Book Review: In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Title: In Five Years
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Perfect for fans of Me Before You and One Day—a striking, powerful, and moving love story following an ambitious lawyer who experiences an astonishing vision that could change her life forever.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

When Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Kohan is asked this question at the most important interview of her career, she has a meticulously crafted answer at the ready. Later, after nailing her interview and accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, Dannie goes to sleep knowing she is right on track to achieve her five-year plan.

But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.

After a very intense, shocking hour, Dannie wakes again, at the brink of midnight, back in 2020. She can’t shake what has happened. It certainly felt much more than merely a dream, but she isn’t the kind of person who believes in visions. That nonsense is only charming coming from free-spirited types, like her lifelong best friend, Bella. Determined to ignore the odd experience, she files it away in the back of her mind.

That is, until four-and-a-half years later, when by chance Dannie meets the very same man from her long-ago vision.

Brimming with joy and heartbreak, In Five Years is an unforgettable love story that reminds us of the power of loyalty, friendship, and the unpredictable nature of destiny.

Wow.

Excuse me, I need to go dry my eyes for a minute before I can put any thoughts down about this book. There. I’m ready.

In Five Years crept up on me and hit me in my heart. It’s not the book I thought it was going to be, and that’s perfectly okay, because I ended up blown away by how deeply it made me feel.

At the same time, I don’t want to spoil anything for any potential readers, so I’m going to have to keep my comments on the vague side.

You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.

This is not a time-travel story. There is no magical entry into parallel worlds. Yes, Dannie has a weird experience that puts her five years into the future for a brief hour — but call it vision or premonition or whatever you want, I promise that that’s not the point of the story.

The main character of In Five Years is Dannie, a super smart, super successful lawyer who measures out her life in plans and lists and spreadsheets. Her boyfriend David is just like her (even keeping a spreadsheet of restaurants they’ve visited and what they ate), and their future is nicely mapped out. They’ll achieve success in their incredibly competitive fields. They’ll buy a great apartment in a great neighborhood in New York. And after Dannie’s interview with the law firm of her dreams, they get engaged in the perfect setting… so they seem very much on track for their neatly planned out lives.

Until Dannie dozes off and has her strange, five-years-into-the-future experience, where she interacts with a man — not David — in such an intimate and emotional way that, when she wakes, she begins to question everything.

Four and a half years later, Dannie and David are still engaged, but never quite get around to planning a wedding. She’s working at her dream job and absolutely loving it. And then things get weird when her best-friend-for-life Bella introduces her to the new man in her life… and he’s the man from Dannie’s dream/vision/premonition.

But if you think that this is a love triangle sort of book, let me just tell you — it’s not.

The further along I read, the more I understood that the heart of this book is the love between friends. Dannie and Bella are perfect complements to one another — Bella free-spirited and artistic and spontaneous, all things that Dannie is not. But they love each other unstintingly and understand each other deeply, and as the story unfolds from here, their love absolutely shines in a way that’s beautiful and left me in tears.

There. I’m not saying anything further about the plot. I’ll just say that it surprised me and moved me; it wasn’t what I expected, and it completely pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go until I turned the last page.

On a lighter note, two things struck me as funny. One, a seeming inconsistency that made me giggle:

David was snoring next to me, and the upstairs was still, but then it was barely six.

And on the next page:

David is a silent sleeper. No snoring, no movement.

Hmm. I don’t think those can both be true. (But honestly, this is truly a minor quibble, and I only mention it because it made me laugh and broke up the intensity of the story for me, which was a good thing.)

I also loved a couple of little throw-away lines that made me feel like Dannie and I are inhabiting the same world:

Murray Hill isn’t the most glamorous neighborhood in New York, and it gets a bad rap (every Jewish fraternity and sorority kid in the Tri-State area moves here after graduation. The average street style is a Penn sweatshirt)…

Hee. My alma mater rarely gets a shout-out in the books I read. And one more thing that felt like me:

I change into shorts and a T-shirt and a sun hat — my Russian Jew skin has never met a sun it particularly got on with…

Story of my life, Dannie.

But back to being serious…

I loved Rebecca Serle’s previous novel, The Dinner List, and in some ways, I can see some general similarities. Both feature an out-of-the-ordinary twist in the set-up, and in both, it’s the emotional heart of the story that really matters, not the how and why of the strange twist.

In Five Years is a gorgeous, surprising, and emotionally powerful read. Highly recommended.

[And a brief note: When I look at the reviews on Goodreads, I see so much detail about the plot. I recommend reading this book without a lot of foreknowledge, so stay away from Goodreads if that matters to you!]

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: My Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren

Millie Morris has always been one of the guys. A UC Santa Barbara professor, she’s a female-serial-killer expert who’s quick with a deflection joke and terrible at getting personal. And she, just like her four best guy friends and fellow professors, is perma-single.

So when a routine university function turns into a black tie gala, Millie and her circle make a pact that they’ll join an online dating service to find plus-ones for the event. There’s only one hitch: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid Campbell, secretly spend the sexiest half-night of their lives together, but mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic.

But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart. While the guys are inundated with quality matches and potential dates, Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”—Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Catherine” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship…but Millie can’t resist temptation in real life, either. Soon, Millie will have to face her worst fear—intimacy—or risk losing her best friend, forever.

Perfect for fans of Roxanne and She’s the Man, Christina Lauren’s latest romantic comedy is full of mistaken identities, hijinks, and a classic love story with a modern twist. Funny and fresh, you’ll want to swipe right on My Favorite Half-Night Stand.

Okay, I’m now 2 for 2 when it comes to reading Christina Lauren! My Favorite Half-Night Stand is yet another fun, engaging feel-good story about sexy smart people falling awkwardly in love… and I loved the heck out of this story.

Millie is 29, intelligent, adorable, the center of a friend circle consisting of four guys plus her, and she has a great life — except she hasn’t been with anyone romantically or sexually in way too long, and isn’t feeling particularly up to starting down that road again. After childhood losses and some strained family relationships as an adult, Millie prefers to keep her depths bottled up, showing her friends her bubbly outer persona but not letting anyone get under her skin or see too deeply into her soul.

Reid is her best friend, and they spend one very steamy night together — but Reid is looking for a relationship, and Millie can’t quite figure out how to be vulnerable enough to let him get closer to her. When the group decides to join a dating site, it goes pretty much how you might expect. Millie creates a second persona as an attempt to jazz up her profile in a safe way, but when this new profile “Catherine” gets matched with Reid, Millie lets it play out for far too long.

She and Reid have excellent chemistry and definitely heat up the page when they’re together. It’s interesting to see the tables flipped here, where it’s the woman who has a fear of intimacy and the man who’s frustrated by his partner’s insistence on keeping things light.

Told in alternating chapters, we see the events develop from both Millie’s and Reid’s perspectives, and get to see snippets of the online dating messages and group texts as well, which are funny and silly, and help illustrate the group dynamic. Both Millie and Reid are intelligent, sensitive people. I just wished they’d been more upfront with each other sooner. By pretending their nights together were just about the sex, they ended up tangled up in a situation where they both got hurt and risked losing something great. (Of course, as with many of these types of books, if they’d been clearer at the start, we’d have gotten to the HEA within about 50 pages, and then there’d be no story!)

My quibbles with this book are minor. First, everyone is gorgeous and successful in their fields. Not much to complain about, right? But it can be a bit hard to relate to people who are so perfect and flawless. My more serious complaint is that we don’t see enough of Millie at work. She a university professor with a book in the works, and her subject matter — female serial killers — is fascinating. I would have liked to see Millie actually teaching a class or being more active professionally in the book. Yes, we hear about what she does and what her field of research is, but I would have liked to have seen her in that role, so we’d get a clearer picture of her as a strong, brilliant woman, to offset the emphasis on her romantic triumphs and failures.

After reading Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating (and loving it), I was sold on Christina Lauren and needed more. Now that I’ve read her (their) newest release, I need to go back and read their previous books too. My Favorite Half-Night Stand is a smart and sexy romance that’s a quick read, perfect for a night in — best read with cozy pajamas, a fluffy quilt, and a mug of hot cocoa.

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The details:

Title: My Favorite Half-Night Stand
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Book Review: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them…right?

Ah, what fun! In my head, I don’t think of myself as someone who enjoys contemporary romance reading… but my recent track record seems to prove me wrong, over and over and over again.

Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating is a totally delicious and enjoyable story about two people who are determined to stay firmly in the friend zone… but we all know that intentions can be very different than what happens in real life.

In alternating chapters narrated by Hazel and Josh, we see these two come together in their late 20s, reunited by Josh’s sister, who just happens to be Hazel’s best friend. Hazel declares to Josh that she’s going to be his best friend too, and things certainly seem to head in that direction.

Let’s talk about Hazel for a moment. She is very out there, and at first, I was a little put off. Would I be able to handle a friend like that — someone who blurts, has no filters, and lives purely in the moment, going with what feels good and not worrying about tidiness or public opinion? She really would be hard to take — and yet, as the book progressed, I came to love her more and more. First of all, Hazel is all heart. She’s an elementary school teacher, for goddess’s sake! She loves 8-year-olds, with all their chaos and creativity and mess. When Josh first sees her in her classroom, he’s reminded of Ms Frizzle, and that’s really so on the nose. She’s a whirlwind of energy and good will, and it’s just impossible not to be charmed.

Josh is a little harder to pin down. He’s the older child of Korean immigrant parents whom he loves, he’s a successful physical therapist, and he’s a serial monogamist. He believes in committed relationships, and likes his world neat and sensible.

Josh and Hazel are clear that they’d be disastrous romantic partners, but they turn into excellent friends. Hazel pushes Josh’s boundaries and makes him laugh; Josh appreciate’s the Hazel-ness of Hazel without ever telling her to tone it down. Their series of blind dates, in which they each set up the other and then go on a double-date, are predictably epic failures, but it takes an awfully long time for Josh and Hazel to acknowledge that they’d rather be with one another than with anyone else.

My typical complaint with contemporary romances is about the communication factor. Surely, in real life, people would be just a little bit clearer about their feelings and intentions, right? There’s a lot of time wasted during which Josh thinks Hazel is interested in an ex-boyfriend and Hazel thinks Josh thinks that she should pursue things with the ex. They’re both wrong, of course, having completely misread each other and not spoken clearly enough to set each other straight. Of course, if everyone said everything they were thinking directly and without delay, there’d be no drama and no big payoff, so there you go.

This book surprised me in all the right ways. Sure, we know exactly where Josh and Hazel are headed, but it’s so much fun to see how they get there. I gobbled up this book in one day, and was left hungry for more. Apparently, I’ve been missing out by never having read this author (actually, two authors writing together) before, but I plan to rectify the situation as soon as I can!

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The details:

Title: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: 180 Seconds


Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…

After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.

One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.

When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.

In 180 Seconds, we experience Allison’s life through her first-person perspective. She has a wonderful adoptive father, Simon, and a best friend Steffi, but apart from these two, Allison travels through life alone. After her years as a foster child, she’s built sturdy walls around herself, and feels safest when those walls are intact. Even with Simon, Allison keeps a distance. He’s warm and loving and supportive, but after all she’s been through, Allison has a hard time trusting that it won’t just all go away suddenly. Better to never let someone close than to risk it and then get hurt.

Steffi, though, is Allison’s soul-sister. They met in a foster home, and over the years, even though separated by circumstances outside their control, they’ve never lost their bond. Steffi, never adopted, attends college on the West Coast while Allison is in Maine, but they keep in constant contact. Steffi is outgoing, bubbly, and mama-bear fierce when it comes to protecting Allison from anyone and everything that might hurt her.

When Allison meets Esben in that fateful 180-second experiment, she’s shattered by the experience. During those three minutes, her walls come crashing down and she and Esben connect in a way that’s immediately shocking and intimate. Of course, being the age of technology, those 180 seconds make her internet-famous, and Allison finds that her private bubble has been blown apart and the world wants in. And then too, she has to figure out Esben — did he feel it too? Is this connection real?

As Allison and Esben finally meet for real and begin to talk, Allison finds herself opening up for the first time in her life. As she comes out of her shell, she and Esben begin a gentle development of a relationship that’s unlike anything she’s ever experienced, and the positive energy she feels lets her take risks, shut off the white noise in her earbuds, and actually reach out and let the world in.

What I liked:

The characters are really wonderful. Allison is fragile and introverted to the point of unhealthiness — but it’s understandable based on what we learn about her childhood and the amount of rejection she experienced growing up. It’s hard to see her keep Simon at a distance. He’s an amazing person who just knew Allison was meant to be his daughter, and he provides her with a safe and nurturing home and so much unconditional love, asking nothing in return. I loved seeing their relationship deepen as Allison’s ability to trust and accept love expands over the course of the novel.

Steffi is a strong, kick-ass young woman, but even she has vulnerabilities that she tries to hide. Steffi’s secrets because central to the plot in the latter part of the book, and I won’t say anything to divulge them here, but just be warned that boxloads of Kleenex are imperative for this book.

Allison’s blossoming is believable and well-written. You can practically feel the glow spreading within her as bit by bit, her relationship with Esben allows her to open up to life and its possibilities and to start believing in herself.

Minor quibbles:

There’s nothing I actually didn’t like about 180 Seconds, but I do have just a couple of minor issues with the book.

My major issue is that Esben is really too perfect. He’s a lovely person, but there are times when it’s just too much. He’s always sensitive, always respectful, always exactly what Allison needs — plus he’s super hot and sexy and has a heart of gold. This is a guy who uses social media for good, so when he finds out that a little girl’s birthday party is going to be a bust, he takes to social media to make sure she has a birthday princess extravaganza. He’s just SO GOOD all the time, and it makes him seem not quite human at times.

My other complaint is that for the first half or so of the book, it feels pretty episodic, without much dramatic tension or building plot. In each chapter, Allison has some new situation to confront or an event to participate in with Esben, and they deal with it, and she learns something, and it’s all good. None of it is boring or pointless, but it starts feeling like just one nice interlude after another.

Wrapping it all up:

I started 180 Seconds as an audiobook, but when I got within about 2 hours of the end, I had to switch to print so I could move faster and get through the rest of the story. Plus, I’ll be honest — this is another one of those audiobooks that probably should not be listened to in public. I got to a certain part and was taken completely by surprise and began seriously ugly crying… while I was driving my car. Not good!

I’m really not going to go further into the plot or explain my ugly crying jag or anything that happens in the last third. It’s heartbreaking and yet also quite heartwarming… in other words, it gives your heart a work-out!

180 Seconds is a lovely book filled with sympathetic, enjoyable characters and complex relationships. Highly recommended.

Also by this author: Flat-Out Love

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The details:

Title: 180 Seconds
Author: Jessica Park
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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