Monthly Archives: March 2022

Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

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Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

Felicia Berliner. Shmutz. Atria, 2022. ISBN 978-1982177621 272 pp. $27

****

A young ultra-Orthodox woman details her discovery of porn in this fascinating novel about religion, sexuality, and rebellion. Eighteen year old Raizl has always had a head for numbers and gets a dispensation to work as an accounting assistant in a jewelry company, and a scholarship to attend college and take accounting courses. The scholarship comes with a shiny laptop (it’s not clear how she connects to the internet) which is presumably for assignments, and access to therapy.

The Internet is full of people having sex, discovers Raizl. She learns the English words for names of body parts she only knows in Yiddish, and from watching illicit videos it’s a slippery slope to eating bacon and egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers and fries, changing into tight jeans in the restroom at school, and fooling around with boys at the beach. In the midst of this, she has increasing responsibility in the accounting job, increasing belligerence towards her therapist. She shares a Maccabeats video with her little sister, and goes on several dates arranged by the shidduch, eventually accepting a suit from an auburn-haired young man who informs her no computers will be allowed in their home.

Bonus points for clever placement of hamantaschen on the cover. The writing is immediate and both authentic teenager and authentic ultra-Orthodox. Scenes detailed the porn Raizl watches and later, her fantasies, are untitalling for this reader, reduced to observation of the mechanics. The story ends were any good YA novel leaves off: at a launch point for a new beginning of sorts.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #Shmutz via #NetGalley

A Thousand Miles by Bridget Morrissey

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A Thousand Miles by Bridget Morrissey

Morrissey, Bridget. A Thousand Miles. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593201176 368 pp. $15.99

***

Lots of drama fills this road trip tale about estranged lovers who made a promise ten years ago to retrace their epic travels from Illinois to to a decade after the first trip. Ben unexpectedly calls in this favor when his beloved Gam dies and her house needs clearing out. With some degree of shock–perhaps because of how quickly they fall into their old, familiar banter–Dee agrees to make the journey, since her hiatus lines up with teacher Ben’s summer break. Plus, there’s the matter of the Time Capsule they buried in Ben’s grandmother’s backyard…

Told in alternating voices, the narrative included occasional text exchanges and podcast scripts. The road trip includes obligatory planning the route (and side trips) in a greasy spoon, choosing snacks, and road trip games, including the License Plate game and the classic Truth or Dare that gives the characters space to unload some baggage and relive old memorials, while the ceremonial “recreating the previous road trip” activities they pursue, like bowling, allow them to get closer physically and emotionally.

Morrissey uses classic tropes to her advantage: there’s Hurt/Comfort when Dee gets ill, Forced Proximity in shared hotel rooms, and Only One Bed. After a few kisses and more than 500 miles, brash Dee finally gets up the nerve to ask what went wrong between them, and they resolve their relationship.

Now a podcaster, Ben is often referenced as Name Redacted on her podcast, Did I Forget to Tell You? The wondering why they haven’t talked in ten years while Dee still rewatches the old YouTube videos they made together in high school is an intriguing pull through an otherwise straightforward nostalgic plot. This is a must-read for fans of second-chance romance, and anyone who sometimes lives in their heads, wondering about The One That Got Away.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #AThousandMiles via #NetGalley.

Lease on Love by Falcon Ballard

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Lease on Love by Falcon Ballard

Ballard, Falcon. Lease on Love. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022. ISBN 978-0593419915 352 pp. $16

****

When misogyny rears its ugly head and Sadie is passed over for a promotion because they went with the boss’s new son-in-law (who has ZERO experience), Sadie’s profanity-laden spouting off leads to her termination. In her wallowing, she decides now might be the time to cheer herself up with online dating (she’s more of a one-night stand type). In one of the best meet-cutes EVER, she sits down for date only to discover the dude in front of her is looking for a roommate, actually. His brownstone is gorgeous and rent is low, so Sadie leaps in and then opts to moonlight as a bartender while she pursues her true passion: floral arranging with local, in-season blooms and found objects as the receptacles.

This is not another NYC 20-something romance. For one thing, Sadie is self-proclaimed supremely annoying. Self-deprecating to a nearly self-abusive fault, she is a bit messy in all aspects of her slap-dash life, has a running verbal diatribe, and is wonderfully redeemed by her warm generosity and humor. Jack, the roommate, is a nerdy gamer reclusive man of mystery who slowly opens up to Sadie, treats her like gold, and intimates he’s interested but just not ready. And shockingly, Ms. One Night Stand realizes A. she wants to bone him and 2. she hasn’t so much as flirted with anyone else in five months because Jack is becoming her everything.

This rom-com has the requisite first kiss… but a more real, welcome, realistic and thank goodness less rare let’s take our time and find mutual satisfaction with consent and patience, and rather than gory details of the first time they have penetrative (it took me like 4 tries to spell that, friends) sex, we glimpse the first time after testing without the condom, and it’s sweet and exquisite and intimate. Obvs, there is the declaration of love, followed by too many secrets, a falling out, and making up–but again, with sweetness and patience and realism.

The diverse supporting characters in this novel are FANTASTIC. Sadie’s ride or die crew are her college suitemates Gemma, a frustrated schoolteacher of Asian descent who wants to make food for a living and Harley, an African-American public defender; and wealthy Nick, who has been hanging around them since college (a nice subplot is his crushing on Harley). They rally whenever Sadie needs something, and befriend Jack (he and Nick have a special bond), even inviting him into the group text chat. The way they all make a family is rich and believable.

There were a few times I found Sadie’s voice a little over the top… and then she redeemed herself by revealing past trauma, or her friends defended her behavior. She was a fully realized, flawed character deserving of love who implements techniques from therapy… and goes back when she needs to do more work.

This was a fast but delicious read, with fun artistic details of becoming a florist and starting your own business and figuring who you are, and who you want to be in your twenties. The cover art feels a little more island-y than Brooklyn, and there was a LOT of drinking (I might be old and judgy) that made me a feel a little out of touch with youth culture, but ultimately this was a very satisfying read.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #LeaseOnLove via #NetGalley.

Private Label by Kelly Yang

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Private Label by Kelly Yang

Yang, Kelly. Private Label. Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. ISBN 978-0062941107 416 pp. $17.99

****

Serene, the daughter of a fashion mogul and intern at her mother’s fashion house, is being groomed to take over the business, much to the displeasure of her mother’s senior designers. Lily Lu has terminal pancreatic cancer, and it’s always been her and har daughter against the world, and the white-bred California suburb where they live.

Lian is a new immigrant from China who faces micro-aggressions and outright bullying at their high school. He starts an afterschool club for students interested in learning Chinese, and Serene joins in the hopes it can aid her in connecting with her estranged father. Although Serene has a boyfriend, she begins to fall for Lian, who becomes her rock when things are rapidly going south.

Both Serene and Lian are coping with what their mothers want for them–and the gap between that, and what they want for themselves. Racism and sexism meld with fashion and Chinese culture to produce a novel with a lot of depth. The alternating point of views work well; the teen voices are authentic and unique. The cover art is lovely. The cancer details are all too real. This is a well-written and timely tale about the immigrant experience that will both tug at your heartstrings and have you cheering for the characters.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #PrivateLabel via #NetGalley.

Salt and Sugar by Rachel Carvalho

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Salt and Sugar by Rachel Carvalho

Carvalho, Rachel. Salt and Sugar.  Inkyard Press, 2022. ISBN  978-1335454331 368 pp. $18.99

***

This young adult novel is Brazilian culinary take on the Romeo and Juliet theme of star-crossed lovers. Larissa Ramires and Pedro Molina are sworn enemies, locked in a generational feud. Once their families were friends, but a decades-long rivalry has led to competing bakeries, one focused on savory, the other on sweet, across the street from one another. Pedro is already an accomplished baker, but wants to modernize some of the recipes, while Lari’s mother is insistent she focus on being the first in the family to go to college and pursue an economics degree–and won’t teach her any recipes or let her set foot in the kitchen.

Pedro and Lari recognize they have a common enemy in a big-box grocery store out to acquire one or both restaurants and agree to work together to fight it; Lari joins Pedro’s cooking club, which provides a lot of free food to community organizations. The forced proximity and united efforts results in feelings, romance, and ultimately, resolution.

This book made me SO hungry. I didn’t know what all the traditional dishes were and enjoying looking them up. The strong sense of community and duty to family helped drive the plot–this wasn’t just a simple enemies to lovers romance. Lari and Pedro were very real, and dialogue and details rang true. While I loved the story, I did find some of the writing repetitive; the editing could have been a little tighter.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #SaltAndSugar from #NetGalley.

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

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The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

O’Leary, Beth. The No-Show. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593438442 352 pp. $16.00

***

Miranda, Siobhan, and Jane all know Joseph Carter by a different name, and at first glance, he is dating–and playing–all three. The novel opens on Valentine’s Day with each woman waiting for Joseph to show up for their respective breakfast, lunch and dinner dates. The author would like you to believe he’s a cad… and then you think, maybe he’s hurt…?

Life coach Siobhan is doesn’t want to let anyone in, thanks to her last failed relationship, so her same-time-next-month with Joseph suits her lifestyle perfectly. Arborist Miranda might like more with Carter but uses him to keep AJ, a co-worker who makes no secret of his interest, at arm’s length. And Jane is in hiding from something and takes pleasure in simplicity and routine, and her friendship and two-person book club is just what she needs in her life right now. The narrative advances in chapters that alternate from each of the women, with multiple vulnerable, heart-breaking moments and a very satisfying ending.

Through superb plotting, it turns out that all three ladies have more than just Joseph in common, and things are definitely not what they seem. Strong in plot, setting and character, with a wonderful twist, the only thing that marred the narrative for me was an outdated notion that a guy should push after a lady says she doesn’t want to date him. Several references to AJ’s pushiness with Miranda left a sour taste in my mouth and prevented this 3-star book from being a four-star book.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #TheNoShow via #NetGalley.

You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao

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You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao

Thao, Dustin. You’ve Reached Sam. Wednesday Books, 2021. ISBN 978-1250762030 340 pp. $18.99

***

On the precipice of graduation, Julie and Sam can’t wait to go away to college, get an apartment, and live the rest of their lives together. But Sam dies in a tragic accident, leaving Julie behind to cope with her grief and guilt–they had a disagreement before he died. Julie skips the funeral, school, and throws away every memento, and then, in a moment of anguish, calls his cell phone number. Sam ANSWERS.

The universe either magically gives Julie and Sam a way to say goodbye and find the closure they need… OR she is delusional in her grief and created the world she needs to live in to get through. It’s never explained, but it doesn’t matter; I believed that JULIE thought she was connecting, and it was what she needed to move on.

On the surface, Julie comes across as selfish, but the truth is, she’s just a young girl who lost her first love and boyfriend of three years. The path of grieving is different for everyone, and that has to be respected. There are friends (and sadly, teachers!) who don’t seem to understand this.

Something about the characters and their relationship didn’t quite resonate with me. It might be due to the distance;l we only see Sam through Julie’s eyes. Their intimacy is assumed but never really divulged. The epilogue is short sweet and frankly, unnecessary: a young adult novel should end with a sense of a new beginning, even if there is closure around a plot point or character’s development.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #YouveReachedSam via #NetGalley.

The Beach Trap by Ali Brady

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The Beach Trap by Ali Brady

Brady, Ali. The Beach Trap. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593440155 352 pp. $17

***

Told in alternating voices, The Beach Trap follows the story of Kat, an Instagram influencer who grew up Jewish, wealthy and popular, and Blake, a nanny struggling to make ends meet, who grew up with a single mom and a dad only occasionally around. The two meet at the summer camp their dads attended, and when fate throws them together, become best friends… until they discover they are actually half-sisters and have the same dad. Fast forward fifteen years; their father has died and left the family beach house that Kat visited every year and that Blake has never seen to the two of women.

The Kat and Blake agree to fix up the decrepit property and sell; Kat is all about the interiors, and crossing over from her “Life is a Fashion Show” themed stream to expand into home decorating. She’s also working on an essay for a competition that leads to a lot of introspection. Blake, meanwhile, is not afraid to get her hands dirty and takes on much of the demo and reno herself, and begins wondering if she can turn this hobby into a career and get off the nanny carousel.

Each woman meets a guy that at first seems her opposite, so The Beach Trap is also a dual romance. And as in traditional romance novels, Kat and Blake have an enemies to lovers sort of arc, friends who split up, get a do-over, are mean, become friendly, have a misunderstanding, and then must make it right.

The writing is solidly plotted, characters believable in their meanness, selfishness and epiphanies, the romance is well-done, and the narrative compelling. The cover is attractive and as balanced as the storytelling, and the epilogue very satisfying.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #TheBeachTrap via #NetGalley

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon, Rachel Lynn. See You Yesterday. Simon & Schuster, 2022. ISBN 978-1665901925 432 pp. $19.99

*****

Barrett (named for the poet) Bloom is looking at her freshman year of college as the opportunity of a do-over. High school was hell: her expose in the school paper on a corrupted grading system for star tennis players led to her being a social pariah, but also bullying, the loss of a good friend, and a deceptive, mean prom date who took her virginity just so he could brag about deflowering her as revenge for her getting his brother kicked off the tennis team. On her first day of classes, Wednesday, September 21, Barrett discovers her no-show roommate is Lucie, the former friend (whose boyfriend was the one who got kicked off the team!) and the day gets worse from there. She botches her interview with the school paper, is unprepared for physics 101, and accidentally sets fire to a frat house. She runs away, gets lost, finds her way to campus, passes out in the common room, and…. wakes up again on Wednesday, September 21.

Stuck in a Groundhog-Day like time loop, the only bright and shining part of her day is getting to know Miles Kasher-Okamoto, the son of her physics teacher, who seems to be stuck in a time loop of his own. Their bristly temperaments towards each other slowly become sparks as they try to figure out why they are stuck, and agree to approach getting unstuck together from Mile’s more scientific leanings and Barrett’s magical ones. They enjoy going on adventures with no consequences, traveling, exploring, getting tattoos, buying a lot of rescue dogs, and narrowly escape death.

Another approach to find their way back to their reality is to right past wrongs, and this becomes an opportunity for Barrett to try to repair her relationship with Lucie, for Miles to allow his addict brother Max to make amends, and for Barrett to face the shitty things that happened to her on prom date–including confronting Cole Walker– and clue both Miles and her Max in, so she can begin to heal. The pair even tries to track down a former professor from UW who taught a very popular class on Time Travel for Beginners, and while her advice is ultimately helpful, nothing helps, until a missing sock provides an epiphany.

I was thinking of this book as Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop: while only two are about the college experience and two are about time loops, all three novels have deeply fleshed out, real new adult characters alongside interesting and non-stereotyped supporting characters strong setting, a compelling story, a sweet, strong first time romance, great pacing, and honestly? just perfect voice and writing.

I loved See You Yesterday for the theme of acceptance and the author’s normalizing what might still be considered marginalized people. Barrett’s mother has dated both men and women, and her current love interest is on the verge of proposing; another character isn’t so sure she likes men all that much and is looking forward to exploring; Barrett is curvy and (mostly) unashamed and gets comfortable being adored as she is; Miles is Asian American, and both are Jewish, but Miles says he is not half anything when he’s telling Barrett about some of the comments he’s heard (presumably from other Jews) about not being a matrilineal Jew. As a Jew by choice, I love seeing myself reflected back in what I’m reading, and their improvised Shabbat on a Wednesday was just so lovely. Barrett’s observation that “Much of Judaism is about making do with what you have, and I’ve always loved that there are so many ways to observe” resonated with me. It should be noted the setting of the book takes place close to the High Holidays, and while they are not mentioned, it is a time of reflection, apologies, atonement, and new beginnings.

I also really loved the pop culture woven throughout–the age of the protagonist means she has a mom that grew up in the 2000s and her introduction to the Gilmore Girls and love of all things from the turn of the 21st century is a nicely woven thread throughout the narrative.

The title is great and I don’t love the pink cover, which features a sketch of the characters at three points in time and coordinates with the author’s last YA book, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow.

I flipped to Good Reads to note I’d finished the book, and realized Rachel Lynn Solomon wrote my favorite book (thus far) of 2022: Weather Girl! As in Weather Girl, the Seattle setting features strongly into the narrative.

One of my favorite things to tell kids embarking on their higher education journey is that college is what YOU make of it. Watching Barrett come to this realization that it’s not college that will change her, but that she will change, is so satisfying.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #SeeYouYesterday via #Netgalley

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron

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Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron

Heron, Farah. Accidentally Engaged. Forever, 2021. ISBN 978-1538734988 368 pp. $15.99

****

I kind of love pretend engagement stories, am a sucker for foodie books, and really enjoy reading outside of my own culture. In this novel, a talented baker needs a partner to enter a cooking show competition so she can win the artisan bread cooking class of her dreams, but it requires a partner. The nice Muslim boy that conveniently lives in her building is the one and the same man her parents are attempting to arrange a marriage for her. Nadim with gamely steps in to fake an engagement so Reena can enter the competition and realize her dreams. The camera picks up Reena and Nadim’s chemistry before Reena does.

This modern Muslim love story has family, food, humor and heart. While the characters are not traditional in their practices, the consummation of the relationship is sweet and mostly off the page.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #AccidentallyEngaged from #NetGalley.