When I was growing up, my great-grandmother Nan (born Lora Dena) was very nice to me and my siblings, and very mean to some other people in my family. She was old when I was born, with a cap of white hair and a heavily wrinkled face, and she favored cardigans in sober colors, button-down shirts, and black orthopedic shoes. Her querulous voice was a constant backdrop in my grandparents’s house; it’s no exaggeration to say that she spent a great deal of time complaining and demanding, and my grandmother worked hard to make her happy.
Of course I recognize that she had a long life, that she was elderly, and those facts presented their own difficulties and challenges. But by most accounts, she had been this way--even worse, they said--for as long as people had known her. It would have been easy to dismiss Nan as a mean person—to a lot of people at least. But that would be too simplistic. Because she could be loving, to some of us. She could be protective. She could be proud of our achievements. And then there were other things that indicated a richer, more complex nature, like how she wrote poetry, which she sometimes shared with me and my sister and which we found in her room after her death. There were also the bits and pieces of her history, which I learned, not from her, but from my grandmother and genealogical research I’d done. Nan had lost multiple children, in one tragedy after another. Her husband had left her.
So much loss. Sadness. Beauty. And yet, meanness too. It was all there.
Leah Weiss’s If the Creek Don’t Rise reminded me of our brilliant, perplexing human nature. That good and bad can exist within the same person, and a decision can be both good and bad as well. How your life doesn’t look the same from your perspective as it does from mine. How family pain can be passed down—a lesson I learned well from studying my own extended family—but it’s possible for a person to refuse to carry it into the next generation. (Thank you, Dad.)
It’s difficult for me to reduce this book to a plot, because its richness lies in its characterization and language. Told from multiple perspectives, If the Creek Don’t Rise is set in 1970 Baines Creek, North Carolina, a largely isolated Appalachian community where the arrival of an outside teacher, a jasper, is a big deal. The book opens with Sadie Blue’s perspective as she’s being abused by her newlywed husband, Roy. In subsequent chapters, we get perspectives from her grandmother, a godmother-like figure, her preacher, her teacher, other neighbors, and eventually her husband.
Weiss’s book is compassionate. By the time that I got to some character’s chapters, I already disdained, if not actively disliked them, based on other people’s stories. And yet I always found that there was something to learn about those disliked people. Some secret that didn’t excuse what they had done, not by a long shot, but that showed that they had their own pains they’d been shuffling along. Those moments were revelatory, particularly after I reflected that their secrets were revealed only to the reader; the people they were interacting with in the story--the people they were hurting--would likely never know.
There’s so much that I could say about this incredible book. That it’s beautifully written. Lee Smith-esque. A valuable contribution to contemporary Appalachian literature, particularly in its portrayal of womanhood. A meditation on what it means to be human. So I think I’ll just close by saying that If the Creek Don’t Rise reminded me to be kinder and more empathetic, and that my judgement of a person (for good or for bad) will forever fail at seeing and acknowledging the entirety of a person. We all have whole worlds inside of us.
I loved this book.
**I received an ARC of this book through Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
Mira Lyn Kelly's DIRTY BAD BOY: A Story of Two People Who Definitely Don't Like Each Other. Right? Right.
Mira Lyn Kelly has become a contemporary romance author whom I can dependably turn to for all the heart eyes, and her latest release, Dirty Bad Boy, delivered in a big way. If you’re a fan of fake romance / enemies-to-lovers / sibling’s best friend tropes, this book is for you. And if you’re not, in the words of Countess Luann, “Don’t be all, like, uncool”—give this sizzling book a shot.
Laurel Matthews and Jack Hastings are ancient enemies. Since Laurel was six, to be precise. But that enmity is temporarily put on hold when Laurel’s co-worker, the boss’s son, hits on her and she finds herself in immediate need of a fake boyfriend. She doesn’t want to risk losing out on a promotion that she’s been eyeing. To her great dismay/annoyance/etc., Jack is the only person available for the ruse.
Laurel only needed Jack to pretend for one night. But Jack realizes he has his own need for a fake girlfriend; he needs to end the match-making attempts of the businesswoman whose business he’s trying to court.
He fake proposes. She accepts.
But they don’t care about each other, right? Right??????????
Make no mistake about it: Laurel and Jack are pros at the insult game. Each knows the other’s weaknesses and they play on them with great skill. More than that, Laurel remains hurt over something that happened in their past.
Mira Lyn Kelly adeptly reveals their backstory piece by piece, so that I knew what baggage each character was carrying and what their vulnerabilities were, and so I recognized the subtle ways that their relationship evolved throughout this story. The enemies-to-lovers part of their romance is really well done, but so are the sweet moments. Like Jack always playing with Laurel’s hair. *still sighing over that.*
It’s that mixture of steamy and sweet in Dirty Bad Boy that really captivated. Fireworks are great and this book is plentyyyyy hot; but it was the moments when the characters showed they felt safe being themselves with one another that really got me.
Dirty Bad Boy gave me all the good feelings. I already can’t wait to re-read it.
**I received a free copy of this book from the author but all opinions provided are my own.
It was true--she adored an occasional whispered gossip session at a family function or a sympathetic eye roll from across a table loaded down with food--but she was fiercely glad that this crazy family was her family, and that she was one of the crazy ones, too.
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“I carried a watermelon.”
As I put down Naima Simone’s Scoring with the Wrong Twin, I feel distinctly similar to Baby of Dirty Dancing fame, having her eyes opened to adventure, fun, and dirtiness (i.e. good old-fashioned grinding) for the first time. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’m a long-time reader and lover of romance, but this was my second Naima Simone book, and it was amazing. So amazing that concluding the book felt like returning to earth after hovering above it for a while, my cheeks blazing.
All this, despite the fact that the primary trope in this book—lying about one’s identity—is one of my least favorites, especially when a woman does it. (This gender double standard is doubtless worthy of intense psychological scrutiny). But Simone does it beautifully. So wonderfully that even as I still wanted everything between the main characters to be above-board, and I was super stressed in some instances, I still had big love for both characters.
But let’s start with the basics of this beautiful, sensual read.
Model Giovanna Cruz asks her app developer identical twin Sophia Cruz to fill in on a Sports Unlimited shoot so that she can walk in a fashion show without breaking her prior obligation. Sophia eventually accepts though she doesn’t like attention, and after being bullied in high school, she’s never felt like she measured up to her sister. In fact, she still struggles with self-esteem period, though she’s brilliant and attractive, and lots of other positive things.
Now I have to tell you about Zephirin Black, football player for the Washington Warriors, and the player “Giovanna”/Sophia is paired with at the shoot. *opens mouth and tries to speak but closes it. Tears fill eyes.** He is one of my book boyfriends now. Zephirin can’t believe how different “Giovanna” seems at this shoot, and how sexually attracted he is to her now. He offers her a temporary sexual arrangement; he’s been wounded deeply by a woman in the past, and it's hard for him to trust women he meets now, despite knowing that’s an awful attitude based on a generalization, etc., etc.
The relationship between Sophia and Zephirin is based on a couple of big lies. And yet, it’s magical.
Will Sophia’s secret come out, and will they ever be trust each other if it does? But how can Sophia keep living with the lie?
If you’ve never read Naima Simone before, I’m going to have to ask that you do that. Scoring with the Wrong Twin is the first book in her WAGS series, and it’s left me absolutely greedy for more. This book is so cute and quirky (hello, 80s movies and LOTR references), unabashedly sexy (in a major way), and unexpectedly wise. There were a couple passages in the book that I highlighted just because they were saying something special about the world.
Thank you for this wonderful book, Naima, and for Zephirin and Sophia.
Need more books for your TBR? Yes, duh! Try:
This romance really starts with one of my worst nightmares: having a journal—chock full of salacious imaginings and big secrets and worst and best moments—stolen. The journal belongs to Lady Daphne Hallworth, a beautiful 25-year-old spinster who has taken refuge in writing—and good behavior—since the death of her sister.
How far will she go to get it back?
Pretty far. First, a gambling hall. And when her first efforts aren’t successful, she’ll even accept help from Paul Barstowe, Duke of Southart, her brother’s former best friend whom she admired as a child, despite his hellion reputation. That reputation has only grown worse, and for good reason. Throughout his life, Paul sought to instigate responses from his cold, cruel father by being a debauched wastrel, and now he has to confront the sins of his past.
He wants to be a better man, but redemption is hard in an elite society where people remember everything, especially those who break convention. Society’s censure is worst when it comes to women, a fact that drives Daphne to search for her journal even harder once a page from her journal is printed in a famous rag newspaper (ahh, worst nightmare!).
Helping Daphne find her journal can be a way for Paul to win some favor back from her brother. It’s another way for him to redeem himself. But Paul and Daphne are also drawn to one another, despite both being aware of the obstacles they face. Can Daphne forgive Paul for the man he was? And more important, can Paul find himself worthy of lasting happiness?
The Good, the Bad, and the Duke is the second MacGregor book that I’ve read, and there was so much that I enjoyed about it. MacGregor is a fine writer who skillfully portrays the elite society the characters live in—their homes, their dress, their motivations and fears. And she doesn’t hold back in the physical department. The interactions between Paul and Daphne are flirtatious, provocative, and surprisingly steamy. Daphne is particularly enjoyable on this end—she’s imaginative and bold in ways that I admired and appreciated (even if I was a little confused about where all of that came from, given her innocence and the time period, etc.).
The romance between them was beautiful—how they each see something in the other that others don’t see. That’s what I loved most about this sweet, seductive book. Both Paul and Daphne have second chances to re-invent themselves. For Paul, it’s about becoming someone better; for Daphne, it’s about becoming someone less outwardly perfect. And if the characters are brave enough, they can meet each other in the middle.
**I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
If I go to my shelves, I can tell you which books were gifts and who they are from. I remember them because books are the best gifts you can give anyone, it's a known fact, pleasedon'tquestionmeonthis. [In fact, one of my Christmas fantasies is that someone (read: Daniel!) has given me several pretty books, and they are wrapped underneath the tree, and I read them in quiet moments when I'm stretched out on a chaise. Coming back to Earth now....]
Sometimes you want to give someone a book but you're not sure which one. That's why I've assembled a gift guide with some of my favorites* below. Have you read--and loved--any of these?
Someone who wants to read a classic, re-imagined: Jo Baker’s Longbourn. I loved seeing Pride and Prejudice re-written and focused on the servants in the Bennet household. This book is so luminous, so marvelous, that I think about it now with great fondness.
Someone who likes their romance extra spicy: Tessa Bailey’s Getaway Girl. This is one of my favorite romance novels ever. Tessa Bailey knows how to write a sexy, dirty story (does she ever!). This story is also so lovely it might make you cry, and the heroine makes dirty Christmas ornaments, so there’s a Christmas connection.
Someone who wants to read a mind-melting thriller: Cristin Terrill's All Our Yesterdays, reviewed here, a pulse-pounding YA sci-fi read. Or try Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, a book that gave me all the feelings, and that was, for all its brilliant plot, ultimately a love story.
Someone who wants to read an unconventional historical romance: Looking for a super original slice of historical romancelandia? Try Minerva Spencer’s Dangerous, reviewed here. Or try Elisa Braden, a historical romance author I discovered last year who writes beautiful love stories about people with lots of baggage.
Someone who wants a mystery with a healthy helping of sexual tension: Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White, the latest installment of Strike and Robin. Also recommended: one of my favorites, Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series, starting with A Curious Beginning. You all, I think that Veronica Speedwell is one of my favorite characters being written today. She's acerbic. Brilliant. Brilliantly independent, but loyal to a fault. Honest about who she is and what her needs are. She is fantastic.
Someone who wants a heart-grabbing, heart-stopping fantasy: Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, reviewed here. This was the year of Sarah J. Maas for me, and it has been incredible. I could go on and on about how fantastic these books are. (Give me a drink, and I will).
Someone who wants an enemies-to-lovers romance with more heat than a volcano demonstration at a hibachi restaurant: Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game. Reviewed here. This book is for anyone, I mean anyone, who might love a love story. I’ve never read enemies-to-lovers done so well. The tension that Thorne creates between the characters is insane, and the characters's eccentricities are endlessly amusing and endlessly lovable. This story is hilarious and full of heart (and also stratagems, mind games, and banter). Also recommended, Lucy Parker’s Act Like It, which is set in London’s theatre world and features the grumpiest of grumpy heroes and a fake romance plot. So good!
Someone who wants to read an incandescent book about the relationship between a child and a parent: Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, reviewed here, or Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, reviewed here. Both of these books had me in a state of wonderment. The haunting images each author evokes—the tenderness and the fury of each story—the fragile and yet strong young female protagonists. It’s all done so brilliantly that these books will stay with me for life, I think.
Someone who loves YA: You all, I’m kind of cheating with this broad heading, but I read so many great YA books this year, including Flight Season, a book that I consistently return to. This gem is about finding out who you are when the chips are down (is this a gambling expression?) and the grace we can extend ourselves and others. So beautiful. And Adrienne Young's Sky in the Deep, reviewed here, which left me feeling like I’d been sitting under the stars for hours. Also, Julie Buxbaum's Tell Me Three Things, reviewed here, a book that felt like I could have written it, if I were an amazing writer who could write from the grief-stricken soul, and Jenn Bennett's Alex, Approximately, reviewed here, a book about falling in love that I fell in love with.
*the nerdiest part of me wants you to know that I have a million favorite books, and this is not an exhaustive list.
Last week I was hit with a one-two punch of historical fiction. First, it was Kristin Hannah’s brilliant The Great Alone, set mostly in 1970s and 1980s Alaska. Then it was Eliza Graham’s tautly paced The Lines We Leave Behind, a suspenseful story of an amnesia-afflicted woman who is in an asylum post-WWII that played havoc with my nerves.
When the book opens, we’re in 1947 England, and Maud’s psychiatrist Dr. Rosenstein encourages her to write down her memories.
This is what Maud initially remembers: in 1943 Maud Knight was a well-off young woman living in Blitz-era London, seemingly without purpose. She had affairs, she had an unimportant job, but no higher calling. She was approached by a magnetic man, Robert Havers, who expressed admiration for her special talents—including her ability to speak Serbo-Croat, to observe details keenly, to memorize them—and he offered her a position as a British secret agent aiding Partisan (communist) forces fight other fringe groups (and ultimately the Germans) in Yugoslavia and rescuing downed Allies and returning them back home.
Maud accepts the position, and she’s given the name Amber. In Yugoslavia, she learns real danger, real pain, for the first time, and she becomes aware of the complicated lines wartime can drive between family members and neighbors, and how it can test the physical self and the spirit.
That was Maud then.
But something’s happened in the years since, to turn someone who served her country so admirably into a mental asylum resident, and that’s the gripping story that unfolds for Maud, Dr. Rosenstein, and the reader, page by page.
The Lines We Leave Behind tells a story that I haven’t quite heard before, in a place that I haven’t a read a story set in. Graham deftly portrays the toll of war, illuminating how it changes people, and how it makes heroism and depravity possible—sometimes within the same person. This is a heavy story (seriously), but it is also one that is not without redemption, and those slices of light are what I like best about it.
This well-written book is by turns exhilarating and disturbing, and entirely haunting.
**I received a copy of this book from Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.