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the same time, Ben's daughter Emma, who has lived with Boady and his wife since Ben was killed, has become sullen and withdrawn since she turned 14 years old.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.