Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

Title: The Honey-Don’t List
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: March 24, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Carey Duncan has worked for home remodeling and design gurus Melissa and Rusty Tripp for nearly a decade. A country girl at heart, Carey started in their first store at sixteen, and—more than anyone would suspect—has helped them build an empire. With a new show and a book about to launch, the Tripps are on the verge of superstardom. There’s only one problem: America’s favorite couple can’t stand each other.

James McCann, MIT graduate and engineering genius, was originally hired as a structural engineer, but the job isn’t all he thought it’d be. The last straw? Both he and Carey must go on book tour with the Tripps and keep the wheels from falling off the proverbial bus.

Unfortunately, neither of them is in any position to quit. Carey needs health insurance, and James has been promised the role of a lifetime if he can just keep the couple on track for a few more weeks. While road-tripping with the Tripps up the West Coast, Carey and James vow to work together to keep their bosses’ secrets hidden, and their own jobs secure. But if they stop playing along—and start playing for keeps—they may have the chance to build something beautiful together…

From the “hilariously zany and heartfelt” (Booklist) Christina Lauren comes a romantic comedy that proves if it’s broke, you might as well fix it. 

I’ve been a fan of author duo Christina Lauren since I first encountered one of their books a couple of years ago. They specialize in bright, contemporary romances, typically between characters who are forthright, professional, and looking for that special someone (even if they don’t always think they are).

The Honey-Do List fits the pattern, and is a charming but light-weight addition to their work. Carey and James are clearly destined for one another, despite their mutual animosity and resentment at the start of the story. They find one another pushy and annoying, and Carey is so over James’s insistence that he’s an engineer while he’s clearly filling the role of gopher/all-around assistant.

Their bosses, Melly and Rusty, are self-obsessed celebrities who built a brand on their adorable chemistry and star-power marriage, but behind the scenes, they’re bitter and angry and barely in control of their hostility. The success of their upcoming book tour and new Netflix series rests on them presenting a united, cheerful, loving front, but Carey and James face an uphill battle trying to get them to comply.

Meanwhile, Carey and James are just naturally drawn together, slowly building trust and sharing secrets while also giving in to their crazy attraction for one another.

You’ll want to slap Melly, and to give Carey a good shake and tell her to wake up and assert herself and own her talents and contributions to the Tripps’ success. There’s of course a misunderstanding that seems like it’ll sink Carey and James’s new relationship, but honestly, if you’ve ever read a romance before, then you’ll have no doubt how it will all work out.

It’s a fun read, very quick and easy, but doesn’t exactly break new ground. I liked the book, and parts were quite funny, but I don’t think this one will stick with me for long. Then again, I’m not much of a romance reader, so I may have exceeded my limits for this type of thing so far this year.

The Honey-Do List is entertaining but inconsequential, which is fine if you’re in the mood for some fluffy reading.

And hey, who doesn’t need that right about now?

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

In these crazy, unsettled times, who doesn’t need a perfect pick-me-up of a book?

If you’re looking for something special and heart-warming, have I got a book for you!

The House in the Cerulean Sea is utterly lovely and altogether charming. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

The main character is a buttoned-up pencil-pusher named Linus Baker, who is a caseworker for DICOMY — the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. DICOMY is a marvel of bureaucracy, supposedly invested in the well-being of magical children, but really focused more on containment and concealment.

And don’t be fooled into thinking we’re talking a Hogwarts-type setting here. In this world, there are magical children, but they’re problems to be solved, not gifted youth to be nurtured. And for at least the children we meet in The House in the Cerulean Sea, they don’t (mostly) have human appearances. These children are very clearly other, and they live in a world in which they’re adamantly and obviously unwanted.

Linus’s job is to visit orphanages housing these children and to file reports. His life and his job haven’t changed in years and years — until he’s summoned to a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, who send him on a classified, top-secret mission to Marsyas Island and the orphanage there. Linus’s new assignment is to spend four weeks at Marsyas, filing weekly reports on the headmaster and the children in his charge, and ultimately to recommend whether the orphanage should remain open or be shut down.

Linus is not at all prepared for what he finds there. First of all, it’s on the sea — and he’s never seen an ocean or a beach before. It’s beautiful, and he’s immediately enchanted. And then there are the children. All are strange and different, and at first, Linus is more or less terrified, yet before long, he sees how truly special the children are… once he gets past the somewhat scary and strange exteriors of a few of them.

The story is just lovely. I loved seeing how Linus reluctantly opens up and connects with the children and headmaster of Marsyas, and how his warmth brings out new interests and confidence in each of them. This is a perfect example of a found family story, and it’s marvelous.

The writing is descriptive and lively and funny, but also has great emotional depth. The author does an excellent job of showing us the individuals living inside each of the odd exteriors that the public sees.

My favorite has to be Lucy — short for Lucifer — a six-year-old boy who’s adorable and also happens to be the Antichrist. He’s prone to making such statements as:

“Mr. Baker… Can I get you something to drink? Juice, perhaps? Tea?” He leaned forward and dropped his voice. “The blood of a baby born in a cemetery under a full moon?”

… and

“There,” he said brightly. “You’re welcome! And I’m not even thinking about banishing your soul to eternal damnation or anything!”

Really and truly, this book was a special read, and was a perfect distraction for me from the chaos and confusion of our current world. But I’m sure that even in relatively normal times, I’d love this book! Don’t miss it.

Book Review: Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12) by Patricia Briggs

Title: Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12)
Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mercy Thompson, car mechanic and shapeshifter, faces a threat unlike any other in this thrilling entry in the #1 New York Times bestselling series.

I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman.

My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

A new Mercy book is always cause for celebration! Twelve books in, the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series is still going strong. Long may Mercy reign!

Mercy, our favorite VW mechanic and mate of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack Alpha, is tough, strong, determined, loyal… and also easily hurt by anything that damages the bond between her and Adam.

And, in a move that absolutely broke my heart, author Patricia Briggs kicks off this newest adventure in the series by letting us know that something is very, very wrong with Mercy and Adam’s mate bond. He’s holding himself apart from Mercy, and it’s tearing her heart to pieces.

But there’s other trouble as well. A dangerous new enemy is taking over people’s minds and making them do terrible things. A group of outsider wolves are trying to invade Adam’s territory. And the scary vampire Wulfe seems to be newly obsessed with Mercy.

In typical Mercy fashion, she never backs down when her loved ones are in danger, and she throws herself into the fight against everything threatening her marriage, her friends, and her pack.

I won’t say too much about the plot, but I loved the answer to the riddles about the bad guy’s identity, and I was thrilled when a certain magical artifact makes an appearance after being gone for a while.

I tend to give all Mercy books 5 stars because I just love this series so much! But, relative to some of the other books in the series, I’d put Smoke Bitten as maybe a smidge less earth-shaking, so I’m being a little stingy here and only going with 4.5! Still a great book, but not quite the best of the best!

As I said, a new Mercy book is always cause for celebration… but also sadness, because now that I’ve read the newest, it’ll be another year of waiting for the next installment.

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading this series yet, jump in! I love the characters, the world-building, the relationships… just really everything. Mercy is an amazing lead character — you’ll love her too!

Book Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Title: Hearts of Oak
Author: Eddie Robson
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.

And the cat is almost certainly involved!

How does a book featuring a king with a talking cat turn into science fiction?

I’m not telling!

But I will say this: Hearts of Oak is all sorts of awesome, and was exactly the sort of punchy, engaging read I needed this week.

The setting is weird and perplexing. We’re in a city where everything seems to be made of wood, and the entire focus of the city is building. Architects are practically rock stars, and the only city functions that seem to matter are building and planning.

And then there’s the king (and his cat Clarence), who observe the growth of the city from their window in the king’s tower, reading daily reports and signing off on plans, but really not doing much of anything else.

Everything seems to change when chief architect Iona is approached by a woman asking to be tutored in architecture. Something about Alyssa seems off, and her presence starts to bring forward words and images that Iona associates with her odd, recurring dreams.

And I’m not going to say what happens next! There are plenty of cool twists, and I actually laughed out loud over certain developments — like, OH, so THAT’s where this is going!

Seriously, this book just needs to be read! It’s great fun, full of surprises and really amazing and inventive elements, and I just could not put it down. I can see returning to Hearts of Oak and reading it again from time to time — it’s that good!

And a final great thing — it’s worth taking a closer look at the cover! I love the detail!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for spring 2020

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 about our spring reading plans. So many great books to look forward to! Here are ten I’m especially excited for:

1) The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

2) Defy or Defend (Delightfully Deadly, #2) by Gail Carriger

3) The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey

4) Of Literature and Lattes by Katherine Reay

5) Devolution by Max Brooks

6) Beach Read by Emily Henry

7) 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

8) The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

9) Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman

10) The Jetsetters by Amanda Eyre Ward

What books will you be reading this spring? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Book Review: The Deep by Alma Katsu

Title: The Deep
Author: Alma Katsu
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror/Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.

This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic . . .

I had high hopes for The Deep, but sadly, I finished the book feeling underwhelmed after struggling throughout to stay engaged.

Partially, this may have been due to mistaken expectations. I expected a story about something coming from the deep to menace the Titanic and the people on board. I mean, based on the cover and the title, that’s reasonable, right? But that’s not really the story here, not exactly.

The Deep reads mostly like a fictionalized recounting of the Titanic’s doomed voyage. We meet the famous real-life first class passengers, including the Astors and Guggenheims, and see the luxury of their accommodations. At the same time, we’re introduced to the fictional Annie Hebbley, a stewardess working in the first -class cabins, as well as several other fictional passengers.

Much of the story is a straight-forward narrative of upper class and lower class, the gossip and intrigue that ensues by having so many people of privilege in this exclusive setting, and the below-stairs pressure on the ship’s serving crew. We don’t actually spend any time in steerage, coming closest in the presence of two boxers who charm the first-class passengers while running cons and planning for a new life in New York.

The supernatural elements creep in as weird things happen involving Annie, her strange connection to a couple and their baby, and some unexplainable interludes with a few of the top tier passengers.

The Titanic scenes alternate with scenes on board the Britannic four years later, where Annie works as a nurse to wounded soldiers, and which undergoes its own nautical tragedy.

Look, a novel about the Titanic has to hit certain beats. It needs to follow the historical events, present some of the real-life characters, and give a sense of the scope of the tragedy. The Deep is only partially successful here. The scenes amongst the first-class passengers focus on their petty interactions, but as a whole fail to really captivate or give a sense of the grandness of the sailing. And there’s more or less a complete disregard for the passengers in steerage. They’re referenced in passing, but we really don’t get any sense of their experience.

As far as the iceberg and the sinking, these are told through the eyes of the characters we’ve come to know, but again, the main events seem just like backdrop.

I ended up interested in the ghost-story twists revealed toward the end of the book, but that’s not enough to rescue what was mostly a struggle to stay interested. The supernatural elements are scattered throughout the story, but not strongly enough to create any sense of suspense or horror.

Perhaps the ghost story would have been better served by being set on an anonymous, fictional ship. You don’t need the Titanic for the story that was ultimately told, and that piece of the narrative just isn’t grand enough to have an impact on what we know of the true tragedy of the Titanic and its passengers.

I’ve read other works of fiction set on the Titanic which hew very closely to the real events and yet manage to bring us up front and center. The two that come to mind most strongly are Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge and The Midnight Watch by David Dyer. Both are excellent.

For me, The Deep was not a great reading experience. And it’s up to you whether you’d consider this a plus or a minus, but I’ve had images of Titanic (the movie) firmly embedded in my brain ever since starting the book. And obviously, Celine Dion’s soundtrack has been haunting me ever since…

Book Review: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Five books in, the Veronica Speedwell mystery series remains delightfully fun, with intrigue, arch dialogue, and an undeniable sexual chemistry between the main characters.

Veronica and Stoker have been through all sorts of hair-raising escapades by this point. They’re each strong, opinionated, and stubborn, but also fiercely devoted to one another and to helping those in need. Being highly intelligent natural scientists is just icing on the cake.

The story in book #5 picks up a couple of weeks after their latest adventure (A Dangerous Collaboration, book #4). Veronica and Stoker are looking forward to getting back to a normal routine and final consummating their relationship, but it’s not to be — at least, not yet.

They’re called upon to use their adept sneaky ways to save the royal family from a potentially explosive scandal… and since Veronica herself has a connection to the royals, she feels both an obligation and a resentment over this latest intrusion into her life.

Nonetheless, it’s Veronica and Stoker to the rescue, throwing themselves into a costumed ball at a high-end brothel and ending up in mortal peril themselves. Their adventures are, as always, fast-paced, full of danger and absurdly self-sacrificing moments of bravery, and plenty of snark.

There’s a tangential connection to the Whitechapel murders, and the disquieting threat of Jack the Ripper hangs over the story as a backdrop. Meanwhile, there are feats of physical daring, although ultimately it’s Veronica and Stoker’s smarts and instincts that make all the difference.

This series is so entertaining and delightful! It’s not terribly serious. And who doesn’t need a breezy Victorian romp every once in a while? Veronica and Stoker are terrific characters on their own, and together, they’re a powerhouse couple who can achieve just about anything without losing a hint of their devotion and attraction to one another.

I definitely recommend this series as a whole — but as with any good series, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Fans of the Veronica Speedwell books will not be disappointed by this book! And I’m happy to know that at least two more books in the series are planned. Excelsior!

Want to know more? Check out my reviews of the previous books in the Veronica Speedwell series:
A Curious Beginning
A Perilous Undertaking
A Treacherous Curse
A Dangerous Collaboration

Book Review: In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Title: In Five Years
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Perfect for fans of Me Before You and One Day—a striking, powerful, and moving love story following an ambitious lawyer who experiences an astonishing vision that could change her life forever.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

When Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Kohan is asked this question at the most important interview of her career, she has a meticulously crafted answer at the ready. Later, after nailing her interview and accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, Dannie goes to sleep knowing she is right on track to achieve her five-year plan.

But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.

After a very intense, shocking hour, Dannie wakes again, at the brink of midnight, back in 2020. She can’t shake what has happened. It certainly felt much more than merely a dream, but she isn’t the kind of person who believes in visions. That nonsense is only charming coming from free-spirited types, like her lifelong best friend, Bella. Determined to ignore the odd experience, she files it away in the back of her mind.

That is, until four-and-a-half years later, when by chance Dannie meets the very same man from her long-ago vision.

Brimming with joy and heartbreak, In Five Years is an unforgettable love story that reminds us of the power of loyalty, friendship, and the unpredictable nature of destiny.

Wow.

Excuse me, I need to go dry my eyes for a minute before I can put any thoughts down about this book. There. I’m ready.

In Five Years crept up on me and hit me in my heart. It’s not the book I thought it was going to be, and that’s perfectly okay, because I ended up blown away by how deeply it made me feel.

At the same time, I don’t want to spoil anything for any potential readers, so I’m going to have to keep my comments on the vague side.

You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.

This is not a time-travel story. There is no magical entry into parallel worlds. Yes, Dannie has a weird experience that puts her five years into the future for a brief hour — but call it vision or premonition or whatever you want, I promise that that’s not the point of the story.

The main character of In Five Years is Dannie, a super smart, super successful lawyer who measures out her life in plans and lists and spreadsheets. Her boyfriend David is just like her (even keeping a spreadsheet of restaurants they’ve visited and what they ate), and their future is nicely mapped out. They’ll achieve success in their incredibly competitive fields. They’ll buy a great apartment in a great neighborhood in New York. And after Dannie’s interview with the law firm of her dreams, they get engaged in the perfect setting… so they seem very much on track for their neatly planned out lives.

Until Dannie dozes off and has her strange, five-years-into-the-future experience, where she interacts with a man — not David — in such an intimate and emotional way that, when she wakes, she begins to question everything.

Four and a half years later, Dannie and David are still engaged, but never quite get around to planning a wedding. She’s working at her dream job and absolutely loving it. And then things get weird when her best-friend-for-life Bella introduces her to the new man in her life… and he’s the man from Dannie’s dream/vision/premonition.

But if you think that this is a love triangle sort of book, let me just tell you — it’s not.

The further along I read, the more I understood that the heart of this book is the love between friends. Dannie and Bella are perfect complements to one another — Bella free-spirited and artistic and spontaneous, all things that Dannie is not. But they love each other unstintingly and understand each other deeply, and as the story unfolds from here, their love absolutely shines in a way that’s beautiful and left me in tears.

There. I’m not saying anything further about the plot. I’ll just say that it surprised me and moved me; it wasn’t what I expected, and it completely pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go until I turned the last page.

On a lighter note, two things struck me as funny. One, a seeming inconsistency that made me giggle:

David was snoring next to me, and the upstairs was still, but then it was barely six.

And on the next page:

David is a silent sleeper. No snoring, no movement.

Hmm. I don’t think those can both be true. (But honestly, this is truly a minor quibble, and I only mention it because it made me laugh and broke up the intensity of the story for me, which was a good thing.)

I also loved a couple of little throw-away lines that made me feel like Dannie and I are inhabiting the same world:

Murray Hill isn’t the most glamorous neighborhood in New York, and it gets a bad rap (every Jewish fraternity and sorority kid in the Tri-State area moves here after graduation. The average street style is a Penn sweatshirt)…

Hee. My alma mater rarely gets a shout-out in the books I read. And one more thing that felt like me:

I change into shorts and a T-shirt and a sun hat — my Russian Jew skin has never met a sun it particularly got on with…

Story of my life, Dannie.

But back to being serious…

I loved Rebecca Serle’s previous novel, The Dinner List, and in some ways, I can see some general similarities. Both feature an out-of-the-ordinary twist in the set-up, and in both, it’s the emotional heart of the story that really matters, not the how and why of the strange twist.

In Five Years is a gorgeous, surprising, and emotionally powerful read. Highly recommended.

[And a brief note: When I look at the reviews on Goodreads, I see so much detail about the plot. I recommend reading this book without a lot of foreknowledge, so stay away from Goodreads if that matters to you!]

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Title: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

In this next captivating love story from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One Day in December, a young woman is reunited with her late fiancé in a parallel life. But is this happy ending the one she really wants?

Lydia and Freddie. Freddie and Lydia. They’d been together for more than a decade, and Lydia thought their love was indestructible.

But she was wrong. On her twenty-eighth birthday, Freddie died in a car accident.

So now it’s just Lydia, and all she wants to do is hide indoors and sob until her eyes fall out. But Lydia knows that Freddie would want her to try to live fully, happily, even without him. So, enlisting the help of his best friend, Jonah, and her sister, Elle, she takes her first tentative steps into the world, open to life–and perhaps even love–again.

But then something inexplicable happens that gives her another chance at her old life with Freddie. A life where none of the tragic events of the past few months have happened.

Lydia is pulled again and again across the doorway of her past, living two lives, impossibly, at once. But there’s an emotional toll to returning to a world where Freddie, alive, still owns her heart. Because there’s someone in her new life, her real life, who wants her to stay.

Written with Josie Silver’s trademark warmth and wit, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird is a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads, and what happens when one woman is given a miraculous chance to answer them.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird starts with tragedy. Driving to Lydia’s birthday dinner, Freddie is in a car accident that takes his life. Lydia’s world is destroyed. She and Freddie, engaged to be married, have been together for over ten years, really ever since meeting as teens. He was her first and only love… and then suddenly, he was gone.

Lydia is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world, and where this book excels is in its depiction of grief and loss. Lydia’s pain is not pretty or dignified — she’s a mess, and she remains a mess for a long, long time. Grief doesn’t have a timetable. There’s no quick fix or set number of months that the mourning should take. Lydia simply has to go through it, and fortunately, she has an incredibly giving and loving sister by her side every step of the way.

Lydia also has a secret: The unusual pink pills that her mother gave her to help her sleep have a decidedly odd effect: When she takes a pill and falls asleep, Lydia is pulled into a different version of her own life, one in which the accident never happened and Freddie is very much alive. Soon, Lydia is torn between her bleak waking world and the promise of escape into a world that she knows can’t be real — but it’s a world where she gets time with Freddie, gets to plan their wedding and enjoy their promised life together.

Thankfully, there’s no hint that this alternate world is a real option for Lydia. Even while experiencing this time with Freddie, she’s fully aware of what’s happened in her real life, so all the happy moments are overshadowed for her by the knowledge that Freddie isn’t really alive in her world.

Meanwhile, we spend much more time with Lydia in her waking life than asleep, which I appreciated. She has no choice but to begin the long, slow road forward without Freddie, finding a way to keep going without the love of her life.

There’s a lot to like about this book:

  • Lydia has a meaningful and rewarding job working in a community center, which hits very close to home for me and really warmed my heart. It’s refreshing to read about someone with a job that’s important but not at all corporate — a job that’s all about creating programming for the community to bring joy to other people.
  • Her mother is odd, but still supportive, and her sister Elle is the absolute best. She and her husband have Lydia’s back, fuss over her a lot, but also give her space to figure out her own life.
  • Unlike some other books I’ve read, at no point does anything negative about Freddie come to light. I’ve read too many versions of stories where the dearly departed turns out to be somewhat of an ass or a liar or in some other way not really worth the tears. Nope, not here. Even though Lydia eventually becomes open to the possibility of love again, there’s never any doubt that had Freddie lived, they would have had a happy life together.

Of course, I had some quibbles as well:

(And I suppose I should say… some of these are a little bit spoilery…)

  • The sci-fi geek in me (never too far below the surface) wants to know what was in those pink pills! Even though Lydia eventually acknowledges that maybe it was the pills and maybe it was just her brain’s way of helping her deal with her loss, my sci-fi brain wanted a real explanation! Was she in an alternate reality? Was it all in her mind? If it was all in her mind, I have to say, it was a very neatly constructed and chronologically sound set of delusions. (I would have preferred either no alternate reality story, or one that actually happens in a fully fleshed out way — again, sci-fi geek here!)
  • When Lydia picks herself up and goes off to Croatia on a moment’s notice, then stays there for nine weeks to rest and recuperate and find herself, I just could not suspend my disbelief. She goes off with no plan, happens to be approached by a cab driver who happens to have a seaside restaurant and room to rent with his wife, who happens to be smart and supportive and exactly what Lydia needs. Really? What are the odds? Because I’m willing to bet that in real life, the tourist showing up at an airport in a foreign country and trusting someone to drive her to a remote place with no hesitation… is maybe not going to return in one piece. Honestly, this piece of the story made no sense to me.
  • I’m really glad that Lydia grew and changed over the course of the book, which covers close to two years in her life — but part of how I was aware of how much she’d changed was by her constantly thinking about how much she’d changed. Um… show, don’t tell?

Quibbles, aside, I did actually enjoy this book very much, and especially appreciated how well the author conveyed Lydia’s suffering and the emotional rollercoaster she experiences during her mourning process.

You don’t get over losing someone you love in six months or two years or twenty, but you do have to find a way to carry on living without feeling as if everything that comes afterward is second best.

Lydia is flawed and human and feels real. She’s miserable and sad until, eventually, she learns to also start feeling happy again, although in a different way than before. I really liked her as a person, and felt that her journey never sugarcoated the pain of her huge loss. At some point, she finds new ways to participate in life, with her family and friends and work, and it’s pretty glorious to see Lydia find hope again after it all seems gone.

I guess I could have lived without the alternate world pieces of the story, but overall, I liked The Two Lives of Lydia Bird very much, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly different take on love and finding meaning in life.