REVIEW – Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins

{Available August 4, 2020} The opening of Behind the Red Door will grab you immediately (I believe I emitted a “holy sh*t” before I finished the first page). It’s dark. It covers some traumatizing topics, kidnapping being the least horrific, honestly.

Fern Douglas is a social worker with pretty intense anxiety (not the best mix…). Her past is a bit fuzzy, but we know she has a very strange relationship with her parents (i’ll get to that in a second). The story really kicks into gear when we learn that Astrid Sullivan, a woman who was kidnapped as a child but was returned after a brief period of time relatively unharmed, has gone missing again. Did the original kidnapper take Astrid again? Will she be returned this time? Does her disappearance have anything to do with her recently released memoir detailing her kidnapping 20 years ago? And why does Fern think she’s met Astrid?

We do get to read a few chapters of Astrid’s memoir throughout the course of the book, and we slowly learn what really happened to her.

Fern heads back to her hometown to help Ted (her dad, but she calls her parents by their first names) pack and move to Florida. Oh boy. Ted. Ted is an academic psychologist who can’t focus on anything beyond his Experiments (yes, with a capital “E”). We slowly learn that Fern’s parents were incredibly neglectful, and downright horrible people. Fern can’t see that she’s a victim of extreme parental abuse. Ted has often drawn the line between physical (what he considers “real”) abuse and other varieties – and they’re all so blind to it that it’s incredibly frustrating as a reader. But maybe it’s rooted deeply in reality. Victims of abuse often block or downplay their experiences because they refuse to see themselves as just that – victims.

Fern decides to investigate Astrid’s disappearance and uncovers some incredibly horrific truths. I had an idea of where this book was headed right from the jump, and I was (mostly) right, but the experience of uncovering the mystery of Astrid’s disappearance and Fern’s history was more than worth the read. I was SO ANGRY for parts of this book – it takes a great writer to elicit that kind of experience.

Content warning: abusive parent/child relationships (one with a religious undertone), abduction of a child.

Thank you Atria Books for the NetGalley ARC of Behind the Red Door!

REVIEW – With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

“And if everything else goes wrong, a little squeeze of lime and a bottle of hot sauce ain’t never hurt nobody.”

I don’t typically read YA so this was a touch outside of my comfort zone – but i’m so glad I picked it up! Emoni is such a great character – she’s strong and mature but still felt like an authentic 17-year-old. She is juggling a lot of things – senior year, a toddler, starting to care for her abuela, a job and increased responsibilities in her culinary class at school.

I loved that this book was set in Philly (okay, so i’ve only been once but I immediately fell in love with the city). Nothing in this story felt forced or unrealistic to me – Emoni’s journey throughout her senior year had the perfect balance of ups and downs to make for a compelling story that still felt plausible. I also loved that Emoni wasn’t perfect – yes, she’s a great mother and has more responsibility on her shoulders than the typical teenager, but she also still makes mistakes that you’d expect from someone in high school and sometimes lets her stubbornness get in the way of her success.

I’d be an idiot not to talk about Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo isn’t just a writer, she’s an artist. Her writing is effortless, smooth and vivid. And she transfers her talents to her main character. Emoni doesn’t just cook, she CREATES. She has an innate ability to discern which flavors will work together and how an already amazing dish can be elevated to new heights. I loved the way food was incorporated throughout this story – it’s clearly a key part of Emoni’s life, but it doesn’t dominate the narrative. Her love for cooking is wedged perfectly between her love for her friends and family.

{very slight spoilers start here!}

There’s a romantic subplot here that I wasn’t a huge fan of – I liked the pairing of the two characters, but I felt that it wasn’t necessary in the story. However, i’m also a grumpy old thirty-something and I think I would have appreciated the romance a bit more if I were in the intended age group for this book. For what it’s worth, I loved Malachi’s character and I loved the way he was included – slowly at first, before becoming a more integral part of Emoni’s life.

REVIEW – Chasing Space by Leland Melvin

“Seeing the world without geographic boundaries really puts things into perspective and makes one wonder why there is so much division, hatred, and malice.”

Chasing Space was a highly anticipated read for me. Leland Melvin (you may know him as the NASA astronaut with the best official portrait!) is a former NFL football player and retired astronaut. His memoir is smart and uplifting, and I would call this a must-read for football fans and space lovers alike. Melvin’s personality pops off of the page – you can tell he’s intelligent, compassionate and friendly. The way he writes about his friends and family is heartwarming – this is a man full of love and joy.

“Working at NASA had never crossed my mind. I mean, who work at NASA? Certainly, nobody who looked like me.”

Melvin touches on the importance of representation – particularly in STEM fields and professions. When he joined NASA in 1989, only four Black astronauts had ever been to space. It’s no surprise that NASA has a history of being overwhemingly white (and male, for that matter) and Melvin does cover that a bit in his book.

After experiencing a pretty horrifying setback, Melvin does eventually make it to space (twice!) I loved the section of the book about his time in space – as someone who both loves and is terrified of the idea, I loved his (sorry…no pun intended) down-to-Earth approach of sharing his experiences. Chasing Space almost feels like you’re chatting with a friend. His writing is approachable and conversational, and flows perfectly for a book that exceeds just beyond 250 pages.

Content warning: brief mention of sexual assault of a minor, description of a racially motivated police encounter, hazing.

COZY MYSTERY REVIEW – A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette

“You saw the dead body, then made the ice cream?”

Bronwyn “Win” Crewse has just reopened her family’s ice cream shop in Ohio. Unfortunately, construction delays made her miss the summer season and she opens in the fall – to an early snowfall. To add to the stress, Win finds a body in the snow near her shop.

What a great start to a new cozy mystery series! This has all of my favorite things – an adorable town, a delightful cast of characters (Win’s family and friends are ALL lovely and funny and wonderful), an intriguing murder mystery AND enough mentions of ice cream to make you wish Crewse Creamery was a real place.

Collette nailed the feeling of fall (winter…?) in Ohio. And I can’t speak for everyone in my home state, but it’s never too cold for some ice cream! The mystery was clever and fun to try and solve, and i’m pretty sure PopPop is one of my new favorite characters. This book had me cracking up on several occasions, and I always appreciate a book that makes me laugh. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the series takes Win!

REVIEW – The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter

“Forever was never as long as you thought it was.”

I was already firmly on the Karin Slaughter bandwagon, but this book makes me want to fight to take over the driver’s seat. The Kept Woman is book eight in the Will Trent series. Confession: I’ve only read two books so far in this series (eight and nine…yeah, out of order and with a devil-may-care attitude). My intent is to go back and start at the very beginning, but first I need to order all of those books, and then somehow fit them into my reading schedule…but I digress.

If you are a fan of thrillers and suspense and crime and INTENSITY, you need to read these books. Okay, so….we start off with a dead body (I mean, of course we do). He’s a former cop which automatically increases the interest in investigating his death and supposed murder (is this actually fair? I mean, not really. But that’s the way the system works). There’s a lot of blood at the scene, but it’s quickly discovered that the blood doesn’t belong to the dead body. If that doesn’t hook you, I can’t help you.

“We seek comfort from the very people who do us harm.”

Do you have a literary character you just hate? Not because they’re a bad character, but because they’re so GOOD at being absolutely despicable that you can’t help but love their story but hate them as a human being? You might have a new favorite (least favorite? Most hated?) after reading this book. Phew. People are MESSED. UP. And the worst people can’t help but force their misery upon everyone else. But you also might find a new favorite (actual favorite, a character you root for) in this series too. I just want to hug Will and protect him. And his whole crew – Sara, Amanda, Faith – I LOVE THEM. I want infinite books with these characters.

There are so many side stories crammed into this book but they all fit together and it never feels like too much is going on. Because Karin Slaughter is a writing deity sent to bring us amazing books. There’s no other explanation.

And THAT ENDING. There’s more in store for these characters and I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Content warning: mentions of rape, domestic abuse, child abuse, suicide. Overall gore and violence.

REVIEW – Fire and Vengeance by Robert McCaw

Missing going to the movies? Looking for a summer-y action-packed blockbuster of a book? Fire and Vengeance might be the pick for you!

When a volcanic vent explodes (right under an elementary school…) Koa Kane has some damage control to take care of. First of all, many families are grieving the loss of more than a dozen students and a handful of teachers. Second, why would anyone approve the construction of a school (or any building for that matter) over an active volcanic vent?

As Koa digs into the investigation, he uncovers a decades-long scandal that includes some powerful people in Hawaii. Powerful people who will stop at nothing to cover their own asses.

In addition to the investigation, Koa is also dealing with some family issues. His brother, currently serving time in prison, collapses due to an undiagnosed brain tumor. I actually liked the brother/family storyline more than the main plot of the book, but I still enjoyed my overall reading experience.

McCaw packs a lot of action and intrigue into this book, and you’ll feel like you’re sleuthing right alongside Koa Kane.

Content warning: death of children, brief mentions of suicide, brief mentions of real life school shootings.

Thank you FSB Associates and Oceanview Publishing for the ARC of Fire and Vengeance!

REVIEW – Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis

“I know, deep down, I am made of strong stuff. Rebuilt with it, at least, the way we all are, over the years, with age and experience, skin thickening, heart softening, patched up double in the places prone to breakage. A sum of all the things that have hurt us, scared us, sheltered and delighted us.”

Dear Emmie Blue was not at all what I expected – it ended up being so much more. I thought this was going to be a cute little rom-com about a girl who has had some bad luck over the years. This book gets a little dark. And it’s much sadder than I thought it would be.

“I’m scared of the loneliness that swamps me sometimes, so much I feel like I can’t breathe.”

Oh, Emmie. You just want to hug her. Be her friend. Help her sort through her feelings and tell her everything is going to be okay. It takes a few chapters for us to learn her entire backstory, but it’s heartbreaking. You want to slap the people who have hurt her, and keep her in a happy little bubble forever.

“Maybe home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. Of being looked after and understood. Of being loved.”

Can we talk about Emmie’s work friends for a minute? The parts with Fox and Rosie are some of the funniest and most joyful bits of the story! Rosie is the friend we all need in our corner. And speaking of friends, LOUISE. I won’t say much, but I loved Louise so much. Despite the underlying sadness, there are a lot of heartwarming moments in this book, and I didn’t think anything felt forced. Some might find the ending a little cliche, but I felt that it was the perfect conclusion to this part of Emmie’s story.

Content warning: difficult/manipulative parent/child relationship, narcissistic parent, sexual assault of a minor.

Thank you Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the finished copy of Dear Emmie Blue!

REVIEW – The Martian by Andy Weir

“Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but i’m not dead, so it’s a win.”

You know, for a book that should be pretty horrifying (trapped on another planet, with little chance for survival and no way of communicating with Earth…) The Martian is HILARIOUS. Mark Watney is a fun character – he’s resilient, he’s insanely smart (I mean, duh. Astronaut.) and he has a dry sense of humor that translates so well on the page.

“I guess you could call it a “failure,” but I prefer the term “learning experience.””

One of my favorite things about The Martian is that it feels real. It feels…possible. Granted, I know basically nothing about the logistics of space travel. Or physics. Or…botany. But nothing in this felt so ridiculous that it couldn’t be maybe somewhat plausible. You can tell that Weir at least did a little bit of research (or he’s smart enough to make something completely ridiculous seem totally legit). I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because I knew very little about this going in – so some parts were a complete surprise.

Now of course The Martian isn’t perfect. It can be a little repetitive at times. Watney doesn’t seem to exhibit any signs of trauma despite being alone on Mars and facing multiple, devastating setbacks. I’m not sure if that makes Watney inspiring, unrealistic or maybe an idiot. But if you throw those expectations out the window, you’ll get to enjoy an optimistic tale of survival in space against all odds.

One more criticism: there are a few uses of the term “ghetto” that pinged as problematic to me. Granted, this book is a few years old…but it’s not THAT old. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book, but it did pull me out of the reading experience for a second and make me roll my eyes.

COZY MYSTERY REVIEW – From Beer to Eternity by Sherry Harris

{Available July 28, 2020} What a great start to a new cozy series! Chloe is working at a beachside bar (that conveniently closes at 9 p.m. – that’s something I can get on board with) in the Florida Panhandle after moving down there from Chicago.

See, Chloe made a promise to her college best friend that she would help his grandmother Vivi if anything happened to him while he was deployed. After his tragic death overseas, Chloe intends to keep that promise.

I loved that Harris offers a realistic, not idealized, version of the panhandle. Her character descriptions felt spot-on for Florida tourists and natives. The Sea Glass Saloon is a little less western, and a lot more tiki hut and is typically a hangout for the locals. When Chloe finds the body of a bar regular behind a dumpster, she takes it upon herself to investigate. I have some theories about where the rest of the series could go, and i’m excited to see where Harris takes us next!

Thank you Kensington Books for the NetGalley ARC!

REVIEW – Well-Behaved Indian Women by Saumya Dave

{Available July 14, 2020} Well-Behaved Indian Women kicks off with two proposals set approximately 30 years apart. Nandini and Ranjit live in India and are ready to begin their arranged marriage and move to the United States. As we move forward to present-ish day, their daughter Simran becomes engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Kunal.

This is a delightful novel primarily focused on the relationship between mothers and daughters across generations – what’s different and, most importantly, what stays the same. Nandini, Simran and Mimi are complex female characters (yay!) each dealing with their own hopes and dreams (and problems). I found Simran to be incredibly relatable (her inner dialogue had me cracking up and nodding my head more often than not!) and I was in awe of Nandini’s strength and Mimi’s conviction.

Well-Behaved Indian Women provides a glimpse into Indian-American/Hindu culture, customs and family dynamics. The story is endearing and funny, but also touches on topics like racism, sexism and double standards (especially in the context of marriage and the workplace). The complexities of marriage are a central theme here – particularly the sacrifices that many women feel they need to make to contribute to a successful partnership.

Content warning: brief mention of miscarriage and sexual harassment.

Thank you Berkley for providing me with a NetGalley ARC of this title!