4 star, YA

Review: 10 Truths and a Dare by Ashley Elston

Series: Messina Family #2

It’s Senior Week, that magical in-between time after classes have ended but before graduation, chock-full of gimmicky theme parties, last-minute bonding, and family traditions. Olivia couldn’t be more ready. Class salutatorian and confident in her future at LSU, she’s poised to sail through to the next phase of her life.

But when the tiny hiccup of an unsigned off-campus P.E. form puts Olivia in danger of not graduating at all, she has one week to set things straight without tipping off her very big and very nosy extended family. Volunteering to help at a local golf tournament should do it, but since Olivia’s mom equipped her phone with a tracking app, there’ll be no hiding the fact that she’s at the golf course instead of all the graduation parties happening at the same time. Unless, that is, she can convince the Fab Four–her ride-or-die cousins and best friends Sophie, Charlie, and Wes–to trade phones with her as they go through the motions of playing Olivia for the week.

Sure, certain members of the golf team are none too pleased with Olivia’s sudden “passion” for the game. And sure, a very cute, very off-limits boy keeps popping up in Olivia’s orbit. But she is focused! She has a schedule and a plan! Nothing can possibly go wrong . . . right?



After the surprising success with book one, 10 Blind Dates, I knew the Messina family could both be messy but also fun. I wish my family was more like them sometimes, with relatives living close by one another and being close enough to just drop in at the matriarch’s house whenever they wanted for some breakfast or family gossip. Clearly my Asian family didn’t meet the traditional large family sizes that I know others have, but if it did, I sure would love that it would feel the same way in love and mess as the Messinas.

Going into 10 Truths and a Dare, I wasn’t sure if this book could live up to the hype that was its predecessor. While I liked Olivia enough as a secondary character and cousin in the first book, was she enough to pull off her own story? That thought carried itself around when I first picked this book up. Fortunately, I read this as an audiobook and oh boy, this made all the difference I think. Let’s break my thoughts down, shall we?

Storyline

Did this plot really make the most sense? I mean, what kinda cruel principal and PE teacher would hold back a senior graduate, someone who we all know puts in the effort everywhere else, from graduating based on a half credit of physical education? I’m literally the same as Olivia. I cared about my academic standing wayyyy over whatever I did for anything physical. So sue me. But to not sign a form that is LITERALLY standing in the way of her graduating? That’s just heartless. And the only way to make up for it is to volunteer for a whole week without missing a single hour? Feels a little over the top to me.

Also, what kind of self-respecting teen would allow their mother – one whom clearly has some boundary issues – to track their every movement on their phone? I mean, sure, it’s nice to know where your kid is but do you not trust them at all times and need to constantly be checking what they’re doing? It’s bound to send some message to them that you need to go hide things from them by leaving your phone elsewhere if you just want some privacy.

Okay, clearly this tells you what kind of teenager I was. Or would’ve been if my parents and school did this to me.

So while the major plot points were a little wonky to me, that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. I rolled with it and so did Olivia’s best friends/cousins. Hilarity is definitely going to ensue when you leave your phone in the hands of your male besties. Wes, but particularly Charlie, clearly had no idea what was coming to them when a mother asks what kind of bra you should wear underneath a specific dress for that party you’re going to. Talk about some laughing moments!

Romance

Did I fall head over heels for Leo, the bad boy who is friends with the enemy, the Evil Jo’s? No, not really, and not because he was friends with the cousins no one wants to deal with in any family.

I like my off-limits/forbidden romance as much as the next person but I’m not sure there was anything driving the romance for me. He was nicer than they anticipated for the fact that he socialized with the cousins who shall not me named. Keeping it a secret from Charlie, Wes and Sophie for a while was loads of fun and made the chemistry seem to spark more, but I definitely didn’t feel anything particular about it.

Where the chemistry really lies

And that brings me back to why I still really enjoyed this book. I can understand why some may not have loved it as much because it definitely lacked the romantic chemistry that propelled the first book. But listening to this banter cemented even more in my mind how much books about family, the ones with a little less dysfunction in it, is a refreshing perspective. That’s not to say I ignore the reality and need for books to dive into serious family issues because those are definitely present and real for many people. But there’s just something nice to be able to be a part of this big old family who love one another even with – or perhaps because of – their individual quirks.

Olivia spent this whole time trying to hide what was happening this week from her family, which was meant to be full of fun and partying to reminisce 4 years of high school. She was afraid to let them down. Yet it’s in those moments when she realizes maybe she never had to hide it from them in the first place that really got my heart melting. And that’s the kind of feel-good story I need sometimes. I hope 10 Truths and a Dare may also give you that if you ever need it.

Overall Recommendation:

10 Truths and a Dare highlights family at the centre of it all. While there was plenty of fun and weirdness going on as Olivia hid her mandatory volunteering to graduate from her massive family, this story focused on love in other ways than just romantic. From her cousins who handled her mom and the parties Olivia was invited to (in the most hilarious ways) to the serious manner her grandmother and uncles always asked about her well-being, there’s something special about a large family who holds one another in support. If that’s what you’re looking for, with a side of romance and craziness, this is the book for you. There’s no other family that makes my heart grow 1.5x its size than the Messinas it seems.

4 star, YA

ARC Review: These Deadly Games by Diana Urban

Let’s play a game.

You have 24 hours to win. If you break my rules, she dies. If you call the police, she dies. If you tell your parents or anyone else, she dies.

Are you ready?

When Crystal Donavan gets a message on a mysterious app with a video of her little sister gagged and bound, she agrees to play the kidnapper’s game. At first, they make her complete bizarre tasks: steal a test and stuff it in a locker, bake brownies, make a prank call.

But then Crystal realizes each task is meant to hurt—and kill—her friends, one by one. But if she refuses to play, the kidnapper will kill her sister. Is someone trying to take her team out of the running for a gaming tournament? Or have they uncovered a secret from their past, and wants them to pay for what they did…

As Crystal makes the impossible choices between her friends and her sister, she must uncover the truth and find a way to outplay the kidnapper… before it’s too late.

Author of All Your Twisted Secrets, Diana Urban’s explosive sophomore novel, These Deadly Games, will keep you riveted until the final twist is revealed.



**These Deadly Games comes out February 1, 2022**

Thank you Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Fast paced, exhilarating and full of twisted games, These Deadly Games had me on the edge of my seat the whole time as we race with Crystal against the clock to save her sister.

This is Diana Urban’s second novel and I fell in love with this one even more than the first. Written in the same storytelling method I have come to expect from her, we are not given too much information about certain aspects of the protagonist and friends’ past that only slowly unfolds as we move forward in the present time. How this impacts the present day characterization of the main group of friends we are following is brilliant as it shaped who they each are.

Besides characterization, the mystery flows super well that it’s very hard to put down. Right from the get go, we know Crystal’s group is up for a gaming tournament with high chances of winning the team component. Is someone hunting them down one by one so they wouldn’t qualify for it? There are plenty of motives and suspects who may not want to see any of them succeed. Guessing who the culprit(s) may be was fun, though I will admit I had a sneaking suspicion who it was around the 50% mark, but that didn’t lessen how much fun it was to see it all being pieced together.

This book is also aptly named because, oh boy, those sure were some DEADLY games this unknown entity put Crystal through. What seemed like innocent enough gestures alone soon became separate ways that were hurting people she loved. And if the “truth” of these deadly acts came to light, all the evidence would point to Crystal alone, wouldn’t it? It was such a brilliantly devised plan and this evil mastermind had me applauding their, well, genius the whole way. They were so creative, and I have to praise Urban for devising up such things.

There was a lot to love about this book. I felt the secondary characters, all of Crystal’s gaming group, were unique enough although we don’t get to spend a lot of time with each since we really are just following Crystal during this 24 hour period. It also explored some of Crystal’s family life and the feelings she had about the dysfunction present there, along with her instinct to put her little sister above all else. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite give it a 5 star rating. I felt like it was just missing a “wow” factor, but that really could only be me since I might’ve guessed whodunnit rather early on.

However, how the ending wrapped up was pretty solid and amazing. I can’t give away much, but let me just say it made a lot of sense and still had me gripping my seat until the very last page. I think Urban couldn’t have written a better ending for this story with the perfect amount of allure and openness. It was definitely far better than the dumpster wreck ending of her debut.

I would definitely recommend you pick this one up when it comes out if you’re looking for a fast read that takes some turns you may not expect. These Deadly Games is sure to thrill and have you flipping through the pages to find out how it would all resolve.

Overall Recommendation:

These Deadly Games is a wonderful mystery/thriller that features a cunning mastermind tormenting Crystal and her friends on the weekend eve of a big gaming tournament they’re posed to win. Its fast-paced storytelling set in a 24 hour period as Crystal races against the clock to save her kidnapped sister had me rushing to get to the bottom of it. I enjoyed the characterizations of Crystal’s friend group, but particularly learning who Crystal was and the lengths she’d go to juggle the hardest decision she’d ever have to make: save her friends or her sister. The ending was spectacularly handled, although I kind of guessed who the mastermind was some time earlier. Overall this was a solid mystery but may have missed a little wow factor for me to reach 5-star. Diana Urban’s sophomore novel definitely set the bar and I look forward to seeing where she goes next because it’s only getting better!

2 star, YA

Review: Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey

Don’t you just love the smell of old books in the morning?

Madeline Moore does. Books & Moore, the musty bookstore her family has owned for generations, is where she feels most herself. Nothing is going to stop her from coming back after college to take over the store from her beloved aunt.

Nothing, that is—until a chain bookstore called Prologue opens across the street and threatens to shut them down.

Madeline sets out to demolish the competition, but Jasper, the guy who works over at Prologue, seems intent on ruining her life. Not only is he taking her customers, he has the unbelievable audacity to be… extremely cute.

But that doesn’t matter. Jasper is the enemy and he will be destroyed. After all—all’s fair in love and (book) wars.



I’m a sucker for books about bookstores, and this definitely drew me into Last Chance Books. And as the title suggests, this story is all about saving an indie bookstore from closing when a larger chain store moves across the street from them.

Okay, full disclosure, while I absolutely ADORE indie stores (I get all the best secondhand books from such wonderful places where I literally can spend a whole afternoon among its stacks), I have also been an employee of such large chain bookstores. I can see the place for both types of stores, so this won’t be a review that bashes large chain bookstores (sorry).

With this premise, it automatically sets up an enemies to lovers story when indie store employee, Madeline, does everything to keep her beloved family store Books & Moore afloat. Jasper Tanaka, aka the absolute enemy, had to be terminated at any cost.

And I do mean literally at ANY cost.

It’s one of the things I felt the book took too far. Her pranks weren’t always harmless. Whether that meant almost physical harm to a Prologue employee or slightly shady dealings to keep profit from going their way, Madeline’s obsessive behaviour wasn’t endearing in any way. I understand her want to keep the store going when it seemed like everyone else, even her boss and aunt, were willing to give it up and throw in the towel. It just wasn’t a lovely thing to read about constantly.

I know typically people love enemies to lovers, but I’m a lot pickier when it comes to this trope and not just any book with it will win over my heart. However, I will say this romance didn’t really have anything special in it to make them memorable even for those of you who love anything with this trope. Jasper was definitely the nicer of the two, but that’s not hard when the other one was constantly thinking of ways to sabotage the rival business.

What I will say I did like, even in a minor way, was the character growth and family focus. As Books & Moore is a family business, we spent a lot of time with Madeline’s family which consisted of her aunt, half-brother, half-brother’s dad, and her estranged mother now coming back into all of their lives. First thing, I really enjoyed seeing such a unique family dynamic. I loved the portrayal of a good single father figure who also ended up adopting Madeline into his love and care even though she wasn’t his by blood.

But the focus was on their relationship with Madeline’s mom. She was always given the impression of being flighty and selfish, dropping her kids with her sister to take care of all these years so she could pursue her own acting career across the country. Having to deal with her rare and temporary presence in their lives was an interesting root issue to dig into and explore.

At the heart of this, Last Chance Books was still about saving an indie store and sharing the love of books with people. As a former bookseller (and even as a reviewer), that is something I stand by and I love to see in stories. How it was executed wasn’t the best, but I wouldn’t write off this book completely just because I wasn’t excited by it at all. I read half of this as an ebook and the other half as an audiobook. I definitely feel the audiobook helped make it come more alive for me (and probably why I finished through some of Madeline’s less-than-stellar inner monologue). It has potential, and I will still be checking out more from Kelsey Rodkey in the future.

Overall Recommendation:

Last Chance Books delivered on the family dysfunction piece as the Moore family (or rather, mainly Madeline) fought to keep the family bookstore afloat. But where the plot was supposed to be interesting when a rival large chain bookstore is fighting them on profits, it fell flat. Madeline was too intense in her rivalry against rival bookstore employee, Jasper, and regularly took things a bit far for just a rivalry. While there was character development, most strongly in Madeline, it made getting through the middle parts rather difficult. Overall, I always love a book that talks about bookstores and the beauty of reading (and its loyal communities), and this definitely has that in spades but its execution could’ve been better. With a lackluster enemies to lovers romance and a slow pace throughout the middle, the parts I liked couldn’t quite carry it through for my expectations.