LAST CIRCLE OF LOVE by Lorna Landvik

December 9, 2022

From the publisher:

A funny, heartwarming story about a feisty group of women who shake, spice, and heat things up with a “recipe” book for romance, from the bestselling author of Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.

Newly installed at All Souls Lutheran, Mallory “Pastor Pete” Peterson soon realizes that her church isn’t merely going through turbulent waters, but is a sinking ship. With the help of five loyal members of the Naomi Circle, the young, bold minister brainstorms fundraising ideas. They all agree that the usual recipe book won’t add much to the parish coffers, but maybe one with all the ingredients on how to heat up relationships rather than casseroles will…

Pastor Pete has her doubts about the project, but it turns out the group of postmenopausal women has a lot to say on the subject of romance. While Charlene, the youngest member at fifty-two, struggles with the assignment, baker-extraordinaire Marlys, elegantly bohemian Bunny, I’m-always-right Velda, and ebullient Edie take up their contributions enthusiastically. After all, their book is really about cooking up love in all its forms.

But not everyone in the congregation is on board with this “scandalous” project. As the voices of opposition grow louder, Pastor Pete and these intrepid women will have to decide how hard they’re willing to fight for this book and the powerful stories within―stories of discovery, softened hearts, and changed lives.

https://amzn.to/3K3dM0g

A women’s group at a struggling church is at the heart of this new novel from Landvik (Chronicles of a Radical Hag, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.) Set in a small town with two competing churches, All Souls has a newish, young pastor but a declining population, while the newer, richer church across town is thriving. Pastor Pete has a young child, but luckily, her husband is a stay-at-home parent so she can spend more time caring for her flock. Determined to raise needed funds, the women ditch their usual bake sale and cookbook fundraiser for a try at a book they are tentatively calling, “The ABC’s of Erotica.” Each woman will contribute, along with anyone else they can wrangle into helping. The entries have more of a sweet romance tilt and a distinct lack of erotica, but the name alone gets people talking. Landvik usually excels at creating novels with quirky characters and small-town charm, but there are so many characters and subplots here that the charm gets short shrift. 

Verdict: Church-goers will recognize these characters and feel at home here. Should delight Fannie Flagg or Debbie Macomber fans.

©Library Journal, 2022

12/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

LAST CIRCLE OF LOVE by Lorna Landvik. Lake Union Publishing (December 6, 2022). ISBN: 978-1662506260. 288p.

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MOM JEANS AND OTHER MISTAKES by Alexa Martin 

December 2, 2022

From the publisher:

Two best friends say “I do” to living together, for better or worse, in this bold women’s fiction novel from Alexa Martin.

Jude Andrews is famous. Well, at least on Instagram. Her brand is clean eating, good vibes, Pilates, and casually looking like a sun-kissed goddess. In real life, however, she’s a total disaster. She has a strained relationship with her fame-hungry mom and her latest bad decision emptied out her entire savings account.

Lauren Turner had a plan: graduate medical school and become the top surgeon in the country. But when she became unexpectedly pregnant, those plans changed. And when her fiancé left her, they changed again. Now navigating the new world of coparenting, mom groups, and dating,  she decides to launch a mommy podcast with all the advice she wishes someone had given her.

Jude and Lauren don’t have much in common, but maybe that’s why they’ve been best friends since the third grade. Through ups and downs, they’ve been by each other’s sides. But now? They’re broke, single, and do the only thing that makes sense—move in together, just like they talked about when they were teenagers. Except when they were younger, the plan didn’t include a five-year-old daughter and more baggage than their new townhouse can hold.

“Full of laughter, romance, and a few startup scares, the latest from sports romance author Martin (SnappedBlitzed) packs a punch…Readers of this hilarious, heartfelt novel will feel like they’re chatting with their BFF. It dives deep into family issues but keeps readers on their toes as Jude and Lauren deal with what life throws at them.”Library Journal

“I can’t wait to see what she writes next.”USA Today

https://amzn.to/3Vdm8rf

I missed this when it came out in September, but I’m so glad I found it! This book is a bit of a departure for Martin who has been writing the best sports romances, although her most recent book, Better Than Fiction, didn’t have sports figures but rather was a romance between an author and a bookseller (right in my wheelhouse!) This book moves her out of the romance genre and into women’s fiction, and she does it with the same strong storytelling, character building skills that are in all her books.

Let me add kudos to Berkley for not forcing her to change her name to some pseudonym because she’s writing in a new genre. I hate when publishers do that. Most recently I felt like I was scammed because Scandalized by Ivy Owens was publicized as this fabulous debut novel, but turns out it was written by Lauren Billings, half of the “Christina Laurens” writing duo that has written several terrific books. Because this was only written by Billings, they changed her name altogether which I totally don’t understand. Why have this bestselling author write under a pseudonym? No wonder it was so well written – this woman is a pro! Why not tell people that? Even after dealing with them for over 20 years, I still don’t understand how publicists’ minds work.

Anyway, back to Mom Jeans. This is a book about women’s friendships and it was so good! Jude and Lauren have been friends since they were kids. When Lauren’s husband dumps her and their daughter, they move in with her parents, but that just isn’t a sustainable way to live. There is too much friction there; Lauren dropped out of medical school when she got pregnant, and her lawyer mother is none too thrilled about that. So Jude, Lauren, and her young daughter all move in together and form their own “sister wives” family. Everybody benefits until Jude makes a tragic mistake that sends Lauren packing.

Meanwhile, Lauren’s ex has found a new girlfriend, Stephanie, and surprisingly, Lauren really likes her – she’s kind and thoughtful and so good to her daughter. Her ex, on the other hand, is an arrogant doctor and has been pretty much absent from their lives until he hooks up with Stephanie. Then he decides to sue for custody and things get really ugly.

Lauren is a Black woman, and her ex is a white doctor, so they feel the odds are in his favor. Jude comes up with the idea of doing a podcast on parenting, thinking it will give Lauren an edge in the custody battle. Jude is a social media influencer with millions of followers, and she is really good at her job. Taking those influencer skills to promote a new podcast is a surefire way to help it get off the ground. “Mom Jeans and Martinis” takes off, and Lauren finds herself loving her new job.

I loved this story of strong women helping one another. These characters are flawed for sure, but watching them grow and change is half the fun. I learned about social media influencers and how that all works, so that was interesting, too. All in all, Martin’s first women’s fiction book is a terrific read. Frankly, I will read anything this woman writes and I’m really looking forward to her next book!

11/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

MOM JEANS AND OTHER MISTAKES by Alexa Martin. Berkley (September 7, 2021). ISBN:‎ 978-0593198896. 384p.

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SINGLE AND READY TO JINGLE by Piper Rayne

December 2, 2022


From the publisher:

The girl who loves Christmas falls for the Grinch—it’s a Christmas miracle.

What started as a dumpster fire of a blind date turns into a deal.

In truth, it probably didn’t help that I showed up dressed like an elf but that’s a story for another time. Our start was rocky at best which is why it’s so frustrating that I can’t stop thinking about his sexy British accent. Or the way his chest and arms fill out his suit. Or his perfect hair with that single streak of grey at the front.

Santa likes lists and so do I, so here’s all the reasons why Andrew and I aren’t right for each other:

He’s my brother’s best friend
He’s the biggest grump I’ve ever met.
He hates Christmas.

That last one is big for a girl like me who thinks that the entire month of December should be a national holiday. So, when he calls for my help in planning his firm’s holiday party, I can’t pass up the opportunity to grow my small business. Bonus, we make a deal, and he agrees to attend three holiday events with me so I can make him fall in love with Christmas. As if I’d pass up an opportunity to make a Grinch’s heart grow three times its size.

It isn’t long until I discover Andrew has a very real reason to hate Christmas and I start to see him in a different light. That’s when the Christmas miracle begins.

https://amzn.to/3gIEEbQ


I love Piper Rayne books and this was a really fun read. The meet-cute is Christmas-appropriate; Andrew and Kenzie met on a dating app and arranged to have dinner together. To Andrew’s horror, the crazy woman in the elf costume, replete with bells on her elf shoes, is his date. Kenzie is an events planner, and her previous engagement ran late. She had the option of going home to change and being super late or showing up in her costume. She picked the latter.

Things get even more complicated very quickly when they realize that Kenzie is Andrew’s best friend’s little sister, who he calls Mac. short for MacKenzie. Kenzie’s brother and Andrew met in law school, but Kenzie’s never met him before. Andrew is pretty sure his buddy isn’t going to be thrilled that he is dating his kid sister, but since he is anti-Christmas (for good reason, it turns out) there is no way he is going to date the elf once this dinner is over.

Andrew is up for partner in his law firm, and the competition is one ass-kissing lawyer. When the senior partner’s trophy wife can’t find a party planner to meet her standards for the firm’s Christmas party, Andrew recommends Kenzie. It’s short notice and the woman is a bit nutso, but Kenzie agrees to do it but only if she can take Andrew on three holiday-themed outings. She is determined to get the Scrooge out of him.

Enemies to lovers is always a fun device, and Piper Rayne are masters at it. This book has it all – it’s laugh out loud funny, heartwrenching on occasion, has some real heat in the bedroom, brings the holiday cheer, and of course, the requisite happy ending. I loved it.

11/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

SINGLE AND READY TO JINGLE by Piper Rayne.  Piper Rayne Inc. (November 13, 2022). ISBN: 979-8887140902. 250p.

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MARRYING THE KETCHUPS by Jennifer Close 

December 2, 2022

From the publisher:

An irresistible comedy of manners about three generations of a Chicago restaurant family and the deep-fried, beer-battered, cream cheese-frosted love that feeds them all—from the best-selling author of Girls in White Dresses

Here are the three things the Sullivan family knows to be true: the Chicago Cubs will always be the underdogs; historical progress is inevitable; and their grandfather, Bud, founder of JP Sullivan’s, will always make the best burgers in Oak Park. But when, over the course of three strange months, the Cubs win the World Series, Trump is elected president, and Bud drops dead, suddenly everyone in the family finds themselves doubting all they hold dear.

Take Gretchen for example, lead singer for a ’90s cover band who has been flirting with fame for a decade but is beginning to wonder if she’s too old to be chasing a childish dream. Or Jane, Gretchen’s older sister, who is starting to suspect that her fitness-obsessed husband who hides the screen of his phone isn’t always “working late.” And then there’s Teddy, their steadfast, unfailingly good cousin, nursing heartbreak and confusion because the guy who dumped him keeps showing up for lunch at JP Sullivan’s where Teddy is the manager. How can any of them be expected to make the right decisions when the world feels sideways—and the bartender at JP Sullivan’s makes such strong cocktails?

Outrageously funny and wickedly astute, Marrying the Ketchups is a delicious confection by one of our most beloved authors.

“Close…drops readers smack into Oak Park, a leafy Chicago suburb, and lets them hear the hiss of fryers hitting hot oil and catch an ice-cold Old Style sliding across the bar… Close lets each character’s unique personality shine. Fans of Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising will fall in love with these maddening, loving, stubborn relatives. Setting nostalgia against progress, tradition against rebirth, Close outlines the cousins’ grief and personal growth as they work with, and against, one another.” —Booklist, starred review

“[An] amusing, engaging novel about life, death, and the restorative power of a grilled cheese sandwich… Well-drawn characters always keep you interested in what happens next. Close navigates their entanglements and dissolutions with wry humor: She understands the difficulties and distractions of modern romance. As Jane, Gretchen, and Teddy struggle to find their footing, the close-knit Oak Park neighborhood is changing, too. But is that so terrible? Like marrying the ketchups, a long-standing kitchen task now deemed unsanitary, traditions can adapt to a new world order. Just like the Sullivans. An entertaining family story with realistic, interesting characters.” —Kirkus

https://amzn.to/3FqJbtt

I’ve had this book for quite a while (it came out in April) and it’s another that was lost on my Kindle. Then two good friends recommended it so I dug it up. I struggled with this book, it took me about a week to get through it, and when I turned the last page, my first thought was “what a stupid book.” I’m sorry, but that’s my truth.

There are a lot of characters, none of which is a main character or protagonist as a few vie for that title. The big events that define the book – the Cubs winning the World Series, Trump getting elected, and the family patriarch dying, are really on the periphery of this story. The Sullivan family owns a bar/restaurant and that is the thing that ties them together. I just never felt invested in these characters or their lives, and without that, I struggled.

This is literary fiction, and the writing is fine if not a bit dull, and the story is definitely character driven without a whole lot of plot. I wasn’t always a fan of the choices these characters made and I never really felt like I got to know these people. There are some funny moments, which were enjoyable. And for readers who don’t understand the title reference, for years restaurants that served (usually) Heinz ketchup via a bottle on the table, would, at the end of the day, combine half empty bottles and refill the rest so they would have full bottles on every table. Apparently, this is not the most sanitary practice, so I’m not sure if restaurants still do that or not.

Regular readers of this site know that I struggle with negative reviews. I’ve reached the point in my life where if I hate a book, I put it down and don’t finish it or review it. I didn’t hate this book, it just felt mediocre to me. All in all, not my favorite.

11/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

MARRYING THE KETCHUPS by Jennifer Close. Knopf (April 26, 2022). ISBN:‎ 978-0525658870. 320p.

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CHRISTMAS CHAOS by Kelly Kay & Evie Alexander

November 25, 2022


Two steamy romantic comedies for the holidays!

Evie and Kelly’s Holiday Disasters, Book 3

From the publisher:

One Christmas, two couples, utter chaos. These laugh-out-loud novellas are hotter than chestnuts roasting on an open fire!

No Way in a Manger – by Evie Alexander 

Rory’s seen battle, conquered the wiles of the Scottish Highlands, and won Zoe’s heart. But now he faces his biggest challenge of all, Christmas at the castle and a heavily pregnant wife who wants everything to be perfect. The holidays should be relaxing, and having a baby’s easy, right? But with wayward in-laws, an out-of-control cow and mad Santa getting in the way, nothing is going to plan…

No Crib and No Bed – by Kelly Kay 

Tabi Aganos has put her belief in miracles behind her and redirected her life to focus on her husband, Bax, the winery they’ve built, and fixing up her beloved old farmhouse. They have everything in place for the perfect Holiday, until one hot night sends their plans crashing through the floor. But when family and friends pitch in to help, and Santa brings some unexpectedly magical gifts, their Christmas turns from chaos into joy.

Evie and Kelly’s Holiday Disasters are a series of hot and hilarious romantic comedies with interconnected characters, focusing on one holiday and one trope at a time. No cheating, no cliff-hangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after (HEA).

https://amzn.to/3UZnmGl


Novellas are not usually my favorite, but I love this series! Maybe because the characters are all interrelated. Not family-related, but rather a group of strangers who get stuck in an airport for hours, and get drunk (most of them) together. They live all over the world and stay in touch via text

These novellas are a very fast read (are you stuck in an airport? Guarantee this book will raise your spirits!) And they are both laugh-out-loud funny, but more importantly, completely heartwarming.

“No Way in a Manger” is set in the Scottish Highlands. Rory, one of the men who was in the airport but didn’t drink, is home with the love of his life, and she is pregnant. Very pregnant. There are family issues, of course, and nothing goes according to plan, but there are lots of laughs along the way to their happy ending.

The second story, “No Crib and No Bed” was my favorite if I had to pick one, probably because I related a bit more to the infertility issues. This story is set in California wine country where Tabi runs a winery with her family. She has been trying to get pregnant for quite a while, but nothing is sticking. They even lost the two young boys there were fostering. In a story that is reminiscent of the familiar Christmas story with no room at the inn for the very pregnant mother-to-be, this couple is also having housing issues. The only thing Tabi can truly count on is her husband, Bax. But it turns out the universe has other plans for them, and I was so happy with their ending.

I felt more emotionally invested in Tabi & Bax’s story, but both stories were really funny and sweet and sexy, all the good stuff. Highly recommend!

I’m sorry to say that this is the last of the three-book series. Both authors have other series they write on their own, but I am definitely going to miss these characters and all their crazy shenanigans. On the other hand, I am delighted that this series is available on Kindle Unlimited – if someone you love is a Kindle reader, a subscription to Kindle Unlimited makes a fantastic gift! (Especially if you are also a Kindle reader.)

Kindle Unlimited Gifting Information:
If you purchase the Kindle + Kindle Unlimited membership as a gift, both you and the gift recipient will receive the free Kindle Unlimited offer. Your membership will begin once your order has been successfully placed. Upon your gift recipient registering their Kindle they will receive an email with instructions on how to redeem their free Kindle Unlimited. After the free trial period, the Kindle Unlimited membership will auto-renew for $9.99 per month. Cancel anytime.

11/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

CHRISTMAS CHAOS by Kelly Kay & Evie Alexander. Emlin Press (November 14, 2022). ISBN: 978-1914473135. 244p.

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Spotlight Review: NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF PRINCE WERE ALIVE by Carolyn Prusa

November 8, 2022

From the publisher:

Perfect for fans of Maria Semple and Jennifer Weiner, this smart and witty debut novel follows Ramona through the forty-eight hours after her life has been upended by the discovery of her husband’s affair and an approaching Category Four hurricane.

Ramona’s got a bratty boss, a toddler teetering through toilet training, a critical mom who doesn’t mind sharing, and oops—a cheating husband. That’s how a Category Four hurricane bearing down on her life in Savannah becomes just another item on her to-do list. In the next forty-eight hours she’ll add a neighborhood child and the class guinea pig named Clarence Thomas to her entourage as she struggles to evacuate town.

Ignoring the persistent glow of her minivan’s check engine light, Ramona navigates police check points, bathroom emergencies, demands from her boss, and torrential downpours while fielding calls and apology texts from her cheating husband and longing for the days when her life was like a Prince song, full of sexy creativity and joy.

Thoroughly entertaining and completely relatable, None of This Would Have Happened if Prince Were Alive is the hilarious, heartwarming story of a woman up to her elbows in calamities and about to drive off the brink of the rest of her life.

https://amzn.to/3vL0r7z

Ramona catches her husband cheating, setting off a chain of events that culminates with a Category 4 hurricane. Savannah is under hurricane watch, but Ramona has more than the storm on her mind; her daughter is struggling with potty training, her son needs to take care of the class guinea pig during the storm, the sixteen-year-old boy next door is living alone, and her mother refuses to leave her ramshackle waterfront home. Things get even more complicated when Ramona throws her husband out, piles her kids plus the teen next door into her minivan, and takes off for safer ground. Her mom refuses to go, but says she will evacuate with a friend. Ramona hits the road and doesn’t mind stopping for food and mini-golf, but then finds out her mother has decided to stay put; she piles everyone back in the car and heads back into the eye of the storm. Meanwhile, her husband’s fling keeps calling, he keeps texting apologies, and her boss/best friend ignores her advice and has an affair with the expected results. It’s all too much and in Prusa’s hands, too funny. Caring for her kids and her mom puts Ramona squarely in the sandwich generation, but Ramona manages to handle it all with aplomb while providing cultural touchstones along the way.

Verdict: Family drama has never been so much fun! Readers who enjoy books by Maria Semple, Jennifer Weiner, and Laurie Gelman should enjoy this debut.

©Library Journal, 2022

11/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF PRINCE WERE ALIVE by Carolyn Prusa. Atria Books (November 8, 2022) ISBN: 978-1982188863. 336p.

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IT STARTS WITH US by Colleen Hoover 

October 28, 2022

It Ends with Us, Book 2

From the publisher:

Before It Ends with Us, it started with Atlas. Colleen Hoover tells fan favorite Atlas’s side of the story and shares what comes next in this long-anticipated sequel to the “glorious and touching” (USA TODAY) #1 New York Times bestseller It Ends with Us.

Lily and her ex-husband, Ryle, have just settled into a civil coparenting rhythm when she suddenly bumps into her first love, Atlas, again. After nearly two years separated, she is elated that for once, time is on their side, and she immediately says yes when Atlas asks her on a date.

But her excitement is quickly hampered by the knowledge that, though they are no longer married, Ryle is still very much a part of her life—and Atlas Corrigan is the one man he will hate being in his ex-wife and daughter’s life.

Switching between the perspectives of Lily and Atlas, It Starts with Us picks up right where the epilogue for the “gripping, pulse-pounding” (Sarah Pekkanen, author of Perfect Neighbors) bestselling phenomenon It Ends with Us left off. Revealing more about Atlas’s past and following Lily as she embraces a second chance at true love while navigating a jealous ex-husband, it proves that “no one delivers an emotional read like Colleen Hoover” (Anna Todd, New York Times bestselling author).

“Through palpable tension balanced with glimmers of hope, Hoover beautifully captures the heartbreak and joy of starting over.” ― Kirkus Reviews

“Hoover breaks hearts all over again in this stunning sequel to her bestselling It Ends with Us . . . The author’s talent for creating nuanced and empathetic characters is on full display, and fans will be especially excited to finally hear Atlas’s side of the story. Hoover is as unafraid as ever to explore the darker and more vulnerable aspects of love, expertly demonstrating the soul-deep trust required to reach happily after ever.” ― Publishers Weekly (starred)

https://amzn.to/3FqJbtt

I’m not on TikTok. I occasionally watch a video there, and I check out BookTok every now and then, but I missed the whole Colleen Hoover thing that was happening there until a friend (thanks, Caitlin!) told me what was going on. Since leaving the public library for an academic one, I don’t watch the bestseller lists as closely either, so I have to admit I was a little surprised to see Hoover dominating both the USA Today list, and the paperback NY Times list (this book opened as number 1), but I couldn’t be happier for her. Talk about a mega success! I haven’t seen anything like this since E.L. James and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. I mentioned the USA Today piece about her back in September, and the New York Times did a terrific piece on her more recently, so if you are not familiar with this author, it’s a good place to start. I’ve been reading and reviewing her since 2015, and while I haven’t read all of her books, I’ve read most and she is definitely one of my favorite writers, and now I have tons of company!

Several years ago she wrote It Ends With Us, which I loved, and it (like most of her books) made my Best Books of the Year list. Apparently, her fans started a petition for a sequel which she really wasn’t planning on doing, but the outpouring of love was enough to push her into doing it. And here we are.

It Starts With Us can possibly be read on its own, but I don’t recommend doing that. Read It Ends With Us first. I actually went back and reread it as it’s been several years and it was still an emotional, gut-wrenching read. The sequel is a bit gentler, and the perfect ending to this two-book series. I don’t want to give anything away so I’m not going to tell you anything more than the publisher does about the plot. This book was simply stunning – it will be on my Best Books of the Year list this year. I loved it.

10/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

IT STARTS WITH US by Colleen Hoover. Atria (October 18, 2022). ISBN:‎ 978-1668001226. 336p.

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WE ARE NOT FROM HERE by Jenny Torres Sanchez

October 14, 2022

From the publisher:

A poignant novel of desperation, escape, and survival across the U.S.-Mexico border, inspired by current events.

Pulga has his dreams.
Chico has his grief.
Pequeña has her pride.

And these three teens have one another. But none of them have illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Even with the love of family, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the trio knows they have no choice but to run: from their country, from their families, from their beloved home. 

Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico, they follow the route of La Bestia, the perilous train system that might deliver them to a better life–if they are lucky enough to survive the journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and desperation drumming through their hearts, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know there is no turning back, despite the unknown that awaits them. And the darkness that seems to follow wherever they go.

In this striking portrait of lives torn apart, the plight of migrants at the U.S. southern border is brought to light through poignant, vivid storytelling. An epic journey of danger, resilience, heartache, and hope.

* “A brutally honest, not-to-be-missed narrative…gripping, heart-wrenching, and thrilling.” —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

* “A candid, realistic story that will leave readers thinking about the characters–and about our own world–long after the last page.” —SLJ, STARRED REVIEW

* “Gripping, poignant…this soul-shaking narrative [recalls] the works of Gabriel García Márquez.” —Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

* “A devastating read that is difficult to put down, this unforgettable book unflinchingly illuminates the experiences of those leaving their homes to seek safety in the United States.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

A Pura Belpré 2021 Young Adult Author Honor Book
BookPage Best Book of 2020

A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best of 2020
A School Library Journal Best Book of 2020
A New York Public Library 2020 Top 10 Best Book for Teens

https://amzn.to/3CQHmV1

I selected this book for discussion during Hispanic Heritage Month and had a discussion with 37 college freshmen. It was enlightening, to say the least.

Pulgra is 16 years old and living in a small town in Guatemala with his single mother and his best friend, Chico, who is a few years younger, after Chico’s parents were killed. Pulgra’s father left for America to pursue his music career, and Pulgra would love to follow in his footsteps. He studies the routes people have taken to get to America, saving maps and any information he can find.

One day, Pulgra & Chico stop by the local bodega, where the owner, an old man, told them he would give them each a soda if they would help him stock the shelves. While they were working in the back, Rey, the local drug king pin, and his henchmen came in and kill the old man. Terrified, Pulgra & Chico waited in the back until they felt they could leave without being seen.

Rey had taken over this small town, terrorizing all the residents who came in contact with him, including the police. He sexually assaults Pequeña, a 17-year-old, and she ends up pregnant, scared to death of Rey, and afraid to tell her mother who the father is. She tries suicide, but ultimately lives and the book opens with her giving birth to a baby she does not want. Meanwhile, Rey keeps coming by and tells her he wants to marry her and gives her a diamond ring. Too terrified to say no, and sure he will kill her eventually, she turns to her friend Pulgra.

It turns out Rey’s spies did see Pulgra and Chico leaving the bodega, and now he is forcing the boys to work for him, and they don’t know what to do. When Pequeña approaches the boys about leaving and heading to the United States, they all decide it is the only way out. They know it is a very dangerous route, but they feel as though they have no choice – the danger they will leave behind will only get worse, if not deadly, if they stay.

The book follows their journey, from a middle-of-the-night bus ride out of Guatemala through Mexico to riding Le Bestia, the train that will take them to America – if they survive. They cannot buy tickets; instead, they have to hop on and off the train to avoid border checks. There are shelters along the way – some are wonderful, others are dangerous. Pequeña disguises herself as a boy, cutting off her hair, and has left her baby behind. None of them told their mothers that they were leaving.

It is a long, arduous journey that alternates between heartbreaking and horrifying. Arriving at the U.S. border is no picnic either, and the author pulls no punches about how asylum-seeking immigrants are treated, even children. The author’s inspiration was taken mostly from the news, but also her own family. While she was born in America, her mother was from Guatemala and they visited often, so the house and town where the boys live are based on her aunt’s house in that same town.

This was a very difficult read due to the power of the story, but it was also compelling and impossible to put down. If you have any interest in the reality of why people risk their lives to come here, or how they get here, beyond the politics and the sound bites, this is a good way to find out. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not walking away more empathetic to immigrants. I couldn’t help but get angry, too, about the U.S. immigration policies and lack of compassion in this country.

A few of the students in the book discussion with me were from other countries; South Africa, Trinidad, and a couple from Venezuela. They shared some of their experiences in their countries, and it was enlightening while at the same time, so sad. The young woman from Trinidad said that kidnappings are a daily occurrence there, and kidnappers tend to drive white Jeeps, so when she sees a white Jeep here, she panics. She realizes it is not the same here, but some things just become ingrained.

I am not much of a TikTok viewer, but I was curious about this book, as it is a Young Adult book that is a tear-jerker, the best-loved fodder on “Book Tok”. Sure enough, there are many videos of young women raving about this book and crying – this was my favorite.

10/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

WE ARE NOT FROM HERE by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Viking Books for Young Readers (May 18, 2021). ISBN:‎ 978-1984812285. 368p.

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MAD HONEY by Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Finney Boylan

October 7, 2022

From the publisher:

GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB PICK • A soul-stirring novel about what we choose to keep from our past and what we choose to leave behind, from the New York Times bestselling author of Wish You Were Here and the bestselling author of She’s Not There

Olivia McAfee knows what it feels like to start over. Her picture-perfect life—living in Boston, married to a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon, raising their beautiful son, Asher—was upended when her husband revealed a darker side. She never imagined that she would end up back in her sleepy New Hampshire hometown, living in the house she grew up in and taking over her father’s beekeeping business.

Lily Campanello is familiar with do-overs, too. When she and her mom relocate to Adams, New Hampshire, for her final year of high school, they both hope it will be a fresh start. 

And for just a short while, these new beginnings are exactly what Olivia and Lily need. Their paths cross when Asher falls for the new girl in school, and Lily can’t help but fall for him, too. With Ash, she feels happy for the first time. Yet at times, she wonders if she can trust him completely. . . .

Then one day, Olivia receives a phone call: Lily is dead, and Asher is being questioned by the police. Olivia is adamant that her son is innocent. But she would be lying if she didn’t acknowledge the flashes of his father’s temper in Ash, and as the case against him unfolds, she realizes he’s hidden more than he’s shared with her.

Mad Honey is a riveting novel of suspense, an unforgettable love story, and a moving and powerful exploration of the secrets we keep and the risks we take in order to become ourselves.

“Best-selling Picoult and Boylan team up for this timely, gripping story about a teen accused of murdering his girlfriend… The courtroom drama makes for gripping reading; a reveal about Lily at the midway point adds another dimension to the case, and Olivia grapples with the possibility that her son could take after her ex-husband more than he does her. This timely and absorbing read will make readers glad these two powerful writers decided to collaborate.” Booklist, starred review

“Picoult joins forces with novelist and transgender activist Boylan for a spellbinding yarn involving a teen’s trial for murder.” Publishers Weekly

The shocking murder of a teenager thrusts a small town into the headlines and destabilizes the lives of everyone who knew her… A well-paced story that highlights several timely issues, with a stimulating courtroom trial that makes it worth reading.” Kirkus Reviews

https://amzn.to/3eaMWbd

I haven’t read Picoult in a few years, I guess, but I was intrigued by the fact she has a co-author. Is she going the way of James Patterson and pushing out more books by using co-authors? She’s writing with her daughter as well. But after reading the rather lengthy author’s note at the end of the book, I am relieved to say she is not. This was a one-off, I think, but you never know.

This is a book full of secrets that slowly unspool throughout the story. It isn’t until the halfway point that we get the biggest secret, one that I never saw coming. Several reviewers have mentioned this, but no spoilers here. Let’s just say all these characters reveal different aspects of their lives and therein lies the intrigue of this story.

Olivia is a beekeeper, and that aspect of the book was just fascinating to me. We had a big urn in the backyard next to a small pond, and one year bees moved into the urn and formed a hive there. A couple of years later, they came back, but this time to a different spot. We have a pizza oven that my husband built in our backyard, and underneath it is storage for wood & tools. For three years in a row, bees have made their way inside and formed a massive hive. We’ve been fortunate to find beekeepers in our area who were willing to collect the hives. But I really didn’t want them to come back, so my husband designed a sealed covering for the storage area that will hopefully keep the bees out. And we sacrificed the urn to the beekeeper who collected that hive. I never heard of mad honey before, although I did know about telling the bees when someone dies from the last Outlander book by Diana Gabaldon, Go Tell the Bees I am Gone, and of course, everyone learned about this practice when Queen Elizabeth passed.

The courtroom scenes are riveting, and if you are a Picoult fan, you may recognize one of the lawyers. I love when authors leave us these little Easter eggs, and I admit it took me a minute to realize I knew this lawyer. The book does get a bit…I want to say preachy, but that’s not quite right. Let’s just say there is some educating going on here, and that is a very good thing considering Picoult’s reach and Boylan’s expertise. It may cost Picoult some fans but hopefully will gain her new ones to offset the loss.

All in all, this is a very engaging story with interesting characters and quite a bit of suspense. Picoult is the queen of family dramas, and she retains her crown with this latest endeavor. I couldn’t put the book down and there is so much to discuss, your book club will love it.

10/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

MAD HONEY by Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Finney Boylan. Ballantine Books (October 4, 2022). ISBN:‎ 978-1984818386. 464p.

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Spotlight Review: OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng

October 4, 2022

From the publisher:

From the #1 bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere, comes one of the most highly anticipated books of the year – the inspiring new novel about a mother’s unbreakable love in a world consumed by fear.

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.

Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.

Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact.

The Reese’s Book Club October Pick!

“It’s impossible not to be moved.” —Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

“Known for focusing on families, race, and relationships, Ng raises the bar another notch in a story intensified by reference to such police violence, political protest, book banning, and discrimination against people of color. Ng’s beautiful yet chilling tale will resonate with readers who enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Jessamine Chan’s more recent School for Good Mothers. As with her previous novels, her storytelling will not disappoint.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Sensitive, nuanced, and vividly drawn . . . Thoroughly engrossing and deeply moving . . . Taut and terrifying, Ng’s cautionary tale transports us into an American tomorrow that is all too easy to imagine.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Remarkable . . . Ng crafts an affecting family drama out of the chilling and charged atmosphere, and shines especially when offering testimony to the power of art and storytelling . . . Ng’s latest crackles and sizzles all the way to the end.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[So] much of this utterly stupendous tale is hauntingly, horrifically, historically, currently all too real, from removing and caging children to anti-Asian hate crimes, violent protests, police brutality, and despotic (so-called) leadership. Yet Ng creates an exquisite story of unbreakable family bonds, lifesaving storytelling (and seemingly omniscient librarians!), brilliantly subversive art, and accidentally transformative activism. As lyrical as it is chilling, as astonishing as it is empathic, Our Missing Hearts arguably achieves literary perfection.” —Booklist (starred review)

https://amzn.to/3yf7vtY

I read this book over a weekend and hated turning that last page. It’s been too long since we’ve had a book from Ng, after her previous bestsellers Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, which I loved. Those books dealt with families and racism in Shaker Heights, Ohio. This book is even better, and I truly didn’t think that was possible. It also deals with families and racism but leaves Ohio and goes way beyond those topics to include politics, censorship, book banning, radical librarians (yay!) and so much more.

I hope it reaches a broad audience because I’m curious about how the political right would view this book. Ng takes what has been happening in this country over the past several years and gives it a boost, as it were, by putting all of it into this hauntingly beautiful story set in an America maybe a few years into the future. Or maybe it’s now, with the screens pulled back and a spotlight shining on what could be, quite easily.

Ng’s characters propel the story, and we are drawn into their world which again, feels too much like our world. Or just one step away…rampant inflation and unemployment, bookshelves bare, authoritarianism run amok with children taken from their families because their parents are not falling in line with the authoritarian government. People turning on each other à la McCarthyism, and everyone is afraid to speak out. The cops are reminiscent of the Brown Shirts, with unbridled power and a complete lack of humanity. China is the common enemy, deemed the destroyer of the American economy. Asians, Asian-Americans, or really anyone who appears Asian at all are subject to unprovoked violence and death, with no one helping or caring while it all seems perfectly legal and even expected. 

This was not an easy read because it’s all so abhorrent, disturbing, and way too close to where we seem to be heading in this country. And I suppose that was the point. This is a book that is crying out to be discussed, and don’t be surprised if your book group reaches new heights of passion. I loved this book as much as I hated what was happening in it. Our Missing Hearts is an unforgettable page-turner rooted in American politics, then spun out into a terrifyingly dark near-future and a stunningly beautiful novel. All I can say is put this on your “must-read” list. 

10/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng. Penguin Press (October 4, 2022). ISBN: 978-0593492543. 352p.

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