Book Review: Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman

Title: Ms. Demeanor
Author: Elinor Lipman
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From one of America’s most beloved contemporary novelists, a delicious and witty story about love under house arrest

Jane Morgan is a valued member of her law firm–or was, until a prudish neighbor, binoculars poised, observes her having sex on the roof of her NYC apartment building. Police are summoned, and a punishing judge sentences her to six months of home confinement. With Jane now jobless and rootless, trapped at home, life looks bleak. Yes, her twin sister provides support and advice, but mostly of the unwelcome kind. When a doorman lets slip that Jane isn’t the only resident wearing an ankle monitor, she strikes up a friendship with fellow white-collar felon Perry Salisbury. As she tries to adapt to life within her apartment walls, she discovers she hasn’t heard the end of that tattletale neighbor–whose past isn’t as decorous as her 9-1-1 snitching would suggest. Why are police knocking on Jane’s door again? Can her house arrest have a silver lining? Can two wrongs make a right?

It’s been years since I read an Eleanor Lipman novel, but when I stumbled across Ms. Demeanor at a book store and got a look at the cover, I just couldn’t resist.

In Ms. Demeanor, Jane Morgan owns a fabulous New York apartment in a posh building, has a successful law career, and a slightly overbearing but very loving twin sister. When Jane has a spontaneous hook-up with an associate from her firm late one night… on the roof of her building!! … her neatly ordered life comes crashing down. The two are arrested for public indecency after a neighbor calls the police. Instead of a slap-on-the-wrist fine (which her associate gets), she’s sentenced to six months of home confinement, along with an ankle monitor to make sure she doesn’t leave the premises.

She loses her job and has her license to practice law suspended, so ends up amusing herself by creating TikToks where she follows recipes from centuries-old cookbooks. (Boiled onions as a dish? Um, no thanks.) Jane is actually a good cook, though, and one thing leads to another — meaning that she meets the other ankle-monitor-wearing building resident and is pressured (by her twin Jackleen) into catering dinners for him three times a week.

Jane and Perry have an awkward business arrangement, which soon turns into more of a friendship. After all, if she’s bringing him meals and sticking around to take home the dishes, she might as well stay for a glass of wine, right? And maybe eat dinner with him too? And… more?

Meanwhile, the nosy neighbor from the penthouse across the street, who originally called 911 after seeing Jane’s midnight tryst through binoculars, ends up having more to her story than Jane originally thought. Soon enough, there’s a mysterious death, stuck-up Polish siblings with expired visas, and a love-starved endodontist to deal with. (I know, it sounds like a lot).

The tone of Ms. Demeanor is smart and flippant. Jane is very blunt about just about everything, can talk her way in or out of all sorts of questionable situations, and becames TikTok famous for her no-holds-barred life narratives that accompany her cooking videos.

The plot zips along with some truly ridiculous twists and turns. It’s all in good fun (but — warning — be careful not to injure yourself from too much eye-rolling).

It took me a bit to get into the writing style, which initially threw me off with some unusual phrasing choices, but I quickly got into the rhythm and started to appreciate Jane and Jackleen’s gift with banter.

I tried to suspend judging the characters too harshly — but it was hard at points not to scoff at the relative ease of home confinement in a luxury co-op. Obviously, this book is intended to be humorous, but I couldn’t help but think how dramatically different this story would be if the characters involved didn’t have quite as enormous an amount of privilege as Jane and Perry do.

Ms. Demeanor really can’t be taken too seriously. It’s fun and entertaining, and a very quick read. I’d recommend this as a nice break in between heavier reads.

Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and also? Marcellus is super funny:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Vibrant Years by Sonali Dev

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston

Title: The Dead Romantics
Author: Ashley Poston
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 28, 2022
Length: 366 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A disillusioned millennial ghostwriter who, quite literally, has some ghosts of her own, has to find her way back home in this sparkling adult debut from national bestselling author Ashley Poston.

Florence Day is the ghostwriter for one of the most prolific romance authors in the industry, and she has a problem—after a terrible breakup, she no longer believes in love. It’s as good as dead.

When her new editor, a too-handsome mountain of a man, won’t give her an extension on her book deadline, Florence prepares to kiss her career goodbye. But then she gets a phone call she never wanted to receive, and she must return home for the first time in a decade to help her family bury her beloved father.

For ten years, she’s run from the town that never understood her, and even though she misses the sound of a warm Southern night and her eccentric, loving family and their funeral parlor, she can’t bring herself to stay. Even with her father gone, it feels like nothing in this town has changed. And she hates it.

Until she finds a ghost standing at the funeral parlor’s front door, just as broad and infuriatingly handsome as ever, and he’s just as confused about why he’s there as she is.

Romance is most certainly dead . . . but so is her new editor, and his unfinished business will have her second-guessing everything she’s ever known about love stories.

This was a good one!

The plot synopsis is almost too complicated, but once you get into the story, the pieces fit. Basically, Florence is a ghostwriter for one of the most successful romance writers in the industry, but she’s behind on turning in the last book she has under contract. After a harsh betrayal and break-up a year earlier, she just can’t envision true love and happy endings any more. But the clock is ticking, and not finishing is really not an option.

Florence’s family owns the funeral home in a small southern town. She grew up with parents who were infuriatingly romantic and in love, and their home was filled with joy. Florence also has a secret — she sees dead people. Both she and her father have the gift of seeing and being able to interact with ghosts, but when this becomes public during Florence’s teens, she faces so much ridicule and bullying that she swears never to return to her hometown again.

Now an adult living in Manhattan, she’s stayed away for ten years, but is forced to go back and deal with the past when her father dies suddenly. Amidst the turmoil of family grief and planning a funeral, the ghost of Florence’s brand new editor shows up on her doorstep, which is especially concerning since she had no idea that he’d died.

Dead Romantics is a love story, but it’s so much more. It’s a loving depiction of a family that celebrates life and views death as just another part of the journey. It’s also a look at the internal life of a writer, and it’s a study of what it means to feel lost and hopeless and burdened by shattered illusions.

I love how Florence’s family is shown, and I love the rituals they invent and embrace to celebrate the life of a man who seems like the perfect husband and father. I also really enjoyed the strangeness of Florence getting to know the ghost of a man she’d only met once, and how their connection is able to develop and bridge the obvious gap between a living woman and a man who’s passed on.

I won’t give anything away… but I couldn’t see how there could be a solution to their situation that made sense.

There were no happily ever afters between an undertaker’s daughter and her ghost.

Surprise! The ending totally works, satisfied me, and left me feeling upbeat and cheery.

The writing is quite lovely, and having suffered a family loss recently myself, I found that certain passages really resonated:

I’d always written how grief was hollow. How it was a vast cavern of nothing. But I was wrong. Grief was the exact opposite. It was full and heavy and drowning because it wasn’t the absence of everything you lost—it was the culmination of it all, your love, your happiness, your bittersweets, wound tight like a knotted ball of yarn.

There’s a certain character who deserves to suffer some truly bad karma and I felt a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see that happen… but then again, that’s not what this story was really about.

Overall, I’m really glad that I picked up Dead Romantics and gave it a try. It was just the right mixture of sentiment, humor, sadness, and joy that I needed this week. Having read this author’s Once Upon a Con YA trilogy, I was curious to see how she’d do with her adult fiction debut. I’m happy to report that she nailed it!

Book Review: Husband Material (London Calling, #2) by Alexis Hall

Title: Husband Material
Series: London Calling, #2
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a bowl full of special curry to get these two from I don’t know what I’m doing to I do.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

This Summer 2022, you’re invited to the event(s) of the season.

After giggling my way through Boyfriend Material earlier this year, I just knew I needed the sequel in my life. And for the most part, Husband Material does not disappoint… except for the ending. But more on that later.

Blatantly modeled on Four Weddings and A Funeral**, the plot of Husband Material follows Luc and Oliver, the extreme-opposites-extremely-attract couple from the first book as they navigate being in a healthy long-term relationship (a first for both of them) while seeing all of their friends embracing wedding planning and baby making.

Two years into their relationship, Luc and Oliver still have separate flats but are together constantly. They’ve each made progress with their own personal hang-ups and issues, love each other very much, and are still funny as hell. As they attend wedding after wedding, some of their differences seem more concerning — especially when it comes to gay identity vs mainstream norms, and whether finally being able to officially and legally go the traditional marriage route means that they should.

And that’s not even addressing the rainbow elephant in the room — Luc embraces the glitter and rainbows of his ideal of gay community, but Oliver finds it all too commercialized and judgmental. If he doesn’t want a rainbow balloon arch at his wedding, does that make him a bad gay? But if he denies Luc the balloon arch, is he forcing Luc to give up part of his own identity? (Seriously, they spend A LOT of time on the balloon arch debate…)

After an unplanned panic-driven proposal (from Luc, of course), the couple decide to get married, but their cute differences as a couple seem to morph into fundamental problems as they try to navigate actually planning a wedding.

I love Luc and Oliver as characters and was very happy to reconnect with them and see how their lives have progressed since the first book. Husband Material, as a second book, assumes that we know these people, so there’s less time spent on character development and much more on plot shenanigans, which is fine, but creates a shallower reading experience. We still get a taste for the two as individuals, but their escapades (and the ridiculous goings-on surrounding the various weddings) take center stage for perhaps too much of the book — so when we do get deeper character moments, the tonal shift can be a bit jarring..

As in Boyfriend Material, the writing is heavy on word-play and humor, and most of the time, that’s truly a reading treat — don’t we all need more silly and clever and laugh-out-loud funny moments in our serious lives?

A few little samples:

“As your token gay friend, it is my duty to say that you are a fierce, sickening, incredible woman and that when you find a man who deserves you, he’ll make you feel like a princess every day of your life in a way that somehow manages to avoid reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.”

… I couldn’t tell if we’d had a fight of not, and if we had, whose fault it had been. I mean, I had kind of dropped him on extra-special date night. Like a dick. Except I’d only done that because I needed to take care of my friend. Like definitely not a dick. Fuck. I was in a grey dick area.

I was increasingly convinced that weddings were just an elaborate cycle of vengeance that had got really out of hand. Some pair of selfish bastards had forced their friends to come to a tedious party two thousand years ago and their selfish bastard friends had decided to pay them back by forcing them to come to a tedious party, and then some wholly independent group of selfish bastards had built an industry around it and here we were. An eye for an eye leaves the world overpaying for table settings.

I made the air-quotiest air quotes that ever air-quoted.

All fun aside for a moment, I will say that I did not care for the ending, not even a little bit. And without getting into spoiler territory, I suppose it was meant to show that Luc and Oliver works best when they forge their own path and do what’s really right for the two of them — but all I could think was that they could have avoided all the angst and mess if they’d only had a real conversation months earlier. So while I think the author meant for the ending to come across as nonconventially romantic, I was just unsatisfied and a little saddened by it all.

I had thought this was the final book of a two-book story, but it looks like more is on the way. According to Goodreads, there are two more related books yet to come, although I believe the focus will shift away from Luc and Oliver to others in their friend circle.

Despite my feelings about the ending of Husband Material, I enjoyed the writing and characters enough to want more, so I’m sure I’ll check out whatever comes next.

Spoiler ahead — look away now if you don’t want to know!

**Spoilery bit: I’d completely forgotten that the main couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral decide to have a life together without getting married at the end. I guess if I’d remembered that, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised / let down by the ending of Husband Material!

Book Review: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale by Stephanie Eding

Title: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale
Author: Stephanie Eding
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for:
Found family who always look out for you

A second chance romance with your high school crush

All the fried food that’ll take your mind off your troubles

A chance to start over and do things your own way
Then The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale is exactly what you need!

When 30-year-old Josie discovers that she’s unexpectedly pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby (darn that last attempt to save their marriage), she seeks comfort in deep-fried food at the county fair. There she runs into her two old friends, Ben and Kevin. While sharing their own disappointments with adult life, they devise a plan to move in together and turn their lives around. Soon Ben and Kevin make it their mission to prepare for Josie’s baby, not least by making sure Josie always has the food she’s craving. Maybe all together they can discover the true meaning of family and second chances in life…

What a cute story… with so much junk food!

Josie moves back to her small suburban home town after discovering her husband is cheating. After spending the summer living with her parents (who inform her that they’re about to downsize and really won’t have room for her in their new condo) and working at a smoothie shop (having left her home, husband, and steady teaching job back in Chicago), she’s broke, without a place to live, and oh yeah, just took a home pregnancy test and found out that yes, she’s pregnant with her soon-to-be ex’s baby.

Craving fried food, she stops at the county fair, where she runs into her high school friends Ben and Kevin. Over corn dogs, they catch up and share everything that’s gone wrong in their lives — Kevin works at a job he hates, and Ben dropped out of college when his girlfriend got pregnant and now works a dead-end job and has a daughter who can’t stand him. As Josie breaks down in tears over her mess of a life, a plan is formed: Ben and Kevin are roommates, and there’s room for a third. Josie needs a place to live, they could use the help with the rent, and hey, maybe together they can all turn their lives around. And thus, the Corn Dog Pact is formed.

The Corn Dog Pact is actually Kevin’s idea — written down and tacked up on their refrigerator. They each commit to improving their finances, their work lives, and finding love by the time the last of their 31st birthdays roll around. With a signed pact to keep them on track, Josie moves in — noting that she may have just moved into a frat house. Living room furniture consists of beanbag chairs and a gaming console, and she’s hard-pressed to find even a mug in the empty kitchen.

The three friends are good for one another, and little by little, they do actually start making progress on their lives. The guys are supportive — Kevin is a goofball with a heart of gold and Ben, Josie’s secret crush in high school, is a sweetheart who yearns for a better relationship with his 11-year-old and who would seemingly do anything to help Josie.

As Josie’s pregnancy progresses, we see the trio’s homelife (so much pizza and nachos!!), Josie’s advancing pregnancy, and her quest for teaching work. We also see how the three encourage little steps for each other. With Josie present, Ben is able to start connecting better with his daughter, and seeing Ben with Izzy helps Josie find a way to allow her ex to plan to be in her baby’s life.

I really enjoyed the storylines overall, although I did get a little tired of the horrifying food the characters eat ALL THE TIME. When Josie brings home a salad one day, they’re all aghast! Healthy food? What?? (Still, it is rather cute that each chapter title has a food in it — the author really sticks to the theme!)

At times, the story feels a little laggy. There are perhaps too many scenes of shopping, home decorating, and other elements of domestic life. It’s nice to see the characters working on themselves and on creating a home, but it gets to be a bit much after a while.

I will say that some of the scenes related to the pregnancy, and particularly to Josie’s labor and delivery, were especially well done. Josie’s experiences during delivery felt very real to me, perhaps because I had a similar experience to the character myself. It’s not the comedic or over-the-top kind of scene you sometimes see in fiction (or especially on TV shows) — I could absolutely relate to what Josie goes through, and loved how Ben and Kevin are by her side.

Overall, this is a sweet, engaging story, not particularly deep, but with enough personal growth to make it satisfying. The characters are funny and likable, and you can’t help but cheer them along every step of the way. There’s a romantic subplot too, but it doesn’t dominate or define the book. Really and truly, this is a book about friendship and how loving friends can help each other turn their lives around.

Worth checking out!

Book Review: He Gets That From Me by Jacqueline Friedland

Title: He Gets That From Me
Author: Jacqueline Friedland
Publisher: SparkPress
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 295 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

As a young mother with a toddler and a live-in boyfriend, Maggie Fisher’s job at a checkout counter in downtown Phoenix doesn’t afford her much financial flexibility. She dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, options she squandered when she fled her family home as a teenager. When Maggie stumbles onto an ad offering thousands of dollars to women who are willing to gestate other people’s babies, she at first finds the concept laughable. Before long, however, she’s been seduced by all the ways the extra money could improve her life. Once she decides to go for it, it’s only a matter of months before she’s chosen as a gestational carrier by Chip and Donovan Rigsdale, a married couple from New York.

After delivering twin babies and proudly handing them off to the Rigsdales, Maggie finally gets her life on a positive trajectory: she earns her degree, lands a great job, and builds a family of her own. She can’t fathom why, ten years after the fact, the fertility clinic is calling to ask for a follow-up DNA test.

I bought this e-book on a whim (it was 99 cents!), interested to see where the story would go. And while it definitely held my attention, I would describe He Gets That From Me as only partially successful.

As the story opens, we meet Maggie, who loves her baby Wyatt and her boyfriend Nick, but struggles to make ends meet. She regrets walking away from the college education her well-off parents were providing, a decision made after a teen-age trauma that made her flee parental control and judgment. When she sees an ad for gestational carriers, i.e., women to act as surrogates for those who cannot have children on their own, she doesn’t take it particularly seriously… but she can’t stop thinking about it, especially how the money could get her life back on track and allow her to finally pursue the education she gave up on.

We also meet Donovan, a New York real estate broker in a happy marriage with his husband Chip. They’re well-off and well-established, but desperately want a family together. As they enter the surrogacy process, they’re oh-so-careful at every step, making sure they’ll be legally protected and being very cautious in choosing their potential gestational carriers.

In the early chapters of the book, we jump backward and forward in time, and so we learn that Donovan has had himself, Chip, and their twin 10-year-old boys tested through an at-home DNA testing kit to help the boys with a class genealogy project. Donovan and Chip each provided sperm to use with their egg donor’s eggs, and based on the boys’ physical traits, they’ve long assume that Teddy is biologically Chip’s and Kai is biologically Donovan’s. Until the test results come back — and show that Kai isn’t biologically related to either of his dads.

As Donovan essentially freaks out and looks for answers, the couple assume a screw-up at the fertility lab. Perhaps their embryos were switched with someone else’s? Donovan even investigates whether babies could have been switched at birth. But no — all options are a dead-end until Maggie’s DNA testing confirms the obvious answer. Kai is biologically her son. How is this even possible?

Superfetation. Per healthline.com, “Superfetation is when a second, new pregnancy occurs during an initial pregnancy. Another ovum (egg) is fertilized by sperm and implanted in the womb days or weeks later than the first one. ” Oh, dear. So while two embryos from the donor eggs and Chip and Donovan’s sperm were transferred to Maggie, only one took… and then she and Nick conceived another fetus naturally, ending up pregnant with two unrelated fetuses.

Maggie, of course, is horrified. She and Nick tried for years to have more children, but whether from carrying twins or from a subsequent car accident, she ended up with uterine scarring that affected her fertility. She’s wracked by guilt: She agreed to carry someone else’s children, not to give away her own child.

An inevitable showdown between the two families quickly comes into play. After meeting Kai briefly, Maggie is convinced that he belongs with his biological family, and she and Nick sue for custody. Meanwhile, Chip and Donovan are desperate to keep their family intact and to protect Kai from being uprooted from the only life he’s ever know.

While the set-up is really engaging, I had some issues with the execution. For starters, I don’t truly believe that Maggie could think for one moment that removing Kai from his home would be in his best interest. They got from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye. What about visiting and getting to know one another? What about simply spending some time together, finding a way to be in each others’ lives? Nope, it’s full custody as the first and only option.

Some ugliness comes into play that seems out of character for Maggie. While Nick expressed some hesitation about becoming a surrogate for a gay couple when the option first was under discussion, Maggie was adamantly opposed to Nick’s homophobia and in fact broke up with him for a while over it. She cared deeply for Chip and Donovan and was committed to helping them create their family. Yet in the court filings, one of the arguments for claiming custody of Kai was that it would be in his best interest to be raised by a “traditional” family. Where did this come from? That was never Maggie’s belief.

I was left very unsatisfied by the end of the book. Certain twists are revealed in the epilogue that I found hard to believe, and the outcome of the custody case (trying to avoid spoilers here) was again a very black and white, all or nothing situation. I couldn’t help feeling that in real life, good lawyers and therapists would have encourage compromise and exploration of the true best interests of the child, rather than moving forward with a winner-takes-all lawsuit as the only possible answer.

At under 300 pages, He Gets That From Me is a quick read. While the premise is certainly interesting, I was too often frustrated by inconsistent or illogical actions and decisions to give this more than a 3-star rating. I could see this book generating good book club arguments for sure!

Book Review: The Stand-Up Groomsman by Jackie Lau

Title: The Stand-Up Groomsman
Author: Jackie Lau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 25, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A bridesmaid and groomsman put their differences aside to get their friends down the aisle in this opposites-attract steamy romantic comedy.

They say to never meet your heroes, but when Vivian Liao’s roommate gets engaged to her favorite actor’s costar, she has no choice but to come face-to-face with Melvin Lee again. He’s just as funny and handsome as he is on-screen…but thinks she is a snob and a sellout. It’s none of his business how she chooses to live her life, no matter how charismatic he is.

Mel is used to charming audiences as an actor and stand-up comedian but can’t connect to Vivian. She’s a smart, talented artist–which is why he thinks she’s wasting her life as a corporate finance drone. The only thing uniting them is their goal for the wedding to go off without a hitch.

As they collaborate on wedding cake and karaoke parties, Mel realizes he might have seriously misjudged this bridesmaid, while Vivian discovers the best man might just be as dazzling off-screen as he is on. With the wedding underway, maybe more than one happily ever after is in the future.

In this follow-up to Donut Fall In Love, a self-contained finance professional falls for a loud, outrageous stand-up comedian, and sparks fly — despite the fact that on the surface, at least, they’re complete opposites, and what’s worse, had an awful first meeting.

When Vivian meets Mel, she’s thrilled to be meeting the star of one of her favorite sitcoms. I mean, she’s done fan art about him! But he makes the mistake of assuming she’s like he used to be — someone pursuing a corporate paycheck rather than taking a chance and following their muse. Vivian is furious and would be happy to never see him again. Unfortunately for her, they’re going to be forced together over the coming year, as her roommate Lindsay has just become engaged to his best friend Ryan, and they’re both going to be in the wedding party.

As the wedding events seem designed to throw Vivian and Mel together, they form a tentative sort of connection, realizing that their outward differences mask some life experiences and personality quirks that make them more alike than they realized. Of course, the more time they spend together, they more their chemistry heats up, and it’s only for so long that they can deny that they’re better off as lovers than as enemies (or even frenemies).

The Stand-Up Groomsman is lots of fun, with tons of cute flirting, silly gift-giving, and shedding of inhibitions and defense mechanisms. I was impressed with the author’s ability to peel back the outer layers of the characters to show us how they’ve ended up where they are. Vivian confused me for much of the story — why was she so closed off? Why did she seem so unable to make connections or get involved with other people? But eventually, we learn more about her childhood and her parents’ expectations of her, and it finally all clicks and makes sense.

Melvin himself is all sorts of adorable. He and Vivian are both bisexual, and their frank conversations about sexuality are very refreshing — I haven’t come across all that many contemporary romance tales with such positive bi representation. (Mel’s bi identity is one of the many pieces of himself that becomes fodder for his stand-up routines, and it’s both sweet and funny to see how he works it into his set).

As the title indicates, Mel is a stand-up comedian as well as being a comedic actor. We see his stand-up shows throughout the book, and while some bits are quite funny, this is actually one part of the novel that perhaps didn’t work all that well for me. Reading a stand-up routine as part of a book’s narrative is just not the same as seeing a stand-up performance — and without the personality and physical presence, I just didn’t feel like the comedy translated all that well to the printed page.

That’s really just a minor quibble. Overall, The Stand-Up Groomsman is silly, sweet, and romantic, with some sexytimes in the mix too. (In terms of just how sexy, I’d rank this one as somewhere between steamy and graphic on my non-scientific, inexact ratings scale — it’s detailed and shows everything, but doesn’t cross into downright overly anatomical descriptions, if that makes any sense.)

On Goodreads, The Stand-Up Groomsman is listed as Donut Fall In Love, #2 — and yes, it is a sequel, but if you’re interested in this book, no need to get too hung up on reading the first book first. The couple from the first book are the wedding couple in this one, but really, you can read The Stand-Up Groomsman as a stand-alone and it’ll work just fine. (That said, Donut Fall In Love is super enjoyable, so why not read both?)

I’d definitely recommend The Stand-Up Groomsman for anyone looking for a light, contemporary romance with unusual characters and a sense of whimsy. Really a fun read!