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!



Book Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Title: The Bodyguard
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

She’s got his back.

Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindgerten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka “bodyguard”), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.

Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.

When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???

Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done. 

Katherine Center excels at creating fascinating women as lead characters and placing then in challenging, unusual situations. In The Bodyguard, there’s quite a bit of humor, and yet the heart and emotions of her previous books still shine through.

As the book starts, main character Hannah has just been dumped by her boyfriend, who also happens to be a coworker. Awkward! He’s a total jerk, says terrible things to her, has cheated on her with her best friend… and yet she still needs to see both of them at the office on a daily basis. All Hannah wants is to escape, and begs her boss to send her off on a new assignment, preferably one somewhere on the other side of the world.

But Hannah is a depressed, emotional wreck, and her boss has other plans for her. She’ll stay in Houston working on their new high-profile client’s protection assignment, and if it goes well, she’ll be up for a promotion to head the agency’s new London office.

The assignment is movie star Jack Stapleton, who’s coming home to Texas to be with his mother while she undergoes cancer treatment. Jack has been living off the grid for the last couple of years after a scandal, but he still pops up in the tabloids whenever the paparazzi can track him down and catch shots of him with his latest Hollywood-appropriate girlfriend. But now, Jack is leaving his North Dakota retreat to be with his family, and it’s the agency’s job to keep the crazy stalkers at bay, or preferably, in the dark.

Jack most emphatically does not want a bodyguard, but the studios insist, so he adds his own stipulation: Hannah can protect him, but only by posing as his girlfriend at his parent’s ranch. They simply do not need the stress of knowing he’s in danger, not while they should be focused on his mother’s health.

What follows is equal parts silly and serious. Hannah is small but powerful. She may be able to kill someone with a ballpoint pen, but if she has to fight or injure someone, she’s already failed. Her job is to protect and keep safe, and never let her “principal” anywhere near being in danger. She’s used to being in the background, a serious presence in a pantsuit and an earpiece, not there to be noticed. But to meet Jack’s requirements, she finds herself in a “girlfriend” outfit, sundress and sandals, engaging with his family, holding hands, and even sleeping in the same room as Jack (although, per her insistence, on the floor rather than in his bed).

As the story unfolds, we learn about both Hannah and Jack’s past traumas, which influence so much of who they are now. Hannah’s history with her mother was painful, full of neglect and danger, seeing her mother descend into alcoholism and endure a series of abusive relationships. Jack is haunted by the car accident that killed his younger brother and has driven a wedge between him and his older brother. There’s a secret there, but Jack refuses to discuss it, instead reliving it through regular nightmares. As Hannah spends time with Jack, she sees beyond the Hollywood surface to the vulnerable person underneath, and becomes determined to help him.

The Bodyguard has plenty of light moments too — silly encounters on the ranch, moments of joy and laughter as Jack relaxes around Hannah and gets Hannah to unwind a bit too — as well as scenes of family connection, simple pleasures, and true warmth and emotional reality. At the same time, Hannah second-guesses her growing chemistry with Jack. After all, he’s an actor, and she’s seen him on screen many, many times — she’s knows he’s good at his job. So when he seems to care for her, is it real, or is he just acting?

I really enjoyed Hannah as a character, and loved that this petite woman is a strong, dangerous, accomplished defender who can hold her own, and then some. Her outer toughness and professionalism hides her inner vulnerabilities, but she’s awesome at her job and her abilities are absolutely never in doubt. Seeing her fall for her principal and sort out who Jack is and whether he’s being truthful with her is fascinating, and I loved seeing their relationship blossom.

There are some familiar and well-loved tropes here — fake dating, Hollywood star falling for a regular person, love on a ranch, just one bed, etc. The author does a terrific job of incorporating these elements while also keeping them fresh and new.

One of my very favorite things about The Bodyguard was the laughter. Despite the many scenes and discussions focusing on the character’s painful pasts, they also laugh together — a lot. And when Jack laughs, it’s a full-bodied, all-out experience that strips away all his outer polish and shows his inner good nature, and it’s just so much fun.

A dangerous scenario toward the end of the book brings the story back into a more serious focus and gives Hannah a chance to shine — I was on the edge of my seat! But beyond this situation, the book’s focus is on the relationships — romance, friendship, family — what they mean to the characters, and how Jack and Hannah are changed by them.

The Bodyguard is a refreshing, engaging, light-hearted but also emotional summer read. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau

Title: Donut Fall in Love
Author: Jackie Lau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 26, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A baker provides the sweetest escape for an actor in this charming romantic comedy.

Actor Ryan Kwok is back in Toronto after the promotional tour for his latest film, a rom-com that is getting less-than-stellar reviews. After the sudden death of his mother and years of constant work, Ryan is taking some much-needed time off. But as he tries to be supportive to his family, he struggles with his loss and doesn’t know how to talk to his dad—who now trolls him on Twitter instead of meeting him for dim sum.

Innovative baker Lindsay McLeod meets Ryan when he knocks over two dozen specialty donuts at her bakery. Their relationship is off to a messy start, but there’s no denying their immediate attraction. When Ryan signs up for a celebrity episode of Baking Fail, he asks Lindsay to teach him how to bake and she agrees.

As Lindsay and Ryan spend time together, bonding over grief and bubble tea, it starts to feel like they’re cooking up something sweeter than cupcakes in the kitchen. 

Donut Fall In Love is a sweet (because BAKING), light romance that follows the celebrity love interest trope. It’s fairly formulaic plot-wise, but the character specifics, the setting, and the families make this book stand out as something special.

Lindsay runs a donut shop with her best friend Noreen, where they specialize in high-end, super-fancy treats, like matcha tiramisu and chocolate espresso donuts. Their baked goods are not just delicious, they’re works of art.

Ryan has returned to Toronto to spend more time with his family, anxiously watching reviews of his latest film to see what it will mean for his career. And as he notes, as an Asian actor, the movie industry seems to see the success or failure of his rom-com as a litmus test for whether an actor of Asian descent can pull off a romantic lead role. He feels the weight of representation on his shoulders, and worries not just about his own career, but whether his so-so box office results will spell doom for other Asian actors.

When Ryan is asked to appear as a celebrity contestant on a popular TV baking show (Baking Fail), he instantly thinks of the cute bakery owner he (literally) ran into the previous week, and asks Lindsay for baking lessons so that he doesn’t completely humiliate himself on national TV.

Lindsay, while also of Asian descent, was raised by a mother whose family emphasized assimilation, so she grew up without speaking the language that her grandparents grew up with. While Lindsay and Ryan’s backgrounds have many differences, they share a sense of otherness from growing up in largely white communities, and soon learn that they have much more in common than ethnic background and experiences with tokenism and racism.

Their weekly baking lessons become a highlight for both of them, as they laugh, flirt, and bake together, and they each realize that their enjoyment of each other’s company might be more than just friendship. Plus, their chemistry is undeniable, and while Ryan is the one who’s famous for being a sex symbol, the attraction is clearly, strongly mutual.

As is typical in celebrity-in-love-with-a-regular-person romances, Lindsay deals with self-doubt. Ryan is super hot, as is obvious from the popular hashtag #StarringRyanKwoksAbs. How can such a gorgeous man with a stunningly perfect body possibly be interesting in an ordinary, not-perfect person like her?

Ryan and Lindsay are very cute together, and soon find themselves intimately involved. But as they learn, sex might be easy, but true intimacy, trust, and emotional connection are much harder.

I liked a lot of aspects of Donut Fall In Love. Both Ryan and Lindsay are dealing with grief over the death of a parent, and the author portrays the lasting impact of these losses very thoughtfully and sensitively. I also appreciated the depiction of the impact of the casual racism disguised as humor that Ryan and other Asian actors must deal with, as well as the off-handed cruelty that internet commenters seem to have no problem throwing around, as if the people on the receiving end aren’t actually real people at all.

The characters’ family relationships are also well depicted, although I did feel that Ryan’s difficult relationship with his father was fixed rather suddenly and without a whole lot of processing.

I feel like I should have a steaminess index for when I review romances, but haven’t come up with a scale yet! In any case, this book has a mostly light and flirty tone, but when sex happens, it’s explicit, so be forewarned if that’s not your style when it comes to romance reading.

Overall, I really liked Donut Fall In Love. Yes, the plot is somewhat predictable and by the book, but the unique personalities and donut-filled settings make the story a tasty treat.

My main complaint? I feel like this book should come with a gift card to a bakery. It made me crave sweets on every page! Gimme donuts. Gimme donuts now.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

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