There’s something so cozy about reading once the weather gets cool. Soft blankets, hot drinks, and dark evenings put me right into the reading zone. Here are some of the great books I’ve been reading in my sweatpants and cushy socks this month. I’ve got an east Texas mystery, a slave narrative unlike any I’d read before, a small-town British romance, a wacky space opera with psychic cats, and more!
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke
This is the second book in Locke’s mystery series following Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. I read the first book, Bluebird, Bluebird, two years ago and didn’t remember much about it other than I loved it, so I checked both books out from the library and skimmed the first to refresh my memory before diving into the second. It worked out great, but it got me thinking that I could solve my bad reading memory issue once and for all by jotting down a few spoilery notes after finishing a book that I know will have follow-ups. And thus, my Swiss Cheese Journal was born (named in honor of my holey memory that prompted its creation). Now, whenever book 3 comes out, I’ll be ready.
In this installment, Darren is assigned to look for a missing boy, the son of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Darren’s identity as both a black man and a Ranger sometimes forces him to walk an uneasy line, but he tries to be impartial and thorough in his investigation. Things get complicated quickly, though, because Darren is still dealing with the fallout of decisions he made in book 1, which I’ll say no more about in case you haven’t read it yet. This is a great mystery series, where the setting of east Texas is so vivid it may as well be another character.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I was very interested to see how Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing skill would translate to fiction--turns out, the answer is flawlessly. You haven’t read a slave narrative like this one. It’s not just about the story, although it’s compelling enough: Hiram Walker has a prodigious memory, but when his mother was sold and they were separated, all of Hiram’s memories of her disappeared. The day she was taken from him was also the day a strange power took hold in him, a power that might help him unlock the chains of slavery for himself and many others. Coates is so good at articulating the emotions behind historical facts we think we know. I’m judicious about the literary fiction I read these days, but this one is so, so good, it’s truly worth your time. Coates is an amazing talent.
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
Maddie Schwartz, a Baltimore housewife in the ‘60s, decides one day she wants more out of life than what she got. So she leaves her husband and teenage son and gets herself an apartment in a questionable neighborhood and sets out to find herself. When she unwittingly discovers a body in a park, she decides journalism is the career for her and starts pursuing a byline with dogged efficiency. What she doesn’t understand is that insinuating herself into a crime isn’t the best way to solve it, and some murder victims don’t want to be avenged.
Female characters in mysteries so rarely get to be complicated, fully fleshed-out people, and even less often do they get to be unlikeable (unless they’re the villain, of course). That’s why I enjoyed Maddie as a character even as I raised my eyebrows repeatedly at her decisions. I also loved how the book was structured, with short vignettes from various characters interspersed between Maddie’s chapters.
Work For It by Talia Hibbert
I cannot resist a small-town romance, especially if that small town is British and full of charming people like the one in Work For It. Griff is the strong, silent type who works on a farm and shuts people out because he isn’t terribly good at socializing. Olu is a city boy with baggage with a capital B who has escaped to the country to try to get his mental health back on track. They’re intrigued by each other, but they both have a lot to overcome before they’ll be able to admit their feelings. If I had to pick a favorite romance writer, Talia Hibbert is it. Her books never fail to lift my spirits and make me feel better about the world.
By Her Touch by Adriana Anders
Clay has been undercover in a biker gang for so long, he’s almost forgotten whose side he’s on. But with his cover blown and the gang leaders headed for trial, it’s time for Clay to figure out his next move. The first step is getting the tattoos his biker brethren forced on him removed. That’s how he meets Georgette, a dermatologist with a small-town practice remote enough from Clay’s old life that hopefully he’ll be safe. They have a slow-growing yet undeniable connection, but it’s only a matter of time before Clay’s past catches up with both of them.
There are lots of reasons I shouldn't have liked this book. Romantic suspense isn't my preferred genre. Doctor/patient romantic relationships make me feel squicky. I'm impatient with "rough around the edges" heroes who have to be convinced that they deserve love. Buuuuuuuuut. I really like this gritty, angsty series. I like seeing characters who have been through some shit fall in love and help each other heal. It gives me hope.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Cute and fun, found family sci-fi with lots of action. There are psychic cats! Although I kept waiting for them to become a plot point (wouldn't it be amazing to hypnotize your enemies with your cat?!) and sadly it never happened. Captain Eva is on a mission to save her sister, who has been kidnapped by a crime syndicate, and she has to do it without alerting her (very perceptive) crewmates. That’s easier said than done, as Eva has to make up crazy excuses for visiting far-flung parts of the galaxy, all while still taking care of their day job as a transport ship. Eventually the growing snowball of lies is going to roll all the way down the hill and crush her (or some other tortured metaphor).
I loved the solid friendships between the captain and her loyal crew, and the sweet inter-species romance. I also learned lots of new ways to curse in Spanish. This might come close to filling a Becky Chambers-shaped hole in your heart, if by chance you have one of those.
Tournament of Losers by Megan Derr
Sometimes you just need a comforting, predictable story where the nice guy finishes first. Every 75 years, nobles hold a competition among the lowborn, and the prize is marriage into one of the prestigious families. Rath has no interest in marrying some hoity toity jerkface but is convinced to join the competition for the stipend, which he plans to use to pay off his lout of a father’s debts. Then he’ll promptly lose in the next round and return to his normal life. But somehow, without even trying, Rath just keeps winning...and his casual romance with a nobleman is starting to get a bit more complicated. There are virtually no surprises here--you’ll be able to guess the reveal almost immediately--but who needs suspense when you have such warm, charming characters? Michael Stellman narrates the audio book, and I greatly enjoyed his performance.
Ship of Fools by Cathy Yardley
I finally finished the Fandom Hearts series--and boy does it wrap up with a winner! I loved Ship of Fools almost as much as Level Up, the first book in the series. It’s a second chance romance, which can be tricky to pull off, but Yardley does it so well here. Ren and Rachel were high school sweethearts, but Ren broke up with Rachel when they headed off to college. Ten years later, he’s climbing the corporate ladder at his parents’ company and grinding out 100-hour work weeks, and she’s putting herself through an MBA program while working two jobs. When a family crisis forces Rachel to reach out to Ren for help, Ren sees his chance to reconnect with his old flame. Rachel, however, has no reason to trust him and doubts that he’ll prioritize her above his high-pressure career. Ren is such a sweet marshmallow, and it’s really satisfying watching him learn to set boundaries and stand up to his family. If you haven’t tried this series yet, get on it!
Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn
I think I put off reading this book for so long (over a year!) because I loved the first book in the series so much, I thought there was no way the next book could measure up. Well, I shouldn’t have denied myself the pleasure, because Heroine Worship is every bit as swoonworthy as its predecessor. I love that this book focuses on Annie, better known as Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s premier superheroine, who we know from the first book as something of a narcissistic steamroller. Surprise--once you get inside her head, she’s actually a complex character with insecurities and issues of her own. I related super hard to Annie’s perfectionism and appreciated that while she makes progress and grows as a person, it’s in a halting way that feels realistic. Just like the first book, there’s a strong thread of romance here, but Kuhn makes sure to give equal weight to the female friendships. Even if you don’t think you like superhero stories, if you like women kicking ass and supporting each other against evil incursions from the spirit realm, this series will be your slice of cake.