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Interview with Helen Hoang & Review of THE BRIDE TEST

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, the perfect time for me to run this interview with author Helen Hoang, who is half Vietnamese.

Her debut, The Kiss Quotient, was a breakout hit in 2018 and acquired by Pilgrim Media Group for a movie adaptation. Kiss features a brilliant female lead with autism—which Hoang also has—and a sexy half-Vietnamese man as the love interest.

Read on for my review of Hoang’s follow-up, The Bride Test, and my chat with her. (Both originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers and are republished here with permission.)

Review: The Bride Test

Khai Diep is certain he has a stone heart, one that can’t feel love or sadness. During his cousin Andy’s funeral, Khai remains dry-eyed. It doesn’t bother him too much, though. Isn’t it a good thing grief can’t touch him? Who wants to wail like his aunties? Besides, he likes being alone with his routines, not dealing with messy emotions.

But his mother has other ideas. She knows Khai processes emotions and social cues differently because he has autism. She goes to Vietnam to choose him a bride and meets My, a feisty young single mother who cleans hotel bathrooms. Khai’s mother gives My a startling offer: she’ll pay for My to spend the summer with Khai in California and get him to marry her. Other than the possibility of a better life for her and her young daughter, My has another reason for accepting the offer: she wants to find her American father, whom she’s never known.

My renames herself Esmeralda, and her plan to win over Khai leads to unexpected discoveries about herself and what she wants from life.

Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test is even more affecting than her breakout hit, The Kiss Quotient. With heart and humor, she humanizes people who are routinely marginalized, and Esme especially is someone to root for–a woman born into poverty who knows her value even when the world looks down on her. By the time Hoang says in the author’s note that Esme is based on the author’s own mother, a war refugee who became a successful businesswoman, readers might find their eyes aren’t dry at all.

Buy it now

Helen Hoang: Writing from the Heart

Photo: Eric Kieu

Helen Hoang lives in San Diego, Calif., with her husband and two children. In her author’s note in The Bride Test, Hoang mentions that her heroine is inspired by Hoang’s mother, a former Vietnamese refugee and successful businesswoman who passed away recently.

Did your mother read The Bride Test? How would she feel about Co Nga arranging a mail-order bride for her son?

No, my mom never read the book. But my aunt tried to arrange a wife for my cousin in much the same manner [as in the book], and my mom was aware of that. She didn’t seem to think the idea was that outrageous, though she was never very meddling with my siblings and me.

Why does Co Nga choose a woman from Vietnam, instead of from the local Vietnamese American community?

When my aunt tried to arrange a marriage for my cousin, she spoke to women in Vietnam because the Vietnamese American women she knew were either uninterested in her son or not up to her standards in terms of Vietnamese traditions and values.

What were some of those standards? And what was the result of her matchmaking attempt?

My aunt was unsuccessful. Her son refused to meet any of the girls she liked from Vietnam and eventually married a Filipino American woman. I believe my aunt wanted him to marry a woman who spoke Vietnamese and would be a homemaker, practice Buddhism, give her grandbabies and take care of her in her old age.

Your author’s note says you interviewed your mother for this book, about her experiences growing up poor and as a refugee. What was the biggest revelation for you during these discussions?

Growing up, I often thought my mom worked not only by necessity, but by preference. In other words, she was a workaholic, and sometimes I was resentful of this when I was a kid. Through these conversations with my mom, I came to understand why she was compelled to work so much and I could better empathize with her. Not only was she providing for her family and achieving financial security, but she was earning her own sense of worth. That was a heartbreaking realization for me–that her sense of self-worth was dependent on how much money she made.

How has writing about people with autism helped you in your daily life?

Writing these books has helped me process and understand my own autism so I can better communicate my needs with the people in my life and advocate for myself. For example, as I wrote The Bride Test, I finally understood why I bring books to wedding receptions. These events are truly overwhelming to me and because I’m physically trapped there, I read in an attempt to escape into myself. Now, instead of bringing a book to a wedding, I can leave early and it’s okay. People don’t get angry.

Your voice, and those of your protagonists, are specific and distinctive. What have readers told you they’ve learned the most from your characters and stories?

From what I’ve heard, it is eye-opening to read from the perspective of an autistic and/or Asian/Asian American character.

Regarding the autistic perspective, readers have appreciated learning about the specific challenges facing autistic people, but they’ve also remarked that they were happy to see that people of different neurotypes still have the same basic emotional needs and insecurities as most everyone else.

Khai’s brother, Quan, has made memorable appearances in The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, and steps onto center stage in your next book. Anything juicy you can tell us about it?

I’ve been conceptualizing Quan’s book as a gender-swapped Sabrina, where instead of the chauffeur’s daughter and the two rich brothers, we have the chef’s son and the two rich sisters.

You write about people who rarely get to be the center of Westernized stories. The couple in The Kiss Quotient include a half-Vietnamese man (who’s hot, not nerdy!), while both leads in The Bride Test are of Vietnamese descent, though one is half Vietnamese. Any plans for a story with both leads being 100% Vietnamese?

For Quan’s book, his love interest is Chinese American, and my next contracted books after this feature Michael’s sisters from The Kiss Quotient, who are all half Vietnamese. I don’t have specific plans to write a story with both leads being 100% Vietnamese, but I’m certainly not ruling it out.

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Must-Binge TV: FLEABAG Season 2

I’ve been off wandering the countryside and mostly staying off the internet, but I had to resurface when I realized Fleabag season 2 drops Friday on Amazon Prime.

So I’m sticking my head out of my cave to holler, “DROP EVERYTHING AND WATCH FLEABAG NOWWWW!”

I don’t have appropriate words to describe the brilliance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I have a full-on crush on her brain and its creations. You might know her work from Killing Eve‘s season one, but before that came Fleabag‘s award-winning season 1. Watch that if you haven’t already, and then dive into s2.

This season sees Andrew Scott (Moriarty on Sherlock) guest starring as a hot priest (Fleabag’s term for him) hired to officiate the wedding of Fleabag’s dad and stepmom-to-be, played with passive-aggressive perfection by newly minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman.

Fleabag and the priest, who’s not above throwing around F-bombs, do an unpredictable dance of sexual tension, religious and philosophical exploration, and soul revelation, all terrifying to Fleabag. She’s also carrying a big secret for her prickly sister, Claire, a feat made difficult by Claire’s dickish husband constantly harassing Fleabag.

Like s1, this season is hilarious and poignant and thought-provoking and ohsogood. Also like s1, Waller-Bridge claims this is the end. It’s smart of her to quit on a high, but I can’t help but hope we’ll see Fleabag again.


Reading Roundup: First Quarter 2019

I don’t have hard goals for the number of books I want to read each year, because it’s more important to enjoy what I read than to plow through books to reach a certain number.

But I do like to check occasionally to see how many I’ve read so far, and it’s fun to stack books in a pile and take pictures of them. (I recently started a books-focused Instagram account if you’re interested.)

The above snapshot shows 15 books I read between Jan. 1 and March 31, minus library books and the manuscripts I edited. Titles are listed below, some with links to reviews, others with reviews coming.

My favorites

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (I also listened to the audiobook, which has a full cast)

Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence Is Death

The rest 

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Save Me from Dangerous Men by S. A. Lelchuk

The Secretary by Renee Knight

Call Me Evie by J. P. Pomare

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke

Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong

More Than Words by Jill Santopolo

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

If She Wakes by Michael Koryta

Everything Is Just Fine by Brett Paesel

Some stats about the 15

Debut novels: 6

Books read entirely for pleasure, not work: 6

Authors new to me: 6

Female authors: 12

Author of color: 1

International authors: 6 (British 4, Australian 1, Canadian 1)

Imprints: 12

Hmm. Apparently I like doing things in even numbers and multiples of 6. I won’t do a hard analysis—what am I, a scientist?—but it’s good to see the number of female authors is high, that I’m open to authors I’ve never heard of, and don’t limit myself to American writers. Not patting myself on the back, though. I want to read more by writers of color.

What does your reading roundup look like for 2019 so far ?


Book Review: SAVE ME FROM DANGEROUS MEN by S. A. Lelchuk

A woman in tight jeans walks into a bar and gains the attention of every man in the joint when she crushes her opponent in games of pool for cash.

Afterward, one admirer invites her to his place nearby. The woman goes. And proceeds to teach the man a lesson he won’t forget: never lay a hand on his girlfriend again or he’ll be signing his own death warrant.

Meet Nikki Griffin, a motorcycle-riding, pugilistic guardian angel for abused women and star of S.A. Lelchuk’s debut thriller, Save Me from Dangerous Men.

By trade Nikki is a PI, hired by a tech CEO to follow an employee he suspects of stealing company secrets. Nikki discovers the case is much bigger–as in global–than what she’s been told, and if she doesn’t stop certain dangerous men, people will die, including her.

Nikki is not only a badass but a book nerd–an irresistible combination. She owns a bookstore called the Brimstone Magpie (a Dickens reference) and can quote Kierkegaard as fast as she can make a violent thug cry uncle. She’s part Lisbeth Salander, part Jack Reacher, part MacGyver.

Before readers start thinking she’s an unrealistic fantasy figure (Lelchuk is male), Nikki points out she intentionally plays into men’s images of an ideal woman in order to lure them to her. And she’s far from perfect: she had a tragic childhood and fears she lacks impulse control. Plus, she misses a couple of conspicuous clues until late in the game. But Nikki is a fiery, magnetic character, and thriller fans will race through this book faster than Nikki on her motorcycle.

Buy it now

This review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. As an Amazon affiliate, PCN might receive a small commission if a purchase is made via the link.


Book Review: CALL ME EVIE by J. P. Pomare

From the title of J.P. Pomare’s first novel, Call Me Evie, readers can guess Evie isn’t the real name of the 17-year-old protagonist. But Pomare makes it hard to ascertain exactly what’s going on with her, with her loss of memory and limited view of the world.

She’s involved in something traumatic that happened recently in her hometown of Melbourne, but she can’t remember it. A man she calls her uncle Jim has taken her to New Zealand and mostly locked her up in a house, away from the Internet and neighbors’ prying eyes, in a supposed attempt to help her recall details of the night in question.

He forces her to take pills and says she can’t go back to Australia until she remembers; she needs control of the facts when police question her. The situation gains urgency when the incident back home is labeled a murder, and Evie’s fragmented memories make her question everything Jim says and where the threat is actually coming from.

Pomare grabs readers by the throat the way Jim grabs Evie by the hair in the opening scene, when she tries to escape the house. Everything Jim does he claims is to protect her, and sometimes he seems genuine about that. The author maintains this sense of uncertainty and dread throughout, as Evie–along with the reader–puts together the pieces of her memory. Because she trusts no one, everyone is suspect, including herself. The resolution may not be entirely surprising, but it’s a satisfying one.

Buy it now

This review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. As an Amazon affiliate, PCN might receive a small commission if a purchase is made via the link.


In Conversation with Author S. C. Perkins

Today might look like a regular Tuesday, or the day I see my accountant to do taxes, but for a friend, S. C. Perkins, it’s a very special day. Her debut mystery, Murder Once Removed, is published today!

Murder won the 2017 Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition, and is set in Austin, Texas. It follows a genealogist named Lucy who loves tracking down tacos and her clients’ ancestors. When a coworker is murdered, she realizes poking into long-buried family secrets is more dangerous than she expected.

A fifth-generation Texan who loves tacos herself, Perkins agreed to be grilled (heh) by me and our mutual friend Lauren of Malcolm Avenue Review.

The dedication in Murder Once Removed is broken, because bourbon is not mentioned ANYWHERE. I mean, Mom and Dad can get you only so far. What were your beverages of choice while writing?

So, there are the “whilst writing” beverages and the “post-writing” beverages, and then there’s your “this scene is not going as I planned and I’m about to scream and throw my computer at the wall” beverages. My writing go-to is tea—-hot or iced, but almost always black and unsweetened. Then after writing, I love me a glass of wine or a cocktail, with some of my favorites being an Old Fashioned, bourbon and Sprite, or a Cape Cod.

And for those moments when screaming is imminent, it’s a shot of Wild Turkey, baby. All the way.

We should’ve asked if you had a “I have to answer inane interview questions” drink. As an old-timey Texan, you must have plenty of fascinating family lore. Was there one particular story that made you want to dig deeper, into your family or genealogy in general? (Bonus points if it includes chaps.)

A bit o’ history here: Besides the formidable native Texans, naturally there are six nations that have claimed Texas as their own. One was Spain, which technically called dibs on a part of modern-day Texas in 1519, but treated it like the semi-useless slivers at the bottom of a glorious bag of tortilla chips until the 1700s, when they thought France was going to take it.

Then they got all, “It’s ours and you can’t have it, you silly French snail-eaters!” and began giving out land grants, or porciónes, to loyal Spanish subjects to govern and cultivate. One of them was my ancestor, José Matias Longoria Chapa. His porción is in modern-day Starr County, in South Texas. I’d love to dig deeper into that particular link to Texas history!

Since I do indeed own chaps, I would even be willing to wear them in honor of my findings. Or when I go riding, one or the other.

Annie Hewitt Photography

That is a very intriguing bit of family lore. Share three more details from your family history—two truths and one lie but don’t tell us which is which. 

  1. My great-great grandfather on my dad’s side was the pitcher of very first organized Latin-American baseball team in history. They won, too.
  2. My maternal great-grandfather was an obstetrician in Corpus Christi, Texas, and delivered close to 16,000 babies in his career, which amounted to around one-quarter the population of the time.
  3. I descend from Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, the Plantagenets, Pocahontas, the Hatfields, and the McCoys.

Hmm. They all sound truthful so let’s move on. If you had to be related to Lauren or Elyse, what story would you tell Elyse about the tree of Perkins weirdos to make her feel better that you chose me?

Are you sure Elyse and I aren’t already related? I haven’t checked the entire family tree but we’re both really short, the Force is strong within us, and we have the same taste in snacks and men.

My apologies to Mr. PCN, but I’m talking about Harrison Ford here. Rowr! As for snacks, the answer is just yes. HF might also qualify as a snack. (FOR THE EYES, Lo, for the eyes. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

But when it comes to gutter talk, love of dogs, and penchant for bourbon, you’re my cousin all the way, Lauren. There were no doubt some hooligans in my mom’s side of the family way back in England. It’s highly possible one of them was shipped off to Australia and we just haven’t found proof yet. I do get my love of bourbon from my maternal grandfather, so the possibility of a Lolo-Steph ancestral link could be a high one.

Now, what was the question? I’ve got the idea of Harrison Ford as a snack now firmly lodged in my mind…

We’re gonna need a moment to process that image. [Insert 7-minute intermission.] OK, we’re back. Which famous historical figures do you wish you were related to?

 I’m limiting this to three, because otherwise I’d never stop listing historical women and men I find fascinating and y’all would have send a SWAT team to Texas to take my keyboard away.

  1. Jane Austen. Holy cow, this woman could write! And she created Mr. Darcy, who, one could argue, is the Han Solo of the Georgian/Regency eras. He’s a snack for the mind.
  2. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who headed the OSS during World War II. This might explain my fascination with anything spy related.
  3. Hedy Lamarr. She was smart as all get out, an inventor (hello, WiFi!), and an actress who killed it on the screen. Her style and beauty for days are fabulous extras, too. Total inspiration.

Is this interview over yet?

If a vegan showed up at a party thrown by Lucy, would there be vegetarian tacos, or would said vegan be forced to spend the evening out in the back forty tied to the mechanical bull? 

Y’all need to come to Austin. It loves its vegetarians and vegans almost as much as California does, no kidding.

I’m a huge fan of veggie fajitas myself, especially with warm, clarified butter and homemade flour tortillas, and I’d willingly share a big, sizzling cast-iron skillet full of them with you. Sure, I might have to sneak in a beef taco al carbon on the side, but I’d just point wildly out the window, say something like, “Hey, look it’s a jackalope!” and shovel said beef taco in my mouth while you’re falling for my ruse. Plus, guacamole and queso are both vegetarian, and the guac is vegan. High five!

No need for fake jackalope sightings. Feel free to scarf all the tacos. Now for the most important question: how much booze and cake will be involved in your pub day celebration?

There will be lots of wine and cookies at my launch party, and as much eating and booze as I can get my hands on at all other points surrounding my pub date. And I will send a toast y’all’s way! Cheers to my wonderful, bookish, geeky, bourbon-and-Star-Wars-loving gang! Y’all are the best and I absolutely loved doing this interview! xoxo

Thank you, and happy pub day! 

Buy Murder Once Removed at Amazon | Buy at IndieBound

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March 2019 Reading Roundup

March is supposed to usher in spring, but you couldn’t tell from the L.A. weather. This week we’ve had rainstorms complete with thunder and lightning, which gave me good reason to hole up for days, eat lots of pho, and read. I walked around wearing a blanket like a sweater, and didn’t talk to anyone besides Mr. PCN and the UPS man who brought all the books.

Below are the March titles I’ve read and hope to read this month.


Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six has been featured everywhere, but it deserves all the attention.

In my review for Shelf Awareness, I wrote that this oral history of a fictional ’70s rock band and its mysterious breakup “is more than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, though there’s plenty of that. It cracks open the creative process and shows how much it costs sometimes to make art that resonates.” I also mentioned that the characters are “inspiring and tough and messy and heartbreaking. Rock stars—they’re just like us.”

You don’t have to love rock ‘n’ roll or to have been alive during the ’70s to devour this book. You just have to love vivid, incisive writing. I liked it so much I can’t wait for the audiobook version, which has a full cast, featuring Jennifer Beals as Daisy and Benjamin Bratt as Billy, lead singer of The Six.

Find out more/buy it now

The other outstanding March title is Samantha Downing’s My Lovely Wife. The husband and wife in this domestic thriller use murder to spice up their sex life. It’s SO messed up, but Downing held me hostage for the one day it took me to rip through this book. In my Shelf Awareness Maximum Shelf review, I wrote, “Millicent is not a character readers will soon forget. She is refreshingly unapologetic; there’s no sad backstory to explain or mitigate her behavior. Millicent isn’t conflicted about her actions; she revels in them.”

Find out more/buy it now


I went blind into Christi Daugherty’s A Beautiful Corpse, as I do with most books, and was delighted to find it takes place in Savannah, GA, which I visited for the first time only two months ago. I was all, “Yay! I walked through that area where the dead body is!” Plus, the protag is a news reporter, like me in my former life. I’m not far into the story yet but hope to finish it soon. Even while I’m not reading it, I like staring at that beautiful cover.

Find out more/buy it now

Like Daugherty, Candice Fox is a new-to-me author, and she’s based in Australia, where Redemption Point is set. Not sure what this is about (see above re: going in blind), but it’s book 2 in the Crimson Lake series, and book 1 received strong reviews. Australia is another place I got to visit not too long ago, and I always get an extra kick from reading books with familiar locations.

Find out more/buy it now

The book on the left is Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, and it’s on my nightstand because I like waking up to blue skies. Professor Chandra is a cantankerous man, and books about grumpy folks looking for their happy place are practically about me. I want to dive into that serene cover and follow the story wherever it leads.

Find out more/buy it now

I’ve been meaning to read Elly Griffiths for years, and The Stranger Diaries looks like a great place to start. This standalone is a book about literature, y’all, and I’m a sucker for those. Apparently it also has a haunted house and mysterious diary entries so what’s not to like?

The pitch email for T. J. Martinson’s The Reign of the Kingfisher mentioned superheroes and journalists and comics and suspense and Emily St. John Mandel calling it stunning so I was like, “YES, PLEASE.” I’d be excited for just one or two of those elements, but all together in one place? Can’t wait to dig in.

Find out more/buy it now

Which March books are you excited about? What are you reading?

PCN is an Amazon affiliate and could earn a small commission if a purchase is made via the links.


February 2019 Reading Roundup

Happy Friday! February is a short month but I’ve somehow read loads of Feb books already. Here’s a quick roundup, with a January book tossed in.

The Favorite

The Lost Man by Jane Harper. Her prologue about a lone headstone in the middle of Australia’s Queensland outback is breathtaking, making you think she’s telling you about one thing until you realize oh no, it’s something much more tragic.

Nathan, a rancher, investigates his younger brother Cam’s death, and no one can understand why Cam died of exposure while his fully stocked vehicle is 9 kilometers away. Harper’s style is hypnotic and haunting, and she makes the terrain both brutal and beautiful. This is a standalone so you don’t need to have read her previous books, The Dry and Force of Nature, but I’m betting you’ll want to after reading Lost Man.

Buy it now

The Rest

The Secretary by Renée Knight. This is totally different from her debut, Disclaimer, but also disturbing. A woman is consumed by her job as secretary to the charismatic head of a supermarket chain. It makes her sacrifice everything, including her moral center, when the CEO is investigated for nefarious business practices. There’s almost no line the titular character wouldn’t cross for her boss, who is insidiously manipulating. I was flipping pages, wondering when and if the poor secretary—she’s proud of that job title—would ever leave and find another job.

Buy it now

Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong. A man arrives in off-the-grid Rockton, a town in the Yukon where people go to hide from something or someone, and claims here’s there to claim a violent offender. Casey and Dalton, Rockton’s detective and sheriff, find the interloper suspicious—and then very bad things happen. Casey and Dalton must manage the chaos, while Casey is also handling her antagonistic sister, April, a doctor recently brought there to treat a wounded resident.

Watcher includes too much expository dialogue and overexplaining in the narrative, perhaps because this is fourth in the series and Armstrong was making sure new readers don’t get lost. But the pacing is still fast, the mystery complex, and it’s good to get a deeper understanding of Casey’s relationship with her sister. Armstrong also rallies for diversity and inclusion, ridiculing people who claim “it’s a tough time to be a white guy.”

Buy it now

More Than Words by Jill Santopolo

A woman struggles with grief after her father’s death, while torn between her childhood friend/current boyfriend and feelings for her charismatic boss. Santopolo’s The Light We Lost was wonderful and poignant, but Words lacks subtlety and the tone is inconsistent. One man is perfect while the other is not, so it’s clear whom she’d choose. And though it’s mostly about a woman overcoming emotional hurdles to find her identity, there are a couple of shockingly graphic sex scenes that seem to belong in an erotica novel instead.

Buy it now

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

A bunch of college friends get together for their annual New Year’s party, this time at an isolated Scottish estate. One of them dies, so the murderer is among them. Cue suspense music.

The story alternates between different POVs of the friends, and I wish I cared about any of them. They’re narcissistic nutters who do mean or dumb things. The two employees at the estate are sympathetic but the revelations aren’t surprising and let’s just say thank you, next.

Buy it now

The Suspect by Fiona Barton

Kate, a reporter who’s appeared in all of Barton’s books, is tracking a story about missing teenage backpackers in Thailand when she discovers she has a very personal connection to it, which forces her to become part of the story.

It’s interesting to see Kate squirm on the receiving end of the media’s spotlight. She gains greater empathy for people being hounded by the press, while understanding her colleagues are simply doing their jobs when they seek her out. The big revelation is fairly obvious from early on, but Barton’s tight pacing and insight into human nature make this a fast and satisfying read.

Buy it now

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

I reviewed this for Shelf Awareness, and interviewed the author in the same issue.

What I’m Reading Now

I don’t know what’s going on in this book yet, but the things happening to Kimber, the lead character, are making me so angry I wanna punch a wall.

Buy it now

What are you reading?

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Book Review: FREEFALL by Jessica Barry

A woman opens her eyes at the start of Jessica Barry’s Freefall and realizes she’s just survived a plane crash in the Rockies. One might expect her to immediately find a way to signal or call for help, but the woman, Allison, doesn’t do that.

She smashes her phone.

It soon becomes clear she’s being pursued by someone with deadly intentions, and the last thing she wants is to be tracked or found. Though injured and lacking food and supplies, Allison sets out to get off the mountain and save herself.

Back in Maine, Allison’s mother, Maggie, has received the worst news of her life. Her daughter was on a plane that crashed, and while Allison’s body hasn’t been recovered, no one could’ve survived. The pilot is dead, and the press is reporting that Allison is, too.

But Maggie hangs on to hope that Allison is alive, and after she digs more into the crash and the reason Allison was on the plane, Maggie believes her hunch is correct. So why hasn’t Allison contacted her–or anyone–to say she survived?

As Freefall alternates between the two women’s points of view and the past and present, it combines Allison’s suspenseful fight for survival with a mother’s faith in her daughter, something that refuses to be extinguished even when situations turn dire.

Pacing is fast, and Allison is resourceful without turning into a superhero. Freefall stumbles in the climactic scene when Maggie makes a head-scratching, illogical choice, but it’s one quibble in an otherwise riveting thriller.

Buy it now

A version of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. It’s republished here with permission.

PCN is an Amazon affiliate and could earn a small commission if a purchase is made via the link.


Book Review: WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell

This book was one of my favorites of 2018! It squeaked in as a late-December entry. This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

“Dear diary, I think I’m in love with my English teacher.”

With that opener, Lisa Jewell signals that Watching You will be unsettling, and when the prologue follows with a dead body in a pool of blood, this feeling is confirmed. The identity of the body is not revealed right away, as Jewell goes back three months to introduce all the characters in this twisty psychological drama.

Joey is a young newlywed who has just moved with her husband, Alfie, into her brother’s house in Melville Heights, a ritzy section in Bristol, England. Jack insists both he and his wife, Rebecca, love having Joey and Alfie there. Joey isn’t so sure, since Rebecca seems to avoid her.

Joey develops an instant case of lust for a neighbor, Tom, headmaster at the local school. He’s married and has a teenage son, Freddie, who sits in the upstairs bedroom window and photographs his neighbors and people in the street.

At Tom’s school is a student named Jenna who suspects she’s crossed paths with him somewhere else, years before he came to run her school. But where? And does her best friend, Bess, have a crush on him?

Watching You can be applied to all these people, who are all obsessed with someone. Jewell excels in creating complex characters, building tension and keeping readers in the dark yet riveted until the “Aha!” moments. Some situations don’t end well, but this thriller unfolds and concludes in a very satisfying way.

Buy it now

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A New Look and Some Old Faves

Sometime last month, I realized PCN had just had its 10th anniversary. It should’ve been a landmark, but I was buried in work and life and the date passed with a shrug.

I wasn’t sure about keeping the site going. It requires money and lots of time, and was anyone still reading it? I don’t track stats or traffic. Maybe my entire readership is one dude in prison. (And Kristopher at BOLO Books, who gave me a kind and completely unexpected shout-out in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.)

But then I remembered when I’d started PCN, I’d done it for me. I’d barely known what a blog was, much less how to get anyone to read it. I just wanted to write, and mostly amused only myself. What’s wrong with being the lone tree in the forest? I wasn’t falling; I was dancing, often without pants. Eventually, some very cool people came along and joined in. They became my friends.

So I decided to give the site a makeover, once again make it a place where I want to hang out. I forgot, however, that 10 years ago when I installed the original template, I’d cried, not having a clue about CSS code or HTML or any of that mumbo jumbo.

This time around didn’t go much better, as I found myself in the fetal position, unwashed, muttering to myself for days. It was like trying to build a spaceship with a plastic spoon, using only my feet. Why wouldn’t all the clicky thingies work??? Luckily, after much blind tinkering and tech support, I managed to make the site work.

And I like it. It’s not final yet—not sure what to do for the header—but it’s pleasing enough for me to want to fill its pages again. I hope you like it, too.

If you’re still here after 10 years, I thank you heartfully (a real word in my mind). If you’re back after being away, it’s nice to see you again and your hair looks fab. If you’re new, welcome.

Party for PCN (reenactment)

Ironically I start this new chapter by looking backward, at some of the pop culture I enjoyed most this year. I didn’t want to overthink these lists, which are in no particular order, because I’m going with the idea that the most memorable are the first titles that come to mind. Plus, I have no order in my life.

Favorite Movies

Despite having seen many awards contenders that aren’t out yet, my favorites remain those released earlier in the year (sorry, Mary Poppins Returns and Vice). Other films may have had superior acting or more important messages, but I found them overhyped or too earnest or straight up boring. The movies below entertained me, and isn’t that what movies are about?

Favorite superhero movie: Black Panther

This was a complete package for me: strong acting, complex characters, eye-popping action and costumes, humor, and a storyline addressing real-world social issues from which even the fictitious residents of Wakanda aren’t exempt.

Favorite indie film: Searching

Sony Pictures

From my review:

A riveting, innovative thriller…the entire movie is viewed via the different screens in our lives—phone, computer, surveillance cameras, TV, etc… . It’s a thriller that happens to have an Asian-American family at its center, speaking perfect English and doing everyday, even boring things (David’s job). Well, until the daughter goes missing. But Dad still doesn’t break out any martial arts or have any particular set of skills a la Liam Neeson. He’s just a regular dad. Who looks like John Cho. (Buy it here.)

Favorite action flick: Mission: Impossible—Fallout

From my review:

The action is breathtaking and so visceral, if you wear your Fitbit while watching, you might see a million steps recorded afterward.

The death-defying stunts provide an adrenaline rush you get to experience while safe in your seats. The plot is a bit confusing (lots of physics…or something) but it doesn’t matter. The acting is good and there’s even a softer side to Ethan Hunt. This is the rare franchise that has improved as it ages. (Buy it here.)

Favorite musical: Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Photo: Jonathan Prime

From my review:

I found it better than the first because it resonates more emotionally and deals with more complex issues… If you need a burst of joy (who doesn’t?) and a dash of Colin Firth (again, who doesn’t), I highly recommend seeing it.

That was 5 months ago. Since then, I’ve bought the Blu-ray and seen it at least twice more, and last week attended my friend Mari’s Mamma Mia-themed holiday party. And I intend to organize a family sing-along when I go home for Christmas. The movie spreads cheer, and some of my happiest memories this year come from watching and dancing to it with the most wonderful people I know. (Buy it here.)

Me, in Donna’s overalls, with Mamma Mia friends. Photo: Christian Moralde


Favorite TV shows

This year I was on the TV nominating committee for the SAG Awards and had to watch even more TV than usual (twist my arm). Before I get to my favorites, can we discuss the beautiful packaging some of the screeners came in?

In case it’s not obvious, season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel arrived in a hatbox and The Kominsky Method is in a sleeve resembling a script. The Handmaid’s Tale opens up like a board book, with pictures and script excerpts.

Julia Roberts’s series, Homecoming, came packaged like confidential documents.

Some others:

But just because I watched more doesn’t mean I found more to like, and sometimes an otherwise solid series has weak episodes. The following are shows I consistently enjoyed and had me looking forward to each new episode.

Favorite dramas:

Killing Eve

From my review:

[Sandra] Oh plays Eve, a bored MI-5 agent on the trail of [Jodie] Comer’s international assassin, Villanelle, and the two actresses are great foils for each other. Eve is messy and quirky but razor sharp when it comes to work. Villanelle is a slick sociopath, but Comer’s performance and Waller-Bridge’s writing manage to add ink-dark humor to the brutal kill missions. Even the soundtrack is funny. (Buy S1 here.)


Richard Madden turns in a superb and nuanced performance as a war veteran trying to hide his PTSD so he can keep his job as bodyguard to the home secretary, played by Keeley Hawes. Watch the opening scene of episode 1, which takes place on a train that may have a bomb on it, and see if you don’t find yourself sweating with dread.

Bodyguard was created, written, and directed by Jed Mercurio, who’s responsible for the rocket-paced BBC drama Line of Duty, so I’m on board for anything with his name on it.

Favorite sitcoms:


Eddy Chen/NBC

I previously wrote about this show:

America Ferrera heads the cast playing employees at a Walmart-like store, except here the employees are more outlandish than the customers.

But the characters aren’t weird for weird’s sake. The writing and acting show why they behave the way they do, which engenders more understanding and compassion than judgment toward them. And isn’t that what we need more of?

A recent episode has the store’s usually clueless manager, Glenn, give one of his employees an unexpected Christmas present that’s incredibly moving. The show addresses issues like lack of maternity leave for minimum-wage employees and undocumented workers with heart and humor.

The Good Place

Colleen Hayes/NBC

This is arguably the smartest sitcom on TV right now, or at least the most philosophical, often referencing Immanuel Kant. It’s hard to define; Good Place somehow tackles ethics and morality and life after death and makes us laugh at all the above while possibly reevaluating our life choices. The cast, led by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, is crackerjack, and each season the show evolves into something different. I don’t know where it’s going but am eager to find out. (Start with S1.)

Ronny Chieng: International Student

This Comedy Central show easily won for most laughs per episode. Creator/star Ronny Chieng based the show on his experience as a law student in Australia, and the situations are zany but relatable at the same time. Extra credit goes to the hilarious Hoa Xuande as an ultraconfident, F-word loving Vietnamese exchange student who lords his superior intelligence over everyone. Oh, and the Asian students excel in school and sports. Where else on TV can you see that?

Favorite rom-com series:


TV Land

Are you watching this sexy show set in New York’s publishing world? It stars Tony winner Sutton Foster as Liza, a woman who reenters the work force after raising a daughter and has to pretend she’s 26 instead of 40 to get a job at a publishing house.

The situation gets complicated when chemistry develops between her and the publisher (Peter Hermann), who not only believes she’s way too young for him, but it’d be highly inappropriate for him to make any kind of moves toward an underling. (He’s hot because he’s moral!) This sexy tension has been escalating for four seasons, and this year it exploded, y’all. (Start by streaming S1 here.)

Speaking of publishing, this post is now almost novel length, so I’ll save my thoughts on this year’s favorite books for another post.

Which movies and TV shows have you enjoyed this year?

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which could earn me commissions if you make a purchase.


Book Review: WHISKEY IN A TEACUP by Reese Witherspoon

Oscar-winning actress and Emmy-winning producer Reese Witherspoon already leads a popular book club on Instagram, so it seems a natural next step for her to write a book. The title, Whiskey in a Teacup, refers to Witherspoon’s grandmother’s description of Southern women: “delicate and ornamental on the outside… but inside we’re strong and fiery.”

The book is a pleasant collection of lifestyle and decorating tips, personal anecdotes, and recipes of Southern staples like fried chicken and cornbread chili pie that are simple enough for even novice cooks. Witherspoon shares her pride for her roots and love for her Nashville childhood traditions (midnight barn parties!), some of which she has adapted for her adult life.

She goes Christmas caroling—in Los Angeles. She transforms her home into a pumpkin patch for Halloween—with 47 pumpkins in the front yard. She reveals she’s a highly competitive bowler and, as a child, ran two successful businesses (selling lemonade and personalized barrettes) and wanted to be president of the United States.

Some of her most interesting stories are about her grandmother Dorothea, a civil rights supporter and schoolteacher with a master’s degree, who always wore dresses, even while gardening, and looked like a movie star. Dorothea bought books for young Reesey and read them aloud in different voices, striking a spark that became Witherspoon’s love of performing.

Witherspoon’s voice in Whiskey is conversational, with elements of her perky onscreen characters, and when she writes “Y’all come back and visit sometime, ya hear?” fans will want to accept the invitation.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.