Is she going crazy or are these things actually happening? What do they mean if they're real? Will she solve the mystery of her aunt's disappearance or will she meet the same fate as Viv?

"Spend my nights at the Sun Down? I was the kind of girl who would spend the night in a supposedly haunted house, just to see what would happen. That sounded like my ideal vacation."

This really was as good as everyone has said it is. It was just the right amount of creepy for me (I'm scared a little too easily—don't judge), but the story was so compelling and it really kept me guessing. This is the first of St. James' books I've read, and it definitely won't be the last.

The Sun Down Motel publishes February 18!

Book Review: "Meet Cute" by Jennifer L. Armentrout, et al.

Meet Cute was an absolutely enjoyable, memorable collection of stories about that first magical encounter.

Boy, this book lived up to its name!! Subtitled "Some People Are Destined to Meet," this collection of 14 stories by some of YA’s leading authors and others who should be better-known, left me in a great mood, high on love and romance.

Each story tells of how two people meet (not always cute right away) and a spark is felt. Some of the stories have LGBTQ and/or interracial themes, one is set in “the future” of 2020, and nearly all absolutely captured my heart.

Just a few of the stories I particularly loved were “Oomph” by Emery Lord, about a chance encounter in an airport; “The Unlikely Likelihood of Falling in Love” by Jocelyn Davies, which told of a statistics student’s project inspired by a boy she spotted on the subway; “259 Million Miles” by Kass Morgan, about two teens vying for a spot on a mission to Mars; “Print Shop” by Nina LaCour, about a young woman who gets more than she bargained for when she starts work at a print shop; “Somewhere That’s Green” by Meredith Russo, which follows an unlikely relationship between a trans student and a religious student who has spoken out against her being able to use the women’s bathroom; and “The Dictionary of You and Me” by Jennifer L. Armentrout, about a library worker who keeps trying to convince a patron to return the dictionary he took out.

This was just a sampling of those I loved because I loved nearly the entire collection. If you like short stories and you’re a sucker for love, pick this one up. It's a great assemblage of some of the amazing talent in the YA genre these days.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Book Review: "Maybe in Another Life" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Man, oh man, what a book.

Taylor Jenkins Reid has blown me away again with Maybe in Another Life, another exceptionally beautiful, powerfully thought-provoking book, this one about destiny and soulmates and the choices we make.

As she nears 30, Hannah has been drifting from thing to thing, place to place. She doesn’t know what she wants from life. After breaking up with her boyfriend she decides to move home to Los Angeles, and stay temporarily with her best friend Gabby and her husband, Mark.

"Life is just a series of breaths in and out. All I really have to do in this world is breathe in and then breathe out, in succession, until I die. I can do that. I can breathe in and out."

On her first night back, at a get-together with old friends, she sees Ethan, her high school boyfriend, who broke her heart back then. They still have the same chemistry, and it’s clear there’s still possibility between them. When Gabby and Mark get ready to head home for the night, Ethan asks Hannah stay at the bar with him.

What happens if she stays? What will that mean for her and Ethan? What happens if she goes? Will that change how he feels about her? Hannah considers what both possibilities might mean. And then the book proceeds by exploring both scenarios, in alternate chapters, and the path that each scenario leads to.

"Life is long and full of an infinite number of decisions. I have to think that the small ones don’t matter, that I’ll end up where I need to end up no matter what I do. My fate will find me. So I decide to..."

I loved Maybe in Another Life so much. I am so in love with the way TJR writes, the way she pulls you into every story.

I can’t believe I have only one more of her books left to read! (Seriously, if you haven't read her books, you need to. Daisy Jones & The Six was one of my top 5 books from 2019 and One True Loves also was on my list of favorites, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was one of my favorites from 2018.)

Book Review: "Cleanness" by Garth Greenwell

Poetic and powerful, Cleanness is demonstration of a writer at the top of his game.

In his second novel, which is more a collection of interconnected short stories, Garth Greenwell continues his exploration of sexuality, intimacy, desire, and the connections we make and lose.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher, prepares to return home after a number of years abroad. He reflects on encounters and memories which affected him—the confessions of a student about his own sexuality and feelings about a friend, an experiment with sadomasochism, memories of a lost love, and connecting with another expatriate.

Greenwell’s writing is lyrical, almost poetic, and sexually frank at times. He provides such an authentic sense of time and place. His words evoke passion, love, loss, and eroticism.

"They could make a whole life, I thought, surprised to think it, these moments that filled me up with sweetness, that had changed the texture of existence for me. I had never thought anything like it before."

Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You, was also powerful and beautifully written. He is definitely an author worthy of recognition, but more importantly, worthy of being read.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Book Review: "Lies That Bind" by Ashley Farley

You've got to love a book that hooks you from start to finish. Ashley Farley's newest book, Lies That Bind did just that for me, so much so that I read the entire book in just a few hours.

For 10 years, Eva has wondered whether her daughter, Reese, is still alive. Eva's husband was driving Reese home from college over Thanksgiving when they were in a single-car accident and he was killed, but Reese was nowhere to be found at the scene of the accident. Did someone kidnap her? Did she flee the scene for some reason? These are questions Eva has wanted to know the answer to for far too long, but she's never given up hope.

Maggie is moving from Oregon to Richmond, Virginia, where her new husband will be working. She got married on the rebound after the end of a long-term relationship, and her family all thought she did so far too soon. Eric is a good provider and seems like a stable man, but shortly after she arrives in Richmond she discovers that what seems too good to be true often is. What Eric wants more than anything is for Maggie to have a baby, but she's not ready—she wants to pursue a career as an investigative journalist. Quickly, though, Maggie realizes Eric will stop at nothing to ensure he gets what he wants.

One snowy day Maggie meets Eva, who lives across the street from her and Eric. Maggie is utterly transfixed when she hears about Reese's disappearance, and when Eric's controlling behavior becomes physically abusive, she decides to go undercover to track Reese's whereabouts. Her investigative work takes her from Virginia to Ohio to Washington, DC, as she tries to figure out what happened the day of the accident, what possibly could have made her flee, and more importantly, what would have kept her away all these years?

While the plot of Lies That Bind isn't necessarily unique, it builds on lots of twists and turns and secrets, so I'm going to stop my summary here. Farley has created some complex, flawed, fascinating characters, and there's lots of emotion and thought-provoking events to be had. I really couldn't get enough of this story. This isn't a thriller, although there are suspenseful elements, but more than that, it's just a great story.

I first became familiar with Farley after her last book, Life on Loan, which also completely captivated me, but in a different way. Lies That Bind has definitely cemented my status as a fan.

I'm so grateful to be part of the blog tour for Lies That Bind. Kate Rock Book Tours and Leisure Time Books provided me with an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book Review: "Tweet Cute" by Emma Lord

Could this book be any more adorable?

Pepper is an overachiever. She's in her senior year at a prestigious New York City private school, captain of the swim team, and hyper-focused on getting into Columbia. She's also in charge of social media for her family's fast-food chain, Big League Burger. The company has come a long way since her parents opened the first store in Nashville; now her mother is the ruthless CEO looking to expand, leaving Pepper and the rest of her family hanging on.

Jack's family owns a neighborhood deli, Girl Cheesing. While he and his twin brother Ethan grew up working there, since Ethan is more popular and more involved in high school, Jack's family expects he'll run the deli in the future. Jack dreams of developing apps, and in fact has developed a popular chat app for their high school, but he's also in charge of the deli's not particularly active social media presence. And in his spare time, he loves needling Pepper in class.

When one day Big League Burger steals Girl Cheesing's iconic grilled cheese recipe, Jack isn't willing to let that action go unnoticed. He starts taunting the larger company on Twitter and the only thing Pepper can do, egged on by her mother, is respond in kind. (Memes, GIFs, and sarcasm abound.)

While Pepper and Jack don't realize at first that they're the other's social media nemesis, it's not long before their identities become known to each other. Neither is really interested in keeping the Twitter war going, but both are being encouraged (or, in Pepper's case, compelled) to continue, so they propose a more friendly and competitive arrangement. However, they keep getting thwarted by family members on both sides.

Meanwhile, as their friendly rivalry goes viral and the public starts shipping the idea of the two of them as a couple, the other thing they don't realize is that they've been chatting with each other anonymously on the school app Jack designed. When Jack realizes he's been talking to Pepper the whole time, he isn't sure how to feel, especially when he learns she thinks she may have been chatting with someone else.

Is all fair in love, food, and tweets? It turns out there's a lot more to the rivalry between Big League Burger and Girl Cheesing than meets the eye, and Jack and Pepper may get caught in the crossfire. And at the same time, as they try to figure out their feelings for one another, they also need to figure out what they want their futures to hold as opposed to everyone else deciding for them.

Along the way there's lots of good-natured fun, romance, and lots of delicious-sounding food, so don't read Tweet Cute if you're hungry!! Emma Lord really did a great job with her debut novel, creating characters that you rooted for even when they annoyed you, and a totally believable scenario given how social media rules our lives! I can't wait to read whatever she writes next.

I'm honored to be a part of the blog tour for this book. Wednesday Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review: "You Were There Too" by Colleen Oakley

Wow, talk about a crazy, thought-provoking, emotional ride!⁣

⁣ Mia and her husband move to Hope Springs, a small Pennsylvania town, to escape personal and professional disasters. But while Harrison takes a job as a surgeon at the local hospital, Mia can’t seem to find anything to occupy her time or her mind, which makes her worry about her pregnancy, her third after two miscarriages.⁣ An artist, she also can't seem to find the focus to create anything new.

⁣ She is also troubled by her dreams. Since she was a teenager she’s dreamed of a handsome man. She sees him clearly, but she doesn't recognize him at all. Through the years the dreams have been intense, some sexual and some troubling. Who is this man? What do these dreams mean?⁣

⁣ Then one day she meets him, in the most innocent of circumstances. It unravels her, especially when he tells her he’s been dreaming of her, too. Is she making too much out of all of this in an effort to compensate for everything else in her life? If not, how could this be possible? Did they meet at some point before? If not, how could they both be dreaming of someone they’ve never met?⁣

⁣ As they try to find answers, Mia realizes that her relationship with her husband is suffering at the same time. Why is he pulling away from her? She must decide which is more important: what is real or what might be destined in dreams.

⁣ ⁣ This is a really interesting book which raised a lot of questions for me. I enjoyed it but it took a while to hit its stride and at times it meandered a bit. However, it left me a total emotional wreck at the end.

⁣ ⁣ One thing I know for sure: this is my first Colleen Oakley book, but it won’t be my last!!⁣

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Book Review: "Big Lies in a Small Town" by Diane Chamberlain

Is Diane Chamberlain's newest novel, Big Lies in a Small Town, worth all of the buzz it's been getting? Simple answer? Heck, yeah!

Morgan Christopher has seen better days. Once an aspiring artist, she’s serving a prison term for a crime she didn’t commit. And then one day, she gets offered an unbelievable opportunity, and her life changes again.

A legendary artist whose work she admired stipulated in his will that Morgan must be hired to restore an historic WWII-era mural to hang in a gallery that he had designed before his death. She has no idea how he knew her name and she has no experience with restoration, but if she does it, she’s free. Of course, there’s a very strict deadline, one that the artist's daughter is going to ensure she meets—or else.

The mural is in worse shape than anyone imagined, and there are some strange images included. The original artist allegedly lost her mind and disappeared before the mural could be finished. , but first she has to learn how to restore the mural and ready it to be hung in the gallery. It's no easy feat, especially given the short time period she has. But failure is not an option.

Morgan becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the artist. At the same time, she is struggling with trying to start her life again, although she is wracked with guilt about what happened in the accident that led to her prison term, as well as anger at the person who left her in the lurch. How can a person who has never been really given love or respect love or respect themselves?

In dual narratives, we follow the artist’s journey in 1940 and what happened to her, and we follow Morgan’s efforts to beat the clock and the damage that time has inflicted on the mural. The artist's story is one of being a stranger in a small town, jealousy, racial tension, and struggling with mental illness.

This is a really compelling, well-told book that I really enjoyed. I definitely saw there was potential for Chamberlain to take Morgan's story down several more melodramatic roads and I was so glad she didn't do that. I did think, however, that there were a few too many coincidences for my liking.

This is the first of Chamberlain's books I've read, but it won't be the last, as many friends have spoken very highly of her. This would probably be a really good movie or television miniseries!

The Best Movies of the Decade...

For those of you who wonder if I do anything other than read, the answer is a resounding, "yes." As many of you know, I also go to the movies a lot, particularly as it gets closer to the end of the year and the films and performances being touted as potential Oscar nominees. Some years I don't see as many movies as I'd like, but some years I've had lots of chances.

Like I did in 2010 for the 2000s, I went through all of the movies I've seen and made a list of my top 50 movies of the 2010s. Boy, it wasn't easy, as there were a lot of movies that still resonate with me, some years after I've seen them.

I'll admit that once I got past the top 25 or so, ranking the movies became even more difficult, so the rankings are fairly arbitrary. I don't know that I necessarily loved movie #37 more than movie #40, but this is what happens when you do a list like this!

So, without further ado, here's my list. Feedback is always welcome (and appreciated). I'm sure I missed something major. For each movie, the title is linked to its IMDB profile in case you've never heard of it.

  1. Fruitvale Station (2013): Tore my heart out, made me angry, and made me think. Still does all these years later. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer; directed by Ryan Coogler.

  2. Inception (2010): I still can't quite get this wild movie about dream-sharing technology and thought manipulation out of my head. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Marion Cotillard; directed by Christopher Nolan.

  3. La La Land (2016): Go ahead, roll your eyes at me all you want. I fell head over heels for this love story between an aspiring actress and a musician, and loved every minute of its classic-musical feel. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; directed by Damien Chazelle.

  4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): Terrific movie adaptation of one of my favorite books, this movie hit me right in the feels. Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller; directed by Stephen Chbosky (who wrote the book).

  5. Her (2013): A lonely man gets a little too attached to his phone's new operating system. Astute commentary on our ability to connect. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson; directed by Spike Jonze.

  6. Hugo (2011): An orphan living in a Paris train station in the 1930s tries to solve a mystery involving his late father and an automaton. A love letter to the movies. Starring Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz; directed by Martin Scorsese.

  7. Call Me by Your Name (2017): Sexy, romantic, and poignant, this is proof positive you never quite get over your first love. Great adaptation of Andre Aciman's terrific book. Starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer; directed by Luca Guadagnino.

  8. Black Panther (2018): The only MCU movie on this list, this movie worked for me at every level and still feels joyful and exciting after many, many viewings. Still think it should've won Best Picture last year. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong'o; directed by Ryan Coogler.

  9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012): A young boy and girl fall in love and decide to run away from home, which causes their entire town to form a search party and try to find them. Trademark Wes Anderson quirk with so much heart. Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, and Bruce Willis; directed by Wes Anderson.
  10. Boyhood (2014): A triumph of filmmaking (the same cast was filmed over 12 years) and a quietly special, memorable film in and of itself. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke; directed by Richard Linklater.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Book Review: "The Library of Lost Things" by Laura Taylor Namey

Sometimes in order to write our own story we need to find ourselves first.

Darcy Jane Wells lives a life immersed in stories and books. Other than her best friend Marisol, books have been her closest companions since childhood, because she finds that other people’s stories are better than the story of her own life. She goes everywhere with at least one book in her possession, even to parties and other social events. (Sound at all familiar?)

Her mother is a hoarder. She’s a perfectly functioning adult with a real job and everything, but she cannot stop buying things to fill the void Darcy’s father left when he abandoned them before she was born.

Darcy has always stood guard to ensure her mother’s compulsion, preventing friends from visiting, running interference with the building manager, handling necessary repairs in secret. But a new building manager looking to make changes, dwindling money, an ultimatum from her grandmother, and the arrival of a shocking surprise leave her struggling.

When Darcy meets Asher, a former aspiring pilot whose dreams were dashed by injury, suddenly she is tired of hiding her story and her feelings. She’s tired of romance only between the pages of her books. But it will take courage and self-discovery, and much more.

"But I spent so much time battling the clutter scaffolding my life, so much time hiding. Dreams came, settling inside me. When they did, I lived in a new house, clean and free. I kissed the prince and danced with the hero, maybe even one like Asher Fleet. But I had to move those dreams out, every time. Evicted. How could I hold real love inside an invisible heart?"

I really enjoyed this! I thought the book was poignant and emotional, full of lovely and special moments. Namey’s characters are so appealing as well and added depth to this story. Plus, any book that celebrates the love of reading and the power of stories is all right by me!!

Book Review: "Topics of Conversation" by Miranda Popkey

Miranda Popkey's Topics of Conversation is a novel of commentary on issues about gender, sex, and violence, framed as conversations.

I’m going to call this review a #maybeitsmenotyou review. I read a lot, as many of you know, and I feel like I “get” themes and issues and situations even if I can’t personally identify with them. But every so often a book comes along and it doesn’t work for me and I wonder if maybe it’s because I can’t identify with the characters or subject matter.

I’m going to say this is definitely one of those books.

An unnamed narrator has a series of conversations with different people at different stages of her life over a period of 20 years or so. These conversations are about relationships, sex, sexual violence, infidelity, and the inequities between genders. They're with friends, colleagues, lovers, spouses, strangers, fellow students. In each separate story/conversation, it appears the narrator is hungering for something more.

The topics that Popkey presents here are important, thought-provoking topics. Perhaps in another person’s hands this book might really resonate but for me it missed the mark. I struggled in many cases with the long-windedness of her characters as well.

I have seen some very positive reviews of this book from both women and men, so perhaps #itsjustme. If this interests you I do hope you enjoy it!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Oscar Nominations: How Did I Do?

So last night I posted my predictions for the Oscar nominations in the major categories.

After listening to the announcement of the nominations this morning, I found that I did well relative to my predictions in most categories and bombed in one. But more importantly, other than one major snub, I'm not really that unhappy with this year's nominations. Are there people or movies I wish were nominated? Sure, but this isn't that bad on the whole, despite the lack of diversity, which I never expect anyhow.

So, let's look at how I did.

Best Picture
Ford v. Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Hollywood

Analysis: I went 9/9 here. I would've loved to see Knives Out or The Farewell take the 10th slot, but this is a strong batch of nominees. (I wasn't a fan of one of them, and the second didn't wow me, but still.)

Best Actor
Antonion Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Analysis: I overthought this one a lot, because I went 2/5. But I am thrilled that Banderas got his first nomination for his amazing performance, and I think this is one of Leo's best as well, better than the one he won his Oscar for! I'm also excited for Jonathan Pryce, who was dead-on as Pope Francis. I would've loved to see Eddie Murphy or Christian Bale, but I don't know which actor I would take out.

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Analysis: I went 5/5 here. I would've put Awkwafina in, but I didn't think it would happen, sadly. I'm happy Ronan got in here, and it's exciting that Cynthia Erivo received nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song. (If you've never heard this woman sing, go on YouTube. She is mesmerizing.) Amazingly, Theron got her first nomination since 2005 and Zellweger got her first since winning Best Supporting Actress in 2003.

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Hollywood

Analysis: I went 4/5 here. I was hoping Song Kang-Ho might make it in here for Parasite, but I'm not surprised by Anthony Hopkins' inclusion on this list. Here's some interesting trivia: this is Tom Hanks' first nomination since 2000 (his first for Best Supporting Actor), Hopkins' first since 1997, and Pacino's first since his double nomination in 1992.

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, too. So if I'm mad about anything, it's that J. Lo was snubbed. I didn't buy into the conventional wisdom of some film bloggers who said she'd get passed over and I feel she deserved to be on this list. I also would have loved to see Zhao Shuzhen here, too, but I am thrilled Florence Pugh was nominated. Kathy Bates does get her first nomination since 2002.

Best Director
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Todd Phillips, Joker
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Hollywood

Analysis: I went 4/5 here as well. I am surprised Todd Phillips was included despite his, umm, less-than-stellar reputation in Hollywood, but I guess voters' love of Joker and admiration for his artistry outweighed his faults. I wish Greta Gerwig made the list, or even Pedro Almodovar, but the directors' branch is a funny one. Sam Mendes gets his first nomination since winning this award in 1999.

And there you have it! I feel better than I normally do on the day of the nominations announcement, so there's that. Will all of the expected choices win? Tune in on February 9!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Book Review: "Love Lettering" by Kate Clayborn

Love Lettering was a slow-burn rom-com that snuck up on me and grabbed my heart!

First of all, I’ve got to say that this book wins for the most unusual professions of its main characters. Meg is a designer who specializes in hand lettering—she does in journals, planners, signs, cards, etc., and has even been called "The Planner of Park Slope"—and Reid is a quant, or quantitative analyst. (He’s a numbers guy in the finance world.)

Meg met Reid about a year ago when she was finishing up all of the printed material for his wedding. Something about that encounter and the dynamic between Reid and his fiancée compelled her to sneak a secret message of warning into their wedding program, amidst the frills, flowers, and fairies. No one will notice, right?

A year later Reid returns, and wants to know how Meg knew that his marriage was doomed to fail. (Of course he found the message. He finds patterns and signs every day.) Of course, Meg is most worried what Reid's discovery—and the possibility of him going public with it—could do to her career.

They couldn’t be more different from one another. But with a major deadline looming and her creativity blocked, Meg tries to enlist Reid into noticing the beauty of letters, fonts, and signs throughout New York City and Brooklyn. As the tension between them thaws, her creativity flows again.

But both are tightly wound, heavily guarded people, unwilling and unable to let the other in. And when a scandal erupts, both must decide whether signs point to a future together or apart.

"The point is...sometimes fighting isn't about leaving, it's about staying. It takes practice to get it right, and it's painful, but if you want to stay with people, you do it."

This book was enjoyable and unique in many ways, even as it followed the traditional rom-com patterns. I loved the juxtaposition between the creative and the analytical, and Meg and Reid's relationship really seemed believable. This one isn’t too steamy (one or two scenes but that’s it) but the whole story, and Kate Clayborn's storytelling, are just so appealing.

Book Review: "One of Us is Next" by Karen M. McManus

In One of Us is Next, a game of truth or dare causes massive chaos.

We return to Bayview High, the scene of Karen McManus’ explosive debut novel, One of Us is Lying. Time has passed since scandal and murder rocked the school, and everyone has (mostly) been able to put their lives back in order, except for those who still seek to cause chaos, either to avenge the last troublemaker or to one-up him.

And then one day an anonymous text appears on students’ phones, initiating a game of truth or dare. A student will be chosen, they’ll have a fixed amount of time to decide between truth or dare, and if they fail to answer the question or complete the dare, a painful truth will be revealed about them—to the entire school. Some students want to report this to the principal immediately, but others worry that might lead to everyone's phones getting confiscated again.

Phoebe, the first student chosen, doesn’t believe this stuff is happening again, so she blows the game off. Then a truth she hoped would remain secret gets revealed, and it sets off ripples that will ultimately leave murder and recrimination (as well as a little romance) in its wake. Once again, Maeve tries to play detective, but she has her own issues she wants to keep secret—and then there's the embarrassing stuff.

Who is behind this latest scheme? What do they want? Is anyone's life safe from scrutiny?

McManus definitely has a talent for creating drama and angst, and that makes for a twisty and fascinating book. I wouldn’t read this one before One of Us is Lying, because while it focuses on a different group of students, the old group is peripherally involved, and many things from the first story are mentioned throughout this book.

There’s no shortage of crazy twists, and at times it gets a little confusing. The book is also narrated by multiple people, and more than a few times I had to figure out who was talking, because there wasn't a real distinction between the characters. But I couldn’t wait to see what happened next!!

Oscar Nominations: What I Think Might Happen...

It's that time again...tomorrow (Monday) at around 8:37 a.m. ET, the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced. Those of you who know me know in addition to being a voracious reader, I'm a huge movie fan and the slightest bit Oscar-obsessed.

I definitely try to see everything that gets nominated in all of the major categories (some years even tracking a movie down to an obscure theater more than an hour from here) and for the longest time, one of my stupid party tricks is the ability to name the nominees and winners for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director from when the awards started in 1927 until present day. (Go ahead. Test me.)

As I've done the last several years, I've tried to predict what I think the Academy will do with regard to nominations. Some years I'm right on target and some years I get surprised (both positively and negatively). These predictions aren't what I would like to happen necessarily, it's just how I predict the Academy will behave.

This year, while there may be front-runners to win the four acting categories (Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt, and Laura Dern), the rest of the nominees could go in any number of directions. With a compressed schedule for nominations, it's anyone's guess (including mine) what will happen, so here's my best try. I'll report back Monday evening on how off-target I was.

Best Picture
Ford v. Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Hollywood

Analysis: As they've been doing for a number of years now, the Academy nominates a random number of pictures between 5 and 10 based on a vote threshold, so you can never predict how many will be nominated. I chose nine although I'm hoping Knives Out and/or The Farewell winds up on the list, hopefully not at the expense of Little Women. Ford v. Ferrari might also be vulnerable.

Best Actor
Christian Bale, Ford v. Ferrari
Robert DeNiro, The Irishman
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Analysis: If I had my way, this category would include Antonio Banderas for his fantastic turn in Pain and Glory and Leonardo DiCaprio, for one of his best performances, in Once Upon a Hollywood. But from what I've been reading, people think DiCaprio has the weakest hold on a nod, and they think The Irishman will have a solid showing tomorrow, letting DeNiro slide in despite not having been nominated for either a Golden Globe or a SAG. I also think perennial Academy favorite Bale will sneak in. There are a number of other actors—Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is My Name, Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes—which could also surprise.

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Analysis: Again, there are a few other actresses whose names being called tomorrow wouldn't surprise me. I'd be thrilled if Awkwafina gets nominated for The Farewell (as long as it's not the expense of Saoirse Ronan), and there's also a possibility that Lupita Nyong'o could get nominated for Us (despite the dismal record of horror films at the Oscars) and/or Alfre Woodard could score her first nomination since 1983(!) for Clemency.

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Song Kang-ho, Parasite
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Hollywood

Analysis: I'm going with the surprise nomination of Song here despite his not being nominated for a SAG or Golden Globe, because I think Parasite will do really well tomorrow morning in the nominations. (Plus he was freaking fantastic.) Anthony Hopkins' performance as Pope Benedict in The Two Popes could get in, or a true supporting performance like Tracy Letts for his terrific turn in Ford v. Ferrari or Alan Alda for Marriage Story could surprise, too. (The interesting thing will be whether Tom Hanks gets nominated for the first time in 20 years—he's been expected to several times before and been left out.)

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Analysis: This is a tough category, really. I'm hoping that Zhao Shuzhen gets a surprise nomination for The Farewell. (I've totally given up hope that Annette Bening will get in here for playing Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the little-seen The Report, despite my total allegiance to her getting an Oscar someday.) Some think Robbie could get nominated for Once Upon a Time... instead (I don't think that would be deserving). There's also an outside possibility that despite doing little more than glaring, Anna Paquin could sneak in if The Irishman has a strong showing.

Best Director
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Hollywood
Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

Analysis: I'd like to see Pedro Almodovar score his second Best Director nomination for Pain & Glory, or Greta Gerwig get in for Little Women (I really enjoyed the storytelling choices she made with this film) instead of Waititi, but I think this list will match the Directors' Guild nominees. Todd Phillips could get in for Joker, or Noah Baumbach could surprise with a nod for Marriage Story, too.

Hopefully it's a more exciting than frustrating announcement this year!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Book Review: "Dear Edward" by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward is powerful, poignant, and beautiful.

One summer morning nearly 200 people board a plane in Newark bound for Los Angeles. Some are headed to Los Angeles to start a new chapter in their lives, like 12-year-old Edward Adler, who is moving with his parents and older brother so his mother can take a screenwriting job. Others are traveling for business, pleasure, or obligation.

Somewhere over Colorado, the plane crashes, killing 186 of the 187 passengers onboard. Only Edward survives.

Edward is devastated by the loss of his family, especially his beloved 15-year-old brother, Jordan. He can’t fathom how, once he heals physically, he’ll be able to have a life when his family won’t, and he feels awkward living amidst the relationship challenges his aunt and uncle (who took him in) are dealing with. He likes to think that his family is still living somewhere up in the air while he is down on the ground.

Edward is viewed as a miracle by the families of those lost in the crash as well as the rest of the world. It’s an immense pressure to bear, especially for a young boy. He is unsure how to plan for a future when he understands how uncertain life is, and he knows what it’s like to be left behind.

"It feels unkind that they are shoving their emotions at him when his own sadness and fear are so vast that he has to hide from them. The tears of these strangers sting against his raw skin. His ears click and people hold handkerchiefs to their mouths and then the nurse reaches the end of the corridor and the mechanical door slides open and they are outside. He looks down at his busted legs, to avoid seeing the lethal sky."

One night he finds some things related to the accident that at first are overwhelming, but ultimately provide a source of comfort for him. He can be more than just the kid who survived, he can find a way to make a difference. But he also can’t do it alone, which means he has to let others in again.

This book was so moving, so thought-provoking. Ann Napolitano does such a great job because in less-skilled hands, this could be utterly maudlin and depressing.

The story alternates between the present and the time from boarding until the plane crashes, so you get to know some of those who were on the plane a little better, and you understand what caused the plane to crash. That's a little difficult to read.

This really was a great read, although I’m glad I don’t have to get on a plane anytime soon!!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Book Review: "This Is Not How It Ends" by Rochelle B. Weinstein

This was a really good, emotional read!

Do you believe that everyone gets one chance at happiness and love, or are there multiple opportunities out there for everyone? How you answer that question may influence how you feel about Rochelle Weinstein's newest book, This is Not How it Ends.

Charlotte and Philip meet on a plane. At first his privileged attitude and temper tantrum about not getting his reserved first-class seat irritates her, but his good looks and English wit quickly charm her. Their intense conversation for the entire flight leaves her a bit breathless, but given that he leads a far more glamorous life than she does, she doesn't expect that she'll ever see him again.

But fate has a funny way of intervening, and it's not long before they fall in love and plan a future together. They move to Philip's home in Islamorada on the Florida Keys, and while Philip is often traveling all over the world and spending time on his business interests, she starts building a life for herself. When they are together, their love flourishes, but after a while, Philip's time at home becomes shorter and shorter, and he seems more distracted when he is home.

"Had Philip finally gotten bored with me? Was there someone else? Could the ring have been a mistake? The physical distance I could live with, I had lived with, but the emotional distance was something else. I couldn't get him to connect."

Charlotte starts yearning for more than Philip can give her. And then one day, she meets Ben, a handsome single dad, and his young soon, Jimmy, and she starts to realize what it's like to feel needed, to feel constantly cared about and cared for. She fights her attraction to Ben despite the amount of time they spend together (partially because Philip pushes Ben to teach Charlotte how to cook).

When a hurricane passes through Islamorada and Philip is away, Charlotte spends the night at Ben and Jimmy's house, and the storm causes her to reexamine her desires and begin to hope for a different future. But then an unexpected discovery changes the course of her life again, and she decides to make sacrifices for others instead of following her heart. It's a path on which she'll experience some of the highest highs and the lowest lows.

"Each of us felt loss, whether it was through a seed planted inside or one nearby that took root and grew. Loss didn't discriminate, it was a game of chance. Like love. And sometimes even love led to isolation. Loneliness, by definition, is a solitary experience, but I learned painfully fast how loneliness travels through skin and body and binds you to those with similar hurt."

This was a beautifully told, poignant story, and I was hooked from the very beginning. While I saw certain things coming before the characters did (it's amazing how oblivious people can be to things which are right in front of them), I still enjoyed this book immensely. This made me feel a range of emotions, but the book never felt contrived or manipulative in any way.

I really enjoyed these characters, and would love to see what came next for them. That, to me, is the mark of a memorable and fantastic book.

Get Red PR and Lake Union Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: "The Happy Ever After Playlist" by Abby Jimenez

It's been nearly two years since Sloan's fiancé was killed and she has spent the whole time grieving, a shell of her vivacious, creative former self. She hasn't cooked, she hasn't painted creatively, and she barely sees anyone, including her best friends, Kristen and Josh. But she can't fathom moving on with her life since the moment it changed so drastically.

One day, on her way to visit Brandon's grave, she sees a golden blur rush out into the street. She slams on her brakes, hoping against hope that she didn't run over a dog. Not only didn't she run it over, but it jumped into her car through her sun roof, and snuggled up to her, giving her a "take me home" look. She tries reaching the dog's owner, leaving message after message, and then she figures that the best thing she can do is care for him until (or if) she hears from the owner.

Suddenly, having the dog around gives Sloan a purpose. She's actually leaving the house every day, going for walks, and feeling a little bit better about things. After two weeks, she finally hears from Tucker's owner, a musician who has been out of touch while on tour in Australia. Jason is grateful to Sloan for rescuing his dog, but he definitely wants him back, so Sloan agrees to watch Tucker until Jason returns to the U.S., provided Sloan keeps him updated as to how Tucker is doing.

Their conversations via text get flirtier and flirtier, and then turn into long phone calls. Sloan can't deny that Jason is awakening feelings in her that have been dormant since Brandon died. But is she ready to date again, to chance making herself vulnerable once more? For his part, Jason is more intrigued by Sloan than he has been by a woman in some time. But with his music career on the rise, is there room for what could become (he hopes) a serious relationship?

When they finally meet in person, their attraction is immediate and their connection is intense. Jason neglected to mention, however, that he's not just a musician—he's Jaxon Waters, a musician on the verge of fame, whose songs Sloan already loves. The couple tries to navigate the demands of his growing fame, Sloan's uncertainty if she's actually ready for intimacy again, and what the future potential for their relationship actually is, given Jason is about to embark on a world tour for more than a year.

"He'd never met the best version of me, and for some reason he still seemed to want to be here. I was a ghost, wandering the rooms of a museum of the person I used to be, and Jason was like one of the living who could somehow see me and decided to wander the place with me. I liked that he was willing to wander the place with me."

As their relationship intensifies, they have to decide whether Sloan should go on tour with Jason, which means abandoning her family, friends, and art, and possibly dealing with an unstable musician who has feelings for Jason. But if she doesn't go with him, what does that mean for their future? Can they have a life together if they're always on the road, or will they ultimately resent each other? Is their best solution saying goodbye, no matter how much it will hurt?

Abby Jimenez is an amazing storyteller. As she did in her first book, The Friend Zone, which made my list of the best books I read in 2019, she takes a plot with familiar elements and layers it with emotional complexity, and populates her story with fresh and flawed characters you want to root for. This book made me laugh, made me smile, and, I'll admit, made me cry in my office when I was finishing the book during my lunch.

I can't tell you how much I enjoy Jimenez's books and the immense amount of heart she imbues them with. Both The Happy Ever After Playlist and The Friend Zone would make terrific movies—and yes, this one comes with its own playlist, as the title promises. Don't discount these books simply as "chick lit"; these are well-written books which make fantastic reads.

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

The Happy Ever After Playlist publishes April 14, 2020.

Friday, January 3, 2020

My Favorite Books of the Decade...

I know that many subscribe to the philosophy that the decade technically doesn't end until the close of 2020, with the new decade starting in 2021, but I'm following along with conventional wisdom on this one like the sheep that I am...

Between 2010 and 2019, I read a total of 1,404 books. (That's not including books I didn't enjoy enough to finish.) I'm pretty pleased with that achievement. Of course, I don't necessarily remember everything about every book I've read, but there definitely have been books through the years which have remained in my mind and my heart, books that come to mind when people ask the inevitable question, "Any recommendations on what book I should read?"

I decided to pull together a list of my favorite books from the last decade. Since I've been keeping lists of the best books I've read each year, that made this task slightly easier, but still, culling this list down to a manageable side was nearly impossible! So what I did was narrowed my list to 40 books. I ranked my top 10 (no mean feat there) and then the rest I'll list randomly. The title of each book will be hyperlinked to my original review.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these choices, as always. I hope you can find a great book or two on this list!

Best of the Decade
  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015): When I read this 700+-page book several years ago, I realized two things: it is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant, emotionally moving books I've ever read, and it is a difficult and painful one to read at times. This was hands-down the best book I've read in the last 10 years, if not longer.

  2. The Absolutist by John Boyne (2012): To say that this book devastated me is an understatement. It is easily one of the most beautifully written, emotionally gripping books I've read this past decade. This is a book about relationships, betrayal, courage, and standing up for yourself and your beliefs.

  3. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011): A man is enlisted in the ultimate heroic mission—stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. There have been thousands of books written about time travel and the idea of righting past wrongs, but in Stephen King's tremendously capable hands, this concept seems fresh and unique.

  4. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (2014): This is beautiful, breathtaking, bewildering, and a little bizarre. It's a book about the half-truths we tell ourselves and our reluctance to see what is in front of us and say what we truly feel. It's also a book about how simple it is to hurt those closest to us, and how the simplest actions can cause so much pain. I read a lot of YA this decade, and this was truly the best.

  5. An Exaltation of Larks (2018), A Charm of Finches (2018), and A Scarcity of Condors by Suanne Laqueur (2019): I considered all three books in this trilogy as one unit. Laqueur's ability to pull you into her books so completely, to feel such attachment to her characters that you can't stop thinking about them when you're finished reading, is absolutely dazzling. These books are gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, and emotional, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times.

  6. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2013): How can a person determined never to need anyone let themselves actually need someone? How can you tell the difference between friendship and love? Benjamin Alire Saenz's novel is so beautifully poetic, so emotional—it's funny, heartbreaking, frustrating, and rewarding. Just like life is. I loved this so much.

  7. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011): It has been said that "baseball is life." Whether or not you agree with this statement, for the characters in Chad Harbach's fantastic novel, baseball may not be life, but it certainly is at the crux of their lives. Amazon named this the best book of 2011. It certainly was among my favorites from that year. Harbach is a terrific writer and at times, a sentence or two would make me pause and read it again, just to marvel at his word choices.

  8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012): This book hooked me so hard I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. to finish it, and there I was, sobbing, on my couch in the middle of the night. Clearly, a book about teenagers who meet in a cancer support group is headed in a direction you don't want it to, but even the journey Green takes you on is worth the sadness.

  9. Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2018): When the blurb on the cover reads, "This is an astoundingly beautiful book. It drips with tenderness. It breaks your heart and warms it all at once," how can you resist? This is an immensely memorable story about friendship, love, and longing, and the blurred lines between those things.

  10. Beartown (2017) and Us Against You by Fredrick Backman (2018): These two books are about a Swedish town that is literally obsessed with hockey, and which faces a crisis (or two) that will practically tear the town apart. These books are utterly phenomenal, full of heart, memorable characters you root for, and, at least for me, situations to make you cry.

Book Review: "Such a Fun Age" by Kiley Reid

This was a thought-provoking novel I didn’t want to put down.

Emira is nearly 26, that crucial age when she’ll be dropped from her parents’ health insurance. While most of her friends have started making their own paths career-wise and life-wise, she works as a babysitter for the wealthy (and white) Chamberlain family. She knows she needs a better, more stable job but she really enjoys taking care of their young daughter, Briar.

Late one night Emira gets a call from Mrs. Chamberlain. They had an incident at their house and she asked Emira if she could take Briar to the gourmet grocery store down the street until the hubbub dies down. Emira was at a party so she’s dressed a bit provocatively and she may have had a drink or two, but she agrees to help the Chamberlains.

While at the grocery store, she is questioned by security who think she kidnapped Briar, since they're not of the same race. The incident escalates until she has to call the Chamberlains to verify she is, indeed, the babysitter. While someone videotaped the whole incident, Emira doesn’t want any part of the trouble that releasing the video could cause, even if she might benefit because she was clearly the victim of discrimination.

After the incident, Alix Chamberlain becomes a little obsessed with making sure Emira feels comfortable in her job. Alix tries to build a sort of friendship with her babysitter, giving her gifts, offering her more hours, trying to serve as a combination mentor/big sister/best friend. Emira, who has begun dating a new man, wants to find a better job, but doesn’t want to leave Briar. And when a strange connection between Emira and Alix is discovered, it sets an odd chain of events in motion which will cause ripples in everyone's lives.

Such a Fun Age is a fascinating look at issues of class, race, privilege, motherhood, struggling to find your own way, and relationships. These characters aren’t always likable, but I really enjoyed this book. I think it would be a great pick for book clubs (and I saw this morning that Reese Witherspoon just chose it as her latest book club pick) because it really would be a great source of discussion and conversation.

Kiley Reid is tremendously talented, and this book feels really self-assured for a debut novel. Not a bad book to start 2020 with!!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Best Books I Read in 2019...

Well, another year (and another decade, amazingly) has passed us by. It's crazy to believe we're in 2020 now!

This past year, I read a record 211 books. This very well may be the most I've ever read in a year, although I don't know how many books I read when I was working at a bookstore in college and could read during slow times. Suffice it to say, if this isn't the most I've ever read in a year, it's the most in nearly 30 years!! (Egads.)

Lots of times people ask me, "How do you read so much?" Reading is my single favorite leisure activity and it's one of the primary ways I decompress. If I don't get to read a little each day, I feel somewhat off-balance. I've traveled a lot again this year, so lots of time in airports, on airplanes, and alone in hotel rooms gives me lots of reading time. I also don't watch television (which you may consider good or bad), so I read when I could be watching TV.

I didn't love every book I read; in fact, there were more than a few I stopped reading so I didn't bother to write reviews, and there were also more than a few (sadly) that petered out before the end, so I wound up skimming through the remainder of the book. I hope that's not a continuing trend!! And here's a funny thing: I have a to-be-read list (TBR) that is gigantic, yet there are times when I finish a book I have no idea what to read next. Go figure.

As I've done for the last 10 years, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 211 books down to a finite number was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 26 (one is two volumes of the same book), along with a number of others which just fell short of the very best but they're still too good to miss.

I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites! I ranked my top 10 this year and then the remainder of the books will be in random order—ranking those would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best
  1. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
: Imagine if the First Son of the United States (his mother is finishing her first term as president, his father is a U.S. Congressman) has a love affair with Prince Henry of Wales, an heir to the throne (well, the "spare," actually). I read this sweet, sexy, emotional, truly special book last January and it never left my mind.
  • Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This book, written as an oral history of the (fictional) legendary band Daisy Jones & The Six, reads as if you were watching an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" crossed with the amazing movie Almost Famous. One of two books by Reid on this list, and one of her books made my best-of-2018 list as well. She's one hell of a writer.

  • A Scarcity of Condors by Suanne Laqueur: This is the third book in a trilogy by Laqueur—the first two books, An Exaltation of Larks and A Charm of Finches—made my top 5 in 2018. This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times. The characters are simply gorgeous, fully drawn, and complex. It's a book about survival, about finding strength where there should be none, and about how love can help pull us through.

  • We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra: This is a gorgeously moving, beautifully told, thought-provoking story of friendship, love, truth, and secrets. The entire book is narrated in letters between two boys—Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky, a football player repeating his senior year of high school, and Jonathan Hopkirk, a quirky, fiercely intelligent sophomore with a passion for Walt Whitman's poetry, who is bullied nearly every day at school because of his sexuality. This book, to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, utterly undid me.

  • The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall: How is this a debut novel? This one sneaks up on you with its gorgeous, contemplative story which grabs hold of your mind and your heart. It's the story of two men who meet in 1963 when they are hired as co-ministers an historic church in Greenwich Village. They couldn’t be more opposite from one another. 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.

  • Find Me by Andre Aciman: While this 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.

  • The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez: You might be tempted to write this off as fluffy "chick-lit," but you'd be wrong. Sure, there is romance, humor, hot sex, talk of soulmates and futures, but there is also an extra layer of emotional complexity in this book. The story of a couple who meet-cute when he rear-ends her car, who want to be together despite numerous obstacles in their way, is utterly put-downable. Even when the book took a surprisingly emotional turn, the characters remained utterly true to themselves and the story, and I became even more invested.

  • This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger: Two brothers are forced to escape the school they've been left in, a school that treats students with violence and cruelty, and they go on the run with their friend, a Native American boy who cannot speak, and an orphan girl, in 1930s Minnesota. Such a beautiful, thought-provoking, emotional book, this is the story of a harrowing journey, children forced to find the bravery of adults, with a little of the mystical thrown in for good measure.

  • Lie with Me by Philippe Besson: Can we ever forget the raw emotions, the intensity, the longing of our first true love? How does that relationship affect the rest of our lives? Besson poignantly captures those feelings, the way every fiber of your being is affected, the way you want nothing more than that person and cannot bear the thought of being apart. And how you mourn the end of that relationship, how it feels like no pain you've ever experienced, so much more than your heart can bear.

  • The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake: There’s so much to this story—the need to be loved and understood, family dysfunction, emotional issues, sexuality—and Drake did such a terrific job with it. Her writing is imbued with such rich emotion, her prose is poetic at times, and her characters are fascinating—they're layered, complex, and not entirely sympathetic. This book mesmerized me with its power, left me emotional, and touched my heart in an unforgettable way.