Friday, July 28, 2023

Review: The Break Up by Tilly Tennant

Sometimes life calls for a light and easy read that is a guaranteed happily ever after. Tilly Tennant’s The Break Up is just that kind of book even if there are some frustrations as the story moves forward.

The story opens with Lara at a jazz club with Lucien, her boyfriend of a year. Lara hates jazz but listening to music she doesn’t like is not the worst part of the night. The worst part is finding out that Lucien is breaking up with her and then turning to her best friend Siobhan for sympathy only to discover that she and Lucien have been cheating on Lara together. The only good thing to come of the night is a small, hungry, bedraggled stray cat who walks out of the storm into her kitchen and into her heart. One year later, Lara is running a successful wedding planning business out of her back garden. She has a cheerful assistant named Betsy and she loves the cat she’s named Fluffy. He is a bit of a wanderer though and one night while she is searching for Fluffy, she runs into a neighbor, Theo, out looking for his own missing cat, Satchmo. Except Satchmo and Fluffy turn out to be the same cat. Lara and Theo dislike each other immediately. And then they start running into each other everywhere. Lara is a wedding planner. Theo is a jazz musician whose band is in high demand at weddings. Can they work together? Can they become something more?

This is very much an enemies to lovers story, and the switch from the one to the other is quite fast but it’s easy to want Lara to have a far better boyfriend than Lucien turned out to be. She and Theo have some fun banter and all of the misunderstandings that could tank a fledgling relationship that serious contemporary romance readers could want. There is, however, a bit of a distance between the reader and the characters, and the misunderstandings are so clearly of the hysterical (not funny hysterical, but imaginary, jump to conclusions hysterical) variety that the reading can be frustrating. Fluffy/Satchmo is a major driver of the plot but he disappears for major portions of the story and it seems as if his presence should be a little more consistent given his hand (paw?) in the entire wobbly arc of Lara and Theo. This is over all a breezy, easy romance but not a particularly memorable one.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Review: Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective by Katie Siegel

Who among us read Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and didn't want to be a spy or detective? I definitely carried a notebook around for my very mundane and unimpressive observations and was always hopeful I'd stumble across a case I could solve (and if it meant staying overnight in a museum, all the better). Of course, I was neither a spy nor a detective and I didn't grow up to be one either. But what if I had? In a twist on this thinking, Charlotte Illes, in Katie Siegel's novel Charlotte Illes is Not a Detective, was a detective as a child but has grown up trying to move away from her early fame, eschewing any cases people try to throw her way. It's a fun and nostalgic premise for those of us of a certain age but it wasn't quite as wonderful in the execution as I'd wanted.

Charlotte was once a celebrated "kid detective." Now she's a floundering adult, recently fired from her job at a call center, and at a loss as to what is next for her. She is still trying to run away from the fame she acquired as a child, insisting that she's not a detective and has zero desire to be one again. But when her older brother Landon calls her old garage phone (the one she used as the kid detective) and tells her he has a case he needs her help with, she can hardly say no. Apparently his girlfriend has been receiving creepy notes and he wants his sister to figure out who the quasi-stalker is. Charlotte grudgingly agrees to go to NYC and help Landon and Olivia out, reconnecting with two of her closest friends who she hasn't been responding to much lately. Charlotte uncovers the truth of the notes very quickly but then things turn serious as a much larger situation arises, one that has a disappearance and danger written all over it. Will Charlotte be able to solve this higher stakes mystery?

Charlotte as a character was pretty directionless, whiny, and quite probably a little depressed when the novel opens. It is slightly disconcerting to have a grown up Harriet the Spy out at bars, speed dating, and the like but that could have been entertaining in the end, especially if the actual mystery that Charlotte investigates ended up being compelling. Unfortunately I'm not all that interested in a mystery about a corporate workplace and unionization in a novel peopled by a multitude of characters the reader never quite gets to know or care about. The story was also quite a bit slower than expected. This is apparently the first in a book series and based on a TikTok series by the author. It was a lighthearted and easy read, if not everything I'd hoped, so the jury's still out on whether I'll look for the next one or not. But for readers intrigued by the concept of a kid detective all grown up, amateur sleuths, and cozy mysteries, this might be what you're looking for.

Review: A Quiet Life by Ethan Joella

I heard nothing but rave reviews for Ethan Joella's sophomore novel, A Quiet Life, so I pickd it up in hardcover. It is exactly as it claims on the tin: a quiet life. It is a slow, introspective story about grief and loss and life.

Chuck, an older man who lost his wife to cancer and finds himself emotionally unable to go on the vacation they took together every year, Kirsten, a young woman whose whole life trajectory changed after her father's senseless death in a gas station shooting, and Ella, a hardworking, single mother whose young daughter has been kidnapped by her ex, all come together in this emotionally resonant story. None of these three know what to do with their grief and guilt, or, indeed, with their futures. All of them are stuck and suffering, trying to put one foot in front of the other.

All three characters are ordinary people and although no loss is the same, each of them is in a similar holding pattern. The novel is quite character driven, and rotates between the three characters' stories. The eventual intersections between the characters are convenient in that small town Hallmark movie sort of way and the book does read a bit like a heartwarming movie. The characters were often not much more than their struggles and the introspective writing means this likely won't be particularly memorable for me. The pacing was uneven with the ending speeding up significantly and it was predictably satisfying, the latter of which can be good or bad depending on your reading mood. If you're looking for a hopeful novel about people healing themselves with the help of community, you'll find what you're looking for in the pages of this one.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Who We Are Now by
Lauryn Chamberlain.
The book is being released by Dutton on August 8, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: Four friends. Fifteen years. Who We Are Now is a story of Sliding Doors moments, those seemingly small choices of early adulthood that determine the course of our lives.

It is 2006 and Rachel, Clarissa, Dev, and Nate are best friends, seniors on the eve of their college graduation. Their whole lives are before them, at once full of promise and anxiety. Bound to one another as they are, they imagine their closeness will last forever--but things change as they take their first steps away from one another and into adulthood.

Each year is told from one character's point of view, and in that way, we stride swiftly through their lives. These four friends feel their twenties and thirties flying by, and suddenly small moments fast become regrets or unexpected boons, decisions they'll spend years wishing they could undo and choices that come to define them. As the foursome endure professional setbacks, deep loss, and creative success, fortunes shift and friendships strain--and it will take a tragic turn of events to bring them together again.

Who We Are Now is a poignant story of epic friendship that jumps boldly through the years, moving at the same unforgiving pace as does that precious, confusing time between college and real life. This novel is perfect for readers who adore tales of friendship, explorations of the second coming of age moment that arrives in our thirties, and fans of Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings or Dolly Alderton's Ghosts.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Review: The Witches of Moonshyne Manor by Bianca Marais

If you've browsed a bookstore recently, you know that there's a bevy of books about witches. Many of them are lighthearted romances or cozy fantasies. The last book of Bianca Marais' that I read was Hum If You Don't Know the Words, not exactly lighthearted or cozy, but a good read. So I was quite curious to see what she might do with the conceit of witches and their magic and how she might weave in her darker, serious themes in The Witches of Moonshyne Manor.

In one week, the six octogenarian witches, Queenie, Ursula, Ivy, Jezebel, Tabitha, and Ruby, who call Moonshyne Manor home will default on their mortgage. Only Queenie, the matriarch of the coven, knows about this looming deadline but they all know that something ominous is going on, alarms are sounding. When an angry mob assembles outside of the house to try and take it early, the women must start to share their long-hidden secrets and lean on the sisterhood of their found family to defend themselves and come up with a plan to save their home as they anticipate Ruby's long awaited return home. They are aided in their efforts by Persephone, a teenager and social media maven who shows up on their doorstep with her dog, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and who is the daughter of the mayor scheming to oust the witches in order to build the Mens World theme park on Moonshyne's land.

The story is both whimsical and addresses serious themes like the patriarchy, feminism, aging, sexism, racism, domestic violence, gender identity, and more. The contrast between the unsubtle, heavy-handed themes and the light-hearted writing was somewhat uncomfortable rather than complimentary though. The timeline moves forward chapter by chapter towards the mortgage default deadline but there are memories, flashbacks, and hints of the past, plus the mystery of what happened the night of a heist gone wrong threaded through each chapter as well. The point of view switches from character to character, even within the chapters, and there's a confusion of characters to try and keep straight, if nothing else, because of the sheer number of named characters. Sprinkled in between some of the chapters are recipes from the grimoire. They can be delightful recipes for life, self-care, potions, and distillery recipes pertinent to the preceding chapter. It was refreshing to see older characters portrayed as spunky and still fully engaged in life if a little slower than in their prime, main characters rather than sidekicks. The novel's pacing was uneven, bogging down in the middle, and the end was crazy and chaotic with some too easy resolutions but overall it was an easy, pleasant read, a funny, light, inclusive story of the power of friendship, acceptance, and strong women.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Deja Glitch by
Holly James.
The book is being released by Dutton on August 1, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: To break out of a 24-hour time loop, all Jack needs is for Gemma to fall in love with him in a single day. All Gemma needs is to remember him first . . .

Gemma Peters is doing fine. She's making a name for herself in the L.A. music biz as a radio producer. She's got a ride-or-die best friend in Lila, and she gets to come home to Rex, her loving Labrador, every night. But ever since her rock star ex-boyfriend used her to get a record deal from her rock legend dad, she's made a "no musicians" rule when it comes to dating that's becoming more like a "no dating" rule, period.

So, when Gemma crashes (literally) into Jack one Thursday morning, at first she feels like fate might finally be doing her a favor. After all this guy is cute and, wait, is she imagining it, or is he staring a little too deeply into her eyes? And how does he know her name? Even harder to explain is the funny feeling of déjà vu she gets every time she looks at him. It's not at all like Gemma to kiss a man and forget him completely, so then how can she explain the dreamlike memory of his lips on hers?

The truth is this is no ordinary Thursday. Not for them. In fact, they've lived this day over and over for months. And while Gemma has been totally oblivious to the time loop, Jack has been agonizingly aware of every single iteration. Luckily, Jack has a theory to bring his own personal Groundhog Day to an end. And it's simple. Before the day is over, he just has to get Gemma to fall in love with him.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Review: This Isn't Going to End Well by Daniel Wallace

People are a mystery. We can only know the pieces of them that they are willing to show or share. No matter how much they appear to be an open book, there is some hidden part, smaller or larger, that they hold secret. Mostly we don't give much thought to this very private piece of the people in our lives. Their public self is enough. But when you lose someone by suicide, someone you thought you knew, someone who was instrumental in forming your own adult self, someone you loved dearly, you might start to look harder to try and find that missing piece, the unshared and unsharable aspect of your loved one's persona. This was definitely true for Daniel Wallace, as he chronicles in his non-fiction look at his late brother-in-law, William Nealy, This Isn't Going to End Well.

When Wallace was twelve, he first met his future brother-in-law. There was an immediate case of hero worship for this fearless, adventurous, talented, and charismatic man. William represented everything cool in Wallace's world and the fact that he took time to get to know this awkward kid and to occasionally include him or teach him was an absolute gift. Wallace wanted to be like William when he grew up, never knowing the demons that William fought underneath that legendary exterior until it was far too late.

William was a deeply complex person suffering from deep trauma and suicidal ideation. He was increasingly obsessed with his best friend's unsolved murder. On the surface, he was a master at just about everything he turned his hand to, he was loving and tender, especially with Holly, Wallace's sister, who suffered from crippling arthritis and a multitude of other health problems, he was (and still is) a famed cartoonist, a storied and respected river runner, and a much beloved brother-in-law. But all of that could not keep him from taking his own life, an act that left Wallace confused, angry, and devastated, and ultimately searching for the truth of the man he thought he'd known.

The book is almost a series of vignettes from Wallace's own life, his memories of William, Holly, and his attempts to work through his own confused feelings about William's death. It is both Wallace's book and William's book and even occasionally Holly's book. It is musing and reflective when Wallace is focused on himself. Oddly enough, it is less sympathetic when it turns to William though. Wallace uses excerpts from William's private journals, which were supposed to be destroyed, to give the reader a look into William's mind. This private, made very public without consent, in fact, expressly against consent, makes for some very uncomfortable reading. Clearly Wallace is still angry about William's death and while he doesn't sugar coat this ugly emotion and all it inspired him to do, he hasn't seemed to work past it far enough to feel deep sorrow and understanding for the man who suffered so much emotionally in private. In a way, the anger feels like a betrayal of all that William gave to him over the years.

This is less a memoir/biography than a reflection on how hard it is, indeed, to realize that someone you adored was merely human like the rest of us and the sadness of discovering that the inner person isn't like the outer person, or at least the outer person isn't the whole of the person you thought you knew. William was a major influence on Daniel's life but one has to wonder after reading this, what William himself would have thought of his brother-in-law's book, whether he would have thought it a fair exposure or not. Laying bare what it did, in the manner that it did, was deeply uncomfortable to me as a reader.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Review: The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Don't judge a book by its cover. We've all heard that, right? Well, this book, with it's fun and appealing cover can indeed be judged on its wrapping. Although perhaps in this case, it would be appropriate to suggest that the cover doesn't show the depth and serious topics included here in a story that superficially matches its light-hearted cover. Parini Shroff's new novel, The Bandit Queens, is that tricky balancing act, a delightful novel filled with incredibly difficult topics but liberally laced through with humor and good feeling.

Geeta's abusive, alcoholic husband disappeared five years ago and the rumor in town is that she killed him even though she is adamant that she didn't. Her only friendship fell apart years ago for reasons that are only slowly revealed, leaving her to become a curmudgeonly loner, mostly avoided by her fellow women and whispered about by their children. She's a member of a business cooperative with several other women because she needs to earn a living now that she's a widow but even in this business dependency, she has never been entirely accepted by her fellow businesswomen. Unlike the other women in the group, she does not ignore it when one of the other women is once again beaten badly by her husband but she is appalled when that woman comes to her for her help in ridding her of her terrible husband as she assumes Geeta did to her own. And she is not the last woman from the group who seeks Geeta's help in "removing her nose ring."

This is not just a romp about killing terrible men though. There is real depth and complexity here to not only Geeta but to the other side characters, female and male, as well. And the story addresses far more than just abused women bumping off their abusers. Geeta's a wonderful, awkward, emotionally damaged character and Shroff uses her beautifully to explore the problems of caste, the disgrace of childlessness, the patriarchy, abuse, women's strength, and more. The title refers to the very real Indian folk hero, Phoolan Devi, who escaped a horrific marriage, became a bandit, and revenged herself on not only the men who terrorized her but those who abused and terrorized other women, all on her way to becoming an elected official in India's Parliament. She is Geeta's hero and gives her the inspiration and strength to keep moving forward through all of Geeta's own trials. The twists and turns the novel take keep surprising the reader, making for a lightly suspenseful tale. This is a clever, engaging, and serious look at life for women in a small Indian town with a main character you can't help but root for.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Crow Valley Karaoke Championships
by Ali Bryan.
The book is being released by Henry Holt and Co. on July 25, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: A prison escape, a bear on the loose, botched lyrics. What more could go wrong with Crow Valley's most anticipated night of the year?

A year after forest fires ravaged the town of Crow Valley and claimed the life of Dale Jepson--karaoke legend, local prison guard, and all-around good guy--the community hosts a high-stakes karaoke competition. But when a convicted murderer escapes from nearby Crow Valley Correctional, residents discover there's more on the line than local, perhaps even national, karaoke fame.

In this darkly comedic, fast-paced ride through an unforgettable small town, five residents with intimate connections to Dale and drastically different goals for the night will collide into, conspire with, and aid one another as they scramble to make it successfully through the evening under the scrutinizing watch of neighbors.

To the soundtrack of classics belted out with abandon, voices will crack, cars will be stolen, marriages will falter, and kids will slip away in search of trouble. And maybe, just maybe, lives will be transformed for the better.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Forever Hold Your Peace by
Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke.
The book is being released by Alcove Press on July 11, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: Father of the Bride meets Bride Wars in Forever Hold Your Peace, in which two ex-best friends find themselves shockingly entangled after more than two decades apart, for fans of Good Company.

When their newly engaged kids ask all four divorced parents to meet each other over brunch, everyone RSVPs yes--secretly hoping someone at the table will get to the bottom of the bottomless mimosas fast enough to say what they're all thinking: that this engagement, coming after a whirlwind romance between two people barely out of college, is too much too soon.

But at that brunch it's not the impulsive couple's decisions that end up under the microscope, as it turns out June, mother of the bride, and Amy, mother of the groom, certainly do know each other--they're ex-best-friends who haven't spoken since their explosive falling out more than twenty-five years ago. Reeling from their unwanted reunion and eager to shift the spotlight off their past as decades-old secrets and rivalries come to light, the two moms battle it out for the prize of Most Enthusiastic About This Wedding.

But when their history--and their present-day shenanigans--threaten to crack the foundations of the happy couple's future, June and Amy find themselves becoming unexpected allies in an all-hands-on-deck effort to get their kids (and themselves) a happily-ever-after two generations in the making.

Forever Hold Your Peace is perfect for readers who love messy, complicated family novels like All Adults Here and stories that bring the past and present together like One Italian Summer.

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