Sunday, March 31, 2024

Book Review: "The Marriage Sabbatical" by Lian Dolan

“This isn’t a midlife crisis; this is a midlife triumph.”

Jason and Nicole have been married for 23 years. Their two children are in college, and they’ve made quite a life for themselves in Portland through the years. It’s about time they did something for themselves, and they’ve been planning a sabbatical, which includes a 9-month motorcycle trip through South America.

Nicole loves the idea of a sabbatical, but not the motorcycling trip. She’s been dreaming of going to Santa Fe, to study silversmithing, so she might be able to sell her jewelry creations at some point. Of course, she’s not sure how to tell Jason she really doesn’t want to take the trip he’s been planning for a while now.

One night, their neighbors tell them about a key component of their marriage: the 500-mile rule. When they’re more than 500 miles away from one another, they’re free to do as they wish, with whomever they wish to. No questions asked. At first, Nicole and Jason are adamant that they could never live like that, but the more they think on it, they decide that perhaps they can each take a separate sabbatical for nine months, and if they decide to sleep with someone, that’s fine—just no diseases and no pregnancies.

With enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation, they both head out on their journeys. The trips are life-changing and freeing in so many ways, and while chemistry sparks with new people for both, they start to realize what they want from their future—and their relationship.

I’ve become a fan of Lian Dolan after reading her last few books, and this was a fun and sweet read. It alternates between Jason and Nicole’s perspectives, and shifts between the present and retraces their relationship from the start. I can only wonder if the idea of a sabbatical might catch on!

Book Review: "Funny Story" by Emily Henry

Emily Henry is an absolute auto-buy author for me. Her books have an incredible way of making me feel multiple emotions simultaneously. They fill my heart (and often fill my eyes with tears) and they definitely make me smile, if not all out laugh.

Daphne loves that her fiancé Peter loves telling the story of how they met and fell in love. She moved to his hometown of Waning Bay, Michigan, and loves the idea of becoming a part of his family. More than that, she loves her job as a children’s librarian.

The last thing she expects is that the night of his bachelor party, Peter breaks their engagement, telling Daphne that he and Petra, his childhood best friend, have fallen in love and want to be together. Oh, and Daphne has to move out of their house so that he and Petra can live there.

So now, Daphne is reeling from grief and anger, and she lives in an apartment with Miles, Petra’s ex, who also isn’t handling the end of his relationship too well either. The two peacefully coexist in their state of depression and anger, despite Miles’ penchant for sad love songs and an occasional joint.

One day, Daphne tells Peter that she and Miles are now together. To prove it, they start chronicling their “relationship” with photos on social media. Casual, friendly, generous Miles is everything Peter was not, so it’s not too long before Daphne finds herself wishing her pretend relationship was real. But both she and Miles have walls around their hearts, and it’ll take more than a fake relationship—and intense sexual chemistry—if they ever have a chance together.

Henry’s books always have lots of great banter, and this is no exception. I also really loved all of the supporting characters and Waning Bay was a terrific small town.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for the advance copy; the book publishes 4/23.

Book Review: "Like Happiness" by Ursula Villarreal-Moura

This was easily one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while. I’m so impressed that this was Ursula Villarreal-Moura’s debut.

Tatum Vega is finally happy with her life. She lives in Chile with her partner, Vera, and works at a museum, finally being able to harness her art history degree and her dreams of doing something related to art.

One day, her relative peace is shattered when she gets a phone call from an investigative journalist for the New York Times. He is looking into sexual assault allegations against the famed writer M. Domínguez, and he asks if Tatum has anything to say in response. He asks because Tatum spent nearly a decade of her life involved with Domínguez in a variety of ways, from admiration to friendship, love, and even occasional obsession.

The reporter’s call upends Tatum’s life, forcing her to truly examine her relationship with Domínguez. It was all-encompassing at times, leaving her a jumble of emotions and often unsure of where she stood with him. She enjoyed their intellectual conversations about books and writers, and had the opportunity to travel with him. But really, how can she describe the way she felt? And why can’t she get him out of her head years later?

The book alternates between present day in Tatum’s life and a letter that she writes to Domínguez, chronicling their relationship from the start, sharing her thoughts, feelings, fears, and observations, which she kept to herself as things were unfolding.

There was a tremendous amount of insightful commentary about the power dynamic that exists in relationships, particularly when the people involved are different ages and at different stages of their lives. It also looked at the lies we tell ourselves and how hard it can be to realize we deserve to be happy.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Book Review: "Kill for Me, Kill for You" by Steve Cavanagh

Whoa. This book was twisty and intense, and I was hooked from the very first page!

Amanda has been filled with grief and anger since she experienced a double loss. The police know who is responsible but can’t find enough evidence to make a case against the suspect. She’s taken to stalking him and dreams of taking his life into her own hands, to make his loved ones suffer the way she has.

At a support group for grieving parents, she meets Wendy, and recognizes in this woman much of the same unresolved anger toward the man responsible for her own loss. One night over drinks, they agree to a plan: Wendy will kill the man responsible for Amanda’s loss, and Amanda will do the same for her.

One night when her husband is out with friends, a man breaks into Ruth’s house and violently assaults her. She barely saw her attacker, except for his piercing blue eyes and his calling her “sweetheart.” The aftermath leaves her in complete fear, desperate to know why she was singled out, and worrying he’ll be back to finish the job. Every man she sees frightens her. Her husband Scott is desperate to help her overcome her fears, but he feels powerless.

This really was a fast-paced book, and Steve Cavanagh ratchets up the tension and suspense little by little. While you think you know what will happen, the script gets flipped more than a few times.

I had seen a lot of great reviews for this book, and I’m so glad it lived up to my expectations. Definitely a twisty read I couldn’t get enough of!!

Book Review: "Anita de Monte Laughs Last" by Xochitl Gonzalez

A dual-timeline book that examines the art world as well as the sexual, racial, and power dynamics it stirs up, Anita de Monte Laughs Last was a very thought-provoking read. I really loved Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut, Olga Dies Dreaming, so I was really looking forward to this.

In 1985, a rising young artist, Anita de Monte, died under mysterious circumstances. Anita was married to famed artist (and womanizer) Jack Martin, but as her raw talent started gaining notoriety, it provoked Jack’s envy and his anger. While Anita’s death proved to be a scandal, the buzz was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before Anita’s talent was forgotten and Jack's career continued to flourish.

In 1998, Raquel Toro is an art history student at Brown University. Being one of only a few minority students, she felt ostracized, like she needed to work three times as hard to get the breaks her fellow students got. When she starts a relationship with Nick, an older, wealthy art student, she does reap the advantages—but at the expense of her pride, her independence, and her self-respect.

She plans to write her final thesis about Jack Martin, but while interning at a museum over the summer, she is introduced to the life and work of Anita de Monte. She realizes this artist, her talent as well as her tragic end and the influences she had over those in her cycle, is the real story that needs to be told.

The parallel narrative is an interesting one, shifting back and forth through Anita’s short career and her death, alternating with Raquel’s struggles and her discovery of Anita’s work. It’s fascinating and sad how both women felt the need to compromise themselves in order to make the men in their lives happy, and how their minority status often made them “exotic.”

While the pacing felt a little slow at times, I really liked this book. I’d imagine the struggles Anita and Raquel dealt with were very realistic, not just within the art world.

Book Review: "The Boyfriend Subscription" by Steven Salvatore

A steamy, gay version of Pretty Woman? Yes, please!

Teddy thought he had it all—the perfect marriage and a dream career running an urban nursery in the middle of NYC. But he finds out that his husband played him for a fool, and then he lost his business, which devastated him even more. With no money or prospects on the horizon, he plans to head back home to New Orleans to live with his mother and start again.

Cole was supposed to be the heir to his family’s construction company, but his desire to live his life on his own terms alienates him from his family, especially his power-hungry father. But he achieves the success he dreamed of by founding VERSTL, an app which brings sex workers and consumers together to create content and connect with one another.

Teddy and Cole meet in a dive bar one night, when Teddy is drowning his sorrows and Cole is escaping immense pressure. VERSTL is about to go public, which will be a surprise to Cole’s family. But to attract an investor concerned about the sex work component of the app, Cole could use a more down-to-earth boyfriend.

And that’s where Teddy comes in. After their one-night stand, Cole offers Teddy a job to pretend to be his boyfriend. He’ll be compensated quite well, but he has to remember two rules: no kissing and no catching feelings. Hmm…wonder how that will go?

This was so enjoyable, super-sexy, romantic, and emotional. I loved the book’s treatment of sex work as well as the way it portrayed the inferiority complex many of us deal with. Cole and Teddy were a great couple, and Steven Salvatore is such a talented writer. I've loved their YA books, and I'm so glad to see they've moved into adult romance!

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Book Review: "Here We Go Again" by Alison Cochrun

I was a complete puddle of emotions after reading Alison Cochrun’s newest book. It was 1:30 a.m. and I was crying and smiling at the same time. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Logan has spent her whole life in the same small town of Vista Summit, Washington. She is in her 30s, she still lives with her father, and she even teaches at her old high school. She never lets anyone get too close, so everyone thinks she’s a self-centered asshole, and she doesn't seem to care. She even thinks of herself as a fuckboy.

Rosemary was Logan’s childhood best friend, until one night when they were 14 and everything changed. From then on, they’ve strongly disliked one another. Rosemary left town to go to college and make a living, but then she came back to Vista Summit, and teaches in the same school Logan does.

Both Rosemary and Logan are never-ending sources of aggravation for one another. But when their beloved high school English teacher, Joe, tells them he only has a few months to live, he makes a request they can’t refuse: he asks them both to drive him to Bar Harbor, Maine, so he can die at a house he has owned for decades rather than die in the hospital.

The thought of having to spend that much time together in close quarters fills both of them with dread, but Joe means more to them than almost anyone. There’s so much they want to say to one another, so many misunderstandings to be corrected, so many feelings to finally be expressed. But given how different each of them is, will they even survive the drive?

Cochrun’s debut, The Charm Offensive,” was one of my absolute favorites, and this was utterly amazing. It’s sexy, funny, complicated, sad, and hopeful, but it may be triggering for some who have recently experienced loss. This really moved me.

The book publishes 4/2.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Book Review: "The Trail of Lost Hearts" by Tracey Garvis Graves

Wren has been reeling from the sudden death of her fiancé, not to mention a second blow which was even more crushing. All she has wanted to do is cut herself off from the world and wallow in her grief, but her friends won’t let her. Remarkably, she starts to find joy in geocaching, or using a GPS to find hidden objects, and she plans a trip to Oregon, to get away from home and spend a week clearing her mind while searching for geocaches.

Shortly after starting out on a hike, she encounters a dangerous situation she is utterly unprepared for. Marshall, another hiker, happens to be walking by and he saves Wren from almost certain disaster. Wren is tremendously grateful for Marshall’s heroism, and when he proposes they team up for the rest of the week, she agrees.

Marshall is dealing with a tragedy of his own, and while his kindness and empathy help Wren to unburden herself, he isn’t willing to open up himself. But the more time they spend with each other, the stronger the connection between them grows. Neither is sure what the future holds, but they decide to enjoy the time until Wren heads home.

But when Wren returns home, it appears that she and Marshall are farther apart emotionally than Wren thought. For the first time, she knows it’s necessary to put herself and her needs first, even if it’s not what her heart wants.

How do you find the strength to move on when you can’t see past your grief and hurt? When do you know if you’re ready to shake off your past and start anew? Can you let your fears go in order to take a chance?

I love the emotions that Tracey Garvis Graves fills her books with. Every one I’ve read has hit me square in the feels, but at the same time, they’ve been infused with hope. I definitely will keep reading everything she writes!!

Book Review: "Expiration Dates" by Rebecca Serle

I don’t exactly know what it means that I love books with touches of magical realism, yet when a thriller forces me to suspend my disbelief I often struggle with it. Whatever it is, some of my most favorite books have had that element in common, and that’s why I love everything that Rebecca Serle writes.

Imagine if, just before—or after—you meet someone you’re attracted to, you find a slip of paper that has their name on it and how long your relationship with that person will last. That has happened to Daphne for as long as she can remember. While it certainly is a burden to carry, it also keeps her from being blindsided—she knows how much of herself to give.

She has always dreamed that one day she’d receive a paper that let her know she found her forever love. And when she gets ready to go out on a date with Jake, a friend of a friend, she finds a slip of paper with just his name on it, no time limit. Finally, she can let her guard down.

With Jake, she feels freer than she has before, and it’s not long before she knows she wants to spend the rest of her life with him. But Jake doesn’t know what secrets Daphne is keeping, and Daphne doesn’t know if she can possibly keep from breaking his heart.

“Something else has always called the shots in my life—call it the universe, fate, the comedic force of timing. But my life isn’t like other people’s. I have a different set of rules to live by.”

I fell head over heels for Expiration Dates, but I recognize magical realism isn’t for everyone. The book definitely had a few twists I didn’t see coming, but in the end, it is its heart that resonated so much for me.

Book Review: "I Finally Bought Some Jordans" by Michael Arceneaux

“No matter how bad things get, if I feel my hair is together, I believe more firmly that I can deal with what is thrown at me.”

Can I get an amen? I believe I’ve actually spoken these words (albeit less articulately) before, because I do feel better when my hair doesn’t look like an overgrown shrub.

As it was with his first essay collection, I Can’t Date Jesus, Michael Arceneaux imbues his writing with sly humor, wry observations, rich emotions, and thought-provoking ideas. There were definitely instances throughout this book when I felt truly seen, and identified with the feelings he was expressing.

Whether he’s talking about the realization that trolling celebrities on the internet sometimes comes back to bite him, his fear that no one would show up to his book signings, his working on his relationship with his parents during the pandemic, or finally feeling secure enough financially that he can splurge every now and again, Arceneaux is thought-provoking and at times either side-splittingly funny or poignant.

Sometimes an essay collection is a great change of pace for me, and I’ve found some great writers over the last few years. If you give this a chance, you may find yourself wiping away a tear one second, and laughing out loud the next. I don’t know about you, but that’s what makes reading fun.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Book Review: "Blank" by Zibby Owens

In thinking of a word to describe this book, the one that keeps coming to mind is “zany.” It’s a book that is about one thing in the beginning but gets wilder and more melodramatic as it unfolds.

Pippa always knew she wanted to be a writer. Her first novel, Poppies, was a surprise bestseller (she was surprised the most) and was even adapted into an Oscar-winning movie (a technical award, but so?). Everyone is eagerly anticipating her follow-up book.

The problem is, it’s been three years and she’s still staring at the flashing cursor on a blank screen. And now her publisher is demanding a book in a week, or she’ll have to return her advance—which she and her husband used to build her a writing office. She’d better come up with an idea fast, or she’s screwed.

But then her 12-year-old son Max jokingly suggests an idea—and she runs with it. It’s definitely risky, but she sees it as an opportunity to make a statement about the publishing world, the arbitrariness of which books sell and which ones don’t, the ones publishers put their weight behind and the ones that languish, barely read. And while the literary world is abuzz about the book, her handsome publisher starts to take an interest in it—and Pippa.

And that’s about when everything goes off the rails. Suddenly amidst the public attention about the book, Pippa starts realizing there’s a lot she doesn’t know about her life, her friends, her marriage, her ambitions, and even her kids. Can she emerge from the chaos stronger and happier than ever? Or at least not have to pay back her publisher?

This was a cute story but it definitely got wacky. I don’t know that I particularly liked many of the characters, although I did like Max and Josh. It’s a quick read that gives you a lot to think about.

Book Review: "Really Cute People" by Markus Harwood-Jones

While I definitely have a fondness for books about family drama and dysfunction, what I love more are books about chosen family. That is something Really Cute People has in heartwarming abundance.

“If you think you’ve found your people, hold on tight. From there, everything else will sort itself out.”

Charlie is definitely in a bit of an emotional slump. The queer collective they once were a part of has fallen apart, and their former housemates all seem to blame Charlie. To top it off, their job at what was once a crisis hotline—now staffed by a chatbot because of budget cuts—isn’t exciting them as it used to, although the a promotion would be appealing.

Charlie’s boss asks them to take a trip to a small town outside the city to check out a new model of community center. They can’t wait to relax in the luxurious Airbnb their boss has reserved. But when Charlie arrives, they find chaos—a couple, along with their five-year-old daughter, as well as a dog, a cat, and a bird, messed up the schedule of when they were renting their home out. However, they promise to be out of Charlie’s hair the next morning.

Except the next morning, there’s a massive snowstorm, so Charlie is stuck with Buffy, Hayden, and their family. To everyone’s surprise, Charlie seems to relish the craziness—and it doesn’t hurt that both Buffy and Hayden seem to be flirting with Charlie. Could this be what they’ve been looking for all along, or will the fantasy end when Charlie has to return home?

This story was sweet, steamy, and sensitive. As the author said in their notes, why can’t a triangle turn into a triad? I’ve really never read a book with this as its focus, and it definitely made me smile and feel all the feels.

Book Review: "What Happened to Nina?" by Dervla McTiernan

Having read—and loved—Dervla McTiernan’s last book, The Murder Rule, this was one of my most anticipated books in the first quarter of this year. And wow, it blew my expectations out of the water.

Nina and Simon were childhood friends who started dating in high school. Although they went to different colleges—Simon to Northwestern and Nina to the University of Vermont—they were determined to make the long-distance thing work.

But since they both went away to school, Simon has become more possessive, more quick to anger, even a little bit violent. When they go to his parents’ vacation home in Stowe, Vermont, they hope to spend the week climbing (which they both love) and strengthening their relationship. But Simon comes back without Nina, telling everyone they broke up and that Nina went to meet another friend.

Nina’s parents suspect Simon had something to do with her disappearance, and they press the police for answers. But Simon’s father is rich and powerful, and both he and his wife are determined to protect their son at any cost.

It’s not long before guilt and innocence are muddied by rumors and innuendo, and both sides dig their heels in. Can Nina’s parents allow justice to take its time? Can Simon’s parents understand what Nina’s family is going through? Will anyone’s lives remain intact through the uncertainty, scrutiny, and despair?

This really was a fantastic book. McTiernan ratchets up the suspense and tension little by little until you need to race through the book to see how everything gets resolved. It’ll make you sad and angry, and keep you on edge.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Book Review: "Kilt Trip" by Alexandra Kiley

I am a sucker for a Scottish accent and a man in a kilt, so of course I bought this as soon as I spotted it in the bookstore!! And after reading the book, Scotland remains near the top of my travel bucket list!

Her work as a travel consultant has given Addie the opportunity to travel all over the globe. But when her next assignment—to help a struggling family-run tour company—sends her to Scotland, a country she has been avoiding because of painful memories, she puts a smile on her face and prepares to do her job.

Logan is ready to fully take the reins of his family’s tour company when his father retires. Ruggedly handsome (especially when wearing a kilt), he looks like he stepped off the set of Highlander, and he excels at getting tourists excited about the magic of his home country. But unfortunately, the company hasn’t been turning a profit, which is where Addie comes in.

Sparks fly between Addie and Logan immediately, but that’s doesn’t mean he’ll be receptive to her recommendations, especially if it means adding more touristy stops to their tours. But when he realizes that Addie has avoided Scotland all this time because of its ties to her late mother, he’s determined to help her find those connections.

The harder they fall for one another, the more Addie realizes what she’s been running from for so long. She also is inspired by Logan’s ideas to bring the tour company into more modern (and profitable) times. Can they trust each other enough to let their hearts go? And can Addie convince her boss to buy into Logan’s vision for the company?

I always love banter in my romances, and there’s some good stuff here. Throw in some sexy steam, some unresolved grief, and enjoyable supporting characters, and you get a fun, sweet, and sexy debut!!

Book Review: "The Unquiet Bones" by Loreth Anne White

Human bones are found one day beneath a chapel on the grounds of a ski resort. It appears they’ve been there for nearly 50 years. The evidence links the strangely well-preserved remains to 16-year-old Annalise Jansen, who went missing in the mid-1970s.

Detective Jane Munro, assigned to handle cold cases as a punishment for acting out, knows what it’s like to have a loved one go missing. Her fiancé disappeared while on a hiking trip, and shortly thereafter she found she was pregnant. Jane is determined that Annalise’s family will get the closure it needs once she and her colleagues figure out what happened.

Quite a lot went on the night Annalise went missing in 1976. Six of her closest friends made a pledge to stand by each other’s alibis, and even were dubbed “The Shoreview Six” by the press back then. But when news about Annalise’s remains being recovered goes public, it threatens to fracture the promises and expose the fears and assumptions that have lingered in the back of their minds all these years.

I love police procedural-type books, and while this is a mystery as well, I found the partnership between the police and a forensic anthropologist to be fascinating. There were definitely some things I never knew were possible to detect from bones.

I really enjoyed Jane’s character and how she balanced her own issues with her determination to solve the case. I felt like there definitely were hints that this could be the first book in a series, perhaps teaming her up with Dr. Quinn, the forensic anthropologist, and I’d love that.

The pacing of the book was a bit uneven; it was very slow at first and then so many secrets were revealed it was hard to determine what were facts and what were distractions. There also were so many characters to keep track of, and in some cases they had different names and/or nicknames back in the 1970s, so I had to write stuff down.

Book Review: "Great Expectations" by Vinson Cunningham

No, this isn’t a retelling of the Charles Dickens classic. (I’ll admit, that’s what made me first pick up the book.)

It’s February of 2007 when David, a young Black man from New York, hears the Senator from Illinois declare his candidacy for President of the United States. David is fascinated by the Senator and the hopeful vision for the future he conveys, but he cannot believe that a Black man would be taken seriously as a credible candidate for President.

Thanks to a connection, David lands a job working for the Senator’s campaign. It’s a low-level job helping collect contributions at events, but it’s not long before the Senator notices him, and little by little, David becomes a more integral part of the fundraising operation.

While “the Senator” is never referred to by name, it’s obvious that he is based on Barack Obama. David is a fictionalized version of the author, Vinson Cunningham, who worked for the Obama campaign and at the White House.

While today’s political climate makes me ill, I’m fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of campaigns and presidential administrations. There are glimpses of that in this book, but this is more of a meditation on religion, identity, fatherhood, and race. Cunningham is a talented writer, but this book never quite grabbed me.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Book Review: "Uncle of the Year & Other Debatable Triumphs" by Andrew Rannells

When I read his first memoir, Too Much Is Not Enough, a few years ago, I remember thinking I could totally be friends with Andrew Rannells. Sure, he’s a Tony nominee and has been both on television and in movies, but we still have a lot in common.

After reading his collection of essays, Uncle of the Year & Other Debatable Triumphs, I’m further convinced we have similar senses of humor and similar anxieties, so while I probably wouldn’t go to karaoke with him (he’s starred in several musicals, after all), maybe we’d get along, or crack each other up.

This book is thought-provoking, hysterically funny in places, and poignant in others, and many times I found myself recognizing feelings and thoughts. In one essay he ponders when he became an adult. “Was it in my twenties, when I started my career? Was it after my first big breakup? Was it when my dad died? Was it when I started living on my own without roommates?”

Rannells recounts highs and lows in his life, from pretending to be straight so he and a friend could get on a talk show to the many rejections he experienced auditioning. He touches on dating disasters (like hooking up with a married Christian co-star), landing his starring role in The Book of Mormon, and what it’s like to be nominated for—and lose—two Tony Awards. And in the title essay he talks about the fact that while he never really wanted children of his own, he loves being an uncle (even a great-uncle) and how interesting it is to date a man with grown children.

I really enjoyed this. Even if you have no idea who he is, I think if you identify with some of the themes he touches on, you may find this to be fun and moving. And while I promise not to stalk him, if you know Andy, tell him we should be friends.

Book Review: "Second Chances in New Port Stephen" by TJ Alexander

“…Eli’s plane ticket had been one-way because his apartment in Brooklyn was currently home to a subletter, and Eli had no idea how or when he’d be going back. The truth was Eli was possibly stuck in Florida for the foreseeable future…”⁣

⁣ It’s not always easy to return to your hometown. But for Eli, returning to New Port Stephen—especially at the holidays—is torture, because everywhere he turns he’s reminded of his life before he transitioned and got the heck out of town. He also hasn’t told his parents that he lost his job as a television writer because of a scandal with the show’s star, and his career prospects have been close to zero.⁣

⁣ The first night he is home, he runs into his ex-boyfriend from high school, Nick. Of course he looks amazing, and although he’s divorced, he has a terrific young daughter he’s devoted to. Nick and Eli have so many memories together, and despite the weirdness that surrounds their reunion, the chemistry between them still inexplicably sparks.⁣

⁣ The more time Eli spends in Florida, especially with Nick and his daughter Zoe, the more his feelings grow for both of them. But staying in Florida means saying goodbye to his career dreams and being stuck back at home. And Nick can’t quite make sense of how he feels about Eli and whether a future with him is realistic.⁣

⁣ I loved this so much! Eli is a bit of a snob, but it’s definitely a defense mechanism. This is sweet, sexy, emotional, and thought-provoking. I’ve become such a fan of TJ Alexander’s and the beauty and heart with which they imbue their books!⁣

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Book Review: "Mrs. Nash's Ashes" by Sarah Adler

This was so lovely and heartwarming! And funny story: I was reading this while on a work trip last year and I proceeded to leave my book in the seat pocket of my first flight, only to discover I lost it shortly before getting on my next flight. I was rather unhappy, but bought a new book, and finally restarted this one!! (It was well worth the wait.)

Millie recently lost her elderly best friend and roommate, Mrs. Nash. But before she died, she told Millie all about the great love of her life. Not her husband, but Elsie, a woman she met when they were both stationed in Florida during WWII. Millie was so taken by her friend’s story that she vowed to find out what happened to Elsie. And that’s why she’s heading to a nursing home with three tablespoons of Mrs. Nash’s ashes in a baggie.

Frantic to get to Florida before Elsie passes away, Millie finds herself caught in travel hell when all flights are grounded. Somehow she wears down the resistance of Hollis, a handsome but aloof writer who was in her ex’s graduate program. Hollis thinks Millie is a little loopy and naive, but he worries about her safety, so he invites her to drive down to Florida with him.

Hollis can’t believe the trouble Millie is going to, and he keeps telling her he doesn’t think it will end well. But truthfully, Hollis doesn’t believe in love or happy-ever-afters, while Millie does with her whole heart, even though she’s been hurt before. And although they experience one disaster or roadblock after another, the more time they spend together, the more Millie realizes Hollis is rooting for her journey to succeed.

With dual timelines, hilarious banter, fun supporting characters, and some super-steamy steam, this is a celebration of love and finding someone who will bring out the best in you. Just loved it!!

Book Review: "Caught in a Bad Fauxmance" by Elle Gonzalez Rose

It’s been a tough few years for twins Devin and Maya Báez. Their mother died, and Devin left their Florida home to go to art school in California, while Maya went to college near home and resented her brother. But now their family will be spending winter break at their cabin at Lake Andreas, where they’ve not been for four years.

All hopes for a relaxing, stress-free break vanish quickly when they run into their neighbors, the Seo-Cooke family. The Báezes and Seo-Cookes have a complicated relationship—well, they hate each other. The two families have had run-ins for years, and the Seo-Cookes always seem to walk away victorious from the lake’s annual winter games.

This year, everyone swears it will be different, but it’s not long before the Báezes’ cabin is put up as a wager between the families. Maya, Devin, and their father are determined to finally bring their rivals down. And when Julian Seo-Cooke—looking handsomer than ever—asks Devin to pretend to be his boyfriend to get his ex off his back, Devin sees this as an opportunity to infiltrate their enemies and get proof they’ve been cheating all these years.

Of course, the more time they spend together, Devin realizes Julian isn’t as manipulative and horrible as he has always believed; in fact, he didn’t realize what his family has been doing to win the games. But while Maya keeps pushing him to sabotage the Seo-Cookes, Devin would rather forget all about the rivalry and just be with Julian. Is such a thing even possible?

I love fake dating and enemies to lovers tropes, but there has to be evidence that explains the characters’ dislike for one another, and you want to believe the chemistry between them is real. While issues between other members of both families were ugly, I never felt that tension between Devin and Julian. In fact, I didn’t feel either of those characters were well-developed, and I thought the pranks each family played on the other were really silly.

This was sweet in places, but it felt a bit too surface-level for me. I wanted more of Devin and Julian being vulnerable, more of them realizing their feelings. There were possibilities galore, but no real oomph to their romance.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Book Review: "The Breakup Tour" by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Riley Wynn might be the most famous singer/songwriter at the current time. Her natural charm, her beauty, and her talent have garnered her countless fans, and her romantic relationships keep her in the public eye.

When her marriage to a handsome actor ends after only a few months, she chooses to put her pain into her music. She writes what is essentially an album of breakup songs, each one inspired by a different relationship. The lead single, “Until You,” becomes an instant hit, with her ex-husband publicly discussing how he inspired the song.

The truth is, though, the song is about her college boyfriend Max, a fellow musician who decided to stay home and run his family’s retirement home instead of pursue their romantic and musical dreams together. Now 10 years later, Riley shows up to ask Max if she can tell the world that he inspired her song. His counteroffer is to play the song on tour with her.

As they travel across the country, the song sounds great but it’s not authentic because there’s no connection between them. Both are fighting to keep their feelings in check, afraid if they pursue love again, it could shatter them forever.

I’ve seen many people refer to this book as the “Taylor Swift story”; even one of the blurbs on the back cover says, “This one is for the Swifties.” For me, knowing these things made it difficult for me to separate the main character from her alleged inspiration.

This character isn’t particularly likable. She’s immensely cynical and seems to view love—its beginning and ending—as nothing more than musical inspiration. Obviously there is more to her than meets the eye, but while I enjoyed the book, I found it hard to get fully absorbed by Riley’s story.

Book Review: "The Same Bright Stars" by Ethan Joella

That feeling when an author whose two previous books have been on your best-of lists writes a new book that surpasses them all. Thank you, Ethan Joella, for leaving me smiling, sniffling, and utterly in awe about how easily your stories pull me in.

Schmidt’s restaurant has been a fixture in Rehoboth Beach for three generations now. Jack Schmidt has been at the helm for years, running the place his grandmother and father devoted their lives to. And Jack has done the same—put the restaurant and its staff above everything else in his life, including relationships, travel, even simple relaxation.

The DelDine group has been purchasing family-owned and small restaurants all over Delaware, and they’ve cast their sights on Schmidt’s. Jack has absolutely no intention of selling his family’s legacy, but the more tired he gets, the more he wonders if maybe he deserves to put himself first for once.

As he ponders the decision, he thinks about the paths he could have taken, the chances he passed up, and the regrets he has. He worries about his employees and whether DelDine will honor their promise to take care of them if he sells. And when he learns of a secret hidden from him for years, he wonders if this is the sign he needs to act.

The richness of this story, the depth of the characters, the emotions and images it evokes, all blew me away. This is a gorgeous story about family, friendship, love, loyalty, regret, hope, and possibility. I will never get enough of how well Joella tells a story.

Thanks so much to NetGalley, Scribner Books, and Ethan for the advance copy! The book will publish 7/2.

Book Review: "A Fire So Wild" by Sarah Ruiz-Grossman

Intriguing and thought-provoking, A Fire So Wild is both a meditation on climate change and a look at housing inequity, as well as how the path back from disaster looks different for the haves versus the have-nots.

It’s an unbearably hot summer in Berkeley, California, much as it has been for some time with the damage wrought by climate change. A wildfire in the distant hills threatens the city, but many aren’t too concerned that it will actually reach them.

Abigail works for an affordable housing organization, not seeing the irony of living in a hillside mansion with her wife and son. She’s desperate to show that she’s doing good for the community, so she decides to throw a fundraiser for her 50th birthday, to subsidize more affordable housing units in a new building under construction.

Sunny and his girlfriend, Willow, are currently living in their van, but have recently been approved for one of the apartments—if the funding comes through. They dream of the difference a place of their own will make, not having to move the van every night. And then, in the midst of it all, flames rush into the neighborhood, destroying homes, lives, and futures.

This was definitely a character-driven book, and there are a number of characters the story follows. Not all of the stories are as fleshed out, but I felt drawn into the fear and anger, and the descriptions of the fire were so evocative. I was worried that the book might veer into melodrama, and was so glad it didn’t. Definitely kept me thinking!

Book Review: "Bloom" by N.R. Walker

This book was so sweet and romantic, I feel like my heart grew a few sizes while reading it!! It was included on a list of indie queer romances that a friend of mine posts each month, and I’m so grateful to have found this!

Keats owns his own flower shop in Sydney. It was a dream of his for some time, and while things are going well, running a successful business is exhausting, and he’s been able to focus on nothing but that for the last two years. He does wonder what it would be like to have a personal life again.

One day, Linden walks into the store looking for a bouquet of murder flowers to give to his cheating boyfriend. Keats convinces Linden to go for flowers that send a message rather than ones that could cause actual physical pain and suffering. Linden makes a purchase, and both aren’t shy about flirting with each other.

Neither man can get the other out of his mind. Their chemistry is intense, their senses of humor mesh perfectly, and they’re quickly smitten with one another. Given Linden’s recent romantic history, would getting involved with Keats doom him to be the rebound guy? And given that the store has been an impediment to Keats dating, is Linden different?

For me, this book was the perfect mix of flirtatious banter, the giddiness of attraction, and some exceptionally hot steam, along with fun supporting characters. I’ll definitely be looking up the meanings of any flowers I give or get in the future!!

Monday, March 4, 2024

Book Review: "Owning Up" by George Pelecanos

Ever since I read one of his first books in the early 1990s, George Pelecanos has been one of my absolute favorite crime writers. Although he has done well as a writer and executive producer of shows like The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce, he really should be more of a household name for his books.

He hasn’t published a book since 2018, so I was really excited to find his latest book during a bookstore visit this weekend. Even if this is more fiction with a dash of crime, it is so good to read his work again.

Owning Up is a collection of four novellas, each of which follows its main characters for a number of decades. In “The Amusement Machine,” two former inmates meet in a completely different environment since they’ve turned their lives around, at least until one finds money more tempting than freedom. In “The No-Knock,” a crime writer’s life is turned upside down when federal agents ransack his house, looking for evidence that his eldest son committed a crime.

Family history, as well as the history of some major acts of violence and disaster in Washington DC, are at the core of “Knickerbocker,” when a woman leading her grandmother through reminiscences brings her into a whole different world. And in the title novella, a young Greek man comes of age during two hostage crises in Washington, and he learns a valuable lesson from a coworker.

While I missed the whipsmart intensity of Pelecanos' crime novels, these novellas reminded me how well he creates characters that reside somewhere in the grey space between good and bad. There are familiar themes in this book, of family and heritage, over the struggle to do the right thing, and issues of racism and racial inequity. I’ve always loved the research he does for his books, and it’s gotten to the point where I’ve been here long enough to remember many of the places he writes about!!

Book Review: "After Annie" by Anna Quindlen

“Grief was like spring, maybe. You thought you were getting out from under it and then it came roaring back. And getting out from under it felt like forgetting, and forgetting felt like treason.”

One night while cooking dinner, Annie asks her husband Bill to get some Advil for her headache. The next second she falls to the ground in front of her children, struck by an aneurysm.

The suddenness of Annie’s death hits everyone hard, most notably her husband, their four children between the ages of 6 and 13, and Annemarie, Annie’s best friend since childhood, who leaned on Annie about as much as her family, at times more.

The book is narrated by Bill, Annemarie, and Ali, Annie and Bill’s oldest daughter. Lots of things happen—tensions, breakdowns, arguments—as well as the simpler moments which illustrate how life does go on even when it feels like it absolutely can’t.

How do you deal with your grief when you have four children who need to get back into their routines, and they need your help? How do you handle having to take charge of raising your father, your siblings, and yourself when you’re only 13, and don’t really understand all that’s happening in your own world? What do you do when the one person you’ve counted on to save you is no longer there, when you need her the most?

I thought this was beautifully written and sad (although not as sad as I expected), but the pacing was a little slow at times. It also felt like there might have been one too many things happening at the same time. But the emotions, the differing stages of grief and how we handle them, it all made for a powerful story.

Book Review: "Family Reservations" by Liza Palmer

This book couldn’t have been more tailor-made for me, given that it’s a combination of two things I love the most: family drama/dysfunction and books about cooking and the restaurant world. It was so good I stayed up super late to read the whole thing!

Maren Winter is a culinary pioneer. She blazed a trail when only a small number of women were chefs—and even fewer owned their own restaurants. She’s built an immense legacy that’s about to get even bigger with the imminent opening of her latest restaurant, Central Trade.

But as Maren gets older, each of her daughters wonders when she’ll step down from the helm, and which one of them she’ll entrust with The Winter Group. Will it be shrewd Sloane, desperate to finally step up as a leader? Julienne, the communications expert and middle child, who is rarely seen for the full extent of her intelligence? Or will it be Athena, the youngest, who has truly followed in her mother’s footsteps to become an acclaimed chef on her own?

During Maren’s annual New Year’s Eve Dinner, decisions are made and events occur that threaten to destroy the family. At least two of the three daughters see this as their chance to grab the reins, but they don’t count on their mother’s restlessness or how getting closer to your dreams sometimes doesn’t feel as good as you think.

Most of these characters aren’t particularly likable, but I couldn’t put this book down. I was completely immersed in the power struggles and emotional realizations that occurred, and couldn’t wait to see how it all wrapped up.

“There’s something particularly irrefutable about finding actual evidence of how truly clueless you once were. The blind hope of it just breaks your heart.”

This was my Amazon First Reads pick for March. The book releases 4/1.