Monday, February 28, 2022

Book Review: "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris

Kai Harris' latest novel is a poignant, emotional coming-of-age story.

KB (short for Kenyatta Bernice) is nearly 11 years old and growing up in Detroit in the mid-1990s. She wants to be treated as older than she is and always wants to know what’s going on around her, but she’s utterly unprepared for the death of her father due to a drug overdose.

Unable to cope, KB’s mother sends her and her teenage sister Nia to spend the summer in Lansing with their estranged grandfather. KB is having trouble making sense of her drastically changed world, from wondering why their mother left and whether she’ll ever come back, to trying to understand her grandfather’s mercurial moods. More than that, she’s losing her connection with Nia, who believes she’s more mature than she is and doesn’t have patience to be saddled with her immature little sister.

At the same time, KB has to deal with the fickle nature of the kids across the street, who often aren’t allowed to play with her, and the unwanted attention of others when she tries to act older. It’s a summer of laughter and tears, fears and victories, a summer of learning things about her mother—and herself—that she never knew.

“In life, we’re going to get hurt. If we stay focused on that hurt, and nothing else, then we won’t ever be able to heal. But if we focus on the healing, well, then we’ll start to notice that hurt disappear. It’s all a matter of what you choose to focus on.”

What the Fireflies Knew was one of my February Book of the Month picks, and I thought it was sweet, sad at times, and inspiring, too. I enjoy coming-of-age novels, and this is a worthy new inclusion to the genre.

Book Review: "Ready to Rumba" by Megan Walker and Janci Patterson

Why is it you always find someone irresistible the minute you swear off dating? The main character in Ready to Rumba wants to know the answer to that question!

Nicole, or Nix, is an amazing ballroom dancer and she’s trying to bring her dance studio to the next level. But while she’s an excellent dancer and choreographer, she’s not been successful at all in the romance department.

Every guy she dates turns out to be a nightmare—they say she texts too much, doesn’t want sex enough, is obsessed with childish things, etc. So she vows to stay away from dating and sex and concentrate on her dancers’ upcoming European tour. She even bets her sister that she can go without sex for four months.

And on the first day of the tour she winds up stuck in an elevator with Marcus, the hot dancer from the rival studio. He’s exceptionally talented but he’s never struck Nix as particularly outgoing—but that all changes while they’re trapped. Suddenly they’re both overwhelmed by their chemistry together, although they both know what trouble their getting together might cause for their studios.

Nix and Marcus decide to dance together in an exhibition, but keep their practices secret. And of course, they can’t keep their hands off each other. Convinced the relationship will eventually implode, Nix decides to throw all of her crazy quirks—and then some—at Marcus all at once. She’ll see how quickly he runs from her and she can avoid heartbreak.

But of course, relationships never quite go the way you expect them to. Not when dishonesty and manipulative partners are in play. Do Nix and Marcus have a shot at a real, genuine partnership—on and off the dance floor? This is a STEAMY, fun, emotional book that had me laughing out loud.

Thanks to Megan Walker for the complimentary copy of Ready to Rumba in exchange for an unbiased review. I really enjoyed this!

Book Review: "The Recovery Agent" by Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich's The Recovery Agent takes you on a search for priceless treasure in the South American jungle and it is a fun, sexy romp.

True confession: I’ve never read any of Evanovich’s mystery series featuring Stephanie Plum. I’ve always meant to and I have heard they’re fun, but there are so many of them it’s a little intimidating to jump right in. But when I was offered the chance to read the first book in her new series, I jumped at it.

If you’re missing something, Gabriela Rose can find it. Whether it’s a family heirloom, money, even a person, she’s willing to brave any terrain, and kick ass if she needs to, in order to recover that asset. She’s comfortable around weapons, too—and how can you not love a recovery agent whose role model is Scrooge McDuck?

Her latest mission is to recover the Ring of Solomon and the lost treasure of Cortez. She’s not even sure this treasure exists, but her grandmother insists it does (a ghost told her so), and Gabriela's family needs it to save their homes and their small South Carolina town. But first she needs to recover the treasure map, which is supposedly buried underneath a house in the Caribbean which she used to own—a house that now belongs to her ex-husband, Rafer.

When they find the treasure map, Rafer insists that he accompany Gabs (she hates when he calls her that) to the Peruvian jungle. He drives her crazy—they can’t keep from getting under each other’s skin—but he’s a perfect match for her. And she’ll need all the help she can get, to brave treacherous terrain, possible dangerous legends, and an evil drug lord willing to kill anyone who stands in the way of his getting the Ring of Solomon.

If you like Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Treasure, and other treasure hunt-type stories, this is a fun romp. Gabriela and Rafer have excellent chemistry, and there’s humor and suspense to boot. I flew through this!

Thanks so much to Atria Books for the complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

The Recovery Agent publishes 3/22.

Book Review: "Cinderella is Dead" by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead is a unique and empowering retelling of the classic fairytale.

The kingdom of Lille was where Cinderella met her prince more than 200 years ago. And although true love ignited the flame back then, the kingdom is now ruled by evil, fear, and violence, especially toward women. All teenage girls are expected to go to the annual ball, where they hope a suitor will choose them. If they are not picked by a man at three successive balls, they are given up by their families, sold as slaves, or even killed.

While there seems to be no choice for her, Sophia is fighting it all the way. She’s never dreamed of being Cinderella—she’d much rather marry a princess, anyway. But her heart is set on her best friend Erin, even though that would never be allowed in Lille or by their families, and there really is no way to escape the clutches of the king.

The night of the ball, when things go awry, she escapes, and the king demands she be found. He enacts cruelty after cruelty to try and flush her out. When hiding in Cinderella’s mausoleum one night, she meets Constance, the last known descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters. Constance is desperate to learn the real story of her family.

Together, Sophia and Constance vow to destroy the king and make him pay for his treatment of women. But along the way they learn the truth behind Cinderella’s story—and some truths about themselves as well.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read fantasy, but this hooked me pretty quickly. While not a lot of attention is paid to world-building, the characters and the story are very vivid, and I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye. I liked the twist of a Black teenage lesbian challenging the myth of Cinderella.

But while the story is creative and I loved the message, there was a bit more telling than showing. I’ve always talked about hating the part in superhero movies where the villain details their master plan and why they seek vengeance. There was a little of that here, too. But still, Cinderella is Dead is unique and enjoyable and I was hooked.

Book Review: "Call Us What We Carry" by Amanda Gorman

Call Us What We Carry is a collection of powerfully soaring, inspiring, relevant poems by the National Youth Poet Laureate.

Like many across the world, I marveled at the incredible talent of Amanda Gorman during President Biden’s inauguration, when she became the youngest presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” dazzled me, leaving me emotional, breathless, and endlessly replaying the video of her reading on YouTube.

This collection examines the pandemic and how it affected our collective consciousness. It looks at history, race, bigotry, despair, hope, rebuilding, and capturing the spirit of our country. It feels both immensely ambitious and yet so timely, viewing the world from a distance and yet close-up at the same time.

I don’t read a lot of poetry so this was a wonderful change of pace for me. The design of the book itself is incredible too—some poems are formatted into different shapes, the book needs to be turned in different ways to get to different parts—and it adds to the experience. Each poem is also uniquely told.

Wonderfully, “The Hill We Climb” is included in Call Us What We Carry, and I watched her once again on YouTube as I read that poem. It remains as mesmerizing today as it was over a year ago. I’d imagine the audio version of this book might be incredible. Gorman’s talent is truly a gift.

Book Review: "Act Your Age, Eve Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Act Your Age, Eve Brown shows you that you can prove to others—and yourself—that you can do anything you set your mind to.

I have so enjoyed Talia Hibbert’s series featuring the Brown sisters—Get A Life, Chloe Brown, Take A Hint, Dani Brown, and now this one. These books are funny, emotional, steamy, and surprisingly sensitive, featuring female and male characters who don’t have it all figured out, and who confront physical and emotional issues and challenges.

This book may be my favorite of the series so far. Eve is quite flighty. She tends to get bored easily and shift from career to career. When her stint as a wedding planner goes a bit awry (she was looking out for the doves), her parents issue an ultimatum—get a steady job for a year or no access to her trust fund.

When she interviews for a chef position at a bed and breakfast, her purple-haired, free-spirited self quickly irritates the manager, Jacob, who prizes order and decorum above all else. (It helps with his autism, too.) But when their follow-up encounter ends with Eve hitting Jacob with her car (accidentally?), it’s clear they have a situation on their hands. Jacob needs a chef and some help around the B&B, Eve needs a job. Problem solved, right?

But as much as everything Eve is and does annoys Jacob to no end, why can’t he take his eyes off her? And as much as his constant demand for perfection and his micro-management drives Eve crazy, why can’t she stop finding him irresistible?

I really thought Act Your Age, Eve Brown was great. I loved the characters and love the way Hibbert balances fun and seriousness, romance and steam. While the books are connected by virtue of the protagonists being sisters, any of them is a standalone, so if you’ve not read one yet, pick up a book and meet the Brown sisters!

Book Review: "Ready When You Are" by Gary Lonesborough

Gary Lonesborough's debut novel is a powerful story about having the courage to be your true self.

Jackson lives in in aboriginal community in Australia called the Mish. He has good, loyal friends, a loving family, a girlfriend, but he feels at odds with himself, feelings he tries to drown with alcohol and mischief. Dealing with the whites in the community who treat Jackson and his friends with racist disdain is hard enough, but he has to keep himself in check or he’ll wind up in juvie.

Jackson’s aunt comes to visit, bringing his cousins as well as Tomas, a troubled boy who’s been staying with her. Tomas shares Jackson’s room, which starts out as an annoyance because of his personal space, but becomes even more of a distraction when Jackson realizes what his feelings for Tomas really are.

When the two boys realize their feelings are identical, Jackson has to decide what to do. Will living his truth mean having to leave the Mish and lose his family and friends? What should he do, hide his feelings and the truth of who he is? Can he be happy that way?

Ready When You Are was a beautifully told book. While the story is familiar in some respects, I’ve never read a story that takes place in an Aboriginal community before, especially with these themes. I worried the plot might get too tragic or melodramatic and I was so happy it didn’t; this was a story with characters I rooted for.

Thanks so much to Pride Book Tours, Gary Lonesborough, and Scholastic Inc./PUSH for inviting me on the tour for this book and providing me a complimentary copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

Book Review: "The Cage" by Bonnie Kistler

Looking for a thriller sure to get your heart racing in places? Look no further than The Cage.

It’s late one Sunday night, but two women are still working at the office of Claudine de Martineau International, a fashion conglomerate. Both women depart at the same time, and both get on the elevator at the 30th floor simultaneously.

By the time the elevator car reaches the lobby, one woman is dead. What happened in the course of 30 floors? Was it murder or suicide?

The ensuing investigation will leave no stone unturned. There’s not much more to say without giving anything away, so I’ll just say that The Cage is a thriller full of ups and downs. There are places where it really worked and places it dragged, and there are portions where the legalese used was so intense I couldn’t follow a thing. (This is kind of like the detailed science in The Martian and Project Hail Mary, but I didn't feel you could quite skim over this.)

I thought this was a really unique and fascinating story, with a bit of a feel like The Firm. I think without the technical stuff—even though I understand it was included to make the story more realistic—it might’ve been even more intense. Still, others have loved this, and I'm not a huge thriller fan, so you make the call!

Book Review: "Never Been Kissed" by Timothy Janovsky

Never Been Kissed, Timothy Janovsky's debut novel, is utterly adorable. It's a story for the hopeless romantic in all of us.

Wren has always believed his first kiss should be special. And although he came close a few times, the right sparks never flew, which has left him still not having been kissed as he turns 22.

In a drunken, depressed fog after his birthday celebration, Wren sends emails to the four guys he almost kissed. While one is undeliverable and one goes to his roommate, Mateo, one goes to Derick, his high school crush, who ghosted him when they started college. But of course, Derick will be home this summer, and doesn’t really remember their almost-kiss. (He does remember he didn't think of Wren that way, despite what Wren believed.) Derick also has landed an internship at the drive-in theater where Wren has worked for years.

While it’s nice for Wren in many ways to reconnect with Derick, both are dealing with their own issues. Derick is trying to be seen as someone of substance, not someone who gets ahead because of his family’s money or his looks, while Wren is struggling with his sexual orientation—he knows he’s attracted to guys but somehow “gay” doesn’t seem sufficient or accurate.

When Wren and Derick start working together on a special project that could ensure the theater’s survival, they learn how much both have changed since high school. Will their continued proximity to one another set them on a path toward a happy ending, one where Wren might actually get the kiss he’s been dreaming of?

This was just so sweet. These characters were fun, a little goofy, complex, and completely adorable. I’m a sucker for those who search for their HEA, and I was rooting for Wren to find what he was looking for. Thanks so much to my friend Carrie for sharing her copy of this book with me!

Never Been Kissed publishes 5/3!

Book Review: "Shiver" by Allie Reynolds

When old friends are brought together for a reunion, they don’t realize the organizer is seeking vengeance!

One of my reading resolutions of sorts this year was to read more backlist books I own. I’ve been doing a really good job so far, and nearly every book I’ve read has left me saying, “Why didn’t I read this sooner?” And boy, Shiver is sure one of those books! This was as great as everyone said it was!

When Milla gets an invitation to join some old friends at the ski resort in the French Alps where they all spent a season training for an exclusive snowboarding competition, she’s hesitantly excited. She hasn’t seen these people in 10 years, since one of their group went missing. It was an intense time in their lives and they shared lots of memories—some good, some bad.

The excitement of seeing each quickly wanes when the group realizes they’ve been trapped at the ski resort on top of a glacier. Their phones and laptops have been taken, there appears to be no one working at the resort, the cable car to get them back down from the glacier isn't operational, all the emergency radios are gone, water and electricity get shut off, and there’s no way down except to snowboard, which none have really done in some time.

Who was responsible for bringing them together? Is it one of the five of them, trying to flush out what happened to their missing friend? Or is it someone else seeking vengeance? As the situation grows more sinister, it’s clear everyone has secrets and guilt, including Milla.

Even though I’ve grown weary of the locked-room concept, I thought Shiver was so good and twisty. I had no clue who to trust or what to believe, and the narrative, which shifted between the present and that intense season 10 years ago, was taut with suspense. And Allie Reynolds’ imagery had me searching for my winter coat!!

Monday, February 21, 2022

Book Review: "Prodigal Son" by Gregg Hurwitz

You’ve got to love it when a thriller series is still kicking ass six books in!! That's the case with Prodigal Son, the sixth book in Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X series.

Evan Smoak was an orphan, pulled from a group home and trained to be a government assassin called Orphan X. He was tremendously good at what he did, until the government discontinued the program and he decided to use his powers for good. He became the Nowhere Man, vowing to help people when it’s their last resort and they have nowhere to turn.

After some, umm, persuasion from the government to get out of the rescuing business, Evan retires. Not that he knows anything about being “normal.” And then she calls—a woman claiming to be his mother, the woman who gave him up all those years ago. She asks him to help a man who has inadvertently run afoul of a dangerous and deadly sibling duo. But Evan’s involvement could make him a target and harm those he cares about. It also brings him full circle in many ways.

These books are always full of pulse-pounding action, cool gadgets, and some surprising moments of emotion, but this one felt particularly personal. Whenever I’m looking for a quick, fast-paced, action-packed read, I know I can count on Evan Smoak.

I’ve been reading this series since the beginning but for some reason I didn’t get to this one when it came out last year. I don't know that you couldn't read this book before any of the others, although you'll miss what advanced the plot and the characters to this point. I’m glad to be catching up with Hurwitz's series, and I’ll be reading book 7 soon!

Book Review: "Lease on Love" by Falon Ballard

No, it wasn’t me getting choked up while reading Lease on Love at like 1:30 a.m.!

Sadie is a hard worker and she’s great at her job. She can’t wait to get promoted so she can finally stop worrying about money and pay off some of her student loans. But when she gets passed up for the promotion, and things go spectacularly awry, she starts to realize how much she’s sacrificed for this job. She needs to find a new place to live, she needs a drink, and she needs a hookup, badly.

A wild night out with her best friends sends her to a dating app, and she sets up a date in her drunken haze. But it turns out she used a roommate-matching app instead, and meets Jack, who happens to own a gorgeous brownstone in Brooklyn that he's looking to find a roommate for. It would be the dream place to live. Despite her behavior at their initial meeting, Jack decides to let Sadie move in, even though he clearly isn’t prepared for her energy, sarcasm, and innuendo.

The amazing living space and the incredibly low rent inspire Sadie to finally pursue her dream of starting a sustainable florist business. Jack is tremendously supportive and generous, and although his quiet, mostly antisocial nature is the complete opposite of Sadie’s, they start to click, and she weaves him into her group of friends.

But Jack is still grieving the death of his parents and is nursing another secret, and Sadie’s toxic, verbally abusive childhood causes her to doubt herself, her friendships, and her ability to sustain a business. Can two people with so much emotional baggage ever have a chance at a relationship? Or will their increasingly intense chemistry blow up everything—their living arrangements, their friendship, and Sadie’s business?

Several Bookstagram friends raved about Lease on Love, so I had to give it a try. It was seriously fantastic—funny, emotional, sexy, and inspiring. Sadie is a wild, larger-than-life character but her emotional issues balance her out, and the chemistry between her and Jack was steamy. I was fully invested in this one from the start!!

Book Review: "Josh and Gemma Make a Baby" by Sarah Ready

In Sarah Ready's new book, Josh and Gemma Make a Baby, Gemma doesn’t need much…just Josh's sperm.

Gemma is mostly happy with her life. She loves working for handsome self-help guru Ian Fortune and loves living in NYC. But one thing is missing: she wants a baby. And although she’s been told that she’ll never get pregnant, she’s determined to prove everyone wrong.

When she finds a doctor who tells her IVF is possible, she decides the best person to father the child is Josh, her brother’s best friend. He’s always been around her family, he’s handsome, laid back, and currently unattached, so he seems the perfect candidate. She’s shocked when he agrees, but they vow to keep their relationship strictly transactional—he can decide if he wants to be part of the baby’s life, and they’ll keep emotions out of it. (Because no emotions come from pregnancy or childbirth, right?)

Of course, the deeper they get into their IVF journey, the more intertwined their lives become. But Gemma has romantic interests in someone else and Josh isn’t interested in her, right? Does she even know what Josh’s life is like outside of this?

This was sweet, emotional, a bit slapsticky, and good-natured, for the most part. I didn’t love Gemma as a character, TBH, but I loved Josh and some of the supporting characters. There were some scenes that had me laughing out loud—and I’ll never look at a park bench the same way.

I also had trouble with the fat shaming Gemma endured, especially by her mother, and while I know this happens in real life, it set my teeth on edge a bit. I’d also imagine the fertility/IVF process may be triggering for those who’ve dealt with these issues.

Thanks so much to my friend Susan, who sent me a copy of this after she enjoyed it so much. I’m so glad I got to read it!

Book Review: "Ramón and Julieta" by Alana Quintana Albertson

After reading this fun, steamy, romantic retelling of Romeo and Juliet (without the tragic part), I’ve decided that there should be a sub-genre of books called “Books Not to Be Read on an Empty Stomach.” I have read so many to put in that classification, and this book had my stomach growling late at night!!

Ramón Montez is the dutiful son of the scion of a fast-food empire. He’s always been willing to help his father, and the company has set its sights on a Taco King in Barrio Logan, the center of the Chicano movement in San Diego in the 1970s. The neighborhood has resisted until now.

One night, at a Day of the Dead party, Ramón, dressed up as a mariachi, hooks up with a beautiful woman. It turns out this woman—with whom he has intense chemistry—is none other than celebrity chef Julieta Campos, whose struggling taqueria now has Ramón as its landlord.

But to make matters worse, the Montez and Campos families have decades of bad blood between them, all because Ramón’s father once stole Julieta’s mother’s taco recipe and destroyed her career.

Can they truly ignore the passion between them, however? Do they choose family loyalty over true love? I so enjoyed this look into this culture, to the gentrification battle being fought in Barrio Logan, and the characters in this book. And how can you resist a book which is, at its heart, about love and tacos?

Many thanks to BookSparks and Berkley for inviting me on the tour for Ramón and Julieta and providing me a complimentary copy of the book as part of #WRC2022!

Book Review: "And They Lived..." by Steven Salvatore

Steven Salvatore's second YA book, And They Lived..., hit me square in the feels.

Chase is a lover of fairytales, of happy endings. He dreams of a career as an animator and is pursuing that in college. He’s struggled with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder in the past, and he’s not quite sure if he’s gay, genderqueer, or nonbinary. Ultimately, he’s hoping college will help him feel more comfortable with himself as he finds his circle and has to deal with the drama of competing with a former friend.

And then he meets Jack. Jack is a poet, a writer, obsessed with stories and the power of words. He’s handsome, athletic, confident—or at least appears that way—and immediately they feel a pull toward one another. But Jack isn’t sure about whether he’s gay, and worries about the reactions of his conservative family, so he’s constantly giving Chase mixed signals.

As the semester heats up, and Chase is trying to win a prestigious mentorship, he’s desperate to figure out who he is, where he wants his life to go, and whom he wants around him. But at the same time, he needs to see if a happy ending with Jack is possible or if their story needs to go in a different direction.

I fell in love with And They Lived... almost immediately. Chase is such an endearing character—some of his struggles were very familiar and personal to me—and the supporting characters were such fun, too. Salvatore knows how to touch your heart, and they say in their author’s note that this is their most personal book to date.

Thanks to Storygram Tours and Bloomsbury YA for inviting me on the tour for And They Lived... and providing me with a complimentary advance copy of the book. Pick it up when it publishes 3/8!!

Book Review: "Out of Character" by Annabeth Albert

Out of Character, the second book in a series (after Conventionally Yours), is a story of second-chance love and believing you’re worthy of good things.

Milo and Jasper were inseparable best friends growing up. But when they hit high school, Milo became a jock and didn’t want to be associated with Jasper, because he didn’t want people to think he was gay. And while he never bullied Jasper himself, he never stopped those who did. Jasper has never forgiven him for that, or quite gotten over the hurt he felt.

A few years later, life hasn’t been easy for Milo. He’s close to rock bottom, and he keeps making mistakes. The only person who might be able to help him get back some rare game cards he lost in a bet is Jasper. But will Jasper help him after all that has transpired?

Seeing Milo again brings back some of the hurt, but Jasper always felt unable to resist him. And while he agrees to help Milo find the cards, there’s a price—he needs Milo to dress in costume for cosplay appearances they make at a children’s hospital. And as Milo gets more comfortable with being in costume, he starts to realize that he can actually make a difference in others’ lives in a positive way.

Little by little, Jasper and Milo start to rebuild their friendship. But Milo’s been hiding another secret—he’s always been in love with Jasper. Will Jasper believe him capable of change? Is Milo ready to be honest with those around him—and himself—and believe he’s worthy of being cared about?

This was a very sweet story. I love this type of plot, the hybrid of second chance and friends to lovers, as well as rebuilding one's self-esteem. The pacing was a little slow at times, but I liked how Annabeth Albert avoids a lot of the stereotypical pitfalls I was expecting the plot to fall into. Perfect for romance lovers!!

Book Review: "One Italian Summer" by Rebecca Serle

This utterly bellissima book (look at me, speaking Italian) left me a giant puddle of emotions!

I don’t know why, but Rebecca Serle’s books hit me in a place that few others do. She deals with grief and love and choices and desires, and bends the concept of reality slightly, which might not work for everyone, but it definitely works for me. I loved her last two books, The Dinner List and In Five Years, and both had me in tears.

Katy’s mother Carol was her everything—best friend, confidante, advisor. To Katy, Carol knew everything about everything, and was always quick with a gift, some advice, a drink, food, a hug, whatever. Carol’s death has shaken Katy to her core, so much so that she’s not sure what she wants from the rest of her life, or even her marriage, now that her mother is gone.

Carol and Katy were supposed to take a trip to Positano, a place Carol had immensely fond memories of from her youth. Katy decides to take the trip—alone—in the hope that her mother’s memories will buoy her, point her in the right direction for the rest of her life. And there, Katy finds Carol—the Carol of 30 years earlier, at the crossroads of her own decisions. Katy learns things about her mother that she never knew, as well as herself.

Maybe it’s because I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life, but Serle’s books resonate so much with me. In addition to the gorgeous imagery (not to mention all the food!), Serle imbues this book with love, regret, passion, grief, uncertainty—all such real, palpable emotions.

To Ariele Stewart and Atria Books, I say molto grazie for the advance copy of One Italian Summer in exchange for an unbiased review. You'll want to get your hands on it when it publishes on 3/1. (And for audiobook lovers, Lauren Graham narrates the audio version.)

Book Review: "Arsenic and Adobo" by Mia P. Manansala

This book is why I woke up starving the morning after reading it!!

Yes, I’m so late to the party on reading Arsenic and Adobo, but since I just got a copy of the second book in the series, Homicide and Halo-Halo, I thought I better get down to reading. And thanks to my friend Phil for sharing his copy with me a long while back!!

When Lila moves back to her hometown after a bad breakup, she’s happy to help save her aunt’s struggling restaurant. She’s not expecting multiple run-ins with her ex-boyfriend Derek, who is a restaurant critic bent on running her family out of business. But the icing on the cake (so to speak) comes when he collapses while eating at the restaurant and dies shortly thereafter.

Lila definitely didn’t kill Derek (even if he was annoying), but the police are convinced she’s guilty. The scandal gives their crooked landlord the perfect excuse to close the restaurant down. It’s up to Lila—and her best friend Adeena—to clear her name and find out who the real killer is, before it’s too late. And she’ll have to deal with a gaggle of meddling aunties and a not-so-secret crush while she’s at it.

Arsenic and Adobo was a super-cute cozy mystery, full of fun, family, and lots and lots of food. At times it got a little silly, but it was really good-hearted, and I love the diversity that Mia P. Manansala brought to her characters. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book. (And I am pulling out my trusty adobo recipe later!!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Book Review: "Crushing" by Sophie Burrows

Thanks to Algonquin Young Readers for inviting me on the tour for Crushing. This is a beautiful, special book.

Have you ever been in the middle of a crowd and felt alone? Have you ever found yourself making eye contact with another person and hoping for a connection of some sort, only to feel too shy to actually initiate anything? This gorgeous graphic novel captures those feelings so accurately.

Told without dialogue, Crushing, which has as its subtitle “An illustrated misadventure in love and loneliness,” follows a young man and a young woman as they make their way through the mundanities of their lives. Both are alone and find themselves drifting through life. They catch glimpses of one another in crowds, see others having the time of their lives, and wonder what that would be like if it happened to them.

While it’s a little difficult to ascertain an actual story without dialogue, this is so beautifully done. Burrows really captures the way life feels colorless at times except for you, and how meeting a kindred spirit can light up the grey.

This was a beautifully unique read that I’ll treasure. It would make a lovely gift, too.

Book Review: "Must Love Books" by Shauna Robinson

The title says Must Love Books, well, lucky for me, I do love books!!

Nora used to dream of a job in publishing, of finding the next great book and connecting with authors to make their dreams come true. But after five years at Parsons, she realizes how far her dreams are from the reality of her job.

After corporate restructuring, she’s now taken on many other people’s administrative tasks in addition to her own. And they just cut her salary on top of everything, so she’s doing triple the work for less money. So when she hears of a part-time freelance job at a rival publisher, she takes it—while continuing to work her job at Parsons. She intends to quit but she just never gets around to it. Nothing could go wrong, right?

But when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Andrew, one of Parsons’ most successful authors, whom she’s supposed to be convincing to re-sign his contract, she’s suddenly conflicted. Should she do her actual job and get him back with Parsons, the freelance job and try to attract him to the other publisher, or be honest with Andrew? And what would that mean for her future—work-wise or even romance-wise?

I love books about publishing, bookstores, libraries, booksellers, etc., so I had a lot of hope for this one. It’s definitely cute but it just never really clicked for me. Maybe I was expecting more of a rom-com, but that really wasn't the core of this story. Even the cover design of the book and the blurb felt a little misleading. In the end, though, I thought this one was just ok.

You can’t win ‘em all!!

Book Review: "The Roughest Draft" by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

In this latest collaboration between married writers Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka, two writers face a challenge even worse than writers’ block.

Katrina and Nathan met at a writers’ program and immediately felt a creative connection. They became a writing team, and their second novel catapulted them into fame. But as soon as that book was done, they ended their partnership without explaining why, and they’ve not spoken since then. Did they have an affair? Was there jealousy? Abuse? Creative differences? No one knows, except them.

Now, with various pressures (financial and otherwise) mounting, they’re forced to collaborate on one more book as per their contract. They never expected they’d have to go back to the house in Florida where they wrote their last book, and confront all of the issues that tore them apart in the first place.

Will creative magic strike again? Can they find a way to talk through all of the things they’ve never said to one another, and come out stronger? What would a happy ever after look like for them?

This is the first foray into “adult” fiction for real-life married writers Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka, who’ve written YA romances to this point. I thought they did a good job here and I was invested in the characters’ story. I just felt the pacing was uneven, and at times I just wanted to skim the book until it got moving again.

Book Review: "The Survivors" by Jane Harper

The Survivors is a slow-burn mystery filled with unresolved guilt and old secrets and lies.

Twelve years ago, Kieran’s error in judgment led to a tragedy which rocked his small Australian coastal town. He still lives with the guilt of what occurred that fateful day, which had ramifications for several families, including his own.

When Kieran returns for a rare visit to his parents, along with his girlfriend and their young daughter, he is struck by how bad his father’s dementia has gotten and how much his mother is overcompensating. And when a crime occurs, it sets off a cascade of events, revealing secrets long hidden and uncovering questions that had been ignored for years, while forcing people to relive the events of 12 years before.

I’m a big fan of Jane Harper. I love her use of imagery, which definitely makes you feel you’re right there in the middle of the story along with the characters. Her books are real slow-burns but I love the way the tension builds as the story reaches its conclusion.

This was a Book of the Month selection back in January 2021, and I’ve been trying to read all of those BOTM picks I never got to. I enjoyed this once it got going, and while I figured some of the plot out, there was still a surprise or two to be found.

Book Review: "Blaine for the Win" by Robbie Couch

Robbie Couch's upcoming YA novel, Blaine for the Win, is a fantastic, heartwarming story about finding yourself and deciding what you want from life and love.

After loving Couch's first book, The Sky Blues (which was one of my favorites from last year, as you can see on this list), I was so excited to get an ARC of his new book, thanks to some arm-twisting by my dear friend Amy. Couch truly is the king of feel-good YA fiction!!

Blaine is creative, artistic, a bit of a daydreamer. He loves painting murals on buildings in his downtown Chicago neighborhood, and he loves his boyfriend Joey, who is a type-A overachiever with plans of becoming president one day.

When Joey breaks up with him—on their one-year anniversary and at the fanciest restaurant in Chicago—he tells Blaine he needs to date someone serious to be his partner in success. Blaine is too scatterbrained, too flighty, and he dresses too flamboyantly.

Blaine is devastated but he’s determined to win Joey back. To do that, he’ll become a serious guy—and to prove it, he’s decided to run for senior class president, to succeed Joey—and defeat Joey’s new, perfect boyfriend, Zach. Given that Blaine has never even been on student council (or cared), it’s an uphill battle which will require a lot of work, not to mention the support of his best friend…and some unexpected others. But will becoming a serious guy ruin what is best about Blaine? Will it close his eyes to those who truly care about him?

I loved this book x 1,000,000! It was sweet and fun, but there’s lots of discussion about teenagers’ mental health which is such an important topic to address.

Blaine for the Win publishes 4/12, and if you’re a YA fan you’ll want to pick it up!!

Book Review: "Good Girl Complex" by Elle Kennedy

Elle Kennedy's latest book is a sexy, fun romance that put me through the emotional wringer!

Mackenzie, or “Mac,” always does what’s expected of her. Even though her parents barely acknowledge her (they're both far too busy for parenting), they are quick to let her know if she steps out of line. Although she was raised in immense privilege, she actually made significant money of her own creating two popular websites. But despite her desires to simply concentrate on this digital empire she's created, her parents want her to get a college degree and then marry her wealthy boyfriend, Preston.

Cooper is a local in the college town of Avalon Bay. He and his friends hate the way the “clones,” or the rich people, take over their town between the college and tourism, but their livelihoods depend on them. He’s a bad boy with a heart, someone who’s seen a lifetime of hurt and rejection in a short period of time.

When Mac meets Cooper, she’s already aware of his and his twin brother’s reputation as bad boy players. But there’s something more about Cooper that she can’t resist beyond his sexiness. It’s his combination of arrogance and vulnerability that makes her want to shake up her carefully ordered life. And the more Cooper gets to know Mac, the more he realizes she’s not just another rich clone, but she’s someone he can’t live without.

Cooper has a secret that could destroy Mac and her feelings for him. But even without it, can two people from such different worlds have any chance at happiness?

I thought Good Girl Complex was a really good read. I loved the banter between Mac and Cooper, and loved some of the side stories with Cooper’s brother and their uncle. As it often happens with romances, I knew exactly what would happen, but that didn’t matter. I just would’ve liked an epilogue, as the conclusion seemed a bit rushed.

I'm a fan of Kennedy's writing, as I've read a number of books she's written with Sarina Bowen, but this was my first book of hers that she wrote alone. I can’t wait for the next book in this series, Bad Girl Reputation, due out in the fall!

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Book Review: "Frat Wars: King of Thieves" by Saxon James

How can you resist a book with a quote like, “We’re basically Romeo and Juliet. But dudes. And without all the dying.” I certainly couldn't pass up Frat Wars: King of Thieves.

I was intrigued when my friend Phil reviewed this a little while back, and I’m so glad I did. The book was the perfect combination of humor, romance, and steam which was, in the words of one character, “frat as f—k.”

Sigma Beta Psi and Rho Kappa Tau are rival fraternities. The brothers are always pranking each other, with the stakes getting higher and higher, and they compete against each other all year long, with one frat being named King of Thieves. Perhaps no one gets more into the rivalry and mischief than Sigma VP Chad Doomsen—he’s a football player, supreme prankster, and bro—but he’s secretly bisexual.

When he meets Bailey Prince at the first Sigma party of the year, he falls completely. Bailey recently transferred for senior year but is legacy in the Kappa fraternity. He is immediately attracted to Chad but how can he sleep with/date someone from his frat’s biggest rival?

Of course, they can’t keep away from each other, and as much as a relationship was the last thing they were looking for, their feelings for one another are far too strong. But what happens when their relationship is discovered? Which frat will reign supreme this year?

I really enjoyed this. It was much sweeter, more sensitive, and more romantic than I expected—and damn, it was hot!! I’m all in for the next book in the series!!

Book Review: "After I Do" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

What happens when love fades? That's the question at the core of After I Do.

When Lauren and Ryan meet in college, they fall for each other right away. Their relationship is full of fun, passion, and love, so it’s only natural they get married after graduation. They become a part of each other’s families and their own family, with their dog, Thumper.

But somewhere along the way, they’ve started getting angrier at one another, not enjoying each other’s company, not having sex. They honestly don’t even like each other, and it’s not one thing causing these feelings, it’s a combination of things. So one night, with their marriage at the breaking point, they decide to go their separate ways for a year. They can see other people, do whatever they want, and in a year, hopefully they’ll be ready to try again. The only catch is they’re not to contact each other for the full year.

At first, Lauren can’t believe she’ll survive without her husband. Can’t they just put more work into their marriage? But the more time they spend apart, she realizes that they took each other for granted, took their love for granted. And as she sees herself as a person separate from Ryan for the first time, she needs to decide what’s important to her relationship-wise. Can she and Ryan truly be happy if they start again, or has their chance at love and happiness passed?

Taylor Jenkins Reid brings such poetry and emotion to her books. This story was all-encompassing, a look at love when it’s hot and when it goes cold, the way we are so inexorably connected to one another, and how we must find ourselves and each other in order to make a relationship last. This was a truly thought-provoking book. It made me smile and, of course, it made me cry.

With completing After I Do, I’ve read the last of her books. I’d been holding on to this one for so long because I didn’t want to be without any TJR books, but I couldn’t resist. Now I have to wait until her next one comes out!

Book Review: "Hotel Portofino" by J.P. O'Connell

In Hotel Portofino, drama abounds for an English family running a hotel in post-WWI Italy.

Bella fell in love with the Italian Riviera on her honeymoon and always hoped they’d get back there. She finally convinced her husband Cecil that they should buy a hotel there, for English tourists summering in Italy. She knows that running a hotel will be a great deal of work, but she’s hoping that it may distract her adult children, both of whom were drastically affected by the war.

She’s also hoping that the hotel might save her crumbling marriage. But right now she can only concentrate on the chaos around her—a wealthy, old ladyfriend of Cecil’s is bringing her daughter to the hotel as a possible love match for their son. There’s a new nanny on her way, and the Italian housekeeper is acting suspicious. And Bella is not prepared for the theft of a painting or a local acolyte of Mussolini looking to make a name for himself by targeting the hotel.

I read this with a friend and we both agreed that while there was a lot of potential with this book, it really fell flat. The plot was mostly melodramatic and very typical of the Downton Abbey-type programs I think this wanted to be like. I found most of the characters unlikeable (and honestly, couldn’t tell them apart at times) and wanted something unexpected to happen to shake things up, but to no avail.

This is going to be a PBS series later this year so it’s possible the book was written after the show was filmed, and that might explain the hollow feel of the story, almost like it was the novelization of a performance. Still, I had a good conversation about the book with a good friend, so not all was bad!

Book Review: "The Bait" by C.W. Gortner and M.J. Rose

Happy to get my hands on another fun, twisty story of greed and revenge among the rich and famous with The Bait!

This follow-up to The Steal (which you should read first) takes place in late 1958, one year later. Ania Throne, head of her family’s jewelry empire, is still angry about the sizable theft which occurred in Cannes. She’s determined to teach the perpetrator—believed to be the notorious jewelry thief the Leopard—a lesson.

Ania plans a heist of her own during the Venetian Carnival, hoping to flush out the Leopard. And while her lover, former insurance investigator Jerome Curtis, is in on the heist, he’s struggling to understand exactly where he fits in her glamorous world. But when things go awry with the scheme, they both realize that they’re playing a more complicated and dangerous game than they thought.

As a stranger to the circles in which Ania moves, Jerome is quickly eyed with suspicion for the crime. He’s going to need all of his wits about him to save himself—but is Ania on his side or off on her own?

I love the feel of these books and these characters fascinate me. I’m always up for a good heist story, the time period is right in my wheelhouse, and C.W. Gortner and M.J. Rose really make the setting so evocative.

This ends with a serious cliffhanger, but luckily the third book, The Heist, comes out in August! (See my review for The Steal here.)

Book Review: "How Not to Fall in Love" by Jacqueline Firkins

Here’s an adorable YA romance about the blurry line between friendship and love.

Harper doesn’t believe in love. Working at her mom’s bridal shop, she’s seen brides turn to bridezillas and she’s seen all the stress and meanness that comes with getting married, without the good stuff.

Her best friend and next door neighbor, Theo, is the opposite. He’s a fan of rom-coms and the grand romantic gesture, and if anything, he falls too hard too fast. After the latest girl breaks his heart, Harper resolves to teach him how not to fall in love in exchange for his help improving her vocabulary so she can retake the SATs. But there’s one more catch: Harper also needs to date without falling in love.

Of course, Harper, who never dates, is finding it hard not to get emotionally involved. And Theo is succeeding all too well. So as Harper watches him dating and realizes how it makes her feel, she realizes that maybe Theo had it right in the first place—and maybe the question of what love is was in front of her all along.

I thought this was so sweet! Thanks to Clarion Books and Storygram Tours for inviting me on the tour for How Not to Fall in Love and providing a complimentary copy of the book!

Book Review: "Beautiful Little Fools" by Jillian Cantor

The latest novel from Jillian Cantor, Beautiful Little Fools is a fantastic retelling of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of three female characters in the book.

“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

The Great Gatsby is one of my absolute favorite books ever—so much so that my first dog’s middle name was even Gatsby. This book was one I’ve been eagerly anticipating since learning about it last year, and after devouring it yesterday I’m happy to say it more than lived up to my expectations.

In the summer of 1922, Jay Gatsby is shot to death in his West Egg swimming pool. Police believe he was killed by George Wilson, who took his own life shortly thereafter, so the case is quickly closed. But when a diamond hairpin is found at the scene of Gatsby's murder, one detective believes the murder could actually have been perpetrated by one of three women—Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, or Catherine McCoy, Myrtle Wilson’s sister and George's sister-in-law.

The book looks at the lives of the three women, how Jay Gatsby came into their lives and, ultimately, what chaos he caused that might have pushed them to murder him. It’s a fascinating retelling because it brings so much added depth and takes the focus off Nick Carraway, who narrated the original book.

I absolutely loved Beautiful Little Fools. What a creative idea that still felt very true to Fitzgerald’s original novel, yet with some angles he wouldn’t have explored back then. While it's helpful to have read the original book, I don't know if you have to, because this is a different story in many ways.

This was so excellent!

Book Review: "The Temperature of Me and You" by Brian Zepka

Brian Zepka's debut novel, The Temperature of Me and You, is a bit of a fantasy novel with a crazy love story at its core.

He wanted a boyfriend. He never imagined this.

Dylan is the only out guy in his junior class, which makes dating close to impossible. Then one day, Jordan walks into the Dairy Queen where he works. Dylan has never seen Jordan before, but he is immediately smitten…and then Jordan makes a Blizzard explode. Literally.

Clearly Jordan is hiding something, and he’s afraid to tell Dylan the truth. He supposedly just moved here from Arizona to live with his aunt and uncle, but what's the story there? And why is Jordan always so hot—temperature-wise? Even though there are lots of questions left unanswered, the two grow closer, but when Dylan starts coughing flames himself, Jordan begs him to keep his symptoms a secret for their safety, which means causes Dylan to start withdrawing from family and friends.

Can this fiery love sustain itself? Can Dylan and Jordan have a normal relationship without the use of fire extinguishers? I thought this was a sweet story with an interesting twist—you thought all relationships had drama? You don’t know the half of it.

Thanks so much to Disney/Hyperion and Storygram Tours for inviting me on the tour for The Temperature of Me and You and providing a complimentary advance copy of the book!

Book Review: "The Sweetheart Deal" by Miranda Liasson

Feuding families, struggling businesses, a fake marriage, and two people in need of living for themselves for the first time? All this with a small town as the backdrop? OMG, yes, yes, yes! I loved The Sweetheart Deal so much!!

Tessa has been working at her family’s French bakery for as long as she can remember. She dreams of becoming a pastry chef, but her mother insists they just continue selling bread and baked goods, not dessert. So she lives out her dreams on her YouTube channel, creating desserts for her small but loyal following of viewers.

The Castorinis run the Italian restaurant next door. Years and years ago, the two families had a feud and there’s been bad blood ever since. The Castorinis’ son, Leo, has ideas about how to move his family's restaurant into the future, but his father wants no part of these ideas. Tradition is tradition. His father believes if Leo just settles down and gets married, the restaurant will succeed.

Leo and Tessa were high school rivals and there’s some history between them. So when Leo first suggests to Tessa that they pretend to get married in order to save both families' businesses, it’s the last thing she wants to do, despite how handsome he is. But little by little, she realizes he might be right, so she agrees to a six-month arrangement; after that, they can go their separate ways and get on with their lives.

But the course of fake marriages never go smoothly, and it’s not long before the newlyweds are falling for each other for real. But each has secrets of their own and they need to figure out what they want from their lives and from each other for the first time.

This was such a great book! Many thanks to TLC Book Tours, Miranda Liasson, and Entangled Publishing for inviting me on the tour for The Sweetheart Deal and providing a complimentary copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

Book Review: "Vladimir" by Julia May Jonas

Vladimir is a searing character study about a woman of a certain age. (Plus it's a book with a creepy-looking cover.)

The book's unnamed narrator is an English professor at a small college. She teaches alongside her husband, who is in danger of losing his job for having a significant number of relationships with female students. She isn’t troubled that he slept around—they’ve always kept their marriage fairly open with regard to sexual pursuits. In fact, she’s more upset at the scrutiny she’s being forced to endure, to play the outraged or wounded spouse, to suddenly have her every move analyzed. And she’s even angrier at the women who’ve raised a fuss because in her mind, they knew what they were getting themselves into.

When she meets the college's newest English professor, Vladimir Vladinski, a handsome writer whose first novel has gotten some recognition, she finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed. She’s jealous of his literary success (her first novel got a blip of notice, her second novel failed), she's drawn to him sexually, and his life and presence are causing her to evaluate her life, her femininity, her marriage, her career, growing older, and her relationship with her husband and adult daughter.

At one point, the book takes a little bit of a strange turn, and I wasn’t sure where Jonas was going to take the plot, but luckily it never got too weird for me. Vladimir was an interesting one—completely character-driven and thought-provoking, but I never quite warmed up to it. Others have loved it, though, so if character-driven books are your jam, definitely give it a shot!!

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Book Review: "Secrets of Our House" by Rea Frey

If you love domestic drama, Rea Frey's upcoming novel, Secrets of Our House is one for you!

Desi has finally achieved her dream of a beautiful getaway home in the mountains of North Carolina. She plans some time away with her husband, Peter, and their 18-year-old daughter, Jules. She’s hoping this will be the opportunity they need to rebuild their marriage before Jules heads off to college at Columbia.

The thing is, nothing is quite what it seems. Jules is in love with a local boy, Will, and doesn’t want to go away to school—in fact she never did. And while Desi wants to rebuild her marriage, she’s not really looking be with Peter, as she’s in love with someone else.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are secrets and lies galore, all ripe for the picking. Some things are obvious if you’ve watched a Lifetime Movie or two, but Frey’s storytelling keeps you hooked, even if the characters may annoy you a bit. I needed to know what was going to happen and if my suspicions were correct.

This is the second of Frey’s books I’ve read and she’s really a compelling writer. I don’t think this is necessarily a mystery or a thriller as it's been marketed; it's just a good, hearty, domestic drama, but if you like this genre, you’ll be hooked.

Thanks to Suzy Approved Book Tours, Rea Frey, and St. Martin's Griffin for inviting me on the tour and providing me a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Secrets of Our House publishes 2/8/22.

Book Review: "One Night on the Island" by Josie Silver

In the newest novel from Josie Silver, One Night on the Island, two people both needed time alone, but found each other instead.

Cleo is a dating columnist for a popular online woman’s magazine in the UK. She’s chronicled her unsuccessful search for her "flamingo," her mate for life. With her 30th birthday approaching, her boss sends her on a solo retreat to a remote Irish island, in hopes of reenergizing her passion and her writing, as well as her connection with herself.

The luxury cabin on Salvation Island is everything she hoped it would be, but it comes with one unexpected addition—Mack, a photographer from Boston. He’s trying to negotiate the disintegration of his marriage and how it will affect his children, while at the same time, explore the roots of his family, which trace back to this same island.

Apparently, while Cleo’s boss reserved the cabin, Mark’s distant cousin, who owns it, promised it to him. There’s of course only one cabin on the entire island, and it’s so remote that a boat only comes once a week—if they’re lucky. How are they going to deal with their problems if they have to stay in such close proximity to one another?

“I may make a living writing about love, but I’m no wet-behind-the-ears romantic, and there’s nothing cute about this encounter. The American is abrasive. Beardy….I’m holed up at the end of the world with Han Solo.”

Rom-com fans know all about forced proximity and what happens. But Silver always brings more emotional depth to her books than the typical rom-com. These are two people who’ve been broken and are world-weary, and they know there’s no easy fix for their lives.

I thought One Night on the Island was really good, full of emotion, some gentle steam, and beautiful moments, with a fantastic cast of supporting characters. Random House and Goodreads provided me with a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review; thanks so much for making it available!

One Night on the Island publishes 2/15/22.