Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Book Review: "The Only One Left" by Riley Sager

At seventeen, Lenora Hope
Hung her sister with a rope
Stabbed her father with a knife
Took her mother's happy life
"It wasn't me," Lenora said
But she's the only one not dead

In 1929, the state of Maine was shocked by the brutal murder of three-fourths of the wealthy Hope family: the powerful patriarch, his wife, and their older daughter, Virginia. The police suspected the sole survivor, 17-year-old Lenora, who was found covered in blood, but they were never able to prove it.

While the crimes fascinated the public, Lenora never left her family’s mansion again. As she grew older, she suffered a series of strokes which left her almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak. She can only move one hand, with which she can tap out yes or no answers to questions, as well as type.

In 1983, Kit is a home-health worker who is hired to care for Leona. She is troubled by what she thinks are footsteps in Leona’s room late at night, even though that can’t be possible. Then one day Leona asks to use the typewriter and offers to tell Kit everything.

As Leona slowly types out the events leading up to the murders, Kit realizes there’s much more to the story than she ever thought. But as other shocking discoveries are made, Kit can’t be sure whether Leona is telling the truth and she is innocent, or whether Kit is being manipulated by a master.

Riley Sager’s books are hit or miss for me. I probably wouldn’t have read this if it wasn’t the selection for our book club. It was an entertaining read, although I thought the pacing was slow until the end, when Sager dropped a million twists nearly simultaneously.

Book Review: "Gravity" by Tal Bauer

Another hockey romance? Some may say I’m obsessed. It is Stanley Cup playoff season, so why not?

Bryce is a Canadian hockey legend. Raised in a small Quebec town, he’s now captain of the beloved Montreal Étoiles. He’s smashed so many records but he hasn’t yet won the Stanley Cup. Beyond that, he has been having feelings he won’t let himself acknowledge, feelings about what it might be like to fall in love completely, to be with another man.

Hunter is an enormously talented young player who grew up idolizing Bryce. When they get to play together at the all-star game, they dazzle the fans and the hockey world alike, but it is their easy and intense friendship that wows them both. But when Bryce kisses him, he panics, which sends Bryce into a serious slump.

Desperate to recapture the magic of the all-star game, Hunter gets traded to Montreal. At first the move actually exacerbates the team’s problems, until Bryce and Hunter take a trip to visit Bryce’s hometown. The magic of their friendship ignites again, which quickly leads to passion and love.

While they try to keep their relationship a secret, a crisis occurs which pushes it into the open. No one really seems to care about anything but Bryce’s happiness and, of course, for the Étoiles to win the Stanley Cup.

This is the second Tal Bauer book I’ve read, and I just love the way he writes. It’s romantic and steamy and just beautiful, and it makes you wonder why the real world can’t be like this. For those of you who like hockey in your hockey romances, there's a lot of it, which I enjoyed. My one tiny quibble with the book is there are a lot of French phrases (not all are translated), so I spent a lot of time Googling everything. But that didn't dull my love for the book.

Book Review: "The Best Lies" by David Ellis

I don’t know what it is about 2024, but some of my favorite thrillers have been all about lies: First Lie Wins, Listen for the Lie, and now, The Best Lies.

This book had my heart racing from the very first page. David Ellis’ last book, Look Closer, totally blew me away and was one of my favorite reads of 2022. While this was different in some ways, here, too, there were lots of twists and turns and I didn’t have any idea how it would all get resolved. But when I was finished with the book, I wanted to read it all again to see if I missed anything!

So much of what worked about this book for me was not knowing what to expect, so I’m going to be fairly vague about the plot. When the book starts, Leo, a criminal defense attorney from the Chicago area, is about to be arrested for murder. But as we see from the way the plot shifts back and forth through time, what brought Leo to this moment is much more than meets the eye initially.

The book is narrated from several characters’ perspectives, and it deals with a lot of themes. It also raises the question of whom you can trust, and if certain crimes can be overlooked if the motive behind them was pure.

David Ellis is a phenomenal storyteller. If anyone has read his backlist, please tell me which book to pick up next!

Many thanks to G.P. Putnam's Sons and NetGalley for the advance copy! The book will publish 7/23.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Book Review: "A Novel Love Story" by Ashley Poston

Emotionally undone by another Ashley Poston book…it must be that time of year! Her upcoming book has the beautiful mix of romance and magical realism I’ve come to love in her writing, and at the same time, it’s a paean to books and stories and the feelings they gives us, and it was so lovely.

Eileen is an English professor at a college. And while she’s more than happy talking about classic works, she’s a huge romance reader. Even when her life goes wrong, her favorite books, her best friend, and her book club bring her joy. Although everyone else is unable to make the book club’s annual retreat this year, she’s determined to go to the cabin in the Catskills, to read and drink wine.

On the way, she gets lost in a rainstorm and winds up in a charming small town. And then her car won’t start. But the people seem so nice and the town seems so familiar…and then Eileen realizes that somehow she has wound up in Eloraton, the setting of her absolute favorite romance series. In Eloraton, the burgers are always a little burnt, the honey taffy is always sweet, and it always rains in the afternoon. What a perfect place to wait for your car to get fixed.

The more time she spends in Eloraton, the more Eileen realizes that the characters are stuck, because the author died before the fifth book could be finished. The characters don’t realize why they’re stuck, but Eileen inadvertently creates some ripples that actually move things forward, much to everyone’s pleasure. Everyone’s except a handsome yet grumpy bookstore owner, who doesn’t want Eileen to ruin things.

Eileen realizes that she hasn’t been happy in some time, not until she arrived in town. Can’t she just stay in Eloraton, with these characters who have become her friends? How tempting it is to lose yourself in a place you love.

At first I worried this would be silly, but it’s so richly told, so vibrant. As with all of Poston’s books, this isn’t for everyone, but it filled my heart so much. I am an absolute fan of hers.

Many thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the advance copy! The book will publish 6/25.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Book Review: "The Bump" by Sidney Karger

Sometimes you find the right book to fit your mood. For me, the most recent example of this is Sidney Karger’s upcoming book, The Bump. It hit me square in the feels and left me smiling, too.

Wyatt and Biz have been together for a number of years now. Wyatt is a director of commercials; Biz, a former child actor, is now a food writer. Wyatt is the high-strung planner; Biz is the more spontaneous, fun-loving one. The couple lives in Brooklyn with their dog, Matilda.

But everything is about to change for them. They’re having a baby (through a surrogate) in a few weeks, and both are getting pretty tense. Biz decides that instead of flying to California for the baby’s birth, they’ll drive, making a few stops on the way so it’s kind of a “baby-moon.” (Biz is starting to panic, so he hopes the road trip will calm him down.)

In their old VW convertible, they start their journey in Provincetown, the scene of many great memories for them. But Wyatt feels like Biz is trying to avoid becoming a father, while Biz wishes Wyatt would just mellow out a bit. The tension makes it hard to enjoy, and then their plans go awry when an emergency with Wyatt’s family necessitates a detour.

Each time they try to get back on course, something else happens which causes another detour. And at the same time, secrets are revealed and discoveries are made which ratchet up both of their emotions, not to mention the tension between them. Can their family survive before it even starts?

While much of the drama in the book would be solved if Wyatt and Biz would just TALK to each other, the miscommunication didn’t bother me as much as it usually does in books. They make an adorable couple, and I really was rooting for them, plus I enjoyed the supporting characters as well. The book was a good mix of serious and silly, romantic and fun.

Many thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the advance copy! The book will publish 5/21.

Book Review: "The Hearing Test" by Eliza Barry Callahan

Sometimes I’m so taken by the synopsis of a book that I read a few pages and then buy it without looking at any reviews. At times this experiment is successful and I find a gem I might not have otherwise known about.

Other times, however, it’s like only walking around the store once when you try on a pair of shoes—you don’t experience the discomfort until you’ve done a little more walking. And in this case, the book’s quirks weren’t evident until I got about 20 pages in, and I had already bought the shoes, umm, book.

In The Hearing Test, a young artist awakes one morning with “a deep drone in my right ear accompanied by a sound I can best compare to a large piece of sheet metal being rocked, a perpetually rolling thunder.” At first she thinks she might have water in her ear after a swim. But the doctors quickly diagnose her with Sudden Deafness, as she had lost low-end hearing.

This news throws her for a loop. The doctors don’t believe she’ll regain her hearing, and in fact, this could be a sign of a larger problem which might ultimately result in profound deafness. But while this is certainly worrying, she is determined not to let herself obsess over what might happen.

The book is essentially a record of her year—the interesting and the mundane things that occur. Many times it’s her recounting conversations she had with random people, conversations with so many extraneous details it’s like talking to a friend who is prone to veer off topic and onto other paths. It’s also a reflection on her happinesses and disappointments, her fears and triumphs.

Most of the book is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, without context for what the author shares. (Also, conversations are reflected with no quotation marks.) I think this was beautifully written—the language was so evocative—but it was mostly over my head. Ah, well…

Book Review: "The Paris Novel" by Ruth Reichl

It should come as no surprise that a book written by Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine (which I miss so much), has some of the most vivid and sumptuous descriptions of food I’ve ever seen. And while my stomach was growling quite a bit, it was balanced by some mentions of food I’d definitely never eat, so no calories were consumed!

In 1983, Stella’s mother Celia passed away. They rarely saw each other, because Celia lived life elaborately and reinvented anything (or anyone) she didn’t like, while Stella felt lost without specific plans or routines. So imagine Stella’s surprise when she learned that Celia left her some money with the stipulation it be used for a trip to Paris.

She doesn’t quite understand why Celia would send her to Paris, but she quickly fell in love with the city. One day she comes upon a vintage dress shop and tries on an exquisite Dior dress. The shop owner urges Stella to buy it, saying it was made for her, so Stella does something impulsive for the first time in her life.

The shop owner tells her to go to a brasserie and order oysters, and Stella is dazzled by their taste. It is there she meets Jules, a wealthy art consultant in his 80s, who takes a liking to her. It’s not long before he’s introducing her to some of the finest French restaurants, indulging her love of art, and involving her in some of his schemes.

While in Paris, she becomes part of a community at the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore and becomes obsessed with solving a mystery about a female artist from a time where women were not treated equally in France. She also discovers an absolute passion for food, which may be something she came by naturally.

Paris is such a wonderful setting for a book, and I thought this was lots of fun. I did think the subplot about the female artist dragged the rest of the story down a bit, but I still couldn’t get enough of the characters and their larger-than-life personalities. Il est bien fait! (Bravo!)

Book Review: "Days of Wonder" by Caroline Leavitt

Ever since I stumbled upon her heartbreaking yet hopeful novel Pictures of You a number of years ago, Caroline Leavitt has been an author whose books I eagerly anticipate. Her books are often quite emotional but never maudlin, and they definitely are thought-provoking.

Ella was raised by Helen, a devoted single mother who always told her daughter it was them against the world. Yet when she met her boyfriend Jude, Ella fell completely—both of them did, in that all-consuming kind of love that often occurs in the teenage years. Jude began spending so much time in their home that Helen considered the three of them a type of family.

One bewildering night, Ella is accused of trying to murder Jude’s father. She was 15 years old and sentenced to 25 years in prison. She doesn’t understand what happened and can’t figure out why Jude hasn’t come to visit her. When she finds out she is pregnant shortly after arriving in prison, she is left with no choice but to give the baby up for adoption.

After serving only six years of her sentence, Ella is released. She knows she has a chance at a fresh start, but at the same time, she can’t let go of her past, and is determined to find her daughter. With only an address to go on, she decides to move to Ann Arbor to just get a glimpse of the girl, but of course, that doesn’t satisfy her.

Ella keeps her true identity and her past a secret from everyone she meets. She doesn’t know whom to trust and lives in a state of constant fear that she’ll be exposed and her secrets will be revealed. And when it happens in the most surprising of ways, both Ella and Helen must find a way forward.

This is a powerful book, one that would be perfect for discussion by a book club. It’s a story of family, sacrifice, love, hope, guilt, secrets, and fear, and in Leavitt’s hands, it’s definitely hard to put down.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Book Review: "Poor Deer" by Claire Oshetsky

There are times when I feel like many books out there are just slight variations on a theme. And then I stumble upon a book like Poor Deer, which is creative and unusual, and my faith in original ideas is restored.

“Margaret’s mother thinks the girl is looking at the pictures, but what Margaret likes even better than the pictures are the happy endings. After the day of the schoolyard flood, Margaret begins to write happy endings of her own. Her made-up endings help her forget that singular moment in her life when everything went so wrong.”

Margaret is four years old when a tragedy occurs to her best friend, Agnes. While no one explicitly blames Margaret for what happened that day, she is wracked with guilt. Her mother insists to everyone that Margaret never left the house that day, but Margaret knows the truth.

In an effort to try and cope with what has happened, Margaret starts writing her own stories, sometimes using a made-up language. Margaret’s stories always end happily. But somewhere along the line, Poor Deer, a menacing character, starts appearing in her stories, pressuring Margaret to confess the truth about what happened to Agnes.

This book definitely has a fairy tale quality, almost ethereal at times. The lines blur between what is real and what Margaret imagines, but Poor Deer becomes a constant presence.

I know this is definitely not a book for everyone, but it’s a powerful look at what children understand, and how they process grief and loss. This will be a book I think about for a long time.

Book Review: "We Love the Nightlife" by Rachel Koller Croft

If you grew up in the 1970s and/or are a fan of disco music, you might know what song has been running through my head since getting an ARC of this book!!

Nicola and Amber meet in a London dance club in 1979, the tail end of disco’s popularity. Amber, a vivacious young American married to a staid Englishman, longs for fun and attention, so she goes clubbing alone many nights. Both women see each other as kindred spirits, and their shared love of dancing cements their friendship.

But while they may share similar interests, they’re actually quite different. Nicola has actually been a vampire for nearly 200 years, and she thinks Amber might be the perfect companion to spend eternity with. Realizing Amber’s unhappiness, Nicola offers her the opportunity for immortality, where every night can be full of music, dancing, and glamour, without any of the trapping burdens of human life.

While becoming a vampire is exotic and exciting, Amber realizes that she still needs friends, and perhaps more. But Nicola is full of rules and wants to control Amber. And after nearly 50 years, Amber discovers just how far Nicola has gone to keep Amber right where she is, so Amber is ready to start a new life. The thing is, though, leaving Nicola may be the most dangerous thing she does—if she can even succeed.

The book is narrated by both Amber and Nicola, and shifts through time, from Nicola’s childhood in the 1800s to the present. It’s rare to find a story which has female vampires at its core, and these are really fascinating characters.

Rachel Koller Croft’s debut, Stone Cold Fox, was excellent, and this book, while very different, once again proves what a talent she is.

Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the advance copy. The book publishes 8/20.

Book Review: "The Sicilian Inheritance" by Jo Piazza

If you read a ton of books set in Italy, can you be considered an honorary citizen? Asking for a friend.

Sara’s aunt Rosie was one of her favorite people. She was an absolute dynamo, fun-loving and wild, but smart as hell, accomplishing anything she set her mind to. Rosie’s death leaves Sara devastated, and at a time when her marriage and her career have both fallen apart, the loss knocks her for a loop.

She’s completely unprepared for Rosie’s dying request that she travel to Sicily, where their ancestors are from, and scatter her ashes. Rosie also left her the deed to a plot of land in Sicily, and she asks Sara to research whether it truly belongs to their family. Oh, and one more thing: Rosie wants Sara to look into the murder of her grandmother, Serafina, in the early 1920s.

When Sara arrives in Sicily, she is taken by the beauty of the island, but she quickly realizes that nothing is what it appears. She isn’t sure whom she can trust, there’s doubt about whether her family actually owns the land—and if they do, whether she can lay claim to it—and there are all sorts of conflicting stories about Rosie’s grandmother. The more she digs, the more danger she’s in.

The narrative shifts between Sara in the present and Serafina’s in the 1910s and 1920s. The story is part mystery, part historical fiction, but it’s a fascinating look at how women find power and can thrive despite the barriers they face. I did feel like one narrative had more closure than the other, though.

I’ve read a few of Jo Piazza’s books—one of her own and two she co-wrote with Christine Pride—and I really love the way she writes. I enjoyed this a great deal, and thought it was cool it was based on a story from Piazza’s family.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Book Review: "Bromantic Puckboy" by Eden Finley and Saxon James

So far this month I’ve read a baseball romance and now a hockey romance. The kids from middle school and high school were wrong: I am into sports…

Cody Bilson loves love, so much so that he has four ex-wives. Anytime he starts to fall for someone, he winds up marrying them too soon, with disastrous results. He’s so tired of things ending up this way, he’s taken a vow of celibacy, and he’s gotten himself traded to the hockey team in Nashville to get a fresh start.

One of Cody’s new teammates is rookie goalie Miles Olsen. He may be new to the pro circuit, but that’s doesn’t faze him. He’s still completely overconfident, but he also knows when to be (slightly) respectful, and when it’s time to fight the good fight. Miles is a former frat boy and is desperate for approval from his teammates. Miles and Cody become close friends, as they love to poke fun at each other.

When Cody’s celibacy kick starts to wear him down, Miles has a proposition: they should find a woman for a threesome, this way Miles can be sure Cody doesn’t fall too hard. But when finding a willing woman proves difficult, they decide to fool around with each other. Sex between bros is no big deal, right?

Of course, it’s not long before they start catching feelings for one another. And while Cody doesn’t have a problem embracing his bi side, Miles is afraid his conservative parents might reject him.

This is the sixth book in the Puckboys series and I cannot get enough. There is lots of hot steam, great banter, hockey talk, and romance, along with a fantastic group of openly queer hockey players. Hope book 7 comes soon!!

Book Review: "Christa Comes Out of Her Shell" by Abbi Waxman

Christa is a scientist, studying snails on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. It’s a quiet life, but it’s very satisfying for her, since she doesn’t have to interact with many people and she can enjoy the natural beauty around her.

Her peace is upended when she learns that her father, Jasper Liddle, once a famous television star, didn’t really die in a plane crash when she was two. Apparently, he’s alive and well and has been living in Alaska, and 25 years later, he’s ready to make amends with the family he left behind.

Christa has to come back to the U.S., and she, along with her mother and two sisters, are thrust into the spotlight. It’s not a place Christa wants to be, as she’s always had a difficult relationship with her family, and during her teen years, she caused no end of scandals in the press. But the Liddle women, thanks to the machinations of their father’s agent, are expected to play along with all of the insanity around Jasper’s reappearance.

As if that’s not enough, Christa feels a strong connection to Nate, a childhood friend, which is definitely reciprocated. Christa would like to build something with Nate, but she doesn’t want to do it in the spotlight, and she wants to go back to her snails. And when Jasper’s story appears to be not quite what he claimed, she has to figure out what to do with her whole life.

Abbi Waxman has been a favorite author of mine since The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. She creates such quirky characters and imbues them with warmth, flaws, and rich emotions.

While I enjoyed this book, it veered into zany territory more than a few times. There were lots of crazy subplots that never quite got resolved, and I don’t know if the characters were really true to themselves. But it was still a fun read.

Book Review: "Table for Two" by Amor Towles

Amor Towles is a tremendously talented storyteller, with the ability to create vivid, unique characters and evoke time and place in your mind’s eye. I loved Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, and still think of those books.

One word rarely used to describe Towles’ books is concise. The Lincoln Highway is just under 600 pages; A Gentleman in Moscow is approximately 500 pages. Even this, his new collection of not-so-short stories and a novella, runs about 450 pages.

Table for Two includes six stories set, or ultimately winding up in, New York City. Some of these stories are absolutely beautiful. “The Line” focuses on a Russian man in the early 1900s who goes far simply by being nice; “Hasta Luego” tells the story of two men who meet in an airport during a winter storm, and one man’s life is more complicated than meets the eye; “I Will Survive” is about the damage secrets can do to a relationship; and “The Bootlegger” is a poignant story about grief and moving on.

The novella, “Eve in Hollywood,” focuses on Evelyn Ross, a character from Rules of Civility. Eve decides to go to Los Angeles rather than return home to Indiana with her parents. While there, she connects with a variety of people, famous, infamous, and ordinary, including legendary actress Olivia de Havilland.

“Eve in Hollywood” is told from seven points of view, which was too many for me. It takes a LONGGG time to get going—there’s lots of narrative that I wasn’t sure would ever get me to the story’s main focus—and not all the characters are as fascinating as I hoped.

I definitely had high hopes for this book that didn’t quite come to fruition, but I’m still glad I read it for the four stories I loved. And of course, I’ll be looking to see what comes next for Towles!

Book Review: "Jaded" by Ela Lee

Jade, the daughter of a Korean mother and a Turkish father, is an attorney at a corporate law firm. She’s always felt tremendous pressure to succeed, to be the best, which as a woman and a minority, isn’t as easy as it should be.

“That Jade isn’t even my real name. That Jade began as my Starbucks name, because all children of immigrants have a Starbucks name.”

One night at a fancy work event, she drinks too much, and the senior partner of the law firm acts a bit inappropriately toward her. Another colleague sees Jade in the awkward situation and offers to make sure she gets home safely.

The next morning, Jade wakes up naked in her bed with a horrible hangover. She has no clue how she got home but hopes she didn’t embarrass herself in front of her supervisors or colleagues. But little by little, she starts having flashes of memories, she notices bruises all over her body, and she’s experiencing pain and bleeding. Are her memories accurate?

Jade throws herself into her work, as she looks to the client on whose case she is working on as a bit of a mentor. Emotionally, however, she is a complete wreck. Telling her longtime boyfriend what happened causes friction between them. She doesn’t feel she can confide in her parents or anyone at work. She feels powerless, and doesn’t know how she’ll ever move forward.

This is a very powerful and thought-provoking book, but it may be triggering for those who have experienced similar situations. Jade is a very vividly drawn character, and the book is full of insightful commentary on power, race, identity, and sexism in the workplace.

Book Review: "Just for the Summer" by Abby Jimenez

Simply put, Abby Jimenez is one of my absolute favorite authors. I have loved every book she has written, and her newest book, Just for the Summer, was, unsurprisingly, exceptional. I can never get enough of the incredible way she balances humor, emotion, romance, and steam with amazingly vivid characters.

Justin has a curse: whenever he breaks up with a woman he’s been dating, she goes on to immediately meet her soulmate. Like, every single time. It’s a little depressing for him.

Emma reads about Justin’s “curse” on the internet and it’s all too familiar, because the same thing happens to her. Egged on by her best friend, she reaches out to Justin to commiserate about their shared burden. It’s not long before they’re talking or texting every day, so Justin proposes an arrangement: they go on four dates, kiss, and break up, and then they’ll meet their soulmates. Of course, Justin is in Minnesota and she's supposed to head to Hawaii, but with some finagling, she's able to change her schedule.

The thing is, Emma never expected Justin to be as hot as he is. She definitely didn’t expect him to put so much effort and creativity into their dates. And Justin didn’t expect to fall as hard for Emma as quickly as he has, but he knows that her time in Minnesota is short before she leaves for another traveling nursing gig.

When Emma’s mother, who has neglected her most of her life, surfaces in Minnesota, it opens up a lot of old wounds. Then Justin has to assume custody of his three younger siblings. Both have so much trauma and baggage to deal with; how can they hope to even get through four dates?

I loved the appearances of characters from all of Abby’s previous books (but you don't have to have read them first). Once again, Jimenez made me smile and cry, and I’m there for it every time. Many thanks to Forever for the free copy!

Monday, April 15, 2024

Book Review: "Until Next Summer" by Ali Brady

Summer camp is a part of my soul. For 10 summers I went to a sleepaway camp up in the Catskills Mountains, as a camper, counselor, and group leader. I’m still close with people I met all those years ago, still remember all of the camp songs, and have some pretty amazing memories.

With that background in mind, I am Jessie, the main character in Ali Brady’s newest book. Jessie first attended Camp Chickawah when she was young, and it was the best part of her life. (Some may call it "Chick-amazing.") She lived 10 months of the year for the 2 months she would get to go to camp.

Jessie and her best friend from camp, Hillary, planned on becoming counselors together, but when Hillary backed out to take an internship, their friendship ended. But Jessie kept on going and is now the director of the place she loves so much.

When the camp owners tell Jessie they plan to sell, she is devastated. This is her home, her life. So she decides that for the last summer, she’ll invite all past campers to experience the camp once again, yet as adults. Hillary is one who returns for the last summer. She hopes to rebuild her friendship with Jessie and in the process, learn about what’s been missing in her life.

I absolutely loved this book. It captured my heart from page 1 and never let go. It’s sweet and funny and pretty steamy in places, and just amazing!!

Thanks to the authors for the traveling ARC!! The book publishes 7/9. #greenteam

Book Review: "Stars in an Italian Sky" by Jill Santopolo

I’ve been wanting to travel to Italy for a long while now, so needless to say, each time I read a book that is set there, I get the urge to plan a trip. And after reading Stars in an Italian Sky, I want to go pronto, pronto.

In 1946, Giovanna, her father, and her sister return to Genoa after fleeing during WWII. They reopen her father’s tailoring shop, where Giovanna not only helps with the customers, but dreams of her own designs as well. One day, Vincenzo, the handsome son of a count, comes into the store to have some clothes altered. At that moment it’s as if lightning struck Giovanna in the form of Vincenzo.

The two spend a great deal of time together, much of it in secret. Vincenzo knows his father would never approve of him marrying a tailor’s daughter, but he knows that his heart wants nothing but Giovanna. Yet when the country votes to become a republic, abolishing the monarchy and nobility, it creates a rift that changes everything for both.

In 2017, Cass and her boyfriend Luca, an artist, are ready to get married. But when they bring their families together to celebrate their engagement, and Cass’ grandmother meets Luca’s grandfather, it reveals past history that neither Cass’ family or Luca’s was aware of.

The dual-timeline story was romantic, emotional, and fascinating to see the parallels between both couples. The actions of Vincenzo’s family—and Luca’s, for that matter—were infuriating at times, but love endures. This was such a beautiful story of following your own path, no matter the consequences, and no matter how long it takes.

I’m a big fan of Jill Santopolo and love all of the emotion she brings to her books. I’ll be waiting for her next one!

Book Review: "A Great Country" by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This was a tremendously thought-provoking and beautifully written book. It really is so timely in its exploration of culture, race, family, identity, and prejudice, as well as the lies we tell ourselves.

Ashok and Priya Shah came to the U.S. 20 years ago from India with only college degrees and a dream of creating a better world for their future children. And after years of hard work and sacrifice, they have finally succeeded, with a beautiful home in a gated California community and being able to send their children to the best schools.

But one night, their grasp of the American Dream is shattered. Ajay, their 12-year-old son, is arrested. This sets off a chain of events that will make the Shah family question everything they know about their adopted country, and how much they’ve sacrificed to get to a level at which their family is still not safe.

Multiple people narrate the story: Priya and Ashok, as well as their two daughters, Deepa and Maya, along with the policeman who arrested Ajay and the mother of one of Maya’s friends. It’s interesting to get their perspectives, which include seeing the origin of one person’s prejudice.

I was born and raised in the U.S., so it was really fascinating to read about the challenges that immigrants face in trying to get ahead and assimilate. Some of the characters are more well-drawn than others, and some are not as empathetic, but I found the book was very impactful.

This would be a great book to read with a book club because there’s lots to spark discussion!

Friday, April 12, 2024

Book Review: "The Breakup Lists" by Adib Khorram

“Even though I’m the Theatre Kid, my sister is the dramatic one.”

Jackson is proud to be a “techie”—he’s the stage manager for his high school’s theater department. He doesn’t mind being behind the scenes instead, because he knows he’s the glue keeping the shows running, keeping his teacher on track, and helping wherever he can.

He’s also a cynic when it comes to romance, having had his heart broken once and watching his parents get divorced. But his sister Jasmine is constantly crushing on someone, dating them, and then the relationship ends. So Jackson helps Jasmine by creating “breakup lists” for each of her exes, which list all of their faults, both serious and superficial.

When Liam, a handsome swimmer, decides to audition for the musical, he and Jackson become very good friends. Jackson definitely is attracted to Liam, and sometimes he thinks Liam is flirting with him, but Liam is straight, right? So when Jasmine starts crushing on Liam, he encourages Liam to start dating Jasmine. Which, of course, fills him with jealousy.

This is a sweet story of friendship, love, family drama, and fighting to be seen and heard and valued. It’s predictable, sure, but Adib Khorram gives the story extra depth because it also deals with disability, specifically hearing impairment and deafness, and the struggles—and beautiful moments—that people living with those disabilities face.

I’ve loved everything Khorram has written, and this was no exception.

Thanks to NetGalley and The Dial Press for the advance copy!!

Book Review: "The Prospects" by KT Hoffman

I am obsessed with hockey romances, and now I can add this baseball romance to the list of books I love. I seriously found myself grinning like an idiot while reading this.

Gene Ionescu is the first openly trans professional baseball player. It’s been his dream for as long as he could remember—his dad was a baseball player, too—but he never imagined that given who he is, he’d have the chance to make his dreams come true.

His happiness is upended when his former college teammate and close friend, Luis Estrada, is traded to Gene’s minor league team. For reasons Gene never understood, Luis just stopped being his friend one day, so their reunion is a bit awkward, even more so when Luis takes over for Gene at shortstop.

The two can barely have a conversation, let alone find a rhythm to play together successfully. But Gene is determined to make their on-field connection work, and after extra practices, they start to become friends again, too. Little by little, as the season moves on, they start to open up to one another, and Gene finds himself hoping—and yet fearing—that Luis’ interest in him is more than just baseball-related.

The closer they draw to one another, the more the line blurs between their relationship and their ambitions. Does love mean giving up your dreams for a safer path, or is love worth the risk of pursuing what you want? Can they have everything they want, personally and professionally, or is that too much?

I couldn’t love this more if I tried. It’s sweet, sexy, funny, and hopeful, and although this situation is more fiction than possibility right now, it’s fun to dream of this kind of world. KT Hoffman has made me a fan of his for sure!!

Book Review: "How to Solve Your Own Murder" by Kristen Perrin

This mystery had such a cozy, old-fashioned feel to it, I kept expecting Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to show up! In all seriousness though, this was absolutely terrific, and I loved the unique angle of this book.

In 1965, Frances and her two best friends visit a fair in the English countryside. It’s a wonderful day until they get their fortunes told, because Frances’ fortune predicts she will be murdered. Even though there are doubts to the legitimacy of the fortune teller, Frances takes this very seriously, and spends nearly 60 years trying to figure out who will be her murderer.

Annie, Frances’ great niece, is summoned to her estate in the village of Castle Knoll, to meet with her and her solicitor. But as they ready for the meeting, Frances is found murdered. Annie, an aspiring mystery writer, wants to solve the murder, but given how much dirt Frances dug up on everyone through the years, there’s no end to the number of suspects.

In Frances’ will, she challenged her potential heirs—her eccentric stepson Saxon and Annie—to solve her murder; whoever does it within a week will inherit it all. If they fail, or the police solve the murder first, the estate will be sold. Armed with Frances’ diary and a list of theories, Annie is determined to find out who killed her great-aunt.

To solve this mystery, Annie must also figure out the truth behind another crime that happened nearly 60 years ago. And it very well may be that the same person could have struck again. The closer Annie gets to the truth, the more dangerous it becomes for her.

The narrative shifts between Frances’ diary entries from the 1960s and Annie’s investigation into her great-aunt’s death. There are lots of fun and eccentric characters, a dual mystery to solve, and for a while I had no idea whom to trust. I hope that Kristen Perrin might bring Annie back in another book!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Book Review: "All the World Beside" by Garrard Conley

Garrard Conley’s first novel (after his extraordinary memoir, Boy Erased) is beautifully written, impeccably researched, and immensely thought-provoking.

In the late 1700s, Reverend Nathaniel Whitfield and his wife Catherine formed Cana, a utopian community with Puritan values in Massachusetts. Cana is built on principles of equity—everyone is considered to be the same as their neighbor. The idea has caught on with other Christians, who travel to Cana to be a part of this world.

Among those who flock to Cana is Arthur Lyman, a physician, who moves with his wife and preteen daughter. Reverend Whitfield’s words inspire Arthur, but they also fuel an intense desire for the other man. This is familiar territory for Arthur but not Nathaniel, and while he knows the feelings he has for Arthur are wrong, he cannot resist them.

But the relationship between the two men is not as secret as they believe it to be, and both of their wives and their children have to deal with the shock and shame that follows. And as the fervent intensity of the Great Awakening starts to overtake New England, Nathaniel and Arthur are risking their lives and the safety of their families, yet they try to figure out a way to survive without sacrificing their love.

Obviously, LGBTQ people have existed since the beginning of time, even if the world didn’t acknowledge them as such. But part of the appeal of All the World Beside is that it gave a glimpse into the lives of and dangers faced by gay people in 18th-century New England. That gave the book some added weight.

This book definitely has some similarities to The Scarlet Letter although the story is its own. It’s definitely a book that will stay with me for a long while.

Book Review: "How to End a Love Story" by Yulin Kuang

Emotional, steamy, funny, and hopeful, Yulin Kuang’s debut novel is a second chance romance with so much heart.

Shortly before their senior year of high school ends, Helen and Grant’s lives become shockingly intertwined following a tragic accident. It’s something neither of them think they can ever move on from.

Thirteen years later, Helen is a bestselling YA author whose popular series is going to be adapted for television. She’s thrilled by this success, but even more by the fact that she’s going to be part of the writers’ room for the television series.

In those 13 years, Grant moved to the other side of the country and built a career as a talented screenwriter. He tries not to take the job on Helen’s show, but it’s too good to pass up. Yet the moment he and Helen encounter each other again, she makes him wish he hadn’t taken the job. But ultimately, they realize that neither of them can walk away from this opportunity, so they agree to be professional with one another.

Helen begins to realize how talented Grant is, and despite their history, the two strike up a friendship. And the more they let their walls come down, the more intense their feelings get. But theirs is not a love story and could never succeed, especially once it was revealed to Helen’s parents, who have never forgiven Grant.

I loved this book so much. The chemistry and banter between Helen and Grant was truly fantastic, and their story was just so beautiful. Even though I knew how this story would end, I still cried like a baby as it unfolded.

The book will publish 4/9.

Book Review: "Young Rich Widows" by Kimberly Belle, Layne Fargo, Cate Holahan, and Vanessa Lillie

What deliciously campy fun this was! Having spent my tween and teen years in the 1980s, I love that era so much, so I was already sold before the book even started.

Providence, Rhode Island, 1985. The four partners of a law firm are killed when their private plane went down outside New York City. The firm, which had strong Mafia connections, was apparently struggling, but the lawyers were on the verge of a major deal when they died.

There is one tiny complication, however. Apparently the partners owed $4 million to the mob, and now that they’re dead, it’s up to their widows to pay back what is owed—or else.

The four women couldn’t be more different: Krystle, feisty and fierce and determined that her sons reap the benefits of the years of work her husband put in to build the firm; Justine, a former model who traded her ambitions for suburban motherhood; Camille, the younger second wife whose desires went beyond the confines of her marriage; and Meredith, a stripper who was in a secret relationship with the firm’s sole female partner.

In an effort to save themselves from bankruptcy—and save their lives and the lives of those they love—the women must band together to make sure a big deal goes through. But along the way, they discover that there were a lot of things they didn’t know about their spouses. And these things could be more dangerous than they imagined.

This felt like a cross between an episode of Real Housewives and Mob Wives. It was fun, silly, and a bit wild, but it definitely didn’t disappoint.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Book Review: "The Husbands" by Holly Gramazio

One night, Lauren gets home from a party and discovers that there’s a man in her flat. But he’s not a burglar or a stranger; apparently he’s her husband, Michael. The problem is, she doesn’t remember being married and she’s utterly confused. However, her flat is furnished better and everyone seems to like him.

But just as she’s settling into the whole idea of a husband and being married, Michael goes up into the attic and a different man comes down. With the arrival of a different husband, many aspects of her life have changed, like her job or her family’s lives. Armed with this knowledge, she invents an excuse for this husband to go into the attic, and, presto: a new husband appears.

Lauren starts to become slightly addicted to sending her husbands into the attic so they can be replaced. And then one day, she meets someone she actually wishes she were really married to, and they’re stay together for a short while, until he inadvertently goes up to the attic. Damn.

“You can’t stay married to someone for ever just because they climb out of your attic one afternoon.”

I loved how unique The Husbands was. Parts of the book were funny, parts were emotional, and parts definitely made me think. I definitely wondered how Holly Gramazio would tie everything up. I felt as if the story dragged a little bit in the middle—so many husbands come and go that it gets repetitive after a while—but I couldn’t get enough.

What a fantastic debut. I can’t wait to see what Gramazio does next!!

Book Review: "Women! In! Peril!" by Jessie Ren Marshall

Do you ever wonder if your sense of humor is so different from other people’s? I often feel that way when I read a book that’s supposed to be “funny” or “zany,” and I’m sitting there thinking, “do I have no sense of humor?”

Jessie Ren Marshall’s debut story collection, Women! In! Peril!, has been labeled “ferociously feminist.” Indeed, the 12 short stories each have women at their center—either from the present or the future, real or robotic, in a variety of situations. The stories deal with issues from queerness and motherhood to relationship woes and cultural identity.

Some of the stories I enjoyed the most were “Annie 2,” about a sex bot who hopes not to be returned, and “My Immaculate Girlfriend,” in which a woman tries to figure out if her girlfriend really has a miraculous pregnancy.

I love short stories—at times it’s amazing how an author can give a novel-like feel in a short number of pages. At times though I feel like they leave me hanging, and just a little more might give me resolution. I felt a little bit more of the latter with this collection.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Book Review: "Perris, California" by Rachel Stark

“Each other is the whole of what we’ve got. People are there for us to love. It ain’t the other way around. It’s the greatest and most excruciating gift of life.”

Rachel Stark’s debut is bleak, beautiful, and complex, and so well-told.

Abandoned by her mother, Tessa endures an abusive life living with her stepfather and stepbrother. The only saving grace is her friendship with Mel, one of her high school classmates. The two young women are drawn together, each suffering from their own losses and hardships, until Mel is sent away by her mother, forcing Tessa to survive on her own.

One night when the abuse is too much to bear, Tessa finds refuge at the home of Angie, her husband Buck, and their sons. Angie knows the truth of what Tessa endured, but vows to keep it a secret. Years later, Tessa has married Angie’s son Henry, and they’re raising two children (with one on the way), living in a trailer on Angie’s property.

One day, Tessa discovers that Mel has returned to Perris to move back in with her mother and work as a pharmacist. Seeing Mel again stirs up all of the old emotions for Tessa, but at the same time, she knows that her life is with Henry and their children. But she is haunted by memories of their relationship, as well as the abuse she endured and her mother’s abandonment. It’s also hard to endure Angie’s need to be involved in every aspect of their lives.

The book shifts between past and present, and alternates POVs. There are lots of triggers here—sexual assault, physical abuse, accidental death—but at its core, this book is about strength under fire and how we can always find someone to support us through the dark times.