Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

Another happy charmer from Jenny Colgan. Taking place in a dusty, largely unvisited, book store in Edinburgh, this story brings a sparkling array of oddball (not super realistic but very lovable) characters including a Quaker dendrologist from Brazil, a self-important and extremely handsome self-help author, an all-too-perfect sister (complete with unfortunately charming offspring) and an old recluse with potentially shameful secrets. Add a magic shop, the Ormiston Yew, and a terribly annoying yoga slinging blonde nanny with a nasty streak, and you have the perfect recipe for a light, fun, heartwarming read.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Oct. 26, 2021.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov. 2nd, 2021.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (Fiction / Romance)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5

Anna Sun — musical prodigy and dutiful daughter. Her carefully constructed facade starts to crack as the pressure gives her complete musician block and her long-term boyfriend suggests they see other people for fun. Then she gets an even bigger surprise — her (secret) therapist tells her she may be on the autism spectrum. And suddenly, everything begins to make sense. Quan Diep has fully recovered from cancer but can’t quite come to terms with the scars it left behind. When Anna and Quan meet on a hookup site they intend to have a one night stand only — but that one night keeps going wrong so they have to have another. And another. Until maybe “one night stand” isn’t the right word for what they are doing.

This is a deeply reflective novel that masquerades (well!) as a steamy romance. What I like about Hoang’s books (this is the third and the first two are also great) is that her characters spend as much time learning about themselves and how to fit into the world as they do about seeking a relationship. Also — no shopping and the relationships that develop are supportive and loving as well as physically intense. I love the process Anna goes through to understand her diagnosis, how it explains aspects of her personality that she hadn’t understood before and — most importantly — how she can move forward in the face of disbelief and unintended but deeply felt censure from her family.

There has been a spate of popular novels about people on the spectrum (eg Eleanor Oliphant, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) but I find those entertaining rather than enlightening. These book help me understand from the inside. For me (not a professional!) what we currently label high functioning autism is more about a different brain organization than a disability and one that I often find makes more sense than the “normal”. In the current world of social manipulation and personal branding, I find the direct, literal and honest engagement depicted quite refreshing. [As an aside, I loved this description of “neurotypicals” (the “normals” I referred to) from a spectrum group: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity… Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one…NT is believed to be genetic in origin. Autopsies have shown the brain of the neurotypical is typically smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behaviour.” Makes you think!

If you’re looking for a romance, a positive story about relationships, or are interested in the personal development of an unusual woman who is learning about herself, you will enjoy this book.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 31st, 2021.

The Christmas Wedding Guest by Susan Mallery (Women’s Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Another feel good story from Susan Mallery full of family, friends, love, and people who always know the right things to say. I seriously think you could get more relationship help from reading one of her books than seeing a therapist. While the plot is obvious, getting to the end is fun and full of grown-up behavior. Her characters are honest, straightforward, and could give tutorials on how to express heartfelt and complicated feelings. Yes, there are hunky men and happy endings — and there is nothing wrong with that — but the people actually have depth and I end up feeling more centered after reading. Go figure.

This book takes place in Wishing Tree, Washington — every bit as cute as it sounds. Reggie is going back home after a year of self-imposed exile following a bad break-up. In tow is Belle, her “less than brave” Great Dane. Big sister Dena has rationally dealt with her ticking biological clock by going the turkey baster route. Mom and dad have decided to renew their vows and have the wedding they skipped the first time — needing Reggie’s help because Dena is extremely busy learning that morning sickness does not limit itself to mornings!

Full of great banter, easy camaraderie, and plenty of Christmas cheer (and crafts for those who — unlike me — like that sort of thing). Enjoy!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

A Cup of Silver Linings by Karen Hawkins


Writing: 3/3 Plot: 3/3 Characters: 4/5

A second installment of what promises to continue the fun, lightly magical, tales of Dove Pond. This episode focuses on Ava Dove, the sixth of the seven Dove sisters, whose semi-magical herbal teas — carefully concocted for each individual client — are starting to go wonky. Meanwhile, buttoned-up grandmother Ellen is brought to town for the funeral of her long-estranged daughter Julie and runs into trouble trying to convince Julie’s daughter Kristen to leave Dove Pond for a fabulous new life in Raleigh. Sarah Dove — daughter seven — is back as well, continuing to listen (literally) to books as they tell her who needs to read them (yes, I would be so happy to pay for that talent!). Simple but appealing characters and a light touch of mostly playful magic that is more an extension of the person’s character — this feels like a combination of Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg to me. A nice feel good book.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2021.

Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

1941, Oahu: Daisy Wilder — high school drop out, gifted horse trainer, and sole support for her widowed and non-functioning mother — is out diving for supper when the world changes. It’s December 7th and it’s Pearl Harbor. She feels the vibration of hundreds of Japanese planes in the sea.

This book is an ode to female friendship, love, and … learning the intricacies of the then brand new weapon — RADAR. Daisy becomes a newly minted WARD (Women’s Air Raid Defense) and dives into learning everything there is to know to be able to support the war effort in this capacity. While there is romance, what I liked about this book is that it really follows Daisy’s growth and development through multiple facets in her life. Fully half of the book is focused on her war work — what she learns, what she experiences, what gets in her way and how she overcomes obstacles. Often in a romance the heroine has a kind of pretend career with no depth while she goes after her personal hunk. In this book she tackles everything you should be tackling in your twenties — meaningful work, good friends, and a life partner. I was impressed by the (not dull, not dry, not boring) descriptions of the organization and implementation of the war work — using radar to spot planes and ships, vectoring in pilots in trouble, and traffic filtering. Really pretty fascinating and not at all typical women’s fiction fare.

To be honest the writing was OK but not great. There are a lot of cliches, some characters are extremely shallow (the “bad” guys), and some of the action was choppy. However, the story was engrossing, I liked the portrayal of most characters, and I really enjoyed myself while reading it!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.