Readathon · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

35259631Summary from Goodreads:
A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Everyone, and I mean everyone, has been talking about Jasmine Guillory’s debut romance novel. And when Roxane Gay starts tweeting about an excellent, smart, and sexy romance novel she’s reading you put it on your TBR. During the 24in48 Readathon this weekend a needed a much lighter book to balance some unexpected heaviness (Kent Haruf, I was not planning to read your book but I needed a short audiobook and whyyyyyyy did you do that to me?) so I pulled up my galley of The Wedding Date and dove right in.

Cue all the squealing. Guillory has provided us with a super-cute contemporary romance about a smart woman who gets stuck in an elevator with a hot guy who turns out to need a date for a wedding that weekend. Which turns into a one night stand. And then turns into something else entirely unlike what Alexa and Drew expected. I was hooked almost immediately by the meet-cute. Super-hot dude gets stuck in an elevator with you and makes jokes about needing snacks? Yes, please. And then he asks you to be his hot date for a wedding? I’d be willing to over-look the “oops I panicked and said you were my girlfriend” thing, too. The plot kept me turning pages until late into the night (good thing it was Saturday). 

I loved Alexa. Sharp, decisive, and with a love of doughnuts (yes, girl, always with the sprinkles). Guillory gave her a great job and purpose that just leap right off the page; Alexa doesn’t exist within the confines of this book, she could be a real person who is a mayor’s chief of staff trying to start a program for troubled kids. I liked Drew as a character, but I had trouble finding reasons for his commitment problems outside of being a busy doctor.  He didn’t come across as a Player player, no one accused him of cheating or two-timing or anything, so I couldn’t quite figure him out.

Holding up Alexa and Drew’s relationship was whip-smart multi-layered writing, infusing the book with discussions about body positivity, race, and privilege.  When Alexa arrives at the rehearsal dinner, she asks if she’s going to be the only Black person there, letting the reader know that not only will Alexa stick out as a new face attached to Drew (who has some history with the bridal party), she will be unable to blend in with the guests at any point; later, the discussions about which parts of Berkeley are supportive of her diversion program are similarly revealing. Alexa also has some thoughts about places she wished wouldn’t jiggle quite so much while having sex, which I’m sure most women have had, but Guillory makes it clear that Drew finds Alexa’s curves very sexy (every once in a while I’ll read a romance where there’s a “hero-loves-heroine-despite-her-chubbiness” vibe and that’s a definite “ew” but totally not a thing here). Ordering food and enjoying a meal are also big parts of this story, whether the main characters are alone, together, or in a group; there’s no food-shaming. Guillory also gets a Gold Star for condom usage EVERY time one was called for in addition to writing very consent-positive sex scenes.

The Wedding Date is on sale today! Pick it up at your favorite bookstore. (And apparently there’s going to be a sequel, with Drew’s buddy Carlos.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Surrender to the Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highlander #5)

34848198Summary from Goodreads:
Edith Drummond owes her life to Niels Buchanan and his brothers. Waking after an illness to a castle overrun by rugged Highlanders is disconcerting, but so is learning that she’s slowly being poisoned. Niels insists on staying by her side, and Edith soon discovers that even more dangerous is her wild attraction to the fierce warrior.

Niels has never met a more courageous—or enticing—woman than Lady Edith. The idea of such a bonny lass being forced to enter a nunnery is more than any red-blooded Scotsman could bear. He’ll gladly marry her himself. But while sweeping her off her feet is easy, it’ll take all his skill to defeat her family’s relentless enemies, and convince her to surrender to his sweet embrace.

Lynsay Sands’s Scottish romances are ridiculous, and silly, and occasionally frustrating and impossible for me to quit. The last outing in her Highlanders series was a bit of a disappointment, so I was hoping Surrender to the Highlander would be a course correction. And I did like Edith’s and Niels’s romance quite a lot. So often in a Sands romance there’s a danger to the heroine and the hero restricts her activities to the extreme and then she goes and does something stupid out of frustration. *cue eyeroll* But with Surrender to the Highlander Edith and Neils actually discuss plans of action. Edith is treated like a smart person (which she is) who knows the castle and its people better than any of the Buchanans; Neils insists on many guards, but even though they get underfoot, Edith goes along with it because she’d really prefer not to be deceased. If you’ve read a lot of Sands, then the murder poison plot feels a bit rehashed but oh well. Sands could use an editor for the language (if you take the time to pepper in “ken” and “sgian-dubh” you can do the research for a suitable Scots epithet instead of “ai yi yi”). There is one scene where Edith asks the maid how to please Neils, because she’d like to return the favor (if you know what I mean), and gets some VERY TERRIBLE BUT FUNNY advice.

I am glad to see the next book coming is for Aulay (finally) then perhaps one for Rory, since he’s actually expressed that he’d like to fall in love compared to the remaining single-guys-get-all-the-ladies attitudes of the younger brothers. Bad news for the cover designer though – tartans are the same color in one family (Dougall’s cover had a blue-ish tartan, this one is red, and Aulay’s is green for the next one – they’re all brothers).

Surrender to the Highlander is out Tuesday January 30.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The ending was an interesting one, but after sitting with it for a while I have a bit of a quibble. I’ll put it behind a Read More tag (trigger warning for discussion of rape and suicide).

(ETA: well, beans, I guess the Read More only works if you’re on the blog’s main page, not the post itself, so feel free to stop reading here if you wish.) Continue reading “Surrender to the Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highlander #5)”

mini-review · stuff I read

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

35412371Summary from Goodreads:
Married twenty years to Thomas and living in Nashville with their two children, Maggie is drawn ineluctably into a passionate affair while still fiercely committed to her husband and family. What begins as a platonic intellectual and spiritual exchange between writer Maggie and poet James, gradually transforms into an emotional and erotically charged bond that challenges Maggie’s sense of loyalty and morality, drawing her deeper into the darkness of desire.

If you like your protagonists deeply flawed with conflicting motivations, get yourself a copy of Fire Sermon. Maggie is a woman struggling to reconcile her faith with her desires. To be a good wife and mother, a poet, a teacher. She loves her husband, yet he is not intellectually stimulating and her sexual desire for him grinds to a halt (their sex scenes together are the most affecting, and possibly disturbing, of the book and so deftly crafted). When she writes an appreciative email to a fellow poet, the relationship becomes a lifeline for her, challenging her as a writer, a thinker, a human. Quatro has given us a deep meditation on temptation, marriage, and partnership told in a non-linear fashion through emails, therapy sessions, letters, diary entries, and scenes from an omniscient narrator to mark the passage of time. One of those books that is very quiet but manages to bowl you over with its sentences.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (transl. Jonathan Wright)

30780005Summary from Goodreads:
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

Here is the problem with flap copy and blurbs: this description is only half the story. The novel opens with the description of a division of the Tracking Unit tasked with identifying and tracking threats to the new government and American occupying forces. However, this division has also secretly been using fortune-tellers, astrologers, fakirs, and all sorts of metaphysical methods to attempt to predict where a bombing might occur. They’ve uncovered a criminal who cannot be killed and a journalist who interviewed him and a writer who was provided with confidential materials from the department and wrote a novel about it.  Which has been confiscated.

What we proceed to read then, is that novel. It begins with the elderly widow Elishva, a woman of deep religious convictions, on her way to worship at the Assyrian Christian church and pray to St. George for the return of her lost son, Daniel, who was conscripted by the Baathists over twenty years ago. While she is gone, a bombing takes places near her home in Bataween, an old Iraqi Jewish neighborhood. Once the blast has cleared we meet Hadi, the junk dealer, who is grieving his former business partner lost in a similar incident. The journalist Mahmoud is sent to write about the bombing. And then another bombing happens, this time an attempt on a hotel, and a guard is killed, his body vaporized. Without a body, his soul cannot find rest. It finds a home in the patchwork corpse the traumatized Hadi has assembled from disparate body parts. Claimed by Elishva as her lost son, the creature embarks on a course of vengeance across the city.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is an outstanding metafictional work set in post-invasion Baghdad. Saadawi draws from not only Mary Shelley’s creator and monster but also the idea of the golem to explore ideas of retribution, causation, and responsibility. A wonderful cast of characters populates the Bataween neighborhood at the center of the story. It brought depth and detail to a place in the world so often presented in Western media as a monoculture. The plot is structured in such a way that I really couldn’t predict how it would wrap up. I have to compliment the translator Jonathan Wright for bringing this novel across into English – the language flows beautifully.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen by Deborah Hopkinson

34972694Summary from Goodreads:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.

But before that, she was just an ordinary girl.

In fact, young Jane was a bit quiet and shy; if you had met her back then, you might not have noticed her at all. But she would have noticed you. Jane watched and listened to all the things people around her did and said and locked those observations away for safekeeping.

Jane also loved to read. She devoured everything in her father’s massive library, and before long she began creating her own stories. In her time, the most popular books were grand adventures and romances, but Jane wanted to go her own way . . . and went on to invent an entirely new kind of novel.

Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng have collaborated on a gorgeous tribute to an independent thinker who turned ordinary life into extraordinary stories and created a body of work that has delighted and inspired readers for generations.

I did not now how badly I wanted an adorable children’s picture book biography of Jane Austen until someone wrote an adorable children’s picture book biography of Jane Austen.

img_9325Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is a beautiful book illustrated by Qin Leng’s delicate artwork.  Look at little tiny Jane and her bookstack! Ahhhhh! (Yes, yes, the clothing styles aren’t quite right for Austen’s childhood, but it’s too, too cute. RIP me.) There’s a lot of girl power and reading all the books you want overlaid over the basic timeline of Austen’s life. Being a picture book, it doesn’t get very in-depth as a biography but I think it’s just right. Definitely a book to pick up for Janeites of all ages.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is out tomorrow from Balzer + Bray.

Dear FTC: A fellow bookseller got me this picture book galley and it is the CUTEST thing ever. (Camille!!!! You are the best xoxo)

mini-review · stuff I read

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

35135343Summary from Goodreads:
A new story collection, the first since his seminal Jesus’ Son, from “the most essential writer of his generation” (Los Angeles Times), a National Book Award winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Twenty-five years ago, Denis Johnson published Jesus’ Son, “a work of spare beauty and almost religious intensity” (Entertainment Weekly), which remains a touchstone today, ardently beloved by readers and writers alike. Included in The New York Times’ list of the “25 Best Books of the Last 25 Years” (alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral), it is routinely described in the press as the single most important and influential book of short stories in a generation.
Now, after years of writing novels and plays in a very different mode, Johnson returns to the short story form that first catapulted him to the highest pedestal of American writers. Though the subject matter — middle-aged life and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves — finds Johnson in new territory, the style is pure, vintage, inimitable Johnson.
Taken together, the stories in this powerful and deeply felt collection are Denis Johnson at his absolute best, the highest-caliber work of an American master.

I was late to the Denis Johnson party. I’d never quite got to him. And then he passed away, rather unexpectedly last May, which prodded me to finally read Train Dreams. Which broke me for a little bit. The announcement of a final story collection was an opportunity to read another of Johnson’s books.

“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
– “Triumph Over the Grave”

Hot damn.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a short book composed of five killer stories. From reading other reviews, it appears that Johnson continued or concluded story strands left from his previous story collection Jesus’ Son. I haven’t read that collection, obviously, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything story-wise. These five stories are gritty, obsessed with old hurts, past transgressions, and unfulfilled dreams. The third story, “Strangler Bob,” is set IN the Johnson County Jail, which is two blocks from the UI where Denis Johnson once taught.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.  It’s also my staff rec right now at the store.

Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai (Forbidden Hearts #2)

34217566Summary from Goodreads:
He wasn’t supposed to fall in love with his brother’s widow…

Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Jackson Kane fled his home, his name, and his family. Ten years later, he’s come back to town: older, wiser, richer, tougher—and still helpless to turn away the one woman he could never stop loving, even after she married his brother.

Sadia Ahmed can’t deal with the feelings her mysterious former brother-in-law stirs, but she also can’t turn down his offer of help with the cafe she’s inherited. While he heats up her kitchen, she slowly discovers that the boy she adored has grown into a man she’s simply unable to resist.

An affair is unthinkable, but their desire is undeniable. As secrets and lies are stripped away, Sadia and Jackson must decide if they’re strong enough to face the past…and step into a future together.

So, I won’t lie. I’ve already read this twice (once as a galley, then again after it came out), never got a review written (see also: blogger is the worst), and now that I have the galley for the next book downloaded I have to reread Wrong to Need You Again. (Also, as I’ve looked up specifics for this review I tried to read it again, lordt.)

This book is so good it basically makes me lose my mind. The story picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of Hate to Want You (y’all, you do you, but you’ll want to read the first book first for reasons and it’s also amaaaaaaazing). Wrong to Need You opens as Sadia is working a bartending shift because she needs the extra money. Over in the corner sits her Mystery Man.  He’s been there all week, sitting quietly in the dark corner. But she can see his hands, hands that would be good on her. Sadia could use a Mystery Man. While the bartending money is nice, it allows her the opportunity to discreetly find a partner for the night, one likely to only be in town on a visit (the townspeople see her as a “mom” or “widow” first, not as a woman with needs). So Sadia makes her move….

Only to find that the Mystery Man is Jackson, the younger brother to her deceased husband. Who had been one of her closest friends growing up, who left town a decade ago and hasn’t been back since. Who was condemned by rumor after a fire (I told you, you need to read the first book). Whelp, one does not put the moves on one’s former brother-in-law.

Jackson knows this. He has loved Sadia his whole life. He didn’t intend to hang around and low-key stalk her at her job. But he hasn’t seen or spoken to her in ten years. And once Sadia realizes it’s him sitting in the corner, she is pissed at him for just showing up. So Jackson leaves, intending to speed out of town on his motorcycle. Instead, he finds himself breaking into Sadia’s café (can you break into a building that belonged to your family and still has the emergency key in the same place your grandfather always left it?) to see how she’s doing. Not well. She’s in need of a chef, badly. Jackson is a chef. Jackson can do this for her, help Sadia with the business (once he talks her into letting him help) before cutting himself back off from all the painful memories of his past.

And the book takes off like a shot from here. Sadia is an amazing character – a bisexual, tough, smart, Muslim-American woman who got dealt a crap hand and is determined to make the best life possible for her son without showing any weakness. Ever. I love her. She very quickly crawled up to the top of my favorite heroines list. Jackson is the perfect foil for her, big, supportive, and quiet. Like all very big, strong men, particularly men of color like Jackson, he’s often thought to be the source of trouble no matter that he’s the gentlest man you could find. (Rai choosing to make Jackson a chef was Evil Genius Author level, because I just want to eat my way through this book.) The two of them together just burn the page down, two lonely souls who need each other so very badly if only they can get all the baggage and past history out of the way.

Wrong to Need You is a very different book from Hate to Want YouHtWY is a big, loud, dramatic book filled with great big inter-family scandals of the kind you could find in a soap opera. (It doesn’t help that Livvy isn’t exactly the quiet or shrinking violet type.) WtNY is a very close, intimate romance.  Even though there’s some family stuff with Sadia’s family (I love her sisters!) and with Jackson’s family, those don’t have the same splashy, dramatic quality. Even the biggest reveal of the book, no matter the size of the bombshell, is of the quietly heart-rending kind of twist.

I love this book. Bless Avon Romance for giving Alisha Rai her contract (I suspect she would have written this anyway) and bless Rai for creating these characters.

(ETA: Holy cannoli, that cover. This is the most amazing cover.)

And now I’m going to read Hurts to Love You.

Dear FTC: I’ve read my nook book at least twice, after reading a galley.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

30288282Summary from Goodreads:
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

The premise of The Immortalists is very intriguing: if told the exact date of your death, would it change how you lived your life? Does this mean that the lengths of our lives are predestined, limited to the thread spun, measured, and cut by the Fates of Greek mythology? Four siblings in the waning, hot days of 1960s Manhattan get word that there is a woman who can predict, to the day, when you will die. It doesn’t matter that such a thing is preposterous, or impossible, they feel compelled to tempt fate. This outing fractures the family forever.

The result is a very compelling novel about how perceived fate impacts the Golds’ lives. Some feel compelled to take risks, others to “play” it safe. The first two sections with Simon and Klara read very quickly. Their characters’ lives are vivid, fast-paced, and surreal. I found their stories the most compelling. The third section was Daniel’s and I had trouble with his section for some reason. It felt as if the plot and his life plus his “date” didn’t quite make sense to me. The book picked up again with Varya – her section does have a lot to think about with its focus on longevity (are you getting more years or better years?), asceticism, and self-denial. An excellent book to kick off the reading year.

Trigger warning: If you’re sensitive to animals being hurt, there are some pages in Varya’s section that are rough.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.