fiction · science fiction

Book Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Last year, via an email conversation, Nick Clausen, author of They Come At Night, suggested that I read Replay by Ken Grimwood (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1998), after learning that I liked books about time travel. (I’m not much into sci-fi stuff- no space-opera-type novels for me, thanks- but falling back in time? NEAT!). I immediately slapped that book on my TBR after noting happily that my library owned a copy of it…and then it sat there. Because sometimes TBRs are where books go to die. Not usually mine- I work hard on keeping mine to a manageable number during non-pandemic times when the libraries are open- but sometimes you just don’t get to things in a timely manner. But Sunday morning was when I downloaded a library ebook of Replay to my kindle…and Sunday evening was when I finished it.

Yeah. It’s that good.

Jeff Winston, 43, is dying. His chest is exploding with pain- obviously something with his heart- and everything fades to black. Except when he wakes up- wakes up???- he’s 18 again and in college. A young body, a young life, everything in front of him. He can live his life over, make different and better choices, do things right this time. Except he dies again, at 43, and wakes up- again!- to find himself still in college.

Caught in an endless loop of repeating his life, Jeff takes multiple paths and explores options he never had the first time around, living lives funded by the invested money he earns by placing bets on remembered outcomes for various sports matches. It’s a long, lonely existence, always questioning why and never receiving any answers, when he finally, finally meets another replayer…but the answers don’t come easily there, either. But maybe it’s not about finding answers…maybe it’s about what you learn from living through it. And there have been so many experiences for Jeff to live through…

Man. This is a novel. Ken Grimwood’s writing flows like water, and he’s never, ever overly descriptive, spending only the exact time needed in each scene and using precisely the right amount of words to describe what he needs to in order to place the reader directly in the scene alongside Jeff Winston, and not a single word more. Far from feeling bare, this makes for a fast-paced page turner. I have no idea how anyone could possible linger for days with this book; I HAD to keep tearing through it in order to know what happened next. What would Jeff’s next replay look like? Who would he be? Who would he find? What did it all mean???

Pace isn’t something I normally notice in books, but Replay hits the mark in that category. As Jeff experiences many periods of the ages 18 to 43 in this book, Mr. Grimwood had to be brief, but he does so in the most informative way, capturing emotion and zeitgeist without ever leaving the reader feeling as though they’ve missed out. Would I have liked to know Jeff’s exact day-to-day details? Of course, but that’s only because this kind of stuff fascinates me. Each replay is written to perfection- it’s Groundhog Day over a longer period of time, and it’s delicious.

I was a little nervous going into this, to be honest. I don’t read a lot of novels by men, solely because I’m not interested in reading the kind of violence or Holden Caulfield-style navel-gazing that pops up in so many of them (to say nothing of the “She breasted boobily down the hall” style writing that seems to pop up far too often among male writers). I was hooked within the first few pages, though, and I couldn’t get enough.

There are a lot of deeper themes here- loneliness, isolation, self-examination (the good kind!), dealing with loss, but the book can absolutely be read as a guy’s adventures repeating his life, and either way is good. If you’ve read any of Ken Grimwood’s other books, I’d love to hear about them and if you enjoyed them. Replay was amazing. Major thanks to Nick Clausen for the recommendation; this made for an amazing Sunday!

Ken Grimwood passed away in 2003. You can read his wikipedia page here.

blog tour · fiction · science fiction · YA

#TheWriteReads Blog Tour Presents Catalyst by Tracy Richardson

Hey guys! Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ Blog Tour for Catalyst (The Catalysts #2) by Tracy Richardson (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2020). I’m your friendly first chapter review guide, so buckle up and I’ll introduce you to our narrator, but you’re going to want to don your tinfoil hat before we take off.

Meet Marcie. Upon first glance, she may seem like your average young woman, set to spend the summer helping her mother on her archaeological dig at Angel Mounds with her brother Eric and his girlfriend Renee. Not a bad way to spend a summer, right? But Marcie’s…different. She’s had some experiences with things not of this world, including a one-time connection with the spirit of a Native American girl that she was never able to recreate, but that always left her open to more, and wondering.

Almost the second Marcie steps foot onto the dig site, she recognizes that something’s up, something that not everyone is aware of. Zeke and Lorraine, two of the grad students, seem to be able to communicate with her just by thought, something that jars her and sets her on edge, especially because Zeke leaves her feeling uneasy. There’s something about them that’s maybe not quite right. It might be a long summer at this dig site…

Okay, I’m definitely intrigued. While I’ve never been a huge reader of paranormal books, when I was young, one of my favorite reads was The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, about a young girl who can move objects with her eyes and who eventually comes across other kids like her. That’s the kind of paranormal stuff I enjoy reading about, and with Marcie being able to both communicate with spirits and hear other people’s thought communication toward her, I want to know more.

This first chapter invites a whoooooooooole lotta questions: What exactly is being dug at this dig site? What’s the deal with Zeke and Lorraine? Where did they come from and what’s their story? Are they dangerous? How can they communicate via thoughts, and why Marcie and no one else? What makes that possible? What’s the extent of their powers, and of Marcie’s? Are there more than just these varying ways of paranormal communication? Is there a how-to at the end of this book? (Yes? Please say yes.)

My reading time right now is so much more limited than usual, but this is definitely one I’ll be coming back to when I’m not trying to get through other stacks of books. From the blurb, this novel also pulls in environmental themes, which is *so* important, and I’m glad to see this cropping up in various genres of fiction. I’m curious as to how it plays out and if it manages to inspire the reader to be more proactive about caring for the environment without verging too far into the dystopian. Guess I’ll find out when I’m able to dive in further, but if you’re intrigued by characters with special powers (and seriously, aren’t we all, at least a little? Who doesn’t want to read minds and move things with their eyes and maybe fly?), Catalyst may be the escapist fiction you need right now.

Thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Tracy Richardson for including me on this tour!

Visit Tracy Richardson’s website here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Follow The_WriteReads on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: 40-Love (There’s Something About Marysburg #2) by Olivia Dade

When Olivia Dade is handing out copies of her new book on Twitter, you accept immediately, AMIRITE???

For real. I was lucky enough to be on Twitter at night a week or two ago when she was offering up copies of 40-Love (Hussies and Harpies Press, 2020), and I clicked that link SO hard. I’ve never read her before but I’ve enjoyed her on Twitter, and hey, free book (and free publicity for her! Win-win). I filled out the form and the book was in my email inbox that morning. Ah, life as a book blogger!

(I mean, the cat probably barfed on the floor that same morning, and I’m SURE my daughter fought me tooth and nail over doing her schoolwork, but let’s just pretend for a moment that the book blogging life is nothing but glitz and glamor, okay?)

Tess Dunn is smack in the middle of a relaxing beach vacation when the wardrobe malfunction of the century threatens to erase her years of hard work (seriously. ‘Public indecency’ is not a good charge to have on your police record when you’re gunning for that job as principal). By chance, the only nearby adult- uh, mostly an adult?- is the resort’s tennis instructor, Lucas Karlsson. The two don’t exactly get off on the right foot, but after Olivia’s best friend and vacation buddy signs her up for some of Lucas’s lessons, sparks are flying alongside those tennis balls on the court.

Sure, Lucas is younger than Tess by about thirteen years, but he knows what- more like WHO- he wants- at least in that aspect of his life. Career-wise, he’s been biding his time at the resort since injuries forced him off the professional circuit. But Tess has helped him to clarify a few things in her short time on the island. Though, as we know, vacation isn’t real life, and the two of them will have some heavy decisions to make if they’re going to make this work.

Such a cute, fun story. I opened my copy on my kindle, read the first line- “Jesus, this stupid bikini was killing her”- burst out laughing, and knew this was my pick for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a great first line. (Ladies, we’ve all owned some version of that swimsuit, haven’t we? UGH). Tess is a strong heroine who knows what she wants and doesn’t really hesitate to go for it. She’s confident in her abilities and her body, and she’s got a fun, funny personality.

Lucas is a thoughtful hero caught in a holding pattern, wearing the outward appearance of a bro that masks his sweet charm. He’s deeper than he looks, and probably deeper than most young men his age, possibly due to his experiences with so many injuries and so much pain throughout his tennis career. The loss of that career has caused him to doubt himself and his abilities, but he never wavers in his affection for Tess and takes every chance to express it.

What I adored most of all, though, was the setting. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’ve all been stuck at home, or that the weather has still been a little cool here, especially when I was reading this (but now, not so much!), but a steamy, palm-tree filled island off the Florida coast? Talk about a dream vacation right now- although, to be fair, anywhere that’s not one of the rooms in my house or the residential areas within several miles of my house on my walking route sounds like a dream vacation. But really, Olivia Dade created a perfect resort with amazing weather, awesome amenities, delicious-sounding restaurants, and gorgeous beaches (including a nude beach!) that had me mentally digging my toes into the sand and relaxing in the warm waves. Ahhhhhhhhh.

The tennis stuff, I didn’t love, but that’s merely a personal thing. I’m not huge on sports in books (although hockey’s a minor exception), and I’ve never really had any interest in tennis at all, so I wasn’t personally drawn to that. It’s absolutely not overdone, though; Ms. Dade covers it just enough so that the non-sportsing reading will be able to understand, if not relate to, Lucas and his background. This is still an enjoyable read even if you can’t tell the difference between a tennis ball and a bowling ball.

If you’re looking for a fun summer romance and just want to take a mental beach vacation, 40-Love is a great choice. Don’t forget the sunscreen, and, uh, maybe secure that bikini top a little more, just to be sure, okay?

Thanks to Olivia Dade for a copy of this book!

Visit Olivia Dade’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: May 2020

Month three! Give it up for month three of Pandemic Lockdown! (Or, you know, whatever month it is where you’re at.)

We’re still managing just fine here at the Not-At-All-At-The-Library household. My daughter has completed kindergarten; my son has- literally- virtually graduated from high school. Heck of a way to end the beginning and end of my kids’ academic careers, but it’s something they’ll remember all their lives. Living through history is weird, man.

My state is beginning to reopen things- slowly and safely, fortunately. Masks are required everywhere, something for which I will be eternally grateful. We’ll be hanging out at home for much, much longer though: there’s still no vaccine, there’s no cure, and there’s not even an effective treatment. Our lives will look very different until science is able to get a handle on this, but that’s just something I’ve accepted.

Reading is still slow-going around here, but that’s just life with the kids (particularly my daughter) at home, and I’m okay with that as well. We’ll see if I get more reading done as we relax our school-at-home schedule a bit in the coming days.

Let’s get this roundup started, shall we?

What I Read In May 2020

  1. Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetti

2. A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

4. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

5. Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

6. American Royals by Katharine McGee

7. Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine (review to come closer to release date)

8. There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis

9. Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

10. 40-Love by Olivia Dade (review to come)

11. Replay by Ken Grimwood (review to come)

Slow month yet again! We’ve also been spending a lot of time in the yard (which has been neglected since…uh…basically since we moved here), lots of time taking walks, and I’ve been doing a lot of organizing and cleaning, so that eats into my time as well. I’m not worried. It’ll pick back up one day. 🙂

Reading Challenge Updates

Still swimming on this front. Slower than I’d like, but ever onward. I haven’t had to make any changes to my selections yet, what with the libraries being closed; so far, I’ve been able to get the books I wanted via ebook. Word has it that our library will be opening soon, most likely for curbside pickup at first, so we’ll see how that goes. A few of my reading challenge picks come from other libraries or will need to come via interlibrary loan, which won’t be happening for a while, so I may have to choose other books for those categories (more on this below). No biggie. 🙂

Here’s what the challenges I made progress on this month look like:

And the second page of BookRiot! (No change for the first page.)

Ahhh, I love when book challenges overlap, don’t you?

Seven books added! I’ll take it. If things go on long enough that I’m unable to access interlibrary loan, I may have to scrap BookRiot’s Read Harder challenge for the year- their prompts make tracking down books a little trickier and often require books my library doesn’t stock, but again, I’m okay with that. Nothing is normal this year.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Yup, it’s still there. My TBR still exists. Goodnight, friends.

Oh. You wanted the number, huh?

So last month the TBR stood at 124 books. Today? 139. Lotta sweet books headed my way when I can get to them- meaning, both physically get to them, and have time to get to them! I do need to go through and maybe clean it up a little; there are still some older books on there I need to make sure are still in line with my interests. We’ll see if I get to that!

Books I Acquired in May 2020

None! I think we grabbed another Magic Tree House book and a book on fairies from a Little Free Library, and my son received a book on music history from Amazon, but that’s about it.

Bookish Things I Did in May 2020

Zoom book club! For real. My library book club has moved to Zoom and will be there for the time being (read: until it’s safe to gather in large groups), so we all struggled to remember and then discuss a book we read in February. It was pretty entertaining, and it was nice seeing other people, especially the librarian who runs it. She has the best, most outgoing personality. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a more sunshiny human being. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend the rest: book selections have moved to Hoopla, and I don’t have a device new enough to access the app. Well, I could read it on my computer or phone, but neither of those options sound great to me, so I’ll just focus on my own reading for now. 🙂

Current Podcast Love

Listening to a few different things right now. I’ve listened to a bunch of episodes of Too Jewish with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends, which I really enjoy (but the music tends to wake me up at night, so I listen to this when I walk or cook instead). I’ve listened to a bunch of episodes of Call Your Mother from Kveller, which I’ve been enjoying. I’ve listened to a few episodes of Brave, Not Perfect with Reshma Saujani (some episodes have been more interesting to me than others). And the other night, after seeing Rabbi Emily Cohen mention her podcast on Twitter, I began listening to Jew Too. Funny story about this- about the third or fourth night of turning this on, listening for a bit, then falling asleep, I woke up at 3:20 in the morning (I checked!). The podcast switched to the next episode and I was like, “Okay, cool, I’ll listen to help me fall back asleep.” And then they interviewed one of the rabbis who taught my (Re)Introduction to Judaism course!!! I was like, “HOLY CRAP I KNOW THAT VOICE!” SO wild to encounter that entirely unexpectedly! 🙂

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Currently on hold.

Real Life Stuff

Phew, another lockdown month under our belts! Our state is slowly opening up, but I’m content to stay where I am at home. The virus is still out there and there’s no vaccine or cure, and I’m not willing to risk my life or my friends’ or family members’ lives for any kind of convenience. I make the bare minimum of trips that I need to, and the rest of the time, I’m home. My husband continues to work a reduced schedule, but they’ll be back to normal soon with everyone wearing masks all day. (If his ears start hurting, I’ll knit him one of those ear savers that are all over Pinterest. I made my daughter one after her doctor’s appointment; they whip up pretty quickly.)

My son has graduated from high school, and he’ll turn 18 this month. So bizarre to think that I’ve raised a human being all the way to adulthood. Such a strange way to end his high school career, but it can’t be helped, and it’ll make for good stories down the road. He’ll continue on at the local community college this fall, whether in person or online. My daughter is done with kindergarten and will go on to first grade, whatever that will look like! She’s had a hard time with kindergarten being done without really getting to say goodbye, but it is what it is, and we’re making the best of it.

My (Re)Introduction to Judaism class has completed! It was a fabulous experience, I miss it already, and I look forward to learning much more in the future. My TBR is so full of Jewish-themed books, but they’ll have to wait until interlibrary loan is up and running again. It’s okay, I’m patient. 🙂

The owl cam that we loved so much is done and over with. The baby owls flew off on their own and we were sad to see them go, but we learned so much watching them! I’m really looking forward to watching the cam all over again next year with a new crop of baby owls. We haven’t started watching anything new yet; I need some time to heal from saying goodbye to the owls- we all really got attached to those guys!

My daughter’s reading has SERIOUSLY taken off. We started The Magic Tree House series, which she enjoyed, and then I introduced her to Junie B. Jones, and that was it. After a few chapters of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, my daughter recognized a kindred spirit (God help me) and has fallen in love. We use the back-and-forth method- she reads one page, I read one page- and together we’ve read seven Junie B.’s and four Magic Tree House books. Not bad for a kindergartner!

My son turns 18 in June, and we trunk-pick up my daughter’s school belongings this week, but that’s it on the calendar! I’m not scheduling anything for the time being until we see what life looks like once things start getting at least somewhat back to normal.

The US is basically chaos everywhere right now- chaos that exists because we’ve never dealt with our problems and have shoved it all under the rug and pretended it’s all fine. It’s not fine, it’s never been fine, and what you’re seeing now is a result of that. My town hasn’t been immune to this; we’ve had looting in the stores at the other end of town, and last night there were reports of gunshots close enough to us that I could walk there within about two minutes. My husband can’t physically get to work today because so many streets are closed in the city, so he’s working from home. We’re in firm support of the protesters; America has needed a wakeup call and to deal with its history of and current tolerance of racism- overt and institutionalized- for a very, very long time. Black lives matter, and I pray that this is the beginning of a conversation that never ends, because dealing with the problems you’ve created and perpetuated for hundreds of years should never, ever stop.

Stay safe, stay healthy, make good decisions about your health and life and safety whenever you go out, enjoy the warmer weather if you’re in the northern hemisphere like me, and stand for justice wherever you go. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’re reading as we head into summer!

nonfiction

Book review: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis

So I was browsing NetGalley a few weeks ago, checking out the selections (I don’t often request books; my blog is still kind of small and I don’t necessarily think I’ll be approved for many titles, but I like to know what books are out there that I can look forward to!), when the first part of the title of one book reached out and punched me in the face: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis (BenBella Books, 2020). The song by Kansas has been a long time favorite of mine, so I was immediately curious as to what the book was about, and I was a million times more delighted when I read the rest of the title and learned that this was a collection of essays about the CW show Supernatural, a show my husband and I binge-watched two years ago on Netflix and which I’ve enjoyed ever since. The book was offered as a ‘Read Now,’ and I happily clicked the button. (And since I was pulled in by the title, I’m counting this as my read for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of ‘a book you picked because the title caught your attention.’)

Lynn S. Zubernis has edited a collection of essays and interviews by both cast and crew members and fans that speak to not only the brilliancy of the show, but the camaraderie and deep friendship that has blossomed among its ardent fans. Cast, crew, and fans alike refer to themselves as family (the SPNFamily, to be exact), and in every essay, their bonds are made obvious by the love the fans show each other, the charity work that every person even loosely associated with this show is moved to participate in, the deep desire to follow Sam and Dean’s footsteps by making the world a better, safer place, and the courage to be open, vulnerable, and thus, free.

The essays run the gamut, from experiences on set and how they changed an actor or actress’s life, to how being part of the fandom helped each fan to grow, but the common theme here are the permanent effects one single TV show has had, and the effects are massive. Far from being a mere aside of pop culture, Supernatural has acted as a catalyst for personal growth, from inspiring fans to keep fighting with the anxiety that has plagued them for years, to pushing them to take steps and make changes that they’d been afraid of taking. For a show that carried on for fifteen seasons, that’s no small feat, and no small amount of changed lives. The effects of Supernatural are long-ranging.

There’s an awful lot to fall in love with in this book. The actors’ willingness to connect with their fans is truly remarkable, and their essays, in which they detail their involvement in fan conventions and on social media, is absolutely heartwarming. But what really shines is the dedication to charity that this show has fomented among its followers. Almost every essay has some mention of how its author engaged in work that benefited people they never met- fundraising, multiple crisis support networks, helping other fans to pay off devastating medical bills- because that’s what family does, even far-off family you don’t often, or ever, see face-to-face. And the Supernatural fandom is the family everyone deserves.

The book isn’t without its criticism of the show, particularly towards earlier the seasons’ treatment of women. It’s never harsh, but it’s fair, and I appreciated such an even-handed take, because when you love something, you want it to be the very best it can be, and we should all be able to criticize the things we love while still loving them. And there are deep dives into certain characters (Charlie is a particular favorite, but there’s plenty of love for Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum as well) and their far-ranging influence, but my favorite essays were the ones that demonstrate that Supernatural‘s ripple effects are less like a tossed pebble and more akin to a giant bolder dropped into the middle of a lake.

Actor Rob Benedict sharing his experiences with suffering a stroke helped a fan to recognize that she was experiencing similar symptoms, and that pushed her to get medical help in time to save her life. A professor used the show to develop a course that helped veterans suffering from PTSD return to civilian life. Fans crowdfunded gender correction surgery for another fan who had decided to move forward with living his best life. Other fans raised money to start a school in Nicaragua and a children’s center in Haiti. The list go on and on and the stories are no less impressive as the book nears completion. Ms. Zubernis has chosen a set of essays that reveal the depth and heart of a television show about two brothers saving the world from things that go bump in the night (and day!), and its true legacy is the love its fans have extended from the show itself to each other and the world beyond.

If you’re a Supernatural fan, this book, this love letter to not just the show but to you and the friends you’ve made because of it, is one you can’t miss. Even for the casual fan like me, There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done was an utter joy to read: the fandom’s love and connection to each other is evident on every single page, and that kind of love is absolutely what the world needs right now. To be honest, I didn’t want this book to end, and I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Zubernis’s other works at some point as well.

“Because family really don’t end with blood. And those of us who have been part of the SPNFamily, whose lives have been changed for the better by this show, are now a little more able to ‘carry on.'”

There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done is a beautiful, moving testament to a television show that transcended the bounds of pop culture and changed what it means to be a fan, and we’re all the better for it. Carry on, friends, and Always Keep Fighting.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book!

Visit Lynn Zubernis’s website, Fangasm the Book, here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: American Royals by Katharine McGee

This is the best part of reading challenges right here, finding new-to-me authors and new books that I love, especially ones that I might not have looked twice at if I hadn’t been prompted to pick them up. The only reason I even knew of American Royals by Katharine McGee (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019) was because it appeared as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge‘s prompt of a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. While I’ve enjoyed a few books about characters learning they’re actually royalty, I don’t know that I would have picked this up based on the title or the cover, but upon reading the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Imagine that instead of becoming President, George Washington instead chose to serve as America’s first king. And instead of the American populace electing a (potentially new) leader every four years, the throne passed from father to son, until the law changed in order for the throne to allow women to reign as queen.

The Washingtons, America’s royal family, are the fascination of the country, especially since daughter Beatrice is set to succeed her father, the first future queen after a long line of kings. She’s prepared her entire life for ascending the throne, but despite her privilege, her lack of options in life are beginning to feel restrictive. Her younger sister Sam, known for being the wild child to Beatrice’s more uptight personality, has spent her childhood doing all the things Beatrice can’t; far from feeling free, she chafes at being the spare (being, of course, four minutes older than her twin brother Jeff).

When Beatrice’s parents reveal that she needs to pick out a husband, a series of events are set in motion that will pit sister against sister, reveal tragic secrets, and lead both sisters to fall deeply in love. But for royalty, the crown must come first above all other things, and difficult choices will need to be made by all.

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

Ms. McGee tells the story of young adult royals in a multiple third person narrative that will have you turning the pages so quickly you develop a nasty case of tendinitis in your right hand and wrist (okay, maybe I can’t fully blame her for this, ow, but it didn’t help! Still worth it, though). Her characters are all so very well-rounded that they practically leap off the page and seem like real people you could actually Google. Over and over again, I wondered if maybe having a monarchy would have been the right choice; if it had led the country to a family like the Washingtons, it just might have been.

Beatrice is cool and regal on the surface; on the inside, she’s torn between her duty and responsibility to her country and her growing love for her guard, Connor. Sam is jealous of her older sister, but never so much as now, when Beatrice seems to be getting everything Sam always wanted. Nina, Sam’s best friend, is in love with Jeff, but can she ever fit in to palace life? And Daphne, Jeff’s scheming socialite ex, is always skulking on the edges, desperate to claw her way back into Jeff’s life and into a position as his future princess.

Ms. McGee has created deep, complex emotions behind these royal characters, but she writes them in a way that feels natural and never forced. It’s an amazing, fictional deep dive into about the most entertaining ‘what if???’ scenario I’ve ever read. It ends on a serious note, and I am HERE for the sequel, Majesty, which is due out in September 2020. I’ve already added it to my TBR, and for someone that’s not much into series, that alone should tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Racing the through palace halls, sitting down for a chat in the study, digging through the vault of Crown Jewels, waltzing at a ball, the settings for every chapter are fabulous and Ms. McGee puts you right there in the DC palace that you’ll wish were real from the first page.

While American Royals is classified as YA, I feel that it reads the same as adult fiction. The characters who narrate it are all in their very late teens or early twenties, but the style reads as easily as any adult contemporary fiction. If you’re not usually interested in young adult novels, don’t let that stop you here; this is a compelling story that deals with heavy emotional themes and makes for an enjoyable read for any age.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this a scenario you’d considered before? What led you to pick this book up? Are you interested in the sequel? If you’re American, do you think we’d be better off if Washington had made the decision to be king?

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

On rare occasions, books from my TBR match up with books from my reading challenges, and then we celebrate!!! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads wasn’t hard to fill, but I used this category as an excuse to read Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (Avon, 2019). I adore Ms. Hibbert on Twitter, so I added this book to my list before it came out- meaning, this was a TBR book I actually got to before it had lingered on the list until it was old enough to drive! (Speaking of which, I need to go in and clean up my list again. Haven’t done that in a year or so, so it’s definitely time, just to make sure I still really want to read everything that’s on it.)

Chloe Brown needs a life. Ever since her diagnosis of fibromyalgia years ago, Chloe’s let her life dwindle down to work, her sisters and family, managing her pain, and little else. First on the list, move to her own place: check, and unfortunately, it’s one with a majorly hot super, one Red Morgan, whom Chloe was not prepared for and for whom she can’t control her attraction. But maybe, just maybe, he can help her complete at least some of the tasks on her list…

Red Morgan was expecting Chloe Brown to be more of a snob, but he’s actually starting to enjoy her surprisingly witty personality right along with her gorgeous face. He’s out here working as a super to get his life back in order after his last relationship tanked badly and left him scrambling for a sense of self. Red and Chloe are two very different people from different sides of the tracks, but they’ve got enough in common to make a go of it, and enough sparks to start a five-alarm fire. If only they can get past themselves and the ghosts of their pasts…

I had a hard time getting into this one, something I fully blame on the state of my brain at the time I was reading this, because the book itself is a delight. Red is just a little bit bad boy (tattoos, motorcycle, comes from a lower class than Chloe, something that is occasionally a point of contention between them but never as much as it was between Red and his last girlfriend), but he’s also got heart and a killer talent as an artist. He’s a study in contradictions and the unexpected, and he’s also just so GOOD. He notices even Chloe’s tiniest grimaces of pain and reacts accordingly (uh, JEALOUS HERE. SUPER, SUPER JEALOUS); he cooks for her, helps her when she needs it (and lets her manage if she can or wants to), he takes care of her. Talia Hibbert has really created a fabulous hero in Red Morgan.

Chloe Brown has retreated from the world, something I could definitely identify with. My back (which is my catch-all term for where my pain is; it starts about mid-spine and goes down, affects my entire pelvis but mainly on the right side, and goes down both legs to my feet but again, mainly on the right) can go from perfectly fine to rendering me almost entirely unable to walk in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to plan for things- who wants to schedule something you might have to cancel? How can you make long-term career plans if you’re not sure your body will cooperate? The pain is bad enough some days that I have a difficult time focusing; I liken it to trying to watch something on the TV when you also have the radio blasting at full volume. In that aspect, Chloe and her life were familiar to me. When she realizes there’s a problem, that her life has gotten so small as to be ridiculous, she takes charge and creates a list of all the things she would like to do in order to throw herself back into living, something I admire deeply. I had a similar plan this past year to engage with the world more (which is probably why this whole pandemic started! Sorry ’bout that…)- I’ll get back to all of that one day…

It’s a nice change to see chronic pain represented in a romance, although I constantly wondered throughout this book how it would have played if the characters were American instead of British. Insurance would have been a huge stressor for Chloe (and the stress may have exacerbated her condition); she would have worried about how to pay for all her medical appointments and prescriptions and may have worried about her increasing medical debt; it’s possible that Red may have factored in his ability to support her and pay for her medical care into his decision to begin or continue a relationship with her (in the US, people on disability, which often includes being on Medicaid, lose their disability and medical care if they get married, which forces many of them to remain unmarried against their desires). In a country where medical care for a chronic problem means money, money, money, this story may have looked different, and it made me sad to consider this while reading what was, in the right setting, a love story and not a tale of financial stress. Amazing how easily something meant to be fun takes on different dimensions when you change the setting.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a sweet love story between two people who, on the surface, don’t seem to fit, but who work together quite well once they get over themselves. The second book in the series, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, comes out on June 23, 2020!

Visit Talia Hibbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

reading life

Comforting Reads for Troubling Times…

Raise your hand if you’re having a hard time reading right now, whatever that means to you.

*raises hand, waves it wildly*

Focusing is difficult. I find myself constantly refreshing various open tabs on my computer, looking for someone or something to make all of this better. And I know that too much time online isn’t good for my ability to focus, but…

Time is also a major factor. Herding my daughter through her schoolwork, helping my son learn to cook (and cooking all the rest of the time), cleaning the mess left by four people and two cats who rarely leave the house, daily hour-long walks with the family- exactly where can I shoehorn reading in???

Some of you are struggling through schoolwork, others are worried about bills and lost jobs, others find themselves with the impossible conundrum of how to care for very young children and still manage a full day of working from home, and so many of us are worried about sick friends and family. It’s impossible, these are impossible demands, and yet here we are, persisting, supporting each other, and doing our best every single day.

We all need a gigantic hug right now (or whatever your preferred form of soothing affection is), so today, I’m serving up some of my favorite comfort reads, which are basically hugs in book form, and who doesn’t love that???

Fiction

What it is: Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Why it’s a comfort read: Betty Smith is the author of the beloved classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Joy in the Morning is written in the same clear, fluid style that her fans will instantly recognize. Joy has a similar feel to it. It tells the story of newlyweds Carl and Annie, struggling to make a life together in 1928. Both are young, neither family supports the marriage, and they’re entirely on their own, doing their best to figure things out. Adjust your mindset to what life was like at that time and you’ll find this as charming as I did.

What it is: Fifteen by Beverly Cleary.

Why it’s a comfort read: This is the sweetest romance you will ever read in your life. Fifteen tells the story of a teenage girl’s first love and all the awkward, anxious moments that come along with it. I’ve read this probably more than fifteen times in my life, and each time I appreciate it more. It was first published in 1956 and there are a few bits that are dated (including a friend group trip to Chinatown where Jane is entirely unfamiliar with the food), but it’ll throw you right back into the terrible, wonderful, exhilarating whirlwind of falling in love for the very first time.

What it is: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Why it’s a comfort read: Magic! Gardens with edible flowers that will change what you need them to. An apple tree that throws its fruit at people. Women that can whip up delicacies and concoctions that will not only taste great but will cure what ails you. This is a book you can wrap around yourself like a beautiful silk scarf, that will leave you reaching for a notepad and a spade so you can plan, then plant your own magical garden. Along these lines, you’ll also want to pick up Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman and Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons.

What it is: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Why it’s a comfort read: If you’re sick of politics as they are, this book is politics as it should be, with the addition of one of the most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. International intrigue, love between a British prince and the son of the American president, this gave me ALL the feels and was exactly the antidote to the existential despair that *gestures broadly at everything* was giving me at the time. If you haven’t read this yet, put it on your list immediately.

What it is: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Why it’s a comfort read: Along the lines of Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, this is the story of a very sweet first love set against the background of a Parisian boarding school for international students. Anna is struggling to define herself in an environment she’s not thrilled to be in, but the presence of floppy-haired Etienne helps…a lot. Super adorable and sweet, and a must-read if you love all things French.

What it is: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

Why it’s a comfort read: Macy and Elliot’s relationship is charming and will have your heart weeping and soaring through the clouds. It’s a friends-to-lovers-to-strangers-to…well, you’ll have to read it to find out, but there’s not much better than hanging out in the (actual) closet and reading with these two characters.

Nonfiction

Who says all comfort reads need to be fiction? I’m a major nonfiction fan, so here are a few nonfiction titles that gave me the warm fuzzies.

What it is: The Lord God Made Them All by James Herriot (and really, ANY James Herriot book works here)

Why it’s a comfort read: James Herriot’s stories of his work as a country vet in post-World War II England are utterly delightful and will give you renewed faith in humanity and the beauty of the natural world. I usually steer clear of animal stories, but his books are the major exception to that rule, they’re that good. You’ll be ready to pack up your life, head off to Yorkshire, and buy a farm on a rolling green hill, scattered with cows and goats by the end of each book. I’ve heard that his books make for great family read-alouds, if you’re looking for a way to pass the time.

What it is: Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

Why it’s a comfort read: If you’re a woman of a certain age or if you’re younger and read all those books your mom or cool aunt saved from her childhood, this book will be a joyride back to those cozy days of your youth. Who doesn’t love to reminisce about their favorite childhood books?

What it is: A Girl From Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary (and its follow-up, My Own Two Feet).

Why it’s a comfort read: Beverly Cleary, iconic children’s and young adult novelist, has detailed her childhood in Depression-era Oregon. Times were tough; her relationship with her mother was often strained; opportunity didn’t come often, when it even bothered. But somehow, Mrs. Cleary managed, and her stories of schoolwork, playing outside with friends, reworking clothing to make new-to-her outfits, and making the best of every situation will have you feeling like this, too, is doable.

*****

Book suggestions are great (and fun to make!), but we all know the best comfort read is something that relaxes us, that isn’t difficult, that we can sink into like a soft feather bed, and what that is differs for everyone. So in this difficult time, when reading may be tougher than normal or next to impossible, it’s okay to retreat to whatever brings you a moment of peace. Reread that series everyone else hates. Pick up Harry Potter for the forty-third time. Revisit that book you loved as a kid, or grab seventeen ebooks in a row by your favorite author. If it’s what helps bring some calm and quiet to your worried, scattered mind, it’s exactly what you need to be reading right now.

What are your favorite comfort reads?

fiction · historical fiction

Book review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.

Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.

As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.

Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.

This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.

The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.

Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.

Visit Lisa See’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · horror · YA

#TheWriteReads Blogtour Presents: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis

Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ blog tour for Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (Penguin, 2020). Harrow Lake is a young adult thriller, and you’re going to want to turn on every light in the house before you crack the spine on this one- or start reading long before it gets dark.

The book begins with an interview with Nolan Nox, famed horror movie director, whose daughter had gone missing a year before. Fall back in time and the story is now narrated by Lola Nox. After finding her father having been stabbed, Lola is unceremoniously shipped off to Harrow Lake, Indiana, to the home of a strange, distant grandmother she’s never met before, the mother of Lola’s own mother, who left, then disappeared, when Lola was five. Harrow Lake, the filming site of Nightjar, Nolan’s most famous film, is a spooky town. Collapsed mines that led to hundreds of deaths have provided the town myriad legends, including one resident-turned-mine-dwelling-cannibal, Mr. Jitters. Refusing to believe in stories, Lola begins to comb Harrow Lake for information, hoping to get to know the mother she barely remembers, but her search is impeded at every step.

Creepy townfolk. Eerie abandoned, caved-in mines with a collapsed church inside. A grandmother that seems half-mad on her best days. A mysterious figure who always seems to be watching Lola. Tiny hand-carved wooden insects that skitter and chatter on their own. Ominous shapes that move behind the wallpaper. NO INTERNET OR PHONE SERVICE. It’s every horror movie you’ve ever watched packed into one spine-chilling book, and Lola will need to gather all her wits about her if she wants to really learn the truth about Harrow Lake and what happened to her mother.

EEK. This was SUPER creepy. I haven’t read horror in years, but I loved it as a kid, and I deeply loved horror movies when I was young, so this was a flashback to my younger days. The hand carved wooden ‘jitterbugs’ in Lola’s mother’s room creeped me the HECK out, as did the constant references to Mr. Jitters. Harrow Lake seems about the worst vacation destination ever, and the weirdo townspeople add the perfect touch. Kat Ellis has really created a terrifying place- not quite Children of the Corn weird, but Gatlin and Harrow Lake could be sister cities.

Ms. Ellis really knows how to keep the reader guessing. It’s cliched to say that there are twists and turns on every page, but it’s the absolute truth here. Weirdness abounds in Harrow Lake and Lola, who is trapped there, is constantly thrown off by someone’s odd behavior, a strange noise, the phone lines not working, something else terrifying happening in the woods. It’s a mark of good horror writing for the reader to have their guard up THIS often because the terror never stops, and I don’t know how many times I said some version of, “OMG, just get on the road and WALK back home!”

The ending is as twisty as it gets, with a majorly satisfying conclusion that I found to be absolutely brilliant (and will remember Lola’s friend’s tactic should I ever need to use it!). Harrow Lake is a wild ride through a town I never, EVER want to visit. I’ll stay at home, where there are no collapsed-mine-mass-graves-with-creepy-cannibal-monster-people. But if you enjoy edge-of-your-seat horror that will keep you guessing until- I’m not at all exaggerating here- the very last pages, you’re going to want a copy of Harrow Lake.

Harrow Lake is set for release on July 9th, 2020.

Thanks to Dave at #TheWriteReads, NetGalley, and Kat Ellis for including me on this tour!

Visit Kat Ellis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

(If you dare! *spooky laughter*)