Saturday, March 26, 2022

Book Review: "How Do I Un-Remember This?" by Danny Pellegrino

How Do I Un-Remember This? is a book of reminiscences, stories, and reflections, both funny and poignant.⁣⁣

⁣⁣ True confession: when I received this book as part of a group of books that my friend Carrie sent me, I had no idea who Danny Pellegrino was. Then I saw another friend talk about how excited he was to read this, so I needed to do some research. It turns out he’s the host of a pop culture podcast called Everything Iconic—and it has become my new guilty pleasure.⁣⁣

⁣⁣ This book contains numerous reminiscences of Pellegrino’s through his life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches on funny family stories, dealing with his sexuality, conquering grief and guilt related to his grandmother’s passing, his relationship with his boyfriend/fiancé, mental health, and his favorite subject, pop culture, be it the movies, music, or celebrities.⁣⁣

⁣⁣ Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, particularly those recounting a vacation his family took when he was young. Some of the stories definitely hit close to home as well, and some were very emotional.⁣⁣

⁣⁣ You wouldn’t think that a memoir-of-sorts written by someone I wasn’t familiar with would be interesting, but Pellegrino is a tremendously engaging writer, full of personality—and pop culture references. How Do I Un-Remember This? was right up my alley!⁣⁣ ⁣⁣

Book Review: "Ice Planet Barbarians" by Ruby Dixon

Well, umm, this was interesting.

If ever there were a "Bookstagram Made Me Do It" book, it would be Ice Planet Barbarians. And now I can say that I was yesterday years old when I read my first piece of alien erotica.

Georgie often has weird dreams after a long day of work. But when she dreams of being abducted by aliens, it turns out it’s not a dream at all. She’s being held captive on an alien ship with a number of other young women, enduring harsh conditions and living in fear that they’ll be raped if they make a sound.

When the ship has engine trouble, their crew leaves its human cargo on an ice planet. Georgie, who is the de facto leader of the women, goes off to find shelter and food. But what she finds is Vektal, a 7-foot-tall blue alien who is immediately taken with her. He doesn’t know what she is, but she makes his chest purr, and he believes she is his mate. And he’s willing to show her just how taken with her he is.

Vektal agrees to help Georgie by helping the other women from the ship. But what will he want in return? And will he be willing to let her go?

The steam in this book is off the charts and the story is surprisingly funny at times. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series but this was one I won’t soon forget!

Book Review: "The Liz Taylor Ring" by Brenda Janowitz

When a family heirloom surfaces unexpectedly after a number of years, three adult siblings have very different ideas of what to do with it in The Liz Taylor Ring.

Lizzie fell in love with Ritchie when she was 16, when he was dating her older sister. And when they met again 9 years later, the two fell hard for each other and got married.

Through the years, their marriage is tested, particularly because of Ritchie’s serious gambling addiction, and that even causes them to separate for nine months at one point. To win her back, Ritchie gives Lizzie an 11-carat diamond ring, similar to the even larger ring that Richard Burton gave to Liz Taylor. Through the years, the ring symbolized the strength of their love, even through all of the ups and downs.

At some point, the ring disappeared, and each of their children believes something different happened to it. And then when the ring resurfaces in an unexpected place, all three siblings come together (a rarity) and try to decide what to do with the ring. Addy, the oldest, believes she’s entitled to keep it; Nathan, dealing with his own marital issues, sees the ring as a memory of their parents’ enduring love story and he feels like he's the only one who truly understood their relationship, so he should get to keep it; and Courtney, the youngest and a gambler like her father, wants to sell the ring to help her out of debt.

The story shifts back and forth between Lizzie and Ritchie’s love story and the present. Along the way, the siblings realize there’s a lot more to their parents’ lives—and the ring—as secrets and lies are uncovered.

You know I’m all about the family drama, so I enjoyed that aspect of this story, and I liked the dual timelines. However, I’m always a little frustrated when problems could be solved if people just communicated, but isn’t that just like life?

Book Review: "French Braid" by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler's latest novel, French Braid, is composed of snapshots of a Maryland family through the years. (BTW, I’m such a carb lover I could’ve sworn this was called French Bread once or twice.)

I don’t know if there’s anyone who can breathe life into slightly quirky characters as skillfully as Anne Tyler. They always mean well but they’re often prickly and/or eccentric, and they’re utterly fascinating even as they may annoy you.

“‘So this is how it works,’ she said. ‘This is what families do for each other—hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.’”

Mercy and Robin Garrett take their family on their first vacation in 1959. They spend a week at Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake. It’s not long before they fall into familiar roles—Mercy is flighty, much more interested in painting than mothering; Robin is relishing the vacation he was forced into taking but does all of the traditional "man" things; their older daughter Alice takes responsibility in her mother’s place, while their younger daughter Lily spends all of her time with a boy she meets; and their young son, David, is already withdrawing from the demands of his family.

The book follows the family through the years, as Mercy becomes more immersed in her painting and less focused on her marriage, and as their children grow into their own lives and face their own challenges. We see a granddaughter’s trip to NYC with her grandmother; a grandson’s reflecting on the secrets he’s kept from his family; and grandparents enjoying a visit from their son and grandson during the pandemic.

I love the way Tyler writes. Nothing significant happens in this book but watching the family deal with life and each other is utterly compelling. There are moments of beauty in their simplicity. I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years and this is precisely why.

NetGalley and Knopf provided a complimentary copy of French Braid in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!!

Book Review: "The Love of My Life" by Rosie Walsh

What happens when everything you know about your life is suddenly proven wrong? That's the question at the core of Rosie Walsh's new novel, The Love of My Life.

Leo and Emma have been together for 10 years and have a young daughter, Ruby. Emma is a well-known marine biologist who even did a few stints on a BBC show, and she recently completed cancer treatment. Both she and Leo are hopeful the disease is in remission.

They’re both nervous about the results of some recent tests. Leo, who is an obituary writer, decides to deal with his nerves the best way he knows how—to start preparing the bare bones of her obituary, like they do for other public and political figures. He certainly hopes he won’t have to use it anytime soon.

But as he researches some things he was unsure of, he starts discovering that so much of what he’s come to know about Emma has been a lie. Her name isn’t even Emma. And when he jumps to conclusions about certain things, he’s even more hurt and bewildered.

What does all of this mean about his marriage, his entire life? What else is Emma hiding? And why didn’t she tell the truth in the first place? Leo will discover that Emma’s reasons are far more complex and dark than he can ever imagine.

I found The Love of My Life totally fascinating. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect at times. Was it a family drama? Was it a thriller? I worried it might turn into something I didn’t like, but I really thought it was great. Definitely a terrific, thought-provoking pick from Book of the Month for March!!

Book Review: "Would Like to Meet" by Rachel Winters

Can a meet-cute like they have in the movies really work? Check out Would Like to Meet and see!

Evie has wanted to be a film agent, but she’s been stuck as an assistant for seven years. And now her agency is in crisis—if their star client, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ezra Chester, doesn’t deliver his rom-com script to the producers soon, they’ll lose a ton of money and have to shut down.

Ezra agrees to finally start writing, but there’s a catch: Evie must show him it’s possible to meet and fall in love with someone just like it happens in the movies. So even though she’s not actually trying to fall in love, she starts planning meet-cutes. Spilling a drink on someone? Check. Pretending to be a damsel in distress in the middle of a crowded street? Done. Planning to share a ride with someone she doesn’t know? Okay.

Evie sends Ezra “reports” of all of her meet-cutes but he doesn’t seem to be keeping his end of the deal, which causes both her and her boss to become more frantic. And it’s not easy that Evie’s continued humiliations are often witnessed by Ben and Annette, the friendly father-daughter duo who are both horrified and amused by what she’s doing. (One is horrified, one is amused.)

So can love happen like it does on film? Will Ezra get the script done on time? Will Evie get to be an agent after all? Would Like to Meet was a cute, sometimes-zany, and sweet rom-com that had been sitting on my stack for a long while. It definitely was a fun read!

Book Review: "The Chandler Legacies" by Abdi Nazemian

The latest YA book from Abdi Nazemian, The Chandler Legacies, is a powerful book about finding your tribe and finding yourself, while coming to terms with some hard truths.

Chandler is an exclusive boarding school in Connecticut. Some students are second-, even third-generation, many raised in worlds of privilege others could only imagine. Amanda Priya “Spence” Spencer is one of those students, but although she is idolized for her beauty and her acting talent, she wants so much more than people expect of her.

Beth is a “townie”—she lives in the town where Chandler is located. She had a horrible first year of school with her roommate, and she hopes this year will give her a fresh start. And Beth’s old roommate, Sarah, would also like to put the memories of that year behind her, for very different reasons.

Ramin left Iran because of the dangers of being gay. Yet he has no idea that a New England boarding school is in some ways no less oppressive a place for a young man who is different. And Freddy, who is training to be an Olympic pole vaulter, is finally having his eyes opened to the hazing culture that exists for anyone who appears weak.

The five students come together in the Circle, an exclusive writing group where they learn to express themselves and their fears through writing. At the same time, as their friendships grow, they are challenged by some hard truths about their school and the secrets it hides, secrets which have proved damaging to many.

I’m a huge fan of Nazemian’s writing, and The Chandler Legacies was based on his own experiences at boarding school. It’s an amazing story about finding friends who become your family, those who give you the chance to be seen and finally see yourself the way you deserve to.

The book does deal with sexual assault, homophobia, and hazing, so it might be triggering for some, but it’s not as difficult a book as I expected. It’s just an incredibly moving book, and I can’t wait to see what Nazemian does next!

Book Review: "Nine Lives" by Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson's newest thriller, Nine Lives, has one list you don’t want to be included on!!

It seems fairly innocuous: random people receive an envelope in the mail that contains nothing but a list of nine names. And each of them appears on that list.

They’re all very different—an FBI agent, a college professor, an aspiring musician, an oncology nurse, a mistress to an older wealthy man. Some are disturbed by receiving this piece of mail, some think it’s a piece of junk. Some try to figure out what could be their possible connection to the others on the list.

Then the people on the list start getting killed in random ways. The remaining people on the list get moved to protective custody, but the killer seems to find them anyway. Why were these people chosen to die? Will someone be able to stop the killer before all nine people are murdered?

This was an interesting concept and obviously, a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The book kept my attention the whole time and there were a few twists, but to keep track of nine different people plus others was a bit difficult. And don’t even get me started on the motive.

I really do like the way Swanson writes—I loved his The Kind Worth Killing the best and also really enjoyed Eight Perfect Murders—and even though his books don’t always work for me, I still have to read them!

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

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Book Review: "Part of Your World" by Abby Jimenez

Abby Jimenez's new book is a story of love despite the odds, and about believing you’re worthy of living the life you want. (Bonus: I had the song from The Little Mermaid in my head the whole time.)

Alexis has lived the life she has been expected to. She’s an ER doctor in the hospital her family has worked in for 125 years. She loves her job, and has just gotten out of a relationship which undercut her self-worth severely, and her ex is still trying to manipulate her and those around her.

One night, driving a few hours from home, her car winds up in a ditch. She gets a tow from Daniel, a very sexy man whom she doesn’t expect to see again, but then she runs into him again shortly afterward. And after helping him win a bet, the next thing she knows, she’s sneaking out of his house early in the morning to drive home.

Daniel is the complete opposite of her in every way—he’s 10 years younger, has tattoos, and seems to be immensely happy in his small town. (He’s actually the mayor, among other things.) But while Alexis can’t get him out of her mind, she knows that Daniel could never fit in her world, so they’re just going to keep it casual. (Sure, Jan.)

Of course, the more time Alexis spends with Daniel, the more she realizes she can’t live without him, and she’s starting to love his town, where everyone truly cares about one another. But would a relationship between them really work if she turned her back on her family and the legacy she’s expected to carry on? How can she realize she’s worthy of living her own life and truly being happy?

Part of Your World is the first book by Jimenez that didn’t leave me in a puddle of tears, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. She always creates such memorable characters and this book is no exception! (One of my favorite characters, Bri, will get her own book next year.) I loved the chemistry between Alexis and Daniel, and the entire town of Wakan.

Thanks so much to Abby and Forever for the advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!! The book publishes 4/19/22!

Book Review: "The One True Me and You" by Remi K. England

The One True Me and You was absolutely adorable and it left me smiling!

Kaylee is excited about attending her first Con and meeting friends she’s known online for years. And as a popular fanfic author, she’s looking forward to meeting some of the people who inspired her to start writing. But more than that, she wants to do three things: try using they/them pronouns, wear cosplay that’s more masculine, and kiss a girl for the first time.

Teagan is competing as Miss Virginia in the Miss Cosmic Teen USA pageant. She has a real shot to win it all this year, and the $25,000 scholarship will really make a difference in her future. She loves competing but doesn’t like having to hide who she really is—a gay, fanfic-loving, fan art-drawing geek. She just has to keep it all to herself for one more week.

But the Con and the pageant are in the same Orlando hotel. And when Kay and Teagan meet, they both feel an instant connection, but Kay hasn’t ever felt this way before and Teagan has to outsmart the pageant chaperones. Of course, both have the same nemesis—Miss North Carolina—who, if she discovers all that is going on, will make life hell for Kay back at home and will stop at nothing to ruin Teagan’s chances for victory at the pageant.

Cosplay and pageants in the same book? How did Remi England know me so well? I thought The One True Me and You was just a great story, one about finding your authentic self and finding the courage to show it to the world. While there certainly was angst in this book, ultimately I found it really joyful, and I read it in one sitting.

Definitely a fun, sweet, positive YA romance!

Book Review: "The Verifiers" by Jane Pek

Jane Pek's debut novel, The Verifiers, is clever, thought-provoking, and insightful. It's a fascinating look at online dating and our connected world.

Claudia has been recruited to work at Veracity, an online-dating detective agency in New York City. Clients pay the company to investigate people they’ve been matched with, people they’ve been chatting with but don’t trust, even people who have ghosted them.

All of Veracity’s work is kept pretty secret —Claudia can’t even tell anyone where she works or what she does. But that’s fine, because her immigrant family wouldn’t approve, so she lets them believe she works for a financial firm. And that’s not all she’s hiding from them—she’d love to tell her mother she doesn’t want to be matched with a nice Chinese boy, because she likes girls.

When a client of Veracity’s disappears after asking them to look into several matches she had connected with, Claudia believes there’s more to the whole story. A lifelong mystery lover, she can’t help but start doing her own digging into these matches and what might have happened to the client. And what she discovers is a web of secrets and lies, not just around the client, but around Veracity as well.

The Verifiers was a really interesting story—complex in some ways but familiar in others. It was wryly funny at times, part mystery, part social commentary on online dating and the pressure placed on children of immigrant families. It’s a slow-moving book at times, but I found it really fascinating.

Book Review: "Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts Presents 35 New Stories" edited by Hannah Tinti

Small Odysseys is an anthology of 35 short stories from renowned and new-to-me authors.

Are you familiar with the radio program or podcast called “Selected Shorts”? Since 1985, this program has featured stage and screen actors reading short stories—both new and classic—in front of a live audience. I had never heard of the program but I do enjoy short stories, so when Algonquin Books offered me the opportunity to read this anthology, published in conjunction with the show, I jumped at the chance.

There are a number of well-known authors who contributed to this collection as well as some with whom I wasn’t familiar. As with any anthology, some stories hit it out of the park for me while some didn’t work as well.

My favorites included: ”The King of Bread” by Luis Alberto Urrea; ”iPhone SE” by Weike Wang; “Sleepless” by Michael Cunningham; “Escape Pod W41” by J. Robert Lennon; “Period Piece” by Maile Meloy; and “Such Small Islands” by Lauren Groff.

What I like about an anthology like Small Odysseys is the opportunity to pick it up at any point in the book and read any story, and also it’s the chance to be introduced to authors whose work I’ve not read yet. Definitely a thought-provoking collection!

Thanks to Algonquin Books for inviting me on the tour for the book and providing a complimentary advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

Book Review: "Woman on Fire" by Lisa Barr

Woman on Fire, Lisa Barr's newest book, is both a thriller and a story of family, legacy, betrayal, and courage. It feels like a movie—and has been optioned by Sharon Stone!

Jules Roth is a courageous young journalist, determined to work for legendary investigate journalist Dan Mansfield. After she talks her way into a job, she gets a top-secret assignment: a friend of Dan’s has asked him to find a famous painting, “Woman on Fire,” which was one of many works of art stolen by the Nazis years ago. The painting matters to Dan’s friend, renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum, for very personal reasons.

But Ellis isn’t the only one who wants the painting. Gallery owner Margaux de Laurent believes the painting is part of her family’s legacy, and she’s used to getting everything she wants. She’ll do anything she needs to in order to get that painting, and she has countless resources to do so, including those outside legal and ethical channels.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Jules and Dan trying to find the painting and what could’ve happened to it through the years, and Margaux working to crush them and get the painting first. Everyone is a pawn, including Adam Chase, Ellis’ grandson and a tremendously talented artist in his own right.

Shifting between the late 1930s and the present, the book explores the all-too-real costs of war, its effects on the art world as well as familial legacy, and how the quest to find truth has unexpected results.

I love the way Barr writes, and this book hooked me from start to finish. There were some elements of thrillers I wasn’t fond of—particularly how the villains always know what is happening before it does—but I was totally immersed in the story and these characters. If you know art history, you’ll find this even more fascinating!!

Thanks to Get Red PR Books and Harper Books for inviting me on the tour for Woman on Fire and providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!! And thanks to my friend Louis for a great buddy read discussion as always!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Book Review: "The Younger Wife" by Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth's upcoming book, The Younger Wife, is a slow-burn domestic suspense novel that had me totally hooked as it unfolded!⁣

⁣ It’s a familiar story: older man meets a woman young enough to be his daughter and embarks on a relationship with her as his adult daughters look on. And while that’s the case when Stephen, a successful heart surgeon, meets Heather, an interior designer, it’s not the full story.⁣

⁣ You see, Stephen is still married to Pamela. But with her suffering from dementia, it’s not wrong for him to move on, right? And while his daughters, Tully and Rachel, are unhappy with the turn of events, they realize that Heather might not be as bad as they originally thought.⁣

⁣ This is a story where everyone has secrets. And it’s the secrets that might lead to someone’s undoing. But what is the truth?⁣

⁣ Hepworth knows how to create tension and drama, and The Younger Wife proves why she’s an auto-buy author for me. And did you know that Heather won a Bookstagram contest Hepworth had so one of the characters in the book is named for her? That was crazy seeing a friend’s name as a character.

⁣ ⁣ This is more suspense than thriller but it’s quite addictive. Thanks to my friend Phil for sharing his ARC with me!!

The book will be released 4/5/22.⁣

Book Review: "Finlay Donovan Knocks 'Em Dead" by Elle Cosimano

The second book in Elle Cosimano's mystery series is a little zany, a little crazy, a little romantic…and a lot of fun!!

Your favorite duo of novelist Finlay Donovan and her nanny/sidekick Vero return for another set of madcap adventures! After being mistaken for a hit-woman and getting tangled up with the Russian mob, she’s trying to get her life on track and get her latest book finished.

And then she finds out that someone wants her ex-husband Steven dead, and they have gone looking online for someone to carry out the hit. Have there been lots of times Finlay has wanted to kill Steven? Sure, but she doesn’t really want him dead; her kids need their father, too.

So Finlay needs to figure out who wants Steven dead, and find who agreed to carry out the hit before it’s too late. In the meantime, she’ll have to cozy back up with the Russians, contend with Vero’s weird behavior, and deal with Detective Nick coming back around, not to mention Julian, the bartender/law student—and get her book in on time! That’s a lot for one person!

This really is such a fun series. It’s truly a source of sunshine and laughs amidst heavier books. Sure, it can be a little outlandish at times, but does it really matter?

BookSparks, Elle Cosimano, and Minotaur Books provided me with a complimentary copy of the book as part of #WRC2022. Thanks for making it available!

Book Review: "Run, Rose, Run" by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

With Run, Rose, Run, the queen of country music teams up with the king of thrillers!!

AnnieLee Keyes has dreamed of being a country singer for as long as she can remember. “She’d been writing songs since she could talk and making melodies even before that.” She hears a song in just about everything.

She heads to Nashville to seek her chance at fame. She’ll do everything she needs to get there, and she’s bound and determined to make it big once she does. And after performing at a few bars starts to catch people’s attention, she finally gets her big break when the legendary Ruthanna Ryder hears her play. But when Ruthanna offers to help her, why won’t AnnieLee take advantage of this opportunity at first?

As determined as AnnieLee is to become a star, she’s also determined to outrun whomever and whatever it is that is chasing her, causing her to wake up in the midst of night terrors, calling out a name.

Will AnnieLee achieve stardom? Can she survive whatever it is that wants to destroy her?

I thought Run, Rose, Run was entertaining. It’s about 95% fiction and 5% thriller, but it feels tremendously authentic on the musical aspects, given Dolly’s involvement. As a thriller, however, it's immensely formulaic.

I’ve heard the audiobook is great because Dolly is part of the cast, but I’m not an audiobook kind of guy, and Dolly also recorded an album inspired by the book.

Book Review: "The Suite Spot" by Trish Doller

In Trish Doller's newest rom-com, The Suite Spot, sometimes you find what you need most where you least expect it.

Rachel is a night concierge at one of the most exclusive hotels in Miami Beach. She’s been a hard-working, loyal employee for years, until she’s unjustly fired for standing up for herself. A single mom to four-year-old Maisie, she knows she needs a new job fairly quickly, but it’s tough to find an opportunity like the one she had and loved.

When a friend tells her about a job managing a boutique hotel at a brewery in Ohio, it sounds like a dream. It is on Kelleys Island, a remote island in Lake Erie. So despite the grumpiness of her new boss over the phone, she packs up Maisie and moves to Ohio.

What she finds when she arrives is not what she’s been led to believe. The brewery is starting to run but the hotel isn’t built yet, although the owner, Mason, will give Rachel carte blanche to design and run the hotel the way she wants, which has been a dream of hers. It’s a difficult decision given the work ahead, but she decides to give it a try.

Rachel soon finds that Mason is a beer expert but running a hotel was never really his dream. And it’s not long before the two discover a fondness for one another, but both need to rebuild their lives. Can the hotel give them the chance they need for a fresh start, or will obstacles stand in their way?

I loved this book so much! Rachel is the sister of Anna, the protagonist from Doller’s last book, Float Plan (which I loved, too), but this book isn’t as sad. It’s just a sweet, romantic story of getting a second chance at happiness in an idyllic setting. I devoured it!!

Book Review: "It Happened One Summer" by Tessa Bailey

Oh, so this is what everyone has been talking about!! It Happened One Summer was on my stack for a while and I’m glad I finally got to it! It was fun, sweet, romantic, and steamy.

Piper thrives on being the center of attention. She’s always in the middle of the hottest parties, wearing the hottest clothes, spending tons of money, and she even has a verified Instagram profile. But she’s never had to work a day in her life, and she’s never really thought about money, much less anything beyond herself.

When an after-hours party she throws turns raucous and she gets arrested, it’s the last straw for her wealthy stepfather. He and Piper’s mother decide she needs to learn responsibility, so they cut off her money and send her to the beach town of Westport, Washington, where she and her sister lived until their fisherman father died. Her father owned a bar there and Piper will have to run it for three months before she can come home again. (Luckily, her sister agrees to accompany Piper to Washington.)

Needless to say, Westport is a far cry from glitzy Los Angeles. And no one knows what to make of Piper, especially Brendan, the big, bearded (and sexy) captain of a fishing boat. He doesn’t think she’ll last in Westport—but of course, he can’t take his eyes off her, either.

Small towns being what they are, they’re constantly running into one another, trading banter…which turns to flirtation. But Brendan has his own issues to deal with, and Piper is just in town for as long as she has to be, so there’s no use in catching feelings for each other, right?

Well, you know what happens. I was there for all of it. I loved these characters and the small town and the banter and the steam (and there is STEAM). While I didn’t get as much of a Schitt’s Creek vibe as others have said they did, this book had heart and humor and romance, and it was just great.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Book Review: "Full Flight" by Ashley Schumacher

Seriously, y’all, Full Flight broke me a bit emotionally. But I really loved the story.

In Enfield, Texas, high school football is a big deal, but the marching band is often the center of attention as well, especially in state competition years. For Anna, the first-chair saxophonist, there’s tremendous pressure to get a key duet nailed down; if she fails, the opportunity will be given to someone else and she’ll let a lot of people down.

She decides to ask her duet partner, mellophone player Weston Ryan, for help. (Note: I had no idea what a mellophone was. Who said you don't learn from reading?) Weston is a talented musician yet the whole town thinks he’s a troublemaker, convinced he’s guilty of something he didn’t do. Weston feels an automatic connection with Anna but is afraid to let her in because he’s afraid he’ll ruin her.

The more Anna and Weston get to know each other, the more they see each other’s struggles and joys. But she has to hide their relationship from her strict parents, and that deception can only last so long. When their secret is discovered, Anna and Weston have to fight to stay together and show everyone around them how much brighter they are when they’re together. And then tragedy strikes.

I love YA romances when the characters each have secrets and each are struggling, but they find strength in their relationship. These characters were amazing; even though it's a conservative, religious town, not all of the characters were painted as close-minded or one-dimensional. To top it off, there are literally sentences in this book that took my breath away.

Full Flight is a beautiful story about love, friendship, music, survival, and hope.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Book Review: "A Brush with Love" by Mazey Eddings

I loved A Brush with Love, even if it reminded me that I need to schedule a dentist’s appointment!

Harper is determined to be at the top of her class in dental school so she can hopefully get the oral surgery residency she wants. She studies HARD—it’s practically all she does.

One day she bumps into Dan, a handsome, first-year dental student. And she literally bumps into him—on a rainy day, she slips down some stairs and directly into him. They immediately feel an intense connection for one another, but Harper does not want any distractions from her career goals, so she decides they can only be friends. As much as that’s the last thing Dan wants to be, he’d rather have Harper as a friend than nothing at all.

But the more time they spend together—even as friends—the more that Harper is distracted by her feelings for Dan. Harper’s life is carefully ordered for a reason, to help her keep her intense anxiety and claustrophobia at bay. Will letting him in throw her into disarray that badly? And Dan is dealing with his own issues—he’s only in dental school because of parental pressure, and he has a lot of resentment and damage because of that.

Can two people struggling to stay afloat in so many ways find strength in being together? Or will Harper’s fears and need for control doom them?

There is so much to love in A Brush with Love—neurodiversity, the banter between Harper and Dan and with their friends (their friends cracked me up), even the Jewish representation. I don't know that I've ever read a rom-com that took place in dental school! This was really a memorable story for so many reasons.

Book Review: "Love, Hate & Clickbait" by Liz Bowery

They say politics makes strange bedfellows, and they sure do take that old adage far in Love, Hate & Clickbait, another book title crying out for an Oxford comma!

Thom is a highly ambitious political consultant working for the California governor’s imminent presidential campaign. He’s never met a person or situation he can’t use to his best advantage or the advantage of the candidate for which he works.

The one person who constantly gets under his skin is Clay, the campaign’s data analyst. Although Clay is smart, he's always a bit clueless, yet at the same time, he’s full of himself, and his lack of awareness—not to mention his messy appearance—drives the impeccably groomed Thom up a wall. When a photograph is taken of Thom confronting Clay in a heated moment, to the naive eye it looks like they’re in the midst of a romantic moment. And when the governor makes a homophobic gaffe, she convinces Thom and Clay to pretend they’re dating, to divert attention from the scandal.

Despite Thom’s dislike of Clay (and the fact that Thom is straight), he’s a good soldier and wants to run the governor's presidential campaign, so they agree to the fake relationship. (Clay, who is gay, just seems to go along for the ride.) But the more convincing the governor and her team want them to be, will fake feelings turn real? What’s the likelihood of someone—or the campaign—getting hurt?

This book has its cute and (quite) steamy moments. But Thom is a really horrible person for a significant portion of the book—he’s downright mean to Clay—and the governor and her team are pretty odious, too. And the whole scheme really seemed just a little too much, even though I don’t doubt it’s happened.

Still, fake dating is always a trope I enjoy in rom-coms. Love, Hate & Clickbait publishes 4/26/22!

Book Review: "Don't Cry for Me" by Daniel Black

Don't Cry for Me is a beautifully written, poignant book, full of regret.

“No one should diminish themselves to prove their love.”

This one hurt my heart. I got it as a Book of the Month add-on in March because I had FOMO after not ordering it in February. But I don’t necessarily agree with BOTM’s classification of it as historical fiction, because while it does recount some older events, the book is set in (relatively) present day.

Jacob is dying, and he’s mostly alone. He decides to write to his estranged son, Isaac, to ask for forgiveness for how he treated him through the years. And as he tries to explain why he is the way he is, he goes back to his childhood, where he was raised by his grandparents in rural Arkansas and never got more than an 8th-grade education.

Jacob writes about the way boys and men were expected to act, particularly Black men, during that time, and details a number of incidents through his life in which he acted less than honorably, toward fellow classmates, impaired people from his town, and his ex-wife, Isaac’s mother. And while he now realizes that the things he did were wrong and he regrets them, he feels his actions were more a product of his time and his upbringing.

But Jacob’s biggest regrets are for the way he treated his son, whom both he and his wife could sense was different even early on. Isaac’s biggest sin was not being a “real man,” not being masculine, not liking sports, and ultimately, his sexuality. Jacob’s detailing of his cruelty toward his son certainly hit close to home, and the deterioration of their relationship will feel familiar to those who found themselves treated similarly.

This is certainly a powerful book. It made me sad and angry, sometimes simultaneously, and at times I wished the book was more of a give-and-take between the characters rather than Jacob’s letters. But perhaps Don't Cry for Me can provide comfort or explanation as well as an example of sheer poetry in storytelling.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Book Review: "The Unsinkable Greta James" by Jennifer E. Smith

(I can't tell you how many times I thought of this as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but I'm an old musical theater fan, so get off my lawn.)

In Jennifer E. Smith's first adult contemporary novel (she's a prolific YA writer), grief and resentment can make you feel far away from a person, even when you’re with them.

Greta James is a talented singer/songwriter on the verge of releasing her second album. She’s had some notoriety and a few hits. But when she completely falls apart during a performance shortly after her mother's death, and the video of it goes viral, she needs a little bit of a break to figure things out.

Since she has some free time, her brother suggests she accompany her father on the Alaskan cruise he and their mother were supposed to go on to mark their 40th anniversary. Even though her parents were supposed to travel with two other couples, Greta joining her father would help him feel less like a third wheel.

The thing is, Greta and her father don’t get along, and her mother often played peacemaker between them. Her father hasn’t ever been particularly supportive of her music career or most of her life choices, thinking she should have a backup plan and settle down to have a family like her brother. And Greta hasn’t always remained silent about his criticism—her first hit was a song about his disapproval.

But healing and reaching understanding isn’t going to be easy, even when they’re on a ship together. Greta must figure out how to meet her father halfway, and at the same time, she needs to figure out how to find the courage to get back up on stage again, as her record label is expecting her to. And when she meets Ben, an author and college professor dealing with his own uncertainties, will their connection prove distracting or help her along her journey?

The Unsinkable Greta James was a powerful exploration of how grief and regret and hurt can affect you in ways you’ve not realized, as well as how we hurt others. At times, Greta's father really is hurtful, but you know it comes from a place of love and sadness. I’m definitely a fan of Smith’s storytelling, and I cared about these characters and what would happen to them.

Book Review: "The Night Shift" by Alex Finlay

I haven’t raced through a thriller this quickly in years, so thanks to Alex Finlay for The Night Shift!

Yes, this one has been everywhere on Bookstagram since it was officially released last week, and I’ve been dying to read it, so I jumped on it shortly after I bought it. And while it’s not really a book that evoked the spirit of 1999 like I expected, I thought it was great (despite guessing the killer very early in the book).

New Year’s Eve before 1999 turns to 2000. No one knows what to expect from Y2K, but the staff at a Blockbuster Video in New Jersey just wants to get home before midnight. Yet tragedy strikes: four employees are murdered, while one young woman miraculously survived. Although a suspect is quickly identified, he disappears shortly afterward he is released from prison.

Fifteen years later, several employees of an ice cream shop in the same New Jersey town are murdered, with only one bystander surviving. Is this a copycat crime, or could the killer have returned after all these years? The investigation will bring together a lot of people, including the sole survivor of the Blockbuster murders, the brother of the accused killer, who has believed in his brother’s innocence all these years, and a very pregnant FBI agent trying to figure out whether the two tragedies were connected.

The Night Shift had lots of great twists and turns, and there were so many places I didn’t know whom to trust or what might happen. While I was sad about one thing that happened in the book and had a few unanswered questions, I thought this was great. I'll definitely be picking up Finlay's previous book, Every Last Fear!

Friday, March 4, 2022

Book Review: "Vanish Me" by Lee Matthew Goldberg

In Vanish Me, a teenage girl’s search for her missing mother, a former musician, helps her find herself, too.

One great reading discovery I made last year was the Runaway Train trilogy by Lee Matthew Goldberg. I read the first two books, Runaway Train and Grenade Bouquets, last year, and this was the last book in the series.

The first two books took place in the mid-1990s and followed Nico, a rebellious teenager who leaves home following her older sister’s death and, after some fits and starts, becomes a musician. She falls prey to the pitfalls of fame and drug and alcohol addiction, but she becomes a real star as well. The books really captured the music and feel of the 1990s.

Vanish Me takes place in 2014. Nico has gone missing and her estranged teenage daughter, Love, decides to try and find her mother after finding her old diary. She and her two best friends set off for Los Angeles in an attempt to track down anyone who might know where Nico could have gone.

The story alternates between Nico’s journal entries before and after Love was born, and Love’s attempts to find her mother. In trying to understand the challenges Nico faced and the pain she inflicted on others along the way, Love also begins to understand herself a little better, and tries to figure out what she might want from her own life as well as her mother, if they find her.

This was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I really enjoyed Love’s character and how her journey tied up a lot of loose ends from the previous book. Nico’s journal entries definitely gave more insight into why she was the way she was, but still underscored her selfishness. This was a well-told, poignant, fun journey, with lots of good music references thrown in.

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

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Book Review: "In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain" by Tom Vitale

This memoir is a funny, sometimes emotional look at what it was like to work with Anthony Bourdain by someone who knew him well.

“Is there such a thing as vacation-of-a-lifetime PTSD where your main tormentor is also your hero, mentor, and boss? After having had these intense experiences of being in the trenches together with Tony and with the crew, sharing these adrenaline-inducing, life-altering experiences, going back to my regular life felt like the real trauma.”

When famed chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in June 2018, it shocked the world. This man, a kind of culinary badass, always seemed to be tearing into travel and food experiences around the world with such gusto and bravado.

But as much as his death shook the world, it affected his colleagues tremendously. Tom Vitale started working with Bourdain in 2002, and worked with him almost nonstop for 16 years, traveling the world with him, directing and producing nearly 100 episodes of three Bourdain programs—No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown.

In this tremendously affecting book, Vitale details what it was like to go along for the ride of his life with Bourdain. He recounts shooting in some of the most exotic—and some of the most dangerous—places, where they were threatened with violence, war, corruption, poor sanitary conditions, and sometimes, horrible food. (Being a picky eater, the latter was often a problem for Vitale.) It’s amazing just how much detail, stress, and often, strife, went into every show.

But where In the Weeds truly shined was where Vitale tried to make sense of his relationship with Bourdain, the finality of his loss, and what to do next with his own life. He shed light on the good and bad aspects of Bourdain’s personality, and what he learned about himself from doing the show and working with Tony. He also tried to figure out, as many others did, what signs they might have missed.

I thought this was excellent. It gets a little graphic sometimes in its descriptions of preparing animals for cooking, but that’s easily skimmed over. So glad I read this and that Vitale was willing to share his memories of Bourdain with us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Book Review: "Icebreaker" by A.L. Graziadei

They’re fighting to be the best on the ice—but what happens when rivalry melts into romance? This is the question at the core of A.L. Graziadei's Icebreaker.

Mickey James III was born to be a hockey star. Literally. His father and grandfather (Mickey James and Mickey James Jr.) were legendary players, and it’s been said that he has five sisters because his parents were desperate for a boy to carry on the familial legacy. His future is planned—he’ll play hockey in college for one year, then get drafted by the NHL as the #1 pick and head wherever his team is.

It’s as simple as that. The only thing he doesn’t count on is that his main rival for the top draft spot, Jaysen Caulfield, is attending the same college. He’s got a real chip on his shoulder about all the attention Mickey gets, and the foregone conclusion he’ll be #1. Jaysen is determined to make Mickey beat him or he'll prove he's better.

The last thing either is counting on is their rivalry turning into something else, something far more serious and with longer-term potential. But can they be together if both want to be #1? And is that dream what both want?

Icebreaker was a fantastic book. In addition to the hockey talk and the rivalry and the romance, a lot of attention is paid to mental health issues, as well as the way female athletes' accomplishments get short shrift when compared with their male counterparts. It’s also a powerful look at dreams vs. legacy, what you want vs. what you’re trained or raised to want.

I loved the open way different sexual orientations were treated in the book, even among college athletes. Even in a world where openly gay athletes are still a relative rarity, this wasn't presented as a real issue in the book, and it was great to be free of that drama. I loved Mickey and Jaysen and their relationship, and while the discussion of mental health was tough for me coming at a time when mine is in shreds, it brought so much more depth and emotion to this book.

I loved everything about Icebreaker.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Book Review: "Dead Wind" by Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert's upcoming book, Dead Wind, is a multi-layered thriller, full of suspense and emotion. It's just so good!!

In the third book in her series featuring Senior Investigator Shana Merchant, Wegert hits a home run with this story of vulnerability and familial legacy. This series truly gets better and better and I enjoyed my return to upstate New York’s Thousand Islands.

When a body is discovered propped up against a wind turbine on Wolfe Island, the identification of the victim throws the local community into turmoil. Shana and her partner Tim need to figure out who was responsible for the murder, which is no easy feat given that the case involves local politics, environmental issues, and secrets lost through the years.

But as they try to catch this killer, both Shana and Tim need to figure out if it’s someone local or if it’s another strike by serial killer Blake Bram, who has been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Shana for a while now. And when her aunt hires a private investigator to find what happened to her long-lost cousin, Shana wonders whether the house of cards of secrets she’s been building around her is going to fall down, endangering those she cares about.

This series is really fantastic. Wegert is a terrific writer, imbuing her thrillers with real emotional complexity as well as such evocative imagery that you can feel the fog and the chill around you. These books are a little slow-burn at the start but that helps to build atmosphere and mood.

Even if you’re not into mystery/thriller series, I’d encourage you to pick these books up, and start with Death in the Family, the first book. Hopefully you’ll become a fan, too!

Thanks to Suzy Approved Book Tours, Tessa Wegert, and Severn House for inviting me on the tour and providing a complimentary advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Dead Wind publishes 4/5/22.