Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Book Review: "Almost, Maine" by John Cariani

Almost, Maine is a collection of quirky, sweet, often romantic connected stories about one night in a remote New England town.

Almost isn’t quite a town, but there’s no real accurate way to describe it. It’s so far north it’s nearly in Canada but it’s still in the U.S. It’s a place like many others, populated by average everyday people, and nothing particularly exciting happens there. It is a pretty perfect place to catch the Northern Lights every now and again.

Except for one night. One Friday night in the middle of winter, strange things start happening to people who are in the midst of doing ordinary things.

Longtime best friends start falling in love with one another, completely without warning. A man planning to go to bed early finds a woman camping on his property. A woman doing laundry in her boarding house basement encounters a new resident. A man tries to shake himself out of his loneliness by going to a bar.

This book is composed of stories that take place on that one night. They’re very loosely connected in that there is a narrative hook that threads one story to another. Some are love stories, some are stories of hope, miscommunication, friendship, and/or self-discovery.

I found many of the stories endearing but after a while they all started resembling one another in some way. Some stories definitely captured my heart but some were a little less impactful for me, and I found the thread that tied the stories together a little gimmicky.

In the end, though, Almost, Maine was cute and heartfelt.

Book Review: "Both Sides Now" by Peyton Thomas

Peyton Thomas' debut novel, Both Sides Now, gave me All. The. Feels.

Finch is an excellent debater. There’s nothing more he loves than to gather information on a subject or argument and explore both sides of it.

He and his debate partner, Jonah, are heading to the National Championships, and he hopes a victory will encourage Georgetown to take another look at him, offer him a scholarship, and start him on the path to becoming America’s first trans congressman.

But with his family’s financial status becoming more and more precarious—not to mention the state of his parents’ marriage—everything Finch wants is at risk. And in certain cases, he’s not even sure what he wants: his best friend is trying to convince him that he has feelings for Jonah, but what would that mean for Finch’s identity? Would Jonah even be interested in a trans guy?

When it’s announced that the debate topic for the National Championship is transgender rights, Finch realizes that he’ll have to stand on a stage and literally debate at times that he doesn’t deserve equal rights. Is possible admittance to Georgetown worth that?

I really enjoyed Both Sides Now and it gave me so many things to think about. It’s a fun and emotional read, and it showed me how quick we are to judge those around us without having any idea of their background or what they’re going through.

So good!!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Book Review: "Never Saw You Coming" by Erin Hahn

What do you do when your faith is tested? Erin Hahn explores how two teenagers deal with this in her upcoming book, Never Saw You Coming.

Meg has always done what was expected of her. She sings in her church’s praise band, gets homeschooled, dresses modestly, and never really interacts with guys beyond a strictly platonic level. But when she finds out that her whole childhood has been a lie, her world is shaken.

Micah’s father was a preacher who is now in jail, found guilty of embezzlement as well as numerous infidelities. His father was his best friend, and his betrayal shattered their family. Six years later, his father is scheduled for parole and Micah isn’t sure if he wants anything to do with him, much less be drawn back into the scandal surrounding his crimes.

When Meg takes her planned gap year before college and travels to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to meet family she never knew she had, she starts to challenge some of the strict rules she lived under. And when she meets Micah, they bond quickly over their shared struggles with their faith and family, and when friendship starts to turn into attraction and love, things get even more complicated.

This book was beautiful and so thought-provoking, an exploration of faith and how it means different things to different people, and it was also a look at the hypocrisy that exists in religion, particularly in its treatment of women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people. But at its heart, this is a story about friendship, family, love, and finding your own path.

It’s funny, as a gay Jewish guy of a certain age I’m probably the furthest from Hahn’s “audience,” but I’ve loved every single one of her books. They just grab me from the start and touch my emotions in so many ways.

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

Never Saw You Coming publishes 9/7.

Book Review: "The Wingman" by A. Poland

Looking for a sweet, fun, and romantic read? Give The Wingman a shot.

Nathan and Lorcan have been best friends for as long as they can remember, and they’ve always had each other’s back. As they’ve grown older, however, Nathan has taken on a different role for Lorcan—as his wingman.

Lorcan is a great-looking guy but lacks confidence in his ability to “close the deal” with the women he’s been interested in. But Nathan is happy to talk about his friend to anyone who’ll listen, and often it’s his praise of Lorcan that helps win people—especially women—over. And while he’s happy to make Lorcan happy, a part of him wishes Lorcan would stop wasting time and realize Nathan is the one for him.

When Nathan returns from attending college abroad, he’s not shocked to find out Lorcan needs his talents again, but he’s shocked to find out whom he must convince. This time it’s a guy, Miles, and he’s a tattooed, leather-jacket-wearing environmentalist who enjoys the outdoors.

As Nathan readies himself to work on his friend’s behalf once again, he realizes it’s not fun anymore. He wants Lorcan to be interested in him instead. And of course, it doesn’t appear Miles is all that impressed by Nathan’s talking up Lorcan—he’s actually more impressed by Nathan himself. Uh-oh…

How far would you go for a friend? At what point do you put your own interests above those of your friend? Should you risk your friendship for a chance at romance?

This was a fun romance with a terrific supporting cast. Thanks so much to Pride Book Tours for inviting me on the tour and providing me a complimentary copy of The Wingman in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "Lightning Strike" by William Kent Krueger

The latest from bestselling author William Kent Krueger, Lightning Strike is a beautifully told story, of a small town in the 1960s rocked by a mysterious death and culture clashes, and a boy’s coming of age.

It’s funny, I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but give me a well-written book like this and I’m totally hooked. I felt the same about Krueger’s last book, This Tender Land, which was one of the best books I read in 2019.

In this prequel to Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, it’s 1963 and Cork is 12 years old. His father is the sheriff of their small town of Aurora, Minnesota, which is shaken when Cork and his friend find the body of a town resident hanging from a tree.

The man was a well-known Native American in town, and while every sign points to suicide, his friends and relatives insist otherwise. They quickly become angry that Cork’s father is only interested in the facts he sees, and doesn’t believe it could have been murder. But Cork and his friends feel a responsibility to try and find out what happened, and it’s not long before father and son find themselves in the midst of a mystery with possibly dangerous ramifications.

I eagerly anticipated Lightning Strike and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. I love the way Krueger tells a story, the way he meshes emotion, narrative, and historical details. Even though this is a prequel to a series, it’s fine to read as a standalone, although if you’re like me, you’ll want to dive in to the whole series afterward!

I so loved this.

Book Review: "So We Meet Again" by Suzanne Park

Suzanne Park's latest rom-com, So We Meet Again, is a sweet story about family, revenge, and romance that will leave you hungry!

The last person Jessie Kim was expecting to see was her high school nemesis, Daniel Choi, who used to call her “Messy Jessie.” And wouldn’t you know it that when they ran into each other, he’d grown into an absolute hunk and she looked like, well, Messy Jessie?

But what can you expect when you’ve had to move home to Tennessee with your parents after getting laid off from your investment banking job? While she tries to figure out what her next steps are, she decides to resurrect her Korean cooking channel on YouTube, where she shares cooking and meal-prep tips for busy people.

Of course, the road to success isn’t as smooth as she thought. While an unexpected collaboration with Daniel might actually prove valuable, she’s totally forgotten how overbearing her parents—especially her mother—can be.

When Daniel takes another job, she doesn’t realize how close to home it will hit—and what will it mean for her future, and maybe a future with him?

The truth is, So We Meet Again is a lot more fiction than the rom-com I expected. It’s focused more on the relationship between Jessie and her mom as well as a look at topics like racism and sexism in the workplace. But it’s still funny and adorable and sweet, and I’m still crushing on Daniel.

Thanks to Avon Books for the complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "Affliction: Growing Up with a Closeted Gay Dad" by Laura Hall

Affliction: Growing Up with a Closeted Gay Dad is a poignant, thought-provoking memoir about the effects of a man’s hidden sexuality on his family.

Laura and her siblings loved to hear her parents talk about their romantic first meeting and whirlwind courtship at the cusp of WWII. But as she grew older, she realized there were many things different about her father and her parents’ marriage, many questions that were never answered to her satisfaction.

In 1975, when Laura was a 24-year-old mother on the verge of a second divorce, she was trying to figure out why she had trouble with commitment and fidelity. She suspected her father had been a womanizer through her life, and it impacted her and the way she viewed love, fidelity, and commitment. But when she asked her father whether he cheated on her mother, his answer surprised her: he was gay.

Laura Hall’s tremendously powerful memoir is the story of a man forced into a different life than the one he wanted, and the impact of that decision and his struggles with living the life he chose despite his desires. It’s also a look at the way gay people were treated during those times, how following their heart and libido could ruin their lives for good and, of course, endanger their safety.

The book also looks at her parents’ relationship through the years, how it changed and fractured and was rebuilt as both tried to come to terms with her father’s desire to live as his true self. At the same time, it’s an account of how our parents’ lives impact the way we grow up and pursue relationships of our own.

Affliction really moved me. I know there was a time in the late 80s/early 90s as I was struggling with my own sexuality that I wondered whether I should try to live a “normal life” instead of acknowledging the reality of being gay. I’m glad I didn’t but I understand why so many men and women made the decision to hide their true selves and live a life that was more acceptable to society and those around them, at least in those days.

Thanks to Laura Hall and She Writes Press for the complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Book Review: "Objects of Desire: Stories" by Clare Sestanovich

Clare Sestanovich's debut collection, Objects of Desire, features 11 short stories about the fragile connections we have with others.

Relationships—romantic, familial, friendly. If they didn’t exist and didn’t malfunction every now and again, would books and movies even exist?

Relationships are at the core of this story collection. A young woman meets a couple on an airplane and they stay in her mind long after. As a woman prepares for her son to get married, her own life and marriage go off track.

Sadly, this collection really didn’t work for me. I kept waiting to connect with a story and they all just fell really flat for me. I love short stories and while I don't love all collections, I usually can find at least a few that resonate. I’ve seen a few tremendously positive reviews of this, so maybe it’s me and not the book.

Oh, well. Onto the next!

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Book Review: "The Survivors" by Alex Schulman

The Survivors is, to put it simply, dark, mysterious, sad, and a little bewildering.

Three brothers—Nils, Benjamin, and Pierre—gather at the lakeside cottage where their family used to spend summers. It’s been years since they’ve been there, but their mother requested her ashes be spread there.

When they were children, the cottage was both an idyllic getaway and a form of torture. Close in age, the brothers both played together and fought tooth and nail, competing for their father’s attention and their mother’s mercurial love. But a tragic accident shattered the tranquility and caused reverberations that affected all of them, particularly Benjamin.

What happened that day? How did everything go so wrong from there? Over the course of a day, old wounds will be reopened, old fights rehashed, and memories will try and be reinterpreted.

The Survivors is the first book of Alex Schulman's, a bestselling Swedish author, to be published internationally. It’s told in a unique style, alternating between past and present, with the chapters taking place in the present going backward in time. It makes things a little confusing to process.

The reveal about the big incident is definitely a sucker punch, as I felt it came out of nowhere, but it was sad, too, as ramifications of it were explored. This was an interesting story but a little too opaque and meandering for me.

Thanks to Doubleday Books for the complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review! The Survivors publishes 10/5.

Book Review: "We Were Never Here" by Andrea Bartz

As if I needed more reasons not to go hiking? Now there's Andrea Bartz's new thriller, We Were Never Here.

Emily and Kristen have been best friends since college. Kristen has always been there for Emily, helping to try and shake her out of her routines and build her self-confidence. But now that Kristen is living in Australia and Emily is still in Wisconsin, both are looking forward to their annual reunion trip.

This year they go to Chile to go backpacking. On the last night of the trip, Kristen goes back to their hotel with a handsome backpacker she picks up at a bar. When Emily goes back to their room a little while later she finds Kristen covered in blood, broken glass everywhere. Kristen says the backpacker attacked her so she had no excuse but to kill him to ensure her safety.

Emily is shaken by the scene in front of her. She immediately snaps into action to help Kristen. But what floors her is that last year, when they were in Cambodia, Emily was attacked by a hiker she picked up in a bar, and the same thing happened. Is it possible they both could have experienced an identical incident?

After the trip, they go their separate ways and Emily tries to put what happened behind her and concentrate on her new boyfriend. She is thrown when Kristen shows up in Milwaukee, and Emily starts to wonder what Kristen wants from her and whether she has to fear her friend.

I felt the tension in We Were Never Here right away, and even though I’ve seen similar stories, I needed to see how Bartz would tie everything up. There were a few surprises and one thing in the story definitely piqued my curiosity.

I felt like the pace slowed down in the middle but as the book got closer to the end, wow! Bartz really gets you hooked on unlikeable characters.

Thanks to BookSparks, Andrea Bartz, and Ballantine Books for providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review as part of #SRC2021!

Book Review: "An Unexpected Kind of Love" by Hayden Stone

Hayden Stone's An Unexpected Kind of Love is a sweet, romantic, steamy love story that kind of undid me.

Most of Aubrey’s life is focused on running his small London bookshop. The stresses of keeping his family’s struggling business alive are overwhelming, but it gives him less time to dwell on his loneliness since his long-term relationship with his boyfriend ended.

When Blake, an American actor filming in London, comes into the shop, Aubrey is flustered, both by his handsomeness and Blake’s desire to return a poetry book because of the poet’s antics online. Their next unexpected encounter, in a trailer on the film set, ignites a fire in both of them.

When the film crew asks to use Aubrey’s shop as a location for the film, at first he wants nothing to do with it. But when it means he'll be paid money he so desperately needs, and give him the chance to be around Blake, he reluctantly agrees. The two begin falling hard for each other, even though they know ultimately, Blake will need to return to America.

Despite their obvious connection, Aubrey can’t seem to believe he’s worthy of Blake, and Blake isn’t quite ready to be publicly out, due to how it might affect his career and his relationship with his family. Will they have a chance at happiness or will obstacles doom it?

This reminded me a tiny bit of Notting Hill (I may have uttered Julia Roberts’ “I’m just a girl…” speech a few times) but it has a charm and a spark all its own. I loved the chemistry between Blake and Aubrey, I loved the banter with the supporting characters, and I was there for all of the steam!!

An Unexpected Kind of Love was my monthly buddy read with my friend Louis, and we both loved it—and it made both of us cry!!

Book Review: "Yoga Pant Nation" by Laurie Gelman

If you want a humorous look at how one woman balances it all when everything happens at once, check out Laurie Gelman's newest novel, Yoga Pant Nation.

Jen Dixon from Gelman's Class Mom and You’ve Been Volunteered is back for another year as class mom. It’s the last year for her to do this, since her son is in 5th grade and heads to middle school next year.

As she tackles her responsibilities with her usual sarcastic flair, she also finds herself getting roped into heading up a major fundraising effort for the school, leading a task force she’s named WeFUCKT—We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team.

Beyond that, though, life is getting out of control. She’s trying to gain traction as a spin instructor, her adult daughter is in the midst of a custody battle, her own parents are suddenly acting strangely and having delusions, and she and her husband are trying to figure out whether their son is being bullied or is actually being the bully.

It’s a lot to handle, even for someone who tends to let everything bounce off of her. But when everything comes to a head at once, what’s a multitasking mom to do?

I’ve definitely enjoyed this series of books and Jen is a great character. I felt like in Yoga Pant Nation she was a little less flippant and sarcastic, and it was a great balance between snark and seriousness. There were times in the other books I wondered whether someone would actually send emails like the ones Jen did, but this seemed a bit more realistic.

While this is a series, you could read any of the books as a standalone. It was great to see Jen grow alongside her son!

Book Review: "Busy Ain't the Half of It" by Frederick Smith and Chaz Lamar Cruz

Frederick Smith and Chaz Lamar Cruz's Busy Ain't the Half of It is a sexy, thought-provoking, emotional story about two queer Black men struggling with career and romantic crises and seeking their happy endings.

Justin and Elijah are uncle and nephew, but they’re close enough in age that their relationship is that of both father figure/son and friend.

Justin is a successful news anchor raising teenage twins while trying to navigate being a comfortably gay man in the public eye. Elijah is trying to get some traction in his acting career and enjoying his first really serious relationship.

But when new management at the network wants to replace Justin, and Elijah’s boyfriend wants to take the next step in their relationship, both men will face questions about what they want from their future, their men, their friends, and their lives.

I really enjoyed this book and these characters. They’re cocky and vulnerable, brash and sensitive. There’s drama and joy, love and chaos. I don’t find a lot of books with queer Black men at their core, so this was a good read, and it reminded me a little bit of the novels of E. Lynn Harris, which I used to read.

Thanks to Pride Book Tours and Bold Strokes Books for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Friday, August 20, 2021

Book Review: "Confess" by Colleen Hoover

Colleen Hoover's book Confess is about the sacrifices we make for those we love.

Auburn was 15 when the love of her life died of a terminal illness. Now nearly 6 years later, she’s left her home and family in Portland and moved to Dallas. She hates her job (and isn’t much good at it), she knows few people, and she’s desperate to make ends meet. But she knows what she wants and is determined to get it.

When she sees a sign outside an art gallery advertising a job, she’s intrigued. And when she meets Owen, the artist, she’s even more intrigued. He paints pictures based on people’s anonymous confessions that they leave at the gallery door. Some are scandalous, some are sensual, and some are sad.

Auburn and Owen feel an intense, almost all-consuming attraction to one another. Both have secrets, particularly Owen, and the secrets he is hiding threaten any chance of a future with Auburn. But if he confesses, it could destroy everything Auburn wants most in the world.

Few people do all-consuming, heartbreaking insta-love as well as Colleen Hoover. This book was sad and had lots of twists and turns, many of which I wasn’t expecting, and I was totally hooked. It’s been a while since I’ve read one of her romance books and I’d forgotten how they stir up my emotions.

What’s interesting about a number of Hoover’s books is how young the characters actually are, but there’s no intense relationship quite like those when we’re young. Confess was definitely a love story with characters to root for. I love CoHo!!

Book Review: "Once There Were Wolves" by Charlotte McConaghy

Once There Were Wolves, Charlotte McConaghy's latest novel, is a beautiful, haunting look at the destructive effects we can have on the environment and each other.

In addition to being so beautifully written, Charlotte McConaghy’s books are tremendously thought-provoking. Her first book, Migrations, was among the best books I read last year and I won’t be surprised if this book makes this year’s list.

It’s a time in the not-too-distant future when there are few wolves left in the world. Inti is part of a team of biologists who travel to the Scottish highlands to reintroduce 14 wolves into the wild. (Wolves are important to the ecosystem; without predators like them the deer population gets overgrown and they eat all the plants, meaning birds and insects needed to pollinate could go instinct.)

The Scottish people are unhappy about the wolves as they understandably fear for their safety, but wolves don’t attack unless provoked. But when there is a death in town, Inti knows the wolves will be blamed, and she fights to defend them. Could she be wrong, or could it be worse—is there a killer on the loose?

Inti has her own secrets and scars, which cause her to lash out impulsively at times. She also has something called mirror-touch synesthesia, which means that when she’s close to a person or thing, she can quite literally feel their pain. It’s a difficult way to live.

The story flashes back between Inti’s childhood, her time in Alaska where things happened to her and her sister, and the present. This is a violent book at times and those triggered by discussions of rape and violence may find this troubling.

The pacing of Once There Were Wolves is a little slow to start but it’s just such a gorgeous story of redemption and hope—for nature and for humans.

Book Review: "Signs We Don't See" by Carrie Beamer

Signs We Don't See was a sweet, emotional YA romance that had me smiling, tearing up, and even feeling a little hungry.

Etta doesn’t want a lot—she wants to do well in school and ultimately become a chef. But when her father’s mental state begins slipping again, and he starts collecting signs from in front of buildings and houses and bringing them home instead of looking for a job, she has to become the responsible one, making sure bills get paid and that there’s food for her parents to eat.

While she’s worrying about whether all of the signs her father is bringing home are going to cause issues with their neighbors—or even the police—she’s utterly unprepared for the attentions of Jordan, a popular, wealthy classmate whose friends often insult Etta and her best friend, Nessa.

Etta can’t understand why someone like Jordan would be interested in her but his attention seems genuine. But as her father’s condition worsens, Jordan starts disappearing from school and won’t explain what’s going on. When she discovers he’s lying to her and avoiding her, she realizes he must have a secret he feels he can’t confide in her. But isn’t she doing the same with him?

“I’ll never understand why we cover up pain and hide it from the ones we love. Being ashamed of fear and pain has got to be the stupidest human emotion we have.”

Taking place in the late 1980s, this book had a little bit of a Pretty in Pink-type feel in the rich/poor thing but it was a story all its own, full of rich emotion, loyal friends, and characters you root for. I love that Carrie Beamer didn’t take the easy way out with the plot, making it a story worth savoring.

Thanks so much to Carrie Beamer for the complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!! It was wonderful, and I can’t wait to read her other one.

Book Review: "Hostage" by Clare Mackintosh

Like we needed something else to worry about when boarding a flight? Now we have Clare Mackintosh's new locked-room thriller, Hostage.

It’s the inaugural nonstop flight between London and Sydney. Twenty hours long. Mina, a flight attendant on that flight, is a little worried about leaving her troubled five-year-old daughter Sophie, especially with her husband, from whom she’s separated, but she really doesn’t have a choice.

And then she is passed a note: “The following instructions will save your daughter’s life.”

If Mina doesn’t help a group of passengers hijack the plane, her daughter will die. She knows the thread is real. But of course, if she helps the group hijack the flight, everyone on board, including her, will die. What choice does she have? And who on board is involved with the hijackers?

I read Falling earlier this summer, so this is the second hijacked plane thriller I’ve read in a few months. They’re very different although reading both has made me even more reluctant to fly than I already was!!

Mackintosh is a terrific thriller writer, and this, well, takes off pretty quickly and throws in lots of twists and turns along the way, especially at the end. The alternating narrators provide interesting perspectives into the parallel drama happening in the air and on the ground.

The thing with hijack dramas is the reason for them happening always irritates me a bit. At times the pacing of book got a little slower than I would’ve liked given what was going on, but ultimately Hostage was quite a rollercoaster.

If you’re looking for a nail-biter, here you go!! Just don’t pack it in your suitcase…

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Book Review: "The Magic of Found Objects" by Maddie Dawson

Sometimes love is worth risking it all for. At least that's the message of Maddie Dawson's newest book, The Magic of Found Objects.

Phronsie and her brother Hendrix were conceived at Woodstock, the product of a liaison between their free-spirited hippie mother and the practical son of a farmer. But the magic her mother espoused never really worked for Phronsie, so she lives a practical life. She’s not unhappy but there’s nothing she’s passionate about.

When her childhood best friend proposes marriage, saying that love between friends would be more secure than a relationship based on passion, she agrees. Why waste more time searching for something that might not ultimately work, when they get so much joy from their friendship?

No sooner does Phronsie agree to Judd’s proposal than someone new comes into her life, someone she feels could be her true love. Should she do the practical thing, like Judd and her stepmother think she should, or should she follow the magic her mother is putting out in the universe and wait for true love? What do you think will happen?

Dawson knows how to tell a story. Her characters are so appealing, you want to be friends with them, and she makes you believe love is possible. I really enjoyed this story so much!

Thanks to Suzy Approved Book Tours, Maddie Dawson, and Lake Union Publishing for inviting me on the blog tour and providing me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Book Review: "Blackout" by Marco Carocari

You never know where a casual hookup might lead…

This really has been the year of the gay thriller—two of my favorite reads this year have been es, Daddy and Bath Haus, and while Blackout, Marco Carocari’s debut, isn’t as intense as those, it’s still a really good addition to the genre.

One night Franco decides to meet a hookup on the rooftop of his NYC apartment. They smoke a joint and get down to business, only they don’t get too far, because Franco suddenly feels weird after smoking. And in his daze, he swears he sees in a window of another apartment building a guy getting murdered by another man.

Of course, when the police arrive they don’t believe Franco, both because he appears to be on drugs (what was in that joint?) and they can’t find a body or a murder scene. But when a philanthropist’s mutilated body is found a few days later, it turns out Franco knew the man—and suddenly he’s the prime suspect. And even worse, the only person who can give him an alibi is the guy he hooked up with, and he was anonymous for a reason.

In the midst of all of this, Franco is plagued by memories of his policeman father’s murder in front of him 40 years before. When new details surface about that murder, the connections to this current crime make Franco’s guilt seem even more obvious. It’s up to him to clear his name and figure out exactly why his father was killed—if he doesn’t get killed first.

Part crime novel, part thriller, I thought Blackout was a really compelling story. It’s a little of a slow burn at first but when it gets going it really picks up steam. Definitely a terrific debut!!

Book Review: "The View Was Exhausting" by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta

When Taylor Jenkins Reid calls a book “a pure delight,” you listen. Boy, did I love this romantic, soapy story of a couple whose on-again, off-again relationship keeps the public utterly captivated!

“The world thought Win had the perfect love story with the perfect man, passionate and devoted, always breathless, always in the honeymoon stage, stormy and on-again, off-again but still that strange, magical thing: true love. But Win had something better than that. She had a friend, and a secret.”

Whitman “Win” Tagore is a beautiful British Indian actress whose talent is mesmerizing. She burst on the scene as a teenager and has had a successful career, but hasn’t quite reached the heights she deserves because the film industry has impossible expectations for an actress of color.

Sometimes the stress gets to her and publicity turns against her. And that’s when she turns to Leo Milanowski, the playboy heir to a hotel fortune, who at times is followed by his own cloud of trouble and ennui. The two have been romantically linked numerous times, and whenever they’re together their romance lifts both of them out of whatever scandal either faces and distracts the public into buying into their love story.

But while their romance is for show, there’s no denying the pull they feel for one another. And when Leo finds himself in the midst of a real scandal it threatens to undo everything—and it forces them to realize what’s real and what’s for show.

I thought The View Was Exhausting was just excellent. I love “Hollywood” novels even if this didn’t take place in Hollywood, and I thought it raised some interesting discussion about racism in the film industry. I was utterly captivated from start to finish!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Book Review: "Immediate Family" by Ashley Nelson Levy

Ashley Nelson Levy's Immediate Family is a thought-provoking story of family, memory, and the bond between siblings.

The younger brother of an unnamed narrator asks her to give a toast at his wedding. Close while they were growing up despite the six-year difference in age, a rift has come between them in recent years.⁣

As the narrator tries to figure out what she wants to say in her speech she tells the story of their family. Her brother was adopted from Thailand when she was nine and he was three. She talks about traveling their with her parents to Thailand to get him, the stresses and worries they dealt with, and the struggles Danny faced growing up Asian in a white family.

Immediate Family is, in essence, a long letter from the narrator to her brother, chronicling their relationship as they grew older and the frictions their family experienced. But more than that, the letter details secrets she has kept, about the struggles she and her husband have experienced with fertility and the strains that is causing on their marriage.

This is an interesting and emotional story, but because it’s told in the second person, it often feels like you’re viewing it from a distance. There are some interesting narrative choices that the author makes—at times the narrator refers to her husband as “my husband” but at times, when she’s addressing her brother, she says “your brother-in-law.”

The author’s prose is spare and poetic, peppered with literary references and snippets from Danny’s adoption case file. All in all, it’s a unique read that shows how similar and how different each family’s struggles can be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Book Review: "All the Lonely People" by Mike Gayle

All the Lonely People (not the Beatles' song) is emotional, thought-provoking, and heartwarming.

Hubert Bird has a full life. He and his best friends, Dotty, Dennis, and Harvey, are always up to some kind of shenanigans.

At least that’s what he tells his daughter Rose when she calls each week from Australia. The truth is, other than trips to the store and the vet for his cat, he barely sees or speaks to anyone. Dotty, Dennis, and Harvey don't even exist. Hubert is tremendously lonely, but he can’t let Rose know or she’ll worry.

But when Rose announces she’ll be visiting from Australia in a few months’ time and can’t wait to meet and spend time with Hubert’s friends, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. Does he tell her the truth or does he spend the next few months trying to build the life he said he had?

With the help of a young single mother named Ashleigh and her daughter, Hubert will start to realize he’s not the only lonely person out there, and that loneliness isn’t anything to be ashamed of. But he’ll also need to come to terms with the things that led him to seek isolation, and figure out if it’s too late for him to start again.

I worried this would be another curmudgeon-becomes-cuddly story, but there’s so much more to this book than that. I love the way Mike Gayle tackled the idea of loneliness as it touches people of all ages, not just the elderly.

The story shifts between the past, starting with Hubert’s coming to London from Jamaica many years before, and the present. All the Lonely People is a tearjerker for sure but not overly maudlin.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Book Review: "Fresh" by Margot Wood

Fresh, Margot Wood's debut novel, is a fun, sensitive, diverse, sex-positive YA novel about the craziness of freshman year of college.

“Hey, hi, hello there. My name is Elliot McHugh, I’m eighteen years old and hail from Cincinnati; I’m a Leo, a (mostly) chaotic-good extrovert, a freshman at Emerson College in Boston, and I have no idea what the hell I am doing right now.”

From the very start of this book, you know that Elliot, the main character, isn’t anywhere near as together as she thinks or hopes she is. But that’s doesn’t stop her from faking it as hard as she can.

She doesn’t have any idea what she wants to do with her future, unlike many of her classmates, so she chooses to focus on the good stuff—parties, hooking up, and…hooking up. Of course, it’s only so long before the reality of college comes back around to hit you in the face, and Elliot realizes that relationships (with friends, and those from whom you want more) aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, and partying all the time doesn’t help your GPA much.

I thought Fresh was such a fun book that hit home more than a few times for me. I remember freshman year of college and wanting desperately to fit in and make the kinds of friends I’d have forever. I also remember the freedom of not being monitored by anyone and how no one cared if you didn’t do your homework or show up for class—until you realized your grades suffered.

Elliot was such a hot mess and I totally rooted for her to get her happy ending. There was so much to love about this book, especially the diversity. I loved everything except the footnotes. I really HATE fiction that uses footnotes because it’s so distracting. (Oh, and the use of the phrase “tender chicken,” which almost made me hurl.)

This definitely was a fun, memorable read that reminded me of how far I’ve come!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Book Review: "If the Shoe Fits" by Julie Murphy

Julie Murphy's new rom-com asks the question, Can a real happy ending be found on reality television?

So here’s a question: is a “Cinderella story” the same as a retelling of Cinderella? Because while I’ve heard If the Shoe Fits called a retelling, it’s perhaps one in the loosest sense, but that doesn’t detract from its charm.

Cindy is an aspiring shoe designer with a passion for fashion, but as a plus-sized woman, she’s often frustrated by the lack of options she has. With no real career prospects on the horizon, she moves home to live with her stepmother, a famous reality show producer, to help care for her three young half-siblings.

When a contestant is needed on her stepmother’s most famous dating show, Cindy decides to take the chance and fill in. She can show off her fashion sense and maybe jumpstart her career. What she doesn’t expect is that she’ll capture the hearts of the viewing public because of her size and her clothes.

To her surprise, she finds herself actually falling for the show’s eligible bachelor, and she deals with jealous and competitive contestants and the manipulation that comes from “reality” television. But in the end, will the show allow someone like her to get her happy ending, or does she need to go after it herself?

If the Shoe Fits was a sweet story, a kinder, gentler version of the spectacular One to Watch, which was one of my favorites last year. Murphy’s writing is always so positive and charming, but not really focusing on much of the negatives that a plus-size contestant would actually face on a show like this made the book seem more like a fairytale. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Book Review: "Mona at Sea" by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Mona at Sea is a funny and sometimes poignant story about a young woman who needs to find a new direction in life.

“I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself. I sing myself to sleep with these facts every night.”

Mona worked hard in college. She was valedictorian, she made all the right choices and connections, and landed her dream job at a prestigious bank. But in the financial crisis of 2008, nothing works out as planned, and her job is over before it begins when the bank has to be bailed out.

Left with no other choice, she goes home to live with her parents and lick her wounds. It isn’t easy—she’s realizing her parents don’t like each other much (if at all), and she has to deal with finding a job, any job, just to get by.

How do you reconcile things when life doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would? How do you consider a relationship if you’re dissatisfied with yourself and your life?

I definitely identified with some of this book because when I graduated from college there was another financial crisis (not the Great Depression, thank you) and jobs weren’t around either. Recalibration was definitely necessary.

I thought Mona at Sea was a funny and thought-provoking book. I wasn’t immediately wild about Mona but I liked the arc her character took.

Thanks to BookSparks and Elizabeth Gonzalez James for the complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review, as part of #SRC2021!

Book Review: "Ghosts" by Dolly Alderton

Dolly Alderton's debut novel is a funny, poignant story about relationships, family, and finding your way.

Nina is 32. She’s a successful food writer whose second book is about to be published. She’s fine being single, but as all of her friends increasingly are getting married and having children, she starts to wonder if she should care more about it.

She downloads a dating app, and after conversations with men that go nowhere (and take days to unfold), she meets Max. He’s handsome, smart, stable, and they find themselves falling for each other. And then, without warning, he ghosts her.

Without Max to spend time with, Nina suddenly has to confront the other problems in her life—she’s being constantly treated poorly by people because she’s not married with children, she’s feuding with her neighbor, her best friend has become utterly unreasonable, and her father’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, and her mother doesn’t seem to be handling it well.

As she tries to make sense of her life and finding peace among the chaos, she starts to wonder about what her life holds. Ghosts is a sometimes funny, sometimes emotional, and quite relatable story about the messiness of life and how not to lose your way in the middle of it all.

I really enjoyed this book, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while and then my friend Lindsay jostled my memory! Nina is far from perfect but she’s a terrific character to root for and wonder along with her about the crazy people who surround her, and what her future might look like.

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

Book Review: "In My Dreams I Hold a Knife" by Ashley Winstead

Newsflash: In My Dreams I Hold a Knife is one of the best, most addicting thrillers I’ve read all year!!

I’ve been so excited about this book for weeks now—next to For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing (another absolute must-read) it might have been my most anticipated thriller of the year. Did it live up to my expectations? Yes, yes, hell yes!

They were called the “East House 7”—a group of popular best friends at Duquette University. They were always in the public eye, and they had inseparable bonds. But near the end of senior year one of them was murdered and another was accused, and things were never quite the same between them.

Now, five of them are returning to Duquette for their 10-year reunion. But as much as they’d like to put the past behind them and show off their current selves—no one more than Jessica, who felt she didn't ever get all she deserved—someone is determined to unmask the real killer from among the remaining friends and won’t stop until they do.

As the story—which alternates between past and present and is narrated at one point by many of the friends—unfolds, secrets will be revealed, grudges will be unearthed, and old scars will be reopened. Those carefree days of college, where they felt on top of the world, were also some of the worst days for some of them.

This book was amazing from start to finish. I sat down to read, took a dinner break, and then read the rest of it. I love stories about old friends coming together when there are secrets to deal with, and I thought the characters were so well-drawn. You know how critical I am with thrillers, but this was FANTASTIC.

Book Review: "Nobody, Somebody, Anybody" by Kelly McClorey

Kelly McClorey's debut novel is a quirky, heartfelt story about a socially awkward, lonely young woman.

At the end of August, Amy is scheduled to take the exam to become an EMT. She’s hoping the third time taking the exam will prove successful so she can essentially start a new phase of her life. In the meantime, she works as a chambermaid at a yacht club. It’s a demeaning job, but she doesn’t mind—she sees it as a noble service she provides the guests.

Apart from Roula, the exacting head housekeeper, and her flaky boss, Amy essentially talks to no one. She has her study guide and her Florence Nightingale book for company. But when Gary, her landlord, asks if she would sample his cooking skills before his Ukrainian fiancée comes to America, she jumps at the chance for companionship.

As the summer progresses, Amy becomes increasingly nervous about the exam, so she creates a program to trick her into thinking she already passed, which blurs the lines of her reality a bit. And as she spends more time with Gary, she increasingly begins thinking in ways she shouldn’t, even though she knows everything will change when his fiancée arrives.

Have you ever read a book with a character whose behavior is so awkward it makes you cringe, and almost feel bad for them? Nobody, Somebody, Anybody is that kind of book. Amy is lonely but Amy is odd, and it’s a chicken-egg thing that made me think. I found myself reading like I was watching a horror movie, just waiting for something awful to happen.

This was a well-written book but Amy’s behavior both made her sympathetic and kept her at arm’s length. Definitely one that would be good for a book group, because you'll want to talk about it with someone!!

Book Review: "Happy Endings" by Thien-Kim Lam

Happy Endings, the debut novel from Thien-Kim Lam, is a second-chance romance that will leave you hungry. (For what, I won’t say.)

It’s amazing, this is the second rom-com I’ve read in the last few months which has selling sex toys as part of the plot. And the steam in this one? Woo, boy. 🔥

Trixie Nguyen is determined to prove to her parents and herself that she can make it in the sex toy business, not quite the traditional career path for a Vietnamese woman. She’s ready for a fresh start in Washington, DC—and then she encounters her ex, Andre Walker, who dumped her when they lived in New Orleans. With a Post-it.

The last thing Andre is expecting is to see Trixie again. He’s trying to save his family’s soul food restaurant, but he can’t stop thinking about her. Both are in desperate need of a win, so they put the past behind them and team up, creating a pop-up sex toy shop in the restaurant. And business umm, grows, for both.

But when Trixie gets a great opportunity, what will taking it mean for her relationship with Andre? Do they even have a relationship or do they want one? Will they be able to be honest with one another and rid themselves of their past baggage once and for all?

This was a steamy and fun rom-com. I enjoy second-chance love stories and love non-traditional couples. Thanks to Avon Books for the complimentary copy of Happy Endings in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Monday, August 2, 2021

Book Review: "Grenade Bouquets" by Lee Matthew Goldberg

A teenage girl learns that chasing after your dreams can have a downside in Grenade Bouquets, the second book in Lee Matthew Goldberg's Runaway Train series.

Having read Goldberg’s earlier book, Runaway Train, I was excited to read the sequel. But perhaps what excited me even more was to discover that the book’s epigraph was the first stanzas of a poem (Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode) which contains one of my favorite lines of all time, “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams.” So cool!!

It’s 1995 and Nico has finally pulled herself together a bit after spiraling out of control following the sudden death of her sister. She’s convinced her parents to let her spend the summer touring the country as a backup singer for her boyfriend Evan’s band, Grenade Bouquets.

The thrill of performing onstage is like a dream for Nico, and her presence and her one solo start to get the band increased attention. Before they know it, doors are open to the band that previously were closed, but it’s Nico that is becoming the focus, which doesn’t sit well with the other members, especially Clarissa, the lead singer and Evan’s ex.

Nico starts to discover the downside of being a musician, too. Not only is the band a hotbed of tension which she tries to avoid by drinking excessively, but the stress is also affecting her relationship with Evan. She’s also still grieving her sister and having issues with her best friend back at home. It’s a lot for anyone to take, much less a teenager.

I’ve really enjoyed these books. Goldberg so effectively captures the 1995 setting (all of the chapter titles are song titles from that period) and he does a great job conveying the feelings and actions of a teenage girl. Nico isn’t the easiest character to love, however, and she and her friends make some really impulsive decisions, so it’s essentially like hanging out with teenagers at times, lol.

Thanks to Suzy Approved Book Tours, Lee Matthew Goldberg, and Wise Wolf Books for inviting me on the tour and providing a complimentary advance copy of Grenade Bouquets in exchange for an unbiased review!

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Book Review: "Sail Away" by Ashley Farley

Ashley Farley's latest women's fiction novel, Sail Away, is a powerful, beautiful novel about friendship and chosen family set with a gorgeous setting.

Through my good fortune of partnering with Kate Rock Book Tours I’ve been introduced to some fantastic authors. But my favorite among them has been Ashley Farley. She tells great stories with characters you’d want to be friends with, set in places you wish you were. This was the ninth book of hers I’ve read and she keeps getting better.

In this third full novel of Farley’s Palmetto Island series, a few of the characters from the previous books find themselves at a crossroads. One is dealing with the combination of joy and stress involved with planning her wedding, one is trying to recover from PTSD after escaping an abusive marriage, and one is trying to achieve career success while figuring out what’s next for her life.

When a new woman comes to the island with her daughter in tow, she’s in need of more help than she’s willing to admit. But how can she find the support and love she needs before it’s too late?

Sail Away is a great book, full of strong women who ultimately realize that they can’t solve their problems alone. These aren’t damsels in distress but they’re willing to come to each other’s rescue and even ask for help when they need it the most.

Farley is a born storyteller, and she can create images in your head that will leave you longing to pack your suitcase and head to these fictional places. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Thanks to Kate Rock Book Tours for inviting me on the tour and providing me with a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!