Archive for September 2022

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun


I was pretty disappointed by the last thriller I read, so I decided my next read needed to be completely different. My bookstagram buddy Jonathan (@rainbow.readerjsw) recommended Alison Cochrun's debut novel The Charm Offensive as a cute queer romance. I figured that was about as different from a thriller as I would probably find, so I made it my next read. It was exactly the change of pace I needed! The book reinvigorated my exuberance with reading, thoroughly pulling me from the edges of my potential reading slump. 

At his core, Dev is a romantic. So much so, in fact, that he finds himself as a producer on the hit reality TV show, Ever After. Dev has made a career of crafting the perfect fairy tale romance, the kind of manufactured love story that draws millions of viewers in with each new season of the show. Despite his expertise, Dev's personal life has no sign of romance. In fact, he finds himself on the outside of yet another unsuccessful relationship, this time with his producing partner Ryan. As much as he wanted the coupling to succeed, the relationship fell apart into an irredeemable vat of toxicity. Worse, Dev now has to face seeing his ex daily at work. This has the makings of a very long season. 

On the outside, Charlie looks like the perfect Prince Charming. He has the kind of hunky good looks that are sure to make the women and viewers swoon. As filming begins it becomes clear that appearance will only get Charlie so far. You see, he's a rich tech tycoon who was recently ousted from the very company he devoted his life to creating. Charlie doesn't believe in true love. He's only agreed to do the show in order to rehabilitate his public image. When the cameras roll, the would-be prince is crippled with anxiety, stunted into an awkward mess of a man, not the kind of person that fairytales are made of. That's where Dev comes in. He's tasked with turning this aloof doubter into the man of everyone's dreams. 

There's something irresistible about Alison Cochrun's writing in The Charm Offensive. She imagines a love story unfolding amongst the artificial version of love that is presented in a reality show akin to The Bachelor. There's a classic opposite attract angle to the romance that is given a fresh twist by the romance occurring between two men. While the main plot unravels much as you would expect it to, Cochrun elevates the material by peppering deeper thoughts around coming to terms with sexuality and coping with mental illness. I found her treatment of the latter to be one of the most impactful parts of the entire work. The Charm Offensive hits all of the right emotional notes, sticking to the formula while offering just enough deviations to stand above similar fare. This is a feel-good read that isn't afraid to go deeper. Cochrun has a holiday-themed romance dropping next month, so I'm happy to say that I'm now eagerly anticipating that release too. 

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

(2022, 42)

The Girl Who Survived by Lisa Jackson


Most of my yearly reading tends to fall into the thriller genre. There's just something about these stories' quick pace and twisted plots that I find irresistible. Reading so many works within the genre isn't without its problems. You see, I have read so many similar stories that it has become challenging to find one that genuinely thrills or surprises me. I'm always on the lookout for the next great one. Lisa Jackson's latest The Girl Who Survived, provided to me by the publisher, is my latest candidate. 

Kara is no stranger to tragedy. She was orphaned at the age of seven when her family fell victim to a brutal killing spree. Her mother and father were murdered. Her elder sister Marlie hid Kara in a closet and instructed her not to make a sound. Marlie hasn't been seen since. Worst of all, Kara's brother Jonas was tried and convicted of the crime. Horrified by what was unfolding in her home, Kara escaped and began to run across a frozen lake. The girl fell in but was rescued and left the scene with her life intact. 

Twenty years later, Kara is still grappling with the traumas of that fateful night. As the anniversary of that crime nears, one of the officers who were on the scene that evening has a change of heart and makes a damning claim. There was a break in the chain of custody on the weapon that was used to convict Jonas of the murders. As the investigation reopens, it becomes apparent that Jonas is not the only, let alone most likely, suspect. He's set to be released, calling into question everything Kara has believed about the night that has haunted her entire life. 

The initial setup of The Girl Who Survived is extremely compelling. Lisa Jackson immediately sets the scene as our main character attempts to come to terms with her trauma while surprising new details set to dismantle every truth about the scenario that she thought she knew. It isn't the most original premise, but it certainly sets the scene for what is to come. As the novel progressed I was hopeful for a good deal of twists about the truth to be revealed. While those revelations do come to fruition, I can't say that I was satisfied by them. As more and more of the story comes to light, it becomes clear that The Girl Who Survived employed a kitchen sink approach to throwing in just about every cliche of the thriller genre that has come before it. Unreliable narrator? Check. "Shocking" family secrets? Check. A set of investigators whose career rests on the success of the case? Check. A final reveal that belies everything that comes before it? Check. To be fair, the book is briskly plotted and is adequately entertaining. There's just very little substance to encourage me to recommend it to you. It is a fine read for what it is, but it will not be among my favorite thrillers of the year. 

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

(2022, 41)

The Measure by Nikki Erlick


Imagine for a moment you start your day, a day just like any other. You wake up, brew a pot of coffee, and prepare to go to work. When you step outside, you see a small wooden box left at your doorstep. "Funny," you think to yourself,  "I wasn't expecting a package today." You take the box inside and open it. Inside lies a small length of string and nothing else. There is no explanation as to what the string is or who sent it. What do you do from here? I'd probably go about my day and not give it much more thought. Indeed, many people do just that, continuing on with their lives as if nothing of consequence has occurred. Little do they know that the secret to their fates has just been revealed to them. The length of the string that each individual receives corresponds to the exact length of their lives. 

With the revelations about the length of peoples' lives comes the ultimate "what would you do" scenario. Those in possession of a long string are flooded with relief at the life they have ahead of them. Those with a short string are faced with more questions than answers. Short stringers, seek support for the revelation, attempt to get their affairs in order, or simply decide to take fate into their own hands. The long stringers aren't without moral dilemmas of their own. Is someone with a short string hireable? Should they be allowed to serve in the military? Become the US President? It may seem logical that someone who won't live a long life shouldn't be invested in. But what about all of those people throughout history who have made massive impacts on the world but died young? There are no easy answers in this new reality. 

Nikki Erlick's debut novel The Measure takes a brilliant concept of moral ambiguity and unleashes it upon an ensemble cast of well-crafted characters. It is in these characters that the strength of the novel lies. There is a mix of individuals, from everyday folks just living their lives to high-profile politicians hoping to score in the next election. Erlick effortlessly shifts perspectives as she tells the stories of people coming to terms with the lengths of their lives. As the drama unfolds, we see glimpses of the same kind of divisiveness that plagues are very own reality. Everyone seems more interested in advancing their own opinions or agendas than rallying around each other in a time of emotional upheaval. From large-scale disruptions to quieter moments between families, Erlick's mastery of storytelling shines through. The Measure is a novel that dares its reader to contemplate their own life and place within the world. You'll be thinking about it long after you turn the final page. 

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

(2022, 40)

The Push by Ashley Audrain


I have a habit of rushing to buy the book everyone is reading and buzzing about, then ignoring it for so long that the hype has completely died down. The latest casualty of that practice is Ashley Audrain's celebrated debut novel The Push. I first featured the psychological drama on a stack of 10 other books that I planned to read way back in February of 2021. My bookstagram post featuring the title showed my youngest dog Murphy as a small puppy sitting next to the stack that was nearly as tall as he was. Since then, I've read almost 100 titles, and Murphy has grown to easily tower over that stack of books. I decided that enough time had passed and the overwhelming hype had died down enough for me to finally give The Push a read. 

Generational trauma casts a dark shadow over Blythe as she gives birth to her first child. Her daughter Violet represents a chance to right the wrongs of her family history, to finally give a child a loving home with an attentive mother. Blythe is, of course, apprehensive. What first-time mother wouldn't be? As she enters motherhood and watches Violet begin to grow, Blythe's worst fears seem to be coming alive before her very eyes. There is no real connection between the mother and daughter. Try as she might, Blythe just can't seem to make her daughter love her. Her husband is convinced there is nothing out of the ordinary about Violet. After all, the girl is affectionate and hangs on her father's every word. Still, Blythe can't shake the feeling that something is off. 

Then comes another shot to get everything right. And right it is. The birth of her son Sam is everything Blythe hoped for with Violet. There is an instant bond between mother and son, the kind that still evades Blythe's relationship with her daughter. This is the motherly bliss she was craving. Even Violet seems to have taken a liking to the bubbly newborn, showing rare signs of affection for the boy. Alas, this euphoria will be short-lived. Sudden tragedy strikes the family, thrusting all of Blythe's worst fears and suspicions to the forefront. Blythe will face the truth, even if that means reliving the very traumas that she has fought so hard to avoid. 

Opening the very first pages of The Push, it was easy to see why so many people have fallen under its spell. Ashley Audrain has written a novel that is compulsively readable. I started reading it right before bed, read for more hours than I intended, and finished the entire thing before I went to bed the next night. The main plotline of the book sees a mother reflecting on the events that have brought her to be an outsider in her own family. Audrain weaves themes of psychological trauma, motherhood, and the age-old question of nature vs. nurture into a drama that packs a real punch. The subject matter is dark and twisted, and I could see this being a deterrent to some readers. Still, based on how many glowing reviews I've read, it seems most readers are more compelled than concerned. I felt that the momentum of the novel started to lose steam a bit toward the end, especially as I started to see the main plot and flashbacks start to reveal glimmers of the ending. That being said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think The Push was a solid read. It won't be my favorite book of the year, but I can certainly understand why so many other readers have loved it. 

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

(2022, 39)

The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart


As the hardships of The Great Depression emerged, the people of the hills of North Carolina buckled down to make ends meet. For many families, this meant grueling days of chipping away at the trees of those hills to produce the sap that helped drive the turpentine industry. It is among these hills that we are introduced to young Rae Lynn Cobb. Rae Lynn has always been a bit aloof, but she's settled into life with her husband Warren. He's a bit older than the kind of man she imagined she would end up with, but he cares for her nonetheless. 

The couple has made a go at their own turpentine endeavor, a life that is as difficult as it is dangerous. It is after years of labor that an act of negligence sees Warren gravely injured. In those final hours, he begs for mercy, and Rae Lynn obliges. There's only one problem, she has no way to prove that ending her husband's life was an act of mercy and not something more nefarious. Desperate to avoid jail, she chops off her hair, disguises herself as a man named Ray, and sets out to work in a turpentine camp in Georgia. 

Delwood Reese has set out to escape some problems of his own. Swallow Hill, a turpentine camp in Georgia, is just about as far away from those troubles as he can get. His experience in the field nets him a job there. The conditions are harsh, and the lodging is meager, but Del is at peace with the place. He encounters a slight young man named Ray, who is far from adequate at meeting his daily quotas. There is something about the man that Del is drawn to, and he soon becomes his protector, shielding Ray from the worst consequences of his inadequate work. As Del earns the trust of the camp's owner, he begins to envision changes to make life in Swallow Hill better.

I'm rarely drawn to historical fiction as a genre, but when I do read it, I want to be transported to the time and place that it depicts. In The Saints of Swallow Hill, Donna Everhart plants her readers amongst the grit and dust of laboring in the turpentine fields. She inhabits this history with characters who are richly drawn in a way that connects the reader to them and the era they live in. Amongst commentary on gender roles, relationships, and racism, Everhart crafts a narrative that speaks to the power of finding your own voice, standing for what you believe in, and learning to trust yourself and others. Once I was firmly planted in the world that Everhart created, I didn't want to leave. Simply put The Saints of Swallow Hill is historical fiction at its best. 

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

(2022, 38)

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