Sunday, October 22, 2023

Book Review: "Saving Emma" by Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens is a tremendously talented writer who should be a household name. His books, including the amazing The Life We Bury, are a great blend of crime novel, contemporary fiction, and occasionally, legal thriller. While his newest book, Saving Emma, isn't my favorite of his, it's still a well-written and gripping story.

Boady Sanden is a former attorney who is now a law professor that works for The Innocence Project in Minnesota. When a woman comes to Boady asking him to look into the murder conviction of her brother, he feels like there's not much he can do. Elijah Matthews has been a patient in a mental institution for the last four years, since he was accused of murdering the pastor of a megachurch. Elijah believes he is a prophet, sent to do work given to him by God.

But as he digs into Elijah's file, he learns that he was originally defended by Ben Pruitt, Boady's former colleague and best friend, who was killed in Boady's study four years earlier. Ben's life was unraveling in the middle of Elijah's trial, which makes Boady wonder whether Elijah received the vigorous defense he deserved. The more he looks into the case, he finds Elijah both infuriating and sympathetic, but he isn't sure if he actually is a murderer.

At the same time, Ben's daughter Emma, who has lived with Boady and his wife since Ben was killed, has become sullen and withdrawn since she turned 14 years old. Emma makes a decision to trust someone who doesn't have her best interests in mind, and she turns against her surrogate parents. This devastates both Boady and his wife, although he needs to examine the way he has treated Emma to see if he's at all to blame for her decisions.

Can they get Emma to return home before it's too late? What is the truth behind the murder that Elijah is accused of, and how complicated is the web Boady will step in as he tries to find who is responsible?

I really enjoy Eskens' storytelling ability, but I struggled a bit with this book. I didn't find any of the characters particularly appealing, and there's a lot of scripture quoted in the story, which isn't something I'm familiar with. There really aren't many twists in this story, but it's still a very quick read.

Book Review: "Dragged to the Wedding" by Andrew Grey

What a fun book this was! I truly loved every minute of it.

James is a gay police officer in the Chicago suburbs. He's happy with his job and with his life. But with his sister getting married in his hometown of Missoula, Montana, his mother keeps pressuring him to bring a date. The thing is, living 2,000 miles away from his family has enabled him to keep his sexuality a secret, so he's freaking out. Sure, he should level with his family, but he doesn't want to deal with his demanding, conservative mother, nor does he want to steal his sister's thunder.

Where is he going to find a date? When one of his friends has to back out of going to the wedding with him, James is at his wit's end. But salvation is found when a friend introduces him to Daniel, aka Lala Traviata, famed Chicago drag queen. When James first meets Lala, he can't believe that he's intrigued by a woman, but then he understands just how good she is at what she does. After a brief discussion, they agree that Lala will accompany James home to Montana and pretend to be his girlfriend.

It's not long before Lala has completely won over James' family, helping solve crises from altering his sister's wedding gown to helping his soon-to-be brother-in-law with dance lessons. As the wedding draws closer, James is anxious that the truth will be revealed, but at the same time, the chemistry between him and Daniel intensifies. And while Daniel feels the same way about James, what will happen when they return to Chicago? Would James want a relationship with someone who spends a significant amount of time in drag? And is Daniel willing to risk his heart on someone who is afraid of being truthful with his family?

Sure, the story advances much as you'd expect it to. But James and Daniel (and Lala, for that matter) are so engaging and entertaining that I was rooting for them from start to finish. The book is funny, sweet, a little steamy, and really heartwarming.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Book Review: "Summer Stage" by Meg Mitchell Moore

Summer may be over here on the East Coast, but it's never too late for a beach read! I've had this on my stack since it was released in May, but after a succession of chilly, rainy weekends, it seemed to be the perfect time to pick it up. And it definitely hit the spot!

Timothy Fleming has had tremendous success as an actor and director, and has two Oscars and a Tony to show for it. And while opportunities still exist for him in his early 60s, there is at least one whole generation that doesn't know who he is. But life in Los Angeles has been a bit boring lately, so when he is invited by his ex-wife, famed actress Gertie Sanger, to direct a summer production of Much Ado About Nothing on Block Island, where he grew up, he jumps at the chance.

Timothy's sister, Amy Trevino, also had dreams of fame and fortune as a playwright, but instead she packed away her dreams and returned to Rhode Island, to become a teacher (and school play director) and raise a family. She loves her brother but doesn't really understand his life or the way he thinks spending money is the best way to show he cares. And she's always been resentful of the fact that her daughter, Sam, after a stint as a child actress on Broadway and in a Disney program, chose to forego college and move into a TikTok house in New York City.

When Sam leaves the TikTok house suddenly and returns home to Rhode Island, refusing to explain why she left, she quickly finds living with her parents and staying out of the public spotlight tremendously suffocating. She decides to move to Block Island for the summer and live with Timothy, to help out with the play. The incredible beach house that Timothy is leasing for the summer from a childhood friend becomes even more crowded when Gertie comes to stay as well. And then the play becomes even more of a family affair when Timothy hires Amy to be the stage manager.

This was a really enjoyable read, full of family drama, secrets, and romance, all in a beautiful setting. (Now I have to add Block Island to my travel bucket list along with Nantucket.) The characters deal with friction in their relationships with one another, as well as the vagaries of fame, pursuing your dreams, and being happy with the choices you make. I've always loved books that look behind the scenes of theatrical productions, and Much Ado About Nothing is one of my two favorite Shakespeare plays, so that added to my enjoyment of the book.

Crazily enough, this is my first book by Meg Mitchell Moore, but it definitely won't be my last!

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Book Review: "Friends Don't Fall in Love" by Erin Hahn

Lorelai Jones was a country music star, filling stadiums with her fans. Her engagement to another country music superstar had captured media attention all over the world. Then one night, Lorelai, a former elementary school teacher, sang a classic protest song during a concert, and in the blink of an eye, her career imploded and her relationship ended, and she was suddenly a total pariah. She returned home to Michigan to lick her wounds and restart her teaching career.

The only person from her music days who continued to stand behind her was Craig "Huckleberry" Boseman, her ex-fiancé's former bandmate and a very close friend. They've always been attracted to each other, and Craig longed for more than friendship from Lorelai, but never wanted to jeopardize their relationship, even after her engagement fell apart.

Five years after Lorelai left Nashville, she reaches back out to Craig, who is now an indie record producer with his own studio, to get his opinion on some songs she's written. He encourages her to come back to town so they can work on a comeback album. When she returns, Craig finds that his feelings for Lorelai are even stronger than before, and her talent is even more polished. And as Lorelai gets more excited about the possibility of a comeback, she also realizes that her attraction to Craig hasn't lessened either, but rather become more intense.

Meanwhile, Lorelai has to try and navigate the mercurial world of country music, which hasn't quite forgiven her for speaking her mind about gun control. Should she apologize for her views in order to get a second chance, or should she risk everything to be true to herself? And can she and Craig figure out if they can be together for real, without jeopardizing everything they have?

This was a fun, sweet, and pretty steamy read. Erin Hahn is an auto-buy author for me; I've read both her YA books and her adult fiction, and Friends Don't Fall in Love features characters from all of her other books. I definitely enjoyed this look at the tug-of-war that exists in the country music world between traditional conservative views and more liberal ones, and what cancel culture looks like first-hand. Lorelai and Craig are great characters with terrific chemistry.

Thanks so much to NetGalley and St. Martin's Griffin for providing an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. It will publish 10/17.

Book Review: "Family Meal" by Bryan Washington

Family Meal is an emotional, hopeful, and hunger-inducing story about friendship, family, love, loss, and finding your place.

After Cam's boyfriend Kai dies, he desperately needs to leave Los Angeles, to escape the memories and the guilt he feels. He returns to Houston, where he grew up, and tries to build a new life for himself. But the same feelings and habits follow him there, and it's not long before Cam is on a path of self-destruction, dealing with drug addiction, uncontrolled promiscuity, and an eating disorder. And to top it off, Kai's ghost won't leave him alone—sometimes taunting him, sometimes nurturing him.

In the midst of his emotional and physical chaos, Cam runs into TJ, his childhood best friend and surrogate brother, and he visits TJ's family's bakery, where he used to work as a teenager. The two have been estranged since Cam left for Los Angeles, and there's a tremendous amount of tension and unspoken resentment between them. But even with TJ's anger and hurt toward Cam, he can't stand by and let him destroy himself. Yet how do you help a person who doesn't believe they need help?

The story follows both Cam and TJ, flashing back to their teenage years and their estrangement, as well as the history of Cam's relationship with Kai. There's also a section focused on Kai and his tenuous relationship with his own family, as well as his perspectives on his relationship with Cam. The prose is luminous, the emotions are palpable, and like life, so much tension exists because of things that go unsaid. The book is also pretty sexual, although the scenes aren't long.

"With every single person we touch, we're leaving parts of ourselves. We live through them."

I've read both of Bryan Washington's previous books, Lot and Memorial, and I've been impressed with his storytelling ability, even though neither book completely worked for me. But this book really packed a powerful punch for me.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Book Review: "City People" by Elizabeth Topp

To a casual observer, Susan seemed to have it all: a successful career, marriage to a handsome banker, and two beautiful children. Maybe she became a bit unhinged in her quest to get her children's private school to serve healthier food, and she was burnt when none of the mothers in her group supported her, but everyone has their pet peeves. But everyone is absolutely stunned when Susan jumps to her death from the roof of her NYC apartment. Should they have seen this coming?

Susan was one of several mothers whose children were recommended for interviews at Kent, the most prestigious private school in New York. The list of Kent alumni is truly impressive, and each of the mothers knows that their child's future might very well be set if they are accepted. But beyond the pressure and machinations needed to try and tip the scales toward their child, each woman is dealing with her own issues as well.

Vic, herself a Kent graduate, is a struggling single mother and author suffering from writer's block. She also was Susan's best friend (or was she?) and she can't believe she never really saw that Susan was struggling. While she hopes that her experience as an alum will help her daughter's case, she isn't quite sure how she's going to pay for school anyway. And she can't seem to get her high school love out of her mind...

Bhavna is a marketing executive for a cosmetics company, almost sure that her son will get accepted to Kent. And once she lands a major campaign at work and her husband closes a big business deal, they can move to a better part of the city and finally live the life they have dreamed of. How far is she willing to go to get what she wants?

Penelope and Kara are best friends, and seem like clones of one another, until you look closely. Penelope is the daughter of a wealthy family and is the president of the parents' association at the preschool. She's determined to prove her own worth as a businesswoman, and believes that another mother, Amy, may be the key to her success. Kara becomes obsessed with Susan's suicide and the suspicions around her death, in part because it reminds her of her own sister, who took her own life.

Chandice, who left her law career upon the birth of her son, faces an uphill battle as she fights breast cancer. The more she wants her son to get into Kent, the more she struggles with the other aspects of her life, like trying to go back to work.

There were a lot of people to keep track of in this book, and after a while many of them seemed to blur into one another. The book starts and ends with Susan's narration, and then shifts between all of the other mothers. Some of the threads were more interesting than others, but overall I feel like the author was trying for a Big Little Lies feel but I don't think it hit that target.

Thanks to Amazon First Reads and Little A for an advance copy of this book, which publishes 11/1.

Book Review: "Penelope in Retrograde" by Brooke Abrams

Wow, this was a fun book! It was my second choice from September's Amazon First Reads, but of course Prime members were only allowed to pick one that month. But I jumped on it as soon as it was published.

Despite the wishes of her parents, Penelope didn't graduate from Princeton, nor did she take a job at her father's engineering firm. Instead, she followed her true passion—writing—and now she's a successful romance writer. But given the disdain with which her parents view her choices (they don't even know her pen name), as well as her penchant for running away when family tensions get high, she's fairly estranged from everyone.

When she and her two roommates—also romance writers—develop an idea for a new romance-only bookstore, they need an infusion of capital. So it's time for Penelope to try and mend fences with her family to see if her father would be willing to invest in her new business venture. And what better time than the Thanksgiving holiday? She heads back to the family home on Coronado, and prepares to be reunited with her parents, her twin sister Phoebe, and her beloved Nana Rosie.

But things start awkwardly. Penelope's ride share from the airport has an unexpected passenger: Smith, her ex-husband. They've not really spoken since their marriage imploded, so he's the last person she thought she'd see. They endure a strange ride, during which Penelope feels some of the old chemistry between them as well as reinforcement that their divorce was the right decision. And to add to her tension, her mother is trying to set her up with one of her father's employees, Martin, who will be having Thanksgiving dinner with them.

It's not long before Penelope is fighting with her parents and Phoebe, and trying to convince Martin to be her fake boyfriend so Smith didn't think she was still pining for him. But what to do when you find yourself falling back into the same patterns with your family, rehashing old arguments and hurts? Can she stand up for herself without putting her potential business venture at risk?

Penelope in Retrograde is a fun and heartfelt story about love, friendship, following your dreams, family (both blood and chosen), and the pull of the stars. While some of the familial tension definitely was more her family's fault than Penelope's, I know what it's like to feel like you're always the one in the wrong. This really was a great balance of humor, romance, and emotion.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Book Review: "Time to Shine" by Rachel Reid

Oh, hockey romances, how I've missed you!! I truly loved this book, more than one of the main characters loved lemonade and Christmas Cap'n Crunch! (No, not together, lol.)

Landon Stackhouse is a goalie on the farm team for Calgary, and he dreams of a career in the NHL. When he gets called up to the pros to fill in for Calgary's backup goalie, he's excited and nervous, although he doesn't expect to play very much. He also knows it won't be too long before he gets sent back down to Saskatoon, so as a shy loner, he's fine not building any strong relationships with his teammates as he sits on the bench.

The one player who doesn't seem to care that Landon is a short-timer is Casey Hicks, Calgary's charismatic young winger. Casey is a tremendously talented player, and a bit cocky (or maybe a little more than a bit), but he's immensely friendly, fun-loving, and he's never met a person he can't talk to—endlessly. Even though Landon doesn't encourage Casey's friendship, Casey treats him as if he's known him for years. And when Landon has to stay in Calgary longer than anticipated, Casey invites him to move into his house. After all, he has plenty of space, and truth be told, he doesn't like being alone.

While Landon would like nothing more than to hide in his room when they get home after practices or games, Casey is determined to break Landon out of his shell. And as their friendship moves toward feelings they've never had before, Casey is ready to embrace the possibility of romance with Landon. Yet despite his feelings, Landon is afraid to start a relationship when he knows he'll be sent back to Saskatoon any day now. Can love flourish if they're apart, or are they doomed before they begin?

I so enjoyed these characters. I loved their chemistry and I loved that Rachel Reid gave them more depth than they first appeared. The supporting cast was really fun, too. There's some steam (but not too much) but the bromance-to-romance was really sweet. I'll definitely be picking up another of Reid's hockey romances!!

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Book Review: "Leslie F*cking Jones" by Leslie Jones

Leslie Jones is a human dynamo. She has tremendous presence—her voice and her height make you stand up and take notice. She comes across as brave and brash, seeming almost impervious to any barriers that stand in her way. But as you learn in her new memoir, Leslie F*cking Jones (like it could be called anything else?), her confidence stems from the challenges she faced in her life, the battles she had to fight to achieve her dreams.

For the most part, whether or not you'll enjoy this memoir depends on how you feel about Leslie Jones herself. This is not a polished, obviously ghostwritten book; Jones' voice is authentic, her language is peppered liberally with curse words and slang, and at times the narration seems to go off on tangents, the way people often do when they tell stories. As she puts it, "Hey you guys—some of the stories about my childhood are vague because a bitch is fifty-five and I've smoked a lot of weed. A lot of it is hazy, but I will give you the best recollection of it that I can."

While parts of the book are definitely hysterical, it's an emotional read as well. Jones faced some very difficult things growing up: her alcoholic father moved their family around a lot, and in many places she faced racism as well as bullying for the color of her skin, her family's lack of money, and her lack of polish. And tragedy certainly followed her into adulthood, as did brushes with poverty, fighting for a chance onstage, and trying to pursue fame without changing who she was.

One of the things that surprised me about this book and Jones herself is the importance she places on being a role model for Black girls and women, letting them know they're beautiful and worthy. It's a lesson she learned when she was younger and it never left her, even in the toughest of times.

At times the book gets a little too specific and detailed so chapters drag, but it's still an entertaining and powerful read.

"In the end, what I learned in the pandemic, and since, is what so many of us learned: life is life. It's not supposed to be easy all the time, and it's never as easy as we want it to be."

Monday, September 25, 2023

Book Review: "A Love Song for Ricki Wilde" by Tia Williams

I'm a bit of a Tia Williams stan, so when I got a random email from NetGalley offering “Read Now” access to her upcoming book, you bet I jumped on that chance, even in the middle of a work Zoom call.

“Leap years are strange. And because February 29 exists only every four years, it is a rare, charged day. In the old days, back home, folks whispered that it was an enchanted time. When the veil between this world and the other was gossamer thin.”

Ricki Wilde was born into a wealthy Black family in Atlanta, with her father being the famed owner of a nationwide chain of funeral homes. And while her future is laid out for her–following in the footsteps of her three older sisters and taking over her own franchise, not to mention tapping into a trust fund–Ricki isn’t interested in this path. Instead, her creative, impulsive, and rebellious nature causes significant friction between her and her family.

When she announces her dream of opening a flower shop, her ambitions are ridiculed by her family. So she quits her receptionist job at one of the family funeral parlors and decides to make her own way. But a chance encounter with a nonagenarian widow, Ms. Della, opens up an unexpected opportunity.

Ricki takes Ms. Della’s offer to move into the ground-floor apartment of her Harlem brownstone, and opens her floral boutique, Wilde Things, in the storefront portion of the space. Ricki is mesmerized by Harlem, and is fascinated by the history that existed in that neighborhood, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance.

Owning her own shop Is exhausting work, but for the first time in her life, Ricki is following her dreams without her family’s criticism. And in Ms. Della, she finds a surrogate grandmother, who recognizes Ricki’s need for love and encouragement.

One February night, she is drawn by the scent of night-blooming jasmine in a nearby community garden. She knows it is not the season for jasmine to bloom, but she cannot resist. And then she encounters a handsome, mysterious stranger who upends her world.

I’m going to leave the plot description fairly vague, although once you start reading, everything becomes clear fairly quickly. Suffice it to say that Williams imbues her upcoming book not only with steamy romance, but also lots of history of the Harlem Renaissance, and some magical realism.

This wasn’t my favorite Williams book–that honor still goes to Seven Days in June–but I’m always captivated by her storytelling. I felt like the pacing dragged a bit here, but I enjoyed all of the characters except for Ricki’s family, who were fairly one-dimensional. (But Ms. Della was absolutely fascinating.)

Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for this advance copy. The book will publish February 6, 2024.

Book Review: "Dark Ride" by Lou Berney

“I like being ordinary. I enjoy the lack of pressure.”

Hardy “Hardly” Reed isn’t particularly ambitious or motivated, but that doesn’t seem to faze the 21-year-old one bit. He spends his days hanging out with his friends, getting high, and works as a scarer at a run-down amusement park. Even though his brother chides him for making nothing of his life, Hardly doesn’t care. He loves having no pressure or obligations.

One day, while looking to defer payment on a traffic ticket, he sees two young children sitting by themselves on a bench. When he goes over to check on them and see if they’re okay, they seem almost catatonic, not acknowledging his presence. Then he notices identical injuries on both children, and when their mother approaches, she quickly gets the children away from Hardly’s inquiring gaze.

Faced with a situation like this, Hardly would usually walk away and not give this situation another thought. But for some reason, the children’s expressions haunt him, so he calls Child Protective Services and leaves a message about what he saw. And while that should be the end of it, he gets no response from CPS, and the more research he does, he becomes convinced that CPS won’t be of any help. He knows in his heart that the only person that can help these kids is him, despite the fact that he barely takes care of himself.

As Hardly tries to figure out exactly who is abusing the children and the best way he can help, his friends and family try to dissuade him from getting further involved. But for the first time in his life, Hardly has discovered something–and someone–to fight for. He may not be the best person for the task, but he’s determined not to let the children down, even when he discovers he has gotten himself entangled in a situation far beyond anything he imagined.

I first discovered Lou Berney when I found his amazing thriller, The Long and Faraway Gone, several years ago, shortly after seeing another author I loved naming Berney one of the best authors he had read. I’ve read all of Berney’s books, so I was tremendously excited about this one.

Once again, Berney tells an incredible story. While I’m always a little dubious about books when ordinary people suddenly become investigators, Hardly is the most unlikely of protagonists, and his single-minded focus seems to make sense the more we learn about him.

I was utterly captivated by Dark Ride. I loved the choices Berney made here, instead of taking the expected paths that I feel would have ruined the story. I’ll definitely be waiting for his next book.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Book Review: "Terrace Story" by Hilary Leichter

Have you ever read a book that you definitely enjoyed despite the fact that you weren't really sure what it was about? That was definitely the case for me with Terrace Story, Hilary Leichter's new book. It was beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking, somewhat confusing at times, and a little bit trippy.

In "Terrace," the first of four connected stories, Annie, Edward, and their infant daughter, Rose, have to downsize into a much smaller, cramped apartment. They are definitely saddened by this move, because instead of the view of the outdoors that they had in their old apartment, their view is now an air shaft. But one day, when entertaining Annie's coworker Stephanie, they find a beautiful terrace inside a closet. Suddenly their view has changed, and they are absolutely thrilled.

They quickly discover that the terrace only seems to appear when Stephanie visits them. They are torn between wanting to keep inviting her over and feeling bad that they're using her to keep having access to the terrace. But everything good comes with a cost, and one night everything changes for the small family, with repercussions for the future.

Some of the stories follow related characters—"Folly" focuses on a married couple, and the woman is a descendant of Rose; while "Cantilever" takes place in the distant future, with a young woman working at a space station, when she is visited by an older woman who says she wanted to meet her. "Fortress" is about Stephanie, and tracks her from childhood to a point in the future.

I found "Folly" the oddest story, and I wasn't exactly sure what Leichter was trying to say with that one. The other stories made more sense (although "Fortress" was definitely a bit confusing) and they definitely provoked emotional reactions.

Leichter is a tremendously talented writer. I'd love to do some research into what inspired her to write this book, because that knowledge might inspire me to re-read this at some point. This is definitely not a book for everyone, but I'd imagine fans of literary or experimental fiction may enjoy it.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Book Review: "My Roommate is a Vampire" by Jenna Levine

Cassie Greenberg is on the verge of being evicted from her apartment. As an artist, she just can't seem to make ends meet, even with two part-time jobs. When she spots an ad to share a beautiful, spacious apartment for an unbelievably cheap price, she knows it's probably too good to be true, but she really doesn't have a choice except to move in.

And then there's her new roommate: Frederick J. Fitzwilliam. Although he's in his mid-30s, he speaks like a character from Downton Abbey and dresses like he stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. He sleeps during the day and works during the night, so while they don't see each other that often, Frederick leaves Cassie beautifully hand-written notes all over the apartment. He asks about her day, gives her encouragement about everything she's struggling with, and praises her art. Plus, he's absolutely gorgeous—whenever Cassie sees him, she gets totally tongue-tied. (Especially on the few occasions she's seen him shirtless.)

One day, she comes home unexpectedly to find several bags of blood in the refrigerator, which she knows weren't there earlier. Then Frederick's friend, Reginald, actually drinks one of the bags in front of her. And then he forces Frederick to tell Cassie the truth: he's a vampire. After she gets over her initial shock and horror, Frederick explains he would never harm her. And then he asks her a favor: can she help teach him about the modern world? He needs to find a way to blend in with society, not stand out.

She reluctantly agrees, and he proves to be a willing student. As the attraction between the two grows, Cassie has to wonder what the future could hold for the two of them. Can love blossom, or are they doomed for heartbreak?

This was a really cute book. The characters definitely had chemistry, and boy, did Frederick sound hot! I loved the banter between Frederick and Reginald as well. I could have done without one subplot that didn't seem to advance the story much, but it didn't dull my enjoyment. Definitely a fun read!

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Book Review: "The Roommate Pact" by Allison Ashley

The blurb on the cover of The Roommate Pact reads, “Anyone who wants to swoon needs to read this book!” And I must say, while many blurbs are way off the mark, this one is pretty accurate!

Claire is an ER nurse who can’t seem to find a relationship that will last. She’s outspoken and a little wild, and that apparently intimidates men. One drunken evening, panic about being single forever leads her to propose a pact: if neither she or her sexy firefighter roommate, Graham, can find a mate by the time they’re 40, they’ll get together—as friends with benefits.

As gorgeous as he is, Claire could never be in an actual relationship with Graham. He’s relationship-phobic, and not only does he have a dangerous job, but he loves taking risks—climbing mountains, etc. She never would want to settle down with someone like him and constantly fear him getting hurt, or worse. But as the chemistry between them intensifies, would it hurt if they started the benefits part of their friendship a little early?

When Graham gets badly hurt while rock climbing, Claire becomes his caregiver for a while. If that means sleeping in his bed to ensure he’s safe, or taking care of his little dog, Gertrude (who hates Claire), then so be it. And as they draw closer and closer, how can they keep from falling for each other, which neither was supposed to do?

The characters have fantastic chemistry. I couldn’t get enough Graham—he’s definitely one of those characters whose cockiness masks so much depth—and Claire was fantastic. If you read Ashley’s last book, Would You Rather (which I really enjoyed), the main characters from that book are Graham and Claire’s best friends. This really was a great book—steamy, fun, romantic, and emotional.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Book Review: "The Summer of Songbirds" by Kristy Woodson Harvey

I'm not emotional, you are. (Well, maybe it's me.)

As some of you may know, I spent 10 summers at a sleepaway camp in New York's Catskills Mountains. It was such an incredible experience, being a camper and eventually a counselor, and some of the friendships I made all those years ago still remain. That's one of the reasons that I couldn't wait to read Kristy Woodson Harvey's newest novel, The Summer of Songbirds.

When she was six years old, Daphne met her two best friends, Lanier and Mary Stuart, at Camp Holly Springs, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother. The camp is owned by Daphne's aunt June, who is excited that her niece will get to experience the joys of a summer getaway given the difficulties she has faced in her childhood.

The three women remain the best of friends even in their 30s, and have helped each other through some challenging times. But Daphne faces two difficult dilemmas—one personal and one professional. Both require her to keep secrets from one of her best friends, and have the potential to ruin her future. Does she choose happiness or friendship?

As plans for Lanier's wedding progress, she starts having suspicions about her fiancé, which dampens some of her happiness, and makes her nostalgic for her first love. And when she discovers two things being kept from her, she doesn't know where to turn, and wonders if she should end a friendship that has lasted most of her life.

Meanwhile, June has a secret of her own: this very well may be the last summer of Camp Holly Springs, because she can no longer keep the camp afloat financially. She's owned the camp for 30 years, and it's really been the only thing in her life, as she's sacrificed nearly everything else. But when Daphne, Lanier, and Mary Stuart find out that the camp might close, the three women spring into action to do all they can to save this place that means so much to them.

What I love so much about Kristy Woodson Harvey's books is that she creates likable yet flawed characters that you truly care about. Like many books, there aren't a lot of surprises, but I found myself hooked on this story. I thought about how I'd react if the camp I spent so much of childhood at faced closure (I doubt that's possible because the camp owner now owns 4 or 5 camps, but still). Harvey is a definite auto-buy author for me, and I will eagerly await her next book! (Many thanks to my friend Heather for hosting a giveaway with Gallery Books that I was lucky to win!

Monday, September 4, 2023

Book Review: "Woke Up Like This" by Amy Lea

There are a number of ways to get to my literary heart. One is to manipulate my emotions. (I'm totally a sap, as those of you who have been following my reviews for a while should be aware.) Another is to throw me a time loop or time travel storyline. (I'm addicted.) So when it came time to pick my Kindle First Reads pick for September and I found that Amy Lea's Woke Up Like This was a YA rom-com with a time loop, what do you think I picked?

Charlotte Wu is a type-AAA high school senior. She's never met a situation that couldn't benefit from a checklist, and she thrives on being the glue that holds everything together. With just a few weeks left of high school, she's determined to check the last thing off her high school bucket list—plan the perfect prom. But standing in her way is JT Renner, her ridiculously handsome, charming nemesis, who wears "smedium" shirts (to show off his biceps) and serves as student council president. One day as the two are decorating for prom, Charlotte falls off a ladder—and JT's ripped body mostly breaks her fall.

When Charlotte wakes up, she's in bed...and then she discovers that she's somehow 30 years old and her fiancé is a bearded JT, who somehow is even more muscular than he was in high school. Is this some kind of practical joke? How did they somehow wind up 13 years in the future? How could they have wound up engaged when they absolutely hated each other in high school? And perhaps most importantly, how can they get back to 2024 and the last few weeks of high school?

Of course, finding a way back to the past isn't easy. And while it's difficult to constantly pretend they're in love with one another, as they occupy their future lives, they learn about what they've missed over the last 13 years and how much has changed. At the same time, Charlotte starts to realize that some of the things that annoyed her most about JT are actually kind of charming in adulthood, and there is a lot she never took the time to understand about him in high school because she was so mad at him.

As their feelings toward one another grow, Charlotte wonders what will happen if they can ever get back to their high-school selves. Will things be different between them? Will they even remember this time from the future?

I thought this really was a fun read. It's definitely predictable but I love the whole concept of seeing your future self and then using some of that knowledge to change your behavior. If you enjoy cute YA rom-coms with a little bit of a time loop thrown in, pick up Woke Up Like This when it officially releases October 1.

Book Review: "My Murder" by Katie Williams

“I was supposed to be getting dressed for the party, the first since my murder.” (Yep, you read that right.)

Lou is married to a doting husband, Silas, and they’re parents to their adorable baby daughter, Nova. They’re like any other couple—except Lou was a victim of a local serial killer, and she was recently brought back to life by a government project.

She’s grateful for the second chance at life, but re-acclimating isn’t easy. She has to get used to her life again, to her husband, to being a mother, and returning to her old job. Lou also spends time in a support group with the other victims of the serial killer, all of whom were also brought back to life. It’s a fairly strange sorority to be part of.

It’s only natural that Lou has questions about her murder. Why did the killer pick her? The more time she spends with the other women, the more uncertainty she starts to feel about her life before her murder. It’s up to her to figure out just what happened—and if she is safe in her life.

I thought this was a very cool concept. There was some fascinating commentary about the public’s attitudes toward serial killers and their victims, some interesting technologies, and a few twists I didn’t see coming.

At times, I did feel a bit confused by some of the narrative, and had to read things a few times before it started to make sense. But this was a tremendously unique concept, a great twist on the traditional thriller.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Book Review: "The Invisible Hour" by Alice Hoffman

Sometimes a book starts out so strongly, then veers into a strange and unexpected direction that completely takes you out of the narrative. Sadly, that happened to me when I read Alice Hoffman’s newest novel, The Invisible Hour.

Mia is a young woman who has spent her entire life in the Community, a cult in Western Massachusetts that forbids nearly all contact with the public, considers books to be evil, and punishes transgressors with unorthodox methods. Her mother died just before Mia was able to convince her to try and escape, leaving her under the harsh and watchful eye of Joel, her mother’s husband and the mercurial leader of the Community.

Although books are forbidden, Mia’s first time in a library changed her life. She started reading every chance she got, stealing books from the library and hiding them wherever she could. But her secret was discovered, and after several warnings, she is told to await her punishment the next morning.

That night she discovers The Scarlet Letter, and the book speaks to her in a way that no other has. So much of this book mirrors her life and that of her mother. But how could a book written several centuries before so perfectly capture the hell she is living in?

The book helps fuel her courage to escape, and she begins a new life, where she experiences the freedom to pursue her dreams without fear of reprisal, and is raised with love. But Joel is constantly able to track her down and let her know he is watching her, so she is often afraid to be out in public.

She also grows more obsessed with learning about Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man whose words continue to speak to her soul even after she is able to flee the Community. And then, through the magic and elasticity of time, she travels to the past, where she is both inspired and inspires, loves and is loved.

I enjoyed the early parts of the story, and felt the poignancy and desperation. I also really enjoyed Mia’s life once she escaped the Community. However, I felt that Joel was a very one-dimensional character, and his ability to constantly find Mia (even through time travel) was ludicrous.

And as much as I love a good time travel story, this portion of the book absolutely didn’t work for me. Sure, I had to suspend my disbelief, which wasn’t a problem, but the whole storyline felt very disjointed. I’m an enormous Alice Hoffman fan, but this book was sadly disappointing for me.

Book Review: "Hello Stranger" by Katherine Center

Sadie has been determined to follow in her late mother’s footsteps and become an artist. But her lack of success has certainly created a wedge between her and her surgeon father, who vowed he’d never give her a dime once she decided to give up medical school to pursue art.

And finally, she’s on her way. She’s placed as a finalist in the North American Portrait Society’s competition (a contest her mother was a finalist in when she died), and winning this could be the break she needs, financially and career-wise.

She’s ready to celebrate–and the next thing she knows, she’s lying in a hospital bed, in need of urgent brain surgery. Although her doctor says the surgery can wait until after the competition is over, her father forces her into having the surgery right away, because the medical problem she has was the same thing that killed her mother.

While the surgery was supposed to be fairly routine, Sadie is shocked to discover that the surgery left her with a “probably temporary” case of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. She can see perfectly, but when she looks at a person’s face, it appears to her as a jumble of mismatched parts. It’s tremendously difficult for anyone to deal with, but especially for someone who paints portraits for a living. Even when she encounters a person she knows, she doesn’t recognize them, because the lack of facial recognition throws off her perceptions.

As she tries to deal with the potential of having to live with this condition permanently, as well as confront the major family issues she has faced for years, she finds herself falling for two very different men at the same time. She keeps thinking about her dog’s veterinarian, imagining a life with him. But why does her mind keep wandering back to one of her neighbors, who seems like he’d be less of a suitable choice? Is she doomed to a life alone?

Katherine Center is definitely an auto-buy author for me. This was a sweet read, but not one of my favorites of hers. There’s a twist that I suspected very early on, and I thought the whole family dynamic was just too unbelievable and annoying for me, especially given the destruction caused and the reasons behind it.

Book Review: "Once More with Feeling" by Elissa Sussman

Katee Rose is living the life she’s always wanted. She’s a huge pop star with fans all over the world, giving sold-out concerts, and topping the charts. The media can’t get enough of her, especially her relationship with Ryan LaNeve, the breakout star of the beloved boy band CrushZone. But fame and constant media scrutiny have their price. She doesn’t love that producers keep auto-tuning her voice, and she hates having to worry about everything she eats, everything she wears, and making sure she’s always “on” in case she inadvertently upsets a fan.

And as much as she cares about Ryan, having a relationship in the public eye is exhausting. Which is why she finds herself turning more and more to her good friend Cal, another CrushZone member. Cal is quiet, more mature, and he seems to understand Katee more than Ryan. And when friendship turns to romance, it destroys everything–her relationship with Ryan, her career, her reputation, and her future, as well as her friendship with Cal.

Years later, Kathleen Rosenberg is fine with her life outside the spotlight. But when her best friend Harriet’s musical–with a part she created specifically for Kathleen–has an opportunity to get to Broadway, Kathleen is thrilled for her friend. Harriet is determined that Kathleen gets another chance at fame. That chance, however, is in the hands of Cal, now a successful director and choreographer. Neither has spoken to the other since the implosion of both of their careers, and both blame each other.

Can Kathleen trust Cal this time with the possibility of a second chance? They both know the scrutiny the show and both of them will be under if she gets the role, but they also know that it has the potential to resurrect both of their careers. What to do when the chemistry and the old feelings reawaken? Is there potential for a comeback in their romantic lives as well, or will that be too much for the show to sustain, not to mention the public scrutiny?

Elissa Sussman’s last book, Funny You Should Ask, was one of my favorite books of last year, so needless to say, I had very high hopes for this book. While it was an enjoyable read, and I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the mounting of a musical bound for Broadway, it was a little too predictable, and the whole book ran far longer than it needed to. (What is it with super-long rom-coms lately?)

But Kathleen and Cal definitely had chemistry, and it’s always great to read a rom-com with more mature characters.

Book Review: "New Adult" by Timothy Janovsky

Nolan has dreamed of a career in stand-up comedy for years; he’s just waiting for his big break to come along. But despite waiting tables at a famous comedy club and getting the chance to perform onstage, his chance at fame keeps eluding him.

Barely able to make ends meet, his family keeps urging him to pursue a “real” career. And that’s not the only place where he’s stuck: he’s also totally in love with his best friend and roommate, Drew, but he’s afraid to tell him how he feels in the event he messes up their relationship.

When Nolan’s sister–clearly his parents’ favorite–is getting ready for a picture-perfect wedding, Nolan decides to bite the bullet and ask Drew to be his date. (And maybe it’s time to hang up his dreams of comedy success.) But during the wedding, he finally gets his big chance to fill in for a famous comedian. Does he follow his dream or stay at the wedding? Needless to say, his leaving mid-wedding and standing Drew up doesn’t sit well with his family or his roommate, and he has horrible, blow-out fights with all of them.

Left alone, Drew wishes on a set of magical healing crystals–a wedding favor–to skip to the good part of his life. When he wakes up, it’s seven years later, and his dreams have come true. He’s now a tremendously successful comedian who has made a fortune bashing romantic relationships. He has everything he wants, except a relationship with his family. And what about Drew? Drew is gorgeous, successful, and can’t stand the sight of him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nolan discovers that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be without the people you love. But how can he convince Drew and his family that he deserves another chance after so much time has passed? Is he willing to give up his dreams to be the person they wish he could be?

I’ve enjoyed Timothy Janovsky’s earlier books, and this was a fun and moving read, definitely more emotional than I expected. Sure, it’s predictable and a little silly, but it may make you think twice about wishing on magic crystals anytime soon.

Book Review: "Congratulations, The Best is Over!" by R. Eric Thomas

I don’t read many nonfiction or essay collections, but when I saw that R. Eric Thomas had written a follow-up to his fantastic Here for It, I definitely had to go out of my comfort zone again. And I’m pleased to report that Congratulations, The Best is Over! is equally amazing, the perfect combination of thought-provoking, emotional, and hysterical.

In the early essays in this collection, Thomas and his husband David are living in Philadelphia and both are happy. But when David finds a job as a pastor at a church just outside Baltimore, the couple decides to move. This is a significant decision for Thomas, as Baltimore was his hometown, a place he didn’t want to move back to “even to be buried.” (The things we do for love.)

Thomas writes about what it’s like to return to a place you never wanted to come back to, the hell of moving, and the struggles of making friends as adults (particularly as a mixed-race, same-sex couple). There are also hysterically funny essays about Thomas attending his 20th high school reunion only to find someone else’s picture on his nametag, going to get his eyebrows threaded and bringing some celebrities whose eyebrows he admired (including a Muppet), and even his experience at an urgent-care facility after cutting his arm.

In the second part of this collection, many of the essays are a bit more serious, dealing with the death of David’s father, living in a fairly conservative part of Maryland in the lead-up to the 2020 election, and getting more in touch with his history. But of course, Thomas does throw in some humor, as he recounts his and David’s efforts (mostly David’s) to create a paradise in their backyard, and his harassment at the hands of a bunch of gay frogs. (Seriously.)

Thomas is a fantastic writer. Even if you’ve not experienced the things he writes about, his accounts are so engrossing and enjoyable that I couldn’t tear myself away. I’ll absolutely be waiting for whatever he writes next.

“But between the best days of life and the worst days of life, between what you thought your life would be and what it is, between two people, there is a vivid and strange expanse in the middle. This is the middle.”

Book Review: "Bellies" by Nicola Dinan

“I wore a dress on the night I first met Ming.”

When Tom meets Ming at a drag night at a bar near their university, both men are mutually attracted to one another. Tom, only recently out, is attracted to how together Ming seems, how serene, how confident in his future as a playwright and his sexuality. It’s not long before the two become inseparable.

As their relationship deepens, Tom realizes that Ming not only struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he seems increasingly dissatisfied with his body and appearance for reasons he cannot explain to Tom. After graduation, the couple moves to London, but no matter how they try to settle into their future together, the tension between them starts to intensify.

And then Ming tells Tom he intends to transition and become a woman.

The second half of the book follows Ming and Tom’s lives after Ming’s transition. Not only does this affect their relationship but their circle of mutual friends, and each confronts their own professional and personal issues. What happens after someone transitions? Can this individual who is finally living authentically find peace and satisfaction? And what parts of our lives should be open to public consumption?

This was a tremendously interesting premise. It was thought-provoking, emotional, funny, and insightful. Not much really happens in the book: it’s definitely character- and dialogue-driven, and it reminded me of a Sally Rooney novel. (That could be a positive or negative comparison depending on your opinions of her books.)

In the end, I just wish I enjoyed the characters more, so I could have been fully invested in the story.

Book Review: "Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of my absolute favorite authors. I’ve read all of her books—fiction, essay collections, even Truth and Beauty, her memoir about her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy. Not only do I love how she writes, but quite often, her books appear tremendously simple, only to surprise you with their depth. Her latest novel, Tom Lake, appears to be the story of a woman sharing youthful memories with her adult daughters, but it’s so much more than that.

When she was young, Lara was an actress of some promise. She had a prominent role in a movie that could make her a star, but its release was delayed, so she got an opportunity to perform in summer stock at a theater company in Michigan called Tom Lake. There she lands the lead in two plays, where she gets to share the stage with a charismatic, talented young actor named Peter Duke, and it’s not long before the two fall into a relationship. After that summer, Peter became a famous actor.

In the spring of 2020, Lara recounts her relationship with her daughters, as they have all returned home to the family’s cherry orchard in Northern Michigan amid the pandemic. Even though some of the story is familiar (and was the cause of much consternation during her oldest daughter’s teenage years), there is much that Lara has kept to herself all this time. Her reminiscences fill the long, laborious days of picking cherries and trying to keep the orchard afloat, and provoke strong emotions and opinions among her daughters.

This is such a gorgeously told story of family, love, memory, motherhood, and recognizing that happiness can come from a path other than the one you dreamed of. It’s also about growing up and finding out about your parents' lives before they were your parents. It’s an emotional story that will stick in my mind for some time.

“There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Book Review: "Speech Team" by Tim Murphy

Growing up in the Massachusetts suburbs, Thomas "Tip" Murray dreamed of a glamorous life as a screenwriter, a foreign correspondent, or a film critic. Now in his early 40s, he couldn't have gotten further from those dreams: he's a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, living in Providence with his solid and dependable husband, Marcus, and he works as a writer for an educational nonprofit.

One day he hears from his high school best friend, Natalie, that Pete, one of their classmates and Speech Team members, has committed suicide. While neither of them had thought much about Pete in many years, they were shocked to see that in his farewell post on social media, he mentioned that their Speech Team coach, Gary Gold, once made a devastating comment to him. Pete's post triggered some memories for Tip, memories of his own insult at the hands of Mr. Gold.

The more Tip thinks about Pete and Mr. Gold, the more obsessed he becomes with high school memories—the positive and the negative. He and Natalie (mostly at his urging) decide to look up two of their other classmates: Anthony, who is now a famous fashion designer, and Jennifer, the once-intense intellectual who is now a college professor. After some awkward moments, the four reunite and rehash some old memories. And then they discover one thing they all have in common: each was stung by an insult from Mr. Gold.

The quartet finds that Mr. Gold is still alive and now living in Florida, so they decide to take a road trip down there and confront him. But what they find is not at all what they were expecting. And Tip is slowly losing his grip, which puts his sobriety and his marriage at risk.

This book really hit close to home for me, but that only made me love it more. I went to high school in the 1980s and graduated the same year as the characters did. I struggled with my sexuality and was bullied quite a bit, much like Tip. And I had a high school teacher who bullied me, and more than 35 years later, some of the things he said still linger in my mind. (No one needs to worry about me confronting him, however, since he died a few years ago.)

I was so excited when I saw this book at the store, because I'm a huge fan of the way Tim Murphy writes. (Christodora was an utterly fantastic book.) This is, as I've read, a much more personal book for Murphy, and it definitely felt that way. It was tremendously thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Book Review: "The True Love Experiment" by Christina Lauren

I couldn’t have loved this more if I tried!

Felicity “Fizzy” Chen is a famous romance novelist who loses her mojo—both creative and romantic—when she realizes she’s never had the all-consuming love she writes about. Sure, she’s had relationships and some steamy, no-holds-barred sex, but she’s never truly felt love, so she feels like a fraud. And she might have shared those thoughts. Publicly.

Connor Prince is a documentary filmmaker focused on the environment. He and his ex-wife share custody of their 10-year-old daughter and he is a devoted father. When his boss tells him he needs to create a successful dating reality show in order to keep his job, he’s thrown for a loop.

But when he discovers how popular romance novels are (and particularly, Fizzy's novels), an idea is born: how about a show where the audience watches Fizzy interact with different men, and hopefully fall in love with one of them? At first, Fizzy wants nothing to do with the show, so she makes all sorts of unrealistic demands about casting and everything else. And Connor meets nearly every single one. So now she’s trapped into doing the show.

As Connor helps Fizzy get ready for the show, the two become close friends. Both find themselves wanting more, but know it could be disastrous, especially for Connor. But how can he watch her flirt with other men, much less fall in love with one?

This was another fantastic Christina Lauren book. I loved Fizzy in The Soulmate Equation, and it was so good to see her in her own book!

Book Review: "Hi Honey, I'm Homo! Sitcoms, Specials, and the Queering of American Culture" by Matt Baume

While I watch very little television now, I was a television addict from the 1970s into the early 2000s. I still remember some episodes from my favorite sitcoms, and definitely had nights when we watched certain programs. (My Saturday nights growing up were ruled by The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.)

Although I didn’t fully come to terms with being gay until my late teens/early 20s, I definitely knew I was different earlier. (Case in point: constantly rewinding the swimming competitions in Battle of the Network Stars, which featured television actors in speedos.) But the way gay characters were portrayed on television (even when they weren’t explicitly labeled “gay”) fell into every bad stereotype there was. How could I be gay if I wasn’t like that?

Whether you’re a television savant like I am, a fan of reading about television and its impact on society, or just curious about how the portrayal of queer characters has changed over time, Matt Baume’s book is a fascinating and well-researched read. It looks at programs from All in the Family, Soap, The Golden Girls, and Ellen,” to Friends, Will & Grace, and Modern Family. It also briefly touches on celebrities like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Rip Taylor, their campiness and double entendres, which I absolutely did not understand back then.

Baume juxtaposes the changing tide of television relative to the portrayal of gay characters with the prevailing attitudes of society, as well as the movements toward and against equal rights. I learned some new things and some things definitely jogged my memory.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but this was a great read for Pride. Plus, I only caught one error, because I’m a savant!!

Book Review: "The Five-Star Weekend" by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand’s excellent new book is such an easy and compelling read, full of drama, secrets, resentments, and friendship. I’ve never been to Nantucket, but every time I read one of her books, I’m ready to take off.

Hollis was born and raised in a small cottage on Nantucket, but while her best friends were content to stay near home, she wanted to get away, and went to North Carolina for college. That changed everything. Shortly after, she met Matthew, a doctor from the Boston area, and they got married and raised a child.

Now Hollis is one of the dreaded “summer” people. But she’s also grown a digital following with her popular food blog, Hungry with Hollis. While countless fans want to emulate her and cook like her, it’s put a strain on her marriage and her relationship with her daughter, Caroline.

When Matthew dies unexpectedly after they get into an argument and he leaves for the airport, Hollis is devastated. She tries to pick up the pieces but is finding it difficult to do so, especially with Caroline. Inspired by a woman she read about, Hollis decides to hold a “five-star weekend,” where she’ll invite friends from each phase of her life.

She invites Tatum, her high school best friend, who has always resented Hollis’ wanting more; Dru-Ann, her best friend from college, now a popular sports agent and TV host; Brooke, an off-island friend who is needy and insecure; and Gigi, a woman with whom Hollis connected on her blog but has never met. While the agenda for the weekend is full, each woman has her own problems and secrets which will be revealed.

I was seriously hooked on this story. And holy heck, did it make me hungry!!

Book Review: "The Language of Love and Loss" by Bart Yates

This was such an excellent, moving book about family—blood and chosen—as well as secrets and second chances. Bart Yates is such a talented storyteller and I was completely hooked from start to finish.

It’s been a while since he’s returned to his sleepy New Hampshire hometown, but Noah has been summoned by his mother, Virginia, who is New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate. They love each other, but their relationship has always been fraught with emotions and anger because they’re so similar, both being temperamental artists.

Virginia has bad news about her health, which throws Noah for a loop, and she has two requests for him: move home to New Hampshire and help her find the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was very young. He can’t imagine doing the first, and although he’s reluctant to help with the second, he realizes how much it would mean to his mother.

As if dealing with the discovery of a whole extended family wasn’t enough, he also has to deal with his unresolved feelings toward his one true love, J.D., with whom he grew up but pushed away. J.D. is now married and his husband doesn’t like Noah much—but given his constant penchant for sarcasm, that’s no surprise.

Other than one scene between Noah and his cousin, which creeped me out a bit and felt totally unnecessary, this book hit all the right notes. Just a beautiful story.

Book Review: "The Wishing Game" by Meg Shaffer

Friends, I think I’ve found one of my favorite books of the year!! When my dear friend Amy Clark raved about this book several months ago, I had to read it. And honestly, it was so incredible on every level—it’s a beautiful exploration of chosen family, the power of wishes and dreams, and what comfort books can provide.

Jack Masterson was the reclusive, prolific author of a bestselling fantasy/adventure series, the Clock Island books. It’s been years since he’s published anything, but suddenly the world is taken by storm when he announces he’s written a new book. Not only that, but he’s invited four fans to his home on the actual Clock Island to compete and win the one and only copy of the book.

Lucy is one of those fans. Now a teacher’s aide, her dream is to adopt Christopher, a foster child she tutors. But adoption requires money and stability, much more than Lucy has. She refuses to give up, and she knows winning the book could set her and Christopher on the right path.

There’s so much more to this book than meets the eye, so I'm keeping this review deliberately vague. It really resonated for me in more ways than I’d care to admit. I won’t stop thinking about this anytime soon!!

Book Review: "Open Throat" by Henry Hoke

This was honestly one of the most unique and creative books I’ve read in quite a while, and I don’t think I’ll forget it anytime soon.

Open Throat is narrated by a mountain lion who lives in the hills under the Hollywood sign. It’s difficult to be a creature living in the wild when you’re smart enough not to get caught, but in the drought-ridden world, finding food and water proves a challenge even for the most cunning of hunters.

The lion is lonely. They spend a lot of time listening to hikers and others pass by, talking about therapy, relationships, ambition, and lots of other things the lion doesn’t understand. They also dream of their father, who was brutally violent, and the life they wish they could live.

When a forest fire started purposely flushes the lion out of the hills, they find themselves having to go to the city of “ellay,” as the hikers call it. And from there, the lion is tempted by their true nature as well as the desire to become more human, to be cared for.

All of the descriptions of this book refer to the lion as queer. There isn’t anything in the text that leads you to that conclusion, so I’m wondering if it’s more of a metaphor, that the lion—like LGBTQIA+ people in many places—is fine as long as they stay hidden and behave in an acceptable way.

Maybe I’m overthinking, but this was fascinating. Thanks to MCD x FSG for the advance copy!

Book Review: "We Could Be So Good" by Cat Sebastian

I don’t know if it’s clinically possible, but I feel like this book made my heart grow two sizes larger.

Nick Russo is a talented reporter for the New York Chronicle in the late 1950s. He’s always wanted to be a reporter, and has worked his way up from a rough childhood. But that’s not his only struggle—he’s a closeted gay man at a time when being discovered could lead to his losing his job, going to jail, and even death.

“But he’s twenty-five and he’s already so tired. He’s so careful, all the time, about everything, from not letting himself look too long at other men to being almost paranoid about who he picks up.”

When Andy Fleming, the son of the publisher, starts working at the paper, it’s clear to everyone that he’s biding his time. Of course, Nick is immediately attracted to Andy, despite all the reasons why he shouldn’t be. Although Andy turns out to be a good reporter (even if he’s being groomed to take over as publisher), he’s also a bit of an absent-minded klutz, and Nick can’t help but want to take care of him.

Little by little, their friendship deepens, although Nick knows it’s just a matter of time before Andy finds a woman to settle down with. But somehow, they both seem to fall for each other, although how can they hope for a happy ever after?

This was such a fantastic book, full of self-discovery, romance, tension, and a good dash of history. I couldn’t get enough of these characters!!

Book Review: "Pageboy" by Elliot Page

I read very few celebrity memoirs, but when I heard that Elliot Page had written a book about his journey from struggling with being queer to the realization and acceptance of his identity as a trans man, I knew it was the perfect read for Pride Month.

Raised by divorced parents, verbally and emotionally abused by his stepmother and stepsiblings, Elliot had a rich fantasy life. He really wanted to be a boy, and often insisted on wearing boyish clothes and short hair. But as he grew older, his mother was less supportive of what she saw as merely tomboyish qualities.

He turned to acting as an escape from reality. At times it was frustrating that he had to wear dresses for the female characters he played. But as success grew—including an Oscar nomination for Juno—he found himself being forced into the role of quirky actress, and forced to hide who he truly was.

This was a terrific book, full of emotion, uncomfortable moments (for Elliot), sadness, and jubilant self-acceptance. There’s even a little Hollywood gossip.

“The act of writing, reading, and sharing the multitude of our experiences is an important step in standing up to those who wish to silence us. I’ve nothing new or profound to say, nothing that hasn’t been said before, but I know books have helped me, saved me even, so perhaps this can help someone feel less alone, seen, no matter who they are or what journey they are on.“

Book Review: "Same Time Next Summer" by Annabel Monaghan

Growing up, Sam used to spend every summer at her family’s Long Island beach house. It was an idyllic time—she learned to surf, and she fell in love for the first time with Wyatt, whose family lived next door. Wyatt and Sam spent nearly every minute together, until a discovery changed everything and he broke her heart.

Thirteen years later, the beach hasn’t been much of a refuge for Sam, but she comes to visit with her fiancé, Jack, to look at a possible wedding venue. Her life is much more organized and together now, as Jack, a handsome doctor, thrives on routines. She tries not to be thrown when she learns that Wyatt is in town, too, but he’s still a significant part of her family despite all that happened in the past.

While she tries to focus on her future, Sam keeps getting stuck in the past, since not much has changed. Wyatt still plays guitar in the treehouse, and still makes her heart race. She can’t help but relive the memories—the good and bad.

The book alternates between past and present, switching narration between Sam and Wyatt. It’s a familiar story with a few twists, and Monaghan’s writing is evocative and emotional. In a theme that has been quite familiar for me this year, I absolutely loved Monaghan's first book, Nora Goes Off Script, so my expectations for this book were very high. And while I enjoyed it, I just felt as if it moved really slowly as both the past and present storylines unfolded.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Book Review: "The Seven Year Slip" by Ashley Poston

Ashley Poston’s The Dead Romantics was one of my top three favorite books last year. And now, The Seven Year Slip is definitely a contender for a similar position in 2023!

First things first: if you’re not a fan of magical realism and weird time loop-ish storylines, you may not enjoy this. But I couldn’t get enough.

Clementine has been mourning the death of her larger-than-life aunt Analea, with whom she shared many adventures and stories since childhood. Analea believed sadness and ennui could be cured by picking up your passport and traveling somewhere exotic. Her aunt’s loss is devastating, and even though she left Clementine her apartment, she’s finding it difficult to imagine living there without her.

One day she arrives home at her apartment to find a handsome man, Iwan. He has a Southern drawl and a love of cooking. He says he’s the son of her aunt’s friend, and her aunt said he could sublet the apartment for the summer. Then Clementine realizes that he exists in the past. Seven years in the past. And she lives seven years in his future.

Analea told Clementine that the apartment was a pinch in time–a place where the past and present sometimes combined in strange ways. There was no rhyme or reason to when this would happen, but how do you stop your heart from falling for the person who seems to complete you? And when she finds Iwan in her present, what will happen?

Poston definitely knows how to hit all of my buttons. I loved this story so much, and it left me a complete puddle of emotions. I hope others love it as much as I did!

Many thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for an advance copy of this amazing book. It will publish 6/27.