Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

Title: Meredith, Alone
Author: Claire Alexander
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

She has a full-time remote job and her rescue cat Fred. Her best friend Sadie visits with her two children.  There’s her online support group, her jigsaw puzzles and favorite recipes, her beloved Emily Dickinson, the internet, the grocery delivery man.  Also keeping her company are treacherous memories of an unstable childhood, the estrangement from her sister, and a traumatic event that had sent her reeling.

But something’s about to change. Whether Meredith likes it or not, the world is coming to her door.   Does she have the courage to overcome what’s been keeping her inside all this time? 

Meredith, Alone surprised me in all sorts of good ways. Based on the cover, I expected a fairly upbeat, quirky story, but it’s so much more than that.

Meredith lives alone with her cat Fred, and hasn’t left her home in over three years. As the book starts, we see Meredith having a panic attack one day while trying to leave for work, but then we jump ahead and learn she hasn’t left her house in the years since then. And really, in this day and age of online everything, she doesn’t actually need to. She orders in whatever she needs, she’s a freelance writer so she can work and support herself from home, and she gets regular visits from her best friend Sadie (who’s also available for veterinary emergencies), so she’s not entirely devoid of human contact.

In fact, at the start of the book, Meredith comes across as unusual, a bit obsessive about routine, but mostly okay with her life. She exercises every day, is an excellent cook, does jigsaw puzzles constantly, reads, and keeps herself busy. She observes her Glasgow neighborhood from her window, and opens her backdoor to look at the trees and birds. She’s content, more or less.

But as the book progresses, we learn more about Meredith’s past and why she’s been estranged from her mother and sister for all these years. Growing up, Meredith and Fiona were inseparable, providing each other with the love and support they were denied by their emotionally manipulative and abusive mother. It’s almost impossible to fathom why Meredith would have shut Fee out of her life, when clearly, she’s always been the most important person in her world.

Meredith’s calm routine is broken up by the intrusion of two new people: Tom, a volunteer with an organization that arranges visits with shut-ins, and Celeste, a young woman who strikes up a friendship with Meredith via their online support group. As Meredith gets to know each of them, she also starts to open up about her past. Between her new friendships and her tentative early work with a therapist, Meredith’s worldview starts to change… including the possibility of finally making it out her front door.

Meredith, Alone includes memories of trauma and abuse, and is terribly sad in so many ways. At the same time, Meredith herself is a caring, intelligent woman who’s just trying to cope. Despite all of her anguish and pain, she still manages to create a life for herself (and Fred), and it’s clearly not ideal, but it’s what she needs during those years to get by.

It’s lovely to see her start to emerge and reconsider her life. Having new friends allows her to explore her experiences and what they’ve cost her, and gives her incentive to try to push past her initial reluctance and skepticism about therapy. I appreciate how honestly Meredith’s experiences with anxiety and panic attacks are portrayed. Nothing is sugar-coated; her trauma and its aftereffects feel real.

Meredith, Alone is touching, often very sad, yet ends in a place of hope and optimism. I really loved Meredith as a character, and felt glad for her to have wonderful people such as Tom, Celeste, and Sadie in her life.

I wish I’d made note of how I first came across this book — I know I saw a very positive review on another blog, but I can’t remember which one! In any case, I’m so glad I came across that review, because otherwise I might have missed out on this lovely book.

Book Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish

Title: The Holiday Trap
Author: Roan Parrish
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 442 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

For fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Alexis Hall comes a charming, hilarious, and heartwarming LGBTQIA+ romcom about two separate couples finding love over the holidays from acclaimed author Roan Parrish!

Greta Russakoff loves her tight-knit family and tiny Maine hometown, even if they don’t always understand what it’s like to be a lesbian living in such a small world. She desperately needs space to figure out who she is.

Truman Belvedere has just had his heart crushed into a million pieces when he learned that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, all he wants is a place to lick his wounds far, far away from New Orleans.

Enter Greta and Truman’s mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap. Over the winter holidays, each of them will have a chance to try on a new life…and maybe fall in love with the perfect partner of their dreams. But all holidays must come to an end, and eventually Greta and Truman will have to decide whether the love they each found so far from home is worth fighting for.

The Holiday Trap has some cute moments, but is far too long and has way too many implausible plot points and annoying characters moments to rise above a 3-star read.

Our two main characters, Greta and Truman, are stuck in lives that clearly aren’t working for them. Greta’s large family is smothering and overly involved and controlling, and living on an island in Maine, there’s really no escaping their endless interference. Truman thinks his life in New Orleans is going well, until he discovers that his boyfriend of one year actually has a family, and Truman is just the bit on the side.

When a mutual friend suggests that they swap places for the holidays, Greta and Truman both agree — because really, it couldn’t be any worse than their current situations. And of course, in their new locations, they each find exactly what they’re looking for — love, community, and purpose.

Greta falls immediately in love with an outspoken, quirky woman who demands honesty and teaches Greta about stating one’s own needs and listening to others. She also finds meaning through a local gardening club, and becomes involved with a community garden and the beekeepers she meets.

Truman arrives on the island with low expectations, but soon discovers that his very favorite author may once have lived there, and then stumbles across the man of his dreams at the local florist shop.

For both, true love seems to arrive within approximately three weeks, so that before their brief swap agreement is even over, they’ve both resolved to make it permanent and start their lives over in their new locations. They’ve also changed themselves in significant ways, learning to speak up and pay attention to what they really want and what makes them happy.

Also (and annoyingly) in this brief time, they find themselves overflowing with amazing new ideas for how to improve their friends’ business ventures, which the friends seem to appreciate and embrace. (If I were in any of the friends’ shoes, I would find this intrusive and presumptuous AF, but hey, maybe that’s just me).

There are sweet interludes and funny moments, but overall, this romance drags on, has too many personal epiphanies crammed into such a short amount of time, and takes its perfect romances far over the edge into not-at-all-believable territory. And the fact that Greta and Truman seem to always have the perfect idea that perfectly solves other people’s challenges… so incredibly annoying.

I’m not sure why this is called The Holiday Trap. It’s not especially about the holidays, other than taking place during December when holidays are happening, and I have no idea what “trap” has to do with anything. Nobody ends up trapped in their new locations or relationships. May The Holiday Swap was already taken?

In terms of steaminess, this book’s sex scenes are graphic, so be aware of that if you prefer understated steam rather than outright step-by-step descriptions of intimate encounters.

Overall, the plot really doesn’t hold up particularly well. Truman is an endearing character and Greta is okay, but their huge personal awakenings and finding of soulmates just don’t feel plausible. The Holiday Trap is good entertainment, but I’ve read a lot better.

Audiobook Review: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton

Title: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard
Author: Tom Felton
Narrator: Tom Felton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Print length: 286 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

They called for a break, and Gambon magicked up a cigarette from out of his beard. He and I were often to be found outside the stage door, having ‘a breath of fresh air’, as we referred to it. There would be painters and plasterers and chippies and sparks, and among them all would be me and Dumbledore having a crafty cigarette.

From Borrower to wizard, Tom Felton’s adolescence was anything but ordinary. His early rise to fame saw him catapulted into the limelight aged just twelve when he landed the iconic role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

Speaking with candour and his own trademark humour, Tom shares his experience of growing up on screen and as part of the wizarding world for the very first time. He tells all about his big break, what filming was really like and the lasting friendships he made during ten years as part of the franchise, as well as the highs and lows of fame and the reality of navigating adult life after filming finished.

Prepare to meet a real-life wizard.

Draco speaks!

In Beyond the Wand, actor Tom Felton shares stories from his early childhood, the Potter years, and beyond. Unlike some of the seriously dire and disturbing celebrity memoirs of the past year, Beyond the Wand is a mostly upbeat, light-hearted romp through the life of an actor whose professional work will forever be defined by the sneering Slytherin he portrayed so well.

Significantly younger than his three older brothers, Tom grew up with a healthy dose of love and fun, but also humility — his brothers were always happy to cut him down to size before celebrity could go to his head. After roles in two smaller films, Tom’s life changed forever when he was cast as Draco Malfoy… without ever having read the Harry Potter books. (His description of the audition scene, where he had to fake knowledge of the story — and failed — is very funny).

His descriptions of the early years of filming are sweet, humorous, and eye-opening. There’s nothing scandalous here, don’t worry! Tom shares stories of on-set experiences, filming challenges, and lots of fun little stories — for example, his grandfather, acting as Tom’s required on-set chaperone, had such an impressive white beard that director Chris Columbus ended up casting him as a Hogwarts professor!

Because Draco was a lower-profile character than the big three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Tom’s profile as a star was somewhat lower-key as well. And because he had fewer scenes over all, he was able to continue attending his Muggle school in between filming, which he credits with enabling him to have a semi-normal childhood. Yes, he had a lead role in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, but he also had regular school, friends, and older brothers to keep him grounded (and occasionally get him into trouble as well).

The tone of Beyond the Wand is light and funny. Listening to the audiobook is a pleasure — he narrates his own story, and speaks it all as if he were hanging out with you and telling stories. It feels accessible and personal, and he injects a sense of fun into it all.

One of the elements I really appreciated in Beyond the Wand was Tom’s depiction of the older cast of Harry Potter and their influence on him and his child co-stars. As he describes, walking onto set as a 12-year-old, he had no idea of the stature of the adult cast members. And yet, over time, he came to realize just how fortunate he was to act alongside actors such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. He shares plenty of lovely anecdotes about their interactions with the children, their influence, and their generosity, and he also pays loving tribute to the cast members no longer with us, which is quite touching.

It’s only in the last couple of chapters that we get to anything darker, as he describes his post-Potter Hollywood years, his sense of loss of direction, a brief period of alcohol abuse, and struggles with mental health. The focus is mostly on the positive, though — on the importance of being able to get help without shame, and the value he’s found in seeking treatment when needed.

Other than those chapters, the tone is very fun and full of larks, and overall, Beyond the Wand is a really enjoyable listen. Even for huge Potter fans, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits shared here that will be new and fresh. (Nothing scandalous — it’s all good fun, with a sense of Tom’s enjoyment at being a bit of a rascal.)

This would be a great gift for any adult who grew up on Potter. Tom Felton presents his story with humor and modesty, as well as deep appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s worked with. He comes across as very human and not overly impressed with his own celebrity — it’s a friendly, chummy memoir about a boy who ended up following a very unusual path. Lots of fun — definitely recommended.

Book Review: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

Title: Poster Girl
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction/dystopian
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

WHAT’S RIGHT IS RIGHT.

Sonya Kantor knows this slogan–she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation.

Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives.

Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past–and her family’s dark secrets–than she ever wanted to.

With razor sharp prose, Poster Girl is a haunting dystopian mystery that explores the expanding role of surveillance on society–an inescapable reality that we welcome all too easily.

Most of the YA dystopian novels I’ve read follow a similar story arc. We learn about the society and all the ways in which it’s awful, we follow a plucky hero as they work to overthrow the government, and we end with a victory.

But what happens after the victory? When the bad guys are toppled from power, what takes their place? And what happens to the many people who lived under the old regime — not major evil-doers, but those who, one way or another, ended up on the wrong side of history?

In Poster Girl, marketed as an adult novel rather than YA, author Veronica Roth shows us one particular post-dystopian world. We meet Sonya Kantor, daughter of an influential figure within the Delegation, the toppled autocratic government. Sonya herself was deemed “mediocre” by the Delegation and never did anything considered particularly important… until her father asked her if she’d like to be featured on an official Delegation poster. Ten years after the Delegation’s demise, Sonya is still known as Poster Girl — and nobody means that as a good thing anymore.

Sonya is imprisoned in the Aperture, a former block of apartment buildings heading slowly toward decay, now a prison for people associated with the Delegation (but not having done anything quite heinous enough to get sent to a more formal prison, or worse). The outside world seems content to let the residents of the Aperture fade away, in shoddy living conditions and inadequate food, and absolutely no hope of anything other than remaining there until they eventually die.

But when a new policy comes into effect by which Children of the Delegation — those imprisoned while minors — can be freed, Sonya remains just the wrong side of the age cut-off. Initially imprisoned at seventeen, she’s now 27 and just a teeny bit too old to qualify for release… until a former acquaintance offers her a too-good-to-be-true deal: Find a long-missing child on behalf of the Triumvirate, the new governing body, and she’ll earn her freedom at last.

As Poster Girl moves forward, we see Sonya navigate the changed city outside the Aperture’s walls, learning what has changed (and what hasn’t) in the years of her incarceration. It’s hard to hope, but harder to walk away, even though the idea of freedom doesn’t necessarily offer her any promise of happiness. With no family or friends on the outside, what could possibly await her?

I found Sonya’s challenge to be quite intriguing. She’s not a straight-forward hero. She’s done some lousy things in her past, blithely went along with the Delegation’s rules, victimized others for her own benefit. And yet, the prospect of a hopeless life within the Aperture makes Sonya sympathetic. Despite her past, she’s clearly trying to help others in her present, and her complicated mix of guilt and remorse make her an interesting character, morally grey, but trying and hoping to be better.

For me, this look into a post-dystopian world presented a unique take on a disjointed imagined future. As I mentioned earlier, I’m used to dystopian fiction that ends right after the victory. Hurray, the evil government has been overthrown! But the question of what comes next presents more nuanced questions to consider. Is the replacement government truly better? What’s life like for average people in the new society? Are people better off? Who determines which people end up on the right side of history?

Poster Girl features fascinating characters in a thought-provoking situation. While some of the action and investigation sequences felt a little unrealistic, overall, I thought the storyline was well written. Fast-paced and never dull, Poster Girl is well worth the read!

Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Spare Man
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: October 11, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.

It’s always a treat when a favorite author releases a new book, and even more so when it turns out to be exactly the book I needed!

While I treated myself to a signed copy of The Spare Man (and the assorted goodies that came with it) AND watched an excellent online author talk, both several months ago, it wasn’t until this quiet week between Christmas and New Year that I finally dedicated some time to cuddle up and enjoy the book.

My book and goodies!

I’m happy to say that (a) it was well worth the wait! and (b) the mix of humor, a cute dog, a tricksy murder plot, space travel, and cocktail was just what I needed.

A brief aside: The fate of fictional doggos can be really stressful for readers, so let me just start by saying that GIMLET IS THE BEST and that Gimlet is perfectly fine from start to finish. No dog trauma to worry about!!

Back to the book:

The plot centers around Tesla Crane and her new husband Shal Steward, two madly-in-love newlyweds who just want to canoodle in their luxury suite aboard the ISS Lindgren on their cruise to Mars. Tesla is a world-famous, insanely rich inventor/roboticist, and Shal is a retired detective who’s mad about his spouse.

The couple is accompanied by Gimlet, the world’s cutest Westie. Gimlet is not only supremely adorable, but also key to Tesla’s ability to cope and function: Tesla is dealing with severe pain and physical challenges stemming from a terrible accident that left her with spinal injuries and PTSD, and Gimlet is her magnificent service dog. (Yes, I’m raving a lot about Gimlet — you will too, once you meet her!)

Even on-duty, Gimlet was fully aware that she was, indeed, the most adorable and worthy creature ever assembled by nature or laboratory. Her tail was generating its own electrical current of delight.

Unfortunately, Tesla and Shal’s romantic adventure is interrupted almost immediately by a murder. Inconveniently for the continuation of their honeymoon bliss, being first on the scene at a stabbing also makes them prime subjects. Soon, the couple is caught up in nasty handling by the ship’s security team, forced isolation, ongoing suspicion, and (gasp) interference with their expensive luxury gin of choice.

When Shal is detained as a prime suspect, what’s Tesla to do but start an investigation of her own? With complications such as look-alike bartenders, high-profile magicians, competing robotics entrepreneurs, and more, the quest to uncover the truth and exonerate Shal takes nonstop twists and turns, complicated by the strange effects of space travel, centrifugal force, lagged communications, and more.

The plot is complicated, but the heavier moments focusing on Tesla’s past trauma and her ongoing pain and flashbacks are lightened by healthy doses of banter and doggo cuteness. Each chapter starts with a cocktail recipe — some classics, some invented just for this book — all of which make me want to take up mixology as a hobby.

The Spare Man handles gender, racial, and ability diversity very well, never in a preachy way, but with a matter-of-fact approach that keeps the focus on the story while also portraying a future in which inclusion is just a given.

There’s quite a bit of humor in the book, from Tesla’s long-distance, time-lagged calls with her crochet-loving, insult-spraying lawyer to her descriptions of various characters (my favorite being the huge security officer described as the “wall of Bob”).

Tesla and Shal have terrific chemistry — love and passion, intellectual sparring, deep connection, and unmatchable cleverness. I did wish we’d learned more about their background as a couple — how they met, fell in love, got married — but even without that background, it’s easy to love seeing them together and enjoy the hell out of their interactions.

The murder-mystery plot is convoluted but lots of fun, with plenty of red herrings and distractions, quirky characters and suspects, and some bonkers complications that arise from setting what is essentially a closed-circle mystery onboard an interplanetary cruise ship.

(Note: For more on some key types of mysteries, see this reference or this explanation of the difference between a locked-room mystery and a closed-circle mystery.)

I’ve heard the author (and others) refer to this book as “The Thin Man in space”. Never having read the Thin Man books or seen any of the movies, this comparison doesn’t do a whole lot for me — but after checking out a few quick video clips, I can see how people who appreciate The Thin Man might really find The Spare Man a hoot. But even without this element, the book absolutely worked for me.

All in all, I adored The Spare Man. Murder, quippy dialogue, space travel, and an amazing dog — who could ask for more?

Book Review: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Carrie Soto Is Back
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 30, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this powerful novel about the cost of greatness, a legendary athlete attempts a comeback when the world considers her past her prime—from the New York Times bestselling author of Malibu Rising.

Carrie Soto is fierce, and her determination to win at any cost has not made her popular. But by the time she retires from tennis, she is the best player the world has ever seen. She has shattered every record and claimed twenty Grand Slam titles. And if you ask Carrie, she is entitled to every one. She sacrificed nearly everything to become the best, with her father, Javier, as her coach. A former champion himself, Javier has trained her since the age of two.

But six years after her retirement, Carrie finds herself sitting in the stands of the 1994 US Open, watching her record be taken from her by a brutal, stunning player named Nicki Chan.

At thirty-seven years old, Carrie makes the monumental decision to come out of retirement and be coached by her father for one last year in an attempt to reclaim her record. Even if the sports media says that they never liked “the Battle-Axe” anyway. Even if her body doesn’t move as fast as it did. And even if it means swallowing her pride to train with a man she once almost opened her heart to: Bowe Huntley. Like her, he has something to prove before he gives up the game forever.

In spite of it all, Carrie Soto is back, for one epic final season. In this riveting and unforgettable novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her most vulnerable, emotional story yet.

I’ve read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books by now, have loved most, and at a minimum, have really liked even the ones that didn’t quite rise to 5-star levels for me. But I hesitated — a LOT — about reading Carrie Soto Is Back. A book about a tennis player? How could that possibly be relevant to me?

I should have had more faith! In the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid, even a book on a subject I didn’t expect to care about managed to pull me in and hook me until the end.

Carrie Soto was born to be a tennis star. Daughter of a man who was himself a tennis phenomenon, she’s been on courts since she was a toddler. Under the coaching of her father Javier, Carrie’s entire existence has been focused on one thing only: being the best. Period.

The first section of the book is about Carrie’s rise to the top. From her childhood training sessions to the all-consuming process of going pro, to finally becoming the woman who set record after record by winning the most Grand Slam titles in history, Carrie is untouchable in her success. She also has earned the nickname of “The Battle-Axe” (and worse things) — she’s ruthless and unabashedly (some might say cruelly) competitive. She doesn’t pretend to be polite or nice. She wants to destroy her opponents on the court, and she does, tournament after tournament. She’s the most well-known woman athlete of her time… but no one actually likes her.

The story really heats up in the mid-90s, when Carrie, several years after retirement, sees her Grand Slam record broken by a younger player, Nicki Chan. Carrie feels as though her entire existence is being called into question. At the “old” age of 37, Carrie decides to win back her record. And despite exactly no one in the world of tennis thinking she can do it, Carrie and Javier set out to prove — one more time — what she’s capable of.

Carrie is a hard character to like, which is entirely intentional. She’s driven and focused — nothing but tennis and being the best matter to her. She has no use for flattery or friendship. She’s not here to make nice. She’s here to win. Yet as we spend time with Carrie, we get to see more of what drives her, and finally start to see the chinks in her armor give way, just a tiny bit, as she admits to herself that she does actually need people in her life.

I’ll admit that I had a hard time with parts of this book. I mean, I really have no experience with tennis, so reading shot-by-shot descriptions of each match felt a little much at times. Still, once I got into the rhythm of the book, I did find myself absorbed by Carrie and Javier’s meticulousness in their strategy and gameplay. If you’d asked me before I read Carrie Soto Is Back, I’d have said that tennis is just two people hitting a ball back and forth until one misses. But now, I have a much greater appreciation for the minutiae of shot planning and match strategy, and have a little bit more understanding of the complexity of what actually happens on the court.

As for the emotional impact, it’s slow to hit, but eventually, I felt very invested in Carrie’s comeback, especially as we spend so much time on her inner world and get to see how it aligns (or doesn’t) with what the rest of the world sees. Carrie is difficult and prickly, but there’s an inner core that a few people manage to reach, and when we see Carrie’s connection with certain people, it’s quite lovely.

As a book set in the world of professional tennis in the 80s and 90s, there are depictions of the casual sexism of the time that are just astonishing. Not that our own time is free of this, but we have definitely come a long way. The cruelty of the sports commentators and media coverage, as shown through transcripts throughout the book, is just infuriating — and made me root for Carrie all the more.

Overall, I’m glad that I finally picked up Carrie Soto Is Back. It’s a fast, engrossing read about an unusual, powerful woman. Despite my initial hesitation, this book is a winner.

Audiobook Review: Well Traveled (Well Met, #4) by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Traveled
Series: Well Met, #4
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: December 6, 2022
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased (audiobook); e-ARC via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Renaissance Faire is on the move, and Lulu and Dex are along for the ride, in the next utterly charming rom-com from Jen DeLuca.

A high-powered attorney from a success-oriented family, Louisa “Lulu” Malone lives to work, and everything seems to be going right, until the day she realizes it’s all wrong. Lulu’s cousin Mitch introduced her to the world of Renaissance Faires, and when she spies one at a time just when she needs an escape, she leaps into the welcoming environment of turkey legs, taverns, and tarot readers. The only drawback? Dex MacLean: a guitarist with a killer smile, the Casanova of the Faire… and her traveling companion for the summer.

Dex has never had to work for much in his life, and why should he? Touring with his brothers as The Dueling Kilts is going great, and he always finds a woman at every Faire. But when Lulu proves indifferent to his many plaid charms and a shake-up threatens the fate of the band, Dex must confront something he never has before: his future.

Forced to spend days and nights together on the road, Lulu’s interest in the kilted bad boy grows as he shows her a side of himself no one else has seen. The stresses of her old lifestyle fade away as she learns to trust her intuition and follow her heart instead of her head. But when her time on the road is over, will Lulu go with her gut, or are she and Dex destined for separate paths?

Four books in, Jen DeLuca’s Well Met series is going strong, consistently hitting the sweet spot of mixing unexpected romantic pairing with a super fun setting — the world of Renaissance Faires.

In Well Traveled, the focus shifts to Louisa “Lulu” Malone, whom we met in book #3 (where she was introduced as the cousin of the male romanctic lead). Here, Lulu takes center stage, and she’s a great character to tag along with.

Raised in a high-achieving, highly competitive family, Lulu is an intensely driven attorney working her butt off for partner status… but getting passed over year after year with promises that it’ll be different next time. Out of town on a pointless assignment, Lulu decides to unwind by visiting the nearby RenFaire (which she associates with her beloved cousin Mitch), but even in her few moments of relaxation, the demands of work keep her cell phone ringing and buzzing the entire time. Finally pushed too far, Lulu quits in dramatic and memorable style, but then doesn’t quite know what to do with herself.

Fortunately, the nearby performing group all know Mitch, and with his encouragement, invite Lulu to tag along with them for the next few stops on the Faire circuit, which will eventually lead to Mitch’s hometown, a place of refuge for her. With nothing else on the horizon, Lulu accepts the offer, and soon finds herself on the road and camping out with the Dueling Kilts — whose guitar-playing singer Dex is hot and charming, but has the reputation of being the ultimate player and king of the pick-up and hook-up.

Lulu and Dex become friendly, and Lulu also starts to find herself in this new world of Faire life. She learns how to put on a bodice and skirt and wander the lanes of Faire, making herself useful by serving turkey legs or passing the tip basket after Dueling Kilts performances. When she comes across a trio of fortune tellers who draw huge crowds that they can never quite accommodate, Lulu realizes that they need her help, and soon becomes their de facto “office manager”, organizing their schedules, taking appointments, and along the way, shedding her own skepticism and learning more about tarot, gems, and crystals.

The central storyline has two main points of focus — Lulu’s search for purpose, and her growing attraction to Dex. Lulu does not want to return to the old-boys-club world of corporate law, but she does still love her profession, and wants to figure out how to practice law without selling her soul. Meanwhile, as they travel together and share a small camper in very close quarters, Lulu’s connection to Dex deepens, and she begins to see that there’s more to him than the flirty, sexy guy who supposedly has a woman at every Faire.

What can I say? This book is sweet and loads of fun, and makes me want to chuck it all and run away with the Renaissance Faire! Lulu’s search for meaning is touching and relatable, and I enjoyed seeing her struggle not just with her romantic life, but with embracing her need for emotional fulfillment and recognizing that success doesn’t have to mean making work the only focus of her life.

I did get annoyed toward the end of the book, when miscommunications and assumptions seem to derail her relationship with Dex and threaten to permanently separate them. Of course, this is a romance, so a happily-ever-after is guaranteed. Yes, of course there has to be an obstacle before the HEA resolution, but the obstacles here seemed a little short-sighted and silly for such a smart woman to see as insurmountable.

All in all, this is yet another super enjoyable installment in a terrific series. I haven’t seen any promises of a 5th book yet, but I certainly hope there’s another on the way! I always enjoy these visits to the RenFaire. Let’s lift a tankard of mead and give a big huzzah to the world of Well Met!

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Title: Remarkably Bright Creatures
Author: Shelby Van Pelt
Publisher: Ecco
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For fans of A Man Called Ove, a charming, witty and compulsively readable exploration of friendship, reckoning, and hope, tracing a widow’s unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn’t dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors–until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova’s son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it’s too late.

Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel is a gentle reminder that sometimes taking a hard look at the past can help uncover a future that once felt impossible.

If I tell you that I’m recommending a book with parts narrated by an octopus, would you think I’m joking? I hope not, because I’m hear to tell you that Remarkably Bright Creatures (a) has an octopus as one of its POV characters and (b) is simply too great to miss!

Remarkably Bright Creatures opens with Tova, a 70-year-old woman, a life-long resident of Sowell Bay, Washington, and a night-shift aquarium employee. Tova loves the solitude and peace she finds in lovingly cleaning every nook and cranny of the aquarium after hours, saying a quiet hello to each animal on display as she cleans the glass of their enclosures and wipes the floor.

Tova does not actually have to work for a living — she’s a widow with enough funds to living comfortably in her house and not worry about her financial situation. However, she’s also a deeply sad and lonely person. Yes, she has friends (the “Knit-Wits”) whom she gets together with each week, and the own of the local grocery store seems to have a massive (but unrequited) crush on her. For thirty years, though, Tova has been carrying the deep grief filling her heart after the death of her only son, 18-year-old Erik, in a boating accident that’s never been fully explained.

Soon after we meet Tova, we also meet Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who observes the world around him from within his enclosure, and who narrates the story of his captivity and his knowledge of his impending demise as he nears the end of his species’ typical lifespan. Marcellus sees all and understands everything he sees. He’s also an escape artist, letting himself out of his enclosure through the tiniest of gaps to roam the aquarium at night in search of treats (the sea cucumbers are particularly yummy, although he tries to hold back to prevent anyone starting to question why the sea cucumber population keeps decreasing).

Oh, and also? Marcellus is super funny:

IF THERE IS ONE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION HUMANS never exhaust, it is the status of their outdoor environment. And for as much as they discuss it, their incredulity is . . . well, incredible. That preposterous phrase: Can you believe this weather we’re having? How many times have I heard it? One thousand, nine hundred and ten, to be exact. One and a half times a day, on average. Tell me again about the intelligence of humans. They cannot even manage to comprehend predictable meteorological events.

When Tova and Marcellus cross paths on one of his midnight adventures, they connect and seem to understand one another. While Tova can only wonder whether what she picks up from him is real or just something she imagines, we know from Marcellus’s POV chapters that he knows much more than Tova could dream of, including some key facts about Erik’s disappearance.

As the story progresses, more characters are introduced… including Cameron, a 30-year-old man who’s been rootless and unable to stick with anything in his life, ever since being abandoned by his mother as a young child. When he stumbles upon a lead that might just help him identify his biological father, he hits the road for Sowell Bay, where his path becomes entwined with that of Tova and Marcellus.

Does this sounds weird to you? Yes, Marcellus is a very unusual narrator — but at its heart, Remarkably Bright Creatures is about connection, family, and love. Tova is a tough character in some ways, so entrenched in her ways, so determined to keep herself apart from others and not let herself be touched by other people’s care or warmth. Yet we see throughout the book how her pain and loss have informed the rest of her life, so even though she has good memories of her life with her late husband, the shadow of her son’s death has darkened every moment since.

I loved seeing Tova’s interactions with Marcellus, and how just that little bit of understanding that passes between them enables her to open up to life once more. The story of Cameron’s search for his father is amusing, but the outcome is obvious from the start, so while I enjoyed some of his misadventures, parts seemed to take slightly too long to get resolved.

That’s really just a minor quibble. Overall, I loved the freshness of the viewpoints in this story, and the lovely sense of heart and connection that lies underneath the action. The characters are memorable, the storytelling is lovely (and has plenty of funny moments to balance out the sadness), and the book ends with a very satisfying wrap-up.

I really enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures, and absolutely recommend it.

Book Review: The Vibrant Years by Sonali Dev

Title: The Vibrant Years
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Mindy’s Book Studio
Publication date: December 1, 2022
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Kindle freebie
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When sixty-five-year-old Bindu Desai inherits a million dollars, she’s astounded―and horrified. The windfall threatens to expose a shameful mistake from her youth. On an impulse, Bindu quickly spends it on something unexpected: a condo in a posh retirement community in Florida.

The impulsive decision blindsides Bindu’s daughter-in-law, Aly. At forty-seven, Aly still shares a home with Bindu even after her divorce from Bindu’s son. But maybe this change is just the push Aly needs to fight for her own dreams.

As Bindu and Aly navigate their new dynamic, Aly’s daughter, Cullie, is faced with losing the business that made her a tech-world star. The only way to save it is to deliver a new idea to her investors―and they want the dating app she pitched them in a panic. Problem is, Cullie has never been on a real date. Naturally, enlisting her single mother and grandmother to help her with the research is the answer.

From USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev comes a heartfelt novel about three generations of hilarious, unconventional, ambitious women who embark on a shared journey of self-discovery. Join the Desai women as they come together to embrace the hijinks and heartbreak of facing their greatest fears to finally live their most vibrant lives.

Having read and enjoyed Sonali Dev’s Rajes series, which riffs on Jane Austen’s novels while also introduces a large, dynamic Indian American family, I was eager to grab The Vibrant Years when Amazon offered it as a free First Reads book in November. Seeing that this is Mindy Kaling’s first book club selection (Mindy’s Book Studio) made me even more keen to read it.

In The Vibrant Years, we follow three generations of interesting women as they navigate work, love, and family. Bindu inherits money (although she hides the true source from her family) and decides to break out of her steady, modest life as a widow and grandmother and become “vibrant”. She moves into a fancy senior community and becomes the belle of the ball, attracting both eager suitors and the envy and cattiness of what she refers to as “the coven” — the women of the HOA who watch and criticize her every move.

Bindu’s daughter-in-law Aly is a journalist with a local TV station who just can’t seem to get her big break. Despite landing the biggest interview imaginable for the station, her boss wants the more relatable (i.e., whiter) reporter to actually carry out the interview. Aly fights for herself and her career, while also worrying about her daughter and resenting her ex-husband, who never truly supported her professional goals and dreams.

Aly’s daughter Cullie is a tech whiz who, at 25, is the creator of the world’s most successful mental health app, but is now at risk of having her vision compromised by the funder’s pursuit of even more money. Her only hope of saving the app she believes in so strongly is to give the funder something new to profit off of, but her attempt to make a better dating app seems to be headed for failure.

As the story progresses, we get tantalizing hints of Bindu’s hidden past. Something significant happened when she was seventeen — but her enraged parents forced her into a very different life of domesticity and devotion to being a wife and mother rather than risk any hint of shame or scandal. Bindu has never talked about her past, but certain reminders continue to pop up, and it seems like the past won’t remain forgotten for much longer.

The Vibrant Years is perhaps more heartfelt and serious than the synopsis implies, but the promised “hijinks” definitely play a part too. The book neatly balances some truly awful (and hilarious) dating situations with the inner lives of the three main characters, adding humor to heartbreak and loss and self-doubt. (I’m not sure I’ve ever read about dates quite as bad as these… )

Bindu is really the star of the book, a truly “vibrant” woman who gives herself freedom to finally live her own life at age 65. She refuses to be the meek grandmother she seemed destined to remain, but instead puts herself out into the world with bold colors, independent choices, and a fiery defiance that is awesome to behold. There were times in the story when I wished the story of her teen years was told more sequentially, to give us time to really invest in it and see it unfold, but by the end of the book, it’s clear what happened. The revelations are powerful and emotional.

I felt less invested in Aly and Cullie, but still enjoyed their character development, their struggles, and their determination to achieve their goals and also fight for their chances at personal happiness. The dynamics between the three women are not always smooth and peaceful, but their love is unconditional. When’s the last time you read a book about such a loving bond between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law? I really liked the strong and unconditional connection between all three characters. No matter the challenges, their love and support gets each of them through the worst days and helps them find hope.

Overall, I really enjoyed this family story. Each character is memorable in her own right, and the love between the three is what really makes The Vibrant Years shine.

Book Review: Scattered Showers by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Scattered Showers
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday books
Publication date: November 8, 2022
Length: 282 pages
Genre: Short stories
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rainbow Rowell has won fans all over the world by writing about love and life in a way that feels true.

In her first collection, she gives us nine beautifully crafted love stories. Girl meets boy camping outside a movie theater. Best friends debate the merits of high school dances. A prince romances a troll. A girl romances an imaginary boy. And Simon Snow himself returns for a holiday adventure.

It’s a feast of irresistible characters, hilarious dialogue, and masterful storytelling—in short, everything you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell book.

A new book by Rainbow Rowell is always a treat — and while I tend to shy away from short story collections, there was no way that I’d pass this one by.

Scattered Showers is a collection of nine stories, four previously published (of which I’d read three), and five brand new for this book. Familiar characters make appearances, but there’s lots of new stuff too. Overall, the tone is upbeat and often romantic. Content skews YA, but there’s some adult fiction too.

About the individual stories:

Midnights: Previously published in the anthology My True Love Gave to Me (2014). This one was new to me, A sweet friends-to-romance story, taking place over a series of New Year’s Eves. I liked it!

Kindred Spirits: Previously published as a stand-alone for World Book Day (2016). A re-read for me, but I was happy to read it again. A teen girl who’s a die-hard Star Wars fan decides to wait on line for the four days leading up to the release of the new movie. The experience isn’t what she expected it to be… but it’s just what she needs.

Winter Songs for Summer: New to this edition. Set in a college dorm, a girl who blasts sad music to wallow in her heartbreak is confronted by the boy whose room is directly under hers. At first, he just wants her to listen to something other than the song that’s driving him bananas, but as they share music and then cafeteria meals, they (of course) find an unexpected connection.

The Snow Ball: Also new. Two best friends, Owen and Libby, always spend Christmas Eve at home together watching movies… until the year Owen decides it’s time to go out. Romantic and positive and lots of fun.

If the Fates Allow: Originally published as an Amazon (and Audible) Original in 2021, I’d listened to the story already. The main character is Reagan, who we know from tthe Fangirl novel. Here, college is in the past, and we’re in the first year of the pandemic. Reagan goes to spend Thanksgiving with her isolated grandfather, but finds a surprising friendship with the young man spending the holiday next door. A socially distanced conversation from their neighboring back decks has Reagan reconsidering some of her non-COVID-related solitary ways.

The Prince and the Troll: Another one originally released as a stand-alone Amazon Original (2020), it’s a fairy tale-esque tale of a modern man who encounters a friendly bridge troll. There’s some climate change elements and odd concepts about life on the Road; it feels like a fable at times, but there’s also quite a lot of Starbucks involved. I felt that I didn’t really get it when I first listened to the audiobook, and reading it as part of Scattered Showers, it didn’t feel any clearer for me.

Mixed Messages: This new story mostly consists of texts between two friends, Beth and Jennifer, two main characters from the author’s 2011 novel Attachments. You don’t have to have read Attachments to appreciate the story. The characters are now in their forties, and we get a glimpse of their lives, their hopes and disappointments, and how their friendship has supported them both across the years. It’s lovely.

Snow for Christmas: A Simon Snow story! If you’re a Simon fan (count me in!), you’ll absolutely want to read this sweet story about Simon and Baz’s Christmas. Set after the events of the Simon series, it just made me really happy to see where these two are in their lives.

In Waiting: This quirky story might just be my favorite of the bunch! I won’t say anything about it, but it’s absolutely worth checking out!

Summing it all up:

This book is a treat for Rainbow Rowell fans! And the physical book itself is lovely, with a shiny cover, blue-colored page ends, cute illustrations throughout, and a ribbon placeholder. Definitely a great gift idea for anyone who loves the Simon books or any other of this author’s books and characters.