Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)

Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Title: Spoiler Alert
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 

Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.

April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.

Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.

With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

Spoiler Alert is a body-positive yet somewhat angsty romance, ultimately a feel-good story but one that makes its characters work pretty hard to get there.

April Whittier is a 36-year-old geologist who’s comfortable in her own skin, despite the constant pressure from parents who’ve always wanted to fix her through diets or exercise or “foundation garments”. As she gets ready to start a job with much less focus on image, April decides to come out as a cosplayer by posting a photo of herself in her full Lavinia glory.

Lavinia is one half of the madly shipped pairing of Lavinia and Aeneas from the hugely popular Gates of the Gods book series and TV adaptation. In the world of Spoiler Alert, Gates of the Gods is the biggest thing on TV, adapted from the books series by author E. Wade — but the author has only published three books so far, and the TV series has moved beyond book content in its later seasons, with plotting and scripts by the showrunners. By most accounts, their work is a disaster, at least according to true fans. Only the cast knows what’s coming up in the final season which has just finished filming (and they’re sworn to secrecy) — but privately, most of the cast feels like their characters have been ruined and given plotlines that destroy or negate seasons worth of development.

Marcus Castor-Rupp is one of the stars of Gates of the Gods, in the leading role of Aeneas. Almost 40, Marcus is known for his gorgeous face, fine physique, sharp acting skills… and lack of intelligence. His public persona is all about his good looks. He’s a truly pretty face, but there’s no there there.

When April posts her cosplay picture on Twitter, the trolls come out. When some particularly cruel comments are posted which tag Marcus, as if inviting him to have fun mocking April, Marcus swoops in in hero fashion and declares April gorgeous and asks her out. It may be a publicity stunt, but April decides to be brave and accepts.

Their date is horrible. April wants to get to know Marcus, and Marcus is dull as rocks (or duller than rocks, since April is a geologist and finds rocks fascinating.) But finally, April starts to realize that the pretty boy facade might hide someone else, a man of intelligence, and almost unwillingly, she’s intrigued.

As April and Marcus get to know each other better, a further complication arises: They are each active fanfiction writers, and their fanfic alter-egos are actually close friends, and maybe even more. While April admits to her fanfic identity up front, Marcus does not, knowing that his writing could get him fired and make him untouchable in Hollywood if anyone ever found out. As they continue dating, Marcus digs himself a deeper and deeper hole — the closer he gets to April, the more he wants to tell her the truth, but that would mean admitting he lied in the first place, which he’s sure would drive her away.

There’s a lot to really enjoy about Spoiler Alert. I liked the fictional world within the world, learning about the plotlines and characters of Gates of the Gods throughout the story. There are snippets of fanfic included in between chapters, as well as some rather hilarious script selections from the truly awful movie and TV productions Marcus was in before hitting it big.

I also appreciated the confidence both April and Marcus have when it comes to their chosen professions. They both have devoted themselves to becoming great at their work, and they have faith in themselves and their own abilities. (Also, it’s kind of awesomely funny every time we find out about yet another skill that Marcus has learned in preparation for roles — not just horseback riding and sword skills, but also how to chop like a chef and even ride a unicycle.)

April describes herself as fat, and she’s okay with that. While others (especially her mother) might try to change her or make her feel unworthy due to her size, April knows she’s an attractive woman and dresses to show herself to best advantage. She’s also clear that she wants to be loved for herself, and not despite or because of her fatness. She’s also very sex positive, understanding what she like and what she wants, and being very upfront about giving and receiving pleasure.

Both April and Marcus carry heavy baggage from the pain of their childhoods. April’s parents fat-shamed her her entire life, and it’s amazing that she grew up to be as well-adjusted as she is. Marcus, the son of two academics, was made to feel slow, lazy, and stupid throughout his childhood and adolescents, because his undiagnosed dyslexia made his schooling a nightmare. His sense of shame from this stays with him and absolutely informs the “just a pretty face” act that he puts on in public. Even though he’s recognized his dyslexia and learned adaptations to help him succeed, the scars have stayed with him.

Other stuff I like:

  • April and Marcus’s hot chemistry
  • How frequently we hear Marcus think about how gorgeous April is and how attracted he is to her
  • April and Marcus’s ages — they’re adults, not teens or early 20-somethings. I like the maturity and the stage of life they’re both in, where they’re both successful, but feel like it’s really time to make changes in their lives if they’re ever going to.
  • The story within a story, particularly when it comes to the Lavinia and Aeneas characters
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor shown in the fanfic and the script snippets
  • The way Gates of the Gods is clearly meant to be a Game of Thrones-type production
  • April’s professional pride and success
  • The celebration of fandom culture as a whole — I loved the positive portrayal of cosplay and fanfiction and cons. The author makes this world rich and vibrant and so much fun.

Some quibbles:

  • SO much pain and angst. I appreciate how thoughtful April and Marcus are and how deeply they feel everything, but the scenes of anguish and mental suffering are way too frequent and long. As April’s fanfic persona points out to Marcus’s early on, some writing should be tagged “misery ahoy”.
  • Perhaps one reason the angst felt like too much to me has to do with the overall length of the book. For a fun, upbeat romance, it’s long. I think the story would have been stronger with about 30-40 pages whittled down, at least.
  • The conflict over secret-keeping is obviously going to cause a break-up. We readers can see exactly where it’s going, right from the start of the relationship. Being obvious isn’t a deal-breaker, but at some point I found myself just waiting for the inevitable.

For those who prefer to know in advance, the sex scenes in this book are explicit, which usually isn’t my taste in romance reading. However, there aren’t so many that it’s overwhelming, so overall I was okay with it.

Whew. This is a long review. I love the positive messages conveyed by this steamy love story: You don’t have to fit some society-determined idea of what perfect is to be attractive, sexy, desirable, and most importantly, to be loved. The body-positivity is lovely, and the plot itself and the charming characters are really enjoyable and entertaining.

I understand that there will be a follow-up novel focusing on Marcus’s best friend and his love interest, and I will definitely be on board!

Book Review: In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Title: In a Holidaze
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One Christmas wish, two brothers, and a lifetime of hope are on the line for hapless Maelyn Jones in In a Holidaze, the quintessential holiday romantic novel by Christina Lauren, the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…but not for Maelyn Jones. She’s living with her parents, hates her going-nowhere job, and has just made a romantic error of epic proportions.

But perhaps worst of all, this is the last Christmas Mae will be at her favorite place in the world—the snowy Utah cabin where she and her family have spent every holiday since she was born, along with two other beloved families. Mentally melting down as she drives away from the cabin for the final time, Mae throws out what she thinks is a simple plea to the universe: Please. Show me what will make me happy.

The next thing she knows, tires screech and metal collides, everything goes black. But when Mae gasps awake…she’s on an airplane bound for Utah, where she begins the same holiday all over again. With one hilarious disaster after another sending her back to the plane, Mae must figure out how to break free of the strange time loop—and finally get her true love under the mistletoe.

Jam-packed with yuletide cheer, an unforgettable cast of characters, and Christina Lauren’s trademark “downright hilarious” (Helen Hoang, author of The Bride Test) hijinks, this swoon-worthy romantic read will make you believe in the power of wishes and the magic of the holidays.

As a rule, I do not read Christmas-themed books. But, rules are made to be broken, especially when the Christmas-themed book in question is by Christina Lauren, the author duo whose books I always seem to love.

In a Holidaze is a feel-good holiday story with a little bit of Groundhog Day mixed in as a twist. Maelyn Jones loves her family’s Christmas tradition. For as long as she can remember, her parents, their college best friends, and the assorted offspring gather at a cabin in Utah to catch up and celebrate. It’s the best sort of found family.

The only downside for Mae is that her teen crush on Andrew Hollis, the older of two brothers who are sons of the cabin owners, has morphed over the years into unrequited love. For ten years, Mae has pined for Andrew, but Andrew has never looked at her as more than a kid sister.

This year, Mae’s holiday gets complicated. On the last night at the cabin, she drunkenly makes out with Andrew’s younger brother Theo, which she instantly regrets. Not only that, but Andrew’s parents inform everyone that they’re selling the cabin, so this is the last year of the traditional Christmas holiday together.

Mae is upset and depressed, and not at all excited about going back to her disappointing life and job back home. A random car accident on the drive back to the airport launches Mae into an impossible new reality — she wakes up back on the airplane on the way to the cabin to start the holiday all over again.

Of course, no one else realizes that anything weird is afoot, but Mae is freaking out. After a couple more reboots, each caused by a seemingly fatal accident, Mae is determined to stop being so cautious and timid and just go for what she wants… and that includes telling Andrew how she feels.

From here, it’s a feel-good romance, as lifelong friends discover passion and deep emotional connection. The setting is such fun — a snowy cabin, a big family, holiday traditions like sledding and setting up the tree and having snowball fights, board games and drinks by the fire. The big extended family is of course very invested in the Mae/Andrew romance, and some complications arise that almost ruin everything. But, this is a holiday romance, so despite some fears along the way, I was pretty confident that things were going to work out just fine.

Christina Lauren books are always a good time, and I really liked this one. I loved the set-up — the large group gathered at the cabin for a week — and how the different friends and family present interact, support one another, act out, make fun of each other, and show just how strong a family of friends can be.

Mae and Andrew are sweet together, and the only issue I had was that I spent the 2nd half of the book holding my breath in case another random reboot would happen and wipe out all the wonderful relationship steps these two managed to take.

In a Holidaze is really a sweet read, and is a perfect choice for when the weather turns colder. Ideally, this book should be read while wearing flannel, under a big cozy blanket, in a comfy chair next to the fireplace, while snow falls outside. Don’t forget the hot chocolate!

Book Review: Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo

Title: Ties That Tether
Author: Jane Igharo
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When a Nigerian woman falls for a man she knows will break her mother’s heart, she must choose between love and her family.

At twelve years old, Azere promised her dying father she would marry a Nigerian man and preserve her culture even after emigrating to Canada. Her mother has been vigilant about helping–forcing–her to stay well within the Nigerian dating pool ever since. But when another match-made-by-mom goes wrong, Azere ends up at a bar, enjoying the company and later sharing the bed of Rafael Castellano, a man who is tall, handsome, and white.

When their one-night stand unexpectedly evolves into something serious, Azere is caught between her growing feelings for Rafael and the compulsive need to please her mother who will never accept a relationship that threatens to dilute Azere’s Nigerian heritage.

Azere can’t help wondering if loving Rafael makes her any less of a Nigerian. Can she be with him without compromising her identity? The answer will either cause Azere to be audacious and fight for her happiness or continue as the compliant daughter.

At first glance, Ties That Tether might seem to be just another contemporary romance. But really, it’s so much more.

Right off the bat, we know that Azere has done something completely out of character. After a terrible first date with yet another mom-approved man, Azere decides to cool off by having a drink in the hotel bar… where an attractive stranger strikes up a conversation with her. After talking for hours, they end up in bed and have a fantastic night together — but Azere leaves quietly the next morning, never intending to see him again.

Azere is Nigerian Canadian, born and raised in a village that she remembers fondly, until her father’s death when she was 12 years old led the family to immigrate to Canada under the protection of her paternal uncle. While Azere and her sister Efe learned to become Canadian, Azere’s mother holds the girls to their heritage, and most of all, she holds Azere to the promise she made to her father on his deathbed: To marry a Nigerian Edo man.

Azere feels guilt over her one-night stand, because she’s never been with a non-Nigerian man before, but intends to move on and be a dutiful daughter once again, until the man in question, Rafael, shows up in her office as a new hire with whom she’ll be working closely. Rafael is white, of Spanish decent, and is nothing like the type of man her mother would approve of. But there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two of them — and then something complicates matters further (no spoilers from me!) in a way that guarantees that Azere and Rafael will have to deal with their feelings for one another.

Besides the terrific connection between Azere and Rafael, this book really shines when it comes to exploring the immigrant experience, spotlighting the pressure to be loyal to one’s heritage while at the same time trying to establish a new life in a new world.

I’ve been compromising for thirteen years, rearranging things so I can exist in two different worlds. Now, he wants me to exist in a third — his. I can’t do that. And maybe I’m being unreasonable and even selfish, but I’m terrified — terrified that adopting Rafael’s culture will put me at great risk of losing mine. After all, my mother warned me of the possibility.

Azere is a wonderful character. She adores romantic movies, which I find incredibly endearing. She can pull out rom-com quotes or comparisons for seemingly any occasion, and it’s just so cute.

Our bodies are in perfect sync, complementing the band’s tempo. I’ve somehow been transported into the movie Dirty Dancing. I’m Baby and Rafael is Johnny.

Azere tries so hard to be the good daughter her mother expects, but her mother leaves her no room for anything but the way she thinks she should be, going so far as to threaten to disown Azere if she persists in a relationship with Rafael. It’s a terrible situation, and the author lets us see the awful pain Azere experiences, being forced to choose her family or the man she loves, with no middle ground available.

The book does a very convincing job of showing the challenges of being an outsider in a new country — particularly for children, who are expected to live up to family expectations and keep traditions alive, yet whose day-to-day existence can be brutal at an age where differences can mean exclusion. Only by adjusting their clothing, food, and other outward signs of their culture can Azere and Efe finally make friends and fit in as young girls.

The writing is lovely, letting us inside Azere’s head (and occasionally Rafael’s), showing the heightened emotions of falling in love without going too far over the top… and sometimes, surprising with how powerful simple words can be.

From Azere:

Whenever he kisses me, no matter how brief, reason eludes me, and I forget I’m kissing lying lips.

And from Rafael:

This is my rescue mission. Though, unlike the fairy-tale-themed movies she once made me watch, there are no dragons to slay or evil queens to overthrow. In this case, the damsel stands as her own obstacle. So rather than using a sword or a life-restoring kiss, I use words, hoping to wake her from the obligation-induced trance she’s been in for years.

The course of true love never did run smooth, so of course there are all sorts of issues beyond the cultural differences that stand between Azere and Rafael. Still, given the nature of romances, there’s never any doubt that these two will end up together — it’s just a question of how, and how long it will take.

The author, like Azere, immigrated from Nigeria to Canada at age 12, and it’s obvious that she knows what’s she’s talking about. Azere’s struggles and experiences feel authentic and realistically portrayed. She’s a wonderful main character, and I loved seeing the care and thoughtfulness she devotes to fulfilling her own romantic destiny while not discarding her family heritage.

I really enjoyed this book, start to finish. It’s a quick and captivating read that pulled me in right from the start. The romance itself is terrific, full of steam and attraction, as well as true emotion and vulnerability. If anything, Rafael is maybe a shade too perfect (and even though Azere has cause to distrust him, we readers know perfectly well that he’s hiding bits of his past for valid reasons and can guess what those reasons are). As a couple, Rafael and Azere are easy to root for — they’re just so right for each other.

Ties That Tether is a delight. Don’t miss it!

Shelf Control #235: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Light We Lost
Author: Jill Santopolo
Published: 2017
Length: 328 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

He was the first person to inspire her, to move her, to truly understand her. Was he meant to be the last?

Lucy is faced with a life-altering choice. But before she can make her decision, she must start her story—their story—at the very beginning.

Lucy and Gabe meet as seniors at Columbia University on a day that changes both of their lives forever. Together, they decide they want their lives to mean something, to matter. When they meet again a year later, it seems fated—perhaps they’ll find life’s meaning in each other. But then Gabe becomes a photojournalist assigned to the Middle East and Lucy pursues a career in New York. What follows is a thirteen-year journey of dreams, desires, jealousies, betrayals, and, ultimately, of love. Was it fate that brought them together? Is it choice that has kept them away? Their journey takes Lucy and Gabe continents apart, but never out of each other’s hearts.

How and when I got it:

I bought it at least a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I first heard of The Light We Lost when it was selected as a Hello Sunshine book group book. I tend to shy away from most celebrity book clubs, but I find that the Reese/Hello Sunshine books tend to be really, really good!

From the Hello Sunshine website:

“This book is all about different kinds of love – the kind that engulfs you like a wildfire and the kind that keeps you warm like a hearth fire. This love story spans decades and continents as two star-crossed lovers try to return to each other.

Life, motherhood, and distance get in the way. Will they ever meet again? This book kept me up at night, turning the pages to find out. Can’t tell you the ending but definitely have tissues close by!! I loved it!” x Reese

This definitely sounds like something I’d enjoy. I haven’t read much contemporary fiction lately, and I like the sound of a love story that spans years and years.

Now that this book is on my mind again, I think I’m going to bump it higher up my to-read list.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Switch
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Eileen is sick of being 79.
Leena’s tired of life in her twenties.
Maybe it’s time they swapped places…

When overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Eileen is newly single and about to turn eighty. She’d like a second chance at love, but her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen.

Once Leena learns of Eileen’s romantic predicament, she proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love. Meanwhile Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with gossiping neighbours and difficult family dynamics to navigate up north, and trendy London flatmates and online dating to contend with in the city, stepping into one another’s shoes proves more difficult than either of them expected.

Leena learns that a long-distance relationship isn’t as romantic as she hoped it would be, and then there is the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – school teacher, who keeps showing up to outdo her efforts to impress the local villagers. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, but is her perfect match nearer home than she first thought?

Switching lives is a fiction trope that’s always fun and entertaining, and that’s true for the new novel by Beth O’Leary.

In The Switch, a grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch lives for two months, each being stuck in a frustrating rut. For Eileen, she’s 79 years old, her lackluster husband has just left her for another woman, and she already knows all the single men her age in her little village. She’s ready to get back out and start dating, but the pickings are slim.

Meanwhile, Leena is afraid that she’s torpedoed her career after suffering a major panic attack in the middle of a client pitch. Her boss (kindly, I thought) insists that Leena take a 2-month paid holiday to rest and recenter herself.

Both Leena and Eileen are dealing with loss and grief, in addition to their career/dating woes. Leena’s younger sister Carla died a year earlier after a battle with cancer. Leena has been quietly falling apart ever since, and Eileen has thrown herself into looking after her daughter Marion, who is fragile and shaky. On top of all this, Leena isn’t speaking to Marion, since she blames her for allowing Carla to stop treatment rather than pursuing an experimental option in America.

Once Leena is forced to take time off, she comes up with the idea of switching places with her grandmother. While there are no eligible men for Eileen where she lives, there are plenty in London, and Leena realizes that the peace of the village might provide her with a fresh start.

Naturally, they’re both fish out of water. Eileen moves in with Leena’s twenty-something flatmates and immediately begins making waves, insisting on getting to know the neighbors, rather than observing the time-honored city dweller tradition of ignoring everyone around you. Eileen does not take no for an answer, and soon has the entire building socializing and coming together for a good cause. Not only that, but her online dating profile leads her to a few good prospects, including a suave, attractive actor who’s clearly just looking for a no-strings lover — something Eileen is all too eager to give a try.

For Leena, small-town life is not as quiet as she’d anticipated. She’s expected to fill Eileen’s role on town committees, to socialize with Eileen’s friends, and to pitch in whenever needed. The town gossip immediate includes Leena and her misadventures, but she’s determined to break through some of the walls that the town’s grumpier residents put up.

Of course, each woman ends up finding love — and I can’t really say it’s where you’d least expect it, because I could see the love stories coming from a mile away. Leena starts off with a serious boyfriend, but it’s easy for the reader to see the couple’s issues, even if Leena doesn’t, and naturally the right guy is right under her nose, once she opens her eyes.

The Switch is a warm book, definitely lightened up by Eileen’s quirkiness and feistiness. I enjoyed Leena’s interactions in the village too. The emotional beats related to Carla’s death and the aftermath of her loss are often powerful, although the plot thread showing Leena and her mother finding their way back together could have benefited from more showing and less telling.

Overall, this is a sweet, lovable book. It’s perky and charming, and even though it’s mostly predictable, I still found it a hug-worthy, engaging read — just the right blend of lightness and real-life emotion to make it a good summer escape.

Book Review: What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Title: What You Wish For
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.

Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.

When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.

Samantha Casey loves her life on Galveston island. The librarian at a progressive, sunny, creative elementary school, she enjoys her students and her community, and absolutely loves Max and Babette, the school’s founders who have also become a surrogate family to her.

But when Max dies suddenly at his 60th birthday party, he leaves behind a community in chaos. The school’s board of directors, headed by Max and Babette’s horrible son-in-law, announces that he’s bringing in a new principal — and it’s a name from Sam’s past, Duncan Carpenter.

Years earlier, Sam taught at the same school as Duncan, where he was the teacher at the heart of all the fun. Duncan could be counted on to juggle on the playground, wear crazy shirts, institute wacky traditions, and in general act as the chief joy creator at the school. For Sam, the problem was that she was head over heels for Duncan, but as far as she could tell, he was barely aware of her existence. Her unrequited crush on Duncan was what finally prompted her to move away and start over, and life has been good since then.

It’s startling for Sam when Duncan shows up at the start of the school year and is nothing like she remembers. Instead of Hawaiian shirts and crazy ties, he wears a grey three-piece suit, has a respectable hair cut, and seems to care only about the school’s security measures. He deems the colorful murals in the hallways and cafeteria visually distracting, cancels all field trips, and seems intent on turning the school into a grey-walled prison.

Sam and Duncan butt heads from the beginning, but eventually they start to warm up to each other. After Sam helps Duncan home after a medical appointment, the relationship thaws even further, and finally Babette comes up with a challenge, in which Duncan has to do one joyful thing, as assigned by Babette, every day if he wants to keep his job. As he carries out his tasks, his partner ends up being Sam more often than not, and the two grow close despite their personal baggage and misunderstandings.

There’s a lot of good in What You Wish For, so let’s start there. Sam is just a lovely person, and her devotion to helping kids learn and develop a lifelong long of reading is wonderful. She chooses everyday to overcome the darkness of her past and embraces celebration, color, and joy. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming attitude, shared by Babette and Sam’s best friend Alice, and indeed the whole school seems to thrive in this vibrant approach to childhood and being open to experience.

I need to give a special shout-out to Alice, who is amazing. She’s the school math teacher, and wears a different math-themed t-shirt every day, and is just all around fabulous.

Sam’s personal background and the painful experiences she’s carried with her her whole life are well-described and very sympathetic. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that while Sam embodies joyful living, she’s also very much hampered by a sense of fear and shame that keep her from allowing anyone to get too close to her, particularly in a romantic sense.

I did have some issues with this book, so I’ll share those as well. Duncan is so clearly a changed man when he shows up in Galveston, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why. (No spoilers from me, sorry!) When the truth is revealed to Sam, the details are still impactful, but it’s not like it’s a surprise in any way.

The school board’s chair, Kent Buckley, is a man described as someone you always refer to by both first and last name… and really, why? Even his in-laws? It’s just weird. Anyway, he’s awful (as he’s supposed to be), and I couldn’t quite buy that such a wonderful school would allow a jerk like that to pull all the strings and make the big decisions.

I also didn’t really feel Sam and Duncan’s romance. They go from antagonists to friends to more pretty quickly, and while it turns out that he also had feelings for her back in their earlier days teaching together, I’m not sure that I could see them overcoming their differences quite so easily. In any case, they just really don’t have much chemisty, so I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship.

What You Wish For is a quick read, and while it deals with grief and other serious matters, there’s a sweetness too in the sense of community and the absolutely lovely and supportive way that the school at large forms its own extended family.

Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Met
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author, Jen DeLuca.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek. 

Okay, show of hands: Who among us hasn’t ever wanted to lace up a corset, grab a turkey leg, and head to ye olde Renaissance Faire for some old-timey fun? Not just me, right?

In Well Met, Emily Parker is 24, unemployed, and temporarily living in small-town Willow Creek while helping her older sister April recover from a serious car accident. Part of this help is ferrying around her 14-year-old niece, Caitlin, including taking her to sign up as a volunteer cast member for the upcoming summer’s Renaissance Faire. The catch, however, is that minors can’t volunteer unless they have a responsible adult volunteering with them, so Emily reluctantly finds herself roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the summer.

Emily takes an immediate dislike to the Faire’s organizer Simon, who seems rigid and overly obsessed with filling out forms correctly. He causes further offense by accusing Emily of not taking Faire seriously — which, granted, she’s only half-heartedly doing, at least at first.

But as rehearsals warm up and the big event approaches, Emily is more and more drawn into the excitement, the pretend world of Faire, and the real world of Willow Creek. She’s had a hard few years, but is finally starting to feel like she might have found a place to put down roots and create a life for herself.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Simon seem to be developing some real chemistry — especially when they’re in their Faire personae of tavern wench and swaggering pirate.

Well Met is so much adorable fun! First off, the Faire goings-on are amazing and made me want to be there! Jousting, troubadors, Queen Elizabeth, ladies in waiting, kilted men… there’s just so much to love! And it’s so cute to see how into it everyone is, from giddy high school students to long-time Faire veterans.

I enjoyed Emily’s character,and there are plenty of great supporting characters too — such as April, Caitlyn, Emily’s new-found bestie Stacy, local bookstore owner Chris, and more.

Emily and Simon both have painful baggage, and their histories hold them back from fully exploring what they want and what they need to find happiness. When they do finally get together, it’s not all smooth sailing, as they both put up their defenses, misinterpret each others’ communications, and just generally mess things up quite a bit.

One of my standard romance complaints comes into play, which is that if people would only talk to each other rather than jumping to conclusions, life would be a whole lot easier! Of course, then the story would have less drama, but still. Emily spends a week worrying that she’s being fired from her job and that Simon played a part in it — but a), that’s a ridiculous assumption that’s really not based on anything concrete, and b) she could have asked one simple questions and clearly up her confusion instantly.

Still, what’s a romance novel without stumbling blocks? It would have all wrapped up much too quickly if Emily and Simon got together when they did and then remained blissfully happy until the end. So yes, we get the requisite drama, fight, and break-up, but hey, it’s a romance, so of course there’s going to be an HEA to end the story!

My one lingering complaint about Well Met is that there’s a storyline thread I would have loved to see get tied up. Part of Emily’s backstory is that she dropped out of college about a year short of an English degree in order to support her (awful) ex-boyfriend through law school. While Emily is happily employed and fulfilled by the end of the book, I would have loved for her to decide to go back to school and finish the education that clearly meant so much to her. Well, hopefully we’ll find out that that’s exactly what she did by the time the sequel comes out!

A note on the audiobook: I originally picked up a print version of this book, but I’m so happy I ended up going the audio route instead! I really enjoyed the narration. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the narrator did a great job showing us the characters putting on their fake accents for the Faire personae and getting into the spirit of it all.

Well Met is the first in a trilogy of novels centered around Faire, each one focusing on a different couple’s love story. Book #2, Well Played, due out this coming September. And yes, I absolutely want to read it!

Well Met is good, romantic fun, and a great choice for a summer read.

Huzzah!

Book Review: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Title: Party of Two
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 23, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A chance meeting with a handsome stranger turns into a whirlwind affair that gets everyone talking.

Dating is the last thing on Olivia Monroe’s mind when she moves to LA to start her own law firm. But when she meets a gorgeous man at a hotel bar and they spend the entire night flirting, she discovers too late that he is none other than hotshot junior senator Max Powell. Olivia has zero interest in dating a politician, but when a cake arrives at her office with the cutest message, she can’t resist–it is chocolate cake, after all.

Olivia is surprised to find that Max is sweet, funny, and noble–not just some privileged white politician she assumed him to be. Because of Max’s high-profile job, they start seeing each other secretly, which leads to clandestine dates and silly disguises. But when they finally go public, the intense media scrutiny means people are now digging up her rocky past and criticizing her job, even her suitability as a trophy girlfriend. Olivia knows what she has with Max is something special, but is it strong enough to survive the heat of the spotlight?

Jasmine Guillory has quickly become one of my go-to authors for when I want a light, upbeat romance, for so many reasons. Her women are strong, determined, and professional; the relationships are relationships among equals; her cast of characters is always diverse and well grounded; and hey, the books are just fun!

Party of Two takes place in the author’s established world, first introduced in The Wedding Date. This is the 5th book in the series, although I use the term “series” loosely. Yes, characters from earlier books show up, and the characters are all connected — but on the other hand, the books absolutely work as stand-alones. You can read Party of Two on its own and enjoy it fully.

So… Party of Two.

This is the story of Olivia Monroe, a super-smart lawyer who’s left the corporate law environment to strike out on her own, opening a boutique law firm in LA with her friend and colleague Ellie. In her first week in LA, Olivia meets an attractive guy in her hotel’s bar, where they share a good conversation about cake, among other things — but this is LA, and Olivia assumes a guy this good-looking must be an actor, and she just isn’t interested in dating actors, thank you very much.

Imagine Olivia’s surprise when she later turns on the news and realizes the hot guy from the bar is actually an up-and-coming United States Senator, Max Powell. Obviously not for her. Can’t trust a politician, after all, and Olivia has no desire for a public spotlight.

Still, when they run into each other at a fundraising event a few weeks later, their connection is still there — and Max finds that he’s just as smitten with Olivia as he was when they first met. After courtship via baked goods, the two cautiously begin a cross-country romance, which soon blossoms into much more than the fling that Olivia was expecting.

The writing in Party of Two is funny, emotional, and on point. Olivia has some scathing views of the men she typically meets:

“I was in too many relationships in my late twenties and early thirties with men who got mad at me for how much I was working, or required so much of my time to, I don’t know, sympathize with them about their mean lady boss or tuck them into bed when they had a man cold or whatever.”

Man cold. Snicker.

She’s a very self-aware, determined woman who doesn’t compromise her integrity and doesn’t give in easily to big gestures, and yet…

“… I still get that fucking gooey look on my face when he texts me! I can tell I get it! I try not to get it! But the goo just spreads over my face and I can’t make it stop!”

One of the things I love about these characters (besides their chemistry and adorableness together) is that they’re socially aware and committed individuals who want to do good in the world. Max’s key goal in the Senate is to push through a justice reform bill, and he spends time learning and listening to people who’ve suffered from a broken system. Likewise, Olivia devotes herself to volunteer work in a food pantry, and is passionate about food insecurity and offering hope and resources to underprivileged and disenfranchised youth.

One of the key stumbling blocks between Max and Olivia is his tendency to rush forward without full consideration of risks. As a wealthy white man who has never truly known adversity, Max expects the world to work out for him. But as Olivia points out:

“… you just leap in to something without thinking about the implications, say the first thing comes to your mind, and smile and charm your way out of every hole you dig yourself in. I can’t do things like that. I’m a black woman, I don’t ever get the benefit of the doubt in the way someone like you does. I can’t afford to make split-second decisions and assume they’ll work out.”

Not that this is a heavy book in any way. The romance is sweet and sexy, and clearly, these two crazy kids are meant for each other. It’s totally engaging to see how they handle heavy-duty professional lives (which in Max’s case, comes with a lack of privacy and an ever-present spotlight) and balance these with their need for intimacy and space, and the ability to carve out time alone together to nurture and grow their relationship.

Party of Two is delightful, romantic summer reading, but with a grounding in the real world that makes it feel relevant. It delivers a message without pounding readers over the head, but consistently enough to keep the social justice theme prominent throughout the love story aspects of the plot.

As I mentioned, this book absolutely works on its own, but if you want to place it within the context of Jasmine Guillory’s other books, Olivia is the older sister of Alexa, the lead character in The Wedding Date.

Highly recommended!

Book Review: 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

Title: 500 Miles From You
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the beloved Scottish Highland town of Kirrinfief, which readers first met in The Bookshop on the Shore, and adds a dash of London’s bustling urban landscape. 

Lissie, is a nurse in a gritty, hectic London neighborhood. Always terribly competent and good at keeping it all together, she’s been suffering quietly with PTSD after helping to save the victim of a shocking crime. Her supervisor quietly arranges for Lissie to spend a few months doing a much less demanding job in the little town of Kirrinfeif in Scottish Highlands, hoping that the change of scenery will help her heal. Lissie will be swapping places with Cormack, an Army veteran who’s Kirrinfeif’s easygoing nurse/paramedic/all-purpose medical man. Lissie’s never experienced small-town life, and Cormack’s never spent more than a day in a big city, but it seems like a swap that would do them both some good.

In London, the gentle Cormack is a fish out of the water; in Kirrinfief, the dynamic Lissie finds it hard to adjust to the quiet. But these two strangers are now in constant contact, taking over each other’s patients, endlessly emailing about anything and everything. Lissie and Cormack discover a new depth of feeling…for their profession and for each other.

But what will happen when Lissie and Cormack finally meet…?

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite of mine, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of her new book, 500 Miles From You. This author’s books always make me smile, and her books set in the Scottish Highlands give me a major case of wanderlust each and every time.

In 500 Miles From You, we start by meeting Lissa, a nurse who specializes in follow-up care, spending her days driving around London from patient to patient to make sure they’re following doctor’s orders, taking their medications, and getting the treatment they need. As the story opens, Lissa witnesses a terrible hit and run that’s a deliberate attack, leaving a 15-year-old boy dying on the street.

Side note: The synopsis above, from Goodreads, refers to Lissie and Cormack. In the book, it’s Lissa and Cormac. Just FYI — I don’t want you to think I’m getting the characters’ names wrong!

Lissa is unable to shake off the horror, and finally, her hospital’s HR team strongly urges her to participate in a professional exchange program. She’ll be sent to a rural area to use her skills in a different environment, and a nurse from that area will come take her place in London to gain experience in urban medicine.

It doesn’t seem like an offer Lissa can refuse, and between her new assignment and her required ongoing therapy sessions, the exhange may be her only opportunity to heal and recover before her PTSD completely derails her career and her life.

Meanwhile, Cormac will leave his beloved town of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands — where literally everyone knows your name — to live in Lissa’s nursing quarters in London and take over her set of patients. The two never meet, but they exchange patient notes, and over time, develop an email and text rapport beyond the professional requirements.

In my opinion. Lissa gets the much better end of the deal! As always, Jenny Colgan has me falling in love all over again with her depiction of life in the Highlands — the peace and quiet, the quaint small town, the local busybodies, the sense of connection. And frankly, while Cormac eventually finds reasons to like London, the descriptions of the noise, the dirt, the unfriendliness, the bustle all make it clear why Cormac yearns for home.

Lissa’s PTSD is portrayed sensitively. As a medical professional, she intellectually understands her reactions, but that doesn’t mean that she can instantly deal with it. Her progress is slow, and we see how her London habits keep her from fitting in or being accepted when she arrives in Kirrinfief. Eventually, of course, she opens up to her surroundings and to the way of life in a small village, and finds more than she could have thought possible.

Cormac, a former army medic, carries around with him the memories of Fallujah that eventually make him seek a civilian career. While he can relate to Lissa’s trauma, his own past still remains mostly undisclosed. I finished the book wishing we’d learned a little more about Cormac’s army experiences.

The back and forth between Cormac and Lissa is quite cute, and the book ends with all sorts of mishaps that turn their intended first in-person meetings into a series of catastrophic missed chances. But yes, there’s a happy ending — how could there not be?

The texts and emails between Lissa and Cormac are funny and sweet, and the story is a nice twist on the “two strangers fall in love without ever meeting” trope. Somehow, though, I was left wanting more. I felt that their connection needed more time to grow, and wasn’t given quite enough room to develop and breathe — and I was left wanting to see more of them together once they finally connected, rather than ending with their meeting.

This is the 3rd of Jenny Colgan’s loosely connected stories set in Kirrinfief. Characters from both The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore show up here (and become friends with Lissa). It’s lovely to see them all — I just wish they’d actually had bigger roles to play, since I enjoy those characters so much.

Overall, this is another winning romantic tale from a terrific author, balancing tough situations and emotions with lighter, more joyous moments and memorable characters.

And how could I not love a book where this happens:

He was wearing an open-necked white shirt made of heavy cotton and a pale green-and-gray kilt. […]

“Stop there, ” said Lissa, smiling and taking out her phone camera. “I want a pic. You look like you’re in Outlander.”

500 Miles From You can work as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with The Bookshop on the Corner, which is a wonderful introduction to Kirrinfief and its quirky characters. Either way, don’t miss these lovely stories!