Thursday, January 16, 2020

Book Reviews - Stories That Stay With You

If I had to pick an overarching theme for this quartet, I'd say these are stories that really "stuck" with me. Long after I finished I was thinking about what I read and/or telling someone about it. Those were for four very different reasons. Check out why. . . 

Nature's Best Hope: An Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard by Douglas Tallamy was a book that taught me so darn much y'all! I didn't really have any expectations going in, but I was intrigued by the summary. What I quickly found was that I was this was a call to action grounded in so much important information about the world around me. The premise of the book is that the answers to current struggles with insects, plants, and animals caused by humans are best solved in our own backyards. If we each took the time to understand why nature is so important, and we intentionally cultivated a physical space to preserve and protect nature, we'd all be better off. The best part of these solutions is they are all very practical. This isn't about spending exorbitant amounts of money rather it shares simple and easy to cultivate additions to our yards that could go a long way. What I loved about this book was the depth of research, but again, it was explained in my way that someone who didn't know a great deal about this topic could understand. However, as a result of this book, I'm ready to transform my yard, and my husband and I already have some ideas for how we might do that this spring. This is a book for both those who are well-versed in conservation, and it's also for those who are just beginning to learn about what this entails. Ultimately, our livelihood depends on the world around us, and we owe it to those other creatures to get things together. Thanks to Timber Press for the advanced copy. It's one I (unexpectedly) cannot stop talking about!

File this under: Conversation, Nature, Books That Teach You Stuff

Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy by Eilene ZImmerman was a powerful memoir about the author's ex-husband's death. Once a goal-oriented and driven lawyer who was financially successful, Peter's life ended due to his secret drug addiction. After his death, Eilene begins to explore what happened. How did she not know Peter's struggles? Why did this happen? What could have been done differently? The story begins with her backtracking through their past. She looks back at moments before Peter's overdose, and she sees new truths. What she realizes is that Peter was going to great lengths to hide his addiction, and she could not have known. However, at the same time, she sees for the first time what he was doing for his addiction. In the other sections of the book, she explores trends around career and addiction. She puts her journalist skills to work, and she does immersive research on the commonality of Peter's struggles. Throughout, she does not try to tell Peter's story and fill in gaps. Instead, she shares what she knows of his story and what she then learns from her research. To me, this gave the story power. She was writing from a place of someone who lost someone they loved and wanted to understand why this happened. This is a powerful and raw story of addiction. Peter's story was incredibly emotional, and the impact was further amplified by the information about the prevalence of this happening. This is an important read to understand the impact of addiction today. Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced look at this February 2020 release.

File this under: Memoir, Emotional Reads, Addiction

First Came Us by Rachel Cullen was a book I have mixed feelings about. Part of that is because the story was just being real, and part of that is because I wanted more of some aspects of the book. The story focuses on the marriage of Jack and Ellie. They appear to "have it all" but then a blast from a poor decision in Jack's past threatens to upend this life. Meanwhile Jack and Ellie's high-achieving teen daughter Sydney is making choices that threaten her future. Part of my struggle was with Sydney's storyline. I wanted her to be stronger, and I didn't want her to just give up on all she'd worked for to get ahead. I found myself frustrated with this storyline, but I can also recognize that these choices are complicated for a teenager. With that, the storyline I really enjoyed involved Ellie's relationship with an elderly woman who came to her yoga studio. She was a driving force behind the story I ultimately wanted more of, as she was a vehicle to encourage Ellie to figure out what she really wanted out of life. She built depth in the story that I craved as I read. This was an intriguing read about the complexities of family, the danger of secrets, and the way we learn to heal together. Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced look at this March 2020 release.

File this under: Family, All the Secrets, Relationships

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is a book I already want to re-read. Let me explain. This is a book I'm still reflecting on days after I've finished. The story begins with Emira, a young black woman, who is a regular babysitter for the Chamberlain family. One late night, she gets a call asking her to come immediately. She does and takes their baby to a grocery store. While there, a guard accuses her of kidnapping the white baby she is watching. Another shopper films the interaction. Alix, the baby's mother, is upset and wants to do all she can to resolve the pain Emira has experienced. The story from here takes so many different turns. Through each character, there are actions that allow for reflections on race and privilege. The moment in the grocery store is a catalyst for relationships and secrets to be revealed. Through a fictional story, the author explores these topics in such a profound way. She uses the points of view of each character to wrestle with complicated topics. As the reader, you have to then consider each character's motives and actions. Throughout, connections and choices are revealed that continue to change what you believe you know to be true. This is book is brilliant in so many ways. I could not stop reading, and after its last page I continued to reflect on what I just read. Wow, wow, wow.

File this under: BOOKS YOU NEED TO READ RN, Books That Make You Think

Onto the next ones!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Book Reviews - Thrillers, Love and Cruising with the BSC

And just like that, I've got another round of books to share. Here we go!

Husband Material by Emily Belden was a book I reviewed for a blog tour stop. Find out what I thought and get an author Q&A HERE.

File this under: RomCom, Love, Grief, Relationships

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy is a thriller I have mixed feelings about. The story focuses on the May Mothers, a group of new mothers who have turned online community into IRL community. The group decides to go for a Moms Night Out, although Winnie, a single mom, is reluctant to leave her son Midas. However, the other moms convince her he'll be okay and secure a babysitter for her. However, the night turns to tragedy when Midas is missing. The questions then begin about Winnie, as well as with all the May Mothers. I think my issue with this is that I didn't feel like I got to know any of the characters, so it was hard to feel that suspense and drama in this. I recognize this may have been intentional as the May Mothers really came together by happenstance and also didn't know that about each other. However, it was then hard to only know each of these women on a surface level, and because of that I struggled to follow the plot and remember who was who.

File this under: Thriller, All the Secrets

Babysitters Club Super Special #1: Babysitters On Board was actually not a book I'd read in my BSC prime. In this one, the Pike family is going on a cruise and brings Stacey and Mary Anne along as babysitters. Well, Kristy's stepfather finds out (who is super rich btw, and they mention this all the damn time), and he decides he'll take his family on the same cruise, and bring Dawn and Claudia, too. I'm not really going to review or recap here as that's weird to do with these. Instead, I'll offer some lingering questions and reflections. First off, did we all just have more freedom in the nineties?! There's a part of the story where the cruise docks in Nassau, and the babysitters are allowed to just go out on their own!?!? Then, the same thing happens at Disney World except they also go off with boys they just met?!? It was strange y'all. However, I forever love a super special, and this was always going to be my jam.

The Last Woman in the Forest by Diane Les Becquets was such an intriguing thriller. Also, when you finish this read, be sure to read the author's note and acknowledgments. Her connection to what you have just read amplifies the content in a way that's worth understanding and knowing. The story focuses on Marian who works with rescue dogs. In the course of this work, she falls in love with Tate who is then tragically killed. Upon his death, Marian starts to learn more about him and has questions. Specifically, she wonders if he might be involved in four unsolved murders of young women. Marian reaches out to a retired profiler who once worked with these murders for help. She has to know the truth about Tate, and she believes this man is the only person who can give that to her. Told through flashbacks to her story with Tate, investigations in the present, and the work this profiler has done, this one is a wild ride. Marian wonders if she ever knew this man, and there is a captivating quest to find out who Tate and this murderer were/are, and if they are one in the same. I love a thriller that works with multiple timelines, and this one did that masterfully. Suspense was built as both timelines converged, and it was a wild end!

File this under: Thriller, All the Secrets, Relationships

Onto the next round!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Book Reviews - The First Four of 2020!

And so begins another year of reading! I'll spare you a long introduction and just get straight to the reviews.

J/k, lolz, I do want to share I'm changing up my Read this book if... section of my reviews. I found those weren't necessarily the most helpful. I'm going to be using some ongoing quick tags to help you get a quick understanding of what I read.



Okay, now the reviews.

The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch: How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking About Today by Kimberly Potts was a deep-dive into all things Brady. This isn't the first time I've read a book about the Bradys, and they will always be a love of mine. I mean, y'all, have I told you about the time I MET GREG BRADY!?!


This book really looks at how a show that was on for just five seasons has come to be this incredibly resounding pop culture behemoth. I used to watch the show every morning before school, and I can still get sucked into an episode (or five) today, so I'm obviously the book's target audience. What was different about this book was that it talked about the show itself, both its up and (somewhat well-known) downs/drama. However, it does examine the spin-offs and continued storylines. While I'm very familiar with the original material, I definitely knew little to nothing about these other pieces. This is a well-researched piece on a family that will forever (and I meant that quite literally) be one of America's favorites. I learned some new stuff and also got those nostalgic Brady feels.

File this under: Pop Culture, Nostalgia, The Brady Bunch (doubtful I'll have anything else with this tag, but maybe?)

Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison was a book I reviewed for a blog tour stop. Find out what I thought and get an author Q&A HERE.

File this under: Thriller, Jawdropping Twists, Pageturners, All the Drama

Look Again by Lisa Scottoline was just a good, reliable thriller. This is my second book by this author, and I'm quickly realizing she just knows how to write a great pageturner. She's especially great at having that one big twist, but then continuing with even more twists after that. This story begins with Ellen seeing a "Have you seen this child?" flyer. One of the children bears a strong resemblance to her adopted son. This is something she cannot unsee, and she wonders about the validity of her adoption and if there is more to the story. As a journalist, she begins investigating while also harboring fear her son will be taken from her. As she digs deeper and deeper into the story, she has even more questions about potential deception and concerns about the safety of her family. This is one I read quickly. The premise was admittedly outlandish, but the sensational nature of the story still worked for me and kept me speeding through the drama.

File this under: Thriller, Pageturners, Family Drama

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is a book I've somehow never read. I took a Literature for Adolescents course in college, and we watched the movie, but I've never read the source material. What I find so incredible about this one is that the author wrote this when she was in high school. I mean, WOW. Even 50 years later, that just blows my mind. This is a story that focuses on a group of friends who are greasers. They find camaraderie in their struggle. They have an ongoing feud with socs who are those who have all the privilege. The story primarily focuses on Ponyboy. Initially, it is Ponyboy discussing his friends, his family, love, and their hatred of the socs. However, the story really takes a turn when his friend Johnny kills a soc. For a story about a group of boys who try to be "tough guys" throughout, this will also somehow have you all up in your feels. Specifically, "Stay gold, Ponyboy" is forever a line that just gets me in a certain kind of way. This is such a unique story of hope and wanting more from our current circumstances, and I'm glad to have finally read it!

File this under: Young Adult, All the Feels, Friendship, Classics, Great American Read

Onto the next ones!

Friday, January 3, 2020

Blog Tour - Husband Material by Emily Belden - Review and Author Q&A!



Well, hello there! I'm excited to once again be a stop on a blog tour - Today I'm sharing Husband Material by Emily Belden with y'all. This is a romance/women's fiction read, but this is also a book with all the feels. 

Today, I had the chance to ask the author some questions, and I'll be sharing my review. And again, good news for y'all is this is a book that's out now!

First up is some insight into this author's writing process and this specific book!

Q: When you begin writing a love story, do you know how you want it to end? Or do you decide as you develop the plot?
A: I generally have an idea of how I want things to wrap up, but what I always struggle with is that final sentence. How do you know you’re REALLY there? I often ready my theoretical last sentence out loud, followed by saying “The End”, and if it feels like it has a certain “ring” to it, then I can shut the laptop. If not, then I know it’s not my stopping point. Wrapping up that final thought with a bow on it is super important. It’s what I want when I read a book, at least.


Q: How was it to write about grief, pain and love for the same character?
A: It was new. That’s really the best word to explain it. HOT MESS has so many autobiographical elements to it (i.e., restaurant industry know-how, dating an addict, etc.) but HUSBAND MATERIAL was all unchartered territory for me. I realized right away that in order to write about the grief of losing a spouse/partner, I had to curate a focus group of real-life women like Charlotte and really learn from them to bring the level of authenticity and nuance needed to successfully write the book.

Q: What type of love stories do you like? Or were there ones you looked to as you began writing Husband Material?
A: I like really unexpected love stories. In today’s literary landscape, there’s certainly a formula that is pretty common. So it’s the books that break or stray from that formula that really do it for me. I like stories where it’s not innately clear who the protagonist is going to end up with. Even with HOT MESS there’s a moment where (I hope) the reader is like “OMG WHAT IS HAPPENING” insofar as Allie’s love story goes. Same with Charlotte in HUSBAND MATERIAL.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I heard a news story on the TV when I was doing dishes at my (former) home in San Diego. It was about a developer who wanted to buy the land a mausoleum was on so they could tear it down and build luxury condos overlooking the ocean. I thought, how crazy if your loved one’s ashes just got mailed back to you one day and the resting place you thought was final, wasn’t. It wasn’t easy, but turned that general premise into a light-side-of-heavy rom-com.

Q: What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: Overall, that second chances at love take all different forms. You never know the circumstances someone has found themselves in, so be kind. For Charlotte, I intentionally wrote the first few chapters as if she was divorced--talking about her “first marriage”. Then you find out “Oh, sh*t, she’s a widow,” and all the sudden your emotional connection with her changes. I also find it interesting writing about death. We don’t talk about it in society, especially not in contemporary women’s fiction. A tragic, unexpected death is the crux of this book. Let’s dig in!

***
Now, let me tell you about my own reading experience!

When I read the summary of Husband Material I was immediately intrigued and signed up for the blog tour for the opportunity to delve into this story. 

Charlotte has a secret - She's a widow. Five years ago, she tragically lost her husband. She has since moved on by finding a roommate, job and life where no one knows about her before. It's not that she doesn't think about Decker ever, but she's just trying to get through as she has lingering pain and guilt around this death. Then, all the feels come back when Decker's ashes show up on her doorstep. The mausoleum he was housed in has been impacted by a forest fire, and this means the next of kin must decide what to do now. Being reunited with Decker brings back feelings Charlotte has tried to keep locked away. With this development, Charlotte reconnects with Decker's parents, as well as with Decker's best friend, Brian. 

Having these blasts from the past means Charlotte revisits what life was in the age of Decker. As she does this, a new secret comes out that changes literally everything. This was a romance novel, but it had thriller-esque twists, and I appreciated that. Even more than that, the emotions were so authentically written. While there was some humor throughout, there was also the heart that Charlotte had been through something that had such a profound impact.

What I loved about this book was that it really looks at the themes of grief and loss. These are emotions that are so common, but we don't talk about them enough. And we certainly don't acknowledge that it can take many different forms. This can vary from person to person, but more than that, one person's relationship with the emotion can change as time goes on. This book showcases that through its characters as they're just trying to get through after the unimaginable happens. It also wrestles with the question of what relationships look like through grief. How do these change? Who gets to decide how we feel loss? What do we do when the person who connected us to someone else is gone?

Even though there is a theme of grief and pain, this is also about love. I appreciated how this book showed emotions aren't mutually exclusive. Charlotte wasn't just Decker's death. There was so much more to her. This was Charlotte navigating her relationships, her secrets, and what her ever after was going to be. I'm so glad I seized the intrigue of this one and had this reading experience!

***

Summary:

Told in Emily Belden's signature edgy voice, a novel about a young widow's discovery of her late husband's secret and her journey toward hope and second-chance love.

Twenty-nine-year-old Charlotte Rosen has a secret: she’s a widow. Ever since the fateful day that leveled her world, Charlotte has worked hard to move forward. Great job at a hot social media analytics company? Check. Roommate with no knowledge of her past? Check. Adorable dog? Check. All the while, she’s faithfully data-crunched her way through life, calculating the probability of risk—so she can avoid it.

Yet Charlotte’s algorithms could never have predicted that her late husband’s ashes would land squarely on her doorstep five years later. Stunned but determined, Charlotte sets out to find meaning in this sudden twist of fate, even if that includes facing her perfectly coiffed, and perfectly difficult, ex-mother-in-law—and her husband’s best friend, who seems to become a fixture at her side whether she likes it or not.

But soon a shocking secret surfaces, forcing Charlotte to answer questions she never knew to ask and to consider the possibility of forgiveness. And when a chance at new love arises, she’ll have to decide once and for all whether to follow the numbers or trust her heart.

Author Bio:
EMILY BELDEN is a journalist, social media marketer, and storyteller. She is the author of the novel Hot Mess and Eightysixed: A Memoir about Unforgettable Men, Mistakes, and Meals. She lives in Chicago. Visit her website at www.emilybelden.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram, @emilybelden.


Buy Links:

Social Links:
Twitter: @emilybelden
Instagram: @emilybelden
Facebook: @emilybeldenauthor

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Blog Tour - Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison - Review and Author Q&A!


Y'all, let me tell you how pumped I am to talk about Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison today. This was a wild thriller - beyond wild actually, and I absolutely loved it.

Today is an especially exciting day on the blog as I'm hosting a blog tour stop for the book. With this, I'm going to give you my review, and I'm sharing a Q&A with the author!

Oh, and the best news? This book is out now! So, you can finish reading this post and immediately go off to get this book in your life.

But first, here are some thoughts from the author!


Do you plan your books in advance or let them develop as you write?

Both. Sometimes the story just unfolds, and sometimes I have to relentlessly work on themes and turning points and characters’ points of view. Every book is different, every book has its own unique challenges. I’m always thinking about what’s next, and sometimes even what’s after that. But when it comes to actually sitting down to write, I like to let the story unfold a bit, let it stretch its wings, before I try to lash it to the mast and conform it to my vision.
***

What does a day in the life of J.T. Ellison look like?

It’s rather blissful. It starts rather lazily, with the cats cuddled into my arms and the newspaper on my iPad, then progresses to kicking the lazy beasts out, pouring a cup of tea and handling email. I am not a morning person, so I tend to do business in the morning and writing in the afternoon, when I’m sharper. I’ve always wanted to be the writer who gets up at 5 am to write whilst the birds chirp and the house sleeps, watching the sun rise and running five miles before the rest of the world is awake, but alas, it was not meant to be. You need to go to a concert that starts at ten p.m., I’m your girl. 

***

What does the act of writing mean to you?

It’s a sacred contract with me and a mythical “someone” who might read the words at some point in the future and find them entertaining or moving. It’s sheer magic on my end, creating, and sheer magic on the readers’ end, when they get to experience what was in my head as I was writing. It’s the most incredible mystical experience out there.

***

What did you want to be as a child? Was it an author?
I desperately wanted to be Colorado’s first female firefighter. When that job was taken, I cast about. Doctor. Lawyer. Fighter Pilot. Spy. International business maven. Olympic swimmer. Poet. In the end, being a writer was my only choice. That way, I get to experience all the lives I could have led.

***
Tell us about what you’re working on now.

I’m writing a novel about a destination wedding that goes very, very wrong. It has loose ties to Rebecca, and it is titled HER DARK LIES. 

***

Okay, now, let me tell y'all all about Good Girls Lie!

Good Girls Lie takes place at the Goode School, a prestigious all-girls boarding school in Virginia. The school is known for its strict honor code, and it demands both the best in academics and telling the truth. The story begins with a death as a student's body is discovered at the school. The book then goes back in time to explain how the story got to here. This includes the arrival of Ash, a British student. With Ash's arrival, she learns of the secret societies, hierarchy, and rules (both written and unwritten) that govern the school.

Much of the story is about the dynamics of different students at the school. While there is a strict honor code, there are secrets and lies bubbling below the surface. As the story moves towards the death where things began, suspense builds as to what happened and who might be responsible. What is great about this suspense is how the author plays with emotion to build it. You can see there is some evil and scheming going on, but you can't quite figure out who is responsible. And the person responsible shifts, so one moment you could feel sympathy for one character, and the next, you feel it for another. It was this plot device that kept me guessing throughout. I knew things weren't just happening, but I couldn't quite figure out why. I also found I wanted to believe characters, but because of the way the story was told, I always held onto some suspicions about who was really good and telling the truth.

The twists in this one are so good, and they go until the very last pages. Again, much of this is you don't know who you can trust as a truth-teller. In the school, there is a strong want to fit in, so you have to wonder what lengths people will go to in order to make this happen. Ash also is a character with secrets. She is recently orphaned after the death of her parents, and she comes to the school having changed her name to escape this tragedy. As she finds her place at the school, she interacts with a variety of students finding both friends and enemies. 

With this review, I realize I haven't given a ton of plot details, and that is quite intentional. To walk you through too much gives away the feels you get as each secret and lie is unwound! This is the type of book that makes you gasp when the twists come to fruition. And then just as you think you've got it figured out, there is another curveball that comes into the mix. This is a thriller driven by characters and their secrets, and I just could not get enough. If you want something that embodies a page-turning thriller, look no further than right here!

***

Author Bio: 

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 novels, and the EMMY-award winning co-host of A WORD ON WORDS, Nashville's premier literary show. With millions of books in print, her work has won critical acclaim, prestigious awards, and has been published in 26 countries. Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.

Book Summary:
Perched atop a hill in the tiny town of Marchburg, Virginia, The Goode School is a prestigious prep school known as a Silent Ivy. The boarding school of choice for daughters of the rich and influential, it accepts only the best and the brightest. Its elite status, long-held traditions and honor code are ideal for preparing exceptional young women for brilliant futures at Ivy League universities and beyond. But a stranger has come to Goode, and this ivy has turned poisonous.

In a world where appearances are everything, as long as students pretend to follow the rules, no one questions the cruelties of the secret societies or the dubious behavior of the privileged young women who expect to get away with murder. But when a popular student is found dead, the truth cannot be ignored. Rumors suggest she was struggling with a secret that drove her to suicide.

But look closely…because there are truths and there are lies, and then there is everything that really happened.

J.T. Ellison’s pulse-pounding new novel examines the tenuous bonds of friendship, the power of lies and the desperate lengths people will go to to protect their secrets.