Romantic two-fer: The Wedding Party and The Flatshare, two contemporary romances to lift your spirits

Sometimes, light-sweet-cute-hot is exactly what a reader needs. Right? I had a terrific time this week reading these two contemporary romances…

Title: The Wedding Party (The Wedding Date, #3)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend

2. They hate each other

After an “Oops, we made a mistake” kiss, neither one can stop thinking about the other. With Alexa’s wedding rapidly approaching, Maddie and Theo both share bridal party responsibilities that require more interaction with each other than they’re comfortable with. Underneath the sharp barbs they toss at each other is a simmering attraction that won’t fade. It builds until they find themselves sneaking off together to release some tension when Alexa isn’t looking.

But as with any engagement with a nemesis, there are unspoken rules that must be abided by. First and foremost, don’t fall in love.

Maddie and Theo are successful professionals, both dedicated to family and friends, and both in need of love and companionship. Despite sharing a best friend, they manage to take an instant dislike to one another at their first meeting, and only tolerate each other for Alexa’s sake. But with Alexa’s wedding coming up, they’re forced to spend more time together, and after an initial, spontaneous, one-time-only sexual encounter, they’re both aware that their chemistry is off the charts.

It’s totally engaging and charming to see Maddie and Theo battling their attraction and reluctance to admit feelings, when it’s so obvious that their connection is deep and real. And though they keep insisting to themselves that this is physical only, with an agreement to stop hooking up once the wedding is over, it’s clear that Maddie and Theo make each other happy in a way no one else can.

The Wedding Party fits in with the author’s The Wedding Date series, as characters from the previous two books (especially Alexa and Drew from book #1) appear in this book. I think The Wedding Party could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, although it’s even more fun to see the connections established in earlier books continue here.

As with Jasmine Guillory’s other books, I’m occasionally frustrated by how much lack of communication contributes to the couple’s obstacles. They really should be better at this, considering what they do for a living! Still, the book overall is a really fun read, and I loved the characters, the adorableness of their relationship, and their smoking hot sparks. Can’t wait for the next book, Royal Holiday!

Title: The Flatshare
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 28, 2019
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Tiffy and Leon share an apartment. Tiffy and Leon have never met.

After a bad breakup, Tiffy Moore needs a place to live. Fast. And cheap. But the apartments in her budget have her wondering if astonishingly colored mold on the walls counts as art.

Desperation makes her open minded, so she answers an ad for a flatshare. Leon, a night shift worker, will take the apartment during the day, and Tiffy can have it nights and weekends. He’ll only ever be there when she’s at the office. In fact, they’ll never even have to meet.

Tiffy and Leon start writing each other notes – first about what day is garbage day, and politely establishing what leftovers are up for grabs, and the evergreen question of whether the toilet seat should stay up or down. Even though they are opposites, they soon become friends. And then maybe more.

But falling in love with your roommate is probably a terrible idea…especially if you’ve never met.

What if your roommate is your soul mate? A joyful, quirky romantic comedy, Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare is a feel-good novel about finding love in the most unexpected of ways.

Oh, this is just too cute. And also surprisingly touching and serious at times.

Tiffy is broke, newly single, and desperate for a decent place to live. Leon needs cash. A flatshare seems like a great solution — their schedules never overlap, so why not share this cozy, one-bedroom apartment? (Okay, for me, the sharing-a-bed piece would be a dealbreaker, but it seems to work for these two so long as Tiffy sleeps on the left and Leon on the right). As they start communicating via Post-It notes, they begin to get to know one another and to open up in all sorts of charming and quirky ways, and instantly establish a funny, easy rapport.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though. Tiffy is just starting to realize how emotionally manipulative and abusive her ex-boyfriend was, and Leon is devoted to helping his wrongfully accused brother win an appeal of the conviction that landed him in prison. As the book progresses, we explore more of each of these issues, and the author does a great job of presenting the turmoil and trauma involved while balancing the serious moments with the book’s overall light-hearted appeal.

The narrative shifts between Tiffy and Leon’s POVs in alternating chapters. Tiffy is exceptionally funny and delightful, and Leon is sweet, devoted, and somewhat shut off from dealing with his emotions. When they finally meet in person, they’ve already established a connection that binds them together, and the physical chemistry is just icing on the cake.

The Flatshare deals with some serious issues, but is overall a charming, sparkly romance that left me feeling uplifted and entertained, start to finish. Bonus points for some truly unique, stand-out characters and a really off-beat set-up!

Both of these books are nominated for the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Romance. I don’t usually think of Romance as “my” genre, but between these two books and three others I’ve read from the list of opening round nominations, I may have to own up to being a romance fan! (As well as a sci-fi/fantasy/horror geek, a devourer of historical fiction, and… you know what? Why bother with labels? I’ll read anything!)

Take A Peek Book Review: Winterwood by Shea Earnshaw

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From New York Times bestselling author of The Wicked Deep comes a haunting romance perfect for fans of Practical Magic, where dark fairy tales and enchanted folklore collide after a boy, believed to be missing, emerges from the magical woods—and falls in love with the witch determined to unravel his secrets.

Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

My Thoughts:

It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Practical Magic — I definitely got an Alice Hoffman vibe while reading this story. The language is very lyrical and has that tinge of magic that elevates it above ordinary storytelling.

Walkers cannot trust our own hearts — our slippy, sloppy bleeding hearts. They are reckless, stupid things. Muscles that beat too fast, that cave inward when they break. Too fragile to be trusted.

The plot itself has a really unique setting — an isolated lakeside community surrounded by forests that becomes completely cut off from the outside world once the snow starts to fall. Shades of The Shining, perhaps? In this remote location, Nora thrives in her own isolation, while keeping an eye on the camp for troubled boys across the lake. As her path collides with the boys from the camp, she becomes enmeshed in a mysterious event and its violent outcome. The ensuing events threaten everyone around the lake, even the woods themselves.

“Trees have a long memory,” I warn, my voice like gravel. The forest remembers who carved names into their trunks, with little hearts dug into the wood; who dropped a cigarette into a clump of dry leaves and scorched their raw bark. They know who broke a limb and tore off leaves and pine needles by the handful just to start a bonfire.

They remember. And they hold grudges.

I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because it’s best to just immerse yourself in the writing and let it flow over you, no preconceptions allowed! The romantic elements of the plot didn’t do much for me, but I did appreciate the interweaving of magic and nature, and a pretty cool twist that comes about 3/4 of the way through the story.

End note: Just being a geek here, but I do need to add that I kept having to remind myself that Walker is the main character’s family name. Every time Nora has a thought about “Walkers” (which is pretty often), I’d start picturing zombies… definitely not what this book is about!

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The details:

Title: Winterwood
Author: Shea Earnshaw
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: YA fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

Seattle, Washington
Larkin Bennett has always known her place, whether it’s surrounded by her loving family in the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest or conducting a dusty patrol in Afghanistan. But all of that changed the day tragedy struck her unit and took away everything she held dear. Soon after, Larkin discovers an unexpected treasure—the diary of Emily Wilson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As Larkin struggles to heal, she finds herself drawn deeply into Emily’s life and the secrets she kept.

Indiana, 1861
The only thing more dangerous to Emily Wilson than a rebel soldier is the risk of her own comrades in the Union Army discovering her secret. But in the minds of her fellow soldiers, if it dresses like a man, swears like a man, and shoots like a man, it must be a man. As the war marches on and takes its terrible toll, Emily begins to question everything she thought she was fighting for.

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

In this dual timeline novel, we follow two separate but interwoven and related threads. The main character in the contemporary timeline is Larkin Bennett, a US Army veteran who receives a medical discharge after being wounded in action in Afghanistan, now suffering from PTSD and the tremendous guilt she feels over the death of her best friend. And as Larkin explores her friends’ personal effects, she finds a family treasure — the diary of Emily Wilson, who fought as a man in the Civil War. Through these two remarkable women, we see devotion to duty and family, as well as the toll that war takes on a person’s soul.

Larkin’s story is moving and tragic. She was never happier than in service to her country, and felt a calling to the military. Her best moments were when she and her friend Sarah were side by side, whether in college, in training, or in Kandahar. But Larkin, when we meet her, is emotionally destroyed by her experiences, turning to alcohol to numb herself and drown out the memories that haunt her every moment.

Larkin’s family is supportive (can I mention how much I love her grandmother and cousins?), and they do what they can to help, but there’s just so much that Larkin has to process on her own, and she resists reaching out for professional help. Her growing obsession with Emily’s diary gives her a purpose, and the more she reads, the more determined she becomes to both tell the stories of military women and to find out more about the real Emily Wilson.

Meanwhile, Emily’s story is equally powerful. After her father and oldest brother ride off to join the Indiana regiment heading to support the Union cause, Emily is left behind on the farm with her younger brother Ben, expected to just wait at home and be content with “women’s work”. When their father is killed and their brother takes ill, they set off to go take care of their brother, and from there, they decide to enlist. Emily is both called to serve and determined to protect Ben at all costs, and together, they join their late father’s regiment and learn to become soldiers.

Emily takes the name Jesse and poses as Ben’s brother, knowing that she must keep her gender a secret. She finds that she’s actually good at soldiering, and starts to love the freedom that comes from being seen as male — the freedom to work, to speak her mind, to not hide her skills, to pursue what she wants.

She would never again settle for a life where her every action, even her thoughts, were controlled by someone else. From now on, no matter where life took her, she would live on her own terms.

The threat of discovery is always present, and the true meaning of going to war doesn’t really sink in until the regiment enters its first battle and Emily gets a close-up view of shooting at the enemy and being shot at.

The general shook his head. “I will not send you back to the field. You can no longer impersonate a soldier, do you understand me?”

Emily had to look away from his accusing glare. She had not been impersonating a soldier. She had been a soldier. “Yes, sir.”

The author does an amazing job of weaving together these two stories. Some dual timeline books feel forced, or as if one only exists as a frame for the other. Not so here. You know it’s a well-done approach when both halves of the story feel so compelling that you hate to leave each one to switch to the other. When an Emily section would end, I’d want more… but then I’d get re-involved in Larkin’s story, and couldn’t imagine wanting to read anything else but her story.

Kelli Estes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research into both women serving in the Civil War and into the plight of today’s veterans, especially the staggering rate of PTSD and suicide among women veterans. She provides a list of reference materials as well as information on support for veterans at the end of the book, and is definitely doing a great service herself by calling attention to the issues confronting today’s combat veterans.

She set the diary aside, thinking about Emily’s struggles. They were timeless. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, female veterans faced many of the same challenges that Emily did: being seen as inferior because of her gender, not being able to find work after being discharged from the military, earning less than men, becoming homeless.

Some of the social commentary is really spot-on, such as Larkin’s anger over the general lack of interest and awareness she encounters once back in the US. To Larkin, she was serving in Afghanistan to protect the United States, yet most Americans seem indifferent or unaware of what’s going on there and the sacrifices being made by American service men and women. Likewise, she is understandably infuriated when a clueless man, who spots her wearing an Army t-shirt, asks her whether it’s her father or her brothers who served, failing to recognize the very real service of hundreds of thousands of women.

Today We Go Home is beautifully written and is so very powerful. I tore through this book probably faster than I should have, because I just couldn’t get enough of either Emily or Larkin and had to know how their stories would turn out. The emotional impact is strong and real. By the end, I felt such sorrow for their experiences, and yet hopeful and uplifted as well. And while Emily’s story is set in the past, Larkin’s story has an urgency to it, knowing that brave men and women are still facing the unbelievable struggles that come with serving in war settings and then coming back home afterward.

Don’t miss this amazing book. This goes on my list of top books for 2019.

Other reading resources:

For more on women in the Civil War, I highly recommend two excellent novels:

  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (review)
  • Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall (review)

I don’t think I’ve read any other novels recently about contemporary women serving in the military, but I’d love some suggestions!

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The details:

Title: Today We Go Home
Author: Kelli Estes
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 401 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Middle Grade Book Review: Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Synopsis:

A violin and a middle-school musical unleash a dark family secret in this moving story by an award-winning author duo. For fans of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Hana’s Suitcase.

It’s 2002. In the aftermath of the twin towers — and the death of her beloved grandmother — Shirli Berman is intent on moving forward. The best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but is crushed to learn that she’s been given the part of the old Jewish mother in the musical rather than the coveted part of the sister. But there is an upside: her “husband” is none other than Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school.

Deciding to throw herself into the role, she rummages in her grandfather’s attic for some props. There, she discovers an old violin in the corner — strange, since her Zayde has never seemed to like music, never even going to any of her recitals. Showing it to her grandfather unleashes an anger in him she has never seen before, and while she is frightened of what it might mean, Shirli keeps trying to connect with her Zayde and discover the awful reason behind his anger. A long-kept family secret spills out, and Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.

My thoughts:

Broken Strings is a layered, thoughtful, and ultimately uplifting book about the power of family, memory, and music. Set only months after the terrible events of 9/11, the story follows Shirli and her middle school classmates, all of whom experienced some of the horror of living through 9/11, whether through images on TV, or seeing the towers fall from across the Hudson River, or having lost friends or family in the attacks.

Now, six months later, the school readies for its spring musical production, Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli is initially disappointed not to get the flashier role of Hodel, the daughter in the musical with the best solo, but she grows to appreciate her role as Golde, especially since it means spending hours working with the adorable Ben, who has the star role of Tevye, Golde’s husband.

Shirli knows from her parents that her grandfather’s parents’ families were originally from Eastern Europe and lived through some of the pogroms that took place in the time period of Fiddler, so she begins to ask him questions in hopes of better understanding the characters. And although she’s aware that Zayde survived the Holocaust and bears a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, he’s never spoken of his experiences to her or to anyone else in the family. But as she visits Zayde, little by little he begins to share the story of what happened to his family during the Holocaust, and why he has never played his violin or even listened to music in all the years since.

There’s so much to love about Broken Strings. First, it’s a sweet story about middle school friendship and crushes, about talent and hard work and ambition, and about dedication to one’s passions. At the same time, it’s about family, the power of love, and the devastation of loss and memories too painful to bring into the light of day. And finally, it’s about the healing power of sharing oneself and one’s stories, about making connections, and about rising above hatred to find common ground in even unlikely places.

The characters are all well-drawn and realistic, and it’s beautiful to see how Zayde influences those around him by reaching across divides and making friends. Shirli is a lovely main character, and I appreciated how well the authors show both her insecurities and her devotion to her friends and family.

Broken Strings is really a special book. Highly recommended for middle grade readers as well as the adults in their lives.

With special thanks to Jill of Jill’s Book Blog, whose wonderful review first brought this book to my attention. Check it out, here.

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The details:

Title: Broken Strings
Authors: Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer
Publisher: Puffin Books
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

Sam Brandis was Tate Jones’s first: Her first love. Her first everything. Including her first heartbreak.

During a whirlwind two-week vacation abroad, Sam and Tate fell for each other in only the way that first loves do: sharing all of their hopes, dreams, and deepest secrets along the way. Sam was the first, and only, person that Tate—the long-lost daughter of one of the world’s biggest film stars—ever revealed her identity to. So when it became clear her trust was misplaced, her world shattered for good.

Fourteen years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress, only thinks about her first love every once in a blue moon. When she steps onto the set of her first big break, he’s the last person she expects to see. Yet here Sam is, the same charming, confident man she knew, but even more alluring than she remembered. Forced to confront the man who betrayed her, Tate must ask herself if it’s possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason… and whether “once in a lifetime” can come around twice.

With Christina Lauren’s signature “beautifully written and remarkably compelling” (Sarah J. Maas, New York Times bestselling author) prose and perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner, Twice in a Blue Moon is an unforgettable and moving novel of young love and second chances.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners and the “delectable, moving” (Entertainment WeeklyMy Favorite Half-Night Stand comes a modern love story about what happens when your first love reenters your life when you least expect it…

If you’d checked in with me a year ago, I would have told you that I’d never read anything by the author duo Christina Lauren. Flash forward to the present, and I’ve now finished my 6th novel by them — and it won’t be my last!

Twice in a Blue Moon is such a sweet, engaging love story. We start off fourteen years in the past, as 18-year-old Tate takes a rare vacation with her grandmother to spend two whole weeks in London after Tate’s high school graduation. Tate lives in a  small Northern California town with her mother and grandmother, and has never been anywhere! She’s thrilled at the idea of the adventure ahead of them, especially knowing that this trip is a total splurge for her grandmother.

And then, they meet Sam, a 21-year-old Vermont farm boy traveling with his grandfather Luther. In a switch worthy of A Room With a View, Tate’s grandma is vocally unhappy about their street-view hotel room, so Luther gallantly offers the women a trade. As the four chat, they find lots of common ground, and become travel buddies, enjoying the sights of London together.

And unbeknownst to the grandparents, Sam and Tate have also been sneaking out at night to hang out in the secluded hotel gardens, stargazing and sharing secrets. Tate has a whopper of a secret to share, one that she’s never told anyone: She’s secretly the daughter of Ian Butler, only THE biggest star in Hollywood (I’m thinking Brad Pitt-level superstar), but ever since her mom left her dad when she was 8 years old, Tate has had no contact with him. And while it’s been burned into Tate’s every waking moment that this is a secret that can’t ever be told, she trusts Sam so deeply that she shares the entire story with him… as the two fall deeply into an all-consuming first love.

Of course, it all comes crashing down when Tate discovers that Sam and Luther have checked out of the hotel early, and she proceeds to go outside only to be mobbed by papparazzi. The quiet, anonymous life Tate has treasured is over, and her heart is shattered by Sam’s betrayal.

The story picks up in the present, 14 years later, as 32-year-old Tate, now a successful Hollywood actress, is about to begin filming the movie that may final propel her career from supernatural/action genres into award-level recognition. Plus, the new movie is the first time Tate will be making a movie with her father, and the press is just eating it up. but when she arrives on location, she sees that the screenwriter is none other than Sam, the man who broke her heart so long ago. Tate has to figure out how to pull herself together in her most important career moment without causing a scandal or reverting back into the helpless teenager she left in her past.

Ah, such a terrific story! I think I loved the teen sections even more than the parts about grown-up Tate and Sam. For the first ten chapters, we’re living through a story of first love, and it’s gorgeous. The authors capture the highs and lows of falling in love for the first time, showing the sparks, the wonder, the uncertainty, and then the joy of realizing that feelings are reciprocated, knowing that a connection exists unlike anything else, and feeling so sure that it’s the right time to venture into a physical relationship. All of Tate’s emotions felt spot-on, and I really believed her thought processes as well as the chemistry with Sam and her worries about her future.

I enjoyed the adult storyline as well, but connected with it perhaps a little less. After all, it’s hard to really understand the pressures of a Hollywood star if you’re not actually a part of that world, whereas the ups and downs of first love is pretty universal, I think. Still, the story of the movie-making process, Tate’s emotional investment in the role, and the truth about Sam’s past and his betrayal are all fascinating. I loved the plot of the movie they were filming, and wish the real-life equivalent existed!

Tate’s father is such a piece of work — such a self-involved ass who lives for the camera, and who values his renewed relationship with Tate in exact proportion to the amount of positive press and trending social media posts it generates. And while I kept trying to picture Ian as Brad Pitt or someone of similar star wattage, I couldn’t keep Aaron Echolls out of my mind — the character played by Harry Hamlin on Veronica Mars (my recent obsession), whose personality seems very much in line with Ian’s!

Twice in a Blue Moon is a lovely, funny, emotional read — and while I’m not typically drawn to Hollywood stories, this one had enough grounding in everyday human experiences and emotions to make it relatable and real. Highly recommended! At this point, I will definitely read whatever these authors write next.

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The details:

Title: Twice in a Blue Moon
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the deeply-buried truths about themselves. Equal parts classic horror novel and original fairytale, The Bone Houses will have you spellbound from the very first page.

My Thoughts:

Before picking up The Bone Houses, my thoughts were (a) pretty cover!! and (b) yet another zombie story. Well, I was correct about the cover, but The Bone Houses is far from an ordinary book about zombies! In fact, I’d classify this more as a fantasy story than horror, because while there are dead who rise, the story is really about the magical elements and the legacy left behind by the departed fae rulers of the land.

Ryn is a marvelous lead character, strong and dedicated to her family, not afraid to use her axe to defend her town and the people she loves from the dead who rise by night and come into the village. But why are the dead walking, and what do they want? These aren’t your horror movie zombies — there’s no chowing down on the living, for one thing. And while Ryn initially believes that they’re all on the attack, she soon learns that there’s more to them then meets the eye.

Once Ellis arrives, he and Ryn form a partnership to discover what’s really going on and find a way to stop it. There’s more to Ellis’s story than is apparent at first, and as he and Ryn share their stories, both trust and deeper feelings develop between them.

To love someone was to lose them. Whether it was to illness or injury or the passage of time.

It was a risk, to love someone. To do so with the full knowledge that they’d leave someday.

Then to let go of them, when they did.

I loved this book! The magical elements are well done, and there are some ruminations on life and death and the meaning of it all that are quite lovely. Plus, lots of terrific surprises and some truly scary action moments. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The Bones Houses
Author: Emily Lloyd-Jones
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Length: 353 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror/YA
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Ivy and her sisters have a secret: their reclusive Great-Aunt is actually Adela Martin, inspired author of the fantasy classic, Ivory Apples. Generations of obsessive fans have searched for Adela, poring over her letters, sharing their theories online, and gathering at book conventions. It is just a matter of time before one fan gets too close.

So when the seemingly-perfect Kate Burden appears at the local park, Ivy knows that something isn’t right. Kate has charmed the entire family, but she is suspiciously curious about Ivory Apples. And Ivy must protect what she and her Great-Aunt share: magic that is real, untamable, and—despite anyone’s desire—always prefers choosing its own vessel.

My Thoughts:

In Ivory Apples , four young sisters end up at the mercy of an outsider who charms her way into their family and then takes over. Kate is a clever but overly obsessed fan of the classic children’s fantasy book Ivory Apples — not just because she loves the story, but because she suspects that the author, Adela Martin, had access to real magic as she wrote the book, and Kate wants some of her own.

Oldest sister Ivy is the only one not fully taken in by Kate’s schemes, and breaks away from the family in order to keep her aunt’s secrets, only to return in desperation when she realizes that her sisters need rescuing. Meanwhile, Kate is right about one thing — there IS a source of real magic, and Adela and Ivy both have access to it.

I enjoyed the family dynamics and Ivy herself, as well as the central role played by the book Ivory Apples and its secrets. Not all of the magical aspects made complete sense to me, and the sense of urgency throughout lagged from time to time. Still, the book is different and unusual in all sorts of ways, and Kate makes for a devious and menacing bad guy beneath her pleasant and child-friendly exterior. I’d definitely like to read more by this author.

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The details:

Title: Ivory Apples
Author: Lisa Goldstein
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Ghoster by Jason Arnopp

Jason Arnopp – author of acclaimed cult hit The Last Days of Jack Sparks – returns with a razor-sharp thriller for a social-media obsessed world. Prepare to never look at your phone the same way again . . .

Kate Collins has been ghosted.

She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty apartment. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared.

Except for his mobile phone.

Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his calls, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself.

That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. Scratch marks on the walls that she can’t explain. And the growing feeling that she’s being watched.

Kate refuses to leave the apartment – she’s not going anywhere until she’s discovered what happened to Scott. But the deeper she dives into Scott’s digital history the more Kate realizes just how little she really knows about the man she loves.

SMART PHONES BAD.

That seems to be the thesis statement of this horror novel in a nutshell.

Smartphones, and people’s obsession with them, may literally be the root of all evil.

Kate is a successful paramedic who has only recently kicked a very nasty smartphone habit. She finally recognized that she was addicted to stalking exes through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and hooked on the mini-highs caused by the dopamine rush she gets each time someone likes her posts or tweets.

And then she meets Scott, someone she first noticed on Tinder, who shows up in the flesh at a digital detox retreat she attends. Their connection is instant and powerful, and Kate is swept up in a fast-moving romance with this hot guy who seems too good to be true.

And ya know… if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

After an intense few months, Scott asks Kate to move in with him, and she delightedly agrees, giving up her job and apartment and moving hours away to live with him in Brighton. But when she arrives, he’s not there, and his apartment is completely empty. Except… she finds his smartphone, and her old obsession kicks back in, leaving her no room for any other thought but cracking Scott’s password and seeing what his phone can tell her about him and where he might have gone.

But this goes beyond a woman being ghosted by a skanky boyfriend. Weird stuff is happening — like ghostly blue figures who show up in the apartment in the middle of the night, and strange phone calls on Scott’s phone warning Kate to get out. Kate can’t shake the conviction that there’s more to the story than just being cruelly dumped, so she keeps digging, to such an extent that it’s affecting her new job (okay, among other things, she shoots up amphetamines so she can stay awake for her 12-hour ambulance shifts), and her best friend Izzy has to swoop in to pull her back from the edge.

As Kate digs into Scott’s phone, she discovers creepy images and disturbing videos, evidence of his pursuit of other women, and connections to other people who may have also disappeared. And the more Kate digs, the weirder and more disturbing and dangerous it all becomes.

Ghoster is a fast read that drew me in from the beginning… but I didn’t really think it was all that great a read. Sure, it’s entertaining and never dull, but it’s awfully preachy about the downfalls of social media and the need for approval online. And I just had a problem with Kate as a character. She simply didn’t feel real to me at all. Her attitudes, her habits, her social media usage, the way she speaks — none of it felt authentic to me. On top of that, Kate is just hard to like as a person. She makes terrible choices and is a pretty lousy and irresponsible friend.

On top of all that, the reveals we get late in the book about Scott’s inner truths and the key to his personality and behavior seems like revisionist history. We’re led to believe one version of Scott, and it turns out that he’s quite different than first presented. A twist like that can be a good thing, but in this case, I didn’t find it believable.

As for the supernatural aspects of the story, it’s a neat twist, but not as well developed as I would have liked, and too many of the odd occurrences end up having fairly pat, mundane explanations.

I realize this sounds like a pretty negative review, but if I had to assign a numerical rating, I’d give this book 3 stars. Ghoster definitely held my interest and kept me turning the pages, despite the simplistic point it seems to be making about our society’s dependence on social media and the character/plot elements that bugged me.

I’d be interested in hearing opposing views from other readers!

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The details:

Title: Ghoster
Author: Jason Arnopp
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: ARC received from the publisher

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

When it comes to crafting stories about kids in creepy peril, Stephen King is… well… king.

The Institute doesn’t start the way you think it will — no mention of main character Luke or the Institute itself for about 50 pages. Instead, we meet Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop from Florida who sets out hitchhiking without a whole lot of purpose and winds up in a small town in South Carolina, where he joins the local sheriff’s department as a night knocker, sort of an unarmed watchman position. Eventually, Tim feels like he’s possibly, finally found a home and a new meaning for his life in this little town.

And that’s the last we see of Tim for a few hundred pages.

The main focus of the story is introduced when we meet Luke, a brilliant 12-year-old about to start MIT, whose incredible mental abilities come with a side of very mild telekinetic power. It’s his telekinetics, rather than his brain power, that make him a target for the Institute and land him in this isolated facility in Maine. The children at the Institute are put through a barrage of shots and sinister tests, all designed to enhance their TP (telepathy) and (TK) telekinesis. During their free time, the kids can hang out, basically keep whatever hours they choose, and do whatever they want, including drinking and smoking. In fact, drinking and smoking are encouraged, since the kids earn vending machine tokens through good behavior, and an addiction is a marvelous motivation to keep earning those tokens.

The purpose of the Institute is slowly revealed, but long before we learn why they’re doing what they’re doing, we know enough to know it’s bad. The treatment of the kids is horrific. They’re subjected to physical and emotional torture and abuse, and there’s very little concern about whether the kids are actually healthy, so long as their TP and TK abilities are honed and developed.

I’m not going to go too far into plot here — as with most Stephen King books, it’s best to just read it and put the pieces together as you go along.

So is The Institute a must-read? Well, for King fans, absolutely. It’s not skin-crawling horror like his recent book The Outsider, but it is still chilling and disturbing and creepy. That said, the book is a bit long, and takes a while to really get going. It took me two false starts before I really got into it, hitting stumbling blocks with the sudden transition from a story about an adult in South Carolina to the main story about the kidnapped children. Ultimately, it comes together and the story really works, but I think there are places where the action could have moved forward a little more quickly.

If you enjoy King’s writing, you’ll enjoy The Institute. As for me, as I always love when Stephen King references himself (and with over 60 novels in print, he has a lot of source material to choose from!). Here’s one example from The Institute that made me happy:

Back in the main corridor — what Luke now understood to be the residents’ wing — the little girls, Gerda and Greta, were standing and watching with wide, frightened eyes. They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie.

Good stuff.

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The details:

Title: The Institute
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 561 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

Aubiobook Review: The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it

Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it–or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina’s side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she’s ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn’t know won’t hurt her…

As Raina’s life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother’s dreams.

My Thoughts:

The Matchmaker’s List had been on my to-read list for a while, and after a few heavier books, I thought this would make a nice, light change of pace. And yes, it did, but it was also frustrating and ultimately disappointing.

In The Matchmaker’s List, Raina is 29 years old, a serious career woman — an investment banker — coming off a break-up with the love of her life. Dev is another investment banker, hard-driven in a way that Raina isn’t, and always puts his career ahead of their relationship. Raina is so blinded by love that she puts up with it, until she just can’t any more. As the book starts, Raina is living back in Canada after her time in London with Dev has ended, single, and devoted to her grandmother Nani, the woman who raised her.

Raina’s best friend Shay is newly engaged, and Shay’s mother Sarla is planning the ultimate Indian wedding bonanza. Nani just wants to see Raina settled as well, so she convinces Raina to go on a series of blind dates with suitable men from Nani’s list. The men are, for the most part, duds — arrogant or looking for an insta-mommy to their kids or just plain strange, and Raina is so not into it.

It’s a fairly cute set-up so far, right? Raina wants to please her Nani, and she’s not having any romantic success on her own, so why not try some traditional matchmaking? Except Raina is still hung up on Dev, who stays in touch just enough to keep Raina on the hook.

And here’s where I got really turned off by Raina’s character: After a misunderstanding, Raina lets Nani think she’s gay. In fact, she confirms it, thinking it’ll stay between the two of them and keep Nani from pursuing even more extreme measures to find her a prime Indian man to marry. Of course, it doesn’t stay between them, and soon, the entire Indian community knows the “truth” about Raina, causing a huge amount of scandal and division, and leading to Nani being shunned by the women she used to be friends with.

Still, Raina keeps up the fiction, even when she sees that Nani has been browsing the internet to learn more about gay rights and how to support one’s gay chldren, even investigating reproductive options for lesbian couples. Yup, Nani is ready to become a gay rights activist in defense of her beloved Raina. Raina still doesn’t back down — not even when the boy she used to babysit, now 18 years old, uses Raina’s “coming out” as inspiration for his own, pushing him out of the closet before he’s really ready and causing a huge rift within his family.

On top of Raina’s ongoing lie, which feels like a cop-out to me, so unnecessary and causing so much drama and tension, she just doesn’t strike me as a particularly good friend or nice person. When Shay mentions that she’d like to introduce Raina to one of her fiancé’s friends who’s just back from traveling the world for the past few years, Raina labels him a drifter and dismisses him — and when she meets him, she immediately decides he’s a stoner with no real evidence to support her conclusion, and continues to refer to him that way to his face even during additional encounters. Judgmental much?

What seems the most unforgivable to me is the huge fight she and Shay have during Shay’s bachelorette weekend, when Shay hears from Sarla that Raina is a lesbian. Shay knows that that’s a lie, and confronts Raina, and the two end up in a screaming match, during which Raina says this awful thing to Shay:

“I wonder if Julien would still marry you if he knew what a slut you used to be.”

Really? Slut-shaming her best friend? And threatening her this way? Just disgusting.

As is the way with what’s supposed to be a breezy romantic story, things of course work out for Raina and she ends up meeting the man of her dreams, getting the awful ex-boyfriend out of her life, telling the truth to Nani, and making up with the boy who came out because of her and felt horribly betrayed. And of course, she and Shay make up and are closer than ever, with Shay supporting Raina every step of the way.

And really, I just couldn’t. How could Shay possibly forgive Raina after the horrible thing she said? I’m sorry, I don’t care how angry Raina was (without justification, I might add) — I think her actions and statements were pretty unforgivable.

Also, by allowing Nani to believe she was gay, she thrust her unprepared grandmother into a controversy that caused her all sorts of grief and turmoil. Raina later seems to be using the experience to show how sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in terms of being loved and supported by one’s family and community, but it felt like co-opting someone else’s struggle. Raina, a straight woman, pretending to be a lesbian for her own convenience, and somehow holding herself up as a symbol of pride and equality? No.

I wish I could say the story itself is charming enough to get me to see past these issues, but it’s not. It wasn’t a slog to get through or anything — the narrative moves along quickly, and there are plenty of amusing incidents and vignettes that keep the pace going. Nani is a great character, and I enjoyed the sections that showed the complications of Raina’s childhood, her mother’s life, and the backstory for her relationship with Nani.

The cultural elements are also quite good — I loved getting the little snippets about Raina cooking with Nani or enjoying their favorite Bollywood movies together, as well as the customs surrounding a traditional Hindu wedding, and can only imagine how spectacular it might be to actually be there and experience the gorgeous clothing and amazing tastes and sounds and smells.

Still, that doesn’t outweigh how offensive I found so many of Raina’s actions. I’d love to hear opposing thoughts, of course. But for myself, I can’t really recommend this book, despite its occasional amusing and entertaining parts.

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The details:

Title: The Matchmaker’s List
Author: Sonya Lalli
Narrator:  Soneela Nankani
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library