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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Book Review: "Is It Hot in Here? Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?" by Zach Zimmerman

How can you resist a book with a title like this? Comedian and writer Zach Zimmerman provides fodder for laughs, tears, and even some a-ha moments in this memoir-esque collection of essays and anecdotes about making peace with yourself.

Zimmerman chronicles growing up in a religious home (and his need to escape), coming to terms with his sexuality, trying to find love amidst online dating disasters, and other situations, including his family’s reactions to the COVID pandemic.

Interspersed between these essays are lists with titles like “Seven New Sins–and Tortures Too.” (Among those sins are “suggesting a book club book you’ve already read” and included among the tortures is “You are given six delicious Cadbury Creme Eggs and told one is filled with mayonnaise. (They are all filled with mayonnaise.)”

Some of these essays made me laugh out loud, some made me roll my eyes at the absurdity of the events Zimmerman described, and some actually made me think.

But after a while, everything started to have the same sarcastic tone, and some of the content was a little too precious for me. Yet this surely was an enjoyable break from heavy fiction!

Book Review: "Adelaide" by Genevieve Wheeler

This was a powerful debut that really has stuck in my mind since I read it.

Adelaide has always dreamed of finding the person to sweep her off her feet, someone with whom she can spend the rest of her life. But relationships never seem to last for her, and as her friends pair off, it becomes more difficult to be happy for them when she is alone.

Living and working in London, one night Adelaide meets Rory, and she falls quickly for this handsome Englishman. He seems genuinely attracted to and interested in her. Sure, he’s far from perfect–he doesn’t always respond to texts, remember that they have plans, or reach out proactively to set up dates. But his good looks, charm, and intelligence truly appeal to her, and it’s not long before she realizes she’s in love with him.

Rory’s unpredictability takes an emotional toll on Adelaide. There are days, weeks that she doesn’t hear from him, and while her best friends support her unequivocally, they also wish she would give up pining for him. But every time she’s about ready to call it quits, he reappears, talks sweetly, and she is putty in his hands once again.

When Rory is impacted by tragedy, Adelaide puts all of her feelings on hold in order to take care of him. But the more Rory falls apart, and the more Adelaide tries to hold him together, the more her own psychological health frays. She tries to believe that at some point he will come around and realize how she has stood by him, but his unpredictability, coupled with his blatant disregard for her feelings, takes its toll.

Adelaide is a very emotional look at mental health and depression, as well as how at times, we can only depend on friends and chosen family to save us.

I’ll admit that I didn’t understand Rory’s appeal after his flaws became obvious, but I know that you cannot always help who you love. I was tremendously moved by this book, although its depiction of depression, grief, attempted suicide, and pregnancy loss might be triggering for some.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Book Review: "Small Mercies" by Dennis Lehane

Man oh man, this guy can write.

I’ve been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s since his first book, A Drink Before the War, utterly blew me away. I’ve loved so many of his books—Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and of course, Mystic River, which is an all-time favorite of mine. (And an excellent movie, too.)

Although highly anticipated books by favorite authors have been hit or miss for me this year, Lehane’s newest book was definitely a home run for me.

“That’s what ghosts are—they’re testaments to what never should have happened and must be fixed before their spirits leave this world.”

It’s the summer of 1974. A heat wave is mercilessly punishing Boston, and everyone is on edge. But it’s not just the heat causing temperatures to rise—the forced desegregation of Boston schools is about to happen, and almost no one is happy about it.

Mary Pat Fennessy was born and bred in the housing projects of Southie, where she has raised two kids of her own. She’s struggling financially and she’s always been at least a little bit angry, a little bit proud, and, like most of her neighbors, at least a little bit racist.

One night, her 17-year-old daughter, Jules, doesn’t come home. That same night, a young Black man is found dead in a nearby subway station, apparently struck by a train. Are the two events interconnected?

The longer Jules is missing, the more suspicious Mary Pat becomes. And then she decides to get to the bottom of the matter herself—no matter whom she angers or what trouble she causes. Her nothing-to-lose, don’t-give-a-damn attitude and actions set off a powder keg in a city already on edge.

This is a tense (and intense), sometimes sad, and tremendously thought-provoking book. Mary Pat isn’t trying to be a hero; she just wants to figure out what happened to her daughter. And at the same time, she’s realizing how the way she was raised and the way she raised her children might have played a factor in all that occurred.

This will make one heck of a movie.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Book Review: "American Mermaid" by Julia Langbein

Julia Langbein’s debut novel is unique and thought-provoking.

Penelope was a high school English teacher, barely making ends meet, and still having to rely on her parents far more than she’d like. But then inspiration strikes and she becomes the author of a feminist novel about a mermaid.

The book becomes a surprise hit, and Penelope is offered the opportunity to help write the screenplay for the film adaptation. She moves to California and quickly realizes the world of film isn’t quite what she thought it would be. Paired with two male screenwriters, they try to change the main character from a fiercely feminist eco-warrior to a sexy teenage nymphet wearing a clamshell bra. How much latitude does she have to fight back before the movie doesn’t resemble her book at all?

But the more things change in the script, the more weird things start happening. Strange additions and changes appear in the script and no one can figure out who is responsible. People are lured into dangerous situations. Is there a possibility that Penelope’s character has come to life to avenge the changes being made?

This is a quirky and really creative story within a story. We see both Penelope’s struggles in Los Angeles and get to see her book’s plot unfold. The problem for me, however, is that nothing felt fully done; in jamming the book full of two plots, neither seemed complete.

Some reviews have said that this book is really funny, but I didn’t see that. There’s a lot of the same jokes about men being sex-crazed chauvinists and after a while that gets tiring. (I don't disagree about some men, but still.)

This wasn’t a book I enjoyed, but it definitely was an interesting story. And now I’ve read two mermaid/merman books (with The Pisces). Who knew it was a genre?

Monday, March 20, 2023

Book Review: "Stars and Smoke" by Marie Lu

A little action and intrigue, a little romance, and a fun ride characterize Marie Lu's upcoming book, Stars and Smoke.

Winter Young is the biggest pop sensation in the world. His latest album tops the charts in 70 countries, and he’s a real heartthrob and fashionista. But despite his amazing success, he doesn’t feel fulfilled anymore. Inspired by the memory of his older brother, who died while in the Peace Corps, he starts yearning for more than fame.

Enter Panacea, a top covert-ops organization. They’ve been trying to bring down a major drug, arms, and human trafficker without success. But the mogul’s daughter is Winter’s biggest fan, so when she invites him to attend her birthday party, it will allow Panacea to infiltrate his home courtesy of their newest recruit—Winter.

Sydney is Panacea’s youngest operative, on her way to becoming their best agent ever. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she’s not thrilled about having to babysit a pop star playing spy. But as Winter and Sydney get closer to their target, she starts to realize there’s more to him than meets the eye, and he finds that her icy exterior is hiding vulnerability.

This was a good, fast-paced read, with memorable characters and a good mix of intrigue and romance. I’ll read whatever Lu writes, and this was an interesting change of pace for her.

Thanks to NetGalley and Roaring Brook Press for an advance copy. The book publishes 3/28.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Book Review: "A Likely Story" by Leigh McMullan Abramson

Secrets and drama abound in the family of a bestselling author.⁣

⁣ All Ward Manning wanted was to be a famous writer. And while it took some time to build momentum, he’s a literary legend now. His wife, Claire, is a philanthropist and socialite, with the brains and beauty to match.

⁣ ⁣ The couple’s only child, Isabelle, has wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps since childhood. She was envious of the way everyone clamored for his attention and favor, not to mention the fame. But her writing career can’t seem to take off; her first book was rejected by publishers, and as she nears her 35th birthday, the pressure is mounting, as is the fear of failure.⁣

⁣ When Claire dies unexpectedly, it throws both Ward and Isabelle into turmoil. Ward is coming to terms with the fact that his popularity may be dwindling, and realizes just how much Claire brought to his life. And when Isabelle goes through some keepsakes Claire left for her, she discovers something which makes her question everything that has transpired in her life, all of her assumptions about her parents and the people they were.⁣

⁣ I love some good family drama and dysfunction, and this certainly delivered more than its share of secrets and lies. The book shifted back and forth through past and present, narrated by the three Mannings as well as Isabelle’s best friend, Brian. Also, interspersed between chapters are excerpts from a novel about a woman wronged by her husband and how she tries to right the score. But whose book is it?

I just wanted a bit more from this book.⁣

Friday, March 17, 2023

Book Review: "The Golden Spoon" by Jessa Maxwell

In The Golden Spoon, the contestants on a popular baking show have more to worry about than simple competition.

Meh. I wanted so much more from this one. I mean, a mystery that takes place on the set of a baking competition? I could almost taste the possibilities. (Sorry, it did make me hungry.)

It’s the 10th season of “Bake Week,” the beloved competition show. It’s filmed at Grafton Manor, the historic Vermont home of the show’s host, baking legend Betsy Martin. The five contestants are assembled, as is Betsy’s new co-host, culinary bad boy Archie Morris, whose hire Betsy is none-too-thrilled about.

But as the competition gets started, things to go awry. Contestants’ work is getting sabotaged, tensions are mounting between Betsy and Archie, secrets are hidden, and then, murder. Hang on to your whisks!!

The plot for this one seemed completely by-the-numbers. Narration alternated between Betsy and each of the contestants, although one contestant got barely any mention.

Oh well, you can't win 'em all…

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Book Review: "Just My Type" by Falon Ballard

The latest from Falon Ballard is a fun, sexy, and emotional rom-com about second chances and finding yourself first.

Lana is an excellent girlfriend. Parents always love her, and she’s so good at putting her boyfriends’ needs over her own. Ever since her high school boyfriend broke up with her in college, she’s never been good at being alone, so she quickly moves from relationship to relationship.

When her most recent relationship ends with her getting dumped instead of being proposed to (and it’s not the first time that’s happened), she realizes maybe she should take some time for herself before dating again. And then he arrives: Seth, her high school boyfriend, who has been traveling the world as a journalist, and who broke Lana’s heart—twice.

It turns out Seth will be working temporarily at the website where Lana has been working since college. (Why does he look even more amazing now?) With the chemistry and unresolved issues between them off the charts, Lana’s boss pits them against each other in a competition: Lana has to write about coming to terms with being single (and staying single), while Seth has to put down roots and try finding a relationship. The winner will get a coveted columnist job.

Each has to do—and write about—things chosen by the other. And as they try to deal with their own issues, their past keeps getting in the way. Will the competition ruin any possible chance for a future together?

I thought this was great! It’s a little more emotionally and psychologically weighty than most rom-coms, but the banter, steam, and supporting characters were fantastic!! This is why Ballard is an auto-buy author for me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Book Review: "Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood" by Tanya Frank

Tanya Frank's new memoir is a powerfully moving and thought-provoking account of a family affected by mental illness.

“…all the vigilance in the world cannot save or fix my boy. He has his own voice. He needs to find it again.”

Tanya’s younger son, Zach, was smart, charming, curious, and loving, a UCLA student who always seemed to have a girlfriend and a group of friends. Yet one night in 2009, he suffered a schizophrenic break, convinced he was being monitored and that someone was trying to kill him.

That night launched their family into the overwhelming, emotionally draining, often-confusing, and frustrating mental health system. They quickly find there’s not one concrete diagnosis, not one proven method of treatment, not even one drug to help manage symptoms. Zach is often caught between the choice of taking drugs that have horrible side-effects or allowing his symptoms to overwhelm him.

It’s not long before Zach’s condition has strained Tanya’s relationship with her wife and their finances, and left her wondering what her approach should be. How can she abandon her son at his most vulnerable? But how can she be involved in his care and still be a good wife and a good mother to her older son? And if Zach wants her to walk away, can she? What will his future look like?

I learned a lot about schizophrenia from this book, and as someone with depression and anxiety, I did recognize some of the struggles and emotions that Zach, Tanya, and their family faced. This is beautifully written, and I felt very fortunate that Tanya was willing to share her family’s challenges.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Book Review: "Pineapple Street" by Jenny Jackson

Pineapple Street is a fantastic, character-driven look at the foibles and crises of a wealthy New York family.

The Stocktons are an old-money family living in the historic section of Brooklyn Heights. Cord, the only son, works in their family’s real estate business with his father. Their mother occupies her time playing tennis and tracking the latest gossip among “their kind,” and can always be counted on for an appropriate tablescape for a party or everyday meal.

Darley, the oldest daughter, was once a businesswoman in her own right, but she gave up her career to raise a family, and her inheritance to marry for love. But when things get tough, she wonders if she gave too much away.

Georgiana, the youngest, hasn’t quite grown up yet. But when she strikes up a relationship with a coworker—a man she cannot have—it changes her, and she realizes she needs to make some major adjustments to be the person she wants to be.

When Cord marries Sasha, a woman from a middle-class family in Rhode Island, it causes friction among the Stocktons. Darley and Georgiana view her as a gold digger and resent the fact that Sasha and Cord got to take over the family brownstone. Sasha doesn’t really care about the money—what she wants is to feel a part of the family, not like an outsider. She even feels like Cord sides with his family over her.

I thought this was such a terrific story, even though it’s one in which not a lot happens. The characters were fascinating and flawed, but it took a slightly different path than I expected, which is great. A very impressive debut!