Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (ARC Review)

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Publisher: Harper Books (March 31, 2020)
Description from the publisher:
Mercy is hard in a place like this . . .
It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.
In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.

So many feminist books of late center on the harrowing 'what-if' of a potential dystopian future. Yet this story of amazing and powerful women needs only to look into our very recent history: west Texas in 1976... What a phenomenal debut by Elizabeth Wetmore - I went into this novel blind, and was completely blown away: the lush prose, vivid sense of place, powerful storytelling, and authentic characters all culminated in such an emotionally moving way.
The plot begins with heart pounding scenes from Gloria's perspective as she escapes from attack, then bounces to Mary Rose as she answers the door, and eventually to a kaleidoscope of different women who each have a compelling narrative in their own right. The brutal crime and the way it's repercussions unfold certainly propels the story forward, but it almost feels secondary after getting caught up in these fantastic characters’ lives. I felt so much sadness, rage (oh the RAGE), and ultimately hope on their behalf.
The comparisons to Kingsolver are completely legit, and I felt echoes of The Poisonwood Bible while reading Valentine. I'd say her writing is also comparable to Ann Patchett, with such perfect unique and compelling character studies that punch you in the gut - but in the best way!
Thanks to Harper Books for gifting me a review copy! This indelible novel is definitely going on my yearly favorites list. It comes out tomorrow - March 31st, and I would recommend preordering and getting those library holds in!


February Book Reviews

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
Oona is definitely making the rounds on social media right now, and I was lucky to be one of the folks to receive an advance copy in a promotion from Flatiron Books.
This was a fun and fluffy take on the idea of time travel/alternative realities, wherein the main character switches into a different year of her life at the stroke of midnight every January 1st. I think we can all agree is no longer a unique concept in fiction nowadays, and it needs to be done exceptionally well to stand out. I think this one will stand out because it is the first I’ve noticed that has popped up in the women’s fiction/contemporary fiction genre in a long time. 
The plot kept my attention, wanting to know what lay ahead for Oona and how she would handle the year she was given. There’s also an emotionally manipulative plot twist later in the book that gave it some heft, but I was left wanting more. It is nowhere near the epic level of literature it is being compared to, like Life After Life or The Time Travelers Wife, which are two of my all time favorite books. If you are intrigued by the premise and are looking for something quick and light, definitely give this a read. If you are looking for epic and indelible, read the latter two - you won’t be disappointed!

Something New by Lucy Knisley
I’m officially out of new Lucy Knisley content and I’m so sad! Luckily, she has TWO new books out this year. I adored Something New. It had personal, heartfelt vulnerability paired with insightful anthropology that all of Knisley’s books share. I loved the fascinating cultural tidbits (and hot takes) on matrimony, as well as the nitty gritty details of her wedding planning. It, obviously, made me nostalgic for our wedding almost 18 years ago... I’m also a sucker for Chicago nostalgia, and felt as if I took a rocket ship back in time at the mention of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind!! Any of my fellow Chi-town peeps remember that show?? Anyhoo! Pick up Knisley’s books - they’re fantastic

How to Be Alone by Lane More
This memoir was an overwhelmingly sad listening experience. I was certainly moved by Moore's account of how her broken family and upbringing shaped her life. And it helps to explain where so many people are coming from who have difficulty with relationships. Given her humor writing background, I was just hoping for a bit more levity than this book offered. However, if you are someone who's had a freakout over whom to put as an emergency contact on forms (which is highly relatable) and find holidays difficult, this will definitely make you feel less alone.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Being a fourth grader, my younger kiddo was so excited to finally be able to participate in King County Library Global Reading Challenge! Her team didn’t win her school competition, but they came in third place despite being down two teammates. She had so much fun and can’t wait to do it again next year. Of the books in the challenge I decided to read Fish in a Tree and thought it was a perfect middle grade book about all the things kids grapple with: learning differences, new teachers, feeling alone, bullying, and making new friends. I loved the endearing characters in this book, especially the way Ally sees the world, and would definitely recommend for elementary/middle schoolers.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I don’t know how much more I can add to the conversation about Such a Fun Age, since it is everywhere (most notably, Reese Witherspoon's book club pick). But, I think it’s for good reason. As many have noted, it takes on difficult topics like race, class, and feminism. Yet it doesn’t feel heavy or didactic. It’s fast paced, topical, and the characters are expertly nuanced - they each have CRINGE WORTHY moments (some more than others..) and empathetic ones. I was really impressed by this debut and highly recommend!

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
It seems as if Open Book is THE audiobook that everyone I know is listening to, and I’m just going to add my praise to the pile! I was a little too old to be caught up in her music and the boy band craze. But, my husband and I totally watched Newlyweds! I love that she has taken control of, and rewritten, her narrative. This was definitely emotional, juicy and entertaining, as a good celebrity memoir should be - it was also very well written, and I love that she gives credit to her ghostwriter Kevin Carr O'Leary, which is NOT usual for a celebrity memoir. Kudos to her all around, this was fantastic.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
I had mixed feelings about this one: full review here.

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams
I thoroughly enjoyed The Bromance Book Club! I was dubious at first, because it starts at the ‘boy loses girl’ portion of the story and I wondered how I would be moved to care about the fate of a relationship between characters I didn’t know. But the humor and patriarchy-smashing themes made me smile and pulled me in as I got to know these, ultimately, complex characters. Definitely steamy in parts, if that is or isn’t your thing - would highly recommend if you’re looking for a refreshing take on romance. 


In Five Years by Rebecca Serle (ARC Review)

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria Books (March 10, 2020)
Description from the publisher:

When Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Cohan is asked this question at the most important interview of her career, she has a meticulously crafted answer at the ready. Later, after nailing her interview and accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, Dannie goes to sleep knowing she is right on track to achieve her five-year plan.
But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.
After a very intense, shocking hour, Dannie wakes again, at the brink of midnight, back in 2020. She can’t shake what has happened. It certainly felt much more than merely a dream, but she isn’t the kind of person who believes in visions. That nonsense is only charming coming from free-spirited types, like her lifelong best friend, Bella. Determined to ignore the Todd experience, she files it away in the back of her mind.

That is, until four-and-a-half years later, when by chance Dannie meets the very same man from her long-ago vision.

This novel is getting alllll the buzz right now and was recently chosen for the GMA book club. I can see the wide appeal of the story, but I have conflicting feelings overall...
On one hand, I flew through the story of a woman who gets a fleeting vision of her life five years into the future. I love a little fantastical element in novels, and I kept wanting to know how it would unfold. The chemistry with Dannie and Aaron was compelling, which also kept me hooked. Are they destined to be together? 
There also were many aspects of Dannie and her best friend Bella’s lives with which I could identify. But it’s also where things started to break down for me. Much of their personalities seemed cliché, the type-A lawyer (Dannie is totally Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle) and Bella is an ‘adventurous free spirit’ of the spoilt trust fund variety. There wasn’t much beyond flashbacks of sleepovers or post grad trips abroad to reinforce their bond. 
I’m all for some misdirection and a ‘big twist’ ending – but I felt as if there wasn’t a foundation there to support it, and it didn’t pay off emotionally for me. It’s definitely worth a read if you are looking for fast paced and thought provoking - I just wouldn’t go so far as prepping the tissues for an ugly cry. Though, it definitely seems as if I'm in the minority on this one - so your mileage may vary!
Many thanks to Atria Books and Netgalley for an advance copy for my honest review!


January Book Reviews

Just a little housekeeping note: you may have noticed from the photo above that I changed the title overlay. I recently decided to change my Instagram and Twitter handles to be less confusing about the fact that I don't live in Chicago anymore - and haven't for over 15 years, which is WILD. Anyhoo, it was getting a little confusing in social media land, and that's where I primarily talk books! The new IG is @EvergreensAndBookishThings and Twitter is @EvrgrnBookThing.

The Better Liar by Taneen Jones
This was a solid thriller! Full review here.

Displacement by Lucy Knisley
Another fantastic graphic memoir from an absolute go-to author. In Displacement, Knisley tells the story of chaperoning her very old and frail grandparents on a cruise. It's equal parts hilarious and bittersweet. She doesn't hold back on all the gritty details of life with the elderly. I especially loved her incorporating her grandfather's book about WWII into her writing. The complicated love she has for them and her family is beautifully evident through the pages.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore
I can already say that this book is going on my favorites for the year. I thought The Unseen World was great, but Moore's latest was phenomenal. This story of two sisters, one a cop and the other befallen by addiction and crime, kept me on the edge of my seat with each page. Suspenseful, yes, but also a visceral and emotional look at humanity in all of it’s frailty. I cannot recommend it enough.

Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes
This was a riveting and lushly told memoir of Cinelle's coming of age in her parent's opulent Manilla mansion, that goes from riches to terrible rags. It shed a light on the politics of the Philippines during the 90s that I had little knowledge about, while telling a captivating story of her resilience, strength and hope.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
“If you are alive - whether of blood or bark - you will be struck by pain, love, longing, fear, anger, and the particular ache of sadness. There will be joys that quiver your leaves and betrayals that will sever your roots, poisoning the water you pull. These are the varying notes in the music of living. Look up, to close your eyes is to stagnate. To rot and stop the song.”
I’ve seen Hollow Kingdom here and there on social media and it sounded so unique and intriguing. And this story of the apocalypse narrated by a domesticated crow was definitely that, hella hilarious (NSFW), and rather touching. I also appreciated that it felt like a love letter to the city of Seattle, and the inside jokes made me cackle even more.

Heavyby Kiese Laymon
This is probably the most apt title of a memoir ever written. It was indeed heavy reading, Laymon's personal essays written in a sort of epistolary way to his mother. Eye opening and heartbreaking with themes of racism, male feminism, addiction and family bonds, I found it profoundly moving and sad.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
“In the months without him, she’d forgotten and somehow not forgotten at the same time; it was like hearing the first lyrics of a song and realizing you can sing all the rest.”
I’m so glad I finally read Evvie! This book was full of so many excellent nuggets, like the quote above. It’s a compelling romance that seems wildly unrealistic (superstar baseball player finds love in a small town) but is grounded in very real relationships. It covers the gamut: emotional abuse, single parenting, friendships with the opposite sex, complicated parent dynamics and the relationship we have with our own head - and the importance of getting that sorted before anything else.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
I am so glad that I finally made time for this back list title that has been on my radar for so long. It has also been a long time since I read sci-fi, which is not my go to genre. Yet, when it’s done in a more literary way, I really love it - definitely the case for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It is not very plot driven, and kind of meanders a bit in the middle, it's more character driven - oh, the cast of characters captured my heart. I love that it is full of thought provoking scenarios on humanity and our place in the universe.


My Favorite Books of the Year: 2019

Every year it's hard to narrow down a list, but this one felt REALLY hard. I always think I should be able to keep it to a top ten, but inevitably add a couple more. Perhaps this year was tougher because I tackled the most books ever in one year - 92! 
I am surprised by this because I can't think of anything that I did differently, and I even did some binge television viewing early in the year, which is not normally my thing - I finally caved to the screen version of OUTLANDER! This summer I also had a hard time getting through books while our lives were in flux weighing the option of a cross country move. I thought it might be the fair amount of middle grade books and graphic novels I read pushing up the numbers (Lucy Knisley was my favorite discovery of 2019), yet I still managed an average of 340 pages per book. Either way, I'm pleased, because it was a well rated year - the highest since 2011 when my average rating was 4.1 stars. Of all the excellent books, here are my favorite from the year, in no particular order:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I got this one in my Book of the Month subscription ages ago, and even though I loved Rules of Civility, I just never felt the call to pick this one up. Obviously, I was glad I finally did! If you, too, think this sounds boring or not up your alley - I'd urge you to give it a chance.
Original review here.

A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti
This was such a gut punch of a book, and one of the few that I put on blast from my personal social feeds as well as the blog. It's an important story for young adults/middle grade readers. But, I think it's SO worthwhile for all ages.
Original review here.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the praise for this book finally inspired me to give it a read, even though the description did not really grab me. Riveting and full of heart, I adored this adventurous coming of age story set during the Great Depression.
Original review here.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
I do love a good family drama, and Keane's book is in a category above most others. It's thought provoking and achingly beautiful.
Original review here.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
A courtroom drama that was so engrossing, I uncharacteristically stayed up past my bedtime to read on several occasions. It reminded me of when I used to mainline Jodi Picoult books, but Kim's work feels much less didactic.
Original review here.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I love how Taylor Jenkins Reid keeps changing things up, and writing fresh and unexpected stories. This fictional oral history of a rock band was so fun, dishy and unique and I fell into the 'love it' camp.
Original review here.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
This was my favorite book of the year, for sure. And no one was more surprised than me! I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, mainly because I was irked by her privilege. Although, now I'm starting to rethink my perspective on that, thanks to this great article: I love Elizabeth Gilbert, and you can, too. "Gilbert and her work possess a female power our culture and society are just beginning to recognize."
Regardless! City of Girls is EVERYTHING I love in a novel.
Original review here.

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
A sleeper hit from my favorite audiobooks of the year, I feel as if more people need to know about the brilliance of this fantastically told story - not just about the craziness of a fraudulent orchestra (playing to prerecorded music), but her own crazy coming of age from Appalachia to the big city.
Original review here.

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley was my greatest discovery in 2019! Reading her graphic memoirs has been such a treat, and I only have one left before I'm out of new material, WAH! Kid Gloves is a story about her pregnancy, but on the whole it's about the history of women's health and sexual discrimination. I strong armed my husband into reading it, and he really enjoyed it, too!
Original review here.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Will there ever be a year that Patchett writes a book that DOESN'T end up on my favorites list? I sure hope not! This nuanced and authentic story of siblings Danny and Maeve is one of her best. 
Original review here.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Probably the most polarizing of books on the list, this was definitely a book that doesn't leave readers feeling lukewarm. Yes, I was confused for large swaths of this fever dream of a novel. But, I adored the unforgettable journey.
Original review here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Another favorite audiobook of the year, but also one of the best books I've read in years. A must read for all audiences about the realities of our justice system for victims, and brilliantly written. I look forward to her future work.
Original review here.

Links to previous best of lists below!
Favorite Books of 2018

Favorite Books of 2017 

Favorite Books of 2016 

Favorite Books of 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Favorite Books of 2013 

Favorite Books of 2012


The Better Liar by Tanen Jones (ARC Review)

The Better Liar by Tanen Jones
Publisher: Ballantine Books (January 14, 2020)
Descripton from the publisher: 

Robin Voigt is dead. If Leslie had arrived at her sister’s cramped Las Vegas apartment just hours earlier, this would have been their first reunion in a decade. In the years since Robin ran away from home as a teenager, Leslie has stayed in New Mexico, taking care of their dying father even as she began building a family of her own. But when their father passed away, Leslie received a rude awakening: She and Robin would receive the inheritance he left them together—or not at all. Now her half of the money may be beyond her grasp. And unbeknownst to anyone, even her husband, Leslie needs it desperately.
When she meets a charismatic young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robin—and has every reason to leave her past behind—the two make a reckless bargain: Mary will impersonate Robin for a week in exchange for Robin’s half of the cash. But neither realizes how high the stakes will become when Mary takes a dead woman’s name. Even as Mary begins to suspect Leslie is hiding something, and Leslie realizes the stranger living in her house, babysitting her newborn son, and charming her husband has secrets of her own, Robin’s wild, troubled legacy threatens to eclipse them both.

It's pretty well documented that thrillers are not my go-to genre. Alas, I do cave to them every so often, especially ones that get ALL THE BUZZ. The Better Liar is one of those that broke through on my radar, and had great early feedback. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to read an early copy!
The multiple narrators grabbed my attention from the beginning, with Robin's account delivered from the afterlife, Leslie's as the living sister, and Mary's as the stand-in. As the story unfolds, my allegiance and empathy bounced between Leslie and Mary, both seeming to be in a bad situation. Trying to figure out the lies and the truths being concealed was an ominous slow build. Just as I thought I had a inkling of what secrets they were keeping, the plot would thicken further. I definitely had that 'I HAVE to know how this is going to end' feeling. Jones' writing was propulsive and astute.
"They think the closer you are to someone, the more they narrow; that love shears you down to the slimmest core, as if people contained seeds you could fish out and keep, saying, That's the real you; all the rest is just flesh. But it's the other way around. The more you know someone, the more someones you know. They kaleidoscope outward before your eyes. If you feel you're finally getting a handle on someone's true self, you haven't got at clue. Once you've met forty versions of them, then you can comfort yourself you're getting closer." 
As is the case with thrillers, I spent a lot of time guessing the various twists. Mary's secrets were a bit easier to fetter out, and she breathed the most life into the story. Leslie's was a harder nut to crack, and harder to empathize with until the very end. I thought the direction the author took with her character was rather thought provoking, and that ending gave her, and the novel, some gravitas. I don't think I can speak to it further without spoilers, so I'll just recommend that you read it!
Many thanks to Taylor Noel and the folks at Random House for a complimentary advance copy!


Books I Read in December

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I already mentioned this memoir on my favorite audiobooks for the year, but it bears repeating: I would recommend, and shove this into people's hands if I could. Listening to the harrowing account of a sexual assault victim, the realities of our broken justice system and misogynistic culture, was really hard to stomach. But her story is so important, not just because she was Brock Turner's victim, but because clearly the process is equally terrible and unjust for most sexual assault victims. It is eye opening and hopefully encourages activism and change. Not to mention the fact that her writing is beautiful - I'm not sure if I've ever come across so many brilliant and evocative uses of metaphor. Her comics are also so engaging and I can't wait to see what this amazingly talented woman's future holds. One of the most moving books I've read in YEARS.

Looking for something light and fluffy after Know My Name, I was drawn in by the cute cover and positive reviews. Alas, this story of a woman in dire need of straightening out her life and moving to the country didn't really work for me. There were several threads that I enjoyed: all of the yummy baking, Livvy's relationship with her boss Margaret, and with Martin's father. Honestly, I felt more love between the two of them than the weirdly fraught romantic relationship with Martin. I think it might have been a case of quantity over quality when it came to the plot. Your mileage may vary!

Conviction by Denise Mina
Even though I usually steer away from books described as thrillers, this came recommended by some of my more trusted sources, and even a favorite author: Elin Hilderbrand! When Reese Witherspoon chose it as one of her book club picks, I went ahead and grabbed it from the library before the avalanche of holds began. Mina's writing style was not at all what I was expecting and I found Anna's snarky and mysterious first person narrative to be delightfully engaging. Mina weaves in some astute observations about misogyny and the patriarchy without feeling forced. Conviction manages to be thrilling, dark, funny, melancholy and thought provoking in equal measure. Really glad I picked it up!

What Happens in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
As always, Hilderbrand writes such fun, frothy novels with the most amazing sense of place. I have been to the Virgin Islands and it's so transportive to read these books set on St. John, which she clearly holds very dear. As with the first book in this new series, I am definitely invested in the drama of the Steele family even more so - word of warning, this second book ends on quite a cliffhanger!

An Age Of License by Lucy Knisley
Knisley's graphic memoirs are SO ABSORBING and I'm really sad that I'm going to be out of new material soon! This travelogue details her adventures through Europe on a book tour and her anxiety about love and life, which were all very reminiscent of my early 20s. Her vulnerability about her hopes and fears set her books apart. And I thought I had a pretty exciting life of love, travel and city dwelling, back in my younger days. But I feel as if I missed having a love affair with a Swedish dude whilst taking in Paris! Dang! This was an absolutely fun whirlwind of a book.

Recursion by Blake Crouch
I approached this follow up to Dark Matter with some hesitancy, since I really enjoyed his breakout hit. But I shouldn't have worried - I was captivated by Barry and Helena's story from the start. Crouch, again, writes with great cinematic prose. There HAS to be a movie option on this, as well as Dark Matter. There are many parallels to Dark Matter, in addition to it's vivid storytelling, which I love in novels: the idea of multiple lives, whether through time travel or a separate universe, and true love in spite of the these roadblocks. 

Let It Snow by John Green (Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle)
This was the YA-est YA novel I've read in a looooong time. Silly dialogue and high school hi jinks complete with jocks, nerds and cheerleaders. It was cute and fun, though, with a nice dose of diversity and one of those fun 'ties all the characters together in a cool way' endings. Definitely a good pick for a snow day brain candy fix you can read in 24 hours. I think I preferred My True Love Gave to Me, a collection of holiday stories also including John Green's work.