Monday, August 31, 2020

Book Review: "The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)" by Rick Riordan

"Humans don't exist on the same level as the immortals. They can't even be hurt by our weapons. But you, Percy—you are part god, part human. You live in both worlds. You can be harmed by both, and you can affect both. That's what makes heroes so special. You carry the hopes of humanity into the realm of the eternal."

I mentioned last month that I had started participating in a buddy read of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with some Bookstagram friends. We're reading one a month, and since I had never picked these up when they were initially released, this has been a fun discovery for me. (Here's my review of Book 1, The Lightning Thief.)

In Book 2, Percy has nearly made it through his entire seventh-grade year without getting expelled. But when a game of dodgeball in gym class turns dangerous, because instead of fending off the school bully and his minions he has to fend off some giant cannibals, everything starts to go awry. And before he knows it, he and his friend Annabeth, along with a new friend, Tyson (who has some special skills of his own), are headed back to Camp Half-Blood, because all of the demigods are in danger since someone has weakened the borders which protect the camp.

In order to save the camp, Percy and his friends have to travel to the Sea of Monsters, but that will be tough, since no one wants he and Annabeth to be heroes once again. But when they realize a close friend is in danger as well, they decide to go anyway. Once again, they'll face dangers they're not expecting, not to mention threats closer to home.

I enjoyed The Lightning Thief but found it at times to be a little too much tell and not enough show, as various characters described things to Percy and, as often happens in superhero movies, the evil characters have to dramatically explain their nefarious plans.

However, in The Sea of Monsters everything really hit its stride. I found Percy to be much more well-developed and all of the other characters were more complex—even the ones you're supposed to hate weren't as annoying! I particularly loved Grover and Tyson, a new character in this book.

I'm really looking forward to reading the next book in the series. I could totally see why kids and adults alike enjoy it!

Book Review: "Dream Big, Stella!" by Ashley Farley

I read Dream Big, Stella! in one sitting and enjoyed every minute!

Stella’s dream of a hotel management career isn’t off to an illustrious start: she’s lost three jobs in a year. One night after losing job #3, she gets an unexpected visitor, an attorney, who tells her that her biological father, rock musician Billy Jameson, has died and left her an historic inn in the small town of Hope Springs, Virginia.

Stella had always been told that her father was simply a nameless sperm donor, so all of this news is pretty shocking. But with nothing keeping her in NYC, she decides to check out the inn.

What she finds is gorgeous possibility, left in a dilapidated state. She’s scared she’s in over her head, but apparently Billy trusted her, so since the estate will pay to renovate and rebuild everything, she embraces this amazing chance.

But amidst the excitement of restoring and expanding the inn, Stella has lots of questions. If her father trusted her to run the inn, why did he never make an effort to meet her before he died? Why didn’t her mother ever tell her about him? Why does everyone keep telling her she has to discover answers to her questions herself instead of sharing the truth?

This is a fantastic, warm, compelling story about self-belief, love, friendship, ambition, and LOTS of family drama. I wish Hope Springs existed because it sounded like such a great place to visit!

Ashley Farley is an amazing writer I’ve been introduced to by Kate Rock Book Tours, and this is the third of her books I’ve read in the last year. I’ve loved every one of her books so far, and can’t wait to read the second book in her three-book Hope Springs series!

I was honored to be part of the blog tour for this book. Kate Rock Book Tours and Ashley Farley provided me with a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes 9/1.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Book Review: "The Last Story of Mina Lee" by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

"Sometimes, agreeing to the same lie is what makes a family family, Margot."

How well do we truly know those we love?

Margot has never quite “gotten” her mother, Mina. Growing up she was always a little embarrassed of how hard her mother had to work to keep them afloat, she was embarrassed by their rundown apartment, and the fact she never really made an effort to learn much English.

Still, when her mother doesn’t answer her home or work phones for several days, Margot worries, and when she and a friend get to her apartment, they find Mina on the floor, dead, from an apparently accidental stumble.

Margot is devastated and wants to understand what happened to her mother, especially when she learns that Mina had been seeming sad lately. As she goes through her mother’s papers and possessions, she realizes there was so much about her mother she didn’t know, so much that made her who she was and shaped her relationship with Margot.

The book is narrated by Margot in the present as well as Mina, tracing the time period from when she arrived in the U.S. until just before her death.

I liked The Last Story of Mina Lee, particularly Margot’s discoveries about her mother. Margot herself isn’t the most sympathetic character, but you certainly understand her actions. Mina’s story was a sad one, but probably one which mirrored many immigrants’. Nancy Jooyoun Kim is definitely a talented storyteller and this is an impressive debut.

The “mystery” part of the plot didn’t really work for me. I found a lot of the connections to be coincidental and a little too unbelievable. Still, on the whole, it was a well-written and compelling book.

I was honored 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 it available!

The Last Story of Mina Lee publishes 9/1!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Book Review: "Heart Bones" by Colleen Hoover

CoHo hits another home run with her newest novel, Heart Bones!!

“‘Don’t worry. Hearts don’t have bones. They can’t actually break.’ But what if the only way of knowing you grew a heart bone is by feeling the agony of the break?”

Beyah has always made her own path. She’s had no other choice. But with a few months left until college she’s left with nowhere to turn, so she winds up going to spend the summer with her father, whom she barely knows, on a peninsula in Texas.

She’s not planning to let anyone in. She just needs a place to stay. And then she meets Samson, the best friend of her stepsister’s boyfriend. The two are drawn to one another but Beyah feels ill-at-ease around him, partially because they are so different on the surface: Samson is a child of wealth and privilege, while Beyah has known mostly neglect and poverty.

But as the summer progresses, and she lets her guard down little by little, Beyah realizes that there’s so much about Samson she doesn’t know. He has so many secrets that he promises to tell her before she leaves, but she’s not sure leaving is even what she wants anymore. They promised not to fall in love with each other, but how do you stop yourself from falling?

And then in a split second, it all changes. How do you figure out what your heart wants, what path your future should take? It’s easier never to let anyone else in, that way you can’t feel hurt. But of course, you’ll never experience love and joy this way either.

Over the last year or so, Colleen Hoover has become one of my go-to, auto-buy authors. I read this book in one sitting and it grabbed hold of my heart and didn’t let go. This is a story of strength and vulnerability, courage and fear, and powerful, powerful love.

I’m almost sorry I raced through it so quickly because I loved it so much.

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

Could The Switch feel any more like a giant hug?

Leena is falling apart. It’s been happening for a while, ever since her sister died, although she’s been able to press on. But when she blows a big presentation at work, her boss forces her to take a two-month sabbatical.

Her grandmother Eileen is trying to move on after her unfaithful husband left her, but dating at 79 isn’t easy, especially in her tiny Yorkshire village of Hamleigh-in-Harksdale. (She knows all of the men and the pickings are pretty slim.) But she has her friends and her town projects to keep busy.

When Leena comes to visit and they talk about their various issues, she poses a great idea: the two should swap lives for two months. Eileen can move into Leena’s London flat and try her hand at online dating, while Leena can take on Eileen’s projects and decompress. And Eileen hopes that Leena can mend her relationship with her mother, which has been quite strained since her sister died.

Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems to be, and while Eileen finds freedom and opportunity in London, Leena struggles with finding her way, and realizes what she assumed was her grandmother’s simple, small-town life is anything but. And both make some interesting discoveries where matters of the heart are concerned.

This is an adorable, warm, moving book that utterly charmed me from start to finish. I loved Beth O’Leary’s first book, The Flatshare, and this book put the same smile on my face that that one did.

Can you see how the story will unfold? Sure. Does it matter? I don’t think so, not with these memorable characters and the terrific setting. It made me feel all warm inside!!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Book Review: "When I Was You" by Amber Garza

Wow, what a crazy ride this book took me on!

"It was a Monday morning in early October when I first heard about you. I was getting out of the shower when my phone rang. After throwing on a robe and cinching it, I ran into my bedroom, snatching my cell off the nightstand."

Kelly Medina gets a call from a pediatrician’s office, reminding her of an appointment for her baby. Kelly’s son is in college so this call isn’t for her.

It turns out that there’s another Kelly Medina in town, and she has a young baby. How strange that there could be two women in the same small town with exactly the same name?

Kelly is utterly intrigued by the presence of this other woman. When she finds out the "other" Kelly has been at her gym, her interest grows, and little by little, that intrigue turns to obsession when she “coincidentally” meets the woman who shares her name.

I’ll leave the plot summary there but suffice it to say things get WILD from there!

When I Was You definitely had its wow moments, with lots of twists and turns, but there was one key component of the plot that I called really early on, so I was a bit frustrated. Luckily, it was only one thing in the middle of a lot of others. It’s definitely a book you won’t want to put down!!

I've been growing weary of thrillers lately, because I can't seem to find many that wow me. I will say that while I had some issues with this book, it was still a crazy and compelling read.

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Book Review: "Perfect Tunes" by Emily Gould

Sometimes life gets in the way of your dreams.

Laura has always wanted to be a musician. Growing up in Ohio, she used to write songs for fun, and when she moves to New York City after graduation, she’s ready to finally pursue her dreams. But although she’s a talented singer, guitarist, and writer, she struggles with confidence and motivation, although thanks to her best friend Callie, she is able to get some small pops of opportunity.

When she meets Dylan, the handsome, enigmatic, troubled front man of a band poised for greatness, she is instantly drawn to him. As the band becomes more popular, Laura’s feelings intensify, as do Dylan’s struggles. She’s not sure what she wants, from life or their relationship, but in some ways, decisions are made for her.

Fifteen years later, Laura has a comfortable life unlike the one she dreamed of. While she occasionally writes songs for her friend, she mostly deals with the struggles of her teenage daughter, who is forever pushing the boundaries of their relationship.

As Laura realizes the key to the future is unpacking some of her past, she also realizes that she is entitled to pursue her dreams, too, and that living and loving doesn’t always mean sacrifice.

Perfect Tunes is a well-written book about relationships—parental, romantic, platonic—and the sacrifices we make to try and ensure they succeed. It’s also a story about mental health, self-confidence, and both the beauty and fear that come from going after your dreams.

I liked this book but I didn’t really feel a connection to the characters as much as I wanted to. Laura’s indecisiveness irritated me from time to time, but Emily Gould’s storytelling really lifted the story up.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Book Review: "Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America" by Hilary Levey Friedman

What do you think of when you hear the words "beauty pageant"? Do you think programs like Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe are relics of an earlier time and out of step with our current world, or do you think they're empowering and relevant to the women who participate? (Spoiler alert: While at times they may be a little of the former, there's still a lot of the latter to be found.)

In her new book, Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, Hilary Levey Friedman traces the origins of the beauty pageant, from the days of P.T. Barnum and his American Gallery of Female Beauty in the 1850s and early baby shows and bathing beauty revues, to the programs pageant fans know and love—Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Distinguished Young Women (formerly America's Junior Miss). She looks at pageants that are racially or culturally based, as well as those focused on those with different abilities, different body types, even pageants for married women and senior citizens. It's a fascinating look at the mindset and the condition of the world when these pageants were created, and juxtaposing their initial purpose with where many stand today.

Friedman didn't just pick this topic at random. Her mother was Miss America 1970, she taught a course at Brown University called "Beauty Pageants in American Society," she served as a mentor to Miss America 2018, and she's judged some pageants here and there. This book is impeccably and thoroughly researched—she literally pored through national and state program books spanning a number of years for several different pageant systems, so she can understand the "typical" contestant in these pageants and see how far the reality strays from the public perception.

She spends a great deal of time looking at Miss America and the changes that program has made through the years, including those made in the wake of the #MeToo movement over the last several years, changes that have both been celebrated and criticized by long-time fans and former contestants. But she also looks at the genesis of the contestants and how they have changed, in terms of educational and career goals as well as demographics. This isn't a view through rose-colored glasses; she looks at the positives and negatives of the pageant and its effects on contestants.

There's also been no shortage of scandal in the pageant world, and she touches on those as well, from Donald Trump's former ownership of the Miss Universe Organization and the criticism of child and "glitz" pageants, to the recent controversies around Miss America. All the while, she examines the evolving nature of pageants and their relationship with Third Wave Feminism, and what they may need to do to remain relevant.

I've been a fan of the Miss America Pageant since I first watched in 1982 and as many of you know, I was a volunteer in the Miss America Organization for just short of 15 years. I'm also a fan of Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss Teen USA, and certainly understand the differences and similarities between the two systems. Because of that, I loved this book. While I knew some of the history and scandal, there were things that surprised me and things I learned for the first time. But more than that, I've never really stopped to think of the pageants and their relationship to feminism (I'm such a guy sometimes), so that was an eye-opening experience.

Pageant fans should love this, but I think those who might have seen a pageant once or twice or just like to read about different aspects of American culture will enjoy this as well. As Miss America celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, Here She Is is a great look at that American tradition.

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

Here She Is publishes August 25.

Book Review: "They Wish They Were Us" by Jessica Goodman

High school melodrama, intrigue, and secrets? Sign me up every time. That's why I was excited for Jessica Goodman's new book, They Wish They Were Us.

It’s senior year of high school for Jill Newman and her best friends at Gold Coast Prep on Long Island. Freshman year was awful when her best friend, Shaila, was murdered, and Shaila’s boyfriend Graham confessed, but Jill and her friends have all (mostly) moved on from that tragedy.

Now they’re ready to rule the school.

Jill and her friends are Players, part of the exclusive, not-quite-secret society at school. There’s some serious hazing involved as a freshman, but when you’re a Player, your life—and in many ways, your future—are set.

When Jill starts getting texts proclaiming Graham’s innocence, she doesn’t know what to do. Her friends, who along with her were there the night Shaila was killed, tell her to leave it alone, let the past stay in the past. But if Graham really is innocent, that means someone else killed Shaila. Is it worth risking her friendships, her future, maybe even her life, to know the truth?

I don’t know why, but I really enjoy this type of book, with secret societies or cliques, the secrets and lies, one person searching for the truth. My high school experience couldn’t have been further from this, so I guess I’m just a sucker for melodrama. But this is a well-written book; it's not fluff.

This was a really good story that totally hooked me. Even though I figured out what happened early on, there still were a few twists, so I couldn’t stop reading. There were a lot of familiar elements but Goodman added her own spin to them.

I definitely think this could be a good movie!

Book Review: "The Death of Vivek Oji" by Akwaeke Emeze

The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emeze's newest novel, is easily one of the best, most powerful books I’ve read all year.

One day in Nigeria a woman finds the body of her son, Vivek, on the porch of their house, wrapped in colorful fabric. It appears he has been beaten to death.

Vivek’s parents are grief-stricken, but while his father accepts that these things might happen in a country torn by violence, his mother is desperate to understand what happened to her son. She saw him that morning and craves to understand the events that followed.

Vivek was a gentle soul, a free spirit who felt chained by a world that sought to define him. He only felt comfortable letting his guard down with his friends, the daughters of the Nigerwives, a group of foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. And he was closest to Osita, his cousin, who found himself inexplicably drawn to Vivek.

This is a gorgeously written story of identity, sexuality, love, grief, friendship, and the need to live the life you want, even in a country where doing so might be deadly. It’s also a story of a mother desperate to understand her child.

I haven’t read Akwaeke Emeze’s other books yet, Freshwater and Pet, but I definitely will now. This was emotional, beautiful, and so poignant, and their storytelling took my breath away.

I won’t forget this one anytime soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Book Review: "Loathe at First Sight" by Suzanne Park

When your workplace is in chaos, the last thing you can handle is a workplace romance. At least that's the case in Suzanne Park's fun rom-com, Loathe at First Sight.

Melody Joo thinks she’s landed the perfect job as a producer at a video game company, but she learns quickly how wrong she is. The CEO is a petulant jerk, her male coworkers are sexist (and a bit racist), and there’s even a handsome yet insufferable intern, who happens to be the boss’ nephew and seems to get all of the perks she isn't. She wants to quit ASAP.

When a joke about a video game featuring male strippers fighting to save the world (as opposed to the ubiquitous hyper-sexual female characters which appear in video games) gets taken seriously, she’s put in charge of developing it. Nolan the intern gets assigned to help her, and while she’s ready for him to be useless, Melody is surprised by how smart—and sexy—he is. But the last thing she needs is to hook up with the boss’ nephew and an intern to boot, given that half of the guys she works with already think she's slept her way into the opportunity to develop the game.

Suddenly she faces intense pressure to deliver the game amidst unrealistic and unfair demands from the CEO, hostile coworkers, and a trolling scandal which actually frightens her. Couple that with constant nagging from her Korean parents to get married and some meddling from her best friends, and she’s ready to crack. All she wants is to turn to Nolan, but is that the worst choice she can make? (I think you know the answer to that question.)

This was a cute enemies-to-lovers (sort-of) rom-com. I liked Melody and Nolan and definitely rooted for them. I thought she really took a lot more verbal abuse from her coworkers, the public, her family, even her friends, than was enjoyable. There’s only so many insults—even when done in love—that are fun to read.

Still, I thought the book had some good messages about sexism in the workplace, particularly in the gaming industry. And so much of what Park describes about gaming fans is true. It's a fun romp.

Avon Books provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Friday, August 21, 2020

Book Review: "Intimations: Six Essays" by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's new collection of essays, Intimations, may be short, but it packs such a punch.

“Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”

This is another book I read because, as I like to call it, "Bookstagram Made Me Do It" — my second this week, in fact! I have three friends to thank for this one.

Intimations is a 100+-page collection of short essays by Smith. I’m a fan of her fiction and don’t normally read essays very often, but I was fascinated by her take on our world as it has been affected by COVID-19.

Her essays fascinated me, serving as a source of amusement and inspiration as much as they made me think. She talks about the compelling need to always be doing something that has been exacerbated even more since the pandemic. She talks about anger, privilege, race, relationships, economics, psychology. She even touches on why so many writers love addressing the question of why they choose to write.

But it is the essay that serves as the postscript, “Contempt as a Virus,” that was the most impactful for me. In it she equates COVID with the plague of racism, particularly following the murder of George Floyd. In just a few pages she communicates so powerfully.

“Has America metabolized contempt? Has it lived with the virus so long that it no longer fears it? Is there a strong enough desire for a different America within America?”

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking piece, this is a book for you. Smith is donating all the royalties to charity, so you’re doing a good deed, too, in purchasing this.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Book Review: "Three Perfect Liars" by Heidi Perks

Heidi Perks' Three Perfect Liars, her newest book, delivers a little bit of mystery, a little bit of melodrama, even a little bit of social commentary. And it's all quite good!

The Morris and Wood building was considered a marvel by some, an eyesore by others. Some even protested the construction of this glass building five years ago. But now, someone set the building on fire, and a person has died in the blaze.

Across the quay from the building, a woman stands watching the fire. Is she the one who started it?⁣

The book follows three women in the weeks before the fire: Laura, one of the few successful women at Morris and Wood, who has just returned from maternity leave to find that her job isn’t quite the same as it was before; Mia, the woman Laura hired to fill in for her temporarily, who has ingratiated herself with the company and is now a permanent employee; and Janie, wife of the CEO, who both longs for more fulfillment and is still afraid of something in her past.

Each of these women has secrets; each has resentments which might cause them to want to burn the building down. But who did it, and why? And who died?

In addition to being a fascinating mystery/thriller of sorts, this book also touched on issues such as sexism in the workplace, the struggles of working mothers, abuse, rape, and fear. The book shifts narration among the women, and the story, both past and present, is interspersed with police interviews and other pieces of the investigation into the fire.

Perks definitely hooked me from start to finish!

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Book Review: "Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy

Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations is haunting, poignant, and thought-provoking. Wow.

This was definitely what I'd call a "Bookstagram made me do it" book. I hadn’t heard of it until two friends spoke highly of it, and it sounded like a book I’d like. And boy, did I ever.

In a not-too-distant future, nearly all of the world’s wildlife—animals, birds, and fish—are extinct. Franny has tracked the last existing flock of arctic terns to Greenland, and she is determined to follow their last majestic migration.

But to do so, she must convince a ship to follow the birds’ path, and let her join them. She connects with the Saghani, a fishing vessel in search of nearly elusive fish. She convinces them that the birds will go where the fish are and the captain, Ennis, decides to trust her.

It’s a treacherous and harrowing journey. As Franny gets more acclimated with her shipmates it becomes clear that Franny is hiding something. Suffering from night terrors, sleepwalking into dangerous situations, one must wonder whether Franny is not only running toward the birds, but running from something.

This was a beautiful book. It has a similar feel to books like Good Morning, Midnight, Station Eleven, or The Dog Stars, although not quite as dystopian. It’s also a commentary on the risks we face as a world given the way our environment is being abused.

Migrations is one that will stick with me. Franny is one of those beautifully flawed characters you truly feel for.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Book Review: "You Deserve Each Other" by Sarah Hogle

My name is Larry and I am addicted to sappy rom-coms. The latest object of my addiction? Sarah Hogle's You Deserve Each Other.

“I’m a miserable cynic (a newer development) and a dreamy romantic (always have been), and it’s such a terrible combination that I don’t know how to tolerate myself.”

Naomi and Nicholas are engaged to be married. If you look at their Instagram photos or watch them in public, you can see just how much they’re in love. The thing is, though, at least where Naomi is concerned, it’s all for show—in truth, she can barely stand Nicholas anymore.

Why stay engaged to someone you can’t stand? Naomi wouldn’t have the money to pay Nicholas’ parents back for all the money they’ve sunk into the wedding. (His mother has taken control of everything and not given Naomi any say, and Nicholas hasn't stood up for her once.) She’s determined to make Nicholas cancel the engagement so the burden will be on him.

When she discovers Nicholas dislikes her as much as she does him, their relationship moves to the next level—constantly one-upping the other, resorting to pranks, jokes, sabotage, and, if required, all-out war. Who will crack first?

But as they battle each other to see who will end their engagement first, they start to remember why they fell in love with one another in the first place. Will it be enough, though, to overcome all the damage their relationship has withstood?

This was so adorable and fun, and I’ll admit I was totally crying at the end. The book reminds me of a lighter, less morbid version of the late-1980s film The War of the Roses. (Ironically, Nicholas' last name is Rose, but the connection never comes up in the book.)

Is some of the plot absolutely predictable? Of course, but that’s what I love about rom-coms.

Book Review: "The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes" by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes, Elissa R. Sloan's debut novel, chronicles the highs and lows of an early-aughts pop group.

In the early 2000s, Gloss was the most popular music group around. The four female members—known as Sassy, Rosy, Tasty, and Cherry (or Cassy, Rose, Yumi, and Merry)—were always in the public eye.

But by 2002 it was all over. The group went their own ways, and despite how close they all were, Cassidy in particular lost touch with all of them. Years later, as Rose, Yumi, and Merry ride a slight wave of nostalgia around Gloss, they get shocking news—Cassidy has died. Suicide.

How could this have happened? Should they have kept better track of her, tried to maintain a relationship with her despite the circumstances? Each woman wracks their brain to see where they could have let her down.

Shifting in perspective from the late 1990s to the present, narrated by all four girls, the book chronicles the joy, sadness, and secrets of the group, and looks at how easily things can go awry. It’s also a hard look at triggers like eating disorders, addiction, depression, and abuse.

I really wanted to love this one, as it certainly had some similarities to one of my favorite books of 2019, Daisy Jones and the Six. I enjoyed the overall thrust of the story.

But while I found it all interesting, the story took a long time to unfold, and I never felt as if we had the complete picture of any of the characters, not even Cassidy. And while there’s always a villain in books, I found one character just so ridiculously odious for someone who was so young.

Still, if you love the whole “Behind the Music” kind of thing, you may enjoy this one.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Book Review: "Luster" by Raven Leilani

Luster signals the arrival of a talented new voice in fiction, Raven Leilani.

Edie is in her 20s, barely eking out an existence in a roach-infested apartment and working at a job she’s good at, but puts minimal effort into. She fills a lot of time having sex with strangers and coworkers, and occasionally finds inspiration enough to express her feelings through art.

"...I cannot help feeling that I am at the end of a fluctuation that originated with a single butterfly. I mean, with one half degree of difference, everything I want could be mine. I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost."

Then she meets Eric online. Eric is 23 years her senior, White, and married, though he is in an open marriage. Their relationship, which moves in fits and starts, develops in spite of the rules set by Eric’s wife, Rebecca.

When Edie loses her job, Rebecca invites her to move in with them. The dynamics of her interactions with Eric and Rebecca shift and change, and Edie becomes a kind of role model to the couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila, because Edie is one of the few Black people Akila knows.

Luster is a story of how lonely and incomplete many feel in their lives, even while they’re connecting with others. It provides insightful commentary on racial, sexual, and economic tensions, within the workplace and within relationships.

Leilani is a beautiful storyteller. So many times I was mesmerized by a quote or phrase or description. But while I loved the way she wrote, I didn’t enjoy the story itself very much. I felt, like the characters did, as if I were missing a connection somewhere.

Still, I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Friday, August 14, 2020

Book Review: "Secret Crush Seduction" by Jayci Lee

Is it hot, steamy, and melodramatic in here, or is it just me? Maybe it's just Jayci Lee's upcoming book, Secret Crush Seduction!

Adelaide Song wants to be a leader in her family’s fashion empire, but her grandmother keeps telling her she’s not ready yet. Her grandmother keeps treating her like a child, still holding Adelaide responsible for being a little bit of a party girl as a teenager. Now she’s determined to show her what a difference she can make to the company.

She enlists the help of Michael Reynolds, her brother’s best friend and the executive who handles the company’s PR efforts. Michael is also the man she’s had a crush on since she was very young, and now that she’s an adult, she’s even more attracted to him than ever. He feels the same way about Adelaide but tries keeping her at arm’s length for many reasons.

As Adelaide and Michael work together on bringing her plans to reality, the connection between them grows more intense. If they surrender to it, will it again signal to her grandmother that she’s not mature enough to take her place in the family business? Is Michael willing to risk it all for this woman he can’t get out of his mind?

This was a deliciously soapy and sexy book I read in one sitting. There’s lots of steam and as with most romances and rom-coms, not a lot of suspense, but the fun is in the journey to the story’s resolution. It’s the second book in the “Heirs of Hansol” series, but I didn’t miss anything by not reading the first book.

Romance fans, this is a fun one!

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this one. Harlequin Desire and the Harlequin Publicity Team provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes September 1.

Book Review: "The Falling in Love Montage" by Ciara Smyth

So sweet and adorable...I loved this one!!

Saoirse doesn’t believe in relationships, because someone always gets hurt. And that’s what happened when her ex-girlfriend broke up with her, plus she lost one of her best friends, so while she’s more than happy to kiss random girls at parties, that’s it.

She’s also scared about her future. Her mother has early-onset dementia and now lives in a nursing home, and there’s a chance the same thing could happen to Saoirse. So why plan to go to Oxford or fall in love, when she could just forget it all someday?

And then she meets Ruby. Ruby is mischievous, playful, beautiful, and an avowed romantic. But she’s only in Ireland for the summer. So as the two want to get closer, Ruby proposes a deal: why not do all of the fun, clichèd things couples do in rom-coms, but without getting serious? No talk of a future, no meeting the family, no falling in love.

"I forgot what it was like to be kissed by someone who might want more than a kiss. I knew then that Ruby was definitely not experimenting. I should have been scared. I should have left the room. I should never have gone upstairs with a girl who made me wobble."

What do you think happens? Saoirse is determined to stick to the deal they made, even if it means keeping her fears about her future quiet from Ruby. But why can’t she convince her heart of this?

I loved this absolutely sweet and charming story. The book embraces and pokes fun at rom-coms, especially the lack of lesbian representation in the genre, but of course, it’s a rom-com in the end. There are a lot of other things at play here too, and the relationships between Saoirse and her dad and her friend/nemesis Oliver are fun and heartwarming.

In short, I fell in love with The Falling in Love Montage! Well done, Ciara Smyth!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Book Review: "The Comeback" by Ella Berman

Ella Berman's debut novel, The Comeback, is powerful and timely.

Grace was 14 when she was plucked out of obscurity in England and cast as a lead in a movie trilogy. She and her family moved to California so she could pursue stardom, something she never had thought of until her classmates were auditioning for the film.

The film’s charismatic director, Able Yorke, finds a muse in Grace. And while he’s able to coax some terrific performances from her, they come with a steep price tag. He controls her every move and when she resists he makes her question herself and her own sanity.

But that’s not all he does to her, and to deal with it she turns to drugs and alcohol and destructive behavior. She thinks she might have found happiness but her past keeps creeping into her life and destroying her relationships. And then after receiving a Golden Globe nomination, she disappears, and goes home to her parents’ house to enjoy the anonymity of everyday life.

Of course, family life doesn’t suit her, as there are resentments there, too. But when she hears that Able will receive a film award and organizers want Grace to present it, she drags herself back to Hollywood, but she has to figure out on whose terms she’s returning. She also has to come to terms with what happened to her and what she wants next. And as much as she has scorched-earth scenarios in her head, she knows she must be realistic as well.

This is a very relevant book given the MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and you know Grace’s story is based on so many real ones. I felt the book's pacing was very slow for a long while, as the narration shifted between past and present. At times it almost felt like we were being kept at arm’s length from getting to know Grace and getting invested in her story, but ultimately the book picked up in pace and emotion.

This is a book that raises so many questions about our culture, and what women are put through everywhere, especially in the entertainment field. It’s very thought-provoking.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Book Review: "A Short History of the Girl Next Door" by Jared Reck

A Short History of the Girl Next Door is a familiar yet immensely enjoyable story.

Tabby was Matt’s first friend. Since they were a little older than babies, she has been a part of his life and she features in all of his favorite—and sometimes, most embarrassing—memories. She’s truly a part of his family, and they all agree.

Even though she’s always been like a sister to him, now that they’re freshmen in high school, Matt is starting to realize his feelings for Tabby aren’t quite brotherly. But he’s not at all good at expressing his feelings, so all he can do is watch as she’s swept off her feet by Liam, a handsome senior (and a nice guy at that).

While he should be happy that Tabby still values their friendship and she still tries to be part of his life and his family’s traditions, of course, he’d rather have her as his girlfriend. But watching her be happy with Liam is hard, and of course, one night Matt and Tabby say things they shouldn’t, things which could potentially damage their friendship forever.

When something unexpected happens, Matt doesn’t know what to do or how to react. So he does the only thing he can and he tries to destroy everyone and everything, not really realizing what is at stake.

I picked this book up while randomly browsing at a bookstore. (Remember what it was like to do that?) I knew nothing about it but I just was intrigued when I saw the cover. But I loved this story.

So many of us have had unrequited feelings for a best friend, feelings that crush us. This book so perfectly captured the way that feels, and the emotions which occur when your feelings aren’t reciprocated. This is a sometimes-silly, sometimes-serious story that I was really surprised by, and Jared Reck did such a great job telling this story and getting you hooked on his characters.

So good!!

Monday, August 10, 2020

Book Review: "Charleston Green" by Stephanie Alexander

Charleston Green is a little quirky, a little crazy, and such fun!

Tipsy (the pastor’s son couldn’t say “Tiffany” when she was a baby) is trying to pull her life together. Her marriage has ended and her vindictive ex-husband is threatening to take their kids away.

For as long as she can remember, Tipsy has seen ghosts. Not the Halloween kind, but people who have died. She can communicate with them as well. But she’s utterly unprepared for when she and the kids move into an old house that is occupied by Jane and Henry Mott, who have, umm, “lived” there for more than 100 years.

Jane insists Henry murdered her and then committed suicide. Henry insists that neither occurred. The more time Tipsy spends with them, the more she is torn between which one she believes more, as each has characteristics she enjoys. (As much as you can "enjoy" a ghost?)

But when you meddle in the affairs of ghosts it starts to take its toll on your real life. As Tipsy tries to figure out what really happened to the Motts, she needs to be reminded to concentrate on her real life before it’s too late—and luckily she has two great (albeit slightly wacky) friends to help her out.

This was such an enjoyable read. I love Charleston and felt its presence throughout the story. The characters were lots of fun and I couldn’t believe that I was even hooked on the ghosts’ story, so to speak.

Is Charleston Green a little crazy? Sure, but Stephanie Alexander has made sure it’s full of heart and humor, too.

I was grateful to be part of the blog tour for this book. Kate Rock Book Tours and Stephanie Alexander provided a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Book Review: "Saving Ruby King" by Catherine Adel West

Powerful and timely, Saving Ruby King really packs a punch.

On Chicago’s South Side, a wife and mother is murdered one night in her own home. While some dismiss this as just another act of violence in a city riddled with it, the woman’s daughter, Ruby, is struck with grief.

Ruby knows her mother took abuse from her father in an effort to protect her. She was the glue that kept the family tenuously together, and without her, Ruby is in danger both physically and psychologically.

As Ruby tries to make sense of her mother’s death and slips further away, her best friend, Layla, is the only one that can save her. But as age-old secrets are revealed, it’s not truly clear what all the dangers are, and if Ruby—and to an extent, all of them—can be saved.

I’m a little late to the party on this one but it was a really good book. There’s so much raw emotion, so much tragedy in here. This isn’t a mystery per se, but Catherine Adel West’s storytelling ability, including the unique multiple narrators, draws you in. It's really best to go into this fairly blind, so I've kept the plot summary pretty vague.

This is such a relevant book for the world we live in, but it feels timeless as well.

Book Review: "You Had Me at Hola" by Alexis Daria

You Had Me at Hola is a fun, steamy, and sweet rom-com taking place on the set of a television show.

Jasmine Lin Rodriguez is a popular soap opera actress whose last relationship provided tremendous tabloid fodder. She’s about to star in a bilingual rom-com series, and she wants the public to pay attention to her performance, not her love life.

She and her cousins have put together a “Leading Lady Plan” for her to live by, which includes knowing she doesn’t need a man to make her happy and vowing not to mess around with her costars.

That last rule becomes more difficult to observe when a last-minute casting change puts hunky telenovela actor Ashton Suarez in the role of her leading man. But Ashton, who has secrets of his own, is also determined not to let anyone get close to him, especially his beautiful costar.

When their lack of connection off the set leads to a lack of connection on set (despite their obvious attraction to one another), Jasmine suggests that they start rehearsing together. But as they start letting their guard down, will their vulnerability be a good thing or a bad one? Will Jasmine be able to adhere to her Leading Lady Plan?

Well, you know what’s going to happen if you’ve read a rom-com or two, but You Had Me at Hola is really enjoyable. It was refreshing to read a book with Latinx characters, and a soap opera-esque show is the perfect setting for a story like this. It was also great to have the female protagonist really have the control in the story.

There is LOTS of steam in this one, so if that makes you uncomfortable you’ll need to do some serious page-flipping. But if you’re a rom-com fan, this is a fun one not to miss!

Friday, August 7, 2020

Book Review: "The Last Flight" by Julie Clark

Hollywood, here’s the basis of your next thriller: Julie Clark's The Last Flight!!

Claire thought she’d found the perfect man when she met her husband. The son of a powerful politician, he is handsome and ambitious, and he swept her off her feet. But through the years, as his ambition has grown, so has his need to control her every move—and his temper has grown more violent.

She can't stay in this marriage. She has been plotting her escape for months. She knows she has one chance.

In an airport waiting for her flight to a fundraiser in Puerto Rico, she meets a woman who is equally desperate for a new life. In a split-second decision, the two women swap tickets—Claire will go to Oakland and Eva will go to Puerto Rico.

But when the flight to Puerto Rico crashes, while it gives Claire even more of an escape route, she must assume Eva’s identity—but she has no idea why Eva was so desperate to leave her life in the first place.

I thought this was a great book. I have been so disappointed in general with thrillers lately, with a few exceptions, but this one kept me hooked from start to finish. So many times I figured it would veer into expected territory, and it surprised me.

The book shifts back and forth from past to present a lot, so you need to pay attention at times. But Julie Clark did an excellent job telling this story and weaving a great web of suspense. It was just so good!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Book Review: "The Friendship List" by Susan Mallery

When best friends realize they’re both in a rut, what will it take to shake up their lives? Susan Mallery's The Friendship List has some ideas.

Ellen is happy. She likes her teaching job, she has a great relationship with her teenage son, Cooper, and she loves spending time with her best friend, Unity. She’s a little nervous about being able to afford Cooper’s college tuition on her salary, but they’ll figure it out. Not bad for someone who got pregnant at 17, right?

Unity has a successful handyman business and she feels a part of Ellen and Cooper’s family. She mostly spends time at the retirement community where she works, and she's made many friends among the residents, even though she’s only in her 30s. Since her husband died three years ago, she doesn’t feel comfortable moving on.

When Ellen overhears Cooper saying he can’t go away to college because she’d be lost without him, and Unity gets some tough-love from friends, both realize they’ve let their lives stagnate—and they need to fix that.

The two put together lists to challenge each other. Ellen vows to wear clothes that fit, to shake her life up a bit, and to finally have sex with a man, something she hasn’t done since she was 17. Unity has some similar things on her list as well, including finding an age-appropriate man to date (since all of her male friends are beyond retirement age) and maybe even wearing some makeup.

While they start to pursue activities on the list, what they don’t realize is how much more complicated it is to really move beyond what you’re used to emotionally, and what to expect. How do you know when you’re ready to change? How much is enough, or too much? Are you changing for change's sake, or because you really want and need to?

This was a sweet, steamy, emotional book. The characters—particularly Unity—were more complex than I expected so it took longer for them to progress, or want to, than I would have hoped. But still, this was a fun book, a quick read, and a good story about friendship.

I was pleased to be part of the blog tour for this one. Harlequin Books provided an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making that possible!!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Book Review: "With or Without You" by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt's new novel, With or Without You, is gorgeous, emotional, and thought-provoking.

“Any moment, something amazing can happen.”

Stella and Simon have been together for years. Stella, a nurse, is the responsible one, while Simon, a musician, keeps dreaming of a future that will probably never happen.

Now in their early 40s, Stella wants to settle down—maybe buy their apartment, have a baby. The evening before Simon is scheduled to leave for a two-day gig that he and his fellow band members hope might finally break things open for them, he and Stella argue about their future. Then, after they both take a pill, Stella has an adverse reaction that causes her to fall into a coma.

Simon sacrifices his dreams to care for Stella, and remains vigilant throughout her two-month coma. He finds himself drawing closer to Libby, one of Stella’s doctors and best friends. Yet when Stella wakes things are so different—suddenly she has an immense talent to draw people’s portraits and see their innermost feelings.

Stella’s awakening also exposes old and new feelings for each of them, forcing them to examine their pasts and their futures.

I absolutely love the way Caroline Leavitt writes, but this book is fantastic. There’s such a poignancy to this story but it really makes you think, too, about how you might react if you were in the situations in which the characters find themselves. But beyond that, Leavitt makes insightful commentary on what love makes us do.

I’m grateful to be part of the blog tour for this book. NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: "Musical Chairs" by Amy Poeppel

There's a moment in every Amy Poeppel novel where everything starts to go off the rails. Secrets are revealed, things which have remained unsaid for years are finally said, and confrontation and breakdown are brewing.

In lesser hands, this situation can become farcical, melodramatic, almost ridiculous. But in Poeppel's hands there's a balance of pathos and clarity, hysteria and humor, and you realize why her books are so great (but I don't know why she's not famous).

Bridget and Will have been friends since college. They're so perfectly attuned to each other in so many ways, everyone always assumes they're a couple, but they've never had any more than a platonic, brother-sister relationship. And that's fine with both of them.

The two are two-thirds of the Forsyth Trio, a classical musical chamber group of mild renown, which they formed during college at Juilliard. Their original third member, Gavin, who was the most talented of the three (and boy, did he know it), has gained some fame in the classical music world, but Bridget and Will have had group members come and go over the years, garnering modest recognition and playing small venues. It's not ideal, but it's always been just enough for the two of them.

This summer Bridget is looking forward to spending time at her country home in Connecticut with her novelist boyfriend, Sterling. But Sterling's ex-wife has other ideas, and suddenly Bridget is facing a summer alone, as her house becomes increasingly shabbier. And then her grown twin children both show up from different places in the world. Both of their lives are in flux, so they seek the comfort of their family home to help ride the storm out.

But by no means is this going to be a peaceful, relaxing summer. In addition to dealing with her children, Bridget and Will are in the midst of delicate negotiations with another musician to join the trio. At the same time, her famous father, now in his 90s, is getting married again, something she and her sister are utterly unprepared for. Throw in the reemergence of an old acquaintance and a whole lot of uncertainty about the future, and it's enough to make anyone crazy.

I love tales of family dysfunction, and Musical Chairs has that in spades. But it also is an examination of the boundaries of friendship and how easy it is to intertwine your life with someone even if you have no interest in them romantically. It's also the story of how easy it is for secrets and things which remain unsaid to get in the way of relationships, and hamper you from moving forward with the rest of your life. And above it all, it's the story of the integral role music plays in the life of one extended family.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I love the way Poeppel tells a story, the way she breathes life and heart into flawed characters you root for and empathize with even as you want to shake them for not telling the truth or telling someone how they really feel. There are things in the book which border on silly but somehow they work in Poeppel's hands. I really just enjoyed this story so much, even though there is a lot going on.

I'd also encourage you to read Poeppel's earlier books, Small Admissions and Limelight. You'll see that her mixture of humor and heart isn't something she just stumbled into in this book.

Book Review: "Someone's Listening" by Seraphina Nova Glass

When you’ve been dedicated to helping people, what happens when you need help? Check out Seraphina Nova Glass' new thriller, Someone's Listening, for perspectives on that question.

Faith Finley is a psychologist who has helped many patients, and now she’s translated that success into books and a popular radio show, “Someone’s Listening.” She’s happily married to Liam, a renowned food writer and restaurant critic, and life is good.

And then one night, everything falls apart. (Doesn't it always?) Suddenly Liam is missing and the police are convinced that Faith knows something, despite all she says. Would he just walk away from their lives, or did someone hurt him? Faith is determined to find the truth even if no one believes her innocence.

Yet as she tries to figure things out, she starts suspecting everyone, and wonders if Liam was hiding something from her. And when someone starts anonymously sending Faith excerpts from her book—pages talking about how to escape your abuser—she realizes that every step she takes toward the truth puts her in more danger. And whom should she trust?

This was a quick read, full of action and drama, and it definitely kept me wondering what was going to happen. I suspect everyone in thrillers so I ultimately wasn’t surprised by the way things tied up, but I wasn’t disappointed. (Literally, a character appears in the book and I'm thinking, "Okay, did you do it?") There definitely were some twists, though!

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

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Book Review: "The Mall" by Megan McCafferty

Nothing like a nostalgic trip back to the mall, with Megan McCafferty's new novel, The Mall!!

How’s this for an opening line? “Less than five minutes into my triumphant return to the mall, I was targeted for assassination by a rabid spritzer from Bath & Body Works.” (How many times have you unwittingly gotten sprayed by a perfume- or cologne-wielding ninja?)

It’s 1991. Cassie has her summer planned: she and her boyfriend are going to work at America’s Best Cookie, and then they’re going to head to NYC to attend college—she at Barnard, he at Columbia.

Yet within an hour, she discovers that the best-laid plans never quite work out the way you hope. She must scramble for a new job, and as other surprises and disappointments come her way, she realizes that sometimes the only person you can depend on is yourself.

As the summer flies by, she makes new friends, finds the self-confidence and self-belief she’s been lacking, and also realizes that her attitude could use a little adjustment, too. All of this is set against the backdrop of an early 1990s New Jersey mall.

This book was a fun, nostalgic romp. I actually worked in a mall in 1991 (at Suncoast Motion Picture Company and The Gamekeeper), and I remember the days of Sam Goody stores all too well. (Mall music stores were always so expensive!) Megan McCafferty captured the time period (especially the New Jersey elements), as well as the mall experience, quite well.

Grab your scrunchies and your distressed denim, and pick up The Mall!

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