Audiobook Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Title: By the Book
Series: Meant to Be, #2
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Narrator: Sarah Hollis
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 42 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.

All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?

But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

Everybody, sing along!

There’s something sweet and almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
And now he’s dear and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

In By the Book, Disney publishing comes through with another endearing fairy tale adaptation, thanks to the clever imaginings of Jasmine Guillory. It’s Beauty and the Beast with a modern, grown-up spin, set in the world of publishing, and it’s all very, very charming.

For Izzy, every day is like the one before…

When she first landed her job at TAOAT Publishing (that’s Tale As Old As Time, of course), she was starry-eyed and thrilled to finally be entering the world of books. But a couple of years on, she’s stuck as an editorial assistant, with a boss who doesn’t take the time to give feedback, and a coworker who slyly undermines Izzy’s confidence under the guise of sympathy.

While attending an industry conference in LA, Izzy gets her moment to do something bold: Her boss is frustrated by celebrity Beau Towers, who has yet to deliver even a word of his memoir under contract. He refuses to even respond to emails. Izzy boldly offers to knock on the door of his Santa Barbara mansion and offer her assistance in person.

Once she arrives, she’s wowed by Beau’s gorgeous home — so beautiful it’s practically enchanted! — but less impressed by his surly demeanor. Still, by the time their initial confrontation takes place, it’s too late for her to make her flight back to New York, so she’s stuck as a guest for the night. Her room is gorgeous, and she falls so deeply in love with the luxurious bathtub that she feels like it’s talking to her.

I talk to inanimate objects like my teacup and the candlestick because Beau Towers doesn’t talk to me, and I feel like at any moment the teacup and candlestick will start, like singing and dancing for me.

By the next day, Beau grudgingly agrees to let Izzy stay and offer him writing pep talks, and they soon settle into a routine of writing together in his vast and breathtaking library.

This library was all her library dreams come true. […] Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined every wall, with those rolling ladders so you could reach each and every book.

Beau’s assistant cooks up amazing food for them, and Izzy even grudgingly tries the gray stuff — an energy drink — and it’s delicious!

FYI, Beau’s wifi password is Lum1ere!

Are you singing along yet? Don’t worry, I found myself breaking into song throughout this adorable book…

Of course, there are ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings, but Izzy comes to realize that underneath his beastly behavior, Beau actually is quite a prince. Izzy’s warmth and kindness melt his heart, and by the time she comes swooping down the main staircase in a long yellow dress, he’s completely smitten.

The romance is sweet, but maybe because of the fairy tale element, it’s also completely predictable. Of course it’s all going to work out! Of course they’ll find happiness despite their differences! Izzy’s career challenges are neatly resolved by the end as well, and every aspect of the story gets tied up with a pretty HEA bow.

I enjoyed the flirtation, the California scenery, and the glimpse into the world of publishing. I did find the stakes fairly low throughout the book, and the revelation of the bad guy’s deviousness is completely predictable (although this Gaston stand-in does not brag about his chest hair, spitting abilities, or use of antlers for his interior décor, and no one’s actual life is on the line, so he’s not quite as despicable as the Disney version).

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s most well-done and breezy, although the narrator’s habit of laughing whenever the lines in the books say “she laughed” got on my nerves after a while. Ignoring that, though, it was a really fun listen, and didn’t require a huge amount of focus or concentration in order to follow the story.

There are a ton of cute little nods to the Disney movie — from someone commenting that they feel like they should be wearing a tea cozy to Beau telling Izzy to “be my guest” to the flight attendant named Angela offering tea and cookies– and these all made for sweet giggle-inducing interludes throughout the book.

I mean, in the end, what’s not to enjoy about a Beauty and the Beast retelling? After all, it is…

… a tale as old as time.

As for what’s next in this series…

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t wait to find out which adaptation is in store for us!

Audiobook Review: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C. L. Polk
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Erewhon
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 49 minute
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken

I was not prepared to get as swept away by this book as I was!

In The Midnight Bargain, we’re transported to a world in which magical powers are the key to financial success… and belong squarely to the male population. Women with powers are seen as desirable in marriage because they’re most likely to provide magically gifted children. The catch is that women are not actually allowed to practice magic or study it seriously. Upon marriage, women are locked into silver collars that cut off their access to magic for as long as they wear it — supposedly to ensure the safety of future children, but (conveniently for their husbands) also ensuring that they’re kept under tight control.

For Beatrice, the idea of never developing her magical gift is horrifying. Her father, having speculated unwisely in business ventures, is on the verge of financial (and thus, social) ruin. Only a good marriage to the son of a wealthy family can save her own family. But Beatrice dreams of studying magic and strengthening her own powers, and her secret dream is to bind a powerful spirit to herself, making her ineligible to marry and giving her the opportunity to work behind the scenes to help her father build back his fortune.

Sadly, Beatrice’s father is a rigid conformist who is only focused on money and getting ahead. Bargaining season — the time each year when “ingenues” are placed on the marriage market and wealthy families compete to secure a good match — is the Clayborn family’s last chance to dig themselves out of debt, and there’s simply no way that her father will allow her to evade her duties. Beatrice knows that it’s a race against time to find the right grimoire that will unlock the mysteries of binding a spirit.

Her plans are confounded by Ysbeta Lavan, the powerful daughter of an incredibly wealthy family, who has her own reasons for wanting to escape bargaining season unmarried. A further complication is Ianthe Lavan, Ysbeta’s (super hot) brother, who falls for Beatrice just as hard as she falls for him. Beatrice’s feelings for Ianthe stand in contradiction to her personal goals. Can she give up her dreams of developing her magical gifts for the sake of true love, even if it means locking herself in a collar for the duration of her child-bearing years?

I hesitated a bit when starting this book, having read the author’s earlier Kingston Cycle trilogy and coming away from it with mixed feelings. While I admired the author’s inventiveness, I felt that the world-building in the trilogy wasn’t strong enough to satisfy me or provide sufficient groundwork for understanding the intricacies of the society the books portrayed. I worried that I might have a similar experince with The Midnight Bargain.

Fortunately, my worries were soon set to rest. While I do feel that more explanation would have been helpful at the start of the book, I easily became immersed in the plot anyway. I wished for more explanation of the countries named and their different customs, as well as some basics on geography. The world itself felt a little shakily defined.

However, I still was able to fully engage with the characters and enjoy the story. Beatrice’s quest is fueled not by a desire for personal power, but by her need to make her own decisions and be truly free. At one point, Ianthe swears that if they marry, he’ll leave her free of the collar whenever possible and support her pursuit of magic… but even that may not be enough. As Beatrice struggles with her choices, it’s clear that being allowed freedom isn’t the same thing as actually having freedom. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ journeys and conflicts, and I appreciated that decisions for the main characters are never clear choices between a right and wrong path.

The nature of the society is, of course, horrifying. There are some truly terrible scenes later in the book when it appears that Beatrice’s independence and agency will be stripped from her against her will, and I literally found myself short of breath during these moments! This is a fantasy world, but the stakes are women’s rights and the freedom to determine one’s own path and make one’s own choices. It feels real, despite the trappings of magic and spirits.

I listened to the audiobook, which was a truly captivating experience. The narrator, Moira Quirk, is a delight. Having listened to her narration of many of Gail Carriger’s books, I knew I’d be in for a treat with the audio version of The Midnight Bargain, and I definitely was not disappointed!

I’m so happy to have experienced The Midnight Bargain. The plot zips along, but packs quite an emotional punch too. With terrific characters, a compelling fantasy set-up, and high stakes, it’s hard to stop once you get started. Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson

Title: Ramón and Julieta
Author: Alana Quintana Albertson
Narrators:  Alexander Amado, Vanessa Vasquez
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 1, 2022
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 25 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When fate and tacos bring Ramón and Julieta together on the Day of the Dead, the star-crossed pair must make a choice: accept the bitter food rivalry that drives them apart or surrender to a love that consumes them.

Ramón Montez always achieves his goals. Whether that means collecting Ivy League degrees or growing his father’s fast-food empire, nothing sets Ramón off course. So when the sexy señorita who kissed him on the Day of the Dead runs off into the night with his heart, he determines to do whatever it takes to find her again.

Celebrity chef Julieta Campos has sacrificed everything to save her sea-to-table taqueria from closing. To her horror, she discovers that her new landlord is none other than the magnetic mariachi she hooked up with on Dia de los Muertos. Even worse, it was his father who stole her mother’s taco recipe decades ago. Julieta has no choice but to work with Ramón, the man who destroyed her life’s work–and the one man who tempts and inspires her.

As San Diego’s outraged community protests against the Taco King take-over and the divide between their families grows, Ramón and Julieta struggle to balance the rising tensions. But Ramón knows that true love is priceless and despite all of his successes, this is the one battle he refuses to lose. 

The vibrancy of Mexican culture in a San Diego neighborhood is threatened by gentrification — and in this contemporary romance version of Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert — with a much happier ending!), a Day of the Dead meet-cute throws together members of rival families with a long, bitter history.

from the author’s website

Dia de los Muertos is a very big deal in Old Town, San Diego. Besides attracting tourists, for the Mexican community, it’s a day of beautiful traditions honoring their loved ones who’ve passed away. Julieta, chef at a popular, authentic local restaurant in Barrio Logan, plans to sell her specialty tacos at a pop-up stand at the festival, and Ramón, CEO of the multi-million-dollar family business that owns a hugely successful chain of Taco King fast food joints, is planning to schmooze up the local politicians and gain a little last-minute publicity before sealing the deal to buy an entire block of Barrio Logan.

Dressed in full Dia de los Muertos costumes and face paint, when Ramón and Julieta have a chance encounter in a garden near the festival, there’s instant attraction and a deeper connection as well — but they don’t exchange real names and can’t see one another’s faces. Tired of her responsiblities and lack of pleasure in her life, Julieta makes the impulsive decision to go home with Ramón, but once back in his La Jolla mansion, about to remove her face paint, she realizes who he really is — he’s the enemy.

Decades earlier, as Julieta’s been told countless times, her mother was a young woman selling home-made fish tacos at a stand in Mexico, when a Mexican-American student on a surfing trip during spring break fell in love with her and her tacos. He never returned as promised, but he stole her family’s secret recipe and turned it into the key to Taco King’s success. When Julieta realizes that Ramón is the son of her family’s nemesis, who profited off of her family’s recipe all these years without ever acknowledging or compensating them, she’s livid and appalled.

Things become even worse the following day when Ramon’s offer on the block in Barrio Logan is accepted. Ramón’s father plans to raise all the rents, force the existing businesses out, and replace Julieta’s lovely restaurant with a flagship location for a new Taco King. This is war! But also, this is love… because despite their stance on opposing sides of this gentrification battle, Ramón and Julieta can’t deny their feeling or their attraction for one another.

from the author’s website

I enjoyed the depiction of the close-knit community of Barrio Logan, the sense of tradition and pride in the Mexican culture of the residents, and the absolutely amazing-sounding descriptions of spices and flavors and foods. But, these great elements are in many ways background to the romance, and that’s where the book didn’t particularly work for me.

First of all, the characters: Not only is Ramón CEO of the family empire, he’s also Stanford and Harvard educated. Not only is Julieta an amazing chef, but she’s been trained at Michelin-starred restaurants. [Side note: Why does every romance novel about foodies throw around Michelin stars? Why does everyone in business need a Harvard MBA?] They’re both gorgeous and have amazing bodies, of course. They’re not just reasonably nice people who meet and connect — they’re both stellar in every way. It’s too much.

Second, I just couldn’t help cringing over their dialogue and their inner thoughts. Within seconds of meeting, Julieta is admiring how good Ramón looks in his costume, including “that huge bulge in his pants”. But don’t worry, the ogling is two-sided, as Ramón notes about Julieta: “That ass was the kind that songs were written about”.

The supposedly romantic moments are super corny, and the sexy/steamy scenes are unnecessarily specific and graphic. Then again, I recognize that preferences about graphic vs implied sex vary widely among romance readers, so while this aspect didn’t work for me, it may not be a deal-breaker for other readers.

The audiobook features different narrators for chapters from Ramón and Julieta’s perspectives, although they each still have to depict the other character whenever there are scenes together, which means there are two different voices each for Ramón and Julieta — a little weird at times, since they sound so different. It’s a light listen, and overall, the audiobook presentation is well done and entertaining.

I gave Ramón and Julieta 3 stars: I really liked the creative use of Shakespearean inspiration in telling a modern tale and the way the story honors and depicts elements of Mexican heritage and the strong sense of community. It doesn’t rise above 3 stars for me, though, because of the hokiness of the love story — which, in a romance, should be its strongest element.

Ramón and Julieta is enjoyable, despite the cringe-factor. Apparently, it’s the first in a planned series called Love and Tacos. The pieces that didn’t work for me are enough to make me doubt whether I’d want to come back for more.

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.

Book Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Title: The Marriage Game
Author: Sara Desai
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased (paperback); Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he’s forced to share his space with the owner’s beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean… diverse characters, San Francisco setting, family matchmaking, and contemporary romance. What’s not to enjoy?

Sadly, this was a bust. I almost quit multiple times throughout the story, and by the end, managed to convince myself to finish by deciding to think of the book as a parody. (To be clear, it’s not a parody.)

The “marriage game” of the title has to do with arranged marriages. To start a more stable life after some dating and career disasters, Layla decides to meet the men her father secretly selected for her via a dating site focused on Indians looking for arranged marriages. Sam and Layla agree that if Layla finds a husband, she’ll give up the office they’re fighting over, but if she doesn’t, Sam has to leave.

I’m not going to rehash the plot, because I just don’t have the energy for it. But here are a just a few points about the worst elements of this book:

  • It reads as if the author is someone who has never actually stepped foot in a modern-day office and imagines all workplaces based on impressions from bad 80s and 90s movies. One the one hand, we have characters repeatedly reminding each other that “this is a place of business”, yet behaving so unprofessionally and inappropriately that it makes my toes curl. Sexual innuendo, sexual banter, sexual harassment, discussion of personal lives, comments about bodies, not to mention weird interpretations of office rules and a lack of all basic office etiquette. It’s awful.
  • Other than Sam (the lead male character), one friend of his who appears infrequently, and Layla’s dad, every male in this book is a predator, a criminal, a harasser, or just grossly blunt and crass and sexist and awful to women.
  • The “game” that Layla and Sam play makes no sense. He goes on her blind dates as her chaperone, then interferes with every single conversation and ruins/undermines every interaction, while Layla focuses on him and not the person she’s meeting. Granted, the dates are all duds, but the dudes never get a chance.
  • The blind dates are supposedly all men that Layla’s father has prescreened and put into his “yes” list of potential husbands for Layla, but either he has terrible taste or he didn’t bother doing even basic due diligence. Again, just awful.
  • So many cringe-worthy scenes. From a blind date with a restaurant owner who has menacing security goons, gang tattoos, and a prison record to one with a corporate VIP who informs Layla in the first 60 seconds that he wants to “bang” her, not marry her… it’s just not amusing at all.
  • There’s a truly disgusting scene involving Sam and his business partner’s party to woo potential clients — including strippers (and their pole), lots of booze, and even angel dust. Again, is this some sort of parody of 1980s corporate greed? Nope, it’s supposed to be set now. It’s gross, and the fact that they win the contract makes no sense at all. AT ALL.
  • The sexual banter and the way the sex scenes are written are not sexy. There’s a line about Layla being jealous of Sam’s shirt because it gets to cling to his muscles. Ugh.

I think you get the picture.

You may be wondering why I gave this book 1.5 stars when I so clearly did not like it? I figure it gets one star simply because I finished it, and the extra 1/2 star is to recognize Layla’s family. The scenes with all the aunties are fun, even if they feel too similar to every other book I’ve read about Indian American families. But the family dynamics (and the descriptions of all the food) at least provide some scenes that are enjoyable, so that’s got to count for something.

From what I see on Goodreads, there are two follow-up books currently available, centered on other characters in Layla and Sam’s world. As you can probably guess, I’m out — those books will get a hard pass from me.

Audiobook Review: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Title: The Blue Castle
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Narrator: Barbara Barnes
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: 1926
Print length: 249 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Classic fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

All her life, Valancy Stirling lived on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. At 29, she’s never been in love, and her only consolation has been the forbidden books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle.

Then, one day, she gets a letter and decides that things need to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels. At first, her family thinks she’s gone around the bend, but soon, she discovers a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.

The Blue Castle has been on my to-read/to-listen list for several years now. Ever since reading Anne of Green Gables a few years ago (making up for what was clearly a major deficiency in my childhood reading), I’ve been committed to reading more and more by L. M. Montgomery. And while I’ve now read the full Anne series as well as the Emily trilogy, I still hadn’t quite gotten to The Blue Castle… until now.

I associate L. M. Montgomery with writing charming, heartfelt tales about girls whose sense of wonder and imagination enables then to see the world in such a glorious, optimistic light. The Blue Castle, though, is about a grown woman, and I was curious to see how the author presents a story about an adult.

In The Blue Castle, the main character is Valancy Stirling, whose 29th birthday represents a dramatic turning point for her. Valancy lives with her mother and elderly cousin in a stifling, rule-bound, drab house, completely under her mother’s thumb. The family considers Valancy a somewhat pitiable old maid at this point. She’s never been known as a beauty, has paled in comparison with her lovely younger cousin Olivia, and has never been expected to do anything with her life but be obedient, laugh at her uncle’s awful jokes, and be meek all her life.

One her birthday, Valancy decides to secretly see the local doctor about a strange feeling she occasionally gets in her chest. The doctor is forced to rush off due to a family emergency, but days later, she gets a letter from him, regretfully informing her that she has a fatal heart condition and may have months, but certainly no more than a year left to live.

It’s bitter news for Valancy, who mourns not her impending death, but the fact that she has never lived. And so, with nothing left to lose, she decides to throw caution to the wind and finally, better late than never, live a real life.

Her actions and demeanor shock her family, who are convinced that she’s gone “dippy” — and when Valancy crosses what they see as an unforgiveable line, they decide to pretend that she’s dead.

Meanwhile, Valancy finds unexpected joy by embracing a new, adventurous life, seeking out people and places that make her happy, throwing aside society’s rules and soaking in the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of companionship based on respect and friendship and being open to experience.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. I’d imagine that in 1926, when the book was published, the surprises that come toward the end of the story might truly have been new and unexpected. As a 21st century reader, I absolutely saw most of the twists coming… but that’s okay. The joy is in the journey to get there, not in unraveling the plot points and figuring out just how Valancy’s story might end.

Valancy is a delightful main character, smart and open and loving, and I found her sass and bravery absolutely fabulous, once she makes the decision to remove herself from the rules and drudgery of her former life.

As in other L. M. Montgomery books, the setting is terrific. The Anne and Emily books are all set on Prince Edward Island, but the setting of The Blue Castle is the fictional area of Lake Mistawis, which apparently corresponds to the real Lake Muskoka in Ontario. In particular, Valancy’s home on an island on the lake is my ideal of a perfect little hideaway, simple and warm, surrounding by lakes and forests, and just such a lovely dream location.

The audiobook narration is quite good, capturing the officiousness of Valancy’s various relatives, as well as her own good nature and open attitude. Yes, some of the dialogue and phrases and terms of endearment sound hokey and outdated… but they’re from the 1920s, so of course they seem a little out of place now. Still, it’s a sweet and fast and enjoyable listen, and I’m so glad I finally experienced this lovely story.

And an added positive — I have at least three more of L. M. Montgomery’s books on my shelves! I’m looking forward to reading them all.

The cover of the 1980s edition, which cracks me up. I mean, the sweater tied over the shoulders! Absolutely wrong for the character… but so dorkily delightful all the same.

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!

Audiobook Review: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

The hardcover edition

Title: We Sold Our Souls
Author: Grady Hendrix
Narrator: Carol Monda
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 1 minute
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the 1990s, heavy metal band Dürt Würk was poised for breakout success — but then lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom as Koffin, leaving his fellow bandmates to rot in rural Pennsylvania.

Two decades later, former guitarist Kris Pulaski works as the night manager of a Best Western – she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Everything changes when she discovers a shocking secret from her heavy metal past: Turns out that Terry’s meteoric rise to success may have come at the price of Kris’s very soul.

This revelation prompts Kris to hit the road, reunite with the rest of her bandmates, and confront the man who ruined her life. It’s a journey that will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a Satanic rehab center and finally to a Las Vegas music festival that’s darker than any Mordor Tolkien could imagine. A furious power ballad about never giving up, even in the face of overwhelming odds, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul…where only a girl with a guitar can save us all.

As the book’s back cover proclaims:

METAL NEVER RETREATS. METAL NEVER SURRENDERS. METAL NEVER DIES.

We Sold Our Souls is about horror and metal and creativity and determination. It’s a little crazy, pretty freaking dark, and has some really icky moments… and yet, I found myself just loving this audiobook.

And hey, I’m not even a metal fan! But reading this book made me wish there was a soundtrack to go with it.

In We Sold Our Souls, we meet middle-aged Kris Pulaski — broken down, hopeless, leading a dead-end life. Once upon a time, she was a rising star along with her bandmates in Dürt Würk. But that was a long time ago, and she hasn’t even picked up a guitar in six years. But when Kris spots a billboard proclaiming the return of Koffin for one last tour, everything changes. Fired up by rage, Kris sets out to reconnect with her old bandmates and reclaim a piece of her past.

For Kris and the rest of Dürt Würk, success was once within reach. They were opening for Slayer, finally moving from seedy dive bars into the world of arena rock concerts — but then their lead singer Terry Hunt betrayed them all, convincing them all to sign contracts that guaranteed his own mega stardom but left them all in the dust. The problem is, Kris can’t quite remember what happened on “contract night”, and neither can anyone else. What really went on during the hours they all lost that night?

The answer is right there in the book’s title, but how they got there and what happens next makes this book so entertaining and hypnotic.

Dürt Würk’s mythology as Terry Hunt’s failed first band includes the story of their never-released album Troglodyte, rumored to have been a masterpiece yet supposedly destroyed and buried forever. As Kris sets on a quest to stop Terry and the evil fueling his success, it’s the music and lyrics of Troglodyte that give her the strength and courage to keep going, and she’s convinced that Troglodyte holds the key to finally getting back what was stolen from her.

I loved reading about Kris’s musical journey, from teaching herself guitar in her basement as a teenager, playing until her fingers bled, through building a band and launching their career. We really get to feel the rush of finding oneself in music, feeling the emotions and rage and beauty pour out through their songs.

The book is sprinkled throughout with the lyrics to the Troglodyte tracks, and hearing them recited in the audiobook (alas, not sung or with music to go with) made the experience a total treat. It’s dark, dark, dark, but oddly fascinating.

Black Iron Mountain is cold, cold, cold
The language they speak is old, old, old
And their lies are made of gold

Iron rain is falling
On the bodies of the slain
The Blind King keeps calling
Trapped inside a coffin made of pain

There are a few scenes that made me want to squirm right out of my body, being very gross and disturbing (and boy is that weird to listen to), but on the whole, the horror is more often expressed through slow builds and unseen terror than through outright gore (although there’s that too). Needless to say, maybe not a good choice if you’re squeamish.

The narrator’s voice comes across as raspy and a bit damaged, kind of how I’d imagine Kris would sound after all those years of hard living. The plot zips along, cleverly intercutting radio interviews about Koffin and Dürt Würk with scenes following Kris’s journey toward either vengeance or redemption.

I admit to being a tiny bit confused by a few things toward the end, but that’s okay. Overall, this book cast a spell on me and completely sucked me in. And look, I’ll never be a metal fan, but I am very much a fan of Kris Pulaski, guitar goddess extraordinaire!

We Sold Our Souls is a lot of fun — I’ve had a copy on my shelves for a few years now, and I’m glad I finally gave it a chance.

The paperback cover – so awesome that I want this edition too!

Audiobook Review: Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophia Cousens

Title: Just Haven’t Met You Yet
Author: Sophie Cousens
Narrator: Charlotte Beaumont
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of This Time Next Year comes a heartwarming and hilarious tale that asks: What if you pick up the wrong suitcase in an airport, only to fall head over heels for its unseen owner?

Laura’s business trip to the Channel Islands isn’t exactly off to a great start. After unceremoniously dumping everything in her bag in front of the most attractive man she’s ever seen in real life, she arrives at her hotel only to realize she’s grabbed the wrong suitcase from the airport. Her only consolation? The irresistibly appealing contents of the case: a copy of her favorite book; piano music; and a rugged, heavy knit fisherman sweater only a Ryan Gosling lookalike could pull off. The owner of this suitcase is Laura’s dream man–she’s sure of it. Now, all she has to do is find him.

The mix-up seems written in the stars. After all, what are the odds that she’d find The One on the same remote island where her mom and dad had first fallen in love, especially as she sets out to write an article about their epic romance? Commissioning surly cab driver Ted to ferry her around seems like her best bet in both tracking down the mystery suitcase owner and retracing her parents’ footsteps. And if beneath Ted’s gruffness lies a wit that makes their cab rides strangely entertaining, so much the better. But as Laura’s long-lost luggage soulmate proves difficult to find–and as she realizes that the love story she’s held on a pedestal all her life might not have been that perfect–she’ll have to rethink her whole outlook on love to discover what she really wants. 

In Just Haven’t Met You Yet, main character Laura’s belief in meant-to-be true love fuels her professional success, but leaves her constantly dissatisfied in every romantic relationship. Laura writes and produces segments on how couples met, swooning over chance encounters that seem like destiny. She was also raised with the ultimate story of written-in-the-stars love — her parents met one summer when her mother tracked down the other half of an old coin that was in her family’s possession, and through the coin, met Laura’s father. Laura grew up with her parents’ beautiful love story as a model for how love should really be.

When Laura needs a story to pitch at work, she lands on an idea related to her own past: Retracing her parents’ love story by going to the island of Jersey and following in their footsteps, recreating all the magical elements of that special summer when they first feel in love. Sadly, her parents’ marriage was cut short by her father’s tragic death when Laura was three years old, and Laura is still grieving her mother’s death only two years prior to the start of this story, but she believes that visiting Jersey will help her feel closer to her parents and may even help her find closure and a way to move forward.

What Laura doesn’t expect is to land in a meet-cute of her own. Arriving at her hotel in Jersey after a tense cab drive with a driver she was rude to, Laura discovers that she grabbed the wrong suitcase at the airport. But as she looks inside the suitcase to find the true owner’s identity, she seems to discover the man of her dreams — a copy of her favorite book, sheet music for songs by her favorite singer, the perfect fisherman’s sweater, a thoughtful gift for the suitcase owner’s mother… every single item manages to check her boxes for her perfect match.

Laura embarks on a search for the suitcase owner, at the same time being ferried around the island by the same grumpy cab driver. Hijinks ensue, lost family members share secrets, and Laura finds herself torn between a man who’s perfect on paper and another who seems to grab her heart.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is light-hearted and fun, with silly, goofy moments interspersed with more introspective interludes. Laura has a lot to sort out, between coming to a clearer understanding of her parents’ relationship to figuring out her own professional priorities to trying to untangle what makes a true soul mate.

My patience for Laura’s adventure was sorely tested at points, as she makes a series of ridiculous decisions that may have been intended to be endearing, but to me, just make her seem idiotically immature. Those scenes threatened to ruin my enjoyment of the book, but fortunately, there are enough other elements that are more charming and engaging, so ultimately I just overlooked the more ridiculous interludes.

The action of the book takes place mainly over one weekend, making the finding-true-love scenario feel somewhat implausible… but because this is such a breezy story, I was happy to just accept it, realistic or not, and go along for the ride.

I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed this book as much in print — but the audiobook experience is really fun. The banter and silliness comes across quite well, and I really liked the characters’ conversations and funny dialogue.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is not at all a serious book — but if you’re looking for light entertainment with a romantic angle, this one works!

Audiobook Review: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner

Title: That Summer
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Narrator: Sutton Foster
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Big Summer comes another timely and deliciously twisty novel of intrigue, secrets, and the transformative power of female friendship, set on beautiful Cape Cod.

Daisy Shoemaker can’t sleep. With a thriving cooking business, full schedule of volunteer work, and a beautiful home in the Philadelphia suburbs, she should be content. But her teenage daughter can be a handful; her husband can be distant, her work can feel trivial, and she has lots of acquaintances, but no real friends. Still, Daisy knows she’s got it good. So why is she up all night?

While Daisy tries to identify the root of her dissatisfaction, she’s also receiving misdirected emails meant for a woman named Diana Starling, whose email address is just one punctuation mark away from her own. While Daisy’s driving carpools, Diana is chairing meetings. While Daisy’s making dinner, Diana’s making plans to reorganize corporations. Diana’s glamorous, sophisticated, single-lady life is miles away from Daisy’s simpler existence. When an apology leads to an invitation, the two women meet and become friends. But, as they get closer, we learn that their connection was not completely accidental. Who IS this other woman, and what does she want with Daisy?

From the manicured Main Line of Philadelphia to the wild landscape of the Outer Cape, written with Jennifer Weiner’s signature wit and sharp observations, THAT SUMMER is a story about surviving our pasts, confronting our futures, and the sustaining bonds of friendship.

That Summer is a beautifully crafted story about women’s lives, women’s friendship, raising daughters, and keeping secrets. It’s going to be very hard to talk about without revealing major plot points, so I’m going to go light on content and talk instead about themes and how it made me feel.

First off, though — even though I tend not to include or want to read content warnings, I do think it’s important for readers to know in advance that this book includes sexual assault as a major plotline. While it’s handled sensitively and thoughtfully, please know that if this is a subject you find triggering in fiction, then this isn’t going to be a good reading experience for you.

Onward with That Summer! I won’t go into how or why, but the chance encounter described in the synopsis is much more intentional and meaningful than Daisy knows. As the book unfolds, we learn about Daisy’s early life, her choice to marry very young rather than complete college, and how her life has been shaped by her husband’s decisions. We also get to know Diana very well, and she is not what she seems… but while the initial set-up may seem like the start of a psychological thriller, it’s instead an exploration of the turning points in a young woman’s life and how an entire trajectory can be derailed by moments of tragedy and violation.

Beyond the POV chapters told from Diana and Daisy’s perspectives, there are also chapters where the action is seen through the eyes of Beatrice, Daisy’s 14-year-old daughter. These are fascinating as well, especially as the older women reflect back on their own tumultuous teen years and how those years shaped the women they’d become.

The writing in That Summer is lovely, especially the way the author so skillfully and thoughtfully shows us each main character’s inner world and how they experience the world around them. I loved getting to know both Daisy and Diana — and this is a big achievement, as the initial set-up led me to believe that Diana, clearly hiding something and with a secret agenda, would be a sinister or unlikable character, which is absolutely not the case.

The book is very much informed by the #MeToo movement and the moments of reckoning catching up with perpetrators of sexual assault. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ reactions to the seemingly daily news coverage of one celebrity or public figure after another being exposed for their bad behaviors — including the reactions of male figures in the characters’ lives, which vary from anger to disbelief to internalized guilt.

Sutton Foster is the narrator of That Summer, and I loved listening to her voice the varied characters. The book is a pleasure to listen to, as well as to read.

As I said, I’m going to keep this short because I just don’t want to delve into the plot any further, so I’ll wrap up simply by saying that I found this book moving and important, with a story that feels current and powerful, and character voices that truly shine. Don’t miss it.