PLEASE JOIN US, by Catherine McKenzie

A book cover with a woman's face and the words PLEASE JOIN US

Nicole Mueller is a lawyer in a high-powered law firm, but after years of success, she’s struggling. She’s been put on watch after (in the partners’ opinion) she’s had a lackluster year, her relationship with her husband Dan is tense, and she’s not even sure where she’ll call home when Dan’s and her stake in the family apartment is in question. To say she’s on edge is an understatement. When she receives an invitation from a women’s networking group (Panthera Leo), she thinks it might be the answer to all her problems.

If a thriller can be judged by how engaged you are while reading it, then PLEASE JOIN US is top-notch. The opening chapter grabbed me, and the book didn’t let go until the final page. The book starts with an SOS that Nicole receives from a friend and fellow Panthera Leo member, and there isn’t a slow moment in the narrative after that. Despite moving from present to the past and back again through much of the book, the plot is easy to follow, and I didn’t feel any of the confusion I often have when trying to keep up with where and when I am in a book that uses that device.

I’ve read a lot of Catherine McKenzie’s books, and the thing I like best about her writing is that I never stop wondering where the story is leading until the end. Her plots twist and turn, and just when I think I have everything figured out, I find that I’ve miscalculated yet again. I’m not sure what method she uses for plotting and keeping track of her characters and their motives, but she could probably teach a master class in it.

Lest you think that the plot and pacing are the only stars of PLEASE JOIN US, know that the characters in it are also terrific. While Nicole is the most fully formed of the people you meet—of course—even those on the periphery become full figures, and their relationships seem real in a way that is often missing in the genre. The relationship between Nicole and Dan is really well drawn—something I found particularly impressive considering the fast pace of the novel.

McKenzie is an author whose books I order the moment I hear there will be a new one, and nothing about PLEASE JOIN US changed my mind on that. I’m already looking forward to her next one.

My Last Summer with Cass, by Mark Crilley

“A good friendship is like a work of art.”

Megan and Cass have been friends forever. Their families vacationed together since they were young, and the two girls could count on seeing each other every summer at the lakeside cabin their parents rented. It was during their time there that Megan and Cass discovered their shared love of art, and it’s where they had their first collaboration and were discovered and encouraged by a woman with an eye for talent.

As the girls get older, their lives change dramatically, and their summers by the lake are just memories. With college choices on the horizon, Megan manages to convince her parents to let her visit Cass in New York City for a couple of weeks, and that time changes how both young women think about themselves, their friendship, and their art.

MY LAST SUMMER WITH CASS by Mark Crilley is gorgeous. The characters have depth and beauty, the art is fantastic, and the story is one that will resonate with both teens and adults. I love Crilley’s illustrations because he manages to tell so much about a character in subtle ways, and this book shows that he’s equally adept with words.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot, but I encourage you to pick up this book. You can read it in one sitting, and then start it all over again to immerse yourself in the illustrations and fully appreciate the beauty of that part of the work. That’s certainly what I did.

I’ll be buying MY LAST SUMMER WITH CASS for the art-loving teens in my world–in part because I don’t want to give up my own copy–and I hope that this departure from his normal style isn’t Crilley’s last.

SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, by Catherine McKenzie

Jennifer Barnes has six weeks to live–that part of this new book from Catherine McKenzie is given away in the title–but is it because it’s one of those things that just happens and we need to shake our fists at fate, or has someone close to her decided that they would be better off without her around?

McKenzie has written another terrific family drama-mystery-psychological thriller that will keep some readers guessing the outcome until the very end. What the author does very well in SIX WEEKS TO LIVE (as she does in all of her books) is gather the broken pieces and parts that come from a life of family and friendships and turn them into a well-plotted story that leaves the reader invested in the characters and the outcome–and allows most to see a bit of themselves in at least one of those characters.

SIX WEEKS TO LIVE is told in alternating voices as Jennifer and her three daughters give their perspectives on what happens over the course of Jennifer’s final six weeks. The excellent writing and clear chapter titles helped me stay on track with whose voice I was hearing, and even without the heads-up at the beginning of each chapter, the distinct personalities of the Barnes women shine through and a reader won’t doubt whose version of the story they’re reading.

With its short chapters and constant surprises, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE is a book that is hard to put down. I spent a lot of time saying “just one more chapter” to myself as I breezed through the book on some nights when I should have gone to sleep early. The title releases at the beginning of May, so I suggest you pre-order it and give it to the mystery-loving mom on your shopping list for Mother’s Day. I can guarantee that I’ll be doing that.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

Escape from Castro’s Cuba, by Tim Wendel

“When it comes to Cuba, there are always surprises. Nothing goes as planned.”

It’s 2016, and Billy Bryan has returned to Cuba. Billy’s playing days are far in the past, but his role in a movie has brought him back to the baseball diamonds of the country that is what a friend calls one of Billy’s angels–a place where “you’ve learned something important, met someone special … the places you can always picture when you close your eyes.”

While in Cuba, a talented young shortstop named Gabriel Santos catches Billy’s eye with his play on the diamond. When Billy’s daughter, Eván, tracks Santos down and learns of his dream to play baseball in the United States, she convinces Billy that helping Santos will be the revenge they’d both like to get against the Cuban powers-that-be they believe are responsible for the death of the woman Billy loved (and Eván’s mother) Malena Fonseca.

First, if you haven’t read Castro’s Curveball, the book for which Escape from Castro’s Cuba is the sequel, here’s the review of it that I wrote: Castro’s Curveball Review. If you don’t want to click that link, just know that I thought it was a great book, and it was with some trepidation that I started the sequel. I always worry that the second book in any series won’t live up to the first.

Thank goodness my fears were unfounded.

Escape from Castro’s Cuba is completely engrossing with the great character development and well-done action scenes that I’ve come to expect from Tim Wendel. As was the case in Castro’s Curveball, Cuba and its past are painted with as much depth as any of the people in the book, and Billy Bryan’s love for the island is as evident as his sadness over what it has become.

And let’s talk about those people in the book. My love for Billy Bryan is documented in my review of Castro’s Curveball, and nothing in this new novel changes my feelings for him. I also adore Eván and Cassy, Billy’s daughters. Their relationships with Billy–their bossiness and occasional exasperation mixed with obvious love and respect–made me miss my own dad.

Although more baseball scenes would have been nice because Tim Wendel writes baseball action so darn well (and because more baseball is always a good thing), I do appreciate how tight this story is. Wendel doesn’t waste words, but he still manages to incorporate all the extra little things I appreciate in a book–things that will take a book from good to great for me: pretty turns of phrase where appropriate, thought-provoking insights, and clear settings that allow me to be stay centered and immersed in a story.

Finally, I don’t know how a book becomes a movie, but I think this story would make a terrific one. Lots of action and atmosphere, wonderful characters, and beautiful settings  … I’d definitely go see this one on the big screen. Could someone make that happen, please?

Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for providing me a copy of the e-book in exchange for my honest review.

You Can’t Catch Me, by Catherine McKenzie



Jessica Williams escaped a cult when she was 18, became an acclaimed journalist, and was disgraced after she was caught plagiarizing someone else’s work–and that’s just the backstory for Catherine McKenzie’s latest thriller, YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Within the first few pages, I was pulled in, and I rushed through the e-pages as fast as I could to see what else would happen to McKenzie’s hapless protagonist.

The book starts with Jessica is sitting in an airport bar with a plan to escape the relentless media coverage of her career-ending mistake. While there, she meets another Jessica Williams and the two share a drink. What follows is a plot that flips sideways, up, and down and pulls the reader along while doing it. There were times that I thought I had everything figured out, only to be fooled by this artfully crafted story with multiple Jessica Williams, family drama and intrigue, and plenty of crimes committed. There’s also a bit of a love story for anyone who is into that.

I’ve read many of Catherine McKenzie’s books, and one thing I always count on is compelling characters with strong and believable reactions and relationships, and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME delivers on that, too.

As I’m sure you can tell, I definitely recommend this book. I’ll be buying copies for my thriller-loving friends and family. My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the book.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

life after life


LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is a breathtaking (literally) book that chronicles the many versions of life experienced by Ursula Todd and anyone in her orbit. Born in the midst of snowstorm in 1910, Ursula almost dies at birth–and then she does die many more times over the decades that follow. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by telling you that Ursula has to try a lot of different paths before we can get to the end of things.

Ursula’s lives cover some of the more interesting and traumatizing moments in history, but Atkinson does a terrific job of showing that it’s the more everyday happenings–family vacations and sixteenth birthdays, for example–that change the course(s) of Ursula’s life (after life).

When I asked my sister what she thought about the book, she said that she really liked it–until the end. And I have to agree with that simple breakdown of LIFE AFTER LIFE. This is a book worth reading. The writing will cause you to catch your breath, sit on the edge of your seat, and flip pages quickly to see what comes next. And even if the ending disappoints you (and I agree with Sherry’s assessment–it did disappoint me), I doubt you’ll regret reading the 450 pages that come before that ending. LIFE AFTER LIFE is brilliant in so many ways, and Ursula is a character I enjoyed, admired, and loved. I’ll think about her a lot, and I’ll consider the potential of all of our lives as we navigate crossroads that seem both big and small as we make our choices.

This book was exhausting in the best way. I can’t wait to talk about it in person with my sister, and anyone else who would like to discuss it with me.

Castro’s Curveball, by Tim Wendel

castros curveball


“It’s not the people who’ve never fallen or lost that are worthy of our admiration. It’s what you do after you fall that’s the surest test of a hero.”

Playing winter baseball in Cuba is the only path left to the major leagues for Billy Bryan in 1947, and the deep-thinking catcher knows that he doesn’t have many chances left to stand out to the people who decide who makes it and who doesn’t. Cuba is at a similar crossroads as young revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro are working to usurp the country’s government and instill a new way of life for its people.

Billy and Fidel’s lives intersect on the baseball diamond one night as Castro leads a group of radicals onto the playing field during a game, and Billy offers young Fidel a chance to throw a few pitches. That interaction sets Billy off in an unexpected direction, and he finds himself in the middle of a revolution and falling in love with Malena Fonseca, the photographer tasked with documenting it.

Malena’s photographs are why, more than 40 years after leaving Cuba, Billy finds himself on a plane headed back there with his adult daughter and a host of memories of baseball, Castro, Cuba, and the woman Billy left behind.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL by Tim Wendel combines sports, history, and personal relationships in a wonderful amalgam with a terrific plot and characters that make you care deeply about them. The story alternates between modern day(ish) and Billy’s final days in Cuba in the 40s.

Full disclosure so you know how biased I am–I love Billy Bryan, and not just because “aging catcher” is my favorite baseball character in both literature and film. Billy has more depth than the typical sports protagonist, he has an old school sense of honor, and his story is set in a fascinating time. I haven’t studied nor read much about Cuba in the late 40s, but after reading CASTRO’S CURVEBALL, I’m going to have to remedy that.

But since I do love baseball so much (baseball was the first game I learned to play with any level of nuance), let’s talk about the baseball scenes for a minute. Those sections are incredibly well written, and I could almost feel the grit from the infield and hear the crack of a bat every time the book’s action took me to the ballpark. That said, when reading a book that revolves around a sport, I’m often sad when the plot takes me anywhere other than on the field, but that wasn’t the case with CASTRO’S CURVEBALL. I was thrilled to find that the action outside of the diamond was just as engrossing as the games in which Billy played.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL is a great book of historical fiction, it’s a fantastic sports book, and the relationships between the covers are just as intriguing as the play between the foul lines. I regret that my dad isn’t alive so that I can share the book with him and get his take on it–I’d love to talk about this novel with someone else who is a fan of baseball, history, and politics. If you’re that person, read the book and hit me up. I’d love to chat!

I hear that there’s a sequel of the book coming out soon, and I’m excited to read that one, too. Kudos to Tim Wendel for creating characters and a story that will stay with me for a while.

The Operator, by Gretchen Berg

the operator


Vivian Dalton is a switchboard operator in 1950s Wooster, Ohio. She and the other operators at Bell aren’t *supposed* to listen in on calls, but how were people supposed to fill their days before reality TV?! Unfortunately for Vivian, she taps into a call that completely upends her uneventful middle American world, and all of Wooster ends up shaken as a result.

THE OPERATOR by Gretchen Berg is a terrific book. It’s a commentary on small town life in the 1950s and an examination of family relationships and dynamics. Although I don’t expect character-driven novels to have a lot of action, this one delivered in that, too. I also loved the historical aspects of Vivian’s story—especially the moments spent at the switchboard. My mom was a switchboard operator in Michigan in the 1950s, and I worked at an answering service that had the last functioning cord switchboard in that state during my college years (yes, I’m old), so every time Vivian walked into work, I had a glimpse into my mom’s past while revisiting my own.

You don’t have to have a background that matches the storyline to appreciate this book. Gretchen Berg writes wonderfully well, and there is enough humor and action to keep you turning pages even if you can’t get invested in the characters—though it would be hard not to find someone in the book with whom you can relate. Vera, Vivian’s older sister, is consumed by jealousy for her prettier sister, and their younger sister, Violet, is just trying to keep the peace. Vivian also has a teenage daughter who is alternately mortified and mystified by her mother, and the men in the story—while taking a back seat to the women—add color, depth, and necessary detail to the plot.

I really hope that Gretchen Berg has more books in mind. If she’s taking requests, I want to hear more from Charlotte, Vivian’s daughter, and I need to know what happens to that “four flusher” Betty Miller! In the meantime, I’ll share the book with lots of people so that I can talk about the people of Wooster, Ohio for a while longer.

My thanks to Book No Further bookstore in Roanoke, Virginia and the publisher for a copy of an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman


Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles


Well, friends, here we have another instance where my sister told me to read a book, gave me a copy of the book, and I waited a year or so to do what she said. I should know better. Since she has already posted a review of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles. go ahead and read that here: She has covered it all pretty well.

When I texted Sherry to tell her that I had read the book, I said this: “… I finished A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW and holy cow. What a phenomenal book. Yes. You were right again.” I followed up with “I’ll do a review of GENTLEMAN, but it might just be sighs and staring off into the distance in remembrance of the stunning prose and terrific plot.”

So I’ve decided that that’s almost all you get for my review. However, I will note that Sherry’s review states that the bouillabaisse project in GENTLEMAN is a little “too cute.” I disagree on that point. I think it was an indication of the dedication of the triumvirate to a perfect dish–which was key to their personalities and their connection to one another.

Although I agree with Sherry’s assessment that the depiction of Stalinist Russia is a little too “jaunty,” I also think that since the main character’s view is the focus of the book, it’s perfectly in keeping with the Count’s understanding of the time for that time period to be portrayed as it is.

So. I think A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW may be a perfect book. However, Sherry and I haven’t talked about it in person. We’ll post a follow-up to our reviews when we’ve had that opportunity. In the meantime, I suggest you read the book. Perfect or not, it’s absolutely charming and a complete delight.