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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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

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.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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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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Buy The Intimacy Experiment at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Also by this author: The Roommate: AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

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!

Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minor spoiler ahoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other stuff I like:

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

Some quibbles:

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

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

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

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

Book Review: In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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