Sunday, January 31, 2021

Book Review: "The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)" by David Levithan

David Levithan's new book, The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother), is a sweet, moving, mysterious story about telling the truth and a special relationship between brothers.

One night, 12-year-old Aidan disappeared. He and his younger brother Lucas both went to bed (they share a room), and when Lucas woke up the next morning, Aidan was gone. Everyone in their town searched everywhere, and no stone was left unturned. What could’ve happened to him?

Six days later, Lucas found Aidan in their attic. He was disoriented and talked of a place no one had ever heard of. Of course, everyone is relieved that he has returned unharmed. But where did he go, really?

The story Aidan reluctantly tells can’t possibly be true, and he doesn’t want everyone to know, so their town is transfixed by Aidan's return, then slowly grows angry because of the lack of a story. And when there's no story, the only thing to do is make things up, right?

“Yeah, but the truth isn’t very helpful if people don’t believe it. Or at least that’s what it looks like now.”

Lucas wants to support his older brother. Could the story he is telling be true, or is it a defense mechanism to compensate for a more traumatic thing that might have happened? If the story is true, what does it mean?

I really enjoyed this middle-grade story about the effects of Aidan’s disappearance and his return on his family. Aidan and Lucas are a little more sophisticated than you would expect 12- and 11-year-olds to be, but it isn't too jarring. There are also some LGBTQ characters and situations (again, nothing too jarring) which may throw off some middle-grade readers.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. is poignant and sweet and mysterious. Once again, David Levithan proves why he’s one of my favorite writers.

I was pleased to be part of the blog tour for this book. Storygram Tours and Random House Kids provided a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. publishes 2/2.

Book Review: "Black Buck" by Mateo Askaripour

Wow, what a book. Black Buck, Mateo Askaripour's debut novel, is powerful, satirical, poignant, and so relevant.

Darren Vender isn’t unhappy with his life. He lives with his mother in a Bed-Stuy brownstone, works at a Starbucks in the lobby of a NYC office building, and loves spending time with his longtime girlfriend, Soraya. Maybe it’s not what one would expect from the 22-year-old former valedictorian of Bronx Science High School, but he’s fine with it, even if his mother wants more for him.

One day, feeling bored at work, he challenges a customer to step outside their comfort zone and order something different. This selling job wows the man, who happens to be the CEO of a tech startup in the building above the Starbucks, and he convinces Darren to come to work for him at his up-and-coming company, Sumwun.

What Darren finds at Sumwun is an almost cult-like environment, driven by pressure to close deals and make money. He’s the only Black person in the company and he definitely feels as if he’s treated differently, especially by the company’s ruthless sales manager. They call him “Buck,” because he worked at Starbucks, and that may be the least objectionable thing that happens.

After enduring an awful “hell week” of training, he decides to throw himself into this job fully, even if he’s not sure of the person he’s becoming, and he’s still experiencing significant racism from his coworkers, although no one wants to acknowledge it. When crises occur both professionally and personally, he has to decide what road to take—and what kind of a man he wants to be.

This book really packs a punch. It’s sly and satirical at times, while at others it can be shocking and provocative. Not everything that happens is believable—which was the one thing I struggled with a tiny bit—but this is built on an all-too-realistic core of the racism and mistreatment and discrimination faced by minorities in the workplace. It also deals with the divide between the person you are becoming and the person those in your life want you to be.

I thought Black Buck was so well-written and I couldn’t put it down. There were even some twists I wasn’t predicting. This is definitely going to be a book I’ll be thinking about for a long while, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for Askaripour.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Goodreads provided me with a complimentary copy of the book. Thanks for making it available!!

Book Review: "Teddy Spenser Isn't Looking for Love" by Kim FIelding

Darned tear ducts!! Kim Fielding's Teddy Spenser Isn't Looking for Love is another sweet rom-com which made me tear up more than a little!

Teddy Spenser has sworn off looking for love or a relationship of any kind since his last one went sour. He enjoys his design and marketing job for a floral company, and while his life is far from perfect, it’s not bad.

If there’s anything—or anyone—that annoys him, it’s Romeo Blue (best name ever), his company’s IT engineer. It’s not just that Romeo’s technical demands crimp Teddy’s design vision, or that Romeo has an office and Teddy has a cubicle. It’s that Romeo barely talks to Teddy and seems irritated every time he must.

So of course, the two get sent on a business trip to make a presentation to a crucial investor (and a design legend). It’s not long before both realize there’s so much more to the other than they originally thought. And when they have to share a hotel room—and the only bed (ah, that classic rom-com trope)—the dynamic between them really starts to change.

But is this shift in their relationship one of proximity, or one with potential? What happens when they get back to Chicago and to work—will they slip back into their old roles? Can two people not looking for love find it anyway?

You know I’m a sucker for rom-coms, and Teddy Spenser Isn't Looking for Love was just so enjoyable. There was much more depth to each of these characters than I thought, and while sure, we’ve seen this story before, it just worked for me. It made me tear up more than once (whatever) and I was totally smiling, too.

I would love to see a TV or movie adaptation of this book because I’d love to see the casting of all of the characters. This may be my first Fielding book but it won’t be my last!

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Review: "The Authenticity Project" by Clare Pooley

Looking for a feel-good read? The Clare Pooley's The Authenticity Project may be for you.

Julian Jessop was once an artist of some acclaim. But nearing his 80th birthday and still mourning the loss of his wife, he barely talks to or sees anyone for days at a time.

The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes how little people really know one another anymore. So one day he begins The Authenticity Project—he writes truths about himself in a green notebook and leaves it in his local cafe.

Monica, the cafe’s owner, is a little dubious about unburdening herself in a notebook that will be read by strangers, but she has feelings she can’t express to anyone else. In addition to telling her secrets and leaving the notebook for someone else to find, she sets out to try and make a difference in Julian’s life.

Little by little the notebook finds its way into the hands of those who need to say things they can’t tell others. At the same time, it forms a community of sorts, kindred spirits in need of some kind of support or comfort.

Ironically though, it’s not long before some realize that in order to be truly authentic you need to be honest—with yourself and others. And for some, that will take more than writing in a notebook. It will take confronting issues, people, problems that they’ve avoided for some time.

I thought The Authenticity Project was a really sweet and wonderful book, so perfect for being in the midst of this crazy world. I love the idea of paying it forward and really found many of the characters and their relationships with one another so enjoyable. (I totally see Bill Nighy playing Julian in the movie version of this book, even if Bill isn't quite so old.)

Is the book a little melodramatic? Perhaps? A little sappy? Doesn’t matter. This was a book that warmed my heart and might have even brought a tear to my eye.

Book Review: "Interior Chinatown" by Charles Yu

Charles Yu's National Book Award-winning Interior Chinatown is funny, sharply satirical, thought-provoking, and uniquely told.

Willis Wu doesn’t feel like his life makes much of an impact: he tends to think of himself as “Generic Asian Man.” As an actor, he has played roles as diverse as Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, and Guy Who Runs In and Gets Kicked in the Face. But he dreams of reaching what he sees the pinnacle of success for Asian actors—becoming Kung Fu Guy.

He and his parents live a fairly unremarkable existence in small one-room apartments in Chinatown. Their building is above the Golden Palace restaurant, the hub of the community, where a police procedural called Black and White is in constant production. Willis and his parents and most of the community tend to drift in and out of the series, playing interchangeable parts and hoping their big break might someday come.

As Willis’ star appears to be rising, his consciousness about his role in the world grows. His family history is revealed and illustrates the challenges that Asians have faced since immigrating to America and other places in the world. Suddenly he begins to wonder if what he has dreamed of for so long—becoming Kung Fu Guy—is what he really wants. Is there more?

This is a fascinating, slightly trippy book at times. It’s really funny, as it skewers pop culture and the entertainment world’s treatment of Asians, but it’s also tremendously insightful and sensitive.

At times the book is written as a screenplay, at other times it's more narrative in structure. I’ll admit that there were parts I wasn’t sure were actually happening or if they were in Willis’ mind. But I couldn’t put Interior Chinatown down, and I can totally understand why it won the National Book Award.

Truly a book I’ll remember.

Book Review: "Be Dazzled" by Ryan La Sala

Ryan La Sala's newest book, Be Dazzled, is an utterly adorable rom-com that looks at doing what you love and being with whom you love, no matter what anyone says. Plus sequins. Lots of sequins.

Raffy is a tremendously talented artist. But unlike his artist-turned-gallery-owner mother, he doesn’t view art as valuable only if it’s elitist. His talent lies in design—costume design, more specifically—and he’s found his sweet spot in designing costumes for cosplay conventions. This isn't something his mother approves of, so he must hide everything from her and work only when she isn't home.

He literally runs into Luca, a handsome boy from his school, in the sequins aisle of a craft store. Luca has actually followed Raffy’s popular videos on a YouTube-like channel, so he’s mesmerized by Raffy’s talent. Clearly smitten with one another, they decide to create a costume for the two of them to compete at the next cosplay convention.

But the pressures of creating the perfect costumes and having to hide this side of him from his mother take their toll on Raffy and his relationship with Luca. It doesn’t help that Luca has his own anxieties about fully coming out to his own family and embracing the side of him that loves cosplay, and these anxieties ultimately doom their relationship.

Devastated and angry, Raffy is still determined to create the winning costumes for the biggest cosplay convention, in hopes he might get offers of sponsorship or even jobs. But when Luca shows up with a former friend of theirs to compete as well, it opens wounds that aren't even close to healing and ignites Raffy’s competitive spirit. Can he get everything he wants, or will he have to sacrifice something to be happy?

Although I have zero artistic ability I am fascinated by art supplies and the creative process, so I couldn’t get enough of this book. Raffy and Luca are an adorable if dysfunctional couple, and even though I wanted to shake them sometimes, I rooted for their love to win in the end.

Be Dazzled was a fun story with real emotional components as well, because it hurts when you can’t share the things or the people you love with those closest to you. La Sala shows he’s just as talented at rom-coms as he is creating fantastical situations, like he did in his last book, Reverie.

This book charmed me completely!

Monday, January 25, 2021

Book Review: "The Prophets" by Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets, a debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr., is haunting, affecting, gorgeously written. This will remain in my mind for a long time.

“I ain’t a animal, but I know. I know that when you trapped in a small space, you start getting used to being small. And people, they know, too, and they start treating you like a small thing. Even if you big like you are, Sam. They still treat you like something small.”

Samuel and Isaiah are slaves on Empty, the Deep South estate of the Halifaxes. They are in love with each other, and their relationship is often the only thing that can bring them salvation amidst the cruelty and violence and fear they experience on a daily basis.

But as with any environment in which people are treated with cruelty, even those in the same plight turn on one another, and when Samuel and Isaiah’s relationship is exposed, it sets off a brutal chain of events. And while their relationship is at the crux of The Prophets, the book also focuses on some of the other slaves, the Halifax family, and a chorus of seemingly otherworldly voices.

This is a difficult, emotional book to read at times, and at times the lyricism of Jones’ storytelling and the multiple narrations required slightly more concentration than I'm used to giving while reading. But the power, the beauty, the cruelty of these stories demand to be told, to be read, to be understood, if still not fully comprehended by all.

I’m grateful to have read this as a buddy read with my friend, Louis. As always, his perspectives helped round out the experience of reading this, and his friendship and his humor are exceptional.

When the “best-of” accolades at the end of 2021 start to get assembled, there’s little doubt that The Prophets won’t be on that list.

Book Review: "The Perfect Guests" by Emma Rous

Raven Hall has seen tragedy and its share of secrets and lies through the years. What are the mysteries it holds? This question is at the crux of Emma Rous' latest book, The Perfect Guests.

In 1988, Beth, an orphaned teenager, is invited to live with a family at Raven Hall, a sprawling English estate. For a girl who has longed for a family this is an opportunity she doesn’t want to squander, and she quickly becomes friends with their teenage daughter, Nina.

The family has secrets and quirks, however, but Beth keeps her trepidations to herself for fear of angering the family and being sent back to the children's home. But when she’s asked to participate in a lie of sorts, it sets off a chain of events which changes everything.

Thirty years later, Sadie, an unemployed actress, is offered a plum assignment. She is to play a guest at a murder-mystery party weekend held at Raven Hall, an old manor house which has been empty for years. This role has the potential to become a permanent job, and when she is sent a suitcase full of posh clothing and a dossier on her character, she’s excited for the possibilities.

But when she arrives, she quickly realizes things aren’t quite as she was promised. Is everyone playing a part? What is happening to the other guests? Why can’t she focus on what’s going on?

I was hooked on this slow-burn, dual-timeline mystery from the get-go. I loved the ominous feel of the whole thing, and while I had some suspicions about what might happen, I was really interested in how things would unfold.

I love twisty mysteries and I love being surprised. However, I felt like the conclusion of the book just kept throwing twist after twist at me—every time I thought I had grasped the plot, some other secret was revealed. (I refer to this as "But wait, there's more" syndrome.)

Still, The Perfect Guests was a very interesting read and I do like the way Rous writes. I also enjoyed her last book, The Au Pair, which had a similar narrative structure.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Book Review: "Alex Six" by Vince Taplin

In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, “Whoa.” What a crazy ride Alex Six took me on!

Vick Miller is a former college professor. He now owns a number of properties that he rents, and he and his wife are raising their infant son. Life isn't perfect, but it's good.

Alexa Livingston is the wealthy daughter of a real estate magnate. She and her husband Francis were in love, but he died tragically before they could start a family. When she sees Vick at a grocery store one day, she nearly falls apart emotionally, practically brought to her knees by his resemblance to her late husband.

Desperate to have a child that reminds her of Francis, she offers to pay Vick handsomely if he’ll give her a specimen. But he can’t tell anyone, including his wife. The price is too good to pass up, so what's the downside?

As Alexa’s requests continue and her offers increase, Vick feels trapped. Does he have a price? Can he say no? Will Alexa allow it?

I'm going to stop here with the plot summary, but let's just say that Alex Six is a crazy book I couldn’t stop reading. The characters aren’t likable in the slightest but that doesn’t matter one iota—I needed to know what would happen next, even as I was a little creeped out by the possibilities. And I’ll never look at vanilla extract the same way again!!

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

Book Review: "Concrete Rose" by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas' new book, Concrete Rose, is simply amazing. This is a powerful look at the life and challenges faced by a young Black man.

This prequel to The Hate U Give (but you don't need to have read that book first) takes us back to Garden Heights 17 years earlier. Maverick Carter knows his responsibility is to take care of his mom while his father, a former gang legend, is in prison. But the only way for a 17-year-old to truly help his mom is to sell drugs on the side for his gang, the King Lords.

While Maverick knows his life could be better—he’d love people to stop looking at him as a pale imitation of his father—he’s happy with his girlfriend and he has a cousin who looks out for him. And then his life is completely upended when he finds out he’s the father of a three-month-old boy.

How can he be a father when he’s still a child himself? While it completely changes his life, he’s determined to be a better father than the one he had. But he can’t be a father if he’s dealing drugs, so as much as “real work” pains him, when he’s given the chance to walk away from the gang life, he does.

When tragedy strikes and Maverick makes a foolish mistake, he’s faced with a decision: does he do what he needs to in order to survive and take care of his family, or does he continue to walk the right path, even if it may be the harder one?

Concrete Rose was just a fantastic book. I will never know the challenges faced by young Black men, but Thomas takes the reader into that world and gives a glimpse of the struggle between right and wrong, between boyhood and manhood, between being tough and being right.

Thomas never ceases to dazzle me with her power as a storyteller, her ability to make you think and make you feel and make you root for her characters. With this book, she has created another masterpiece that will resonate for long afterward.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book Review: "Better Luck Next Time" by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Better Luck Next Time, Julia Claiborne Johnson's new book, is a fun and poignant look at marriage, divorce, friendship, love, and finding yourself.

In 1938, if women wanted a quick divorce they had to go to Reno, Nevada, where after a six-week stay which gave them residency, their divorce would be granted. Some of the wealthier women stayed at the Flying Leap, a dude ranch (also known as a “divorce ranch”), where they could enjoy pampering and companionship until their six-week time period was complete.

The women who come to the Flying Leap are either completely determined to get a divorce or they’re wavering; they either have confidence or lack it; and nearly all have moments of weakness. (Some, however, seem to be repeat customers.) Some warm to and make connections with their fellow guests, but some let the strain get to them.

The story is told through the eyes of Ward, a young, handsome man who works as a ranch hand at the Flying Leap. He recollects this time many years later as well as his encounters with Emily, a timid woman who drove herself from San Francisco after she had had enough of her cheating husband, and Nina, an heiress back for her third divorce. The relationships among the three form the crux of the story.

I thought this book offered really interesting social commentary and a fun look at women’s role in society in the 1930s. I don’t think this was necessarily “historical fiction” per se, but it was an interesting time for women in particular. There’s some romance, some emotion, some fun—it was a slow-paced but engaging read.

Custom House Books provided me a complimentary copy of Better Luck Next Time in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks so much for making it available!

Book Review: "Shipped" by Angie Hockman

Angie Hockman's newest book, Shipped, is a fun, emotional, enemies-to-lovers rom-com which tackled some serious issues along the way.

Rom-com fans, what’s your favorite trope? I’m partial to enemies-to-lovers when there’s a real reason one doesn’t like the other, and I also love friends-to-lovers and fake dating.

Henley (yes, like the shirt) Evans is a list-maker, a goal-setter. She has to be in order to pursue her MBA and succeed in her marketing job for a cruise line. The constant thorn in her side is the company’s social media specialist, Graeme Crawford-Collins, who works remotely but never fails to anger her. They’re constantly battling over email over him getting to the things she asks of him, not to mention the smarmy way he sucks up to their boss.

When Henley finds out she’s being considered for a major promotion, she’s thrilled—and then she finds out her competition is Graeme. They each have to put together a proposal on how to increase bookings for the company's Galapagos cruises—and in order to do that, they both have to go on one of the cruises. Together.

Henley desperately wants this promotion and doesn’t want to lose to Graeme. But the more time she spends with him, she realizes she might have been wrong about him, and he’s never understood why she hates him. Is she working for something that really will make her happy, at the expense of someone who could? Does she even want this job?

Well, you know what’s going to happen. But along the way there’s humor, romance, family issues, steam, and even some exploration of dealing with grief and workplace discrimination. It all adds up to a terrific book, plus I must add the Galapagos to my bucket list of places to visit!!

Shipped is definitely a great rom-com to add to your list!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Book Review: "At the Edge of the Haight" by Katherine Seligman

Katherine Seligman's At the Edge of the Haight is a well-written, sometimes emotional look at homeless young people and the challenges they face.

Maddy has been living on the streets in San Francisco for a while now, generally living around Golden Gate Park. She and her friends have their routines—they know when to wake up so they don’t get rousted by the cops, they know where to find food, where they can go for shelter or peace and quiet, and they know whom to avoid. Her closest companion is her dog, Root, who protects her.

One morning when trying to pull Root out of some bushes she finds a homeless boy who has been stabbed to death. The perpetrator sees her and threatens her, and it sends Maddy into a whirlwind of fear. Does she tell the police what she saw and invite scrutiny and danger into her life and the lives of her friends, or can she go along pretending nothing happened?

But gossip travels, even on the streets, and it’s not long before the boy’s parents want to talk to her to understand their son, and the police want her help in catching the murderer. What does Maddy want? Does she want someone to save her, like the boy’s parents would like to do, or does she want to continue the life she’s living? Is there middle ground?

I found this book to be very compelling, and what I enjoyed most is it didn’t seem to fall into so many of the clichés about homelessness that I expected. Maddy is complex and flawed, but not yet cynical, and her story is very compelling. You can understand her indecisiveness given what she’s been through. Not all of the characters are as appealing, but the story hooked me.

This was a thought-provoking read given the number of homeless you see all over—particularly in the San Francisco area. Seligman really did a great job making me feel and making me think.

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Book Review: "The Office of Historical Corrections" by Danielle Evans

Danielle Evans' The Office of Historical Corrections includes six beautifully written, powerful stories and a novella which move you and leave you thinking.

These are stories about race, racism, family, love, relationships, identity, history, and how we are perceived. In many cases they touch on complex, thorny subjects but they are never heavy-handed.

While not all of the six stories worked equally for me, my favorites included “Anything Could Disappear,” about a woman who finds herself in some unexpected roles; “Boys Go to Jupiter,” in which a woman inadvertently winds up in the middle of a furor when a photo of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral; "Happily Ever After," which followed a woman with a life-altering decision to make; and “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” about a photojournalist in the midst of wedding drama (not her own).

The title novella is fantastic as well. It follows a former university professor now working for a federal agency committed to correcting historical inaccuracies. It’s particularly meaningful and powerful in a time when we’re plagued with claims of “fake news” and people worried about rewriting history when monuments and statues are taken down.

Danielle Evans is an amazing storyteller. The Office of Historical Corrections will stick in my mind for a while.

It has been a while since I’ve read short stories but a number of these really moved me and made me think. I know short stories don't appeal to everyone for various reasons, but if you’re thinking of giving them a shot, this book might be worth a try!

Book Review: "Life's Too Short" by Abby Jimenez

Life's Too Short, Abby Jimenez's upcomiing third novel, is fun, sexy, moving, romantic, thought-provoking—boy, did I love it!!

Vanessa is a wildly famous travel YouTuber who has to put her career on hold when her sister decides to leave her infant daughter in her care. For an adventure lover and adrenaline junkie like Vanessa, however, instant motherhood is a challenge like none other.

When she finally meets Adrian, her brooding, ridiculously sexy next-door neighbor, it’s 4:00 am, the baby has been crying nonstop for hours, she hasn’t slept in forever, and she has baby vomit in her hair. Yet he gives her the opportunity to shower while he magically gets the baby to stop crying.

It’s not long before spending time with Adrian becomes a regular part of her day that she loves—and not just because he’s ridiculously good with the baby. But with a 50 percent chance of having a disease that killed her mother and sister before they turned 30, and with the possibility that symptoms are already developing, the last thing she wants is a relationship that can’t last.

For Adrian, work has always been his refuge, the one thing he can control when his life circumstances go awry. Yet all he can think about is Vanessa and being with her and the baby. But as he lets down his guard with her, she keeps reminding him she’s not interested in a relationship. Why does she keep pushing him away?

Y’all, Life's Too Short was just so good. Jimenez is such a great writer and I love the way she balances romance and fun with real emotion and issues that make you wonder how you’d react in a similar situation. Her books (The Friend Zone and The Happy Ever After Playlist) are all so great—they make me laugh, smile, cry, maybe even blush a little.

And here’s what I know. If she bases her male characters on people she knows, I’m totally going to hang out with her because, damn, these men. (Whatever.)

Abby Jimenez and Forever provided me with a complimentary advance copy of Life's Too Short in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes 4/6/2021.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Book Review: "The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany" by Lori Nelson Spielman

Lori Nelson Spielman's newest book, The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany, serves up a healthy dose of family drama and secrets set against a gorgeous Italian backdrop.

For more than 200 years, there has been a curse in the Fontana family: no second-born daughter has ever found lasting love. Emilia tries not to let the idea of a curse bother her—sure, she wouldn't mind a companion, but she loves working as a baker at her family’s Italian deli and bakery, her Brooklyn neighborhood, and her family (sort of). But her cousin Lucy is weighed down by the curse and desperately tries to find luck with any man who pays her even the slightest bit attention. (Even those who don't.)

Emilia is shocked when her long-estranged great-aunt Poppy invites her and Lucy on an all-expense-paid trip to Italy. Poppy says they must make it to the Ravello Cathedral on her 80th birthday, where she will meet her true love, and the Fontana Family curse will be lifted. (Not that Poppy believes in the curse, but...)

Their grandmother, who raised Emilia and her sister, has forbidden anyone in the family to have contact with Poppy, over something that happened years and years before. But traveling to Italy has always been a dream for Emilia, and the idea of the curse being lifted is too powerful to give up (particularly for Lucy), so they disobey Nonna and join Poppy for the trip.

Of course, there are many family secrets that have been kept hidden for years, secrets that threaten to topple them all. Both Emilia and Lucy realize that they will need to make changes within themselves if they have any chance of happiness, and that may mean standing up for themselves for once. But will Poppy meet her true love? Will the curse be lifted? Will Emilia speak her mind?

The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany was a dramatic story, a story of love and loss and courage and family and secrets. I enjoyed the second half more than the first—I found most of the characters pretty frustrating for a while and I wished Emilia would stop being a doormat for everyone. But as Poppy shared her love story and the family secrets kept hidden, the beauty and emotion of the story overtook me.

Italy is a place I’ve not yet had the chance to travel to but Spielman’s imagery made me long for it. Hopefully I'll get there someday!!

Book Review: "Burn It All Down" by Nicolas DiDomizio

Nicolas DiDomizio's debut novel, Burn It All Down, is a wacky, funny, moving book about our self-destructive behaviors.

Joey, an 18-year-old aspiring comic, is devastated and angry when he finds out his boyfriend Luke has been cheating on him. He was even planning to go to the same college as Luke. Depressed, unsure of what his future holds, and feeling he's destined to be unloved forever, Joey turns to the one person who understands better than anyone—his 34-year-old mother and best friend, Gia, who had him when she was 16.

When Gia’s latest relationship falls apart the next day—no surprise given that she and her son are addicted to toxic men—they’re both angry and hurt. After a night of revenge (and lots of wine) gets way out of control and turns seriously destructive, they must flee New Jersey and go on the lam.

When they wind up hiding out at the house of one of Gia’s exes—perhaps the most stable relationship she'd ever had—Joey and Gia realize their lives have gotten totally out of control and they need to figure out why they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Billed as "Gilmore Girls meets Thelma and Louise," Burn It All Down is a funny, outrageous story about a fierce relationship between mother and son. And as much as it made me laugh and made me wonder just how much crazier the story might get, it was emotional as well. We'd all be lucky to have a mom in our corner like Gia, even if she is a bit of a hot mess!

It was great being on the blog tour for this book. Jimmy Patterson Books and Storygram Tours provided me with a complimentary advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Burn It All Down publishes 5/25/2021.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Book Review: "Where I End and You Begin" by Preston Norton

Preston Norton's Where I End and You Begin is a fun and different take on the Freaky Friday theme which may make you approach viewing any astronomic event with a bit of trepidation.

"My excuse was that I was an antisocial loser with crippling anxiety who had no intention of branching out of my small, sad, pathetic world, thank you very much. I mean, my greatest strength was math, for Christ's sake!"

Ezra has been obsessed with Imogen Klutz since the fourth grade, but as much as he's thought about wanting to be with her, he's never had the courage to make a move. But never before has that weighed on Ezra as much as now, when his fear of asking her to prom has literally given him insomnia. Yet even though he becomes a stuttering buffoon in the presence of this beautiful girl with the gigantic eyebrows, he can't think of anything else he wants more.

His biggest obstacle? Imogen's best friend and near-constant companion, Wynonna Jones. Wynonna, with her blue hair and style that could be described as either "military hippie-core" or "80s vomit-punk," enjoys nothing more than tormenting Ezra every chance she gets. Which of course, leads to Ezra's humiliation and serves as a catalyst for his inability to ask Imogen to prom.

And then one night, when Ezra and his best friend, Holden, plan to watch a total solar eclipse from the roof of their high school—a plan also shared by Imogen and Wynonna—something goes completely awry. Ezra and Wynonna somehow wake up the next morning to find that they have switched bodies. And to make the horror worse, they keep switching back and forth every day. It's a torture neither can believe has been inflicted on them.

When Ezra-as-Wynonna discovers her secret crush on Holden, of all people (probably the person she loves fighting with almost as much as she does Ezra), his desperation gets the best of him, and he and his nemesis make a deal. If Wynonna can help him win over Imogen, Ezra will help her land Holden. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

But with the craziness involved in their body-switching, who is Imogen falling for, Ezra or Wynonna's badass version of Ezra, the guy he wishes he could be? Needless to say, hijinks, mistaken identities, and embarrassing situations ensue.

This was a cute book. Norton, whose first book, Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe, I was definitely a fan of, knows how to create endearing, fun characters who aren't all bravado and confidence. This book got a little silly at times but it had a good heart, and of course, a tremendous amount of suspending your disbelief is required. But the fun definitely was worth the silliness!

NetGalley and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers provided me with a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Book Review: "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump

Poignant and so timely, Everywhere You Don't Belong, Gabriel Bump's debut novel, packs a powerful punch.

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Claude McKay Love has seen a lot of things. Raised by his Civil Rights-era activist grandmother and her best friend, they try to make him believe he can achieve greatness. But Claude has mostly seen mediocrity and abandonment, and he doesn’t believe that greatness is routinely accessible by young Black men.

But as his community is rocked by violence and caught in a tug-of-war between those wanting to change things and those who want power of their own, Claude realizes he wants more. He wants simple—love, success, safety, a feeling of belonging—but believes to achieve that he must do what has been done to him—leave.

Yet Claude quickly realizes that even a change of location doesn’t change the situation for him. To get what he wants may take everything he has—and may be dangerous—but he can’t let life pass him by or it will swallow him up.

What a tremendously thought-provoking book this was! At turns funny, sad, shocking, hopeful, and insightful, Bump takes you on a roller-coaster ride that seems exaggerated in places but is all too real for some.

I’ll definitely be thinking about this one for a while. There’s some violence in the book, which may be a trigger for some, but it’s not gratuitous. It may sound like an intense read, and it has its moments, but all in all, it's just a really good book.

I was glad to be part of the blog tour celebrating the paperback release of Everywhere You Don't Belong. My thanks to Algonquin Books and NetGalley provided me with a complimentary copy in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Review: "The End of the Day" by Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg's The End of the Day is, at its heart, a story of friendship and love, family, anger, and forgiveness.

Clegg’s new book (I really enjoyed Did You Ever Have a Family, his first novel) requires patience. It’s one of those stories where disparate threads and characters eventually come together, where connections are revealed and questions are answered, but it takes some time to get there.

A woman wakes up to find an old friend waiting outside her house, a friend she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 50 years. A shuttle driver in Hawaii gets a call from the mainland that reawakens old memories. The father of a newborn sits beside his father’s hospital bed, hoping he will awaken and praying there won't be bad news regarding his condition.

Who are these people? How do they connect with each other? Why do they lead separate lives? So much hinges on things that occurred nearly a lifetime ago. Everything unfolds over the span of one day.

Clegg is a fantastic writer and he breathes life into his characters. The story is narrated by at least six or seven people, which gets a little unwieldy at times. But the biggest challenge I had is that the story overall just didn’t resonate with me. It took so long for everything to be revealed that I didn’t feel the payoff when it happened.

This is a beautifully written book, however. Clegg has talent, and perhaps for a more patient reader, this really may work.

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

Book Review: "All About Us" by Tom Ellen

A holiday romance? A book that explores the decisions we make and what our life would’ve been if we made different ones? Sign me up!

It seems like I’ve read a number of books recently that play with the Sliding Doors-type concept, where the characters see what might have happened had they made a different choice. I’ve got to admit, I love this concept so much.

In Tom Ellen's new book, All About Us, it’s Christmas Eve. While Ben usually loves the holidays, this year his marriage to Daphne is definitely in a rough spot. He knows it’s mostly his fault but he’s just not happy. And she's not happy either. When his old friend Alice gets in touch and says she's coming to town, the idea of seeing her fills him with joy, which means he could be headed down a dangerous path.

He always thought he and Alice might have gotten together at university but it never happened, and then he met Daff. But what would’ve happened if he had chosen differently? Was Alice the one who got away?

When a stranger gives him an (apparently broken) wristwatch he thinks nothing of it—until he wakes up and it’s December 5, 2005, the day he and Daff first kissed—15 years earlier. So now Ben has the chance to see what might happen if he followed his instincts and his heart’s original intent. But will he? Will that choice mean happiness? Or will he make the same decisions he did then?

As I’ve said more times than I can count, I’m a total sap, so this book worked so well for me. Obviously the concept requires a suspension of disbelief, but that was fine for me. To have a chance to say things you never said, take back the things you shouldn’t have said, choose a different path—longing for one or more of those makes us human.

Given all that’s transpired over the last week in the US, All About Us was a beautiful escape for me. Plus, it’s nice to imagine a holiday season when there’s actual snow on the ground, lol!!

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Book Review: "The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch" by Kimberly Potts

If simply reading the title of this book, The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch: How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking about Today, made you sing (or at least hum) the show's theme song, Kimberly Potts' book is definitely for you!!

This was a fun, informative look at a television series that was a huge part of my childhood and one I still talk about today. Amazingly, while I never watched the show when it originally aired (I wasn’t even born when it started in 1969), thanks to the magic of syndication, I watched every episode so many times through the years that I used to be able to identify the episode within the first 15-20 seconds. (I don't know how good I'd be now, but I could probably do it within a minute or two.)

But before you think I’m crazy (at least about this), understand that this show has been a cultural phenomenon in the US for 50 years or so. And that’s one of the things Potts looks at in this book—the many ways this show has weaved its way into popular culture, and the way so many people can still quote random episodes. (If you’re one of those people, I’m a kindred spirit.) She looks at the various spinoffs of the show through the years, the movies, the spoofs, even the porn movie!

The book also looks at the show’s history, the effort it took to get it on television in the first place, the casting process, and the critical drubbing it took from start to finish. (Amazingly, the show was never among the top 30 highest-rated shows any of the years it aired, but how many people remember all of those shows?)

While some of the information was familiar to me because I’ve read a lot about this show through the years, a lot was new, and really fascinating. I’ve got lots of new trivia to stump my fellow Brady fans with now!! All in all, this was a really good read.

I won a copy of The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch over a year ago in a giveaway on Bookstagram, so belated thanks to Grand Central Publishing for a free copy!!

Friday, January 8, 2021

Book Review: "Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel" by Ned Vizzini; adapted by David Levithan and illustrated by Rick Bertozzi

The Broadway musical Be More Chill was based on a YA novel of the same name by the late Ned Vizzini.

Now, in that magical way the entertainment world has about adapting adaptations, the book that became a musical has now been adapted into a graphic novel, by noted author David Levithan and illustrated by Rick Bertozzi. I never saw the musical or read the book, but after reading the graphic novel, I'd love to do both!

Nobody pays much attention to Jeremy in high school, other than to make fun of or spread rumors about him. He's so used to this occurring that he keeps score of the insults and jibes he sustains in each class. The only person who really talks to him is his best friend and fellow misfit, Michael.

Jeremy has a crush on Christine, but of course she’s dating a popular boy and Jeremy will never have a chance with her. He can barely sustain a conversation with her half the time. But somehow he hopes that things might change someday.

And then he gets a “squip”—a pill-sized supercomputer that you swallow. The squip transforms Jeremy into a confident, handsome heartthrob. It tells him how to dress, how to act, what to say, and whom to avoid. Suddenly Jeremy is cool and can have any girl he wants—but he still only wants Christine.

Of course, getting everything you wish for, especially because of a supercomputer, is fraught with disaster and never turns out quite like you think it will. I mean, does anything turn out well when you let a digestible supercomputer take control of your life?

Be More Chill was a fun, poignant read, although it was shorter than I would've liked. (How often do you say that about books?) I'm guessing the actual novel developed the characters and the situations more, but I enjoyed this tremendously. I definitely found myself wondering what parts might have led into a song in the musical adaptation.

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Book Review: "You Have a Match" by Emma Lord

Emma Lord's upcoming book, You Have a Match, is a cute story about family, identity, friendship, and love.

Abby only agreed to do the DNA test as a show of support for her best friend (and serious crush) Leo, who was adopted. Things between her and Leo have been weird since the BEI (Big Embarrassing Incident) occurred between them.

The last thing Abby is expecting to discover from the DNA test is that she has an older sister. Wait, what? And it turns out her sister is Savvy—Savannah Tully, Instagram influencer and all-around perfectionist, and she’s only 18 months older than Abby.

Neither know what would have led to her parents putting Savvy up for adoption. But instead of asking their parents outright, they decide to go to summer camp together (Savvy was already planning to be a counselor there) and figure out a scheme to uncover the truth. Of course, agreeing to go to camp with someone you barely know isn’t the smartest idea, especially when that person turns out to be a rule-follower and a narc.

To complicate matters further, this is the same camp Leo goes to. (The camp changed its name, so Abby had no idea it was the same camp.) Suddenly Abby has to decide whether to confront her feelings for him head-on, or just let them remain a secret. But secrets have a way of making everything else complicated, too...

I thought You Have a Match was cute, but honestly, nearly the entire story was people avoiding discussing the things that bothered, worried, or frustrated them, and not asking the questions that would solve everything. I get that it happens in real life but it dragged on in every aspect of the story and it just didn’t work for me. There’s so much running away, holding grudges, lying...I’m all for drama and angst but okay.

I loved Lord’s first book, Tweet Cute, so maybe I was just cranky?

NetGalley and Wednesday Books provided an advance copy of You Have a Match in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes 1/12/2021.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Book Review: "The Thursday Murder Club" by Richard Osman

Twisty, warm, and funny, Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club was just a terrific mystery!

The four friends—Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron—are residents of a posh retirement community. They meet each Thursday—in the room designated for jigsaw puzzles—to discuss old unsolved murder cases, an interest fueled by an old friend who used to be a policewoman.

But when a builder/contractor with an unsavory past gets murdered, suddenly the quartet has a real murder to solve. And just because they’re in their 70s, they shouldn’t be underestimated—this group is smart, accomplished, and not above manipulating situations (or the police) to fit their needs.

As they work with/lead the police to catch a killer (or killers), things get even more complicated. This is both a mystery and a reflection on aging, loyalty, undying love, grief, trying to find the strength to start again, and, of course, how far we’ll go for those we care about.

I enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club tremendously. I loved how Osman didn’t make his characters doddering old people, but vibrant and funny and lively. It's so good to see older people as main characters when they're not lovable curmudgeons or on the verge of dying.

I honestly had no idea how everything was going to be resolved, and as always when I read mysteries, I suspected everyone for a time. These characters were such fun, both the friends and the police, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

I read this as part of a buddy read on Bookstagram, which made it more fun. Luckily we’ve not yet decided which character everyone matches!⁣

Monday, January 4, 2021

Book Review: "Take a Hint, Dani Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Talia Hibbert's Take a Hint, Dani Brown is a steamy, fun, and tremendously sensitive rom-com with terrifically memorable and diverse characters.

Danika Brown isn’t looking for love: she’s looking for a friend with benefits. She doesn’t do love, or romance of any kind, and that has doomed recent dalliances with lovers of both genders. But she puts her request out to the universe to help her find someone with the same needs and wants that she has.

And the universe seems to hear her when hunky Zafir Ansari, a security guard at the university where Dani works, rescues her from an incident during an emergency drill. They’ve already been flirting up a storm, but when video of Zaf carrying her goes viral, they even get shipped on the internet as #DrRugbae (Zaf used to be a professional rugby player).

Surprisingly, it is Zaf who comes up with a request: that he and Dani fake a relationship to help generate more publicity for his children’s sports charity. Dani figures this is the perfect way to get what she wants and help Zaf, but she doesn’t realize he’s an actual romantic at the same time. Won't love just complicate things yet again?

As Zaf tries to break down Dani’s resistance to romance, both are struggling with their own emotional issues. But will love—and stubbornness—help them overcome their problems and point them toward happy-ever-after, or will everything fall apart first, including them?

Take a Hint, Dani Brown was a romantic, enjoyable, emotional, and immensely steamy story. I love the diversity that Talia Hibbert brings to her characters and appreciate how she’s willing to tackle emotional issues while entertaining and generating some heat. I also love that she gives her male characters real depth, too. (If you’ve not read her first book, Get a Life, Chloe Brown, featuring one of Dani's sisters, check that out, too.)

If you like your rom-coms with extra steam and some depth to boot, take a hint with Dani Brown!!

Book Review: "What Happens in Paradise" by Elin Hilderbrand

In the cold of January, a book that takes place in the Caribbean is good for what ails you, which is one of the reasons I chose Elin Hilderbrand's What Happens in Paradise!!

It still seems unbelievable to Irene Steele that her husband Russ was killed in a helicopter crash on New Year’s Eve. But more unbelievable is the fact that he was in the Virgin Islands at the time, ostensibly on "business"—but it was all part of a double life he was apparently leading without Irene or anyone else realizing.

To add insult to injury, now the FBI has come around to investigate some possible financial improprieties Russ may have been involved in. Who was this man she was married to for so long?

Each adrift for different reasons, Irene and her two adult sons, Baker and Cash, all decide to return to the island of St. John, where Russ had been living while away from home. The island paradise is certainly welcoming, but it also brings its own set of questions.

Was Russ involved in something illegal and/or unethical? Was the helicopter crash an accident or was it murder? Was he happier with his life on the island instead of at home in Iowa with Irene? If so, how did that happen?

Hilderbrand is an author I just started reading over the last few months although many have loved her for years. I so enjoy her ability to immerse you in her books—whether set on Nantucket or St. John—and create characters whose lives and struggles you care about.

What Happens in Paradise is the second book in her Paradise series (following Winter in Paradise) so I’d recommend you read them in order. I’m ordering the third and final book as soon as I’m done with this review!!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Book Review: "The Fortunate Ones" by Ed Tarkington

Ed Tarkington's new book, The Fortunate Ones, was a great book to start off 2021 with!

Charlie was growing up in a poor neighborhood in East Nashville with his single mother, and didn’t really think about what more life could offer. But when his mother gets him a scholarship to The Yeatman School, an exclusive private school, his life changes tremendously. Suddenly he realizes the ease by which people of privilege move through the world, seemingly impervious to problems and rules and consequences.

He quickly is taken under the wing of Archer Creigh, and the Haltoms, an affluent family. His relationship with Arch is part friendship and part hero worship, and he becomes a surrogate son to the Haltoms—a relationship complicated when they try to bring him and his mother even further into their circle.

But as Charlie is about to step into a life he could have only dreamed of, he realizes how tired he already is of the secrets and subterfuge that characterize the world of privilege. Yet too often, Arch’s magnetism pulls him back, so ultimately he has to decide whether he wants to live a life he is now expected to or one he wants to, and what implications that may have on his relationships with family and friends.

The Fortunate Ones was a great coming-of-age novel, one that almost felt like a book written years ago when stories were simpler, but with a modern touch. It’s a story of friendship and love, loyalty and family, privilege and responsibility. No one is 100 percent likable but how many people really are?

I’m a big fan of Tarkington; his first book, Only Love Can Break Your Heart was excellent, too. This story had me hooked from start to finish.

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

The book publishes 1/5/2021.

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Best Books I Read in 2020...

There's certainly no denying that 2020 was a year unlike any other. So much has been said already and now that it's passed us by (good riddance), I don't want to dwell on it for much longer. I will say, however, that the craziness of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with my sleep patterns so I spent a lot of extra time reading over the last 10 months.

I've done so much reading that in 2020 I read an unbelievable 306 books. Yes, that's insane. Yes, I read quickly. But I also don't watch television much and don't have kids so in a time period when we're pretty much tethered to the house, reading has been my prinary source of relaxation, decompression, and entertainment—and at times it also helped transport me away from a time of fear, political upheaval, grief, and anger.

Each year I choose the best books I've read. It's always difficult to narrow things down, but to whittle down a list of 306 books was even more challenging. Being the indecisive person I am I narrowed my list to 40 books. I've identified a top 11 (two books from one series) and then a top 27 (again, in two cases there were books from two series), and then an additional 13 books which are definitely worthy of mention. The title of each book is linked to my original review.

The Top 11

1. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune: A gorgeous book about our tendency to fear what we don’t understand, the magic love can do, and the different meanings of family.

2. The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab: 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?

3. The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: A beautifully written, emotional book, perfectly capturing the struggles so many people with AIDS had to deal with, especially in the 80s.

4. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Sometimes the only way to leaarn is to live. Moving and thought-provoking.

5. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emeze: A gorgeously written story of identity, sexuality, love, grief, friendship, and the need to live the life you want, even in a country where doing so might be deadly.

6. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré: This was brutal and emotional and utterly beautiful, but the main character’s spirit is a shining light. She is honestly one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read about.

7. Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins, translated by Larissa Helena: From its dedication, which read, “For anyone who has ever gotten into a pool with their shirt on,” I knew this book was for me. I haven't found a book that spoke to me so directly in a while.

8-9. Wild at Heart and Forever Wild by K.A. Tucker: The second and third books in a fantastic series about a Canadian girl who falls in love with a gruff Alaskan pilot and moves there to be with him. (The first book, The Simple Wild, was one of my favorite books of 2019.) These books are steamy, romantic, and so much fun.

10. Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin: Dark, violent, and utterly crazy. If the characters from Mean Girls and Heathers teamed up for a retelling of Macbeth set at a modern-day Catholic school for rich troublemakers, you'd have this book.

11. Beach Read by Emily Henry: This isn't just another rom-com. It’s fun and sweet and sexy and romantic, populated by fascinating supporting characters, and it’s also surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking.