Series wrap-up: Moose Springs series (#1 – 3) by Sarah Morgenthaler

Sometimes you need serious reading material. And sometimes, fluffy reads rule! I’ve been leaning into light, not-too-serious reading lately, especially when it comes to audiobooks, and these sweet romances with an Alaska setting have been just right for my mood.

Title: The Tourist Attraction
Published: 2020
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

He had a strict “no tourists” policy…

Until she broke all of his rules.

When Graham Barnett named his diner The Tourist Trap, he meant it as a joke. Now he’s stuck slinging reindeer dogs to an endless parade of resort visitors who couldn’t interest him less. Not even the sweet, enthusiastic tourist in the corner who blushes every time he looks her way…

Two weeks in Alaska isn’t just the top item on Zoey Caldwell’s bucket list. It’s the whole bucket. One look at the mountain town of Moose Springs and she’s smitten. But when an act of kindness brings Zoey into Graham’s world, she may just find there’s more to the grumpy local than meets the eye…and more to love in Moose Springs than just the Alaskan wilderness. 

The Tourist Attraction introduces us to the split-personality town of Moose Springs, Alaska — a quirky little town set amidst magnificent mountains, which both relies on its high-end luxury resort for economic survival and detests all outsiders.

Graham is rude and gruff, but you just know there’s a heart of gold underneath it all, and he falls head over heels for Zoey, despite his no-tourists rule. After an awkward incident in which Zoey thinks she’s about to get murdered by a chainsaw wielding maniac (don’t ask), Zoey and Graham find themselves repeatedly thrown together, and of course, sparks fly.

The setting is charming and sounds beautiful. While Moose Springs is fictional, from the description, I can’t help picturing it as based on Girdwood, a small-ish town that’s home to the beautiful Alyeska Resort.

The romance is cute and somewhat predictable, but chapters that delve into the corporate machinations of The Montgomery Group (which owns most of the town’s property) left me cold. (Cold! ‘Cuz it’s Alaska!) Zoey’s best friend Lana Montgomery is her host during her Alaska getaway, and Lana is one of the Montgomery family’s chief businesswomen and heir apparent — and while Lana seems like a good person, there’s perhaps too much focus on the business dealings for my taste.

There’s an appealing cast of supporting characters, a beautiful setting, a few moose wandering through, and some small-town hijinks. Also, a perfect border collie who is blind, has an extensive wardrobe, and is the most beloved dog in the entire town. The book as a whole is absurdly cute, and is a nice mix of romantic fluff and emotional connection.

Title: Mistletoe & Mr. Right
Published: 2020
Length: 400 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How the moose (almost) stole Christmas.

Lana Montgomery is everything the quirky small town of Moose Springs, Alaska can’t stand: a rich socialite with dreams of changing things for the better. But Lana’s determined to prove that she belongs…even if it means trading her stilettos for snow boots and tracking one of the town’s hairiest Christmas mysteries: the Santa Moose, an antlered Grinch hell-bent on destroying every bit of holiday cheer (and tinsel) it can sink its teeth into.

And really…how hard could it be?

The last few years have been tough on Rick Harding, and it’s not getting any easier now that his dream girl’s back in town. When Lana accidentally tranquilizes him instead of the Santa Moose, it’s clear she needs help, fast…and this could be his chance to finally catch her eye. It’s an all-out Christmas war, but if they can nab that darn moose before it destroys the town, Rick and Lana might finally find a place where they both belong…together.

In the 2nd Moose Springs book, it’s about six months later, Zoey and Graham are bonkers in love, and Lana Montgomery takes center stage. Lana has been visiting Moose Springs since childhood and has been mostly tolerated by the locals, but her plans to build luxury condominiums and revitalize the local economy are being met with hostility by the townsfolk, who resent her intrusion and the likelihood of even more tourists messing up their lives.

Lana ends up falling for Rick, the owner of the local pool hall, who is equally smitten. There’s a silly subplot about a moose who hates Christmas decorations, but mainly it’s about Lana and Rick deciding to have a holiday fling, then realizing that their feelings go much deeper.

I hate that the synopsis and the book itself keep referring to Lana as a “socialite”. What does that even mean? Yes, she’s a gazillionaire, but she’s a businesswoman heading up her family’s corporate investments in Alaska, not just some flighty rich person attending lavish parties.

This is an opposites-attract plot for sure, since Rick is not rich, polished, interested in “society”, or used to luxuries. But, he falls for Lana, the feeling is mutual, and they have great chemistry and some pretty goofy adventures.

I did feel extremely angry at this book when, toward the end, it feel into a romance trope I hate — the “I’m breaking up with you despite being in love with you because I’ll only hold you back” plot device, which is just, ugh, so emotionally unfair and manipulative. So you know better than the other person what they really need? Yuck.

Of course, there’s an HEA, because hey, this is a romance, not real life. And I enjoyed it enough to want to keep going!

Title: Enjoy the View
Published: 2021
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A grouchy mountaineer, a Hollywood starlet
And miles of untamed wilderness…
What could possibly go wrong?

Former Hollywood darling River Lane’s acting career is tanking fast. Determined to start fresh behind the camera, she agrees to film a documentary about the picturesque small town of Moose Springs, Alaska. The assignment should have been easy, but the quirky locals want nothing to do with River. Well, too bad: River’s going to make this film and prove herself, no matter what it takes.

Or what (literal) mountain she has to climb.

Easton Lockett may be a gentle giant, but he knows a thing or two about survival. If he can keep everyone in line, he should be able to get River and her crew up and down Mount Veil in one piece. Turns out that’s a big if. The wildlife’s wilder than usual, the camera crew’s determined to wander off a cliff, and the gorgeous actress is fearless. Falling for River only makes Easton’s job tougher, but there’s only so long he can hold out against her brilliant smile. When bad weather strikes, putting everyone at risk, it’ll take all of Easton’s skill to get them back home safely…and convince River she should stay in his arms for good.

Enjoy the View feels pretty different from the previous two books, since most of the action happens outside of Moose Springs, on the (very scary) nearby mountain Mount Veil.

Easton is a familiar character, good friend to Graham and Rick, a huge mountaineer who doesn’t say much, but — as we see here — has a heart of gold and untapped emotional depths. When Easton encounters River, he doesn’t recognize her from her movie career — he just sees a strange tourist walking down the side of the road with a suitcase. He doesn’t realize that by stopping to offer assistance, he’s interrupting a shot for her movie. Oops!

River’s Hollywood career seems to have stalled. At the ripe old age of 29 (!!), she’s not being offered great roles any longer, and she’s turned her attention to producing and directing. She and her trusty crew have been hired by the Alaska tourism board to make a movie about Moose Springs, but unfortunately, the tourist-hating town wants nothing to do with them and impedes their filming at every turn. With no other options, they turn to the big attraction outside of town — Mt. Veil, the intimidating mountain that only the most skilled climbers can successfully summit.

Of course, River needs a guide, and of course, Easton is the man assigned to her climb. As they work together, their attraction deepens into an emotional connection. River is feisty and argumentative, Easton is quiet and strict when it comes to his safety rules, and they clash incessantly — but we just know that beneath it all, they’re falling in love.

I enjoyed reading about the climb and how scary it is, but I pretty frequently wanted to give River a good shake. She repeatedly ignores Easton’s rules and ends up endangering herself and others because of it. Somehow Easton keeps forgiving her, and I assume we’re supposed to find River’s rebelliousness charming and a sign of her independence, but her actions seem downright foolhardy at some points. I would not be nearly as forgiving as Easton, never mind falling in love!

As is typical of this series, there’s cute banter, some adorable wildlife (including a memorable marmot), and lots of breathtaking scenery. I wish the familiar characters from the town had bigger roles in Enjoy the View, but even in their brief appearances, it’s fun to see Graham, Zoey, and Easton’s sister Ash.

Enjoy the View is a fun way to end a three-audiobook binge!

Wrapping it all up…

This is clearly not a series that’s meant to be taken too seriously. It maintains a casually funny tone throughout, even when there are more emotional moments taking place. The town of Moose Springs is full of small-town quirky personalities, and the setting makes it really fun.

My two main complaints are:

1 – The male leads are cookie-cutter outdoorsy-loner types with a soft, gushy intererior. There’s really not much to distinguish them apart from their different occupations and physical builds (although they’re all versions of gorgeous, muscular hunks who look great in flannel). Really, I found Graham, Rick, and Easton to be fairly easily interchangeable (although, I admit Graham’s humor does set him apart to some extent). Not to say that I don’t like them, just that there’s not much distinctive about them.

2 – A more serious complaint is that there is just no Native representation, and that bothers me. Yes, these are fluffy romances, but the books seem to present Alaska as being populated strictly by the above-mentioned flannel-wearing white outdoorsmen. This omission is pretty glaring and is an irritant throughout the books.

Complaints aside, I have to admit that these books are addictively fun, with lots of silly misadventures and cute scenarios. And who can resist big, gruff men becoming marshmallow soft as soon as they fall in love?

I see on Goodreads that book #4 (no details or title provided) is due out sometime in 2022. Hmmm, who will the romantic focus be for whatever tourist wanders into town next? Easton’s sister Ash? Resort owner Jax? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.

But will I read it? You betcha!

Book Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Title: While We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Two people realize that it’s no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.

Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he’s trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it’s hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she’s also down to earth and considerate, and he can’t help flirting a little…

Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she’s booked her next movie. However, she didn’t expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?

But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they’ve barely shared with those closest to them.

When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna’s life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

Jasmine Guillory’s books are reliably romantic, intimate, and full of unusual characters, and While We Were Dating is no exception.

Our two main characters are Ben, an up-and-coming advertising executive (who, BTW, used to be a backup dancer — hot!), and Anna, an Oscar-nominated actress who needs her next movie to be the big breakthrough that will take her back to the Oscars and send her home with the prize.

When Anna agrees to star in the ad campaign Ben is leading, they’re immediately drawn to one another and develop an easy rapport. But it’s not until Ben offers to drive her all night to reach her family at a Southern California emergency room that they truly connect, spending the long car ride sharing secrets and dreams. Their intimacy becomes physical, and they’re both wildly attracted to one another — but neither imagines that this can be anything but a fling.

Later, Anna’s manager comes up with a plan: In order for the studios to see Anna as a big enough box-office draw to land that next crucial movie contract, she needs to be more in the public eye. He convinces her to go public in a fake relationship with Ben, making sure the paparazzi are on hand to capture their every private-but-public flirtation. Soon, they’re featured in People magazine and are walking the red carpet together, but Ben knows that once the premieres have ended, so will this relationship.

I enjoyed a lot about While We Were Dating. Anna and Ben are both well-developed, flawed people. Sure, they’re super hot, but they’re also vulnerable, each dealing with his or her memories and past painful experiences, cautious about who they trust and who they allow into their lives. They have an easy chemistry together, and their banter is adorable and flirtatious and very down-to-earth.

This author also tends to go outside the societal norms of beauty when it comes to her heroines, and Anna is depicted as both stunningly gorgeous and plus-sized. And honestly, I love that about her.

I’m not a huge fan of “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” kind of stories, so the Hollywood magic is, if anything, a minus for me when it comes to books featuring glamorous stars and their love lives. Here, though, we see Anna’s family and her roots, her struggle to adjust to her new reality, the invasiveness of the paparazzi, the need to always be “on”, and it makes her feel relatable, even if the day-to-day of her life — with stylists and gowns and borrowed jewels — feels like something from another world.

The books in The Wedding Date series are all loosely connected, but don’t worry if you haven’t read the others. Familiar characters show up, and you’ll be happy to see them if you know who they are, but it’s not at all crucial to know their backstories in order to enjoy While We Were Dating (or any of the other book in the series.) Each book focuses on a new romantic pairing and can stand on its own just fine.

If you’re a fan of Jasmine Guillory’s books, you’ll definitely want to read this one as well. Even if you’re new to this author, this would make a great pick for beach or poolside reading.

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Book Review: Incense and Sensibility by Sonali Dev

Title: Incense and Sensibility
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Yash Raje, California’s first serious Indian gubernatorial candidate, has always known exactly what he wants—and how to use his privileged background to get it. He attributes his success to a simple mantra: control your feelings and you can control the world.

But when a hate-fueled incident at a rally critically injures his friend, Yash’s easy life suddenly feels like a lie, his control an illusion. When he tries to get back on the campaign trail, he blacks out with panic.

Desperate to keep Yash’s condition from leaking to the media, his family turns to the one person they trust—his sister’s best friend, India Dashwood, California’s foremost stress management coach. Raised by a family of yoga teachers, India has helped San Francisco’s high strung overachievers for a decade without so much as altering her breath. But this man—with his boundless ambition, simmering intensity, and absolute faith in his political beliefs—is like no other. Yash has spent a lifetime repressing everything to succeed.

Including their one magical night ten years ago—a too brief, too bright passion that if rekindled threatens the life he’s crafted for himself. Exposing the secrets might be the only way to save him but it’s also guaranteed to destroy the dream he’s willingly shouldered for his family and community . . . until now.

As you might guess from the title — but not from the synopsis — Incense and Sensibility is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s also a moving, well-written, and engaging contemporary novel about love, pain, and healing.

I&S continues the loosely connected story of the Rajes, a wealthy Indian-American family living in the Bay Area. Previous books have focused on Yash’s sister Trisha (Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors) and his cousin Ashna (Recipe For Persuasion). In both of those books, Yash is a background character — the successful, driven brother who can achieve anything he wants. He’s the golden child, the one everyone believes will do great things.

He’s also haunted by trauma, although he doesn’t even realize this until events kick off in I&S. As the book opens, Yash is running a competitive race for governor of California, and his chances look good. He’s a man devoted to public service, who truly believes that he’s called to make life better for those who are suffering. While popular with many voters, Yash also encounters the racism you’d unfortunately not be surprised by due to his skin color and ethnicity. An attempted shooting at a rally leaves Yash lightly wounded, but puts his trusted friend and bodyguard Abdul into a coma that he isn’t expected to wake from.

Suddenly, Yash’s world is turned upside down. He feels tremendous guilt about Abdul’s sacrifice, and is overwhelmed by an anxiety attack when he attempts to go onstage at his next rally. With only months to go until the election, and with a growing lead in the polls, his family is desperate to “fix” him. And so they turn to a friend of Ashna and Trisha’s, India Dashwood, a yoga instructor and Reiki healer.

India lives with her mother Tara and her highly emotional sister China in the apartment above their yoga studio. They’re not well off, but they’re getting by, until Tara falls ill and India realizes they may not be able to cover her necessary medical treatments. On top of that, China is head-over-heels in love with a Korean pop star, but the woman she loves is deeply closeted and insists on secrecy. China sees a rosy future, but India is afraid that China will be hurt badly.

When Yash reenters India’s life, it’s ten years after they spent a magical, romantic night together in which they fell in love, but then parted and never reunited. India has never quite recovered from the pain of Yash’s disappearance from her life, but she also can’t turn him away when he’s obviously in such pain and in need of help. As she works with him on healing from trauma, old wounds reemerge and are finally confronted, and Yash and India’s feeling for one another resurface as well. But with the election his to lose, Yash has to make some big decisions about telling the truth and taking a stand, and India must decide whether she’s willing to risk the peace she’s found for the man she’s never gotten over.

Incense and Sensibility may look light and possibly even funny from the cover, but it’s really not. While there are some lighter moments, the book deals with very real trauma and pain, and the author isn’t afraid to show how the characters are affected by their pasts in damaging ways. At the same time, the characters really are lovely and sympathetic, and I loved getting to know the new characters introduced in this addition to the Rajes series, especially India, who is just wonderful.

As an Austen retelling, I found I&S to be very successful. Contemporary retellings of Austen novels are hard to pull off. With the classics’ focus on marriage, their themes can be hard to translate to a modern setting, and many of the retellings I’ve read feel like they’re trying too hard to shoehorn Austen’s storylines into a setting where they just don’t work.

Not so in I&S. Sonali Dev doesn’t hit us over the head with the Jane Austen references and plot points. While they’re there, they work organically, so the story would make sense and be appealing even without knowledge of the original. And while some characters’ storylines are a bit more obvious — for example, China as the Marianne stand-in is destined to have her heart broken — I was still taken by surprise by some of the twists and turns of the story, and that’s a good thing. Also, for what it’s worth, it took me a really long time to figure out who the Colonel Brandon character would be, even though it should have been obvious (I won’t say why, because spoilers!).

Incense and Sensibility is a terrific read, both as a standalone contemporary love story and as an Austen retelling. I can’t wait to find out which Austen novel the author will tackle next! I’m so enjoying the characters and their lives, and look forward to the next book so I can stay in their world.

And as a side note — India’s yoga practice and her approach to life have finally convinced me that I need to find a good yoga class!

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Book Review: The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren

Title: The Soulmate Equation
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mom Jess Davis is a data and statistics wizard, but no amount of number crunching can convince her to step back into the dating world. Raised by her grandparents–who now help raise her seven-year-old daughter, Juno–Jess has been left behind too often to feel comfortable letting anyone in. After all, her father’s never been around, her hard-partying mother disappeared when she was six, and her ex decided he wasn’t “father material” before Juno was even born. Jess holds her loved ones close, but working constantly to stay afloat is hard…and lonely.

But then Jess hears about GeneticAlly, a buzzy new DNA-based matchmaking company that’s predicted to change dating forever. Finding a soulmate through DNA? The reliability of numbers: This Jess understands. At least she thought she did, until her test shows an unheard-of 98% compatibility with another subject in the database: GeneticAlly’s founder, Dr. River Pena. This is one number she can’t wrap her head around, because she already knows Dr. Pena. The stuck-up, stubborn man is without a doubt not her soulmate. But GeneticAlly has a proposition: Get to know him and we’ll pay you. Jess–who is barely making ends meet–is in no position to turn it down, despite her skepticism about the project and her dislike for River. As the pair are dragged from one event to the next as the “Diamond” pairing that could make GeneticAlly a mint in stock prices, Jess begins to realize that there might be more to the scientist–and the science behind a soulmate–than she thought.

Funny, warm, and full of heart, The Soulmate Equation proves that the delicate balance between fate and choice can never be calculated.

When you pick up a new Christina Lauren book, you know you’ll get crazy good chemistry, unlikely pairings, great banter, and lots of clever plotting. The Soulmate Equation is no exception — yet another really fun modern romance with a few tricks up its sleeves.

Main character Jess, on the cusp of 30, spends all day, every day at a local coffee shop, working on her freelance statistics jobs alongside her best friend Fizzy, a successful romance writer. They use the free wifi, buy snacks and drinks every 90 minutes so they’re not just mooching, people watch, get work done, and enjoy one another’s company. And they always notice the arrival of “Americano”, the surly yet gorgeous businessman who arrives every morning exactly at 8:24, orders the exact same drink, and leaves without making eye contact with a single person.

Jess is getting by, but she has constant worries. She needs to keep and attract more clients to feel financially secure, and as the single mother of a 7-year-old, she’s only too aware of how precarious their situation could be. One dropped client could mean no ballet lessons for Juno, but one more could mean she’d be able to save for braces. Fortunately, Jess and Juno live in the same complex as Jess’s Nana and Pops, the loving grandparents who raised Jess, and their love and support makes a huge difference.

Everything changes one day when Fizzy learns that “Americano” is starting an online matchmaking business, which the friends just can’t believe. He is so stern and buttoned-up! Fizzy, being her usual effervescent self, stops him in the coffee shop and asks him, and while he says it’s not exactly a matchmaking service, he does leave a card and invites them to learn more. Never one to waste time, Fizzy insists that they go check out the office same day.

Lo and behold, “Americano” is actually Dr. River Pena, a geneticist and found of GeneticAlly, a company that uses DNA analysis to assess compatibility and match people biologically determined to be likely soulmates. It all sounds a bit crazy, but Jess is reluctantly fascinated by the statistics quoted during their presentation, and Fizzy just wants a chance for some reasonably good hook-ups. Fizzy submits a sample, and Jess eventually does too, after a day when she feels particularly down about how unchanging her life feels.

Things truly get crazy when Jess is urgently called back to the GeneticAlly offices. Her tests have come back, and she’s matched at a 98% compatible score, something never seen before. The company reps are thrilled, especially at the idea of the great press they’ll get ahead of the company’s IPO… all except Dr. Pena, who, it turns out, is Jess’s match. But how can this be? They can barely tolerate one another!

You can see where this is going, right? Jess agrees to spend time with River for the sake of the company, even though she knows the data must not be right. How can numbers predict who you’ll fall in love with? An even scarier thought for Jess is, what if the numbers really are true? Can science say you’ll fall for someone even when all first impressions say the exact opposite?

Watching Jess and River get to know one another and start to acknowledge their developing chemisty is quite fun. Jess is an amazing and responsible mother, so she’s very cautious about letting River into her life. Meanwhile, River is a serious scientist who’s never made time for love, but he’s staked his entire career on this company and absolutely believes in it — so if he denies that their results mean that they’re meant for one another, what does this mean for his faith in his own work?

The flirtation and courtship and physical attraction between these two is adorable, and I love how they each open up to one another, allowing the other person to see and understand their vulnerabilities, their past experiences, and their hopes and fears. They’re incredibly sweet together, and if you don’t melt during some of the scenes of River helping Juno with her homework, then you have no soul. (Too harsh? Sorry.)

One thing I always appreciate in Christina Lauren books is how smart and competent and professional their female characters are. Jess is a statistician — how cool is that? And it’s not just a throwaway. Not that I understand her work, but I liked reading about her projects, her thought processes, and how she applies her knowledge of data and statistics to understanding River’s work and GeneticAlly’s match results.

Fizzy is an awesome best friend, and I love that she’s a romance writer. There are a few lines about her work that made me think she’s standing in for the author duo and proving wrong (in the funniest way possible) every lousy, ill-informed comment about writing romances that they’ve ever been subjected to. Fizzy is funny and supportive and silly, and I’d love to read even more about her!

The Soulmate Equation is a lot of fun, and it’ll leave you with all sorts of warm, fuzzy feels. I read it over the course of two gray, drizzly days, and it made me feel like the sun was shining again! If you enjoy smart contemporary romance that feels authentic even when it’s funny, don’t miss this one!

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Shelf Control #266: When You Read This by Mary Adkins

Shelves final

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!

Title: When You Read This
Author: Mary Adkins
Published: 2019
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

For fans of Maria Semple and Rainbow Rowell, a comedy-drama for the digital age: an epistolary debut novel about the ties that bind and break our hearts.

For four years, Iris Massey worked side by side with PR maven Smith Simonyi, helping clients perfect their brands. But Iris has died, taken by terminal illness at only thirty-three. Adrift without his friend and colleague, Smith is surprised to discover that in her last six months, Iris created a blog filled with sharp and often funny musings on the end of a life not quite fulfilled. She also made one final request: for Smith to get her posts published as a book. With the help of his charmingly eager, if overbearingly forthright, new intern Carl, Smith tackles the task of fulfilling Iris’s last wish.

Before he can do so, though, he must get the approval of Iris’ big sister Jade, an haute cuisine chef who’s been knocked sideways by her loss. Each carrying their own baggage, Smith and Jade end up on a collision course with their own unresolved pasts and with each other.

Told in a series of e-mails, blog posts, online therapy submissions, text messages, legal correspondence, home-rental bookings, and other snippets of our virtual lives, When You Read This is a deft, captivating romantic comedy—funny, tragic, surprising, and bittersweet—that candidly reveals how we find new beginnings after loss. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I happen to love epistolary and other types of non-traditionally formatted novels, and this book sounds terrific! I’m really curious to learn more about the blog posts left behind by Iris and how they affect Smith’s life moving forward. The book sounds very moving, although since it’s described as a romantic comedy, I’m assuming the focus is on finding love after loss.

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.
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Have fun!

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Book Review: The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Title: The Intimacy Experiment
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test. 

In author Rosie Danan’s follow-up to The Roommate, the story focuses on Naomi Grant, who we meet as a supporting character in The Roommate. Here, Naomi takes center stage, and really, she’s a fabulous main character.

Naomi is a sex worker with an advanced degree — a former adult performer (aka porn star) who has shifted her career by becoming co-CEO of a wildly successful sex-positive online platform, Shameless. Naomi sees her calling as being a voice for sex-positivity and helping people experience love, intimacy, and sexual expression in ways that are fulfilling and empowering. However, her very public background means that she can’t get a teaching job at any of the local colleges, no matter where she applies.

Enter Ethan. After meeting at an education conference, Ethan sees Naomi as a potential partner for his project of bringing new members to his floundering synagogue. Ethan is a young rabbi (formerly a physics teacher) with energy, enthusiasm, and compassion. His synagogue, like so many, is largely populated by an older crowd, and without an infusion of members, it won’t be able to survive. Ethan hears Naomi speaking passionately about her goals in education, and approaches her with a proposition — to teach a course on modern intimacy, sponsored by his synagogue.

After some doubts, Naomi agrees. Naomi is a fearless, hard-edged woman who never backs down from a challenge, but she also remembers her early life as Hannah Sturm, a Jewish girl raised without much formal religion who abruptly left her past behind after a disastrous public shaming that left her with some deep-seated scars (and which directly led to her embracing the porn industry). Naomi can’t really believe that a respectable rabbi would want to be associated with her scandalous personal brand, but Ethan thinks it’s a perfect match.

Together, they build a curriculum for a seven-part series that covers everything from courtship and first dates, to satisfying sex, to how to break up. With each new lecture, the course draws more and more participants, but it’s not without controversy: The stodgy, traditionalist synagogue board members think associating their shul with someone like Naomi Grant is damaging to their reputation and goes against their core values, and give Ethan some increasingly dire warnings intended to push him to cut ties with Naomi. But Ethan, despite his warmth and patience, also has a backbone, and he’s not going to back down from what he believes is the right thing to do.

Needless to say, alongside their professional partnership, Ethan and Naomi have instant chemistry, and the more they work together, the more they realize that it’s not just physical. Yes, they’re wildly attracted to one another, but they also connect on a deeper level, and find that their feelings are growing in ways that neither expected.

There’s a lot to love about The Intimacy Experiment. First off, this book is way more Jewish than I would have expected! As someone who grew up around synagogues and JCCs, I was tickled pink every time there’s a mention of something I could relate to. It was really intriguing and surprising to discover how much the plot is driven by the very real challenge facing synagogues today — how to reach and engage unaffiliated Jewish young adults and bring them into organized religious institutions at a time when synagogues and religion may be viewed as ultra-conservative relics of the past.

Before starting the book, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a rabbi as a romantic lead, but I got over it! Ethan is smart, sweet, and compassionate, and his spiritual journey is described in very meaningful ways. And yes, there are sex scenes, but by the time the book gets there, I’d gotten to know Ethan as a person, not just as his title, and it didn’t bother me.

If you’re familiar at all with The Roommate, you’ll know that that book — while a great read — is also very explicit when it comes to sex. The Intimacy Experiment has sex scenes as well, but they don’t permeate the entire book they way they do in The Roommate. Instead, The Intimacy Experiment focuses on — as the title promises — intimacy, as we see the developing feelings between Naomi and Ethan and see how they apply Naomi’s lecture topics to their own relationship.

Beyond a really engaging plotline, The Intimacy Experiment has the clever and funny writing that the author excels at. While the book has heavier, more serious moments of introspection and processing earlier trauma, the overall tone is lightened up by the banter and frankness of its characters.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Naomi’s no-bullshit, no-shame approach is hilarious:

Naomi wondered how many women who got asked to be maid of honor used to fuck the groom, and on camera no less.

Ethan does manage to keep up, though.

“You don’t kiss like a rabbi,” Naomi said, her voice full of furious accusation, as she tugged him past the innocent bystander hunting for their lost keys.

Ethan focused on exhaling. “How many rabbis have you kissed?”

Naomi brought her fingers up to her swollen lips. “Evidently, not enough.”

While I really enjoyed this book, I did find myself annoyed by its use of the standard romance trope of miscommunication/bad assumptions — the point in the plot where a couple who are totally into one another end up fighting or breaking up because they misunderstand the other’s intent or feelings. Here, Naomi and Ethan each assume that the other deserves better, but don’t discuss it. For two intelligent, articulate, aware characters, it seems unrealistic and just there because a standard romance needs this type of plot element.

My other quibble with the book may stem from my own lack of knowledge, but in one scene, Ethan takes a selfie at an Oneg Shabbat at the synagogue following Friday night services, and in another, he has Shabbat dinner at his mother’s house, where a dish with butter is served alongside a dish with meat. Ethan is a Reform rabbi, and I grew up in Conservative Judaism, so I may be off-base, but it seems to me that a rabbi of any branch of Judaism would keep kosher and observe Shabbat. But, since the book seems to get so much right in its Jewish elements, I can’t help wondering if I’m just assuming things that aren’t universally true.

All in all, The Intimacy Experiment is a really enjoyable read, with an engaging romance and a surprisingly rich level of food for thought. Based on my experience with her two books so far, Rosie Danan is an author to keep an eye on!

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Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!

Book Review: Maggie Finds Her Muse by Dee Ernst

Title: Maggie Finds Her Muse
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A sparkling romantic comedy starring a bestselling author who goes to Paris to overcome writer’s block and rediscovers family, independence, and love along the way.

All Maggie Bliss needs to do is write. Forty-eight years old and newly single (again!), she ventures to Paris in a last-ditch effort to finish her manuscript. With a marvelous apartment at her fingertips and an elegant housekeeper to meet her every need, a finished book—and her dream of finally taking her career over the top—is surely within her grasp. After all, how could she find anything except inspiration in Paris, with its sophistication, food, and romance in the air?

But the clock is running out, and between her charming ex-husband arriving in France for vacation and a handsome Frenchman appearing one morning in her bathtub, Maggie’s previously undisturbed peace goes by the wayside. Charming and heartfelt, Dee Ernst’s Maggie Finds Her Muse is a delightful and feel-good novel about finding love, confidence, and inspiration in all the best places.

What a refreshing change to read a romance with a mature woman in the lead role!

Maggie is a successful romance writer, but she’s stuck. The second book in her current trilogy is about to be released, and she’s fast approaching the deadline for book #3. There’s a lot at stake, including a potential TV option that will take her to the next level of financial success and finally enable her to buy the beach house of her dreams. The problem is, Maggie is completely blocked. She’s got nothing on the page, and she just can’t ask for another extension.

Her trusted agent Lee offers a change of scenery as a desperate last-ditch effort to get her writing again: Come to Paris with him and his husband, live in their fabulous apartment free of charge, and let the Parisian vibe restore her to full inspiration once again.

After dumping her live-in boyfriend (who gives off a traditional romance alpha-male vibe, but is actually a self-centered leech), Maggie sets off to Paris. And soon, her creative juices start flowing again. But Maggie is a writer who relies on superstition (like wearing the same old sweater every single day until she finishes a book), and she starts to believe that Max, a charming Parisian who happens to be staying in the apartment as well, might just be her new muse. But what happens if Max leaves? How will she keep writing if her flesh-and-blood inspiration isn’t present any longer?

Along the way, Maggie spends time with her adult daughter and her ex-husband — her first love, who’s newly retired and interested in rekindling their romance after all these years. And yes, it might be nice to spend more time with Alan, who’s lovely and intelligent and comfortable — but what about that spark she feels whenever Max is around?

There’s a lot to love about Maggie Finds Her Muse. As I said at the start of this review, three cheers for a romantic heroine who’s not in her 20s! I love reading about a smart, successful, motivated woman who’s able to take charge of her professional and personal life. Maggie isn’t perfect — she has insecurities and doubts, but she’s also lived life and has learned a lot about herself, her needs, and what she expects from a potential partner.

“Do you think a person becomes too old for love?”

… “No, I don’t think you’re ever too old,” I said. “But I do think that how you love changes. The things you look for when you’re young are not the same ones you want when you’re older. Not in your life, or in the person you want to share it with.”

It was really fun reading about her writing process, and I liked hearing about the story elements she explores over the course of the book. While her actual book doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d ever read (war-torn romantic drama), I was amused by scenes of her figuring out blocking by having her friends act out action sequences. I did feel not quite so charmed by the setting of her books, an invented country with vaguely foreign elements, which sounds like a Westerner’s standard generic anywhere-but-here kind of setting — warlords, non-English names that are hard to pinpoint, desperate escapes through deserts and mountains… It all feels a little too America-centric, like anyplace that’s not the US must be uncivilized and “other”. But I’m probably over-analyzing. After all, this is romance!

The Paris setting is delicious, of course. Maggie enjoys the food, the sights, the people, the customs, and so we as readers get to do so as well. It made me want to pick up and fly to Paris RIGHT NOW, but only if my trip would include a marvelous flat and totally chic and supportive housekeeper/cook/emotional guide like Maggie has.

“Maman, you cut me to the quick,” Max said, eyes twinkling. “surely, there’s room in one of those books for a dashing older gentleman who can ignite a bit of passion, non?”

Oui. That’s definitely a oui.

As for the romantic elements, Maggie and Max are well-matched and are clearly the pairing to root for in the romantic triangle. Max is suave, kind, confident, and totally supportive of Maggie. They’re not without their difficulties, but I like that Maggie, as a romance writer, is very much aware of the genre tropes, and is horrified when her friends point out that she has fallen into a romance novel complication in her real life.

“Maggie,” Alison soothed, “what I think Cheri is trying to say is that maybe you were the victim of A Great Misunderstanding.”

I sat very still.

A Great Misunderstanding is a commonly used device in romance writing wherein the hero or heroine says something that is completely misconstrued by the other party, and chapters of angst and possible revenge sex happen before the truth is finally known. I hate A Great Misunderstanding and have never used it in any of my books, if for no other reason than if I did, neither Cheri nor Alison would ever read anything I wrote ever again.

“No,” I whispered.

Overall, Maggie Finds Her Muse is a sweet, delightful read. The characters are smart and relatable, and I couldn’t help but want every single one of the people we meet to get a perfect HEA.

From reading the author bio on Goodreads, I learned that Dee Ernst specializes in writing older (okay, I hate calling them that — let’s say age 40+) leading characters, and I think that’s awesome. This is an author whose work I’ll be following!

Book Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Title: Second First Impressions
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

From the USA Today  bestselling author of The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine comes the clever, funny, and unforgettable story of a muscular, tattooed man hired as an assistant to two old women—under the watchful eye of a beautiful retirement home manager.

Ruthie Midona is a 25-year-old who seems to have found her niche, living on-site in a cottage at the retirement community where she works. She’s there 24/7, except when she dashes out on an errand for one of the residents, and obsessively checks all doors and locks, is available at a moment’s notice whenever needed, and takes her job very, very seriously.

She also gives off a 95-year-old vibe, as Teddy Prescott laughingly tells her when they first meet at a gas station. He thinks she’s in costume as an old lady, down to the glasses on a chain around her neck, until she sternly lets him know that no, this is just how she dresses.

But not for long.

While Ruthie’s boss Sylvia is off on a cruise, Ruthie is temporarily filling in as the property’s office manager, and she hires a vivacious temp to help her out. Melanie is 22, fun, creative, and very invested in turning Ruthie back into someone who acts her own age, and decides to set Ruthie on an improvement plan aimed at loosening her up and getting her to date and find true love.

A complication arises when the new property owner shows up with his directionless son… and of course, it’s the guy from the gas station: a very attractive man with glorious, gorgeous long hair and a body that’s covered in ink. Teddy is more than meets the eye, though. Sure, at first glance he’s a good-looking charmer with no job, living off his family’s wealth — but he’s actually a gifted tattoo artist who dreams of opening his own studio, rather than settling down, getting a haircut, and going into the family business. Teddy’s dad gives him no choice — he’s cutting him off financially, and can either find a way to support himself or accept that the business is his future.

Teddy moves into the other side of Ruthie’s cottage and takes a job working for the fearsome Parloni sisters — two elderly women who go through young male assistants incessantly, driving them away through crazy tasks and unceasing demands. Teddy is made of just the right stuff, though, and is a hit with the ladies… and as he settles into the cottage, he reveals to Ruthie that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

I was a little skeptical at the beginning… but my “second first impression” of this book is that it’s really quite charming! Ruthie and Teddy are so different at first glance, but they soon learn how much they connect once they get past first impressions. Teddy has no boundaries and impinges on Ruthie’s space and time constantly, but as Ruthie soon learns, she’s cut herself off so much from real human contact that having someone around who’s actually interested and cares is a jolt to her system.

I really liked seeing their connection develop, from simple shared tasks to opening up about their hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities, to sharing the hurts from their pasts that have led them to where they are at this point in their lives. They each have a lot to get over, and finding a way toward their dreams will be difficult, but knowing one another gives them each a new burst of strength and inspiration.. and even hope.

The characters are sweet and fun and entertaining, and the setting at the retirement community is adorable without coming across as saccharine. (Side note — why do I keep encountering romance novels set at senior homes? Is this a thing now? Because as sweet as this is in fiction, the reality is far grimmer than a bunch of eccentric old folks just needing someone young and attractive to organize a prom for them.)

I’m not typically a fan of workplace romances in fiction, but this one worked for me, maybe because the office pieces are mostly offset by time spent on the property, interacting with the residents and the high volume of tortoises who make their home there.

The writing is cute and quirky, and some of the wording made me giggle:

Every time he looks up and seeks eye contact with me, I know that complete dazzlification has occurred.

I’m not sure I quite understood this one, but that’s okay:

He reaches for me, maybe to smooth the hair back from my face, but my grenade pin is caught on his pinky.

But I do think this is funny:

The shine in his hair gives me a candle-flicker in my uterus.

There really are lots of adorable moments of banter and flirtation, but I guess I neglected to bookmark them as I devoured this book. You’ll just have to read the book to find them!

Second First Impressions is a great spring/summer read. It verges maybe too far into the fantasy realm, in that I couldn’t see characters like these actually connecting in real life. Still, as light entertainment, it’s a fun, positive, and uplifting read, and makes for a nice escape from the real world!

Book Review: West End Girls by Jenny Colgan

Title: West End Girls
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication date: January 5, 2021 (originally published 2006)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

They may be twins, but Lizzie and Penny Berry are complete opposites. Penny is the life of the party—loud and outrageous, while quiet and thoughtful Lizzy is often left out of the crowd. The one trait they do share is a longing to do something spectacular with their lives, and as far as these two are concerned, there’s no better place to make their dreams come true than London.

Presented with a once-in-a-lifetime house-sit at their grandmother’s home in a very desirable London neighborhood, it finally seems like Lizzie and Penny are a step closer to the exciting cosmopolitan life they’ve always wanted. But the more time they spend in the big city, they quickly discover it’s nothing like they expected. They may have to dream new dreams…but are they up to the challenge?

Jenny Colgan has become a go-to author for me for when I need something bright and uplifting to cheer me up or lighten my day. West End Girls, to be published in early 2021, is actually a re-release of a book from earlier in her career, and it shows.

Lizzie and Penny are non-identical twins who at age 27 live with their mother in a cramped apartment, work at dead-end jobs, and have no prospects. When their paternal grandmother, with whom they’ve had no contact since their childhood, moves into a care facility, she offers her Chelsea flat to the girls, provided they protect her stuff while she’s away.

Jumping on the opportunity, Lizzie and Penny show up at their swanky new address, only to discover that Gran was basically a hoarder. Still, while the inside of the flat is a mess, they’ve arrived in an exclusive London neighborhood and are determined to launch new lives.

Penny is obsessed with looks and landing a rich man, and sets out to do so by going to clubs, being outrageous, dressing provocatively, and throwing herself into a wealthy crowd. Lizzie, the shy one, just wants a job, and ends up being hired by a cafe owner who’s large, gregarious, and a true talent in the kitchen.

During their time in London, both Penny and Lizzie experience romantic ups and downs, disappointments, career opportunities, and awkward social scenarios. They’re often in opposition to one another, but when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs.

West End Girls is a fairly predictable rags-to-riches story, with each sister getting what she needs by the end — which isn’t necessarily what she thought she wanted at the start. It’s cute and light, but not problem-free.

Some of the pop culture references are dated (which makes sense, considering this book was first published in 2006), but thankfully, there aren’t enough of these to be seriously distracting. The book is much less body positive than it would be if written today, I suspect. Lizzie is overweight at the start of the story and dresses drably to hide her pounds, having survived on microwaved dinners for two many years. As Georges, the cafe owner, teaches her how to find her way around a kitchen and appreciate quality food, she ends up slimming down and getting healthier, and toward the end, even gets a wardrobe, hair, and makeup makeover. Which, good for Lizzie if she feels better about herself, but I felt like I was hearing about Lizzie’s weight and how much better she looked slimmer a bit too often for my taste.

Jenny Colgan’s more recent books have a depth and richness that I love, with wonderful settings, quirky and funny characters, and some true emotional heft. Here, I got entertainment, but not that much more.

Still, West End Girls was a fun way to spend my weekend reading hours, and I had a good time with it. It just made me look forward to summer 2021, when Jenny Colgan next new book will be released!