Book Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev

Title: The Emma Project
Series: The Rajes
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma gets a fresh Indian-American twist from award-winning author Sonali Dev in her heartwarmingly irresistible Jane Austen inspired rom com series.

No one can call Vansh Raje’s life anything but charmed. Handsome—Vogue has declared him California’s hottest single—and rich enough to spend all his time on missions to make the world a better place. Add to that a doting family and a contagiously sunny disposition and Vansh has made it halfway through his twenties without ever facing anything to throw him off his admittedly spectacular game.

A couple years from turning forty, Knightlina (Naina) Kohli has just gotten out of a ten-year-long fake relationship with Vansh’s brother and wants only one thing from her life…fine, two things. One, to have nothing to do with the unfairly blessed Raje family ever again. Two, to bring economic independence to millions of women in South Asia through her microfinance foundation and prove her father wrong about, well, everything.

Just when Naina’s dream is about to come to fruition, Vansh Raje shows up with his misguided Emma Project… And suddenly she’s fighting him for funding and wondering if a friends-with-benefits arrangement that’s as toe-curlingly hot as it is fun is worth risking her life’s work for.

The Emma Project is the 4th book in author Sonali Dev’s Jane Austen-inspired series about the powerful, wealthy Raje family. The Rajes, descended from Indian royalty, are fabulously rich and highly influential, especially now that their son Yash has been elected California’s newest governor. (See Incense and Sensibility for Yash’s story).

In The Emma Project, the youngest of the Raje clan takes center stage. 26-year-old Vansh is the “prince” of the family, extremely good-looking and pampered by all of his older sisters and cousins. Vansh has spent the last several years flitting around the world, from project to project lending a hand to all sorts of socially responsible causes, but never settling on just one thing.

After working to support Yash’s campaign, Vansh decides to stick around for a bit, and soon catches the attention of a powerful tech billionaire who wants to fund a project for Vansh — by pulling funding from Naina’s important work. Naina’s work is her whole life, especially since her association with the Rajes ended with public scandal after her fake romance with Yash came to light. (It’s complicated; again, see Yash’s story in the previous book).

Naina is furious over the loss of funding, and she accuses Vansh of engaging in an “Emma project” — basically, like Austen’s Emma, taking on a project for the sake of making himself feel good and alleviating some boredom, but lacking a true commitment or perspective on what others may need.

Over time, Vansh and Naina begin to work together, and become aware of a crazy hot chemistry between them too… but with Naina essentially ostracized by Vansh’s family and being burdened by all sorts of relationship issues due to growing up with an abusive father, any sort of romantic future between the two seems highly unlikely.

Except… there’s that chemisty to deal with, and they just can’t avoid it for long.

Perspective shift between Vansh (the Emma character) and Naina (Knightley), so we get to understand each character’s feelings and why they behave the way they do. All the various Rajes make appearances, often to meddle and complicate situations even further, and there’s a sub-plot about Vansh’s cousin Esha that’s a weird distraction from the main story (and makes very little sense), which seems to be a stand-in for the Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill storyline from Emma.

I’ve enjoyed most of the books in the Rajes series, but this one was was only so-so. The characters’ inner lives, especially Naina’s, come across as overwrought after a while. The endless ruminations on feelings about relationships and love truly started to get on my nerves. I also couldn’t understand why the Raje family treated Naina the way they did — from a plot perspective, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Vansh and Naina have a lot of heat between them, which fine, I’m happy two adults are enjoying themselves so much! However, there’s a restaurant scene that absolutely made me roll my eyes over its ridiculousness, and I had a hard time suspending my utter disbelief enough to get through the rest of the book.

From the author’s notes at the end, it sounds like The Emma Project is the final Raje book. Too bad — I guess we won’t be getting Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey retellings! As a whole, I’ve enjoyed this series, even though I ended up not as engaged with this last book.

Audiobook Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Title: By the Book
Series: Meant to Be, #2
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Narrator: Sarah Hollis
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 42 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.

All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?

But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

Everybody, sing along!

There’s something sweet and almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
And now he’s dear and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

In By the Book, Disney publishing comes through with another endearing fairy tale adaptation, thanks to the clever imaginings of Jasmine Guillory. It’s Beauty and the Beast with a modern, grown-up spin, set in the world of publishing, and it’s all very, very charming.

For Izzy, every day is like the one before…

When she first landed her job at TAOAT Publishing (that’s Tale As Old As Time, of course), she was starry-eyed and thrilled to finally be entering the world of books. But a couple of years on, she’s stuck as an editorial assistant, with a boss who doesn’t take the time to give feedback, and a coworker who slyly undermines Izzy’s confidence under the guise of sympathy.

While attending an industry conference in LA, Izzy gets her moment to do something bold: Her boss is frustrated by celebrity Beau Towers, who has yet to deliver even a word of his memoir under contract. He refuses to even respond to emails. Izzy boldly offers to knock on the door of his Santa Barbara mansion and offer her assistance in person.

Once she arrives, she’s wowed by Beau’s gorgeous home — so beautiful it’s practically enchanted! — but less impressed by his surly demeanor. Still, by the time their initial confrontation takes place, it’s too late for her to make her flight back to New York, so she’s stuck as a guest for the night. Her room is gorgeous, and she falls so deeply in love with the luxurious bathtub that she feels like it’s talking to her.

I talk to inanimate objects like my teacup and the candlestick because Beau Towers doesn’t talk to me, and I feel like at any moment the teacup and candlestick will start, like singing and dancing for me.

By the next day, Beau grudgingly agrees to let Izzy stay and offer him writing pep talks, and they soon settle into a routine of writing together in his vast and breathtaking library.

This library was all her library dreams come true. […] Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined every wall, with those rolling ladders so you could reach each and every book.

Beau’s assistant cooks up amazing food for them, and Izzy even grudgingly tries the gray stuff — an energy drink — and it’s delicious!

FYI, Beau’s wifi password is Lum1ere!

Are you singing along yet? Don’t worry, I found myself breaking into song throughout this adorable book…

Of course, there are ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings, but Izzy comes to realize that underneath his beastly behavior, Beau actually is quite a prince. Izzy’s warmth and kindness melt his heart, and by the time she comes swooping down the main staircase in a long yellow dress, he’s completely smitten.

The romance is sweet, but maybe because of the fairy tale element, it’s also completely predictable. Of course it’s all going to work out! Of course they’ll find happiness despite their differences! Izzy’s career challenges are neatly resolved by the end as well, and every aspect of the story gets tied up with a pretty HEA bow.

I enjoyed the flirtation, the California scenery, and the glimpse into the world of publishing. I did find the stakes fairly low throughout the book, and the revelation of the bad guy’s deviousness is completely predictable (although this Gaston stand-in does not brag about his chest hair, spitting abilities, or use of antlers for his interior décor, and no one’s actual life is on the line, so he’s not quite as despicable as the Disney version).

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s most well-done and breezy, although the narrator’s habit of laughing whenever the lines in the books say “she laughed” got on my nerves after a while. Ignoring that, though, it was a really fun listen, and didn’t require a huge amount of focus or concentration in order to follow the story.

There are a ton of cute little nods to the Disney movie — from someone commenting that they feel like they should be wearing a tea cozy to Beau telling Izzy to “be my guest” to the flight attendant named Angela offering tea and cookies– and these all made for sweet giggle-inducing interludes throughout the book.

I mean, in the end, what’s not to enjoy about a Beauty and the Beast retelling? After all, it is…

… a tale as old as time.

As for what’s next in this series…

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t wait to find out which adaptation is in store for us!

Book Review: Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

Title: Something Wilder
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Growing up the daughter of notorious treasure hunter and absentee father Duke Wilder left Lily without much patience for the profession…or much money in the bank. But Lily is nothing if not resourceful, and now uses Duke’s coveted hand-drawn maps to guide tourists on fake treasure hunts through the red rock canyons of Utah. It pays the bills but doesn’t leave enough to fulfill her dream of buying back the beloved ranch her father sold years ago, and definitely not enough to deal with the sight of the man she once loved walking back into her life with a motley crew of friends ready to hit the trails. Frankly, Lily would like to take him out into the wilderness—and leave him there.

Leo Grady knew mirages were a thing in the desert, but they’d barely left civilization when the silhouette of his greatest regret comes into focus in the flickering light of the campfire. Ready to leave the past behind him, Leo wants nothing more than to reconnect with his first and only love. Unfortunately, Lily Wilder is all business, drawing a clear line in the sand: it’s never going to happen.

But when the trip goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the group wonders if maybe the legend of the hidden treasure wasn’t a gimmick after all. There’s a chance to right the wrongs—of Duke’s past and their own—but only if Leo and Lily can confront their history and work together. Alone under the stars in the isolated and dangerous mazes of the Canyonlands, Leo and Lily must decide whether they’ll risk their lives and hearts on the adventure of a lifetime.

Christina Lauren books are always great fun, but Something Wilder didn’t quite reach the enjoyable heights of some of their previous books — at least, not for me.

In Something Wilder, we get a second chance romance as Lily and Leo are reunited after an abrupt separation ten years earlier left each of them feeling dumped by the other — a situation based on misunderstandings and missed communications, not actual intent. The truth of the matter is, neither has ever gotten over the loss of their first and only true love.

But time marches on, and Lily is left making ends meet — barely — by taking urban cowboy wannabes out on adventure tours through the canyons of the west, recreating old Wild West outlaw routes and seeking out (fictitious) hidden treasures. When Manhattan-based coder Leo sets off on his annual guy trip with a bunch of college buddies, he doesn’t know exactly where they’re headed — but when he arrives at the cowboy camp, all his old memories and feeling come rushing back as soon as he sees Lily.

Once Lily and Leo are thrown together, they face the fact that they’ll be spending the next week in close quarters. Super awkward! Fortunately, their resentment and pain are soon confronted — I was glad that it didn’t take them the whole book to finally clear the air and understand why things happened the way they did.

The plot of Something Wilder is built about the adventure trip that Lily and her best friend Nicole lead the guys on. Lily’s business is leading groups on treasure hunts on horseback, solving puzzles and discovering a hidden “treasure” that she plants for them — essentially, a Wild West scavenger hunt.

Lily’s father Duke was a famous expert on the mysteries of the Old West, and one of the biggest legends he focused on was about Butch Cassidy, who was rumored to have stashed away his loot from all his various heists somewhere along the region’s remote trails. Legend has it that this stash is still out there, waiting to be found. Duke devoted most of his life to tracking down the loot, and his obsession made him an absentee father who was never around when his daughter needed him. Lily always resented Duke’s determined focus on treasure hunting, but now, Butch Cassidy’s long-lost riches may be the only hope she has left if she wants to save her family ranch.

In this mix of these Wild West shenanigans are some modern day bad guys. One of the members of Leo’s group is an extremely unlikeable uber-macho type who thrives on conspiracy theories and online craziness, and he’s convinced that the treasure is real and that Lily is the key to finding it. Things take a turn toward gritty violence once his true goals become clear, and from there, the plot turns into a desperate adventure tale. (Note: the synopsis says the trip goes “horribly and hilariously wrong” — no idea what whoever wrote that blurb thought was hilarious. Not at all a funny situation.)

While there’s romance, once Leo and Lily clear the air and recognize that their feelings are still simmering not too far below the surface, the main arc of the plot is about the treasure hunt. And I gotta say… I just wasn’t that into it. Yes, it’s fun to see the city slickers on horseback, and the descriptions of the canyons made me want to go on an adventure of my own — but the plot is much too much about the heist and the conspiracy and incipient danger and violence. Not really my kind of story.

A few of the characters are fun, but several are pure cookie-cutter assholes, and the story itself was too action-focused to suit my tastes. The parts I liked best had to do with Lily and Leo, their family stories and complications, and their give and take about whether renewing their relationship was even a possibility. And yes, I enjoyed their steamy reunion too — romantic and sexy without being overly graphic or detailed.

Christina Lauren’s books are always enjoyable, and I breezed through Something Wilder in about a day and a half. The adventure plot wasn’t to my taste, but it’s still a fun read, and I can easily recommend this book for a sunny day of beach reading.

Book Review: Not Your Average Hot Guy by Gwenda Bond

Title: Not Your Average Hot Guy
Author: Gwenda Bond
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: October 5th, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A paranormal romantic comedy at the (possible) end of the world.

All Callie wanted was a quiet weekend with her best friend. She promised her mom she could handle running her family’s escape room business while her mom is out of town. Instead a Satanic cult shows up, claiming that the prop spell book in one of the rooms is the real deal, and they need it to summon the right hand of the devil. Naturally they take Callie and her friend, Mag, along with them. But when the summoning reveals a handsome demon in a leather jacket named Luke who offers to help Callie stop the cult from destroying the world, her night goes from weird to completely strange.

As the group tries to stay one step ahead of the cult, Callie finds herself drawn to the annoying (and annoyingly handsome) Luke. But what Callie doesn’t know is that Luke is none other than Luke Morningstar, Prince of Hell and son of the Devil himself. Callie never had time for love, and with the apocalypse coming closer, is there room for romance when all hell’s about to break loose?

From New York Times bestselling author Gwenda Bond, Not Your Average Hot Guy is a hilarious romantic comedy about two people falling in love, while the fate of the world rests on their shoulders.

Is this a book to take seriously? Hell no!

All hell breaks loose in this romantic comedy when a prop in a family-run escape room turns out to be the real deal. Callie, a recent college grad who loves books, her best friend, and her family, finds herself without a clear next step in her life, so she lives at home and works at her mom’s award-winning escape room business. (Who knew there were awards for escape rooms?) With her obsessive interest in historical facts and weird occult trivia, Callie is a natural at designing escape experiences, and she’s especially proud of the supernatural-themed room she designed herself, featuring all sorts of great estate sale finds as props — including a very old grimoire.

When Callie’s mom leaves her in charge for the weekend, Callie sees it as her chance to prove herself, but things go south pretty quickly when a group wearing capes and plague doctor masks shows up for their escape room reservation. Cosplayers, she assumes — until they steal the grimoire, kidnap her and her friend Mag, and start a demon-summoning ritual.

Meanwhile, in Hell… the Prince of Hell is bored with his tutors and is failing at his assigned task of collecting souls. Sure, he makes an effort, but he never quite manages to seal the deal. As a last-ditch effort to avoid his dad’s wrath, he answers the summoning, and finds himself surrounded by a doomsday cult and one very cute young woman who seems determined to stop the end of the world.

Luke and Callie find themselves teaming up to stop the cult, heading off on a desperate journey to secure holy relics before the cult can get them, and even venturing into Hell itself to try to stop the apocalypse. And naturally, despite their clearly diverging goals (Callie = save the world, Luke = steal souls), their mutual attraction has sparks flying and threatens to turn into actual feelings.

It’s all very silly and light-hearted… and ends up being a really fun, enjoyable read. It doesn’t have to make sense and it’s certainly not a book grounded in the real world. The characters are sincere and likeable, but with good sense of humor, and the adventure itself is goofy and ridiculous… but again, it’s all quite fun.

I needed something quirky and easy to engage with to brighten up a stressful week, and this book fit the bill. Not a ton of brain cells required… but Not Your Average Hot Guy is great silly entertainment. The follow-up book, The Date From Hell, was just released this month.

Will I read it?

Hell yes!

Audiobook Review: Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson

Title: Ramón and Julieta
Author: Alana Quintana Albertson
Narrators:  Alexander Amado, Vanessa Vasquez
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 1, 2022
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 25 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When fate and tacos bring Ramón and Julieta together on the Day of the Dead, the star-crossed pair must make a choice: accept the bitter food rivalry that drives them apart or surrender to a love that consumes them.

Ramón Montez always achieves his goals. Whether that means collecting Ivy League degrees or growing his father’s fast-food empire, nothing sets Ramón off course. So when the sexy señorita who kissed him on the Day of the Dead runs off into the night with his heart, he determines to do whatever it takes to find her again.

Celebrity chef Julieta Campos has sacrificed everything to save her sea-to-table taqueria from closing. To her horror, she discovers that her new landlord is none other than the magnetic mariachi she hooked up with on Dia de los Muertos. Even worse, it was his father who stole her mother’s taco recipe decades ago. Julieta has no choice but to work with Ramón, the man who destroyed her life’s work–and the one man who tempts and inspires her.

As San Diego’s outraged community protests against the Taco King take-over and the divide between their families grows, Ramón and Julieta struggle to balance the rising tensions. But Ramón knows that true love is priceless and despite all of his successes, this is the one battle he refuses to lose. 

The vibrancy of Mexican culture in a San Diego neighborhood is threatened by gentrification — and in this contemporary romance version of Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert — with a much happier ending!), a Day of the Dead meet-cute throws together members of rival families with a long, bitter history.

from the author’s website

Dia de los Muertos is a very big deal in Old Town, San Diego. Besides attracting tourists, for the Mexican community, it’s a day of beautiful traditions honoring their loved ones who’ve passed away. Julieta, chef at a popular, authentic local restaurant in Barrio Logan, plans to sell her specialty tacos at a pop-up stand at the festival, and Ramón, CEO of the multi-million-dollar family business that owns a hugely successful chain of Taco King fast food joints, is planning to schmooze up the local politicians and gain a little last-minute publicity before sealing the deal to buy an entire block of Barrio Logan.

Dressed in full Dia de los Muertos costumes and face paint, when Ramón and Julieta have a chance encounter in a garden near the festival, there’s instant attraction and a deeper connection as well — but they don’t exchange real names and can’t see one another’s faces. Tired of her responsiblities and lack of pleasure in her life, Julieta makes the impulsive decision to go home with Ramón, but once back in his La Jolla mansion, about to remove her face paint, she realizes who he really is — he’s the enemy.

Decades earlier, as Julieta’s been told countless times, her mother was a young woman selling home-made fish tacos at a stand in Mexico, when a Mexican-American student on a surfing trip during spring break fell in love with her and her tacos. He never returned as promised, but he stole her family’s secret recipe and turned it into the key to Taco King’s success. When Julieta realizes that Ramón is the son of her family’s nemesis, who profited off of her family’s recipe all these years without ever acknowledging or compensating them, she’s livid and appalled.

Things become even worse the following day when Ramon’s offer on the block in Barrio Logan is accepted. Ramón’s father plans to raise all the rents, force the existing businesses out, and replace Julieta’s lovely restaurant with a flagship location for a new Taco King. This is war! But also, this is love… because despite their stance on opposing sides of this gentrification battle, Ramón and Julieta can’t deny their feeling or their attraction for one another.

from the author’s website

I enjoyed the depiction of the close-knit community of Barrio Logan, the sense of tradition and pride in the Mexican culture of the residents, and the absolutely amazing-sounding descriptions of spices and flavors and foods. But, these great elements are in many ways background to the romance, and that’s where the book didn’t particularly work for me.

First of all, the characters: Not only is Ramón CEO of the family empire, he’s also Stanford and Harvard educated. Not only is Julieta an amazing chef, but she’s been trained at Michelin-starred restaurants. [Side note: Why does every romance novel about foodies throw around Michelin stars? Why does everyone in business need a Harvard MBA?] They’re both gorgeous and have amazing bodies, of course. They’re not just reasonably nice people who meet and connect — they’re both stellar in every way. It’s too much.

Second, I just couldn’t help cringing over their dialogue and their inner thoughts. Within seconds of meeting, Julieta is admiring how good Ramón looks in his costume, including “that huge bulge in his pants”. But don’t worry, the ogling is two-sided, as Ramón notes about Julieta: “That ass was the kind that songs were written about”.

The supposedly romantic moments are super corny, and the sexy/steamy scenes are unnecessarily specific and graphic. Then again, I recognize that preferences about graphic vs implied sex vary widely among romance readers, so while this aspect didn’t work for me, it may not be a deal-breaker for other readers.

The audiobook features different narrators for chapters from Ramón and Julieta’s perspectives, although they each still have to depict the other character whenever there are scenes together, which means there are two different voices each for Ramón and Julieta — a little weird at times, since they sound so different. It’s a light listen, and overall, the audiobook presentation is well done and entertaining.

I gave Ramón and Julieta 3 stars: I really liked the creative use of Shakespearean inspiration in telling a modern tale and the way the story honors and depicts elements of Mexican heritage and the strong sense of community. It doesn’t rise above 3 stars for me, though, because of the hokiness of the love story — which, in a romance, should be its strongest element.

Ramón and Julieta is enjoyable, despite the cringe-factor. Apparently, it’s the first in a planned series called Love and Tacos. The pieces that didn’t work for me are enough to make me doubt whether I’d want to come back for more.

Audiobook Review: If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

Title: If the Shoe Fits
Series: Meant to Be
Author: Julie Murphy
Narrator: Jen Ponton
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: August 3, 2021
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 51 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Cindy loves shoes. A well-placed bow or a chic stacked heel is her form of self-expression. As a fashion-obsessed plus-size woman, she can never find designer clothes that work on her body, but a special pair of shoes always fits just right.

With a shiny new design degree but no job in sight, Cindy moves back in with her stepmother, Erica Tremaine, the executive producer of the world’s biggest dating reality show. When a contestant on Before Midnight bows out at the last minute, Cindy is thrust into the spotlight. Showcasing her killer shoe collection on network TV seems like a great way to jump-start her career. And, while she’s at it, why not go on a few lavish dates with an eligible suitor?

But being the first and only fat contestant on Before Midnight turns her into a viral sensation—and a body-positivity icon—overnight. Even harder to believe? She can actually see herself falling for this Prince Charming. To make it to the end, despite the fans, the haters, and a house full of fellow contestants she’s not sure she can trust, Cindy will have to take a leap of faith and hope her heels— and her heart—don’t break in the process.

Best-selling author Julie Murphy’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is an enchanting story of self-love and believing in the happy ending each and every one of us deserves. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good modern-day fairy tale, If the Shoe Fits might be a perfect… fit. (Sorry.)

In 2020, Disney’s publishing arm announced its new series of fairy tale retellings, aimed at adult readers. With different authors writing the different installments, each book will retell a classic fairy tale as a contemporary romance. If the Shoe Fits is the first in the Meant To Be series… and I have to say, after reading this one, I’m definitely on board for more!

If the Shoe Fits is very funny, but also surprisingly emotional in key ways. Cindy is a recent graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, but after barely squeaking by on her final project, she has no immediate job or career prospects. She returns to LA to live with her stepmother and extended family, planning to nanny for the summer and hit pause for a bit… but then reality TV upends her plans.

[Side note: Why are there so many romance novels framed around TV dating shows these days? I swear this is at least the 4th I’ve read… and I’ve never watched a single episode of The Bachelor!]

In one of the lovely twists on the classic Cinderella story, Cindy’s stepmother and stepsisters are not evil! In fact, her stepmother Erica is loving and supportive, and her stepsisters Anna and Drew are sweet and love Cindy unstintingly. After Cindy’s father’s sudden death (while Cindy was in high school), Erica moved forward with the surrogacy they’d been planning, so there are also three-year-old triplets for Cindy to adore.

Erica is the creator and producer of the biggest reality TV dating show, Before Midnight. Cindy’s always loved the glamor and romance of the show, but she never could have conceived of being on it herself. When the new season loses contestants right before filming, Anna and Drew are called in as subs, and Cindy decides to take a chance and ask to be included as well. As an aspiring designer with a killer shoe collection, what better way to get her name and her designs out into the world, even if this is way outside her comfort zone? The $100,000 prize doesn’t hurt either — if she can’t find a job, maybe she’ll launch her own brand!

Cindy doesn’t hesitate to describe herself as fat, although it makes her non-fat family and friends cringe. She’s plus-size, and she knows it. She’s tired of going shopping with her sisters and never having options in her size. She’s tired of being told she’s “brave” for wearing stylish or sexy clothes. She’s tired of being viewed as less because of the shape of her body, and she’s tired of being invisible. Go, Cindy!

The actual reality TV experience is just as silly as you’d expect, with 20 women competing for love, although most have reasons for being on the show that have nothing to do with true romance. Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight, and between the influencers and walking memes and mean girls, it’s hard to imagine that love has anything to do with it.

The twist is that this season’s suitor is someone Cindy had met randomly weeks earlier, when the two seemed to share an instant connection. Suddenly, the fake reality dating show becomes a lot more real for Cindy… could he possibly feel what she’s feeling? And what if he doesn’t actually choose her in the end?

I mentioned the emotional aspects of the story. Cindy is still deeply grieving her father’s loss. Her memories of her father and all the ways in which her grief has affected her life are truly touching. The weight of the loss hit her fresh her senior year, which is why she struggled to graduate and felt that she’d lost her creative spark. As she competes on Before Midnight, she also starts to deal more directly with what she’s experienced, how her grief has shaped her last few years, and what reconnecting with her creativity might possibly look like.

I really appreciated the sensitivity with which all this is portrayed, as well as the depiction of Cindy herself as a funny, attractive, determined woman who refuses to feel shame or let others hold her back because of her body size.

I don’t mean to make this sound like serious literature — overall, the tone is funny and sweeet, and there are plenty of silly escapades to laugh over. Surprisingly, Cindy even manages to find true friends among the other contestants, even as the competition heats up, and I loved the idea that women can connect and be kind and supportive to one another even in the weirdest pressure-cooker situations.

The audiobook is a delight. The narrator does a great job with Cindy, as well as making the other Before Midnight contestants and producers come alive as individuals with distinct voices. Also, the dialogue can be very funny, making the audiobook super entertaining.

The next book in the series will be released in May — a Beauty and the Beast retelling (!!) written by Jasmine Guillory (!!), set in the world of publishing and authors (!!). I am so there for it.

Meanwhile, check out If the Shoe Fits! Just a really fun reading/listening experience.

Book Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Title: The Marriage Game
Author: Sara Desai
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased (paperback); Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he’s forced to share his space with the owner’s beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean… diverse characters, San Francisco setting, family matchmaking, and contemporary romance. What’s not to enjoy?

Sadly, this was a bust. I almost quit multiple times throughout the story, and by the end, managed to convince myself to finish by deciding to think of the book as a parody. (To be clear, it’s not a parody.)

The “marriage game” of the title has to do with arranged marriages. To start a more stable life after some dating and career disasters, Layla decides to meet the men her father secretly selected for her via a dating site focused on Indians looking for arranged marriages. Sam and Layla agree that if Layla finds a husband, she’ll give up the office they’re fighting over, but if she doesn’t, Sam has to leave.

I’m not going to rehash the plot, because I just don’t have the energy for it. But here are a just a few points about the worst elements of this book:

  • It reads as if the author is someone who has never actually stepped foot in a modern-day office and imagines all workplaces based on impressions from bad 80s and 90s movies. One the one hand, we have characters repeatedly reminding each other that “this is a place of business”, yet behaving so unprofessionally and inappropriately that it makes my toes curl. Sexual innuendo, sexual banter, sexual harassment, discussion of personal lives, comments about bodies, not to mention weird interpretations of office rules and a lack of all basic office etiquette. It’s awful.
  • Other than Sam (the lead male character), one friend of his who appears infrequently, and Layla’s dad, every male in this book is a predator, a criminal, a harasser, or just grossly blunt and crass and sexist and awful to women.
  • The “game” that Layla and Sam play makes no sense. He goes on her blind dates as her chaperone, then interferes with every single conversation and ruins/undermines every interaction, while Layla focuses on him and not the person she’s meeting. Granted, the dates are all duds, but the dudes never get a chance.
  • The blind dates are supposedly all men that Layla’s father has prescreened and put into his “yes” list of potential husbands for Layla, but either he has terrible taste or he didn’t bother doing even basic due diligence. Again, just awful.
  • So many cringe-worthy scenes. From a blind date with a restaurant owner who has menacing security goons, gang tattoos, and a prison record to one with a corporate VIP who informs Layla in the first 60 seconds that he wants to “bang” her, not marry her… it’s just not amusing at all.
  • There’s a truly disgusting scene involving Sam and his business partner’s party to woo potential clients — including strippers (and their pole), lots of booze, and even angel dust. Again, is this some sort of parody of 1980s corporate greed? Nope, it’s supposed to be set now. It’s gross, and the fact that they win the contract makes no sense at all. AT ALL.
  • The sexual banter and the way the sex scenes are written are not sexy. There’s a line about Layla being jealous of Sam’s shirt because it gets to cling to his muscles. Ugh.

I think you get the picture.

You may be wondering why I gave this book 1.5 stars when I so clearly did not like it? I figure it gets one star simply because I finished it, and the extra 1/2 star is to recognize Layla’s family. The scenes with all the aunties are fun, even if they feel too similar to every other book I’ve read about Indian American families. But the family dynamics (and the descriptions of all the food) at least provide some scenes that are enjoyable, so that’s got to count for something.

From what I see on Goodreads, there are two follow-up books currently available, centered on other characters in Layla and Sam’s world. As you can probably guess, I’m out — those books will get a hard pass from me.

Book Review: One Night on the Island by Josie Silver

Title: One Night on the Island
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 15, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spending her thirtieth birthday alone is the last thing that dating columnist Cleo wanted, but she is going on a self-coupling quasi-sabbatical–at the insistence of her boss–in the name of re-energizing herself and adding a new perspective to her column. The remote Irish island she’s booked is a far cry from London, but at least it’s a chance to hunker down in a luxury cabin and indulge in some quiet, solitary self-care while she figures out her next steps in her love life and her career.

Mac is also looking forward to some time to himself. With his life in Boston deteriorating in ways he can’t bring himself to acknowledge, his soul searching has brought him to the same Irish island in search of his roots and some clarity. Unfortunately, a mix-up with the bookings means both solitude seekers have reserved the same one-bedroom hideaway on exactly the same dates.

Instantly at odds with each other, Cleo and Mac don’t know how they’re going to manage until the next weekly ferry arrives. But as the days go by, they no longer seem to mind each other’s company quite as much as they thought they would…

Written with Josie Silver’s signature warmth, charm and insights into the human heart, One Night on the Island explores the meaning of home, the joys of escape and how the things we think we want are never the things we really need.

Oh, dear. Based on the number of 5-star gushing reviews already posted on Goodreads, this is going to be a minority opinion. Dare I say it? I actually liked this book… but hearts and flowers and best thing ever? No.

A quick overview: Cleo is a dating and romance writer living in London, with a big, busy life that’s pretty hollow at its core. Her editor pushes her to try something radical as her 30th birthday approaches: Head to a remote island off the coast of Ireland and plan a self-partnering ceremony. Essentially, she’ll be stepping off the dating merry-go-round and focus on committing to herself.

Meanwhile, Mack (spelled with a “k” in the book, not as shown above in the synopsis I pulled from Goodreads) is seeking peace and connection with his roots. He grew up hearing stories about Salvation Island from the grandmother who was born there. He’s a devoted husband and father whose wife has pulled away. Now separated for a year, he’s in constant pain hoping to be allowed back into the life he once had, and thinks it would be best for him and his two boys if he stopped hovering around and gave his wife space to figure out what she wants. He’s a gifted photographer, so his time away will also give him an opportunity to explore Salvation the way he’s always wanted to.

In a very cutesy meet-cute, Mack and Cleo are both booked into Otter Lodge, a secluded (not luxury, per the synopsis) cottage on a secluded area of the island. Neither is willing, or even able, to change their plans, since it’ll be a week until the next boat back to the mainland, and there are simply no other accommodations on the island.

With no choice, they settle in and establish rules, going so far as to draw a chalk line down the middle of the cottage. But as their forced togetherness continues, they start to share pieces of themselves with a stark honesty that’s missing from their normal lives, and at the same time, begin to connect with the quirky residents of Salvation. (Of course they’re quirky. Aren’t all small-town community residents quirky in romance novels? Hearts of gold, too, and with open arms for strangers, because that happens in real life.)

Anyway… you can see where this is going. Cleo and Mack make an incredible connection, Cleo finds the inner peace and meaning she’d been missing, and Mack comes to realizations about his marriage, his children, and where he belongs.

I liked the story well enough, and tore through it. It’s a fast read, and I enjoyed Cleo and Mack’s routines and interactions and the sparks that build between them. But, my cynical side couldn’t stay quiet long enough for me to ignore certain issues, either.

First, and this is possibly a complaint more about the book’s marketing rather than the story itself… but the title is terrible and is completely misleading. This isn’t about ONE NIGHT on an island. The point is, Mack and Cleo spend weeks in each other’s company, and it’s the slow, steady accumulation of familiarity and their ability to share pieces of themselves and express themselves honestly as they build trust that finally bring them together emotionally. It’s not at all about just one night. Sheesh.

Second, the set-up is confusing. This is one of the rare reading experiences that’s much better in its second half than in its first. When Cleo’s editor pushes her to go to Salvation, there’s no discussion of parameters or for how long. Cleo’s expenses and lodging are being paid for by the magazine (nice!), and from their initial conversation, I thought it would be for a weekend, or at most, a week. But no, it’s actually for months! Whose work would pay for them to go away like that to write columns about self-partnering? For a 29-year-old who writes a dating column, this seems incredibly unrealistic, and the lack of specificity about Cleo’s plans made it confusing when she and Mack were trying to hash out who had stronger claims to the cabin.

My biggest quibble is the whole stuck-together trope in play here. And I know, it’s a romance, and we’re supposed to just go with it. But honestly, think about it. If you found out you were going to have to spend even one night, let alone a week or longer, in a completely isolated cabin with a man who’s a total stranger, what would you do? I’d be running for the hills, probably begging some kind townsperson to let me sleep on their couch until the next boat home. I had to wonder — if Mack hadn’t been age-appropriate and gorgeous, would Cleo have agreed to this arrangement? It doesn’t make any sense, and of course I understand that this is the foundation of the entire story… but maybe that’s why I can’t go any higher than 3.5 stars.

On a positive note, I did enjoy how feelings and connection developed between the two main characters, and I liked having chapters from both of their points of view. I also appreciated how their time at Salvation enabled each of them to center their own needs and priorities within their relationship, not forcing either one to drop everything or fundamentally change who they are or what they want for the other. And finally, I love Mack’s devotion to his children and their well-being, putting their needs above everything else, including his desire to be with Cleo. His overarching decision-making process focuses on the boys, and that’s right and good in a very heart-warming way.

I looked back at my reviews of this author’s two previous books, and I have to say that perhaps this author and I just aren’t a match made in heaven. The pattern, based on three books now, seems clear — I like the writing style and many of the elements about the characters, and it’s easy to get swept up in the romance of it all… but too many of the finer details and plot points don’t stand up to the cold light of day when I apply my logical brain to them.

One Night on the Island (ugh, that title!) is an engaging, quick read, but I can’t say I ever believed in the wonder and romance of it all quite enough to override the pieces that didn’t work for me. Despite not completely loving it, I liked it well enough to recommend as a feel-good getaway from the daily grind.

Audiobook Review: A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss

Title: A Season for Second Chances
Author: Jenny Bayliss
Narrator: Ell Potter
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: October 19, 2021
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A charmingly quirky seaside town offers a recently separated restauranteur a fresh start and possibly a new lease on love in A Season for Second Chances, by the author of The Twelve Dates of Christmas.

Annie Sharpe’s spark for life has fizzled out. Her kids are grown up, her restaurant is doing just fine on its own, and her twenty-six-year marriage has come to an unceremonious end. Untethered for the first time in her adult life, she finds a winter guardian position in a historic seaside home and decides to leave her city life behind for a brand-new beginning.

When she arrives in Willow Bay, Annie is enamored by the charming house, the invigorating sea breeze, and the town’s rich seasonal traditions. Not to mention, her neighbors receive her with open arms–that is, all except the surly nephew of the homeowner, whose grand plans for the property are at odds with her residency. As Christmas approaches, tensions and tides rise in Willow Bay, and Annie’s future seems less and less certain. But with a little can-do spirit and holiday magic, the most difficult time of her life will become…a season for second chances.

A Season for Second Chances is a sweet, good-natured book about finding a new purpose and a new love when least expected.

When Annie walks in on her husband having sex (a) in the restaurant they co-own (b) with a younger woman who (c) is a member of the wait staff, Annie has had enough. Max is a serial cheater who’s managed to convince Annie to stay time and time again, but now she’s finally done. After taking a few weeks to hibernate, she finds an ad for someone to live in and care for a seaside home over the winter, and throwing aside any doubts, Annie jumps in.

The house is utterly charming, in an equally charming small town. The home’s owner is an elderly woman whose nephew is trying to convince her to sell the property to a developer, throwing historical preservationists into a tizzy. Annie finds the house and town just what she needs, and soon decides she needs a project — reopening (with the owner’s blessing) the bistro and coffee kiosk on the property that have been shuttered for years.

Annie’s immediate tiff with the nephew naturally develops into an enemies-to-lovers situation (very sweetly). As she settles into small town life, she makes friends and finds a new direction for her life, but then must find a way to make it permanent. There are ups and downs in Annie’s love life as well as in her pursuit of her new home and business in Willow Bay, but as you’d imagine, there’s a happy ending — and despite a near tragedy close to the end, it’s never in doubt that Annie’s life will turn out to be wonderful.

This is an enjoyable book — it has all the elements you’d expect in this sorts of story: quirky characters, new friendships, sexual tension, a dashingly good-looking man with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. I can’t say the plot holds many surprises, but it’s pleasant and upbeat, which we can all use once in a while.

The audiobook is quite lovely, with terrific narration that captures the various character’s expressions, opinions, and personalities. The story itself goes on a bit longer than it perhaps needs to, and I did occasionally get impatient with scenes about house repairs and setting up the cafe, but overall, it kept me good company on long walks and my commute!

I liked that the main characters are adults in their 40s with grown children, who bring a certain level of earned skepticism to romance and wooing. The ex-husband is a jerk, even when he’s (pathetically) trying to get Annie back, and it was lots of fun seeing Annie put him in his place. The near-tragic accident towards the end of the story seems a bit unnecessary, but it fits the standard romance beats in terms of throwing a big wrench into events before getting to the happy ending.

Overall, this was a good choice for a week when I needed some light, happy entertainment!

Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Title: The Love Hypothesis
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

EVERYBODY seems to either have read or to be reading this contemporary romance — so I gave in to temptation and joined the crowd! And mostly, it’s a really enjoyable, sweet tale.

But — ugh — let me just say that I do not like the synopsis (above). It just doesn’t convey the charm of the characters or what’s special about the book’s set-up.

So… Olive is a Ph.D. student working her butt off, living off her meager grad stipend, and basically focused solely on her work. A complication arises when it becomes clear that the guy she’d started casually dating is actually much more interested in Olive’s best friend, who seems to return the interest. But Anh would never agree to date him and break the friend code, even if Olive insists she’s just not that into him.

When Olive lies to Anh and says she’ll be out on a date with a new love interest, leaving Anh free to start a romance with Jeremy, things get complicated. Anh sees Olive in the lab building — clearly not on a date. So, as the synopsis says: Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees — who just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, a young powerhouse in the academic field, with a reputation of being an arrogant ass when it comes to his grad students.

Olive is embarrassed and super awkward… but as it turns out, a fake dating scenario would benefit both Olive and Adam. Olive needs Anh to believe that Olive is in a relationship so that she can pursue her own love life guilt-free, and Adam needs Stanford to believe he’s in a relationship so they don’t consider him a flight risk and cut off his grant money. So hey, what’s a little fake-dating between (kind of) colleagues? Olive assumes a weekly coffee date is enough to seal the deal and make it believable.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as Olive and Adam are constantly thrown together, and (of course) develop an easy rapport, ridiculously cute banter, physical attraction, and, eventually, real and actual feelings.

The Love Hypothesis follows many of the standard story beats of the fake dating trope, but it’s got a lot of unique elements going for it as well. First of all, the science and academia setting is terrific. I love seeing a woman in science, here presented as dedicated to the point of obsession when it comes to her profession and her research. Olive is smart, motivated, and committed, and her struggle to be taken seriously and get the opportunities she deserves is well portrayed and convincing.

Also, the academic setting provides a structure that I haven’t come across much in contemporary romances. The science and lab work and dissertation meetings are all part of the plot. I’ve seen too many romances where we’re informed that the lead character is a respected professional, but we never see her doing any actual work. Here, we follow Olive in and out of meetings and labs and conferences, and get a real feel for the texture of her life as a graduate student (as well as the truly minimal financial resources she has… so yes, it’s a big deal when Adam pays for her pumpkin spice lattes!).

An added unique element is Olive’s sexuality, which I’d describe (although not labeled as such in the book) as demisexuality. Olive is fairly inexperienced when it comes to sex, mostly having tried it a few times during her college years as something to check off a list, rather than experiencing desire. As she explains, she’s only able to feel sexual attraction when with someone she likes and trusts, and this hasn’t really happened for her previously in her life.

Olive and Adam do have great chemistry, and I enjoyed them together as a couple. Despite Adam’s fearsome reputation in the department, he warms up around Olive, and they’re able to joke and exchange quips together that would probably make his grads’ heads spin.

I’m not typically a big fan of awkward encounters, which seem to be a staple in contemporary romances, and this is an obstacle for me in The Love Hypothesis as well. There’s a lap-sitting scene and a sunscreen scene, to name but a couple, that are kind of clunky and weird — I think they’re meant to be funny, but really, just made me cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Also, some of the lying really bugged me after a while. Olive persists in lying about the fake-dating to Anh even well past the point where she should have just come clean. She also lies to Adam after he overhears a conversation that could reveal her feelings about him, and continues to allow him to misinterpret her feelings even after it’s clear that she should be honest. She’s way too smart for some of the dumb decisions she makes about her emotions and her personal life, and even though she’s portrayed as someone so focused on science that she’s neglected her inner life, I feel like this goes overboard and undersells Olive’s maturity and good sense.

If you’ve read any of my other romance reviews, you may know that I prefer my romances with steaminess on the implied rather than explicit side of things. In The Love Hypothesis, there’s really just one major sex scene, but it is very explicit. Because it was limited to one encounter, I didn’t feel that it took over the book or overwhelmed the reading experience — but still, if you prefer these kind of scenes to be off-screen or fuzzy, just be aware in advance that the sex in The Love Hypothesis is graphic.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis and found the characters and the set-up charming and off-beat. I love seeing women in STEM professions, especially when the professional aspect is treated seriously and not just as a side note. I’ll definitely want to read more by this author!