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.

Audiobook Review: Rules at the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #2) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Rules at the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: Originally published 2010; reissued 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s summer, but school is in session in the delightful second book of New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan’s utterly charming School by the Sea series, set at a girls’ boarding school in Cornwall.

For the second year at Downey House, it’s getting harder and harder to stick to the rules . . .

Maggie Adair’s first year as a teacher at Downey House was a surprising success. After making the leap from an inner-city school in Glasgow, she’s learned to appreciate the mellower pace of the girls’ boarding school by the sea.

Now engaged to her longtime boyfriend, sweet and steady Stan, Maggie’s just got to stop thinking about David McDonald, her colleague at the boys’ school down the road. Well, hasn’t she? Can Maggie take a leaf out of the Well Behaved Teacher’s exercise book and stick to her plan for a small but elegant wedding and settled life of matrimony?

Even as Maggie tries to stay within the lines, rules are being broken all around her. Maggie’s boss, headmistress Veronica Deveral, has more to lose than anyone. When Daniel Stapleton joins the faculty, Veronica finds herself forced to confront a scandalous secret she thought she’d carefully buried forever. How long will she be able to keep her past under wraps?

What does a new year of classes, rules, and camaraderie hold for the students and faculty at Downey House?

After listening to the first book in the Little School series, Welcome to the School by the Sea, I thought I’d wait a bit and enjoy the anticipation before listening to the second… but in the end, I just had to see what happens next!

In Rules at the School by the Sea, we start a new school year alongside teacher Maggie, headmistress Veronica, and the rambunctious group of girls — Simone, Fliss, and Alice — we got to know in the first book.

Maggie is much more settled into her life at Downey House. She’s more confident in her teaching abilities, and plans to grab her girls’ attention by focusing on romantic poetry from the World War I era during English lessons. Maggie and her long-time boyfriend Stan have recently become engaged, but Maggie seems to be in a bit of denial: She doesn’t really have any interest in wedding plans, and despite Stan’s urging, really doesn’t want to leave Downey House and look for a teaching job in Glasgow.

For Veronica, she’s both thrilled to have her biological son teaching at the nearby boys’ school, but also worried about whether news of her having once given up a baby for adoption will create a scandal among her staff and the parents. Meanwhile, she and Daniel are cautiously beginning to get to know one another, but Veronica is finding it almost impossible to balance her growing love for her son and his family with her deeply ingrained need for privacy.

And the girls — well, what can we say about a bunch of 14 (almost 15) -year-old girls in all their glorious confusion of hormones and growing up and still being so very young in so many ways? A new girl, Zelda — the daughter of a US army officer temporarily stationed in the UK — shakes up the group of friends with her brashness and American approach to school, while Fliss and Alice fall out over a boy and Simone takes Zelda up on her offer of a total image makeover. There are arguments and rule-breaking and hilarity, and it’s quite fun to see the girls’ petty squabbles as well as their friendship and commitment to one another.

Rules is quite a lot of fun, capturing the excitement of the school year from the perspective of the students as well as that of the teachers. Overall, I quite enjoyed this 2nd book, but I did feel particularly frustrated by Maggie’s romance story line.

Maggie has been with Stan for ages and cares for him, but she’s so clearly in love with (and better suited for) David, the English teacher from the boys’ school. Maggie spends the entire book trying to convince herself that her crush on David is just a passing phase, and that she really does want to marry Stan — but it’s entirely obvious that she and Stan have grown apart and want very different things out of their lives. It seemed as though there were plenty of opportunities for Maggie to face the truth and take responsibility for breaking off the engagement with Stan, but each time, she backtracks and recommits, even though she isn’t actually happy.

I know this back-and-forth love triangle stuff is supposed to add drama and tension, but after a while, it just makes it seem as though Maggie is emotionally unaware, and that doesn’t feel true to her character. There’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending in the final chapter, but it does appear that Maggie has finally had an epiphany and is on the verge of taking action… and I hope that’s really the case! (This is why I’ll probably grab the 3rd book the very first second that I can — I need to know what happens next!!)

On a more serious note, the problematic focus on Simone’s weight from book #1 continues here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Simone making an effort to adopt healthy eating habits if that’s what feels right to her, but the over-emphasis on being slim in order to gain popularity and attract boys leads to an eating disorder for another of the girls in the group. On the one hand, I’m glad that the darker aspects of this focus on dieting are shown, but there’s still something very uncomfortable about how much weight and appearance matter in the girls’ lives. (Perhaps this is an aftereffect of the fact that this book was originally published in 2010 — if it were written today, I’d hope that the fat-shaming and focus on a specific standard for acceptable bodies would be addressed or eliminated altogether).

My frustration with the romance and the weight/dieting storylines aside, I did find Rules a sweet, entertaining, engaging read. I love how the storyline bounces between the adults and students, and how we get to see each sides’ attitudes and perceptions about the other. The characters are all quite endearing — even the obnoxious spoiled girls have something going for them — and the story as a whole is just such a yummy treat in the way it presents a somewhat idealized yet still modern-day version of life at a lovely boarding school.

This is the 2nd book in a series that was originally published over 10 years ago under a pseudonym, now being reissued with spiffed-up covers, titles, and the actual author’s name! The third reissue, Lessons at the School by the Sea, will be released in March 2023 — although since I have a paperback of the original version, I may have to read it much sooner. (Apparently, I am terrible at waiting.)

The audiobook is very enjoyable — I really liked the narrator’s approach to voicing the different characters. She does a very good job of capturing their personalities, although I found her version of an American/Texan accent for Zelda incredibly grating and overdone. Otherwise, though, it’s a charming listening experience.

And finally, one lovely bit is that the audiobook ends with a collection of Maggie’s poems — the poetry she teaches her class over the course of the school year. It was a sweet treat to get to hear all of these after the main story had concluded, and even though pieces of some of these are included earlier in the story, it was lovely to get to listen to them in their entirety. (My favorite of these is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou — see the full text here).

Another nice little bit at the end — after finishing the audiobook, I picked up my paperback edition and discovered that the final piece included is step-by-step instructions for some of the dances that the girls learn, including The Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow, and Eightsome Reel. (I can’t actually visualize the dances from reading the instructions, but seeing these pages is motivating me to go look for dance videos online.)

Wrapping it all up…

I love when a first book’s promise is delivered on in the second book, and that’s definitely the case with Rules at the School by the Sea. There’s much still unresolved plot-wise, but it’s wonderful to see these likable characters continue to learn and grow, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for all of them!

Book #3, to be released March 2023

Audiobook Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Title: I’m Glad My Mom Died
Author: Jennette McCurdy
Narrator: Jennette McCurdy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair. 

My kids and I spent countless hours watching iCarly, and we always loved that crazy Sam character, with her wild antics and silly schemes and out-there sense of humor. But now, having read Jennette McCurdy’s painful, raw memoir, I don’t think I could ever watch iCarly in quite the same way again.

The Goodreads synopsis (above) doesn’t really do justice to this book — if anything, it goes light on the depths of abuse and trauma portrayed through Jennette’s story. There’s very little here I’d describe as “hilarious” — and the “joy of shampooing your own hair”? Please. As we find out in the book, she was not allowed to shower on her own until late in her teens. There’s nothing joyful about it.

From an absurdly young age, Jennette was conditioned to make her mother’s happiness the absolute focus of her life. From the annual family ritual of watching an old video of her mother’s dying message to her kids (from an earlier bout with cancer, which she survived for another 20 years or so) to her mother’s emotional meltdowns if Jennette voiced her desire to quit acting, the mother’s narcissism and need to be in control was the dominant influence in the family’s lives.

As she describes so meticulously and painfully, every aspect of her life and career was dictated by her mother’s wishes and need for the spotlight, even if only available vicariously through her daughter. Jennette’s preferences didn’t matter. She was forced into auditions, acting classes, hours of dance lessons per week, and the pursuit of any other skill that casting directors might want. In one anecdote, she relates that after not getting cast for a part that required bouncing on a pogo stick, her mother immediately bought a pogo stick and forced her to practice on it in their backyard until she could get to a bazillion bounces in a row. Anything in pursuit of fame and success.

Much more dire than the endless lessons and “beauty” treatments is the eating disorder. As she began developing breasts on the cusp of puberty, Jennette’s mother offered to help her stay childlike (and therefore, more castable) by teaching her about “calorie restriction”. Essentially, the mother taught her own child how to be anorexic.

In addition to the severely unhealthy mother-daughter relationship, further trauma was inflicted by the toxic working conditions on the Nickelodeon set, in particular in regard to the man referred to in the book as “The Creator”, whose behavior paints him as creepy, emotionally abusive, and invasive — as well as being the person who gave the very young actress her first taste of alcohol.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and I have to be honest, it’s a very tough listen. Jennette McCurdy’s delivery is full of personality, and she certainly knows how to use her voice to evoke and portray emotion — but the story she tells is so gut-wrenching that it can be really hard to hear. Somehow, listening to her voice her own story makes it that much more painful — it feels very personal and real.

I’m Glad My Mom Died has a provocative and controversial title, but I think her point is very well articulated through her writing. She examines how there’s a whole culture built up around putting mothers on pedestals, and how incredibly difficult it can be for someone with an abusive mother to understand that she wasn’t perfect, and that she was in fact responsible for so much of the trauma in her child’s life.

As I’ve said, this book is not easy. While there are some funny moments, and the actress’s trademark deadpan delivery can be really offbeat and startle a laugh out of the listener, it’s overall quite serious and heartbreaking. As well as the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, there are very frank discussions of eating disorders and addiction, so readers for whom those topics are triggering may want to consider whether this is the right choice for them.

Overall, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a strong, deeply sad memoir, told with honestly and blistering forthrightness. It’s uplifting to learn how far the author has come in her personal growth and recovery, but that doesn’t change the harrowing truths about her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Jennette McCurdy bravely shares her truth in this book and makes a lasting impression.

Audiobook Review: Welcome to the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #1) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Welcome to the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: January 1, 2008 (reissued March 29, 2022)
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 54 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The first book of Jenny Colgan’s delightful new four-part series, set at a charming English boarding school on the sea.

Maggie went to the window and opened it wide, inhaling the lovely salt air off the sea. Why had she never lived by the sea before? Why had she always looked out on housing estates and not the little white hulls of trawlers bobbing off in the distance?

It’s gloriously sunny in Cornwall as the school year starts at the little boarding school by the sea. Maggie, the newest teacher at Downey House, is determined to make her mark. She’s delighted by her new teaching job, but will it come at the expense of her relationship with her safe, dependable boyfriend Stan?

Simone is excited and nervous: she’s won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school and wants to make her parents proud. Forced to share a room with the glossy, posh girls of Downey House, she needs to find a friend, fast.

Fliss is furious. She’s never wanted to go to boarding school and hates being sent away from her home. As Simone tries desperately to fit in, Fliss tries desperately to get out.

Over the course of one year, friendships will bloom and lives will be changed forever. Life at the Little School by the Sea is never dull…

Jenny Colgan books are always a treat, and this one was an especially nice surprise! Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Beaton starting in 2008, the three books in this series were hard to find in the US, and I finally landed copies of the UK editions (titled Class, Rules, and Lessons) by ordering via EBay.

The series is now being reissued by Avon, with books 1 and 2 available, and #3 coming in early 2023. Although I’ve had my paperbacks for several years, seeing the new editions made me realize that it was finally time to give this series a try!

The books are set at an English boarding school, Downey House, located in a beautiful old manor house on the shores of Cornwall. While there are several point-of-view characters, our lead character is Maggie Adair, a young teacher from Glasgow who applies to Downey House on a whim. Maggie cares deeply about education and providing opportunities for youth, but she’s frustrated by her early years of teaching in an underfunded school where the headmaster doesn’t even bother learning new teachers’ names, since he’s sure they won’t last. Maggie spends her days on discipline and making sure her students are safe and have food, rather than being able to actually teach her beloved literature.

The job offer at Downey is a surprise to Maggie, as well as to her long-term boyfriend Stan, a good-natured guy who just wants life to continue as it’s been, with pub quizzes and a non-changing status quo. But Maggie sees Downey as an opportunity to truly stretch herself and grow as a teacher, and hopes to one day bring what she’s learned there back to Glasgow and its lackluster schools.

Downey House is run by the stern but impressive headmistress Veronica Deveral, who has secrets of her own. It’s an all-girls school, with a partner boys’ school just down the road. Students enter at age 13 and continue on for six years. Most are from hyper-privileged families, with money (oodles of it), fancy homes and vacations, and the clear impression that the world is theirs. Not all, though — there are the occasional scholarship students, and one of these is Simone (originally with the last name Kardashian, but changed for the new editions to Pribetich).

Simone is from a working-class Armenian-British family, a brilliant girl who’s shy and insecure after years of bullying in her local school. Downey is a chance for her to shine, but even there, she’s ostracized by her classmates from day one because of her looks, her background, and her embarassing family.

Then there’s Fliss, the younger daughter of a very popular older student (she’s a prefect!), who absolutely doesn’t want to leave her friends back home and go to a stupid posh school. Fliss is determined to get kicked out, so she breaks rules, has a nasty attitude, and teams up with one of the worst girls there to cause trouble and act up.

Maggie has a hard time fitting in at first, and the girls are obnoxious as hell about her Scottish accent. Still, she’s clearly a gifted teacher, if a bit headstrong, and begins to make a difference, and she finds a friend in the glamorous French teacher (who smokes contraband cigarettes out the window) and the dashing English teacher from the boys’ school.

Jenny Colgan writes in her author’s note that she grew up loving boarding school books, but not being able to find any for grown-ups, she decided to write some! Reading this book, it occurs to me that everything I know about English boarding schools basically comes from Harry Potter! I mean, prior to HP, I’d never heard of school houses or prefects or any of the other terms and concepts of this type of school — but reading Welcome to the School by the Sea, I had fun seeing how pieces I assumed were Hogwarts-specific are actually just elements of a boarding school (sans magic).

At Downey, the girls are divided into four houses (Wessex, Plantagenet, York, and Tudor), and live in house dorms with their classmates. There are school uniforms, mandatory sports sessions, classes and exams, and annoying teachers to gossip about. There are also pranks, holidays, performances, and competitions, as you’d expect in this kind of story.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the characters, and appreciated that the characters we spend the most time with (Maggie, Veronica, Fliss, and Simone) are each given well-developed backstories and their own sets of challenges and adventures.

Maggie’s romantic life quickly develops into a love triangle. Stan is not supportive of her new position and gives her a very hard time about it for most of the book. He’s a lovable doofus, and Maggie has been with him since they were teens — but clearly, he’s not the right guy for her. Underneath his mocking and lack of support, he does truly care for Maggie, but even though they stay together, we know this won’t last. Meanwhile, David from the boys’ school is surprising, fun, and very much in tune with Maggie in terms of dedication to education, and they seem to work. The triangle is left hanging by the end of the book, but it seems pretty obvious that the Maggie/David pairing is end-game for this series.

A few bits seem dated, or perhaps don’t quite fit with current sensitivities. For me, the most annoying was the emphasis on Simone’s weight. When she arrives at Downey, she’s quite heavy. It’s clear that she’s been overindulged with sweets by her doting mother, and due to the bullying she grew up with, has found refuge in food and has always tried to avoid further ridicule by shying away from physical activity. That’s all fine, as far as backstory goes, but she continues to be referred to as chubby or fat throughout the book, and after a while, it starts to feel like too much. The fact is, at Downey, she discovers that she’s a gifted field hockey goalie and starts to eat a healthier diet away from her mother’s influence, so whether or not she’s still plus-sized, she’s definitely getting healthy, and that should be applauded.

Other than that, there’s some mean girl business that’s a bit too obvious, but I was happy to see unexpected friendships formed by the end of the first year, and assume we’ll see these characters and their relationships continue to grow in the next books.

The audiobook is quite fun to listen to (although the audiobook uses Simone’s original last name, so it’s a little inconsistent when compared to print editions). At the start, I found the audiobook hard to follow, as we’re introduced to so many characters right away, each with their own POV sections. After a while, it becomes clearer, and I appreciated the narrator’s ability to give the various characters their own distinct voices.

Overall, this is a fun, engaging listen, and I can’t wait for more! Book #2 (Rules at the School by the Sea) is now available, so I’m already in the queue for it at the library, and I hope to listen to the 3rd as soon as it’s released. As for additional books, the synopsis (above) refers to this as a four-book series, although in the author’s notes, she mentions intending to write six books… but as of this moment, I don’t see anything specific online about books beyond the current three.

If you’ve visited my blog over the past few years, you may have noticed that I’m a Jenny Colgan fan. It’s true!! Her books are sweet, good-humored, and full of engaging, funny characters, and she excels at building a fictional community around key lovable, memorable characters. I can’t get enough, and I’m always excited for her new releases. Bring on Rules… and keep ’em coming!

Audiobook Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Title: The Kaiju Preservation Society
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 15, 2022
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi’s first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.

When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls “an animal rights organization.” Tom’s team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.

What Tom doesn’t tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They’re the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda and they’re in trouble.

It’s not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that’s found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too–and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

If you’re looking for highly dramatic science fiction with dire stakes, intricate world-building, and mind-boggling technology… this is not that book.

BUT… if you’re looking for a super fun sci-fi romp that’s funny and fast and full of f-bombs and smart-asses, well, look no further!

The Kaiju Preservation Society is a feel-good story (yes, really) about an alternate-dimension earth where gigantic creatures known as kaiju are powered by internal biological nuclear reactors, everything in the environment wants to eat people, and a team of adrenaline-junkie scientists and grunts work to keep the kaiju safe, and to keep our Earth safe from them.

It’s 2020, New York is on the verge of lockdown as COVID hits, and Jamie Gray, expecting a promotion at work, is instead laid off, joining the ranks of food-delivery drivers during the pandemic. A chance encounter with an old friend leads to a job offer with KPS, an organization devoted to the welfare of “large animals”, as they explain to Jamie during the interview.

Before he can reconsider, Jamie is whisked off to a secret location (in Greenland, of all places!), where he and a few other newbies are ushered through a dimensional portal into an alternate world, where scientists work to study and preserve kaiju life. Jamie’s job, as he reminds people repeatedly, is to “lift things” — he’s one of the few non-scientists at the base, but he’s a good guy, a hard worker, and indeed, good at lifting things, and he’s soon fully immersed in the crazy life of KPS.

The action is non-stop, and it’s a wild world into which we (and Jamie) are thrown — there are tree crabs and giant parasites and swarms of flying insects, all of which would love to eat people. Not to mention the kaiju themselves, who are scary and huge and have a tendency to explode under certain circumstances.

When bad guys show up, the action gets even heavier, but the banter and humor never flag, even when our scrappy band of heroes face death at every turn. I mean, it’s pretty clear that the good guys will win, but the fun is in seeing just how that comes about.

I always love John Scalzi’s books, and The Kaiju Preservation Society feels like a throwback to the style and attitude of some of his earlier books (which I happen to adore), such as the ridiculously entertaining The Android’s Dream.

The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who does many of Scalzi’s books, and is amazingly talented when it comes to narrating action and multiple character voices. He projects tons of humor, even when our lead characters are confronted by gigantic creatures that may eat them — even their fear and hysteria come across as funny.

I really appreciated that the audiobook included the author’s note at the end — many don’t, which is a pet peeve of mine. Here, it was incredibly helpful and enlightening to hear about the author’s experiences in 2020 and 2021, and why and how he ended up writing this particular book during the pandemic.

All in all, I’d say that The Kaiju Preservation Society has to be one of my most fun listening experiences of the year! If you have low tolerance for salty language and progressive politics, this may not be the best choice for you — but those obstacles definitely don’t apply to me, and I loved every moment!

John Scalzi is a go-to, must-read author for me, and The Kaiju Preservation Society is a total win. Coincidentally, just this week, his publisher announced his next upcoming novel, Starter Villain, to be released in June 2023. Sign me up!!



Audiobook Review: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

Title: All Creatures Great and Small
Author: James Herriot
Narrator: Nicholas Ralph
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Publication date: Originally published 1972
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 23 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The first volume in the multimillion copy bestselling series.

Delve into the magical, unforgettable world of James Herriot, the world’s most beloved veterinarian, and his menagerie of heartwarming, funny, and tragic animal patients.

For fifty years, generations of readers have flocked to Herriot’s marvelous tales, deep love of life, and extraordinary storytelling abilities. For decades, Herriot roamed the remote, beautiful Yorkshire Dales, treating every patient that came his way from smallest to largest, and observing animals and humans alike with his keen, loving eye.

In All Creatures Great and Small, we meet the young Herriot as he takes up his calling and discovers that the realities of veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire are very different from the sterile setting of veterinary school.

James Herriot’s memoirs have sold 80 million copies wordwide, and continue to delight and entertain readers of all ages.

If you’re looking to let a little bit of sunlight and warmth into your soul, you couldn’t ask for more than this lovely classic (fictionalized) memoir.

All Creatures Great and Small, originally published in 1972, is the memoir of a country veterinarian, going back to the beginning of his career as a newly qualified vet in the late 1930s. James Herriot wrote a series of eight memoirs during his lifetime, which have been published and republished many times in the years since. All Creatures Great and Small consists of the first two of his books and a smidge of the third — and these stories have also been adapted for film and television (more on that later).

All Creatures starts with young James arriving in the Yorkshire Dales to become an apprentice at an established veterinary practice. James’s specialty is farm animals, and the practice’s clientele are largely the region’s farmer, although they do care for the assorted household pets of their village as well. James’s mentor is Siegfried Farnon, an oddball man who’s clearly very gifted at his work, but who has many personality quirks and a disturbing ability to disregard or forget anything that’s inconvenient to him.

Over the course of the book, James develops confidence in his veterinary skills, and slowly earns the grudging respect of the locals, who initially view him as an inexperienced outsider. James is gifted when it comes to the animals under his care, saving countless lives through his modern approaches and determination to see procedures through, no matter how hard.

One of the lovely aspects of the book is the description of the people themselves — from the curmudgeonly farmers to the eccentric mansion dwellers to the race horse owners, and more. The author describes them all with humor and kindness, and brings to life the oddities and personality traits that makes them all so unique.

Note: I mentioned above that this is a fictionalized memoir — a fact I didn’t actually realize until a book group friend provided some background. The author’s name is actually a pen name, the town where he sets the book is not a real place, but rather a made-up town based on the author’s experiences in the area of the Yorkshire Dales, and he’s altered/embroidered many of the chief characters in the book and/or based them on real people, but with different names and some different characteristics. Not that any of this truly matters to me. The book is so enjoyable that I don’t mind the blend of fact and fiction. For more on James Alfred “Alf” Wight, the man behind the James Herriot pen name, see articles here and here.

The audiobook edition that I listened to is a new version which has the star of the current PBS Masterpiece production as the narrator. Nicholas Ralph is terrific in the TV role, and he’s wonderful as the audiobook narrator too. His voice is so familiar at this point that it truly feels like sitting back and listening to James Herriot himself telling us his stories! The actor not only brings James’s character to life, but also delivers distinctive, enjoyable versions of all the various characters, and it’s a delight.

If you haven’t checked out the TV series yet, I highly recommend it! Two seasons have aired so far, and season 3 will be released in the US in January 2023.

I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook of All Creatures Great and Small (and once again, need to give a shout-out to my book group for picking it!). It’s a gentle, heart-warming, funny look at a bygone time, and James Herriot’s love for the community and his profession shine through on every page and with every story he tells.

Highly recommended… and as for me, I look forward to reading (or listening to) the next book in the series, All Things Bright and Beautiful.



Audiobook Review: Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan

Title: Thank You for Listening
Author: Julia Whelan
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Avon and Harper Voyager
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 11 hours 16 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (ebook); purchased audiobook via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the author of My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan’s uplifting novel tells the story of a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator–who has lost sight of her dreams after a tragic accident–and her journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance when she agrees to narrate one last romance novel.

For Sewanee Chester, being an audiobook narrator is a long way from her old dreams, but the days of being a star on film sets are long behind her. She’s found success and satisfaction from the inside of a sound booth and it allows her to care for her beloved, ailing grandmother. When she arrives in Las Vegas last-minute for a book convention, Sewanee unexpectedly spends a whirlwind night with a charming stranger.

On her return home, Sewanee discovers one of the world’s most beloved romance novelists wanted her to perform her last book–with Brock McNight, the industry’s hottest, most secretive voice. Sewanee doesn’t buy what romance novels are selling–not after her own dreams were tragically cut short–and she stopped narrating them years ago. But her admiration of the late author, and the opportunity to get her grandmother more help, makes her decision for her.

As Sewanee begins work on the book, resurrecting her old romance pseudonym, she and Brock forge a real connection, hidden behind the comfort of anonymity. Soon, she is dreaming again, but secrets are revealed, and the realities of life come crashing down around her once more.

If she can learn to risk everything for desires she has long buried, she will discover a world of intimacy and acceptance she never believed would be hers.

I think I’ve found my favorite audiobook of the year!

Julie Whelan is a gifted narrator — according to her Goodreads bio, she’s narrated over 500 audiobooks! I’ve had the pleasure of listening to several of the books she’s narrated, and she is very, very good. But did you know she’s also an author? Her previous novel, My Oxford Year, was published in 2018 (and is one that I haven’t read yet, although I certainly intend to!). And now, in 2022, along comes her 2nd novel, and what could be more perfect than a story of an audiobook narrator?

In Thank You for Listening, main character Sewanee Chester did not intend to become a highly successful, award-winning audiobook narrator — but her Juilliard-trained acting career was cut short in her 20s, just on the cusp of break-through success, by a freak accident. It’s taken Sewanee years to recover — and emotionally, it’s questionable whether she’s actually recovered at all.

Sewanee is now the voice behind the scenes, incredibly gifted at bringing characters to life — so much so that clueless fans can’t believe what she can do, even when she states it plainly:

Roy peered at Sewanee, seeing her anew. “You crushed it! Wait, so did you meet the guy who played Butch and Sundance? Do you, like, record together?”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other, then back at Roy. Adaku said, “What guy?”

“The guy! The guy who voiced the guys.”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other again. Adaku said, “That wan’t a guy.”

“No, the Butch-and-Sundance-guy guy.”

“Ohhhh, that guy. Yeah, he wasn’t a guy.” Adaku was enjoying this a bit too much.

“Who wasn’t a guy?”

“The guy reading.”

“Wasn’t a guy?”

“Nope.”

When Sewanee and her best friend Adaku, a rising Hollywood star, share a celebration in Las Vegas that gets interrupted when Adaku has to leave early, Sewanee is left on her own… and meets a dashing stranger in a bar. After an intense connection and a one-night stand, Sewanee and Nick part without exchanging contact information, and Sewanee is left with amazing memories of a night that was very out of character for her.

Back in her real life, she receives an unexpected job offer: Although she’d long ago stopped recording romance audiobooks, which she’d done under the pseudonym Sarah Westholme, she’s asked to do it one more time. Bestselling romance writer June French, who recently passed away, left a final script, and she specifically wanted it read, in alternating voices, by Sarah Westholme and romance audiobook superstar Brock McKnight. While Sewanee is initially reluctant, the insane money on the table means she’d be able to maintain her beloved grandmother in comfort at her pricey but wonderful memory care facility, so she takes the job.

As she and Brock (a pseudonym, naturally) start recording their chapters and communicating via email and text about delivery, intonation, accents, and other details, a friendship develops. Their exchanges are funny, smart, and full of hilarious double-entendres and innuendos, and while not knowing each others’ true identities, they click in a way that’s unexpected and potentially more than just collegial.

This is a story that unfolds in lovely, unexpected ways, so I won’t go further into plot details (although I’m sure you can guess where certain elements are headed). What’s wonderful about this book is the character development, the chemistry, and the way the author, via her characters, deliberately plays with and acknowledges romance genre tropes, even while making these tropes fit and support such a thoughtful, funny, and emotionally rich story.

Sewanee’s past and present are shaded by sorrow and disappointment, from her parents’ failed marriage to worries over her grandmother’s dementia to her own tragedy and the self-doubts that have plagued her since. Sewanee’s pain and insecurities feel real and relatable. Would any of us be able to bounce back as far as she has? She doesn’t immediately, magically get better thanks to the power of love, either — instead, we see her process her past over time, and learn how to see a possible future that could include happiness. It’s not easy, but it does feel well-earned and fought for.

I loved not only Sewanee, but the supporting cast as well, including Adaku, the hilarious Blah-Blah (Sewanee’s outrageous grandmother, a former Hollywood starlet whose favorite name for her granddaughter is “Dollface”), Brock (of course), and even Sewanee’s mother’s new beau, who’s very funny in his own right, in a way that just needs to be experienced.

I also loved how each section of the book is introduced by both a “literary” quote (such as thoughts by Hemingway on pain and writing) and a quote from a (fictitious) June French interview with Cosmopolitan, where she’s brash, blunt, and incredibly funny:

It’s always the men, isn’t it, talking about writing from a place of pain. Maybe try writing from joy. We get it, the world is hard. Which is precisely why I write: to escape it. Calm down with this tortured artist shit already, my God.

I originally received an ebook ARC via NetGalley, and as wonderful as this book is in print, I simply had to take the audio path — so I treated myself to the Audible version as well. I’m so glad I did! The opportunity to hear Julia Whelan not only narrate her own book, but narrate a book about a narrator, seemed too good to miss! She’s just as amazing here as you’d expect: As a listener, I was never, not for a moment, confused about who was speaking, whether the lines were intended as spoken dialogue or a character’s inner thoughts, or what the mood or intent was. Dialogue snaps and crackles, chemistry blooms, and even when the characters are putting on their own fake voices, it absolutely works.

Beyond the central plotline, I also loved the behind-the-scenes view into the world of audiobook narration — how it works, how some narrators become stars in their own right, and what challenges the industry faces. Also wonderful is the power of non-romantic love — Sewanee could never have come as far as she does in this book without her beautiful friendship with Adaku, the care she and her mentor Mark share, or the family heartstrings connecting her to Blah-Blah and to her mother.

Thank You for Listening is a treat, start to finish, and I highly recommend it!



Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Audiobook Review: An Island Wedding (Mure, #5) by Jenny Colgan

Title: An Island Wedding
Series: Mure
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator:  Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: June 21, 2022
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan brings us a delightful summer novel that will sweep you away to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where two very different weddings are about to take place…

On the little Scottish island of Mure–halfway between Scotland and Norway–Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of “sweetheart weddings,” a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.

Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald–who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things–returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora’s hotel, the same weekend as Flora’s carefully planned micro-wedding.

As the summer solstice approaches, can Flora handle everyone else’s Happy Every Afters–and still get her own?

The 5th installment in Jenny Colgan’s wonderful Mure series brings us back to this beautiful, remote Scottish island. It’s like a reunion with old friends, as we see what our beloved characters are up to now, and for at least some, get to witness the happy event they’ve been building toward over the four previous books.

(For the story so far, see my wrap-up post, here.)

In An Island Wedding, Flora Mackenzie is finally set to marry the man of her dreams. But there’s a problem — Flora, born and bred on Mure, wants to celebrate with everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE. The entire island expects to be at their wedding, from Mrs. Kennedy’s dance school students to the old fishermen who drink away their evenings down at the Harbor’s Rest. But Joel, a product of a lonely childhood in the foster care system, wants only those who truly love them to be with them on their big day — just immediate family, an intimate occasion, and donate all the money that would have gone to a big wedding to the local couple who take troubled youth on outdoor adventures.

What’s Flora to do? She loves Joel, and wants to do what makes him happy… but she can’t help but feeling just a wee bit sad and guilty every time an island neighbor comes up to tell her how much they’re looking forward to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Olivia MacDonald, the beautiful island native who’s now an international Instagram star, has decided to hold her own lavish wedding back home on Mure, in a most likely misguided move to impress her fabulously wealthy, fabulously snooty future in-laws with her connection to an authentic Scottish community. Olivia arrives with an upscale wedding planner in tow, and proceeds to transform The Rock (the hotel Flora manages) and the entire island into the fantasy wedding setting of her dreams.

Most of the book is devoted to the wedding plans, as well as to the ongoing tension between Flora and Joel over their divergent visions for how they’ll get married. I was never truly worried about Flora and Joel — they love each other, and they’ve been through enough so far that I was sure it would all work out — but it was sad to see them at what appeared at times to be an impasse.

The most moving and gripping parts of An Island Wedding have to do with the love story between Lorna, the island’s schoolmistress, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s found a new home for himself and his two sons on Mure. Saif’s wife’s fate has been a question mark since the start of the series, and when new information is uncovered, it forces Saif to make an impossible choice. I won’t say too much, but it’s heartbreaking. The terrible sadness of the situation is written so beautifully, and my heart just ached for Lorna, Saif, and for the boys too.

The stakes for the Flora and Olivia storylines never feel terribly high or risky — after all, it’s really mostly to do with wedding plans! Still, it’s fun to follow along and laugh at all the mishaps, miscommunications, and over-the-top wedding arrangements, and the ending left me with a few little tears of happiness. After spending so much time with Flora and Joel over the course of this series, I was ready for them to get all the joy they deserve!

My initial understanding had been that this would be the final Mure book… but actually, I don’t see that stated anywhere, and given that there’s a MAJOR story thread left hanging, I’m hopeful for more! So please, if you happen to meet Jenny Colgan someday, tell her we want MORE MURE. I’m not ready to say good-bye to these wonderful characters and the beautiful island just yet!

Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Title: Book Lovers
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 377 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming….

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.

If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

I’ll keep this brief — at this point, when I see a cute contemporary romance cover and discover the book is by Emily Henry, it’s going to be a must-read for me. Book Lovers caught my eye immediately (I mean, the title alone! who can resist?), and it was a perfect pick for reading during a vacation week.

In Book Lovers, main character Nora is a hard-edged, polished, driven literary agent who is unrelenting when it comes to making deals for her clients. Her nickname is the Shark — but don’t call her that to her face. While she represents highly successful authors, including those who write heart-warming love stories about small-town romances, she knows absolutely where she fits in the trope: She’s the one left behind.

You know how it goes: A big city character heads to a small town for some vague business purpose, falls unexpectedly in love with the local farmer/baker/craftsperson, and gives up city life for a life full of purpose, love, and baked goods in the country — breaking up with their former city boyfriend/girlfriend along the way. And that city boyfriend/girlfriend who gets dumped is Nora. It’s happened to her again and again, and she’s over it.

But Nora also has a soft spot for her younger (and very pregnant) sister, so she reluctantly agrees to a three-week sisters’ trip to a small town in North Carolina, where her sister Libby is determined to milk the experience for every romance-worthy trope possible. What they do not expect is for (a) Nora’s New York business nemesis Charlie to also show up in the same town and (b) for all the sparks that fly between Nora and Charlie.

The plot has much more depth than you might expect. Emily Henry excels at creating funny, quirky, unusual characters, then giving them rich backstories that humanize them and expose the pains and sorrows behind their facades. The same is true here, and it makes Nora much more likable than she initially comes across, so much so that I became very invested in her happiness and well-being.

I liked Nora and Charlie together as a couple — their banter is adorable! And while it takes them a while to get past the outer animosity to their inner deep connection, it’s totally worth the journey. The sisters’ relationship is just as important as the romantic relationship, and I really appreciated how lovingly their connection is portrayed.

The writing is light and fast-paced, but there’s plenty of emotion to unpack too. I truly enjoyed Book Lovers — although I’m a little mad that the author managed to burst the bubble of all my small town romance fantasies! The book trope talk is so much fun, there are plenty of references to real books (which made me really happy), and I love that the author includes “Nora and Libby’s Ultimate Reading List” at the back of the book!

Book Lovers is a perfect choice for a summer beach book! Don’t miss it.