Category Archives: 2019 Books

Looker

Finished Looker by Laura Sims. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A dazzling, razor-sharp debut novel about a woman whose obsession with the beautiful actress on her block drives her to the edge.

I’ve never crossed their little fenced-in garden, of course. I stand on the sidewalk in front of the fern-and-ivy-filled planter that hangs from the fence—placed there as a sort of screen, I’m sure—and have a direct line of view into the kitchen at night. I’m grateful they’ve never thought to install blinds. That’s how confident they are. No one would dare stand in front of our house and watch us, they think. And they’re probably right: except for me. 

In this taut and thrilling debut, an unraveling woman, unhappily childless and recently separated, becomes fixated on her neighbor—the actress. The unnamed narrator can’t help noticing with wry irony that, though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment lies between them. The actress, a celebrity with her face on the side of every bus, shares a gleaming brownstone with her handsome husband and their three adorable children, while the narrator, working in a dead-end job, lives in a run-down, three-story walk-up with her ex-husband’s cat.

When an interaction with the actress at the annual block party takes a disastrous turn, what began as an innocent preoccupation spirals quickly, and lethally, into a frightening and irretrievable madness. Searing and darkly witty, Looker is enormously entertaining—at once a propulsive Hitchcockian thriller and a fearlessly original portrait of the perils of envy.”

Have you ever met someone (hopefully in a book, but maybe in your real life) and they seem totally normal but the more time you spend with them, the more you think, “This person is not well?” That’s the narrator of Looker.

She’s very fascinated by the actress who lives across the street, and I cut her a lot of slack for that, because if Blake Lively or Keri Russell or anyone famous lived near me, I would probably also be That Person, at least at first. But here’s where we differ: the unnamed narrator is a whole other level. People in their neighborhood tend to put things out for others to take and she takes everything the actress puts out. EVERYTHING. Including kid clothes (she does not actually have a kid).

So there’s that. But she’s also starting to unravel in her personal life. Her husband is divorcing her and he wants his cat back (she doesn’t even like the cat, but it’s become this Thing for her) and her job is also not going super well.

This is a short book, but I think everyone would fly through it anyway. It’s one of those things that’s impossible to put down and I had to see just how wrong things would go. I cannot wait to see what Laura Sims writes next, because this one was intense and amazing.

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96 Words For Love

Finished 96 Words For Love by Rachel Roy and Ava Dash. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Ever since her acceptance to UCLA, 17-year-old Raya Liston has been quietly freaking out. She feels simultaneously lost and trapped by a future already mapped out for her.

Then her beloved grandmother dies, and Raya jumps at the chance to spend her last free summer at the ashram in India where her grandmother met and fell in love with her grandfather. Raya hopes to find her center and her true path. But she didn’t expect to fall in love… with a country of beautiful contradictions, her fiercely loyal cousin, a local girl with a passion for reading, and a boy who teaches her that in Sanskrit, there are 96 different ways to say the word “love.”

A modern retelling of the classic Indian legend of Shakuntala and Dushyanta.”

This is an incredibly readable book. There were parts I loved (learning about Indian culture; the ashram setting; Raya and Anandi trying to find what their grandmother left for them) and it made up for the parts I didn’t (instalove; a ton of slang that makes the book feel dated even though it just came out).

Also, if you’re not good with swearing, you should know that there’s a lot of it in this book. I’m not particularly delicate, but if you are, definitely proceed with caution.

The pacing also seemed a little off. It’s a little slow in the beginning (not ridiculously slow or to the point where I was ever tempted to stop reading) but then it seemed to go into hyperdrive and it almost felt like I had skipped some chapters.

I think a lot of that is because it’s a first novel. The raw materials are definitely there, and I hope they write a second book. I think they’ll end up doing really good things.

Famous in a Small Town

Finished Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“For Sophie, small-town life has never felt small. She has the Yum Yum Shoppe, with its famous fourteen flavors of ice cream; her beloved marching band, the pride and joy of Acadia High (even if the football team disagrees); and her four best friends, loving and infuriating, wonderfully weird and all she could ever ask for.

Then August moves in next door. A quiet guy with a magnetic smile, August seems determined to keep everyone at arm’s length. Sophie in particular.

Country stars, revenge plots, and a few fake kisses (along with some excellent real ones) await Sophie in this hilarious, heartfelt story.”

Emma Mills is one of my favorite authors. Her books are fun and sweet and they always make me smile, whatever else is going on in the world. And like her other books, I absolutely adored this one.

Sophie is a big part of the reason why. I spent the whole book trying to figure out who she reminded me of, and it finally hit me: she’s Leslie Knope as a teenager. She loves her friends and her town and she has nothing but big plans to improve both. And, like Leslie Knope, that kind of enthusiasm can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it.

Everything about this book is completely delightful, and I love everything about it. It’s my first favorite of 2019.

Highly recommended.

The Au Pair

Finished The Au Pair by Emma Rous. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A grand estate, terrible secrets, and a young woman who bears witness to it all. If V. C. Andrews and Kate Morton had a literary love child, Emma Rous’ The Au Pair would be it.

Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny were born in the middle of summer at their family’s estate on the Norfolk coast. Within hours of their birth, their mother threw herself from the cliffs, the au pair fled, and the village thrilled with whispers of dark cloaks, changelings, and the aloof couple who drew a young nanny into their inner circle.

Now an adult, Seraphine mourns the recent death of her father. While going through his belongings, she uncovers a family photograph that raises dangerous questions. It was taken on the day the twins were born, and in the photo, their mother, surrounded by her husband and her young son, is beautifully dressed, smiling serenely, and holding just one baby.

Who is the child and what really happened that day?

One person knows the truth, if only Seraphine can find her.”

First, this book is absolutely bonkers (which is the only real connection to VC Andrews). There’s a lot of “elegant family with a ton of secrets” and what I’m pretty sure is a love rectangle. It’s complicated; I wish I had a chart.

This is a fun read, and I read the bulk of it with snow falling outside. It worked surprisingly well, given the fact that a lot of it takes place at the family estate called Summerbourne. (There is also one called Winterbourne.)

It’s best to go in knowing as little as possible, but it’s easy to enjoy this book either way. This is going to be one of those books that gets people talking, so I recommend reading it as quickly as possible before someone spoils it for you.

Freefall

Finished Freefall by Jessica Barry. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“A propulsive debut novel with the intensity of Luckiest Girl Alive and Before the Fall, about a young woman determined to survive and a mother determined to find her.

When your life is a lie, the truth can kill you

When her fiancé’s private plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies, Allison Carpenter miraculously survives. But the fight for her life is just beginning. For years, Allison has been living with a terrible secret, a shocking truth that powerful men will kill to keep buried. If they know she’s alive, they will come for her. She must make it home.

In the small community of Owl Creek, Maine, Maggie Carpenter learns that her only child is presumed dead. But authorities have not recovered her body—giving Maggie a shred of hope. She, too, harbors a shameful secret: she hasn’t communicated with her daughter in two years, since a family tragedy drove Allison away. Maggie doesn’t know anything about her daughter’s life now—not even that she was engaged to wealthy pharmaceutical CEO Ben Gardner, or why she was on a private plane.

As Allison struggles across the treacherous mountain wilderness, Maggie embarks on a desperate search for answers. Immersing herself in Allison’s life, she discovers a sleek socialite hiding dark secrets. What was Allison running from—and can Maggie uncover the truth in time to save her?

Told from the perspectives of a mother and daughter separated by distance but united by an unbreakable bond, Freefall is a riveting debut novel about two tenacious women overcoming unimaginable obstacles to protect themselves and those they love.”

This is one of the most intense stories I’ve read in recent memory. I had a real feeling of dread for the entire book (I knew Allison was in danger, but I didn’t know why or where the danger would come from, which made for a very paranoid reading experience. And, of course, she’s also injured and in the middle of nowhere with not much in the way of food, supplies, shelter or even a change of clothes. So basically she’s in danger from everything around her).

This is juxtaposed with her mom’s story. We learn that they’re estranged which makes it hard for Maggie to accept her daughter’s death. (Obviously we know the whole time that Allison is very much alive. And she’s trying to go back to Maggie’s, but she can’t reach out to her because she’s not sure if the people she’s running from would know.)

I couldn’t stop reading, and I almost missed my lightrail stop because of it. You need to read this, but make sure you aren’t using public transportation. (And maybe clear your schedule.)

Highly recommended.

The Paragon Hotel

Finished The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The new and exciting historial thriller by Lyndsay Faye, author of Edgar-nominated Jane Steele and Gods of Gotham, which follows Alice “Nobody” from Prohibition-era Harlem to Portland’s the Paragon Hotel.

The year is 1921, and “Nobody” Alice James is on a cross-country train, carrying a bullet wound and fleeing for her life following an illicit drug and liquor deal gone horribly wrong. Desperate to get as far away as possible from New York City and those who want her dead, she has her sights set on Oregon: a distant frontier that seems the end of the line.

She befriends Max, a black Pullman porter who reminds her achingly of Harlem, who leads Alice to the Paragon Hotel upon arrival in Portland. Her unlikely sanctuary turns out to be the only all-black hotel in the city, and its lodgers seem unduly terrified of a white woman on the premises. But as she meets the churlish Dr. Pendleton, the stately Mavereen, and the unforgettable club chanteuse Blossom Fontaine, she begins to understand the reason for their dread. The Ku Klux Klan has arrived in Portland in fearful numbers–burning crosses, inciting violence, electing officials, and brutalizing blacks. And only Alice, along with her new “family” of Paragon residents, are willing to search for a missing mulatto child who has mysteriously vanished into the Oregon woods.

Why was “Nobody” Alice James forced to escape Harlem? Why do the Paragon’s denizens live in fear–and what other sins are they hiding? Where did the orphaned child who went missing from the hotel, Davy Lee, come from in the first place? And, perhaps most important, why does Blossom DuBois seem to be at the very center of this tangled web?”

I think most people I know have loved Lyndsay Faye since her first book (The Gods of Gotham). I was late to the party and I still haven’t read Jane Steele (probably her most popular book—at least until this one), but you guys, THIS BOOK.

There’s so much going on. Prohibition and speakeasies, the mob, the Klan…and all the amazing 20s lingo I wish would make a comeback.

I loved Alice (who sometimes goes by “Nobody”) and most of the residents of the Paragon. They’re smart, good people who are managing to survive in a world that wants them dead or vanished and doesn’t particularly care which one it is. But Alice is the center of this, and she’s amazing. She manages to flee cross-country with a major injury (shot and barely, BARELY patched up) and she’s got no one to help her stay alive. She quickly befriends Max, who gets her to the hotel and to a doctor’s care, but that in no way makes her safe. And it seems like the hotel is one of the least safe places to be even before Davy goes missing.

This is a fun and tense story and I hope you read and love it, too. Highly recommended.

This Promise of Change

Finished This Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“In 1956, one year before federal troops escorted the Little Rock 9 into Central High School, fourteen year old Jo Ann Allen was one of twelve African-American students who broke the color barrier and integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee. At first things went smoothly for the Clinton 12, but then outside agitators interfered, pitting the townspeople against one another. Uneasiness turned into anger, and even the Clinton Twelve themselves wondered if the easier thing to do would be to go back to their old school. Jo Ann–clear-eyed, practical, tolerant, and popular among both black and white students—found herself called on as the spokesperson of the group. But what about just being a regular teen? This is the heartbreaking and relatable story of her four months thrust into the national spotlight and as a trailblazer in history. Based on original research and interviews and featuring backmatter with archival materials and notes from the authors on the co-writing process.”

Schools being desegregated feels like centuries ago, at least to me. It’s not that far, though. My mom was in high school when her school was integrated (in Delaware), and while she doesn’t remember any problems, I’d be very curious what her new classmates felt and if they would agree.

This is an astonishing book full of incredibly brave people. Jo Ann Allen was one of twelve people in her Tennessee high school to go to the formerly all white school. There were protesters outside and there were mean people inside, but some were nice. I can’t even imagine the courage it took to walk to school every day, with people yelling (on good days) and throwing things (on bad ones). But they kept going. Sometimes they were accompanied by police and once by a white preacher, but they kept going. If school was open, they were there.

There are also snippets of newspaper articles and pictures of Jo Ann and the others, and there are pictures of some of the protesters. I sometimes wonder how they feel about the fact that they’re on record as being racist. Does that bother them? I hope so.

This is an amazing story, and I hope I would have even a tenth of Jo Ann’s bravery in her situation.

Highly recommended.

Her One Mistake

Finished Her One Mistake by Heidi Perks. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

What should have been a fun-filled, carefree day takes a tragic turn for the worse for one mother when her best friend’s child goes missing in this suspenseful, compulsively readable, and darkly twisted psychological thriller.

It all started at the school fair…

Charlotte was supposed to be looking after the children, and she swears she was. She only took her eyes off of them for one second. But when her three kids are all safe and sound at the school fair, and Alice, her best friend Harriet’s daughter, is nowhere to be found, Charlotte panics. Frantically searching everywhere, Charlotte knows she must find the courage to tell Harriet that her beloved only child is missing. And admit that she has only herself to blame.

Harriet, devastated by this unthinkable, unbearable loss, can no longer bring herself to speak to Charlotte again, much less trust her. Now more isolated than ever and struggling to keep her marriage afloat, Harriet believes nothing and no one. But as the police bear down on both women trying to piece together the puzzle of what happened to this little girl, dark secrets begin to surface—and Harriet discovers that confiding in Charlotte again may be the only thing that will reunite her with her daughter….

This breathless and fast-paced debut—perfect for fans of Big Little Lies and The Couple Next Door—takes you on a chilling journey that will keep you guessing until the very last page.”

I couldn’t stop reading this. The plot seems absolutely ripped from the headlines (woman stops paying attention for one second; child vanishes) but it’s almost worse because it isn’t her daughter; it’s her best friend’s child, who she was watching for the afternoon. I can’t imagine the absolute crushing guilt, but I can imagine the social media vilification that follows. We’ve all seen that play out a billion times by now.

There are also a lot of things below the surface, including the fact that sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s home. There may be clues, but (as one character points out) “If they don’t want you to know, you won’t.”

I am on a real “domestic suspense” kick these days, and I have more to come. We’ve seen a lot of these over the last year or so, but even if you’re sick to death of the subgenre, check this one out. It feels different.

Recommended.

A Sky For Us Alone

Finished A Sky For Us Alone by Kristin Russell. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“In Strickland County, there isn’t a lot of anything to go around. But when eighteen-year-old Harlowe Compton’s brother is killed by the Praters—the family who controls everything, from the mines to the law—he wonders if the future will ever hold more than loss. Until he meets Tennessee Moore.

With Tennessee, Harlowe feels for the first time that something good might happen, that he might’ve found the rarest thing of all: hope. Even as she struggles with the worst of the cards she’s been dealt, Tennessee makes Harlowe believe that they can dare to forge their own path—if they only give it a shot.

But as Harlowe searches for the answers behind his brother’s death, his town’s decay, and his family’s dysfunction, he discovers truths about the people he loves—and himself—that are darker than he ever expected. Now, Harlowe realizes, there’s no turning back.

A powerful story of first love, poverty, and the grip of the opioid crisis in the rural South, Kristin Russell’s gorgeous debut novel asks a universal question: When hope seems lost, are dreams worth the risk?”

There are two stories here: the town and the opioid crisis, mixed with poverty and health problems, and the love story with Harlowe and Tennessee. I really enjoyed the first part; it was captivating and devastating. The love story aspect distracted me and, for me at least, seemed like it was thrown in because contemporary YA novels have to have a love story. (This is not true but it feels like some imprints and authors insist it is.)

I love the first aspect, though. You could feel the desperation in the town and the way that some residents have a “We’re all in it together” attitude and take care of each other the best way they can and how others have the “I only care about myself” viewpoint. The poverty and the fact that the mine is the only good job around would be horrible enough, but when you add in the current opioid problems, it has a harrowing effect on the town.

I liked Harlowe and Tennessee and I didn’t hate their relationship, but it felt (a) like instalove and (b) it felt (to me) like it did the rest of the novel a disservice.

Even so, absolutely read this book. It’s so well done and I’ll be looking for Kristin Russell’s next book.

Black Enough

Finished Black Enough, an anthology edited by Ibi Zoboi. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Black Enough is a star-studded anthology edited by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi that will delve into the closeted thoughts, hidden experiences, and daily struggles of black teens across the country. From a spectrum of backgrounds—urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more—Black Enough showcases diversity within diversity.

Whether it’s New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds writing about #blackboyjoy or Newbery Honor-winning author Renee Watson talking about black girls at camp in Portland, or emerging author Jay Coles’s story about two cowboys kissing in the south—Black Enough is an essential collection full of captivating coming-of-age stories about what it’s like to be young and black in America.”

Like with any anthology, there are stories that I liked better than others. Unlike most, however, there’s nothing that wasn’t really great. I’ve read most of the authors before, but this makes me want to check all of the others out, as well.

I especially want to read Pride, because Ibi Zoboi’s story was probably my favorite. I did wish all of these were longer—I would’ve taken a novel about all of these people.

This is one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. If you’ve been meaning to read more of them (or more diverse books), put this at the top of the TBR stack. Highly recommended.