The Monday Check-In ~ 5/15/2023

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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.

Life.

Photo by George Dolgikh on Pexels.com

I hope all the moms out there had a special Mother’s Day! Mine was great — my son and I spent the afternoon playing mini-golf. Very silly, very fun.

Other than that…

Things are very quiet chez moi this week, since some family members are away briefly — leaving me with much more time on my own than I usually have. What to do with all this solitude? I mean, the answer is obvious, right?

Books, books, books, gimme more books…

What did I read during the last week?

Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli: Sweet, positive YA. My review is here.

Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti: Let’s just say I had issues with this book. My review is here.

A Longer Fall (Gunnie Rose, #2) by Charlaine Harris: I’m enjoying this series way more than I expected to! My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

Queen Charlotte stole my heart! I loved it. Such a beautiful story, and such a great cast. I think this one will need a rewatch at some point, maybe while waiting for season 3 of Bridgerton.

On a dark note: For anyone watching Yellowjackets (which is so disturbing!), did you catch that the phone number for the wellness retreat was shown? If you want to hear something unsettling, you can call the number (607.478.1033) and see what happens.

Fresh Catch:

A few more new ebooks this week — an ARC and some Kindle price drops:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Poisoner’s Ring (A Rip through Time, #2) by Kelley Armstrong: I’m loving this time-traveling detective series! The first book, A Rip Through Time, was loads of fun, and #2 is a great follow-up. Hoping to finish in the next day or two.

Now playing via audiobook:

Happy Place by Emily Henry: I still have a lot to go, but I really like this!

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

  • 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 126 and 127 (of 155).
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster: My book group’s current classic read, also two chapters per week. We’re down to the last three chapters! I’m glad to be wrapping things up.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: A Longer Fall (Gunnie Rose, #2) by Charlaine Harris

Title: A Longer Fall
Series: Gunnie Rose, #2
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Fantasy / speculative fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris returns with the second of the Gunnie Rose series, in which Lizbeth is hired onto a new crew, transporting a crate into Dixie, the self-exiled southeast territory of the former United States. What the crate contains is something so powerful, that forces from across three territories want to possess it.

In this second thrilling installment of the Gunnie Rose series, Lizbeth Rose is hired onto a new crew for a seemingly easy protection job, transporting a crate into Dixie, just about the last part of the former United States of America she wants to visit. But what seemed like a straight-forward job turns into a massacre as the crate is stolen. Up against a wall in Dixie, where social norms have stepped back into the last century, Lizbeth has to go undercover with an old friend to retrieve the crate as what’s inside can spark a rebellion, if she can get it back in time.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse mysteries and Midnight, Texas trilogy) is at her best here, building the world of this alternate history of the United States, where magic is an acknowledged but despised power.

In the Gunnie Rose books, author Charlaine Harris has created an alternate version of the United States… in which the United States no longer exists. In this world, FDR was assassinated prior to being inaugurated as President, and in the aftermath, the US has split into separate countries. Main character Lizbeth Rose lives in Texoma, more or less where our current Texas is, and the US South is now the country of Dixie, where racism, sexism, and xenophobia are the norms — a place where Lizbeth has no interest in going, until she’s hired on for a job that will take her there.

Lizbeth is a “gunnie”, a gifted shooter whose sharp reflexes and dead-eye aim make her a valued member of any gun crew, typically hired for escort and protection work. After her last crew ended up dead (see book one in the series, An Easy Death), she’s found work with a new set of gunnies, and takes an eastbound train to bring cargo into Dixie.

Nothing goes as planned, naturally. The train rail is sabotaged, the gun crew is attacked, and the cargo is stolen. Lizbeth finds herself stranded in Dixie, until her former colleague and lover Eli shows up, also in pursuit of the same cargo. Eli is a “grigori” — a wizard of the Holy Russian Empire (formerly California and Oregon), a land ruled by the Tsar and protected by the highly skilled magicians who support him. Eli’s arrival shows that Lizbeth’s cargo is much more precious than she realized, and the two of them must work together to retrieve it, get it to its intended destination, and hopefully make it out of Dixie with their lives.

The world of Gunnie Rose

Once again, I truly enjoyed the world-building. Lizbeth herself is a Western-style gunslinger, but here, she’s thrust into a world that expects her to wear a dress and hose, defer to men, and be altogether proper and ladylike. The contrast is delicious, and it’s such fun to see Lizbeth’s discomfort and rebellion at these ridiculous sexist restrictions.

Meanwhile, Lizbeth and Eli have terrific chemistry, and it’s a delight to see them back together. Their work and their families destine them to have very different lives, but for the space of this adventure, they’re reunited and fully cognizant of the love and passion they share. They also make for great partners, having each other’s backs and getting one another out of impossibly dangerous situations.

Dixie is full of despicable racists, and the overall mission and the missing cargo relate to an attempt to kick off a rebellion and put an end to oppression. The cargo itself is a total MacGuffin — it’s a bit nonsensical, but as a plot catalyst, it keeps the action going full steam ahead and makes for some exciting sequences. Not all the events make a ton of sense, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing awful characters get exactly what they deserve.

The 20th century setting (mid to late 1930s, it would seem) can be a bit jarring. The story often feels like an old-timey Western, and something about the description of Dixie made me expect the women to be wearing huge dresses a la Scarlett O’Hara — I had to remind myself from time to time that these people live in an era of cars, indoor plumbing, electricity, and refrigerators. The contrasts make this series extra fun, like seeing our own history, but in a funhouse mirror.

I love Lizbeth as a character, and I love seeing new aspects of her personality and intelligence as the story progresses. I can’t wait to see where the story goes next! There are currently four published works in the series, with a fifth scheduled for release in fall of 2023. I’m definitely planning to continue, and hope to start #3 just as soon as the library’s copy becomes available.

The Russian Cage – #3 in the Gunnie Rose series

Book Review: Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti

Title: Advika and the Hollywood Wives
Author: Kirthana Ramisetti
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: April 11, 2023
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

At age 26, Advika Srinivasan considers herself a failed screenwriter. To pay the bills and keep her mind off of the recent death of her twin sister, she’s taken to bartending A-list events, including the 2015 Governors Ball, the official afterparty of the Oscars. There, in a cinematic dream come true, she meets the legendary Julian Zelding—a film producer as handsome as Paul Newman and ten times as powerful—fresh off his fifth best picture win. Despite their 41-year age difference, Advika falls helplessly under his spell, and their evening flirtation ignites into a whirlwind courtship and elopement. Advika is enthralled by Julian’s charm and luxurious lifestyle, but while Julian loves to talk about his famous friends and achievements, he smoothly changes the subject whenever his previous relationships come up. Then, a month into their marriage, Julian’s first wife—the famous actress Evie Lockhart—dies, and a tabloid reports a shocking stipulation in her will. A single film reel and $1,000,000 will be bequeathed to “Julian’s latest child bride” on one condition: Advika must divorce him first.

Shaken out of her love fog and still-simmering grief over the loss of her sister—and uneasy about Julian’s sudden, inexplicable urge to start a family—Advika decides to investigate him through the eyes and experiences of his exes. From reading his first wife’s biography, to listening to his second wife’s confessional albums, to watching his third wife’s Real Housewives-esque reality show, Advika starts to realize how little she knows about her husband. Realizing she rushed into the marriage for all the wrong reasons, Advika uses the info gleaned from the lives of her husband’s exes to concoct a plan to extricate herself from Julian once and for all.

Um.

What did I just read?

Last year, I read author Kirthana Ramisetti’s debut novel, Dava Shastri’s Last Day, and absolutely loved it. Naturally, when I saw she had a new book, I had to grab a copy.

Let’s just say expectations were high. So you can imagine the letdown when I realized that this new book makes no sense.

In Advika and the Hollywood Wives, 26-year-old Advika is mired in grief and loneliness two years after the tragic death of her twin sister Anu, especially once their parents, deep in their own mourning, pack up and move back to India. Advika is left alone in LA, working random bartending jobs to pay the bills and struggling to fulfill her earlier promise as a screenwriter. While tending bar at a post-Oscars party, her life is changed when five-time Oscar-winning producer Julian Zelding approaches her, instantly smitten.

A whirlwind romance, full of luxury gifts and romantic getaways, assuages Advika’s deep need to fill the void in her life, and within months of meeting him, she finds herself agreeing to marry this much older, very wealthy and powerful man.

Doubts creep in — hard and fast — when tabloids blast news about Julian’s first wife, recently deceased, whose will provides a $1 million bequest to Julian’s newest “child bride”, on condition that she divorce him. For Advika, this strange offer ignites a need to learn more about Julian’s three past marriages, and the more she digs, the more convinced she becomes of her need to escape his clutches.

Where to even begin to pick this all apart? Advika goes into the relationship and marriage with her eyes open, except when she’s being willfully ignorant. For example, Julian asks her early on not to Google him, so she doesn’t. Really? There’s no way it makes sense for this smart Millennial* not to do at least a drop of research on the older guy trying to shower her with money.

*For whatever reason — yet another thing that doesn’t make sense to me — the story is set in 2015, rather than now. I was going to describe Advika as Gen Z, but given the year the book is set, that would make her a Millenial. Same issues re technology and Googling apply!

Advika lets herself get totally wrapped up in Julian’s world and blocks out everyone she’s known previously — by her own free will. And as he attempts to control more and more of her life, and she suspects that her actions are probably being monitored by Julian’s household staff, she stays, and stays, and stays.

But really, Advika seems pretty okay with her marriage until the news about the first wife’s will comes out. She may not be in love with Julian, but she’s attracted to him and enjoys their affluent lifestyle. She interprets the first wife’s strange offer as a warning, basically Evie trying to save Advika, but honestly? I assumed that it was Evie’s way of getting a smidge of revenge on her ex by wrecking his newest marriage and exposing him to tabloid gossip. (It turns out that Advika is correct about Evie’s intentions, but that doesn’t mean it’s at all logical for Advika to jump to that conclusion!)

It’s as if Advika’s eyes are opened to the fact that she married a man she doesn’t actually know or love. As she researches his former wives, she uncovers some truths about how controlling he was in all of those relationships… but why does she need this research before making a move? Why, once she realized she was unhappy and wanted out, would she not simply have left? She was never a prisoner. She was never physically prevented from leaving their home. She’s be leaving behind all the money, jewels, and fancy cars, so is it just about the money? But that’s not how Advika’s struggle is presented — her life is depicted as if she’s trapped. IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!

There’s an epilogue with a totally obvious reveal… and that’s about it. Clunky writing, plot points that seem to be building toward much more dramatic revelations, pointless mention of people and items that seem like they could be clues (but end up not mattering), and awkward realizations about how she fails repeatedly to be a good friend — there’s just so much here that doesn’t work. The story tries to build tension around whether Advika is being followed and electronically monitored, and what really happened with Julian’s former wives, but ultimately, it mostly amounts to not much at all.

What a disappointment. This book feels unpolished and half-baked. Any initial sympathy for Advika evaporates quickly, and we’re left following a young woman who can’t make a decision and doesn’t understand the basic give-and-take of real friendship. I read Advika and the Hollywood Wives very quickly, mainly because I kept waiting to see when the big pay-off would appear. (It doesn’t.) So, I guess the most positive thing I can say is that it kept my attention… just not really for great reasons.

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Book Review: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

Title: Imogen, Obviously
Author: Becky Albertalli
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: May 2, 2023
Length: 432 pages
Genre: YA fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With humor and insight, #1 New York Times bestseller Becky Albertalli explores the nuances of sexuality, identity, and friendship.

Imogen Scott may be hopelessly heterosexual, but she’s got the World’s Greatest Ally title locked down.

She’s never missed a Pride Alliance meeting. She knows more about queer media discourse than her very queer little sister. She even has two queer best friends. There’s Gretchen, a fellow high school senior, who helps keep Imogen’s biases in check. And then there’s Lili—newly out and newly thriving with a cool new squad of queer college friends.

Imogen’s thrilled for Lili. Any ally would be. And now that she’s finally visiting Lili on campus, she’s bringing her ally A game. Any support Lili needs, Imogen’s all in.

Even if that means bending the truth, just a little.

Like when Lili drops a tiny queer bombshell: she’s told all her college friends that Imogen and Lili used to date. And none of them know that Imogen is a raging hetero—not even Lili’s best friend, Tessa.

Of course, the more time Imogen spends with chaotic, freckle-faced Tessa, the more she starts to wonder if her truth was ever all that straight to begin with. . .

Imogen, Obviously explores issues of friendship, allyship, and identity with all the humor and compassion you’d expect from a book by Becky Albertalli.

Imogen, a high school senior, has already decided to attend Blackwell College next year. It’s only a half-hour drive from home, but visiting her best friend Lili — a freshman — on campus for a weekend feels like entering another world. Here, Lili is out and proud, and has a super cool group of queer friends who welcome Imogen with open arms.

The one small problem is that Lili, trying to fit in earlier in the year, told the tiny fib that she and Imogen are exes, rather than lifelong best friends. Imogen has always been clear in her straight identity, as well as being the most devoted ally possible — so while she’s not entirely comfortable faking a queer identity for the weekend, she’s willing to go along for Lili’s sake.

As Imogen spends more time with Tessa, Lili’s dorm neighbor, she feels a thrill that she can’t quite pin down. It’s just the excitement of finding her place with this new group and feeling like she’ll fit in when she starts college in the fall… or so she tells herself. But what if it’s more? What if she’s not as solidly straight as she’s always believed?

I really enjoyed this zippy, sparkly book. Imogen is a thoughtful, kind, aware young woman who’s so cautious about causing offense that she holds back when it comes to considering her own truth. It doesn’t help that her other close friend, Gretchen, seems to want to keep Imogen boxed in as she identifies her, rather than allowing Imogen to question. (When a Pride Alliance meeting topic turns to movie crushes and Imogen names an actress, Gretchen scolds her for appropriation — it’s really harsh, and no wonder Imogen questions every feeling she has, wondering if she really feels what she feels or if she’s subconsciously just trying to fit in.)

Like, there has to be a chance I talked myself into this, right?

Gretchen’s lectures and Imogen’s commitment to being respectful and a great ally seem to have really done a number on Imogen. She’s been told (again, by Gretchen — ugh) how she always tries to be a people-pleaser, and maybe what’s she going through now is just one more example of trying to be everything to everybody.

Is that what’s happening? People saw me as queer for a week, and it stuck?

Imogen is a very sympathetic character, and I loved how positively and diversely her new circle of friends is portrayed. Thankfully, she still has Lili and her supportive family, who are there to see her through her soul-searching and struggles.

Ultimately, this is an upbeat book filled to the brim with positive messages. I love how it captures the excitement and nervousness of the transition from high school to college, and how the start of college can provide the opportunity to recreate oneself and find a new place to belong.

In the author’s note, Becky Albertalli talks about her own journey of self-discovery and coming out. It’s clear that Imogen’s story mirrors the author’s in many ways, which makes this book even more personal and touching.

Imogen, Obviously is funny, engaging, sweet, and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

Need some bookish excitement? There are TWO new October Daye books coming this fall!

Okay, I guess my header probably says it all…

I’m absolutely delighted to have stumbled across the news today that the next TWO books in Seanan McGuire’s excellent October Daye series will be released this fall.

Seanan McGuire is an incredibly prolific author (I swear, she either never sleeps or has a secret writing clone). In a typical year, there are new volumes in three ongoing series, and there are always other books coming out too — stand-alones, novellas, or features in anthologies (not to mention a new Patreon story ever month). As a devoted fan, I feel blessed!

But I guess I haven’t followed the truly important news as closely as I should have, because apparently this amazingness was announced over a month ago.

Book #17, Sleep No More, will be released September 5th:

The 17th novel of the Hugo-nominated, New York Times bestselling October Daye urban fantasy series.

October is very happy with her life as the second daughter of her pureblood parents, Amandine and Simon Torquill. Born to be the changeling handmaid to her beloved sister August, she spends her days working in her family’s tower, serving as August’s companion, and waiting for the day when her sister sets up a household of her own. Everything is right in October’s Faerie. Everything is perfect.

Everything is a lie.

October has been pulled from her own reality and thrown into a twisted reinterpretation of Faerie where nothing is as it should be and everything has been distorted to support Titania’s ideals. Bound by the Summer Queen’s magic and thrust into a world turned upside down, October has no way of knowing who she can trust, where she can turn, or even who she really is. As strangers who claim to know her begin to appear and the edges of Titania’s paradise begin to unravel, Toby will have to decide whether she can risk everything she knows based on only their stories of another world.

But first she’ll have to survive this one, as Titania demonstrates why she needed to be banished in the first place—and this time, much more than Toby’s own life is at stake.

And #18, The Innocent Sleep, released October 24th.

The 18th novel of the Hugo-nominated, New York Times bestselling October Daye urban fantasy series.

For one bright, shining moment, Tybalt, King of Cats, had everything he had ever wanted. He was soon to set his crown aside; he had married the woman he loved; he was going to be a father. After centuries of searching for a family of his own, he had finally found a way to construct the life of his dreams, and was looking forward to a period of peace—or at least as much peace as is ever in the offing for the husband of a hero.

Alas for Tybalt and his domestic aspirations, fate—and Titania—had other ideas. His perfect world had been complete for only a moment when it was ripped away, to be replaced by hers. Titania, Faerie’s Summer Queen, Mother of Illusions and enemy of so many he holds dear, has seized control of the Kingdom, remaking it in her own image. An image which does not include meddlesome shapeshifters getting in her way. Tybalt quickly finds himself banished from her reality, along with the Undersea and the rest of the Court of Cats.

To protect his people and his future, Tybalt must find the woman he loves in a world designed to keep her from him, convince her that he’s not a stranger trying to ruin her life for no apparent reason, and get her to unmake the illusion she’s been firmly enmeshed in. And he’ll have to do it all while she doesn’t know him, and every unrecognizing look is a knife to his heart.

For Tybalt, King of Cats, the happily ever after was just the beginning.

According to this article, the two books tell two different sides of the same series of events — one is from Toby’s perspective, the other from Tybalt’s. And I am so freakin’ excited! (Note: the article link includes an excerpt, which I’m not reading, because I don’t want to experience any of it in advance — I’m waiting to have these books in my hands!)

Anyone else bubbling over with joy right now???

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Recommend to Others the Most

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 Books I Recommend to Others the Most.

I feel like I have a tendency to rave about the same books over and over again (*cough* Outlander *cough*), so I’m going to make an effort in this post to spread the love a bit. My focus this time around will be books I’ve recommended a bunch in the last few years. How’s that for non-specific?

Here are my 10:

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

I read this book a long time ago, but I find myself recommending it at least a few times each year!


Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow

Believe it or not, the 23rd book in the series was just released this year! I love the characters and plotlines in this Alaska-based series so much… and yes, before you ask, you really do need to start at the beginning. It’s worth it, I promise!


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Not only is this book delightfully creepy, it’s also amazing on audiobook. In fact, this is the first audiobook that made me truly fall in love with the listening experience — something about the narrator’s delivery absolutely drew me in and wouldn’t let go.


A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

Such a weird and wonderful book! With a chapter for each day of the month of October, it’s easy to see why some people (i.e., me!) make an annual tradition of re-reading this book.


The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Actually, I recommend the entire Folk of the Air trilogy… a lot! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Holly Black, but these books really are special.


The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

For anyone who tells me that they’re too scared to try a Stephen King book, this is the one I try to push into their hands. His storytelling gifts shine in a fantasy tale just as much as in horror.


Emily Starr trilogy by L. M. Montgomery

I’m very, very late to the joys of L. M. Montgomery’s fictional worlds, and I’m trying to make up for lost time! I could easily recommend the Anne books, or The Blue Castle, or Jane of Lantern Hill… but for whatever reason, these Emily books just make me really happy.


The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I could put pretty much any book by this author on my list! I’ve loved them all — but The Calculating Stars really spoke to me and moved me. I recommend everything she’s written, but this is the book I consider a stand-out!


Well Met by Jen DeLuca

And now for something a little lighter! This series (4 books) is sweet and romantic, and I love the RenFaire settings. Great escapist romance — and who doesn’t need that every once in a while?


Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Not only is this the 1st in a terrific sci-fi series, and not only is the writing smart, funny, and engaging… but Old Man’s War is also the first book to turn my reading-averse teen into someone who wouldn’t put the book down, and then immediately demanded the sequel as soon as he finished it. And that right there makes this a book to recommend!


Have you read any of my recommended books? Which books do you recommend the most?

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

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/8/2023

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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.

Life.

Not much new! Lots of running around, a couple of sunny days with time to get outdoors, and a nice family dinner. Nothing to complain about!

What did I read during the last week?

Off the Map by Trish Doller: A sweet, adventurous romance that made me yearn for a good long road trip! My review is here.

Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan: Interesting, pleasant, not overly exciting novel about family members all getting fresh starts. My review is here.

Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli: I haven’t been reading much YA recently, but when this ARC came up, I had to give it a try. Really sweet, and I’m so glad I read it! I finished late Sunday, so I’ll share a review later in the coming week.

Pop culture & TV:

I finished The Diplomat on Netflix — and overall, I loved it! Lots of plot twists, an amazing cast… I’m so glad season 2 has already been announced.

I also started Jewish Matchmaking (Netflix) this week. It’s from the same producers as Indian Matchmaking, which is such a fun guilty pleasure. I was very hesitant about Jewish Matchmaking, afraid it would play into Jewish stereotypes and make me cringe, but after watching a few episodes, I really like it! Overall, there’s a respectful tone toward Jewish traditions and practices, and while some of the matchmaker’s clients are kind of awful, the show itself is really enjoyable to watch. (And I’m totally laughing at myself, because other than these shows, I have never ever watched a dating reality show.)

Next up: Queen Charlotte!

Fresh Catch:

I bought a travel book to plan a summer vacation (for some reason, I really prefer physical copies of travel guides over ebooks). I also grabbed a free book via Prime Reading and a book from my wish list that had a Kindle price drop this week:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti: I loved this author’s first novel (Dava Shastri’s Last Day), so I jumped at the chance to read her new book. I’m just getting started — high hopes that I’ll love this one too!

Now playing via audiobook:

A Longer Fall (Gunnie Rose, #2) by Charlaine Harris: The library happened to have this audiobook available for an instant borrow right when I was ready for something new to start. I really liked the first book in the series (An Easy Death), so I’m happy to jump back in and continue the series.

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

  • 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 124 and 125 (of 155).
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster: My book group’s current classic read, also two chapters per week. We’re down to the last five chapters! I’ve been enjoying it… but I’m also ready to be done.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan

Title: Late Bloomers
Author: Deepa Varadarajan
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: May 2, 2023
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

An Indian American family is turned upside down when the parents split up thirty-six years into their arranged marriage​ in this witty, big-hearted debut.

“Equal parts funny and heartbreaking, Late Bloomers is a charming story about starting over, stumbling, and finding yourself at any age.”–Jennifer Close, author of Marrying the Ketchups

I have a soft spot for underdogs. And late bloomers. You’ve told me a lot of things about yourself, so let me tell you something about me.

After thirty-six years of a dutiful but unhappy arranged marriage, recently divorced Suresh and Lata Raman find themselves starting new paths in life. Suresh is trying to navigate the world of online dating on a website that caters to Indians and is striking out at every turn–until he meets a mysterious, devastatingly attractive younger woman who seems to be smitten with him. Lata is enjoying her newfound independence, but she’s caught off guard when a professor in his early sixties starts to flirt with her.

Meanwhile, Suresh and Lata’s daughter, Priya, thinks her father’s online pursuits are distasteful even as she embarks upon a clandestine affair of her own. And their son, Nikesh, pretends at a seemingly perfect marriage with his law-firm colleague and their young son, but hides the truth of what his relationship really entails. Over the course of three weeks in August, the whole family will uncover one another’s secrets, confront the limits of love and loyalty, and explore life’s second chances.

Charming, funny, and moving, Late Bloomers introduces a delightful new voice in fiction with the story of four individuals trying to understand how to be happy in their own lives–and as a family.

Late Bloomers is the story of an Indian-American family struggling to figure out their paths in life after husband and wife Suresh and Lata get divorced. Their grown children, Priya and Nikesh, don’t particularly understand what’s going on with their parents, but they’re too immersed in their own complicated lives to fully engage or even ask.

Meanwhile, Suresh goes on one disastrous date (via dating website) after another, and Lata is considering going on the first-ever date of her entire life. While Suresh is astonished by all the lies people tell online, Lata is both amazed and intimidated when a nice man starts paying attention to her.

The story is set sometime in the past (iPhones and online dating exist, but people play music on CDs and watch DVDs) — so maybe 15 years or so ago? The lack of specificity actually made me a little nuts early on. Would it have hurt to stick a date on the first page of the first chapter?

Late Bloomers flows pretty quickly, but I never found myself all that engaged. It’s a nice enough story, but the biggest dramatic moment of the book is when an 8-year-old gets upset and runs away from a birthday party, and everyone has to go look for him. (Spoiler: He’s fine.) Chapters are narrated variously by Suresh, Lata, Priya, and Nikesh, and not all of them are equally likable or able to hold a reader’s (i.e., my) attention. Starting the book with a Suresh chapter feels like a mistake — he’s not pleasant to spend time with, and that made me drag my feet a bit about continuing.

Late Bloomers is a pleasant read — not exactly a page-turner, but interesting enough to want to see through. Of all the characters, Lata is the one who’s most endearing and whose future I felt most invested in. There are a few tangential story threads that are a bit weird (like the younger woman who moves into Suresh’s house for a pretty flimsy reason), but whenever the four main characters come together in their various combinations, the story picks up and is much more entertaining.

The novel shows four different people opening their eyes to new ways of being and thinking about their lives, after accepting the status quo for far too long. Whether it’s people in their 50s starting to date again, or their adult children reexamining their own decisions, Late Bloomers focuses on the possibility of personal growth and making big changes, no matter where in life a person is. Overall, the message is positive, although it takes quite a few mistimed conversations, evasions of truth, and heaps of the characters’ self-doubts to get there.

Recommended for when you’re looking for something domestic and on the non-stressful side to read. Save

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Book Review: Off the Map by Trish Doller

Title: Off the Map
Series: Beck Sisters, #3
Author: Trish Doller
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: March 7, 2023
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Carla Black’s life motto is “here for a good time, not for a long time.” She’s been travelling the world on her own in her vintage Jeep Wrangler for nearly a decade, stopping only long enough to replenish her adventure fund. She doesn’t do love and she doesn’t ever go home.

Eamon Sullivan is a modern-day cartographer who creates digital maps. His work helps people find their way, but he’s the one who’s lost his sense of direction. He’s unhappy at work, recently dumped, and his one big dream is stalled out—literally.

Fate throws them together when Carla arrives in Dublin for her best friend’s wedding and Eamon is tasked with picking her up from the airport. But what should be a simple drive across Ireland quickly becomes complicated with chemistry-filled detours, unexpected feelings, and a chance at love – if only they choose it.

Content warning: Loss of a parent, dementia.

Call me late to the party, but I only discovered Trish Doller’s loosely connected contemporary romance series a couple of months ago. After finishing Float Plan, I moved on to The Suite Spot as soon as I could, and here I am, just a few weeks later, to report back on book #3, Off the Map.

In Off the Map, the main character is the best friend of Anna from Float Plan. Carla works as a bartender at a cheesy pirate-themed restaurant in Fort Lauderdale during tourist season, each year saving up as much as possible to fund her true passion in life, world travel. During her time away from the bar, she goes wherever the road takes her, living on beaches or off-roading in her trusty jeep, enjoying flings but never making plans beyond the here and now.

As a child, Carla’s beloved father Biggie used travel as a way to distract his young daughter from her mother’s abandonment. Each summer, as soon as school was out, they’d hit the road for adventure and exploration. Biggie is a larger than life character, an ex-hippie and Vietnam vet who loves his daughter, his friends, and his music — but eight years before the story opens, Biggie was diagnosed with dementia. And his immediate response was to hand Carla the keys to Valentina (the jeep) and demand that she go off on more adventures, not wanting her tied down or forced to witness his decline.

As Off the Map starts, Carla has come to Ireland for Anna and Keane’s wedding. Keane’s brother Eamon is tasked with picking Carla up and driving her from Dublin to the small town where the wedding will take place. But that would be too straightforward! After giving into their mutual attraction and having an extremely enjoyable night together, Carla discovers that Eamon has never pursued his own dreams of travel and adventure, instead maintaining the steady, reliable existence his family seems to expect of him.

With Carla urging him on, Eamon revs up his classic Land Rover and the two set out for the wedding… but with plenty of detours along the way. As they travel, their connection deepens, and by the time they arrive at their destination six days later, it’s clear that this is way more than a fling.

Reading about Carla and Eamon’s escapades is quite fun (although it’s absolutely feeding the fire of my own wanderlust). I personally wouldn’t want to camp wild or go off-roading, but reading this book let me indulge my fantasies of traveling the world without strings or limitations.

The chemistry between the couple is immediate and fiery, but it’s not just hot sex (of which there is plenty; this book gets a steamy rating) — there’s also tenderness, intimacy, and prolonged kissing, just for the sake of kissing. I appreciated how the author depicts the growing trust and connection between the characters. Yes, their sexual connection is instantaneous, but it’s heightened and deepened by their personal and emotional connection.

Carla’s relationship with Biggie is complicated, and becomes the focus of the last quarter or so of the book, as she finally realizes that she needs to return home and be with him, whether or not that’s what he’s instructed her to do. Carla’s time with Biggie is sweetly and sensitively depicted, and I found it very moving.

Being a romance, Off the Map of course has complicating factors that seem to send Carla and Eamon in diametrically opposed directions before bringing them back together. The ending is lovely but bittersweet, and seems very fitting for the characters and their story arcs.

I enjoyed Off the Map very much (although Float Plan is still my favorite of the three books), and hope there will be more set in this world. The characters in the Beck Sisters books are wonderful, and I want more of them!

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Top Ten Tuesday: The First 10 Books I Randomly Grabbed from My Shelf 

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 The First 10 Books I Randomly Grabbed from My Shelf.

It was hard to be totally random, since I have a pretty good idea of where all my books live — but I made a valiant attempt to close my eyes, circle my arms around a few times, and then point!

Here are the 10 I landed on:

Lute by Jennifer Thorne

Read? Yes!
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? Absolutely gorgeous. (review)


You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Read? Yes!
Rating? 4.5 stars
Thoughts? A slim, affecting collection of interconnected stories about Army families. I read this before I started blogging, so I don’t have a review to share — but I highly recommend this book!


Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Read? Yes
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? Another pre-blogging read, and my 2nd Sarah Waters book (after Fingersmith, which is amazing). This one is terrific too!


Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Read? Yes
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? So powerful. A must-read. (review)


Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Read? No (not yet!)
Rating? n/a
Thoughts? I absolutely intend to read this book! I’ve heard such good things.


The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Read? Yes!
Rating? 3 stars
Thoughts? This is the 3rd book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy. I had very mixed feelings about the trilogy as a whole, and at over 800 pages, this book really required determination to finish. Still, I liked the overall story enough to see it through. (review)


The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Read? Yes
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? If you check out my review, you’ll see the word “beautiful” repeated over and over again — and I stand by it!


Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart

Read? Yes!
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? I’m surprised that I didn’t write a review at the time, but I know I loved this 2nd Kopp Sisters book, and have since read every book in the series!


The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Read? Yes
Rating? 5 stars
Thoughts? I picked up this hardcover edition years ago at a library sale, because my battered old paperback got lost somewhere between moves over the ages since I first read it. I intend to reread this book at some point!


Wings to the Kingdom by Cherie Priest

Read? No
Rating? n/a
Thoughts? This is the 2nd book in the Eden Moore trilogy. I own all three… and haven’t touched them yet, despite the years they’ve been sitting on my shelf. The covers are all amazing and ghostly, and I’m committed to reading them… eventually.


Spinning around the room and randomly pointing at books was strangely fun! (And a good reminder that I still have tons of unread books on my shelves…)

How did you do with this week’s random picking?

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