Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book Review: "Big Summer" by Jennifer Weiner

Big Summer, Jennifer Weiner's newest novel, is a thought-provoking, poignant exploration of friendship, self-esteem, body image, social media, and whether people truly are capable of change.

If she’s not completely happy, Daphne is at least content with her life. She’s starting to gain momentum as a social media influencer for the plus-size community, she likes her job and her apartment, and she’s even starting to feel a bit better about how she looks.

When her childhood best friend Drue shows up after they haven’t spoken in six years, Daphne is thrown for a loop. Drue is set to marry a reality show star on Cape Cod, and she wants Daphne to be in her wedding. Drue says she’s changed since the night of their big fight, and although that night changed Daphne in many ways, she’s willing to give Drue the benefit of the doubt, despite the numerous times Drue made her feel bad about herself.

I’ll stop with any synopsis here because this is a book that surprises, and the less you know about it going in, the better. Weiner creates believable, complex characters, and she pulls you into this story completely.

I struggled a little at the beginning because the narration of the book kept shifting from Daphne’s childhood memories to present-day, but after a little bit of time that leveled off and I was totally hooked. There are a lot of powerful themes Weiner touches on in the book but she’s never heavy-handed in her messaging.

Atria Books and Ariele Stewart provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thank you for making it available!!

This book publishes May 5.

Book Review: "The Astonishing Life of August March" by Aaron Jackson

Aaron Jackson's The Astonishing Life of August March is utterly charming and delightful.

August March took his first breaths in a New York City theater prior to World War II. Born to an actress during the intermission of her play, she abandoned him amidst her soiled costumes. He was found by an elderly laundress, who becomes his de-facto mother, but knowing that she wasn't truly the maternal type, she nurtures him when she's at work, but leaves him to spend his nights in the theater.

August is a wild but intelligent child, one who speaks in Shakespearean monologues and is prone to dramatic declarations because he grows up watching every theatrical production. At one point he even befriends an English actor who played King Lear. He knows what makes a good production and what makes a disastrous one, and he's more than happy to share his opinions.

But August knows nothing of the outside world and doesn’t know how to interact with people, and when his time in the theater comes to an end in the days after WWII, he must make his way in the world. His life is a continued adventure, from pickpocket to prep school student, drunkard to high-stakes con artist. But while he may have companions, he always feels alone.

Yet despite the adventures, the highs and lows he experiences through his life, August longs for some sense of normalcy, for people to care for him. He thinks he may have found that with Penny, but is it for real or is she going for the ultimate con herself?

I thought this was such a fun, enjoyable book, and the characters are truly memorable. This was a special story which would make a fun movie, because August was so fascinating.

The Astonishing Life of August March is one of those books that sticks with you. I definitely wished it were longer.

Book Review: "Eight Perfect Murders" by Peter Swanson

Is there really such a thing as a “perfect murder”?

Malcolm Kershaw leads a fairly quiet life. He co-owns a mystery bookstore in Boston, and apart from his employees and the occasional friend, he mostly spends his evenings alone, listening to music and reading, ever since his wife died a few years ago.

One snowy day he gets a visit from an FBI agent about a series of murders which seem to replicate those committed in Agatha Christie’s A.B.C. Murders, as well as one that might be patterned after James M. Cain's Double Indemnity.

It’s not that the FBI agent (necessarily) thinks Mal had anything to do with the murders, but years ago he wrote a post for the store’s blog called “Eight Perfect Murders,” in which he chose eight books in which the seemingly perfect crime had been committed. It appears someone is killing people using Mal’s list as a guide. But not just that, it appears the killer wants Mal to know what they’re doing...and this killer may know some of Mal’s secrets, too!

I tore through this book in one sitting. While it had a few quirks, I thought this was a great mystery which kept me on my toes, and I loved the concept of the plot. I really wasn’t sure whom to suspect at one point, and I suspect everyone when I read mysteries!!

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Peter Swanson’s books, and I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy the way he writes. (I loved The Kind Worth Killing.) If you like mysteries that make you think, here’s one for you!

Book Review: "Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks & Scones" by Ngozi Ukazu

Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks & Scones gave me all the freaking feels, y’all!!

This graphic novel series was amazing! It was full of fun, emotion, hockey, friendship, love, and baking, plus the struggles of self-acceptance and worrying what others think of you.

Eric “Bitty” Bittle is now a junior at Samwell University and a key player on its hockey team. He’s come a long way since freshman year, when he used to faint if someone rushed to check him!

He’s one of the rulers of the hockey haus now, keeping everyone in line and keeping them full with all of his baking. But he’s also been really distracted, because he and his former teammate, Jack Zimmermann, who is now playing professional hockey in the NHL, have been secretly dating. It’s a challenge to keep their relationship a secret when they’re both so happy, which is making them—particularly Bitty—sad. Should they throw caution to the wind? How will their friends, family, the NHL react?

In addition to that dilemma, Bitty has to help the new players get acclimated, deal with the departure of more of his friends, and when he goes into his senior year, prepare for life after Samwell. What's that going to look like? What is he going to do?

This is such a beautifully drawn, immensely thought-out series. I've been really enjoying the graphic novels I've read in the last year or so, and am so impressed with the complexity of emotions these books evoke. I can’t believe this series is over now, and I hope maybe someday Ngozi Ukazu will give us another glimpse of these characters.

I hear frequently that people aren’t into graphic novels but this series could make you change your mind. I truly loved it!!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Book Review: "Crave" by Tracy Wolff

Does the world need another brooding vampire love story? Yes.

Grace’s parents were killed in an accident, so she has to move from San Diego to Alaska, where her uncle is the head of a fancy prep school in a remote town. And while Alaska itself is a total shock to her system, she’s not expecting school to be in an actual castle, nor is she expecting everyone to take an immediate dislike to her.

When she catches the eye of Jaxon Vega, the hottest guy she’s ever seen, surrounded by a group of brooding, handsome guys, she is mesmerized. But he quickly breaks the spell by telling her she’s in danger and should never have come to the school.

But there’s something about Jaxon that she can’t shake, and despite his veil of disdain, she knows he feels it, too. After a series of near-death experiences have him rescuing her every time, she starts to discover that maybe Jaxon is right, and she is a pawn in a battle she has no idea about.

As their relationship intensifies, Grace must make a choice: go back to San Diego, where she will be safe, or possibly sacrifice everything for Jaxon—including her life. She doesn’t know much about the world of vampires, dragons, werewolves, witches, and shapeshifters, but she’s in the middle of all of it.

Of course, Crave immediately reminded me of Twilight, and even its cover design is similar. But while both share brooding, passionate stories of dangerous love, Crave really set up a tantalizing world of humans being torn apart by events some don’t even understand.

This was an angsty yet romantic book, but it took a long, long time to hit its stride. There were far too many times where things happened and people clammed up rather than tell Grace the truth about what was going on. But once she figured it all out, it was like a roller coaster, speeding toward a cliffhanger conclusion for which we’ll have to wait until the next book!

There are no sparkling vampires, no earnest werewolves, but there are plenty of characters to swoon over. And that’s just fine with me.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Book Review: "The Sweeney Sisters" by Lian Dolan

A novel full of family dysfunction and drama? Sign me up, please!

Bill Sweeney was one of the most formative writers of his time; decades after his books were written they continue to be taught in schools, discussed, and revered. Fifteen years ago his poet wife, Maeve, died, leaving him to raise their three daughters in their small seaside town of Southport, Connecticut. Bill did the best he could, although the sisters took care of themselves and became even more inseparable.

One morning, the sisters get the call from their long-time housekeeper that Bill has died. It’s a shock, as they felt somehow he might live forever, but the three—Liza, Maggie, and Tricia—return to their childhood home to make sense of it all.

It turns out that Bill was hiding a few shocking secrets from the girls, which knock them for a loop. As they try to ready the house for sale, they’re desperately searching for Bill’s missing memoir, and in light of their discoveries, wonder what everything will mean for his literary legacy and their lives. How will it affect their own memories of their father, too?

On top of dealing with their father’s death, each woman has their own challenges to deal with. It’s an emotional time, fraught with roadblocks and crises which test their relationships and force them to reexamine their pasts and their futures.

I love a book full of good family drama, and The Sweeney Sisters certainly doesn’t disappoint. Lian Dolan did a great job with her story, and I couldn’t get enough of these characters. Sure, it’s predictable in places, but I love the fact that Dolan didn’t veer too far into melodrama, because there definitely were places the plot could have gone into that territory, and that might have derailed the story.

How well do we know those we love? How much can we depend on family in our time of need? How do others see us? Should late-in-life discoveries change how we've viewed a person for our entire life? These were fascinating questions this book tries to answer, and does so well.

I received an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks to William Morrow Books, Lian Dolan, and Wunderkind PR for making it available!

The book publishes 4/28.

Book Review: "The Roxy Letters" by Mary Pauline Lowry

The Roxy Letters is a cute, quirky, epistolary novel.

Roxy’s life has hit a rough patch. Her financial situation is bleak, her love life is nonexistent, her job as a “deli maid” at Whole Foods (the original) is dissatisfying and often in jeopardy, and as an artist, she has no motivation to create. It’s gotten so bad that she’s allowed her ex-boyfriend Everett to move in with her, so she can get some extra income she needs to get out of debt.

The thing is, Everett isn’t that good with paying rent on time, or observing boundaries, so Roxy starts writing him letters, to remind him of his obligations and set some rules for their cohabitation (don’t come into her bedroom if the door is closed, don’t eat her food). And he also isn't around all that much, which defeats some of the purpose of why Roxy wanted him there in the first place.

But little by little, these letters become less about the rent and more Roxy’s way of reflecting her feelings—envy of one of her best friends, whose career is taking off while hers is stagnating; worry that she won’t find romance (or even sex); and frustration that her beloved city of Austin is becoming more commercial. (The biggest slap in her face is when a Lululemon opens where an old video store used to be.)

While she continues to write letters to Everett, they become more of a de-facto diary than actual correspondence. And as her life changes, the tone of the letters change as well, reflecting Roxy’s search for romance, better employment, artistic inspiration, and ultimate fulfillment.

This is a cute, light, wacky book. It would definitely be a good change of pace between heavier reads.

I liked this but didn’t love it. Sometimes the epistolary structure works (try Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) and sometimes it doesn’t work as effectively. I felt like I would’ve liked to have gotten to know Roxy a little better and the letters kept her at a bit of a distance, but her voice is certainly unique!

Still, despite my issues, this was a fun, quick read.

Book Review: "The Holdout" by Graham Moore

Graham Moore's latest book, The Holdout, is a pretty great legal thriller, one which I could totally see becoming a movie.

Ten years ago the trial rocked the country. A black teacher was on trial for murdering his white teenage student, the daughter of a prominent real estate developer in LA. During the trial text messages hinted at an inappropriate relationship between the teacher and student.

When the jury got together, all but one juror, Maya, were ready to convict. Little by little, after weeks of deliberation and argument, she wore them down with her assessments and they voted to acquit the defendant. The verdict—and their participation in the jury—changes their lives immeasurably.

"You ever think about all the fucked-up shit we end up doing because we tell ourselves we're helping?"

Now, 10 years later, a true-crime documentary is focused on the trial and brings the jury together, in the same hotel where they were once sequestered. One juror is purported to have “explosive” new evidence. And then another murder occurs, which sets off a high-stakes race to find the truth, before someone else dies.

I really enjoyed this book. It switches between past and present, and looks at each of the jurors and how they came to their decision to acquit, as well as whatever secrets they might have been hiding. There were lots of twists and turns in the plot, and while I had some suspicions about how things might resolve themselves, I was definitely surprised by some of what happened.

While I didn’t feel the book read like a movie, it certainly could be adapted into one, and that’s not surprising considering the author is an Oscar-winning screenwriter. (He wrote The Imitation Game.) But I felt Moore did a good job giving his characters depth as much as he crafted suspense.

No objections to this legal thriller! (Dad joke.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Book Review: "Fence: Vol. 2" and "Fence: Vol. 3" by C.S. Pacat, Johanna the Mad, and Joana LaFuente

More fencing, more drama, more suspense!

We return to Kings Row and the tryouts for the fencing team. Ever since he surprised everyone by showing up at this school rather than someplace more prestigious, everyone is expecting Seiji Katayama to make the team. But who else will join him?

Nicholas has wanted to do nothing but fence for as long as he can remember. But can his skills overcome his lack of training and technique? Will his desire to make Seiji respect him cause more friction with his sullen roommate?

Volume 2 and Volume 3 of the series cover the remainder of the tryouts, culminating with the selection of this year's fencing team. Will Aiden finally get his comeuppance for being the cocky, love-em-and-leave-em fencer who only wants to be on the team to prove his superiority? Will Eugene finally make the team? And of course, will Nicholas, or will he watch his dreams and his scholarship go up in smoke?

What I really enjoy about this series is not only how well it is drawn, but how C.S. Pacat delivers tension, emotion, and so many facts about fencing. I like that the characters (at least most of them) are starting to get a little more depth. I also like that the sexuality of the characters is a total non-issue, which you wouldn't expect in such close quarters.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Vol. 4 will be published until the summer, although I may be able to read the rest of the 12-volume series online. I hate having to wait to see what happens next!

I’ve been loving graphic novels lately, particularly those with LGBT themes. Anyone have any recommendations?

Book Review: "More Than Maybe" by Erin Hahn

More Than Maybe, Erin Hahn's upcoming book, is a terrific story about music, love, family, and the freedom to follow—or not follow—your passions.

Vada has had a crush on Luke Greenly for a while. It’s not just his accent (his family moved to Michigan from the UK when he was younger) or his looks; it’s his soulfulness, his personality, and of course, the passion for music they share.

Luke has always been partial to gingers so of course Vada catches his eye every time he and his brother record their podcast at the bar where she works. But Vada’s passion for music—her music blog is one of Luke’s obsessions—fuels his crush on her.

The two pair up for a senior assignment and they learn more about each other’s vulnerabilities and ambitions, and try to fight the undeniable chemistry between them. Vada wants to be a music journalist and Luke wants to write music—but not sing it—despite his musician father’s desire that Luke pursue stardom he could so obviously achieve.

When Luke’s brother secretly releases a recording of Luke singing a love song he wrote, it sets off a ton of ripples that affect everyone. And Vada isn’t (too) embarrassed to admit she wishes he was singing to her.

While the book took a little bit to hit its groove, I really loved it. These characters were just so appealing and weren’t overly erudite or sarcastic so they felt very real to me. I read this until late the other night and was totally choking up in the dark. (I'm a sap, so whatever.)

I love the way Erin Hahn writes. Her first book, You’d Be Mine, was amazing, too. (Loved the mentions of that book in this one!) If you love books about music and love, here’s one for you!!

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

The book publishes July 21.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Book Review: "The Best Laid Plans" by Cameron Lund

When you live in a small town and go to high school with the same people you’ve known since kindergarten, everyone knows your business. So it’s public knowledge among most of her classmates that Keely may very well be the last virgin in the senior class.

There’s nothing wrong with her; it’s just all of the guys she knows treat her like she’s one of them. Even her best friend Andrew, whom she’s known since birth, treats her like she’s not really a member of the opposite sex, and they feel comfortable talking about girls and everything in front of her.

Keely doesn’t want to go to college a virgin but when she sees how another classmate is treated when she loses her virginity to one of the school’s more popular guys, she starts to wonder: why is it okay for guys—even Andrew—to be with girl after girl, but when a girl sleeps with a guy she’s a slut? Why would her parents be fine if she slept with Andrew, but not with someone else?

So when a sexy, college-aged coworker who looks like James Dean (his name is even Dean) and likes movies as much as she does expresses interest in her, Keely realizes he’s what he needs to help her with her, umm, problem.

But is he? Is sex with Dean the answer, or is there someone else she’d rather be with?

The Best Laid Plans was cute but it just didn’t click for me. The characters were all just so mean to each other and manipulative (even though most behavior was justifiable) so they weren’t tremendously appealing. (That's not saying their behavior wasn't authentic, just irritating.) The book’s conclusion is sweet although obvious from the start, but that’s okay.

The book is thought-provoking in its conversations about the double standards around sexual behavior for men and women, particularly high school students. I just wish it had a little more heart throughout.

Book Review: "The Herd" by Andrea Bartz

What could cause a female entrepreneur to disappear on the biggest night of her career? This is one of the mysteries at the core of Andrea Bartz's newest thriller.

The Herd is an innovative coworking space just for women. Its founder, Eleanor Walsh, has tapped into a powerful need for women to have their own business and creative space, and women from all over New York and San Francisco are clamoring to become members.

Eleanor, along with her two best friends from college, Hana and Mikki, have made the Herd into a phenomenon, and it’s truly on the verge of greatness. Yet on Eleanor’s biggest night, the night of a major announcement, she disappears.

Hana and Mikki, devastated and angered by Eleanor’s disappearance, can’t figure out what might have happened. Sure, she and the Herd had their detractors, but it all doesn’t make sense. The two friends, along with Hana’s younger sister, Katie, an investigative journalist, start to look into the disappearance, and discover Eleanor's life wasn't as pulled together as it appeared. But then again, the three of them are also hiding major secrets.

The Herd is an interesting, twisty mystery that takes a while to build up steam, but keeps moving fast once it does. I really like the way Andrea Bartz writes (check out her last book, The Lost Night), and found the interpersonal dynamics among the characters here pretty fascinating.

One thing I don’t love about books is when everyone has a secret but no one will talk about them yet, they get referred to constantly. ("We can't say anything about that night.") I’d almost rather find out about these secrets by myself than have a ton of foreshadowing with little delivery until the story is coming to a close.

This is a solid, compelling read and it is a thought-provoking look at the barriers women experience when pursuing success. I’m definitely a fan of Bartz’s work and look forward to her next book.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Book Review: "A Star is Bored" by Byron Lane

Byron Lane's debut novel, A Star is Bored, is a funny and poignant look into the life of a celebrity’s personal assistant.

Charlie hates his life. He hates his job as a news writer working the graveyard shift, he hates his father, he even hates the men he’s been having unsafe sex with. He’s entertained suicide but he lacks concrete plans and follow-through.

But his life changes with the zaniest job interview of his life, to be the personal assistant to Kathi Kannon, iconic star of a classic sci-fi movie, best-selling author, and member of Hollywood royalty—her mother, famed actress Gracie Gold, lives on her estate. Kathi is also a (sometimes recovering) drug addict who has manic episodes.

The job becomes all-consuming for Charlie, a stressful yet immensely satisfying adventure once he gets the hang of it. Kathi is needy and demanding and erratic and is, at times, a danger to herself and her reputation, but she truly cares about Charlie and helps him find his self-esteem.

Between spontaneous trips to go see the aurora borealis and rescuing her from embarrassing faux pas with other celebs, Charlie gets immersed in the world of the celebrity assistant, learning the summits and pitfalls that his compatriots have experienced.

When you spend your whole life propping someone up and being at their beck and call, when do you live? Are your needs ever front and center? Charlie has to decide what path he should take in order to find real satisfaction.

This is a zany, wild, heartfelt book. Byron Lane was Carrie Fisher’s assistant so you know he knows of what he writes—and you can’t help but wonder just how much of Kathi’s behavior was inspired by true events. (I adored Carrie Fisher so I was hooked.)

After a while, Kathi’s manic nature gets a little hard to take, but that’s when the heart of the book kicked in. This was a fun read if you’re a fan of the crazy lives of celebrities.

NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes July 28.

Book Review: "Beach Read" by Emily Henry

Don’t write Beach Read off as just another rom-com!

January heads to the Michigan shore after her life falls apart. A bestselling romance writer, she’s used to creating happy endings for her characters. But now that she’s unhappy, it’s going to make it even harder to deliver the fifth book in her deal with her publisher.

Her neighbor in the beach house next door is Augustus Everett, who writes literary fiction. Gus doesn’t believe in happy endings, and has disdain for the type of so-called “fairytales” that January writes.

As the two of them realize they’ll be working next door to one another every single day, they make a bet: they’ll swap genres and whichever one writes the better book will have the other one promote it and write a blurb. On top of that, every Friday they’ll go on an outing he plans, related to research he’s doing about a now-defunct cult, and on Saturdays they’ll go on a rom-com-worthy outing. (They’re not dates. And no one is going to fall in love.)

So you know what comes next, but it’s far more complicated than that. Both January and Gus are fighting through significant emotional scars that they don’t want to talk about. And there are connections between the two of them they're not willing to acknowledge at first.

Can happiness be found when two people don’t think they’re capable of happiness and aren’t sure if love is worth the risk? Where do you find the courage to let your guard down when you’ve been badly hurt before? And perhaps the most important question: will they both finish their books on time?

I’ve been dying to read Beach Read for a while and it was just amazing. It’s fun and sweet and sexy and romantic, populated by fascinating supporting characters, and it’s also surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking.

It’s everything I wanted in a rom-com and so much more! If you can’t get your hands on a copy ahead of time (thanks to Book of the Month for mine), it comes out May 19!

Book Review: "A Good Neighborhood" by Therese Anne Fowler

After reading Therese Anne Fowler's new novel, A Good Neighborhood, all I can say, in the words of Keanu Reeves in many of his early movies is, “whoa.”

I don’t belong to a book club, but I wish I did after reading this book. It made me sad, it made me angry, it made me think about our world today, and it made me wonder whether or not certain characters’ actions were justified.

In the comfortable North Carolina suburb of Oak Hill, Valerie and her biracial son Xavier have lived since he was a baby. An ecology and forestry professor, Valerie feels more at home among the plants and trees than with people, especially the majestic, historic oak tree at the back of their property. Xavier, studious, friendly, and charming, is just about ready to head across the country for college, where he’ll study classical guitar.

The Whitmans move into the lot behind Valerie and Xavier, building a McMansion, razing all of the trees on their property and infringing upon Valerie’s oak. Brad Whitman, the self-made man with the HVAC empire, who fancies himself a minor celebrity because he appears in his company’s commercials, lives there with his wife, his teenage stepdaughter Juniper, and his daughter Lily.

When Valerie’s tree starts dying, she pursues some legal remedies which anger Brad. And then Juniper and Xavier begin seeing each other secretly, and the discovery of the relationship sets an indelible chain of events into motion.

This book shook me. I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened but I was so irritated/upset by the fact that stuff like this actually happens. Therese Anne Fowler did an excellent job creating a veritable car crash of a novel I couldn’t look away from. I've seen mixed things but I can't help but wonder if some who didn't like the book were put off by the behavior of the characters.

I won’t forget about this one for a long time.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Book Review: "Sunset Beach" by Mary Kay Andrews

Sunset Beach has a little family drama, a little unsolved mystery, a little romance, and a beach setting. Not bad, eh?

Drue has had a bad run of luck. She was about to turn pro as a kiteboarder when a knee injury ended things for her. Her mother just died, leaving her broke and homeless, and then her estranged father turns up at her mother’s funeral.

Her father comes bearing a job offer at his law firm and news that she has inherited her grandparents’ condo on Sunset Beach. The last thing she wants to do is take a handout from her father but she’ll need money to rehab the condo, which has seen years of neglect.

Then she discovers her father’s new wife—his much younger new wife—is her former best friend turned worst enemy. And she’s the law firm’s office manager to boot. She wants to make Drue’s life miserable enough so she’ll quit, but Drue refuses to give her the satisfaction.

When Drue learns of a case the firm was handling, in which a young woman who was working as a hotel housekeeper was murdered, and thinks it was settled unfairly to the victim’s family, she decides to do some digging on her own. And when she finds what appears to be the official police files of a decades-old missing persons case in the condo’s attic, she can’t resist looking into that as well. But will she discover her father was at fault in either of these? Does this amateur investigative work put her in danger?

I’ll admit I thought was going to be a lighthearted, beach-related romp, but that’s what I get for reading a book without seeing what it’s about! I enjoyed this, though; obviously you have to suspend your disbelief when you have a neophyte investigating cases, but Mary Kay Andrews’ writing had a relaxed, compelling vibe and she threw in some good twists and turns.

Sunset Beach was an enjoyable read which gave me the beachy feel without tracking sand in the house!!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Book Review: "The Familiar Dark" by Amy Engel

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!! Amy Engel's new thriller was absolutely terrific.

“It’s never the thing you’re expecting that wallops you. It’s always something sneaky, sliding up behind you when your attention’s fixed on something else.”

Eve’s world is torn completely apart when her 12-year-old daughter, Junie, is found murdered. Living in the same poor town in the Missouri Ozarks where she grew up, Eve expected many paths her daughter might take, but she never imagined she’d be murdered alongside her best friend.

Although she is flattened by grief, Eve is determined to find who killed her daughter and make them pay. If that means riling up the town’s resident drug kingpin, with whom she has a volatile history, so be it. Her older brother Cal, a policeman, tries to keep Eve on the straight and narrow, but ultimately knows she'll do what she has to do to find justice.

Looking into Junie’s death will take Eve back to the trailer she grew up in, and her mother, an addict who is tough as nails and knows everything that goes on in the town. She raised Eve and Cal with alternating cruelty and neglect, and made it clear to Eve that she had very little desire to be a mother. Both siblings tried to veer as far away as possible from the path that their mother cut, Cal becoming a policeman and Eve trying to raise her daughter to have self-worth and opportunities. But above anything, they remember one thing about their mother: no one ever messes with her family and gets away with it.

The Familiar Dark is excellent and so worth the hype. It is full of twists and turns, emotion, and evocative imagery. I devoured this book and actually wished it was longer. It's certainly dark and sad, but it's a terrific thriller and I was really impressed with Engel's storytelling ability.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Book Review: "We Didn't Ask for This" by Adi Alsaid

It’s the annual lock-in night at Central International School, the night where students stay at school and enjoy fun events and a legendary secret party planned by a fellow student. It’s a night they look forward to all year, and younger students can’t wait until they’re in high school to experience it.

For some students this will be the night—the night they let their crush know what they’re thinking, the night they prove they’re the best athlete in the school regardless of gender, the night they finally feel like they belong. And for one student, this is the night to follow in his dying brother's footsteps and throw an unbelievable party.

But for one student, this night is the opportunity to take a stand against climate change. Knowing so many students have powerful parents from around the world, she and her supporters have a plan—they’ll chain themselves to every entrance, swallow the keys, and not move until their demands are met. And these aren’t just superficial demands: in some cases they’re asking for sweeping changes to society, like the ceasing of construction on an island.

We Didn't Ask for This follows the aftermath of the students chaining themselves to the doors and how everyone deals with it, from the students and the teachers in the school to those outside. I thought that the original premise of the story was such a good one, but this concept—while I understand the importance of standing up for our climate—just didn’t work. It dragged on way too long and was totally unrealistic, especially when the school had no windows that could open or other things.

I enjoy Adi Alsaid’s writing, as I’ve read some of his other books. I loved the way that the students’ sexuality was so matter-of-fact and no one cared, and a number of the characters were really appealing. I just wish the book didn't feel like two stories melded together into one.

I was part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Inkyard Press and NetGalley for the advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Book Review: "We Are the Wildcats" by Siobhan Vivian

Other people believing in you is important; believing in yourself is vital if you want to succeed. That's one message I got from Siobhan Vivian's latest book, We Are the Wildcats.

“Team first, always.” That’s the mantra of the coach of the West Essex Girls’ Field Hockey team. Some say he’s too hard on the team, some say he’s manipulative, even abusive. But this mantra seems to be working—the team has won four of the last five state championships.

Last year, however, things fell apart and they lost in the championship game. No one was even sure if Coach would come back this year, since he deserved to be coaching on the college level. The girls are all determined that what happened last year won’t happen again, and all battle to make the team for another year. They say, and try to prove, that they’re stronger, faster, tougher, and a few new, younger recruits show promise.

Coach doesn’t agree, though. He doesn’t believe this team is ready to go all the way. He doesn't even think they can win their first scrimmage. And over the course of one night—which is supposed to be the team’s traditional Psych-Up Party—Coach injects himself in ways that cause the girls doubt, yet they are even more motivated to prove, especially to him, just how much they want to win.

At the same time, though, Coach’s subtle manipulations magnify the girls’ vulnerabilities, and it’s not long before secrets are revealed (and discovered), lies are identified, and crucial decisions need to be made. It may be more than Coach bargained for.

I thought this was an interesting book but it was a little different than I expected. I was expecting more Mean Girls but it wasn’t cruel like that. The book was narrated by a number of team members so at times it was tough keeping everything straight.

Vivian did a great job creating tension throughout the whole book, and I was definitely hooked. I kept worrying that the plot might veer into uncomfortable territory, and there was lots of potential for that. But she remained true to her story, and while there might not be a lot of surprises, this was a good read.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Book Review: "Redhead by the Side of the Road" by Anne Tyler

Does anyone create characters who are set in their ways (okay, you can call them curmudgeons) as well as Anne Tyler?

“Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.”

Micah Mortimer is in his 40s, but he’s very particular about how his life operates. The owner of a (very) modest tech support business and the live-in superintendent of his apartment building, he’s one of those people who lives by his routines, is usually cautious and polite, and is an excellent driver, and he makes no apologies for any of it.

One day a college student shows up at his front door claiming that Micah might be his father. And on that same day, his relationship with his “woman friend” Cass (he doesn’t believe a woman over 30 should be called a “girlfriend”) starts deteriorating and he can’t figure out why.

Over the course of a few days, things start to go awry, and Micah begins to question his life. Is he alone because he never found the right person or because he hasn’t been the right person? Does it really matter in the end, or is his life fulfilling enough? If he is the problem, how can he change when he's so comfortable with his life?

Anne Tyler once again proves her strength in character development and storytelling with her latest book. This is about 200 pages long and nothing catastrophic or earth-shattering occurs, but Micah is such a fascinating, complex character that I was hooked completely. We all know people like Micah and the supporting characters in this book, and most of us have thought similarly to Micah every now and again.

Redhead by the Side of the Road was warm and thought-provoking and it once again reminded me how much I love the way Tyler writes. She is truly a treasure.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Book Review: "Music from Another World" by Robin Talley

Music from Another World, Robin Talley's new book, is a poignant look at sexuality, identity, courage, and music, set against the struggle for gay rights in the 1970s.

“There’s no point worrying so hard you can’t breathe. Life’s short, and you’ve got to make sure there’s time to live it.”

Sharon and Tammy are paired up as pen pals for a program implemented at religious schools across the state of California. Sharon attends Catholic school in San Francisco; Tammy attends a Christian school in Orange County, where her aunt and uncle run a church that is very active in helping Anita Bryant try to legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Tammy is a lesbian, a secret she has only confessed to her diary, in letters she writes to Harvey Milk, the only gay person she knows of. Sharon, too, has a secret: her brother Peter is gay, and is becoming more and more involved in the fight for gay rights.

Sharon and Tammy begin writing to one another, and little by little, they start depending on this one connection to someone outside of their constricting circle of life. They begin to trust one another with their secrets, their fears, and their wishes, which serve as comfort and in some ways, an added source of stress.

As Tammy deals with her family’s increased fervor to strip gays and lesbians of their rights, Sharon starts to get involved with a women’s bookstore outside the Castro, and begins exploring an interest in punk and new wave music.

When things come to a head in Tammy’s life, everything changes. Suddenly Sharon isn’t sure who she is or what she wants, and she knows she’s both tired of keeping secrets and yet scared of what revealing or accepting those secrets could do.

This is a powerful book that is very well-researched and authentic to the time in which it is set. It’s definitely well-written, moving, and emotional but I found the family melodrama a bit excessive, and Sharon’s constant indecisiveness wore me down after a while.

I’m grateful to have been part of the blog tour for this book. Inkyard Press and NetGalley provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Book Review: "The Boy from the Woods" by Harlan Coben

With Harlan Coben's new book, The Boy from the Woods, the master delivers another twisty thriller full of secrets!

Thirty years ago a young boy was found living in the woods. It appeared he had been there for some time, but apart from some emotional trauma stemming from memories he can’t parse together, he was mostly fine. He befriended a boy who lived nearby, and he tended to break into people's houses to steal food, even watch television.

Now an adult who goes by the name Wilde, he is a highly intelligent former soldier who still lives in the woods, although he has worked as a private investigator. When famed criminal attorney Hester Crimstein, the mother of his best friend (the boy he met all those years ago), asks him to try and find Naomi, a bullied classmate of her grandson’s who has gone missing, it seems like a fairly routine case.

But Naomi’s disappearance, which no one really seems to care about (not even her father), is just the tip of the iceberg. Wilde steps into the middle of a high-stakes battle of cat and mouse, with betrayals, secrets, and the very fabric of society at risk. And all the while he’s struggling with whether he wants some insight into his own past.

There are a lot of threads to this story, some more interesting than others. I’ll admit that most of the thread about a potentially dangerous politician looking to tear society apart and manipulate the media hit a little too close to home for me, so my eyes kinda glazed over during those parts.

But Harlan Coben knows how to create fascinating characters, and Wilde is one of the best. I really hope he returns in another book. There is a lot going on here, with lots of twists and turns, including one that I’ll admit surprised me, and I couldn’t stop reading this book.

Coben's last three books, Home, Don’t Let Go, and Run Away, are among Coben’s best. The Boy from the Woods isn’t quite at that level, but it’s still a book that kept me guessing—and reading—to the very end.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Book Review: "Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me" by Gae Polisner

Aren’t friends and family supposed to be there for you? Why do you have to face things alone?

In Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me, JL (short for Jean-Louise) is 15, and at a time when she’s supposed to be experiencing the carefree fun of being a teenager, her life is full of angst and worry, including and beyond the typical teenager stuff.

Her mother suffers from a dissociative disorder, which leaves her often depressed or in a fog, writing letters to someone who no longer exists. Her father has been out of town on business for months, which only adds to her mother’s despair.

No one seems to notice that JL’s childhood best friend Aubrey has shunned her, or that JL is dating Max, a 19-year-old senior who seems rough around the edges but is far more intelligent than anyone realizes. The only thing that gives JL peace of mind is spending time with the tropical butterflies she raises.

Max wants to go to California when he graduates, and wants JL to come with him. Of course, she can’t leave her mother alone, can she? Would anyone notice? At what point should she think of her own happiness before others?

As Max starts making plans to leave, and her mother slips further and further into despair, JL doesn’t know what to choose. When there’s no one to guide you, how do you decide?

This is a poignant, beautifully written book about the fragility of young friendship, the challenges of having to take responsibility for your parents when you’re still a child, the secrets we keep hidden from ourselves and others, and the feeling that you’re all alone, and no one is there to help you. Gae Polisner so adroitly captures those emotions.

My only quibble with the book is the way the narration meanders. One chapter takes place in middle school, one in the present, one in the slightly recent past—it took a little while to get used to. But Polisner—whose previous books (especially The Memory of Things) blew me away—keeps you hooked on this story.

I am grateful to have been part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to NetGalley and Wednesday Books for giving me an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. The book publishes 4/7!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review: "The Upside of Falling" by Alex Light

Sometimes pretending to fall in love can be as difficult as actually doing so! At least that's the concept of Alex Light's new book, The Upside of Falling.

Becca doesn’t believe in love. Well, she knows it exists but she doesn’t think it’s worth the risk. Someone always ends it and someone always gets hurt, right? But she loves to read romance novels, because between the pages of a book things are safe and the heartbreak is contained. Lives aren't ruined like they are in real life when love goes wrong, as she knows all too well from her parents' divorce.

When her former best friend publicly ridicules her for never having a real-life romance and just sticking to books, Becca claims to have a boyfriend. And just as she’s about to embellish her story, Brett, the school’s star football player, comes over and kisses her. In front of everyone. Becca is about as flummoxed as everyone else.

Becca is utterly unprepared for the real manifestation of her fictional romance, but for some reason, Brett seems determined to continue with the charade. She doesn't understand why he decided to do this, but it turns out he's been looking for a chance to have a girlfriend, but didn't really know where to look. She’s suddenly being challenged to live outside her comfort zone (eating in the cafeteria, attending football games, etc.) and surprisingly, it’s not as bad as she thought it would be.

The longer they continue pretending to date, the more she realizes that Brett has so much more depth than she imagined, and he has his share of problems, too. And Brett realizes that trying to make someone else happy is actually a pretty wonderful thing.

Things get complicated when pretend feelings threaten to turn into real ones, and when each of them faces personal challenges. Will they go back to their “regular” lives or will they realize that being in a relationship means supporting each other no matter how tough things get?

I thought this was such a sweet, fun book. It didn’t matter that I pretty much knew how everything would unfold. This fake-dating rom-com totally hit the spot, and I enjoyed every minute.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Book Review: "The Association" by Sharon Ann Ziegler

This one will make you think twice the next time you pay your homeowners’ association dues!!

A young lawyer, disillusioned with her profession, decides to try a fresh start when she and her husband move to Georgia. Her first clients are an elderly couple who moved into a lakeside community on the promise of an idyllic retirement in a beautiful home, surrounded by beautiful landscaping and high-end amenities.

The truth is, of the three neighborhoods in this community called Covington Commons, only one, Eagle’s Nest, has been maintained well and offers its residents access to top-notch services and benefits. The other two, including the one where her clients live, have fallen into disarray and disrepair, residents have to pay exorbitant fees to access the amenities, and their property values have declined drastically since no one will want to move into such a dilapidated community. It's tragic because in many cases, these individuals have invested their retirement savings into these homes.

The more digging she does, the more she finds that all is not right at Covington Commons, and it’s all at the hands of the Association, the group in charge of the community, which treats the neighborhood like their own personal slush fund and resort. The Association’s misdeeds have gone unchecked forever—and there are a lot of scandals that go far beyond the usual complaints. Can one young, female lawyer take on a system that has been awash in corruption and cronyism (on the legal and judicial levels, too) and get justice?

She doesn’t realize what she’s stumbled into, but she won’t stop, even as she puts herself further and further into danger.

I love a good underdog story. The Association is well-paced and suspenseful, and Sharon Ann Ziegler’s storytelling leaves you feeling like you can’t put the book down until you’re done. I devoured the book in just a few hours.

Thanks to Sharon Ann Ziegler for providing me with a complimentary (and beautiful) copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "I Know You Know Who I Am" by Peter Kispert

Why do we lie? What is it that causes some of us to reinvent ourselves, our past experiences, responses to people or situations, or something else? And why is it so hard for some to acknowledge these lies, instead being forced to live with a falsehood, sometimes for years?

The concept of lying is at the heart of Peter Kispert's debut short story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am. It was the object of much fanfare even before it was published in mid-February.

In Kispert's collection, each story centers around a lie that a character has told. In some cases it's a lie that was told in a split second, but in some cases, these lies have been carried around for months, sometimes years. How they handle these lies and convince others of their truthfulness poses an interesting dilemma for many of the characters in these stories.

The one story in this collection I was completely enamored was the title story, which opens the book. In this one, a man, desperate to prove to his lover that he was a likable person with friends, hires someone to portray a friend whom he invented. Will the scheme work or will his lie be discovered? It's a taut, funny, slightly bittersweet story and Kispert did such a great job hooking me from the first few sentences.

Unfortunately, for some reason, none of the other stories made me feel this way. Some of the stories are a page or two, so they were over before I was able to ascertain what they were about, while others I fully understood yet they seemed to hold me at some emotional distance, and I almost felt like I was reading them through some gauzy filter. Each story seemed to hint at something big but then never got there.

I'm a big fan of short stories and I eagerly anticipated this collection, but it fell really short for me. I tried reading it over a few different days in case it was my mood or external factors that were distracting me, but each time my feelings were the same. I've seen others give this a phenomenal review, so I'd definitely encourage you to read this and not be dissuaded by my reaction.