Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

Title: Mr. Perfect on Paper
Author: Jean Meltzer
Narrator: Dara Rosenberg
Publisher: Mira
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 387 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 27 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the author of The Matzah Ball comes a pitch-perfect romcom following a third-generation Jewish matchmaker who unwittingly finds her own search for love thrust into the spotlight…

The perfect Jewish husband should be:
* A doctor or lawyer (preferably a doctor)
* Baggage-free (no previous marriages, no children)
* And of course—he must be Jewish

As the creator and CEO of the popular Jewish dating app J-Mate, matchmaker Dara Rabinowitz knows the formula for lasting love—at least, for everyone else. When it comes to her own love life, she’s been idling indefinitely. Until her beloved bubbe shares Dara’s checklist for “The Perfect Jewish Husband” on national television and charming news anchor Chris Steadfast proposes they turn Dara’s search into must-see TV.

As a non-Jewish single dad, Chris doesn’t check any of Dara’s boxes. But her hunt for Mr. Perfect is the ratings boost his show desperately needs. If only Chris could ignore his own pesky attraction to Dara—a task much easier said than done when Dara starts questioning if “perfect on paper” can compete with how hard she’s falling for Chris…

Jean Meltzer, author of 2021’s The Matzah Ball, is back with another Jewish-themed romance, this one depicting a young Jewish matchmaker’s search for her own true love.

Dara Rabinowitz is the powerhouse CEO of J-Mate, the super successful Jewish dating app she created inspired by her mother and grandmother’s careers as matchmakers. Knowing what makes a good match, as well as being a hugely talented coder, is the secret to Dara’s rise to corporate stardom. Dara lives with generalized anxiety disorder, which she’s quite open about, and manages her high-pressure life through coping and calming strategies as well as medication.

Dara is devoted to her darling grandmother, bubbe Miriam, whom she considers her best friend — but Miriam wants to see Dara happily married and exploring life. When Miriam goes off-script on a TV appearance and shares a private list of Dara’s requirements for her perfect husband (written one night while drinking with her sister), Dara is utterly humiliated… until the video clip goes viral, the show’s rating skyrocket, and suddenly everyone wants more of Dara.

The show’s host, Chris (handsome, non-Jewish, and a widowed father of a tween girl) is enchanted by Dara, and sees her as a potential key to saving his floundering show. Reluctantly, Dara agrees to his proposal: He’ll use her app and algorithms to find her nice Jewish men who are “Mr. Perfect on Paper” — checking all the boxes on her list — and she’ll allow the show to follow her on her dates.

What could go wrong?

Obviously, plenty. Dara encounters one dating disaster after another… and meanwhile, even once she meets a man who might really be her perfect match, she can’t quite shake her attraction and feelings for Chris himself. Chris, too, feels drawn to Dara, but he knows he’s not what she wants. But what if????

Dara and Chris are both sensitively portrayed and well developed. I really felt like I got to know each of them, with attention paid to their family backgrounds and the tragedies and struggles they’ve each endured. Chris’s story is particularly sad, and his dedication to being the best dad he can be, while navigating the tricky world of dealing with a pre-teen girl, is quite moving.

Dara and Chris have good chemistry, and I appreciated how genuine their care and concern for one another is. While denying to themselves that they could ever be romantically involved, they do both consider themselves friends, and they’re truly there for one another in the way that real friends should be.

Some elements of the book just didn’t work as well for me, however. Based on this book as well as her previous one, it seems that this author’s approach to conveying humor is to create slapstick moments where everything goes wrong. Maybe some readers will find these moments funny (such as Dara ending up dunking her head into a barrel of water in the middle of a date in order to get away from a pesky bumblebee), but honestly, I tend to find them too silly and embarrassing and over the top.

I had to question some of the Jewish elements too. Dara is devoted to her religion and her people, which is nice to see, but some of her choices in regard to the TV show seem questionable — for example, allowing the camera crew to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and follow the date that arranged for her at the break fast. I doubt any synagogue would actually allow a camera crew to set up and film on the holiday, and the idea of having a blind date at a break fast after a day of fasting seems like a set-up for disaster (which is exactly how it ends up).

The audiobook was mostly enjoyable, but the narrator seemed to struggle with some of the Jewish/Hebrew/Yiddish terms and names, and that was very distracting to me. Still, when the characters are in more natural or relaxed setting, the narration flows well, and I liked the scenes with Chris and his daughter very much.

Overall, Mr. Perfect on Paper is light entertainment with a sweet story to tell. The characters are bright spots, very engaging and sympathic, but on the downside, the predictable nature of the plot and the occasional cringe-worthy pratfalls and dating disasters keep this book from being totally successful. It’s fun, but I had to overlook a lot of my quibbles in order to appreciate the good stuff.

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

Title: Birds of California
Author: Katie Cotugno
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours 49 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Former child actor Fiona St. James dropped out of the spotlight after a spectacularly public crash and burn. The tabloids called her crazy and self-destructive and said she’d lost her mind. Now in her late twenties, Fiona believes her humiliating past is firmly behind her. She’s finally regained a modicum of privacy, and she won’t let anything–or anyone–mess it up.

Unlike Fiona, Sam Fox, who played her older brother on the popular television show Birds of California, loves the perks that come with being a successful Hollywood actor: fame, women, parties, money. When his current show gets cancelled and his agent starts to avoid his calls, the desperate actor enthusiastically signs on for a Birds of California revival. But to make it happen, he needs Fiona St. James.

Against her better judgment, Fiona agrees to have lunch with Sam. What happens next takes them both by surprise. Sam is enthralled by Fiona’s take-no-prisoners attitude, and Fiona discovers a lovable goofball behind Sam’s close-up-ready face. Long drives to the beach, late nights at dive bars… theirs is the kind of kitschy romance Hollywood sells. But just like in the rom-coms Fiona despises, there’s a twist that threatens her new love. Sam doesn’t know the full story behind her breakdown. What happens when she reveals the truth?

Sparks fly and things get real in this sharply sexy and whip-smart romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a post #metoo Hollywood from New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno–page-turning escapist fun in the spirit of Beach Read, The Kiss Quotient, and Red, White and Royal Blue.

In Birds of California, former star and tabloid bad-girl Fiona has left her acting days firmly in the past, preferring a quiet life tending to her father and sister, working in the family print shop, and avoiding the spotlight. Of course, it’s hard to actually forget her past when not a day goes by without being recognized, but for the most part, Fiona lives a private, quiet, hidden life.

Until one day, her ex-agent calls out of the blue with big news: There’s going to be a reboot of Birds of California, the show that made Fiona a breakout teen star, and the production wants her in it. Fiona wants no part of it — but then Sam Fox, her former co-star shows up at the print shop on a mission to change her mind. Fiona still is adamantly opposed to doing the show… but she’s less opposed to spending time with Sam.

The two start to connect, and rediscover a chemistry that was cut short back in their teen days, but of course, misunderstandings and hidden secrets arise and threaten to tear them apart, just as they’re growing closer.

Birds of California is billed as a romantic comedy, and yes, there are some funny moments, but a lot of it really has to do with the damage done to Fiona as a rising Hollywood star hounded by tabloids and paparazzi. The romance between Fiona and Sam is dynamic and worth cheering for, but I did wish they’d each open up and be honest a lot sooner than they did.

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

Mostly, my lasting impression of Birds of California has to do with its brushing up against toxic Hollywood culture and the #metoo movement. It’s pretty clear early on that Fiona didn’t publicly self-destruct for no reason — she was a young girl who wasn’t adequately protected and who was victimized by the people and studios that should have kept her safe. Unfortunately, while the book eventually makes clear what actually happened to her, it focuses so much on the current-day romance between Fiona and Sam that the past isn’t explored sufficiently.

I would have liked a little more attention at the end of the story, after Fiona finally tells Sam about her experiences, on what happens next and why. I would REALLY have liked to see the fall-out and (hopefully) justice that must be coming for the people who so seriously mistreated Fiona — the story ends with wheels set in motion, but no concrete consequences.

Overall, I enjoyed the characters and the story, and the audiobook narration — by Julia Whelan, one of my very favorite narrators — makes it both fun and heartfelt. I wish there had been a bit more substance beneath the romance, including more development of the more serious aspects of the story, but still, Birds of California is an entertaining read with fresh, funny, authentic characters to root for.

Book Review: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Title: Love on the Brain
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis comes a new STEMinist rom-com in which a scientist is forced to work on a project with her nemesis—with explosive results.

Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do? If NASA offered her the lead on a neuroengineering project – a literal dream come true – Marie would accept without hesitation. Duh. But the mother of modern physics never had to co-lead with Levi Ward.

Sure, Levi is attractive in a tall, dark, and piercing-eyes kind of way. But Levi made his feelings toward Bee very clear in grad school – archenemies work best employed in their own galaxies far, far away.

But when her equipment starts to go missing and the staff ignore her, Bee could swear she sees Levi softening into an ally, backing her plays, seconding her ideas… devouring her with those eyes. The possibilities have all her neurons firing.

But when it comes time to actually make a move and put her heart on the line, there’s only one question that matters: What will Bee Königswasser do?

Bee is a brilliant neuroscientist and Marie Curie’s #1 fangirl… but she’s also stuck in a job at NIH under a non-supportive boss and limited prospects, until she’s offered a spot co-leading an exciting project at NASA. This could be her big breakthrough! But Bee’s excitement dims when she learns that she’ll be partnering with Levi Ward, an engineer who was her nemesis back in grad school — the man despised her!

Still, it’s too good an opportunity to let slip by, so Bee heads off to Houston, determined to establish a good professional collaboration with her sworn enemy. Her first attempts at collegiality fail — he doesn’t even answer her emails, and he reprimands her about dress code (he apparently doesn’t care for her purple hair and septum piercing) on her very first day.

As they work together, Bee starts to notice Levi being less… awful, and even coming to her rescue when she (weirdly) gets trapped in a cemetery overnight. Their working relationship is blossoming, and their project is going amazingly well, but how can she allow herself to think that Levi is warming to her when she knows how deeply he hated her?

Love on the Brain, Ali Hazelwood’s follow-up to her debut novel, The Love Hypothesis, once again succeeds in combining romance with a portrait of women in science. I love that she shows brilliant women actually doing their jobs, using their education and intelligence to make a difference in their fields — and also battling the deeply embedded sexism and patriarchal structures that seem to doom women to unnecessary struggle just to get a seat at the table.

Bee’s humor shines through, even while describing the absolutely infuriating experience of being second-guessed or undervalued simply because she’s the woman in the room:

With Levi present, his team tends to agree to my suggestions more quickly — a phenomenon known as Sausage Referencing… In Cockcluster or WurstFest situations, having a man vouch for you will help you be taken seriously — the better-regarded the man, the higher his Sausage Referencing power.

Or another example:

I marvel that I was given credit for my idea. Goes to show how low the bar is for cis dudes in STEM, doesn’t it? Thank you, Oh Penised Overlords, for the recognition I deserve.

Bee is a fascinating character, obviously brilliant (I know I keep saying that, but it’s true!), but also burdened by a childhood in which she and her twin sister, after being orphaned, were shuttled from relative to relative and place to place, never establishing roots or a stable home. Bee has learned not to expect anything to last, especially after her scumbag ex-fiance cheated on her shortly before her wedding. So when she and Levi have the expected romantic breakthrough, she doesn’t allow herself to think of it as anything but colleagues-with-benefits — love just doesn’t last, so why set herself up for failure?

The book is very engaging and a quick, entertaining read. The plot balances the romantic elements with the challenges Bee faces at work, as someone tries to sabotage both her project and her professional reputation. Through Bee, we also get insight into other women’s struggles in STEM, both via her secret Twitter account (@WhatWouldMarieDo) and through her involvement in a new movement to promote fairness in grad school admissions by eliminating the GRE as a measure of worthiness. It’s not that we don’t know that women face unfair barriers, but seeing these brought to life through Bee’s experiences is really eye-opening in a dramatic way.

I do have a few quibbles, naturally. Bee is quirky and unusual, to say the least, but some of her affects, like her breaking down in sobs whenever she sees roadkill, feel a little over the top. Her EQ is also rather low for such a smart woman — I mean, she misses so many blatant cues about Levi’s true feelings that her obliviousness just seems unrealistic.

Not that this point takes away from my enjoyment, but Love on the Brain is the 3rd book I’ve read this summer where an anonymous correspondence turns out to be between the two main characters — it’s just not a big reveal if it’s completely expected! I think the secret-penpal trope may need to be retired…

Overall, I really enjoyed Love on the Brain — in fact, for some unknown reason, I went into it not expecting to really be in the mood, but then was happily proven wrong! This book was just what I needed, funny but with depth, with amazing smart women in the spotlight, and a writing style that keeps the story zipping along. The sparkly, funny dialogue (and Bee’s internal asides) make this such an engaging read, and I look forward to reading more by this author!

Shelf Control #331: My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

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: My Oxford Year
Author: Julia Whelan
Published: 2018
Length: 352 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.

American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.

When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.

Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

How and when I got it:

I added My Oxford Year to my Kindle library in 2019.

Why I want to read it:

I’m pretty sure that what drew me to this book in the first place was realizing that it was a novel written by a favorite audiobook narrator. And now that I’ve listened to Julia Whelan’s newest book (Thank You For Listening — absolutely loved it!), I’m eager to go back and read her first novel.

To be honest, I find the synopsis above a little confusing, but I’m sure the political piece and the time in Oxford will all make more sense once I read the book. I’m not sure that the synopsis on its own would have particularly drawn me in or made me take notice, but the title and cover are both charming, and I really do want to read more by this talented author.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!

Book Review: Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson

Title: Love in the Time of Serial Killers
Author: Alicia Thompson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 16, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Turns out that reading nothing but true crime isn’t exactly conducive to modern dating—and one woman is going to have to learn how to give love a chance when she’s used to suspecting the worst.

PhD candidate Phoebe Walsh has always been obsessed with true crime. She’s even analyzing the genre in her dissertation—if she can manage to finish writing it. It’s hard to find the time while she spends the summer in Florida, cleaning out her childhood home, dealing with her obnoxiously good-natured younger brother, and grappling with the complicated feelings of mourning a father she hadn’t had a relationship with for years.

It doesn’t help that she’s low-key convinced that her new neighbor, Sam Dennings, is a serial killer (he may dress business casual by day, but at night he’s clearly up to something). It’s not long before Phoebe realizes that Sam might be something much scarier—a genuinely nice guy who can pierce her armor to reach her vulnerable heart.

You wouldn’t normally expect an obsession with serial killers to show up in a romance… but Love in the Time of Serial Killers is here to change all that!

Note: As the author makes clear in her forward, there is no actual murder or violence in the book; the story is about someone studying written records of serial killing, and does not include details of killings or anything graphic or gory.

In this new novel, Phoebe is forced to temporarily relocate to Florida to clear out her late father’s house and get it ready for sale, while at the same time trying to finish the remaining chapters of her dissertation. To say she has mixed feelings is to put it mildly — she’s been estranged from her father since her early teens, when her parents divorced and she chose to go with her mother (while her much younger brother Conner remained with their father.) Phoebe has no interest in a stroll down memory lane — but that’s hard to avoid while sleeping in her own childhood bedroom and sorting through the hoarder-level amount of stuff piled all over the house.

Phoebe’s doctoral dissertation is on true crime as a literary genre, and her singular focus on true crime affects her worldview to a huge degree. Yes, it’s good to be cautious, but her immediate assumption that every stranger is a potential serial killer definitely gets in the way of her ability to connect to other people, sustain friendships, or even accept help when she needs it.

Of course, that cute guy next door is not actually a serial killer (although it takes Phoebe some time to believe it), and he’s understanding and helpful in an almost too-good-to-be-true sort of way. As the weeks go by and Phoebe reconnects with her brother as well as her former best friend, she starts to understand the reasons why she’s so drawn to true crime (for one thing, it usually has answers and cause and effect, elements she finds lacking in her own messy life), and realizes that maybe it’s time to let other people in… including her neighbor Sam.

I enjoyed Phoebe as a main character very much — she’s super intelligent, goes her own way, and is very body positive (she describes herself as fat and is comfortable with her body… which makes me question the cover art and why the woman shown does not appear to be fat herself). She can be frustrating too, clearly and willfully pushing away people who are well-intentioned and hiding behind her knowledge of serial killer habits as a way of protecting herself from real connection.

The romance aspects felt a little too easy in some ways — there’s instant chemistry, and Sam is hard to know other than as he presents — a sexy school teacher who’s good-hearted and supportive and always ready to help and understand. I mean, he’s pretty much flawless! Then again, since this is a romance novel, there has to be a falling out prior to the HEA ending, and the break-up here seems unnecessary — a bit more honest communication would have helped a lot.

I thought Phoebe’s dissertation sounded fascinating! I’m not a true crime fan — I don’t read books or listen to podcasts or watch Netflix documentaries on the subject — but I have to admit that after reading this book, I’m certainly more interested… enough so that maybe I’ll finally get to the copies of In Cold Blood or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark currently sitting on my shelves. Phoebe’s approach to the genre focuses on looking at who’s telling the story and what their roles in the narrative are, and honestly, I wanted to hear more! (And this book also reminded me that I’ve always meant to read Helter Skelter too, if I can psych myself up for it.)

I really enjoyed the tone and the writing throughout Love in the Time of Serial Killers. There’s plenty of humor in the dialogues and in Phoebe’s inner thoughts:

To encourage your cat to play, it said to stay on the floor, idly flicking a string or other toy while talking in a friendly manner. It didn’t specifically say to talk about your favorite true crime programming, but it didn’t say not to, either.

Phoebe’s younger brother is all boyish enthusiasm and silliness, and his lovestruck attempts to figure out the perfect way to propose to his girlfriend — to achieve that perfect balance of expressing the depth of his feelings while also going viral — are adorable. (Let’s just mention that one scenario involves a roller rink, and leave it at that.)

Silliness and laughter aside, the book also explores the lingering effects of Phoebe’s difficult family situation and her emotionally withholding father. Here’s where I wish the book had gone a little deeper, in fact. While we know that Phoebe carries inner wounds from her earlier experiences which have shaped who she is today and why she has such difficulty with intimacy, I would have liked more of an exploration of these experiences and what she went through as a teen, in order to better understand her as an adult.

Overall, though, Love in the Time of Serial Killers is a fast, engaging, entertaining read, with hints of greater depth to keep it from being too fluffy. And how amazing is that title??? This is a good choice for a quick summer read, and I ended up really enjoying it.

Book Review: Lucy Checks In by Dee Ernst

Title: Lucy Checks In
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: August 16, 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dee Ernst’s Lucy Checks In is a delightful work of romantic comedy about a disgraced hotel manager who travels to Rennes to rebuild a hotel and her own life in the process…

Lucia Giannetti needs a fresh start. Once the hotel manager of a glamorous NYC hotel and intimately involved with the hotel’s owner, Lucy had her entire future planned out. But when the owner disappears, taking millions of dollars with him, Lucy’s life as she knows it falls apart.

Two years later, forty-nine years old and unemployed, Lucy takes a job in Rennes, France to manage the Hotel Paradis. She pictures fur quilts and extravagant chandeliers, but what she finds is wildly different. Lucy is now in charge of turning the run-down, but charming hotel into a bustling tourist attraction. Between painting rooms, building a website, and getting to know Bing, the irritatingly attractive artist, Lucy finds an unexpected home. But can she succeed in bringing the Hotel Paradis to its former glory?

Witty and heartfelt, Lucy Checks In is an inspiring and feel-good novel about reclaiming your life, finding love, and creating a home in places you never thought possible.

In Lucy Checks In, the title character is an almost 50-year-old woman who hit rock-bottom two year previously, when the man she loved embezzled money, left his hotel chain in ruins, destroyed her professional reputation, and left her the subject of an FBI investigation. Even after being cleared of any involvement in his schemes, Lucy’s life was still shattered, and she found herself with no prospects, and not even a roof over her head other than her parents’ — definitely not where she envisioned she’d be at this age.

So when an offer come through to spruce up and manage a charming family-owned, historic hotel in the French town of Rennes, there’s no way Lucy can pass up the opportunity for a fresh start. When she arrives, however, she discovers that the “hotel” hasn’t actually operated as one since before World War II, the building itself is in terrible shape, and it’s currently inhabited by a motley crew of assorted oddballs who, improbably, are all investors (one way or another) in the project to rehab and reopen the hotel.

Lucy wants to turn and run, but where could she go? She has a contract for six months of employment, and decides to make the best of it — although even this decision is quickly called into question when she discovers that rather than hiring people to do things like painting and building a website, she’ll have to do it herself.

Eventually, though, Lucy warms to the task, and as she digs in to the work and at the same time gets to know the hotel’s owner and the other residents, she begins to feel hopeful and even cautiously optimistic that (a) they can really pull this off and (b) she may have found a place for herself, where she might even have a future.

Lucy Checks In is charming in many ways, from the description of Rennes and the hotel itself, with its vivid history, to its quirky cast of characters and the different talents and obstacles they each bring with them.

I really appreciated having a more mature woman as the lead, particularly once Lucy gets a chance to explore romance as well as professional redemption. Her love interest, a sexy American painter and children’s book author, is supportive, kind, and encouraging, and seeing them together really reinforces that love stories, romance, and a healthy sex life are not just for people in their 20s and 30s.

I did feel as though the book could have used a bit more meat on its bones (not sure why I’m going with a meat metaphor, but that’s what keeps coming up in my mind). I’m not usually one to complain when a book is on the shorter side, but here, I wished the characters and plots had been given more room to expand.

A great deal of the plot has to do with hotel renovations, and while I’m happy for Lucy and the rest of the hotel folks that their grand project worked so well, I’m not sure we readers need quite that much space devoted to plastering, painting, decorating the lobby, and selecting colors and fabrics.

On the other hand, I would have welcomed fuller development of the supporting cast. The various residents of the hotel are introduced, often with thumbnail backstories, but we don’t get to know most of them very well beyond the basics. That’s a shame, because many are funny or eccentric, and I would have liked to know more about how they ended up at the Hotel Paradis and how they live their lives.

Overall, Lucy Checks In is a sweet, non-demanding read, with a bit of an armchair travel element to it (yes, I do want to go hang out at the hotel, explore Rennes, and eat all that amazing food). I was moved by Lucy’s story arc, including some unexpected twists concerning her family back home in the US, and was very happy to see her finding her way toward happiness and new beginnings.

Last year, I read and really enjoyed Maggie Finds Her Muse by the same author. Lucy Checks In, while engaging and sweet, feels a bit slighter than the previous novel, but I’m still glad to have read it. And as I mentioned, I truly appreciate seeing an older woman in the lead romantic role! Here’s hoping the author brings us many more delicious European adventures with women of a certain age front and center!

Audiobook Review: The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Title: The No-Show
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators:  Evanna Lynch , Heather Long , Kathryn Drysdale , Luke Thompson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 12, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 47 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Siobhan is a quick-tempered life coach with way too much on her plate. Miranda is a tree surgeon used to being treated as just one of the guys on the job. Jane is a soft-spoken volunteer for the local charity shop with zero sense of self-worth.

These three women are strangers who have only one thing in common: They’ve all been stood up on the same day, the very worst day to be stood up–Valentine’s Day. And, unbeknownst to them, they’ve all been stood up by the same man.

Once they’ve each forgiven him for standing them up, they let him back into their lives and are in serious danger of falling in love with a man who seems to have not just one or two but three women on the go….

Is there more to him than meets the eye? And will they each untangle the truth before they all get their hearts broken?

Three women who seemingly have nothing in common find that they’re involved with the same man in this smart new rom-com by Beth O’Leary, bestselling author of The Flatshare.

It’s going to be hard to talk about The No-Show without giving away too much — but let me offer this caution up front: This book is delicious, and really and truly, you should avoid reading reviews that go into details. Trust me — not knowing is what’s in store is key to appreciating how great this story is.

As the book opens, we meet three women who have all been stood up by Joseph Carter: Siobhan waited for him for a breakfast date; Miranda sat at a restaurant way longer than she should have waiting for him to show up for lunch; and Jane ended up abandoned at an engagement party he’d promised to be her “friend date” for.

And all I could think through these initial chapters was: What a jerk! Who is this guy who (a) is dating three woman simultaneously and (b) is so rude and inconsiderate that he no-shows on all three of them?

There’s more to the story, of course. As the plot moves forward, told through chapters that alternate between Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane, we learn more about Joseph’s involvement with each woman — how they met, how their relationships developed, what their big challenges are. At the same time, we get to know each of these three women, and get to see how fabulous they are.

All quite different, Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane have distinct personalities and very different lives. Jane is perhaps the hardest to get a handle on — she’s scared and shy and completely lacking in self-esteem when we meet her, and it’s hard for us (and Joseph) to get past her protective shell to see the person she is inside.

Connections between the different characters’ worlds become apparent as the story unfolds. And just when I thought I had it all figured out (feeling rather self-satisfied, to be honest), it turns out that I didn’t. Beth O’Leary pulled the rug out from under me in an amazing way — and I love when fiction surprises me like that, giving me something that I didn’t see coming, but that completely fits and makes sense.

So… I absolutely refuse to give anything away about the plot, but let me just say that Joseph is not the jerk I initially suspected him of being, and that everything will eventually make sense!

I love the writing, the character development, and the fresh take on strong women who feel deeply and have interesting lives. The characters are all terrific, and for the audiobook, different narrators take the different characters’ chapters. The voices and delivery really suit each of the characters, and the whole story flows quickly and really works.

I was completely engaged, and as often happens with good audiobooks, I found myself dying for my next car ride or walk so I’d have an excuse to listen more! The audiobook even brought me to tears (but fortunately, I was alone in my car at the time, so managed to avoid public embarrassment over the waterworks).

Based on its cover, The No-Show seems like it should be a light, silly story, but really, it’s so much more than that. This book has light, romantic moments, but also deeply felt emotions, sorrow, and struggles, and really well told character arcs as well.

Definitely one of my favorite books of summer 2022!

Audiobook Review: An Island Wedding (Mure, #5) by Jenny Colgan

Title: An Island Wedding
Series: Mure
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator:  Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: June 21, 2022
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan brings us a delightful summer novel that will sweep you away to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where two very different weddings are about to take place…

On the little Scottish island of Mure–halfway between Scotland and Norway–Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of “sweetheart weddings,” a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.

Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald–who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things–returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora’s hotel, the same weekend as Flora’s carefully planned micro-wedding.

As the summer solstice approaches, can Flora handle everyone else’s Happy Every Afters–and still get her own?

The 5th installment in Jenny Colgan’s wonderful Mure series brings us back to this beautiful, remote Scottish island. It’s like a reunion with old friends, as we see what our beloved characters are up to now, and for at least some, get to witness the happy event they’ve been building toward over the four previous books.

(For the story so far, see my wrap-up post, here.)

In An Island Wedding, Flora Mackenzie is finally set to marry the man of her dreams. But there’s a problem — Flora, born and bred on Mure, wants to celebrate with everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE. The entire island expects to be at their wedding, from Mrs. Kennedy’s dance school students to the old fishermen who drink away their evenings down at the Harbor’s Rest. But Joel, a product of a lonely childhood in the foster care system, wants only those who truly love them to be with them on their big day — just immediate family, an intimate occasion, and donate all the money that would have gone to a big wedding to the local couple who take troubled youth on outdoor adventures.

What’s Flora to do? She loves Joel, and wants to do what makes him happy… but she can’t help but feeling just a wee bit sad and guilty every time an island neighbor comes up to tell her how much they’re looking forward to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Olivia MacDonald, the beautiful island native who’s now an international Instagram star, has decided to hold her own lavish wedding back home on Mure, in a most likely misguided move to impress her fabulously wealthy, fabulously snooty future in-laws with her connection to an authentic Scottish community. Olivia arrives with an upscale wedding planner in tow, and proceeds to transform The Rock (the hotel Flora manages) and the entire island into the fantasy wedding setting of her dreams.

Most of the book is devoted to the wedding plans, as well as to the ongoing tension between Flora and Joel over their divergent visions for how they’ll get married. I was never truly worried about Flora and Joel — they love each other, and they’ve been through enough so far that I was sure it would all work out — but it was sad to see them at what appeared at times to be an impasse.

The most moving and gripping parts of An Island Wedding have to do with the love story between Lorna, the island’s schoolmistress, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s found a new home for himself and his two sons on Mure. Saif’s wife’s fate has been a question mark since the start of the series, and when new information is uncovered, it forces Saif to make an impossible choice. I won’t say too much, but it’s heartbreaking. The terrible sadness of the situation is written so beautifully, and my heart just ached for Lorna, Saif, and for the boys too.

The stakes for the Flora and Olivia storylines never feel terribly high or risky — after all, it’s really mostly to do with wedding plans! Still, it’s fun to follow along and laugh at all the mishaps, miscommunications, and over-the-top wedding arrangements, and the ending left me with a few little tears of happiness. After spending so much time with Flora and Joel over the course of this series, I was ready for them to get all the joy they deserve!

My initial understanding had been that this would be the final Mure book… but actually, I don’t see that stated anywhere, and given that there’s a MAJOR story thread left hanging, I’m hopeful for more! So please, if you happen to meet Jenny Colgan someday, tell her we want MORE MURE. I’m not ready to say good-bye to these wonderful characters and the beautiful island just yet!

Book Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Title: The Bodyguard
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

She’s got his back.

Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindgerten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka “bodyguard”), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.

Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.

When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???

Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done. 

Katherine Center excels at creating fascinating women as lead characters and placing then in challenging, unusual situations. In The Bodyguard, there’s quite a bit of humor, and yet the heart and emotions of her previous books still shine through.

As the book starts, main character Hannah has just been dumped by her boyfriend, who also happens to be a coworker. Awkward! He’s a total jerk, says terrible things to her, has cheated on her with her best friend… and yet she still needs to see both of them at the office on a daily basis. All Hannah wants is to escape, and begs her boss to send her off on a new assignment, preferably one somewhere on the other side of the world.

But Hannah is a depressed, emotional wreck, and her boss has other plans for her. She’ll stay in Houston working on their new high-profile client’s protection assignment, and if it goes well, she’ll be up for a promotion to head the agency’s new London office.

The assignment is movie star Jack Stapleton, who’s coming home to Texas to be with his mother while she undergoes cancer treatment. Jack has been living off the grid for the last couple of years after a scandal, but he still pops up in the tabloids whenever the paparazzi can track him down and catch shots of him with his latest Hollywood-appropriate girlfriend. But now, Jack is leaving his North Dakota retreat to be with his family, and it’s the agency’s job to keep the crazy stalkers at bay, or preferably, in the dark.

Jack most emphatically does not want a bodyguard, but the studios insist, so he adds his own stipulation: Hannah can protect him, but only by posing as his girlfriend at his parent’s ranch. They simply do not need the stress of knowing he’s in danger, not while they should be focused on his mother’s health.

What follows is equal parts silly and serious. Hannah is small but powerful. She may be able to kill someone with a ballpoint pen, but if she has to fight or injure someone, she’s already failed. Her job is to protect and keep safe, and never let her “principal” anywhere near being in danger. She’s used to being in the background, a serious presence in a pantsuit and an earpiece, not there to be noticed. But to meet Jack’s requirements, she finds herself in a “girlfriend” outfit, sundress and sandals, engaging with his family, holding hands, and even sleeping in the same room as Jack (although, per her insistence, on the floor rather than in his bed).

As the story unfolds, we learn about both Hannah and Jack’s past traumas, which influence so much of who they are now. Hannah’s history with her mother was painful, full of neglect and danger, seeing her mother descend into alcoholism and endure a series of abusive relationships. Jack is haunted by the car accident that killed his younger brother and has driven a wedge between him and his older brother. There’s a secret there, but Jack refuses to discuss it, instead reliving it through regular nightmares. As Hannah spends time with Jack, she sees beyond the Hollywood surface to the vulnerable person underneath, and becomes determined to help him.

The Bodyguard has plenty of light moments too — silly encounters on the ranch, moments of joy and laughter as Jack relaxes around Hannah and gets Hannah to unwind a bit too — as well as scenes of family connection, simple pleasures, and true warmth and emotional reality. At the same time, Hannah second-guesses her growing chemistry with Jack. After all, he’s an actor, and she’s seen him on screen many, many times — she’s knows he’s good at his job. So when he seems to care for her, is it real, or is he just acting?

I really enjoyed Hannah as a character, and loved that this petite woman is a strong, dangerous, accomplished defender who can hold her own, and then some. Her outer toughness and professionalism hides her inner vulnerabilities, but she’s awesome at her job and her abilities are absolutely never in doubt. Seeing her fall for her principal and sort out who Jack is and whether he’s being truthful with her is fascinating, and I loved seeing their relationship blossom.

There are some familiar and well-loved tropes here — fake dating, Hollywood star falling for a regular person, love on a ranch, just one bed, etc. The author does a terrific job of incorporating these elements while also keeping them fresh and new.

One of my very favorite things about The Bodyguard was the laughter. Despite the many scenes and discussions focusing on the character’s painful pasts, they also laugh together — a lot. And when Jack laughs, it’s a full-bodied, all-out experience that strips away all his outer polish and shows his inner good nature, and it’s just so much fun.

A dangerous scenario toward the end of the book brings the story back into a more serious focus and gives Hannah a chance to shine — I was on the edge of my seat! But beyond this situation, the book’s focus is on the relationships — romance, friendship, family — what they mean to the characters, and how Jack and Hannah are changed by them.

The Bodyguard is a refreshing, engaging, light-hearted but also emotional summer read. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Title: Book Lovers
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 377 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming….

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.

If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

I’ll keep this brief — at this point, when I see a cute contemporary romance cover and discover the book is by Emily Henry, it’s going to be a must-read for me. Book Lovers caught my eye immediately (I mean, the title alone! who can resist?), and it was a perfect pick for reading during a vacation week.

In Book Lovers, main character Nora is a hard-edged, polished, driven literary agent who is unrelenting when it comes to making deals for her clients. Her nickname is the Shark — but don’t call her that to her face. While she represents highly successful authors, including those who write heart-warming love stories about small-town romances, she knows absolutely where she fits in the trope: She’s the one left behind.

You know how it goes: A big city character heads to a small town for some vague business purpose, falls unexpectedly in love with the local farmer/baker/craftsperson, and gives up city life for a life full of purpose, love, and baked goods in the country — breaking up with their former city boyfriend/girlfriend along the way. And that city boyfriend/girlfriend who gets dumped is Nora. It’s happened to her again and again, and she’s over it.

But Nora also has a soft spot for her younger (and very pregnant) sister, so she reluctantly agrees to a three-week sisters’ trip to a small town in North Carolina, where her sister Libby is determined to milk the experience for every romance-worthy trope possible. What they do not expect is for (a) Nora’s New York business nemesis Charlie to also show up in the same town and (b) for all the sparks that fly between Nora and Charlie.

The plot has much more depth than you might expect. Emily Henry excels at creating funny, quirky, unusual characters, then giving them rich backstories that humanize them and expose the pains and sorrows behind their facades. The same is true here, and it makes Nora much more likable than she initially comes across, so much so that I became very invested in her happiness and well-being.

I liked Nora and Charlie together as a couple — their banter is adorable! And while it takes them a while to get past the outer animosity to their inner deep connection, it’s totally worth the journey. The sisters’ relationship is just as important as the romantic relationship, and I really appreciated how lovingly their connection is portrayed.

The writing is light and fast-paced, but there’s plenty of emotion to unpack too. I truly enjoyed Book Lovers — although I’m a little mad that the author managed to burst the bubble of all my small town romance fantasies! The book trope talk is so much fun, there are plenty of references to real books (which made me really happy), and I love that the author includes “Nora and Libby’s Ultimate Reading List” at the back of the book!

Book Lovers is a perfect choice for a summer beach book! Don’t miss it.