The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White (Mystery / Fiction)

I love Karen White’s Tradd Street series — ghosts, mysteries, and the kind of characters you’d want to befriend (while simultaneously being tempted to wring their little high maintenance necks at times). This book is the first in a spin-off series about Nola Trenholm (step daughter of Tradd Street’s protagonist) who is setting up shop on her own in the Big Easy (where I am conveniently visiting atm for the first jazz fest in three years — hooray!)

Nola buys an historic fixer-upper that comes complete with dissatisfied spirits, a long festering mystery and plenty of architectural pearls.

Well-written and plenty of fun. High in puzzle solving but low in stress.

The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5


Very engaging story about Isabel Cooper — a crack codebreaker serving in Hawaii during WWII. While the plot is a little clunky, the writing draws you in, the characters are wonderful, and the descriptions of Hawaii, code breakers, and smart women playing chess were well done and lots of fun. I thought the author did a decent job of portraying intelligent, working women at the time: no heavy handed agenda — just women getting along as well as they could (and that was pretty well!) given their situation. Decent male characters as well. Romance and an a multi-generational mystery thrown in. Very Enjoyable.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 2nd, 2022.

For the Love of the Bard by Jessica Martin (Rom-com)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A delightful rom-com immersed in all things Shakespeare. Miranda Barnes — literary agent and anonymous author of the fantastically popular YA series Elf Shot — heads home to Bard’s Rest to finish her next book amidst fan outrage at the ending of the previous installment. Privacy and quiet do not appear on the horizon, however, as she is roped into directing one play at the annual Shakespeare festival, mentoring a teen director on another, and serving on the well-functioning (ha!) festival steering committee.

While fairly predictable and not terribly realistic (but what rom com is?), it is laugh out loud funny and wins major points for continual snappy banter and quirky gotta-love-them characters. Plenty of enjoyable detail about the town of Bard’s Rest, its Shakespearean themed shops (e.g. Tempest Tossed Pizza), and the sausage making stagecraft involved in simultaneous theater productions.

Requisite LGBQT… characters included.

Very enjoyable read.

Fun quotes (the last one is the best!):
“You put gold leaf on a truffle. You sped past too much hours ago and blew it an air kiss.”

“It’d been a while since I’d seen Bunny, but she still had that look of someone who’s decided that the FDA wasn’t credible when it came to sunscreen. She reminded me of those mango chews that Portia snacked on — orange and leathery and completely dehydrated.”

“She writes a series called Elf Shot — it’s basically a call to arms for the women of this generation to not settle for the status quo and rise up to change it.”

“I was just going to have to pretend like I hadn’t committed outdoor frottage with Adam while I sat here with a pair of teenagers who were bloodhounds at sniffing that kind of thing.”

“Took me forever to suture it because he kept batting me with his paw as if to say, ‘Hurry it up, human. The backyard isn’t going to patrol itself.’”

“My traitorous id emerged from a cave worthy of Grendel to spin visuals involving Adam’s hands.”

“More importantly, I don’t want you dating the emotional equivalent of Splenda because you think that’s all you deserve.”

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 June 28th, 2022.

The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth (audio book)

Once their mother heads to the nursing home with an advanced case of early onset Alzheimers, sisters Tully and Rachel are shocked to find their father planning to marry a (much) younger woman — Heather. That is the basic premise of this family drama, but what starts as one kind of story rapidly turns into something else. Or does it? Rotating narration among the three girls, what emerges is gripping, surprising, and a little insidious. The chapters for each woman are narrated by a different reader, and they are all good (lovely Australian accents for those of us who like that kind of thing).

Good writing, lots of character depth, and plenty of slowly creeping plot twists.

Great for fans of Liane Moriarity.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

Out of the Clear Blue Sky by Kristan Higgins (Women’s Fiction)

A real feel good book with a surprising amount of depth and plenty of trademark Higgins humor. The book opens with our protagonist — forty-something midwife Lillie — sneaking a live skunk into the cozy love nest of her recently ex-husband Brad and his new bride — the younger, more gorgeous, home wrecker Melissa. How can you not want to continue? Taking place in Cape Cod during the winter, the story features Portuegese fishermen (one “as chatty as a barnacle”), lesbian couples, and the spirits of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis urging our heroine in different directions vis-a-vis her issues). Plenty of snark, bubbling over with a cast of close friends and gotta-love-them (or do you?) family, some dogs, and a love interest that is not at all the center of the book, but is content to develop slowly in one small corner of Lillie’s life. Some real issues addressed — date rape, self-improvement, divorce, body-image, and bullying. Also some descriptions of midwifery that were quite beautiful.

Couldn’t put it down — it was a lovely break from reality. I’ve read most of Higgins’ books, and this might be one of my favorites — right up there with Just One of the Guys.

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 June 7th, 2022.

The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery (Women’s Fiction)

Three women combine resources to open a combined business in a gorgeous piece of boardwalk real estate. Bree (bookstore) is walled off emotionally in a desperate attempt at self protection; Mikki (gift shop) is three years into a “friendly” divorce but is having trouble moving on; and Ashley (Muffin shop) whose boyfriend is everything she could possibly ask for, except for his tenacious anti-marriage stance.

But while their businesses are flourishing, their personal lives are not. The story comprises family history and relationships, realistic scenarios requiring improved self awareness and difficult decisions, the requisite (and utterly unrealistic but who cares) hunky but deeply sensitive and supportive men, and a special guest appearance by a vibrator named Earl.

Another fun, warm, and self-help worthy offering from Susan Mallery.

Thank you to Mira Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

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

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”

It all Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler (Literary Fiction)

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

Three grief-stricken sisters (Beck, Claire, and Sophie) wondering how to go forward without their mother, one recently released felon trying to move forward after the drastic side-swipe of events leading to his conviction, and one old house (which said dead mother insisted posthumously be sold) on a gorgeous and remote island off the coast of Maine. These are the components of Fowler’s “messy-families dramedy.” Beck — a freelance journalist with a quietly crumbling marriage; Claire — a pediatric cardiologist whose marriage crashed when her secret unrequited love was inadvertently revealed; Sophie — living an instagram life hobnobbing with wealthy art investors while house sitting because she can’t afford rent; and CJ — poster child of the poor little rich boy who wants nothing more than a peaceful place to paint after a harrowing three years in the pen.

Very good writing full of tart observations on life from a variety of perspectives. Good character insight. I found it interesting that I actually liked CJ more than I liked any of the sisters — probably because he was a little less self centered than the others having already gone through his lesson learning phase (prison will do that to you I hear) while they spend much of the book going through theirs. Some great background stories featuring Manhattan, LA, Dubai, and the wealthy world of art collectors. Also, an adorable little boy who kind of stole the show from my perspective.

Very enjoyable read.

Some good quotes:

“I needed to be humbled — I see that now. It’s the antidote for self-pity, which I admit to indulging more than a few times during the Great Undoing, when I allowed myself to think about how well everything was going for everyone else.”

“I never meant to get so caught up in all the artifice. I never thought the lifestyle would come to own me. It was a kind of addiction, I can totally see that now. … No more fueling myself with the facade of adulation from strangers who think I’m more than I am.”

“What unreasonable, illogical bastards feelings were.”

“Besides, a wealthy, liberal man with high intelligence and a sense of ethics like Sophie wanted was probably not going to look at her and see spouse material. Leaving aside her fine-tuned physical appearance, what did she have to offer? Being nimble, being wily, being conniving when that’s what was necessary to do the task at hand — this was not a compelling attribute list for a future Mrs. Liberal Billionaire.”

“Maybe because Mom was the glue. You know? Dad was … he made us like dandelion seeds, scattering us all over the city so that we could see and do everything. But then Mom held us all together, and now we’re adrift because neither of them are here.”

“CJ could not speak for every man, but in his view softer parts were just fine! Softer parts were natural! If God had meant for women to look like praying mantises, he’d have made their ability to bite men’s heads off literal.”

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 June 7th, 2022.

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner (Historical Fiction)

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

I loved this book — a great story that manages to combine a fascinating bit of history and early feminism with a literary mystery, historically accurate relationships, insightful writing, in-depth characters, and some great historical characters tossed in (Peggy Guggenheim, Daphne DuMaurier, Samuel Beckett to name a few)!

The story: three women are working at Bloomsbury Books in 1950. Vivien Lowry is a budding novelist with skill, drive, and determination who bristles at the male dominated store where nothing (including any promotion for women) has changed in years; Grace Perkins is married with two sons and grateful to have a job at all as her husband is an unemployed malcontent — “a difficult man, needing the whole of daily life joylessly cut into pieces to fit his unpredictable moods;” Evie Stone (my favorite) has one of the first Cambridge degrees bestowed on a woman but is denied an academic position in favor of a less-skilled man who will nonetheless manage to capitalize on her work. She has a wonderful plan in mind, though, and her position at the bookstore is not an accident!

What I loved about this book is that it depicts an accurate, not overly dramatized, portrayal of life for intelligent woman who sought to live outside the restrictive norms of the day. The three primary female characters each have their own talents, motivations, and personalities — and through them we can understand the experiences and frustrations of different women in this time period — because after all, not all women are the same, then or now. I absolutely loved Evie’s passion for literary history and bringing neglected (not obscure!) 18th century women writers back into print. The author (who once ran an independent bookstore herself) knows her stuff and it comes out with delightful depth in every aspect of the story. I also appreciated the fact that, while a few of the men were simply two-dimensional jerks, many of the others were more ignorant than mean, and the author included some nice analyses of the motivations different men had for behaving the way they did and adhering to what were, after all, the norms of the time. Tossed into the mix were a gay male couple and a high-caste Indian gentleman in charge of the science section of the bookshop — all facing their own issues resulting from not fitting into the expectations of the time.

This is what I call a new breed of women’s fiction — there is some romance (though the developing relationships are formed based on compatibility and mutual trust and admiration rather than looks and money) but romance is but one component of a happy life, not the only ultimate goal. The book did have the requisite happy ending and while it may not have been completely realistic, surely it’s nice to enjoy the possibility.

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 was published on May 17th, 2022.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Literary fiction / Historical fiction)


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

I love this book — it combines the humor and non-conformity of Eleanor Oliphant with the twisted and cleverly converging plots of John Irving.

Elizabeth Zott — master chemist — trying to do science in a late 50s / early 60s world that treats women as incapable, inferior, and irrelevant. Her experiences are kind of over the top IMHO — she gets hit with every possible thing that could happen to a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world — but the real story is what she does about it, so I accepted the 2D portrayals of the really bad guys and their machinations (and to be fair she gives a lot more page attention to truly good men as well).

The characters are wonderful — both quirky and deep thinking — and include Elizabeth, her out-of-wedlock genius child, Mad, (so named as a result of a miscommunication with a cranky nurse), and a dog named six-thirty whose vocabulary is expanding at a carefully tracked rate. The story is told from each of their perspectives — yes, the dog, too.

The plot and dialog kept me constantly hooked and included plenty of twists and turns as well as interesting philosophy discussions, opportunities for characters to rethink their assumptions, and very positive messages about what is important, practical, inspiring, and possible.

Also — and this is important to me — Zott really does love chemistry and there is plenty of real science included. This isn’t one of those (very irritating) books where the main female character “loves” some kind of science / tech field but spends all her time worrying about her love interest and giggling with her friends while shopping for the perfect dress. At one point Zott is running a cooking show based equal parts on the chemistry of cooking and female empowerment and those scenes alone are worth reading the whole book.

A lot of the plot relied on the bad people doing bad manipulative things which is not a favorite plot device for me, but again I forgive it because of how much I liked the characters and what they did. Funnily, I realized that this book gave me the same feeling of pleasure that I get from old Clint Eastwood movies — when the bad guys are so very obviously bad it feels great when they are brought down (albeit in this case without violence).

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 5th, 2022.