Monday, March 20, 2023

There's a hoping in my heart that says I'd brave the dark: FIVE SURVIVE.

Five SurviveFive Survive by Holly Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Red Kenny and her friends are headed on a spring break trip in a borrowed RV. It's Red; her best friend Maddy; Maddy's older brother Oliver; friend and classmate Simon; Red's secret crush Arthur; and Oliver's girlfriend Renata. On their way, the group gets lost and their RV breaks down in the dark woods with no cell service. Soon they realize they've been trapped there on purpose by someone who wants one of them dead. They have until dawn to escape: six friends, five will survive.

This is one of those rare books I enjoyed more than I thought I would--it's no classic, but it's a fun page-turner of a thriller. It's quite the locked room story, taking place entirely in the RV. There are so many secrets and lies, with tension building as the tale goes on. It's bloody and dark and keeps you guessing as you attempt to work out why everyone is trapped and who could be responsible. Oliver is such a classic bad guy that it's easy to point the finger at him, but there's a surprising amount of suspects. Everything winds up being a bit predictable but I still found this to be an enjoyable and suspenseful quick read. 3.75 stars, rounded up to 4 here.

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

But it's gonna be a long ride: THE FINAL GAMBIT.

The Final Gambit (The Inheritance Games, #3)The Final Gambit by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third book in Barnes' Inheritance Games trilogy finds Avery Grimes so close to hitting her one-year mark of inheriting the multi-billion-dollar Hawthorne family fortune. But, as always, nothing is ever easy, and trouble literally shows up at her door.

I really love these books and the tough, plucky Avery. As with the first two books, there are a ton of characters and family dynamics to keep track of--I had to keep reminding myself who gave birth to whom, etc. But I think Barnes is brilliant to write such complex stories and still make the characters come across as so unique and human. There are truly puzzles within puzzles in these books (weird discs, secret tunnels, codes--and that's just a few--and if I was in Avery's position, I would be screwed, because I do not have the brain for such situations! Luckily, Avery is not me, and I love reading as she and the Hawthorne boys tackle all the trickery handed down from the late Tobias Hawthorne, plus a new adversary in this story. There are tons of dark secrets and power struggles. We see Grayson struggling while Avery and Jameson are going strong. Barnes completely brings us into the world of Avery and the Hawthorne brothers. Things seemed to end a little quickly after all we've been through, but it seems like a fitting end nonetheless. 4+ stars.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The better to dream of you: THE RENAISSANCE OF GWEN HATHAWAY.

The Renaissance of Gwen HathawayThe Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway by Ashley Schumacher
My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

It's been nearly one year since Madeline's mom died. She grew up with her parents on the renaissance faire circuit, being homeschooled and helping her parents with their faire booth. Now it's just her and her dad and Maddie finds herself scared she'll forget things about those she loves, so she keeps a journal, marking down "noticings" of everything that happens. Then she meets Arthur, the son of the owners of her latest faire. Arthur seems determined to break through Maddie's walls and become her friend, inviting her to become the Princess of the faire. Maddie doesn't want to get attached to anyone ever again, but Arthur makes it pretty difficult.

This is such a sweet book that delves into the insecurities of teenage life and the difficulties of grief and loss. Maddie (nicknamed "Gwen" by Arthur) is a lovely character recovering from the loss of her mother. She is a darling introvert and the book does an excellent job of portraying her awkwardness and her body issues. It's so wonderful to see a book that discusses a character who is awkward, overweight, funny, and kind. I really loved Maddie. And Arthur is a genuine and kind character as well, being raised by two dads (!) in a castle. There are a ton of fun ren faire references. Maddie and Arthur's romance is a slow, gentle one. This is not a steamy book, but it's a touching one. Their family and friends are witty and cute. I was a bit frustrated with some of the misunderstandings (Maddie thinking Arthur liked another girl, for instance). Overall, this is a very sweet YA story, though. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Wednesday Books in return for an unbiased review. Look for it on 3/14/2023!!

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Tuesday, March 07, 2023

The weak spot in the armor: WHAT HAVE WE DONE.

What Have We DoneWhat Have We Done by Alex Finlay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As kids, Nico, Benny, Jenna, and Donnie bonded at Savior House, a group home for kids. Their time there was full of trauma, as kids disappeared regularly, and they were bullied by the owner's son. However, they've all gone on to lead "regular" lives--with several of them even becoming famous. But soon they realize that someone is coming after them and has succeeded in killing Ben, a judge. As attempts are made on the others, the survivors must reunite and try to figure out why they are being targeted, even if it means returning to the horrors of Savior House.

I have come to really love Alex Finlay's books and while this one was a little different from the others I've read, it did share one trait: it was a total page turner. You have to suspend a little disbelief to fully enjoy WHAT HAVE WE DONE--it reminded me a little bit of a hellbent Rio Youers thriller at times. But it's a fun, crazy read and offers a great mystery.

DONE opens up with the Savior House kids committing a terrible deed as teens--jumping to their present-day lives, we see how that act (and their time at the home) has formed them into adults. We also can't help but wonder if the recent killing is related to what they've done. Not all of them are the most lovable characters, but each is interesting in their own way. We learn about Benny, a distinguished lawyer and judge, through his friends' memories. Nico is a producer for a reality show about coal miners (yup). Jenna has an interesting past and is concentrating on motherhood. And Donnie is a washed up rock star. While they might not all be close now, we see the power of their childhood friendship and how strong kids can be. The book covers some serious topics, including a range of abuse.

There's a lot going on in DONE and sometimes it seems like a little bit much. The short chapters always kept me reading, but the multiple POV and flashbacks to the group home could be overwhelming. Still, this was an exciting read that kept me guessing until the very end. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Minotaur Books in return for an unbiased review. Look for WHAT HAVE WE DONE on 03/07/2023!

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Monday, March 06, 2023

In a motel with a bouquet in the ice pail: OFF THE MAP.

Off the Map (Beck Sisters, #3)Off the Map by Trish Doller
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Carla spends most of her time traveling the world--something her dad taught her at a young age. Eamon works in IT and can only dream of a life like Carla leads; he feels obligated to be the dutiful son for his mother since his younger brother already struck off for a life of wanderlust. Eamon is tasked to pick up Carla when she arrives in Dublin to attend the marriage of her best friend to his brother and the two feel an instant spark. Can the pair reconcile their different lives?

This was a really quick read that started off with a major insta-attraction: Eamon and Carla fall for each other basically the moment they see each other in a Dublin bar. Because of this, I sometimes felt as if there wasn't a ton of character development or buildup in their relationship. Still, we learned that Carla is wary of getting attached to anyone or anything due to her mom leaving when she was a child. Her father taught her to avoid emotion by traveling and only enforced that fear by encouraging her to take off and travel when he was diagnosed with dementia. Eamon, meanwhile, feels forced to be the stable son thanks to his brother, despite his desire for more. He lives and even dates safely. Sadly, we did not learn much more in-depth about Eamon, and I really liked his character. We only hear things from Carla's perspective.

Like the first two books in this series (don't worry, though, this one can be read on its own without any issue), it can be sad at times, especially when focusing on Carla's dad's illness. Her father was a dynamic character, along with his second wife. The book focuses a ton on traveling, of course, and off-roading--you will learn a lot about these topics! There's an appearance by a very cute cat to break things up!

Overall, I liked this one about as much as THE FLOAT PLAN but not as much as THE SUITE SPOT, which I really loved. I think I like the books with the stable characters staying in one spot more versus the traveling ones, which probably says a lot about my own personality! Still, this is a sweet, cute book and it's a fast read, even if I wished there was a little more to it at times. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Griffin and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for it on 03/07/2023!

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Friday, March 03, 2023

There's still a lot of life left in this town: EARLY MORNING RISER.

Early Morning RiserEarly Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Jane falls immediately for Duncan, she doesn't realize that he's slept with a good swath of women in their small town of Boyne City (and surrounding areas). Dating Duncan means encountering his exes everywhere, along with his beautiful ex-wife Aggie and her new husband Gary. After all, Duncan still mows their lawn. It also means that his coworker Jimmy could burst into his apartment at any moment. Then a terrible tragedy occurs and Jane's life becomes permanently entwined with Duncan's and Jimmy's and therefore Aggie's and even eccentric Gary's too. Who knew love involved quite so many people?

RISER is quite a quirky novel and a different sort of read for me, but I'm glad a reading challenge inspired me to pick it up, because it was really quite delightful. It's filled with a cast of memorable small town characters, such as Jane's mandolin-playing best friend, Freida, and Gary, who has a list of things that offend him a mile long, such as linoleum in a kitchen. In a less skilled author's hands, these folks would come across as trite and irritating, but I was laughing out loud in places. Each of these characters jumped off the page as their own unique person.

The story belongs to Jane, giving us glimpses of her life through the years. There are amazing moments of wit, heartbreak, love, and deep insight into her small town life. Heiny captures the suffocating nature of living in a small town perfectly (Aggie knows Jane and Duncan are dating again before Jane is even sure) and the beautiful (the town rallies around its own). It's sad at times, but often hopeful and beautiful too. I loved sweet Jimmy and how well the book showed the world through his lens.

There's no big plot twists in RISER, unless you count the sweeping ups and downs of life. It touches on the big and small moments we encounter in our world. It's relatable in so many ways, covering love, loss, and motherhood, among others. A lovely read. 4+ stars.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Must be something in the water or that I'm my mother's daughter: LOVELY GIRLS.

Lovely GirlsLovely Girls by Margot Hunt
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Kate Turner and her daughter Alex are attempting to start fresh in Florida after the death of Kate's husband (Alex's father). Moving from Buffalo is supposed to give them both a new start. Kate quickly makes friends with a trio of local moms, but their daughters dislike Alex immediately. When Alex displaces one of the girls from the lead spot on the tennis team, tensions rise, and Kate realizes that her daughter is a victim of bullying.

LOVELY GIRLS is a quick read that captures your interest from the start. I'm not sure it covers any new ground, but it certainly keeps you reading. It opens up with a dead body and then we hear the story from Kate's point of view and Alex's video diary.

The mean girls in GIRLS are way mean. Wow. And their moms are just as bad. Be prepared for some immense bullying and intensity. GIRLS takes everything to the extreme to the point that you are very afraid of everything and about what will happen to Kate and Alex. (And scared to send your children to high school, in my case.) As the action unfolds, we learn more about Kate's complicated relationship with her late husband--as well as how Alex related to her father. The book gives us an in-depth look at how women raise their daughters, as well as how kids treat each other--and how parents affect that treatment.

GIRLS gets crazy at the end (okay maybe it's crazy for a while) but it's an addictive train wreck kind of insanity. 3.5+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Thomas&Mercer and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for LOVELY GIRLS on 03/01/2023!

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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

But it feels just like drowning: MOTHERED.

MotheredMothered by Zoje Stage
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the midst of the pandemic, Grace is not particularly thrilled when her mother, Jackie, moves in with her. But Jackie has recently lost her husband and been ill and Grace is unemployed and could use help with her mortgage. Soon, though, stuck in the house with her mother, Grace feels claustrophobic, flashing back to her unhappy childhood with her mother and her late sister. She starts having horribly realistic nightmares and clashing with her mother over her hobbies, which oddly include catfishing people online. As things come to a head, Jackie accuses Grace of something unspeakable, and Grace feels unable to delineate her dreams from reality.

Ugh, I had to slog through this one. I didn't really realize it was written with a pandemic setting and wow, it's fully pandemic-centric, with COVID playing a central role. I don't mind pandemic books, but I just did not feel like reading a gloomy book about sad, depressing pandemic themes and unhappy, mean characters.

Even worse, MOTHERED took the unreliable narrator trope too far for me. Between Grace's nightmares and Jackie's passive aggressive anger, I couldn't tell what was happening and wow, that got annoying really fast. The book moves so slow--Grace and Jackie fight, Grace has bad dreams that may or not be real, and then it repeats. There's a weird side plot with Grace catfishing women that does not really make sense, as well as pieces about Grace's missing dad. Then there's the focus on her deceased twin sister, which is central to the plot, but almost seems grotesquely portrayed at times (Hope was disabled) and done in poor taste.

I just wanted to get to the end, but then there was no real payoff that explained things. Ugh! Overall, MOTHERED just annoyed me.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer in return for an unbiased review. It releases 3/1/2023!

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Friday, February 24, 2023

Empty glasses and empty promises: SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOES.

Someone Else's ShoesSomeone Else's Shoes by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nisha lives a glamorous life with her wealthy husband, but it all ends when he abruptly cuts her off and asks for a divorce. Nisha has no friends, no place to stay, and no access to her clothes or belongings in the hotel where they've been staying. The same day Carl cuts her off, Nisha accidentally swaps bags with someone at the gym, losing her fabulous red Christian Louboutin shoes. The person who finds them is Sam, a struggling mom who is dealing with an unemployed and depressed husband, a horrible boss, a best friend with cancer, and a soul-sucking job. Sam puts the shoes on for a business meeting and feels an amazing surge of confidence. Both women are at their lowest points--what will come next?

I almost put this one down, as it took a bit to warm up to the story and the characters at first. The beginning piece with the shoe swap, Sam finding the shoes, and Nisha losing everything is oddly slow. Luckily things pick up as Nisha expands her horizons, making a friend and getting job at the hotel where she once stayed in the penthouse. I never fully warmed to Sam, though I certainly empathized with some of her plight. Her story focused on her depressed husband, terrible job and boss, and awful parents who took terrible advantage of her. She seemed like quite a punching bag for a really long time, and I did not always care for the fact that, while, yes, her husband was very frustrating, depression was sometimes seen as something she wanted for him to just get over.

The best part of SHOES is its focus on friendship and the strong bonds that form between the female characters in the novel. Nisha turns out to be a spitfire, along with her awesome friend, Jasmine. Sam's friend Andrea, who is suffering from cancer, is also a wonderfully strong character too. There's plenty to laugh and cheer about as everyone unites for a common cause. There's even a bit of a mystery, as it seems Carl wants Nisha's red shoes... but why?

Overall, this is fun book centered around friendship and found family. It's a little slow to start and a few plot pieces gave me pause, but it's a good, witty read. 3.75 stars, rounded to 4 here.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

I don't care who you might want me to be: IT'S ONE OF US.

It's One of UsIt's One of Us by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know that I can always count on J.T. Ellison for a suspenseful tale! IT'S ONE OF US did not disappoint. Olivia Bender's life is ruled by fertility treatments. She and her husband, Park, have gone through multiple rounds of IUI/IVF, but even when Olivia gets pregnant, she cannot seem to keep the babies. She feels like a complete failure and is convinced she's letting Park down by depriving him of what he wants most. Then the police show up at their door with some shocking news: DNA in a murder investigation has been traced back to Park... well, Park's son. Ummm, what? Reluctantly, Park reveals he donated sperm years ago. We soon learn that the clinic was lax in its policies, and no one is exactly sure how many children Park has. Olivia feels betrayed and devastated--and as the secrets continue to be revealed, they must face that fact that one of Park's "children" is out there doing unspeakable things.

Oh boy, this is a juicy one! First, you have to go in and read IT'S ONE OF US with a little bit of a suspension of disbelief, or at least, willingness to go on a wild ride. Not to say the things that happen, couldn't, it's just that, wow, things get a bit crazy!

That's not to say that this book doesn't have some real moments. It does. Because J.T. Ellison writes about infertility and miscarriage (and here's pointing out a big trigger warning for both of those elements) with amazing honesty. She shows the toll it takes on Olivia and how hard it can be on a marriage. You need to read her author's note to understand how she write about this so realistically (and then want to send her about a million hugs like I did). As someone who spent nearly five years trying to have children, this book hit me hard in the feels. Olivia made some crazy choices, but wow, her thoughts about trying to be a mom, how hard it was to see others as parents, and oh my goodness, her insight into losing her babies--that was all so well-done and real. Amazing writing, truly, and it all really added to and fit into the story.

US also delves into sperm donors and how everything can go awry, which is sometimes a touchy subject for me. I am never a huge fan when authors take this route, as it really makes the general public seem to think this is the case for all kids who come into the world this way. However, the scenario in this book is so insane and over-the-top that hopefully people will read it like that.

As for the characters other than Olivia... oh boy! Park is a piece of work, folks. The murder case being investigated is a local woman, who drowned. Park just happens to have a history of being around missing or drowned women. He seems to be a compulsive liar! (But is he a murderer??!!) He has a twin (fraternal) brother whose presence adds a whole bunch of a drama. (There's so much drama here--but in a good way!)

Luckily we hear from other characters too, but I won't go into much detail as I don't want to give away any spoilers. But all the POVs are interesting and give a broad range of insight into what is going down. Because oh yeah, it's going down! There is a tangled web being woven here, folks. Get ready.

Overall, this is a dark and twisty thriller that offers all sorts of insight into family and biological ties, as well as marriage, motherhood, and infertility. It gets a little wild at the end, but it's a fun ride. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Harlequin Publishing/MIRA in return for an unbiased review. Look for US on 2/21/2023!

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Thursday, February 16, 2023

You pass through places and places pass through you: CAFE CON LYCHEE.

Café Con LycheeCafé Con Lychee by Emery Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gabi and Theo (well, mostly Theo) are sworn enemies thanks to their families owning competing bakeries. When both stores start to experience financial trouble, the boys have to put aside their differences to help their parents. Both Gabi and Theo feel a duty to their families, but also feel like deep disappointments to them--Theo, because he's gay and not the best student; Gabi, because he's secretly gay and not the star athlete his parents want. Gabi and Theo start selling food to their classmates to help.

This is a really cute, queer enemies to lovers story. It's a fast read (clocked in at 2.5 hours) too! I think Gabi might be one of the sweetest characters I've ever read about; he's just adorable. It took me a bit to warm up to Theo: I know this trope requires some "enemies," but Theo's early hatred of Gabi seemed almost too visceral and irrational for me.

I loved how CAFE deftly dealt with being gay, the fears of coming out, and the difficulty of not being accepted by one's friends and family. Neither Theo nor Gabi feel safe or appreciated, at times, with their families and the book can be really bittersweet and touching.

A lot of the problems in CAFE seemed to wrap up a little too easily for me, but overall this was a really sweet romance that covered difficult topics very well, while still being witty and fun! 4 stars.

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Monday, February 13, 2023

I'm ringing all the warning bells: EXILES.

ExilesExiles by Jane Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aaron Falk is back in South Australian wine country to celebrate the christening of his friend Greg Raco's son, Henry. Rescheduled from last year, when once local Kim Gillespie went missing from the town's festival, Aaron is glad to see the Raco family. But soon he finds himself sucked into Kim's disappearance and, as he grows closer to Raco's friends and family, he starts to ask his own questions and delve deeper.

"The little things you could have done differently, that was the stuff that haunted you."

EXILES is a lovely character-driven mystery. You must be prepared for a slow burn and a quiet thriller. This story does not offer a ton of twists and thrills (though there are definite surprises), but it builds carefully and deliberately, with each detail giving meaning to the tale. As always, Harper writes so beautifully, and every character is wonderfully written and developed. It was a pleasure to read about Aaron again (this is the final and third book in his series, though it can stand-alone).

The plot revolves around character motivations and insights, as Aaron is working on reconciling his job and the hours he spends on it versus its reward---something I can truly relate to. You get to know him, the Raco family, and the small town where the festival is held very well. While much of the focus of the book is on Kim and her disappearance, it also covers Aaron and his decisions about his future path forward and it looks back at the time when Kim and Greg Raco and his friends were teens. There is also mention of another tragedy in the small town, which Aaron explores as he grows closer to Kim's eldest daughter. The story is quite atmospheric, between the small town setting and the gorgeous Raco vineyard.

Overall, this is a dark and slow-moving mystery with in-depth and developed characters. It delves deeply into relationships and family. It was wonderful to see Aaron Falk again (though I found the ending... intriguing). 4+ stars.

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Thursday, February 09, 2023

We can't go back again: WHAT LIES IN THE WOODS.

What Lies in the WoodsWhat Lies in the Woods by Kate Alice Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over twenty years ago, best friends Naomi, Cassidy, and Olivia spent their summer in the woods, playing an imaginative game they called the Goddess Game. But their childhood ended quickly when Naomi was attacked in those same woods, stabbed seventeen times and left for dead. Somehow she survived, carried to safety by an older boy who found her. Nothing was ever the same since. The girls identified her attacker, a known serial killer wanted for murdering a variety of women, and put him away for life. The attack made all three famous, but also took it toll, as all three are keeping a dark secret.

"They told the story again and again, until they thought they owned it. We tried to forget. We didn't tell the story. Not the real one. Not ever."

WOODS is a fairly quick read centering on childhood friendship and how the games we play as kids can turn dark. But it also highlights how strong the bonds can be that kids form, even if they may not always be healthy. Honestly, many of the characters in this book are fairly awful at times. It's a small town filled with a lot of corruption and dark secrets, starting with the three girls when they were just kids. There are a lot of twisted familial ties and linkages that leave you wondering how everyone is tied together.

WOODS kept my interest and was a page-turner, but the plot was very predictable. Every twist was telegraphed from a mile away--it felt like Thriller 101. There were no major surprises, especially if you're a fan of the genre. But if you're an occasional thriller reader, you'll enjoy this one. 3 stars.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2023

I was waiting for an indication, it was hard to find: MISTER IMPOSSIBLE.

Mister Impossible (Dreamer Trilogy, #2)Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the second book of the Dreamer trilogy, the Dreamers are finding the source of their power (the ley line) diminished. Ronan Lynch and his mentor, Bryde, set out to restore it, along with Hennessy, but it seems to mean leaving everyone they love behind.

As with every Stiefvater book, this is a magical and beautifully-written tale. It centers on dreaming, family, and friendship. We still get the POV from Ronan's brothers and Hennessy's dreamed copy, Jordan. In the Dreamer trilogy, the Dreamers can dream worlds and bring back what they dream--anything from magical cars, ravens, and even people. It sounds wonderful, but sometimes what they dream is a nightmare and has horrible consequences. A group of people (the Moderators) believe the Dreamers are going to ruin the world and are out to kill them all.

The story is often a little weird and sometimes I found myself avoiding it. Other times, I was completely sucked in. A few twists blew me away, and I am so amazed how fantastic and imaginative this series can get. By the end, I was totally lost in the Dreamers battle for the world (in their eyes), and I'm looking forward to reading book three.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

My address is your name: THE SWEET SPOT.


The Sweet SpotThe Sweet Spot by Amy Poeppel
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In New York City, a group of women form unlikely friendships when they are brought together by forces of fate--and a baby. There's Lauren and her children, who just moved into a brownstone gifted by her husband Dan's father. But Lauren quickly makes an enemy in Melinda by hastening her divorce. Melinda's been dumped by Russell for Felicity, who runs a fancy shop that sells Lauren's art. At said shop works Olivia, who is unceremoniously fired after a video of her goes viral. Add in Evelyn, Lauren's uppity mother, who comes to stay for the weekend, but winds up not leaving. These women are on a crash course collision--tempers are running high--and oh yeah, Felicity is pregnant!

This is an incredibly charming book that made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions! I truly loved it--some of these characters are crazy, some are downright lovable, some are silly, but I was completely caught up in their wild and chaotic lives. Lauren and Dan have three children who add to the insanity, and soon we have a visit from Dan's father too. There's an untrained dog, a biting gerbil, and a bar in the basement of the brownstone. But at its core, SPOT is an endearing look at families--both your own and the ones you find and make on your own. It delves into motherhood, marriage, friendship, and love (and, sometimes, hate).

The story can meander a bit, but ultimately it's such a lovely and witty read that I did not care. This is such a sweet and fun book. 4.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Atria Books and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for THE SWEET SPOT on 1/31/2023!!

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Monday, January 30, 2023

I'm stronger than the monster beneath your bed: BEHIND THE SCENES.

Behind the ScenesBehind the Scenes by Karelia Stetz-Waters
My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Filmmaker Ash Stewart went through a traumatic experience and a subsequent breakup with her ex that completely derailed her career. Now she's making commercials and is exiled from the film industry and all her former friends, except the loyal Emma. Business consultant Rose Josten has put everything into a job she does not really like just to take care of her sisters after their parents died. Now, thanks to Emma, Rose is helping Ash chase her filmmaking dream by pitching a new project to a famous producer. Rose should be concentrating on making partner at her firm and Ash should be focusing on her film, but the two of them can't help realizing how much they like each other...

I requested this ARC on a whim because I liked the synopsis and oh wow, I'm so glad I did! I love finding a new author, and this book was really good. It was really sweet, very funny, and often sexy. I completely enjoyed watching Rose and Ash fall for each other. Stetz-Waters wrote a story that is very true to the lesbian experience, and Ash and Rose felt like women that I would be friends with. They were easy to like, but also real and flawed. Ash is struggling after her breakup and being pushed out of the industry. She's scared to open up her heart again. Rose, meanwhile, has a lot of anxieties due to her parents' death and the pressure she's felt to care for her sisters. Neither woman felt like a cardboard character, but instead genuine and fully fleshed out. Honestly, I found both Ash and Rose to be badass and sexy! (Also, it's so great to have a lesbian romance with characters in their 30s and 40s.)

The supporting cast in this book is really fun--Rose's sisters are a trip as is Ash's team helping her film. There are places in this book that made me laugh out loud. (Rose's pugs are the best!) Every one supported each other and Ash's movie project, which just made for a feel-good read. There were occasional miscommunications (always my pet peeve) or kept secrets, but they never lasted long--therefore making this the ideal read for me.

Overall, this is an excellent, touching, and funny read. I loved the romance and story. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Forever (Grand Central Publishing) and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for BEHIND THE SCENES on 1/31/2023!

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Thursday, January 26, 2023

I'd have no home if you left me alone: THAT WEEKEND.

That WeekendThat Weekend by Kara Thomas
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Claire and her friends Kat and Jesse sneak away during prom to Kat's family's lake house for a camping trip. But everything goes wrong when Claire wakes up alone, covered in blood, with no memory of what happened over the weekend. Kat and Jesse are gone, and after a crazy series of events, the police and FBI declare them dead. The weekend plagues Claire and she sets out to figure out what happened to friends, only to realize she's not sure she wants to find the answers.

THAT WEEKEND is a definite page-turner; I flew through it. It starts off very exciting, as you desperately want to determine what happened to Kat and Jesse. Things get a little more convoluted as Claire returns home and starts conducting her own investigation. Soon you start wondering if and why the FBI cannot do what Claire is doing. Claire is also a bit of a listless character... she seems to have little personality beyond wanting to find her friends. There are also a lot of heartless characters, making it really hard to root for anyone here.

This is a fast read and it's interesting, but it lost the thread a bit for me as the story went on. Still enjoyed it overall. 3.5 stars.

Also, this was my first book of my 2023 random # generator shelves challenge, where I've numbered my bookshelves (in a spreadsheet) and used a random google number generator to pick the shelf and then the book!

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Tuesday, January 24, 2023

How do you count all the stars in the sky: BEGIN AGAIN.

Begin AgainBegin Again by Emma Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andie Rose always needs a plan. And her current one seems flawless. Transfer from her community college to Blue Ridge State to be with her long-time boyfriend Connor, major in psychology, and get her life back on track. But as soon as she arrives at Blue Ridge, a major crack hits: Connor has transferred from Blue Ridge to be with her. Oops. Blue Ridge is tough academically. Andie needs a campus job. And her new roommate Shay needs a major, which Andie is struggling with, despite her reputation as someone who can fix anyone's problems... except maybe her own.

So this is cute and fun, for sure. Not my favorite Emma Lord (that is still TWEET CUTE) but a very good read nonetheless. I spent half the book trying to figure out if Blue Ridge was a stand-in for UVA, so I need some mental health help of my own. Andie certainly came with her own set of issues, but don't we all? Her mom passed away when she was young and then her dad basically bailed, leaving her in the care of two sweet, silly grandmas. Sure, they took care of her, but wouldn't that give you a bit of a complex, too? Blue Ridge is where Andie's parents met and fell in love, so she's dealing with that extra heaping of pressure.

The highlights in this book are the friend groups. I loved AGAIN's message about finding yourself and finding your friend family in college (or anywhere). Shay, Andie's roommate, is great, as is Valeria, another friend. And Andie's R.A., Milo, is wonderful--along with his extended family that seems to lurk at every place in Blue Ridge, including the local bagel shop. Andie and Milo's relationship is a slow burner, but it's a good one, and like a lot of Emma Lord relationships, it's really hard not to get behind it. They are just so darn... perfect. Milo has lost his dad; we know Andie has lost her mom, and the book does a strong job of exploring grief and how losing a parent affects your ability to trust. (We will just ignore the whole side plot with Connor, because frankly, he's not worth our time.)

This one felt a bit repetitive off and on--Andie is obsessed with earning these school ribbons, for example, because her parents did--that are tied to club events at the school and sometimes that all felt too much. For someone who loves to give advice, you wanted to shake her from time to time for her decision-making. There's a broadcasting/radio angle that seemed like it would be too much, but actually turned out to be perfect.

Overall, BEGIN AGAIN is chaotic and probably not one bit reflective of my college experience, but it's sweet and touching and full of charm and humor. There are representative characters and a couple you can root for--sometimes there's not much more you need, right? 3.5 stars, rounded to 4 here.

I received a copy of this book from Wednesday Books and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for BEGIN AGAIN on 01/24/2023!!

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Monday, January 23, 2023

Without you, I'd be the kind of lost that's hard to find: 6 TIMES WE ALMOST KISSED.

6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did)6 Times We Almost Kissed by Tess Sharpe
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Penny and Tate have always been in each other's lives, thanks to their best friend moms. But Penny's mom, Lottie, checked out once Penny's father died. And Anna, Tate's mom, has battled cancer and is now facing another illness. When Lottie offers Anna part of her liver to help, the girls are thrust together even more, as the families will be moving in together to facilitate everything. The only problem: Penny and Tate seem to nearly kiss when in intense situations. What will happen when they live in the same house?

This is way more than the lighthearted YA love story that the title gives off. It's a gorgeous yet oft-heartbreaking examination of grief, trauma, mental health, healthcare, friendship, parenting, and more. Penny and Tate are real, flawed characters who have been dealt a terrible hand in life and are just trying to survive.

The book is told in a back and forth format--the present day focuses on Anna and Lottie's operations and the aftermath. In the past, we examine all of Penny and Tate's important moments--and near kisses. We see two girls struggling to get by in a rural, small town. There's Penny, who is coping after having lost her beloved father in a terrible way--and then losing her mother to grief as well. And Tate, who has spent most of her life worrying about her sick mom. Both have taken on the burden of caring for their family, the finances, and more. Luckily, they have one strong figure in Penny's gran, Marion, who is a wonderful lady.

Every character in this story flies up from the page, thanks to Sharpe's writing which... there are no words, really. The writing in this book is vivid, stunning, and painful. This is one of the best written books--it's strong and gorgeous with tension and heartbreak searing across every page.

Overall, this is a beautiful story of two girls trying to find their way in the world--and to find love. It's amazing, and I highly recommend it for teens and adults alike. 4.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Little, Brown Books in return for an unbiased review. Look for 6 TIMES on 1/24/2023!!

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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

All the years seemed to take up air : THE BLACK KIDS.

The Black KidsThe Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Ashley is a senior in high school grappling with college admissions and the fact that she feels like she's drifting apart from her best friends, whom she's known since she was a little kid. Then four police officers are acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King and the riots begin. As one of the few "black kids" at her school, she feels acutely affected by the violence unfolding around her. It forces her to take a step back and truly take in the world around her.

This was an amazing read. It offers an honest and moving examination of racism, friendship, and class. But it's also Ashley's story and how she's trying to find herself, just like any teen. Her parents have worked hard to shield her from the world, but there's only so much protection parents can provide. The way the book covers historic events through the prism of Ashley's eyes is really unique, and honestly, quite educational for me, as I was young when the riots hit and should have spent more time learning about them when I was older.

This is a beautiful story (the writing is gorgeous) and it covers such important topics. I was completely immersed in THE BLACK KIDS. 4.5 stars.

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Monday, January 16, 2023

They say that I'm the kind of man who always speaks his mind: DESERT STAR.

Desert Star (Renée Ballard, #5; Harry Bosch Universe, #36)Desert Star by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard agreed to go private together, but she backed out on him to take a gig in Robbery Homicide working cold cases. Bosch feels hurt, but when Ballard invites him to join the squad as a volunteer, he reluctantly agrees so he can work his "white whale" case: the Gallagher family, four members who were murdered and dumped in the desert in 2013. Bosch is convinced he knows who did it, but he's never been able to prove it. But first, Bosch and Ballard have to play politics and work on the cold case of Sarah Pearlman, the younger sister of Jake Pearlman, the councilman who helped stand the cold case unit back up.

This is a somber yet excellent entry in the Bosch and Ballard series. We see Ballard dealing with the politics and stress that comes with being the boss of the cold case unit--including handling Bosch, a lone wolf for life. Bosch is in a bad place and also determined to solve the Gallagher case, no matter what. The cold cases Connelly presents are all intricate and detailed (as always) with his usual research and police authenticity.

We are seeing Ballard mature as she attempts to branch out in her career, learning to work with different team members, politicians, and more. We also get to see a bit more of Maddie, Bosch's daughter. As always, Bosch is my favorite, no matter how grumpy or stubborn he may appear, and I'll love him forever. I'll be so lost when his role in Connelly's books ends.

This book certainly was a bit sad in places, but I loved the mysteries and the relationship between Ballard and Bosch. It's a great read, though I suggest at least reading the previous Bosch/Ballard books to understand how they interact (they're so good!). 4.5 stars.

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Thursday, January 12, 2023

I wish I would've laid my hands on you: ASTRID PARKER DOESN'T DOESN'T FAIL.

Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail (Bright Falls, #2)Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail by Ashley Herring Blake
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Astrid is afraid of failure thanks to her overbearing mother. Jordan is scared to love again after a devastating loss. When Astrid is hired to redesign Jordan's family inn, Jordan hates the design... but, at the same time, cannot deny her attraction to Astrid. Complicating things is that the entire design is being filmed for TV.

This is an excellent slow-burn romance and the second book in Blake's Bright Falls series! I'll read absolutely anything Ashley Herring Blake writes, and she never lets me down. The friend group in the Bright Fall series is amazing-- funny, smart, queer, honest, and totally refreshing! There are appearances from Delilah and Claire from book #1, and I love how all these women have each other's backs, no matter what! And, of course, the amazing queer representation.

The tension between Jordan and Astrid here is excellent and once the book hits its "burn," there are some fun steamy scenes. But I really loved the banter between Jordan and Astrid, and the way they paid attention to the details in each other's personality and psyche. There's so much beautiful yearning. Plus, the ability to really get to know Jordan and Astrid makes it so easy to root for them.

At its core, this is a book about friendship and family, and there are some touching moments that really resonate. I loved every moment! 4.5 stars.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Say hello to friends you know: JUST THE NICEST COUPLE.

Just the Nicest CoupleJust the Nicest Couple by Mary Kubica
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lily is a math teacher--exhausted by spending her days teaching math to teenagers. Her husband, Christian, a market analyst, is especially worried about her as she's pregnant again after several miscarriages. One day he comes home to find Lily staring out into the backyard--and she tells him of an encounter at a local forest preserve with the husband of her close friend, Nina, also a teacher. Nina's husband, Jake Hayes, is a surgeon. And now he's missing.

Honestly, this was a strange thriller. It seemed to be told from a weird simplistic writing style that often felt repetitive--yes, we know Lily is pregnant. Yes we know Christian would do anything to protect Lily. Yes Nina's mom is suffering from an illness, etc. It's hard to explain, but I felt like I was reading the same snippets over and over.

Basically, Lily feels she did something, Christian goes all wild trying to protect her, Jake is missing, and Nina freaks out, because they fought before he disappeared. Who is telling the truth--anyone, everyone? Christian irritated me with his impulsive doltish ways, Nina needed to stand up for herself, and even Lily got to me after a while. And Jake seemed to have no redeeming qualities and could stay missing for all I cared. One of the twists was a pretty decent surprise; the other one not so much. An odd read overall. 3 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Park Row in return for an unbiased review. Look for it on 1/10/2023!

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Monday, January 09, 2023

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight: ALL THE DANGEROUS THINGS.

All the Dangerous ThingsAll the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A year ago, Isabelle Drake was asleep when her toddler, Mason, was taken from his crib in the middle of the night and never seen again. Isabelle's life in total shambles--she can barely sleep; she and her husband, Ben, have split up; and she spends her days obsessively going over Mason's case, trying to find any leads. When speaking a true crime convention, she meets a podcaster, Waylon, who shows interest in Mason and his disappearance. But talking to Waylon brings up unsettling memories from Isabelle's own childhood--and stokes her fears that she is responsible for what happened to Mason.

This was a compelling thriller, if not a rather depressing and dark read. It really shines a light on the societal pressure new mothers and women face, including a look at post-partum depression--looking at both Isabelle and going in flashbacks to her own mother. I found it sad and tense to read about her feelings as a new mom, because Willingham really did a great job of capturing the sense of isolation, fear, and failure that new parents can often face. This is not an easy book to read, especially as a parent. As Isabelle's sleep deprivation grows and you are not sure how trustworthy she is an narrator, the book becomes even more stressful.

It's funny; overall, I had an idea of "who did it" fairly early on, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of the story at all. The character of Waylon was a good introduction (the book can slow down a bit when it focuses just on Isabelle), as were the snippets giving us a look at Isabelle's childhood. Overall, a mesmerizing and gripping tale.

I received a copy of this book from Minotaur Books and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for THINGS on 1/10/2023!

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Friday, January 06, 2023


The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic SchoolThe Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Yamilet Flores and her younger brother, Cesar, are headed to a new school--a very white, very wealthy Catholic school. Yami does not look forward to being one of the few Mexican kids at the school, but she'd do anything for her brother, a great student who was being bullied at their last school. Besides, she's glad to leave behind her ex-best friend who outed her and made her life miserable. Her new goals are to keep Cesar out of trouble and to appear straight. But the latter is pretty difficult when Yami meets Bo, the one openly queer girl at her new school. Bo is smart, funny, talented, and really cute. Yami knows her mom will kick her out if she comes out--but she really, really likes Bo.

This is a really powerful and moving story led by Yami's unique voice. It starts out a little slow and seemed like it might get mired in being too melodramatic and YA, but it picks up very quickly.

I loved sweet Yami and Cesar, Bo, and all their friends. My heart went out to Yami and Cesar, struggling as kids of color and Yami working through her sexuality. The book did a really good job of showing how hard it is for teens who do not have a supportive structure at home--and how truly terrifying it can be to be gay or bi without parental support and love. The fear of being kicked out for so many teens is real, as is being bullied and hurt.

GUIDE did a wonderful job being true to Yami and Cesar's culture and showing how isolated they felt at school. There's also a wonderful plot with Bo, who is adopted, and grappling with how her parents are handling her own native culture. I really loved how the book dealt with so many serious topics. At some times, it felt like maybe it had picked too many topics, but it really does a good job overall.

This is a brutal book to read at points. There is a trigger warning for mental health and suicide. GUIDE is not afraid to get into heavy topics, but it also makes a point that these subjects are ones that gay teens are dealing with every single day of their lives.

Overall, this is a really amazing book. I loved Yami, Cesar, and Bo. I wish the story had not wrapped up quite so easily--I'm not sure how realistic that was--but I really loved it nonetheless. 4.5 stars.

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Thursday, January 05, 2023

I shout it out to the night: THE BODYGUARD.

The BodyguardThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tiny Hannah Brooks doesn't look like an Executive Protection Agent (or bodyguard), but that's exactly what she is. And she's good at it. Her firm has been assigned to guard superstar actor Jack Stapleton from a recent threat. Jack is well-known, but has been laying low for a couple of years after a loss in the family. His mom is sick now, though, and he's heading home to their Texas ranch. Worried about protecting her, he doesn't want the family knowing about the threat (or the bodyguard). Enter Hannah, who will have to pretend to be Jack's girlfriend while actually keeping him safe. And what would you know? Stuck out there on that ranch, being Jack's girlfriend doesn't seem so bad.

This read is cheesy at times, but truly very charming too. Even I found Jack Stapleton dreamy! His family is completely adorable, especially his sweet mom, and it was hard not to fall for all of them. Hannah is a tough cookie trying to figure out life after a terrible ex (who frankly deserves everything he gets). She has her annoying moments, but you have to love her too.

The female bodyguard angle here is really fun and something different. And, I mean, it's always enjoyable to read about hot actors and the celebrity world, right? You feel like you're being let into a secret space. This one had a little bit of a wild ending, but it was a fun, quick read and exactly what I needed and expected from a romance.

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

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Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Whisper it's all right in my ear.

The VillaThe Villa by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emily is struggling to finish her latest book after a prolonged illness and a recent breakup with her husband. Her childhood best friend, Chess, is also an author: well-known for her life brand and self-help books. When Chess offers Emily the chance for the two of them to spend time at an Italian villa, Emily agrees, even if the pair are not as close as they once were. The Villa Aestas was once known as the Villa Rosato and, in the early 1970s, rented by rock star Noel Gordon. Noel invited another musician, Pierce Sheldon, and his girlfriend, Mari, to join him at the Villa--but the summer ended in disaster-with Pierce's murder. It also led to Mari writing a famous horror novel and her stepsister, Lara, composing a famous album.

This was an intriguing one for sure. It's certainly a page-turner, and I flew through it pretty quickly. There are stories within stories within stories with THE VILLA--Emily and Chess in the present day; Mari, Noel, Pierce, and Lara in the 1970s; and then the book Mari is writing while she stays at the Villa as well. There are some journals Mari left behind and Lara's songs. Eventually Emily and Chess start to write about the 70s, too, and whew... Trusting all the stories and narrators here is nearly impossible, but it's what keeps the book moving and interesting.

The twisty Italian setting is fun, with the gothic Villa becoming nearly its own character. I was fascinated by Mari and her life and intrigued somewhat by Emily and Chess (but truly found the 1970s characters to be the stars). No one in the tale exactly comes across as lovable, but they certainly make for a dark and suspenseful read. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. Look for THE VILLA on 1/03/2023!

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Monday, January 02, 2023

I see what's missing in your eyes: I'M THE GIRL.

I'm the GirlI'm the Girl by Courtney Summers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At sixteen, Georgia Avis has big dreams, but she's held back by a life of poverty. While walking alongside the road, she discovers the body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, the daughter of the local sheriff. Georgia is hit by a car during everything, and her memories of the incident are jumbled. But she teams up with Ashley's older sister, Nora, to try to figure out what happened. All trails seem to lead to Aspera, a beautiful resort where Georgia's late mother once worked.

Ugh, I feel terrible as I love Courtney Summers, but this one just didn't work for me. Her writing is as lyrical and gorgeous as ever, but I didn't care for the plot, which dragged and had a lot of issues. I really enjoyed the writing in this book, that there was a queer relationship between Georgia and Nora, and that it featured a mystery to solve. The rest of it... not so much.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Nora and Georgia has no depth. It's thrown at us, but we see no development with them, or really any other characters in the book. I wanted to care about them--and everyone else--but it was hard. Georgia honestly came across as frustrating beyond words. Her decisions made me want to scream. Aspera--this strange, fancy resort--and its owners--loom over Georgia's life. She's obsessed with it, but we are never sure why, and her focus on working there is borderline insanity. So many of the problems in this book could have been avoided if everyone would have just been honest with each other from the beginning (including Georgia's family)--this is a huge pet peeve of mine in literature.

GIRL bills itself as a cautionary story about the power of the wealthy and the power males hold over women, but it adds nothing new. If it's focused on sexism and patriarchy, Georgia does not seem to want to fight those things--if anything, she lets things happen to her and spends a lot of time caring what the men around her think of her. Again-this just adds to the confusing angle of Georgia and Nora's relationship.

Overall, I had a hard time caring about any of the characters or the story here. It was confusing, seemed full of plot holes, and then, after everything, gave us a vague ending. So frustrating. 2 stars for me, but many others liked it more.

I received a copy of this book from Wednesday Books and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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