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.

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.

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*)

fiction

Book review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a medical thriller. This was something I read a lot of when I was in high school. Robin Cook was a huge favorite and I read almost everything my library had of his, but I don’t know that I’ve spent too much time in the genre since then. (I tend to do that, read a TON of a certain genre and then never come back again, haha. There are a few favorites that have stuck over the years, though!) Digging through the list, I came up with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011). I read her Bel Canto years ago and was curious to see how I’d feel about her other work, so I clicked on the ‘borrow’ button on the Libby app and was reading an ebook from my library in minutes. (Seriously, the excitement of that will never get old!)

Dr. Anders Eckman is dead. The news has come in a terse letter from the research site deep in the jungles of Brazil where he’d been sent to check up on the work of the woman running the project there. Dr. Marina Singh has reluctantly agreed to make the journey down there, both on her company’s behalf and on Dr. Eckman’s widow’s behalf, to figure out what happened and what the mysterious Dr. Swenson is actually doing in terms of her research. Not exactly an adventurer, Marina is more interested in staying home and figuring out what’s going on between her and her boss, but two lost suitcases later, she finds herself in a world she could never have imagined.

Dr. Swenson, a former medical school instructor of Marina’s, is stern, austere, and entirely dedicated to her projects, to the exclusion of everything around her. The jungle is deeply unforgiving and demands much from anyone who attempts to settle there. Marina will have to dig deep in order to accomplish what she came for, but there are so many things she hadn’t expected…

I don’t know. I love Ann Patchett as a person- if you’re ever in Nashville, she co-owns the cutest little book store in Green Hills, Parnassus Books, and you shouldn’t miss it (although the traffic in that area is HORRIFIC, so be warned). She’s done a lot of great things for the city; Parnassus opened up after the city’s only other first-run bookstore was destroyed by a flood in 2010 (a small Barnes & Noble affiliated with Vanderbilt University has since opened up in the city, near the university itself). But there’s something about her writing style that just doesn’t reach out and grab me. I felt the same way after reading Bel Canto; it made me anxious throughout and the whole reading experience left me unsettled. I know a ton of people absolutely love her books, so this is just my I’m-a-nobody subjective opinion, but I don’t think that her books are necessarily for me.

Her characters always feel at once too close and still too distant, and like their emotions aren’t fully displayed, or that they’re limited to a very small, very flat range of emotions. They don’t feel fully human to me- does that make sense? They almost seem like caricatures. The Bovenders were as boisterous as Marina was flat, as Dr. Swenson was irritated. They’re all ruled by one personality trait, and I found that tiring to read.

Dr. Swenson was about one of my least favorite characters I’ve ever read. She was snappish, emotionless, irritated and impatient with everything Marina said, and every time she appeared on the page, I grew annoyed. To be honest, if it hadn’t been for the challenge (and the fact that this was an ebook, which have limited checkouts for the library), I wouldn’t have finished it, because I was so annoyed with everything about Dr. Swenson. She was so arrogant and unlikable that reading her was difficult. Even later in the book, when she’s more vulnerable, I felt little sympathy for her.

Marina was a little better, but still flat to me. There is a twist at the end that helps the story to finish better than I had expected, although it was still…eh, and there was something alluded to earlier in the book that had the potential to blow up, but the book ended too soon to really know if anything came from it.

And oof. I have a lovely friend who is from Brazil and who has a lot of great stories about her home country. I love hearing them. This book was a bit like an anti-tourism ad for Brazil. Venomous snakes that camouflage in terrifying ways. Anacondas in the water. Insects of every shape and size that dive bomb, bite you with razor-sharp teeth, suck your blood, and inject you with terrifying diseases. Cannibalistic native tribes. I’ll stay home, thanks… (And Dr. Swenson’s discovery, that there’s a tribe whose women can get pregnant into their eighties? THAT sounds like the worst nightmare EVER!!!! Pregnancy and I are not friends…)

I dunno. I always feel like there’s something wrong with *me*, that I’m missing something that so many other people obviously see, when I don’t fall in love with authors that are so very popular. Is this your experience when you can’t quite get what other people love so much? Have you read this and are baffled by how badly I miss the mark here? Do you love Ms. Patchett’s books and have a moment to explain them to me better? I’m open to any help you can offer!

Visit Ann Patchett’s website here.

fiction · YA

Book review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

And back to work on my reading challenges from the comfort of my kindle! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list is in the front of my reading binder, so I’m going down that list first. A lot of their prompts have to do with the 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed until at least next year (and rightfully so; I can’t even imagine having that many people crammed into an Olympic village, along with all the spectators gathering together. FAR too dangerous right now), and next on the list was to read a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. What I’m able to easily get my hands on factors as heavily into my choices as much as what interests me, and since my library had a ebook of Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006, originally published in 1992), which was set in Sydney, Australia, that went on my list (this also meant I was able to add a pin to my map of the world, which I update every time I read a book set in a different country. I have fourteen pins so far this year!). I started reading the book, a large portion which deals with the main character’s illegitimacy, and I was confused. Do people still care about that? Is that an Australian thing? After a few chapters, it dawned on me after reading a line about the ongoing AIDS epidemic and realizing there hadn’t been any references to things like the Internet or cell phones, and off I went to check the Goodreads page. Sure enough, the book was originally published in 1992, when being a single mother was still very much looked down on, especially in certain communities. That made more sense. I adjusted the setting of the story a bit in my mind and carried on.

Josephine Alibrandi has lived her entire seventeen years with her illegitimacy hanging over her head everywhere she goes- at her fancy private Catholic school, where she’s a scholarship student and the other students constantly remind her she’s a bastard and not *really* Australian; among her large extended Italian family, especially her grandmother, who never let her mother forget her sins; among the wider Australian community, who looks down on her for both not having a father and for her ethnic background. But things are changing in her final year of high school. Josie’s met her father for the first time in her life. She’s dating a boy who challenges her as well as infuriates her. And her strained relationship with her judgmental grandmother is about to be pushed to its breaking point.

Josie’s quick to fly off the handle, but she has a lot to learn about life, about her family, about the secrets of the past and how we all carry them, and about how to handle life’s major ups and downs. Her grandmother isn’t quite who Josie always thought she was, her father might not be the demon she expected, and Josie…well, she’s still figuring out who she really is, and that’s exactly as it should be.

So. I didn’t quite love this, and part of it may be that it’s so…I don’t want to say old or dated, neither seem right, but it very much fits in with the style of how I remember YA being when I grew up (and I’m, uh…not quite old, but I’m getting there!). The story skips over major events, main characters tend to do a lot of shouting and throw tantrums (I get that teenagers do that, I have one myself, but older YA books lean towards their characters lacking a certain maturity, whereas YA today is far, far better about that and is way more teen-centric). Josie tends to go from zero to freak out at the drop of a hat in a way that didn’t feel natural to me. Though her relationship with her father vastly improves over time, something about it seemed off to me as well. I understood that she would harbor a lot of resentment toward his missing out on all the rest of her life, but she was forward with him in a way that didn’t feel authentic either. I also didn’t care for her relationship with Jacob. He pressured her far too much for sex, they fought more than they got along, and he occasionally dropped ethnic slurs at her, which should have been an immediate dealbreaker. I don’t know. A lot of this missed the mark for me personally.

There were parts that I enjoyed, however. I had no idea that Australians interned Italian-born citizens, especially men (and citizens of other nationalities, including Japanese, Italian, and even British), during the second World War. Josie’s family still harbors a lot of trauma due to this, and she discovers a major family secret that stems from this time period, which helps her to eventually better understand why her grandmother is the way she is. I know that Australia has problems with racism toward the Aboriginal communities, but I hadn’t realized that this extended to other ethnic groups as well. Apparently in the 1990’s, Italians weren’t well-liked in at least certain parts of Australia, and Josie suffered through fairly constant slurs toward her and her community. I’ve never understood that. Dislike someone for how they act or how they treat other people, but for where they’re born or their ethnic background? Something over which they have no control? That’s senseless. (And I’m not singling Australia out here; the United States has no room to talk on this matter.)

Content warnings: there are a few mentions of rape and one near-assault, and there’s a suicide near the end of the book, by a character who displays obvious (to the reader, especially to the modern-day reader) red flags through the entire story, so if these are sensitive topics for you, this may be one to avoid.

Looking for Alibrandi was an interesting story that didn’t fully capture me, although I’m always happy to learn new things and get a new perspective on the world. I’ve heard excellent things about Ms. Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, however, so that’s still in my plans to read in the future.

Visit Melina Marchetta’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book review: Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) by Traci Borum

Cozy comfort reads. So many of us are looking for those right now, and I’m no different. I enjoy a good romance novel (of any heat level, to be honest); there’s just something about a couple falling in love, the yearning, the anticipation, the sparks, that speaks to me and tugs at my heart. So when Traci Borum contacted me and offered a copy of her new novel, Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) (Red Adept Publishing, 2020), I was intrigued by her description of the novel as having a “Hallmarky” feel. I’ve only seen a handful of Hallmark movies (no cable here), but I know plenty of people enjoy their movies and find them comforting, so I was in.

Jill McCallister, author of a popular four-book mystery series, is stuck. Writer’s block has struck hard after she finished her series, and she has no idea what to write next. Desperate for inspiration, she accepts an assigned article on genealogy from a friend’s struggling magazine, only to discover her very own ancestor founded a small Texas town called Morgan’s Grove. Figuring a change of pace could only help, Jill packs up, leaves her small Denver life behind, and heads off in search of creativity and answers about her family in the Lonestar state.

What she’s not expecting is to be pulled so deeply in by the town. Morgan’s Grove and its residents are immediately welcoming, presenting her with the friendly, charming hometown Jill’s never had. Lucille, the woman at whose house she’s staying, quickly becomes a trusted friend and surrogate grandmother, and Rick, Lucille’s handsome, quiet, somewhat distant grandson, slowly moves from mysterious to sympathetic, and then more. After having spent her childhood on the run, Jill’s finally found a home…and maybe even a home for her heart.

Ms. Borum wasn’t exaggerating in her description; Love Stars Here is all the Hallmark without the cheese. The story is set during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which qualifies this as a Christmas novel for those of you who look for those kinds of things (but it worked out just fine at the end of April, thankyouverymuch!). There’s cool weather, gingerbread cookies and a homegrown baking business (and even a yummy-looking recipe at the end of the book!), decorations, Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols, a million mugs of cocoa…if you’re looking for cozy, you’ll absolutely find it here. The romance is a sweet, slow burn and is absolutely appropriate for the youngest of romance lovers.

(And if you like Corgis? There are Corgis in the book. As someone who has been absolutely dying over a friend’s pictures of her new Corgi puppy lately, this made me ridiculously happy.)

Jill McCallister is a delight of a heroine, and her realistic struggles with writer’s block and her difficult relationship with her almost entirely absent mother lends her an air of empathy from the start. Her giving nature with Lucille and faith that her writing mojo will return, even when it feels as though her Muse has abandoned her for good, makes her a joy to read. Rick remains enigmatic through much of the story, but the fact that their romance didn’t move from zero to one hundred immediately made that work for me.

Ms. Borum has nailed small town charm in a big way with Morgan’s Grove. The town has all the appeal of any tucked-away New England seaside village or midwestern crossroads, but without the reality of what we know small-town life can be (no gossip, no true town busybody, no dark secrets). It’s the quaint hometown of our dreams, sweet without veering into saccharine, crisp holiday weather without the glop of five day-old slush, spooky, wind-whipped storms with only minimal property damage, friendly neighbors who are always willing to pitch in and who have your back without talking behind it. If you’re looking for a cozy book-vacation destination, traveling with Jill McCallister to Morgan’s Grove, Texas needs to be on your literary map.

One of the best things about this book was that it wasn’t a high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat novel. Sometimes we as readers want that, and other times, a slow, gentle read that presents each story component wrapped in a soft, hand-knit blanket and accompanied by a steaming mug of our favorite warm beverage is more in order. Love Starts Here fits easily into that latter category and was a sweet, enjoyable read during a time when the outside world’s roar needed to be tamped down by something that felt more familiar, more palatable. Escaping into Morgan’s Grove was the literary break I needed.

Thanks to Traci Borum for sending me a copy of Love Starts Here to read and review!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.