#SpringIntoLoveBingo Picks

Need some inspiration? Here are some of my romance favs and where they could fit in the mix! More to come – and I’m happy to add in recommendations!

Map/Diagram

Secrets
– Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney (haven’t read yet but the synopsis talks about blackmail!)
– Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales (haven’t read yet!)
– You have a Match by Emma Lord (now this has a BIG secret!)
– The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
– How to Love a Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigna Byrne (haven’t read yet!)

Spring Cleaning

Set in Continental Europe
– Kisses and Croissants by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau (haven’t read yet!)
– The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas (haven’t read yet!)
– Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Makes You Laugh
– Literally every book by Lyssa Kay Adams (Bromance Book Club FTW)
– Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall
– The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Pact
– Tweet Cute by Emma Lord (I think you can call their agreement to have their twitter challenge a pact)

Out of Comfort Zone

Black Love
– Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney (haven’t read yet!)
– Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
– Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant (haven’t read yet!)

MC Has Unusual Scent
– The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Sophomore Novel
– The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Dann (haven’t read yet but The Roommate was the BOMB)

Clinch Cover
– Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur
– The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham (haven’t read yet!)

Social Media Rec

HEA
I mean – all of them?

Term of Endearment

Favorite Trope (for me, that’s going to be enemies to lovers OR only one bed)
– You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle (haven’t read yet!)
– The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (haven’t read yet1)

Competition or Reality TV
– One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
– The Theory of Second Best by J. Bengtsson

Growl
– Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella
– The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez

Flowers
– The Switch by Beth O’Leary (I definitely remember some gardening here!)

Spring Break: Vacation
– People we Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry (haven’t read yet but Beach Read was spot on and could also work for this box!)
– The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
– Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith (haven’t read yet!)

Queer Historical
– Slippery Creatures by K.J. Charles (haven’t read yet!)

Big City Romance
– Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella

PNR/SFF Romance by AOC
– Death Wish by Harper A. Brooks

Folklore

Mental Health Rep

Forearms
– The Roommate by Rosie Dann (okay, to be honest, I don’t remember if forearms are specifically mentioned but SURELY they are)

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Travels in Utah – A Literary, Pandemic-Friendly, Adventure

If I could give just one piece of advice to a happy life, it would be this. Find yourself a travel buddy. Someone who is willing to plan a trip with you a year in advance.

I happen to have two – and it’s glorious.

Before this crazy thing called a pandemic started, Zoe and I were sitting in Texas and decided our next adventure would be beautiful. Outdoorsy. Full of hikes and lots and lots of time to sit, talk, and write. Little did we know in planning this trip it would be the perfect (the only?) safe trip to take during a global pandemic.

I’ll admit, it was still strange to get on a plane in early November, double masked and wearing glasses, wondering if we were being stupid by not cancelling this pre-booked trip. But, with me in Chicago and Zoe in Los Angeles, we actually figured going to the remote towns in Utah would probably incur less daily exposure. So we kept on and, with careful masking, hand washing, and distance, I am happy to say we emerged from the endeavor without spreading the virus to ourselves or others.

And it was SUCH a wonderful adventure. Utah, folks, while often overlooked, is well worth the time and energy. We spent a single night in Salt Lake City and were able to see a good portion of the sights before hopping in our rental car and making the drive to Moab. Our goal – Arches National Park and a lot of writing.

All in all – mission accomplished.

Exploring Salt Lake City

We landed early in SLC and got our rental car from Rugged Rental, via the Qeeq app. This was new to me and felt maybe a little sketch, but I found the service to be excellent with Rugged and the process flawless. Give it a try if you aren’t married to one of the big rental companies. Rugged isn’t based at the airport so it’s a little annoying needing to take a shuttle, but it was quick, easy, and cheaper.

You’ll be shocked to learn our first stop was a bookstore and café for lunch. We highly recommend checking out Oasis Café and the Golden Braid Books for books. Both are adorable and the food at Oasis was excellent – try the toasted brie sandwich. So simple. So heavenly.

Toasted Brie Sandwich from Oasis Cafe

By the recommendation of just about every blog or travel guide you see, we made our way down to Temple Square to walk around and see the sites. As someone who, admittedly, knows nothing about the Church of Latter Day Saints that wasn’t taught in the musical Book of Mormon, I found myself amazed, and somewhat bewildered, by the sights. There was beauty in the structures, but Salt Lake City is just so new – and it showed. The gaudy, built in the 80s, office building for the church was both an eyesore and yet somehow endearing. Like – bless their hearts, they were so enthusiastic they didn’t even think about the aesthetics.

The entire area around Temple Square was pretty, but eerily quiet. We weren’t sure what to make of it. It was a nice day in November – mid ’70s – but perhaps a little windy and cloudy. Sure, there’s a pandemic on, but regardless we were basically the only people around aside from the overly friendly guides in their skirts and always walking 2 by 2. The spider-like structure over a main road that had oddly Germany in the 1930s tones didn’t help much either.

I’m being judge-y. Salt Lake City is a cute, quiet little place with some lovely parks. We bopped around and found some cute street art too!

By the time we had walked around the Temple Square area, we decided it was time for another book store and made it over to Weller Bookworks. This place was lovely with a large selection, used and new. Definitely a good stop.

Dinner for us that night took us to the East Liberty Tap House which had a nice patio space with firepits. We both opted for the lamb sloppy joes which, while odd in theory, were magic in my mouth. We then walked down the street and found the grand opening of Pie Fight and snagged pumpkin cheesecake hand pies for dessert. They were excellent and the new business has such a cute walk-up window.

Our airbnb for the night was just blocks from the capitol, which is such a beautiful area. Our place was above a garage and so adorable it was worthy of a squeal. Highly recommend.

Salt Lake City is so well planned – the beauty of the foresight for what it would be is not to be dismissed. Sure, it’s rigid planning with excessively wide roads made those of us from lesser planned cities feel a little uncomfortable. To me, other than the couple hipster neighborhood we found, Salt Lake City felt a little too prescriptive – very clean, very structured. A little Big Brother feeling. It was interesting and new but I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two there.

Utah Road Trip – Salt Lake City to Moab

We took the long way to Moab since we had plenty of time between check out at 10am and check in at 3pm. So we went slightly out of our way by first heading to Park City and getting a coffee at Atticus Coffee + Tea. This place was adorable and busy. Lots of kitschy items and while, yes, there were some books but to call it a book shop was a stretch. Still, fun drink options so well worth the stop.

We walked the long length of the road and immediately wished it were later than 9am since many of the shops weren’t open. But there was lots of potential with other restaurants, galleries, book shops, etc. The boutiques looked classy and not repetitive. I’d love to go back there and explore Park City again.

I’ll never forget that it was here, after a nice stroll down the role, that we learned Biden/Harris won the 2020 election. Glorious, glorious morning.

We made our second road trip pit stop in Provo and visited Pioneer Book. Despite its lovely size, I have to say I found this book shop disappointing. It felt dated and they didn’t seem to do a good job with the inventory on the shelved – there were 10 copies of the same Danielle Steel book shelved next to another 10 copies of another Danielle Steel book, for example. I mean, books are books so it was nice, but definitely not my favorite book store.

We stopped at Peace on Earth for coffee and lunch. The coffee was amazing, but our grilled cheeses were pretty terrible. So – opt for drinks and skip the food.

Provo was our last stop until we got to Moab, whose size and variety of stores genuinely surprised us. This town is way more bustling than we guessed – it was certainly more alive than Salt Lake City! There are tons of food options though we found getting delivery to be absurdly challenging.

Side note – on our way back to Salt Lake City from Moab we stopped in this tiny town, Helper, for coffee at a place called Happiness Within. It was a nice little stop, coffee was decent, and the whole place felt kitschy. Worth pulling off the road for if you need to stretch your legs.

Highlights of Moab

We stayed at this airbnb, which was picked exclusively because there is an indoor rock climbing wall in the master bedroom and the second bedroom has a 3-story bunk bed. It was wild and also perfect. Highly recommend.

There are quite a few options for coffee in Moab but our favorite was definitely Doughbird. Good coffee (and while we didn’t taste any, the doughnuts looked amazing) but even better the staff was wonderful. So friendly! We went back to that exact reason.

Mural on the side of Doughbird

We made most of our food during our stay, but we did end up getting take out from Arches Thai and Fiesta Mexicana and both were very tasty.

The best highlight of Moab though, was their bookstore, Back of Beyond Books. High praise for this place. Usually book stores in these little towns barely qualify to be called a book store but this place was legit.

Old and new books, lots of title relevant to the area, but even though the selection of fiction was small it was not limited. Someone is on top of it and had so many brand new books, really cognizant of what is going on in literature, amazing editions. Honestly, I was so impressed. Do NOT skip this place if you are in Moab!

The Hikes: Arches National Park and Canyonlands

Let’s start with the whole reason we were in Utah.

Arches National Park.

Its beauty truly knows no bounds.

The drive alone was magnificent but the hikes were also lovely. We’ll admit that even in November it was pretty busy. We heard that was likely a pandemic situation and that the weekend we were there, especially since the weather was okay to kind-of gross, typically would have been a lot quieter. Still, we and the other hikers were great with masking.

Windows

Aches National Park is well laid out with almost all the hikes being quite short. A lot of the sights are barely off the road which meant we were able to see Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows, all in quite succession. We took the most possible trail to Delicate Arch which we highly recommend. It was just far and challenging enough to finally feel like a real hike and the end sight of Delicate Arch was so worth it.

Double Arch

Honestly, we were able to see the vast majority of what we wanted to see of Arches in about 4-5 hours total. We missed a couple of spots and hoped to come back but the weather stopped us. It’s say you need no more than 2 days at Arches but it is sooo worth the stop.

Delicate Arch

Our last full day took us to Canyonlands to get a little variety and, we hoped, to try and catch better weather. We were wrong and ended up driving and hiking through some pretty significant snowfall. We had hoped to do a different trail, maybe more than one at Canyonlands, but the snow changed those plans. Instead we just went the short distance to Mesa Arch which was lovely and super eerie to see with the total storm clouds.

Mesa Arch

We probably missed some of the sights because of the weather but I can definitely say the views from the drive through Arches far exceeded Canyonlands. It’s an easy stop though if you find you’ve “finished” Arches and still have time on your hands.

Five Days in Utah – and we still want more

Ultimately, any place is going to be amazing when the purpose is to get together with an old friend and just be. But Utah was all we hoped it would be. Even with less-than-ideal weather we were really able to enjoy the outdoors and the amazing scenery. It’s a location well worth exploring and one that book lovers can snag some great finds too.

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#SnowInLoveBingo Picks

If you’re like me, sometimes you need help filling in these bingo squares! Here are some of my favorites and their categories – and also some of the ones that I hope will fit the categories! I’ll fill these in as I read and learn more so come back through Feb for more hot picks. And let me know what I can add!

Set Outside The US/Europe
Shipped by Angie Hockman – haven’t read this yet, but it’s set in the Galapagos!
A Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres – set in Spanish Caribbean

Family Drama
Beach Read by Emily Henry – Female MC has all kinds of family angst
The Roommate by Rosie Danan – Female MC struggles against the family ties
Like the Wind by J. Bengtsson – plenty of family drama for this male MC
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord – sooo much family drama. Like, the whole point!
I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella
Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella – male MC has some serious family issues
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade – major drama with both MCs!
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren – literally the whole thing.
The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Hot Beverage
Take a Hint, Dani Brown – Talia Hibbert – romance brews over coffee!

Meta
Beach Read by Emily Henry – Both are authors
The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams (and any of the sequels!)
Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella – main characters meet at a romance fiction writing retreat

Fluffy
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid
Almost anything by Lauren Blakely – Well Hung, Mister O, the list of good ‘uns continues.
Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella – I mean there’s some learnings but this feel super fluffy
Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer

Childfree HEA
A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore
The Roommate by Rosie Danan
Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Into The Woods
Beach Read by Emily Henry – at some point there is a woods, and camping.
The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker – Alaska, lots of woods out there, eh?
City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong – okay, this one isn’t technically a romance novel but there IS romance and detective work and SO MUCH TIME IN THE WOODS so it totally fits, IMO.

Black Historical
Rebel by Beverly Jenkins – haven’t read it yet but it sounds soooo good. Jenkins has a number of other novels that would likely qualify in this category!

Feels Like Home
My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella – In this one the character “returns home” – and to be honest, all of Sophie’s books feel like home to me. I just love her.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes – I can’t remember if, technically, either of these characters “comes home” but I feel like MCs have to get to the root of who they are.
Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams – they actually have a line about “coming home” to each other. So BOOM.
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren – how homey this feels is kind of the WHOLE point
The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Fake Relationship
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall – okay, so I never quite got why they had a fake relationship but this book is sooo funny I don’t even care.
The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren – not just a fake relationship, but a fake marriage!
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Cover/Title You Love
You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Happy Holidays
The Christmas Wager by Delilah Marvelle – I haven’t read this one yet but I am a big fan of Marvelle’s stuff!
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Audiobook or HEA
Like the Wind by J. Bengtsson – great on audio!
Mister O by Lauren Blakely – this is sooo goood on audio
The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker – I really enjoyed this on audio

Brown Eyes
Well Met by Jen DeLuca – I am 99% sure Simon has brown eyes. If I’m wrong, I’m not sorry for suggesting this book.
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade – female MC has brown eyes

Small Town Romance by Author of Color
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
A Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres – haven’t read yet

Snow
Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein – definitely some snowy scenes in this one
Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore – there’s on particularly cold and frosty scene in this one that starts to warm things up! *wink wink, nudge, nudge*
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren – lots of snow in Park City, Utah!
The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker – Alaska – nuff said

F/F Contemporary
Before You Say I Do – Clare Lydon
Written in the Stars – Alexandria Bellefleur – this one was lovely

Messy Characters
Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey – to be literal here, at one point the female MC gets super muddy. Ha!
Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella – female MC is super untidy and just like… a mess. Hahaha
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren – their situation is so messy IMO

Specific/Unusual Profession
Wild Cards by Simone Elkeles – okay, so this is YA so it’s not really a “profession” but she’s a female football player soooo…
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuinston – surely being a prince is an unusual profession?
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade – female MC is a geologist!
The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker -male MC is an Alaskan bush pilot.

Rules/Lists/Resolutions
10 Blind Dates by Ashley Elston
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
The Duke who Didn’t by Courtney Milan

Music
Like the Wind by J. Bengtsson – gotta love an MC who is a pop star
The Happy Ever After Paylist by Abby Jimenez – rock star boyfriennnnnds
Cake by J. Bengtsson – another rock star

Retelling/Mythology
Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride & Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
Cinder by Marissa Meyer (or any in the series)
Heartless by Marissa Meyer

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Independent Bookstores in and around Chicago – A (Pandemic-Friendly!) Guide

You know how sometimes we don’t explore our own backyards? It occurred to me not long ago that I’ve written a number of literary explorations around the country and have NEVER highlighted Chicago. Despite the pandemic I rectified that and managed to visit a lot of bookstores, especially over the summer when things were a bit more cheerful.

Support the community and take your own tour of Chicago via books with my guide of the best independent and local bookstores below!

The Looking Glass – 823 S Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, IL

I love this little used bookstore. They have an eclectic mix of books and the shop is relatively small. But they have the BEST gifts! From blind books to journals to unique cards and knick-knacks – if you have a literary friend you are bound to find something cute for them here.

Roscoe Books – 2142 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago

You know those bookstores that just get you? They have the vibe, the beauty, and, even better, the inventory of books that makes you salivate? Roscoe Books is my happy place. They have so many great, new titles and lots of contemporary romance. Cute set up with the perfect mixture of lots of titles and room to stand. Win/win.

Volumes Bookcafe – 1474 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

SO cute. I unfortunately went during a pandemic so I didn’t get to try the café part of the book café, but I know I would love it. This place is set up so perfectly with a great little selection of stories and what looked like an excellent place to sit and relax with a hot beverage. I can’t wait to check it out in full force in the future.

Pro Tip – there is a sister location, Volumes Bookstore on Michigan Ave!

Bookends & Beginnings – 1712 Sherman Ave, Evanston

Oooh man – guys, this place is so worth the trek up to Evanston. You’re in the heart of Northwestern but you disappear somewhere else entirely for this store. It’s tucked away in an alley (SO adorable) and it’s so much bigger than it looks. Crazy good selection and has that tilty, old school book store feel. Love.

Myopic Books, 1564 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

Myopic is an establishment in Chicago. It’s your classic DGAF kind of used bookstore. Plenty of worn edges, musty corners, and books no one has touched in years. I also have a particular fondness for bookstores with stairs. This place has bizarre and wonderful half-levels that make you feel like an explorer.

Fun tip – it’s only a stones throw away from Volumes Bookcafe and Jeni’s Ice Cream… so you really never need to leave this block of the city. Ever. Just move in.

The Book Table – 1045 Lake Street, Oak Park

Back to my stomping grounds in Oak Park, this is a great new book store. It’s generously sized (they recently expanded!) so you know you can go in and get what you need. Tons of helpful staff and tips on what to choose next.

Madison Street Books, 1127 W Madison St, Chicago

This is such a lovely spot! This poor bookshop has a grand opening just two days before the pandemic March shelter-in-place hit so they could use some love – and do they deserve it! The staff is friendly and the kids section is adorable. I highly recommend!

Semicolon – 515 N. Halsted Street, Chicago

Black woman owned – so that right there makes it a winner. It’s not really open for in-store browsing because pandemic but they do lots of community support and it’s a fantastic stop. Definitely hit this one up!

The Armadillo’s Pillow – 6753 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago

Mad props for an amazing name. This place is soooo quirky. Used booked, piles everywhere, plenty of space to get lost. What more to do need? Oh, yeah, an entire afternoon to dawdle.

Unabridged Bookstore – 3251 N Broadway, Chicago

Love this place. It’s a great space and has some amazing travel and LGBTQ+ sections. Excellent selection (all new) with up to date trends. Plenty of room to linger.

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore – 714 S Dearborn St, Chicago

This is a lovely little spot to hit up if you are exploring downtown Chicago – just a few short blocks away from Willis Tower. With bright, wide shelves and all new books it’s a great spot to find some of the “top hits”. Add a star for the creakiest floors ever (and I mean that in the BEST way possible).

Open Books – 651 W. Lake Street, Chicago
(there are other locations in the city too!)

This book store is packed with books and yet the tall ceilings make it feel open (ha) and lovely. Great initiatives and events happen here too. It’s an easy place to get lost in.

Centuries & Sleuths –  7419 Madison St, Forest Park

Who doesn’t love a good themed bookstore?! Mysteries and histories are the game here and while the store itself doesn’t have a ton of browsing potential, they have a fun table of blind books and the staff will help you with anything you could desire. Madison Street in Forest Park is a delightful area to walk around (check out Twisted Cookie or The Brown Cow for some sweet treats)!

Book Bin – 1151 Church St Northbrook, IL

This is a fun little stop off! Great selection with some good gifts (I found a great puzzle of the Chicago skyline!) Super friendly and perfect for a visit if you’re in in those NW suburbs.

Barbara’s Books – 2651 Navy Boulevard, Glenview

Perhaps a little sterile (though that’s not a bad thing in a pandemic) this place has lots of room to breathe. Plenty of new hits and a nice getaway in this outdoor mall area. Other locations around the city.

I’m still working my way through Chicagoland and have lots to explore so check back for more! Let me know where I should go next!

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Top 10 Best Spooky Reads

Looking for a good Halloween read? This fall in particular has felt like the absolute perfect atmosphere to dig into those creepy, horror, thriller type books. Even with a pandemic out there, these can be a real escape and the list of my top 10 favorite are below!

1. My Best Friend’s Exorcism and/or The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

I discovered Grady Hendrix this year and applaud him on his books. They’re super kitschy and a lot of fun – the perfect mix of what-the-whaaaat kind of horror and really great character development. If you want a B-quality horror movie in a book, pick up either one of these gems!

2. The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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Zombies! This book is so perfectly paced and the story is really unique. It’s beautifully dark and peppered with great action, story, and magic. I read this one in a single day, it’s a perfect page turner.

3. The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

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While technically a thriller and not horror, I think this book does a great job at the creepy. There are all kinds of crime mysteries out there that jump the shark but Sveistrup has crafted a truly heinous crime novel. It’s a great read!

4. Verity by Colleen Hoover

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This book is bound to creep. you. out. I got some serious heebie jeebies reading this. It’s absolutely a whack-job psychological thriller. It’s so good, I don’t even know if I like it.

5. Dracula by Bram Stoker

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What’s a list of spooky stories without a class? Let me be honest – I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. Even as someone who makes it a point to read a classic every once in a while, I still thought this one would be a struggle but… it wasn’t. Would you believe that this is truly a kick-butt story? I thought I knew the plot going in, but I really didn’t. When it comes to an exciting, suspenseful, heart-stopping thriller, this book has it all.

6. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

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Okay, while not exactly a horror or creepy book in of itself, I still had to put it on the list because it’s fantastic. It’s an amazing novel with such a poignant story. And it’s perfect for this time of the year because it’s all about witches, and people who live in cemeteries, and ghosts, and dia de los muertos. Hiiiighly recommend.

7. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

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It was, obviously, impossible to make a list of spooky books without listing King. But, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read many of his books and the ones I did, were ages and ages ago. But I did read the Eyes of the Dragon not lot ago via audio and it veritably blew my mind. The narrator is exceptional and you’ll find yourself looking behind you as you listen. It’s a great King to pick up and feels different than some of his other works.

8. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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This story is so raw and unique and really, really dark. The dark fantasy and the way the characters play together will give you a lot of opportunity to shudder.

9. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This is one of your classic, legit horror books. All dark and sinister you can see the grainy film playing in your mind as you read. While not a 5-star blow it out of the water book for me, it’s a very solid choice if you’re looking for something to creep you out at midnight.

10. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

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This is a super interesting and, I thought, creepy story. There’s a lot of back and forth as the story spools out before you – and with three different narrations it’s a classic tale of spending an entire book trying to know what to believe. More along the lines of a mystery/suspense, it’s a good psychological one to read.

What are some of your favorite spooky reads?

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Traveling alone in Romania – Adventures in Transylvania

Two years ago, almost to the day, I found myself alone in Transylvania.

Biggest takeaway – it was beautiful.

Sinaia Monestary – Transylvania

Romania had always been one of my random must-see hot spots. Sure, saying you’ve been to Transylvania is a fun one-up on people, being one of those off-the-beaten-path destinations, but I’ve also always been drawn to that Eastern European landscape. So when I was asked to go Bucharest and train our European recruitment team, I jumped at the chance.

Beautiful walk near Parcul Izvor in Bucharest

I spent a week in our Global Business Services office, training and meeting my European counterparts, before then taking a long weekend to explore Transylvania before finally heading home to the husband and kids.

And let me tell you – Romania is a delightful little spot to go exploring alone. English is widely spoken, people are friendly, and anyone who’s not a complete travel amateur will find it easy to navigate. Because it’s not super touristy, you don’t have to worry about getting conned. Uber is widely used and dirt cheap.

It’s beautiful country in general but when I was there the fall colors were positively magnificent and every autumn since I haven’t been able to see a golden leaf without remembering the lovely week and half I spent in Romania.

Bucharest

Famous umbrella street

My first week in Bucharest was for work and we all stayed at the JW Marriott Bucharest Grant Hotel. This is a truly upscale hotel and it seems to be where a good amount of high class people stay (some musician and Japanese diplomat were there while we were). From a cultural standpoint I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it – you know me, I like unique and quaint – but it was a very nice place and in a pretty easy-to-get-around location. The palace is literally right across the giant round-about death circle.

View from my room at the Marriott – two years ago they were working round-the-close on this massive orthodox cathedral. I assume it’s done now.

It doesn’t look like a common area to take a walk but we did anyway and the guards were very suspicious of us snapping pictures.

Somewhat frowned upon picture of the palace at night

A few of my co-workers and I stumbled upon an absolutely delightful restaurant within walking distance called Locanta Jaristea. It’s entrance is completely unassuming – we honestly were a bit worried we were walking into someone’s house –

but once the door was open we were blasted with music and clapping and a total overload of stuff. Locanta Jaristea was a cornucopia of tourist bliss. The menu was almost entirely meat, the establishment was filled with gaudy relics of Romanian past, and dancers and performers entertained us non-stop.

A veritable Romanian-mariachi band walked amongst the tables and serenaded us. Since all four of us were from different countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and myself from the US) we were all treated to a “traditional” song from our country. I got Frank Sinatra.

The entire experience was delightful and I recommend visiting this establishment whole heartedly.

The weekend I was there they were hosting a street food and wine festival (#MEGAstreetfood) that literally took place at the palace. It was amazing and if you happen to be there when it’s happening – or if you want to plan your trip around it – I highly recommend it. The food trucks were so much fun (over 50!) and the wine tasting took place in the palace – you were able to walk around, learn about the different vendors, taste and buy bottles, etc. It was a really unique and fun experience that happens annually.

After this – I was on my own. I walked and explored the city – both on my own, but also in an organized tour. Both were excellent ways to see this Romanian capital. I always recommend explorers partake in at least one guided tour of a city, even if it’s a free one, but for Bucharest especially. There is so much history – recent history – to see and understand here. Bucharest looks very rough (there is graffiti everywhere) and to understand the cultural explanation of that was really rewarding.

Most Memorable Sights in Bucharest – 1-2 days

Parcul Izvor was a sweet little place not far from the Palace – I stumbled upon a touristy little craft market while on my way to Origo for some tea (see more below!)

Below are sights from my own walking and wandering – I didn’t end up doing a free walking tour but I guarantee if you go on one it’ll hit a lot of the beautiful spots below.

The tour I did end up taking was through Intrepid Urban Adventures, their Dark Side of Bucharest tour. The scariest part was almost certainly meeting in front of the KFC. We ended up visiting two cemeteries and, while they were a bit obnoxious to get to on the subway, it was interesting to see something I never would have visited on my own. The guide had some great stories, too.

After the cemetery visits, we were also taken around to the various monuments and locations of the revolution. This part was great and I really appreciated having the guide. I had always walked past a lot of the areas but didn’t know the details. It’s such recent past and I really felt I learned a lot about the city. I definitely recommend Urban Adventures if you’re open to paying for a tour.

That concluded all the activities of Bucharest before I made my way up to Transylvania. I found some amazing places to eat and relax though – see below:

Favorite Cafes and Restaurants in Bucharest

Origo
More known for the coffee, they were SO kind when I asked about the tea selection. She actually brought out the canisters for me to sniff (I chose one with infused violet) and gave me one of the many wool blankets for my lap. Delightful.

Cozy spot at Origo

Cărturești Carusel
If you know anything about my travel habits – this is my happy place. It’s a book store with amazing architecture and a café on the top floor. It has literally everything. I ordered a lemonade with orange and mint and made plans to eventually be buried here if my plans for living forever don’t work out.

Pasta Restaurant
Yes. It’s literally called Pasta Restaurant. They make fresh pasta on site, the décor is adorable, and they have dried pasta under glass on the tables. I meaaaan COME ON. Loveeee.

Pasta Restaurant

Cărtureşti Verona
Quite literally one of my favorite concepts in the world. It’s a book store, tea studio, and project space all in a unique historical building. It’s lesser known than it’s downtown sister but I loved it even more. Beneath lovely trees with flowers and happy people – delicious food with specials of the day and flavored lemonades. I asked if I could live there, but they said no.

Animaletto Pizza Bar
Absurdly adorable pizza place with a lovely patio space. I’m a sucker for good lighting and paving stones (oh, and the pizza was also legit).

Nothing like ordering a whole pizza for myself

Nomad Skybar
This place is in a really fun location right on one of the main restaurant/club areas. It’s a bit seedy of an area, the “old town” but still one you are bound to visit if you’re doing any kind of nighttime activity in Bucharest. Nomad was fun because the rooftop allowed for some great views of the city and people watching below (also with tasty apps and drinks!)

Brașov

After my week in Bucharest I hopped the train, 2.5 hours, up to Brașov, Transylvania. It’s surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and is known for it’s medieval walls, the Black Church, and a beautiful Council Square. It’s so adorable with cobbled streets and an entire street dedicated to outdoor restaurant seating. Oddly, it has a Hollywood-esque sign on the mountain side that totally takes away from the historic air but I liked the quirkiness of it.

See the Brasov sign?

You won’t need more than a day, maybe two, here. I only spent the one night before moving on, but I enjoyed putzing around the little town. The free walking tour available was quite good as well.

View of Brașov from the sign. Can you see the main square below?

Not surprisingly, one of the main things to do is go to the top of the mountain to view the city. There’s a platform literally right next to the Brașov/Hollywood sign which I found lovely and hilarious. The views are truly amazing though. You can either hike the whole thing or, after a short beautiful walk, you can just ride a cable car to the top.

Edge of the sign from the viewing platform

Piața Sfatului, or the Council Square, is a lovely place to chill out and people watch. It’s clearly the most central part of the city with great views of the mountains, cafes, a fountain and historical buildings. People use this as a meeting place and the vibrancy of the city shows here. I grabbed a snack at La Ceaun which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either. The vibe made it worth it, though.

I stayed the night at a hostel up the hill (Kismet Dao – I think it might be closed now) which was fine but not something I would specifically recommend unless you are a legit 20-something backpacker. I left early, opting to walk the almost 3 miles to the train station. Seeing the town square at dawn was really quite amazing and I’m glad I tired out my feet to do so.

There were a few more things I could have done in Brașov, but I opted to head to one of the many castles of Transylvania. Now – I had a few options and one of those was, notably, Bran Castle or “Dracula’s Castle”.

I skipped it.

I decided I didn’t need the tourism – it had very heavily mixed reviews – and instead headed for what was touted to be the far better castle in Sinaia.

Sinaia

Best known for it’s castle and a ski resort town, Sinaia was relatively sleepy while I was there. But that didn’t bother me in the least. I was there at the true peak of the fall foliage and the beautiful of the oranges and yellows were incredible.

My train to Sinaia was uneventful and I made it easily to my B&B, Vila Camelia. It’s super easy to get to from the train and I had an adorable top floor room with a balcony. The food was excellent. I loved the little spot and would highly recommend.

My balcony with a view ❤

It didn’t take me long to settle into the B&B and then walk up to Peleș Castle. I inadvertently took the scenic route (zigged when I should have zagged) and the road was steep but it was still a nice walk with great views up to the castle.

Now – Castle might be a bit of a misnomer as it’s really more of a palace, or legit nice house, but it’s well worth a visit. From the grounds to the inside, everything is immaculate and well-preserved. The guides are great and I learned a lot about the history of Romania.

And that was it! After seeing Sinaia it was back on the train to Bucharest, one more night there in a hostel, the Podstel Umbrella, (super nice with private rooms!) and then back on the plane for home.

I truly enjoyed my time in Romania and while, honestly, at the time I didn’t rank it as one of my top vacations, I find myself thinking back to the week or so I spent there a lot. It’s a country where I found some of the best things I love – book stores and views and flavored lemonades. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to go again.

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The BEST Obscure Books – Read off the Beaten Path!

Look – it’s fun to read what’s hot and new, isn’t it? I do it all the time. I see that book with thousands of reviews at 4.5 stars and I know I’m in for a good read. But, how fun is it to pick up that book with only a few reviews, maybe it was written ages ago, and you feel like you found a hidden treasure?

Here is your best of both worlds! Trust me on this – these little known books (fewer than 2,000 ratings on Good Reads) are SO worth your time – pick them up to today!

Caravan
Dorothy Gilman

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I’ve read this book twice now and it is truly incredible. It has everything – every twist and turn you can imagine. It’s the story of a young girl told by an old one where you can feel the truth of it but with the knowing eye of an old woman looking back. This is a book where horrible, terrible things can happen to the characters and somehow you still want their lives. This book is magic wrapped up in one neat little package and now I can’t say anything else without just positively gushing.

And I can’t wait to read it again!

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
Tahir Shah

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This is the only book I have ever finished and immediately wanted to re-read. I would have; but I really want to buy a paper copy and read it that way instead. I’m abroad right now, but when I get back in the states I will own this! I’m also planning on reading just about everything Tahir Shah has written.

So why? Why am I so ga-ga over this book? One of my greatest loves in life is traveling and this book just oozes with the emotions of a traveler. Shah is an individual who is restless, who is curious, who judges people with an eye of disbelief AND understanding, who takes people what they are and, while human being are unable to completely ever fill another’s shoes, he incorporates what he can. It’s incredible – I stopped multiple times while reading to ponder or scribble down a sentence. Shah’s words described my own emotions: it’s so wonderful to feel understood.

This book is both memoir and story – it’s a mixture of tales, events, meaningful and not. His ability to tie in everything makes me believes he’s led not only a great life but also a fascinating one – I believe this book is filled with both truths and fibs and it works beautifully into one tapestry. I picked it up because I was going to Morocco to travel – I’ve never been more excited to examine a place now after having read this book.

I’d recommend this to just about everyone who is willing to ponder new ideas, cultures, adventures, etc. It’s phenomenal!

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*T With Her Mind
Jackson Ford

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I clearly picked up this book because it has the best title in the known universe. And then it ended up being great! SCORE!

It’s hysterical. I seriously laughed out loud multiple times while listening to this (btw – the audio narration is excellent). I love Teagan as a character – beautiful perks and flaws. This book is full of action and adventure and the dynamic of the characters are so much fun. The ending got a smidge long but I can definitely overlook that and am so eager to get started on book 2.

My (Underground) American Dream
Julissa Arce

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I really enjoyed this memoir – I was able to hear Julissa speak in Chicago for HACE and her story is incredible and memorable. It is so timely and brave as well – definitely one to read.

Golden Earrings
Belinda Alexandra

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Oh, this book.

Do you ever read a historical fiction and think, “This must have happened.” It was so expertly woven, the truth and tales of the times intermingled with the fiction so beautifully I thought it had to be true. The richness of the story, though certainly not all uplifting, felt like something that just had to have happened. Of course, I realize that’s not the case, but I don’t think I’ll be able to ever think about the Spanish Civil War without imagining La Rusa’s impact.

Paloma, Evelina, Celestina – Golden Earrings is a tale of strong women who are impacted by a terrible war. It’s a story about how people react when their lives are altered by others’ choices. It’s not a story about making all the right decisions. Each and every one of the characters in this novel make mistakes – very large mistakes – that send waves of impacts down the line for years. But mistakes don’t make a person, and Alexandra’s weaving of the characters shows that mistakes can be made by good people, but that good people aren’t immune to hard choices.

This is a little known novel that needs some serious love. It’s incredible via audio book and I’m sure just as good on paper. Highly recommend, and I will definitely be picking up more of Alexandra in the future.

The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me
Suzanne Kingsbury

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I have never been to the south, at least not the “deep” south and, man, did this book make me want to go. It’s not that Kingsbury even made it seem that appealing – all she talked about was the heat, the way the sweat dripped down someone’s neck, the stifling air in the rooms, etc. But she really made me FEEL it and I haven’t really spent any time in that kind of environment…

It’s a powerful book. Kingsbury does such a great sense of having you /feel/ relationships. I could sense the tension or happiness or love or whatever they felt between the characters. It was invigorating.

Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones
Erica Jong

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This book was pretty astounding. Very rarely have I reacted to a book with as much gusto – and I’m not talking about tears and laughter here, I’m talking about flat out shock. In terms of fiction, I’ve never had a book startle me as much as this one did and I loved it all the more for it. Erica Jong wrote this in such a manner that I truly believed she was Fanny Hackabout-Jones. She said in the beginning that she would keep no modesty, and she kept true to her word. The events in this book had ways of simultaneously disgusting and arousing me but ultimately making me truly care for, and hate, the same ones that Fanny did. Fanny wanted to teach Belinda, her daughter, all the things she had learned in the world. At the very least, I think she succeeded in teaching me.

Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer
Barbara Sjohlm

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I’m a little biased as writing and travel are two of my absolute favorite things, but this is such a beautiful memoir that really takes you into her growth and self-discovery. Highly underrated and a truly beautiful book.

Death Wish (Reaper Reborn Series)
Harper A. Brooks

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Overall, this book was really engaging and interesting. A couple parts were maybe a bit of a stretch but overall I was able to get into the story. Great pacing and characterization – Jade is such a fun character to follow and Brooks doesn’t pull the punches. Great series!

Songs from the Phenomenal Nothing
Steven Luna

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I sat down to read a chapter or two, just for a bit, and now I’m done. Devoured. That’s what happened with this book. Five, five, five stars.

This one had me from the get-go. Within about thirty seconds of reading you know Tyler Mills. He’s a teenage kid pissed off about something and is blaming it on his Dad for being a different person than him. At first you want to say “boo-hoo, kid” and kick off, but in the next thirty seconds you realize his Mom, his true connection, his source of inspiration, is dead. And then you feel bad about judging him for being all emo – and then you’re hooked.

What is it about Tyler that worked so well? It’s hard to pin-point. Maybe because he acted like a total teenager but his mind recognized how stupid he was being. Maybe because he was obviously smart and wanted to make good decisions but his fear and sadness was getting the best of him. If that isn’t a good representation of the young adult mind, I don’t know what is. The story was predictable but it moved quickly. The further it gets, in fact, the more cliché, but that didn’t detract at all. I loved it. I loved how I knew what was going to happen, I loved that Tyler did what I ultimately wanted him to do, and I love how it ended. Maybe I like clichés. I’m a firm believer that there are really only so many plotlines in the world, but there are never two personalities that are the same. It’s up to the writer to see an old situation from new eyes, and Luna nails it.

Love Perks of Being a Wallflower? Love angst? Love teenagers figuring out their shizz? How about if you just love good books? I don’t really care what you love – you’ll love this one.

Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail
Mary Morris

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This book was phenomenal – not only is Mary Morris probably the most self-honest person on the planet (I don’t think I could read my actions for truth like she does even if I wanted to) but she’s a fantastic writer. Her personal struggles combined with the fascinating travel events make this a truly enthralling read. It’s set in such a dramatic time in history – Morris was in China, Russia, and Germany in 1986. Seeing some of those historic events happening through her eyes is unbelievably interesting. Great read!

Categories: Debuts, Lists, Pick Ups | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2020 (so far)

If there can be one good thing said about 2020 (and that’s a stretch, I know) it’s that it has given me a reason to double down on my reading. I have been positively devouring books this year and am proud to say I’ve finished 78 so far. Since we’re halfway through this delight of a year, I thought I would highlight some of my absolute favorites!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

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You’re a good man, Linus Baker. I’m so very pleased to know you.

There may not be as accurate of a statement than this in the entire world. This book -guys, this BOOK. It’s like a dose of rainbow, sunshine, sprinkle glitter love happiness straight to the pleasure center. It’s beautiful.

Honestly, I want to write everything and yet nothing at all. You don’t need to know anything, you just need to read this book.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

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This is a truly wonderful book. Gah – I wish I could go back in time and read this as a young adult because it would have had even that much more POW.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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This is a fantastic book that should be read. Not only it is well written with personal stories and facts of cases, it’s properly balanced with success and failure. It’s not a story about only innocent people being released – it’s about criminals getting appropriate representation as well. I really appreciated that this didn’t just feel like a giant pat on the back, but it was the emphasis on how the broken system breaks individuals – and breaks those people of color even more disproportionately.

All in all, a great read.

Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

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Undercover Bromance is a “great big manly hug huddle” (those are Lyssa Kay Adam’s words, not mine) and it’s and amazing 5/5 star book.

These books – they just GET me. I had legit belly laughs. I mean, the man-hating rooster? The banter? Heck, I was even belly laughing from FART jokes (I kid you not). It’s fun and funny and the relationships – romantic and friendship – are SO GOOD.

Can’t help it. Love these. Want more.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

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Confession: I have never, not once, seen an episode of the Bachelor. Which I assume this book is a literary version of.

Guys – this is the equivalent of a romantic “who dun it” – you literally can’t guess who the murderer, I mean, perfect lover is! I mean, okay, I guess I could but I also couldn’t. I’m not spoiling this for you but it’s kind of amazing.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

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Heaaaaarts, rainbowsssss, and sunshine.

That’s what I feel about this book. I adored it. I giggled – a LOT. The characters are delightful, the setting adorable, there’s some very satisfying sexy time and ogling, etc, etc. Basically, it was right up my alley and I highly recommend.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

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If Sue Monk Kidd hadn’t written this book I NEVER would have picked it up. No way, no how. I have as little connection to any religion as possible – I was raised in the US and therefore have those Christian influences to my society, but had nothing by the way of religious education. For example – it wasn’t until the end of the book that I found out Anna was fictional. Ha!

So – yes, from a topic, not typically one of interest to me. And honestly there were parts that were a bit dry in the book or that I didn’t quite “get” because my lack of knowledge. But the essence of it… the drive Sue Monk Kidd put into the story and the protagonist. Anna is a storm to be reckoned with and merged with the society in which she lived – it was beautiful. The fact that Anna really was the center of this story, and the most interesting of the characters, and she was married to Jesus is pretty outstanding for the author, I have to say.

Overall, a truly great read and another example of the artwork that is Sue Monk Kidd’s writing.

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

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Wow – this was truly excellent. Complex without being confusing, unique without being unbelievable, and horrifying without being gross. Great characters who have enough of their own issues to be interesting but not so much so that they are distracting. I truly didn’t guess the ending. All in all, I very top notch crime thriller!

Beach Read by Emily Henry

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Welp, that was perfect.

And, for the record, I usually really dislike stories where the character is a writer. And this one had two writers.

It’s still perfect.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

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Ok – yeah, I was really skeptical about this book. The premise is bizarre and, honestly, after reading it, the premise is still really bizarre.

But, man, I liked it! The style of the narration is amazing, I wanted to quote about half of it. I love the main character and just the way she IS. The way she responds and adapts to the strange circumstances she’s put it is fascinating.

It’s super quirky and it’s a book that gave me a lot of thoughts and feels. And that’s how I’m leaving that review.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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Well, I should know better than to read what is the first in what is very clearly going to be a series so soon after it is published. I want to read the next one immediately and now I have to wait 😦

This is great – it raw and unique and Alex Stern is a bada**. I had a little trouble getting into it at the beginning and, frankly, it’s a dense book. I was trying to read it quickly but it takes a lot of mind power – there is a LOT that goes on here. That’s not a bad thing, it’s actually really good, but get ready for the investment.

All in all, Bardugo hit another one out of the park.

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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What an excellent book. I blew through this in a single day – which is no small feat in the chaos that is my life.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love when I come across a book where everything just works. The story is perfectly paced and snappy with action, dialogue, introspection, and magic. The character relationships are genuine and heartfelt – the main characters, Ryn and Ellis, are beautiful and flawed. The problems they face are real and unique. This is such a fascinating story that I have – and haven’t – heard before.

Oh – and it’s a zombie book, so, you know, that makes is automatically awesome.
Categories: Lists, Pick Ups | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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