Thanks to Partner Edelweiss for the advance copy of Tessa Bailey's Tools of Engagement, out September 22, 2020.
Tools of Engagement is the third book in Tessa Bailey's Hot and Hammered trilogy. This one is about Bethany Castle, the older sister of Georgie (book 1 protagonist) and friend to Rosie (book 2 protagonist). Bethany is the decorator and stager for her family's house-flipping business, but she wants to do more, to be involved in the actual flip. She's afraid, though, of doing anything that's less than perfect.
She has been drawn, since the moment they met in book 1, to Wes Daniels, a construction worker who's just been hired by her brother. She and Wes pick at each other nonstop, bickering constantly. Wes is a younger man, a drifter, who came to town to care for his five-year-old niece when his half-sister had to leave. Wes takes a chance on Bethany, quitting his job in seconds to join her in the house flip that she hopes will prove her worth. And then they sign up for a reality tv show . . .
This book is super steamy, and I like both Bethany and Wes a lot. There's something that fell a little short for me--I wasn't completely swept away--but I enjoyed watching these characters take a risk on each other. Overall, this is a solid enough contemporary rom com.
Thanks to Partner Edelweiss for the digital ARC of Suzanne Park's Loathe at First Sight in exchange for an honest review. The book is available now for purchase.
Suzanne Park's Loathe at First Sight, which I read as part of a buddy read with @thechicklitbookclub, is a rom-com that defies that label. Though there is a romance, for me, it fades into the background; though there is comedy, this is a book with some serious messages.
Melody Joo has started a new job as a video game producer at Seventeen Studios, a company centered on superstar CEO Ian McKenzie. Almost immediately, she faces a backlash from her officemate, Asher; intern Nolan (Ian's nephew); and Ian himself. After she makes a joke about creating a videogame featuring male strippers and fully clothed female warriors ends up becoming the company's next project, Melody's life takes a sharp turn. While she's expecting (sadly) some amount of misogyny and discrimination since (1) she's a woman and (2) she's Korean-American, she's NOT expecting the level of vitriol she gets from online trolls.
After she's doxxed, the threat levels increase. Along with her work life, Melody has a lot going on. She's maid of honor for Jane, a true bridezilla, and is managing her relationship with her parents, who pressure her constantly to get married. When the threats from work start bleeding into her personal life, Melody is unable to ignore them.
While the romance here is sweet, for me, it wasn't the star of this book. Watching the way Melody deals with such horrible misogyny and racism and with the challenges she faces as a woman of color in the video game industry was sobering and thought provoking. Yes, there are moments of great comedy--Melody is sarcastic and, at times, filterless, which makes for some great dialogue--but the most compelling angle was that of her journeys in this challenging workplace.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Daisy Johnson’s Sisters in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.
Daisy Johnson’s Sisters is a gorgeous, mind-bending sliver of a novel. Though it’s only 220 pages long, it immersed me in a world as disorienting to me as it is to its protagonist, July. At the beginning, here’s what we know: July, her sister September, and their mother Sheela have escaped to a home called The Settle House near the sea in North York. They’ve been driven there by the outcome of a mysterious incident at the girls’ school.
July has been the victim of bullying, and September--ten months older--is her constant protector, a shield for whom vengeance is routine. It becomes clear, however, that September also wields power, that her strength can be diminishing for July, who always gives in to September’s dominance.
As Johnson unveils the history of this family, including the absent father whose behavior may have been the model for September’s actions, I was drawn into July’s understanding of the world. She often has trouble separating her own perceptions and experiences from September, and though she occasionally tries to assert her individuality, she is drawn again and again into September’s influence.
The course of the novel, told in gorgeous prose, is winding and surprising. Daisy Johnson’s development of her characters and their perspectives--she occasionally alternates points of view--is both surreal and real, portraying vividly the minds of these women. After loving Sisters so much, I will definitely be visiting her backlist!
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Kristina Forest’s Now that I’ve Found You in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.
Evie Jones thinks she’s figured out her life. She has an amazing best friend; is launching her movie career with a much-praised director; has a sponsorship deal with a Black hair care company that she loves; and is following in the footsteps of her grandma, Gigi, the glamorous Evelyn Conaway, a Hollywood actress whose real life garnered her as much attention as her acting.
Then, Evie makes a mistake--a big mistake. She trusts the wrong person, and a viral social media post leaves her friendless and floundering. Only the hunger of the film industry--and the public--for an appearance by the reclusive Gigi gives Evie hope that she can save her dream.
Three months after Evie’s defeat, she’s in New York, banking on her grandmother to help her recover the potential that Evie had only begun to realize.
Kristina Forest’s YA novel Now that I’ve Found You is fast paced and engaging. I found Evie to be a flawed protagonist who earned my empathy from the beginning. At times, she acts in ways that are unappealing, but Forest makes sure that the reader always understands why she’s doing what she does: there are reasons that she has a hard time trusting people. Watching Evie’s coming of age arc, in which she’s trying to determine who she is, what she wants out of life, AND why she wants it, is compelling. I couldn’t put this book down until I knew what happened with Evie.
There’s romance here, too, with a young man named Milo who Gigi has befriended. Evie, counting on having Gigi all to herself, feels a lot of resentment toward Milo, but she’s also drawn to his passion for his art as she watches him try to move his band from hobby to career.
Forest uses multiple genres to weave in the story of Gigi’s lifelong love story with James Jenkins, her three-time-ex-husband, another actor. The parallels between Evelyn’s life and Evie’s story are beautiful, and the mystery of why Gigi ended her marriage with James and has refused to speak to him for 20 years is an intriguing thread woven through the book, another element that kept me reading. I love stories that feature Old Hollywood, and the beauty of Gigi and James’s first movie together being the first all-Black romantic film brings in a riveting touch of movie history.
Now that I’ve Found You is an excellent book for teenagers (and for adults!), one that balances the lightness of romance with the seriousness of determining one’s path in the world. I will absolutely be reading Forest’s debut, I Wanna Be Where You Are, and looking forward to her next book.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Adrienne Kisner’s Six Angry Girls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.
Adrienne Kisner’s Six Angry Girls contains multitudes: mock trial and anatomical knitting (yes, that’s a thing) and high-school Drama and high-school drama and love and FEMINISM. This YA novel alternates between two high school seniors’ perspectives. Raina is a dedicated actor and president of the Drama Club until her long-time boyfriend, Brandon, breaks up with her in an incredibly callous way. The dissolution of their relationship makes her realize that she was in drama for all of the wrong, Brandon-centered reasons. Millie, the other protagonist, has been a part of the mock trial team since her freshman year and has earned some time in the spotlight. And then, a coup (led by Brandon!) means that she can’t be a part of the competition team anymore.
Cast adrift, Raina and Millie find each other and begin their own, all-girls, mock trial team. They bring along with them a diverse group of others who have been cast out of the mainstream for a variety of reasons, some superficial and some related to their very identity.
They are, of course, also dealing with other problems: Millie faces increased responsibilities because her mom divorced her dad, and now Millie has picked up entirely the role her mom played around the house. Raina had banked all of her hopes for college on drama; now that she’s not in a play, what does that mean for her super-planned future? She’s also still recovering from the loss of her relationship and, in search of somewhere else to devote her energy, joins a politically-focused knitting group.
I liked so much about this novel. Raina and Millie are strong young women who are also believably flawed. Each is trying to figure out who she wants to be: Raina is moving on from a romantic relationship, and Millie--who identifies as homosexual and asexual--is moving into one . . . maybe. There is an important message of activism here and of when (and in what situations) it’s important to stand up for what you believe, even if it means giving up something that meant a great deal. Early on, I did think the pace dragged--I was interested but not compelled to read. But as the book continued, I was captured by the journeys of these characters as individuals and as part of a team that they are determined to make work. Six Angry Girls would be a great novel for teens--it’s an inspiring story of being cast aside and fighting for what’s right and for what matters on their own terms.
Thanks to partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of L. E. Flynn’s All Eyes on Her in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.
L. E. Flynn's All Eyes on Her is a twisty thriller composed of a lush myriad of unreliable narrators, multiple genres (including journal entries, newspaper articles, text threads, and police interview transcripts . . . with a little bit of second person thrown in), and some thoughtful feminist declarations for good measure.
The publisher’s description lays it out: “You heard the story on the news. A girl and a boy went into the woods. The girl carried a picnic basket. The boy wore bright yellow running shoes. The girl found her way out, but the boy never did…. “ What ensues is a narrative that circles around these two central characters. We hear from everyone EXCEPT the girl (Tabby) and the boy (Mark): telling the tale are Tabby’s sister, her best friend, the girl who loves to hate Tabby, Mark’s best friend, Tabby’s ex . . . and so many people who have moved through their lives. Of course, everyone’s perspective is different, but they’re all speculating about Tabby and the nature of her relationship with Mark. Is she the angel? Or the slut? Is she good? Or bad? Was she in control? Or was she being controlled by him? It’s a series of dichotomies, of black or white with no shades of grey, that we know can’t possibly portray a person accurately. And yet, it’s so tempting to come up with the right label that will help to understand what happened on that hike.
I love a multi-genre book, and Flynn puts that variety to good use here. I also really appreciated the complexity with which Flynn takes on how the media shapes our view of people--and of women, in particular. The forward motion of the story sagged slightly in the middle, but since I had been hooked from page one and found the development of the conclusion to be satisfying--it had twists and turns without jumping the shark--I enjoyed the book as a whole. The thriller component itself didn’t feel super new to me (I’ve read books with plots and alternating points of view like this one before), but the deft use of unreliable narrators and the clever incorporation of questions driven by feminist concerns offers a unique angle.
Overall, as an adult reader, I thoroughly enjoyed All Eyes on Her, and I would absolutely recommend L. E. Flynn’s novels to teens as a great example of a thriller that will make them think.
Thanks to Corie Adjmi for the ARC of Life and Other Shortcomings in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 4.
Corie Adjmi’s short story collection Life and Other Shortcomings circles around a central group of friends who we meet in the first story. “Dinner Conversation” introduces three couples whose ties originated in different ways: childhood friendships, new meetings, parenthood. The connections seem tenuous at times, but as Adjmi builds her collection, she reveals the subtle whims of all relationships, the way that friendships can be cemented or shattered in a moment.
Adjmi’s writing is spare and beautiful. There’s a subtlety that means the power of each story sneaks up on the reader, building to climaxes whose impact can take time and thought to process. These epiphanies hit harder because of their gentleness: they aren’t huge, obvious moments but instead minute shifts of perception.
Even without the power of the stories, I would have loved this book because of the writing. I found myself digging into my tin of book darts on nearly every page, eager to mark each perfect turn of phrase. I was enchanted by Adjmi’s exploration of the transforming definitions of parenthood; of the truth of what holds couples together; of the rules that we’re willing to accept and those we feel compelled to challenge. The idea that we cherish most those things that are denied to us permeates the collection.
There’s joy in finding the connections between the stories, in completing the puzzle of each character, that stayed with me through the book. I found Life and Other Shortcomings to be a beautiful, satisfying reading experience, and I absolutely look forward to devouring Adjmi’s next book.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Byron Lane's A Star Is Bored in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, July 28.
Byron Lane’s fictional A Star Is Bored details the relationship between fabulous film star Kathi Kannon, daughter of Hollywood royalty, and her assistant, Charlie Besson (our protagonist). I pictured Carrie Fisher in every scene between Kathi and Charlie. But ultimately, that mental casting doesn't matter because the book, at its heart, is about Charlie. (I will admit that, the minute I finished the book, I headed to Google to see: was author Byron Lane really Carrie Fisher's assistant? And the answer is yes. It doesn't *truly* matter because the world he created, and the people within it, are real enough to stand on their own. But I also wanted to know.)
Charlie is depressed and adrift, anchorless after the death of his mother when he was 12 and his father's constant verbal abuse. Charlie's memory is haunted by attacks from his father's attempts to shame and scream Charlie into denying his homosexuality. Miserable in a job writing nightly news updates, Charlie jumps at the chance to interview with Kathi Kannon, who is looking for a new assistant.
From the moment Charlie enters through the gate of her mansion, he is swept into a world where he is running slightly behind, off kilter in the face of Kathi's bizarre requests, brilliant and playful and crass language (she calls him Cockring through the entire book), and expectation that HE should know what to do. I felt a sense of dread in those early moments of their relationship because it's so clear that Charlie has no idea what he should be doing and is ill prepared for the force that is Kathi's will. But Charlie soon resolves to be a good assistant, to figure out what he needs to do, to carve out the best way to take care of Kathi.
Ever-present through the novel is Charlie's awareness of Kathi's drug addiction and the disapproving, yet supportive enabling of Kathi's famous mother, Miss Gracie, who lives on the same estate. In Miss Gracie's assistant, Roger, Charlie sees a potential future, one in which he is inseparable from Kathi, both elevated and doomed by his willingness to sacrifice his autonomy to her glamour and charisma, her Shine, as she calls it.
The book is funny and sad and hopeful and beautiful. There are times that it's almost painful to read--there's some secondhand embarrassment, but there's also a sense of fear when we as readers can see Kathi's path, while Charlie is in denial. I enjoyed the entire book, but the last third, which is so, so tender, made A Star Is Bored a triumph for me.
Thanks to #partner @NetGalley for the digital ARC of Jennifer Weiner's Big Summer in exchange for an honest review. The book is available now.
Somehow, before Big Summer, I had read only one Jennifer Weiner book, but I’ll definitely be adding her backlist books to my wishlist. This novel contains multitudes: a toxic friendship, important messages about body image, a compelling murder mystery, and lavish descriptions of wealth and privilege.
Daphne Berg’s long-time friendship (since sixth grade!) with Drue Cavanaugh ended on the night her career as an influencer began. Drue had set up Daphne with a guy who mocked her weight and then compounds the offense by repeating his criticism. At that point, Daphne knows she’s done with Drue . . . but not what’s happening next. When a bystander releases the video of Daphne going off on him, her social media presence explodes. Now, anchored by her blog Big Time, Daphne makes a career out of self-acceptance.
Daphne has worked hard to purge what’s toxic from her life in favor of focusing on her burgeoning career, her real friendships, her wonderful parents, and the adorable kids she babysits. Then, years later, Drue forces herself back into Daphne’s life with a bizarre request for Daphne: the glamorous Drue wants her former friend to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. Daphne resists at first but eventually gives in to the same magnetic pull that kept her under Daphne’s influence before.
From there, we enter spoiler territory, so I’ll proceed carefully. Drue’s upcoming wedding to a reality tv star means more attention for all involved, and her wealth means that there are ample opportunities for Weiner to set extravagant scenes. Daphne’s skepticism and envy compete as she fights to maintain her autonomy from her former friend. And then, there’s a tragedy and a subsequent mystery that spans the remainder of the book.
I just couldn’t put this book down. Daphne is a likable and empathetic protagonist, someone who is strong and confident but is tempted by self-criticism. I loved her story, I was drawn in by the mystery, and I swooned over the romance (yes, there’s a romance!). Because Weiner is such a great storyteller, these disparate parts are all woven into one, compelling narrative. Big Summer really is a perfect summer read.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Katherine Reay's Of Literature and Lattes in exchange for an honest review. The book is available to read.
Katherine Reay's Of Literature and Lattes is a cozy comfort read. There's a warmth that infuses each page as we inhabit the small community of Winsome, Illinois, floating from character to character. I had a sense of dropping into lives in progress, of a shared history that came before and that would continue after the end of the novel.
Though the narrative moves through an array of characters’ perspectives, Reay focuses primarily on Alyssa and Jeremy. Alyssa has fled home to Winsome in disgrace after a Theranos-like scandal ended her employment at Vita XGC. Unfortunately, she's fleeing to a home she had already fled. Her relationship with her mother had always been contentious, but when Alyssa found out that her mother had been cheating, Alyssa broke off contact. Now, she's returning to divorced parents, no job prospects, utter disgrace, and horrible guilt that she was a part of a corrupt company.
Jeremy saw Winsome in the opposite light, moving there in hopes of nurturing his relationship with his young daughter, Becca. He and Becca's mom separated before Becca was born, and he wants to be a true father for her. He and his friend Ryan, a recovering addict, buy the local coffee shop, the Daily Brew, hoping that a complete overhaul can make it a success and allow each to start over.
Alyssa’s and Jeremy’s stories wind together eventually, but they also move within the larger story of the town. We come to know characters who are grieving, who are in love, who are aging. My favorite subplot is the one about Alyssa and her mom, who have to work through decades of resentment and repression to come to know each other again.
Of Literature and Lattes is a novel about redemption and forgiveness, about families born and chosen, about the ways that our communities can save us. The characters here are flawed and human, and I was absorbed in watching them come to terms with their own mistakes and misunderstandings and then working to move past them. It's not an earth shattering novel, nor is it overly plot driven. Instead, Of Literature and Lattes is a beautifully character-focused book that was, for me, a lovely and heartfelt escape.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.