Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Book Review: "Under the Whispering Door" by TJ Klune

In Under the Whispering Door, one of two books coming from TJ Klune in the next few months, we learn that it’s never too late to make your life the way you wanted it to be. Even after you’re dead.

How do I write a review of a book for which I have no words? To quote one of my favorite YA books, We Contain Multitudes, this one utterly undid me.

Wallace was a successful lawyer. He should be a success; he thought about nothing but working harder and doing better, even at the expense of those around him, including his employees. No one would ever say he was nice or friendly or compassionate or even considerate, and he didn’t care.

The next thing he knows, he’s watching his funeral. And then a reaper comes to collect him for his journey onward. Wallace is angry about being dead. He demands that things be fixed because his firm has work to do.

The reaper takes him to meet Hugo, the compassionate, handsome owner of a peculiar little tea shop. He’s also a ferryman, assigned to help Wallace get ready to cross over to his final destination. He’s seen anger like Wallace’s before and isn’t fazed, but he's determined to help Wallace reach his own understanding of the situation at hand.

But as Wallace starts accepting his death, he starts seeing his life for what it was, where he went wrong. More than that, he starts to realize the beauty of vulnerability, the power that comes from surrounding yourself with love and kindness and companionship. Is it too late?

Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea was my favorite book of last year and this very well may be my favorite of 2021. Moving, quirky, thought-provoking, and beautiful, it’s a book about living—even when you’re dead.

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

Under the Whispering Door publishes 9/21.

Book Review: "Gay Bar: Why We Went Out" by Jeremy Atherton Lin

Jeremy Atherton Lin's Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is an interesting juxtaposition of sociology and personal memoir focused on gay bars.

Pre-pandemic, did you go to bars or pubs often? Did you frequent them when you were younger?

At different points in my life I enjoyed hanging out with my friends at bars. There’s a camaraderie at bars that’s always fun to watch as an observer, as everyone goes to bars for different reasons, but the less enamored I became of crowds the less frequently I went.

In Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Lin traces the history of the gay bar through time, from truly secret places where discovery could be deadly, to places where joy could reign unfettered, even for a few hours, from places where people gathered to mourn, to spots that have their own places in their neighborhoods.

Lin also touches on his own experiences at gay bars through his life, mainly in three cities—Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco—with a few others thrown in sporadically. He talks about what it’s like to feel like you belong in a space, the furtive and sometimes shocking discoveries and encounters he had, and the connections he made—one in particular which changed his life.

This was an interesting read for Pride Month and it’s very well-written and well-researched. However, I felt like the book struggled with what it wanted to be. Was it a memoir or social commentary? I also wish Lin had touched on the role gay bars play in small communities—it’s much different than the meccas he touched on.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Book Review: "Together We Will Go" by J. Michael Straczynski

The upcoming novel from Babylon 5 creator and Sense8 co-creator J. Michael Straczynski, Together We Will Go, is a powerful, moving, and sometimes humorous look at suicide and assisted suicide.

Mark is a depressed writer who can’t seem to sell any of his work. He’s at the end of his rope, so he buys an old tour bus and plans to drive cross-country, ending in San Francisco. He also places an online ad searching for travel companions.

But this isn’t just any road trip. Mark is looking for people like him, who have no more strength or desire to keep on living. At the end of their journey, they’ll drive the bus off a cliff.

He gets a tremendous response so he has to figure out who seems legitimately interested in ending their lives and aren’t just suicide tourists, along for the ride, or looking to share the story to the media. After hiring someone to drive the bus (until its final stop), they begin picking up their passengers across the country.

The people who join the trip are all suffering in their own ways—from chronic pain, mental illness, fatal diseases, loneliness, guilt, addiction. And as the group grows and makes “bucket list” stops along the way, frictions occur among the group, some have second thoughts, motivations are questioned, and some are even kicked off the bus.

Together We Will Go is a quirky, sad, thought-provoking look at the ideation of suicidal feelings and what drives people to that end. It’s told in a combination of narrative, text messages, transcriptions of audio files, and emails, and a majority of the characters narrate. I definitely cared more about some characters than others, but overall this story evokes some real emotion.

When you have that many characters and a unique narrative style, it’s sometimes hard to follow, and I definitely found some stories more compelling and powerful than others. But this book definitely packs a punch and I won’t forget it anytime soon.

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

Together We Will Go publishes 7/6.

If you find yourself thinking of suicide and need to speak to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Book Review: "Him" by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Him is the hot, sexy, emotional M/M hockey romance I didn’t realize I’d been missing all my life.

This one was definitely a #Bookstagrammademedoit. My friend Abby and a few other Bookstagram friends have been talking about hockey romances, so I, as a fan of hockey and, well, hockey players, figured I’d give this one a try.

Wes and Jamie had an intense friendship when they were teenagers, playing at an elite hockey camp in upstate New York. Their rivalry made them better players and Wes was constantly involving Jamie in dares and pranks. Then after the summer they were 18, Wes just walked away and cut off their friendship. Sure, things got a little weird one night when they were drinking that last summer, but so what?

Four years later, their college teams are both in the Frozen Four championship. Both have been drafted by the NHL. But what Wes wants more than anything is a chance to see his old friend again, a chance to explain why he felt he had to end everything.

The minute they see each other, they slip back into their old routines. But Wes, who is gay, knows that what he feels for Jamie can’t be reciprocated, although he’s mostly okay with that because he missed his friend so much.

They wind up spending the summer between college and heading to their NHL teams working at the same camp they went to as teenagers. It seems like old times, and as they grow closer, Jamie realizes he has a lot to learn about his old friend—and himself. And both have key decisions to make about their future.

The steam factor is HOT in Him, but the romance factor is, too. The book touches on homophobia, self-esteem, and parental issues as well as the boundaries between friendship and love. I felt like there were so many times things could have become melodramatic and they didn’t, which made me love the book even more.

So now I’m a hockey romance fan! I’ll certainly be reading the sequel to this, called Us, very soon!!

Monday, June 28, 2021

Book Review: "The Layover" by Lacie Waldon

Enemies-to-lovers? Forced proximity? Tropical locale? Yes, please! You get all of that and more in this debut rom-com from Lacie Waldon, The Layover.

Ava has been a flight attendant for 10 years. But this is her last flight—now that she’s engaged she doesn’t want to be gone all the time.

She’s looking forward to this flight, which includes a layover in Belize—it’s a nice farewell gift and a celebration of her engagement. And then she discovers he's on her flight—Jack Stone, the sexy pilot-turned-flight attendant. Her nemesis. The one person she truly humiliated herself in front of one night.

Of all the people…but Ava is determined to make it work. And when the Belize layover turns into a longer stay at a resort because of mechanical difficulties, she can’t believe she’s trapped with him. Why is it he doesn’t seem to understand why she hates him?

Rom-com fans, you know the drill. As Ava and Jack team up for a little matchmaking on behalf of their colleagues, she starts to realize that maybe he’s not the devil she’s always thought he was. Maybe the hyper-organized, routine life she’s about to embark on with her ego-driven fiancé isn’t the one she really wants after all?

As I’ve said before, part of the charm of rom-coms for me is their predictability. I love that you mostly know how The Layover will go, I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, and because Waldon is an actual flight attendant, it’s full of authentic details.

I’ll admit Ava is a bit annoying at the start with her hatred of Jack, and I felt like her emotional arc was a little rushed, but this was still such a fun, cute, romantic story. (And as if I didn’t already check out all the sexy male flight attendants?)

Book Review: "Between Perfect and Real" by Ray Stoeve

Between Perfect and Real, Ray Stoeve's debut YA novel, is a poignant, thought-provoking, hopeful look at a teen’s struggle with his identity.

"I think I might be trans."
"I mean, I know I am."
"I think."

From the moment he saw videos of transgender guys on YouTube, Dean knew that’s what he was, why he didn’t feel completely comfortable as a lesbian. And when he gets cast as a “nontraditional” Romeo in his high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, it makes him long to assume his true identity.

But the realization of who he is causes more stress. His mother barely can handle his being gay and still calls him by his dead name—how will she take this news, when she’s reinforced gender roles for as long as Dean can remember? And what about Dean’s girlfriend, Zoe? Will she still want to be with him if he's male?

As the play approaches, Dean has a lot of decisions to make. And as he struggles with the acceptance of classmates and revealing his truth to those he loves, he seeks help from friends and others who have gone through these same decisions and had the same questions. Dean’s life may never be the same, but isn’t freely being who you are worth it?

This book was really good—it’s funny and sad and angsty and heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. I give Stoeve so much praise for not creating a utopia where everything is perfect for trans kids but also skirting the line that would have turned this book into melodrama, however real that may be, too.

I enjoyed these characters and, as I often do when reading YA, I felt so happy that books like Between Perfect and Real exist for today’s youth. So glad this was part of my Pride Reads this month!!

Book Review: "Brat: An '80s Story" by Andrew McCarthy

Brat: An '80s Story contains Andrew McCarthy's recollections of his acting heyday in 1980s films.

I went to high school in the mid-1980s. (Whatever. Be nice to the old guy or get off my lawn.) Pop culture in the 80s was great—while some of the movies and TV shows look colossally bad now, a lot of them have sustained their charm and bring back so many memories. (I even remember with whom I saw certain movies back in the day.)

I first noticed Andrew McCarthy in the movie Class, which wasn’t very good, but Rob Lowe was in it, and long before I understood why I was obsessed with him (still am, cough), I had to watch everything he was in. Anyway, I remember McCarthy was almost an anti-hunk, and he had the most expressive eyes I’d ever seen on an actor.

McCarthy went on to star in two of my most favorite 80s movies—Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire—as well as Mannequin, Less Than Zero, and that crazy movie, Weekend at Bernie's. It was during that time he got lumped into the group of young actors called “The Brat Pack.” (Ironically, he didn't even attend the event at which a few of his acting peers merited that nickname.)

In Brat, McCarthy recounts how his career started and touches on the movies he’s most known for. It’s not a tell-all by any means and he doesn’t trash anyone, but I really enjoyed his memories of that time and place. He also talks about family problems and his struggles with alcoholism, particularly during that time in his life.

And there even were a few things I didn’t know—that he was offered the lead in Some Kind of Wonderful and turned it down, and that John Hughes showed him the script for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and McCarthy expressed interest, but nothing came of it.

The fact is, McCarthy is a good writer. He’s written a travel memoir which I loved and a YA novel I’ve not read yet, so this was enjoyable for more than the sense of nostalgia it gave me. So many of the actors from that time period are still acting (at least periodically), so it’s fun to see how far they’ve come.

I know there are some of you who have never heard of him or his movies. Humor me and don’t make me feel decrepit, okay?

Book Review: "Filthy Animals" by Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor's new collection, Filthy Animals, contains beautifully written, powerful, periodically bleak short stories about the human condition and the need for connection.

I’m a short story fan. In the right hands, short stories can wield even greater power than novels and leave more searing memories. Of course, they’re not always good—sometimes they’re gimmicky, too short, or too long—and they can leave you wanting.

But Filthy Animals is really strong. What’s amazing is that in many stories nothing explosive happens yet I felt moved. That’s the beauty of Taylor’s storytelling—he writes about ordinary feelings, events, interactions—but they take on more power.

Several of the stories in the collection (and among my favorites) are interconnected and take place over the course of two days or so. They follow Lionel, a former graduate student dealing with some serious mental health issues, as he finds himself intertwined with Charles and Sophie, a pair of dancers with a unique relationship. I loved the push-and-pull that existed in these stories.

Other stories I enjoyed focused on a woman in her first same-sex relationship, the dynamics between brothers, and a woman trying to keep the peace in her family while dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

Whenever I post about story collections I do hear from many people that have never read any or aren’t fans. This collection is definitely one of the examples of why I love short stories.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Book Review: "The Checklist" by Addie Woolridge

If you plan everything meticulously, nothing falls apart, right? That's what Dylan, the main character of Addie Woolridge's The Checklist, would like to believe.

Even though she saved a major account, Dylan gets banished to her hometown of Seattle. She’ll have to work with an eccentric tech CEO who keeps alienating his employees and making the company look foolish in the media. He, of course, doesn’t think he needs help, but if Dylan doesn’t succeed, she’ll lose her job for sure.

Worse than that, she has to stay with her family for a few months. Her parents are both bohemian artists who don’t understand their management consultant daughter. They want her to help solve the latest round in their years-long squabble with their next-door neighbors.

As Dylan tries to deal with a stubborn client, a micro-managing boss, demanding parents, and a boyfriend she’s realizing she doesn’t like very much, she’s also striking up a friendship with the sexy, smart son of her parents’ neighbors.

But even with all the meticulous planning and checklists she can create, and the best of intentions, Dylan gets in way over her head—with everything—and might lose it all. Now she needs a plan to fix a lot of things, but it may be harder than she thought.

The Checklist was a cute story—I thought it was more of a rom-com but it’s just fun fiction with a little romance thrown in. There are definitely some wacky characters and situations here, and I laughed out loud a few times. It’s always great to see that no matter how bad you may think your life can get, characters in fiction have it worse!

BookSparks, Montlake, and Addie Woolridge provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review, as part of #SRC2021. Thanks for making it available!

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Book Review: "The Ghosts We Keep" by Mason Deaver

For a poignant look at grief and moving on, and learning how easy it is to miss things that are right in front of us, pick up Mason Deaver's newest YA novel, The Ghosts We Keep.

The unthinkable happens for Liam when their older brother Ethan is killed in an accident. Like any pair of high school-aged brothers, their relationship had its ups and downs, with Liam often feeling as if their parents loved Ethan more because he was athletic and had a girlfriend, while Liam is non-binary and more into music.

With Liam and their parents each trying to deal with their grief in the best way they can, Liam is struggling. They feel like a third wheel because their two best friends, Joel and Vanessa, are dating now, so Liam keeps pushing them away even though they try to see if they can help. Liam is finding it harder and harder to concentrate in school and be understanding of what their parents are going through, and they feel their mental health deteriorating.

Liam seeks out the only other person they think might understand—Marcus, who had been Ethan’s best friend since childhood. While Marcus and Liam are grieving differently, each are dealing with the loss of someone important to them and neither knows how to communicate the gravity of that loss. But little by little, Liam begins to understand that there was so much Ethan was keeping secret, so much that Liam wish they knew.

The Ghosts We Keep really was such a beautiful, emotional story on so many levels. Nothing that happened was surprising but I love the way Deaver lets the story unfold. (I loved their first book, I Wish You All the Best, and they’ve said this was a more personal book for them.)

The loss of someone we love can be devastating, especially when it happens suddenly. This book looks at grief from many different angles and shows that there’s no perfect way to grieve, but it’s easier when you let someone in.

Storygram Tours and I Read YA provided me with a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Book Review: "The Charm Offensive" by Alison Cochrun

If you've ever wondered how dating shows like The Bachelor could be different (and better), check out Alison Cochrun's upcoming rom-com, The Charm Offensive. If only dating shows could be like this!

I couldn’t have loved this book more if I tried.

Dev believes in true love and fairytale romance. As a producer of Ever After, a popular reality dating show, he’s helped engineer some happy endings—it doesn’t matter that not all of them last (or they’re not all genuine). And even though his six-year relationship with fellow producer Ryan recently ended, he still is looking forward to another season of the show.

He’s got his work cut out for him this season, though. The new bachelor, Charlie, is a gorgeous former cologne model and tech mogul who (very) reluctantly agrees to go on the show in the hopes of resurrecting his tech career. The thing is, for someone who looks as suave and commanding as Charlie, he couldn’t be more awkward—in everything he does.

But Dev quickly learns it’s not disdain or ego that causes Charlie to act this way, it’s severe social anxiety, among other issues. As he tries to help Charlie loosen up and try to become more comfortable with being around people and interacting with the contestants, they realize they have more in common than they think.

Dev is determined that Charlie will find love and propose to one of the contestants by the end of the season. But why do the “practice dates” that they have been going on seem more intense than Charlie’s dates with the women? And amidst all of the chaos Charlie is experiencing, why is Dev the one whom he looks forward to seeing?

I was expecting a sweet gay love story—and boy, was this great—but I wasn’t expecting the deeper conversations about mental health, sexual identity, and self-esteem. I cried like a baby and smiled like a lunatic. The Charm Offensive was just amazing.

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

The Charm Offensive publishes 9/7!

Book Review: "Hairpin Bridge" by Taylor Adams

In Taylor Adams' latest thriller, Hairpin Bridge, a young woman’s dogged pursuit of the truth behind her twin sister’s alleged suicide opens up more questions and puts her in danger.

I can’t really call this review an unpopular opinion because I’ve been seeing a number of mixed reviews on this book. I went in with lowered expectations based on people’s reactions but this one really didn’t work for me. I’m so disappointed, because I loved Adams' last book, No Exit.

Even three months later, Lena cannot believe that her twin sister Cambry killed herself. But the police say she drove to a deserted bridge in Montana and jumped to her death.

It’s true that Cambry had been driving around the country and living out of her car. And it’s true that Lena hadn’t seen her sister in some time. But how can you explain the 16 calls she tried to make to 911? Or the cryptic text Cambry sent Lena just before her alleged suicide?

Lena drives to Montana to meet with the policeman who allegedly found Cambry’s body. While he’s all too willing to share his version of events, what isn’t he telling Lena? As she tries to uncover the truth, she doesn’t realize she’s stepping into the middle of a dangerous web of lies from which she might never escape.

Simply put, Hairpin Bridge was a thriller that wasn’t thrilling for me. I felt the characters were all pretty one-dimensional and not much really happened. And shortly after I started reading the book, I thought a few things might happen and I hate when I can predict everything in thrillers.

Some friends have liked this book, so don’t let me dissuade you if you've been looking forward to it or if you're a huge thriller fan. I will say that Adams has a knack for description and imagery—I could see the bridge in my mind’s eye.

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

Friday, June 18, 2021

Book Review: "Satisfaction Guaranteed" by Karelia Stetz-Waters

As Karelia Stetz-Waters shows us in her new rom-com, Satisfaction Guaranteed, sometimes, to find happiness, you have to step outside your comfort zone. Way outside.

Cade is an anomaly in her family—the type-A, business-oriented one in a sea of free spirits. She singlehandedly runs her parents’ renowned gallery and basically spends her time working or, well, working. Who has time for a relationship? And it’s been far too long since she’s had good sex, or any sex, for that matter. (And don't even mention orgasms.)

When her aunt Ruth leaves her a failing sex toy store (which also sells cookware and Christmas decorations), Cade wants to cut her losses immediately. But there’s a catch—Cade now co-owns the store with Selena, a gorgeous friend of Ruth’s who helped care for her in the last days of her life. And Selena is determined to keep the store open and keep following Ruth’s vision, even if it hasn’t succeeded to date.

Selena has her own share of issues, too. As someone who has always used sex as a way of solving (or avoiding) problems, she’s taken a vow of celibacy. And it seems to be working—until she meets Cade.

Can Cade and Selena both agree to compromise on their vision for the store to perhaps make it successful and follow Ruth’s vision? And what complications would ensue if their relationship turned from colleagues to something more serious? Will the shop succeed? Will they?

I thought Satisfaction Guaranteed was a fun, sweet, and, of course, sexy rom-com. The cast of characters is diverse and fun and wacky, and you know there are secrets to be revealed, so even though you can predict how things will unfold, it was fun to go along for the ride.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book Review: "Instructions for Dancing" by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon's new YA novel, Instructions for Dancing, is beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking, and so much more than the simple YA romance I was expecting.

Ever since her parents got divorced and she discovered it was because her father met someone else, Evie stopped believing in love and happy ever after. She’s even giving all of her romance books away.

At a strange Little Free Library, she is left with a manual called Instructions for Dancing. But that’s not all—when she sees her sister kissing her boyfriend, suddenly Evie can see the entire arc of their relationship, from joyful, romantic start to sad finish. And what she sees turns out to be a completely accurate picture of what happened before and what comes after.

Suddenly she is bombarded by seeing what eventually will happen to happy couples in love, and it shakes her. Why would anyone want to fall in love if it is just destined to end in heartbreak?

In an effort to figure out what is happening to her, she winds up at a dance studio, and starts taking ballroom dance lessons. It’s not long before she’s paired up with X, short for Xavier, for a dance competition. X is a confident, sexy, funny musician, and his philosophy is to say yes to everything, so this sudden ramp-up for a ballroom competition with a girl he has never met before doesn’t faze him.

As the two draw closer and her resistance to live starts to create problems with family and friends, Evie has to wonder whether taking a leap of faith with X is worth the probability of failure and sadness. Should she just trust her heart?

I finished Instructions for Dancing early this morning and really loved it. It made me smile, laugh, and it definitely made me cry. Nicola Yoon continues to dazzle me with her storytelling and slay me emotionally.

Book Review: "¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons" by John Paul Brammer

¡Hola Papi! is a series of reflections and recollections from John Paul Brammer, an online advice columnist who could’ve used his own advice a time or two.

Do you ever feel like a book speaks to you? Sometimes I completely identify with a character or situation in a book (like one of my last reads, Pumpkin). But rarely have I felt so seen by a book like I did with ¡Hola Papi! and, truthfully, I didn’t expect this in the least.

In this terrific book, Brammer shares what it was like to grow up biracial in Oklahoma. It was not a good place to struggle with your sexuality, and of course, deal with the related struggles with self-confidence and loving yourself. Far too many times these struggles took their toll on his mental health.

Brammer shares the problems he faced and the discoveries he made about life and himself, and presents them as answers to some of life’s questions, like how to let go of the past, how to forgive those who wronged you, how to find yourself worthy of love and happiness, and what to do when your high-school bully hits you up on Grindr. (Substitute “summer camp” for “high school” and I’m so there!)

I found this book funny, insightful, emotional, and so on point in so many ways. Even though on the surface Brammer and I couldn’t be more different, it’s amazing how much of what he had to say truly resonated and moved me.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but this is definitely one I’ll really remember.

Book Review: "When We Blinked" by Stephanie Mack

After you’ve both been through so much, is a second (or maybe a third) chance at happy ever after possible? This is a question at the heart of Stephanie Mack's debut novel, When We Blinked.

Seraphina Jones thought she had it all, including marriage to her childhood sweetheart, a beautiful daughter after many fertility issues, and a great career. But after four years as a stay-at-home mom, she returns to her job with her marriage over and her daughter facing challenges due to her high sensitivity.

Encouraged by her friend and colleague to start dating again, she agrees to try a new dating app called Blinde, where no photos are exchanged so people build connections without physical attraction being the primary driver.

As she starts speaking to men on the app, things are going well at work—so well, in fact, that Graham, the handsome heir to the hotel company she works for, is interested in her. (Romantically, too.) Before she knows it she’s juggling a man named Jack on the app, flirting with Graham, and considering whether to try again with Connor, her not-quite-ex.

The thing is, Connor is actually pretending to be Jack in an effort for Sera to see another side of him she might have forgotten existed. Could this be the jumpstart they need to try again, or is Sera more interested in a fresh start?

Alternating narration between Connor and Sera, we see their relationship from its dreamy start through all of the challenges and heartbreaks they faced. And we see how both have changed—but is that enough?

I thought When We Blinked was a compelling and romantic story, with some drama. Faith also plays a role with these characters but it isn’t obtrusive, for those who don't prefer religious undertones. These characters and their story are very believable; you could imagine at least some of this happening to people you know.

I enjoyed being part of the tour for this book. Thanks to Suzy Approved Book Tours and Stephanie Mack for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Book Review: "Pumpkin" by Julie Murphy

Holy hell! Pumpkin, Julie Murphy's latest book, is an absolutely amazing book about living your life as unabashedly you as you can.

Waylon Brewer is a flamboyantly gay (and fat) high school senior from a small Texas town. Being gay at his high school isn’t ideal but it’s not too traumatizing; while he has to endure some taunting, having his twin sister Clementine (who is also gay) by his side makes everything more endurable.

“There are times when I feel like I can’t be me. I can’t simply exist. I have to offer something in exchange. Something that absolves me of being fat and gay and even worse—both of those things at once.”

When the audition video he made one night for his favorite TV drag show is accidentally shared with the entire school, he gains a little more notoriety and takes a few more insults. But ultimately, he is nominated for prom queen, and Hannah, Clem’s girlfriend, is nominated for prom king.

Although they were nominated as a joke or insult (or maybe a little of both), Waylon and Hannah decide they’re going to do anything they can to win. And when Waylon is paired up with Tucker, one of his nemeses, on prom court projects, he learns that sometimes first impressions of a person don’t always reveal the truth of who they are.

Pumpkin is so funny, so sensitive, so utterly squee-worthy, I can’t find enough words to express how much I loved it. I’ve been that fat gay kid too, and I didn’t handle it with even a fraction of the flair Waylon did. Every single one of these characters is so exceptional in their own way. This is definitely a book I wish existed when I was growing up.

I hope we get a sequel someday! I love buddy reads with my friend Louis because the discussion is always so great, and this certainly was no exception!!

Book Review: "The Lucky List" by Rachael Lippincott

As I was reading Rachael Lippincott's new YA novel, The Lucky List, I was thinking, "I’m not crying, I’m just moistening my eyes." (Darned pollen!)

There was a time where Emily had never met a prank not worth pulling or a risk not worth taking. She felt like she and her mom were the luckiest people in their small town. Until three years ago, when her mom’s luck ran out and she died of cancer.

But the summer before senior year of high school, everything has fallen apart. Emily very publicly wrecked her relationship with her boyfriend at junior prom so her friends are all mad at her, and her father has decided it’s time for a fresh start, so he’s selling their house and giving away all of her mom’s stuff.

When she finds her mother’s high school bucket list in a box in her closet, she believes that if she completes the things on that list, it may bring her closer to her mom. And when Blake, the daughter of her father’s best friend, volunteers to help her accomplish the tasks, she feels closer to her mom than she has in a long time, but she also feels an unexpected connection with Blake.

As Emily tries to complete everything on her mom’s list, she has to decide what she wants the ultimate outcome to be. Does she want to go back to the life she thinks her mother would want for her, even if she might not, or is it time to acknowledge the feelings she has for Blake and take a risk?

I loved The Lucky List, this story of grief, friendship, fresh starts, and having the courage to be exactly who you are. My mom died when I was very young, before I knew her, and so some of the emotions described in the book really resonated with me. But I wasn’t crying, you were!

I should’ve expected an emotional read from the coauthor of Five Feet Apart, but it wasn't too sad. I found this sweet, special, and so moving.

Book Review: "Seven Days in June" by Tia Williams

In Tia Williams' latest novel, Seven Days in June, a second chance at their love story gives them everything to gain—and everything to lose.

“I remember that I’m not lonely. I’m alone. When I’m comatose from writing and mothering, when I’m hurting too badly to cook, talk, or smile, I curl up with ‘alone’ like a security blanket…Alone never gets disappointed by me.”

Eva is the bestselling author of an erotica series featuring a vampire and a witch. She’s struggling to finish book 15, dealing with chronic pain, which is a disability she’s lived with her whole life, and she's trying to be the best single mom to her precocious preteen daughter. She doesn’t feel she’s succeeding anywhere.

When prizewinning author Shane Hall shows up at a literary panel where Eva is speaking and begins waxing poetic about her work, it sets the Black literary community afire. But what no one other than Shane and Eva know is that 15 years ago they fell madly in love over the period of a week, only to have everything fall apart. The fact is, each has been using the other as inspiration for their work since then.

Shane’s return throws Eva’s life into upheaval. Their chemistry is still undeniable and the thought of letting each other go again is something neither wants to consider. But Eva is not sure she wants to leave herself vulnerable again, not sure if she can take the risks he could bring to her life and her daughter’s.

Over the course of seven days, they try to decide whether to let themselves fall again and what that vulnerability will mean. At the same time, the story looks back on the first seven days they spent together all those years before, and how indelibly it changed them.

Boy, this was so fantastic. It was poetic and steamy and beautiful and sad, really just amazing. Shane and Eva are such complex characters and their story hooked me from start to finish. I didn't want this to end!

Book Review: "Jay's Gay Agenda" by Jason June

Jay's Gay Agenda, the debut novel from Jason June, is a cute, sex-positive story about finding your tribe.

Actually coming out to his friends and family wasn’t difficult—no one seemed too surprised that Jay was gay and no one made fun of him. But in his small Washington town it appears he’s the only gay person. How will he ever find a boyfriend and get to have the amazing memories and experiences he’s dreamed of if he’s the only LGBTQ person around?

When his mother gets transferred to Seattle, it seems to be the answer to his prayers. His new school even has a Queer-Straight Alliance! He can’t wait for the move, to meet a handsome boy and be able to cross things off his “agenda”—like holding hands, being part of a queer group of friends, and, of course, losing his virginity.

And while it’s not long before he makes a great friend and meets the boy of his dreams, he quickly finds out how difficult it is to choose between a relationship that moves slowly and romantically and one that goes right to the bedroom. He also is torn between embracing his new life and remembering those he left behind, those who stood behind him before he moved. Can he fulfill his agenda without letting people down in the process?

This was a sweet book, a story about how good it feels to finally be among those with whom you have things in common. I love reading stories where a person's sexuality isn’t an issue and where no one has a problem with it.

The characters in Jay's Gay Agenda are fun and genuine, and while they may have their struggles between right and wrong, this book definitely sends good messages to teenagers and others who need them.

Book Review: "Competitive Grieving" by Nora Zelevansky

This book was seriously amazing.

Wren is absolutely shocked when she learns that her best friend Stewart has died. They’d essentially known each other since birth (their mothers met during pregnancy) and even though their lives took very different paths (he became a TV star, she worked in grant writing), they were each other’s anchors.

Shaken to her core but unable to fully grieve, she is asked by Stewart’s mother to go through his apartment along with his friend and lawyer, George. She is quickly angered and horrified by the group of Stewart’s friends—each one needier than the next—who fight to prove who knew him best, whose grief is more palpable, who should have a bigger part of his legacy.

But as she remembers her friend, she starts to realize there was a lot she didn’t know about Stewart the man. Was he the person she thought he was? Was she the person he thought she was? Do we ever really know anyone, even our childhood friends?

Competitive Grieving is a poignant, funny, hopeful, and thought-provoking book, but it’s not too sad. I loved Wren’s character and felt she was very realistic, and even though many of the other characters’ behaviors were so shocking, you could see why they acted the way they did and why Stewart would keep them around.

I’m grateful to my friend Stacy for bringing this book to my attention on Bookstagram. She said it was her favorite book last month and it’s easily going to be one of my favorites of the year. Nora Zelevansky's storytelling was just fantastic here.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Book Review: "The Witch Demands a Retraction: Fairy Tale Reboots for Adults" by Melissa Balmain

Melissa Balmain's The Witch Demands a Retraction features funny reboots of fairy tales from an adult perspective.

Do you enjoy fairy tales? Ever thought about what happens after they lived happily ever after, after the foes have been vanquished? Or what the “real story” behind the fairy tales was?

Balmain has given this some thought. This fun book, accompanied by great illustrations from Ron Barrett, looks at some of our favorite fairy tales and provides short, less-starry-eyed updates.

From “Sleeping Beauty Talks to Her Therapist a Few Months after the Wedding” to “Mama Bear Sets the Record Straight,” these are no more than one page and they’re definitely good for a laugh! This was a quick read but one I definitely will share with others.

This was a fun tour to participate in. Suzy Approved Book Tours, Melissa Balmain, and Humorist Books provided a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Book Review: "Cool for the Summer" by Dahlia Adler

When you get everything you wanted, why doesn’t it make you happy? That's a question at the core of Dahlia Adler's YA romance, Cool for the Summer. (Yes, it's named after the Demi Lovato song.)

Larissa has spent most of high school in the shadow of her best friend Shannon and wishing that Chase, the handsome star athlete, would notice her.

But having to spend the summer in the Outer Banks at her mother’s boss’ house changed her perspective, mainly because she got to spend time with Jasmine, the boss’ daughter. The two quickly struck up a friendship, which transformed into something more, something unexpected, but then they went their separate ways after the summer.

Larissa returns to school for her senior year with a different kind of confidence, one which makes Chase really notice her for the first time. She has finally gotten what she’s wanted for years, which is great—and then Jasmine shows up at her high school, having transferred from North Carolina.

Why does Jasmine’s presence throw her completely? They just had a summer thing, and now they’re pretending it never happened. But why, when she’s with Chase, is Jasmine all she thinks about? Larissa is left with a choice—does she follow the path she always wanted to, or does she follow her heart?

I really enjoyed Cool for the Summer. I remember feeling like Larissa did when I was in high school, although it was fighting a crush on one of my male friends while “dating” a girl. (Things were both more and less complicated in the 80s!) Adler really captured that mess of emotions so well.

I liked that many of the characters were far more complex and diverse than you’d expect. Even Chase, who could’ve been written simply as the handsome, dumb jock, had far more complexity, and it really added to the book’s appeal.

Definitely a fun, thought-provoking, romantic summer read!

Book Review: "How Y'All Doing? Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived" by Leslie Jordan

Comic actor Leslie Howard shares fun recollections and reflections in How Y'All Doing? Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived.

Do you read books written by celebrities? I read a few memoirs here and there, but that’s about it. However, when I saw Leslie Jordan’s smiling face on the cover of this book, I couldn’t resist. It's not really a memoir, but more a collection of memories and anecdotes.

Jordan is best known for his Emmy Award-winning role as Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace as well as for roles on multiple seasons of American Horror Story. He’s also an outspoken activist for equal rights.

In How Y'All Doing?, Jordan shares humorous stories from different times in his life and career, from the time Debbie Reynolds called his mother after he appeared in the National Enquirer while wearing drag, to his fascination with dolls, or his run-in with a group of homophobic thugs. The stories feel like Jordan is there talking to you, saying, “Did I ever tell you about the time Lady Gaga and I…”

This was a quick, fun, sometimes poignant read, and I’d imagine that the audio would be hysterically funny since he narrates it. At times I wondered whether one person could have that many wacky adventures, but I realized that if anyone could, it’s Leslie Jordan!

Book Review: "After Francesco" by Brian Malloy

Wow, Brian Malloy's After Francesco is just an absolutely beautiful, moving, hopeful book.

It’s 1988. The gay community in the U.S. has been rocked by AIDS. For 28-year-old Kevin and many others, life is an endless journey of watching friends waste away and die, and attending far too many funerals.

Kevin hasn't stopped mourning his partner, Francesco, in the two years since he died. He still lives in their NYC apartment. Everyone tells him he should try and move on, but he can’t seem to find the motivation to do so, preferring to numb the pain with alcohol.

When he hits rock bottom, at the urging of friends and family, he returns home to Minneapolis to live with his aunt Nora. He tries to move forward in fits and starts, and with the help of a support group for people whose partners have died, he feels like he’s making some progress. But he is further tested by news that his best friend is nearing the end of his struggle with AIDS, so he heads back to NYC.

This is a gorgeously written, emotional book about grief, fear, feeling like no one understands how you feel and what you’re going through, and the guilt of surviving that many felt (and still do). How can you get on with your life when your partner and your friends didn’t have that chance?

There is certainly sadness in After Francesco but I never found it overwhelming. Malloy captured the feel and vibe of the late 1980s so well. I began coming to terms with my sexuality then, and I remember the fears and uncertainty surrounding dating and sex because no one was 100 percent sure how you could get AIDS.

For me, this book stands with The Great Believers and Christodora, two other terrific books which chronicled that time period. (You should totally read those if you haven't.)

Monday, June 7, 2021

Book Review: "Far Gone" by Danielle Girard

Just devoured Danielle Girard's upcoming thriller, Far Gone. Another twisty thriller I really liked? Who am I?

14-year-old Hannah is scheduled to babysit for Ben and Nadine Garza on Friday night. She shows up to their house a bit high on oxycodone but hopes they won’t notice.

And then a man comes into the house. Hannah is able to hide in the closet and watches in horror as the man shoots both Ben and Nadine but mercifully leaves their infant daughter safe. But Hannah is afraid he’ll return, so she flees with the baby.

Detective Kylie Milliard lands the investigation into the Garza murders. When she finds blood on the scene not belonging to the victims, she knows this could be the break she needs. She is shocked, however, to find that the DNA in the blood drop is a familial match to Lily Baker, a local nurse, who was involved in a horrible crime years before.

As Kylie and her colleagues work to find the killer and Lily tries to deal with the return of traumatic memories, dark secrets are uncovered and shocking discoveries are made. Will anything be the same again?

Far Gone is the second book in Danielle Girard’s Badlands series (after White Out). I didn’t read the first book but boy, I’m hooked on Girard’s writing now. You could read this as a stand-alone because there was enough background into the past.

For someone who has been having a really tough time with thrillers lately, I thought this was great. There were lots of twists and turns, some of which I predicted and some which surprised me, but I loved the characters and the emotions the story evoked.

Suzy Approved Book Tours, NetGalley, Thomas & Mercer, and Danielle Girard provided me with a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book publishes 6/15.

Book Review: "Skye Falling" by Mia McKenzie

Mia McKenzie's upcoming novel, Skye Falling, shows that if you push everyone away, you can’t wonder why you’re lonely.⁣

⁣ When Skye was in junior high school she was voted “Most Likely to Be Single.” It’s like even then her classmates knew relationships really weren’t for her.⁣

⁣ “And while being voted ‘Most Likely to be Single’ at twelve years old isn’t necessarily an early indicator that one might die alone in a hotel bed many years later, it’s not hard to imagine it as part of the same narrative, right? Not that you’d expect it, but if you heard about it you’d be like: ‘Uh-huh, okay, I can see that.’ So, yeah. Nobody would be super surprised. Is what I’m saying.”⁣

⁣ Now, as she nears 40, Skye hasn’t changed much. She keeps her friends, her family at arm’s length and doesn’t do relationships beyond hookups. But when Vicky, a 12-year-old girl, finds Skye and tells her she’s “her egg” (Skye donated her eggs to an infertile friend years ago), Skye starts thinking about whether she should try to have a relationship with this girl. But where to start?

⁣ ⁣ And when she tries to pick up a woman (and fails), only to discover the woman’s connections to Vicky, Skye wonders once and for all whether her plan to push everyone away was the right one. Is she worthy of loving and of being loved?

⁣ ⁣ Skye Falling was an interesting, well-written character study and a look at a woman who thinks she has it all figured out, only to ultimately discover that she really doesn’t. I think we all know—or are—people like that.⁣

⁣ My challenge is that I found Skye fairly unappealing as a character so I had trouble caring about what happened to her. My feelings changed a bit as the book progressed, but it’s always difficult for me to connect with unlikeable characters.⁣

This was an early release through the Book of the Month Club. Skye Falling publishes 6/22. ⁣

Book Review: "Who Is Maud Dixon?" by Alexandra Andrews

The recently published thriller Who Is Maud Dixon? had so many twists and turns I was afraid I’d get motion sickness!

Florence Darrow couldn’t wait to escape her Florida home and her overbearing mother; after college she moved to New York City, certain she’d become a famous writer. But when no success materialized, she decided her best bet was a job in publishing.

Somehow she stumbles into an opportunity to be the assistant to Maud Dixon, a best-selling author whose debut thriller captivated readers worldwide. Florence will be only the second person to know whom Maud really is—the reclusive author has kept her identity a complete secret.

Working for Maud (whose real name is Helen Wilcox) opens Florence’s eyes to the life she could have one day. Helen is difficult at times but she’s an unending source of advice and inspiration. She asks Florence to accompany her on a research trip to Morocco so she can finally finish her second book.

When Florence wakes up in the hospital in Morocco after a car accident, she has no memory of what happened. And when Helen fails to materialize, Florence figures she must have died in the accident. But since no body was found, Florence decides her best bet is to pretend to be Helen—and more importantly, Maud Dixon.

This book started slowly but once Florence began working for Helen, it picked up momentum and whoa! There were lots of twists and turns and while some things weren’t completely surprising, Who Is Maud Dixon? definitely kept me guessing.

When you need to read a thriller in one sitting, you know it’s a good one. There really was a lot to like about this—and it sure would make a great movie!

Friday, June 4, 2021

Book Review: "The Passing Playbook" by Isaac Fitzsimons

Isaac Fitzsimons' debut YA novel, The Passing Playbook, is an emotional, hopeful story about finding your voice and being true to yourself.

Spencer is starting over. After a threat of violence against him put his old high school in lockdown, he’s about to start at a progressive private school, and a liberal one—the most liberal one in Ohio, in fact. But while he’s ready to tell his fellow students he is queer, he’s not ready to share the truth: that he’s transgender, because that's where the trouble arose at his last school.

It’s not long before Spencer’s athletic prowess lands him a spot on the soccer team. Despite his parents’ concerns, he’s happy to be part of a team, to have friends, and the possibility of even more with one of his teammates.

When the soccer league enforces a discriminatory rule, Spencer finds himself on the bench. He realizes he has two choices—he can keep silent and let discrimination win, or he can reveal the truth about himself and fight for his rights and the rights of other transgender students. But what price will he and his family pay for the truth?

I really enjoyed The Passing Playbook. I have to give Fitzsimons so much credit—there were so many times when I expected the book to go a certain way, to follow the “typical” plot lines—and nearly every time, he did something else. I loved these characters, from Spencer and his brother Theo to the coach and Spencer’s friends and teammates.

Living your truth isn’t easy, especially when you face the possibility of ostracism, violence, and rejection. Thanks to Fitzsimons for a book that focused more on the joy that comes from being who you are rather than the pain.

Book Review: "Heartstopper, Volume 4" by Alice Oseman

In Heartstopper, Volume 4, Nick and Charlie return in another graphic novel, and this one deals with some serious subjects.

I am a gigantic puddle of emotions and it is all the fault of Alice Oseman. Not only was Volume 4 of this series adorable and poignant and thought-provoking (like they always are), but the thought that the series will end at Volume 5 makes me sad...although we have a while until that’s published. (There is a Netflix adaptation with live actors coming and I cannot wait.)

In Volume 4, Charlie is struggling. He really wants to tell Nick he loves him but he’s afraid it’s too soon in their relationship, he’s afraid Nick might not feel the same way, he’s feeling all the things we might have felt when wanting to say that first “I love you.”

Once that hurdle is cleared (so adorably), Charlie’s eating disorder starts to get worse and his anxiety and depression intensify, as does his tendency to self-harm. He doesn’t know what to do about it but he knows it’s becoming more of a problem and he knows Nick is scared, too.

Nick is so worried about Charlie but doesn’t know how to help him. His mother helps him understand all the ways he can help, and that sometimes he can’t.

This is divided into two parts—the first deals with the two saying “I love you” and the return of Charlie’s struggles, the second deals with Charlie’s journey and further developments in their relationship. It’s a more serious installment of this series but they’re just so darned adorable and the supporting characters are amazing. (Plus there's a mini-comic which features the teachers who chaperoned the gang's Paris trip, and that is just adorable, too!)

If you’ve thought about getting into graphic novels I’d definitely encourage you to try this series. It’s definitely more a Heartmelter than a Heartstopper.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Book Review: "The Guncle" by Steven Rowley

You know the feeling when a book is as amazing as you hoped it would be, maybe even better? That's how I felt reading Steven Rowley's new book, The Guncle.

⁣ ⁣ Patrick was a well-known actor on a television sitcom, but when the show was done, he retreated to Palm Springs, where he essentially cut himself off from the world. But when his sister-in-law and best friend dies, it brings him home to Connecticut and back to his family.⁣

⁣ Patrick’s brother tells him that he’s dealing with a crisis of his own and he needs him to take his two young kids for three months. Patrick can’t believe anyone would entrust their kids to him. And what would he even do with them? He’s never even really been around his niece and nephew that much, let alone thought about raising them.⁣

⁣ Even though temporary fatherhood is the last thing he ever dreamed of, Patrick is determined to help Maisie and Grant deal with their grief over their mother’s death. It turns out Patrick needs to grieve for Sara too, and he still is dealing with the emotions caused by a tragedy that happened a few years before.⁣

⁣ Patrick is not your ordinary caregiver—he quotes Oscar Wilde and Grey Gardens, has a closet full of caftans, and a bunch of “Guncle Rules,” but it turns out that he’s more suited for this role than anyone might have imagined. And, of course, the kids help him just as much.⁣

⁣ Rowley has created a fantastic book which left me crying and laughing, sometimes simultaneously. It certainly made me think of my four nephews—they range in age from 1 to 13–and while I’ve never actually called myself “Guncle Larry” I’ve certainly tried to be the best uncle I can be, even though I’m 3-1/2 hours away.⁣

⁣ I loved this book so much. I didn’t want it to end, and I wanted to hug it when I was done.⁣

⁣ BookSparks and Putnam Books sent me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review as part of #SRC2021. Thanks for making it available!!⁣

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Book Review: "The Truth and Other Hidden Things" by Lea Geller

Sometimes the thing you need most hurts a lot of other people. This is the message at the core of Lea Geller's newest book, The Truth and Other Hidden Things.

“The day Harry didn’t get tenure was also the day I discovered that an IUD is not foolproof. At the time, it was hard to say which news was worse.“

Bells Walker’s life is about to implode. She’s 43, living in a small Manhattan apartment given to her husband as part of his job at a university, and she has two adolescent children. A surprise pregnancy and her husband’s being denied tenure were not what she was counting on.

When Harry lands a job at Dutchess College in New York’s Hudson Valley, the family gets uprooted to a small town called Pigkill, much to everyone’s chagrin (except Harry). But the bucolic town Bells pictured has actually been taken over by hipsters and super-high-maintenance parents, all who’ve escaped the rat race of NYC to create a new one in Pigkill.

With no job prospects in sight and feeling ostracized by the mothers who clearly have it all together, Bells decides the best way to express her feelings is through an anonymous blog. Calling herself the “County Dutchess,” she sets her snarky sights on the people, the behaviors, and the not-so-secret goings-on in Pigkill. Her blog catches fire quickly and readers want to know, who is the Dutchess?

Of course, Bells’ fulfillment from writing the blog (fulfillment she has been searching for for years) has to stay a secret, or she could jeopardize Harry’s job and her kids’ tenuous efforts to fit in. But the more her posts go viral, the greater the risk is. Is it worth it? Can this secret stay secret?

I thought The Truth and Other Hidden Things was fantastic—laugh-out-loud funny in places, poignant in others. It’s amazing the things we do to try and prove our self-worth, to ourselves and the others we think are finding us wanting. I couldn’t get enough of this and Lea Geller’s storytelling!

Suzy Approved Book Tours, Lea Geller, and Lake Union Publishing provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!