Fresh Brewed Murder by Emmeline Duncan


How do you take your coffee? I was never really a routine coffee drinker until I started working from home during the quarantine. With so much extra time to devote to my mornings before work, I began to obsess about making the perfect cup of coffee. Since going back to work, I have less time in the mornings, but I still appreciate freshly grinding my beans before brewing a piping hot cup. Beyond being the perfect drink to kickstart my day, there's also something oddly satisfying about pairing coffee with a good book. When Emmeline Duncan's publisher sent me a copy of her new cozy mystery Fresh Brewed Murder, I was excited to find a book that combines my interest in coffee with my love for a good mystery. 

For most people walking by the urban food truck lot in Portland, the addition of yet another coffee cart might seem like nothing to take note of. For Sage Caplin, it marks the beginning of fulfilling a huge dream. Her gourmet coffee cart Ground Rules has been in the works for years. Along with her business partner Harley, Sage has spent the time perfecting a signature roast that will serve as the backdrop of her business venture. The cart is only meant to be the beginning. Sage has lined up meetings to include their coffee in local restaurants and has even secured an agreement to potentially include a full-on coffee shop in the new development that is springing up directly across the street. The business is brimming with the promise of potential, but Sage is about to be overcome with a harsh dose of reality. 

Space in the food truck lot is hard to come by, and not everyone is pleased to see Sage's cart move into the area. On the first day of opening, Sage befriends a young homeless girl and is inspired to allow her customers to pay forward a drink to those who are unable to make a purchase on their own. What is meant to be a positive way to interact with the community draws the ire of some of the other vendors who fear the presence of homeless individuals will detract paying customers from the property. There's also chatter amongst the other vendors about the gentrification of the surrounding area. They're specifically concerned about the large commercial property going in across the street, the very same development that Sage hopes to be a part of. Things come to a head when Sage discovers the murdered body of one of her very own customers at the cart. Is this a seriously unfortunate coincidence, or is someone trying to send her a message?

Cozy mysteries are meant to be light and easy reads that contain likable characters and just enough mystery to keep the pages turning. By those standards, Fresh Brewed Murder achieves everything it is supposed to and then some. Author Emmeline Duncan delves deeply into the detail of brewing the perfect cup of coffee, an element that sets her main character up to be a true expert of her craft while also grounding the story into some semblance of reality. I found the parts focussing on growing a business, perfecting a trade, and battling the impact of urban renewal on small businesses to be the most interesting. In fact, the actual mystery became more of a side story than the main driving force of the narrative in some parts. Still, I was invested enough in the main character that I had to see the story through. Fresh Brewed Murder ultimately ends up being like a simple morning cup of coffee. You've probably had better, more complex brews, but it will certainly do the job of getting you through the day, or in this case, on to your next read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 25)

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett


The entirety of my reading last month was devoted to books written by and about members of the LGBTQ+ community. I was so encouraged to read stories that were as diverse as the people they represented. From sweet romantic comedies to searingly personal memoirs, each book provided a glimpse into the lives of their characters in a way that helps to normalize representation in publishing. One book, in particular, captured my attention not because it was particularly inspiring or happy, but because it was brutally honest about the realities of a relationship. I read Kristen Arnett's latest novel With Teeth a couple of weeks ago, but haven't been able to process my thoughts about it until now. 

As the novel begins, Sammie Lucas is still clinging to her dream of building a picture-perfect family. She works tirelessly with her wife Monika to raise their young son Sampson. Despite Sammie's desire to give her son the world, he just doesn't seem to have any connection with her. Monika thinks that Sammie is reading too much into Sampson's behavior, but that does little to shake the fear that she is raising a stranger. These fears are seemingly confirmed early on when Sampson willingly walks off with an unknown man as Sammie looks on with horror. Thankfully, she's able to intervene before any abduction can occur. Still, she couldn't help but notice the way her son smiled at the man as he walked away with him, an expression of happiness that she's rarely seen from the boy. 

That early incident serves as a foreboding glimpse at the tumultuous times to come. As Sampson grows and the years pass, Sammie's relationship with him only grows more distant. To her, there is obviously something off with her son, but numerous therapists, specialists, and even her own wife say the child is perfectly normal. To the outside world, her family is perfect. And isn't that what she always wanted anyway? Behind the facade of perfection, however, lies the truth. Sammie doesn't have the perfect child. Her son barely even talks to her. Worse, her relationship with Monika is slowly spiraling toward an inevitable end. In her quest for normalcy, Sammie is about to find out that normal involves imperfections. In this case, that might also mean the end of her life as she dreamed it. 

There's a moment in Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods when Little Red Riding Hood is rescued from the clutches of the Big Bad Wolf after being seduced into trusting him by his kindness. She sings about learning her lesson and declares that "Nice is different than good." The characters in With Teeth go through a similar journey of discovery. As a lesbian couple, they are bound by the desire to be perceived as normal, just two perfect moms and their well-adjusted son. As their relationships unravel around them, they are faced with learning the lesson that normal is different than perfect. In fact, normal can be downright messy. The discovery of that sentiment is the true power of Arnett's writing. She doesn't shy away from the realities of everyday life. In fact, she revels in showing the disfunction that can come from people just trying to get through the day. With Teeth is a bold reminder that we are all just doing our best to meet the individual challenges we face. Perhaps imperfection then is the most normal thing of them all. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 24)

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson


 "American history is truly the greatest fable ever written."

Representation matters. Hearing the voice of a person like you, seeing them live their life and truth, can truly inspire and encourage. For LGBTQ+ youth, this representation is paramount. When I was a young man coming to terms with my own sexuality, seeing other gay men represented in the media provided a beacon of hope that everything would be okay. Fortunately for me, I was growing up at a time where being a gay man was beginning to lose some of the stigmas that had plagued it before. But imagine for a moment that I'd never had this representation. For countless queer black men like author George M. Johnson, representation has been non-existent. In his book All Boys Aren't Blue, Johnson sets out to rectify that. 

For as long as he could remember, George felt different. He grew up surrounded by his large extended family. There was no shortage of cousins to play with and learn from. Still, George didn't quite see himself in any of his family members. It began at recess where each of the kids separated out into their prescribed groups. The boys all would play ball, but George had little interest. Instead, he would climb to the hill with a group of girls to jump rope. These were his friends, and this is what he liked to do. This was also the first time George began to question himself. The other couldn't understand why he wouldn't want to play with them. George was beginning to wonder too. 

All Boys Aren't Blue is a manifesto of sorts. George M. Johnson sets out to provide a history of his own story and guide others into accepting themselves. From his early days of recognizing himself as "other" to growing into a man much more confident in his sexuality, Johnson writes each anecdote with an honesty that serves to inspire and educate. His perspective from the intersection of both the queer and black communities helps to give a different insight into each of them. The book is geared toward a teenage audience, and I think it is really successful in answering some of the common questions about relationships, sex, and being a queer/black person. I could also see this being a helpful tool for parents who are trying to navigate their children's identity. All Boys Aren't Blue serves as a moving portrait of one man's life and a brilliant example of more diverse representation in books. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 23)

How Y'all Doing? by Leslie Jordan


Throughout all of the tragedy that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have also been small glimmers of hope and joy. One of those bright spots has to be the sudden Instagram stardom of Leslie Jordan. After several weeks of quarantine at home, the entire world put on hold, I would often find myself mindlessly scrolling through the various social media apps on my phone, not really looking for anything in particular. Amongst the doom and gloom that surrounded the pandemic in those early days, I vividly remember stopping on the smiling face of Jordan as he proclaimed, "What are y'all doing?" That silly little video instantly made me laugh and was shared with my friends and family through our various group messages. His infectiously humorous musings in a time that was so dark was just what the doctor ordered.  In his new book How Y'all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived, Leslie Jordan brings that same zeal and wit to life in the pages. 

There's a dichotomy to Jordan that makes him quite fascinating. He's an openly gay man with a career in Hollywood who also has deep ties to traditional southern values. Behind the humor lies a man who has learned to love and accept himself. Jordan doesn't shy away from writing about coming to terms with his sexuality or battling addiction. In fact, one of the most moving stories in the book is about how Jordan got his Southern Baptist mother to finally accept the fact that he is gay. I don't want to spoil it, but it involves a friendship with Carrie Fisher and a phone call from Debbie Reynolds. 

This book reads less like a memoir and more like a conversation between friends. Jordan pivots from topic to topic bringing his trademark humor and southern charm to each story. I was familiar with his work on both Will & Grace and American Horror Story, but I didn't realize the depth and longevity that his career has had. Through his decades-long career, he has been able to be unabashedly himself. I think that this is the key to his popularity. Whether he is hamming it up with Megan Mullally on a sitcom or documenting his time in quarantine from the camera on his phone, there is a sense of "what you see is what you get." In the era of reality television and influencers, the frankness of Leslie Jordan is a breath of fresh air. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 22)

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston


Back in 2019, I was driving from Texas to California and needed an audiobook to help pass the hours on the road. I had just returned from a vacation in London, so I was instantly drawn to Casey McQuiston's Red, White, and Royal Blue. That slow building romance between the President's son and a Prince of England instantly drew me in and had me longing to read more from McQuiston. It has been three years, but she's finally released a new work. Fortunately for me, her publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of it. 

Like most young people her age, August has moved to New York City intending to pave her own path in the world. At home in New Orleans, her life was mostly tied to her mother's obsessive search for her long-lost uncle. While August gained an abnormal proficiency in the art of investigation, that is by no means her own passion. She's got a degree of her own to finish, and New York seems like the perfect place to start anew. Her apartment, a small place that towers above a Popeye's Chicken of all things, comes with a band of quirky roommates who instantly accept August as their own. She lands a job bussing tables at a local diner. Life isn't glamourous by any means, but August feels good about the place she's in. 

Each day, August rides the Q to work and school. If you've ever ridden on a New York subway, you'll know about the interesting cast of characters that you usually find riding with you. August tries to mind her own business during her daily commute, but she can't help but notice the gorgeous girl who is always on the train. Jane is everything that August isn't. She's effortlessly cool with a vintage style that is all her own. She's confident and kind, not afraid to step in and help out a complete stranger. As August continues her daily ride on the Q, her crush on Jane grows and grows. The pair strike up a friendship that begins to veer toward romance, but a relationship isn't exactly in the cards for them. You see, Jane has ridden these rails since the 1970s, frozen in time as the world has moved on around her. She is bound to this train, unable to leave or travel anywhere else. August might be the only person who can help her escape this phenomenon, but she risks threatening their relationship in the process. 

Casey McQuiston follows up her hit debut novel with One Last Stop, another captivating romance that will instantly draw you in. McQuiston excels in building chemistry between two characters, and I found her writing of the brimming relationship between her two main characters to be the highlight of this novel. You can't help but root for the two women and dream of them being able to come together. McQuiston fills the story with a supporting cast that represents the diversity of the city she's writing about, a move that I'd love to see more fiction authors follow. Having characters of different nationalities, ages, genders, and sexual orientations added a richness to this story that others in the genre usually lack.  

Strong characters aside, I just couldn't fall in love with this book. I really wanted to love it, but the plotting surrounding the story's central mystery just fell flat for me. I think it came down to a lack of balance between the "frozen in time" hook and the actual relationship between the characters. So many pages were devoted to a plot point that just didn't pay off for me. As the ending approached, I was enthralled by the relationship, but frustrated with a twist that was all too convenient. Even the ending seemed unsure of which way to close the story. As the novel concluded, I was left feeling that the individual elements of the novel were more satisfying than the story as a whole. There's much to love about One Last Stop, and I seem to be in the minority of reviewers on it. While I didn't love the book, I still think it is a worthy addition from an obviously gifted author. I'll still be the first in line to read whatever Casey McQuiston comes up with next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 21)

The Anatomy of Desire by L.R. Dorn


As we slide past Memorial Day and into the summer season, I'm really dialed into working through my summer reading. I've written in the past that summer reading usually marks a shift to addictive page-turners that pull on my emotions through either strong character drama or twisty thrills. Fortunately for me, my friends at William Morrow sent along a book to review that does both of those things. In The Anatomy of Desire writing duo, L.R. Dorn presents a modern retelling of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

Cleo Ray has everything she could ever dream of. She's escaped the restrictive grasp of her religious fundamentalist parents by moving to Los Angelos under the guardianship of her uncle. Since moving and growing into adulthood, Cleo has made a name for herself as a fitness influencer. Her charisma has skyrocketed her to fame and notoriety. She's in a relationship with another prominent influencer, and everything seems to be going her way. 

Life has a funny way of catching up with a person. One afternoon Cleo takes the young woman Beck Aldin canoeing on a lake. The isolated location provides a quiet respite for the two to talk and take in the scenery. Soon after, the roughed up remains of Beck are found floating in the water, and Cleo seems to have disappeared. From the start, the situation provides more questions than answers. We aren't exactly sure what relationship the girls have, let alone why Cleo would leave the scene of what is either a tragic accident or calculated murder. As the news of Cleo's involvement breaks across social media, one thing is certain. Cleo's dreams of a life of fame and luxury are about to be traded for one of pure tragedy. 

I'm always a bit apprehensive about picking up a book that reimagines a famous novel. Sometimes they are hits, like Margaret Atwood's creative take on Shakespeare, that breathe riveting new life into the original work. Other times they seem to exist more to attract readers of the classic they are based upon than for any true creative reason. It has been over a decade since I read Dreiser's novel, but Dorn's take on the story works as both a modernization of a classic and as a standalone endeavor. Even if you've never read An American Tragedy, you'll still be able to find value in the commentary on fame, relationships, and the criminal justice system that The Anatomy of Desire provides. 

The novel is presented as the transcript of a podcast with each chapter serving as an episode. It took me a bit of time to fall into the rhythm of the format, but by the third episode, I was completely drawn in. The book ends up reading like a play, with each character giving their version of the events. As such, I actually think this story might work better as an audiobook than it did in print. The bulk of the work centers around a criminal trial. I found myself rushing to the next page to see the entire event through. My only real complaint is that the main character Cleo isn't an inherently good or bad person. While the ambiguity of her innocence lends to a more suspenseful read, it also makes it hard to know if the reader should root for her. Still, The Anatomy of Desire is a thoughtful page-turner that gave me everything I was looking for in a summer read. It was a great choice to start off this season. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 20)

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