Book Review, Memoir, Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Educated by Tara Westover ~ Book Review

Educated Book

Random House
Release Date: February 20, 2018
Genre: Memoir
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

I am going to start off this review by addressing the half a star (err cookie) that I knocked off my rating. The only reason this memoir wasn’t a full five out of five for me is because of my own personal discomfort when reading about the violence and abuse Tara was subjected to. Her experiences are, of course, the essence of the book. The stories are told in a matter of fact and straightforward manner, but the descriptions of injuries and accidents were hard for me to swallow. That’s my problem, and not a problem with the writing or the book as a whole. That being said, this was an incredible book. I doubt there is much I can get down in a review that hasn’t been said already, but I’ll do my best.

Educated is a memoir about a girl growing up in rural Idaho. She is raised Mormon, with a father who is convinced the government is inherently evil, and the End Days are imminent. He works hard to try to prepare his family for the impending end of life as they know it, making sure they have access to weapons and water. For an income, he scraps metal, and employs his children as his team in this dangerous endeavor. The kids do not go to school. The education system is understood to be a means of government control. Most of the children don’t even have birth certificates, and, at least for a while, there is no record of their existence.

That thought in and of itself terrified me. If there’s no record that you are a person, no one external from your life is able to look out for you. Tara doesn’t even know her own birthdate, nor do her parents. One by one, Tara and her siblings become curious about education. Tara and several of her brothers take it upon themselves to study for the ACTs and enroll themselves in college. Despite not having any formal education until she steps into a college classroom for the first time, Tara becomes committed to her education. To me, the narrative read as if she were so starved for knowledge that she couldn’t get enough of it. She wanted to make up for the years when she had so little, and learn it all.

Cookie Bars with Educated Book

This is a story of incredible triumph as Tara studies abroad in England, and goes on to receive her PhD. There is an endless push and pull between her education and her family. The unbelievable abuse and closed-mindedness of her family, and her mother’s inability to stand up for herself were relentless. I kept hoping for Tara to see it, to see that she could walk away.

The writing in this memoir is elegant and straightforward. It is not meant to elicit pity, it simply outlines Tara’s life thus far. Almost as amazing as this book, were these Congo Bars. I made this particular batch with mini milk chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s, instead of the baking melts called for in the recipe, and it is definitely a swap I will be making again in the future.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Montauk by Nicola Harrison ~ Book Review

Montauk and Coffee Cake

St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: June 4, 2019
Historical Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

Montauk was kind of a flat, steady read for me. I was not immediately drawn into it, and once it did capture my attention, it didn’t really build to any excitement. Set in the 1930s, it follows Beatrice Bordeaux, as she summers in the seaside village of Montauk, specifically, the Manor inhabited by wealthy patrons from Manhattan. Her husband, Harry, spends each week working in the city, taking the train back on weekends during which he drags Beatrice along to a series of social engagements and shows her little real interest.

Beatrice and Harry married young, and Beatrice’s social status and wealth skyrocketed as a result of the union. Their social status also means that it is unthought of in Harry’s family to consider divorce, despite the couple’s rapidly declining interest in one another, and their inability to have a baby. Beatrice is largely disinterested in the various committees chaired by the other society women, and quickly befriends Elizabeth, who tends to the laundry of the Manor visitors. Although hesitant at first, Elizabeth warms up to Beatrice and welcomes her as a friend, introducing Beatrice to her family, as well as to Thomas, who tends the local lighthouse. 

Beatrice feels an immediate spark with Thomas and is inexplicably drawn to him. When he suffers a fall which results in injuries bad enough to prevent him from working, she takes it upon herself to tend to him and help ensure he can do his job. Their romance blooms from there, especially once Beatrice discovers that Harry has been having affairs of his own. Beatrice’s unconventional friend Dolly, encourages her infidelity, but the extent of Beatrice’s feelings for Thomas remains a secret.

Harrison did a remarkable job of creating realistic and vastly varied characters. From Dolly, who steps outside the role of what’s expected of a woman at the time, running her own business and encouraging sexual promiscuity, to the stuck-up, gossipy society women, everyone was distinct and interesting. The actual plot wasn’t really riveting for me. It was pleasant and easy to read, but the various twists seemed unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story. The continued discussion of the death of Beatrice’s brother at a young age seemed like an unnecessary attempt to add dimension to her character. It was woven throughout the whole story, but even after having finished the story, I can’t understand why it was made into such a big part of the narrative.

The ending of this book left me baffled. After such a (relatively) calm read, I have no idea why a sudden catastrophic and destructive storm was needed to wrap it up. It seemed like a sort of clichéd way to take care of all the loose ends without actually addressing underlying issues. 

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller

29 Seconds by T.M. Logan ~ Book Review

29 Seconds and Cupcake

St. Martin’s Press
Release Date (USA): September 10, 2019
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

This book gave me whiplash in the best of ways. The premise of the plot was simple: After an act of good faith, Sarah Hayward finds herself with the unique opportunity to name one person, with the guarantee that they will vanish without a trace. Although she initially dismisses the idea, insisting that there is no such person in her life, Sarah struggles each day at work against the increasingly deplorable and despicable sexual harassment from her boss, Alan Hawthorne. As Hawthorne’s actions take more and more of a toll on Sarah’s mental and physical health, and threaten her career, she makes one 29-second phone call that changes her life.

A phone call naming Hawthorne as her chosen victim.

From there, Sarah is catapulted into a whirlwind of emotion, during which she constantly second guesses her choices. Every time the reader was led to believe that the deed had been done, and Hawthorne was gone from her life, he would pop up again — almost as unwanted to the reader as he was to Sarah.

The sexual harassment that Sarah and her fellow female colleagues faced is timely in topic, and heartbreaking in description. Logan has insightful narrative surrounding Sarah’s internal struggle between trying to protect her career and reputation, and wanting to stand up for the respect she deserves. The extent of Hawthorne’s power throughout the university the two work at at became increasingly clear, and one by one, the paths Sarah thinks she might be able to take to stop him are closed off to her.

I fully expected the outcome of the 29-second phone call to be exactly what was offered to Sarah at face value. I assumed that the remainder of the book would focus on any backlash or guilt Sarah felt, or perhaps there would be one person who somehow caught wind of what had happened. Surprise, surprise, this book was nothing close to predictable. The twists were well incorporated and very different from thrillers I’ve read in the past.

The only negative comment I have about this book is that some scenes seemed repetitive. Every time Sarah’s rowdy children were discussed, I felt like I was reading the same scene that had already been described several times over.

Despite the fact that I don’t quite understand the details involved in this book being published for the first time in the United States when it has already been released elsewhere, I’m glad that is the case, and that this ARC made it into my hands in time for the U.S. publication date (Today!).

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Memoir, Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl ~ Book Review

Save Me the Plums

Random House
Genre: Memoir
Release Date: April 2, 2019
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

To say that Ruth Reichl’s career trajectory is impressive is an understatement (at least coming from the point of view of an avid reader and writer). Her memoir illustrates the myriad of ways that Gourmet magazine has played a role in her life, beginning in childhood, when she idolized the pages of her Grandmother’s copies. As a burgeoning writer, she visited the magazine’s office to pitch an article idea, but was sorely rejected. From there, she takes the reader through her time working as a restaurant critic. Her experiences there, and at the L.A. Times, are woven into small flashbacks. When she is eventually offered the role at Gourmet, Ruth is skeptical. The magazine as she sees it at the time, is no longer that which she adored as a child, it has become predictable, and she isn’t sure she has the means to make the types of major changes it would need to make it successful again. The fact is, she has no such experience. 

Nonetheless, when faced with an offer for a salary six times what she currently making,  along with a driver and yearly clothing allowance (how is that a real thing?!), Ruth takes the plunge. The rest of the book chronicles the ups and downs that Ruth, and Gourmet face. Her palpable fear when faced with her new staff for the first time gave me major secondhand embarrassment. Ruth jumps the gun, trying to please her new colleagues by agreeing to start her new job three months early, while finishing up her current job. Ruth’s people-pleasing qualities were all too relatable.

The ebbs and flows in Ruth’s experience at Gourmet were remarkable. I ate up every detail (pun intended) from the ultimate success of David Foster Wallace’s game changing article on the ethics of human eating habits, to the unexpected outrage that followed the decision to put a cupcake-covered cake on the front of the magazine. The struggle with keeping a constant staff was especially eye-opening, as was the insight into the way that Condé  Nast runs, seemingly swapping around upper management from publication to publication with little warning or explanation. Those segments of the memoir were disheartening, and I could feel Ruth’s frustration.

I also loved the way Ruth tied her family life into writing that was primarily career oriented. Her son’s relationship to food was interesting, and especially how much he longed for his mom to stay home and cook for him. This was a unique contrast to my childhood experience of longing for a chance to eat at restaurants.

The descriptions of food throughout this memoir were, of course, mouthwatering. It’s obvious that Reichl has spent much of her life writing about food: she knows exactly how to make her words succulent and enticing.  Overall, this book was, in and of itself, a delicious treat. It far surpassed my expectations, especially as an ARC I received, and did not seek out for myself.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller, Uncategorized

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall ~ Book Review

They All Fall Down with candles

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
Forge Books
Genre: Mystery
Release Date: April 9, 2019
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

This book is a (somehow) light-hearted, modern twist on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I’m not sure if it was literally billed as such, but that’s exactly what it is. Miriam Macy believes she has been selected to be on a reality show, and in the face of her newly estranged relationship with her daughter, Morgan, her divorce, and the allegations that she bullied a girl to the point of committing suicide, Miriam happily jets off to Mexico in the hopes of restoring her image. She decides that if she plays her cards right, her daughter will soon see her as being cool and fun again, and, she will win the prize money she is told might await her at the end of the competition. Miriam is adorably delusional, which is part of her charm as a character, and also part of the reason I was ready for this book to end when I neared the final chapter. Although her lack of clarity on anything in her life is what defines Miriam, it became frustrating, rather than humorous, by the tenth time she misinterpreted her situation.

The actual plot of the book made for an easy summer read. Miriam and a series of other guests are boated over to a private island which holds a gorgeous mansion. Each one believes they were brought there for something that would deeply appeal to them, personally, be it a relaxing vacation, a business meeting, or a television competition. They soon find out that they were actually brought there as the dying wish of the lawyer with whom they all worked, and who recently passed away without any of their knowledge. Miriam is confused, but quickly readjusts her mindset, telling herself she’s honored to have been considered close enough to be invited to a memorial.

They All Fall Down Flatlay

The dining room of the mansion boasts an ornate table with imagery of individuals depicting each of the seven deadly sins (major flashbacks to the movie Seven when I read that part). As one by one, the guests begin to show up dead, the corresponding pieces of the table disappear, and it becomes clear that each guest represents one of the sins. I have to commend Rachel Howzell Hall for her incredible ability to write descriptive narrative. Each character was vividly different from any of the others, and they were all unique caricatures who were truly a joy to read (minus Miriam when she got annoying). I do want to make a clarification here: they were enjoyable to read because they were so detailed and so awful! I saw this book as a humorous update of the Christie tale, and in this case, I truly didn’t care that characters died because they were all the worst. The fact that Hall was able to make me despise so many people in different ways speaks to the quality of her prose, and added to my enjoyment of the book.

The final twists defining why this particular group was brought to the island were original and interesting, and the ending did manage to surprise me. Overall, I would recommend this book if you want a quick, lighthearted read, but other than that, it wasn’t standout.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane ~ Book Review

Ask Again, Yes and cookies

Scribner
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

Ask Again, Yes was a very real book. It explored heavy topics, like, shooting your neighbor heavy, and I was not prepared. The story opens with the courtship of Francis and Lena, leading to them getting married and buying their first home. This segment was artful and descriptive and sucked me right in, but was not representative of the majority of the book (which is fine). The couple settles into their new home, and begins to have children, while a new couple, the Stanhopes, moves into the house next door. Brian, the husband, works with Francis on the police force, but his wife Anne, seems distant, rude, even troubled, despite Lena’s many efforts to be friendly.

Once the Stanhopes have a child of their own, Peter, he quickly befriends Francis and Lena’s daughter Kate, who is close to him in age. As neighbors, it is easy for them to see each other often. Their childhood friendship seemed predictable based on proximity alone. As they get older, a hint of romance worms its way into their relationship. One night, they plan to sneak out at midnight together. The idea is nothing beyond the innocent, just two teenagers bending a few rules, but the results of the outing are catastrophic, and catalyze the Stanhope’s moving away. Peter goes to New York City with his dad, and he and Kate fall out of touch.

The rest of the book follows Kate and Peter’s respective lives as they grow up. Kate’s family struggles with the aftermath of the trauma inflicted by Anne Stanhope, while Peter’s reality revolves around trying to visit his mother in a home he is repeatedly turned away from. His father eventually moves away and leaves Peter to live with his uncle.

As Kate and Peter went off to college and explored the possibility of other relationships, I couldn’t help but wonder what would bring them back together. I loved the details of Peter’s life, his financial struggles in the face of college, his interest in running, and his indecision surrounding his future career. 

This book covered a tremendous amount of time. Not only did Peter and Kate reconnect, we see them through their marriage, growing family, and many, many struggles. As Peter works through career changes and addiction, Kate tries to figure out how to reintroduce Peter’s mother into their lives.

The raw, real way that Keane writes about life hit home. Kate and Peter deal with, I’d say, a bit more in the way of hardships for a couple, but much of their story reflects what most people go through. Kean’s storytelling kept the twists and turns of their lives compelling. I’m not quite sure what genre I would put this book in, because it’s truly just the story of two lives that are inextricably intertwined. If you’re not afraid of facing all of life’s difficulties (times two) in less than 400 pages, pick up Ask Again, Yes, you won’t be disappointed. 

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller, Uncategorized

The Night Before by Wendy Walker ~ Book Review

The Night Before with Cookies

St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Thriller
Release Date: May 14, 2019
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪🍪

Laura Lochner borrows a dress from her sister Rosie, puts on an uncharacteristic shade of lipstick, and drives Rosie’s car into the night for her first date with a man she met through an online dating website. She is cautiously excited, aware that she is putting on an act, but clearly desperate to find someone she can share her life with. Her relationship with men up until this point has been tumultuous, beginning in high school when the police found her with a bat next to a boy she was dating (or thought she was dating at the time), who has been hit in the head and killed. Although she was not found guilty of his death, the event came to define her life, and is something she is always running from, and constantly goes back to in her mind.

More recently, Laura became involved in a serious relationship with a man named Kevin, until out of the blue one day, he texted her that he didn’t love her, and asked for her not to contact him again. Used to years of being similarly mistreated, Laura took the communication at face value and moved away from New York City and in with Rosie, Rosie’s husband Joe, and their son Mason. Rosie is concerned about Laura jumping right back into dating, and tries to stay up until Laura gets back from her date. By morning however, Laura has still not returned, and Rosie begins to panic.

From there, we watch as Rosie, Joe, and their childhood friend Gabe begin a large scale investigation of what could have happened to Laura, while getting alternating chapters depicting Laura’s date, and the red flags that crop up as her night progresses.

This book was twisty and unexpected. Laura’s difficult relationship with men throughout her life was heartbreaking, especially once the final twists were unveiled in the closing chapters. There were a lot of moving parts within the plot, from affairs to murder to mid-life crises and midnight pizzas. The ultimate antagonist was not someone I suspected until about three pages before he was revealed, and I was satisfied with the way the explanation tied everything together. I also appreciated that after that reveal, Walker walked us back through Laura’s past, to show how he had been acting against her for years.

I am fully confident that I was shoveling these Sweet & Salty Kitchen Sink Cookies into my mouth just as fast as I was flipping the pages of this book. The recipe takes a little bit of prep (especially if you can’t find Kraft caramel bits, and end up cutting up caramel cubes like I did) but they are absolutely worth it. People ask me for the recipe for these guys more than any other cookies I make (and that’s saying something)!

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, Horror, Uncategorized

It by Stephen King ~ Book Review

It Book with Rainbow Sprinkle Donut

Viking
Release Date: September 15, 1986
Genre: Horror
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪

Honestly, I’m just proud of myself for finishing this book. At over 1,100 pages, it is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, and suffice it to say, I would not have completed it if I didn’t enjoy it. That being said, I’m not really a horror person. This was my first Stephen King read, and I was a little nervous about being horrified and/or scared to walk around my apartment after dark. I was pleasantly surprised by the content, however. There were absolutely, without a doubt, parts of this book that were pure horror, but it is such a big book, that they seemed more diffused throughout it, and I could handle them at this less concentrated level. 

The book follows the lives of The Losers, a group of seven misfits growing up in Derry, Maine. The chapters alternate between their childhood lives, at about twelve years old, chronicling how they all come together, and their adult lives, as they all return to Derry for the first time since moving away. I need to pause here for a moment to address setting in this story. Derry truly takes on a life of its own. King goes into great detail about the history of the town, as well as the types of people who live there, and a narrative surrounding the homophobia that exists within its borders. Having grown up in New England, and spent a lot of time in small-town Maine, I could picture Derry through King’s descriptions. I feel like I’ve been there, and that was maybe the most horrifying part of all for me.

Within the detailed history of this town, there was also, of course, the history of It, a horrifying being (more of presence really) that resides within the town and preys on children. Although its true form is never seen, it most often appears as a clown named Pennywise, who wears a suit with orange pompoms, and is accompanied by a bunch of balloons. Throughout the book, these pompoms and the balloons taunt the group of losers as a precursor to It’s appearances.

The return of the adults back to their hometown is initiated by Mike, who has remained in Derry all his life, working in the library. He realizes that It has returned to the town after a break of twenty some-odd years. As children, the losers tried, and nearly succeeded at killing It, and made a vow to return to Derry to finish It off should the violence start again. As they are called back to Derry after so many years away, they realize they had forgotten their childhood entirely, but the horror, as well as the camaraderie, all comes rushing back to them as they begin their return journeys. The terror is so great, in fact, that one of them, Stan, kills himself, rather than facing Derry and It once more. 

The sections and chapters through most of the book are quite long. King goes into details about different children who were killed in the town, and how they died, as well as introducing many friends and enemies of our seven misfits. He is able to go off on descriptions that are pages long about the smallest details (which accounts for the length of this book) but without making the writing feel bogged down. Towards the end, the chapters begin to flip-flop much more rapidly between present and past, showing how the kids tried to defeat It before, and how the adults are copying their past actions to do so again. 

My one complaint about this book is the length. Although I appreciate King’s descriptive style, I do feel there were sections and backstories that did not directly pertain to the narrative that could have been cut. I did read and enjoy the entirety of the book, but by the end I was ready to be done with it, if only to move on to a read that I could fit in my purse.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪
It on Goodreads
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Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

The Au Pair by Emma Rous ~ Book Review

The Au Pair and brownies
Berkley
Release Date: January 8, 2019
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
My Rating: 🍪🍪.5

I honestly don’t feel like I have much to say about this book. It was fine. Definitely not a ‘thriller.’ I guess I would bill it a mystery, and if I’d been aware of the discrepancy beforehand, I probably would not have picked it up. 

The story is split between two time periods. The earlier, follows the life of Laura, who arrives at Summerbourne estate to be an au pair for Edwin. His parents, Ruth and Dominic, also live at the grand house. Ruth learns that Edwin’s twin brother Theo died on the cliffs behind the house. The later portion of the book chronicles Seraphine’s journey to discover her true identity. Seraphine, along with her twin brother Danny, are the younger siblings of Edwin, who are not yet born during the majority of Laura’s storyline.

I think my favorite part of this book was the description of setting. I could perfectly visualize the grandeur of Summerbourne, with the ocean spreading out beyond it, and it made for a satisfying summer read. 

I definitely enjoyed Laura’s part of this story the most. It was interesting to watch her come to terms with her life at Summerbourne, and struggle with her unreciprocated romantic feelings for Alex, a close family friend of Dominic and Ruth’s. It is clear from the start that there is some form of confused and mixed up identity going on, and that coupled with the sinister tale that twins never survive at Summerbourne, causes Ruth’s pregnancy to draw attention. Ruth appears to be struggling with some sort of instability, possibly triggered by the death of Theo, and those around her begin to fear for her unborn child. The back of the estate hosts cliffs that overlook the sea, and become, in essence, their own character. Everything can be traced back to the danger of the cliffs, which begs the question of why they stay at a home so near to them. I felt like I read the same paragraph about different people running off to the cliffs about five different times.

Au Pair straight on

Meanwhile, Seraphine and the people she goes to for insight into her past begin to receive threatening messages of various forms, telling them not to keep investigating. This whole section seemed like a clichéd mystery plot to me, and I had trouble not just skimming. I may have missed something, but I was also unsure as to why she started the entire investigation in the first place. Her father died in a sudden accident, but I don’t know why this would trigger her to question her identity so furiously. 

I didn’t feel like there was any big reveal, or strong conclusion to this novel. We don’t get a defined answer as to who’s responsible for much of anything, or a lot of motive for what we do know. Rous concludes the story with everyone getting together for what is expected to be a trepidatious family reunion, which was unbelievable, and also expected. 

My Rating: 🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid ~ Book Review

Daisy Jones & The Six and Cookies

Ballantine Books
Release Date: March 5, 2019
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪

I saw a lot of hype surrounding this book prior to reading it, and that, along with having recently read (and loved!) The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (also by Taylor Jenkins Reid), prompted me to seek out Daisy Jones & The Six from my local library. The extended list of people on hold for it ahead of me only increased my expectations. That being said, I didn’t really take the time to look up what the story was about before I cracked it open for the first time.

I’d never read a book in the format of Daisy Jones & The Six before: purely made up of an extended series of (fictional) interviews, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when I started. Since each person’s comments in the interviews were brief, the the book flew by– there was a lot of blank space on each page. Despite that, the book covered a lot as it explored the rise in popularity of Daisy, and The Six, respectively, and then how they came together. As a collective whole, the members of the band, and their extended circle dealt with a lot: from drug and alcohol addiction to love, marriage, cheating, rising to fame, and heartbreak. 

The stories of Billy, the lead singer, and Daisy, were most central to the book, and I felt their characters were explored much more thoroughly than the others. The tension that existed between them was well depicted, but not predictable. Their struggles with learning to coexist, were believable and heart wrenching, especially the narrative surrounding Billy’s struggle to remain sober in the presence of Daisy’s addiction, and her misunderstanding of his actions. 

It was harder for me to care about the other members of the band. I enjoyed Karen and Graham’s storyline, but the others all paled in comparison to Daisy and Billy, and I found it a little hard to distinguish between them. Eddie’s role especially seemed unnecessary. There was a lot of focus on his discontent without any actual conclusion. I wasn’t sure why this focus was necessary. I also thought it was a little random to reveal that the fictional author of this biography of the band was actually Billy’s daughter. This didn’t add anything to the story for me, and felt like a non-crucial moment that took away from the narrative.

Overall, the rise and fall of this band was engaging, believable, and easy to read. Although I admit that I didn’t take the time to read them, I thought it was a nice touch for Reid to include the lyrics to the band’s songs at the end of the book. I paired this read with a batch of M&M cookies, as varied and colorful as each of the seven members of Daisy Jones & The Six.

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My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪