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Reading Reactions: Our First Impressions of 7 Popular Books

August 17 2021
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Sometimes bestselling authors just escape our to-be-read lists, until it seems like everyone in the world has got to them except for us. We thought it’d be fun to look back at our first time finally reading certain popular authors and talk about specific moments or memories that lived up to all the hype. This is also a fun exercise for a book club! Next time your club gets together, each person can bring a sentence or scene where they first began to fall in love with the book—and then, once everyone inevitably brings a different moment to discuss, you can marvel over the mysteries of bookish love.

Dear Emmie Blue
by Lia Louis

Courtney says: From the first chapter of DEAR EMMIE BLUE, I knew this book would have a special place in my heart. While I may not have placed a note in a balloon and fallen in love with the boy who found it, Emmie’s dedication to being a good friend and putting others first, sometimes to her detriment, is instantly relatable. Throughout her entire story, I felt like I was reading about a dear friend. Lia Louis’s writing allowed me to feel Emmie's highs and lows as if they were my own, and I was cheering her on the entire way. It’s been about a year and a half since I first read Emmie’s story, and yet I still think about it often and recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good rom-com.

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Dear Emmie Blue
Lia Louis

In this charming and poignant novel that “oozes charm and wit and speaks beautifully about friendship and love, and the differences between the two” (Laura Pearson, author of I Wanted You to Know), teenager Emmie Blue releases a balloon with her email address and a big secret into the sky, only to fall head-over-heels for the boy who finds it. But fourteen years later, everything Emmie has planned is up in the air.

At sixteen, Emmie Blue stood in the fields of her school and released a red balloon into the sky. Attached was her name, her email address…and a secret she desperately wanted to be free of. Weeks later, on a beach in France, Lucas Moreau discovered the balloon and immediately emailed the attached address, sparking an intense friendship between the two teens.

Now, fourteen years later, Emmie is hiding the fact that she’s desperately in love with Lucas. She has pinned all her hopes on him and waits patiently for him to finally admit that she’s the one for him. So dedicated to her love for Lucas, Emmie has all but neglected her life outside of this relationship—she’s given up the search for her absentee father, no longer tries to build bridges with her distant mother, and lives as a lodger to an old lady she barely knows after being laid off. And when Lucas tells Emmie he has a big question to ask her, she’s convinced this is the moment he’ll reveal his feelings for her. But nothing in life ever quite goes as planned, does it?

Filled with heart and humor, Dear Emmie Blue “beautifully captures the heartache and frustrations of carrying our teenaged selves with us wherever we go” (Anstey Harris, author of Goodbye Paris) that is perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Evvie Drake Starts Over.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Sharon says: Upon starting SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward, I immediately thought, “Wow, this book reads like an instant classic novel!” and found myself captivated by Ward’s transportive descriptions of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, as well as how she crafts her utterly believable characters. Alternating perspectives between thirteen-year-old Jojo, who is trying to learn how to become a man, and his mother, Leonie, who is struggling with a drug addiction, SING, UNBURIED, SING takes us on a journey with Jojo; Leonie; Jojo’s younger sister, Kayla; and Leonie’s friend, Misty, who set off to collect Leonie’s husband from prison. Heartfelt and lyrical, SING, UNBURIED, SING follows Jojo and Leonie’s growth while also showcasing their struggles with ghosts—literal and figurative—from their pasts.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.

Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

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Family Upstairs
by Lisa Jewell

Nicole says: Over the last several years, I’ve prioritized the works of marginalized authors whenever I chose what book to read next. It’s meant that with a focus on BIPOC and disabled authors, I’ve unfortunately let Lisa Jewell’s work slip through the cracks. But as soon as this challenge to read a popular author for the first time came up, I knew it would be the perfect excuse to dive into her long list  . . . and wow! am I glad I did. I chose THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS—based on reviews from friends plus the fact that there seemed to be a cult-ish element to it, which I could not pass up (stay sexy and don’t get murdered, friends). The story is told through the lenses of three families whose lives are intertwined in mysterious ways. We meet Libby, a twenty-five-year-old woman who has inherited a massive house from the birth family she never knew. What she also doesn’t know is the family has also been waiting to meet her. Twenty-five years ago, a baby was found by police in that very home, along with the dead bodies of three adults, and no sign of the other children who lived there. I was immediately sucked into the mystery and soon needed to know how everyone was connected. Jewell had me on the edge of my seat until the very end. And as someone who consumes a LOT of media, it’s not easy for me to be surprised, but I had several “What?!” moments while reading. THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS has stuck with me, even a week after finishing, and I can’t wait to decide which Lisa Jewell masterpiece to pick up next.

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Family Upstairs
Lisa Jewell

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA COVER TO COVER BOOK CLUB PICK

“Rich, dark, and intricately twisted, this enthralling whodunit mixes family saga with domestic noir to brilliantly chilling effect.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author

“A haunting, atmospheric, stay-up-way-too-late read.” —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author

From the New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone comes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

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It Ends with Us
by Colleen Hoover

Allie says: I have become obsessed with TikTok recently, and I particularly love the BookTok algorithm. I’ve found so many great recommendations there. So, when Colleen Hoover continually came up in videos, I decided that I had to dig in! I chose to read IT ENDS WITH US as my first novel of hers, and now I can officially say that I understand the hype. IT ENDS WITH US follows Lily, who has recently opened a flower shop in Boston. She meets Ryle, a handsome and assertive neurosurgeon who is entirely averse to relationships. But as fate would have it, the two find themselves falling deeply into their feelings for one another. Everything is going perfectly––or seems to be going perfectly––until Atlas, a man from Lily’s past, reappears. Suddenly everything Lily has built in Boston is threatened. Without giving too much away, I discovered that this book was nothing like I had expected. It was heartbreaking and emotional (and yes, at times a bit sexy). This won’t be my last novel from Colleen Hoover, that’s for sure. 

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It Ends with Us
Colleen Hoover

In this “brave and heartbreaking novel that digs its claws into you and doesn’t let go, long after you’ve finished it” (Anna Todd, New York Times bestselling author) from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of All Your Perfects, a workaholic with a too-good-to-be-true romance can’t stop thinking about her first love.

Lily hasn’t always had it easy, but that’s never stopped her from working hard for the life she wants. She’s come a long way from the small town where she grew up—she graduated from college, moved to Boston, and started her own business. And when she feels a spark with a gorgeous neurosurgeon named Ryle Kincaid, everything in Lily’s life seems too good to be true.

Ryle is assertive, stubborn, maybe even a little arrogant. He’s also sensitive, brilliant, and has a total soft spot for Lily. And the way he looks in scrubs certainly doesn’t hurt. Lily can’t get him out of her head. But Ryle’s complete aversion to relationships is disturbing. Even as Lily finds herself becoming the exception to his “no dating” rule, she can’t help but wonder what made him that way in the first place.

As questions about her new relationship overwhelm her, so do thoughts of Atlas Corrigan—her first love and a link to the past she left behind. He was her kindred spirit, her protector. When Atlas suddenly reappears, everything Lily has built with Ryle is threatened.

An honest, evocative, and tender novel, It Ends with Us is “a glorious and touching read, a forever keeper. The kind of book that gets handed down” (USA TODAY).

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MENTIONED IN:

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11/22/63
by Stephen King

Jordyn says: Stephen King has such a huge list of books that I was initially daunted trying to figure out where to start! Eventually I settled on 11/22/63 because I’m already a fan of time travel stories and historical fiction. I was blown away by how much detail and depth he packs into this book. I don’t know if he has a lore-keeper or an Excel grid or just stores it all in his head, but there is so much depth to all his stories, and even the smallest things matter. Realizing that a miniscule detail has come back as a major plot point is so thrilling. 

As with any historical fiction I learned more about a part of history I hadn’t known before, but the time travel really added to the intensity of the story. I realized later that I had missed some fun King easter eggs (mentions of a town called Derry!), but even without knowing why Derry was significant the book is a standalone; I wasn’t missing anything by not having read his previous books. And this one in particular really eased me into some of the more unusual settings and plot twists that Stephen King is known for. It still blew my mind when I got there eventually, but I now know that his books range from contemporary to fantasy to horror to downright otherworldly, and I’m excited to read more across the breadth of those famous settings and genres!

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11/22/63
Stephen King

One of the Ten Best Books of The New York Times Book Review
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Now a miniseries from Hulu starring James Franco

ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963, THREE SHOTS RANG OUT IN DALLAS, PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED, AND THE WORLD CHANGED. WHAT IF YOU COULD CHANGE IT BACK?

In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.

It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.

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Iron Lake
by William Kent Krueger

Molly says: At the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ll admit that the first time I heard of the author William Kent Krueger was when his book THIS TENDER LAND was published. It was a New York Times bestseller and received nothing but effusive praise, but somehow, I never got around to reading it. Little did I know that William Kent Krueger has an extensive backlist, including the seventeen-book (and counting) Cork O’Connor mystery series. The eighteenth book in the series, LIGHTNING STRIKE, publishes this August 24, so I decided to start at the very beginning with IRON LAKE. Ousted from his position as sheriff of his hometown of Aurora, Minnesota, and dealing with the breakdown of his marriage, Cork O’Connor is at a low point. While trying to piece together what’s left of his life, Cork is unexpectedly caught in the center of a town mystery: a missing Eagle Scout, a murdered judge, and a web of lies and corruption that hit a little too close to home. IRON LAKE reminded me why I enjoy reading thrillers so much—it was suspenseful and well-paced, and Krueger did an incredible job developing an intricate cast of characters. The book also gave me a glimpse into the Anishinaabe Indian community, of which I was previously unfamiliar. It can be intimidating to start such a lengthy series, but I’m glad I did—plus, now I have seventeen+ books to tear through!

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Iron Lake
William Kent Krueger

The first in the New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor mystery series follows Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor as he delves into the dark side of small-town Minnesota while investigating a tangled web of corruption and danger. “A brilliant achievement, and one every crime reader and writer needs to celebrate” (Louise Penny, #1 New York Times bestselling author).

Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota, is having difficulty dealing with the marital meltdown that has separated him from his children. Part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, he is getting by on heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, and guilt.

Once a cop on Chicago’s South Side, there’s not much that can shock him. But when the town’s judge is brutally murdered, and a young Eagle Scout is reported missing, Cork takes on this complicated and perplexing case of conspiracy, corruption, and a small-town secret that hits painfully close to home.

With white-knuckled suspense and unforgettable characters, Iron Lake demonstrates why “among thoughtful readers, William Kent Krueger holds a very special place in the pantheon” (C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author).

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Emily says: I typically don’t like to read outside because I get easily distracted, but during the pandemic I needed to get out and especially in the park. I brought THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO with me on one of my first ventures outdoors, and ever since then Taylor Jenkins Reid has been my go-to for immersive reading. Filled with intriguing characters, digestible plots, and enough drama to keep me free from distractions, her books are now some of my favorites. I distinctly remember the delightful experience of being wholly absorbed by THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVEVLYN HUGO. Once the plot started to come together for me, I was all in. I loved following Evelyn’s rise through the ranks of Hollywood, as she recounts it to beginning magazine reporter Monique Grant. Alternating story lines reveal Evelyn’s past, and follow Monique’s present, all the while raising questions about why Evelyn had chosen to tell her life story to a stranger and to reveal her secrets after being so long in the public eye. That mystery tugged me in gently at first, but then I found myself completely reeled in by the characters; they felt so present, like I wasn’t alone at all, even in the middle of social distancing.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid

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