Monday, February 28, 2022

Would you sell your soul for someone just to talk to: 56 DAYS.

56 Days56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

56 days ago, Oliver and Ciara meet at the supermarket in Dublin. They begin a new romantic relationship. At 35 days, in the wake of the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown, they decide to move in together. Ciara is relieved; she can finally have a relationship without pressure from her friends and family. And Oliver is relieved as well; this offers him more time to hide from Ciara who he really is. And now, at Day 0, the police are called to Oliver's apartment. A decomposing body has been found.

"Everything is so much easier when he stays away from other people. The only way you can lose your own shadow is to stand in the dark. The problem is, Oliver hates the dark."

This book completely captivated me with its short chapters and twisty story! It is told from Oliver and Ciara's point of view, going back and forth from the present to when they meet and all the time in between. We also hear from the police and detectives who are investigating the body they find at Oliver's apartment. Occasionally Oliver and Ciara tell us the same event from their own side, which I typically find repetitive, but somehow it worked quite well here.

"In between favorite movies and what they studied in college and where they hope to go this summer, they forgot to ask each other what kind of person are you in a global pandemic?

This book was just fun. Most of it occurs as Dublin is in lockdown, or heading toward it. Howard weaves in COVID expertly into the story. It's the reason for the plot, but it does not dominate it. It's fascinating to think about--how would you react in a brand new relationship if something like COVID hit? It is filled with twists and surprises that keep you guessing. It's interesting, especially since you can quite read Oliver and Ciara fully.

Overall, this is a quick read--it's an easy-to-read, interesting thriller. 4+ stars.

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Sunday, February 20, 2022

Dive right into the pain: NO SECOND CHANCES.

No Second ChancesNo Second Chances by Rio Youers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kitty Rae left her life in Kentucky behind to come to Los Angeles and be a star. So far it's not working out quite like she planned. She spends most of her time as a courier, running "product" (aka drugs). She meets her next door neighbor, once beloved actor Luke Kingsley, when she fears he's about to commit suicide. Luke's career has tanked as he's under suspicion for killing his wife, Lisa, who disappeared three years ago--and Luke showed up drunk, disheveled, and with her blood all over his shirt. But Luke and Kitty form a bond and he's the only one she can trust when she gets in trouble with Johan Fly--the "Viking"--a social media influencer and drug dealer to the Hollywood elite. Johan's out for blood, but as Luke and Kitty try to escape his clutches, they stumble into a dark web of violence, drugs, and deception.

"It was all coming together. Life was good. And then, in a blink, it wasn't."

I didn't love CHANCES quite as much as LOLA ON FIRE, but like LOLA, it's powerful, intense, and packed with jaw-dropping violence. You have to just go with the idea that this book will be filled with punches, literal and emotional, and see it almost as a film. Youers writes in such a mesmerizing fashion that it's nearly impossible not to be caught up in the brutality and story of the novel. It's a fast, shocking read, but there's a surprising emotion underneath, especially with Kitty and Luke's surprising friendship.

I flew through this one, as it's dramatic, ferocious, and fascinating. 4 stars.

Major trigger warnings for all the drugs, violence, mentions of suicide, and animal cruelty.

I received of copy of this book from William Morrow and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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Monday, February 14, 2022

Rationing off bits of myself so I can crumble at your side: ONE NIGHT ON THE ISLAND.

One Night on the IslandOne Night on the Island by Josie Silver
My rating: 3,5 of 5 stars

Cleo is heading to the remote Irish island of Salvation for work, but it's personal too. She's about to turn thirty, an age her father never reached, and she's trying to reconcile where she is in life. A columnist who writes about finding love, she's yet to discover it herself. On Salvation, she plans to "self-couple"--a concept brought up by her boss, but Cleo can't help but feel there's something to finding herself. As for Mack Sullivan, he's heading to Salvation to research his ancestry and photograph the island he's heard so much about from his mother and grandmother. Escaping his estranged wife and crumbling life is a bonus, though he'll miss his two sons terribly. It's only when they arrive on the island that Mack and Cleo realize they've booked the same one room cottage--a terrible mix-up on a tiny island with no other accommodations. Forced to live together until the next ferry arrives, the two can barely stand being in the same space. But as time passes on the lovely island, their attitudes change.

This is a very slow moving, slow burn romance that focuses on being thoughtful and deliberate in its descriptions. There's less action and a lot of focus on the island and tons and tons of focus on Cleo and Mack's emotions and thoughts. So many thoughts, so much angst!

As for my thoughts... seriously, even on a small island, no one had a spare room? Not even a little one? Enjoying this book means buying into the premise that two complete strangers were truly willing to share a ONE ROOM cottage--sleeping across from another in a bed and a sofa. Thanks but no thanks. Also odd was Cleo's self-coupling (aka marrying herself) concept, which both she and her boss seemed quite into and even Mack accepted. Hmm...

Far more delightful was Salvation Island and its inhabitants. I could have read an entire book just focused on the enjoyable folks Cleo and Mack ran across, particularly the women Cleo joined at knitting circle and the lively group who gathered at the local pub. And while there were plenty of descriptions of this island, some were quite fun (otters!).

The book is told in a back and forth point of view from Cleo and Mack. They grow on you. It's not their fault they were trapped in the same lodge. This one was a little too slow and emotional for me in the beginning, but I still got a bit tearful at the ending. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Random House / Ballantine and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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Friday, February 11, 2022

With a smile all sweet with pain: THE ARC.

The ArcThe Arc by Tory Henwood Hoen
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Ursula Byrne is thirty-five, single, and lives with her cat. Her life revolves around her career (and the cat), and she's starting to wonder if it will always be that way. Most of her dates are disasters (reminder the time she threw up on the first date?) and she's underwhelmed by the men she comes across on the dating apps. But then discovers The Arc: a very selective matchmaking service that uses a week-long, immersive assessment to architect lifelong love. It's expensive, but they promise 100% success. Ursula is paired with Rafael Banks, a lawyer. Their connection is immediate, but as their relationship continues, they begin to wonder about The Arc and its role in their life. Can lifelong love truly can be guaranteed?

"'My fertile years are waning, my chance at love has passed, my cat is my greatest asset,' she thought."

This was one of the weirdest books I've read in quite some yet I found it oddly mesmerizing, even when Ursula and Rafael were at their most annoying moments. Probably I'm not smart enough for a book like this (I find this happens a lot with books set in NYC and featuring single thirty-somethings). Even now, I'm not sure if THE ARC was a true romance, satire, or something in between.

For instance, Ursula and her best friend belong to The Stake, billed as a nouveau feminist wellness club. What would be a private club or gym for the rest of us is some sort of strange immersive experience for them, where they can participate in things like the Scream Den, Smash Center (literally smashing things), Swaddle Station, Sobbing Pods, and more. Massages are intense and emotional experiences. I never could quite figure out if it was all for real.

As for The Arc, they charge Ursula the cool price of $40,500 to match her for life (adjusted down from $50,000 for Rafael, what with the gender wage gap and all). But, since she's a VP for strategic audacity, she can consider this ridiculous sum. Why, yes, this is her real title. I believe most of us would consider it marketing or advertising. Again, mocking? Again, I'm not sure. Throughout the book Ursula struggled with her place in her career, and I found it very easy to identify with her and the struggles of females in corporate America. Honestly, it was one of the things that endeared her to me. Some of the pieces of the book may have been exaggerated, but the sexism Ursula faced was not. Same with her trying to find a balance between happiness and a career.

As for Ursula and Rafael, this probably would have been a 4+-star read for me (even with all the weirdness!) if I liked them more as a couple. I need to be fully invested in my couple for a romance, and while I liked them both, I wasn't able to completely root for them together. (I did, however, love Ursula's Russian Blue cat, Mallory.) The book slowed the most when they were together.

THE ARC offers a nearly sociological look at relationships and society. It's humorous at times and serious at others. The book is more character driven and deep than a regular contemporary romance--expect pondering, delving into societal customs and the meaning of love. Honestly, I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would based on other reviews. It's different and often witty, and some of the messaging is really interesting. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you're willing to get out of your comfort zone, it's worth a try. 3.75 stars.

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Cause you know, my heart & soul will carry on: BLACK CAKE.

Black CakeBlack Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siblings Byron and Benny are estranged, but after their mother's death, they discover she’s left them a black cake, a beloved food from their childhood and history, and a voice recording that reveals many surprises about her past. Their mother Eleanor's story is heartbreaking and shocking, but will it bring Byron and Benny together to share the cake "when the time is right," as their mother desired?

This is a really interesting and different book. It’s a sweeping tale that spans from the 1960s to the present and touches on racism, homophobia, immigration, assault, the meaning of family, and so much more. If that sounds like a lot, it is, and sometimes it feels like too much. The story meanders at times--it's a lot to go from the 1960s to the near present, and the story is told through many narrators and short chapters. It's sometimes confusing to keep track of. At times, the musings and whining of present-day Byron and Benny are frustrating because you just want to get back to Eleanor and the past.

And that is where BLACK CAKE shines. Because while this is a debut novel and it shows at times, the story really is engrossing, especially when Eleanor gets into her origin story and we learn about the Caribbean and how she became who she is. There's almost a mystery in there, and it's fascinating. We are taken back to the islands, meeting a young determined swimmer and her best friend. I love how Wilkerson weaves everything together into a touching and poignant tale that delves deep into this family's past. I was mesmerized and needed to know everything that happened. There are a lot of characters and a few false starts, but this story winds around to make sense, and it was a really beautiful and fascinating. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Random House / Ballantine and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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Monday, February 07, 2022

I struggle with some demons, they were middle class and tame: HORROR STORIES.

Horror Stories: A MemoirHorror Stories: A Memoir by Liz Phair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

HORROR STORIES the sixteenth book in my alphabetical author challenge. It is Liz Phair's memoir, featuring snippets of her version of horror, which she deems every day moments that can make us who we are. These moments can form us into who we are as the small indignities we suffer can affect us just as much as the bigger moments of our lives. Rather than go into the more traditional look at her life and career, Phair focuses on such moments: a particularly bad relationship; memories from college of ignoring a girl passed out at a club; being trapped in a NYC blizzard; and more. She zeroes in on these incidents and how they affected her.

"Horror can be found in brief interactions that are as cumulatively powerful as the splashy heart-stoppers, because that's where we live most of our lives."

This is definitely not a traditional memoir. I'm pretty sure I'm not cool enough to read something like this, because I think I would have enjoyed a linear tale more, or least learning more of the mundane "stuff" about Phair's career. She grew up the daughter of wealthy parents (that was interesting) and clearly bounced around various schools before becoming famous, but we never really learn how, or get any real insight into her career or her songs. We do get a vibe that's she a bit pretentious and she whines about how hard it is to be famous, so there's that. (I hate that in memoirs.)

Some of the anecdotes are interesting, though I was confused why two of them centered around New York City weather events, and she certainly offers some profound thoughts and good quotes. There's no argument that Phair can write; you know that just by listening to her songs, and HORROR enforces it. However, this starts off intriguing and then just drags as you realize nearly every chapter will be the same... somewhat self-centered, woe is me, and nearly always mentioning the need to be loved/failed relationships. Sometimes it was all a bit much.

For the most part, this proved she lived the kind of life Liz Phair would lead--emerging unscathed after trudging blocks in a blizzard, for instance, and just generally seeming "above" everything--yet she's also a mom, wife (sometimes), sister, and daughter, like the rest of us. But, it felt lacking (and often annoying) to me. 3 stars.

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Friday, February 04, 2022

I'll follow you into the dark: COUNT YOUR LUCKY STARS.

Count Your Lucky StarsCount Your Lucky Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Margot Cooper isn't much for relationships anymore. But with her friends rapidly pairing off around her, she's beginning to feel like a fifth wheel. Then she learns that her friend Brendon's wedding planner is her long ago best friend, Olivia Grant. Margo and Olivia were inseparable as kids, but when they crossed over into a teen romance that ended badly, they lost touch. It's been ten years since Margot's seen Olivia, but she's still as lovely and wonderful as Margot remembers. As for Olivia, she's divorced and finally pursuing her own dreams. When an unwelcome flood means Olivia and Margot wind up roommates, they are forced to confront what happened all those years ago--and if it still means anything to them now.

This is an excellent entry in the Written in the Stars series--a fun and sexy read filled with wanting and sexual tension. I've always loved Margot, a character we've known since the first book, when we met Margot's best friend, Elle, with whom she runs a business. (This book can stand-alone quite easily, but the entire series is certainly worth a read.) At this point, Margot feels like an outsider in her friend group, with everyone else quite paired off. She's okay being single and does not feel like you necessarily need someone to be complete, but there's only so many times she can not be invited to couples yoga.

Seeing Olivia again feels like fate... but what exactly does it mean? There's clearly some sort of misunderstanding that happened between Olivia and Margot in high school. And of course, Margot very stubbornly and annoyingly wont talk about her feelings. A very common thread in this series is the lack of communication and a willingness to jump to conclusions--this is certainly a pet peeve of mine in books, and while I wanted to shake Margot and Olivia at times, it didn't drive me as crazy as it did in the first two books.

This was probably because it's impossible not to like Margot. and Olivia is easy to care for too. Plus, the book is just so fun and filled with innuendo and banter and lots of hot scenes. There is no lack of lesbian love here. It's funny and touching and quite enjoyable. 4+ stars.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2022

You're the only thing that I'm chained to: THE ROAD TRIP.

The Road TripThe Road Trip by Beth O'Leary
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Addie and her sister Deb are headed to the north of Scotland for their friend Cherry's wedding. They get an early start, but it does nothing to prevent them from getting into an accident on the highway when a car hits the back of theirs. Even worse, the driver turns out to be Addie's ex, Dylan, who is headed to the same wedding. With the car carrying Dylan and his best friend Marcus totaled, Addie feels obligated to offer them a ride--and soon Deb's Mini is packed with Dylan, the acerbic Marcus, Addie, Deb, and Rodney, a tag-along they gathered from Cherry's Wedding Facebook group. Now Dylan and Addie are literally forced together to confront their failed relationship... with an audience.

I loved Beth O'Leary's other two books, but this one was not for me. I did not care for any of the characters, beyond maybe Deb, and while this is supposed to be a romance between Addie and Dylan, it often felt like a serious exploration into Dylan and Marcus' friendship. The problem is that Marcus is pretty awful--a spoiled rich drunk who constantly interferes in Dylan's life and while we are sometimes given some excuses for him, they all fall flat. Dylan is also wealthy, and the "rich boys partying away their life" got boring quick.

The book is told in alternating chapters and alternating points of view--Dylan and Addie's. We get the present day road trip and then flashbacks to Dylan and Addie meeting and their relationship progressing. I did not care for the flashbacks and had no interest in their relationship and felt no investment in rooting for these two. The present day is supposed to be filled with crazy road trip hijinks, but they often felt forced instead of funny. My favorite parts certainly involved Deb and a trucker she meets named Kevin.

This story improves a bit near the end, even though it offers some serious and emotional moments, but by then it was too late. I did not care if Dylan and Addie got back together, because I never liked them as a couple in the first place. I did not care if Marcus redeemed himself, because he had been so awful all along.

I will certainly read Beth O'Leary's next book, because I've all truly enjoyed the others, but this one was a miss. 2.5 stars.

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