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August Reading Wrap-Up: ARC August and Bout of Books

In August, I had a productive reading month participating in ARC August, a reading challenge that focuses on catching up on Advanced Reader Copies, as well as the week-long Bout of Books readathon. I was able to finish 4 of the 6 ARCs on my list while still leaving some space for mood-reading, and although I didn’t encounter any elusive 5-star reads, I read several books that I really enjoyed.

Stats:

Total books read: 8

ARCs: 4

#readmyowndamnbooks: 5

Tools of Engagement by Tessa BaileyWe Are All the Same in the DarkA Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank GreenSlay by Brittney MorrisWhere Dreams Descend by Janella AngelesLuster by Raven LeilaniDon't Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Luster by Raven Leilani (4 stars) – A somewhat unsettling literary fiction coming-of-age novel focusing on a twenty-something losing her grip on the stability of her job and apartment and whose only apparent option becomes moving in with her married boyfriend, his wife, and their daughter. It explores the uncomfortable dynamics of an open marriage whose participants are clearly not equally happy with the situation, as well as the subtle racism facing the couple’s Black daughter, which our protagonist is clearly able to see but is invisible to her parents. Leilani’s prose is skillful and deft, and her sentences were fascinating to read. Luster came onto my radar after I saw it nominated for a debut fiction prize, and I’m so glad that I picked it up, because I’ll be extremely interested to pick up any future books from this author.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad (4 stars) – After reading Mona Awad’s Bunny, my NEW FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME, earlier this year, I immediately bought Awad’s only other published novel in hopes that it would work similarly well for me. And there were definitely parts of 13 Ways that did. I think that Awad taps into the heart of our societal obsession with thinness and how diet culture is pervasive in so many aspects of life; there are so many scenes where the emotions and undercurrents are dead on. But there were other parts that dragged or felt superfluous, and I felt that it might have worked better as a shorter piece, even though it’s only about 200 pages long. So it’s not my new favorite book, but there were definitely aspects that reminded me why I love Mona Awad’s writing so much, and I think it’s a book that so many women can identify with in different ways. I absolutely don’t think it deserves its abysmal Goodreads rating, but I can see how it would be polarizing in the way that Bunny also was.

We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin (4 stars) – My full review for this twisty, atmospheric, feminist mystery/thriller can be found here.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green (4 stars) – The sequel to the extremely fun and social media-focused An Absolutely Remarkable Thing was a little bit darker, more complex, and a very interesting ending to the saga of the mysterious Carls, alien technology that appeared simultaneously all over the world in the first book. I liked that it was told from multiple perspectives, which gave us a broader view on the situation, and I listened to the audiobook which was very engaging and well-narrated. I’d recommend this book to readers who mainly read contemporary fiction but are looking to dip a toe into near-future science fiction, and to social media-savvy readers.

Slay by Brittney Morris (3.5 stars) – An engrossing and addictive contemporary YA novel about a Kiera, a high school student and young game developer who creates Slay, a game that celebrates the Black experience, and whose world shifts when a player is murdered in the real world and she finds herself and her game the targets of blame and racist vitriol. Slay is a book that celebrates creativity and drive in a protagonist who’s balancing school, college applications, a boyfriend, and family with a secret passion no one in her day-to-day life knows about; I think readers of Fangirl and Eliza and Her Monsters will really like it for that reason. It also deals with the different types of racism Kiera experiences and the different ways that she and other characters take to combat this. It’s a book that I felt like I had to keep reading; at one part I got so emotionally invested that I had to peek ahead and spoil the ending for myself. Definitely recommend!

Don’t Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross (3.5 stars) – This is the second book in Cross’s Stay a Spell series, which is set in New Orleans and focuses on a family of witch sisters in charge of the city’s supernatural community. Isadora is a sweet, garden-loving witch who’s uncomfortable around most people outside of her family, and who enjoys gathering herbs and enchanting them for sale at her family’s witchy boutique. Devraj Kumar, a powerful vampire tasked with hunting down vampires who break their community’s laws, accidentally hits her with his car and becomes enchanted with her, although Isadora at first wants nothing to do with him. They’re thrown together further when young women begin disappearing from the New Orleans bar scene and it becomes obvious that vampires are involved, and Isadora and Devraj have to work as a team to take down the culprits.

I really love the supernatural worldbuilding that Juliette Cross develops in this series, from the witches and vampires to the mysterious Grims and artistic werewolves. I also love how she sprinkles in hints of relationships that will be the focus of future books (I cannot WAIT for the book focusing on Jules, the powerful head witch, and Ruben, the boss of the New Orleans vampires, who have great chemistry in every scene they’re in). Cross is also great at writing romantic scenes, and I loved Devraj as a character–he’s very complex, as one would expect from a centuries-old vampire who’s been able to travel the world and live life to the fullest. I connected less with Isadora, who didn’t have as strong of a personality as many of her other sisters, and who seemed much less dimensional than Devraj. Although I do really enjoy this series, as a whole I didn’t enjoy this installment quite as much as I did the first book, Wolf Gone Wild, but I’m definitely looking forward to reading the other books in the future.

I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles (3.5 stars) – I really enjoyed this feminist YA fantasy with Phantom of the Opera and Moulin Rouge vibes. Female magician Kallia performs nightly at a club owned by the enigmatic magician Jack, but dreams of making a name for herself outside of its boundaries. She finds her chance when a mysterious nearby city hosts a competition for magicians, but when its participants begin to go missing and she is forced to confront the misogyny of the world of magicians, she realizes it may be more of a challenge than she bargained for. Kallia’s strength of character and her formidable magical talents are tested throughout the book, and twists abound. It’s definitely an intriguing book, featuring a love triangle and mirrors that hold dark secrets, and I’d definitely recommend it to YA fantasy fans. I received an ARC of Where Dreams Descend from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey (3 stars) – In the third installment of Bailey’s Hot and Hammered series, which is centered around a house flipping company on Long Island, we’re re-introduced to the chemistry between perfectionist house stager Bethany and new-in-town Wes, who’s several years younger than Bethany but was forced to shoulder a lot of responsibility at a young age. Wes, who’s also a former rodeo competitor from the South, is instantly attracted to put-together Bethany, but she remains very skeptical of his motives for most of the book. When they’re thrown together in a house-flipping competition that’s being filmed for reality TV, their chemistry heats up as they begin to develop a mutual respect–Wes coming to see Bethany as a more complex person than the cool, calm, collected exterior she always portrays, and Bethany respecting Wes’s devotion to taking care of his niece after his sister left town.

Although I did think that Bethany and Wes had great chemistry with a lot of banter, I felt that the book overall tended to emphasize rigid traditional gender roles in a way that didn’t feel like it was set in 2020, which made it hard to fully enjoy the book. Although the development of the “Just Us League,” a group of women supporting women developed in the first book, seems on the surface to be a progressive, feminist act, there’s a lot of repetitive binary talk of “girls do this” and “guys do that” that’s never really challenged or explored in a modern sense. It’s something I noticed more and more as the series progressed, and that I wish had been addressed.

I received an eARC of Tools of Engagement from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

September TBR

I’m slightly late posting this one, but I’m really liking adding TBR blog posts to help map out my reading for the month, so we’re going to roll with it. In September, I play to do three things: start my fall-themed reading, get to a few fall ARCs, and finish the three books I’m carrying over from August.

ARCs:

We Were Restless ThingsWhen No One Is WatchingSpoiler Alert

We Were Restless Things by Cole Nagamatsu (release date 10/6) – YA mystery/contemporary fantasy about the mystery surrounding a boy who drowned in a lake that only his best friend can find.

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (release date 9/1) – a mystery/thriller about gentrification in Brooklyn and the mysterious disappearances of the main character’s neighbors

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade (release date 10/6) – contemporary romance centered around the fandom of a Game of Thrones-esque show

Currently reading/Unfinished August reads:

Emerald Blaze (Hidden Legacy, #5)Chosen Ones (The Chosen Ones, #1)The Dreamers

Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews – second in a trilogy (and also fifth in a series) following magical families in Houston, and focused on the romance between Catalina, the head of her family’s house and the possessor of siren magic, and Alessandro, an assassin with mysterious motives.

Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth – Following the five “Chosen Ones” who defeated the evil Dark One as teenagers, but ten years later when several of them are suffering from PTSD and struggling to figure out how to live their lives in the aftermath.

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – following a variety of characters after a mysterious sleeping sickness originates in a small college town.

 

What are you reading in September?

Bout of Books: Days 4-7 Stats and Wrap-Up!

I’m so glad that I decided to participate in this round of Bout of Books! It ended up being a really great way to frame my week, and pushed me to focus more on my reading productivity than I normally would. In addition to reading, I also had a much less stressful week at work; celebrated my niece’s first birthday at a (socially distanced and outdoor) gathering; went to see the original Jurassic Park at the drive-in; and went to the Genessee Country Museum for a friend’s birthday (it’s somewhere she and her sister loved going as kids, where you learn about life in our area in the 1800s, and it was interesting and also a gorgeous day out). I finished two books and started several others, and I’m hoping I’ll be inspired to carry my reading productivity into next week as well.

Here are my stats for the last 4 days of the readathon:

Day 4

Books started: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

Pages read: 50 pages of The Dreamers

Day 5

Pages read: 30% of Don’t Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross (eARC)

Day 6

Pages read: 35% of Don’t Hex and Drive (eARC)

Books finished: Don’t Hex and Drive

Day 7

Books started: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Pages read: 92 pages of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, 9 pages of The Dreamers

 

And here are my overall stats for the readathon!

Books finished: 2

Luster by Raven LeilaniDon't Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross

Pages read: 418 pages + 70% of an eARC (40 pages of Chosen Ones, 227 pages of Luster, 59 pages of The Dreamers, 92 pages of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, 70% of Don’t Hex and Drive [eARC])

Books started/read from, but not finished: 3

Chosen Ones (The Chosen Ones, #1)The Dreamers13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Bout of Books: TBR and Days 1-3 Updates!

Grab button for Bout of BooksThe Bout of Books readathon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly Rubidoux Apple. It’s a weeklong readathon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 17th and runs through Sunday, August 23rd in YOUR time zone. Bout of Books is low-pressure. All reading-in-place times, Twitter chats, and exclusive Instagram challenges are completely optional. For Bout of Books 29 information and updates, visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

At the last second, I decided to participate in another round of Bout of Books, one of my favorite readathons because it’s low pressure, fun, and gives you a whole week to read as much as you want. I had originally meant to participate in a different readathon, Tome Topple, but decided that I just wasn’t in the right head space to start and finish a 500-page book that I wasn’t in the mood for, and so I switched gears quickly. I’m really enjoying mood-reading my way through this week; I’ve had a stressful few weeks at work, and a low-pressure readathon was a great way to get myself into a better frame of mind.

My tentative TBR for this week is these three books:

Chosen Ones (The Chosen Ones, #1)Don't Hex and Drive (Stay a Spell, #2)Luster

Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth (I was about 40 pages in when the readathon started), Don’t Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross (I was about 30% into this eARC when the readathon started), and Luster by Raven Leilani, which I planned to start during this readathon.

And here are my reading stats for the first 3 days of Bout of Books:

Day 1

Pages read: 40 pages of Chosen Ones

Day 2:

Books started: Luster

Pages read: 80 pages of Luster, 5% of Don’t Hex and Drive

Day 3:

Pages read: 147 pages of Luster

Books finished: Luster

 

I’m actually really happy with the reading progress I’ve made so far this week! I’ve been struggling to get reading done after work recently, but the readathon is giving me extra motivation.

Book Review: We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin

We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin

Genre: mystery/thriller

Release date: 8/11/20

Rating: 4 stars

We Are All the Same in the Dark is a  twisty, atmospheric mystery/thriller set in a small Texas town where secrets have stayed buried for too long. Our protagonist is Odette, a police officer whose leg was amputated after a car accident when she was a teenager, on the same night that her boyfriend’s sister and their abusive father both disappeared. Now, ten years later, hardly anyone in their community has really moved on from the girl’s disappearance, especially not Odette, whose search feels even more urgent after she rescues another missing girl with mysterious origins. Past and present seem constantly on the verge of blending together as Odette delves further and further into both missing girls’ stories and doesn’t know who she can trust in either case.

I haven’t been reading many mysteries or thrillers in the past few years, but I was drawn to We Are All the Same in the Dark due to its emphasis on strong, complex female characters. Odette is a multifaceted protagonist: she’s a police officer from a long family line of police officers, and one who returned to the small town in which she had a horrific accident despite the fact that it would seem like the last place she’d want to be. She doesn’t shy away from danger in pursuit of the truth or her own flaws, and she’s struggling with a crumbling marriage alongside complicated feelings for her teenage boyfriend, who’s remained a suspect in his sister’s disappearance. Neither missing girl (Trumanelle, Odette’s ex-boyfriend’s long-missing sister, nor Angel, the mysterious girl Odette rescues) descends into a stale stereotype; both are dynamic characters even when they’re not on the page.

Heaberlin’s writing style is addicting and compelling; it took me about 50 or so pages to feel really immersed in the story, but once I did, I didn’t want to stop reading. There were just enough clues and twists to keep the story moving, and one twist in particular really blew me away. However, I did feel that the final confrontation and reveal happened a bit quickly; I’d have liked more time to explore the secrets once they were revealed.

Overall, I found We Are All the Same in the Dark to be an excellent mystery/thriller great for readers who love complex female protagonists.

I received an ARC of We Are All the Same in the Dark from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

July Reading Wrap-Up!

I didn’t read quite as much in July compared to the past few months, but I did read several great new-to-me books and re-read a favorite from last year. Let’s get to the stats and reviews!

Stats

Total books read: 6

ebooks: 1

Audiobooks: 1

re-reads: 1

#readmyowndamnbooks: 3

 

Reviews

Sapphire Flames by Ilona AndrewsCatherine House by Elisabeth ThomasThe Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Heir Affair by Heather CocksLet Us Dream by Alyssa ColeSo You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews (re-read) (4.5 stars) – I wanted to re-read Sapphire Flames, one of my favorite books of last year, in preparation for the release of its sequel, Emerald Blaze, next month, and definitely held up.  Sapphire Flames is technically the fourth book in Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series, although it’s also technically the start of a new trilogy featuring the younger sister of books 1-3’s protagonist. I’ve actually just finished this one and LOVED it; I’m an Ilona Andrews superfan, but this was one of my favorites of hers. It’s set in a version of our world that features warring dynasties of magical families, and our main character Catalina has a very unique power; we follow her trying to solve a friend’s mother’s murder, protect her own family, and maybe connect with her crush, Alessandro, who has more than a few secrets up his sleeves. Honestly, this book is SO GOOD, and I think it’s also a great starting point for readers new to Ilona Andrews.

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa (4 stars) – Wedding planner Lina, who prides herself on her ability to control her emotions, was left at the altar by her ex-fiance Andrew, who blamed his younger brother Max for his last-minute change of heart. Fast-forward to three years later, and Lina is running her own business in D.C. but has her eye on a new position to plan weddings for an upscale hotel. The catch is that to interview for the position, she needs to collaborate with a marketing firm–whose team consists of Andrew and Max. Choosing Max as the lesser of two evils, Lina finds herself opening up to him and even falling for him, while Max is realizing that his brother’s ex-fiance might be the perfect woman for him.

This book has so many sweet moments, and a lot of really great discussion about what it means to be emotionally vulnerable, and how hard it can be to confront our assumptions about ourselves. It’s funny while also letting itself dive into more serious topics, and I really loved Max and Lina’s dynamic and how they brought out the best in each other. It’s also one that I think would make an amazing movie; fingers crossed that happens one day! If, like me, you’re finding yourself picking up a lot of romance lately, definitely add this to your list.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas (4 stars) – Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is a moody, atmospheric, Gothic-inspired book centered on a mysterious and unconventional Ivy League school at which our protagonist unexpectedly finds herself after her troubled teenage years. It fits perfectly into the dark academia subgenre (which is one of my favorites!) while also remaining unique. I don’t want to share very much about its plot; I went in with essentially no prior knowledge, and I think it’s best that way, but I will say that it’s full of strangeness and friendship, and deals with concepts of feeling like an outsider vs. belonging. It’s haunting and eerie, and there’s an overlying feeling of dread that suffuses each scene, and I really loved the experience of reading it. I did feel that the ending was more anticlimactic than I’d have preferred, and I wish that certain areas had been explored further, but I overall really enjoyed this one and am very excited for whatever Elisabeth Thomas comes out with next.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (4 stars) – An informative and accessible nonfiction book about many different aspects of racism that provides insight and nuance to different frequently discussed topics. It’s a book that I’d recommend to pretty much everyone, since it’s smart and incisive but with a conversational tone that’s also great on audiobook.

The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (3 stars) – I thought there were a lot of directions the authors could have taken this sequel to The Heir Affair, and unfortunately the direction they actually went with just wasn’t the most interesting one. The premise of these books–it’s basically a Prince William/Kate Middleton romance retelling–is fun, as are most of the characters (particularly Freddie, the Prince Harry character), but this book was too long, and in my opinion focused on the wrong things. I think it could have been a more interesting book if instead of a direct sequel we got a Prince Harry/Megan Markle romance retelling, or even if the sequel itself had been more streamlined and faster-paced. That being said, I did enjoy revisiting these characters and their constant drama, although I definitely prefer the first book.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole (3 stars) – A historical fiction novella set during the women’s suffrage movement in New York, Let Us Dream follows cabaret owner Bertha and chef Amir as they learn from and teach each other about political engagement, dance, and love. I didn’t find this book quite as strong as some of Alyssa Cole’s other works; I think I would have liked it better if it had been longer and more developed, but it did have a great sense of atmosphere and a fantastic female protagonist in Bertha.

August TBR: ARC August and Tome Topple

I have two main goals with my August reading: I want to catch up on reading ARCs I’ve received, and I want to participate in another round of one of my favorite readathons, Tome Topple, which was created by Thoughts on Tomes and  focuses on reading books over 500 pages long. ARC-wise, I have 3 physical ARCs and 3 NetGalley eARCs I’d love to get through, and for Tome Topple, I’m setting the less ambitious goal of reading one tome, a newly purchased first-in-series epic fantasy. If I somehow read all of those books, which is a big if, there are a few other books I’d really love to get to–we’ll see how it goes.

Physical ARCs:

The LightnessWe Are All the Same in the DarkWhere Dreams Descend (Kingdom of Cards, #1)

The Lightness by Emily Temple (release date 6/16) – One of my most anticipated 2020 releases and a literary fiction debut focusing on female friendship.

We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin (release date 8/11) – I haven’t been reading a lot of mystery/thrillers in the past few years, but I was hooked by the description of a strong, complex female main character driven to solve the long-ago murder of her childhood friend.

Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles (release date 8/25) – I’m SO excited about this YA fantasy inspired by the Phantom of the Opera and featuring a magical competition.

eARCs:

Fable (Fable, #1)Don't Hex and Drive (Stay a Spell, #2)Tools of Engagement (Hot & Hammered, #3)

Fable by Adrienne Young (release date 9/1) – This is probably the ARC I know the least about. It’s YA fantasy, set on the high seas, about a girl finding her strength and place in the world, and it’s been getting great reviews.

Don’t Hex and Drive by Juliette Cross (release date 9/8) – This is the sequel to the fantastic Wolf Gone Wild (check out my review here) , which I read earlier this year, and I’m psyched for another installment in a series set in modern-day New Orleans and populated by witches, werewolves, and vampires, among other supernatural creatures.

Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey (release date 9/22) – A contemporary romance and the last in Bailey’s Hot and Hammered series, which is set on Long Island and involves house flipping.

Tome Topple

Song of Blood & Stone (Earthsinger Chronicles, #1)

Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope – I’ve heard that this epic fantasy series also has a healthy dose of romance, and the few reviews I’ve seen on BookTube have made me anxious to pick it up. It’s been awhile since I’ve read an epic fantasy, as I tend to be very picky about them, but I have a really good feeling about this one.

Other books on my radar

Chosen Ones (The Chosen Ones, #1)Slay

Last week, on a whim, I started reading Veronica Roth’s Chosen Ones, and although I really need to prioritize my ARCs this month, I’d love to have a chance to finish it since it’s really great so far. I’d also like to have an audiobook option during the month, and I’ve been hearing great things about Slay by Brittney Morris.

 

What’s on your TBR for August?

June Reading Wrap-Up

I read a LOT of things in June; not quite as many as April, my most productive reading month of the year so far, but still quite a few. Due to an injury, I had to stay off my feet for a lot of the month, and I definitely read quite a lot during that time. I focused my reading on picking up books from Black authors, and genre-wise, my reading was mainly comprised of romance, nonfiction, and literary fiction. Let’s get into it!

Stats

# of books read: 13

ARCs: 3

ebooks: 4

Audiobooks: 2

re-reads: 1

#readmyowndamnbooks: 5

Stamped by Jason ReynoldsBorn a Crime by Trevor NoahLet It Shine by Alyssa ColeOne to Watch by Kate Stayman-LondonAn American Marriage by Tayari JonesKindred by Octavia E. ButlerSalt Slow by Julia ArmfieldOnce Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa ColeWould I Lie to the Duke by Eva LeighWhen a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa DareTake a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Reviews:

Kindred by Octavia Butler (5 stars) – Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors, but until this month I hadn’t read her most well-known book, Kindred. I’m extremely glad I finally picked it up; every time I read one of her books I’m in awe all over again. Her writing is challenging and thought-provoking; it stays with you and forces you to engage with difficult topics rather than just finishing a book and being done with it. Kindred is a time-travel story set in the 1970s and following 26-year-old writer Dana, a Black woman living with her white boyfriend. She’s unexpectedly drawn back to the early 1800s to save a young white boy named Rufus from drowning and comes to understand that he’s her distant ancestor, and that she’s saving him to save her own family line. Dana is repeatedly drawn back every time Rufus’s life is in danger, and has to deal with his slave-owning family and the danger to her own life and freedom as a Black woman in early 1800s Maryland. Butler introduces a number of ethical questions throughout the book, and the answers are never easy; Dana is being forced to deal with the reality of slavery as a modern woman, and she constantly re-analyzes how her mind processes the inexplicable. It’s a powerful, insidiously devastating book, and I’d highly recommend picking it up along with Butler’s other works.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (5 stars) – This was my second read from Colson Whitehead, and my second five-star rating as well. I completely understand why this won the Pulitzer Prize; it’s devastating, impactful, crucial, and also deeply character-driven. Although fiction, it’s based on true events at a real reform school in Florida, which makes it all the more haunting and all the more relevant. Whitehead’s prose is continuously compelling, and he makes you feel so deeply for his characters. Highly recommend.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (4.5 stars) – I’m not going to lie, I don’t typically gravitate towards a book when I hear it described as literary fiction focused on a marriage. (That’s why I still haven’t picked up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies despite the plethora of excellent reviews.) But! An American Marriage by Tayari Jones has completely changed my mind about judging books with this premise, because it was fantastic. Celestial and Roy have been married for a little more than a year when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and their fledgling marriage, already flawed, is further tested as they try to figure out how to stay connected rather than become further divided during his incarceration. Jones’s prose is continually engaging, and the dialogue and issues Celestial and Roy face feel completely authentic throughout. She also explores different themes of racism, gender roles, and the concept of marriage in really interesting ways. Because we hear from both Celestial and Roy in alternating perspectives, and also through their letters to each other, we’re able to see how they present themselves to one another as well as what they’re feeling internally, giving us a deeper understanding of them as characters. I’d highly recommend picking this one up if you haven’t already.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (4 stars) – I haven’t watched the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, so it took me quite awhile to actually pick this one up (I don’t know why I was under the impression that you’d have to be a fan of Noah’s show to be able to enjoy it, but that’s definitely not true). It was my brother who highly recommended it to me and who finally got me to pick it up, and I have to give him a lot of credit, because this book is fantastic. It’s about Trevor Noah’s childhood in South Africa as the son of a Black woman and a white man, which was illegal at the time of his birth, and chronicles growing up under apartheid with his strong, determined mother. Noah’s writing is extremely compelling, and he’ll have you both laughing and crying during this one, along with educating you about the reality of living in South Africa. I listened to the audiobook, and Noah tells his story so well; I honestly really hope that he writes more in the future, because he’s very talented and I’d probably pick up anything he writes. Now I guess I’ll have to start watching his show, too!

Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (4 stars) – An essential book for teens through adults that provides a succinct, accessible look at the history of racism and antiracism. The audiobook, narrated by Jason Reynolds, is excellent. Definitely recommend for anyone looking for an introduction to and context for racism in the U.S., as well as an examination of antiracist leaders and thinkers.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (4 stars) – I loved this contemporary romance that featured fake dating, a social media-crafted relationship, a driven, career-focused heroine, and great mental health and work/life balance discussion. Check out my full review here; I received an eARC from the publisher courtesy of NetGalley.

Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole (4 stars) – My first foray into Alyssa Cole’s historical romances; I’ve read 5 of her contemporaries so far. Set during the Civil Rights era, we’re following a Black college student inspired to make a difference and join the movement and the childhood best friend who resurfaces in her life, a Jewish boxer. As a Jewish chick myself, I really loved seeing a Jewish main character in a historical that isn’t set during World War II, and I thought that the discussions about racism and anti-Semitism were really interesting and well-done. This book also had a really good mix of romance and history, with one never detracting from the other, and a lot of fascinating information about the Civil Rights movement.

When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare (4 stars) – I’m a sucker for a book with a great premise, and I’ve rapidly become a huge Tessa Dare fan over the past few months, so this was such a fun read for me. A young noblewoman with social anxiety invents a fake Scottish fiance and proceeds to write him letters for years on end, until she eventually kills him off in order to live out her life with the freedom to pursue the scientific illustrations that are her passion. Except that the fake fiance she was writing to turns out to be a real person, in need of a castle to house himself and his displaced army friends, who shows up asking for the marriage she invented. One of my favorite Tessa Dare books so far (although I’m just not into the Scotland thing–I understand it’s very big in historical romance, but I’m just not about it) and I’d recommend if you’re looking for an escapist read with plenty of humor amidst the romance.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling (re-read) (4 stars) – Although reading Rowling’s work right now leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, I’m participating in a book club with a group of friends and doing a re-read of the Harry Potter series as a way for us to stay in touch during the pandemic. I actually ended up skipping book 5 (I remembered it well enough to participate in the discussion without a re-read) but dove back in with book 6, which I remembered much less thoroughly. I really enjoyed this one, particularly the focus on Dumbledore, who’s probably the most interesting character in the series.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (3.5 stars) – A contemporary romance novella companion to Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series that follows Likotsi, advisor to King Thabiso (we met them both in A Princess in Theory) and her love interest Fabiola, a jewelry designer she meets through an app while in New York. The two initially plan on a brief fling, as Likotsi has to return home to Thesolo, but both fall harder than expected, and when Fab unceremoniously ends things, they’re both somewhat heartbroken. During a chance meeting months later, the two are forced to confront their dormant feelings for one another and what exactly happened between them previously. It’s a sweet second-chance romance story, with flashbacks to their initial relationship interspersed with present day, and I thought the chemistry between Likotsi and Fabiola was really well done. I really wish it had been longer, though, as I would have liked to have seen things develop further, since I liked the characters so much.

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (3 stars) – I really enjoyed several of the stories in Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow, but the majority didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to love this collection (I want to love every short story collection since they’re one of my favorite things to read!) and I do think that Salt Slow has a lot of great premises and ideas, but the execution often felt repetitive and the stories themselves felt like they would work better if either condensed or expanded. My favorites were the first few stories in the collection: “The Great Awake,” in which people gradually lose their ability to sleep, and the elusive Sleeps become manifestations that follow them around, and “The Collectibles,” about three lovelorn college roommates and how one of their theses turns sinister.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London (3 stars) – One to Watch is a contemporary romance that very much feels like reading an in-depth take on a season of the Bachelorette, with a bit of the show Unreal mixed in. Bea, a plus-sized fashion blogger, goes viral for her critique of Main Squeeze, a Bachelor-esque franchise, and its lack of every type of diversity and representation in its cast–in particular its lack of women who don’t fit into a narrowly defined beauty standard. After a slew of low-rated seasons, the show’s new producer decides to cast Bea as the new Main Squeeze, but Bea is struggling to believe in the possibility of finding love after pining over her friend Ray for so long without true reciprocation. The men she meets on the show surprise her in several different ways, but she struggles to open herself up to the possibility of falling in love–and being hurt–again.

It’s an undoubtedly fun read, filled with pop culture references, a variety of love interests, Bachelor-esque tidbits, and body positive messages, and I flew through it. I was surprised by the addition of articles, Twitter hot takes, and recaps that interspersed the narrative, and it was a device that I really enjoyed as I felt it lent a more realistic portrayal (because in the world of the Bachelor franchise, there are no end to the slew of thinkpieces and gossip and brackets that consistently appear each season). But I felt that most of the plot twists were predictable, and Bea’s emotional journey faced the same issues too many times throughout the book; even though I understand that being vulnerable and open to love can be a difficult journey, I felt that the narrative could have been more streamlined.

I received an eARC of One to Watch from the publisher courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Would I Lie to the Duke by Eva Leigh (3 stars) – Leigh’s Union of the Rakes series follows a group of misfit best friends who met in school in a Breakfast Club-esque detention scenario and who are now grown up and living in different stratas of London society; each book utilizes tropes inspired by 80’s movies. It’s a really fun idea for a historical romance series, and one that necessarily leads to a lot of hijinks. Would I Lie to the Duke follows highborn Ash, the Molly Ringwald of the friend group, and love interest Jess, a small business owner whose family soap-making company was recently devastated by a fire. Jess is working as a lady’s maid while attempting to find investors to help get her company back on track when she stumbles into a risky but potentially lucrative scheme: disguise herself as a member of the nobility and infiltrate an exclusive annual investment conference–one that Ash is also attending–and persuade the elite investors that her business is one worth sponsoring.

I really loved the chemistry between Jess and Ash–even though she’s a commoner and he’s a duke, there’s never a sense of entitlement or uncomfortable power dynamics due to Jess’s strong personality and the way they come to interact with one another. Structuring the plot around business and investing was something I hadn’t seen previously in a historical romance, and I thought it was an interesting way to do things. What I didn’t love was the deception inherent in Jess and Ash’s dynamic and how long it took for Jess’s deception to be revealed; I found it frustrating and it kept me from being able to completely root for them as a couple. I do think this is a very fun series, and I plan to pick up the next book when it’s released.

I received an eARC of Would I Lie to the Duke from the publisher courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Have you read any of these, or are any on your TBR? Let me know in the comments!

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag!

We’re halfway through the year (what) and that means it’s time for the Mid-Year Book Freak-Out tag, which was created several years ago by Ely and Chami.

I absolutely love doing this tag; I think it’s a great way to look back on what I’ve read over the past six months and consider where I need to focus my reading for the rest of the year. I usually give more than one answer for each question, because there are a LOT of books I want to talk about, and I try not to repeat the same books for different questions so that I can highlight more of them.

Let’s get started!

Best book you’ve read so far in 2020:

Bunny by Mona AwadPassage by Connie WillisKindred by Octavia E. ButlerPossessionThe SeasThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

OK, this is almost unfair, because in 2020 I read my NEW FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME, Bunny by Mona Awad. I also read several other stellar 5-star reads, which I also wanted to include here (interestingly, all are from past favorite authors, while Bunny was from a new-to-me author): Passage by Connie Willis, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Possession by A. S. Byatt,  The Seas by Samantha Hunt, and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020:

Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)Girl Gone Viral (Modern Love, #2)Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

I loved next-in-series books Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire (YA portal fantasy), Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (contemporary romance), and Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (contemporary romance).

New release you haven’t read yet, but want to:

Little EyesThe RegretsWriters & LoversThe Vanishing Half

SO MANY. I’m definitely behind on reading 2020 releases (not that you can ever really catch up!); four at the top of my list are Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (weird fiction), The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons (paranormal), Writers & Lovers by Lily King (fiction), and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (historical fiction).

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year:

Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #2)Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1)Or What You WillTranscendent Kingdom

There are SO MANY fantastic-sounding books coming out in the second half of 2020. I’m particularly excited for Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

Biggest disappointment

Followers by Megan AngeloThe Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

I…did not like Followers. It sounded like a sharp, relevant commentary on society’s over-dependency on social media, but fell flat for me, especially with regard to characterization. And The Last Book Party just was not what I expected, particularly in terms of writing strength.

Biggest surprise

The Governess Game by Tessa DareLet It Shine by Alyssa Cole

My number one reading surprise for 2020 has been historical romance as a genre. I hadn’t been even remotely a historical romance reader until late 2019, when I read and really enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke. In 2020, I somehow found myself picking up much more historical romance, and enjoying nearly all of it (I’ve read 6 so far this year!). Tessa Dare has become a new favorite of mine, and I also loved Alyssa Cole’s Civil Rights-era romance novella Let it Shine ; I’m excited to pick up more from both of them in the near future.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My other reading surprise so far this year was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I tend to avoid literary fiction books centered around marriages, because the topic just doesn’t grab me (I’ve been avoiding Lauren Groff’s lauded Fates & Furies for that reason also), but this book was fantastic, and I was gripped the entire way through.

Favorite new author (debut or new to you)

Queenie by Candice Carty-WilliamsThe Other World, It Whispers by Stephanie VictoireWhat Shines from It by Sara Rauch

I decided to go with favorite new debut authors for this question; I rated all of these books between 4 and 4.5 stars and would highly recommend them. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (contemporary fiction), The Other World, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire (fabulism short story collection), and What Shines From It by Sara Rauch (contemporary short story collection).

Newest fictional crush

I don’t think I have a solid answer for this one! I did read a lot of romance during the first half of 2020, but none of the love interests really stand out.

Newest favorite character

Queenie by Candice Carty-WilliamsJuliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraBunny by Mona Awad

OK, I’m going to have to repeat books for this category (this is the only one, I promise!). I LOVED the well-drawn and relatable protagonists of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, and Bunny by Mona Awad.

Book that made you cry

Passage by Connie Willis

This was an easy one. I SOBBED throughout the last third of so of Passage by Connie Willis; it was devastating and beautifully done.

Book that made you happy

Wolf Gone Wild by Juliette Cross

I really loved this first-in-series paranormal romance set in New Orleans; it was really everything I was looking for in the genre (Wolf Gone Wild by Juliette Cross).

Most beautiful book you’ve bought or received so far this year

Spectral EvidenceCatherine HouseSalt SlowBy Light We Knew Our Names

I love abstract covers with interesting colors and designs; these are four that I’ve hauled this year that I think are absolutely gorgeous.

What books do you need to read before the end of the year?

HomegoingRadianceStamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in AmericaIn the Dream House: A Memoir

SO MANY BOOKS. But four I really want to prioritize are Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado.

 

If you’ve done this tag, please link down below, because I’d love to see it! If not, feel free to comment any favorite reads so far for 2020.

Book Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (The Brown Sisters #2)

Genre: contemporary romance

Release date 6/23/20

Rating: 4 stars

The follow-up to last year’s Get a Life, Chloe Brown, which I enjoyed (check out my full review here), Take a Hint, Dani Brown follows Chloe’s younger sister Dani, a driven Ph.D. student who prefers casual hookups to relationships, and her friend-turned-love-interest Zafir, a former rugby player who runs a nonprofit dedicated to teaching boys about managing their emotions and avoiding toxic masculinity, while also working security at Dani’s university. The novel begins with Dani casting a spell (she’s a witch!) to find the perfect hookup buddy, because she’s afraid to enter into deeper relationships after being hurt in the past and internalizing the idea that she’s too focused on her own life to give enough in a relationship. A few months later, Dani’s trapped in an elevator during a fire drill at her university, and friend/security guard Zaf stages an overdramatic but sweet “rescue,” which is captured on the cell phones of the undergrads outside. They’re assumed to be in a relationship and given the moniker #DrRugBae and, although being social media famous is something neither of them are particularly looking for, Zaf discovers that it’s actually a great way to promote his nonprofit. Dani and Zaf agree to enter into a fake relationship, but Zaf has been harboring feelings for Dani ever since they met, and despite her aversion to relationships, Dani soon begins to fall for Zaf as well.

I can be picky when it comes to contemporary romance, but I loved this one. I actually liked it a lot more than I did Chloe Brown; not that I didn’t enjoy that one, but I wasn’t a fan of Chloe’s love interest. Both of Dani Brown‘s main characters are compelling, relatable, flawed, and trying to grow; there’s also a strong focus on mental health, as Zafir is dealing with anxiety and grief, and Dani is working on the way she perceives herself after past relationship issues. Although I loved both main characters, I identified with Dani SO MUCH–we’re both nerdy, obsessive, career-focused women who have trouble making time and emotional space for relationships. There were so many instances and descriptors of Dani that really resonated with me, and I felt so seen in this character. Like her, I’ve had a hard time picturing the kind of relationship where someone would not only not be bothered by my devotion to my career, but be supportive of it, and it was great to see a depiction of this on paper.

I also really liked that there was a reversal of traditional gender roles in Dani Brown, with Dani being commitment-averse and Zafir a relationships-only kind of guy; this theme is a constant throughout the novel. There’s also a meta discussion about the power of romance novels themselves that I really loved (Zafir is a big fan; Dani doesn’t read them and doesn’t quite understand the appeal) and great discussion about the importance of work/life balance. The entire book felt extremely current and relevant in its themes; I can’t wait to see what the next book, which focuses on youngest Brown sister Evie, will focus on.

I’d highly recommend this one to contemporary romance fans, and in particular to anyone who enjoyed Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral, as both books involve fake relationship hashtags that spiral out of control, and also focus heavily on mental health issues.

I received an eARC of Take a Hint, Dani Brown from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.