Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Book Review: "You Brought Me the Ocean" by Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh

You Brought Me the Ocean is a captivating, poignant graphic novel about a young man trying to figure out who he is.

For reasons he can’t explain, Jake has always been obsessed with the ocean, and with water in general. He's even constantly thirsty. He dreams of studying marine biology, which would require him to leave his New Mexico hometown and all of those who are close to him.

His mother has always been overprotective, perhaps because his father drowned when Jake was a baby. He spends all of his spare time with his best friend, Maria. She knows Jake dreams of going to Miami for college to study the ocean, but she hopes he’ll stay closer to home with her.

Lately Jake has been feeling strange. His feelings confuse him until he starts talking to a classmate, Kenny, who has always been bullied because he’s gay. The more time Jake spends with Kenny the more he realizes he’s been hiding a part of him for far too long.

The other thing he’s been struggling with is that strange things happen to him when he’s around water. He’s always had these distinctive markings on his arms—suddenly they’re giving him the power to control water. Is something wrong with him? Or is there a secret someone has been hiding?

I didn’t know that this was an origin story for Aqualad, but obviously that makes sense. I love superhero stories and love when they first start to discover their abilities. But the storyline of Jake’s sexuality really added depth to this book.

This is beautifully illustrated by Julie Maroh and well-written by Alex Sanchez. (I loved one of his books, Rainbow Boys, earlier this year.) Looking forward to (hopefully) another book in this series!

Book Review: "The Midnight Library" by Matt Haig

Wow, Matt Haig's newest novel, The Midnight Library, was absolutely beautiful.

“...sometimes the only way to learn is to live.”

Nora has decided she wants to die. She’s just so unhappy and doesn’t feel like she or her life matter to anyone. She's disappointed everyone in her life, and she doesn’t think her death will have an impact.

She finds herself in The Midnight Library, which is filled with books that each contains a life Nora could have lived had she made a different choice or picked a different path. Some books even contain lives she never imagined.

With the help of an old friend, Nora explores the options the library offers her. But sometimes the choices aren’t easy to make, and sometimes a decision has ramifications she could never fathom. Ultimately, she needs to understand what living a life really means, and whether it’s worth fighting for, before the choices she makes or doesn’t make doom the library—and her—forever.

I loved this book so much. Matt Haig is an amazing writer (I also loved his How to Stop Time) and this is such a moving, thought-provoking book. Many of us have felt the way Nora has, so this book had particular meaning for me.

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Book Review: "Majesty" by Katharine McGee

All hail Queen Beatrice of America!

Katharine McGee’s American Royals series returns with Majesty, the second book and another enjoyable installment. Beatrice has just been crowned Queen and is trying to figure out how to negotiate a role she has prepared for as long as she can remember, although she wasn't expecting to assume that role so soon.

Beatrice is the first woman to become Queen in American history, but despite living in modern times, there are some who only believe she can govern if she has a husband at her side. And her engagement is fraught with its own tensions.

As her family and the nation move through their grief, there are other issues causing stress—an employee who doesn’t seem to think Beatrice is ready to be Queen; her sister Samantha, who resists being “the spare” and resents Beatrice for so much more than that; and the tensions caused by desperate social climber Daphne.

I enjoyed this book and find the characters so engaging (except Daphne, lord). Because this is the second book there’s less background information about how everything works, which allows for more drama, tension, and character development. (That being said, I loved all of the background McGee shared in the first book.) I liked that a few of the characters really grew into their own in this book, and McGee introduced some interesting social issues into the mix.

I’m fascinated with the idea behind this series. Even when I struggled with some of the melodrama around the characters (which was a little repetitive from the first book) I just felt McGee’s storytelling was so enjoyable. This is a world I wouldn't mind being in, at least for a little while!

Can’t wait for Book 3, although a few people have said a third book isn't definite. Where do I start begging?

Monday, September 28, 2020

Book Review: "A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom" by John Boyne

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom is a sweeping look at love, family, history, and destiny.

Have you ever read a book that you felt you couldn’t describe properly? That’s definitely the way I feel about John Boyne’s newest book. What I can say, however, is once again, his storytelling blew me away.

We start at the dawn of time, 1 AD. A baby is born to a warrior and his wife, amidst his father’s acts of violence. The baby has an older brother, who mostly resents him.

The story shifts as time passes, changing locations, names, certain facts, but the general thrust of the story remains the same, as if to say that what is destined will happen no matter who or where you are. We travel through history, getting glimpses of historical figures and events through time, all the way to the future.

At times this felt more like interconnected short stories than a cohesive novel. This was an interesting concept and I loved what Boyne has to say, that no event or emotion is unique to just one person. In the end, though, I don’t know that this worked for me as much as I hoped it would. But his storytelling transcended it all, so much like I felt about Fredrik Backman's Anxious People, the writing elevated the book, in my opinion.

If you’ve never read Boyne before, please read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Absolutist, and A Ladder to the Sky.

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

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Book Review: "The Roommate" by Rosie Danan

Rosie Danan's The Roommate is fun and super-steamy, and it's built on a really interesting concept.⁣

⁣ Clara has spent most of her life doing the right things, making the safe choices, to avoid her scandal-prone family experiencing any more embarrassment. But when the man she’s had a crush on since childhood invites her to travel across the country, she throws all caution to the wind and moves to California.⁣

⁣ When she arrives, of course, she learns all is not what it seems. Suddenly she’s sharing a house with Josh, a handsome stranger. He seems to “get” her, which makes her a little uncomfortable, but they fall into an easy friendship/flirtation.⁣ She starts tackling her own issues, including overcoming her fear of driving and finding a job.

⁣ And then she finds out what Josh does for a living: he’s a porn star. A popular one with women, at that. But with his contract with his studio trying to force him down a road he doesn’t want to travel, he has to find a new plan. Surprisingly, it comes from Clara—how can women learn to have better sex? It’s an idea sure to gain traction, and one which Clara is becoming ever more interested in the more time she spends with Josh.⁣

⁣ As the project advances, the attraction between them deepens. But can scandal-shy Clara really imagine her family’s reaction if she dates a porn star? What if her crush finally comes to his senses?⁣ Is Josh willing to let his guard down?

⁣ I enjoyed Rosie Danan’s twist on a typical rom-com. Josh and Clara were two really fun and complex characters, and I liked that the book touched on both of their perspectives and desires. It definitely was thought-provoking and, as you’d imagine, pretty hot!!

Book Review: "Watch Over Me" by Nina LaCour

Watch Over Me, Nina LaCour's new novel, is gorgeously lyrical and powerfully moving.

Mila has aged out of the foster care system, so she’s excited when she’s chosen for a teaching job on a farm on the Northern California coast. The couple who own the farm have been fostering children for years and are renowned for their efforts, so this is a real opportunity for Mila.

She is immediately blown away by the beauty and the solitude, and quickly connects with her student and the others on the farm. She longs to be part of a family again, to belong, to be wanted. Like anyone who has experienced the foster care system, she is wary of making mistakes, of doing something that might cause someone not to want her or like her any longer.

But the farm is also a haven for ghosts. While the ghosts mean no harm, they do provoke memories, and Mila starts to become increasingly haunted by the memories she has tried to leave behind. There are secrets few if any know, and as much as she tries to help her student deal with his own memories, she isn't ready to confront hers.

Watch Over Me is such a beautiful story of the toll grief can take on us and how it feels to be set free from it. It’s also a story about the family we choose and how powerful it can be to feel we belong, when we connect with others without guise or guile.

LaCour is one of my absolute favorite YA authors. There’s so much emotion and poetry in her writing, and she never fails to move me. Books like Hold Still, We Are Okay, and You Know Me Well, which she wrote with David Levithan (another favorite of mine), demonstrate her immense talent.

This book is a little more fantastical than some of her others, and at times I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I loved it all the same. Read this, and read her.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Book Review: "Good Girl, Bad Blood" by Holly Jackson

There are times when you can’t shake the need to investigate crimes even when you want to...

Don’t you love sequels that are just as good as their predecessor? That’s truly the case with Good Girl, Bad Blood, Holly Jackson’s sequel to The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, which I read and absolutely loved earlier this year.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi is done being a detective. After she and her family have put the fallout from the murder case she worked on behind them, she has sworn not to get involved anymore. There’s too much risk. She and her boyfriend work on her podcast and that’s the extent of it, save monitoring the trial that is taking place after the murder case.

When one of her closest friends comes to her and asks for her help in finding his missing brother, she turns him down but tries to use her connections with the police to help. But when the police don’t seem to care, Pip feels as if she has no choice but to try and figure out what happened.

She knows the risks but she knows she can help her friend. And now she has an audience to listen whether she succeeds or fails—but will the culprit know if she’s on to them? Can she get the police to listen before it’s too late?

I think Jackson is a terrific storyteller, and I was hooked from start to finish. She threw lots of twists in, and although I’ll admit I suspected the culprit briefly, I was still surprised. Of course, it’s always dubiously amazing how perceptive amateur detectives can be in books, even suspending my disbelief a little didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

This is suspenseful, thought-provoking, and even surprisingly moving at times. I hope Jackson has a third book planned!!

I got this from Book Depository; it publishes in America in March 2021.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Book Review: "Show Me the Way" by Ashley Farley

It’s such fun returning to characters you love when you read another installment in a great series! Show Me the Way, the second book in Ashley Farley's Hope Springs series was a terrific follow-up.

Presley (yeah, she's named after the King) has always known she was adopted but she’s been too afraid to find out anything about her biological parents. But when her mother dies and she finds a woman’s name and address among her papers, Presley decides it’s time to act.

She goes to Hope Springs, a charming small town in Virginia, where the woman lives. As she tries to learn more about the woman she believes is her mother, she winds up landing her dream job as an event planner at the newly restored Inn at Hope Springs Farm. It’s there she also meets Everett, the Inn’s handsome bartender, with whom she shares some intense chemistry, but she can tell he’s hiding something serious.

Everett is biding his time, hoping he’ll get another opportunity to pursue his music career. But Presley’s arrival upends things, because he knows if he can ever have a chance with her he needs to come clean about the things he’s running from.

Meanwhile, Stella, the still relatively new owner of the Inn, is worried about keeping the business afloat. She’s also not sure about the major decisions she’s making in her life, and she’s worried about one employee with a penchant for causing trouble, but she can’t act too rashly or she could ruin everything.

Hope Springs, the setting of Farley's fantastic Dream Big, Stella!, is the perfect backdrop for another round of drama and romance. I love these characters and the Inn, and I love Hope Springs so much I’d move there in real life if it really existed!!

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

Show Me the Way publishes 9/29.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review: "Surrender Your Sons" by Adam Sass

Surrender Your Sons is so powerful, suspenseful, and moving. It is an utterly intense and unforgettable book.

Things have been pretty tough for Connor since he came out to his fervently religious mother. She’s taken away his phone and all his technology, she’s roped him into delivering Meals on Wheels with her church, and she watches him like a hawk, so he can almost never see his boyfriend, Ario.

But as bad as it has been, he cannot believe she paid to have him kidnapped in the middle of the night and spirited away to Nightlight Ministries, a conversion camp that “changes” LGBTQ children back to their “normal” selves. It’s a frightening place where the threat of violence and punishment and never being able to leave hang over everyone’s heads.

As devastated and hurt as he feels, as unsure as he is about what he should do, Connor knows things aren’t what they seem at camp. Everyone has something to hide—even the director and the “recovered” counselors—and Connor is determined to uncover the truth. But he’ll be putting himself and his fellow campers in danger, as people will stop at nothing to protect themselves and the way of life they believe in.

Sadly, conversion therapy is still a reality in a number of states and places around the world. While this is fiction, the idea behind it is not, and that is one reason this book feels so powerful.

Surrender Your Sons is intense and suspenseful; it’s sad but ultimately, there are notes of hope. Adam Sass told an incredibly moving story. I had a little bit of a problem with the timeframe of the story—it seemed like things should have occurred over a few days instead of one day only—but I still loved this book so much.

I hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future, conversion therapy will be a thing of the past everywhere, and no one will care who people love, just that they love.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Book Review: "A Sweet Mess" by Jayci Lee

Don’t read A Sweet Mess on an empty stomach or you’ll crave baked goods!!

Aubrey Choi is living her dream. Her bakery, Comfort Zone, is thriving, so much so that she’s planning to expand to larger space. It doesn’t leave her time for romance, however, but when she meets a handsome stranger at her friend’s brewery and they spend the night together, she starts to wonder what she’s missing.

It turns out that the stranger is food critic Landon Kim, and he’s about to write an unflattering review of Comfort Zone because of a mix-up he experienced. The review really hurts Aubrey’s business and puts her expansion—and the future of her bakery—in jeopardy.

When Landon realizes the review was unfair and finds out about its impact on Aubrey’s business, he vows to make it up to her. He lands her a stint on a friend’s cooking show, but there’s a catch: she’ll need to stay with him in a villa in California's Wine Country for a few weeks while the show is filmed.

They both know they have to keep things professional between them or it could hurt both of their reputations. But given their intense chemistry and the depth of their growing feelings for one another, that gets harder and harder to do.

Is a chance at love worth the risks to both of them? Are people destined to be together? Love is on the line for two people who have never really trusted their hearts.

I really enjoyed this. It was fun, sexy (not too steamy), romantic, and absolutely hunger-inducing. Jayci Lee is a terrific writer—I’ve read this and a more traditional romance she wrote and both are very different. I could easily see this as a television movie.

The book even has recipes—but I wanted one for the chocolate cake with peanut butter filling, lol!!

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Book Review: "The Bridge" by Bill Konigsberg

Bill Konigsberg's new YA novel, The Bridge, is an emotional, eye-opening look at teenagers, depression, and suicide.

Aaron can’t take it any longer. He’s tired of not feeling like he’s good enough or talented enough. He’s tired of wondering if he’ll ever find a guy to love him, tired of putting himself out there and getting little in return.

One day, he goes to the George Washington Bridge and is ready to end it all. And there he sees Tillie.

Tillie is at the end of her rope. She’s been bullied, she’s been ghosted, she’s fighting to be seen and heard and loved. She just doesn’t feel like she can go on any longer. And then she sees Aaron.

What happens if Aaron jumps?
What happens if Tillie jumps?
What if they both jump?
What if neither one jumps?

Konigsberg explores all four scenarios, the impact on those left behind (including Aaron or Tillie if they saw the other jump), the possible ways they might have touched the world had they not jumped, and the beauty and strength which comes from having the support of people who get you. He recognizes, however, that’s not all we need to help us.

This was a beautiful, moving book which hit me in the feels, reminding me of my own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. The unique 4-scenarios-in-1 concept mostly works, and it really looks at the big and small moments of depression. Konigsberg is a terrific writer; I've enjoyed his previous books, particularly The Music of What Happens.

He has written an important, gorgeous book that will make you feel and think, but it's not so heavy or maudlin that you'll feel utterly finished afterward.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, in the US you can call 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review: "Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi's newest novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is a beautiful, moving look at grief, faith, family, and science.

Gifty is studying for her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford. Her research deals with depression and addiction, two things she knows all too well. Her older brother Nana, a talented basketball player, died of an overdose after getting addicted to OxyContin following an injury, and her mother has been virtually bedridden with grief and depression since his death a number of years ago.

While Gifty hopes to find scientific explanations for the issues that affected her family and so many others, she doesn’t truly understand the toll they’ve taken on her emotionally until her mother comes to stay with her. And as Gifty tries to find ways of reaching her mother, and struggles with completing her own work, she remembers the days of attending her mother’s evangelical church and the comforts and challenges it brought her.

This was such a gorgeously written book, a story of racism and the immigrant experience, the pain of addiction, depression, and loss, and the clarifying power for some of both science and faith. I felt like the emotions of this book almost snuck up on me the way they did Gifty.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Book Review: "If She Had Stayed" by Diane Byington

If you had the chance to do something over from your past, would you?

Kaley has always felt a connection to Nikola Tesla, because her grandfather once worked for the famous inventor. Now she’s the acting director of a soon-to-be-opened Tesla Museum in Colorado Springs, a job she hopes will become permanent. (Only if she can raise enough money.)

After meeting with a potential donor, she is given an antique safe, in which she finds some long-lost papers which appear to be written by Tesla himself. She can’t believe what she reads. Was he delusional or did he really time travel? Imagine how this discovery could impact the world!

Even though her mind is telling her that time travel isn't possible, Kaley’s curiosity gets the best of her, so she builds Tesla’s time machine in order to see whether his words are true. She plans to go back to her college days to change her actions around one major decision in her life.

Will she get to her past? Will she kill herself in the process? What she doesn’t count on is someone less-than-honest from her past hiding things from her.

I’m a fan of anything time travel-related so this was an interesting read, meshing science and action and character development. At times it got a little confusing, but the story definitely hooked me, and I love the nuances Diane Byington brought to the story.

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review: "Don't Look for Me" by Wendy Walker

Wendy Walker does it again with her latest thriller, Don't Look for Me!! Wow!

Molly is driving home in the middle of a rainstorm that’s about to turn into a hurricane. She’s driving home but she doesn’t know why—her husband barely looks at her and her daughter hates her.

She doesn’t know how long ago her empty light went on, but she knows the gas station is coming up. Her car stalls out just before that, and the station is closed anyway for the impending storm.

Her car is found abandoned after the storm passes. A day or two later a note is found in her handwriting telling her family not to look for her, that she’s been a burden to them.

Did Molly just walk away from her life and her family? Where is she, and is she okay?

Walker did such a great job here, ratcheting up the tension and suspense. There’s so much going on in this book but it’s best just to go in not knowing too much and let it all unfold.

I’m a big fan of Walker’s books and this is probably one of her best. If you’re looking for a good, slightly creepy thriller, grab this one!

St. Martin's Press provided me with a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Book Review: "A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" by Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black's A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son is full of humorous, moving, insightful reflections shared from father to son.

What does it mean to be a man? And what does being “a good man” entail, especially in these days when it seems we are caught between the “traditional” male roles and behaviors and the paradigm shift that has occurred in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?

In his new book, fashioned as a “letter” of sorts to his college-aged son, comedian Michael Ian Black tries to provide advice on how to negotiate manhood in this day and age. He talks about the need to avoid getting caught up in stereotypical male behaviors like refusing to show emotions or ask for help, the need to make your own way and avoid turning to violence.

In many ways, this is a quietly moving book, as Black reflects on his own relationship with his father, who died when he was 12. He also talks about the fear and uncertainty of parenting, especially following the Sandy Hook massacre and other crises.

While Black does interject a little humor into the book, it’s not as sarcastic or snarky as I expected it might be, and that worked well. In some cases he dwells a little too much on history, and those chapters don’t work as well, and he doesn’t shy away from adding his political views periodically, which might not sit well with those who don’t share them. (It didn't bother me.)

Although I’m not a father, this book certainly made me reflect on my own relationship with my father, who died almost 6-1/2 years ago.

I hope that Black’s son—and to a smaller extent, his daughter—realizes how much his father loves him. A Better Man certainly radiates love, as well as the need for reflection.

I was pleased to be part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Algonquin Books and Michael Ian Black for a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "Atonement Camp for Unrepentant Homophobes" by Evan J. Corbin

What would you expect from a book with a title like Atonement Camp for Unrepentant Homophobes? Evan J. Corbin delivers a quirky, moving, and tremendously thought-provoking read.

Imagine that the oldest translation of a Gospel is found in which Jesus explicitly condemns bigotry and homophobia. It changes the world quickly—the U.S. has elected its first lesbian president, the Pope has come out of the closet, and people treat the LGBTQIA+ community with respect and admiration.

Rick Harris, a pastor from North Carolina, is unmoved by these changes and continued to preach against the evils of homosexuality. When one sermon goes too far and offends the most influential family in the congregation, he is given a choice by the church elders: attend an atonement camp or get fired.

The atonement camp, run by drag queens, is utter torture for Rick and his fellow campers at first. Lots of alcohol, pedicures, and scantily clad pool boys loosen people up, but there are important lessons to be learned about the struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community as well as learning to understand the demons that we all carry.

“Binary gender subscribers. Trans deniers. Hypocrites, sinners, and fools. Honestly, I don’t care who you were before you came here. I only care about the people you’ll be when you leave. No one is hopeless. No one is beyond redemption.”

I found this to be funny and emotional, and it definitely made me think. Of course, the campers embodied all of the arguments you hear from those who criticize homosexuality, but you see that these characters are not without their flaws as well. And while at first it looks like the camp plays into all the typical stereotypes, there’s depth there beyond what you expect.

This is definitely a book I’ll remember!!

I was pleased to be part of the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Pride Book Tours and Evan J. Corbin for a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Book Review: "K-Pop Confidential" by Stephan Lee

Stephan Lee's K-Pop Confidential is such fun!!

Confession time: I know nothing about K-Pop. I don’t know BTS from Y2K or BLACKPINK from blackjack, but I do love reading about the music scene and stories of people going after their dreams of stardom, so this book really appealed to me.

Candace Park is a dutiful daughter. She does what’s expected: studies hard, gets good grades, helps out at her parents’ convenience store, she even plays the viola (badly) in her school's orchestra because her mother says it will make her stand out and be more likely to get scholarships for college.

But what Candace wants is to sing. She thinks she’s good at it, her best friends think so too, but her mother doesn’t take her desire seriously, and thinks singing is something you do for fun; it's not a "real" ability. So one day, on a whim, thanks to the coaxing of her best friends, she goes to audition for the entertainment company responsible for all of the major K-Pop groups. They’re looking for singers for their first-ever girl group and girls from all over are hoping for their chance.

Much to her surprise, the company wants her. She will become a trainee, one of a large group from which the members will be picked. They want her to come to Seoul and train with all of the others for several months. After much convincing, her parents will let it happen as long as she’s ready to go back to school when the summer ends if she’s not picked.

She’s not prepared for how immensely hard it all is. She’s up against girls who have been preparing for this their entire lives. Her looks, her weight, her skills, her personality—it’s all under intense scrutiny. And no matter how hard she works, she might not even get picked, and even if she is picked, her group may never even debut if plans change. There's another American girl in the mix, so she wonders if she even has a chance.

As she gets closer and closer to achieving her dreams, she starts to wonder if stardom is worth risking her friendships, changing her life and her family’s, not to mention the way the company treats its stars as well as obsession of the fans, who want their stars to be perfect, untouchable, only available to them.

I enjoyed this so much. It’s fun and soapy and I could picture all of it in my mind’s eye, so it would make a fun movie.

Don’t be put off because you don’t follow K-Pop—it’s a totally enjoyable book nevertheless, and there's even a glossary at the end!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Book Review: "These Vengeful Hearts" by Katherine Laurin

In Katherine Laurin's These Vengeful Hearts, secrets are the most powerful currency of all.

Why do I love books about secret societies and mean girls? My high school experience was hard enough without having to worry about some cabal of students who had the power to make lives miserable. (In my day, we just called them jerks. Or worse.)

At Heller High, the Red Court has all the power. Students ask favors of them—some good, some bad—and the Court’s leader, known as the Queen of Hearts, decides whether the favor should be granted. Whether it’s rigging an election, helping you ace an exam or a class, even breaking up a couple, the Red Court wields its power and then will ultimately demand something of those they help.

Ember has dreamed of taking down the Red Court since she was in middle school, when they led to her sister getting hurt. Now a sophomore at Heller, she’s completely thrilled when she’s finally tapped to be a member.

As she starts to take on her “responsibilities” and build her case against the Red Court, she starts to get caught up in the power she suddenly has access to. And when her tasks get increasingly personal, she knows she has to stop at nothing to take the Queen down.

But first she has to figure out who she is. And who will get caught in the crossfire?

Even though I’ve certainly seen this type of story before, I was still pretty hooked on These Vengeful Hearts. It’s crazy how twisted these students can be but most of what they asked for seemed like things you could see people wanting, be willing to do anything for.

Laurin threw lots of twists in here; some I saw coming and others surprised me. I think a second book may be on the horizon so it will be interesting to see what comes next!

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

Book Review: "You Can Go Home Now" by Michael Elias

Michael Elias' You Can Go Home Now delivers some interesting twists. It's not quite a police procedural, not quite a thriller, but it's a fascinating read.

Nina Karim is a tough, no-BS cop in Queens. She’s overcome a lot in her life but it drives her, fuels her to move forward.

Among the cases she's investigating is the disappearance and subsequent murder of a man, an ex-cop. Nina discovers that he used to abuse his wife and she spent time in a shelter called Artemis. And now he’s dead. But it’s more than that—Nina starts to find other cases in which those who abused their significant others are winding up dead, and all of their victims spent time at the same shelter.

To investigate what’s going on, she goes undercover at Artemis as a woman abused by her husband. As she gets to know the women and hear their stories, she has to figure out whether someone within the shelter is playing a role in killing the women’s abusers. If so, is that really a bad thing?

Meanwhile, when her past comes back to confront her, she must make a complicated decision: does she take on the demons that have haunted her for so long, or would doing so even haunt her more?

I thought this was a really good read and it had some interesting twists on the typical thriller/crime novel. I also liked how Elias looked at domestic violence and showed that it's not just perpetrated by men, and also examined some cultural issues relative to this type of abuse.

The book isn't always fast-moving, but Elias definitely threw in a few twists here and there. I found Nina to be a really fascinating, complex, flawed character, and I'd love to see her return in a future book. I’ll definitely keep watch on what comes in the future for Elias’ career!

Book Review: "The Summer of Everything" by Julian Winters

When nothing in your life is going the way you want to, how do you find the courage to fight for it? Wesley Hudson needs to figure that out in Julian Winters' new YA novel, The Summer of Everything.

There’s one month left until Wes starts college. He needs to figure out what he wants to do with his life, because his father keeps suggesting potential college majors. But more than that, Wes is determined this will be the time he finally admits his feelings for his best friend, Nico. They have a month until Nico goes to Stanford and Wes goes to UCLA.

Wes can’t seem to find the courage to tell Nico how he feels, no matter how hard he tries. He's not even sure if Nico feels the same way about him anyway, so is it worth risking their friendship? To make matters worse, Wes’ beloved bookstore is on the verge of closing, and his older brother is getting married and his fiancé is hoping that the brothers can put their animosity aside. It's a lot of uncertainty and chaos for Wes to deal with, at a particularly stressful time.

As he tries to figure out how to save the bookstore with help of the motley crew of friends who work there, he needs to try and take action on everything else in his life, too. Will he succeed?

I was really hooked on this story. So many of us have had that crush on someone we care about and have felt totally paralyzed when it comes to expressing our feelings. Winters really captured those emotions, as you struggle to figure out whether what your heart wants and what your head tells you can mesh.

Winters creates such great, diverse characters you can see in your mind’s eye, and you root for them all the way. There was a lot going on in this book, and the truth is, I could have done without the brother storyline, but it helped show another dimension to Wes. But overall, this was such a good story, and I also recommend Winters' previous books, How to Be Remy Cameron and Running with Lions.

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this book. Interlude Press and Storygram Tours provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Review: "Anxious People" by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman's newest novel, Anxious People, is poignant, thought-provoking, and a little bewildering.

This is a story about a bank robbery and a subsequent hostage situation. But not really. I mean, these things happen and factor in the book but in the end, this is a book about connections, how desperate we are to be seen by others, and how even those who are supposed to help us in our time of need are sometimes in need of rescue as well.

Anxious People tells a story—many stories, really—in a very roundabout way. It travels from past to present, focusing on many different people, and their stories are juxtaposed with interviews between the police and the hostages. I felt as if the interviews were supposed to provide comic relief, but they were almost too outrageous and annoying that they frustrated me more than amused me.

There are a lot of characters and situations to keep straight, and Backman throws lots of twists and turns into the story. I'll admit I had to go back and read some incidents again to make sure I was clear on what actually happened. But there is a lot of emotion here, too, and I think when Backman writes about the emotional connections we have—with loved ones, friends, strangers—and how they enrich and affect us in ways we might never know, he's found his sweet spot.

I love the way Backman tells a story. (Two of his books, Beartown and Us Against You, are among my favorite books from the last decade.) Even though this one didn’t completely click for me, my love of his writing won out. There was still a lot to love about this book.

I’ve seen mixed things on this—some have given it 5 stars while others have struggled—but it’s definitely worth a read.

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

Monday, September 7, 2020

Book Review: "I Have Something to Tell You" by Chasten Buttigieg

Chasten Buttigieg's I Have Something to Tell You is a warm, engaging, and emotional memoir I really connected with.

Even before the 2020 campaign season officially kicked off, I was a huge fan of Pete Buttigieg, the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana. I appreciated his immense intelligence and thoughtfulness, and really believed in his desire to bring this country together. I knew his candidacy was a long shot, but I still cried when it ended just before I’d have had the chance to vote for him in the primary.

Of course, never would I have imagined when I was growing up (or even well into my adulthood, TBH) that an openly gay man would be a credible candidate for president and that he would campaign with his husband at his side. I so enjoyed watching Chasten become such a visible part of the campaign—you could feel his warmth and empathy, as well as his love for his husband—and following him on social media, I got glimpses of his humor, his heart, and his occasional wonder at all that was happening.

All of those qualities make Chasten’s memoir so enjoyable. He’s tremendously self-deprecating and doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s more than happy to admit the missteps he’s taken in his life. But while we grew up in different areas of the country and he’s nearly 20(!) years younger than me, I really related to his story in so many ways.

In addition to talking about his relationship with Pete and what he learned from campaigning, Chasten shares what it was like to grow up feeling you have to hide your real self, the fear of coming out to those you love and worrying they’ll disown you, the struggles of finding someone to love you for who you are, not take advantage of you. He recognizes how fortunate he is, because many LGBTQIA+ people are shunned by family and friends, and are victims of violence and discrimination. He discusses his struggles with self-esteem, debt, and uncertainty about his future.

I so enjoyed learning more about Chasten and his experiences and thoughts. While only the future will know whether someday he might become the First Gentleman, I believe we’ll be lucky to have his contributions whatever form they take.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Book Review: "The Mouth of the Mine" by Caleb Posten

The Mouth of the Mine was a little CREEPY...and it got my heart pumping pretty quickly!

Even though it's a pretty big change, Wayne and Anita Evans are pleased to have left the chaos and pressure of New York City for a quieter life in Jackson, Wyoming, with their 10-year-old son, Al. They were able to get a great deal on a beautiful, big house with a wide expanse of property (it helps when a man disappears for no reason and his widow is eager to sell) and they are immediately taken with the peace and quiet, as well as the beautiful flora, fauna, and wildlife that surrounds them.

As they try to get acclimated to their new life, and learn what they need to about survival in the wilderness, fishing, guns, etc., Al is ready to embrace the full cowboy experience. One day, curious about what exists beyond their property line, Al goes exploring. He wanders a bit too far and gets lost, but he stumbles on a remarkable discovery that both excites and spooks him.

The more Al thinks about what he has found, the more he wants to keep going back to the place beyond their property, but getting free reign to wander without his parents noticing or worrying is difficult. He gets drawn in even further, and he keeps trying to figure out ways to outsmart them, because his greed gets the best of him. But as he ratchets up his actions to cover his tracks, is he putting himself—and perhaps his family—in danger? Is there some connection with all of the people who have disappeared?

I'm going to end my plot summary there because it's best to read this book not knowing too much and instead letting the plot unfold. This isn't too scary of a book (I wouldn't have read it otherwise because I'm a complete coward) but there is a pervasive sense of creepiness that I felt while reading. It's almost like I was reading with one hand over my eyes because I knew something bad was going to have to happen.

I enjoyed this book and thought Caleb Posten did a great job reeling me in and keeping me hooked from start to finish. While obviously there are some horror elements which require suspension of disbelief (like most horror books and movies), you could totally believe Al would act the way he did. Few 10-year-olds wouldn't want the chance to explore the wilderness and the wildness around them.

There are two animal deaths in here which might serve as a trigger for some. I'll admit I was unhappy with one of them but I understood the purpose it served. They're not gratuitously violent so don't let that dissuade you.

This is Posten's debut novel and it definitely shows he has real promise as a writer. Even though this isn't one of my preferred genres, I'll definitely be keeping my eye out to see what comes next for him!

The author and Black Rose Writing provided me with a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Friday, September 4, 2020

Book Review: "Flamer" by Mike Curato

"I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

"I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel...unsafe."

Mike Curato's Flamer is a powerful, emotional graphic novel about friendship, self-esteem, sexuality, and the battle between being like everyone else to “fit in” and being yourself. It's about feeling so down, so alone, that you don't know what to do or where to turn.

It's the summer before Aiden is scheduled to start high school. He's nervous about it—as much as he hopes it will be a different experience than middle school, he worries that he'll just be trading one set of bullies for another. He's tired of being teased for everything. In middle school, bullies called him gay, they made fun of his being pudgy, not being particularly athletic, and for being half-Filipino. He hated always having to be on guard, and isn't looking forward to high school for the very same reason.

But now, Aiden is in his happy place: scouting camp. He feels a little more a part of things there, and finds things he's good at, like making and tending to the campfire, helping cook, weaving bracelets, and making people laugh. But this year, there are bullies at camp, too, and it's causing him to doubt himself. And for reasons he doesn't understand, he can't stop thinking about his friend Elias, and it's making things weird for him—and it threatens to ruin their friendship and his whole summer, too.

For a graphic novel, Flamer really packs a punch. It deals with serious issues, such as thoughts of suicide, which are sadly all too common in teenagers, especially those struggling with their identities and sexuality. There is a tremendous amount of emotion, pain, and hope packed into Curato's illustrations and words.

This really was good and it struck a chord with me emotionally. I definitely identified with Aiden in a number of ways. Flamer is based on Curato’s own experiences, and you can feel that connection on every page. It reminded me how beautiful it is to find friends who “get” you, even if it may take longer than you’d hope.

I hope we'll see Aiden again in another book!

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this book. Storygram Tours, Fierce Reads, Henry Holt & Company, and Mike Curato provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Book Review: "I'd Give Anything" by Marisa de los Santos

If you enjoy a particular author's work yet you haven't read anything by them in a long while, when you finally pick up another one of their books, it feels like coming home. That's the way I felt when I read Marisa de los Santos' new book, I'd Give Anything. Her first few books—Love Walked In and Belong to Me—really blew me away, and I still consider them among my favorites, yet for some reason I lost track of her over the last several years.

When I saw I'd Give Anything on a friend's Bookstagram feed, I knew I had to read it. And once again, I was reminded why I love de los Santos' storytelling so much. She writes of love and friendship and how one often complicates the other, she writes of family, secrets, desire, guilt, all real human emotions, and does it so well.

In 1997, Ginny, Gray, Kirsten, and CJ are inseparable best friends in high school. Her friends, even a burgeoning relationship with Gray, are her haven from a mercurial, brittle mother most interested in her family's reputation and the battles her mother has with her older brother, Trevor, her ally and compatriot. The four friends have that typical teenage certainty that they'll be part of each other's lives forever.

One night, tragedy strikes, and it changes all four of their lives. Shortly afterward, Ginny overhears a declaration that rocks her to her core, spoken by the one person she trusts more than any other. She cannot believe what she heard, but she knows she must keep it a secret. Her subsequent silence and depression causes her to lose the people she cares about most—her best friends. But it's a sacrifice she knows she must live with.

Twenty years later, Ginny is living in her hometown, in a safe marriage, and is the mother of a 15-year-old daughter, Avery. Their seemingly placid, "normal" life falls apart one day when her husband is embroiled in a scandal that causes him to lose his job. At that point, Ginny realizes she's spent so much of her life doing what is safe, what is right, instead of what makes her happy, and it's time that stops.

Although she did reconcile with Kirsten when they were in college, she hasn't spoken to Gray or CJ since high school. When they are all brought together one night, she must confront the secret she has carried alone for all these years. But one secret is tied to so many others, and she has to make a decision whether to take the safe route once again or follow her heart, and finally unburden herself of the guilt and sorrow she has carried for so long. Hopefully she can help her old friends to do the same.

The story shifts back and forth between 1997 and 2017 for a while, and then stays in 2017, and is narrated by Ginny and Avery. Make no mistake, there is a lot of drama happening here, but I was so hooked on these characters and their story that it didn't matter to me. (Plus, I love melodrama.) There were a lot of times where I wondered how I would react if placed in a similar situation, and that endeared me to the book even more.

Friendships are intense relationships, sometimes even more so than romantic ones. Even though the characters aren't always sympathetic, I loved their story and, of course, loved the way de los Santos told it. And I'll definitely be picking up the books of hers I missed, too!

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Book Review: "Darius the Great Deserves Better" by Adib Khorram

Adib Khorram's new novel, Darius the Great Deserves Better, is a beautiful, heartwarming, and emotional story about family, friends, love, identity, sexuality, mental health, self-esteem...and tea. Lots of tea.

Darius Kellner, the protagonist of Khorram's terrific Darius the Great is Not Okay, returns, and it is so good to have him back. When the novel opens, things are going well for Darius. He has a boyfriend, Landon, an internship at a fancy tea shop, he plays on his school's varsity soccer team, and he's even developing a strong friendship with Chip, one of his teammates, who used to bully him. He also has been keeping in touch with Sohrab, his best friend that he met when his family visited Iran.

But even though he should be happy, things keep causing him to feel unsettled. His dad has to travel a lot for business and he seems to be struggling emotionally, his sister is having trouble at school, he's still getting bullied by his nemesis, Trent, and sometimes he just worries that everything is going to come crashing down.

While Darius likes Landon a lot, he isn't sure he's ready to take their relationship to the next step, so he's worried Landon may want to end things. And as much as he loves working at the tea shop, he just doesn't know if he'll ever get the hang of knowing the right things to look for when tasting teas. It's enough to keep his depression at the forefront of his mind.

Darius needs support and love, but his needs come at a time when his family is in the midst of stressful and sad situations, too. With his father out of town, his mother working long hours, and his grandmothers staying with the family (and he's not even sure if they like him), Darius keeps reaching out to Sohrab, but even Sohrab isn't available. Suddenly he starts relying a little more on Chip, but he can't quite figure Chip out all the time, which is unsettling, too. It's a lot for one teenager to deal with!

I love the vulnerability that Khorram gives Darius, and I definitely identified with many of the emotions he felt throughout the book. I've been in the place where you should be happy but your anxiety that things might suddenly change, or your worry that people really don't feel the way you think they do about you, overtakes you. When you couple that with familial discord and trying to become comfortable with your sexuality and your first relationship, it's enough to overwhelm anyone, and Khorram shows you both the good and troubled sides of Darius' personality.

I enjoyed Darius the Great Deserves Better so much. It's such a beautifully told, engaging, emotional story, but Darius is so likeable that you can't help but root for him and those around him. There's so much to think about in this book, and Khorram never gets too heavy-handed or creates too much unnecessary drama. While as in real life, so much angst could be avoided if people would just communicate with one another, I think Darius' occasional inertia was true to his character.

Khorram said he wrote a sequel because he felt as if Darius had more to say. I think he still does, and I hope that a third book is out there somewhere on the horizon. But regardless, I'd read whatever he writes.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Review: "What You Don't Know" by Bianca Sloane

Everything falls apart in just a split second in this taut, suspenseful thriller by Bianca Sloane.

It was just another Saturday morning. Malcolm Gilbert is about to leave for his weekly golf game; his wife, Blair, has a hair appointment. The two have been arguing a little (well, Blair has) but nothing major.

The doorbell rings. Malcolm answers the door, and everything changes. At the door are three people who want to take all they can from the Gilberts. And they’ll stop at nothing to get what they believe is coming to them. But why are they there? Was their appearance at random or was someone behind it?

What You Don’t Know chronicles what happens in the Gilbert household over a 48-hour period. Interspersing real-time narrative with interview snippets from friends and family of the Gilberts as well as the investigators and a true crime writer, you watch everything unfold as it happens.

This was quite a thriller! Even though some elements seem familiar, Sloane weaves them together in her own way, creating a book you can’t stop reading. It was really tense and intense at times, but in a suspenseful way.

I was a little distracted by the switching back and forth between the story and interviews at first, but as the story picked up the pace, the interviews enhanced it. Sloane knows how to ratchet things up as the story moves forward!

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

The book publishes 9/23.