What’s Ashley Reading?: A Year in Review

This was a busy year for reading! I completed 142 books in 2023 but there were a few standouts that I would highly recommend. Below are my top 10 books I read in 2023!

  1. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
  2. Starter Villain by John Scalzi
  3. None Of This Is True by Lisa Jewell
  4. Where Are The Children by Mary Higgins Clark
  5. The Last Devil To Die by Richard Osman
  6. An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten
  7. Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I by Tracy Borman
  8. The Only One Left by Riley Sager
  9. The Drift by C. J. Tudor
  10. The Temple of Fortuna by Elodie Harper

And I know that next year will have some great books for my TBR list. Here are the ones I am most looking forward too!

  1. End of Story by A. J. Finn (02/20/2024)
  2. The Guest by B. A. Paris (02/20/2024)
  3. Normal Women by Philippa Gregory (02/27/2024)
  4. Murder Road by Simone St. James (03/05/2024)
  5. The Prisoner’s Throne by Holly Black (03/05/2024)
  6. The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo (04/09/2024)
  7. The Gathering by C. J. Tudor (04/09/2024)
  8. A Talent For Murder by Peter Swanson (06/11/2024)
  9. Middle of the Night by Riley Sager (06/18/2024)
  10. The Darkness Within Us by Tricia Levenseller (07/09/2024)

What were your favorite reads of 2023? And what are you looking forward to the most in 2024? Leave us a comment!

What’s Ashley Reading?: Remarkably Bright Creatures

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

First line: Darkness suits me.

Summary: Tova Sullivan has spent her nights cleaning at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. It has helped her cope with the quietness of her life after the death of her husband. Over time she has developed a friendship with the aquarium’s octopus, Marcellus. Then when Tova has to take a leave of absence from her job, she befriends and teaches the young man who is her temporary replacement. As they interact, Marcellus starts to notice that there is a bond between the two and he has to reveal what he knows before it is too late.

My Thoughts: If you are looking for a feel good book to end your 2023 reading challenge then this is the book for you. This very much reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman in the way I felt reading it. There is little to no romance, great friendships are made and at the end a secret is revealed that leaves the reader feeling all the feels.

I loved each chapter narrated by Marcellus the octopus. He plays such an important part to the story but is mostly an observer. His haughtiness about the humans around him was always funny to read.

Even though reading something like this it is pretty obvious how the story resolves it still feels right when it happens. It is like putting a puzzle together and the final piece being added. I would highly recommend listening to the audiobook because the narration is well done and the Marcellus’s voice is perfectly cast.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Palace

The Palace by Gareth Russell

First line: As it has done for centuries, Hampton Court Palace draws thousands of visitors every year – as far back as the reign of Elizabeth I, staff were supplementing their incomes by offering tours to visitors, and the fascination shows no signs of dwindling.

Summary: Gareth Russell’s new book looks at the important events and people who resided at Hampton Court Palace from the age of the Tudors until the present day royal family. This royal palace has seen many of the most thrilling times and stood the test of revolutions, regime changes and remodeling. It is one of the most famous and long standing palaces in England, which the author shows us through this new book.

My Thoughts: I have visited Hampton Court three times in my life and hope to go many more times. There is something magical about this place and its history. As you approach there is the wonderful Tudor brick entrance, the courtyards, the great hall and the original kitchen complex. But as you move through the styles change to the remodeled section designed by Christopher Wren. It truly is a wonder to see and imagine the lives that have lived here.

I enjoyed how the author broke down the book into chapters covering the palace during each of the reigns since the days of Henry VIII to the present day. Rather than cover architectural history the author dives into the events and people who lived and worked at the palace. The early years are the ones I am more familiar with but I found the information of the Stuart and Georgian times to be fascinating. Plus the idea that people were given Grace and Favor apartments is such an interesting idea. I would have loved to live in such a historical building.

I highly recommend this for lovers of English history and if you have been or are planning to visit Hampton Court.

What’s Ashley Reading?: A True Account

A True Account by Katherine Howe

First line: I don’t know what made me determined to go to the hanging.

Summary: Hannah Masury has spent her life working along the Boston harbor, seeing the ships and crew coming and going each day. When she needs to flee the city she decides to disguise herself as a cabin boy and stows away on a pirate ship, captained by Ned Low. As she chooses her own destiny she knows that there could be rewards as well as danger lurking in her future.

In 1930, Marian Beresford is given a manuscript by one of her students which leads them on the hunt for Hannah Masury’s buried treasure. Marian, a professor, believes that this mystery will help her career if she is able to authenticate the document and discover the history that has been left for them in the beaches of the Caribbean.

My Thoughts: Like Howe’s other books, this a dual narrative spanning centuries. She does this very well and it makes for an interesting and enjoyable story. As I was traveling to the Caribbean at the time, this felt like a good book to listen to as we prepared for our trip.

I have been fascinated with pirates ever since the Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out years ago. And then with the show Black Sails I really got hooked on the real life pirates who actually sailed the seas. It seems like such a crazy life but one that could be very lucrative.

Hannah is a tough girl who is able to deceive many of the men who she sails with. Marian is struggling with her career and is sucked into the thrill of adventure. I definitely enjoyed the parts with Hannah much more than Marian. Marian was more of a supporting character who never seemed too developed while Hannah was the star with a full life and more of a personality.

The end has a big twist which I did not see coming and then another twist that seems to shift the other twist completely out of whack. It was an interesting ending to the story but this was definitely not my favorite of the author’s books.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Woman In Me

The Woman In Me by Britney Spears

First line: As a little girl I walked for hours alone in the silent woods behind my house in Louisiana, singing songs.

Summary: For the first time, Britney Spears is sharing her story in her new memoir. She lays out her childhood spent performing, the relationship with her family and finding love. With each page Britney gives the reader a look into what it is like to be a teen pop star, a young woman in love and then having her life controlled by others but eventually finding freedom.

My Thoughts: I remember seeing Britney Spears in concert at the Kansas State Fair in September 1999. It was her first ever tour. I had listened to her album on repeat so that I knew all the words. I was thirteen at the time and it was the highlight of my year! And as soon as I heard she was releasing an autobiography I knew I needed to read it. Britney was a major part of my teenage years.

I listened to the audiobook, which unfortunately Britney does not narrate, and found it very heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. She started out very poor, rose to fame, struggled with love (from her family and romantic partners), and finally was able to free herself from the control that was forced upon her by the people that were supposed to love her.

It was brave of her to put herself out for the world to see. She revealed secrets from her past, some rather shocking, and explained her darkest times so that everyone can see her side rather than what the press reported.

The writing was simple, to the point and very easy to read.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Christmas Guest

The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson

First line: Since I have no family of my own, I am yearly asked by friends and colleagues to their homes for the Christmas holidays.

Summary: American student, Ashley Smith, is studying abroad in London. It is Christmas and she is alone. Her mother died a few years before and never knew her father. She imagines a quiet holiday in the big city until she is invited by a new friend to her family’s home in the Cotswolds. Excited with the prospects of having a truly English Christmas she quickly accepts. Upon arrival she is instantly impressed with the house, the village and especially her friend’s brother. As the days pass she falls into the family routine and deeper into her crush for Adam. But when she hears that Adam is a suspect of a recent killing she doesn’t know what to believe about him. Has she been fooled by this handsome English boy or is there someone else lurking in the woods around Starvewood Hall?

My Thoughts: This was a hard book for me to review. I was waffling between 3 and 4 stars. I did not like the first half of the book with the diary entries. I know that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl, but it was just annoying to read at points. It did feel very juvenile which I applaud the author for achieving since that was the goal, but I did not like it too much. However, the second half throws everything on its head. I loved this bit with the twists and background for the first half of the story. And then when you discover the reason behind the title it gave me goosebumps. Part of it felt a little corny but I was in for it at this point. This would definitely be a perfect read for a cold night at Christmastime. It could easily be read in one sitting with a cup of tea and a warm blanket.

What’s Ashley Reading?: My Darling Girl

My Darling Girl by Jennifer McMahon

First line: “Ali Alligator?” my mother whispered as she crept into my room, slipped under my heavy quilt, cuddled up next to me on my twin bed.

Summary: With Christmas on the horizon, Alison receives a phone call that her mother has cancer with only weeks left to live. Making the difficult decision to allow her mother to spend her last days with Alison and her family she wonders if they can heal the wounds of her childhood. As her mother moves in, Alison is reminded of the horrors her alcoholic and abusive mother put her through. But with each passing day Alison notices strange changes in the woman she knew. Who is or what is her mother? And can Alison stop whatever has taken hold in her house before it infects her family?

My Thoughts: This is one of those books that is perfect for this time of year. It’s a spooky Christmas story with a dark entity stalking our main character. There is a rising tension throughout the book leading up to the final chapter. Alison is plagued by her memories but keeps hoping for a better end but as a reader we know that this will never happen. Something has taken over Mavis. As the story continues you can see Alison’s fear and obsession taking over making conflict with others around her.

I loved/hated the relationship between Mavis and her granddaughter, Olivia. It was menacing. She is having her call her a strange name and keeping secrets from Alison. You instantly feel like something bad is on the horizon. As more is revealed about who Mavis really is and her back story the pieces start to fall into place. It is pretty easy to tell what a catalyst for the evil in the house is but it takes a while to dawn on Alison.

The story is more character driven as Alison deals with her past demons and her relationships. I never felt that I could completely trust her and her memories. But I got a shock in the last chapter that gave me chills! Such a fun read for either October or Christmas time.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Starter Villain

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

First line: I learned about the death of my uncle Jake in a deeply unexpected way, which was from the CNBC Squawk Box morning show.

Summary: Jake has just learned that his estranged billionaire uncle, Charlie, has died. Jake hadn’t seen him since he was a child but when Uncle Charlie’s assistant asks Jake to stand up at his funeral, he feels like he owes it to him. But as he learns at the funeral, his uncle had powerful enemies and now they are targeting Jake. As his uncle’s heir Jake is thrown into the world of supervillains, including volcano island lair, spy cats and minions. As Jake learns the business, he has to stay alive long enough to achieve his uncle’s vendetta against the league of supervillains.

My Thoughts: The first thing you notice about this book is the quirky cover! A cat in a suit is the reason I picked up Scalzi’s newest novel, but I stayed for the plot that reminded me of a mix between Austin Powers and Despicable Me.

I enjoyed every minute of this book. It was a short, quick read filled with cutthroat villains and super intelligent spy animals. Jake has fallen into hard times but the only thing he finds comfort in is his cat. It’s easy to relate to him throughout and cheer him on as he takes over his uncle’s business. I loved his interactions with the animals around him. The dolphins were hilarious!

Even though there is not too much of a plot in the story, I would highly recommend reading this! It is filled with dark humor and spy cliches that know they are cliches. This was my first book by John Scalzi but it won’t be my last. I will finally read Redshirts, a book I have looked at for years but never picked up.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Mothered

Mothered by Zoje Stage

First line: Silas loved a good puzzle, especially if it involved the interlocking pieces of science and soul, the known and the unknown.

Summary: Grace had just bought her first home when the COVID pandemic hit, she lost her job as a hairstylist and now her mother wants to move in with her. They never had a great relationship and the hours spent together start to strain their nerves. Grace starts having nightmares about her twin who died when they were young and struggles to differentiate between what is real and what is a dream. And then her mother reveals a dark secret from their past but Grace cannot believe her. There is no way that things happened the way her mother claims. Is her mother trying to drive her mad? Who and what can Grace believe anymore if she cannot trust her own mother?

My Thoughts: This book was STRANGE! It was a fever dream almost literally. Grace tilts back and forth between moments of sanity and bouts of fear and nightmares. She is a very unreliable narrator. But really it is more like the book who is unreliable. So many chapters are dream sequences filled with Grace’s fears and memories. Everything seemed just so wild until I realized that it was another dream.

Neither of the main characters was very likeable but Jackie, Grace’s mother, was awful. She seems like the ideal mother who cooks, cleans and is sweet to your friends but she can quickly use guilt and manipulation. I kept waiting for her to crack and cause some harm to Grace or the cat.

The setting of isolation during the pandemic set the perfect atmosphere for the downward spiral of these two women. Luckily I was still able to work at times during the pandemic because I can see how it easy it would be to lose touch with reality being home bound for long periods of time. The beginning of the story dragged on a little after a catchy first chapter and then it picked up at the end as tensions finally reached a climax. This is not as a good as Baby Teeth but still a chilling WTF book.

What’s Ashley Reading?: None Of This Is True

None Of This Is True by Lisa Jewell

First line: Josie can feel her husband’s discomfort as they enter the golden glow of the gastropub.

Summary: At a local pub, Alix Summers and Josie Fair, meet each other and discover that they are birthday twins, they were born on the same day in the same hospital. A few days later, they bump into each other again and Josie has a proposition for Alix. After listening to Alix’s podcast, Josie believes that her story is one that Alix will want to share. As the women start recording, Josie starts to work her way into Alix’s life and even her home. Even though Alix finds Josie to be a bit strange she cannot help needing to know her story. But as suddenly as she appeared, Josie disappears. It seems like the end until Alix finds that she has been living inside a true crime podcast. And the big question is, who is Josie?

My Thoughts: After finishing this I had to sit and think, ‘What did I just read?!’. This is probably the best Lisa Jewell I have read. It was absolutely crazy! This story was jam packed full of shocking events, eccentric people, horrifying back stories and an ending that leaves you guessing.

I never knew what to make of Josie. As a reader we saw what life was like in her home and inside her head. But how much of this is real or skewed based on her perceptions? This is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Josie is very willing to discuss her past with a total stranger. She reveals a life that was filled with misfortune and regrets. I felt sorry for her and shocked as more of her life is revealed. But with each new detail you start to wonder how this has affected Josie and what is she going to do to change it?

I highly recommend listening to this book because it is told using a full cast. Since the premise is that it is a podcast recording that is picked up as a true crime documentary, the full cast idea adds an extra layer to the story. Using this format style, it is easy to forget that this is a novel and not an actual podcast.