Book Review: Must-Reads and Misses from February 2023

Hey everyone!

I’m back with another Book Review for February. This month has been a pretty prolific reading month for me considering it was only 28 days, and I was able to read 11 books. Within those 28 days there have been some hits and some misses, but overall I’d count it as a really good reading month.

Please feel free to comment if you’ve read any of these books. I’d love to talk to you about them!

On to the reviews!

Historical Fiction

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Beautifully written and heartbreakingly bittersweet, I cannot recommend this book enough. I was captivated by Shearer’s storytelling from the first page. The novel is about Rachel, who is freed from slavery only to be forced into an “apprenticeship”. She flees the plantation and goes on a quest to find her children who were sold off years before. Rachel then takes a journey from Barbados to British Guiana to Trinidad in order to reunite her family. This book is gorgeous and gritty. It’s a story about family, both the family we find and the family we create. But at the heart of the story, it’s driving question is: what does it mean to be free? I loved Rachel. She’s strong and nurturing, and she will give anything for her children. I was surprised that this is Shearer’s debut novel. The writing was phenomenal and the story was tightly woven. This book is an absolute must-read.

The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I had high hopes for this book and was totally disappointed. The book is told from three perspectives: Sarah, an author looking to write a book about the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, Caroline, a society wife caught in a love triangle on board the Lusitania, and Tess, a criminal aboard the Lusitania looking to get her hands on a very important document possessed by Caroline. The authors could have gotten rid of the Sarah chapters all together. Her sections were super slow and didn’t add anything to the storyline. Honestly, every Sarah chapter felt like filler to me. They focused so much on a romance between Sarah and another character that it took away from the suspense of what she was trying to uncover about the sinking of the Lusitania. Also, her chapters were written really choppily. As for the Caroline and Tess chapters, the authors could have made one book for Tess and one book for Caroline. There was so much there to explore that ended up getting smashed together hastily in the end. Tess’s romance on the ship felt like it came out of nowhere. Plus, certain characters who were integral to the story weren’t fully developed. And why the hell did they keep talking about Margery Schuyler’s cold sore? They made so much mention of it that I thought it was going to be an important part of the story, but alas, it was not. It was simply at odd detail. The historical fiction aspect of the novel was well done, but as for the stories themselves, the book came up short. The Glass Ocean was an unfortunate miss for me.


Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I know this is one of those books that people are die hard fans of, and I must say that I did enjoy reading this book as well. For a four hundred page book, it reads super fast. However, I had some issues with the storytelling. The book is about Macy and Elliot, who were best friends as kids when Macy and her father bought a summer house next door to Elliot’s family’s house in a small woodsy town in California. But then something happens where Macy and Elliot don’t talk for 11 years, until they run into each other at a coffee shop. This is the exact same book as Every Summer After by Carley Fortune. Like, the exact same book almost scene for scene it felt like. The authors use the word growling A LOT to describe Elliot’s voice to the point where it made me cringe. Some plot points were used for convenience rather than being well-thought out, and some storylines and characters, like Macy’s fiance Sean, were discussed and then forgotten. That whole part of the book (the Macy/Sean relationship) was just strange to me. The main story between Macy and Elliot was really tightly done, but it felt like the supplementary storylines were forgotten and then picked up when the authors remembered they had other stuff going on in the book. Also, I found a good portion of the sex scenes in this book problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which doesn’t even get the time or care it deserves. (If you read this, you’ll know what I mean.) There was a lot in this book that made me roll my eyes, but overall I enjoyed reading it. I was invested in the characters and felt like the story moved at a good pace. If you like friends to lovers and second chance romance tropes, then you will love this book.


The Spite House by Johnny Compton

Rating: 3 out of 5.

* Thanks to WildwoodReads for the book recommendation from her February 2023 TBR post!

This book was super fun! It’s about Eric Ross and his daughters, Dess and Stacy, who are on the run. Looking to make money, Eric takes a job for eccentric millionairess, Eunice Houghton, who is looking to break a decades long curse that’s been put upon her family by the man who once owned the spite house and is still, supposedly, haunting its halls. Eric is tasked with awakening the ghosts of the spite house, if they even exist. I was coming off the heels of Home Before Dark, and while this is DEFINITELY a haunted house story, it was more Pet Sematary than The Shining. The book has many moments of suspense and a few scenes that gave me the chills. But where the story missed the mark was in the pacing. The novel is told between a variety of perspectives, so some information gets retold, which slows the story down considerably. Overall, if you are looking for a fun, ghost story with tons of twists, I highly recommend this one.


The Villa by Rachel Hawkins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I picked this book up on Friday night and was done with it by Saturday morning. I couldn’t put it down. The story is about Emily, who goes on a trip to Italy with her best frenemy, Chess, in the hopes of writing the next installment of her cozy mystery series. Soon after arriving, Emily becomes obsessed with the story of a murder that happened in the house in 1974. The novel is told from the duel perspectives/timelines of Emily in present day and Mari in 1974. The dust jacket says the book was inspired by Fleetwood Mac, Charles Manson, and Mary Shelley, and I could definitely see where those elements were present in the telling. Add to that the Italian villa setting, and I was in! This book definitely has it flaws though. Some characters were underdeveloped, so when we got to the main event, it felt as though everything was rushed and there wasn’t that emotional connection you feel as the reader when the author takes their time to build the characters more fully. This book also wasn’t really suspenseful like other thrillers. I thought this was going to be a haunted house book, but instead it had a twist like the twist in Verity by Colleen Hoover. It veered off into women’s fiction territory and a study of friendship rather than creepy, occult book. Overall, I really did enjoy reading this. The pacing was very quick I think in part to the mixed media interwoven throughout. Sometimes the story was told in text, podcast transcripts, and excerpts from magazine articles. I think it’s worth a read if you’re looking for something fast and entertaining.

The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This book was interesting and a fast-paced read. It’s the story of a serial killer and the medical examiner who is trying to find him. The chapters alternate between the serial killer, and Wren, the medical examiner. I found Wren to be a little insufferable in the beginning. There was lots of medical examiner speak that felt more like the author was trying to impress the reader with her knowledge of terminology rather than helping us understand the inner workings of one of her main characters. She also references a lot of serial killers, which again, felt more like the author was trying to impress the reader with her knowledge of true crime, then give us insights into the world of the novel. I found the end to be unsatisfying, and the twist in the middle was reminiscent of The Silent Patient, but not as well done. Overall, it was a quick read and interesting enough to keep my attention. (I did feel a little spooked when I turned off the lights to go to sleep.) And I believe this is the first book in the series.

Sign Here by Claudia Lux

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’ve had my eye on this book since October when it showed up as one of the Book of the Month picks. But at 400 pages, I was hesitant because…what if it sucked? Totally turned out to not be the case. I read it in a day because the minute I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. The story is about Peyote Trip, a man who works on the fifth floor of Hell in the Deals Department and is looking to get a promotion by finishing one final deal. The book alternates between Peyote’s story and the story of the family he is waiting to make a deal with, but interspersed are other equally fascinating storylines. Lux’s voice is dry, dark, and funny, and she is very good at keeping the twists twisty. There were some revelations that I knew were coming, but I have to say there were a lot that caught me by surprise, especially the end. The characters aren’t necessarily likeable; however, I found myself rooting for Peyote. I also really thought the take on “Hell” was very interesting, like how the bars only serve Jager and the most annoying things on Earth are pretty much what comprises an eternity in “Hell”. I’ve never read a book like this before, so I was really into the story. It had it’s flaws, but nothing that took me too far out of the novel. Overall, this was definitely a hit for February.


Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I am so disappointed by this book. The premise was everything I love in a novel. Historical fiction based in Mayan mythology told as a fairy tale including a Cinderella-esque character. However, the execution lost me. My mind wandered all over the place while I was reading this book, and I think that was in part to the way Moreno-Garcia wrote. The writing was very clunky. Certain parts were more fleshed out than others. The action of the story felt like we were going from one event to the next in a whiplash kind of way. I couldn’t keep my head in the text. The story is about Hun-Kame, one of the Gods of Death, who is brought back to life by Casiopea, our Cinderella of the story who is abused by her wealthy grandfather and cousin. Hun-Kame takes Casiopea on an adventure to help him find three important items and to reclaim his throne as God of Xiabalba. I’m even thinking about the ending as I write this and am like, “Really? You had to do us dirty like that with that ending?” I am still a Silvia Moreno-Garcia fan and am looking forward to reading The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. I’ll let you know how that goes. But when it comes to this novel, it was a miss for me.

Cozy Mystery

Murder at the Breakers by Alyssa Maxwell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I can’t say enough good things about the Gilded Newport Mystery series by Alyssa Maxwell. If you love the gilded age, historical fiction, Newport Rhode Island, and cozy mysteries, this series is worth a read. I have read this book at least three times already, but with Murder at the Elms being released this August, I was inspired to read through the whole series again. The first book is about Vanderbilt descendant and lifelong Newporter, Emma Cross, a journalist who works for the Newport Observer, who happens to be at the scene of a murder during her cousin, Gertrude Vanderbilt’s coming out party at The Breakers. The book follows the exploits of Emma as she tries to find the truth behind the murder in order to exonerate her half-brother, Brady. The book is just fun. Maxwell does a great job of making Newport in the 1890’s come to life. I love her descriptions of Emma’s home at Gull Manor and find the writing to be easy to follow. Emma is a compelling character, and while the “who-dun-it” might be easy to guess, the atmosphere that Maxwell creates carried me through. I love this series and can’t wait for August for the newest installment!

Murder at Marble House by Alyssa Maxwell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After reading Murder at the Breakers, I was really inspired to reread the second installment of the Gilded Newport Mystery Series, Murder at Marble House. Book 2 of the series finds our heroine, Emma Cross, having wrapped up the mystery from the previous book and onto an afternoon at Marble House where her aunt, Alva Vanderbilt asks Emma to speak to her cousin, Consuelo, about her impending nuptials to the Duke of Marlborough. When a fortune teller turns up dead in the gazebo and Consuelo goes missing, Emma must find the killer and her cousin. Just as with the first book in the series, Murder at Marble House is everything you want a cozy mystery to be. I love that Newport is as much a character in the story as the people, and Maxwell does a great job of creating a comforting sense of atmosphere. I can’t say enough about my love for the series.


Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I probably listen to this book at least once a year. I also have it in print. But what I enjoy most about this book is the discussion of creative living and how to apply it to your every day life. I know Elizabeth Gilbert is kind of a polarizing author (you either love her or hate her). I happen to like her… a lot. If you are someone who is interested in pursuing your creativity in whichever way that happens, this is a great book to motivate you, especially if you are just getting started on your journey. Plus, Gilbert reads the book herself. *Weird fact about me: I can only listen to non-fiction audiobooks that are read by the author* I don’t know why. I can’t listen to fiction books. My brain completely tunes out, but it doesn’t do that with non-fiction. Any way. I highly recommend this book for people looking to emphasize creativity in their life. She also has a Big Magic Podcast for extra inspiration.

That’s all for now folks! I’m currently reading Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan since I heard such amazing things about it. So far, I am enjoying it and have decided that along with a monthly book review, I will also do reviews of the books I finish as I finish them. Be on the look out for my first single book review next week!

Until next time, may this week be filled with all the things that bring you joy, and I hope to see you in the comments so we can discuss these reads!

Published by Robyn Neilsen

I am a writer and educator based out of New Jersey. My creative nonfiction essays and flash fiction stories have been published by Thought Catalog, Vocal Media, and On Mogul. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy honing my craft through writing workshops with LA Writers Group, Gotham Writers, and The Moth. I am currently querying my first novel and am actively working on my second.

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