The Monday Check-In ~ 5/29/2023


My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.


After two weeks of solitude, people are back at my house! It’s nice to hear other people bustling around once again. (Of course, I did do quite a bit of reading and TV watching while I had the house to myself, but I still prefer it when my family is home.)

What did I read during the last week?

The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi: A novel about family secrets and trauma that carry down through three generations. My review is here.

The Russian Cage (Gunnie Rose, #3) by Charlaine Harris: I’m loving this series! My review is here.

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein: My books group’s pick for May. I really enjoyed this classic sci-fi adventure! My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

I went out to another movie! This time, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 3 — and found myself pretty unengaged most of the time. The novelty has worn off, I guess, and the movie seemed to drag on forever. Maybe I’m just done with Marvel at this point?

For streaming this week, I watching XO Kitty on Netflix, which was quick, light, and cute. It’s the story of the little sister from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, now a high school junior who impetuously decides to study abroad in Korea for the year (mainly so she can be with her long-distance boyfriend). It was very entertaining, and it actually went in some directions that I didn’t anticipate!

Also this week, I watched the Survivor (season 44) finale, and definitely had thoughts. You can check out my reaction, here.

Fresh Catch:

I bought used copies of my book group’s next two classic reads:

We’ll be starting Cold Comfort Farm in June, and will likely start Daniel Deronda sometime in early fall.

Puzzle of the week:

I’m back on a roll with doing puzzles! This was a fun, bright 1,000-piece puzzle from Eeboo — and I jammed through it about a day.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Queen Charlotte by Julia Quinn and Shonda Rhimes: I’m so excited to start this book!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Serpent in Heaven (Gunnie Rose, #4) by Charlaine Harris: How could I resist? After this book, I’ll be caught up with the series until the new book comes out in the fall.

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

Until our next group classic read starts, I’m down to just one ongoing book at the moment:

  • Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon: Over at Outlander Book Club, we’re doing a group read of BEES, reading and discussing two chapters per week. Coming up this week: Chapters 130 and 131 (of 155).

So many books, so little time…


Book Review: Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Title: Citizen of the Galaxy
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publication date: 1957
Print length: 282 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a distant galaxy, the atrocity of slavery was alive and well, and young Thorby was just another orphaned boy sold at auction. But his new owner, Baslim, is not the disabled beggar he appears to be: adopting Thorby as his son, he fights relentlessly as an abolitionist spy. When the authorities close in on Baslim, Thorby must ride with the Free Traders — a league of merchant princes — throughout the many worlds of a hostile galaxy, finding the courage to live by his wits and fight his way from society’s lowest rung. But Thorby’s destiny will be forever changed when he discovers the truth about his own identity…

What a treat to “discover” a classic sci-fi that I might have missed if not for my book group. This was an unusual choice for us, but we do like to mix things up on occasion, and I’m so glad Citizen of the Galaxy made this year’s list!

Citizen of the Galaxy is the story of Thorby, a boy captured and enslaved at such a young age that he has no memory of anything else. Alone, mistreated, and hopeless, he’s sold at auction to a beggar named Baslim the Cripple, who is not at all what he seems. Baslim raises Thorby with love, morality, and an education. Upon Baslim’s death, teenaged Thorby must escape from the repressive planet they lived on and find his own way, assisted by subliminal messages implanted in his mind by Baslim. From there, Thorby’s adventures take him to a family of Free Traders, a military ship, and finally back to Terra, where he discovers his true origins once and for all.

This is a fast-paced book, and Thorby is a sympathetic, likable main character. His adventures take us into unusually structured societies which are fascinating to read about. Ultimately, as he reclaims his heritage on Terra and assumes adult responsibilities, he realizes that freedom isn’t about running off to follow his heart’s desire, but taking on the job he knows he needs to do in order to fix at least some of his family’s wrong-doings.

I had a great time reading Citizen of the Galaxy, although the final sections bog down a bit in untangling corporate schemes and dealing with the legal system. Still, this is a top-notch science fiction from an earlier era of sci-fi writing, and I appreciate the messages and themes tucked in amidst the fun and action.

It’s been ages since I’ve read any Heinlein, and Citizen of the Galaxy has sparked my interest in reading more.

Are you a Heinlein fan? Any favorites to recommend?

TV Time: Survivor, Season 44

Another season of Survivor has come and gone — and color me surprised, but this was a good one! While I felt fairly unenthused during the early episodes, by the back half of the season, I was all in.

Mainly, I think this is due to particularly good casting this time around. While the players eliminated in the first half have already completely been erased from my memory, the players who made the merge and beyond were, for the most part, interesting, entertaining, and full of surprises.

For the most part… there were still a few in there who made zero impression, but overall — great job, casting team!

Cast from SURVIVOR Season 44. — Photo: Robert Voets/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Survivor has been around a LONG time by now, and while the show continues to add new twists, some basics remain. There are challenges, there are alliances, there are players making overly orgasmic sounds when Jeff mentions food…

Fortunately, some of the most annoying gimmicks from past seasons were not included this time around — fire tokens, redemption island, the prisoner’s dilemma option. One fun new element this season was the appearance of locked bird cages with advantages inside — seeing the players frantically try to find keys, figure out their options, and either conceal or reveal their advantages was goofy and silly entertainment.

By the end, there was a core trio who worked their way from underdog status, outnumbered by members of other tribes, to running the game, and I loved them. Carolyn, Carson, and Yam Yam were delightful — solid alliance, really interesting and quirky people, and great game play.

Unfortunately, Carson lost the fire challenge, making him the final jury member rather than earning a seat in the final three. I would have loved to see these three (#TikaStrong #ThreeStooges) battling it out at final tribal, but sadly that was not to be. Instead, a player who I never particularly noticed, Heidi, ended up at the final, and the win went to Yam Yam.

I was mostly okay with the end results. I was a Carolyn fan all the way, and can’t believe she didn’t get a single vote. I liked Yam Yam, and had he not been up against Carolyn, I would have been excited for his win. I can’t quite figure out what the the jury was thinking, except maybe they didn’t see the amount of strategy Carolyn was applying day by day. The TV edit made it clear that behind her outbursts and kookiness, Carolyn was super smart and was on top of every element of the game, but who knows? Maybe the jury just didn’t get that from the tribal council sessions.

My main complaint about the current Survivor format remains the fire challenge — once it’s down to four players, the person who wins the final immunity challenge picks one person to make it to the final three, and the remaining two have to compete to see who makes fire faster. And that’s just a dumb way to have people get to the end.

In this season, Heidi won the last immunity challenge, and made the decision to give up immunity and build fire against Carson, giving Carolyn and Yam Yam seats in the final three. Heidi did this, apparently, to build her Survivor “resume” and show the jury what a great competitor she was. A couple of problems with this: She played a really lackluster game throughout — I never particularly paid attention to her, or noticed anything special about her strategy. She also chose Carson to go up against in fire building, and it was clear that all four of the remaining players knew he was weakest at fire.

So yes, you could call it a risk to give up immunity and do the fire challenge, except I’m sure she realized that Carson wouldn’t have much of a chance. If you want to really go big, battle Carolyn or Yam Yam!

As expected, Heidi won the fire challenge, and then was declared to have set a record for making the fastest fire in Survivor history. But… who cares? She kept bragging about it at the final tribal, but how does that matter? It’s one fire. What about the rest of the season?

Fortunately, the jury ultimately wasn’t impressed enough to vote for her (except for Danny, who was her closest ally all along), and the win went to Yam Yam. He’s terrific, and like I said, I’d be happy for him in any other season.

The winner of Survivor 44

Funny, all of my real life friends who watch Survivor were Team Carolyn all the way to the end, and we all were shocked at the outcome. I hope they bring her and Carson back for future seasons. Justice for Carolyn!

See the bottom of this post for more Carolyn love and some great news!

Re Carson, I loved his enthusiasm, his nerdy dedication to the game, and how much he blossomed playing the show. This is the engineering student who 3D-printed past Survivor puzzles at home prior to playing, so he killed it every single time he had a puzzle to do. Good for Carson — he was smart to give himself every possible advantage — but I hope Survivor now retires all past puzzles and starts fresh!

My #1 plea to Survivor production: Get rid of the fire challenge! It’s been done to death at this point, and is such an unsatisfactory way to determine who gets to the final. I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll just copy and paste my earlier thoughts on this here:

There’s got to be a way that’s better than a fire-making challenge for determining the final three. Maybe when it’s down to four, you have one person win immunity, then let the remaining three battle it out for the next two spots? Otherwise, the one who wins that particular immunity challenge gets an outsized amount of power.

I hate seeing weak players at final tribal, with great players voted out (or eliminated by fire) in the 4th or 5th position. I get it — you want to win, so you try to make sure you’re sitting next to someone you can beat. But wouldn’t it be cool to have three amazing players at the end, each with a really strong argument to pitch to the jury?

The fire challenge has to go. The tribes make fire at camp every single day. So making one fire on one day, faster than your competitor, doesn’t make you more deserving of the Survivor prize. It just means you got lucky that particular day.

If I wanted to dwell on a #2 complaint (which has nothing to do with gameplay), I’d say ditch the immediate reading of votes and the afterparty. Granted, it must suck to be a player and have to wait a year for the reunion show and reading of the votes, as they used to handle this pre-pandemic. Still, how can the finalists — especially the two who didn’t end up winning — get into the mood of the party when they literally JUST found out they lost, and they’re still sitting there unwashed and tired after 26 days? Let them at least take showers and put on clean clothes first!


All in all, a fun season to watch. Jeff Probst’s hosting remains terrific — I love his play-by-play narration of the challenges and the way he handles tribal council. The emergencies early on added some drama, and overall strong casting made this group really entertaining to watch week after week.

I still intend (at some point) to go back and watch one or two earlier seasons that I missed. Meanwhile, I’ll look forward to whatever fresh twists show up in season 45 this fall!

And now, back to the person I truly thought deserved to win this season…

Here’s a quick scene that shows just a little of Carolyn’s personality and quirkiness:

On the #JusticeforCarolyn front, it was welcome news to hear she’d received the Sia Award! (Sia is a huge Survivor fan, and awards money to her favorite player each season). This time around, Sia gave three awards — the biggie went to Carolyn ($100,000), with two smaller awards to Carson and Lauren ($15,000 each). Great choices, no question. Here’s Carolyn’s reaction to the news, being (as always) very Carolyn about the whole thing:

And here’s an entire piece on the glory of Carolyn:

Wrapping it all up:

Despite some unevenness early on, this ended up being one of the best Survivor seasons in recent years. As I mentioned, many of the folks voted off in early episodes are completely gone from my memory, but the second half of the season more than made up for an earlier duds.

The next season airs in September. As always, I feel pretty skeptical when I watch the trailer for the upcoming season — these always feel kind of samey. But, after the fun of season 44, I’m willing to remain open-minded and hope the casting pays off once again.

Book Review: The Russian Cage (Gunnie Rose, #3) by Charlaine Harris

Title: The Russian Cage
Series: Gunnie Rose, #3
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 23, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy / speculative fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris is at her best in this alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this third installment of the Gunnie Rose series.

Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third installment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire. Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he’s being held for murder.

Russian Cage continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris’ readers adore her for with romance, intrigue, and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire.

Call me hooked. I read An Easy Death, the first book in Charlaine Harris’s Gunnie Rose series, just a few months ago when my book group chose it for our January book of the month. Since then, I’ve been dying for more, and this month finished book #2 (A Longer Fall) and now, #3 (The Russian Cage).

For those not familiar with the series, the Gunnie Rose books take place in an alternate history in which the United States no longer exists, having broken up into a handful of separate countries in the early 1930s or thereabouts. Main character Lizbeth Rose is a gunslinger (a profession known as “gunnies”), a sharpshooter who works for hire protecting people or cargos, and using her wicked aim with a Colt when needed to carry out her job. At age 20, she’s wise and skilled beyond her years, and has had more than her share of adventures.

Lizbeth lives in the country of Texoma (the lands formerly known as Texas and Oklahoma), and her life has a distinctly Wild West feel to them. Her adventures in the past two books left her entangled with Russian magicians — grigoris — and here in The Russian Cage, the entanglement continues.

Our California and Oregon, in the world of Gunnie Rose, are the Holy Russian Empire, ruled by the Tsar and filled with an odd mix of Russian refugee descendants and former Americans. The HRE is the home base of most powerful grigoris — and Eli, the man Lizbeth loves, just happens to be one of these.

As The Russian Cage opens, Lizbeth receives word that Eli is in danger. He’s been arrested and imprisoned, but no one in his family seems to know why. Lizbeth is determined to do whatever it takes to set Eli free, and travels to San Diego, the HRE capitol, to carry out her dangerous plan.

Once there, she quickly becomes involved in unraveling the political forces at play, protecting Eli’s family, and ingratiating herself with the Tsar and Tsarina, among other crazy events. Lizbeth is determined to not just save Eli, but to ensure the safety of his entire family, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals.

The action in The Russian Cage is exciting and fast-paced, and I loved the mix of personal connections and perilous escapades that make up the bulk of the story. Lizbeth and Eli continue to have amazing chemistry, and their love story is the true payoff for this action/adventure story.

At this point, I absolutely have to continue! As soon as book #4 is available from my library — tomorrow, perhaps? — I’ll be diving in. I love the world Charlaine Harris has created in these books, and I adore the characters.

Up next: The Serpent in Heaven – #4 in the Gunnie Rose series

Book Review: The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Title: The Woman Beyond the Sea
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Translated by: Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Publication date: March 21, 2023 (originally published in Hebrew in 2019)
Print length: 413 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A mesmerizing novel about three generations of women who have lost each other—and the quest to weave them back into a family.

An immersive historical tale spanning the life stories of three women, The Woman Beyond the Sea traces the paths of a daughter, mother, and grandmother who lead entirely separate lives, until finally their stories and their hearts are joined together.

Eliya thinks that she’s finally found true love and passion with her charismatic and demanding husband, an aspiring novelist—until he ends their relationship in a Paris café, spurring her suicide attempt. Seeking to heal herself, Eliya is compelled to piece together the jagged shards of her life and history.

Eliya’s heart-wrenching journey leads her to a profound and unexpected love, renewed family ties, and a reconciliation with her orphaned mother, Lily. Together, the two women embark on a quest to discover the truth about themselves and Lily’s own origins…and the unknown woman who set their stories in motion one Christmas Eve.

Content warning: Suicide, rape, childhood neglect and abandonment

Sarit Yishai-Levi is the author of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an immersive novel about a Sephardic family in 20th century Israel, which has been adapted into an addictive Netflix series (and just when are we getting season 3???).

In her new novel, The Woman Beyond the Sea, we open in the 1970s with Eliya, a woman in her mid-20s who has been used and then dumped by her self-centered husband. Eliya completely falls apart, and her parents Shaul and Lily are at a loss about how to help her.

Lily herself is a strange and troubled woman. Abandoned at a convent as a newborn, she was raised by nuns with no knowledge of her past, no family and no connections. After running away from the convent as a teen, she bounces from one temporary living arrangement to another until she finally meets Shaul, a man who adores her and offers her a future that she never thought she’d have. But Lily, raised without love or family, doesn’t know how to trust or give love, and after experiencing a particularly harsh tragedy, is unable to raise Eliya with a mother’s love.

The cycle of strangled feelings and alienation continue until Eliya is able, after enduring her own psychological crises, to bridge the distance between herself and her mother. After great struggle, Eliya and Lily finally join together to understand Lily’s past and to search for the answers that have always been missing.

The Woman Beyond the Sea is quite intense emotionally, and the two women, Eliya and Lily, are not kind to themselves or to each other. It’s disturbing to see how much hurt they carry internally and the ways they hurt one another.

My reactions to this book are mixed. I loved the setting and the time period, loved seeing Tel Aviv through the characters’ experiences, loved the elements of culture that permeate the characters’ lives.

I didn’t love the writing style — although I wonder if some of this is a translation issue. Originally published in Hebrew, there are phrases and expressions that feel clunky or awkward here in English — but I know just enough Hebrew to pick up occasional moments where certain colloquial expressions in the original language might have felt more natural. (Sadly, I definitely do not have enough Hebrew to read an entire novel!)

Beyond the translation issues, the storytelling itself is not in a style that particularly works for me. Especially in the first half, chapters are painfully long (30 – 60 pages), and the narrative jumps chronologically within a character’s memories — so a character remembering her early married life will interrupt these thoughts to remember something from her school days, and then perhaps interrupt yet again for an earlier memory before coming back to the original set of thoughts. It’s confusing and often hard to follow, and kept me from feeling truly connected to the characters until much later in the book.

There’s a terrific twist and big reveal late in the book that really redeemed the reading experience for me and pulled me in completely. Truly fascinating, although I can’t say a single thing about it without divulging things better not known in advance.

Still, even this high point in the book is offset by some unforgivably cruel shaming and harsh judgments about actions taken to survive and situations outside of a character’s control. Again, I don’t want to reveal details, but I was really angered by the words used by certain characters and found their reactions totally unacceptable and awful.

Overall, there’s a compelling story at the heart of The Woman Beyond the Sea and I always wanted to know more. And yet, the problematic elements and weirdly structured storytelling left me frustrated too often to rate this book higher than 3.5 stars.

A note on content warnings: I don’t typically include these, but felt the topics of suicide and rape need to be called out in advance, for readers who are triggered by or prefer to avoid these topics.

Top Ten Tuesday: Things That USUALLY Make Me Want to Read a Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Things That Make Me Instantly Want to Read a Book. But I really don’t have any absolutes to share — there’s no secret formula that always works for me! So, instead, I’ll share a list of things that — most of the time — draw me in and make me at least consider reading a book.

  1. If it’s by a favorite author. This doesn’t work 100% of the time (sometimes I just won’t be interested in the topic of a new book)… but I’d say 90-95% for sure!
  2. If a favorite author blurbs it or mentions it in an interview or online post. Again, not always — but usually if I see that a go-to author is raving about a particular book, I’ll at least check it out.
  3. Cutesy bright cover. (For example, check out any of Emily Henry’s books!) I love books that look like they’ll be FUN… and if the cutesy bright cover also has books on it, even better!
  4. Books about books. Depending on the plot, of course, but I’ve yet to hate a book set in a bookstore or library.
  5. Colorful but creepy cover. Maybe dark background with overly lush flowers, for example? Something eye-catching but not necessarily comforting.
  6. Next in a series. This one’s practically a given. If I love a series, then OF COURSE I’m going to read whatever book comes next.
  7. Recommendations from people with excellent book taste. Whether real life friends or bloggers whose tastes seem to align with mine, these are the folks whose recommendations carry the most weight with me.
  8. Certain settings, especially places I love or dream of going. I’m thinking Alaska, Montana, Scotland… I could go on and on.
  9. A retelling of a favorite story. Not always, and the new version has to sound like it’s got a good twist… but I’m often down for a fairy tale retelling, or a twist on an Austen novel, or even a new version of a childhood favorite.
  10. A tie-in with a movie or TV series I’m interested in. This one can also drive me away (I hate movie tie-in covers), but if I see something popping up on Netflix that looks good and it turns out it’s an adaptation, there’s a decent chance I’ll read the book first before watching!

What makes you want to instantly grab a book?

If you wrote a TTT post, please share your link!

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/22/2023


My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.


Another quiet week chez moi, while some family members are away. I’ve been reading, watching TV, and doing puzzles to my heart’s content — but it’s still weird to have so much QUIET in my house.

What did I read during the last week?

The Poisoner’s Ring (A Rip through Time, #2) by Kelley Armstrong: Such a great read! There’s so much to love in this series about a detective misplaced in time. My review is here.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster: This was my book group’s classic read, which we read in small increments per week over the past several months. I suppose I’m glad to have read it, but can’t say that I loved the story or the characters.

Happy Place by Emily Henry: This book, on the other hand! Loved it. I listened to the audiobook, and it was wonderful. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

I finished season 2 of Sweet Tooth (Netflix) — I had my doubts early on about whether to stick with it, but ultimately, it had a satisfying season wrap-up. One more final season to go… but not until 2024.

I finally watched M3GAN, which was creepy and ridiculous — if you like horror, it’s not a terrible way to pass a couple of hours!

And then over this past weekend, I actually ventured out to a movie theater to see Fast X. If you’ve watched the Fast & Furious movies up to this point, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect… and you won’t want to miss it.

Book & author event:

Julia Quinn! Queen Charlotte!

A local bookstore hosted author Julia Quinn for a Q&A and book signing, and it was so much fun! The talk was really interesting, there were yummy samples of Bridgerton/Queen Charlotte-themed teas, and I got my book signed!

Fresh Catch:

Besides my shiny new copy of Queen Charlotte?

No new physical books, but a whole bunch of e-ARCs came my way this week:

Puzzle of the week:

Puzzles are back! I haven’t started a puzzle in almost two months… but this week, I finally opened up a new one, then got obsessed and finished it in two days. This is yet another wonderful literary-themed puzzle from Laurence King Puzzles. It was hard and challenging, and I loved it!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi: The new novel by the author of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. As of writing this post, I’m at about 80%, so I hope to wrap up today or tomorrow.

Next up: My book group’s pick for May — a throwback science fiction book, which is definitely a departure for us, and I’m really looking forward to it!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Russian Cage (Gunnie Rose, #3) by Charlaine Harris: Back to the Gunnie Rose series! These books are so much fun.

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

Since our group classic week just ended, I’m down to just one ongoing read at the moment! (My book group’s next classic read will be starting sometime in June… but it’s nice to have a bit of a break right now.)

  • Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon: Over at Outlander Book Club, we’re doing a group read of BEES, reading and discussing two chapters per week. Coming up this week: Chapters 128 and 129 (of 155).

So many books, so little time…


Book Review: Happy Place by Emily Henry

Title: Happy Place
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 25, 2023
Print length: 385 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Harriet and Wyn have been the perfect couple since they met in college—they go together like salt and pepper, honey and tea, lobster and rolls. Except, now—for reasons they’re still not discussing—they don’t.

They broke up six months ago. And still haven’t told their best friends.

Which is how they find themselves sharing the largest bedroom at the Maine cottage that has been their friend group’s yearly getaway for the last decade. Their annual respite from the world, where for one vibrant, blue week they leave behind their daily lives; have copious amounts of cheese, wine, and seafood; and soak up the salty coastal air with the people who understand them most.

Only this year, Harriet and Wyn are lying through their teeth while trying not to notice how desperately they still want each other. Because the cottage is for sale and this is the last week they’ll all have together in this place. They can’t stand to break their friends’ hearts, and so they’ll play their parts. Harriet will be the driven surgical resident who never starts a fight, and Wyn will be the laid-back charmer who never lets the cracks show. It’s a flawless plan (if you look at it from a great distance and through a pair of sunscreen-smeared sunglasses). After years of being in love, how hard can it be to fake it for one week… in front of those who know you best?

A couple who broke up months ago make a pact to pretend to still be together for their annual weeklong vacation with their best friends in this glittering and wise new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry.

Emily Henry’s books have become must-reads for me, and this deceptively bright-looking book is a total win.

From the eye-wateringly hot pink cover to the title itself, we readers might safely assume that this is a carefree, joyous, lighter-than-air book. Think again! While lovely and full of funny and sweet moments, there is also a great deal of sorrow, heartache, and heartbreak in this novel.

Harriet, Cleo, and Sabrina are the core of a tight-knit friend group, going back to their early college days, when the three very different young women became the best of friends. Over the years, their group expanded to include Parth (now engaged to Sabrina), Wyn (the love of Harriet’s life), and Kimmy (Cleo’s beloved). Even after their college glory years ended, the six stayed together through thick and thin, and no matter the geographical distances between them, they met up each summer at Sabrina’s summer house in Maine for a sun-splashed week of joy, laughter, and crazy adventures.

But now, everything is changing. Sabrina’s father is selling the house, and this will be their final chance for one last week there together. Harriet is shocked upon arrival to find Wyn there — the two broke up five months earlier but haven’t told anyone, and Harriet had understood that he’d stay away. She’s determined to tell the truth, until Sabrina and Parth announce that they’ll be getting married that week, just them and their best friends. How can Harriet and Wyn announce the end of their own seemingly perfect romance and put a downer on Sabrina and Parth’s wedding? They decide to fake it — they’ll pretend to still be together for the sake of the group’s happiness, then go their separate ways again once the week ends.

What could go wrong?

For starters, Harriet and Wyn clearly still love one another. Harriet is hurt and furious — Wyn dumped her over the phone without an explanation — but beneath that, she still loves him deeply. As they spend time together, it becomes clear that their relationship and break-up are much more complicated that we initially understand. There are layers of hurt, of misplaced expectations, and trauma and misguided self-doubt stemming back to their childhoods that get in the way, over and over again.

Beyond the romance, one of the best aspects of this book is the friend group and its changing dynamics. What happens when best friends grow up and grow apart? Can their closeness survive when their separate lives pull them in such different directions?

I loved how thoughtful this book is in its approach to relationships and friendships. It captures the reality of growing up yet wanting to hold on to the best parts of the past, and the challenge of finding new ways to relate as life pulls people in different directions.

The relationship between Harriet and Wyn is lovely and overwhelmingly sad at times. These are two people who love each other deeply, yet face the very real possibility that they just don’t fit together any more. I also felt Harriet’s career and future were handled quite sensitively, in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.

I may be making this sound very serious, but there are also moments of utter silliness and great joy, and the banter between the friends, as well as between Harriet and Wyn, is just so funny and amusing. There’s so much humor here, as well as the deeper emotional impact, making Happy Place a consistently enjoyable and touching experience.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the always outstanding Julia Whelan — and not surprisingly, she absolutely nails the characters’ voices and sets the right emotional tone for each scene.

What more can I say? Happy Place is a must-read.

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Ring (A Rip Through Time, #2) by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Poisoner’s Ring
Series: A Rip Through Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: May 23, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Edinburgh, 1869: Modern-day homicide detective Mallory Atkinson is adjusting to her new life in Victorian Scotland. Her employers know she’s not housemaid Catriona Mitchell―even though Mallory is in Catriona’s body―and Mallory is now officially an undertaker’s assistant. Dr. Duncan Gray moonlights as a medical examiner, and their latest case hits close to home. Men are dropping dead from a powerful poison, and all signs point to the grieving widows… the latest of which is Gray’s oldest sister.

Poison is said to be a woman’s weapon, though Mallory has to wonder if it’s as simple as that. But she must tread carefully. Every move the household makes is being watched, and who knows where the investigation will lead.

The Poisoner’s Ring is the 2nd book in Kelley Armstrong’s A Rip Through Time series, and while there’s a murder-mystery plot that’s complicated and compelling, I think a reader would be completely lost if they try to start here without reading the first book.

But the first book was great, so why not start at the beginning???

To recap as simply as possible, the plotof A Rip Through Time has to do with a modern-day detective who gets pulled through a rip in time while visiting Edinburgh and ends up in the 19th century. Mallory’s inner self now inhabits the 19-year-old body of housemaid Catriona… and she presumes that Catriona must be stuck inside Mallory’s body in the 21st century. (There’s a lot more to it, so check out my review for more details).

Here in book #2, The Poisoner’s Ring, about a month has passed since the events of the last book. Mallory hasn’t figured out how to get back to her own time, so she’s still stuck in a strange time and a strange body. Fortunately, Catriona’s employer, Dr. Duncan Gray and his widowed sister Isla know the truth about Mallory, and accept her. Even better, they’re both scientists, and they’re fascinated by what Mallory can teach them about advances in forensics and chemistry.

It’s an odd and consistently entertaining juxtaposition. Mallory finds herself about 10 years younger than her true age, in a much more delicate body, stuck wearing petticoats and corsets, yet in full possession of her true skills and knowledge. She has to learn to defend herself in this weaker, daintier body, and must learn to curb her natural instincts in order to fit in, at least on a surface level, in this Victorian setting. Chasing a perp down the streets just isn’t ladylike and is sure to attract unwanted attention… not to mention just how challenging she finds running and fighting in a corset.

The plot of The Poisoner’s Ring centers around a series of deaths that appear to be murder by poison. There are rumors of a poisoner’s ring — basically, an urban myth about unhappy wives referring one another to a source for illegal poison which they then use to kill their husbands. Since none of the victims appear to be connected, it’s a clever scheme… but Mallory isn’t buying it. As she, Duncan, and Isla dig deeper, they discover all sorts of secrets and misdeeds, but unfortunately, Duncan and Isla’s oldest sister ends up implicated as well. As the saying goes… now it’s personal.

This book is a delight, as is the first in the series. There’s something so completely delicious about having this 21st century detective mouthing off to her confidantes, with all of her modern-day attitude and know-how coming out of the mouth of a delicate young (and formerly illiterate and untrustworthy) housemaid.

The murder plot itself is complicated, maybe more so than really suits my reading tastes, but that’s more a matter of my preferred types of fiction than a knock against this book. After a certain point, I stopped trying very hard to keep all the various suspects and conspirators straight, and just enjoyed it for the sake of seeing Mallory in action, as well as the other main characters, who are also quite interesting and fun to spend time with.

I love Mallory’s dialogue and her inner thoughts — so amazingly out of place for where she finds herself. Her wry observations never fail to amuse:

The public house is, like most things in Victorian Edinburgh, both what I expect and not what I expect. My visual renderings of scenes like this all come from Hollywood, where’ I’m going to guess that — unless it’s a mega-budget movie — there’s a standard-issue “Victorian pub” on a soundstage somewhere.

… [T]here’s the boy just ahead of us, who has coming running from a shop a few blocks over, where he is employed to read the paper to the workers. They chip in to buy a newspaper and pay him a small wage to sit at a table and read aloud while they work. The Victorian version of a radio newscast… complete with child labor.

(I won’t give the context for this one, since it’s a bit of a plot spoiler, but I love the idea:)

It’s the Victorian equivalent of a deepfake.

The Poisoner’s Ring is a terrific 2nd book that builds on the promise of the 1st. Our main character continues to be a fish-out-of-water, surviving and thriving on her wits and 21st century know-how, stuck where she doesn’t want to be — but while stuck, making a life for herself. Because Mallory’s circumstances remain unresolved as of the end of this book, I can only assume that there will be more to come in this series, and I am here for it!

Highly recommended, and as I keep saying — starting with book #1 is a must!

Top Ten Tuesday: Things Getting in the Way of Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Things Getting in the Way of Reading.

I could probably just say REAL LIFE and leave it at that, but that wouldn’t fill up a top 10 list! So here we go — some specific reasons why I never end up reading quite as much as I’d like to:

1. Work. I mean, this one’s obvious. If only I had those extra 8 – 10 hours to do with as I pleased… just think of all the books!

2. Family time: Not that I mind! I love spending time with family.

3. Streaming: Netflix, I see you! I love my streaming habits, so I don’t regret the time I spend devouring good TV.

4. Blogging: It’s true — time spent blogging about reading means time not actually spent reading.

5. Jigsaw puzzles: I’ll go a month without taking out a puzzle, but once I start one, I’m pretty obsessive about working on it until I finish.

6. Other puzzles: I also have a subscription to New York Times games, so every day I need to do the daily crossword, the mini, Spelling Bee, and more.

7. Chatting with friends: Again, not that I mind! I usually listen to audiobooks during my walks, but that’s also a good time to catch up on phone calls and check in with people. Can’t do both at the same time.

8. Driving with others: Driving is my other prime audiobook listening time, but obviously, can’t do that when I’m giving someone else a ride.

I can’t really think of anything that truly gets in the way, so I’ll wrap up with:

9. Sleepiness: I always read in bed… but there are days where I just can’t stay awake enough to concentrate and have to give it up. Silly things like needing to sleep interfering with my reading habits!

10. Bad lighting: Just an occasional annoyance, but I can’t stand settling in at a coffee shop for a quick reading break, and then not being able to see the page in front of me!

What gets in the way of your reading?

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