Book Review: One Summer in Savannah by Terah Shelton Harris

Title: One Summer in Savannah
Author: Terah Shelton Harris
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 4, 2023
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A compelling debut that glows with bittersweet heart and touching emotion, deeply interrogating questions of family, redemption, and unconditional love in the sweltering summer heat of Savannah, as two people discover what it means to truly forgive.

It’s been eight years since Sara Lancaster left her home in Savannah, Georgia. Eight years since her daughter, Alana, came into this world, following a terrifying sexual assault that left deep emotional wounds Sara would do anything to forget. But when Sara’s father falls ill, she’s forced to return home and face the ghosts of her past.

While caring for her father and running his bookstore, Sara is desperate to protect her curious, outgoing, genius daughter from the Wylers, the family of the man who assaulted her. Sara thinks she can succeed—her attacker is in prison, his identical twin brother, Jacob, left town years ago, and their mother are all unaware Alana exists. But she soon learns that Jacob has also just returned to Savannah to piece together the fragments of his once-great family. And when their two worlds collide—with the type of force Sara explores in her poetry and Jacob in his astrophysics—they are drawn together in unexpected ways.

One Summer in Savannah is a difficult book to describe. It’s the story of Sara, a woman in her mid-20s who swore she’d neve return to her home town of Savannah. At age 18, she was raped and then vilified at the trial that convicted the rapist, the gifted son of a very powerful old-money family. Upon discovering that she was pregnant, Sara fled to a state that doesn’t allow rapists parental rights and kept her daughter’s existence a secret from the Wyler family. Eight years later, when Sara’s father is ill and has limited time left, she reluctantly returns, still intending to keep Alana hidden from the Wylers.

Meanwhile, Jacob — identical twin to Daniel, the rapist — also returns to Savannah. Daniel is dying of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, and although Jacob cut his entire family out of his life after the trial, he can’t deny his brother the help he desperately needs.

As Sara and Jacob encounter one another, she recognizes his kindness and his own painful past, and allows him to begin tutoring Alana, a genius who needs the inspiration and guidance that Jacob can provide. Sara and Jacob each navigate their own paths toward healing, seeking ways to move forward after pain and loss.

I have to be honest — at 30%, I was about ready to put the book down. The writing style did not especially work for me — very stilted in places, and then overly reliant on imagery and metaphor in others. Beyond that, there were plot elements that seemed jarring or unlikely, such as:

  • Sara’s father has spoken only in poetry since her childhood. I mean, ONLY in poetry. He conducts conversations by reciting lines of poetry that are relevant to the situation, and those who are close to him seem to be able to understand and parse his meaning.
  • There’s also the fact that the main character ends up falling in love with the identical twin of the man who raped her. Jacob is a lovely, wonderful person — but the relationship never truly felt believable.
  • Everyone in the book is super special. Sara becomes a poet; Jacob is an astrophysicist; Daniel, we are told, was destined for great things (his mother insists that he would have cured cancer, if not for that awful girl who told lies about him and ruined his life); and Alana is a genius who solves unsolvable math equations and taught herself three languages by the age of eight. It’s all a bit much.
  • Another complaint — there are plot points that are referred to, but not shown. For example, Jacob helps Sara’s father write a letter to Sara which has a huge emotional impact on her, but we don’t see the letter. Another example — Daniel gives a TV interview in which he owns up to what he’s done, but we only hear about it in passing, rather than getting to glimpse what he said.

Meanwhile, Daniel and his mother Birdie remain fairly terrible until close the end, when they both get a sort of redemption, but I’m not sure we saw enough to feel that they actually earned it.

Themes of redemption and forgiveness are dominant throughout the story, and some scenes are moving — but overall, this book just didn’t work well for me. Too many discordant notes, too many details that felt false, and a writing style that keeps the characters at a distance for much of the story.

Book Review: Queen Charlotte by Julia Quinn & Shonda Rhimes

Title: Queen Charlotte
Authors: Julia Quinn & Shonda Rhimes
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 9, 2023
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn and television pioneer Shonda Rhimes comes a powerful and romantic novel of Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte and King George III’s great love story and how it sparked a societal shift, inspired by the original series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, created by Shondaland for Netflix.

“We are one crown. His weight is mine, and mine is his…”

In 1761, on a sunny day in September, a King and Queen met for the very first time. They were married within hours.

Born a German Princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was beautiful, headstrong, and fiercely intelligent… not precisely the attributes the British Court had been seeking in a spouse for the young King George III. But her fire and independence were exactly what she needed, because George had secrets… secrets with the potential to shake the very foundations of the monarchy.

Thrust into her new role as a royal, Charlotte must learn to navigate the intricate politics of the court… all the while guarding her heart, because she is falling in love with the King, even as he pushes her away. Above all she must learn to rule, and to understand that she has been given the power to remake society. She must fight—for herself, for her husband, and for all her new subjects who look to her for guidance and grace. For she will never be just Charlotte again. She must instead fulfill her destiny… as Queen.

Fans of the Bridgerton series will absolutely want to grab a copy of this prequel, which focuses on the early love story of Queen Charlotte and King George III.

As a preface by none other than Lady Whistledown herself makes clear, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson… so go into this romantic, often heartbreaking and just as often uplifting story with an open mind, and accept that this book is not attempting to stick to the historical facts.

First, the context: Queen Charlotte (the Netflix series) has already aired, so I would guess that most people reading the novel have already watched the series and have the basics of the story firmly in mind. Yes, the book was written by Julia Quinn based on the scripts written by Shonda Rhimes — and yet, it’s a fully developed novel with fresh perspectives and points of view, not just a rehash of what we’ve already seen on the screen.

In the novel, Queen Charlotte’s story is told through four shifting points of view: We get chapters from the perspectives of Charlotte, George, Agatha (Lady Danbury), and Brimsley, Charlotte’s faithful servant. Through their thoughts and voices, the story opens up in ways not possible on the screen, and getting scenes from these shifting perspectives offers insights that might not otherwise have been apparent.

Interestingly, the novel sticks with Shonda Rhimes’s vision of the ton as shown in the Bridgerton TV series — a thoroughly integrated society including all races. This is decidedly not the case in Julia Quinn’s original Bridgerton books, but in Queen Charlotte (the novel), we’re sticking with Shonda’s version. Here, we get the origin story — Queen Charlotte has brown skin and is of African descent, which is most shocking to Princess Augusta, mother of the King.

What to do? Look foolish and admit that she wasn’t aware of this when the bargain for the marriage was struck? Or, make it look intentional by launching “the Great Experiment” — essentially, claim that it was the Crown’s intention to integrate society all along, and marrying Charlotte to the King is an important first step in achieving this goal. Hastily, on the day of the royal wedding, upper class black members of the London world (but not the ton) are elevated to nobility. How can anyone doubt the Crown’s intentions, when there are so many new Lords and Ladies as proof?

The true heart of the story is the romance between Charlotte and George. While meeting only on their wedding day, they find connection and chemistry and seemed poised for true happiness — until George pushes Charlotte firmly away with no explanation, insisting that they live separately.

I won’t go into further plot details — the “madness” of King George III is well known as historical fact (although a specific diagnosis has never been completely established). George’s mental illness is the central tragedy of this story, driving a sharp wedge between him and Charlotte even as she struggles to understand. Their love proves to be unshakable even in the face of this unconquerable barrier. The book captures all the powerful romance of the TV version, and it’s lovely.

I loved getting to know Brimsley more through his chapters, and Agatha Danbury is just as wonderful here as expected. Some elements of the TV version are omitted, most notably the friendships and interactions between the women characters later in life; Violet Bridgerton is completely absent, and the related storyline involving Agatha is omitted as well. That’s fine, though — the book is still strong and full of emotion, and doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything.

Having finished the book within 24 hours of starting it (I dare you to put it down once you start!), I’m really pining for more time with these characters… and have a feeling I’ll be doing a rewatch of the TV version before two long.

Meanwhile, for all the Bridgerton fans, Queen Charlotte is a must-read!

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

Content warning: Suicide, rape, childhood neglect and abandonment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Happy Place by Emily Henry

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Victorian equivalent of a deepfake.

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

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

Book Review: Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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


What did I just read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Off the Map by Trish Doller

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

Content warning: Loss of a parent, dementia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Book Review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

Title: In the Lives of Puppets
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 25, 2023
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots–fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe.

The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio-a past spent hunting humans.

When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming.

Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?

Author TJ Klune invites you deep into the heart of a peculiar forest and on the extraordinary journey of a family assembled from spare parts.

It absolutely pains me to give a TJ Klune book anything less than 5 stars… but alas, In the Lives of Puppets just didn’t hit the mark for me. This makes me sad! I’ve loved so many of the author’s books, but this tale of robots and found family — which is also a Pinocchio retelling — left me oddly uninvested.

In the Lives of Puppets is the story of a family of oddball robots and machines, living in an isolated forest grove, raising a human child named Victor. As the story gets underway, Victor is now 21, and spends his days in the company of his two best friends, a Roomba-type vacuum robot named Rambo and a medical care robot named Nurse Ratched, who seems to delight in heartless provision of medical treatments (except when she engages her Empathy Protocols and offers a soothing “there, there” to her potential patient).

The trio also live with Gio (Giovanni), an older android who loves inventing, creating, listening to jazz music, and enjoying peaceful family time. Everything changes when Victor discovers a broken down android in the Scrap Yards that seems to still have a little power left in it. Once Victor repairs Hap, hidden secrets come to life, and soon the family’s entire existence is in peril.

In the Lives of Puppets is part exploration of love, family, and what it means to be a “real” human, and part road trip/adventure/quest. By the midpoint of the book, Victor and friends are off on a journey to the City of Electric Dreams to rescue Gio and, hopefully, restore him to his true self.

The writing can be very funny, especially Rambo and Nurse Ratched’s lines. These are probably my favorite parts of the book.

“Are we lost?” Rambo asked nervously.

“Of course not,” Nurse Ratched said. “I know exactly where we are.”

“Oh. Where are we?”

“In the forest.”

“Whew,” Rambo said. “I was worried for a moment that we were lost. Since we’re not, I will instead focus on the fact that we’re in the middle of the woods at night by ourselves. Do big animals like to eat vacuums?”

“I am sure they do,” Nurse Ratched said.

“Oh no,” Rambo whispered. “But I’m a vacuum.”

As the for story threads about emotions and connection and humanity… I was left largely unmoved, and the quest elements mostly failed to hold my interest.

I have to admit, overall this book was a letdown. As I mentioned, I usually adore this author’s work, and can’t really understand why In the Lives of Puppets just did not click for me. In any case, I’ll still be tuning in for whatever he writes next, and meanwhile will look to read some of his backlist titles too.