Saturday, October 31, 2020

Book Review: "They Never Learn" by Layne Fargo

Whoa. Just whoa.

I’ve seen a bunch of friends raving about Layne Fargo's books, so I was excited to win a Bookstagram giveaway of her new book. And after reading it in one sitting, now I’m definitely a fan!

Scarlett is a professor at Gorman University. She’s smart, ambitious, sexy—and dangerous. Scarlett is determined to rid the university of the men who take advantage of, and hurt, women. All of her crimes are meticulously planned and no one has suspected any foul play, at least until the university starts to think there may be more to these deaths than meets the eye.

Carly is an incoming freshman at Gorman. She’s happy to be away from her abusive father and victimized mother, but college makes her nervous. She wishes she could be cool like her roommate, Allison. As the two become closer, Carly comes to Allison’s rescue when she needs her the most.

I’m going to stop describing the plot now because there’s so much that needs to unfold for you as you read. Suffice it to say it’s a little bit Dexter, a little bit How to Get Away with Murder, and a little bit Unbelievable, with twists all its own.

I absolutely DEVOURED this book. It was just so excellent and it hooked me completely. Boy, does Fargo know how to tell a story!!

This will definitely be one of my favorite thrillers of the year, and I need to read more of Fargo's books!!

Book Review: "Mistletoe and Wedding Bells" by Ashley Farley

No, I don’t want to be done with the Hope Springs series!! I love these characters!!

Christmas is just around the corner. Stella, owner of The Inn at Hope Springs Farms, wants nothing more than to finally marry her fiancée, Jack. But she has so much on her mind, especially an impending custody battle over her half-sister, Jazz, whose mother will stop at nothing to keep Stella from winning, which could lead to drastic circumstances.

Presley, the Inn’s event planner, will be spending her first Christmas since her mother died, and her musician boyfriend is on the road. She decides to throw her energy into planning a surprise wedding for Stella and Jack, but will this be the wedding of Stella’s dreams or her own?

Cecily, the Inn’s talented chef, is supposed to marry her boyfriend on Christmas Eve. But as the wedding draws closer, are they actually suited for each other, or are they getting married too soon? Cecily has to navigate her nervousness about her relationship with her anxiety about her job.

Mistletoe and Wedding Bells, the third in Ashley Farley’s Hope Springs series, tells all three stories. I feel like I’ve known these characters for a while, and even when they’re annoying me a little, I can’t get enough of them. Farley brings such warmth and joy to her books even when her characters are at low points, and that makes these books so enjoyable to read.

You could read this as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with the first book, Dream Big, Stella! Hopefully you’ll fall in love with Hope Springs and Ashley Farley like I have.

So grateful to be on the blog tour for this book. Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours and Ashley Farley for providing me with an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "Perfectly Impossible" by Elizabeth Topp

It’s totally easy to hold your life together at the same time as your employer’s, right? Elizabeth Topp's Perfectly Impossible weighs in on that question.

Anna has been the private assistant to Bambi Von Bizmark, an immensely wealthy NYC matriarch, for a long while now. Her job is simple: make sure there are no surprises in the family's life and do everything perfectly. It’s always hectic because she never knows what she’ll be asked, what will be needed, or what she’ll need to remember, but she’s excellent at what she does.

Things are tense in the Von Bizmark household right now. Bambi and her tycoon husband are on the outs, but with them being selected as honorees for the Opera Ball, Bambi’s demands and mood swings are increasing exponentially. Anna has to walk many a delicate line between fulfilling Bambi’s wishes and not bankrupting the family, not to mention helping her employer accept reality, which isn’t easy.

Meanwhile, Anna, who really wants to be an artist, is struggling with getting attention for her work. She can’t figure out why it seems she’s better at being a private assistant than an artist, and that tension impacts her relationship with her boyfriend, Adrian, whose prestigious new job keeps him occupied and unable to support her the way she needs.

When roadblock after roadblock occurs as the Opera Ball approaches, Anna is finding it tougher to keep everything running smoothly. Will she be able to pull it all off? Can she make sure the Von Bizmarks are getting along in time for the Ball? And what will happen to her career and her own relationship?

Perfectly Impossible was a fun read about the excessive lifestyle of the NYC elite and the typical chaos a private assistant must face. So much of it seems over the top, but I totally believe people like this exist—if not worse!

Little A, Amazon Publishing, and Blankenship PR provided me with a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Book Review: "My Best Friend's Exorcism" by Grady Hendrix

Grady Hendrix's My Best Friend's Exorcism might just be what you expect looking at the book: it's campy, crazy, and chock full of 80s references!

Can a friendship be powerful enough to beat the devil?

Abby and Gretchen have been inseparable best friends since 4th grade. They have private jokes and countless memories together, and they’ve remained close through high school.

But one boring night, after some warm beer and some drugs, the girls and their friends decide to go skinny-dipping. Something strange happens, though, something inexplicable, and it changes Gretchen drastically.

Suddenly Gretchen is acting erratically, complaining of being touched by invisible beings, her personal hygiene deteriorates, and strange and troubling things happen and appear when she’s around. But while others give up on her, Abby is determined to figure out what happened to her friend, and save her at any cost—even though there are great risks to her own future. And she's not even sure if anyone takes her seriously, or if they think she's on drugs like they suspect Gretchen is.

As you might imagine, this book is a little silly, a little scary (at least for cowards like me who usually steer clear of books like this), and more than a little bit gross at times. But that being said, it has some surprising emotional heft I didn’t see coming given the subject matter.

If you’re a child of the 80s like me, you’ll love the pop culture references sprinkled throughout and this nostalgic cover design. There is a bunch of gore—blood and guts and some mentions of animal harm and animal death—so be forewarned if those trouble you. They’re easily skimmed over.

Hendrix really is quite the storyteller. Exorcism and friends...they go together?

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Book Review: "Tiny Imperfections" by Alli Frank and Asha Youmans

Alli Frank and Asha Youmans' Tiny Imperfections is a lighthearted romp through the world of private school admissions, with some family drama thrown in for good measure.

Raised by her aunt in San Francisco, Josie was able to get a scholarship to one of the city’s most prestigious private schools. She dropped out of college, spent a few years as one of the hottest models in the world, and then returned home with a young daughter, Etta, and moved back in with her aunt. Josie is now director of admissions at her alma mater, where she gets to preside over ultra-wealthy parents trying to compete to get their kids a spot at the school.

This year seems like it will be crazier than ever for Josie. Not only is Etta graduating—and her future plans differ vastly from what Josie wants for her—but her best friend is determined to help Josie break out of her sexual slump.

She also has to contend with the parents who are desperate to get their children into the school, particularly a high-maintenance woman with boundary issues, and a pair of husbands she can’t quite figure out. Throw in a manipulative boss and the pressure is mounting!

I thought this was a fun and enjoyable read, one I devoured pretty quickly. There’s humor, emotions, backstabbing, a surprise or two (one I really didn't see coming), and even some family drama!

I enjoyed the characters very much, and even though some of what happened was a bit predictable, I couldn’t get enough of the story. I’d love to see another book with these characters—Alli and Asha, are you listening?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Book Review: "Ties That Tether" by Jane Igharo

Does love always have to require sacrifices and hard choices? Jane Igharo analyzes that question in her great debut novel, Ties That Tether.

When Azere was 12, her father died, and she moved with her mother and sister from Nigeria to Canada. Just before he died, she promised her father she’d marry a Nigerian man and preserve their culture.

Since then, she’s been dutiful about keeping that promise, even as her mother becomes more domineering and essentially forces her to go on dates with eligible men. And after one such date ends badly, she goes to nurse her wounds at a hotel bar, and winds up meeting Rafael, who is handsome, intelligent, sexy...and not Nigerian.

After their passionate one-night stand, she never plans to see him again, but fate has other ideas. Neither can get the other out of their mind. But when complications ensue, Azere must decide which is more important—following her heart or obeying her mother and keeping a promise she made when she was too young to know better.

This was a really good story, with rom-com elements and a tiny bit of steam, but it’s also a powerful exploration of the issues faced by those in biracial or bicultural relationships. There’s also a healthy dose of drama and family dysfunction, which I’m always there for.

I definitely enjoyed this one, and was hooked from start to finish. I'll admit I found one or two of the characters irritating but I'm sure that their behavior was realistic to situations like these. (And by the way, how gorgeous is the cover of this book?)

Monday, October 26, 2020

Book Review: "The Code for Love and Heartbreak" by Jillian Cantor

In Jillian Cantor's new YA novel, The Code for Love and Heartbreak, math is one thing. Love is another.

It’s senior year of high school for overachiever Emma Woodhouse. She’s at the top of her class, she’s co-president of the Coding Club, and with her perfect SATs, she hopes to go to Stanford next year.

But while she has the academics down pat, she’s not particularly social. She doesn’t really have many (or any) friends save George, her co-president, and she has no desire to find a boyfriend.

In an effort to win a national coding competition, she comes up with a great idea: an app which will match her fellow students up based on mutual interests, using an algorithm. George and some other club members think she’s lost her mind—love isn’t something you can code.

But “The Love Code” seems to be working, and all of her classmates are interested in getting matches. What does it mean, though, when the matches don’t work?

The more focused on the app and the competition Emma becomes, the more blind she is to what’s going on around her. Why are people breaking up if the algorithm predicts matches? And how can an algorithm consider the intangible qualities that make people fall in love?

This was a cute and enjoyable retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. (It’s been a while since I read that one, so while I know the names of the characters are the same, I don't remember how much of the plot of this book resembles that one.) Sure, it’s predictable, but that didn’t really matter to me.

I love a good rom-com, even when math is involved!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Book Review: "The Return" by Nicholas Sparks

The Return isn't quite as “Sparksy” as Nicholas Sparks' other books are, but it still delivers a good dose of drama and intrigue.

Trevor was a surgeon whose career ended when he was seriously wounded in Afghanistan. After recovering, he’s on the cusp of starting a new career as a psychiatrist helping veterans with PTSD. But first, he travels to his grandfather’s house in New Bern, NC, following his death, to tend to the man’s beehives and get his affairs in order.

Not long after arriving in town he meets Natalie, a police deputy, and he is immediately drawn to her. While Natalie feels the same about him, Trevor can sense she’s hiding something, and she doesn’t want to let her guard down.

Meanwhile, Trevor also has to deal with Callie, a sullen teenager who knew his grandfather and helped him from time to time. Why does she keep pushing Trevor away, and refusing to answer his questions about who she is?

As Trevor tries to navigate his relationship with Natalie, he also tries to figure out what led his grandfather to leave town for the first time in a long time, only to fall ill in the midst of his journey. What did the garbled words that his grandfather said before his death mean? What were the man's secrets, and how do they connect with Callie?

This was an interesting story because of the mystery part more than the romance. I felt the romance part was almost non-existent; I didn’t believe how quickly they fell for each other. I enjoy instant-love scenarios but this didn’t feel convincing. The book's pacing was also much slower that it needed to be.

I know Nicholas Sparks has lots of romantic tearjerkers, but this isn’t one of them. It's better you know that coming in, so you can adjust your expectations!

Book Review: "The Straight Crimes" by Matt Juhl

Matt Juhl's The Straight Crimes, a newly revised version of his debut novel, is powerful, emotional, and so thought-provoking.

Harper has the unenviable role of being a new student in high school; even worse, she shows up on the last day. Her confidence and take-no-prisoners attitude quickly raise the hackles of her fellow students, but she doesn’t care.

Nik can’t take his eyes off her. Harper mesmerizes him, and when she helps him during an encounter with another student, he falls for her. But he knows it’s the last thing he should do.

In a typical story, the two would fall in love and struggle to overcome obstacles in their way. But in the society Juhl has created here, same-sex relationships are the norm, and those who pursue relationships with the opposite sex are ostracized, called “queer,” and often are forced to leave their “normal” lives behind.

Even though society tells them it’s wrong, Nik and Harper fall hard for each other. Should they do what’s expected of them and avoid the trouble and hurt that will come from following their heart, or should they fight to be together?

Amidst this love story, there’s also tragedy. It seems like everything and everyone is against their finding happiness. There’s a good mix of romance, angst, and mystery here.

I really was blown away by the concept of this book. I think people will find this role reversal eye-opening, to see what LGBTQIA+ people deal with on a daily basis, and I hope it may change some people’s minds. It really was thought-provoking and moving.

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

Friday, October 23, 2020

Book Review: "Love, Life, and Lucille: Lessons Learned from a Centenarian" by Judy Gaman

Love, Life, and Lucille is a heartwarming story of an extraordinary friendship that feels like a hug in book form.

We never know when our life is going to change. For Judy Gaman, one of those times was when she met Lucille. Judy was looking to talk with centenarians for a book she was writing about aging gracefully, and while she worried what to expect from a 100-year-old woman, Lucille blew every expectation out of the water.

That meeting sparked an incredible relationship. Buoyed by Lucille’s infectious spirit, her unflagging energy, and an enormous capacity for love, the two would at least see each other every Friday, where they would share a love of food at some of Texas’ most notable restaurants, a love of family and faith, and mutual stories of overcoming adversity and heartache.

But while you would think that Lucille would benefit from the attention being paid her by a woman in her 40s, Judy benefited equally, if not more. Lucille held her up in moments of professional and personal vulnerability, sharing advice, humor, and most importantly, love.

For nearly four years, the two had an immense adventure together, taking them from wig shopping and television interviews to Texas Rangers’ stadium. Reading about this friendship was so inspiring, and definitely made me think about how we connect with others in our lives, the things we should say and don’t.

This was such a wonderful, poignant book, and we are so lucky that Judy was willing to share her memories of such an amazing woman. It honestly reminded me of some lyrics from the song "No Time At All," from the musical Pippin:

Here is a secret I never have told
Maybe you'll understand why
I believe if I refuse to grow old
I can stay young 'til I die

I was fortunate to be part of the blog tour for this book. Kate Rock Book Tours and Judy Gaman provided me a complimentary (and signed!) copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

May we all find a Lucille in our lives, and be for them what Judy was for her.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Book Review: "Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema" by Lindy West

With Lindy West's new book, Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema in hand, you won’t look at certain movies the same way again!

Have you ever watched a movie from the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s and realized how ridiculous it was? Have you ever thought how a movie like that might never work in the context of today’s society?

Well, even if you haven’t, West has. This book contains essays on 23 movies that were part of the cultural zeitgeist of their time—and still might be in some way. She looks at movies like The Notebook, American Pie, Face/Off, Twilight, The Fugitive, The Shawshank Redemption, and the movie that inspired the book, Love, Actually.

In her sarcastic, snarky, and insightful tone, West skewers plot holes, inconsistencies, clichés, and the often-ridiculous and offensive ways female characters were treated in these films. (It’s almost shocking how many movies treated women as second-class citizens, and jokes about sexual assault and sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks were so prevalent.)

I laughed out loud at some of her commentary. One of my favorite lines, in her essay on The Terminator 2, was “Eddie Furlong as a child has the energy of an old Kristen Stewart.” She’s dead on in a number of cases, including her skewering of American Pie.

This was a fun read, but sometimes her messages were undercut a bit by her snark. There are definitely spoilers here, so if you haven’t watched a particular movie she wrote about and you don’t want it ruined, steer clear of that essay.

As a movie buff, reading this has encouraged me to rewatch some of these films. I love when books make me think!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book Review: "Well Played" by Jen DeLuca

The crew from Well Met returns for another renaissance faire season and another fun love story in Jen DeLuca's new book.

Stacey has been part of the Willow Creek Renaissance Faire since high school, and it’s the time she looks forward to most each year. But as much as she enjoys playing the role of the bawdy serving wench, flirting with patrons, and hanging out with her friends, she’s tired of seeing all of her friends with fabulous lives while she feels she's stuck in place. She's starting to want more out of her life and wants to figure out what her future holds.

One lonely night after the season has ended, she sends a drunk message to Dex, the sexy traveling musician from the Faire she hooked up with periodically. She’s embarrassed when she realizes what she’s done, but she’s shocked when she receives a surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful message from the guy with a “wench at every faire.”

The more they communicate, the more she realizes how drawn to Dex she is. Their messages turn to texts and their online relationship intensifies as he travels from faire to faire. And when it comes time for the Willow Creek Faire to start again, Stacey is ready for the possibilities with Dex. But she gets quite a surprise when they’re reunited.

This was a fun and poignant book about a young woman sad that her life is passing her by, but she feels afraid to start anew. It’s also a story about the ways we fall into a rut and fear making changes, and how that can be a roadblock to happiness. I gave away less of the plot than the book's blurb did, but I felt it seemed somewhat obvious anyway.

I love Jen DeLuca’s characters in these books. You can read this one first but you should read her first book, Well Met, too. (I thought that one was a little more fun and focused more on the renaissance faire angle.) She has a third book coming out next year and I'm excited!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Book Review: "Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me" by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

First of all, it's Laura Dean, not Laura Dern, lol. But Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about how all-consuming relationships can be when you’re young.

Freddy doesn’t know what to do. Her girlfriend, Laura Dean, is cool and super-popular, and Freddy is decidedly not. And while things between them are great sometimes, a lot of the time Laura isn’t a good girlfriend. (Or that good of a person, really.) She routinely doesn’t show up for things, cancels plans on a whim, and has this penchant for kissing other girls.

Oh, and they keep breaking up. (Well, Laura keeps breaking up with her; Freddy just whines and complains to her friends.) But every time Laura decides she wants Freddy back, she comes running.

Freddy’s friends are tired of the whole thing, so she writes to a noted advice columnist. But in the meantime, she starts to realize that while she’s in a bad relationship, it doesn’t give her an excuse to be a bad friend and/or a bad person, both of which she’s been lately. And maybe Laura Dean is the cause of all of that.

Will she find the backbone to do the right thing? How will she know what the right thing is? Will Laura Dean wise up and treat her right? Will Freddy’s friends forgive her?

This was so enjoyable and poignant. It so captured the myopia many of us have had in the midst of an intense relationship, particularly when it’s with someone who might not treat you well. It also reflected that our friends may be fighting their own battles and we don’t even notice.

I’ve really been loving graphic novels over the last year or so, particularly LGBTQ-related ones. There’s so much talent out there!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Book Review: "The Invisible Life of Addie Larue" by V.E. Schwab

Believe the hype. V.E. Schwab's The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is really THAT good.

Adeline was always a dreamer, wishing for more than what was expected of young women in 18th-century France. When her parents plan to marry her off to a local widower, the thought of her life essentially ending is appalling to her, so she flees.

In that moment of panic, she meets a handsome, mysterious stranger, whose face she had envisioned many times in dreams. He offers her what she wants. “I want a chance to live. I want to be free.” He grants her wish, but it comes with a price—no one will remember her through the course of her life.

The stranger hopes that a year of this torturous life will be enough, that she will despair and surrender her soul to him. But he underestimates her, and through 300 years she makes her way through the world, making connections that fade, surviving tough times, and they will continue to circle each other, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by one another.

And then in New York City in 2014, she walks into a bookstore and her life changes. She finally meets someone who can remember her. This turns everything upside down. But what of her arrangement?

OMG, this book. The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is such a beautiful story—emotional, fantastical, gorgeous, and thought-provoking. What does a life consist of? Does a successful life mean being remembered? What is the price for happiness?

V.E. Schwab has created a masterpiece. This will easily be one of my favorites this year, if not the favorite. And I will definitely remember Addie long after.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Book Review: "The Truth Hurts" by Rebecca Reid

Is it okay to keep your past a secret from the one you love? That fundamental question is at the heart of The Truth Hurts, Rebecca Reid's newest thriller.

It’s 2:00 a.m. Poppy has just been fired from her job as a nanny, where she was on holiday with the family in Ibiza. With barely any money and nowhere to turn, she winds up at a bar. There she meets a handsome, slightly older man, Drew, who can see that she’s in need of rescue. She, of course, doesn't want him to feel obligated but also doesn't want to be taken advantage of, but he surprises her with his actions.

Their not-quite meet cute is the start of a whirlwind romance, although Poppy keeps waiting for Drew to tire of her. But somehow their relationship keeps going, and it’s not long before they agree to get married and Drew buys an English country estate for them to live in, giving her carte blanche to do what she wants with the house.

Before they get married, Drew offers a proposal: they’ll plan their future but never talk about their pasts. Never. Since Poppy has her own secrets, she’s more than fine with this arrangement.

But the more time she spends in their isolated home, the more time Drew is away on business, the more people in the nearby town react negatively to her, she starts to wonder what her husband is hiding. Is she in danger?

I was surprised how much I enjoyed The Truth Hurts and how I was hooked from the very start. It’s a familiar story with some good twists, and even I was a little surprised at times.

While the book isn’t perfect—I was left with some unanswered questions—it was definitely a compelling read. Given how much thrillers have made me roll my eyes lately, I’m always happy to find one that doesn’t frustrate me!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Book Review: "Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA" edited by Emily X.R. Pan and Nova Ren Suma

Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA is a fascinating book.

At first, it appears to be only a collection of 13 YA stories by authors you may not be familiar with. (I wasn’t.) Many of these have supernatural or fantastical elements, and are introduced by some well-known YA authors who explain why they love these stories.

But what enhances the stories is that after each one, either Pan or Suma highlights a literary concept—such as emotional resonance, suspension of disbelief, building the romance—and discusses how that particular story incorporated that element. If you’re a writer or have simply been fascinated by the craft of writing, these nuggets are fascinating. They really made me think about concepts within the stories I hadn't considered before.

Additionally, throughout the book, story prompts are included, which might help serve as an inspiration for you if you'd like to try your hand at, or sharpen, your own writing.

I thought this was a really unique book, because it’s a mashup of story collection, analysis, and writing advice. While not all of the stories worked for me (I tend to hew more toward traditional stories than fantastical ones), I really enjoyed Suma and Pan’s take on what stood out for them. (I have loved both of their books, so their words resonated for me.)

Writers and readers alike out there may find this fascinating!! I did.

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

The book publishes 10/20.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Book Review: "Summer Longing" by Jamie Brenner

Jamie Brenner's Summer Longing snapped me out of my brief reading slump!!

Ruth has always been totally driven, founding her own cosmetics company, but major success helped end her marriage and strained her relationship with her daughter. Now, having sold her company, she’s ready for retirement, and she plans to spend her golden years in Provincetown, a place she had fallen in love with when she was younger and never quite forgot.

When she arrives in the beachside town, her dreams of an idyllic summer quickly turn chaotic. She’s renting a cottage while looking for a permanent home, but at least one of the cottage’s owners doesn’t want to leave the house. And then, just a day after she arrives, someone abandons a baby girl on the porch of the cottage.

Whose baby is it? Is it a stranger's, or someone from town? Was the baby meant to be left for Elise and Fern, the cottage’s owners, who have struggled with fertility? If so, can they just keep the baby and pretend nothing happened? Elise sees it as a sign from God; Fern wants no part of this and knows the situation will only hurt her wife and potentially jeopardize their business and their marriage.

Meanwhile, Ruth’s estranged daughter, Olivia, comes to visit, bringing latent anger with her mother and her childhood. But Olivia has her own issues to deal with, and as much as she resents Ruth, she realizes Provincetown might be the place to figure things out.

This type of book totally appeals to me—some drama, some romance, secrets and lies, a beautiful setting, a sense of community—and I was hooked from start to finish. Brenner knows how to tell a story and make you feel a sense of connection to her characters. (I loved her last book, Drawing Home.) Apart from one character whom I loathed (it seemed her primary purpose was to stir s—t up and then leave), this was so enjoyable.

If you're looking for a book to put you in a good mood and perhaps make you long for the beach, Summer Longing may be what you need.

Book Review: "Spoiler Alert" by Olivia Dade

Olivia Dade's Spoiler Alert is a cute rom-com with more depth than I expected.

April is a huge fan of the show Gods of the Gates. She even writes fanfiction of her own, featuring the main couple from the show, Aeneas and Lavinia. But she’s always kept this activity and her affinity for cosplay a secret from her friends and family to avoid potential embarrassment and ridicule.

Marcus Caster-Rupp is the actor who plays Aeneas. Often named one of the sexiest men alive, he knows he’s lucky to have this job. But sometimes he’s tremendously frustrated with the direction in which the show is going, so he secretly writes fanfiction as a stress release. Of course, no one knows it’s him, because he could lose his job.

When April posts a picture of herself on Twitter wearing a Lavinia costume she made, the internet goes wild, and she gets more than her share of criticism for her plus-size figure. The trolling of the show's fans gets so ugly that Marcus steps in and asks her on a date, just to spite the internet.

While their first date was a publicity stunt, by the third date both are somewhat smitten. But when Marcus finds out that April is actually his best friend on the fanfiction server, he has to hide that side of him.

Can a relationship survive if one person is hiding a secret? What if both people have major issues with trust and family and fear? Spoiler Alert is light-hearted but deals with body shaming, parental issues, and keeping your private self private.

I thought this was a cute read that moved a lot slower than I expected it to, and there was a lot of drama amidst the romance. It is steamy, though, and the characters were fun. Definitely an enjoyable concept.

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Book Review: "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

What did I just read?

Some of you might know that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is one of my favorite books of all time; in fact, it was my #1 book of the last decade. So a friend and I decided to read The People in the Trees, her debut novel, and see whether that captivated and compelled as much as A Little Life did.

In short, The People in the Trees was at times beautiful, bewildering, compelling, and disturbing. Presented as the memoir of fictional scientist and Nobel Prize winner Norton Perina, it follows the man from his childhood through his years of research and experimentation, to his later years spent in jail.

When he was a young man just out of medical school, Perina was invited to join a noted anthropologist on a trip to a remote Micronesian island. There they find a group of people who might have found the secret to halting the aging process—but at what cost?

Where A Little Life devastated me emotionally, The People in the Trees merely disturbed me. It raised some interesting ethical and scientific questions, and looked at the cost of progress. But in the end, this is the story of a flawed man desperate to find his place in the world, both in science and in life.

Yanagihara is so talented; her imagery is so vivid and her characters are richly drawn. This book was meticulously researched and written; there are numerous footnotes with fictional citations, etc. But parts of the story get really bogged down in detail, and then there’s the troubling parts—child sexual abuse and animal abuse. (If those things are triggers for you, you're advised to avoid this book.)

If you read this, it’s great to do so with someone so you can discuss it. Despite my mixed feelings here, I can’t wait to see what comes next in Yanagihara's career. Hopefully it leaves me feeling more like her second book did!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Book Review: "Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam

There always seem to be books that get a tremendous amount of hype and critical buzz (and sometimes win major awards), yet when I read them I'm left scratching my head at what I might have missed. How could something appeal to so many and bypass me entirely?

Rumaan Alam's new novel, Leave the World Behind, is the latest to add to that list. It's a National Book Award nominee and it has been praised by numerous publications and critics. I have seen mixed reviews among friends of mine on Bookstagram, so I guess I'm not entirely surprised where I wound up on this book, but I'm still a bit perplexed, puzzled, and even a little frustrated at what the book was about.


Clay and Amanda are planning a vacation just before the end of the summer with their two teenage children, Archie and Rose. They've found a rental house on Airbnb, in a remote part of Long Island, and they look forward to getting away from their lives in New York City. The house seems perfect—it has a pool and a hot tub, and isn't too far from the beach. And when they arrive, it's even better than advertised—the house is well-appointed and the owners seem to have thought of everything.

They start to settle in and enjoy the vacation. Even though the house has wifi, they can't seem to get much of a signal on their phones, but even that doesn't stress them out that much. And then, one night, after the kids have gone to sleep, there is a knock at the door. It completely startles Amanda and Clay. Who could be knocking on the door of this house in the middle of nowhere late at night?

It turns out it's G.H. and Ruth, an elderly couple who happen to own the house they're renting. They're somewhat frantic, especially Ruth, and they bring news of a blackout that has affected New York City. They don't know what caused it, but the city was in such chaos, their first thought was escaping to their second home.

At first, Amanda and Clay are a bit put out. Are these two really who they say they are? What do they expect them to do, as they paid for an entire week? But with the wifi and phones down, no one really knows what is happening in the world. Was it just a blackout in New York City, or is it nationwide? Was this caused by terrorism, natural disaster, something extraterrestrial? Are they safe staying where they are?

The uncertainty starts to get to all of them, and they discover some comfort in togetherness. But as random incidents occur, they grow more worried. What is happening? Are they in danger?

Alam teases out the tension little by little and I had no idea what was going to happen. In the end, however, I still don't have any idea. I'm really not a big fan of ambiguous endings, and that's what I was left with. There was a point when things started to get really bizarre and I just don't know what it all meant.

There's no doubt that Alam is tremendously talented, and I know there are some who loved this book, so I'd encourage you to use your own judgment in deciding whether or not to read Leave the World Behind. It's not quite a thriller or a mystery, but there certainly are mysterious elements.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Book Review: "Confessions on the 7:45" by Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger's Confessions on the 7:45 made me feel vindicated for not engaging people in conversation on public transportation. (I don't know about you, but I'm not one of those people who makes fast friends with people they sit next to on planes or trains. I just want to get where I'm going and read as much as possible, lol.)

What a crazy read this was!

Selena's had a hard day at work. But it's not the job that's the problem—she had been suspecting that her unemployed husband has been sleeping with the nanny, and thanks to a repositioned nanny cam, she gets more evidence that she was right. Although she feels betrayed, she doesn't know what to do. The nanny is good with their kids, and she actually still loves her husband, even though she also hates him.

After missing her usual train home, she takes the next one, only to have it stall on the tracks. The woman seated next to her introduces herself as Martha and they strike up a conversation, during which Martha confesses to having an affair with her married boss. She knows it's wrong and she wishes she could stop, but she's worried what it might mean for her job. In return, Selena mentions that she suspects her husband of sleeping with the nanny. They speak for a few minutes more and then the train starts moving again.

While later she seems embarrassed that she overshared with a complete stranger, she tries to put the conversation behind her. And then a few days later, the nanny disappears. Suddenly she and her husband are pulled into an investigation, and she starts to wonder just who Martha really was. And that's not even the half of it!

Confessions on the 7:45 is definitely one of those books that works better the less you know, so that's all I'm going to say about the plot. The plot of the book is full of twists and turns; some work remarkably well and some don't, but I couldn't put this down. There were times where I was utterly mesmerized and times that I shook my head.

This is the first of Unger's books I've read and it definitely won't be the last. Even though thrillers and I don't always get along, this definitely was a wild one.

Park Row Books and NetGalley gave me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Book Review: "Magic Lessons" by Alice Hoffman

Magic Lessons is a well-told, moving story of love, family, and witchcraft.

Alice Hoffman returns with the prequel to The Rules of Magic and Practical Magic, and the story of the Owens family. In this book, which starts in the mid-1600s, a baby girl, Maria, is found abandoned in a snowy field in rural England. She is taken in by Hannah Owens, a kind woman who once had been jailed for being a witch.

Hannah recognizes that Maria has a gift, and teaches her “the Nameless Art.” But as Maria grows under Hannah’s tutelage and watches her work with the women who come to her secretly for help, Maria learns that most of their problems have something to do with love, and she vows never to fall in love herself.

But even witches are powerless in the face of love, and it’s not long before she follows the man who betrayed her to Salem, Massachusetts. And while she tries to keep a low profile and help women like her adoptive mother did, ultimately she runs afoul of the fear and jealousy that ruled Salem in those horrible days.

"But even a witch can possess a woman's flaws, and a woman's desires. Maria thought she knew what was to com, but she was wrong. Anyone can fall in love, despite vows to the contrary. Any woman can make a mistake, especially when she is young, and sees the wrong man through a haze so that he appears to be something he's not."

This is a story of two generations of women, both who bore the scars of love gone wrong, yet in different manifestations. It’s a story about fighting your fears and letting yourself believe in the power of love even when you’ve seen it be destructive. But it’s also a powerful story about the fierce love of a mother.

I really love the way Hoffman writes and I have loved the earlier books in this series. While I enjoyed the emotions and the pain and the beauty of this story, because the book took place at such an historic time, there was a lot more background detail shared here, which I felt bogged things down a bit. But I’m not a fan of historical fiction so others might not be bothered by this.

You certainly could read this one first if you’ve not read the other books, but do yourself a favor—read those, too. Like so many of Hoffman's books, they’re just gorgeous and they’ll grab your heart.

Book Review: "In a Holidaze" by Christina Lauren

Christina Lauren's newest book, In a Holidaze, is like someone said, "Let's take the movie Groundhog Day, but make it Christmasy."

Every year, old friends and their families gather at a cabin in Utah over Christmas. It’s a tradition that has endured for a number of years, through divorces and childbirths, and now some of the children are actual adults. But the tradition is coming to an end after this year, and while the friends promise to recreate it somewhere else, everyone knows things will be different.

No one is sadder than Maelyn. She’s having a tough time right now—she hates her job, she’s moved back in with her parents, and the night before they leave Utah she makes a colossal error in judgment. And gets caught by the one person she was trying to hide it from. As her family drives away from the cabin, she thinks, “Please, show me what will make me happy.”

The next thing she knows, there’s the sound of screeching tires, breaking glass, and...she wakes up on the plane to Utah days earlier. She can’t figure out why she’s suddenly forced to keep repeating her time in Utah until she realizes she has to fight for the things—and the person—that make her happy.

This was definitely a cute book with a fun concept that has become more common in fiction lately. I love the fun sense of romance that Christina Lauren brings to their books, as well as the emotions that occur when the path to romance doesn’t go smoothly. (And does it ever?)

I thought In a Holidaze was a quick, enjoyable read. Having read a number of books where characters find themselves in different lives this year, I’m a little weary of the time it takes for them to get accustomed to where they are—the shock, the reacclimation, etc.—and that happened here, too.

In the end, though, I still felt all warm and fuzzy and got choked up, so that’s all I need from a rom-com! If you've never read a Christina Lauren book, they have so many great ones to choose from. My favorites include Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating, Love and Other Words, My Favorite Half-Night Stand, and Autoboyography.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Book Review: "Furia" by Yamile Saied Méndez

Yamile Saied Méndez’s new YA novel, Furia, is a powerful, poignant story about standing up for yourself and going for your dreams, no matter what others say.

Camila dreams of being a fútbol star but she lives in the shadow of her less-talented brother, who plays for a local team. When she plays, her teammates call her La Furia (The Fury), as she weaves her way back and forth across the field, scoring goals and bewildering their opponents.

When her team qualifies for the South American tournament, she hopes that this may be the chance to realize her dreams. But she knows her abusive father and her overprotective mother will never let a girl play fútbol.

Meanwhile, the boy she has always been in love with, Diego, has returned to town. He’s now an international fútbol star, which causes Camila’s father a great deal of jealousy and anger, since he wants those dreams for his son rather than Diego. Diego wants another chance with Camila, and wants to take her out of this abusive life so she can accompany him around the world.

But as much as she may love Diego, is that the life she wants? Or does she want the chance to see La Furia go as far as she can, maybe realize her dreams? Whatever path she chooses will require revealing her secrets, and she’ll need the courage and strength to fight for herself and prove that girls deserve every right that boys do.

This is a moving story, and I loved Camila’s character so much. You get to watch her come into her own and deal with the obstacles thrown in her way by her family and friends. She's a tremendously positive role model for young women.

There is some physical and verbal abuse in here, and the story also takes place against a backdrop of young girls getting abducted and murdered in Argentina, but ultimately the book isn’t a downer.

If you like strong female characters, check out Furia!

Monday, October 5, 2020

Book Review: "28 Summers" by Elin Hilderbrand

Oh, okay. So that's what all of the hype is about.

I just read 28 Summers, my first book by the amazingly popular Elin Hilderbrand, and almost immediately fell in love with it. I'm ready to read all of her books now!

Mallory Blessing is about to die from cancer, so she asks her son Link to call the number written on a piece of paper in her desk drawer. He can't believe who answers: Jake McCloud, who may very well become America's first First Gentleman, as his wife, Senator Ursula de Gournsey, is running for president. Link has no idea how Jake and his mother know each other, but Jake asks Link to tell Mallory to hang on, because he's on his way.

The story flashes back to the summer of 1993. Mallory has just inherited her aunt's cottage on Nantucket, so she agrees to host her brother's bachelor party over Labor Day weekend. She's excited that one of his best friends from college, Jake McCloud, is coming, because while she's never met him, she has a serious crush on him from some of the phone conversations they've had. When he arrives, their connection is immediate and the chemistry between them is intense. But he lives in Washington, DC, and has been dating his girlfriend on and off again since they were teenagers. How could anything ever work between them for real?

They make a pact that they'll get together every Labor Day weekend, regardless of their relationship status or whatever is going on in their lives. They don't keep in touch otherwise but they're always in each other's thoughts. Can the rest of their lives move on regardless of this arrangement? What does that mean for the presence of others, the possibility of other relationships, or future plans?

28 Summers was inspired by the classic movie Same Time, Next Year, and it's a powerful testament to love, friendship, family, parenthood, and the magic of romance. I wanted to shake the characters sometimes, but I just loved this story so much. It made me laugh, it made me hungry (they're always eating, it seemed), it made me long to visit Nantucket, and, of course, it made me cry.

I love the way Hilderbrand writes. Her storytelling is just so engaging, so warmhearted, and I found myself rooting for these characters. This book was exactly what I needed, and I read it in just a few hours. Can't wait to pick up another of her books!

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Book Review: "Lake Life" by David James Poissant

I don't know what it is, but while I often grow weary of certain genres and need to take a break every now and again, for some reason I can't seem to get my fill of stories of family dysfunction and dynamics. The drama, the recriminations, the despair, the revisiting old wounds and long-hidden secrets, even the hopefulness that emerges—all of this appeals to me. (I guess this is why I've always loved soap operas!)

This explains why I was so excited to read David James Poissant's new novel, Lake Life. (I absolutely loved his debut story collection, The Heaven of Animals, when I read it in 2014.)

"How fiercely we defend those we love, even to the annihilation of ourselves."

For years, every summer the Starling family spends some time at their lake house in North Carolina. They come from different places: parents Richard and Lisa travel from Ithaca, NY, where both have worked at Cornell University; older son Michael and his wife Diane, an elementary school teacher, travel from Texas; and younger son Thad and his famous artist boyfriend Jake come from New York City. None are quite in the right mindset for this vacation, but no one wants to abandon the tradition.

But this year will be the last year. Richard and Lisa plan to sell the house, which is falling apart, and move to Florida once Lisa's retirement is final. (Richard retired last year.) This comes as a shock to Michael and Thad, neither of whom can believe their parents would sell the house without telling them. Is there something else they're hiding?

While Richard and Lisa pictured this last summer being the beautiful farewell to all of their memories, that couldn't be further from reality. The first day they're all together, they witness an incident that rocks them, one which puts a pall over the whole vacation and reignites a hurt for two of them. Not only that, but each couple is struggling, both as a unit and individually, and as so often is the case, they are struggling silently, rather than confronting the issue head-on.

In a matter of a few days, the Starlings will deal with infidelity, unwanted pregnancy, addiction, alcoholism, financial woes, trust issues, and the discovery of a secret the parents have kept from their sons since they were children. Will these crises, these challenges tear at the already-fraying bonds between them or will it help bring them closer together?

This is a familiar story, but Poissant is such a skilled storyteller that even as the plot unfolds as I expected in some cases, it's still a story I couldn't tear myself away from. These characters aren't always sympathetic but their flaws make them even more human and relatable—heck, there's even the dinner table argument about the 2016 election more than a few families have had.

Lake Life is thought-provoking and poignant, and it may even make you feel better about your own family. But if you're also a fan of a little familial melodrama, this is a book you might enjoy.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Book Review: "I Killed Zoe Spanos" by Kit Frick

"It was an accident, but...I killed Zoe Spanos."

Twisty, compelling, and even a little creepy, Kit Frick's I Killed Zoe Spanos is a YA thriller worth reading. It'll hook you almost immediately, with well-drawn characters, lots of crazy twists and turns, and a mystery that keeps you guessing. Can you ask for much more than that?

Anna is looking forward to spending the summer in the Hamptons town of Herron Mills, where she'll be working as a nanny for a wealthy family. She's glad to be putting the rest of her life behind her, as she and her best friend Kaylee spent far too much time over the last year partying, drinking, taking recreational drugs, and hooking up with boys. She's ready for responsibility in this ritzy town, just before she gets ready to head to college.

Almost immediately after arriving in Herron Mills, Anna keeps hearing about her resemblance to Zoe Spanos, a local girl who went missing a few months earlier. Crazily enough, Zoe actually worked as a nanny for the same family Anna is working for now; in fact, the young girl in Anna's care, Paisley, wanted Anna to be her nanny because of her resemblance to Zoe.

The more time Anna spends in Herron Mills, the more she feels as if she's been there before, the more she feels a connection to Zoe. This can't be possible, of course, because she never met Zoe, and she'd never been to any of these places before. But why is she starting to remember spending time with Zoe and Kaylee? And why is it, when Zoe's body is found, that Anna confesses to her murder and the police believe it, even though her confession is clearly not true?

Frick knows how to tease out a mystery and she does it so well here. I'm so cynical when it comes to thrillers and mysteries, but I really wasn't sure how she would resolve things here. What is the truth? Who is lying? Was I missing some key connection? I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

I don't know that I loved the ending but it didn't ruin the book for me. There was so much I enjoyed about I Killed Zoe Spanos, including the weaving in of a true crime podcast, and it once again cemented how much I like Frick's storytelling. I'll be waiting for her next book!