Book Review: He Gets That From Me by Jacqueline Friedland

Title: He Gets That From Me
Author: Jacqueline Friedland
Publisher: SparkPress
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 295 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

As a young mother with a toddler and a live-in boyfriend, Maggie Fisher’s job at a checkout counter in downtown Phoenix doesn’t afford her much financial flexibility. She dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, options she squandered when she fled her family home as a teenager. When Maggie stumbles onto an ad offering thousands of dollars to women who are willing to gestate other people’s babies, she at first finds the concept laughable. Before long, however, she’s been seduced by all the ways the extra money could improve her life. Once she decides to go for it, it’s only a matter of months before she’s chosen as a gestational carrier by Chip and Donovan Rigsdale, a married couple from New York.

After delivering twin babies and proudly handing them off to the Rigsdales, Maggie finally gets her life on a positive trajectory: she earns her degree, lands a great job, and builds a family of her own. She can’t fathom why, ten years after the fact, the fertility clinic is calling to ask for a follow-up DNA test.

I bought this e-book on a whim (it was 99 cents!), interested to see where the story would go. And while it definitely held my attention, I would describe He Gets That From Me as only partially successful.

As the story opens, we meet Maggie, who loves her baby Wyatt and her boyfriend Nick, but struggles to make ends meet. She regrets walking away from the college education her well-off parents were providing, a decision made after a teen-age trauma that made her flee parental control and judgment. When she sees an ad for gestational carriers, i.e., women to act as surrogates for those who cannot have children on their own, she doesn’t take it particularly seriously… but she can’t stop thinking about it, especially how the money could get her life back on track and allow her to finally pursue the education she gave up on.

We also meet Donovan, a New York real estate broker in a happy marriage with his husband Chip. They’re well-off and well-established, but desperately want a family together. As they enter the surrogacy process, they’re oh-so-careful at every step, making sure they’ll be legally protected and being very cautious in choosing their potential gestational carriers.

In the early chapters of the book, we jump backward and forward in time, and so we learn that Donovan has had himself, Chip, and their twin 10-year-old boys tested through an at-home DNA testing kit to help the boys with a class genealogy project. Donovan and Chip each provided sperm to use with their egg donor’s eggs, and based on the boys’ physical traits, they’ve long assume that Teddy is biologically Chip’s and Kai is biologically Donovan’s. Until the test results come back — and show that Kai isn’t biologically related to either of his dads.

As Donovan essentially freaks out and looks for answers, the couple assume a screw-up at the fertility lab. Perhaps their embryos were switched with someone else’s? Donovan even investigates whether babies could have been switched at birth. But no — all options are a dead-end until Maggie’s DNA testing confirms the obvious answer. Kai is biologically her son. How is this even possible?

Superfetation. Per healthline.com, “Superfetation is when a second, new pregnancy occurs during an initial pregnancy. Another ovum (egg) is fertilized by sperm and implanted in the womb days or weeks later than the first one. ” Oh, dear. So while two embryos from the donor eggs and Chip and Donovan’s sperm were transferred to Maggie, only one took… and then she and Nick conceived another fetus naturally, ending up pregnant with two unrelated fetuses.

Maggie, of course, is horrified. She and Nick tried for years to have more children, but whether from carrying twins or from a subsequent car accident, she ended up with uterine scarring that affected her fertility. She’s wracked by guilt: She agreed to carry someone else’s children, not to give away her own child.

An inevitable showdown between the two families quickly comes into play. After meeting Kai briefly, Maggie is convinced that he belongs with his biological family, and she and Nick sue for custody. Meanwhile, Chip and Donovan are desperate to keep their family intact and to protect Kai from being uprooted from the only life he’s ever know.

While the set-up is really engaging, I had some issues with the execution. For starters, I don’t truly believe that Maggie could think for one moment that removing Kai from his home would be in his best interest. They got from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye. What about visiting and getting to know one another? What about simply spending some time together, finding a way to be in each others’ lives? Nope, it’s full custody as the first and only option.

Some ugliness comes into play that seems out of character for Maggie. While Nick expressed some hesitation about becoming a surrogate for a gay couple when the option first was under discussion, Maggie was adamantly opposed to Nick’s homophobia and in fact broke up with him for a while over it. She cared deeply for Chip and Donovan and was committed to helping them create their family. Yet in the court filings, one of the arguments for claiming custody of Kai was that it would be in his best interest to be raised by a “traditional” family. Where did this come from? That was never Maggie’s belief.

I was left very unsatisfied by the end of the book. Certain twists are revealed in the epilogue that I found hard to believe, and the outcome of the custody case (trying to avoid spoilers here) was again a very black and white, all or nothing situation. I couldn’t help feeling that in real life, good lawyers and therapists would have encourage compromise and exploration of the true best interests of the child, rather than moving forward with a winner-takes-all lawsuit as the only possible answer.

At under 300 pages, He Gets That From Me is a quick read. While the premise is certainly interesting, I was too often frustrated by inconsistent or illogical actions and decisions to give this more than a 3-star rating. I could see this book generating good book club arguments for sure!

Book sampling: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Title: The Sentence
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book.

A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’ Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.

The main character of The Sentence is Tookie, a Native American woman who is sentenced to sixty years in prison after a misadventure involving a corpse — a crime that we hear about in the opening chapter, presented in a practically comic manner. Her sentence is eventually commuted, but only after she serves many years. Prison changes Tookie, but one of the most lasting effects is that she becomes a voracious reader during that time. It’s only natural that she ends up working in a bookstore — Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, owned by a novelist named Louise. (And yes, Louise Erdrich does actually own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis in real life).

The book follows Tookie’s life as a bookseller, as a woman married to her longtime love Pollux, and as a survivor and a witness. She’s also a woman who’s haunted, literally — an annoying bookstore customer named Flora continues to visit the store even after her death, and Tookie becomes consumed by a need to understand the ghost’s motivations and how to be rid of her.

The Sentence was my book group’s pick for October, and reactions were decidedly mixed. While many appreciated the author’s magnificent way with words, the general sentiment was that the story itself was overly complicated and uneven in tone. Midway through, we’re in 2020, and the narrative becomes heavily focused on both COVID and the impact of George Floyd’s murder, so much so that it often feels more like narrative non-fiction.

I was very absorbed while reading the book, but in the end, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all. The story veers in all sorts of directions, and I’m not sure that the overall themes and messages hit home.

That said, the writing is amazing, so rather than attempting to write a thorough review, I thought I’d just share some favorite lines and passages:

I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books.

Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.

Pen had started working here because she developed obsessions with female authors, alive and dead, and was having a May-December romance with Isak Dinesen’s stories.

When I creep into our bed, there is the joy and relief of a person entering a secret dimension. Here, I shall be useless. The world can go on without me. Here I shall be held by love.

Sometimes Jackie resented a perfectly good book because it ‘forced’ her to stay up all night.

I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered.

As it turned out, books were important, like food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze.

I stare at my husband’s face, the new cheekbones of a skinny man, his surprising beauty, and I decided to live for love again and take the change of another lifetime.

Beyond the terrific writing, I loved all the references to favorite books, so I was absolutely delighted to see that the book includes a section called Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books at the end, with sections called things like “Ghost-Managing Book List”, “Short Perfect Novels”, “Sublime Books”, and more. I will definitely be returning to these reading lists for future inspiration!

Wrapping it all up — there were elements of The Sentence that I loved, and I’m happy to have read it, but I’m still not quite sure that it worked for me completely. I’m really curious to hear how others felt about this book. Have you read The Sentence? If so, please share your reaction!


Book Review: In the Quick by Kate Hope Day

Title: In the Quick
Author: Kate Hope Day
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: March 2, 2021
Print length: 251 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

June is a brilliant but difficult girl with a gift for mechanical invention who leaves home to begin grueling astronaut training at the National Space Program. Younger by two years than her classmates at Peter Reed, the school on campus named for her uncle, she flourishes in her classes but struggles to make friends and find true intellectual peers. Six years later, she has gained a coveted post as an engineer on a space station—and a hard-won sense of belonging—but is haunted by the mystery of Inquiry, a revolutionary spacecraft powered by her beloved late uncle’s fuel cells. The spacecraft went missing when June was twelve years old, and while the rest of the world seems to have forgotten the crew, June alone has evidence that makes her believe they are still alive.

She seeks out James, her uncle’s former protégé, also brilliant, also difficult, who has been trying to discover why Inquiry’s fuel cells failed. James and June forge an intense intellectual bond that becomes an electric attraction. But the relationship that develops between them as they work to solve the fuel cell’s fatal flaw threatens to destroy everything they’ve worked so hard to create—and any chance of bringing the Inquiry crew home alive.

A propulsive narrative of one woman’s persistence and journey to self-discovery, In the Quick is an exploration of the strengths and limits of human ability in the face of hardship, and the costs of human ingenuity.

I’m not going to lie — I book this book on a whim based solely and completely on the fact that the pink astronaut cover grabbed my attention in a bookstore and wouldn’t let me walk away!

Much to my surprise, while In the Quick is a science fiction book about a young engineering prodigy whose obsessive need to understand the why of things leads her into a fiercely competitive astronaut program and ultimately, into interplanetary exploration… it’s also a retelling of Jane Eyre. How wild is that?

In In the Quick, June’s beloved uncle, a renowned pioneer in spaceship engineering, dies when June is twelve. He raised her to think, to question, to seek answers, and she delighted in hovering in the background while his students worked with him on challenging prototypes and design projects. But after his death, June is lost in her aunt’s house, unloved and misunderstood — and when the spaceship Inquiry goes dark after a fuel cell failure, June’s worldview is thrown into chaos.

The fuel cells were her uncle’s greatest achievement. What could have gone wrong, and why? Even past the point when the world seems to have concluded that the Inquiry and its crew are lost, June is compelled to seek answers. She soon enrolls at the National Space Program school, determined to forge a path for herself that takes her into space and gives her the knowledge to understand and unravel the mysteries of the failed fuel cells.

June’s journey ultimately takes her to a moon called the Pink Planet, where swirling silt creates a permanently pink atmosphere, and where exposure to the silt results in a hallucinogenic, numbed state. The Pink Planet is an outpost developed as a jumping off point for the vast voyages intended for the Inquiry and its sister ship, but once the Inquiry mission failed, the Pink Planet stations were left in a state of minimal use and shocking disrepair. Once on the Pink Planet, June reconnects with her uncle’s former student James, who is similarly obsessed with June’s uncle’s work. Together, they begin an intense creative phase to finally solve the puzzle of the fuel cells… and to figure out if there truly is any hope still of finding the Inquiry after all this time.

In the Quick is a fairly short book, and it’s a quick read. It’s oddly compelling — the forays into engineering and design are kept to lightly descriptive passages, so the science is never overwhelming for those of us without advanced degrees. The story of June’s growth and education is interesting, although she’s a somewhat hard character to love. We don’t get very deep into her inner life, apart from her never-satisfied quest for knowledge. We know she experiences loss and loneliness, but the friendships she forms along her journey always feel secondary to her scientific obsession.

It’s entertaining to see the Jane Eyre storylines woven into In the Quick. We’re not beaten over the head with them — if someone reading In the Quick hasn’t read Jane Eyre, they’re not going to feel lost or confused in any way. Instead, there are some basic patterns and motifs built into the story (I had to giggle over the opening scene of June reading a book while hidden away in a window seat), and it’s surprising to see how well it all works in a novel of space exploration and interplanetary travel!

I did find the overall plot to have a somewhat flat effect by the end. There are pieces that are never fully explained — in fact, given how central the Pink Planet is to the story, I don’t believe we’re ever told where it is. We know that it’s a moon, despite being named the Pink Planet, but a moon of what?

The book ends, in my opinion, on a very abrupt note, and left me feeling frustrated. Without saying exactly what the ending is, I’ll just say that I wanted more explained about what had transpired over the years since the Inquiry was lost. June’s obsession with the Inquiry leads to her conviction that the crew was still out there somewhere, alive but unable to power their ship or communicate — but if that’s true, how did they survive all these years? The lack of an explanation felt very unsatifsying to me.

If I had to categorize this book, I’d describe it as “literary science fiction”. It’s an interesting, ambitious novel, with themes of classic literature woven into a space story. Overall, I enjoyed reading In the Quick, but for me, I prefer my sci-fi with a lot clearer grounding in the science of it all. I want to understand the details and marvel at how a work of fiction can make it all seem possible. In the Quick is more about the moods and passions and human drives involved, and while it was a good read, it wasn’t 100% my style of science fiction.

Still, I’m glad I gave in to the impulse to grab a copy! In a year where much of my reading is planned well in advance, it was a treat to read on a whim and experience something unexpected. Jane Eyre in space? Well, that was definitely a new, unexpected twist for me, and I’m happy that I gave it a chance.

Book Review: Not Your Average Hot Guy by Gwenda Bond

Title: Not Your Average Hot Guy
Author: Gwenda Bond
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: October 5th, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A paranormal romantic comedy at the (possible) end of the world.

All Callie wanted was a quiet weekend with her best friend. She promised her mom she could handle running her family’s escape room business while her mom is out of town. Instead a Satanic cult shows up, claiming that the prop spell book in one of the rooms is the real deal, and they need it to summon the right hand of the devil. Naturally they take Callie and her friend, Mag, along with them. But when the summoning reveals a handsome demon in a leather jacket named Luke who offers to help Callie stop the cult from destroying the world, her night goes from weird to completely strange.

As the group tries to stay one step ahead of the cult, Callie finds herself drawn to the annoying (and annoyingly handsome) Luke. But what Callie doesn’t know is that Luke is none other than Luke Morningstar, Prince of Hell and son of the Devil himself. Callie never had time for love, and with the apocalypse coming closer, is there room for romance when all hell’s about to break loose?

From New York Times bestselling author Gwenda Bond, Not Your Average Hot Guy is a hilarious romantic comedy about two people falling in love, while the fate of the world rests on their shoulders.

Is this a book to take seriously? Hell no!

All hell breaks loose in this romantic comedy when a prop in a family-run escape room turns out to be the real deal. Callie, a recent college grad who loves books, her best friend, and her family, finds herself without a clear next step in her life, so she lives at home and works at her mom’s award-winning escape room business. (Who knew there were awards for escape rooms?) With her obsessive interest in historical facts and weird occult trivia, Callie is a natural at designing escape experiences, and she’s especially proud of the supernatural-themed room she designed herself, featuring all sorts of great estate sale finds as props — including a very old grimoire.

When Callie’s mom leaves her in charge for the weekend, Callie sees it as her chance to prove herself, but things go south pretty quickly when a group wearing capes and plague doctor masks shows up for their escape room reservation. Cosplayers, she assumes — until they steal the grimoire, kidnap her and her friend Mag, and start a demon-summoning ritual.

Meanwhile, in Hell… the Prince of Hell is bored with his tutors and is failing at his assigned task of collecting souls. Sure, he makes an effort, but he never quite manages to seal the deal. As a last-ditch effort to avoid his dad’s wrath, he answers the summoning, and finds himself surrounded by a doomsday cult and one very cute young woman who seems determined to stop the end of the world.

Luke and Callie find themselves teaming up to stop the cult, heading off on a desperate journey to secure holy relics before the cult can get them, and even venturing into Hell itself to try to stop the apocalypse. And naturally, despite their clearly diverging goals (Callie = save the world, Luke = steal souls), their mutual attraction has sparks flying and threatens to turn into actual feelings.

It’s all very silly and light-hearted… and ends up being a really fun, enjoyable read. It doesn’t have to make sense and it’s certainly not a book grounded in the real world. The characters are sincere and likeable, but with good sense of humor, and the adventure itself is goofy and ridiculous… but again, it’s all quite fun.

I needed something quirky and easy to engage with to brighten up a stressful week, and this book fit the bill. Not a ton of brain cells required… but Not Your Average Hot Guy is great silly entertainment. The follow-up book, The Date From Hell, was just released this month.

Will I read it?

Hell yes!

Book Review: Leviathan Falls (The Expanse, #9) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Falls
Series: The Expanse, #9
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: November 30, 2021
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Laconian Empire has fallen, setting the thirteen hundred solar systems free from the rule of Winston Duarte. But the ancient enemy that killed the gate builders is awake, and the war against our universe has begun again.

In the dead system of Adro, Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to understand what the gate builders were and what destroyed them, even if it means compromising herself and the half-alien children who bear the weight of her investigation. Through the wide-flung systems of humanity, Colonel Aliana Tanaka hunts for Duarte’s missing daughter. . . and the shattered emperor himself. And on the Rocinante, James Holden and his crew struggle to build a future for humanity out of the shards and ruins of all that has come before.

As nearly unimaginable forces prepare to annihilate all human life, Holden and a group of unlikely allies discover a last, desperate chance to unite all of humanity, with the promise of a vast galactic civilization free from wars, factions, lies, and secrets if they win.

But the price of victory may be worse than the cost of defeat.

And so, my friends, we come to the end. Excuse me while I wipe away my tears…

The Expanse series has been a thrilling ride since the very beginning, and the key to its glory is not just the politics and space adventures and battles (which are all excellent), but the people. Simply put, the characters in this series are incredibly human and real, and I love them all so much… which is why I’m feeling a bit emotional over reaching the conclusion to their journeys.

I won’t go into plot details for this book, because there’s little point when this is the 9th book in a huge, sprawling, intricately detailed series. What I will say is that the tension continues to ratchet up, almost unbearably. Even at 80%, I couldn’t imagine how the authors would manage to provide an ending that addresses the central conflict in a way that works.

Well, they did. And it works. And it’s devastating in many ways, but also right and satisfying and deeply moving.

As with the rest of the series, in Leviathan Falls I once again had to concentrate hard and still accept that some of the science and terminology and concepts would go completely over my head. That’s fine — the fact that I don’t really grasp the technological details doesn’t in any way keep me from becoming totally immersed in the story. I also struggle at times to visualize where the various systems and ships and planets and moons are in relation to one another, especially when all the different players are in transit and engaging and disengaging… but again, it only matters up to a point. There’s a lot of action and a lot going on, and I got enough to understand the basics of who’s where and what they’re doing.

The fates of certain characters absolutely broke my heart, but there’s a rightness and satisfaction in how it all ends.

It’s not easy to tie up such a huge story as The Expanse. After nine books (all 500+ pages) and eight novellas, there’s a lot of plot to resolve, but the authors pull it off magnificently.

I’m sorry to see it all come to an end, but wow, it’s been an incredible journey.

After finishing Leviathan Falls, what remains for me to read are:

  • The Vital Abyss: A novella that takes place between books 5 & 6. (Note: Between when I started writing this post and when I finished, I also managed to read this novella. Fascinating.)
  • The Sins of Our Fathers: This novella takes place after the events of Leviathan Falls, and I’m really excited to read it, probably coming up next in my reading queue. After a quick peek, I realized that it’s about a character whose fate I’d expected to see addressed by the conclusion of the main series, but wasn’t. Can’t wait to start!
  • Memory’s Legion: This newly released hardcover is a collection of all the previously novellas (The Sins of Our Fathers is new to this edition, as well as being available as a stand-alone e-book). I’ve already read the rest of the novellas, but I’m thinking I might read through them all again, either in print or via audiobook.

The Expanse series is truly a science fiction masterpiece, and Leviathan Falls is a fittingly excellent conclusion to the series.

All that’s left for me to say is what I’ve been saying all along: If you’re a science fiction fan and haven’t read these books, you absolutely must give them a try!

Audiobook Review: If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

Title: If the Shoe Fits
Series: Meant to Be
Author: Julie Murphy
Narrator: Jen Ponton
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: August 3, 2021
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 51 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Cindy loves shoes. A well-placed bow or a chic stacked heel is her form of self-expression. As a fashion-obsessed plus-size woman, she can never find designer clothes that work on her body, but a special pair of shoes always fits just right.

With a shiny new design degree but no job in sight, Cindy moves back in with her stepmother, Erica Tremaine, the executive producer of the world’s biggest dating reality show. When a contestant on Before Midnight bows out at the last minute, Cindy is thrust into the spotlight. Showcasing her killer shoe collection on network TV seems like a great way to jump-start her career. And, while she’s at it, why not go on a few lavish dates with an eligible suitor?

But being the first and only fat contestant on Before Midnight turns her into a viral sensation—and a body-positivity icon—overnight. Even harder to believe? She can actually see herself falling for this Prince Charming. To make it to the end, despite the fans, the haters, and a house full of fellow contestants she’s not sure she can trust, Cindy will have to take a leap of faith and hope her heels— and her heart—don’t break in the process.

Best-selling author Julie Murphy’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is an enchanting story of self-love and believing in the happy ending each and every one of us deserves. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good modern-day fairy tale, If the Shoe Fits might be a perfect… fit. (Sorry.)

In 2020, Disney’s publishing arm announced its new series of fairy tale retellings, aimed at adult readers. With different authors writing the different installments, each book will retell a classic fairy tale as a contemporary romance. If the Shoe Fits is the first in the Meant To Be series… and I have to say, after reading this one, I’m definitely on board for more!

If the Shoe Fits is very funny, but also surprisingly emotional in key ways. Cindy is a recent graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, but after barely squeaking by on her final project, she has no immediate job or career prospects. She returns to LA to live with her stepmother and extended family, planning to nanny for the summer and hit pause for a bit… but then reality TV upends her plans.

[Side note: Why are there so many romance novels framed around TV dating shows these days? I swear this is at least the 4th I’ve read… and I’ve never watched a single episode of The Bachelor!]

In one of the lovely twists on the classic Cinderella story, Cindy’s stepmother and stepsisters are not evil! In fact, her stepmother Erica is loving and supportive, and her stepsisters Anna and Drew are sweet and love Cindy unstintingly. After Cindy’s father’s sudden death (while Cindy was in high school), Erica moved forward with the surrogacy they’d been planning, so there are also three-year-old triplets for Cindy to adore.

Erica is the creator and producer of the biggest reality TV dating show, Before Midnight. Cindy’s always loved the glamor and romance of the show, but she never could have conceived of being on it herself. When the new season loses contestants right before filming, Anna and Drew are called in as subs, and Cindy decides to take a chance and ask to be included as well. As an aspiring designer with a killer shoe collection, what better way to get her name and her designs out into the world, even if this is way outside her comfort zone? The $100,000 prize doesn’t hurt either — if she can’t find a job, maybe she’ll launch her own brand!

Cindy doesn’t hesitate to describe herself as fat, although it makes her non-fat family and friends cringe. She’s plus-size, and she knows it. She’s tired of going shopping with her sisters and never having options in her size. She’s tired of being told she’s “brave” for wearing stylish or sexy clothes. She’s tired of being viewed as less because of the shape of her body, and she’s tired of being invisible. Go, Cindy!

The actual reality TV experience is just as silly as you’d expect, with 20 women competing for love, although most have reasons for being on the show that have nothing to do with true romance. Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight, and between the influencers and walking memes and mean girls, it’s hard to imagine that love has anything to do with it.

The twist is that this season’s suitor is someone Cindy had met randomly weeks earlier, when the two seemed to share an instant connection. Suddenly, the fake reality dating show becomes a lot more real for Cindy… could he possibly feel what she’s feeling? And what if he doesn’t actually choose her in the end?

I mentioned the emotional aspects of the story. Cindy is still deeply grieving her father’s loss. Her memories of her father and all the ways in which her grief has affected her life are truly touching. The weight of the loss hit her fresh her senior year, which is why she struggled to graduate and felt that she’d lost her creative spark. As she competes on Before Midnight, she also starts to deal more directly with what she’s experienced, how her grief has shaped her last few years, and what reconnecting with her creativity might possibly look like.

I really appreciated the sensitivity with which all this is portrayed, as well as the depiction of Cindy herself as a funny, attractive, determined woman who refuses to feel shame or let others hold her back because of her body size.

I don’t mean to make this sound like serious literature — overall, the tone is funny and sweeet, and there are plenty of silly escapades to laugh over. Surprisingly, Cindy even manages to find true friends among the other contestants, even as the competition heats up, and I loved the idea that women can connect and be kind and supportive to one another even in the weirdest pressure-cooker situations.

The audiobook is a delight. The narrator does a great job with Cindy, as well as making the other Before Midnight contestants and producers come alive as individuals with distinct voices. Also, the dialogue can be very funny, making the audiobook super entertaining.

The next book in the series will be released in May — a Beauty and the Beast retelling (!!) written by Jasmine Guillory (!!), set in the world of publishing and authors (!!). I am so there for it.

Meanwhile, check out If the Shoe Fits! Just a really fun reading/listening experience.

Audiobook Review: A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss

Title: A Season for Second Chances
Author: Jenny Bayliss
Narrator: Ell Potter
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: October 19, 2021
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A charmingly quirky seaside town offers a recently separated restauranteur a fresh start and possibly a new lease on love in A Season for Second Chances, by the author of The Twelve Dates of Christmas.

Annie Sharpe’s spark for life has fizzled out. Her kids are grown up, her restaurant is doing just fine on its own, and her twenty-six-year marriage has come to an unceremonious end. Untethered for the first time in her adult life, she finds a winter guardian position in a historic seaside home and decides to leave her city life behind for a brand-new beginning.

When she arrives in Willow Bay, Annie is enamored by the charming house, the invigorating sea breeze, and the town’s rich seasonal traditions. Not to mention, her neighbors receive her with open arms–that is, all except the surly nephew of the homeowner, whose grand plans for the property are at odds with her residency. As Christmas approaches, tensions and tides rise in Willow Bay, and Annie’s future seems less and less certain. But with a little can-do spirit and holiday magic, the most difficult time of her life will become…a season for second chances.

A Season for Second Chances is a sweet, good-natured book about finding a new purpose and a new love when least expected.

When Annie walks in on her husband having sex (a) in the restaurant they co-own (b) with a younger woman who (c) is a member of the wait staff, Annie has had enough. Max is a serial cheater who’s managed to convince Annie to stay time and time again, but now she’s finally done. After taking a few weeks to hibernate, she finds an ad for someone to live in and care for a seaside home over the winter, and throwing aside any doubts, Annie jumps in.

The house is utterly charming, in an equally charming small town. The home’s owner is an elderly woman whose nephew is trying to convince her to sell the property to a developer, throwing historical preservationists into a tizzy. Annie finds the house and town just what she needs, and soon decides she needs a project — reopening (with the owner’s blessing) the bistro and coffee kiosk on the property that have been shuttered for years.

Annie’s immediate tiff with the nephew naturally develops into an enemies-to-lovers situation (very sweetly). As she settles into small town life, she makes friends and finds a new direction for her life, but then must find a way to make it permanent. There are ups and downs in Annie’s love life as well as in her pursuit of her new home and business in Willow Bay, but as you’d imagine, there’s a happy ending — and despite a near tragedy close to the end, it’s never in doubt that Annie’s life will turn out to be wonderful.

This is an enjoyable book — it has all the elements you’d expect in this sorts of story: quirky characters, new friendships, sexual tension, a dashingly good-looking man with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. I can’t say the plot holds many surprises, but it’s pleasant and upbeat, which we can all use once in a while.

The audiobook is quite lovely, with terrific narration that captures the various character’s expressions, opinions, and personalities. The story itself goes on a bit longer than it perhaps needs to, and I did occasionally get impatient with scenes about house repairs and setting up the cafe, but overall, it kept me good company on long walks and my commute!

I liked that the main characters are adults in their 40s with grown children, who bring a certain level of earned skepticism to romance and wooing. The ex-husband is a jerk, even when he’s (pathetically) trying to get Annie back, and it was lots of fun seeing Annie put him in his place. The near-tragic accident towards the end of the story seems a bit unnecessary, but it fits the standard romance beats in terms of throwing a big wrench into events before getting to the happy ending.

Overall, this was a good choice for a week when I needed some light, happy entertainment!

Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult / historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a beautiful, sensitively told story of a young woman in 1950s San Francisco, discovering her sexuality, finding first love, and navigating her place in the world of Chinatown and beyond.

Lily Hu is a high school senior who loves math, science, and reading Arthur C. Clarke. She’s fascinated by the idea of rockets and space, and dreams of one day working alongside her aunt at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Lily is the oldest child of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and her world revolves around the neighborhood and its community. While she attends a nearby high school, her friends and her activities are all based in Chinatown too — until she starts to get to know Kathleen, a girl in her advanced math classes.

Lily and Kathleen — or Kath, as she prefers to be called — begin to form a tentative friendship after Kath accidentally picks up a newspaper ad that Lily had saved, a promo for a male impersonator’s appearance at a nightclub. Kath mentions that she’s been to the Telegraph Club once, and the two girls agree to sneak out late one night and go together.

Meanwhile, Lily is unsure what to make of the feelings stirred in her when she reads about Tommy Andrews, the nightclub performer, or when she spies a pulp novel at the local drugstore that features two scantily clad women on the cover. When she and Kath finally make it to the Telegraph Club, Lily’s eyes are opened, seeing women together in clearly romantic relationships.

As Lily’s story progresses, she and Kath explore their feelings and learn more about the secret underworld of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time, the “red scare” is bringing fear to Chinatown, as even naturalized or American-born Chinese people are threatened with deportation and pressured to inform on others. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.

Last Night the Telegraph Club is a moving coming of age and coming out story, and also a well-researched and eye-opening look at a particular time and place in 20th century history. The author shares a great deal of information at the end of the book about her research, her intentions, who she interviewed, and even provides a wide-ranging bibliography for those who want to learn more.

As she points out, there isn’t a lot written about Asian lesbians in historical fiction. The topics covered within this book are a unique blend of LGBTQ+, Asian American, and San Francisco history, and they work together spectacularly.

Lily is a fabulous main character. She’s not flashy or outrageous by any means. A studious, smart girl devoted to her family, she’s really never stepped foot out of line prior to this point in her life. She struggles with the conflict between her identity, her emotions and desires, and her family duty. Lily is portrayed as a sensitive girl who might have truly thrived in the modern era, but because of the time and culture in which she’s born, there is no easy answer for her.

As a non-native San Franciscan myself, I’m always interested in learning more about the history of my adopted city, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club delivers. While many of the places and neighborhoods are the same, the city has changed in dramatic ways since then. I loved seeing all the familiar streets and landmarks mentioned as Lily and Kath and others explore the city, and appreciate that they venture beyond the areas often covered in popular media to include lesser known spots too, such as one of my own favorite places:

Judy had fallen in love with Ocean Beach the first time she saw it almost four years ago, right after she first arrived in San Francisco.

Although as Lily herself later reflects, you can’t always count on the weather:

She suspected it would be freezing out by Ocean Beach

On a more serious note, the response of Lily’s family to learning about her orientation is sadly typical of the time, but still incredibly painful to read:

“There are no homosexuals in this family,” she said, the words thick with disgust.

… and …

“There are studies,” her father said. “You’re too young for this. This is a phase.”

My only quibble with this book is that I wished for a little more at the end, between the last full chapter and the book’s epilogue. I can’t say much without entering spoiler territory, but I wish the events of the last chapter had been carried forward longer to show what happened in the ensuing months. The epilogue wraps the story up very well, but it’s almost too abrupt in its resolution. Still, overall, I’m happy with how things were resolved for the various characters, and felt so invested in Lily’s well-being that I wish I could check back in with her to see how her life turned out 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is engrossing, moving, and sensitive, with memorable characters and a fast-moving plot that manages to convey so much, so well. Highly recommended.

Book Review: In a Book Club Far Away by Tif Marcelo

Title: In a Book Club Far Away
Author: Tif Marcelo
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 381 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Once Upon a Sunset and The Key to Happily Ever After comes a heartwarming and moving novel following three Army wives—estranged friends—who must overcome their differences when one of them is desperate for help.

Regina Castro, Adelaide Wilson-Chang, and Sophie Walden used to be best friends. As Army wives at Fort East, they bonded during their book club and soon became inseparable. But when an unimaginable betrayal happened amongst the group, the friendship abruptly ended, and they haven’t spoken since.

That’s why, eight years later, Regina and Sophie are shocked when they get a call for help from Adelaide. Adelaide’s husband is stationed abroad, and without any friends or family near her new home of Alexandria, Virginia, she has no one to help take care of her young daughter when she has to undergo emergency surgery. For the sake of an innocent child, Regina and Sophie reluctantly put their differences aside to help an old friend.

As the three women reunite, they must overcome past hurts and see if there’s any future for their friendship. Featuring Tif Marcelo’s signature “enchanting prose” (Amy E. Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake) and the books that brought them together in the first place, In a Book Club Far Away honors the immense power of female friendship and how love can defy time, distance, and all old wounds.

In a Book Club Far Away is a story about the lasting value and importance of women’s friendship. Set amidst a group of Army wives, with chapters taking place both in the present day and 10 years earlier, it tells the story of close connections, long grudges, and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal.

In the present, Regina and Sophie both receive “SOS” messages from their old friend Adelaide. [Note: The synopsis above is inaccurate — Regina and Sophie have remained closed with Adelaide across the years, but are estranged from one another.] Regina is a former officer herself, a divorced mom, and the owner of a struggling catering company in Georgia. Sophie is a nurse, whose life partner is retired military, raising their soon-to-be-college-students twin daughters in Florida. When Adelaide calls for help, they both drop everything else to be there for her… although discovering that Adelaide failed to disclose the other’s presence to Regina and Sophie almost sends them out the door again.

But Adelaide is in dire need of help, and the old code amongst Army wives, to always be there for each other, especially when their husbands are deployed, can’t be ignored. The affection Regina and Sophie each have for Adelaide is enough to get them to agree — unwillingly — to spend time in each other’s presence for the week.

Meanwhile, there are chapters that take us back ten years, to when the three women first met and bonded at an Army base in upstate New York. As their men, members of the same military unit, head out on a nine-month deployment, they turn to one another for companionship. Adelaide decides to organize a military spouse book club, to help bring people together during the long months of loneliness. From this book club, Sophie, Regina, and Adelaide soon form an unbreakable bond.

It’s clear early on that something terrible happened back in those days to break up the trio and destroy their trust and affection, but we don’t completely find out the details until late in the book. Meanwhile, as Regina and Sophie care for Adelaide and her toddler, their close proximity forces them to reconsider past events, examine their own lives, and start to form a shaky new relationship.

I might not have been drawn to this book if I’d bumped into it in a bookstore, but because I had an ARC, I decided to finally read it — and I’m glad I did. The cover and the title don’t particularly convey the main themes of the story. This is, first and foremost, a story about how meaningful women’s friendships can be. Yes, they all have relationships and partners and families, but they turn to each other for understanding and support that they can find nowhere else.

I thought the book did an excellent job of showing the lives of military spouses — the pain of separation, the worry, the loneliness, the seemingly unwinnable challenge of having to start all over again every few years, even the challenge of having the military member return from deployment and finding a way to reintegrate them into the life they’ve been away from for so many months.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the past and the present, and of course, a big plus for me is the importance of the book club. The book is broken into sections corresponding to the books the group is reading, and it makes sense thematically (as well as just being entertaining). And how could we not love a book that shows how important books are in our lives?

I did the think the big reveal about what caused the friendship to break up ten years earlier was a little less dramatic than I expected. It sounded as though there were some miscommunications and misplaced blame that caused the big fight. It was sad to think about all the wasted years, but this made me appreciate how the women came back together even more.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The women’s lives were all interesting, their relationships with the significant others in their lives were varied and well portrayed, and most essentially, their bond of friendship was just lovely to read about.

This isn’t a particularly heavy read, although there are sad moments and challenging issues from the women’s lives that are honestly shown. Still, the overarching theme of the women’s connection and their importance in each other’s lives is beautiful and makes this a fulfilling read.

Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Title: The Love Hypothesis
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

EVERYBODY seems to either have read or to be reading this contemporary romance — so I gave in to temptation and joined the crowd! And mostly, it’s a really enjoyable, sweet tale.

But — ugh — let me just say that I do not like the synopsis (above). It just doesn’t convey the charm of the characters or what’s special about the book’s set-up.

So… Olive is a Ph.D. student working her butt off, living off her meager grad stipend, and basically focused solely on her work. A complication arises when it becomes clear that the guy she’d started casually dating is actually much more interested in Olive’s best friend, who seems to return the interest. But Anh would never agree to date him and break the friend code, even if Olive insists she’s just not that into him.

When Olive lies to Anh and says she’ll be out on a date with a new love interest, leaving Anh free to start a romance with Jeremy, things get complicated. Anh sees Olive in the lab building — clearly not on a date. So, as the synopsis says: Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees — who just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, a young powerhouse in the academic field, with a reputation of being an arrogant ass when it comes to his grad students.

Olive is embarrassed and super awkward… but as it turns out, a fake dating scenario would benefit both Olive and Adam. Olive needs Anh to believe that Olive is in a relationship so that she can pursue her own love life guilt-free, and Adam needs Stanford to believe he’s in a relationship so they don’t consider him a flight risk and cut off his grant money. So hey, what’s a little fake-dating between (kind of) colleagues? Olive assumes a weekly coffee date is enough to seal the deal and make it believable.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as Olive and Adam are constantly thrown together, and (of course) develop an easy rapport, ridiculously cute banter, physical attraction, and, eventually, real and actual feelings.

The Love Hypothesis follows many of the standard story beats of the fake dating trope, but it’s got a lot of unique elements going for it as well. First of all, the science and academia setting is terrific. I love seeing a woman in science, here presented as dedicated to the point of obsession when it comes to her profession and her research. Olive is smart, motivated, and committed, and her struggle to be taken seriously and get the opportunities she deserves is well portrayed and convincing.

Also, the academic setting provides a structure that I haven’t come across much in contemporary romances. The science and lab work and dissertation meetings are all part of the plot. I’ve seen too many romances where we’re informed that the lead character is a respected professional, but we never see her doing any actual work. Here, we follow Olive in and out of meetings and labs and conferences, and get a real feel for the texture of her life as a graduate student (as well as the truly minimal financial resources she has… so yes, it’s a big deal when Adam pays for her pumpkin spice lattes!).

An added unique element is Olive’s sexuality, which I’d describe (although not labeled as such in the book) as demisexuality. Olive is fairly inexperienced when it comes to sex, mostly having tried it a few times during her college years as something to check off a list, rather than experiencing desire. As she explains, she’s only able to feel sexual attraction when with someone she likes and trusts, and this hasn’t really happened for her previously in her life.

Olive and Adam do have great chemistry, and I enjoyed them together as a couple. Despite Adam’s fearsome reputation in the department, he warms up around Olive, and they’re able to joke and exchange quips together that would probably make his grads’ heads spin.

I’m not typically a big fan of awkward encounters, which seem to be a staple in contemporary romances, and this is an obstacle for me in The Love Hypothesis as well. There’s a lap-sitting scene and a sunscreen scene, to name but a couple, that are kind of clunky and weird — I think they’re meant to be funny, but really, just made me cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Also, some of the lying really bugged me after a while. Olive persists in lying about the fake-dating to Anh even well past the point where she should have just come clean. She also lies to Adam after he overhears a conversation that could reveal her feelings about him, and continues to allow him to misinterpret her feelings even after it’s clear that she should be honest. She’s way too smart for some of the dumb decisions she makes about her emotions and her personal life, and even though she’s portrayed as someone so focused on science that she’s neglected her inner life, I feel like this goes overboard and undersells Olive’s maturity and good sense.

If you’ve read any of my other romance reviews, you may know that I prefer my romances with steaminess on the implied rather than explicit side of things. In The Love Hypothesis, there’s really just one major sex scene, but it is very explicit. Because it was limited to one encounter, I didn’t feel that it took over the book or overwhelmed the reading experience — but still, if you prefer these kind of scenes to be off-screen or fuzzy, just be aware in advance that the sex in The Love Hypothesis is graphic.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis and found the characters and the set-up charming and off-beat. I love seeing women in STEM professions, especially when the professional aspect is treated seriously and not just as a side note. I’ll definitely want to read more by this author!