I feel like I never need to tell anyone ever again that I can’t stick to a genre — I can just show them this picture! Mystery? Check. Contemporary romance? Check. Mysterious contemporary romance? Check. And then throw in some high fantasy, historical fiction, YA verse prose, magical realism — and unhinged women doing psychotic things — and I’ve got quite the mishmash, in the best way possible. (No nonfiction this month, though, much to my dad’s chagrin.)
A lot of books this month made an impact on me, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about “Boy Parts” since reading it. Cause, wow. It’s insane and dark and sharp and funny, and I’ve already ordered seven books in kind of the same genre because I couldn’t put this down. Who knew crazy women could be so fun to read about!?
- Boy Parts (5)
- Before the Coffee Gets Cold (4.5)
- Black Sun (4.5)
- The No-Show (4.5)
- Delilah Green Doesn’t Care (4)
- The Thursday Murder Club (4)
- Woman of Light (4)
- The Wedding Season (4)
- The Ghosts of Rose Hill (3.5)
- Like a House on Fire (3.5)
- Fake It Till You Bake It (3)
“Like a House on Fire” by Lauren McBrayer — 3.5/5
I feel like, first, I should say that I am a 28-year-old, unmarried, childless woman, so there isn’t (yet?) a ton here in this book I really relate to. And that might have hampered my enjoyment of this book some, because I couldn’t really understand some of the difficulties our main character, Merit, is facing in her marriage and with her children. But I still enjoyed this book, mostly because I found myself enthralled with Lauren McBrayer’s writing.
When this book focuses on Merit and Jane, her boss/friend/love interest, it sings. The two are electric together, and their chemistry is fascinating to experience as their relationship develops. I loved the scenes with the two of them and would have been happy to read a book that just focused on them and the way they interact. But this book is, first and foremost, Merit’s, which means we go deep into Merit’s life — and that wasn’t my favorite place to be. Merit frustrated me in all sorts of ways with her lack of communication and wishy-washy-ness. She frequently talks about her fantasies of leaving her kids while they’re napping and never returning, and her high point of her day with them is coming back just to give them a kiss goodnight before they drift off to sleep. Again, I don’t have kids and can imagine these thoughts may be common, but you never really get the sense that Merit enjoys being a mother. Her husband is another frustrating character, and their relationship is a drain. When Jane isn’t around to add oomph to the book, Merit doesn’t really stand on her own as an interesting person. All she talks about wanting to do is look like she has it all together — and stare at Jane.
I think McBrayer wanted to delve into the interesting idea of rediscovering your identity after marriage and kids, but I’m not sure she really ever succeeds. Merit goes back to work and finds success as an architect, but it never really feels like she enjoys this new life. I’m not sure Merit ever figures out who she wants to be other than: attached to Jane. Merit’s thought are frequently “what would Jane think of this,” and I never felt like Merit developed and explored her new persona on her own. She trades one identity (wife and mom) in for another (architect and in-love-with-Jane), and loses herself in both; I never got a sense of who Merit truly was or what she wanted to get out of life. I suppose I wanted more depth out of the character.
I say all that and still think this is a good book. McBrayer’s writing is funny and quirky and engaging, and I found myself sailing through reading this one. Merit and Jane’s relationship and their growth together is well written, and it’s an interesting premise handled with a deft hand. Maybe I’ll reread this book if I ever get married and have kids to see if I can relate to these characters and their happenings more.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Penguin Group Putnam, and Lauren McBrayer for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
The Wedding Season” by Katy Birchall — 4/5
Getting ditched at the altar is one of my biggest fears (could you even imagine!?), so it’s a bit of a surprise that I not only made it through this book that features something so utterly terrifying to me — but that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Katy Birchall thrusts you into her story brilliantly, and you feel like you know these characters well and are part of their inner circle from the first page. I loved the quirkiness and silliness of the characters, but they’re deep and well-rounded, too. Freya, our protagonist who has just gotten dumped by her boyfriend of 12 years in a broom closet the day before her wedding, is kind and fierce, and she knows who she is and what she wants. And while we’re following Freya through her journey of heartbreak and healing, the surrounding characters and the friendship and love they offer were simply wonderful. I think, in a book like this, it’s rare to find side characters as thoroughly enjoyable as Birchall’s are here. They’re comforting and wise and are the kind of people you want having your back; they elevated this story immensely.
Freya, who has to survive seven weddings after hers fell apart, is given a task to complete at each one to help her survive the titular Wedding Season. And it’s at this part of the book when the storyline really starts to take shape and hook you — so I wish it all happened sooner, rather than 25 percent in. This book walks the line between women’s fiction and contemporary romance, but I’m a sucker for a swoon-y male lead and wish the romance had been leaned into a tad harder.
I read this book through the night, and I had to muffle my laughs to keep from waking my roommate up. This is a fun and fast read — but it has plenty of heart, too. All in all, this book is cute and delightful. I think I could maybe be okay with getting left alone at the altar if my story after the fact was as lovely and charming as the one in this book.
Special thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Katy Birchall for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The Thursday Murder Club” by Richard Osman — 4/5
These days, there are really just two distinct genres of crime TV shows. There’s the agency acronym show that is packed full of guns and oh-my-goodness-we-have-two-seconds-before-a-bomb-goes-off moments, and there’s the show named after a charming village or a lead detectives that features quirky characters and lots of tea. This book most definitely reads like the latter; it’s got tension, sure, but it’s simmering, and the characters and the setting are far and away the stars of the show.
Richard Osman introduces his wonderfully fun septuagenarian detectives in a manner that makes you immediately warm up to them, and, from about page 1 (well, maybe page 2), I was hooked by these eccentric characters. I was excited to spend time with Joyce and Elizabeth and Ron and Ibrahim while drinking wine and poring over stab wounds while solving murders. They’re vibrant and well-rounded individuals, and I adore them all. 70 is the new 40, right? The plot, too, picked up almost right away, and Osman does well to carry the thread throughout these pages.
My love of the characters nearly covers just about any nits, but there aren’t all that many to begin with. I do think the book may have bounced around too much — there are 115 (short) chapters — which made it hard to find a fulfilling rhythm and read, at times, as choppy. And I’m not sure the ending was perfect, which is always what I want in a book like this (but I understand is hard to achieve — unless you’re Agatha Christie), but everything did wrap up neatly. Still, because the overall vibe of the book was joyous and raucous and because of my adoration of the charming characters and setting, these hang-ups were rather miniature in nature.
If you want over-the-top action from your mystery novels, this book probably isn’t for you. But, if you (like me) love farcical and fanciful novels that are best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a shortbread cookie, I think you’ll love this book as much as I did.
“Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse — 4.5/5
I don’t know a ton about ancient mythology from the Americas, but I do know enough to wonder why it hasn’t really been explored in the literature world. The pre-Columbian era is such a rich area for stories, as Rebecca Roanhorse demonstrates wonderfully in this book. She’s combined so many ancient cultures and their stories into what amounts to an epic fantasy book.
The book follows four main characters who are all grappling with their place in this world and with warring sentiments of revenge and acceptance. You have Xiala, the bisexual ship captain with magical siren-like abilities who hides a rough past behind her lovable-rogue charm. She’s off on a sea voyage with Serapio, a man with a gentle soul who happens to be the avatar for the violent and vengeful Crow god. (Who wouldn’t love to read about a murder by a Crow and his murder of crows?) Then, there’s Okoa, the graduate of the war college where peace is preached, who is caught between two factions of his people — one accepting of the past and one angry about it. (Oh, and he rides a giant crow.) And there’s Naranpa, the sun priestess born from a world of darkness who aims for bigger and brighter things but is bogged down by infighting and politicking (and who may or may not be in love with Iktan, the nonbinary assassain-like figure who may or may not have betrayed her). If you couldn’t tell, I absolutely loved the characters.
You know the journeys the characters are on are going to intertwine at some point, but you’re left to wonder when that will be and how that will happen. Will they be allies? Enemies? Roanhorse leaves room for moral ambiguity, as this book asks, in the end, what really is “good,” and what really is “bad”? Should a violent attack by a faction be forgiven because peace is easier than spilling more blood? Is vengeance the only way to move forward? What comes after vengeance? Can the errors and horrors of the past ever truly be fixed, or are the characters doomed to repeat a violent cycle?
Roanhorse unveils things carefully in organic layers, which kept the world building from ever seeming daunting or overwhelming. Although, because things get explained languidly, there were times where I felt a little blind to the politics of the world, the importance of certain things, and the descriptions of certain roles; the second half of the book was a much more satisfying read once I had a better grip on all of that. The only other minor quibble I had was that the chapters jumped around on the timeline and from POV to POV, preventing me from always knowing where/when in the world I was and never let me get as deep as I wanted into some of the characters’ psyches. (With characters like these, who wouldn’t want to spend more time exploring them and their thoughts!?) Roanhorse’s descriptive imagery made me never want to leave the world she’s created. Everything felt so dang real.
The book is haunted by a sense of foreboding that keeps the reader engaged throughout, and the action really comes to a head in the last several chapters. That’s when the plot really starts to come to a head and when things get (very, very) real — and very violent. I can’t wait to see how things take shape in the next book, because it’s going to be a blast-and-a-half to read. And I won’t have to wait too long to find out what happens, given that I stumbled upon the perfect time to finally read this book; the sequel is released tomorrow, and I’m counting down every second until it finds its way into my hands.
“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi — 4.5/5
This book has a simple premise that’s executed wonderfully. Toshikazu Kawaguchi has taken a big, oft-used idea — time travel — and parsed it into a question: If you could go into the past once but not be able to change anything and only be able to stay there for the time it takes for your coffee to cool, would you still go?
Kawaguchi has separated his story into four vignettes — “The Lovers,” “Husband and Wife,” “The Sisters,” and “Mother and Child” — that each evoke different emotions and tell beautiful tales of love and regret. All four stories are tender and intimate, and they all make you think about how precious life is and how we should treasure every single second we have with the people we love. This isn’t a far-reaching book — everything happens in this one tiny cafe with the same characters appearing in each story — but it’s warm, and it resonates. The different stories allow descriptions and characterizations to unfold in languorous fashion, as each character notices different descriptive details in the setting and in the other characters. The writing, too, is simple and sweet (although there were a few times I could definitely tell this was a male author with the way he talked about a couple of the female characters), which just contributes to the overall comforting and warm atmosphere in this story.
The emotion in this book definitely builds and sneaks up on you toward the end of the book. The first story was light and sweet and interesting, so I was pulled into thinking the whole book would be like that… and then I was full-on sobbing by the time I closed the back cover. But the weird thing is that this isn’t a sad book! It’s heartwarming and reflective and hopeful, but it leads you to think hard about your life and the people you care about. And it turns out I care about the people in my life a lot — as my mascara-smeared face after reading this showed.
“Boy Parts” by Eliza Clark — 5/5
I like to get a feel for books before I read them, and when I came across a review that said this book contains a protagonist who fulfills the “three U’s” — unreliable, unlikable, and utterly unhinged — the dark and twisty nature of the book intrigued me, and I immediately dove into these pages.
I haven’t done especially well with unlikable characters in a few recent reads, but, after reading “Boy Parts,” I realized something: I actually do like unlikable characters — when they’re well-written. Unlike in some of the other books I’m thinking about, Eliza Clark makes no bones about the fact that her main character, Irina, is a nightmare. Clark never actually wants you to like Irina, and the author never tries to salvage Irina or make her more sympathetic. Clark knows how toxic and manipulative Irina is, and the author leans hard into that, which makes this book a blast to read.
Clark’s writing is energetic and approachable, and the characterization is remarkably detailed, particularly when it comes to Irina and her 12 million issues, but with the details given to the surrounding characters, as well. Irina is pathological and narcissistic and egotistical — and she’s magnetic, to both her minions in the book and to the reader themself. I hated her, but I couldn’t stop reading about her. Clark takes you on a fascinating journey on a descent into madness, where you’ll question what is real and what is just another one of Irina’s lies.
Irina is fascinating in so many ways, but what grabbed me the most is the way she approaches some sort of self-actualization. She knows she’s cruel to the people around her, and she knows she’s screwed up, but everyone keeps giving her a free pass because “she’s just being Irina.” The reader sees her as a threat given what we know about her, but there’s a great part of the book when Irina wonders why no one else sees how dangerous she is, and she wants to know what it’ll take for someone to — finally — hold her accountable.
I loved how sharp this book was with its social commentary and how it approaches the dark and violent aspects in the text with a bit of cheeky humor. It’s messy, it’s unstable, it’s smart, and I simply couldn’t put it down. I adored it. After reading it, I might have to propose my own alphabet system going forward for books like this one, the three Ds: disturbing, delightful, and deliciously deranged.
“The Ghosts of Rose Hill” by R.M. Romero — 3.5/5
It makes so much sense that this book has a violinist at the core of its story, because R.M. Romero’s writing is truly musical. Her phrasing is lilting, and the cadence in these pages is near-perfect. The language is light and airy and makes it feel like magic is flowing throughout — with certain phrases that strike exactly the right chord. And, just like any good symphony, the book builds up to an ovation-worthy climax. But there’s more to like about this book than just Romero’s writing. The magic system is sweet, and it’s diverse, and the addition of traditional folklore really rounds the book out nicely and contributes something quite different and wonderful. The setting is vibrant and had me ready to book a ticket to Prague just so I could wander around the city that is so powerfully described — even if it is haunted by lost souls. And Ilana, the book’s main character (and the violinist), is exactly who you want as your heroine — she’s brave and kind and thoughtful, and she’s interesting, which makes being inside her head a delight.
I haven’t read a book written in verse prose like this since 9th grade — and didn’t know this book would be written in it until I opened the first page (oops!) — but I found myself spellbound by the medium and the way it wraps you up nice and tight inside the story. Because I don’t read much verse prose, though, I’m not sure if the disconnect I felt from the story at times was more a case of the style itself or more a case of this book, but I often felt like I was observing the story from afar, not that I was part of it. I wanted a stronger connection, both to the characters and the action. I also feel like the romance here was a tad shoe-horned in and wasn’t necessary to the story (and wasn’t all that believable).
I flew through this book (I once looked down and realized I was already 65 percent of the way in), and I found myself enjoying every word and every page. I just wished this book had a little more oomph to really connect me to the characters and their beautiful story. But this is certainly a sweet and inventive book — and the writing absolutely sings.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Peachtree Teen, and R.M. Romero for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Fake It Till You Bake It” by Jamie Wesley — 3/5
I used to take homemade baked goods to Cal football practices when I covered the team (gotta get someone to eat all the extras!), so a book that combines football players and working in a bakery has my name all over it. And, for the most part, this book filled that craving. It’s cute with crackling moments and interesting characters, but it didn’t leave me wanting more.
I liked the characters a lot, and I liked their communication even more. The relationship between Jada and Donovan felt fluid and natural, and some of their adorableness had me blushing. But the writing held no real allure for me — I felt like I could have cut at least one sentence from every paragraph — and was never subtle with so much tell and so little show. I wish the side characters had been a bit more dynamic, because there was definitely plenty of room for exploration, and I occasionally got lost on the timeline. (I also had trouble imaging a bakery owned and worked by, essentially, TJ Watt, Derek Watt, and Najee Harris (go, Steelers!) would have trouble getting customers to come in, but I suppose that plot point was needed to move the story along.) The book definitely got better after the first 100 or so pages when the heart of the story was given a chance to open up — gimme all the fake dating tropes — but I still devoured this read in one sitting. Because, overall, this is a sweet story with tons of heart and a lovely romance at its core. But it’s a basic Toll House chocolate chip cookie, not a fluffy Levain one.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, in my experience, linebackers typically prefer brownies.
Special thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Jamie Wesley for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Woman of Light” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine — 4/5
I first heard about this book as I was copy editing a feature on the author, and the concept sounded right up my alley. A historical fiction novel spanning generations? Check. A Latina author writing about Indigenous and Mexican families in the American West? Sign me up. A main character trying to find her place in a society designed to overrun her? Just give me the book now!
For the most part, the book lived up to my expectations. It’s exceptionally well-written, and every sentence deserves to be savored; Kali Fajardo-Anstine has a beautiful way of crafting images and emotions that linger long after you’ve turned the page. She paints scenes in subtle but detailed ways; never smacking you over the head with her descriptions of people, places, and things. And some of Fajardo-Anstine’s lines hit me deep — I had to pause for a few moments to process what she’d just written because it was so poignant and evocative. The book’s setting is rich and explores a place and time — Denver around the Great Depression — that I was unfamiliar with. And Fajardo-Anstine makes it come alive with sounds and smells (it pops in the most extraordinary of ways) across seamlessly woven timelines.
On paper, the characters were wonderful and interesting. But they never quite felt fully realized. In particular, that rings true for our main character, Luz, with whom I felt a tenuous connection. I wish that Luz was, well, a little more well-lit. She’s intriguing, and I loved reading about what she was seeing and experiencing, but I never felt like she was a dynamic character. And when she mentions wanting more from life, we never see her take steps toward achieving that. Right as she starts to come into her own, the book ends rather abruptly. Her ability to read tea leaves and see the future is never explored as much as I hoped it would be, given that it adds a really interesting potential for exploration of magical realism and could have made her more intriguing and forceful as she reckoned with the gift — or the burden — her ancestors gave her. But her gift is mostly just a parlor trick here. While there’s a tense atmosphere, because Luz feels far away from the stakes in the novel, it lacks much urgency.
I say that, though, having still loved the experience of reading this book. If I could write a quarter as well as Fajardo-Anstine does within these pages, I’d be a happy camper. Her voice is magical, and it’s important. And the story itself is a fascinating one — it’s a beautiful tale of a dark history that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem all that removed from our present. My bet is that if Luz was reading your future, your tea leaves would tell her you’d enjoy this book.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House/One World, and Kali Fajardo-Anstine for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The No-Show” by Beth O’Leary — 4.5/5
I picked up this book thinking it was going to be one thing. And it wasn’t. As I was reading it, I thought it was going to be four other things. And it was none of those things, either. It’s something entirely different, altogether. I can’t say too much of what this book is — because I want you to be surprised while reading it, too — but I can say it’s endearing and warm and sweet and emotional. And I loved it.
The plot of the story — man stands up three women on Valentine’s Day — is cleverly woven, as you experience the aftermath of that man’s action through the POVs of those three detailed and realistic women (Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane). The women are all interesting with such different personalities, and Beth O’Leary does such a wonderful job of showing the same man through their three different sets of eyes; it’s cool how each woman picks up on different aspects of the man’s personality and how they each bring something different out of him. The characterization is masterful how, given what we know about the man, we don’t hate him! Because of some of the subterfuge the book requires, there were times I wanted to shake the women and tell them they deserved better, especially during the middle part of the book. But everything comes to such a wonderful close that it all makes sense, even if I wanted some of the characters to be more active and demand more for themselves.
O’Leary’s writing is easily accessible and nicely marries emotion with comedy. And the way she casts a hint of mystery throughout is wonderfully done. I didn’t feel bamboozled when everything started to reveal itself because she’d so cleverly and subtly let me know what was coming. (I do, however, wish a little bit of the air of mystery around two of the women’s pasts wasn’t quite so shaded.) I think what really put this book over the top for me was how well-rounded it was. In so many contemporary romance–type books, the side characters really only exist to further the relationship between the main characters, which I think often makes books feel claustrophobic and one-dimensional. So I like to do my own sort of Bechdel test: Do the characters talk to their friends about anything except the other romantic lead? And here, O’Leary excels. Siobhan and Miranda and Jane are surrounded by wonderful people who are there to help them realize who they are on their own, not who they could be in a relationship.
TL;DR: Sorry, I can’t tell you anything about this book except that I think you’ll love it.
“Delilah Green Doesn’t Care” by Ashley Herring Blake — 4/5
Delilah Green may not care, but it turns out I care deeply about Delilah Green.
This book was sumptuous in just about every possible way. It’s sweet and funny, and I couldn’t stop getting those stop-they’re-too-freaking-adorable stomach jitters every time Delilah and Claire interacted. (Plus, Ashley Herring Blake included some of my favorite tropes — sibling’s best friend, grumpy/sunshine, one bed, single parent — so I had a rollicking good time reading this.) Delilah and Claire are both fully fledged characters who I found myself invested in, both as individuals on their own and in their relationship. And that was the case for all of the side characters, too. Astrid (the ice queen) and Iris (the snarky comedic relief) and Josh (Claire’s ex) are compelling with their own storylines and interests, which made this book feel three-dimensional and kept me turning pages, because it felt like I was hanging out with a wonderful group of friends and was working out my problems alongside them.
The myriad storylines may have been a tad much and a little distracting, but I understand why Herring Blake included them all. This book is the first in a set-in-a-specific-town series (Bright Falls), so I understand the impulse to make sure readers will care enough about the other characters and their happenings to stick around for the rest of the books. I think Herring Blake was smart to start her series with Delilah, who is an outsider coming back to Bright Falls after a long time away; it allows us to fall in love with the charming town and townspeople alongside our main character.
The town isn’t the only cute thing in this book, though. Believe me when I say Delilah and Claire truly are adorable. Their connection was natural (as friends and as lovers), and their chemistry sings. Watching them both come into their own was wonderful to see. Plus, the scenes with Delilah interacting with Claire’s daughter, Ruby, made me melt. Herring Blake’s use of dual narratives worked extremely well, especially as Delilah and Claire examined their past and their pre- and misconceptions.
So, yes, I care a lot about Delilah Green. And I’m sure I’ll care a lot about the characters in the rest of this series, too.