The last of a trilogy, and it feels like it—this was a nostalgic run through of this series' highlights and a long-awaited romance from two opposing characters. Bring on the tension, the drama, and the steam! (And a house-flip reality TV show?? I should probably mention that first.)
Standalone factor: ★
Overall Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
Tools of Engagement comes out on September 22!
So, real quick - NO, this is not a standalone despite what the marketing says. This is the third book in a trilogy of related characters in a small town and it feels like it. This was SO not a bad thing for me, a devoted reader to the series, but might be for you so please keep that in mind.
Bethany Castle lives a flawless life. No really, she totally does. Ignore the fact that she's hyperventilating in the corner and has a stress rash on her neck and is incapable of letting anyone know the crushing level of perfectionism that keeps her awake at night. Everything is fine, life is perfect, and she is a flawless 30 year old.
The only in Bethany's "perfect" life that upends her image is Wes Daniels.
A cowboy hat wearing, 23-year-old freewheeling guy who lived a spontaneous life until his half sister dumped her 5 year old niece in his lap, Wes Daniels works for Stephen Castle (Bethany's older brother) and flips houses. Wes has been circling Bethany for months and he thinks he's got her number: one day the tension will snap, and they're going to settle things in the sheets.
But then Wes sees the Perfect Life™ of Bethany's dreams is actually just a flimsy sheet in the wind and he realizes that this isn't a game—it's something bigger.
Now let's add in the fact that Bethany and her brother Stephen are asked to compete in a "Flip Off" HGTV reality show of epic sibling rivalry proportions and we've got ourselves some DRAMA.
Will Bethany and Wes get to the good stuff, or will Bethany's need for perfection collapse on top of them under the pressure of the film lights?
Ready, set, ACTION.
What an ending to this trilogy! This installment takes the characters' careers (house building and flipping) to its most literal interpretation: an HGTV competition show. As someone who normally doesn't like the "movie set" life depicted in books, I could handle this one because it really didn't matter to the plot. This was very much a story about Bethany and Wes, and barely involved the "movie" element at all.
This was also the least steamy of the three books, which was interesting. Given the crackling dialogue between Wes and Bethany in the first books, I was ready for some serious steam. There was steam... but I'd almost call it tame compared to Fix Her Up and Love Her or Lose Her. Something to note for those who really enjoyed that element of Bailey's other books.
Like I said at the beginning, if you're new to this series this is NOT the book to start on. Wes and Bethany's plot line relies heavily on prior knowledge of their interactions in the previous books, and their side plots with the other characters are absolutely meaningless without that added background.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A modern tale of one woman discovering her own sense of purpose in Ghana amidst family drama, expectations, and marriage. I'm not one who automatically goes for domestic stories, so extremely pleased to say that this was such a fantastic read.
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
“Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”
That's the first line. I think it's charismatic enough on its own—it definitely made me want to pick it up—but for the sake of reviewing, let's get into it.
Afi is a young woman living in a small, rural community near the city of Accra in Ghana. Her mother and herself have existed on the edges of poverty, clinging to the good graces of their extended family and of Aunty, the rich benefactor of the community.
So when Aunty tells Afi and her mother to do something, they do it. Aunty's latest request is more than a passing task, however--Aunty wants Afi to marry her son, Eli.
Now there's obviously a catch to Aunty's "benevolence"--Afi also has another purpose as Eli's wife. Eli is currently living with a Liberian woman...who hates Aunty and doesn't allow the family to be close to them. It is Afi's job to lure him away and make him come back into the family fold.
Whew. Talk about an intense start to a marriage.
Afi was such an interesting character to spend time with, mostly because I found her pure heart and stalwart sense of self to be such a refreshing perspectivee in a female protagonist. This is a novel where it would have been easy to remove the woman's sense of agency—Afi is essentially a bought bride, who is meant to break up an existing relationship and trick her husband--but Afi stands strong. In a reality where she came from nothing and is thrust into a world unrecognizable to her own, she does her best.
And her best is pretty darn good... Accra is a big city, with big dreams. It's time for Afi to find herself and discover what it means to truly be free.
Thank you so much to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I adore this series. Historical romance with a slap of women's suffrage? BRING it, babe, and keep them coming.
Historic vibes: ★★★★ 1/2
Witty dialogue: ★★★★★
A Rogue of One's Own comes out on September 1, 2020!
This is fast becoming one of my favorite series in the niche genre of historical romances. Neck in neck with Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke series, this is filled to the brim with witty banter, sharp women, self aware yet powerful men, and a historical setting with a refreshingly modern sense of female independence. (Okay, that last one obviously bends the rules of "historical accuracy," but excuse me... this is a romance and I'm not complaining.)
Lucie is not happy. A woman who has given up her reputation in society and worked herself to the bone for The Cause (women's rights), Lucie is finally at the point where she and her team of Oxford suffragists have successfully landed a spot to shine the light on their cause: They've purchased 50% of the shares of a publishing house, and they mean to use them to fight the good fight and spread the word.
The only thing in Lucie's way is Lord Tristan Ballentine.
Tristan and Lucie grew up together, and Lucie cannot BELIEVE that at this moment, the most important moment of her Cause, it's Tristan standing in her way. As far back as she can remember, it was Tristan in her path. He threw pranks her way, he never left her alone, and he never disappeared from her line of sight. Of course, these days he's keeping himself in her life by flaunting his lovers and sexual escapades in the society's gossip rags.... but still.
Tristan Ballentine has bought the other 50% of shares at the publishing house.
Lucie's not about to let that stand. She's ready for battle, and as always, Tristan is there ready to spar. What could possibly make Tristan do this?
Well, if the man has been infatuated with the spitfire suffragist since she was old enough to slap him at the age of 13, that's his business. He's spent decades doing everything he possibly can to provoke a reaction from Lucie. But this time, Tristan's actions aren't necessarily about Lucie, and he's found himself on the other side of the sparring field quite by accident.
He guesses it's time to see how far this can go. Oh dear, Lucie. Get ready for a ride.
LOVED this, folks. Perfectly paced hate-to-love romance, with a huge dash of mutual angst and pining because, duh, it's also historical. One of the best elements of historical romances is the strict society rules, and how our heroes decide to subvert them. This story was no exception. Their ending was perfect for their character arcs.
Tristan and Lucie's chemistry zings. Really zings. I loved their back stories, their reasonings, and even enjoyed the stereotypical elements of "reluctant historical female meets notorious rogue" that usually sets my teeth on edge. Because Lucie's character was so independent and strong, I didn't mind. She held her own and then some.
Also, it must be said that the author does a fantastic job of grounding us in the time period of women fighting for their rights in England. There's a section of notes in the back explaining where things fit into the real historic timeline, and I really appreciated it.
Thank you to Berkley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This collection was stunning, hypnotic, and voyeuristic in the best way.
A House Is a Body by Shruti Swamy is a remarkable collection of short stories. Invasive with its characters, unflinching in its portrayals of the modern Indian woman and her experiences. Some of my favorite stories combined India's mythic roots with modern problems, and others told devastating tales of secrecy and loss.
Some of my favorite stories in the collection:
Earthly Pleasures - 5 stars
A woman meets Krishna, the divine lover in Hindu mythology. Her tale of loneliness, heartbreak, and alcohol intersecting with Krishna's check-ins into her life was beautiful—made even more so by their interesting relationship.
Mourners - 4.5 stars
A heavy-hitter. This tale of one woman's death—no longer a wife, a sister, a mother, a friend—and her family's attempt to salvage the situation as grief spins them out into spirals. Beautiful prose, interesting commentaries on how grief patches itself with grief.
The Laughter Artist - 5 stars
I don't even want to describe this one. It's perfect.
If you're interested in short stories, definitely pick this one up. If you're into feminism, motherhood, women loving women, modern juxtaposed with old... definitely pick this one up.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is the last kind of story that I would have pegged as hopeful. And joyful. And yet it was.
This isn't the kind of love story that would make it into the romance section, but it's a love story all the same. It's about what it means to be you—a person in the world, existing as a separate unit from others—and what it means to discover how you can love the unit that is you.
Stella and Simon have been together for over 20 years. Their marriage has followed the track of Simon's desire to be famous, to be a rock star. Now they're in the forties, and Simon is still the same free-wheeling, "no responsibilities" guy and Stella is trying to make him look toward the future, their future.
And then, Stella falls into a coma.
Simon, now forced for the first time to be the adult in their relationship, has to have a reckoning within himself. He becomes more responsible. He starts thinking of Stella, and not just as someone who exists to support him. He starts thinking of his life, and if it is rolling in the direction it needs to go.
And then, Stella wakes up from the coma. But like many coma patients, Stella comes out different than she went in before.
Stella now has an aptitude for painting and drawing, and she's not like she used to be. Simon feels wrong, she feels wrong, and her best friend Libby treats her more like a patient than a friend. Finally looking at her life from an outsider's eyes, Stella realizes that...maybe she doesn't fit in this life anymore.
Libby is Stella's best friend, and she used to hate Simon. Simon was the man-child that never grew up, never paid Stella the attention and love that she was due. But when Stella goes into the coma, Simon changes. Libby can't help but notice that change, and they fall toward each other in their pain.
Stella, Simon, and Libby all have some growing to do—and they might not make it out to the other side as the same people that went in. But sometimes painful growth is good, and self-acceptance is no small element of happiness.
I absolutely adored this novel. To be honest with you, I didn't think I would. I've always struggled to pick up books that scream sadness, and With or Without You definitely gives off that vibe. And I'll be honest, there are some sad parts. That's no joke. But what I didn't expect—and maybe that's on me, for not trusting the author—was the shining hope and self-love. This is a novel that demands a internal reckoning, and it demands that its characters realize that other people cannot complete them. It's a lesson that resonates with its readers too. I know it resonated with me.
A beautiful story, and sharply real. These characters will stay with you when you leave them, and the writing lingers. Fantastic book.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Reflections on memory, the layers of self that make up who we are, and the sense of mortality at the heart of what it means to be human. This was a heavy and contemplative read.
Pacing: ★★★ (a little slow for me)
Hieroglyphics has a title that makes you think of history. And not just any history, but ancient history. This was clearly intentional, and also relied on the other aspect of a hieroglyphic: the fact that they're pictures displaying stories, the written word, and that their interpretation varies.
My standard review format seems off in this case. It's not a standard novel.
Imagine if you could walk through the mind of your grandmother, your grandfather. What would you see? A haze of distant memories, maybe. Or a winding path cluttered on either side with the small details of millions of moments. Or, just maybe, the space is crystal clear: everything in its place, everything lovingly polished with the element of remembering.
This novel follows the story of an elderly couple, Lil and Frank, and their continuous musings on what it means to remember, what is important about what they're remembering, and how they want to be remembered. If that sounds like a twisting, continuous loop—you'd be right. By the end of this novel I felt like I WAS Lil and Frank. I'd lived their memories and breathed their thoughts and felt the core of their beings from page to page. McCorkle's writing is phenomenal in this, even when she's scraping apart her characters skin layer by skin layer to expose them to the elements of time.
Another element of this novel was Shelley, a woman younger than Lil and Frank, but no less focused on her own memories, pasts, and looping concepts of life. She's the current owner of Frank's childhood home, and when Frank stops by to ask her to let him wander about—to remember, obviously—she doesn't let him in because of her own reasons. This relationship develops through long vignettes of Shelley's experience, her son Harvey's experience and his feelings about ghosts, and through Frank and Lil themselves.
An interesting, thought provoking read that's meant to make us hyper aware of not only our mortality, but also of that old phrase: When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I don't think I'll be forgetting this book any time soon. "Haunting," is one word for it. "Piercing" is another.
Cultural relevancy: ★★★★★
The Night Swim is a novel that feels sharply of its time—and that's not a good thing for our modern world. In my opinion, this book shouldn't have to exist. But I'm glad that Megan Goldin decided to tell it, because it's poignant, important, and aches with past and present bruises.
Rachel Krall is now a household name. After starting her extremely successful cold-case crime podcast, Rachel has become something of an amateur detective, jury, and public figure all in one. Now in her third season of her podcast, Rachel decides to go into uncharted territory: covering a current, ongoing court case.
A small town is in the midst of a rape trial.
Immediately, your expectations can supply some of the details as—and I hope you can feel the angry in my words through the screen--this is not a unique injustice in our society.
A golden boy, a pillar of the Neapolis community, destined for a shot at the Olympic swim team when he graduates, perfect in every way according to the world and his parents and society--he's been charged with rape and assault. How could such a nice boy have done this? The town cries for this boy who's been "wronged."
The girl, of course, is living in a different kind of hell and hasn't been looked on as fondly by the town. Her family is hounded by the press, her name becomes synonymous with "asking for it," and her trial has been hijacked in the court of public opinion by her predator.
Rachel Krall is here to find out the truth behind this current rape trial. But what Rachel doesn't expect to find is a series of letters addressed to her, begging her to look into the "accidental" death of a teenage girl 25 years ago in the same small town. The town slut, the town's shining example of a girl gone wrong. That girl's fate was also determined by the court of public opinion, and her death was pushed under the rug.
With pulse-pounding suspense, lingering coastal atmosphere, and a social commentary as sharp as glass, The Night Swim is a great mystery/thriller. I hope its place in the canon does its subject matter justice, and I hope it sparks more conversations. As a woman, it made me rage and ache and want to not have daughters. As a reader, it made me appreciate Goldin's talent for the written word, and her bravery for tackling a topic that, as her own protagonist states, is somehow not a black and white issue.
If we can all agree that murder is wrong, indefinitely, irrefutably—why is rape somehow different? Like Rachel Krall's podcast concludes with, it's time for you, the audience, to decide for yourself who is right, and who is wrong.
Thank you to St Martin's Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Four men discover that things they buried in the past don't stay buried in this multi-layered cultural horror novel by master writer Stephen Graham Jones.
Potential to linger in your mind forever: ★★★★★
Execution of plot: ★★★★★
This was stellar. That seems to be an odd opinion as I don't see too many 5 stars rolling around, but this horrific tale of past sins, cultural obligations turning into traps, cyclical identity horror, and more was amazing.
The Only Good Indians is a different kind of horror novel. Oh, it goes there with its horror—extreme trigger warnings for horror inflicted on animals being a main example. But it's also a layered look at what it means to be Indian/Native American/Indigenous in today's America—and the cultural identity, cyclical injustices, and lingering wounds of the past that refuse to heal both within the community and in the country at large.
Ten years ago, four friends decide to break the laws of the land and hunt for elk in the elders' only zone. While there, they find a herd of elk and take them down in a glorified slaughter. One of their kills is a young female. And she was pregnant. (Killing young/pregnant targets is taboo for hunters.)
Now ten years later, those four men all live different versions of a modern Native experience. Two are still on the reservation, struggling with their own pasts and present within the constant social chains of familial obligation and tribal identity. One man fled the reservation after the OD of his brother and escaped to North Dakota to work on a oil rig. One man fell in love with a white woman and pretends he's made his own choices to be away from the reservation as opposed to hiding from the sins of his past.
But the past draws long shadows, and the Elk Head Woman is coming to avenge the slaughter of the land. Who will be the first man to fall?
Presented in sections dedicated to the different men and their encounters with the horror stalking them, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last. Jones' talent for ominous atmosphere delivered through distanced writing was fantastic. It speaks to the talent of the writing that something with relatively little jump scares and/or action was able to keep my muscles so tense for so long, ready for the next jump. This book was terrifying, its progression toward its only conclusion ceaseless and inevitable.
I don't think this kind of horror novel will be for everyone, and as my friends' ratings suggest, that is clearly the case. If you come to this novel with an expectation, expect it to be ignored. The Only Good Indians stands alone in its pacing, its plot, and its ability to have each action and reaction exist not only as concrete points of the surface horror novel but also reflections of horror in myriad forms of the Indian/Native American/Indigenous experience.
Thank you to the publisher and Libro.fm for my audiobook copy in exchange for an honest review.
I was bored silly for 75% of this book, but the very very end did surprise me more than I expected it to, so I bumped the rating up a star.
Because my feelings for this one are so meh, this review is going to be short and sweet.
I think that fans of Alice Feeney may enjoy this one, but as this was my first Feeney novel I can't say that for certain. I CAN say that this novel didn't have the same polarizing negative representation that I Know Who You Are seemed to have. (I heard about the ending to that book - yikes.)
This was just... a seriously standard dual POV thriller. There's a dead body, and a male perspective and a female perspective. The man and woman are obviously linked together, and a third, "murderer" POV thrown in that could be anyone. There's enough shocks, red herrings, and twisted secrets for 10 lifetimes.
As you can probably tell from my lackluster phrasing—I'm so sorry to this book, it's not really its fault—I just didn't enjoy reading it. The writing seemed like it kept trying to reel me in, but the endless vague sentences, dual-meaning scenes, and flashbacks conveyed to be as sinister-yet-vague as possible all kept me from feeling like this was a real story with real stakes. It felt very fourth wall, very staged. And, despite its pulse-pounding premise, I was also extremely bored. I could have handled one or two of the above issues and still enjoyed the ride, but all of them? No dice.
Oh well. On to the next!
Thank you to Flatiron via NetGalley for my giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What do you have when you add Salem Witch Trials, plagues, cursed witches, polygamy, oppression of women, fantasy settings, racial commentaries, and religious allegories together? This book.
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. A biracial girl in a town of only white people, her very existence brings shame to her family as it reminds the settlement of her dead mother's sins—and witchcraft.
The Prophet is a man (I bet you guessed) and the town of Bethel exists as a small, settlement-type town in the middle of Nowhere, Nowhere. Their town is surrounded by the Darkwood, and the Prophet's religious teachings warn of the wood's dangers and temptations. Lilith and her coven of witches live in the Darkwood and they live in sin, and if you let them tempt you you'll be lost forever.
Or at least, that's what the man says.
Like so many tales of oppressive male-dominated religious regimes, The Year of the Witching is highlighting issues of gender, power, and control—and how many of those bindings go hand in hand with some extreme conservative religions. The Prophet may be in charge and he may call himself holy, but his many many underage sister wives tell a different story by the bruises on their skin.
Combining issues of female agency and power, race and poverty, and a heavy dose of critical notes on religion, this tale was extremely representative and often sacrificed world building and plot for the sake of allegory. I'm not saying that it wasn't done well, but I definitely want to highlight that fact for other readers.
At the end of the day, I thought this was a solid debut. As someone who likes fantasy/horror speculative novels that go there and push the reader, I thought this fell short. The messaging was fantastic, but the plot itself stopped its own progress by keeping it from going to that extra level. Things felt predictable—with the heart of the novel focused on the lofty concepts it was harder for the characters to authentically reach their goals.
Without spoiling this particular novel, a good example of this would be like a book to movie adaptation. It's hard to be surprised when you go the theater to view an adapted movie from a book that you've read. You know the main plot points, you've read the book, so it's really a matter of relying on the adaptation to still surprise you with something new within the framework of something that you already know.
The Year of the Witching didn't have that extra oomph for me, but I think it did for other readers.
Thank you to Ace - Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.