Book Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Title: Lavender House
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Forge Books
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it’s not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they’ve needed to keep others out. And now they’re worried they’re keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He’s seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn’t extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House opens with a desperate man in a bar having one last drink while contemplating suicide — before a broad in bright colors walks in.

She has a deep, sharp voice, and it cuts through the fog of drunkenness in my mind. She’s right out of a movie — she could ask me to kill her husband any second now.

In this noir-tinged murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco, there’s no place to hide if you’re queer, and that’s especially true if you’re a cop. Our main character, Andy Mills, has just been fired from the SFPD after being caught in the act during a police sweep of gay bars. Broken, beaten, and with no hope, he’s having one last drink while considering throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl walks into the bar.

Pearl is a classy older woman with an aura of money, and as Andy listens to her pitch, he learns something truly shocking: Pearl refers to her long-time companion Irene as her “wife”. How can two women possibly live a domestic, committed life together without persecution? Soon, Andy learns much more: Irene is the head of the Lamontaine family, who own a fabulously successful soap company known for its lush floral scents and secret formulations. With the Lamontaine money, Irene and Pearl are able to live a rich, free life within their secluded, gated estate in Marin, along with their son Henry, Henry’s partner Cliff (who poses publicly as Henry’s secretary), Henry’s wife Margo (again, a public-facing role), and Margo’s lover Elsie, who runs one of the most successful queer clubs in San Francisco, sheltered by generous payoffs to the police.

Henry turns and kisses him on the forehead. And everyone acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world. No one even seems to notice it happen. I’ve seen affection like that in the clubs before, sure. But here, in morning light, at a breakfast table, it’s like they’re so bright it makes my eyes hurt.

The Lamontaine’s idyllic life is devastated, however, by the event that’s brought Pearl to Andy: Irene is dead, and Pearl suspects murder. While the rest of the household believe the death was an unfortunate accident, Pearl thinks there’s something more sinister at play, and she invites Andy back to the mansion to investigate. As he takes up residence in a guest room and gets to know the family, Andy uncovers many secrets, but also sees both the freedoms and limitations of the family’s isolated lives, and considers whether he might ever find a way to live a freer, truer life himself.

There’s so much to love about Lavender House! First, the murder mystery itself is well developed, with an intriguing set-up, plenty of clues and red herrings, and a cast of characters who all seem like good people, until we’re forced to see other sides of them and wonder what lies beneath the friendly surfaces. This is a manor house mystery — an isolated, grand house, with each resident a suspect, and a detective in their midst, who may end up in grave danger himself. It’s quite deliciously built, as we get to know and like the various characters — but like Andy, we need to also look beyond the smiles and sympathetic conversations and to hold ourselves at a bit of a distance while we assess which of these people is a murderer.

Beyond the mystery itself, there’s also the historical setting and the depiction of gay life in the 1950s. The era shines through via the author’s descriptions of the bars and alleys and criminal life, as well as the music, clothing, and cars. But it’s the narration of Andy’s inner turmoil, the constant threat of discovery and the very real danger of beatings and abuse that give this book such a gritty, sad, realistic feel.

Even amidst the seemingly open life of the Lamontaine house, Andy is constantly aware of the redwood trees that line the drives, looking like prison bars, and the heavy gates that must be kept locked to keep the world out — and by extension, to keep the family locked within their private haven, unable to leave without putting on masks to shield them from the world.

As long as the world out there stays the same, a paradise like this keeps you in as much as it keeps you safe.

There’s so much sorrow in Andy’s experiences of living a secret life, his attempts to keep himself safe and his shame at not having done more to help others like him, his knowledge that the camaraderie he once experienced on the police force was erased in an instant the moment his true self was exposed, and the physical danger he faces simply by being spotted by someone who might recognize him. Through Andy’s investigation, we also learn more about the backgrounds of the various other inhabitants of Lavender House, and it’s a sad litany of secrets, shame, family disgrace, and abuse.

The murder is, of course, tied up neatly by the end of the book, and I thought the resolution was quite clever and not at all obvious. Andy’s life seems on the verge of a new beginning, and it’s wonderful to be able to leave him with a sense of hope. Life in the 1950s hasn’t magically changed, but he at least has options and a vision for how his life might be better. It felt as though the ending might be leaving the door open for additional mysteries starring Andy, and that would be amazing! Here’s hoping this is just the first in a continuing series.

I’m not at all surprised that I ended up loving this book. The author, Lev AC Rosen, has written some fabulous books already, including two gems that I think deserved much more attention than they got (All Men of Genius and Depth — go look them up and check them out!!). I haven’t read his YA novels yet, but they’re on my TBR list. In any case, Lavender House seems to be generating lots of buzz and is getting a big, splashy release, so I hope this is the book that will finally provide this talented author with a much bigger audience.

Lavender House is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery with a deep inner core of emotional impact and sensitivity, and I loved the sharp way the characters’ experiences enhanced the murder genre aspects of the story. This is a terrific new release for October — don’t miss it!

Book Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Title: Fairy Tale
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes deep into the well of his imagination in this spellbinding novel about a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher—for their world or ours.

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.

Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.

A story as old as myth, and as startling and iconic as the rest of King’s work, Fairy Tale is about an ordinary guy forced into the hero’s role by circumstance, and it is both spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying.

In Fairy Tale, master author Stephen King takes a kind-hearted 17-year-old and sends him on an epic quest to battle forces of evil and save a kingdom.

Also, there’s a very good dog. And because I know this is important for many readers to know up front: The dog will be fine! (Stories that treat book doggos badly can be a deal-breakers for many readers, so now you can rest easy and proceed).

Charlie is a strong, self-reliant boy who loves his father, but he’s also had to shoulder far too heavy a burden in his short life. After his mother’s tragic death, his father became lost to alcoholism, and Charlie had to care for himself and his father through the dark years until his father finally found sobriety. For all that, Charlie is remarkably well-adjusted, but he does think back with regret on the mean-spirited pranks and cruel behaviors he indulged in during the worst of days.

When he hears a dog barking from behind the large, spooky house on the hill, he intends to just move on, until he hears a faint voice crying for help. Charlie discovers Mr. Bowditch, the old man who lives alone in the house, severely injured in the backyard. He calls for help, then makes a decision that this perhaps is his opportunity to atone for the bad behavior in his past, and becomes completely devoted to Mr. Bowditch and his elderly dog Radar.

While Mr. Bowditch is hospitalized, Charlie takes on caring for Radar, and begins work on cleaning and repairing the house. After Mr. Bowditch is released, it’s Charlie who takes on the responsibility of daily care, going far above and beyond would might be expected of a teenager (or even most adults). Through their time together, the two become very close, but Mr. Bowditch holds onto his secrets tightly — although he does tell Charlie how to access his safe and the bucket full of gold pellets stored within, and how to exchange the pellets for the money needed to pay the hospital bills.

When Mr. Bowditch suffers a fatal heart attack some months later, Charlie and his father are shocked to learn that Charlie has inherited the house, the property, and everything it contains. Even more shocking is the cassette tape Mr. Bowditch has left, telling Charlie a strange tale about a journey to a hidden world and the magical device there that allows one to regain youth and health. With Radar in sharp decline, Charlie realizes that following the instructions on the tape might be his only option for saving Radar’s life. And so the quest begins.

Fairy Tale in many ways embodies the traditional Hero’s Journey, with Charlie receiving a call to action, setting out on a quest, gaining allies along the way, sinking to darkest depths (in this case, spending weeks/months (?) in a literal dungeon), before finding redemption and reemergence. It’s brilliantly constructed — we can see the framework and understand what King is doing, while still becoming totally immersed in the magical and dangerous world that Charlie enters.

At the same time, Charlie himself recognizes the influence of stories and how they seep through worlds into realities. Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk — all are present in some variation here, not as literal retellings but as universal tropes that inform the reality that Charlie now finds himself in.

Based on the synopsis, I’d expected the portal elements to kick in pretty early in the story, but in fact, it’s not until around 30% that Charlie first ventures through the passage to the alternate world. The first third of the story is devoted to Charlie’s family’s backstory and his growing relationship with Mr. Bowditch (and Radar!). This is really effective, as it grounds everything that follows in a realistic beginning in our own world, and gives a solid basis for why Charlie acts as he does, both his devotion to providing care to Mr. Bowditch and his actions on his portal adventure.

The flow does seem to lag for a bit in the middle of the story. As I mentioned, there’s a dungeon involved, and Charlie’s time imprisoned there drags on long enough that my interest flagged. Likewise, the sections about Charlie and his fellow prisoners being forced to train for and then compete in a Hunger Games-like tournament to the death felt overly long and drawn out.

Those elements aside, the plot is mostly fast-paced, full of surprises, odd-ball and quirky characters, memorable settings, and a superbly crafted sense of wonder and menace that hangs over every step of Charlie’s journey. Charlie himself is wonderful — smart, caring, and sensitive, but flawed enough that he’s not too good to be true.

Fairy Tale is a big, thick book, but absolutely worth the time and attention. I was captivated, often scared on behalf of the characters, and fully invested in the outcome and the stakes. The world Charlie visits is fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time exploring it at the conclusion of the quest.

Wrapping this up… I highly recommend Fairy Tale! It’s a treat for King fans, but also an easily accessible entry point for those who haven’t read his books before or who feel that his books are too terrifying for them! Yes, there are some frights and scary beings, and as I said, plenty of menace, but this book doesn’t have the absolute terror of, say, Pet Sematary or It.

Fairy Tale is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of a mythical, magical adventure, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read, start to finish. Don’t miss it!

New Release Spotlight: Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory

Introducing… an exciting new release from bestselling author Jasmine Guillory!

Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Release date: September 20, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis:

An intoxicating and sparkling new romance by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.

Margot Noble needs some relief from the stress of running the family winery with her brother. Enter Luke: sexy, charming, and best of all in the too-small world of Napa, a stranger. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and Margot is delighted that she lucked into the perfect one-night stand she’ll never have to see again. That is, until the winery’s newest hire, Luke, walks in the next morning. Margot is determined to keep things purely professional, but when their every interaction reminds her of the attraction still bubbling between them, it proves to be much more challenging than she expects.

Luke Williams had it all, but when he quits his high-salary tech job in Silicon Valley in a blaze of burnout and moves back to Napa to help a friend, he realizes he doesn’t want to tell the world–or his mom–why he’s now working at a winery. His mom loves bragging about her successful son–how can he admit that the job she’s so proud of broke him? Luke has no idea what is next for him, but one thing is certain: he wants more from the incredibly smart and sexy woman he hooked up with–even after he learns she’s his new boss. But even if they can find a way to be together that wouldn’t be an ethical nightmare, would such a successful woman really want a tech-world dropout?

Set against a lush backdrop of Napa Valley wine country, nothing goes to your head as fast as a taste of love–even if it means changing all your plans.

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I’ve loved the books in Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date series, and I’m so excited to see what she does in this stand-alone new novel!

Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? Who else is planning to read Drunk on Love?

Stay tuned… I’ll be back with a review!

About the author:

Having set the standard for the modern day rom-com and continuing to hit the bestseller lists with each new novel, Jasmine Guillory is not just a publishing phenom, but also a cultural tastemaker. Beloved by the media, Jasmine has been praised by outlets including NPR, The Washington PostElle, and Entertainment Weekly. She is a frequent guest on NBC’s Today Show recommending books, has a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick under her belt, and has written eight novels in just four years.

Check out Jasmine Guillory’s book recommendations at Bookshop.org!

Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

Title: Mr. Perfect on Paper
Author: Jean Meltzer
Narrator: Dara Rosenberg
Publisher: Mira
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 387 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 27 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the author of The Matzah Ball comes a pitch-perfect romcom following a third-generation Jewish matchmaker who unwittingly finds her own search for love thrust into the spotlight…

The perfect Jewish husband should be:
* A doctor or lawyer (preferably a doctor)
* Baggage-free (no previous marriages, no children)
* And of course—he must be Jewish

As the creator and CEO of the popular Jewish dating app J-Mate, matchmaker Dara Rabinowitz knows the formula for lasting love—at least, for everyone else. When it comes to her own love life, she’s been idling indefinitely. Until her beloved bubbe shares Dara’s checklist for “The Perfect Jewish Husband” on national television and charming news anchor Chris Steadfast proposes they turn Dara’s search into must-see TV.

As a non-Jewish single dad, Chris doesn’t check any of Dara’s boxes. But her hunt for Mr. Perfect is the ratings boost his show desperately needs. If only Chris could ignore his own pesky attraction to Dara—a task much easier said than done when Dara starts questioning if “perfect on paper” can compete with how hard she’s falling for Chris…

Jean Meltzer, author of 2021’s The Matzah Ball, is back with another Jewish-themed romance, this one depicting a young Jewish matchmaker’s search for her own true love.

Dara Rabinowitz is the powerhouse CEO of J-Mate, the super successful Jewish dating app she created inspired by her mother and grandmother’s careers as matchmakers. Knowing what makes a good match, as well as being a hugely talented coder, is the secret to Dara’s rise to corporate stardom. Dara lives with generalized anxiety disorder, which she’s quite open about, and manages her high-pressure life through coping and calming strategies as well as medication.

Dara is devoted to her darling grandmother, bubbe Miriam, whom she considers her best friend — but Miriam wants to see Dara happily married and exploring life. When Miriam goes off-script on a TV appearance and shares a private list of Dara’s requirements for her perfect husband (written one night while drinking with her sister), Dara is utterly humiliated… until the video clip goes viral, the show’s rating skyrocket, and suddenly everyone wants more of Dara.

The show’s host, Chris (handsome, non-Jewish, and a widowed father of a tween girl) is enchanted by Dara, and sees her as a potential key to saving his floundering show. Reluctantly, Dara agrees to his proposal: He’ll use her app and algorithms to find her nice Jewish men who are “Mr. Perfect on Paper” — checking all the boxes on her list — and she’ll allow the show to follow her on her dates.

What could go wrong?

Obviously, plenty. Dara encounters one dating disaster after another… and meanwhile, even once she meets a man who might really be her perfect match, she can’t quite shake her attraction and feelings for Chris himself. Chris, too, feels drawn to Dara, but he knows he’s not what she wants. But what if????

Dara and Chris are both sensitively portrayed and well developed. I really felt like I got to know each of them, with attention paid to their family backgrounds and the tragedies and struggles they’ve each endured. Chris’s story is particularly sad, and his dedication to being the best dad he can be, while navigating the tricky world of dealing with a pre-teen girl, is quite moving.

Dara and Chris have good chemistry, and I appreciated how genuine their care and concern for one another is. While denying to themselves that they could ever be romantically involved, they do both consider themselves friends, and they’re truly there for one another in the way that real friends should be.

Some elements of the book just didn’t work as well for me, however. Based on this book as well as her previous one, it seems that this author’s approach to conveying humor is to create slapstick moments where everything goes wrong. Maybe some readers will find these moments funny (such as Dara ending up dunking her head into a barrel of water in the middle of a date in order to get away from a pesky bumblebee), but honestly, I tend to find them too silly and embarrassing and over the top.

I had to question some of the Jewish elements too. Dara is devoted to her religion and her people, which is nice to see, but some of her choices in regard to the TV show seem questionable — for example, allowing the camera crew to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and follow the date that arranged for her at the break fast. I doubt any synagogue would actually allow a camera crew to set up and film on the holiday, and the idea of having a blind date at a break fast after a day of fasting seems like a set-up for disaster (which is exactly how it ends up).

The audiobook was mostly enjoyable, but the narrator seemed to struggle with some of the Jewish/Hebrew/Yiddish terms and names, and that was very distracting to me. Still, when the characters are in more natural or relaxed setting, the narration flows well, and I liked the scenes with Chris and his daughter very much.

Overall, Mr. Perfect on Paper is light entertainment with a sweet story to tell. The characters are bright spots, very engaging and sympathic, but on the downside, the predictable nature of the plot and the occasional cringe-worthy pratfalls and dating disasters keep this book from being totally successful. It’s fun, but I had to overlook a lot of my quibbles in order to appreciate the good stuff.

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

Title: Birds of California
Author: Katie Cotugno
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours 49 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Former child actor Fiona St. James dropped out of the spotlight after a spectacularly public crash and burn. The tabloids called her crazy and self-destructive and said she’d lost her mind. Now in her late twenties, Fiona believes her humiliating past is firmly behind her. She’s finally regained a modicum of privacy, and she won’t let anything–or anyone–mess it up.

Unlike Fiona, Sam Fox, who played her older brother on the popular television show Birds of California, loves the perks that come with being a successful Hollywood actor: fame, women, parties, money. When his current show gets cancelled and his agent starts to avoid his calls, the desperate actor enthusiastically signs on for a Birds of California revival. But to make it happen, he needs Fiona St. James.

Against her better judgment, Fiona agrees to have lunch with Sam. What happens next takes them both by surprise. Sam is enthralled by Fiona’s take-no-prisoners attitude, and Fiona discovers a lovable goofball behind Sam’s close-up-ready face. Long drives to the beach, late nights at dive bars… theirs is the kind of kitschy romance Hollywood sells. But just like in the rom-coms Fiona despises, there’s a twist that threatens her new love. Sam doesn’t know the full story behind her breakdown. What happens when she reveals the truth?

Sparks fly and things get real in this sharply sexy and whip-smart romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a post #metoo Hollywood from New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno–page-turning escapist fun in the spirit of Beach Read, The Kiss Quotient, and Red, White and Royal Blue.

In Birds of California, former star and tabloid bad-girl Fiona has left her acting days firmly in the past, preferring a quiet life tending to her father and sister, working in the family print shop, and avoiding the spotlight. Of course, it’s hard to actually forget her past when not a day goes by without being recognized, but for the most part, Fiona lives a private, quiet, hidden life.

Until one day, her ex-agent calls out of the blue with big news: There’s going to be a reboot of Birds of California, the show that made Fiona a breakout teen star, and the production wants her in it. Fiona wants no part of it — but then Sam Fox, her former co-star shows up at the print shop on a mission to change her mind. Fiona still is adamantly opposed to doing the show… but she’s less opposed to spending time with Sam.

The two start to connect, and rediscover a chemistry that was cut short back in their teen days, but of course, misunderstandings and hidden secrets arise and threaten to tear them apart, just as they’re growing closer.

Birds of California is billed as a romantic comedy, and yes, there are some funny moments, but a lot of it really has to do with the damage done to Fiona as a rising Hollywood star hounded by tabloids and paparazzi. The romance between Fiona and Sam is dynamic and worth cheering for, but I did wish they’d each open up and be honest a lot sooner than they did.

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

Mostly, my lasting impression of Birds of California has to do with its brushing up against toxic Hollywood culture and the #metoo movement. It’s pretty clear early on that Fiona didn’t publicly self-destruct for no reason — she was a young girl who wasn’t adequately protected and who was victimized by the people and studios that should have kept her safe. Unfortunately, while the book eventually makes clear what actually happened to her, it focuses so much on the current-day romance between Fiona and Sam that the past isn’t explored sufficiently.

I would have liked a little more attention at the end of the story, after Fiona finally tells Sam about her experiences, on what happens next and why. I would REALLY have liked to see the fall-out and (hopefully) justice that must be coming for the people who so seriously mistreated Fiona — the story ends with wheels set in motion, but no concrete consequences.

Overall, I enjoyed the characters and the story, and the audiobook narration — by Julia Whelan, one of my very favorite narrators — makes it both fun and heartfelt. I wish there had been a bit more substance beneath the romance, including more development of the more serious aspects of the story, but still, Birds of California is an entertaining read with fresh, funny, authentic characters to root for.

Audiobook Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Title: The Kaiju Preservation Society
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 15, 2022
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi’s first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.

When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls “an animal rights organization.” Tom’s team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.

What Tom doesn’t tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They’re the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda and they’re in trouble.

It’s not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that’s found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too–and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

If you’re looking for highly dramatic science fiction with dire stakes, intricate world-building, and mind-boggling technology… this is not that book.

BUT… if you’re looking for a super fun sci-fi romp that’s funny and fast and full of f-bombs and smart-asses, well, look no further!

The Kaiju Preservation Society is a feel-good story (yes, really) about an alternate-dimension earth where gigantic creatures known as kaiju are powered by internal biological nuclear reactors, everything in the environment wants to eat people, and a team of adrenaline-junkie scientists and grunts work to keep the kaiju safe, and to keep our Earth safe from them.

It’s 2020, New York is on the verge of lockdown as COVID hits, and Jamie Gray, expecting a promotion at work, is instead laid off, joining the ranks of food-delivery drivers during the pandemic. A chance encounter with an old friend leads to a job offer with KPS, an organization devoted to the welfare of “large animals”, as they explain to Jamie during the interview.

Before he can reconsider, Jamie is whisked off to a secret location (in Greenland, of all places!), where he and a few other newbies are ushered through a dimensional portal into an alternate world, where scientists work to study and preserve kaiju life. Jamie’s job, as he reminds people repeatedly, is to “lift things” — he’s one of the few non-scientists at the base, but he’s a good guy, a hard worker, and indeed, good at lifting things, and he’s soon fully immersed in the crazy life of KPS.

The action is non-stop, and it’s a wild world into which we (and Jamie) are thrown — there are tree crabs and giant parasites and swarms of flying insects, all of which would love to eat people. Not to mention the kaiju themselves, who are scary and huge and have a tendency to explode under certain circumstances.

When bad guys show up, the action gets even heavier, but the banter and humor never flag, even when our scrappy band of heroes face death at every turn. I mean, it’s pretty clear that the good guys will win, but the fun is in seeing just how that comes about.

I always love John Scalzi’s books, and The Kaiju Preservation Society feels like a throwback to the style and attitude of some of his earlier books (which I happen to adore), such as the ridiculously entertaining The Android’s Dream.

The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who does many of Scalzi’s books, and is amazingly talented when it comes to narrating action and multiple character voices. He projects tons of humor, even when our lead characters are confronted by gigantic creatures that may eat them — even their fear and hysteria come across as funny.

I really appreciated that the audiobook included the author’s note at the end — many don’t, which is a pet peeve of mine. Here, it was incredibly helpful and enlightening to hear about the author’s experiences in 2020 and 2021, and why and how he ended up writing this particular book during the pandemic.

All in all, I’d say that The Kaiju Preservation Society has to be one of my most fun listening experiences of the year! If you have low tolerance for salty language and progressive politics, this may not be the best choice for you — but those obstacles definitely don’t apply to me, and I loved every moment!

John Scalzi is a go-to, must-read author for me, and The Kaiju Preservation Society is a total win. Coincidentally, just this week, his publisher announced his next upcoming novel, Starter Villain, to be released in June 2023. Sign me up!!



Book Review: Be the Serpent (October Daye, #16) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Be the Serpent
Series: October Daye, #16
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: August 30, 2022
Print length: 384 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

October Daye is finally something she never expected to be: married. All the trials and turmoils and terrors of a hero’s life have done very little to prepare her for the expectation that she will actually share her life with someone else, the good parts and the bad ones alike, not just allow them to dabble around the edges in the things she wants to share. But with an official break from hero duties from the Queen in the Mists, and her family wholly on board with this new version of “normal,” she’s doing her best to adjust.

It isn’t always easy, but she’s a hero, right? She’s done harder.
Until an old friend and ally turns out to have been an enemy in disguise for this entire time, and October’s brief respite turns into a battle for her life, her community, and everything she has ever believed to be true.

The debts of the Broken Ride are coming due, and whether she incurred them or not, she’s going to be the one who has to pay.

Includes an all-new bonus novella! 

Some long-term ongoing fantasy series overstay their welcome. And then there’s October Daye, a series that 100% proves that there’s no such thing as too much or too long, so long as the writing and the plot make it worthwhile.

And in the name of Oberon himself, I’m here to declare that the 16th October Daye book blew me away, caught me in its spell, and will haunt me for the coming year (until #17 comes along).

In Be the Serpent, we pick up two months after the events of the previous book, When Sorrows Come. That book brought the long-awaited wedding of Toby and Tybalt — and being a book about October Daye, hero of the realm and a total bad-ass knight, it also brought plenty of bloodshed, mayhem, attempted overthrow of a kingdom, and an assortment of awful bad guys.

But hey, it ended with happiness! Toby and Tybalt are married — and in book #16, Be the Serpent, they’re living together in wedded bliss. I’m a little peeved that we didn’t actually get to see them enjoying their Disneyland honeymoon (I’d pay good money to see Tybalt on the Dumbo ride), but they had fun, and that’s what counts.

Happiness doesn’t last long, however. As the story opens, a hearing in the Kingdom of the Mists is just concluding when the children of Toby’s closest childhood friend begin to scream as if in dire pain. Rushing to their family home, Toby discovers a scene of blood and heartbreak. It’s almost too much to bear, and how can Toby share such terrible news with her dearest friend?

As the plot unfolds, true terror is revealed. And I really can’t say much more about the plot than that, because it’s a doozy and it took my breath away. What I will say is that events occur that upend Faerie as we know it, and that tie together storylines that go all the way back to the first book in the series.

The ending is a total gutpunch as well, and I can’t think of another book in the series that ended without our heroes being (at least temporarily) in a fairly good or at least safe place. The ending here is upsetting and nightmare-inducing, and I think I’m going to spend the next year really mad at Seanan McGuire for leaving me in such an upset state!

The book includes a bonus novella, Such Dangerous Seas, which is also deeply dark and sorrowful. (As opposed to the novella at the end of When Sorrows Come, which was basically a fun romp through Toby and Tybalt’s wedding reception — which now feels like a brief shining moment of joy before the horrors of Faerie came crashing back down). Such Dangerous Seas features the sea witch, the Luidaeg, one of my favorite characters — but it’s a terribly sad story about her earlier years and the awful things that happened to her.

Be the Serpent is shocking, heart-breaking, and scary as hell. It’s also yet another brilliant showcase for our hero Toby and her chosen family, who band together no matter what. Whatever happens to these characters, they love one another unreservedly, and their family ties, commitment, and loyalty are big pieces of what makes this series so special.

Having to wait a year for the next book is going to be terrible for my well-being! And I guess that’s a pretty clear indication of just how great Be the Serpent is. If you’re an October Daye fan, you’re probably already reading it!

And I’ll say, yet again, that if you haven’t read the October Daye series yet, you’re missing out on something special. Start from the beginning (Rosemary and Rue) — you won’t be able to stop!

Book Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Title: Killers of a Certain Age
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that’s their secret weapon.

They’ve spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they’re sixty years old, four women friends can’t just retire – it’s kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.

Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.

When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they’ve been marked for death.

Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They’re about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman–and a killer–of a certain age.

Just because a woman hits 60, it doesn’t mean she’s weak or powerless. And the women of Killers of a Certain Age are here to make sure we don’t forget it!

In this action-rich thriller by the talented Deanna Raybourn, the four women at the heart of the story should be enjoying the celebratory luxury cruise marking their retirement — but when they spot a fellow assassin from the shadowy organization they work for hidden among the ship’s crew, they realize they’ve been targeted, and soon enter a fight for their lives.

As the foursome evade death through all sorts of clever, daring, inventive means, they know that the kill order must have come from the top, and in their world, as the blurb says, it’s kill or be killed. Banding together, they plot, scheme, and fight to take out the Museum’s Directors. With their own lives on the line, one mistake could mean the end for all of them.

Killers of a Certain Age is a fast-paced adventure, with the four main character at its heart using their mad skills, cunning, and whatever tools they have at hand to turn their own assassinations back on their adversaries and, they hope, finally leave the business behind them for good.

Each woman is given a backstory, although some are more fleshed out than others. The Museum, we’re told, was originally founded in the aftermath of the second World War, with the purpose of finding and eliminating the many Nazis who managed to slink away and evade justice. Over the years, the Museum’s mission expanded to include drug lords and criminal masterminds. Unaffiliated and uncontrolled by any one government, the Museum is a well-funded, top secret, highly powerful organization that moves through the world via stealth and surveillance, and takes out those deemed the highest threats.

Now, to enjoy Killers of a Certain Age, we readers have to put aside any qualms about the morality of an extra-legal assassination organization. We’re clearly meant to root for Billie, Mary Ann, Helen, and Natalie, and to understand that they see themselves as forces of good. Yes, they clean up the rot that pervades the world and evades more traditional types of justice. But at the end of the day, they’re women who’ve spent 40 years traveling the world and murdering people. I can’t bring myself to feel sorry about them dispensing justice to Nazis and cartel bosses… but I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with this either.

Still, accepting that these are our heroines, it’s certainly fun to cheer for their success, especially when they take advantage of other people’s views of older women to be able to slip into places unseen and unchallenged.

There are some funny moments (such as the women using a menopause-tracking app with animated kitten avatars as a way to communicate without being tracked), but overall, it’s not a particularly funny book (which readers coming from the world of the author’s Veronica Speedwell mystery series may be expecting). The characters are memorable, and I loved reading a story where women “of a certain age” not only matter, but truly kick ass, take names, and make a difference.

The underlying concept — four assassins as the heroes of a story — still doesn’t sit entirely well with me, but overall, this is a fun, fast, exciting read. Kind of like a female James Bond squad, but with murder. If you don’t take it too seriously and just go with the concept, it works!

Book Review: The Most Likely Club by Elyssa Friedland

Title: The Most Likely Club
Author: Elyssa Friedland
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

At their milestone high school reunion, a group of friends make a pact to finally achieve their high school superlatives one way or another, in the lively new novel from the acclaimed author of Last Summer at the Golden Hotel.

In 1997, grunge is king, Titanic is a blockbuster (and Blockbuster still exists), and Thursday nights are for Friends. In Bellport, Connecticut, four best friends and high school seniors are ready to light the world on fire. Melissa Levin, Priya Chowdury, Tara Taylor, and Suki Hammer are going places. Their yearbook superlatives confirm it: Most Likely to Win the White House, Cure Cancer, Open a Michelin-Starred Restaurant, and Join the Forbes 400.

Fast forward twenty-five years and nothing has gone according to plan as the women regroup at their dreaded high school reunion. When a forgotten classmate emerges at the reunion with a surprising announcement, the friends dig out the yearbook and rethink their younger selves. Is it too late to make their dreams come true? Fueled by nostalgia and one too many drinks, they form a pact to push through their middle-aged angst to bring their teenage aspirations to fruition, dubbing themselves the “Most Likely Girls.”

Through the ensuing highs and lows, they are reminded of the enduring bonds of friendship, the ways our childhood dreams both sustain and surprise us — and why it’s deeply uncool to peak in high school.

In The Most Likely Club, four high school friends confront their old dreams as their 25th high school reunion looms, and decide together that it’s never too late to be, well, superlative.

If you’re voted “most likely to…” and then you don’t, are you a failure? What does it say about your life if you were voted most likely to become president, yet at age 42, the only office you’ve held is PTA president? Or if your classmates thought you were destined for world-famous celebrity chef status, yet your reality consists of running an afterschool cooking program for over-privileged kids?

The four women at the heart of this story had “smart-but-social” status in their late-90s high school class — not the truly popular top of the heap, but friendly enough to be be “honor roll students who still get invited to parties”. Melissa, Tara, Suki, and Priya are ambitious and eager, and they’re delighted with the superlatives they receive in their yearbook.

But 25 years later, they’re all experiencing a variety of middle-age disappointments and challenges. From divorce to career stagnation to trying to have it all, three of the four are hard-working but disillusioned, always regretting not getting what they thought they wanted. The fourth of the group, Suki, is a mega-successful entrepreneur, friends with “Elon” and “Oprah”, on the cover of Vogue, and with a book on the way to inspire others to her level of success.

The reunion stirs up their collective dissatisfaction, the sense that their potential has slipped away over the years and that they’re not actually living their best lives. Fired up simply by being together again, they commit to being the Most Likely Girls — they’re going to do something major to shake up their static lives and reach for their long-dormant dreams.

The characters in The Most Likely Club are very likable — all very different, yet each with a set of struggles that feel relatable. (Well, Suki getting trashed and on the verge of being “cancellled” isn’t all that relatable, but some of her personal details, when we finally get them, make her feel slightly more like someone real.)

Melissa’s presidential ambitions were derailed by an unplanned pregnancy. Tara’s chef career tanked after she reported her high-profile mentor for being a predator. Priya has a thriving career as a doctor and has been offered a promotion, but how can she possibly take on more when her husband, also a doctor, leaves every single aspect of caring for their home and children on her shoulders?

It’s heartening to see these women come together, shake off the sense of leaving their best years long behind, and give each the support they need to zap themselves back into action. Their friendship is lovely, and is truly at the heart of the story.

At the same time, the book certainly shows the endemic sexism that limits women’s options. From the celebrity culture that allows badly-behaving men to escape the consequences of their actions to the double-standard that applies to women bosses and more, The Most Likely Club illustrates the type of undercutting and derailment that can happen in the lives of women, no matter how smart or ambitious or dedicated to their goals.

I was afraid in the beginning chapters that I wouldn’t be able to relate, given the emphasis in the earlier parts of the book on PTA politics and school events and daily “mommy drama” — all representing a time in my life that’s definitely in the past! I needn’t have worried. The story encompasses so many aspects of women’s lives and friendships that I could see pieces of my own experiences, and those of my own friend circle, in the characters’ various story arcs.

The writing is fun and engaging, sometimes very funny, and even when addressing the more serious aspects of the characters’ lives, it never stays in dire territory for long.

The chapters are told from the different characters’ perspectives, and it’s interesting to get to see into each one’s inner lives and often, to see how their individual realities differ from what their friends believe their lives to be like. The narration can get overly judge-y at times, such as at the reunion itself:

The women were a mixed bag. Some trended down into saggier versions of their teenage selves.

Granted, this is one character’s view of things, but in a book that’s so much about women power and lifting one another up, it seems harsh to have this sort of commentary on appearance and bodies.

I was also concerned by Melissa’s over-the-top dieting in the months leading up to the reunion, which her friends eventually peg as an eating disorder — but then it just kind of goes away once she gets new focus and purpose in her life. It felt a little brushed aside, and resolved too easily.

My last little quibble is that the yearbook superlatives seem to have been hugely important for this school, but for the life of me, I don’t remember anything about superlatives from my high school days other than that we had them. I mean, I could pull out my old yearbook if I really wanted to, but who cares? Perhaps the difference is that these characters attended a small private school, whereas I was in a public school graduating class of about 650 people — so yeah, I know our yearbook had “Most Likely” listings, but I don’t remember anyone actually getting excited about them. Maybe my experience is the outlier, but in any case, this was so central to the plot yet felt very strange and foreign to me.

As a whole, though, I had a lot of fun reading The Most Likely Club. I loved the women’s friendship, the realistic depictions of their daily lives, and how empowered they all became by the end of the story. This is a feel-good book about the importance of enduring, supportive friendships, and even though some of the outcomes were way more rosy than might be realistic in the real world, it was very satisfying to see how all of their stories worked out.

I do have two other books by this author on my Kindle already, and given how much I enjoyed her writing style here, I’m looking forward to checking them out too!

Book Review: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Title: Love on the Brain
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis comes a new STEMinist rom-com in which a scientist is forced to work on a project with her nemesis—with explosive results.

Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do? If NASA offered her the lead on a neuroengineering project – a literal dream come true – Marie would accept without hesitation. Duh. But the mother of modern physics never had to co-lead with Levi Ward.

Sure, Levi is attractive in a tall, dark, and piercing-eyes kind of way. But Levi made his feelings toward Bee very clear in grad school – archenemies work best employed in their own galaxies far, far away.

But when her equipment starts to go missing and the staff ignore her, Bee could swear she sees Levi softening into an ally, backing her plays, seconding her ideas… devouring her with those eyes. The possibilities have all her neurons firing.

But when it comes time to actually make a move and put her heart on the line, there’s only one question that matters: What will Bee Königswasser do?

Bee is a brilliant neuroscientist and Marie Curie’s #1 fangirl… but she’s also stuck in a job at NIH under a non-supportive boss and limited prospects, until she’s offered a spot co-leading an exciting project at NASA. This could be her big breakthrough! But Bee’s excitement dims when she learns that she’ll be partnering with Levi Ward, an engineer who was her nemesis back in grad school — the man despised her!

Still, it’s too good an opportunity to let slip by, so Bee heads off to Houston, determined to establish a good professional collaboration with her sworn enemy. Her first attempts at collegiality fail — he doesn’t even answer her emails, and he reprimands her about dress code (he apparently doesn’t care for her purple hair and septum piercing) on her very first day.

As they work together, Bee starts to notice Levi being less… awful, and even coming to her rescue when she (weirdly) gets trapped in a cemetery overnight. Their working relationship is blossoming, and their project is going amazingly well, but how can she allow herself to think that Levi is warming to her when she knows how deeply he hated her?

Love on the Brain, Ali Hazelwood’s follow-up to her debut novel, The Love Hypothesis, once again succeeds in combining romance with a portrait of women in science. I love that she shows brilliant women actually doing their jobs, using their education and intelligence to make a difference in their fields — and also battling the deeply embedded sexism and patriarchal structures that seem to doom women to unnecessary struggle just to get a seat at the table.

Bee’s humor shines through, even while describing the absolutely infuriating experience of being second-guessed or undervalued simply because she’s the woman in the room:

With Levi present, his team tends to agree to my suggestions more quickly — a phenomenon known as Sausage Referencing… In Cockcluster or WurstFest situations, having a man vouch for you will help you be taken seriously — the better-regarded the man, the higher his Sausage Referencing power.

Or another example:

I marvel that I was given credit for my idea. Goes to show how low the bar is for cis dudes in STEM, doesn’t it? Thank you, Oh Penised Overlords, for the recognition I deserve.

Bee is a fascinating character, obviously brilliant (I know I keep saying that, but it’s true!), but also burdened by a childhood in which she and her twin sister, after being orphaned, were shuttled from relative to relative and place to place, never establishing roots or a stable home. Bee has learned not to expect anything to last, especially after her scumbag ex-fiance cheated on her shortly before her wedding. So when she and Levi have the expected romantic breakthrough, she doesn’t allow herself to think of it as anything but colleagues-with-benefits — love just doesn’t last, so why set herself up for failure?

The book is very engaging and a quick, entertaining read. The plot balances the romantic elements with the challenges Bee faces at work, as someone tries to sabotage both her project and her professional reputation. Through Bee, we also get insight into other women’s struggles in STEM, both via her secret Twitter account (@WhatWouldMarieDo) and through her involvement in a new movement to promote fairness in grad school admissions by eliminating the GRE as a measure of worthiness. It’s not that we don’t know that women face unfair barriers, but seeing these brought to life through Bee’s experiences is really eye-opening in a dramatic way.

I do have a few quibbles, naturally. Bee is quirky and unusual, to say the least, but some of her affects, like her breaking down in sobs whenever she sees roadkill, feel a little over the top. Her EQ is also rather low for such a smart woman — I mean, she misses so many blatant cues about Levi’s true feelings that her obliviousness just seems unrealistic.

Not that this point takes away from my enjoyment, but Love on the Brain is the 3rd book I’ve read this summer where an anonymous correspondence turns out to be between the two main characters — it’s just not a big reveal if it’s completely expected! I think the secret-penpal trope may need to be retired…

Overall, I really enjoyed Love on the Brain — in fact, for some unknown reason, I went into it not expecting to really be in the mood, but then was happily proven wrong! This book was just what I needed, funny but with depth, with amazing smart women in the spotlight, and a writing style that keeps the story zipping along. The sparkly, funny dialogue (and Bee’s internal asides) make this such an engaging read, and I look forward to reading more by this author!