Happy Friday and welcome to my fourth post for my annual Blogmas of 2023!

The categories I chose today are: contemporary fiction with some sub “genres” like LGBTQ and what I name “Ugly Cry”.

The books mentioned below might not have been published in 2023 but I have read them in 2023

Contemporary romance

I began this blog as exclusively a romance reader but since 2017 my taste have changed and menopause also had an impact on the level of spice I like in my romances! From extreme spice I went to few spice.

6 stars

Would you read a book if a review told you : “This book was perfection and every romance lover should read it!”?
No? You’d need more?
Because in a nutshell that’s what I want to tell you after listening to Julia Whelan narrating that story who had me go through every emotion possible!

OK what if I said that:

-This is one of the , if not THE, best second chance stories I have ever read? And second chance is one of my favorite tropes! 

-Or if I said that it features amazing friendships? 

-Maybe you love sarcasm? Because if you love banter and sarcasm like I do, you’d be in for a treat! Harriet has the best sweet-sarcastic comebacks!

-If you love to laugh one moment, swoon the next and cry right after then you MUST read that book!

Or even better, what if I said that the love Wyn had for Harriet is so strong that when he says I love you, he says things like: “In every universe, it’s you for me. Even if it’s not me for you.”

Or when he learns that instead of boysband posters Harriet had the periodic table plastered on her walls as a teenager, he says: “You are my periodic table”.

Did I convince you now to read that book?

6 stars.

This is one of the best Katherine Center books! And I have loved lots of them!
She made me go from laughing to crying in the blink of an eye! I was swooning and the next moment I was lost and despairing.
Katherine Center writes with her heart, she has fantastic, sweet and real characters who go through the grinder and come to the other side still kicking and having learned some deep life lessons.

That’s what happened to Sadie, portrait artist, on the brink of her huge achievement as she placed finalist in the North American Portrait Society competition.
Then the next moment, an unplanned brain surgery leaves her unable to see faces! She can see eyes, noses, chins… but like puzzle pieces. Not together!
She can’t recognize people anymore, even less paint a face!
And yet, she has to paint a portrait within six weeks if she wants to win the competition!

This is her story.

There is a whole cast of side characters adding lots of layers to the story

That story is emotional, inspirational, heartwarming and reaffirmed Katherine Center as one of my favorite romance authors! With her sweet characters yet resilient characters, she writes the most uplifting, feel good stories! That’s what I adore with her books, that’s what makes me come back again and again!

Last word about the narrator: Patti Murin. I was disappointed that Therese Plummer wasn’t narrating the book but once I listened to Patti Murin she won me over and I am now looking for more books narrated by her!

5 stars.

Reading Ali Hazelwood’s books is like eating comfort food: you know what to expect and you crave it.

This is my third Ali Hazelwood books and I can say that the main arc is always the same:
-He Falls First
-She is Clueless
-They both work together in STEM
-There is a betrayal from someone you trust or has power over you
-The heroine has flaws, insecurities and quirkiness that make her adorable
-Sex at about 80% of the way

We get the same main tropes and yet, she always delivers them with finesse thanks to very relatable characters who don’t feel like a rehash of the previous ones. And with lots and lots of great banter!
I know what to expect and that’s oddly comforting!

I frankly also adored the humor and the sarcasm in that book. This might be the greatest asset of Ali Hazelwood’s writing: her wit!
I will from now on use one of my favorite expressions: “Easy peasy, photons squeezy”. 😊

And let’s not forget Ali’s gift for her fans: Adam and Olive’s little cameo.

I read that book in record time, never wanting to stop reading and having just a wonderful time! It’s a perfect and smart summer read!

Roadtrip/funny contemporary

5 stars

The Mostly True Story of Tanner and Louise (that we’ll call TMTSOTAL because that title is a mouthful to write) is a roadtrip book with two mismatched characters: a 21 years old college dropout an 84 year old woman. It’s full of heart, joy and surprises.

Outwardly these two women are antithesis. Tanner is a rule follower to a fault and Louise is rather a devil may care. And at the beginning of the story, these women may share a house but they sure do their best to avoid each other.

There is also many things to unpack from TMTSOTAL.
-How when women grow old, they become invisible. More so, how when people age they stop being people who have lived rich lives and have things to tell.
-What does it mean to be a woman in this world. Present and past time included.
-How to grieve the loss of a former life but stay open for new possibilities.

This was also heartwarming to read about what will be an intergenerational friendship. How Tanner became to care for Louise, barging at full speed when she thought Louise’s life was threatened. And how Louise had a lot of consideration and tenderness for what Tanner went through.

And let’s not forget the unexpected twists and surprises this adventure takes the reader on.

Indian

This has become a category of its own as I surprisisngly read four books happening in contemporary India this year. And I loved them all! One of them is on the Goodreads Awards list.

5 stars

First a word about the narrator: Soneela Nankani. I discovered her in The City of Brass narrating Nahri and she did another stellar job impersonating Geeta and her accomplices/ friends.

The Bandit Queens is a weird mix of contemporary fiction mixed with social study / feminist story with a heavy dose of black humor and revenge story.
This is served by what will become a “band of sisters”, women allying and forming strong bonds through adversity, abuse and murder.

That was funny to see these amateurs go on heist, murdering husbands sometimes involuntarily and forging strong bonds of friendship, probably alike men at war with their comrades.
But what was funny and understandable on some level was also… disturbing because here I was, if not condoning, at least understanding why they had been committed. That left me vaguely unsettled.

Dark humor was ever present in the book, especially in the banter between Geeta and her ex best friend turned enemy. It helped swallow all the hard facts I talked about previously.

I listened to that book in record time. This is an amazing debut, really eye opening if you don’t know much about India like I do. And it won’t be my last book from that author!

I think what the author said in her note is absolutely true: ““For me, fiction is when research meets compassion; I believe this is often why facts don’t change people’s minds, but stories do.” That’s why I read and that’s why I think many people should read this story.

Here below you’ll have an excerpt of my review for The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi but know that the whole trilogy was a 5 stars read for me! I read them back to back.

5 stars

The biggest asset of that book is the exquisite writing of Alka Joshi.
She explained that it took her ten years, a lot of research and many trips to India to write this novel. And it shows in all the little details included!
I was in Jaipur in the fifties, alongside Lakshmi. Building my reputation as a henna artist and confidante to the wealthy women, cooking an deating all sorts of delicacies and drinking chai tea.
I wanted to build my own beautiful house with a unique mosaic floor. To become someone paid to arrange marriages.

But Lakshmi’s plans get derailed with the arrival of thirteen years old Rada, a sister Lakshmi had no idea existed. Soon enough, Lakshmi, Malik and Rada will be their “found family”. And Radha being an unpredictable and strongheaded teenager, she’ll soon wreak havoc on Lakshmi’s life. Forcing her, by the end of the book, to consider what really matters in life.

I saw negative reviews for that book, most from Indian culture or with more knowledge of India. I am not Indian, have never been to India either so this review is written based on my own experience, my sensitivity and my lack of knowledge of India and its customs. Yet to me, this was a vivid and heartwarming story about dysfunctional marriages and making your dreams come true. It’s about complicated sisterhood, found families and solid friendship. It’s also about castes, customs, traditions and self-discovery.

Nostalgy/grief

5 stars

It was a pure delight listening to Meryl Streep. She had that steady grace, that tranquil but assured cadence that simply was perfect for that kind of story.
So if you like audiobooks, go for it.

Tom Lake had me wishing I could go live on a cherry tree farm in Northern Michigan.
The peace and beauty of that land, the tranquility of the family graveyard, the changing seasons painted a luminous tapestry in my mind and I just wanted to go buy my own farm, hard labor and long days be damned.

The synopsis states that it’s told with “profound intelligence and emotional subtlety”, and it couldn’t be more accurate.

Told between past and present Tom Lake is portraying young romance, big dreams but also steady love and the joy of family. Falling for the bigger than life young actor in your twenties then choosing a trustworthy mate that will be with you in good and in hard times. Looking back with fondness at your youth and having no regret for the choices you made later on.

This is a beautiful story that will sweep you off your feet and transport you to Northern Michigan for a few days.

5 stars

Reading Maame reopened old wounds and felt sad, hopeful and cathartic at the same time.

Right after finishing the book that made me alternatively annoyed, rolling my eyes and then slowly crying my heart out, I looked for Jessica George’s life experience. The tone in that book felt so authentic that I couldn’t help but think the author drew inspiration from her own life.

Maame is about the impact of a nickname on your life.
It’s about complicated family relationship and sense of duty. It’s about love for your kin. How it can weight you down or lift you up. And it’s about discovering life, all written in a conversational tone that leaves room for the reader to breathe.

If you have funny moments, like Maddie living her life thanks to Google’s advice on “When do you have sex for the first time?” , or “What is expected from a third date” etc you also have deep topics like :
-culture representation and home. Where is your home? Is it defined by your roots and DNA or is it where you are born and live? I also really loved learning more about Ghana and its culture;
-racism. Maddie is tired of being the only black woman at work, among friends. Tired of the misconception and expectations.
“Everyone talks about the importance of standing out but never the benefits of fitting in.”
-being a people pleaser and hating to disappoint others, even at the risk of missing out on your life;
-grief. That made me google (in true Maddie’s fashion) Jessica George because that part resonated the most with me. And Jessica did a fantastic job explaining grief, how it affects people, how we have to go through it.

To conclude, I’d say that I began Maame bored and ended it with puffy eyes and a smile.

LGBTQ

I have read several interesting contemporary LGBTQ stories but here are my two favorites!

I first heard of Matt Cain’s books when I read The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle. I was instantly charmed by that story!

Becoming Ted broaches topics like:
– Finding who you are;
– Family duty;
– Grief of a broken relationship;
– Fear of disappointing your parents;
– Realizing your dreams;
– Toxic or abusive relationship;
– Homophobia;
– Friendship and finding your tribe
Among other things.

Ted is a very loveable character. I really liked following his journey to find his true self and bloom into the Drag Queen he always was meant to be.

This story is charming, nostalgic, enlightening, moving and rings so true. I love Matt Cain’s sensitive writing. I can’t explain it but when I read his stories I feel a huge love and compassion for his characters who go from frightened for being different than the norm to embracing their inner queerness with pride.

All in nuances , tenderness and sass.

Last words: congratulations to our narrator Samuel Barnett who did a splendid job giving life to that story.

6 stars

Let’s delve into that astonishing, satiric, probably truthful too, moving and at many times shocking and very gay story.

And let me tell you that I am very happy to live in a country and at a time where LGBTQ+ rights and people are vastly respected. What Farrell and Nate, had to go through was at times horrifying and profoundly unjust. Yet both persevered, determined to find their happiness and to be together whatever the world thought of it.

Between Farrell’s family plot to separate our lovers, visit to the very gay New York with extremely hot scenes in BDSM clubs, trip to LA where Hollywood still wants you to pretend that you are heterosexual to play in its blockbusters and back to New York when AIDS or “the gay plague” hit hard and decimated a population, leaving every gay people in a state of fright but defiance, we covered lots of gay and LGBTQ story.

Seen through Nate and Farrell’s eyes and helped with a very solid cast of side characters, that book made me smile, cringe, laugh, cry and fear. It made me want to scream too when confronted with the intolerance of people who pretends to be “good Christians”.

Nate and Farrell’s friends were the sounding board upon which they could rely on in their time of need.

I have many thoughts and feelings for this book. I’ll just say that it deserves to be read and better known. It is a must read for gay and LGBTQ history.

Last word: the narrator Daniel Henning did once again a fantastic job narrating that story.

Ugly Cry

This is a special category for the books that made me bawl like a baby and left me with no tissues in sight anymore!

6 stars

I had no idea how much this book would affect me!

I read it in one day, on my way back from London, and I couldn’t stop crying on the train, earning me annoyed looks from my daughter and concerned looks from the other passengers.

That book is intense, accurate in the grieving process, beautiful and so moving!

The plot is simple: Emmy lost her sister Beth to suicide. Beth was a famous singer in a girlband but to Emmy, she simply was her big and beloved sister.
We’ll follow Emmy in her grieving process, her family, the media circus, everything.

That book is just a long scream. A plea from Emmy to her sister Beth. It’s also a journey. To get back to life. To learn to enjoy it again, without the guilt.
To learn how to go from being a sister to being an only child.
To find your own path and not just be in your big sister’s shadow.

If you love deeply emotional books, written with immense talent. If you are ready to have your heart pulverized and then built back again with some added cracks, then read this book.

But have tissues at the ready and don’t wear mascara….

6 stars and one ugly cry

Oh my god! I cried so much listening to that book.
I am a huge animal lover and seeing that elephant calf so depressed after being rejected by her mom that she wanted to die truly broke my heart.
Also seeing the cruelty done to animals, hearing about poachers killing elephants deeply hurt me.

But the author did not write a black or white story.
We learn that helping elephants or endangered species is complicated. Zoos or circus both have their flaws. Only the big sanctuaries for wild life can pretend at offering a somewhat normal life to these wild animals.

The same can be said for schizophrenia.
It’s a heavy topic and central theme of the book. Lily’s mom had schizophrenia. And we’ll learn that even if she loved her daughter in her own way that also led to abuse.

When Lily, as a volunteer journalist at her local newspaper covers the birth of a baby elephant at the local zoo, she never imagined the adventure she will embark on.
The baby elephant is named Swift Jones, chosen by the highest bidder of the donation event Lily organized. Swift Jones being a famous pop and country star (cue the hints at Taylor Swift here).
Soon after the birth, Lily will witness Swift Jones ‘s mother attempting to kill the baby elephant.

Elephants feel emotions like humans and the baby is heartbroken, crying big fat tears. That part had me crying too!

I can’t stress enough how this book is poignant. It’s also smart, broaches very sensitive topics like mental illness, wild life conservation, etc. I’dl like to say that if you love ugly cry books, if you love to learn new things, then go for it.

The audiobook narrated by Caitlin Davies was also excellent.

All the stars, all the tears and all the rage.

First, Zoulfa Kathou said: “ Even though everything written in the book has been documented and reported on the news and the internet for more than ten years, not a lot of people know what’s going on. Which is why I wanted to make it into a story. In the end, that’s what human life is; stories.”
This is exactly what that book did for me: open my eyes!
Of course I had heard of the Syrian revolution alongside the Arab Spring in 2011 but I had no idea what truly hid behind these words! To me, it happened to Syrian people. When you listen to it on the news, they are a mass of faceless individuals. You vaguely get that it’s tragic but… And then, your read that book.
And it’s like a sucker punch. Because you see individuals. You follow some characters. And what happens to them, happens to you while reading.
This is why words matter. Why stories are so important.

Then Zoulfa also said: “It’s going to be a difficult book to read. Hopefully, you’ll cry, but at times you will laugh, you will awww and if I’m really lucky, you’ll throw it against the wall. If you do do that, drop me a message and tell me because then I would know I have done good. That I wrote a good book that gave you strong feelings.”
And I can assure you that I felt EVERYTHING! I couldn’t stop crying big fat tears, sobbing even, when I was listening to it in my car or on my walks.
And it was so much that I wanted to stop. Stop listening, stop being destroyed. And yet, I couldn’t. Because if we don’t listen to the stories, if we avert our gaze, things will never change. 

I also have to add that Rasha Zamamiri did an extraordinary job narrating that book.

If you want to learn about Syrian revolution, if you want to learn about refugees, if you are not afraid to have your soul crushed, please read this book. But have a truckload of tissues at the ready.

As you can see, today’s list is long! What were your favorite contemporary books? Have we some in common?

Thanks for reading.

Sophie

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4 Comments

  1. I just got nonced! I am trying reader now. I hope this works. Love seeing Tanner & Louise on your list. I want everyone to experience its greatness. I am with you on spice and am happy to see that some of my favorite authors have shifted me me – more romance, less sex.