Book Review

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Publisher: Ecco
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ+
Pages: 242
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Summary

In Exciting Times, Ava, Dublin born and bred, finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to elementary school students while searching for happiness. When petulant roommates threaten to destroy her sanity, Julian, a wealthy financier, offers her the chance to live a much swankier life than her teacher salary can afford. More companions than romantic partners, they enter into an undefined relationship that Ava continually struggles to decipher and maneuver. When Julian goes out of town for work, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong lawyer. Edith upsets the strange balance, leading Ava to question her whole relationship with Julian and ultimately her own identity.

Thoughts

With a title like Exciting Times, I had page-turning high hopes, but overall the novel didn’t necessarily live up to the hype for me. I found myself frustrated with its central group of characters (although that could have been Dolan’s intent). I did agree with the back cover’s assessment of Ava having a cold personality—which is evident in some of her interactions with students and colleagues. However, I did not find Julian all that “witty”; his indifference and callousness with Ava is deflating. The appearance of Edith, the Hong Kong lawyer with whom Ava becomes fixated, gives the novel some drama, as she delivers where Julian cannot in terms of affection and commitment. For me however, the love triangle never quite takes off in a way that is very satisfying. 

Dolan’s use of the characters’ careers as plot devices is fascinating. Her dive into the world of finance through Julian’s career was interesting to the point that I actually had to look up certain industry jargon. The peek into Ava’s career teaching grammar to Hong Kong children is also a fun aspect of the novel. This could have a lot to do with the fact that I am studying to be an English teacher, however the little “lessons” that Dolan interweaves into Ava’s inner monologues nicely punctuate certain scenes. 

Dolan’s commentary on social class is also interesting, as the reader vividly experiences Ava’s struggle with fitting into Julian’s crowd of friends and colleagues. Their differences are not just financial, and Ava is made painfully aware of this during the course of their relationship. Anyone who has dated outside their tax bracket will find her dilemma relatable.

Ava deals with these insecurities and doubts by engaging in a quirky habit of composing text and email messages that she never intends to send. She reveals her true feelings through these “drafts” and they make for some of the more humorous areas of the novel. Dolan makes the choice to use an “accidental” transmission of one of the messages as a plot device, and it is effective in revealing Julian’s continued indifference. 

The novel spends a lot of time inside Ava’s head, as she battles her own good judgement to leave what is ultimately a toxic, unfulfilling relationship. Ava’s opportunity for growth, I believe, was stunted despite all of her rumination, and when the novel concludes, she hadn’t really learned much about herself.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith

Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Red Bluff, Mississippi has both literally and symbolically been transformed by the kudzu vines that creep ever forward. This town provides the landscape for characters such as Colburn, a sculptor who was returned to his hometown vaguely searching for answers about his traumatic childhood; Myer, the older lawman who desperately believes that there is good left in Red Bluff; Celia, the bartender; and a family of vagrants who care little for one another.

These startlingly human characters all meet in Red Bluff and they are all impacted by the town itself—struggling against it, the encroaching kudzu, and themselves. Regret, violence, and hatred mark the landscape and make you wonder if any good can be found in Red Bluff at all.

Thoughts

This Southern gothic’s primary strength and weakness is its prose. I have never read a book that is written in quite this style before and I enjoyed it immensely. Its fragmented sentences create a frenzied sense of urgency while at the same time lengthening and slowing down the story, almost placing it in a realm outside of time. I read this book rapidly, even though each of the minutes spent reading it felt much longer than they should. The only issue I found is that this style lacks clarity. While this seems intentional on Smith’s part (since the style mimics the landscape itself), I did find myself having to reread passages to truly understand what was happening (or, at the very least, who was speaking).

Throughout the novel, Smith describes the “brutality of indifference.” The kudzu swallows towns without caring what it harms or who it leaves behind, Colburn struggles to find meaning and purpose, and the vagrant family who moved to Red Bluff is so marked by indifference that they barely even know their own names. These are the things that cause the most pain in the novel. I found it refreshing that the evil that lurks in the town is not malicious but rather apathetic, because I rarely read books that frame wickedness in this way. 

As someone who grew up in a small town—though not quite as small as Red Bluff—I can definitely relate to the apathy that can often permeate throughout them. I loved reading about a small town that was filled with such an evil caused by indifference because I have observed that for my entire life. It was a refreshing take on small towns, since most of what we read about them either glorifies the experience or asserts that they are filled with bad or crazy people. The people in Blackwood were not evil, but rather apathetic and stuck. However, the relationships that you form with others can still be meaningful despite all of this, something that the novel captures excellently.

I definitely recommend this novel to fans of gothic literature, people who grew up in small towns, and to people who are looking to reading something different and interesting!


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller, Bildungsroman
Pages: 784
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Goldfinch follows thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, the son of a loving mother and reckless father. The young New-Yorker’s life is forever changed when he miraculously survives a terrible accident that kills his mother. Theo unwittingly steals a masterpiece from the museum where the tragedy occurred, and the captivating little painting provides a source of hope and comfort, as it reminds him of his mother. Theo is soon taken in by a wealthy friend, but he lives tormented by longing for the life he once had.

In adulthood, Theo’s stolen painting propels him deep into the art underworld, and he finds himself leading a double life as an antique dealer and as a con. He soon becomes entwined in a dangerous web of deceit, one that leaves him alienated and at risk of losing everything. Theo’s story is one of self-discovery, legacy, and the ways in which a single event can forever alter the course of our lives.

Thoughts

It goes without saying that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a real page-turner—as the title suggests, the story largely revolves around an (accidental) art theft. The plot is brilliantly weaved together, and the reader is plagued with the same anxieties as the protagonist when it comes to the stolen masterpiece. Theo is a thoroughly interesting character to follow, in that his life is tinged with loss and continual sorrows, and the reader witnesses first-hand how these trials change him from a hopeful boy to a cynical adult. Theo also meets a host of interesting characters throughout the novel—from Pippa, an impish musician who was also present during the bombing, to Hobie, a kindly antique store-owner turned father-figure, the book is certainly not lacking in personality.

The only fault I found in this book comes from the way it tended to drag on in places. Some plot points (such as the time Theo spends with Boris, his bedraggled, drug-addicted friend) felt unnecessarily drawn out and did little to advance the plot. The only purpose I could see this serving would be to make sudden plot advances all the more jarring for the reader—you are lulled into a false sense of security, only to have the rug immediately pulled out from under you as the plot thickens.

One of the things I found most memorable about The Goldfinch comes from the fact that the message of the story doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book. Throughout the novel, I found myself (worriedly) wondering if the plot was building towards any meaningful revelations, and was delighted to find that Tartt did an excellent job of tying the events of the novel to universally contemplated aspects of the human experience (you know, for those of us who can’t personally relate to Theo’s dabbling in art theft). Of the many themes expressed, there is a beautiful message about our loving art because of the ways that loved objects take on a life of their own, as well as serving to connect us to some greater beauty. The novel also tackles ideas such as whether or not to follow a heart that can’t be trusted, the times when bad actions can still lead to good outcomes, and challenging the notion of free will. In short, Tartt poses some of the great questions that we as humans should be contemplating without necessarily giving us the answers. Instead, she plants seeds of thought and leaves you as the reader to ponder the subject yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

Overall, this book is a vastly entertaining story about a young boy placed in increasingly despairing circumstances. Beyond this, however, The Goldfinch will be especially loved by those looking for a revelatory piece dealing with topics such as legacy, love, fate, and beauty.

Book Review

Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Pages: 335
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows best friends Jane and Marnie as they navigate adult life. The girls have been best friends since they were 12 and don’t know what a life without the other would look like. That is, until Marnie gets a boyfriend, Charles, whom Jane despises. When Marnie asks her if she likes him, Jane lies and says he is great. Jane’s one lie spirals into six more, each slightly worse than the last. Each one adds strain to a seemingly unbreakable friendship.
So when Charles dies, Jane is left wondering—if she didn’t tell that first lie, would he still be alive?

Thoughts

A lot can be said about the way in which a story is told, especially a retelling of events. Often, when we tell stories about ourselves, we subconsciously make ourselves seem better, or justified. Jane is the narrator of this story, meaning the recap of events we get is from her perspective. This allows the story to be extremely personal and unique, which I absolutely loved—it felt like sitting down with a friend and having them tell you a story. She wasn’t just telling the story, she was having a conversation with the reader. There were moments when she would directly address us to try and justify her actions. It made the story even more compelling and I found myself hanging on her every word. It forces the reader to look past the narrator and see her actions, good and bad, for what they are.

The story itself is extremely captivating. The narration style pulls you in, but the unfolding of events keeps you there. As each lie grows more intense, the reader is pulled further in until you are tearing through the pages to get to the end. While the things that take place seem impossible, they could happen to anyone; it makes us as readers contemplate the intentions behind our actions. We can often trick ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re fooling the people around us. Jane is the perfect character to remind us that even though we are the protagonist of our stories, that doesn’t make us perfect. It is often said that people will do anything for love, and Seven Lies reminds us that that includes platonic love, too.

Kay perfectly weaves suspense with heartfelt narration to create a novel that is sure to keep you on your toes. You never know what is around the corner and the end will leave you pondering this novel for days. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new book. It will be in stores June 16 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.


Book Review

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 284
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Flores family works hard to combat the poverty they face along with their fellow Hawaiians. The Big Island swarms with tourism and wealth, making it difficult for its residents to eke out a life amid high costs and few job opportunities. For Malia Flores and her husband, a miracle arrives when their youngest son, Nainoa, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters: the sharks swarm, but one of the largest takes Nainoa gently into its jaws and brings him safely back to the boat. The story spreads like wildfire across the island, especially when young Nainoa suddenly begins to show an uncanny ability to heal—a gift Malia attributes to mystical signs from the island preceding his birth.

Noa’s staus brings the family much-needed money, but, it also exacts a toll on the elder children. Dean excels at basketball, but has a penchant for trouble. Middle-child Kaui is fiercely intelligent, but nobody seems to notice. As the children become adults and the family drifts apart, Noa’s gift haunts each of them in different ways. Noa can’t content himself with the person he thinks he’s supposed to be, and his siblings blame him because their lives have been overshadowed by his gifts. When tragedy strikes, threatening to shatter the Flores family for good, the island begins to pull on each of them, leaving them to reconstruct their connection to their homeland and the magic of family bonds.

Thoughts

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Washburn’s debut novel as well as a love letter to his native homeland. Hawaii is an irrefutable paradise, but sitting in the shadows of its jungle lies a people whose deep ancestral connection to their homeland is challenged by poverty and the relentless influx of Western culture. Washburn constructs this world carefully as both a place of struggle and of deep magic, characterizing Hawaii with a great beating heart. Aside from Noa’s miracle, the land itself weaves through each character with heavy roots, showing us how our homeland shapes us as much as our experiences.

Washburn does more than take us on a journey to his home, however. The characters Noa, Kaui, and Dean pulse with the frustration of trying to find themselves within the confines of Western culture, which has taken so much from them. Each sibling battles against the ancestral land that tethers them while they stake out their own identities. It’s a novel about both growing up and going home.

Beautifully written and sparkling with life, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut and a promising start to the career of a powerful new literary voice.


Guest post courtesy of Ryan Doskocil

Book Review

The New Girl by Harriet Walker

Publisher: Ballantine Books, May 19, 2020
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 293
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4/5 stars

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Summary

As fashion editor for Haute magazine, Margot seems to have the glamorous, picture-perfect life of any girl’s dreams. Looking forward to deepening her relationship with her oldest friend Winnie through their shared experience of pregnancy, Margot prepares and looks to the future, even handpicking her maternity replacement, Maggie.

But when Winnie’s baby dies, their friendship falls apart as Winnie rejects Margot’s attempts to reach her. Margot spirals into negative cycles of neuroses as she grapples with her repressed trauma from an accident years before, her fears of her own baby’s death, paranoia that Maggie is too good of a replacement in her job, and the intense pressure from a social media harasser that seems to know a little too well how to jab her where it hurts.

Though focused primarily on Margot’s anxieties and struggles, this engaging thriller also contains scenes from Maggie and Winnie’s perspectives, as the three women’s lives become more progressively, and darkly, intertwined.

Thoughts

I picked up this book one evening intending to read for fifteen minutes before starting my homework—only realizing that I had forgotten about my homework hours later when I actually gasped out loud at the unexpected ending. Walker’s writing pulled me in immediately, and the characters felt so real I forgot I was reading until the very last pages.

Besides being totally gripping and engrossing, The New Girl also provides insightful glimpses into female insecurity, motherhood and career, and the effects of cyberbullying, among other subjects. By dusting the veneer off of an outwardly perfect life, Walker reveals the gritty reality of the anxiety of comparison and compulsion for her vivid characters.

With consistent pacing and a surprising ending, this page-turning debut would be good fit for those who like thrilling surprises, complex relationships, high fashion, and/or unreliable narrators.


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Publisher: Pantheon, 2020
Genre: Urban Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Morningside Heights tells the story of Pru Steiner, a graduate student ready to take the world by storm. Set in New York circa 1976, Pru is ambitious, daring, and proud. Her plans quickly fall by the wayside, however, when she meets her charming young Shakespeare professor, Spence Robin. Spence is everything Pru didn’t know that she was looking for: dreamy, brilliant, and charismatic. The two quickly become involved, and Pru’s life is subsequently turned upside down. Pru’s relationship with Professor Robin complicates her academic career, forcing her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about herself and her path in life. 

Thirty years later, Spence isn’t acting like his usual self. He is lethargic, is always cold, and has trouble concentrating on simple tasks. Pru is left to handle this new challenge on her own, as their daughter, Sarah, is away at medical school. In the midst of Spence and Pru’s adjustment to a new way of life from a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s is Arlo: Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage. Arlo randomly reappears in his father’s life, only now as a wealthy biotech entrepreneur and his father’s best hope for recovery. Pru, meanwhile, meets a man in the midst of her isolation and loneliness, and a potential romance begins to form. Morningside Heights is a story of love, loss, and the simutlaneous hateful and wonderful messiness that comes with being human.

Thoughts

Joshua Henkin’s works are highly lauded for their complex, dynamic characters, and Morningside Heights is no exception. Largely set in the titular neighborhood in Manhattan, this book pays homage to the varied lives of people living in New York. There are no sidekicks in this novel; every character is a completely fleshed out individual with their own thoughts, hopes, and fears. Everyone is highly unique: from Spence, who struggles with the deterioration of his once-great mind, to Ginny, his no-nonsense caretaker, every person in the story adds something special. As is the case in real life (and is often difficult to translate into fiction), no characters are created for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. The reader, as a result, feels seen through the triumphs and struggles of the characters: you will truly feel for them, to the point of being embarrassed, outraged, and devastated for them as the story unfolds.

This novel also cleverly utilizes a shifting timeline, which is at once engaging and (delightfully) disconcerting. It adds to the reader’s depth and understanding of the story to see certain events transpire, then to see their precursors in the past. The characters also find themselves at many points looking back on their lives, and wondering where their plans went awry. Morningside Heights tackles a wide variety of issues, from love (both romantic and familial), to changing expectations in the times when life takes a turn we could never have anticipated for ourselves.

Perhaps the most important thing this book has to offer is found in its versatility and the connection it creates between people of all walks of life. Suffering doesn’t discriminate; and we as humans are united in the fact that none of our lives are untouched by hardships. Morningside Heights is a book about how to react when things don’t go as planned, something we’ve all experienced for ourselves. Pru’s life is constantly in flux: from Spencer’s diagnosis to Arlo’s sporadic appearances, Pru is constantly adapting to a new way of life. The important thing to note, however, is that Pru doesn’t always handle these changes well. She makes mistakes. She gets angry. She wallows in the unfairness of life. Don’t we all? This story is powerful and resonant in that it sheds light on the fact that sometimes bad things happen, and that we aren’t supposed to handle everything perfectly. More so than this, it reminds us that beautiful, wonderful things can grow from the mistakes and hardships we endure.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange
for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Girl From Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Crime/Suspense
Pages: 321
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows Arden Maynor, now Olivia Meyer, on the 20th anniversary of the day she was found in the small town of Widow Hills. When Arden was six years old, she was sleepwalking and went missing for three days until she was found clinging to the bars of a storm drain.


After that, her life was never the same. Growing tired of the cameras in her face and the news constantly circling around her, she moved hundreds of miles away and changed her name to Oliva Meyer, hoping to start over. Which worked, for a while, until the 20th anniversary of the incident comes up, and everything Arden tried to bury comes bubbling to the surface.

Thoughts

This novel surprised me in many ways. I am a big fan of suspense/crime novels and because of that, I can be a bit critical of them. That being said, this novel delivered in every department necessary to make a good one. It had murder, mystery, a splash of romance, and a plot twist I never saw coming. Everything you think you know at the beginning of the novel is upended by the end, and I think I actually gasped at one point. The story truly whisks you away into the drama that seems to follow Arden everywhere.

Arden is a great example of an unreliable narrator, but somehow that made me trust her more. Being close to her as the reader brings the story closer—it allowed every twist and turn to be even more shocking as we found out things as they were revealed to her. The best stories are the ones that suck you in and make you a character, and this is one of those.

The only critique I have is that it starts a bit slow. The real action doesn’t occur until about a third of the way in. That being said, the characters are so interesting and mysterious that I was able to latch onto them immediately, and so, this didn’t prove to be too much of an issue.

If you’re in the market for a good suspense novel, The Girl from Widow Hills is sure to keep you on your toes. It will be in stores on June 23, 2020 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5

Summary

The Overstory is a vast novel with a dynamic cast of characters; at its core, it is the question of humanity’s compatibility with other forms of life. It is a novel that turns around the idea of man versus nature, where man is the protagonist and nature the antagonist, and makes it nature versus man, with nature as the protagonist and man as the antagonist. This is a story about trees, but it is not told from the perspective of trees, but rather those who have lived their lives alongside trees—and knowingly or not, formed a relationship with the objects that at some point they might have believed to be nearly inanimate. It explores complex crevices of our relationship to nature and shows that, like relationships between people, there is a give and a take. And also, just like relationships between people, imbalance in that give and take can be disastrous.

Thoughts

What was most striking to me about this novel was the way its form mirrors that of a tree. It starts with the seeds that would one day grow into the characters that it focuses on. Patiently, it nurtures those seeds until they pop up from beneath the soil and begin to intertwine around one another as they grow upward. As the characters form a trunk together, they continue to grow, and just as a trunk they begin to diverge from one another. Branches grow out in other directions, some fall off, but like a fallen tree in a forest, they cultivate a plethora of life, even after the life that they have known has transformed into something different. This carefully crafted novel feels groundbreaking in the way that it grows, and is breathtaking in the overall image that it is able to craft. 

On several levels this novel is epic in proportion—in its vast and dynamic cast of characters and in its actual length, but there is something else too. Reading it felt like a fantasy novel set in the modern world, particularly during the middle portion. There is a natural magic at play in this book, the whispering of trees, but also a sense of good and evil that goes beyond such a simple binary. This was another aspect of this novel that stood out as interesting to me. While I would certainly categorize it as a literary work, I think that it successfully borrows from tropes present in a lot of genre writing and manages to subvert and disguise them in a way that makes the story exciting while still feeling like a work of art.

I have always appreciated and admired trees while knowing relatively little about them. This novel changed that, not only because it is dripping with interesting facts about trees and the ecosystems they build, but because it made me curious to go out and learn more on my own. If you have ever felt even a slight connection to nature, this novel is likely to foster that connection and awaken something inside of you that you didn’t know was there. That is not to say that it stands on its stumps and pontificates about the preservation of the natural world though. Instead, it examines various relationships to trees and to nature from an empathetic viewpoint that reeled me in and kept me wanting more until the very last page.

I have nothing but praise for this novel, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think that it is a beautiful work of art that would enrich any reader’s life. With that said, I do have to make a note about how it took me over a month to finish it. When I said it was epic in proportion, I meant it. This was not an easy novel to consume, but it was well worth it.

Book Review

Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Publisher: HarperCollins 
Genre: Historical Fiction 
Pages: 429 
Format: Paperback 
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Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

Stephen P. Kiernan’s Universe of Two is a time machine back to the year 1943. The story takes place in the United States as the country is at war with the allied forces in World War II. Unlike many World War II novels, Universe of Two doesn’t follow the story of a soldier or officer fighting in the war. Instead, it focuses on the connection between two civilians who play just as significant a part in the war efforts as any man in battle.

Brenda Dubie is a spoiled nineteen-year-old girl who spends her time working at her family’s music shop and dating every soldier she can find who is home on leave. Her life changes when she meets a young mathematician named Charlie Fish who is at work doing calculations for the US government. As the pair build a romantic connection, Charlie is pulled deeper into the war efforts, eventually finding himself in New Mexico working as a vital piece of the Manhattan Project. His role in the project to create the atomic bomb riddles Charlie with guilt. Brenda, who pushes him so hard to pursue his work, shares the heavy moral burden Charlie faces when she finally realizes the consequences of his work. The pair are faced with the difficult task of trying to love each other while making up for the horrible destruction they helped to create.

Thoughts

What impressed me most about Universe of Two was the way it didn’t try to romanticize either war or love. Although it is a historical romance, the novel was utterly realistic about the moral challenges faced by its characters. The chapters alternate between Brenda’s narration and a omniscient narrator reporting on Charlie’s top-secret work. As a reader, I felt a deep frustration at how naïve Brenda was to the severity of Charlie’s situation. Kiernan was able to play with my emotions, drawing me into the story as if it were a train wreck that I could not look away from. Universe of Two is anything but the stereotypical romance novel—it is an honest look at the ways a relationship can be tested and morals overlooked in pursuit of victory. I would recommend Kiernan’s novel to anyone who relishes in the feeling of a bittersweet ending.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.