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!

Book Review: Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another, clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Rico Silva, that’s what.  

Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster. 

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. 

But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…? 

In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.

Persuasion is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so of course I was going to read this modern romance that riffs on Persuasion‘s themes!

Recipe for Persuasion is a loose follow-up to last year’s Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. The Raje family is still the center of the story, but here, the focus shifts to Ashna Raje, who was a supporting character in the previous novel.

Before getting too far into discussing Recipe for Persuasion, I want to get one thing straight, which is that the blurb above is very misleading. I think if you go into this book expecting a heartwarming romantic comedy or a fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy, you’ll be both disappointed and quite possibly very confused.

Because at no time in my reading of Recipe for Persuasion did I feel it was a comedy. Not at all.

Which does not mean it was not a good read. I actually enjoyed it very much. But readers should know that this is a much sadder and darker story than the synopsis would make it out to be.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Ashna and Rico were high school sweethearts, very much in love, but each with a ton of baggage related to family expectations and demands. They dreamed and planned for a life together, but ended up apart after a really terrible set of circumstances, and the faulty communications at the time which led each to believe that the other had betrayed him/her.

(Yet another example of bad communications leading to heartbreak, which is a standard trope of the genre, and which drives me bonkers as a plot point… but I digress.)

Now, twelve years later, Ashna is a French-trained chef who’s struggling to keep her late father’s classic Indian restaurant viable, and Rico is a superstar soccer player forced into early retirement by a devastating knee injury.

When Rico is reminded of Ashna while attending a friend’s bachelor party, he decides to Google her. And when he learns that she’ll be appearing on Cooking with the Stars, he makes sure to get a slot on the reality show as her cooking partner. Rico is looking for closure, a way to get past the hurt from all those years ago when Ashna turned him away, giving into family pressure that he just wasn’t good enough for the high-class Raje family.

Meanwhile, Ashna is consumed by the guilt and trauma that accompanied her father’s death, experiences horrible panic attacks when she tries to cook anything not on her father’s original menu, is estranged from her super-feminist mother… and has never, ever gotten over Rico.

Their first meeting on set for the cooking show involves a near-miss with a very sharp knife, and suddenly, they’re a viral internet sensation. The pressure is on. Each wants to win… and also to prove to the other that they’re totally fine, which is so not the case.

Over the course of the book, we learn much more about Ashna’s past. Especially powerful are the chapters told through her mother’s point of view, which show her experiences as a young woman and the horrific situation she was forced into. Here’s where content warnings might be important: Someone expecting a romantic comedy probably won’t be prepared for scenes of abuse and rape, and I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to encounter these scenes while expecting a light romance.

This piece of the story is handled very sensitively, but of course, it’s awful and heartbreaking to read about. It also explains so much about Ashna’s experiences as a child, her parents’ marriage, her lingering resentment toward her mother, and her inability to move forward in a meaningful way in any sort of adult relationship. There’s really a lot to unpack here.

On a brighter note, Ashna and Rico have great chemistry, and I really enjoyed the scenes that show their teen years and the early stages of their romance. Because she is so traumatized, Ashna isn’t exactly a fun character (sympathetic, yes, but not fun), but luckily, Rico is — with his swagger, charm, and man-bun, he’s clearly supposed to be walking sex appeal, and this definitely comes through in the writing.

The San Francisco setting is a big plus for me, and I enjoyed revisiting the Raje family members from Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. As for Austen elements — the general themes of Persuasion are present, but not in such an obvious way that it feels like a retelling. As with Persuasion, the young lovers are separated in response to family pressure, but not really in the same way as in the Austen novel. Still, it’s an interesting way to weave the classic into a modern romance, and bonus points to the author for having Rico quote Frederick Wentworth’s “half agony, half hope” line!

Overall, Recipe for Persuasion is a very good read, although the balance between truly painful memories and emotions and the bustle of a reality show doesn’t always work in terms of tone. Still, I really enjoyed Ashna and Rico’s journey back to one another (there’s never any doubt, after all, that they’ll find love again)… and who can resist a book that lovingly describes so much amazing food?

Maybe that’s my main complaint, when all is said and done: This book should come with samples! I want to try every dish and cup of tea that’s described in Recipe for Persuasion.

Book Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Title: Real Men Knit
Author: Kwana Jackson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

A book about men knitting? Yes, please!

In Real Men Knit, the Strong brothers are all super attractive, muscular, successful men… and they knit. These four adult brothers were all adopted as children by Mama Joy, who rescued them from the foster system and turned them into a family. Mama Joy ran a small Harlem knitting shop that was more than just a play to buy yarn — Strong Knits was a community home away from home, a place to gather, interact, and improve lives.

But when Mama Joy dies, her sons are devastated, and the fate of the shop is up in the air. Perhaps as devastated as the Strong brothers is Kerry, the neighborhood girl who grew up in Mama Joy’s shadow, always present and helping out, and devoted completely to Mama Joy (while totally crushing on Jesse). Now an adult with a degree in art therapy, Kerry works at the community center with neighborhood kids, but agrees to stay on at the shop to help Jesse reinvigorate it and make sure it has a future.

I love any scene where the brothers casually knit. It’s such an “in your face” to stereotypes about male and female hobbies. There’s nothing gender-specific about knitting! And I really enjoyed the brothers’ complicated relationships, their resentments, their sibling squabbles, and their clear and abiding love and respect for Mama Joy.

I also really appreciated reading about the positive change a single dedicated woman can make. Mama Joy used her yarn store as a jumping off point for changing lives, and it’s beautiful to see how many different people were affected by her influence and contribution, in so many different ways.

In fact, it’s only the romance parts of this story that left me feeling a little blah. I really liked all the characters and thought the premise was unique and original, but Jesse and Kerry as a couple didn’t really seem all that special to me. I mean, they were fine, but I wasn’t actually cheering for them or particularly invested in whether they got an HEA.

That said, I did feel invested in the overall story, and wished that it had continued long enough to see how everything turned out with the shop! Of course, there are four Strong brothers, all single, and only one featured in a relationship in this book… might there be more Strong Knits stories still to come? One per brother, perhaps? Because I’d definitely read those!

With gratitude to Reading Tonic, whose review was the first I’d heard of this sweet and satisfying book. If you’re looking for a summer beach read with romance, heart, and a diverse set of characters, Real Men Knit would be a great choice.

Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Cute Romances

Once again, I’m joining in with the Top 5 Tuesday meme this week! Top 5 Tuesday is hosted by Bionic Bookworm, who posts the month’s topics at the start of each month. Today’s topic is Top 5 Cute Romances. 

I’m not a big romance fan, but I do love a good love story every now and then, and I especially love when they’re light and sweet and enjoyable. Here are five adorable romances that I’ve really enjoyed:

1) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: I love Levi and Cath — and also Cath’s fanfiction romance between Simon and Baz. 

2) Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory: Okay, maybe “cute” isn’t quite the right word for a romance between two fifty-somethings, but everything about their meeting is adorable — how could it not be when they meet on royal grounds and go horse riding, among other activities?

3) Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales: This Grease-themed YA story has plenty of sorrow and emotion, but it’s sweet and lovely as well.

4) Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan: The Little Beach Street Bakery trilogy is just out and out adorable. Two super cute people in an awkward, funny relationship, plus small-town shenanigans, and even a pet puffin! Plus recipes and descriptions of baked goods to die for.

5) Geekerella by Ashley Poston: A YA love story set at a Comic-con-ish festival, with intense fans and cosplay and a Cinderella story all rolled into one? Yes, please!

 

What are your favorite cute romances? Let me know, and please share your Top 5 link if you have one!

Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

Title: The Honey-Don’t List
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: March 24, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Carey Duncan has worked for home remodeling and design gurus Melissa and Rusty Tripp for nearly a decade. A country girl at heart, Carey started in their first store at sixteen, and—more than anyone would suspect—has helped them build an empire. With a new show and a book about to launch, the Tripps are on the verge of superstardom. There’s only one problem: America’s favorite couple can’t stand each other.

James McCann, MIT graduate and engineering genius, was originally hired as a structural engineer, but the job isn’t all he thought it’d be. The last straw? Both he and Carey must go on book tour with the Tripps and keep the wheels from falling off the proverbial bus.

Unfortunately, neither of them is in any position to quit. Carey needs health insurance, and James has been promised the role of a lifetime if he can just keep the couple on track for a few more weeks. While road-tripping with the Tripps up the West Coast, Carey and James vow to work together to keep their bosses’ secrets hidden, and their own jobs secure. But if they stop playing along—and start playing for keeps—they may have the chance to build something beautiful together…

From the “hilariously zany and heartfelt” (Booklist) Christina Lauren comes a romantic comedy that proves if it’s broke, you might as well fix it. 

I’ve been a fan of author duo Christina Lauren since I first encountered one of their books a couple of years ago. They specialize in bright, contemporary romances, typically between characters who are forthright, professional, and looking for that special someone (even if they don’t always think they are).

The Honey-Do List fits the pattern, and is a charming but light-weight addition to their work. Carey and James are clearly destined for one another, despite their mutual animosity and resentment at the start of the story. They find one another pushy and annoying, and Carey is so over James’s insistence that he’s an engineer while he’s clearly filling the role of gopher/all-around assistant.

Their bosses, Melly and Rusty, are self-obsessed celebrities who built a brand on their adorable chemistry and star-power marriage, but behind the scenes, they’re bitter and angry and barely in control of their hostility. The success of their upcoming book tour and new Netflix series rests on them presenting a united, cheerful, loving front, but Carey and James face an uphill battle trying to get them to comply.

Meanwhile, Carey and James are just naturally drawn together, slowly building trust and sharing secrets while also giving in to their crazy attraction for one another.

You’ll want to slap Melly, and to give Carey a good shake and tell her to wake up and assert herself and own her talents and contributions to the Tripps’ success. There’s of course a misunderstanding that seems like it’ll sink Carey and James’s new relationship, but honestly, if you’ve ever read a romance before, then you’ll have no doubt how it will all work out.

It’s a fun read, very quick and easy, but doesn’t exactly break new ground. I liked the book, and parts were quite funny, but I don’t think this one will stick with me for long. Then again, I’m not much of a romance reader, so I may have exceeded my limits for this type of thing so far this year.

The Honey-Do List is entertaining but inconsequential, which is fine if you’re in the mood for some fluffy reading.

And hey, who doesn’t need that right about now?

Audiobook Review: Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Title: Get A Life, Chloe Brown
Author: Talia Hibbert
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Print length: 373 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.

• Ride a motorcycle.

• Go camping.

• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.

• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.

• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior… 

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the main characters, Chloe and Red, and appreciated so much about their story. And yet, there are parts of this book that I simply, literally, could not take and had to fast-forward through.

So, 3-stars is a really apt rating for my experience — squarely in the middle.

Let me back up and explain.

Chloe is an awesome main character. She’s a smart and talented black woman from a wealthy family, and is aware of the privilege she’s grown up with. She’s also chronically ill, suffering with fibromyalgia and continuous pain that leaves her completely debilitated at frequent intervals. Chloe protects herself fiercely; having been burned by a previous relationship and left with awful feelings of abandonment, she’s determined not to be vulnerable that way ever again.

And constantly living with physical pain, Chloe is not a risk-taker. She knows her limits, and sticks with them, until the day she has a near-miss with a drunk driver, and realizes it’s time to do more with her life. Hence her “get a life” list — because Chloe loves her life spelled out in neat and orderly lists, so a list is absolutely necessary if she’s going to make a change.

Meanwhile, Red is the red-headed, white, tattooed, super-hot superintendent of the building Chloe moves into, and while he’s lovely to everyone else, he and Chloe immediately rub each other the wrong way. He’s sure she’s a stuck-up snob, and she’s sure he’s rude and too into his bad-boy image.

Eventually, of course, they experience a breakthrough (thanks to Chloe pursuing a lost cat up a tree, and Red having to enact a seriously adorable rescue of both woman and kitty.) As they start to warm up and trust one another, a physical and emotional connection blossoms, each finding that one special person to help them move forward after painful pasts.

Here’s what I really liked about this story:

  • The playful flirtation and banter between Chloe and Red.
  • How Chloe and Red are each talented in their own fields, and wholeheartedly appreciate one another’s talents.
  • How they support each other’s weak points as well as their strengths, and show caring and concern in all sorts of little and big ways.
  • How freaking cute they are together at all times.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays Chloe’s disability.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays the emotional abuse that’s left Red traumatized.
  • How Chloe and Red learn together how to make room for their differences and their emotional wounds.

So what didn’t I like? Well, I suppose it gets down to my preferences when it comes to romances. I like steam… and I’m no prude… but I don’t need anatomical details when it comes to love scenes. And there’s a LOT of anatomy in this book.

The sex scenes are very graphically described — and again, good for Chloe and Red for having such a great time together! But I prefer my fiction to leave more to the imagination… and when that many body parts and secretions are described that often and in that much detail, that’s just not going to appeal to me. So, somewhere in the 2nd half of the book, I realized I could save myself some agony by using the fast-forward button in 10 second increments until I got to the afterglow, when the plot would safely pick back up.

Like I said, I know that’s just a personal preference, so no judgment for readers who like this sort of thing. It’s just not for me, and that’s too bad, because in the case of Get A Life, Chloe Brown, I really liked the characters and their story. But I found myself wishing that I had a magic editing button on my Audible app to allow me to edit out the explicit scenes and just stick to the plot (although that would have cut this audiobook down to about 60% of its length, I’d guess).

A note on the audiobook — the narrator is quite good! I liked her portrayal of Chloe. She made her so adorable! And Red’s voice was really good too, growly and rough, but also loving and appreciative of the wonder of Chloe Brown.

All in all, a good love story wrapped up in a package that just doesn’t 100% work for me. Which is too bad. There’s a new book coming out about Chloe’s sister, and part of me is intrigued — but after my experiences with this book, I’m not sure I could stand another round of anatomy lessons. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all.