Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Book Reviews - Secrets and Stuff

Welcome to the Groundhog Day that is my book blogging in which I read four books that again have no cohesive theme, and I'll again post some sort of banter here to explain that.

And scene.

Okay, here's what I read.

The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists by Tracy Walder drew me in when the description explained this was a memoir of a woman who had gone from being in a sorority at the University of Southern California to doing counterterrorism work on behalf of the country. While at USC, Tracy is drawn to international affairs, and she interviews and is obviously then hired by the CIA. She joins just before 9/11, so what this career path looks like very quickly changes. Much of the story focuses on the work that she did for the CIA. Given the secretive nature of her work, there are parts that are heavily redacted (as the agency had to review what she wrote), and she has changed some details to not give up secrets from the work. I'll be honest I really didn't know all the ins and outs of what CIA worked entailed, so it was fascinating to read about this. What I also really liked is what she shared about her background. Growing up, she struggled with self-confidence. Part of her joining her sorority was wanting to find a place where she fit. She also was drawn to the CIA because of her interest and passion for international affairs. I loved how this messaging was woven in. To me, that was the heart of her work, and I appreciated that authenticity. The story ends with her detailing her shift to the FBI. WIth this, she names systemic issues with that experience. I appreciated her honesty here. I loved that this ended with the work she now does as an educator to help girls see their potential to enter into careers in intelligence, politics, public policy and/or whatever they want. This was an interesting and empowering memoir where I unexpectedly learned a lot and had such respect for the woman who experienced it all. Thanks to NetGalley for the look at this new release!

The Banker's Wife by Cristina Alger was the selection for my book club this month. The story begins with two people boarding a plane that is ultimately lost. Anabel is the young widow of the man on the plane. Upon finding out he is dead, she also finds out that his employer was not quite what she thought, and her husband was wrapped up in all kinds of things. She is exposed to a world of secrets via the Swiss bank her husband once worked for, and she begins digging deeper into what he was hiding from her. Simultaneously, a journalist is doing work to uncover the dealings of this bank. The stories run on parallel tracks, but also have some intersections along the way. This was a quick read, and honestly, I think it would translate particularly well on screen (and conveniently, that's going to happen) because there were so many twists and turns of this one. This one had some good suspense that really picked up as it went. This isn't my normal kind of thriller, but it kept me reading as I wanted to know how all the different threads were all going to tie together.

The Second Home by Christina Clancy is a story about family secrets and lies. After a family tragedy, Ann returns to her family's summer home 15 years after the summer where everything changed. The story then flashes back to that summer. Told through the eyes of Ann, her younger sister Poppy, and their adopted brother, Michael the events of that summer are revisited. Each sibling has a different story to tell leading up to how this all culminates. The story then returns to the present where the siblings' relationships are different, but they are brought back together and must come to an agreement as the fate of that summer home is decided. This story is a tragic one, and it's a hard read given what happens. This is also a story that involves lies (and manipulation) that have a huge impact over all the years. This is a well-written story of family, but again be advised what goes down is heavy. Thanks to NetGalley for the early look at this June 2020 release.

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers is a book by the hosts of a podcast (Pantsuit Politics) that I've recently found my way to via the recommendation of a co-worker. What I like about the authors and the podcast is their approach to discussing politics. They analyze issues, candidates, and policies in a way that asks important questions and invites debate. It makes me think differently, and I definitely learn as I listen. The book is written in this same style. It made me consider the questions I need to ask as I decide on candidates, and I appreciated that there were reflection questions throughout, so I could think on this content even more. While politics are the foundation of what they talk about, what they're really focusing on is how to show empathy, how to acknowledge where the "grey" exists, and what a healthy debate can look like. I appreciate Beth and Sarah take on politics in a way that make them far more accessible and inviting.

Onto the next ones!

Monday, February 17, 2020

Book Reviews - Soap Operas, Scary Stuff, and Social Connection

I've been traveling for the past few weeks, so my reading has been less of on a theme, and more of what mood strikes me and/or I have along! So, here's what that's been. . .

In the Role of Brie Hutchens by Nicole Melleby was an emotionally honest and overall wonderful read. What really drew me in and made me love this one was the connections to soap operas in the book. As someone who grew up watching my mom's shows (or stories as my grandma says) and will even catch those that are left (#missyouloveyou Passions, As the World Turns and Guiding Light), this was something that hit my specific feels in a certain kind of way. This is the story of Brie. Brie aspires to be an actress and to attend a performing arts school. One evening while looking at pictures of her favorite actress online, Brie's mom enters her room. Worried about what her mom has seen, Brie proclaims she has the honor crowning Mary at the May ceremony. That'd be awesome, except it's not true. From there, Brie commits to doing whatever she can to earn this honor for real. In the meantime, Brie is navigating her own attractions and identities. The incredible piece of this part of the story is she's doing this through soap operas. She begins to find stories that help her better understand how she feels, and these stories help her to find her voice. As a character, Brie was an absolute and authentic delight via her realness. She also is working through a great deal of "tough stuff" with her family around finances and employment, and she additionally works through all those struggles that middle school seems to bring. I will tell y'all again what a joy this book was for me. Thanks to NetGalley for the early look at this April 2020. Oh, and one last thing - The scene Brie chooses for her audition at the performing arts school was just so darn great. It makes me want to go down a soap opera YouTube rabbit hole rn. . . 

Red Letter Days by Sarah-Jane Stratford takes place during the Red Scare. Specifically, it looks at how this impacted the entertainment industry. Phoebe is an American TV writer who unexpectedly loses a role due to an accusation of her loyalties. She decides to head to London as others impacted have, and she connects with Hannah. Hannah is an American woman who puts those who have been unfairly impacted by the scare to work secretly. Prior to reading this, I knew of McCarthyism, but knew nothing of the impact on the entertainment industry, so this was a new exploration of history for me in that regard. With this advanced copy from Berkley, I'm supposed to give you my honest thoughts, and I always do, so I do have to share that there was something missing in this one for me. Because there was so much zoning in on the two women and the development and experiences of their characters, there wasn't as much history. For me, having more of that context around their story would have been helpful. I liked what was shared, but ultimately needed more. However, given this took place in London, I can also see how extensive coverage of what was happening in the United States didn't make sense. Overall, this read took me to a part of history through well-developed characters I haven't read through much, and I appreciated that opportunity.

Her Homecoming Wish by Jo McNally is a book I featured in a blog tour stop last week. Check that out HERE!

Witches: The Transformative Power of Women Working Together by Sam George-Allen  is a collection of ways women find connection and power. What was great was the variance in these stories and the way they showcased certain communities in a different and important way. There were two chapters I especially enjoyed. The first was on beauty bloggers. I loved how she reframed this community on the empowerment it provides by women for women and what make-up can (and should) really mean. The other chapter I really dug was about nuns. It was interesting to see the reframe in this chapter on the power in choosing to live this way as well. Oh, and I also loved how the story began with talking about teen girls. So often this stage of life is known for its angst and awkwardness. This book again reframes the power of this time of a woman's life. For me, this was such an interesting exploration of women. Each chapter was such a fascinating deep dive into a place women have found connection with one another. 

Onto the next ones. . .

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Blog Tour - Her Homecoming Wish by Jo McNally - Review and Author Q&A

Today I'm excited to be hosting a blog tour stop for Her Homecoming Wish by Jo McNally. First off, let me just say I'm generally not a romance reader. It's not because I'm not a fan, it's just I haven't really ever read the genre, had a few preconceived notions and wasn't sure where to start to work through all of that. One of this year's reading challenges I set for myself was to read a mass market romance novel. So, when the opportunity arose, I decided to be a stop on this tour to have a chance to finally see what this was all about.

So, let's talk about the book y'all! 

First up, I have to share the cover. It wouldn't be a romance without it, right?!?!

Oh, and before I give you my review, let me share an author Q&A to help you get to know the voice behind the story!

Q: Did you always want to write for Harlequin?
A: Well, I’ve wanted to write romance novels since I was about ten years old (my first “book” had a heroine named Destiny and horses and a tornado…). But I didn’t actually become aware of Harlequin until I was an adult. Many readers talk about sneak-reading their mom’s Harlequin novels as teens, but my mom didn’t read romance! But once I found Harlequin books, I knew that was where I wanted to be.

Q: Share your favorite memory of reading a Harlequin romance
A: I got distracted by life for a while (it happens, right?) and stopped reading much. I rediscovered romance novels when I got my first eReader, and one of the first books I read was Beach House No. 9 by Christie Ridgway. That story made me laugh and cry and sit on the edge of my seat, and I was hooked on romance all over again. I started devouring series by Susan Mallery and Kristan Higgins, and then I started writing in earnest. And it all started with a Harlequin romance!

Q: What is a recent book you have read that you would recommend?
A: I just finished a reread of Lucy Parker’s The Austen Playbook from last year, and I adored it just as much the second time around. Lucy’s books are always full of sparkling wit, and this is one of the best opposites-attract romances (my favorite trope) I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to read her brand-new book, Headliners. 

Okay, so now let's talk about the actual book.

The story begins with MacKenzie returning to her hometown. Soon after returning, she runs into Danny. Danny was a friend of her brother's, and they were known for being the "bad boys" (I hate that term y'all, but in the context, it's just going to have to work) around town. MacKenzie, on the other hand, was known for being the straight-laced rule follower. Returning back, times have changed. Danny is now Sheriff Dan, divorced with shared custody of his young daughter. MacKenzie is back wanting to "live a little" after a failed marriage. MacKenzie and Danny have to navigate who they once were and who they are now. This means coming to terms with some "stuff" that went down in the past. What I appreciated about this book was that the romance wasn't an all of the sudden thing that happened. Given they're in their late thirties, that makes sense, and it was far more realistic in that regard. As a rookie reader (and a late thirtysomething myself), I didn't expect that, and I appreciated it.

The other piece of this book involved Sheriff Dan's actual job. There is some suspicious activity around opioids occurring in the town. He's determined to figure out what is, so he can protect his community. I liked how this subplot was woven throughout. It added some depth to the story, so it wasn't just all about the romance. This especially added depth to Dan's character as he felt obligated to protect his small community, and it was something that kept me turning the pages, in addition to the budding love between MacKenzie and Dan.

Overall, this was different than what I expected - in a good way. It wasn't entirely unrealistic or cheesy, instead it depicted how a love like this might actually go down. As I owned, this genre isn't generally my jam. However, I found I enjoyed this read, and I'd be interested in venturing in again. I found the characters likable, the dilemmas real, and I became vested in what went down which is all you can ask for in a read!

So, there you have it - my first ride into romance (#seewhatididthere), and I quite enjoyed it!

Book Summary:

“You’re all about following the rules now?

Mackenzie Wallace hopes there’s still some bad boy lurking beneath single father Danny Adams’s upright exterior. Being the proverbial good girl left her brokenhearted and alone in the past. Now she’s back in town and wants excitement with her high school crush—not love. Dan knows their connection runs deep, despite Mackenzie’s protests. But will their new personas work together—especially when Dan’s secret is exposed?

Author Bio:

Jo McNally lives in upstate New York with 100 pounds of dog and 200 pounds of husband – her slice of the bed is very small. When she's not writing or reading romance novels (or clinging to the edge of the bed...), she can often be found on the back porch sipping wine with friends, listening to an eclectic playlist. If the weather is perfect, she might join her husband on the golf course, where she always feels far more competitive than her actual skill-level would suggest.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Book Reviews - Remembering a Legend and Future Thrills

Y'all, this was quite the quartet of thrills! I think I'm going to need to turn down the volume for the next round because these were intense AF. Anyway. . .

Night Swim by Megan Goldin was some kind of thrill read y'all. The story first focuses on a podcast. Rachel has achieved fame for her true crime podcast where she revisits cases and has exonerated an innocent man. For the first time, she has decided to take on a trial as it happens. She heads to a small town where a sexual assault case has rocked the community. A high school boy known for his swimming prowess is the alleged perpetrator. Rachel takes on the story of this case seeking to help listeners understand how hard it is for survivors to come forward and all the complexities of a case of this nature. While in town, Rachel is contacted via letter about another case in the town that was never solved. 25 years earlier, Jenny Stills drowned. She knew how to swim, and her younger sister Hannah believes there is much more to her story. In addition to covering the case in the courtroom, Rachel takes on this cold case to finally discover what really happened to Jenny. Rachel does deep dives into both stories as she is committed to finding the truth. This was a thriller that kept me reading. As the secrets come to light, and y'all, there are some huge secret reveals, some common threads in the past and present also come to life. This is a heavy and emotional read given the focus, but it's also a pageturner that I quickly devoured because I needed both cases to be resolved. Thanks to NetGalley for the early look at this August 2020 release.

You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen was another captivating thriller by this duo. I mean, at this point, I know that's exactly what I get when I see these authors on the cover, and I loved that What I loved most about this one was the slow burn. There were secrets revealed throughout and until the very last pages, and I was so here for that masterful storytelling. This book revolves around Shay. While waiting for a subway, Shay sees a woman jump onto the tracks. Seeing this woman's tragic death, she feels connected and wants to know more. What she doesn't know is that this quest is going to draw her into the world of the Moore sisters, Cassandra and Jane. The sisters have a tight circle of friends and a world that Shay starts to engage in, and from there, y'all, THIS IS SOME KIND OF RIDE. I honestly can't and won't reveal much more about this one because I want you to feel every bump and twist you can in this one. This story is told from multiple narrators in short chapters, so you are constantly being hit with different truths and lies, and that is what makes this one just so, so great. Y'all, I cannot get enough of the thrillers these women put into the universe, and this is another must-read. Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the early look at this March release that is going to for sure have people talking.

As Time Goes By by Mary Higgins Clark was a book I'd bought this summer because it'd been ages since I last read one of hers. I read a lot of MHC when I was in middle school, and she's one of the authors who made me fall in love with thrillers. With her death, I decided I had to move this one to the top of my list. Y'all, her writing was just as captivating as I remembered, and now I want to go back and read even more. This story focuses on Delaney, a TV journalist. In her professional life, she's covering the murder of a wealthy doctor. Accused of his murder is his wife who maintains her innocence. Delaney is determined to find the truth of this story. In her personal life, Delaney wants to find out the truth about her past. She was adopted, and she wants to find out the truth about her birth parents. As you might infer, there are some intersections in Delaney's personal and professional life as she searches for answers. This was a great way for me to remember a legend, and I hope to (re)read more of her "classics" down the road.

Fatal Option by Chris Beakey was a book I'd received access to an advanced copy for ages ago, but way back when I didn't know how to access them. Anyway, enough of my problems, that's not why we're here. So, this book. . . I don't remember the last time I read something where my thoughts on each and every character morphed as I read. The event that begins the story is a phone call. Stephen's teenage daughter Sara calls crying. She needs to be picked up right away. Problem is Stephen has been drinking and isn't in any condition to drive, but he hears his daughter's urgent need for help. On the road, he encounters high school teacher Kieran who is looking for his brother Aidan. Something happens on that road that sets in motion a chain of events. So, what exactly happened? But also what happened before? Oh, and there are additional unsolved crimes in the area that may or may not connect to that one night. Y'all, this is just one secret after another after another. Just when you think you know someone something else is revealed. Oh, and then something else. This was one that kept me reading because I just wanted to know who these people really were, and the reality of this one was that everyone had their "stuff" they were carrying, It was quite the chain reaction of choices and consequences!

Onto the next ones!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Book Reviews, Feels, "Meh" and the Moon

What a round of reads y'all! Two of these had me way up in my feels, another one was an interesting premise, and one was just not what I thought it'd be. Read on, and see what was what.

And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood by Rachel Friedman is a book that hit me with a wave of nostalgia and emotion I wasn't unexpecting. That wave was also something I didn't know I needed. The author was once a dedicated violinist. She spent her summer at a fine arts camp, and she had aspirations of doing something big with her talent. Then, plans changed. Now on another road, she is reflecting on what might have been. She also decides to reconnect with other campers who had similar talent and aspirations way back when. Each of their stories is so fascinating as they describe their own paths, and the author also parses out her own lessons and reflections from where they are. As someone who played violin through college, this was a book made for me. I miss playing in an orchestra so much, and this book was affirmation I need to pick my old friend back up even if just for me. This book was just a wonderful reflection that our creativity and art can (and should) evolve. This energy never goes away, and there is power and purpose in finding new ways to channel this in our life. This was so much a book for me. It spoke to the past and present version of me, and I just loved there was something so intentionally dedicated to a world I knew and still know. At times I was teary, other times I smiled, and overall, I left this one with a wave of nostalgia and inspiration I so needed.

File this under: Feels, Nostalgia, For all the kids/adults/humans who have loved theatre, orchestra, band and/or some kind of fine arts in life, Memoir

The Dilemma by B.A. Paris is a book I have a bit of a dilemma (#seewhatIdidthere) about as I write my review. Part of that was my own expectations. Y'all, this was full of hard to digest emotions. The intensity of those were almost too much to manage. Not only that, I really struggled with the choices some of the characters made. It was all very unsettling which also aligned with the suspense of the story, so maybe that was intentional? Anyway, let me give you some plot to work with to help you understand my musings. Livia is having a 40th birthday party. She's dreamed of this party for years, and she's excited the day is finally here. Her daughter won't be able to attend, but this is actually okay with her for reasons that aren't immediately shared, but are slowly unwound. Livia's husband Adam also has a secret to start the story. However, then something happens, and what that secret is and might involve changes in a big way. The story is Livia and Adam each wrestling with these secrets individually and never having a conversation as a coupe. It was so aggravating. Having never read this author, maybe that's how things always are? Regardless, this is an extreme communication breakdown and a thriller built on the danger of secrets. This is one that's going to make you feel a certain kind of way throughout, and if getting frustrated with characters is your jam, this is for you. Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.

File this under: Drama, Secrets, Lies, Communication Probs

Something Like Happy by Eva Woods was a book that made me feel all the feels. I read this as I was traveling, and I was publicly and privately a mess of laughs and tears as I read. This book was absolutely wonderful. The story focuses on Annie who is 35 and struggling with life in so many ways. She's in the hospital visiting her mother who has dementia when she meets Polly. Polly has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. With this, she's decided that she's going to soak up all she can from the life she has left. She also decides Annie is going to come along for the ride. Polly has decided to commit to 100 happy days, and she convinces Annie she needs to do this, too. The story then treks through each day. Polly's positivity is powerful as is Annie's pain, and that's what makes this story so beautiful. Polly refuses to give up on Annie, and as she goes she keeps pushing her friend to live a life that makes her authentically happy. This book was just so beautifully done. Faced with a terrible diagnosis, Polly makes a choice to live. Each day shows how she does this. With this, the story still shows the struggles of her diagnosis which makes it all the more real. This was such a wonderful reflection on the curveballs life can throw us, how we find connection, and what it means to take control of where we're going. I loved this one so very much, and it was just the burst of energy and joy I needed.

File this under: Relationships, Friendship, Reflection, All the Feels, Laughter, Tears

Artemis by Andy Weir was such an intriguing tale. The story focuses on Jazz who is part of a settlement on the moon. She does what she needs to do to get by. Then, she's presented with a high stakes opportunity that would also be a huge reward. In agreeing to do this, Jazz is exposed to all the secrets and corruption and wild, wild underworld of the moon settlement. What I dig about this author is the way he builds settings you've never considered before. The level of detail he puts into this is truly incredible. That said, I almost needed pictures to go along with all that was happening. Because he creates this immersive and totally new experience, it's hard to imagine. Again, it's so well done in that regard, so it's a weird compliment that is a critique. This was never going to be The Martian, and I went in knowing that wasn't going to be the case. This was an interesting enough tale and a good commentary of how new society's and endeavors could bring on a whole new set of challenges and conflicts.

File this under: Space, Scandal, Science Fiction.

Onto the next ones!