Review - 'The Bodyguard' by Katherine Center

Ah, this was the feelgood, fun, cheesy romcom I didn't know I needed!

(In the interest of total transparency, I want to confess I picked this book up for no reason other than it has the same name as one of my favorite movies ever—you know, the one with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. So yeah, if you write a book called The Bodyguard, I will read it, is what I'm trying to say. Right, back to the topic at hand.)

Hannah is going through a heartbreaking time. Her mom just passed away and her boyfriend dumps her immediately after the funeral. What's an asskicking girl supposed to do but get lost in her job to take the edge off the pain? Good thing she's an Executive Protection Agent (fancy name for a bodyguard), and protecting her latest client, the swoonworthy movie star Jack Stapleton, is sure to take her mind off her life... unless she falls for him, which she definitely won't do.

In case it's not clear, this isn't a story you take too seriously. It's more of a lighthearted, sweet, happy romance with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. I smiled so much through the whole thing, my cheeks felt a little sore afterwards. At times, it does cross over to the sappy side, at least for me. But it didn't happen too often and the funny scenes helped to balance it out.

I know romance readers can be a bit divided on the inclusion of explicit sex scenes, of which this book has none. For me, I don't generally prefer that because those stories tend to lack steam and feel unrealistic to me. But I didn't think so here. In fact, this story wasn't missing anything by not including those scenes. There's a permeating tone of lightheartedness and charm to the whole thing, and the exclusion of those scenes just made sense.

I don't want to oversell how happy and fun this story was, because there were definitely some emotionally heavy moments that had me tearing up and reaching for my tissue box. But overall, this was such a pleasant diversion from real life. I come out of it feeling warm and comforted all over, and I'm honestly not ready to let that feeling go just yet.

Readaroo Rating: 4 stars

This was a pick for my Book of the Month box. Get your first book for $5 here.

Review - 'Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone' by Benjamin Stevenson

Gosh, that title just draws you in, doesn't it?

Murder mysteries generally fall in two camps—the newer psychological thrillers with lots of mental angst and unreliable narrators, and the old-school cozies with clues and red herrings galore à la Golden Age of Mystery. This book mimics the style of the latter, and that's right up my alley.

No doubt this has all the components I enjoy in a mystery: a family reunion set in a snowed-in resort, a gruesome murder, and ample suspects among those present. And with the dangle of everyone being some sort of killer, it reeled me in and kept me riveted. There were so many unexpected reveals along the way, and I was surprised more times than I can count.

However, it did take me a few chapters to get into it. The narrator often talks directly to the reader, and combined with the humor, can sometimes come across as a bit much. We also get introduced to all the family members in one go, and I had some trouble keeping straight who was who. But as the story went on and we got to the crux of the murder, I acclimated to the style and was thoroughly intrigued.

Regarding the mystery itself, I do feel it was on the complicated side. There were so many parts to it, and while the reveals were fun, I also got a bit confused. There were moments when I didn't understand how the narrator arrived at the conclusions he did based on the information he had, even when he explained in detail how he got there.

Still, I had a lot of fun with this. The story feels unique and there was a compellingness to it that had me turning the pages. And while the twists weren't as succinct and clear as I'd prefer, they still satisfied and made for an entertaining read.

Readaroo Rating: 4 stars

My heartfelt thanks for the copy that was provided for my honest and unbiased review.

Review - 'Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty' by Patrick Radden Keefe

Sometimes I think I've seen it all. Certainly as a reader of fiction, I think I've read it all. But then a nonfiction book comes along, and the true tale within is so gripping, so abhorrent, as to blow all those made up stories out of the water.

I'd previously read a few books and countless articles on the Opioid Crisis, so I'm not new to the subject. But Empire of Pain approaches from a different angle, focusing on the Sackler family who owned and ran Purdue Pharma. Through their insatiable greed and morally repugnant actions, they got millions of people addicted to OxyContin and hundreds of thousands killed. This is an unflinching look at their history and their legacy.

From the very first page, I was riveted. The central story here is a well-known one at this point: how the Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma, at the behest of the family, aggressively marketed OxyContin as the non-addictive drug of choice for pain management. When evidence started emerging of its highly addictive properties, the family went on to obfuscate this knowledge from the public and the government, effectively contributing to the emergence of the Opioid Crisis.

But this is more than just a story about Purdue and OxyContin. The book captures three generations of Sacklers, going all the way back to when the three brothers Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond first started making money and building up the family name. To see how they approached their early businesses and their philosophy towards profit and philanthropy is to understand how Purdue eventually became the monster it did.

But the fault doesn't reside entirely with one family and the book is careful to provide a nuanced portrayal of that. No doubt there was plenty of blame to go around. They had help from many different corners, including the FDA who gave their seal of approval on OxyContin, shady salespeople and doctors, and plenty of government officials who looked the other way.

This easily could've become a story bogged down in the weeds, with too much detail and not enough interest. But it didn't. It was a fascinating read from beginning to end, and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. It really speaks to the author's abilities that he was able to take such a complicated and convoluted narrative and turn it into a tale that is both cohesive and intensely compelling.

This is investigative nonfiction at its best. It goes behind the scenes and lifts the veils to one of the biggest tragedies in modern American history. Though it was hard to read and stomach at times, I couldn't look away.

Readaroo Rating: 5 stars!

My heartfelt thanks for the copy that was provided for my honest and unbiased review.

Review - 'It Starts with Us' by Colleen Hoover

I don't dislike It Starts with Us per se, but it does feel more like a long and unnecessary epilogue to It Ends with Us rather than the separate, worthwhile story it should've been.

I remember vividly the experience of reading It Ends with Us, how every page felt riveting and every moment essential. There were so many memorable scenes, so much emotion embedded in the pages. I sobbed my way through it, especially that ending that completely gutted me. To prep for this book, I reread the ending, and sure enough, it walloped me again.

So it's rather disappointing that this story didn't do anything for me. There was no emotional punch, no compelling conflict. It took me days longer to read this than I anticipated because I didn't feel any pull to keep going. And now having finished this, I'm already unable to point to a single memorable moment because there honestly weren't any.

But then, that's always the fear when an author gives in to fans and writes a sequel or prequel they originally had no intention of writing, isn't it? That the result would be mundane, at best an unnecessary add-on, at worst ruining the legacy of a previously amazing work. (I'm looking at you, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.)

More spelled out isn't always better. Whatever I had imagined in my head for Lily's future, it was more interesting than what I got. And in fact, to spell out Lily's future in the way that this sequel did took something away from the difficulty of Lily's decision at the end of the first book. Part of what I loved about that book was the nuanced and flawed characters, while this book distilled everyone down to either just a good guy or a bad guy.

The other issue is that there is no real conflict or surprises in here. Sure, I enjoy reading a happy ending as much as the next person, but not for 300+ pages. It's clear without having read a single page of this book what will happen and who will end up happy. And sure enough, the story progresses and ends exactly the way you'd expect. And that just does not make for an enthralling read.

This all sounds rather harsh, but it's really not that bad. It was an alright way to pass a few hours if you're not quite ready to leave the world of Lily and Atlas. This pleasant and unexciting story won't leave you breathless, but it shouldn't offend either. Just be ready to forget about it almost as soon as you're done.

Readaroo Rating: 3 stars

Review - 'The Paper Palace' by Miranda Cowley Heller

DNF - Umm, gratuitous depiction of the sexual abuse of children? Yeah, that's where I draw the line. Especially because it isn't necessary to the story and I don't need to read multiple scenes of it across 50 pages for no particular reason other than to fulfill some misery quota.

Sure, I can see how some authors believe that trauma and rape is the only way to build female characters, but seriously? Last time I checked, we're in the 2020's and this just pisses me off. Usually, if I get to halfway through a book, I try to power through the rest, but I cannot stomach any more of this.

Regarding the rest of the story, it feels like a wasted opportunity. So much beautiful writing, yet the story is so meandering and pointless. Any one chapter feels like a lyrical journey, but you try putting it all together and it's utterly forgettable.

Do we really need to know the entire life story of Elle to understand her current predicament of infidelity? Must we read through in detail every single person she has ever met? And why is the graphic depiction of the trauma of her youth necessary in order to tell this story? I don't know. I don't mind disturbing stories, but only if there is a point. Whatever the message of this book, I don't understand it at all.

I had so much hope for this, and it was a colossal disappointment. I signed up to read about the nuance of family dysfunction and infidelity, and this sure wasn't it.

Aside 1: This book makes a mistake that annoys me to no end. At one point, Elle points out on how much she hates Daylight Savings because it's October and the sun goes down early. No, you like Daylight Savings. What you hate is Standard Time. *facepalm*

Aside 2: Writing this review has really revealed to me just how much I disliked my reading experience. I'm downgrading this to one star because a few lyrical passages isn't enough to justify an extra star.

Aside 3: For the sake of my blood pressure, I'm going to move on now.

Readaroo Rating: 1 star (DNF)

Review - 'Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney

I don't get it. So many readers loved this, but Daisy Darker has got to be one of the most boring thrillers I've ever read.

Why is this so boring, you ask? I'll tell you why. (Note: this is a bit of a rant, so if you loved it, please don't read this.)

The story is told via two timelines. One is in the present, where the family is gathered on the island, cut off from the rest of the world. The other is in the past, where Daisy tells the story of her life growing up. The present timeline is at least tolerable because things are happening (albeit slowly and feebly), but it's such a small part of the whole book. Instead, the majority is taken up by flashbacks of the past, and let me tell you, that was excruciating.

You know how there is always that one person at parties who corners you and tells meandering and pointless stories of mundane things that happened to them? That's the entire past timeline. We get to read about Daisy going to the beach, getting into tiffs with her sisters while filming home videos of each other, being "broken" constantly, and various other what-does-this-have-anything-to-do-with-the-story moments.

Some authors can take the most pedestrian of events and turn them into a riveting narrative. But that didn't happen here. Instead, we have the most mundane of events being presented as it it were the most exciting of nuggets. Daisy is jealous of her sisters.... oooh. There is a boy they all want... oooh. Their parents are mostly absent... oooh. I like family dysfunction as much as the next reader, but I'm not into family melodrama/nondrama.

Since Daisy is born with a heart condition, she repeatedly refers to herself as "broken." This is stated over and over throughout the story, in the most pitiful and woe-is-me way. Since I read the physical copy, I can't do a search for how many times the word "broken" is used, but it wouldn't surprise me if the answer is hundreds of times. At least that's the way it feels.

The writing style doesn't help either. It's got Feeney's trademark fortune cookie sayings, sprinkled throughout every page, as if she's dispensing wisdom that can only be gleamed if you pay enough attention.
The dead often seem to know more about living than those still alive.

The trouble with little white lies is that they sometimes grow up to become big dark ones.

Sometimes when people try too hard to be more than they are, they end up being less than they were.

Ok, I'll give you that they sound good. But what do they mean? I sure don't know.

And when we get to the big twist, I'm left disappointed. Part of it feels like a cop-out and the rest neither made sense nor surprised me. It's clear this was meant to take inspiration from And Then There Were None, and the author worked hard to shoehorn that association in. But it just ended up feeling forced.

Every time I cracked open this book, my mind wandered. I thought of chores I had to do and groceries I had to buy. When I'd rather think about menial tasks than focus on a story, I know it has missed its mark.

No doubt the premise here was exciting and that's why I got suckered in. But the execution was so painfully dull that I'm just glad I made it through. 

Readaroo Rating: 2 stars

Review - 'Love on the Brain' by Ali Hazelwood

By now, I'm sure you guys already know these tidbits about me—I'm a hopeless, sappy, mushy romantic and I'm a girl in STEM. So of course I adored Love on the Brain.

Bee has a PhD in neuroscience, but she's struggling to find recognition and funding for her projects. So when she gets the call from NASA to work on one of their helmet prototypes, it sounds like a dream come true. The only catch: she has to work alongside Levi, her archnemesis from grad school. But as she spends more time with him, she starts to realize that maybe they don't really hate each other after all and it's actually something else altogether.

If I had to pick the one thing I enjoyed the most about this book, it isn't the romance. Shocking, I know. Rather, it's the writing. There's something about Ali Hazelwood's style, with its blend of snark and humor, that just completely has me in its thralls. Often I would find myself grinning from cheek to cheek, chuckling to myself while Bee held some amusing and sarcastic conversation or inner dialogue. I think it's because she says all the things I want to say, if only I were quick and clever enough to come up with it.

And there were so many puns! Science puns, cat puns, Marie Curie puns. I love me a good pun (or a bad one, I'm not that discerning), so I was in pun-heaven.

I have to mention the science in here. I don't know anything about neuroscience, but reading this book made me wish I did. I wanted so badly for the technology in here to be real, so that I could marvel at how cool it is and totally nerd out learning more about it. Add in the NASA/astronaut angle, and your resident space-science fangirl here was swooning.

In terms of the romance itself, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't my favorite thing about this book. I found the transition from we're-frenemies to we're-getting-it-on to be a bit sudden. It seemed like they were solidly in the former category, and then all of a sudden, they were in the latter category. I guess I wanted more of a slow progression and steamy anticipation than what I got.

Still, the coupling of Bee and Levi was a fun one. Of course due to their previous interactions, Bee would assume that Levi hates her. And of course she'd be slow to figure it out, resulting in rather funny misunderstandings between them. However, I can totally see the pitchforks coming out for this couple—how it's completely unrealistic, how there's no way it would take her this long to come to her senses. I mean, sure, it's unrealistic, but that feels like the entire romance genre to me. It always necessitates a certain suspension of disbelief to enjoy, which totally worked for me here. Your mileage may vary.

As an aside, I was checking out some articles about the author (I was super curious about her scientific research), and found out Ali Hazelwood is a pen name. Apparently, in her real life, none of her colleagues or students have mentioned her books to her, so she thinks no one has made the connection yet. Ha, imagine that!

At this point, I can safely add Ali Hazelwood to my list of must-read authors. I've loved both of her full-length novels (I'm a little iffier on her novellas, but I'm generally not a fan of novellas). I find her writing style to be supremely entertaining and her focus on science and women in STEM to be refreshing. It's always a joy to dig into one of her stories, and I can't wait for more.

Readaroo Rating: 4 stars

This was a pick for my Book of the Month box. Get your first book for $5 here.

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