ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

The Last Exchange, by Charles Martin

AVAILABLE October 3, 2023

You never know quite what to expect with a Charles Martin book, and that philosophy certainly carries over with his upcoming novel, The Last Exchange.

Despite the serene-looking cover, a lot happens in this story, centering around the bond between the oddly-named young actress Maybe Joe Sue and her Scottish bodyguard, Pockets. Yes, Charles Martin wins the award for unique character names!

“Joe” skyrocketed to early fame after being discovered while waitressing, garnering awards, millions of dollars, and plenty of unwanted attention. But a troubled childhood has left a lot of emptiness that she attempts to fend off with pills and bad relationships.

Kelly MacThomas Pockets, with his experience in the military, has now been hired as Joe’s bodyguard while her husband films on location and philanders with other women. Pockets is a firm believer in “the line,” that boundary of emotion and physicality that you never, ever cross with an employer.

Yet, within this platonic team is fierce devotion, and it goes in both directions. Between Joe’s resources and Pockets’ unusual methods, they go to great lengths for each other in a story that has suspense, action, and a plot that grabs hold of you until the very end. I don’t want to give anything away, so this vague review is done by design, but I really enjoyed this surprising book!

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Happy Life of Isadora Bentley, by Courtney Walsh

AVAILABLE June 13, 2023

See that date up there? June 13th? Mark it on your calendar. Mark it… Are you marking? You better be marking…

Oh, Isadora. I just love you. I want to be friends with you. Twenty years ago I think I was you. Why did I let your story sit in my Kindle for 4 months? This was a story that spoke to my heart. It is a story that will speak to the heart of any introverted, cerebral, never-married-but-wants-to-be woman in her thirties who wonders why that kind of happiness seems to only be reserved for other people.

Chicago University researcher, Isadora Bentley, is celebrating her thirtieth birthday. Alone. (Does that qualify as celebrating?) Alone except for the local mini mart’s sugary delicacies that await her in Aisle 8. Twinkies, chocolate, and a 2 liter of Coke have medicinal properties that the science world has yet to recognize. (If you know, you know.) While checking out, Isadora spots a headline on a magazine: 31 Steps to Happiness, by Dr. Grace Monroe. Ha! 31 Steps. What a crock. On a whim of rebellion, Isadora buys the magazine with the intent of testing Dr. Monroe’s theory. She will implement one step per day–in any order–record her findings, and prove, unequivocally, that happiness can never be achieved so simplistically.

Unfortunately, most of these steps involve interacting with other people. Yuck. People. People lead to feelings, and feelings lead to loss and sadness and hurt. And Isadora has been hurt. A lot. Who wants that? Alone is safe. Alone is comfortable. Alone is…sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be.

Except that when you are a university researcher like Isadora, who is supposed to be working with other people, being alone isn’t always an option. Her self-imposed solitude is interrupted when Isadora’s boss assigns her to work with opposite-of-ugly Dr. Cal Baxter, a psychologist preparing a book for publication and conducting his own experiment.

Over the next year, Isadora Bentley embarks on a roller coaster ride of self-discovery, soul-searching, emotions, and regret. This sounds heavy–and it is–except that all of this wisdom is dressed in so much hilarity (her inner dialogue made me LOL on multiple occasions) that you almost don’t realize that you, the reader, are learning something too. And there are feelings–deep, deep feelings–as our beloved heroine goes on this journey, realizing that, while defensive walls are sometimes necessary, they aren’t always the answer.

I adored this book, its writing, characters, and many insightful nuggets. It’s a treasure. I highly recommend it. Remember: June 13.

9.5/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

The Wishing Game, by Meg Shaffer

AVAILABLE May 30, 2023

This book was extremely enjoyable! The closest comparison I can give it, of which I’m sure the author would approve, is that it is like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for grownups. In this case, the reclusive genius is world-renowned children’s author, Jack Masterson. But unlike Willy Wonka with his golden tickets, Jack personally selects the “children” to compete for the prize. (I’ll let you discover what that is.)

The children, however, are not children at all. They are adults who grew up reading and immersing themselves in Jack Masterson’s extensive Clock Island series. Sixty six books in all. Books that helped and affected these readers so much during difficult times that all of them, at one point, went seeking their favorite author in person. Most of us can only imagine the thrill of doing such a thing.

The plot mostly revolves around one person in particular. Lucy Hart, a kindergarten teacher’s aide whose greatest wish is to foster and adopt one special little boy, and whose greatest fear is that Life’s obstacles will prevent her from doing so. But if there’s one thing to learn from the Clock Island characters, it’s that “the only wishes ever granted are the wishes of brave children.”

As someone who loved and devoured all of Roald Dahl’s books as a child and is fiercely protective of his legacy, I raised an eyebrow when I realized that The Wishing Game was a bit of a reboot of his most famous story. I didn’t need to worry. It is a lovely homage–faithful to the principles of the original in that kindness, courage, and humility are rewarded, but unique enough that it stands firmly on its own as a terrific read and a worthy addition to any library.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

Just a Regular Boy, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

AVAILABLE May 2, 2023

I’ve read several books by Catherine Ryan Hyde and, while they often seem to follow the pattern of pairing a child in distress with an unlikely adult companion, that is where the similarities end.

In this novel, five year old Remy is forced to live in the wilderness with his survivalist father as they both mourn the loss of Remy’s mother. Conditioned to think that the world’s societies are crumbling and all remaining humans will be killed or enslaved, Remy fears everyone outside their makeshift camp. But when he finds himself completely alone and must depend on others or die, he discovers the extremes in his father’s thinking. Embraced by a foster family with an especially determined and intuitive mother, Remy learns Life’s actual truths. Yes, the world is a tough place and bad things happen, but when you are loved, validated, protected, and wanted, it can make all the difference.

Catherine Ryan Hyde never fails to amaze me with her unique stories. Once again her young protagonist is wise beyond his years but with an emotional fragility that only love can heal. The character development is excellent. The theme of trust vs fear is very strong throughout, making readers examine their own lives and insecurities.

If I had one criticism, I would say that the COVID theme with its “we’re fine, we’ve been vaccinated” is a bit heavy-handed at times. The author lives in California, where that is very much the way of thinking, but the story takes place in Idaho, where beliefs are more varied. I wish that ideology had been fine-tuned more to match the setting. Overall, though, this is a special book that I would definitely recommend to others.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

Theme: Women Going It Alone

I recently heard a terrific talk about the “backpacks of (metaphorical) rocks” we all carry–those burdens that follow us through life and affect so much of what we do and how we treat people. There are the rocks created by others, the rocks we made ourselves, and those uncontrollable rocks that are just part of being human. In this talk, the speaker focused mostly on women and how we often choose to carry our burdens alone, even when we don’t have to. I thought about this concept a lot in relation to these two books.

In Worlds Apart, a debut novel by Jane Crittenden, teens Amy and Olivia both carry backpacks heavily burdened by the actions of others. But while Amy stays upbeat and friendly, Olivia is sullen and moody. Years later, the roles are reversed and it is Amy who is bitter. Now a single mother with a popular bakery and supportive friends, she is the picture of negativity. When Chris, her daughter’s father, reenters her life after nineteen years, Amy treats him with snarky saltiness, wondering why he never inquires about his child. She wrestles with her feelings of confusion and contempt, always playing the victim and never coming out and just saying what’s on her mind. The resulting drama is unnecessary and maddening. Amy never earns our sympathy or endearment. Everything works out after a dreary three hundred pages, but only because of luck, and not in a way that feels sincere or satisfying. Sadly, this novel did not even come close to meeting my expectations. 3/10 Stars

The People We Keep, by Allison Larkin, is a fascinating study in human behavior. As we follow the life of young singer-songwriter April Sawiki, we see that problems can affect us without defining us. We are also reminded that parental scars are the deepest, whether they be physical or emotional. In April’s case, they are both. With only her guitar and her dad’s ex-girlfriend as her solace and support, sixteen year old April is left to fend for herself. Soon, survival mode is all she knows and that early hunger for love and belonging stretches into years. During April’s journey to find her place in the world, she gravitates towards other broken people, always slow to trust but amazingly observant. She is scrappy and rough, but she’s also kind, helpful, protective, and never toxic. Author Allison Larkin does a remarkable job with April’s character development, making her both strong and fragile, always wanting more but feeling she deserves less. By the time we leave April, her future is still imperfect, but it seems hopeful. Her personal rule of always leaving people with good memories extends to the reader as well. This book is beautifully written and deeply profound. 9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Historical Fiction, Romance, Series & Collections

Return to Satterthwaite Court, by Mimi Matthews

AVAILABLE April 11, 2023

I am so honored to have been chosen by Mimi Matthews to be part of her launch team for Return to Satterthwaite Court! This delightful novel of historical fiction is the third in the series of Somerset Stories, after The Work of Art and Gentleman Jim. But it also works perfectly fine as a standalone. The other books, each wonderful in its own way, are only lightly referenced.

It is December 1844 when we meet Lady Katherine Beresford and Lt. Charles Heywood, who has recently returned from several years at sea. Like the best literary romances there is awkwardness, tension, even annoyance, right from the beginning when these two have their first haphazard meeting on a busy street. Throw in a horrified best friend and a mangy stray dog and the encounter is nothing if not comical. And while Kate (Lady Katherine) is much more tenacious than most Victorian young ladies, she is kind and endearing in her pursuit of the handsome lieutenant. Her determination serves only as a reminder that females of that era had to orchestrate certain parts of their lives when so many other things were beyond their control.

There is mystery, intrigue, and terrific banter between the two characters. It easily played out as an entertaining movie in my mind’s eye, reminding me of some of my favorite onscreen couples. Because, although you know they will get together in the end, the journey to that conclusion is great fun.

If you love clean historical fiction with excellent character development and witty dialogue, I highly recommend this charming book!

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Stars Don’t Lie, by Boo Walker

“She was still there, this night sky, this elegant gown woven with diamonds…”

AVAILABLE August 22, 2023

Some “pre review” thoughts: As exciting as it is to communicate with a favorite author, it can also be tricky. Boo Walker has been incredibly generous to me, a humble blogger, offering and sending me CDs and MP3s of his two previous books, bringing me on board as a beta reader for his upcoming novel in 2024, freely giving and receiving feedback via email, and being a friend on social media. Bottom line: I wanted to love this book. Thankfully, I did. Now, on to the review.

Dr. Carver Livingstone has a lot of things figured out in life. Still in his thirties, he is a successful North Carolina veterinarian with several clinics, a surgical patent, and a staff who adores him. But he has a past, one without closure that he has kept buried and at a distance for twenty years. So when his mother asks him to return home to Vermont and mediate a family issue, it isn’t an easy decision.

Carver is, after all, a man of science. He seeks facts and doesn’t like shades of gray. He can also be slow on the uptake when it comes to emotional cues from others. It’s that “different kind of smart,” an observation not lost on Mrs. Eloise Cartwright, his favorite teacher from high school. Mrs. Cartwright was there for Carver during his darkest moments as a teen and, while he has never forgotten the impact she had on his life, he has cut ties with her as much as with everyone else.

Mrs. Cartwright would hate the cliché, but Carver had to wait for the stars to align. Or maybe they have aligned and he just needed a good push. Either way, things are being set into motion through a series of events beyond his control. Call it Fate or call it Faith, change is on the horizon.

There was so much I loved about The Stars Don’t Lie. Boo Walker effortlessly accomplishes a multitude of objectives with a diverse cast of characters. Diverse in the sense that we meet different people at various stages of life, which means there is someone for whom every reader can relate to and understand. And even though many of them have their own epiphanies, it is Carver who is at the center of it all, trying to stay afloat, constantly doubting his abilities, but still learning what’s most important. All he has to do is look up.

On a grander scale is the writing itself, which is done with terrific skill. The pace is just right and the phrasing is very clever. I highlighted several for future reference. I also found myself tapping into personal memories and feelings that few, if any, books have ever brought to the surface. Last but not least there are the messages, mainly of redemption and reminders that we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves, each conveyed with gentle tenderness. Reading, no, experiencing this book was like finally opening a stuck window and airing out a musty room. A refreshing, emotional detox.

I highly recommend it. (Yes, I’m a bit biased, but I don’t care. I loved it.)

10/10 Stars

*This book can currently be preordered on Amazon and is only $4.99 for the Kindle edition. Like all of Boo’s previous books, it will likely be available in print, digital, and audio formats if you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Historical Fiction, Suspense, Thriller

The Spectacular, by Fiona Davis

AVAILABLE June 13, 2023

How often does the title of a book also describe it? Practically never. But such is the case with The Spectacular, by Fiona Davis, because it is, in a word…spectacular.

Set mostly in 1956, we follow nineteen year old dancer Marion Brooks. Stifled by an over-protective father and a jealous older sister, Marion abandons all caution and decides to audition for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Amazingly, she succeeds and is put through the exhausting grind of long hours, extreme physical exertion, and lofty expectations. Kick high and smile wide, no matter what.

The first half of the book gives us a backstage pass through Marion’s eyes and experiences: the euphoria of being on stage, the fear of disappointing her family, plus the friendships and intricacies of a young woman living independently during a very buttoned up time in history. Then suddenly, this already fascinating plot swerves in a new direction, turning The Spectacular into a suspenseful thriller.

While Marion is navigating the excitement of professional dance, the Big Apple Bomber is on his sixteenth year terrorizing the city. Pipe bombs are being left in public places such as libraries, phone booths, offices, and theaters. That’s right. Theaters. It is here that Marion’s story gains even more momentum and collides with actual events because these bombings really happened, becoming a case that pioneered the use of criminal profiling in police work and examining the role of severe mental illness as a possible cause for such crimes.

I went into this book with no real idea of what to expect and ended up absolutely mesmerized. Fiona Davis is an extraordinary writer who has created an incredibly immersive story. Marion Brooks is a riveting protagonist, as are the supporting characters in her orbit, all of whom are grappling with challenges and emotions that Davis brings to life in a realistic way. I could feel the energy of events while being transported to 1950s New York City, a living, breathing metropolis which is a character in itself. Its heartbeat echoes throughout the story’s action, romance, and drama with a pulsating rhythm that keeps the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Keep this book on your radar when it releases in June. It is exceptional.

10/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery

All That Is Mine I Carry With Me, by William Landay

AVAILABLE March 7, 2023

I’ve been trudging through this book for days and finally finished it. A seemingly perfect family. The mother goes missing. The children are bereft. The husband appears indifferent but insists on his innocence. His law training has taught him to say things without saying them and to talk in circles whenever he’s questioned. This goes on for decades.

And that’s mostly what you read—dialogue, usually with no quotation marks—of questions and answers that lead nowhere, putting the reader in the jury box. It sounds smart, but it’s tiresome and doesn’t make for a great reading experience. Even the ending feels vague and anticlimactic. When I turned the last page and saw I was now reading the author’s acknowledgments, my first thought was “that’s it?”

All That Is Mine I Carry With Me is one of those books that I can only describe as “horizontal.” The characters are there, the descriptions and potential are there, but the ebb and flow is not. And Dan Larkin, the husband constantly under suspicion with his arrogance and passive aggressive ways, is just infuriating.

7.5/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Women's Fiction

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott

Available tomorrow! January 10, 2023

Where do you go when you want to find pettiness, gossip, mayhem and murder? Look no further than the PBA (Parent Booster Association) in an upscale Connecticut town.

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott is hilarious. A satirical look at a group of women who represent those committees we’ve pretty much all had to participate in at one time or another. There’s the Type A president, who ruthlessly clutches to her position as though her life depends on it (it does,) who overshadows and overachieves, basking in the glory of her success and leaving baffled and intimidated worker bees in her wake. That is Ainsley Aames Anderson. A triple Type A. Her name says it all.

With someone like Ainsley, you’re either a minion or an enemy. You do not question her. You do not compete with her. You certainly do not defy her. A tough lesson learned by her seemingly faithful entourage, Bee, Dayna, and Lanie. The outliers have a more difficult time. There’s working mother Nina, a successful accountant with more brains than charm, and the town’s prodigal daughter, single mom Paige Lancaster. Paige has returned to her hometown after being let go from a successful job writing crime shows in LA. She’s worldly and strong, the complete opposite of the submissive women who work with, um for, Ainsley. And it doesn’t help that Paige’s first love happens to be Ainsley’s husband.

Things fall apart at the PBA’s annual Parents and Pinot fundraising auction. By the end of the night the PBA president everyone loves to hate is dead. Suspects are everywhere. A surprising amount have access to weapons. Unsurprisingly, the blind adoration of Ainsley’s followers isn’t quite as blind as it once appeared. Using the alternating POVs of Paige, Lanie, Nina, and Dayna, we discover that few things (and people) are what they seem.

I really enjoyed Regrets Only. I’m giving it 9 stars because the ending fell a bit flat, but it’s still worth reading. It’s an honest commentary on suburban society. The seriousness and intensity at which these women view something as basic as a parent organization is extreme, yes, but not entirely untrue. We women can get a lot of things done, but the backroom plotting and politics are as old as time itself.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Series & Collections, Suspense, Thriller

Rich Blood & Rich Waters (Jason Rich Series,) by Robert Bailey

Jason Rich has failed at a lot of things in life: beating his alcohol dependency, relationships with women, and living up to his father’s expectations. Despite that, and thanks to a series of tacky billboards along the highway, Jason has still drummed up his own version of success as an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer.

When Jason is forced to defend his sister after she is charged with killing her husband, everything changes. Now he must transition to criminal law, reconnect with his splintered family, and enter the grimy world of drugs, dirty cops, and murder. Not an easy task for a man already on the state bar’s radar. Rich Blood gives us lots of expository information about Jason Rich’s personality, boundaries, background, and courtroom tactics.

In Rich Waters, Jason is blackmailed into defending a fallen local hero accused of killing a cop. His personal life is a mess, but he has his allies. Always on retainer are the three ex-military Tonidandel brothers, former Screaming Eagles who double as security and friends. Plus there is Izzy, his law partner; Harry, his investigator; and Ashley, his AA sponsor. This motley crew help to keep Jason grounded and safe, but are put at risk by a powerful enemy.

Well-written legal thrillers, like this series, are a fun way to break out of my reading comfort zone. There are lots of characters to keep track of, puzzle pieces to assemble, ongoing stories, plot twists, and reveals. I’ve become pretty skilled at pinpointing killers in murder mysteries, but both Jason Rich books kept me guessing until the very end. That’s a good thing. Plus we are treated to a very multi-faceted main character who is always fighting one demon or another, whether personal or professional.

Rich Waters ended with a very sewn-up conclusion, so I don’t know if more books will appear in the series, but I, for one, would like to see others. They are fast-paced, intelligent reads. I recommend both and to read them in order.

9/10 Stars for each book and for the series.

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

So Long, Chester Wheeler, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Available tomorrow! December 6, 2022

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde continues to impress me with her unique pairing of old and young characters! This time, however, the younger of the two is also the wiser. A lot wiser.

If you’ve seen the film As Good As it Gets, with Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear, you have the ideal casting for the cantankerous Chester Wheeler and his gay neighbor/caretaker, Lewis Madigan.

Chester Wheeler has no social filter and he’s dying. He’s managed to run off every possible person to attend to his needs. Lewis is a twenty-four year old software developer who just lost everything stable in his life. He needs a job and he’s desperate. (It would take someone desperate to put up with Chester.) Fortunately for Lewis, he’s employed by Chester’s daughter, Ellie, who is supportive of any means Lewis uses to get Chester to cooperate. Or yield. Or surrender. Semantics.

As we get to know Chester–despite his terrible moods, passive aggression, and name calling–a profound truth surfaces: Hurt people…hurt people. Does that make his behavior OK? Absolutely not. But knowing the why helps, just as it does in any difficult relationship. And Lewis is great with Chester–he’s patient without allowing himself to be victimized.

When Chester presents Lewis with a dying wish, the real adventure begins. It’s one that brings self-discovery, closure, and hope. This book is the definition of character-driven and you really do care for both of these men, one at the end of his life and one whose life is just beginning. It’s a grand story from start to finish.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Autobiography, Christian Fiction, Fiction, Magical Realism, Series & Collections

November Reads 2022

I read ten books in November. Not bad! I did reviews on the ones that had the most impact on me, but here’s a quick summary.

Best Memoir (which is also nominated for a Goodreads award): Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry. Both fascinating and heart-breaking. Just be prepared for a lot of F-bombs.

Best Romantic Comedy: Hello Stranger, by Katherine Center. This comes out in July 2023, but keep it on your TBR (to be read) list. It’s a winner! A journey of self-discovery and growth while facing challenges and falling in love.

Best Magical Realism: The Magic of Lemon Drop Pie, by Rachel Linden. Word is out on this wonderful story of second chances and glimpses into the future. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to who has read it, has loved it!

Best Book Duo: All That Really Matters and All That It Takes by Nicole Deese. Even though I rated them differently, they’re both excellent and worth your time. Clean, Christian fiction, full of flawed but decent people who learn the value of faith, embracing differences, and serving others.

In my opinion, these are the best of the bunch. Rachel Linden and Nicole Deese are new authors for me, but I definitely want to read more of their books. Hopefully something catches your eye!

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Women's Fiction

Hello Stranger, by Katherine Center

Available July 11, 2023!

I had a nice surprise a couple of days ago! I’m still expecting a hardback copy of Hello Stranger to arrive in the mail next month, but I didn’t expect to be gifted an advanced digital copy too!

I stayed up half the night finishing this book. I think it’s Katherine Center’s most brilliant novel yet. It’s also super frustrating. Why? Because (1) it deals with the condition called “face blindness,” which is extremely hard to understand, and (2) it addresses the consequences of face blindness, mainly “confirmation bias,” which means that if you think something is true, you are selective about the available facts to convince yourself of that truth. (Think of those perpetual hot button topics like politics and religion, the ultimate examples.)

A teeny tiny percentage of people will ever experience face blindness. BUT 100% of us yield to confirmation bias. We do it constantly. And THIS is the brilliant part. Katherine Center does to the reader what face blindness does to her main character, Sadie—essentially creating a puzzle, purposefully leaving out information, forcing us to use our confirmation bias crutch (without realizing we’re doing it,) then offering those missing puzzle pieces we didn’t know we needed in her best ending EVER of any of her books. (I’m playing my CB card here and calling it a fact.) 😁

I’ve done so much thinking about HELLO STRANGER since finishing it early this morning. It is a book you really have to read twice—once without all the puzzle pieces and then again with the complete picture. And yes, I’m leaving out a plot summary on purpose because making these discoveries is part of the experience. Just know that if you still want to punch the wall after reading half of it, keep going! It’s SO worth it.

And don’t worry! Along the way you’re still wittily treated to Sadie’s journey of self-discovery, an annoyingly cute neighbor, a dashing vet, an adorable dog, a looming work deadline, an evil stepsister, and the karmic satisfaction of being helpful and compassionate despite immense challenges.

9/10 Stars

***I felt a little lost when I began this book because the concept of face blindness is so foreign to me. So I did some research and came across this article by Sadie Dingfelder called My Life With Face Blindness. Sadie and Sadie. Coincidence? Nope. It turns out that journalist Sadie was an information source and the inspiration for the name of Katherine Center’s character. Isn’t life funny that way?