"Martin is very fast, Quietus nearly as so, but Pat lags behind at a very slow and human pace. So, Martin wheels and scoops them up in his arms. Pat squawks and slings a death grip around Martin's neck—but luckily Martin's already dead. . . . It's an anxiety [Martin] hasn't felt in years, that heady thrum in his chest, creeping up his throat, and he begins to fret, frantic and tearing, of things undone. Of Quietus, there for him and at his heels. Of Pat, a friendship begun and doomed in the same second. . . . Of how he really, really, really wanted to do this PodCon panel" (141).
E. G. Reger's Grave Mistakes: The Story of a Podcast by the Undead, for the Living, is one of those books that completely captivates. It starts innocuously enough: Martin, a vampire, and Quietus, a supernatural being whose exact species is uncertain, have a podcast called (of course!) Grave Mistakes. The podcast is modestly successful, but they hope for more, so when they're invited to present at PodCon, they're thrilled.
What begins then is a bit of a picaresque as the two friends take off an an epic—and rushed (Quietus found the email buried in Martin's email inbox, just before the conference begins)—adventure. They're attacked by a jelly monster, confront a pair of hunters, and save a person named Pat who becomes their companion. And that's all before the hellmouth opens. (Okay, I did think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than once.)
I absolutely loved the tenderness of the friendship between Martin and Quietus, the way that they are so accepting of each other and of those they adopt into their friendship circle. The book is funny and sweet and often suspenseful, and I was eager to discover just what force was behind the evil that seems to chase the podcasters. There are layers upon layers here: Martin and Quietus pretend to be pretending to be supernatural creatures, which adds some fun moments to the story.
After each chapter that advances the plot, there's an excerpt from one of their podcast episodes, and those moments never failed to make my heart happy. (While I'd say that humor prevails through most of the book, I did tear up more than once—there are some really sweet moments, too.) For me, that focus on friendship, on the essential kindness of Martin and Quietus that survives all of their adventures, is the heart of the novel.
This is Reger's debut (it's available on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats), and she's already working on her next. (Check out her Twitter account @egregerwrites—she's a great follow, and I love the updates about her work.) I'll definitely be following her career!
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Estelle Laure’s Remember Me in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on March 22!
I was really intrigued by the premise of Estelle Laure’s Remember Me: I got total Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind vibes, and I absolutely love that movie.
The book starts when Blue Owens wakes up one day with the sense that her world doesn’t make sense. She goes through her normal morning routine and, in the course of getting ready for school, finds a note that says “Meet me on the Little Blue Bus, 7:45 5/19/32.” She has no idea what it means.
Everyone is acting weird—her grandmother, her best friend Turtle and her partner Jack, even her art teacher Mrs. Duran—and Blue becomes convinced that the reason will reveal itself on that bus. And she’s right.
Here’s where things get spoilery, so proceed with caution. (This part is in the synopsis, but I wish I hadn’t known.)
Blue gets on that bus and meets Adam Mendoza, and it quickly becomes clear that they know each other. Ultimately, Blue figures out that she’s had her memories erased, including her memories of Adam. Now, she just has to figure out why.
The book comes in at only 272 pages, and it’s ambitious, mixing romance and sci fi and mystery. For me, the mystery parts were the strongest. I was intrigued by just what caused Blue to have her memories erased. While I didn’t think the book quite lived up to its ambitions, I did enjoy it, and I was rooting for Blue the whole time. I just think it needed to be a bit longer to fully realize its potential.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Tracey Garvis Graves’s Heard It in a Love Song in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 9!
In Tracey Garvis Graves’s Heard It in a Love Song is a lovely tribute to second chances.
Layla and Josh are recovering from failed marriages. Layla left her ex after years of mental games, financial conflict, and adultery. Josh and his wife have separated because they’ve just grown in different directions, united only in their love for their young daughter.
The two meet when Josh is doing the daily school drop-off at Layla’s school, where she’s the music teacher. She took the job out of necessity, after the realities of her marriage made her dream of being a musician an unsustainable choice.
Now, she’s slowly finding her love of playing, singing, and performing again, finding her confidence again, just when she’s meeting Josh.
This is a lovely, patient romance, and Graves develops Layla and Josh vividly as individuals and friends before their romance truly emerges. It’s a fabulous choice, one that makes each character vivid and that lets the reader understand the way they’ll work together before it happens.
The novel alternates between Layla’s and Josh’s points of view, and that structure works well to let us see their different perspectives on life, love, and friendship, and to watch as their perspectives begin to move toward the other’s.
Thanks to partners NetGalley, Putnam Books, and @lovearctually for the digital ARC of Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 2!
I love retellings of Jane Austen novels, so when I saw that there was a Pride and Prejudice retelling coming, set in the world of New York burlesque shows, I was so excited!
Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal met all of my expectations. Liz Bennet (called Bennet by her friends) is stage kitten at Meryton, a burlesque venue where she works with her best friends, including Jane (here, he’s her best friend and roommate and a singer in the burlesque). The performers find out that Meryton is up for sale and have high hopes that one of their own can buy it . . . with the help of a kind man named Charles. But some people are more skeptical than supportive, including Charles’s best friend Will Darcy.
Just the premise demonstrates the creativity with which King takes the building blocks of Austen’s novel and shifts them—just a bit—to our contemporary world and this setting, in particular. She ramps up the steam and the chemistry between Bennet and Darcy and modifies the subplot with Wickham to suit the modern situation, too.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the burlesque element, but I absolutely loved it. Every moment of the burlesque is a celebration of individual women, of their joy in their bodies, and of their power over their own sexiness. There’s tons of banter, too, which I also enjoyed, and then King deepens that element, too, showing how banter can be both inviting and standoffish.
Bennet herself is clever and confident, but she’s also still recovering from a betrayal related to her work as a designer. She sees, in the changes at Meryton, a chance to recapture her passion for her career, but she’s also fragile in a way that’s masked by her onstage presence and her quick wittedness.
Will Darcy is completely fabulous, and I loved the secondary characters so much (the relationship between Jane and Charles is just dreamy). Fans of Pride and Prejudice will love this, but I’d also recommend Vanessa King’s A Certain Appeal to anyone who just loves a good, super-steamy romance.
Thanks to partners NetGalley, St. Martin's Press, and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
Those of you who follow me know that I love a new version of a classic, and I’m particularly a sucker for a Jane Eyre retelling, so when I saw that there was a Jane Eyre retelling set in Ethiopia with a fantasy twist, I requested immediately. Wow, did Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls satisfy my every hope and expectation!
This book does what the best retellings do: it takes its source material as inspiration and then spins out a new story and a new world. Here, the Jane character is Andromeda, a debtera—a type of exorcist—who can cleanse homes of the Evil Eye. In desperate straits after her mentor cast her out, Andromeda takes on a job at which ten other debteras have failed. She’s employed by the mysterious Magnus Rochester who lives in near-solitude at the far end of a desolate desert. All but a few servants and the nanny who raised him have abandoned him, apparently scared away by the curse no one can defeat.
We experience the story through Andromeda’s eyes, and what a fabulous protagonist she is. Like Jane, she’s been raised in unusual circumstances, and her values differ from those of her world. She calls herself plain but cares little about her appearance. Instead, she values her strength and skills in her profession and communicates with a blunt honesty that shocks Magnus. He, in turn, is lacking social graces after having grown up as an outsider from his family and from society, so for a while, their bluntness seems to put them at odds. And then, of course, things change.
I loved SO much about this story. Andromeda’s narrative voice is so much fun—I love her strength and her defiance of convention. Watching Magnus meet his match in Andromeda is so satisfying, and their chemistry is great. I also, however, appreciated the secondary characters: Saba, the silent and mysterious woman who takes joy in helping others; Jember, the debtera who raised Andromeda, whose complexity I found to be appealing; and even Kelela, the beautiful young woman who is Andromeda’s rival for Magnus’s affections.
Most of all, I reveled in Blackwood’s development of the magic behind the curse that Andromeda is fighting. The way it manifests throughout Magnus’s estate is haunting and imaginative and creepy: it preys on characters’ compassion for others and on their unique weaknesses, and watching Andromeda strategize the best way to fight each new Manifestation shows her intelligence, her perseverance, and her strength.
I was shocked to find out that Within These Wicked Walls is Blackwood’s debut, and it is certainly a confident, brilliant first novel. I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, Roaring Brook Press for the digital ARC of Jennifer Mathieu’s Bad Girls Never Say Die in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on October 19!
I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, which is a fabulous feminist YA novel—we had a great discussion about that one on Unabridged Podcast!—and of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (though it’s been a while since I read it! Stay gold, Ponyboy). So, when I saw that Mathieu had a new book coming out that flipped The Outsiders to a female perspective, I was All. In.
Did it work? Well, here’s what I loved. As in Moxie, Mathieu builds a compelling protagonist, a fifteen-year-old named Evie who struggles with the limited expectations of her 1964 Houston, Texas, society and of her mother and grandmother. They are thrilled that Evie’s sister is married, even though it means that she moved far away and is so, so lonely. They make it clear to Evie that she should aspire to do the same.
But Evie wants more from her life. She wants choices. She wants to have friends who are tuff. She wants to think there’s a possibility that she can leave Houston.
With her best friends—Connie, who is the toughest of them all; Juanita, Evie’s sweet neighbor; and Sunny, whose sweet sincerity has led her into a controlling relationship with her boyfriend—Evie has started skipping school and wearing makeup and defying anyone to challenge her group.
I loved this part of the book, where we see exactly why Evie loves her friends so much, how much she wishes she could regain the close relationship with her mom and grandmother without limiting herself again, and the way Evie yearns for more without always being able to articulate exactly what “more” is.
Then, everything changes. And Evie is caught up in a situation that being tough can’t get her out of.
Mathieu beautifully depicts this world. There’s a huge disparity between the “tea sippers” of upper-class Houston and Evie’s own, lower socio-economic realm. Evie is a fabulously complex character, and we feel her connection to her friends, who step up to support her as much as they can.
But at a certain point (and I can’t say much more without spoilers), I felt like the book became focused on unfurling certain plot elements—often connected to its origin story—to the detriment of its rich characters. While the book certainly shares some elements with The Outsiders, it was most successful for me when it stepped out on its own, exploring Evie’s life and the limitations she defied, again and again.
Overall, though, this book is worth reading, and I would recommend it to students—this could be a foundation for many important discussions.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Forever for the digital ARC of Sajni Patel’s First Love, Take Two in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 21!
I absolutely loved Sajni Patel’s The Trouble with Hating You, so when I saw her new book, First Love, Take Two was available, I requested it immediately! This is a great follow-up, a steamy, second-chance romance that builds on the first book’s events but doesn’t rely on them. (I think you could read this one even if you haven’t read book one.)
Here, Preeti Patel is trying to embrace an arranged marriage with Yuvan. He checks all the right boxes: he’s part of her conservative, Indian community, and his parents are close with hers. He’s successful, as is she, and this seems like the perfect match. But she has absolutely no chemistry with him.
Preeti has been the subject of gossip before, six years ago when she had an interracial relationship with Daniel Thompson. When her father’s sisters found out that she was dating outside the culture and the race—Daniel is Black—they set the full force of community shaming upon her and her family. Daniel’s parents were no more accepting of her, and so Preeti broke off their relationship.
Since then, Preeti has built a successful career as a doctor—she’s almost done with her residency—has taken care of her parents, and has made every effort to fly under the radar of the gossip mongers. All of that has kept Daniel from the forefront of her mind and heart . . . until her friends and his sister conspire to throw them together once more.
This book does a great job dealing with a number of serious issues: anxiety and racism and touch aversion and, above all, both the blessing and curse of being part of a close-knit community. As a doctor, Preeti deals with heartbreak—miscarriage, death, and the expectations of her patients’ families—and more and more, she’s feeling overwhelmed by expectations both at work and in her personal life.
Watching Preeti and Daniel work through their relationship to support each other is fantastic: this is such a wonderful, second-chance romance, filled with a deep backstory and nuanced characters. As always in a romance series, I love seeing Liya and Jay from book one, and I have high hopes that there will be at least one more book involving Liya and Preeti’s friend group.
First Love, Take Two is a worthy, steamy, beautiful follow-up to The Trouble with Hating You.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Tor Books for the digital ARC of T. J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 21!
I cried my way through large portions of T. J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door. While ultimately, I would call it a beautiful, hopeful book, it is also deeply, deeply sad. I mean, it is about death and the afterlife, so I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’m just putting that out there.
Here’s the setup: Wallace is a horrible Scrooge of a fellow who is financially successful but just a miserable human being. He’s basically alienated everyone with whom he’s ever had a relationship, but he doesn’t even recognize that because he’s so focused on work and power and money. In fact, he takes an odd sort of pride in being needlessly cruel.
Then, he dies suddenly of a heart attack. And all of those concerns that consumed his life and his time are gone.
The world he enters is populated by an eccentric crew: reapers—in this case, a reaper named Mei; a ferryman named Hugo; and the ghosts of Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and dog Apollo. Wallace is stuck in Hugo’s tea shop until he can accept his death and figure things out and be ready to cross through a mysterious door on the fourth floor.
The world building is more complex than I can or should cover, but there are fabulous conversations about Hugo and Mei’s responsibilities to the dead; about what matters in life; about who we choose to be when and if we have the chance to reconsider our choices.
I feel as if I should address a big question here since I’ve been raving about The House in the Cerulean Sea since I read it (and that’s a big reason I requested this book!): Under the Whispering Door is NOT The House in the Cerulean Sea, nor does Klune try to make it that book. I always feel as if the expectation game is so fraught, so when I go in with high expectations, I’m almost always disappointed. Did Whispering Door bring me to the giddy heights that Cerulean Sea did? No. But that’s okay. I still found myself thinking and smiling and crying. This book is a success all on its own merits, and for me, it survived the peril of comparison with one of my favorite books of the year.
Thanks to partners NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the digital ARC of Helena Hunting's When Sparks Fly in exchange for an honest review. The book will be out on September 21!
When Sparks Fly is a friends-to-lovers, open door romance about Avery Spark and Declan McCormick who have been friends since the first day of college and roommates for years. In college, their casual friendship was strengthened when Declan stood by Avery’s side after an ugly breakup. Avery had been dating their mutual friend Sam, but when Declan found out that Sam was cheating, he told Avery and chose their friendship. Now in their upper 20s, Avery and Declan are anchors for each other.
When Avery is in a car accident for which Declan blames himself, things change. Avery’s injuries are serious, and Declan, eager to make up for his mistake, vows that he’ll be the one to take cover of her as she recovers. This is a new side to their relationship, and each becomes aware of feelings that they’ve never allowed to grow.
Overall, this romance worked for me. I like the friends-to-lovers trope, and Hunting’s creation of believable back stories for both characters shows why each is hesitant to completely trust someone else. There were parts of the novel that felt repetitive, and the dialogue was sometimes too heavy—it felt more like speeches than actual conversation—but I like the tenderness of this couple and the way that they put in the time and effort to work through their relationship difficulties.
Hunting is a reliable author for me, and while I slightly prefer her rom coms, I’d recommend When Sparks Fly to romance fans.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Harlequin Books for the digital ARC of Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 28th!
I think that Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball may be my favorite holiday read . . . ever? It’s such a beautiful balance of the notes of a romantic comedy (with a great emphasis on the comedy) and more serious content.
Here’s the premise: Rachel Rubenstein-Rosenblatt is the child of a prominent rabbi, and the position of her parents in the Jewish community means that she has been very aware—since she was a kid—that she needs to be on her best behavior at all times. She’s also, secretly, the best-selling author of Christmas-themed romances. You can see the problem.
Real-life romance has never been her thing, and she traces that challenge back to a horrible trauma at her Jewish summer camp when Jacob Greenberg, her first boyfriend, betrayed her.
Then, Jacob comes back into her life in the strangest of ways. He’s an event planner who normally works out of Europe, but he’s in New York to put on the ultimate, Hanukkah-themed event: The Matzah Ball. For true success, he needs the public approval of a pillar of the community, so he approaches Rachel’s father for his support, bringing him back into Rachel’s proximity.
The way this all spins out is great fun, but underlying it all is another of Rachel’s secrets: only her closest friends and family know that she is living with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (Meltzer talks in her Author’s Note about why the more medical name is more appropriate). Seeing the way Rachel’s ME affects her life, her choice of profession, and her relationships anchors the extravagance of the romantic comedy in daily reality, and as Meltzer develops those parts of Rachel and Jacob’s histories, what could be an over-the-top rom-com becomes a poignant, nuanced love story.
Go ahead and start the holiday season early and pre-order Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball today!
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.