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!

Book Review: "Go As A River" by Shelley Read

This is a moving and beautifully evocative story of a young woman who follows her heart.

It’s 1948. Ever since her mother, aunt, and cousin died in an accident, Victoria has become the woman of the house. She cooks all the meals for her father, brother, and uncle, not to mention the workers on her family’s Colorado peach farm. It’s a house full of tension, as all three of her family members have issues of their own.

One day she meets Wilson Moon, a young Native American man who has left his tribal land to pursue his own path. For the first time in her life, Victoria knows what it feels like to want someone and be wanted. But their time together is fleeting, because her town doesn’t like the idea of someone who is different having free will to do what he wants.

When tragedy strikes, she leaves home and escapes into the mountains, where she ekes out a solitary life for herself despite the challenges posed by the elements and her own limitations. But when she returns home, so much has changed. She soon learns of the government’s plan to flood her town, so she is determined to save all she can, especially her family’s peach orchard.

This is based on the true story of the destruction of Iola, Colorado. It’s an emotional story of love, betrayal, fear, isolation, friendship, and resilience. Victoria is a truly memorable character whose bravery and ingenuity in the face of adversity was moving and inspirational.

Book Review: "Off the Map" by Trish Doller

What happens when a woman who’s always off finding adventure connects with a man who’s never had one?

Ever since Carla’s mother left when she was young, her father taught her that when the going gets tough, you should travel somewhere exciting. And when he gets dementia, he tells Carla to travel for as long as she can, so she won’t be there for his deterioration. She lives a nomadic life, traveling wherever her mood takes her, and leaving if she feels too settled.

When she flies to Ireland for her best friend’s wedding, she’s looking forward to being around people she cares about. The last thing she expects is to connect with Eamon, the best man, who is tasked with bringing her to the wedding in Tralee. They recognize each other as kindred spirits, and their chemistry is intense. Carla is the inspiration Eamon needs to stop dreaming of seeing the world and actually do it.

They take advantage of a few days’ break before the wedding and travel some scenic routes, much to the chagrin of Eamon’s family. And the closer they get to one another, the more conflicted Carla feels. She’s always run away before things get too serious—should she do so again?

This is the third book I’ve read by Trish Doller and I’ve loved every one of them, and her mix of humor, banter, emotion, and steam. You could definitely read this as a stand-alone but it would help to read the first book, Float Plan. (You should read all three of them, really.)

One trigger: if you’ve had a loved one deal with dementia, this may be a tough read. But it’s just so freaking good!!

Book Review: "Your Driver is Waiting" by Priya Guns

Your Driver is Waiting is a darkly satirical, thought-provoking look at our culture of protest and selfishness.

Damani is a rideshare (like Uber or Lyft) driver who lives in an unnamed city. Since her father died at his fast-food job, she’s been taking care of her mother, barely scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck. (In order to eke out a living, she has to drive constantly, despite the rules set by her employer.)

All throughout the city there are protests for every conceivable cause and issue. At the same time, the rideshare drivers are banding together to protest their pay constantly getting cut and other adverse conditions.

One day, Damani picks up Jolene, a beautiful white woman. Their attraction to one another is evident and their chemistry is palpable. Damani has never dated anyone with money before (especially a white woman), but Jolene seems to get her. They quickly fall into a relationship, which seems perfect—until Damani discovers that Jolene isn’t quite who she seems to be.

I’ve heard this book is a gender-flipped adaptation of Taxi Driver, but I didn’t feel that. It seemed to me like the book wanted to provide sharp social commentary but at the same time be a romance, and those two styles didn’t quite mesh. I’ll admit I don’t love when authors play coy with the locale of their book, so I found it difficult to completely settle into the culture.

I’ve seen some strong reviews of this, so it might just be me. Give it a shot if the description intrigues you.

Book Review: "The Soulmate" by. Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth's latest is a deliciously addictive and twisty domestic thriller. She delivers another fantastic read!

Gabe and Pippa have a beautiful home at the edge of a cliff. It’s a memorable view, popular with walkers and tourists—as well as those looking to end their lives, since it’s a sharp and dangerous drop to the water below.

A number of times, Gabe has been able to talk these people out of taking their lives. But one night, a woman appeared at the edge of the cliff and Gabe proceeded to talk to her as always. This time, however, the woman did jump, despite Gabe’s best efforts.

Both are devastated by this tragedy and try to shield their young daughters from it. So what if Gabe’s recounting of events doesn’t quite match what Pippa saw through the window? He was there and she may have been at the wrong angle.

But when Pippa discovers that Gabe knew the woman who jumped—and why she jumped—she starts to worry what else he’s been hiding from her. And she’s also worried about her own role in all of this.

As is often the case when I read Hepworth’s books, I was hooked from the very first page. I had lots of suspicions about how things might unfold, and for the most part, I was surprised. I really enjoyed this one!!⁣

The book will publish 4/4.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Book Review: "Dibs" by Kimberly Knight and Rachel Lyn Adams

Dibs is a steamy and moving second-chance romance. (I mean, look at the cover!)

My Facebook algorithm doesn’t mess around—it showed an ad for this book; I was intrigued and bought it. I feel so athletic—I’ve moved from hockey romance to a baseball one!

Chase and Gage were baseball teammates and roommates at UCLA. One drunken night, after neither had any success finding a woman, one thing led to another and they messed around with each other. It wasn’t anything either of them had thought of before and both wondered what this might do to their friendship. But the next day, Gage suffers a random injury and he leaves UCLA with his parents, without saying goodbye.

Fifteen years later, Chase is just retiring from a fantastic professional baseball career. He’s looking forward to spending more time with his kids and getting to see his son play ball. He moves to San Diego to be closer to his ex-wife and kids.

Imagine his surprise when he meets his son’s coach—Gage. And their sons are best friends. Both can’t stop thinking about that one night in college, and little by little, they start building a new friendship. But one night, they need to address this growing attraction—and they decide to act on it. Their feelings for one another surprise them both.

As they start to take tentative steps toward a relationship, what will that mean for their careers, their children, their futures? It may be a difficult path, but is this completely different journey than they expected worth fighting for?

I loved this. It was romantic, super steamy, funny, emotional—it hit all the buttons. I’ll definitely be reading more books in this series!!

Friday, March 3, 2023

Book Review: "My Last Innocent Year" by Daisy Alpert Florin

An excellent, powerful coming-of-age novel about the decisions we make and the ripples they leave behind.

“…as small and unimportant as I mostly felt, the egotism of youth hadn’t left me, and I placed myself firmly and squarely at the center of the universe.”

It’s 1998. Isabel Rosen is a senior at Wilder College, a prestigious school in New England, where she is one of only a few Jewish students. She’s always been a bit of a follower, trying to find her place yet stay out of the spotlight. But a sexual encounter with an Israeli student confuses and frightens her, and she feels both angry and vulnerable.

She’s always thought about being a writer, following in the footsteps of her late mother, an artist, but her father tries to convince her there’s no money in that. And then she takes a senior writing seminar taught by R.H. Connelly, once a renowned poet expected to conquer the world, who now works for a local paper.

It’s the first time anyone has really praised her work and told her she has promise. It’s not long before Isabel starts an affair with her married professor, and he gets her thinking about pursuing a writing career and staying in New England with him. She knows, however, that this can’t last, and at a crucial juncture, she makes a decision that changes a number of lives.

I thought this was fantastic. It’s set against the backdrop of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, which sets the stage for a lot of interesting conversations, but this is more a story about Isabel coming into her own. It’s a sharply written debut that dazzled me.