Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: "The Good Stranger" by Dete Meserve

Boy, we could all use a book like this right now!!

Kate Bradley is a television news reporter who has moved from LA to NYC for a gig at a national news channel. She has uprooted her life, and after a few days she’s not sure she made the right decision. She doesn’t feel at home in the city, and feels it’s harsh and cold.

One night after a massive blackout hits, Kate expects the story she’ll be covering is about the panic, the looting, the destruction that came afterward. But instead there seems to be a massive wave of generosity sweeping the city. Anonymous people are paying for strangers’ medical bills, sending gifts of clothing and food to homeless people, leaving gift cards on all cars in a parking lot, etc.

Who is behind this movement of good deeds? Is it a marketing gimmick for a company? Are people being set up? Kate teams up with a handsome program host to try and find the mysterious people responsible, chasing down every lead and leaving no stone unturned.

But someone doesn’t want Kate to find out the truth, and they send menacing letters and get closer and closer to her. As she deals with her own personal issues while trying to trace this path of kindness, she realizes that the connections it is fostering may be more important than the deeds themselves.

The Good Stranger was such a unique mystery—how often is someone trying to track someone down for doing something good? But beyond that, what a terrific concept this book was based on. In this chaotic time, we all could use some kindness, couldn’t we?

Although this is the third book featuring Kate Bradley, I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything having not read the previous books. But Dete Meserve did such a great job I’ll definitely go back and read the other two!!

I was honored to be part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours, Dete Meserve, and Lake Union Publishing for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Book Review: "Most Likely" by Sarah Watson

Sarah Watson's debut novel, Most Likely, is a great story about friendship and how far it can take you—like all the way to the Oval Office.

Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha have been best friends since just before kindergarten. They’ve always had each other’s backs through good and bad times, and in 30 years, one of them is going to be elected president.

The book focuses on their senior year of high school. Ava has battled depression and insecurity, as well as questions about her family; CJ wants to make something of herself and hopes getting into Stanford might be the launching point, despite her abysmal SAT scores; aspiring journalist Jordan is doggedly focused on finding the right story to jump start her career; and Martha's ambitions are tempered by financial realities and her uncertainty about what her sexuality might mean to her future. They each are determined to leave their mark on the world.

"Im probably biased, but if I had to pick the one love story that matters most, it would be mine. I'm not talking about [name withheld to maintain surprise]. Even though they are completely wonderful. I'm talking about the other one. The three loves of my life. Right here in this room."

Most Likely is a really compelling story of the ups and downs of friendship, family, love, self-esteem, and stepping out of your comfort zone. You don’t know who will be president until the very end (although if you’re paying attention, you realize it just before) and I was totally invested. (Watson even tries to throw you off the trail a few times.)

Sure, there are some predictable moments and times when you just want to shake the characters so they’ll say what they need to, but this was a really enjoyable book, and the friendships seemed genuine. I'd love to see this as a television movie or feature film.

Another good Pride Read to add to the list!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book Review: "That Summer in Maine" by Brianna Wolfson

Brianna Wolfson's new novel, That Summer in Maine, is an emotional story about the choices women make and how those choices affect their daughters.⁣

"Every single person on this planet wants nothing more than love."

⁣ Jane met Silas, a handsome, charismatic woodworker, at a craft fair in Maine. Both bear emotional scars, but the relationship is intense and satisfying, until she discovers he has slept with another woman.⁣

⁣ Susie loves her husband and is happy in her marriage, but there’s something about Silas that draws her to him. She knows, however, that this will be a one-time thing.⁣

⁣ Nearly 16 years later, Jane’s daughter Hazel is contacted online by another teenager, Eve, who says that they are half-sisters. Eve also says that she spent last summer with their father and encourages Hazel to join her this summer. For Hazel, who has been feeling pushed out by her mother’s new husband and babies, this couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.⁣

That Summer in Maine alternates between past and present, and is narrated by Susie, Jane, and Hazel. The two mothers are determined to help their daughters understand the circumstances behind the choices they made, before it’s too late.⁣

⁣ I thought this was a beautifully written book but it just didn’t grab me as much as I was expecting. There definitely were some poignant moments but the book was full of instances in which if only the characters communicated with each other, there’d be less drama. I also really disliked Eve’s character until you realized the motivations for her behavior, and that she was only a teenager.

⁣ ⁣ I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for this book. Thanks to MIRA Books and NetGalley for making an advance copy available! ⁣

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Book Review: "All of My Friends Are Rich" by Michael Sarais

Michael Sarais' debut novel, All of My Friends Are Rich, is emotionally searing, thought-provoking, even a little bit sexy. Man, this was good.

Leo is on the verge of turning 30, and he’s not in a good place. His marriage has ended, he has a job he hates and he wishes he could write again, he’s bipolar but doesn’t always remember his meds, and he resents his husband for abandoning him when he was at his lowest.

When Leo’s best friend Sara announces her engagement and asks him to be her best man, he’s excited for her as well as a little bit envious and resentful. But when she talks about a bachelorette party in Ibiza and a wedding in Santorini, his anxieties grow. He wishes he could be like his friends, who seemingly have an unending supply of money and don’t have to order the cheapest thing on the menu.

How can he get enough money to fulfill his best-man responsibilities and relax? A chance encounter on Grindr introduces him to one possibility. But the further down that road he travels, the less in control he feels, until he finds himself jeopardizing the few things that work in his life, and exposing himself to potential danger.

This was a powerful read about one man’s struggle with mental illness, financial anxiety, and happiness. Leo is a fascinating, flawed character who makes some seriously questionable decisions but you can see how his mind and his heart work.

I had a few Bookstagram friends who got their hands on advance copies of this book and raved. I’m so glad this lived up to my expectations, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Sarais.

The beauty of Pride Reads continues!!

Book Review: "Love, Creekwood" by Becky Albertalli

Boy, it felt so good to be back in the Love, Simon universe!!

This novella picks up where Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah on the Offbeat left off. Simon, Bram, Leah, and Abby are all in college now, dealing with being away from home, trying to make the most of their college experience, navigating long-distance relationships and love and all the beauty and insecurities that come with it.

“When we say we want to freeze time, what we mean is that we want to control our memories. We want to choose which moments we’ll keep forever. We want to guarantee the best ones won’t slip away from us somehow. So when something beautiful happens, there’s this impulse to press pause and save the game. We want to make sure we can find our way back to that moment.”

This book is told all in emails back and forth. Some of the emails have a surprising amount of emotion contained in them, and the discussion about finding the memories you want to keep forever, like the quote above, even choked me up a little.

I’ve really loved these stories and these characters, and also adored the Love, Simon movie. I definitely saw the actors in my head as I was reading this. (I also may have watched a few clips from the movie on YouTube once I finished this book.)

I just wish this was longer!! Even though she said before publishing this that she didn't intend to do any sequels or follow-ups, I do hope that Becky Albertalli plans to revisit the Creekwood gang again because I didn’t realize just how much I missed them until I read this.

Albertalli is donating all of the proceeds from this book to The Trevor Project, which is an organization near and dear to my heart, as are so many others I support.

The beauty of my month-long Pride Reads effort continues!!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Book Review: "Rainbow Boys" by Alex Sanchez

Alex Sanchez's Rainbow Boys takes me back to those angst-filled high school days...

Jason is a star athlete and has a promising future ahead of him. He’s not above making or laughing at the occasional gay joke or slur with his friends. But why is he having intense dreams about guys? He has a girlfriend and they have sex, so he can’t be gay.

Nelson is openly gay and he’s lucky to have such a supportive mother. It’s tough being out in school, though, facing taunts and bullying and even threats of physical violence, and even the school administration doesn’t care. Luckily he has his best friend, Kyle, to commiserate with.

Kyle has always known he was gay but he’s been afraid to tell his parents. He knows that by associating with Nelson everyone assumes it anyway, but there’s something to actually saying the words out loud. Of course, he has a huge crush on Jason, but Jason is straight. Right?

Rainbow Boys, the first in a three-book series, so perfectly captures the feelings associated with coming to terms with your sexuality. How do you tell your parents? Will it jeopardize your future? Does having sex mean you’ll get HIV? What do you do when you’re in love with your best friend and they don't seem to feel the same way about you?

This book came out in 2003 and I totally missed it then, but it sure did bring back memories for me! I really enjoyed this story and the characters were all pretty authentic for the time period. Even though you pretty much knew what would happen, I was totally hooked, and the emotions it generated were very familiar.

Once again, I’m so glad this generation has books like these to help them feel better about themselves. This was another great selection for Pride Reads!!

(Yes, that’s a before-he-was-famous Matthew Bomer on the cover!)

Book Review: "The Gay Teen's Guide to Defeating a Siren, Book 1" by Cody Wagner

The key to survival is...being gay. At least it is in Book 1 of The Gay Teen's Guide to Defeating a Siren.

Fourteen-year-old Blaize Trales (yep) doesn’t want anyone in his tiny Texas town, including his parents, to know he’s gay. But when he inadvertently outs himself, his parents immediately pack him up and send him to Sanctuary Preparatory Academy, a school that promises to “heal” gay teens.

As if trying to be “healed” isn’t bad enough, and dealing with the usual high school problems—class work, bullying, a crush on someone seemingly unattainable—Blaize discovers that the school is hiding a major secret. Apparently there’s an old enemy at the loose and it’s wreaking havoc, and Blaize might be the only one who can stop it.

Does he have what it takes to save the day?

This was an interesting book, with shades of Harry Potter and dashes of sarcasm. A lot of the story was setting up for the sequel but there definitely was plenty going on.

While I enjoyed the concept of the book, at times it was a little too silly for me. (It almost felt at times like the book should have been accompanied by a laugh track.) I felt like the book just wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. But the fantasy elements were fun, and it was nice to have a gay hero of sorts.

This was definitely an interesting selection for Pride Reads!!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Book Review: "Conventionally Yours" by Annabeth Albert

Okay, so I thought Conventionally Yours, Annabeth Albert's new book, was utterly adorable!

Conrad and Alden play in an LGBTQ gaming group, but they’re definitely not friends. Conrad’s casual, cocky, trash-talking style drives Alden crazy, while Alden’s constant need for perfection and order gets on Conrad’s last nerve. But their outward appearances belie the multiple personal issues each are dealing with.

When they hear about a fan convention in Las Vegas that features a gaming tournament which would offer the winner a chance to join the pro circuit, it’s an opportunity both want to take. They reluctantly agree to a cross-country road trip with their fellow group members, even though both are driven crazy by the other’s presence.

This is a rom-com, of course, so the road trip serves as the opportunity for them to realize how different they are from what they perceived of each other. As their connection grows, however, they face one major challenge: both desperately want to win this tournament and a chance to change their life. But if one of them walks away victorious, will it kill any chance of something happening between them? Do you try to win or let the other person win instead?

I enjoyed this book so much. I loved the fact that the characters’ sexuality and gender were mentioned in a matter-of-fact way, as were the other issues the characters dealt with. Sure, you know what’s going to happen for the most part, but watching the relationship develop in a rom-com and preparing yourself for the pitfalls you know the couple will face is part of the book’s appeal.

I’m excited that Annabeth Albert has a second book planned featuring a supporting character in this book. I’m looking forward to enjoying these characters and her charming storytelling once again!!

Another excellent book for my month-long Pride Reads effort!!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Book Review: "Felix Ever After" by Kacen Callender

We’re all worthy of love, but sometimes the path to realizing that is a tough one. This message is at the core of Kacen Callender's newest book, Felix Ever After.

Ironically, Felix Love has never been in love. He wants that more than anything, though, as much as he wants to get in to Brown University to study art. He knows his grades and his test scores aren't enough, but if he can make a splash with his portfolio he might have a chance. If only he could motivate himself to work on it...

"I want to be in love. I've never, you know—felt the kind of passion great artists talk about. I want that. I want to feel that level of intensity. Not everyone wants love. I get that, you know? But me—I want to fall in love and be broken up with and get pissed and grieve and fall in love all over again. I've never felt any of that. I've just been doing the same shit. Nothing new. Nothing exciting."

He has other issues to deal with, though. Since he came out as transgender, he’s been struggling with his identity. He knows he’s not a girl but he doesn’t always feel like a boy, so he doesn’t know what that means, especially since he made such a big deal out of his transition.

But the worst thing is that someone put up a gallery of photos from before his transition, along with his deadname, at school. He is devastated by this and is determined to get back whomever was responsible. But his obsession with revenge takes an unexpected turn, and it also blinds him to something closer.

This was a moving book about identity, love, friendship, and family. There was so much to think about, so much emotion, and so much beauty. The characters weren’t always the most sympathetic, but this is definitely a book I’ll remember for a long time.

Another excellent book for Pride Reads!!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book Review: "Boys of Alabama" by Genevieve Hudson

Well, Genevieve Hudson's Boys of Alabama definitely made me think!

Max and his family move from Germany to small-town Delilah, Alabama. It’s a far cry from what they’re used to, but Max is quickly enamored by the oppressive heat and humidity, the easy camaraderie he finds with his football teammates, and the area’s obsession with God and religion.

But Max has secrets, too. He had a relationship in Germany that scarred him, and he has a strange ability that both obsesses and frightens him. When he meets Pan, a fellow student who believes he is a witch, and Pan discovers his ability, Max feels both unburdened and more frightened of discovery. But the two embark on a relationship of sorts, which fulfills the both of them, even if it makes them vulnerable at the same time.

Boys of Alabama is a beautifully written, thought-provoking book that raises questions about religion, sexuality, paranormal abilities, racism, and prejudice, but it also is a coming-of-age story at its heart. I’ll admit I read this book almost with one hand over my eyes, as I was worried something bad would happen to one of the characters. (Plus the references to animal cruelty and the depictions of dead animals were a little much for me.)

I struggled, though, with what this book meant, and as much as I enjoyed the characters I didn’t feel connected. I also found the lack of quotation marks off-putting because if a sentence didn’t say, “she said,” I couldn’t always tell it was dialogue.

This debut novel definitely shows Hudson has a true storytelling talent. It was an interesting addition to my stack of Pride Reads this month!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Review: "Stay Gold" by Tobly McSmith

Being true to yourself may be the hardest thing to do, but it’s the only thing. That's the message at the core of Tobly McSmith's Stay Gold.

As a military kid, Pony knows about starting over all too well. Since things at his last school went a little off the rails when it was revealed that he was transgender, for his senior year at a new high school he’s determined things will be different. This time he’s decided simply to pass as a guy and not tell anyone the truth. No one in his life thinks it’s a good idea but he just wants to be normal, you know?

And then on the first day he locks eyes with Georgia, a popular cheerleader. He is instantly smitten.

Georgia feels that same connection when she sees Pony. But she’s a cheerleader, so she’s supposed to date a football player, even if her last relationship ended disastrously. There’s also a lot of things Georgia wishes she could do or say in her own life, but she doesn’t want to deal with the ramifications.

If Pony dates Georgia, how can he keep who he is a secret? Should Georgia follow her heart and mind or do what’s expected of her by her cheerleading teammates and best friends?

Stay Gold is a sweet book that is tremendously thought-provoking, and it raises a lot of questions. Do we have the responsibility to advocate for those like us, or can we just live our lives the way we see fit? Is it wrong to want to keep your own secrets or are you obligated to be open and honest even if that means opening yourself up to abuse or even harm?

While this book is relatively predictable in some ways, it also turns some stereotypes on their head. And of course, I won’t lie and say I didn’t tear up at the end!!

Stay gold, Ponyboy! (Yes, they touch on that, too.) And the Pride Reads keep on rolling...

Monday, June 15, 2020

Book Review: "Stranger in the Lake" by Kimberly Belle

Secrets can be destructive in so many ways, as we learn in Kimberly Belle's new thriller, Stranger in the Lake.

When gas station cashier Charlotte married the wealthy, older widower Paul, it caused a great deal of gossip in their small town. Many thought she was just after his money, and some still think he killed his first wife a few years ago. But they are happier than anyone really knows.

One morning she finds a young woman’s body floating in the lake behind their house. Shockingly, it’s the same place where Paul’s first wife’s body was found. And when they pull the woman’s body out of the lake, why did Paul lie to the police that he’d never seen her, when Charlotte saw them talking just the day before?

As Paul goes away to “handle” some things, Charlotte is left to wonder if the man she married is hiding more secrets from her, or if he’s the good man she believes him to be. But question after question keeps popping up.

Is she at risk? Is Paul a killer? Who was this woman that was found in the lake? Charlotte is determined to find the answers even if she might not like them.

I don’t read a ton of thrillers anymore because I got tired of guessing what was going to happen within the first 50 pages. That’s what happened here, although there were lots of twists and turns along the way.

The narration fluctuated between the present and 20 years earlier, with Paul and his two best friends. But the flashbacks expose a coincidence that made me roll my eyes a little.

There should be a moratorium on books where there’s a secret that everyone but the protagonist knows, and when they bring it up they’re told they wouldn’t understand or they don’t need to know.

I know some have enjoyed this book, and lots of you are huge thriller fans, so don’t let my nit-picking dissuade you! I will say that I couldn’t stop reading!

I was pleased to be part of the blog tour for this book. NetGalley and Park Row Books provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Book Review: "The Black Flamingo" by Dean Atta

Gorgeously unique, Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo is a salute to finding and loving yourself.

Michael is a half-Jamaican, half Greek Cypriot boy growing up in London. He realizes early on that being mixed-race makes him different, as he’s not black enough for some in his family and not Greek enough for others.

He also knows he’d rather play with dolls and his female friends, and kiss the boys. After some ridicule by his peers he finds a way to get by, and he forms a close friendship with Daisy, a fellow outcast. But while his coming out doesn’t surprise anyone, he realizes he still has some growing and learning to do, and he needs to figure out who he is.

When he gets to university, he’s ready for freedom, but he still feels out of place until he finds The Drag Society. It is there he learns exactly how amazing and fierce he is, how much the only person’s opinion that matters is his own, and that when you love yourself it makes it easier to love others and be loved by them.

"He is me, who I have been,
who I am, who I hope to become.
Someone fabulous, wild, and strong.
With or without a costume on."

What an incredible, emotional, powerful book. This is a novel-in-verse interspersed with poems Michael writes, but it doesn’t read any differently than a traditional novel.

I devoured this one. I think this is such an empowering, ultimately joyful book that I will remember for a long time. Dean Atta has created a gorgeous book about race and pride at exactly the right time. May we all be as fierce as the Black Flamingo!

My month of Pride Reads keeps rolling!!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Book Review: "Broken People" by Sam Lansky

What does it take to “fix” our problems? Is such a fix even possible? These questions are at the core of Broken People, Sam Lansky's debut novel.

Sam is a writer in Los Angeles. He wrote a memoir about his struggles with addiction in his teens and how difficult it is to stay sober. It sold modestly but it didn’t make him a household name.

Now 28, he can’t remember the last time he was happy. His ideas for a second book don’t work, he’s worried he might lose his magazine job, he can’t find a relationship, and he’s so unhappy with his body he’s convinced the entire gay community will reject him because he’s fat. His unhappiness is practically debilitating.

"Maybe some people are just born self-hating and self-destructive and we die that way. And so we go to therapy and twelve-step groups and we take antidepressants and anxiety meds and we journal and go to yoga and exercise and take baths and drink pressed juices and repeat affirmations to ourselves in the mirror and listen to Brené Brown podcasts. But we're just swimming against the tide, because the darkness always comes back. All we ever do is learn to manage the symptoms."

At a dinner party one night, he hears about a shaman who supposedly can fix people’s problems over the course of a weekend. It certainly seems too good to be true, but signs keep pointing him toward taking a chance.

He and an acquaintance spend the weekend with the shaman, and Sam hopes this will be the answer to his problems. But is the key to happiness reopening old wounds, prodding insecurities, and confronting hidden trauma, or is the shaman really summoning his power?

This was a thought-provoking, emotional book that raised some interesting questions. I honestly was expecting there to be much more trauma revealed than there was, and I don’t know that I bought the whole concept of “fixing.”

It’s a well-written book but I never quite connected with it as much as I would’ve liked. Still, it’s another intriguing book for Pride Reads!!

Book Review: "You Should See Me in a Crown" by Leah Johnson

Leah Johnson's debut novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, is about the fight to be who you are when people are telling you not to be yourself.

Liz Lighty has her immediate future planned. She’s waiting on the scholarship she needs to attend her dream college and then she can study hematology and play in their famed orchestra.

But when the scholarship doesn’t materialize, she decides to take a different route and run for prom queen. In her small Indiana town, prom is SERIOUS, and the king and queen receive hefty scholarships.

No one like Liz (read: black) has ever been a legitimate contender for prom queen and none of the popular candidates are threatened by her, except one girl who has always seen Liz as a rival. For her part, the last thing Liz wants is to have her whole life on display and have everything she does and wears matter. But her best friend Gabi is determined to lead Liz to victory, no matter what it takes.

But Liz doesn’t count on crushing on Mack, the new girl in school and another candidate for queen. Mack doesn’t care what other people think of her—except Liz—but Liz cares too much, and for the wrong reasons. Will the truth ruin any chance they might have at a relationship?

"I don't believe in fairy tales and love at first sight and all that, but for just a second, I think this girl and those eyes and the way her freckles dot the entire expanse of her face are cute enough to make a believer out of me."

Despite dealing with some serious issues such as racism, homophobia, the toxic culture of popularity, and standing up for yourself and your beliefs, there is so much joy in this book. Liz and Mack are so appealing, and even though I wanted to shake some of the characters to make them speak their minds, I enjoyed this so much. You'd never know this is Johnson's first novel!

And the great Pride Reads keep coming!!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Book Review: "Short Stuff" edited by Alysia Constantine

Boy, I’ve been loving the books I’ve read so far for Pride Reads!!

“Maybe that’s why the meet-cute is so right for stories of LGBTQ folks. We usually find ourselves in tough beginnings. Then circumstances conspire to make things really hard on us. Falling in love happens against all odds. But darn it if we don’t deserve our happy endings too.”

So says Alysia Constantine in her introduction to Short Stuff, a collection of four YA LGBTQ short stories with a romantic bent. Each are written by authors I wasn’t familiar with, which makes me happy, as I can now find even more books by authors whose work I enjoy!

In “I Ate the Whole World to Find You” by Tom Wilinsky and Jen Sternick, an unlikely pairing is forged between a teenage swimmer with Olympic aspirations and the cook at the swim club where he trains. “The August Sands” by Jude Sierra chronicles a familiar trope—the summer romance. But there's more than just that.

“Love in the Time of Coffee” by Kate Fierro tells of a long-time friendship that starts when two girls are young, and often revolves around coffee. And in “Guilded Scales” by Julia Ember, the one fantasy story in the collection, a courageous young woman wants to be taken seriously as a warrior but finds far more than she bargained for in a search for a dragon.

These stories were so enjoyable, they made me smile—even the fantasy one. Each story had interesting twists on the familiar genre and each was really well-written. I also liked that the stories were all fairly long so I didn’t feel cheated out of an ending. My favroite was probably "I Ate the Whole World to Find You," but it was close.

Pick this one up, y’all, for some sweet stories.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Book Review: "Date Me, Bryson Keller" by Kevin van Whye

This adorable, good-hearted debut novel by Kevin van Whye totally hit the spot! It was the perfect antidote for all of the heaviness and emotion I've been experiencing lately.

Bryson Keller is captain of the soccer team at Fairvale Academy and the most popular guy in the senior class. He’s never really dated anyone because he isn’t sure he believes in love, and he's afraid of hurting people.

One night at a party his classmates come up with a dare: he has to date the first person who asks him out each week. They're to date Monday-Friday, then when the next week rolls around, he'll date someone new. If he falls in love or says no at some point over the three-month period, he has to ride the bus to school. It becomes quite a contest, and soon every girl wants to ask Bryson out.

While the rules weren’t explicit, he’s certainly not expecting Kai to ask him out. And Kai, who is closeted and blushes at the drop of the hat, shocks himself by asking Bryson out. But rules are rules, and Bryson is willing both to keep Kai’s secret and show him a good time for a week.

The more time they spend being fake boyfriends, Kai realizes there’s so much more to Bryson than he thought. And even though he knows Bryson is straight and this whole fake relationship thing is just for fun, Kai starts falling for him. But a little piece of him can’t help but wonder. Is Bryson straight? Is it just for fun?

This book mostly follows the path you imagine it will but it has such a wonderful heart. There's drama, bullying, some family dysfunction, and lots of sweet moments. I love how Kevin van Whye incorporated so much of his own life, including his South African heritage, into this book.

What a lovable and fun book for Pride Reads!!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Book Review: "The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett's second novel, is powerful and incredibly relevant given the moment our society is in right now.

“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”

Stella and Desiree Vignes grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, a town whose population is composed of immensely light-skinned African-American people. They're actually descendants of the founder, but their lives were traumatized by their witnessing a horrible event in their childhood. Both sisters wanted something more out of life than cleaning people’s houses—Stella dreamed of college and Desiree dreamed of excitement. The two fled to New Orleans one night to pursue a new life.

But years later, Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella has chosen to live a very different life, and a lie at that.

The book tells Desiree and Stella’s stories as well as the stories of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. It’s a powerful meditation on how intertwined family remains even when apart, and how decisions can ripple through the generations. It's also a look at sexual identity, self-acceptance, and the way home can be both a comfort and a curse.

More than that, this is a book about race and the unconscious biases that exist among people in the same groups. It’s such a timely conversation but it’s never heavy-handed. Not all of the characters are likable, but they're all fascinating in their own way.

Brit Bennett once again proves, as she did with her debut novel The Mothers, that she is a born storyteller. This is a book that will be talked about for some time.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Book Review: "Tangled in Ivy" by Ashley Farley

Family drama, secrets, enduring love—this one’s got it all!!

Lillian is there when her beloved father passes away. She is devastated by his loss and wonders how she’ll carry on. But just before he died, he told her to “look to Hemingway for answers.” What could that mean?

When their father’s will is read, Lillian and her estranged twin sister, Layla, learn that the Stoney family fortune has dwindled nearly to nothing. This sets up a war between the two sisters, familiar territory for the both of them.

Escaping to the family cottage, Lillian finds a thumb drive and a letter marked “for Lillian” inside a hollowed-out book by Ernest Hemingway. The thumb drive contains her father’s memoir of sorts, and it recounts the story of his relationship with the twins’ mercurial mother, Ivy. As Lillian reads the document, she finally begins to understand the root of her strained relationship with Layla.

But more importantly, the document sheds light on the events that occurred the night Ivy died, when the twins were six. Lillian has always blocked out the events of that night, and always has borne some guilt for what happened, even though she doesn’t know why.

This is the second book of Farley’s I’ve read and I’m blown away at how completely she hooks you into her story almost immediately. I’m a sucker for family drama and melodrama, but this book also has rich character development and gorgeous imagery. (God, I love Charleston and the South Carolina coast.)

There might not be a lot of surprises, but I literally read this in one sitting. So addictive!

Excited to be on the blog tour for this book. Kate Rock Book Tours, Ashley Farley, and Leisure Time Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes 6/9.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Book Review: "The Prettiest Star" by Carter Sickels

Wow, Carter Sickels. Your gorgeous new book utterly undid me.

"We live our lives not realizing which moments are special or which are ordinary—what will we remember, what memories will we try to grab onto, to hold close? All of these moments that make up a life."

It’s 1986, in the heart of the AIDS crisis. Six years ago Brian left his small, suffocating Ohio hometown for the freedom of NYC. He had the opportunity to live the life he wanted, to be who he wanted without worrying what others think. He was finally free of fighting with his father, knowing he was different than everyone expected him to be.

Now, AIDS has taken his boyfriend and many of his friends, and he faces the same scary journey. He writes a letter to his mother telling her of his diagnosis and that he wishes to come home and visit.

That visit causes numerous ripples—for his parents, who just want to keep him and his condition a secret; his teenage sister; the rest of his family, whose ignorance and fear is indicative of the mood of the country at that time; his grandmother, whose unconditional love is a beacon amidst chaos; and the entire town, which comes unhinged with one simple act.

This is a beautifully written, emotional book, perfectly capturing the struggles so many people with AIDS had to deal with, especially in the 80s. It’s a story about coming to terms with your life and its impending end, and how fear can change people you love yet others will surprise. It's also a powerful story about love, family, and friendship, which sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of people.

Sickels has truly created a masterpiece that I read in one sitting. It moved me beyond belief and I’m so glad I read it. This will easily be one of the best books I'll read all year.

Another book read for Pride Reads!

Book Review: "Camp" by L.C. Rosen

Should you go changing to try and please someone else? That question is at the core of Camp, a new YA novel from L.C. Rosen (aka Lev Rosen).

This is an adorable yet thought-provoking look at gender and sexual identity and the prejudices and misconceptions that exist even among LBGTQ+ people at times. It’s also a powerful statement about loving yourself for who you are.

Ever since he was 12, Randy has loved to go to Camp Outland each summer. A camp for queer teens, it gives him and his friends the opportunity to be their authentic selves—whether that’s competing for a role in the summer musical or playing sports, painting their nails and wearing whatever they’d like, and even hooking up with their crushes.

Randy has had a serious crush on Hudson, the dreamiest camper, for years. But Hudson only likes masculine-acting bros, and drama- and nail polish-loving Randy doesn’t fit the bill. Plus Hudson usually hooks up with guys and leaves them quickly thereafter, but Randy is determined to have an LTR with him.

So this summer, now that’s he’s 16, Randy has decided to change things up. He’s shaved his head, bulked up, and is calling himself “Del.” He’s giving up drama, nail polish, and all of the things he’s loved about camp, but he believes that if he can get Hudson to fall for him, it will all be worth it. His friends go along even if they don't agree with his plan.

But as they grow closer, Randy wonders just how much he needs to change for love. Is their relationship even as solid as he hopes it is if he has to lie about who he is? And why is Hudson so insistent only on "masc4masc"?

This was an adorable book that raised some weighty issues. Boy, do I wish that a camp like this existed when I was a teenager! I thought the story dragged a little bit, but I really enjoyed it and it made me think.

Another enjoyable book for my month of Pride Reads!

Book Review: "Something to Talk About" by Meryl Wilsner

Something to Talk About is a sweet rom-com set in the entertainment industry. And the way it reads, it’s perfect for a movie or television adaptation itself.

Jo was once a child actress, but now she’s an Emmy Award-winning television writer. She’s about to embark on her most ambitious project yet, completely out of her comfort zone, and the chatter has already started that she’s not qualified.

With the SAG Awards coming up, she knows everyone will ask about the new project so she decides she needs a buffer. She invites Emma, her assistant, to be her date. When the paparazzi catches a fleeting shot of Jo making Emma laugh, it fuels gossip that the two are an item.

Suddenly the world—and even those close to the two of them—believe there is something romantic going on. Jo doesn’t want to dignify the rumors, as she's never made any public comments about her dating life. But the gossip intensifies when it appears there’s an anonymous source in the office leaking things to the press.

The more time they spend together, Emma starts to realize that maybe she does have feelings for her boss, but she’s afraid to acknowledge them, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize her career or the project Jo is working on. For her part, Jo knows she feels more open, even happier and more secure when she’s with Emma. But does she want to be part of an old Hollywood cliché, the boss sleeping with their younger assistant? And would acting on this have even greater ramifications because they're two women?

This was a light, sweet, fun book, full of emotion and romance. It’s an interesting exploration of how easily we get affected by what people think—or what we think they think. I also loved the way Meryl Wilsner explored the different ethnicities and religious backgrounds of the characters. (I've got to say, it was so refreshing to have a character go to temple and meet with her rabbi to discuss issues. That just doesn't happen often.)

This was another great book for PrideReads. One warning: I had Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Something to Talk About,” stuck in my head the whole time!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Book Review: "Out Now: Queer We Go Again" edited by Saundra Mitchell

What a great way to start off Pride Month and my month-long effort to read LGBTQ+ books for PrideReads!

Out Now: Queer We Go Again is a new anthology featuring 17 short stories written by queer YA authors. From names you may recognize if you're a YA fan (Julian Winters, Meredith Russo, Caleb Roehrig, Mark Oshiro) and names I wasn't familiar with, these stories run the gamut from tales of romance, friendship, and self-acceptance, to fantasy, sci-fi, and folklore, all with an LGBTQ+ angle.

My favorite stories in the collection included: "What Happens in the Closet" by Caleb Roehrig, when vampires attack a high school prom and a gay student tries to better understand his nemesis; "Star-Crossed in DC" by Jessica Verdi, featuring the president's daughter who is ready to make a stand; "One Spell Too Many" by Tara Sim, about a teenage girl and kitchen witch, whose penchant for weaving spells into her baked goods has chaotic consequences; "Refresh" by Mark Oshiro, which tells of the frantic moments leading up to a blind date for two boys who met online; "Lumber Me Mine" by CB Lee, about two students who become enamored of one another during woodshop class; "Follower" by Will Kostakis, in which a social media influencer meets one of his fans; and perhaps my favorite story, "Victory Lap" by Julian Winters, in which a young man in search of a date to a school dance finds an unlikely ally in his search.

I tend to like stories that are a little simpler; there were a few stories in the collection that were science-fiction- or fantasy-based, and those didn't appeal to me as much. But for me, ultimately, the mark of a good story is one I'd love to see expanded into a longer form or even a full-length novel. All of the above stories, plus several others I didn't include in my list, definitely piqued my interest, and I'm going to explore the work of many of the authors featured in the collection.

The path to love and attraction, to connecting with someone you're interested in, to accepting who you are and/or working with family and friends to do the same, is different for every person. The stories in Out Now: Queer We Go Again didn't try to make their characters fall into predetermined patterns. While not every story was completely realistic, there's probably a story in here that almost everyone can identify with in one way or another.

Apparently Out Now is a follow-up to an anthology called All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages, also edited by Saundra Mitchell. I'll definitely be checking that out as well.

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this book. NetGalley and Inkyard Press provided me with an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!