Shelf Control #194: The Best Man by Kristan Higgins

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Best Man
Author: Kristan Higgins
Published: 2013
Length: 426 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Sometimes The Best Man Is The One You Least Expect…

Faith Holland left her hometown after being jilted at the altar. Now a little older and wiser, she’s ready to return to the Blue Heron Winery, her family’s vineyard, to confront the ghosts of her past, and maybe enjoy a glass of red. After all, there’s some great scenery there….

Like Levi Cooper, the local police chief – and best friend of her former fiancé. There’s a lot about Levi that Faith never noticed, and it’s not just those deep green eyes. The only catch is she’s having a hard time forgetting that he helped ruin her wedding all those years ago. If she can find a minute amidst all her family drama to stop and smell the rosé, she just might find a reason to stay at Blue Heron, and finish that walk down the aisle.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy online about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

This is SO not my usual kind of read… but when a favorite author shared a super positive review of this book (and the rest of the series), I figured — why not? After all, it’s good to mix things up a bit, genre-wise… and a feel-good romance seems like a good choice for this time of year.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Title: Evvie Drake Starts Over
Author: Linda Holmes
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn’t correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy’s childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and he can’t figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button.

When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken–and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. But before they can find out what might lie ahead, they’ll have to wrestle a few demons: the bonds they’ve broken, the plans they’ve changed, and the secrets they’ve kept. They’ll need a lot of help, but in life, as in baseball, there’s always a chance–right up until the last out.

 

Evvie Drake is not your typical widow. She’s hidden herself away not out of grief, but from fear that everyone will discover that she’s NOT actually grieving. Evvie’s late husband Tim was her high school sweetheart, a respected town doctor, and behind closed doors, a nasty man with a tendency toward gaslighting and emotional abuse. Evvie’s little secret is that the night Tim died, Evvie was packing her car and getting ready to leave — but now, the whole town treats her with kid gloves and tells her how much they loved her husband, and she just can’t seem to shake the feeling that she’s at fault somehow.

Meanwhile, Dean is the current ultimate failure in sports, going overnight from star pitcher to a guy who can barely throw a ball. He’s been mocked and publicly humiliated, so finding a haven in a little town in Maine seems like a good idea. When Evvie rents him her spare rooms, it’s a good solution to both of their most immediate problems, and pretty soon they fall into an easy friendship, each understanding that the other has been hurt badly and just needs a little room to breathe and recover.

Of course, their connection develops into more, but it’s complicated. As the story progresses, they both have to face certain truths, and discover that moving forward can only truly happen when they let others in and start dealing with and sharing their secrets.

This book has been popping up on my recommendation lists ever since its release in June, and as with most hyped books, I was resistant. I’m so glad I finally gave in and grabbed a copy when I saw it at the library!

The writing is light and breezy and engaging, even when dealing with the more serious and troubling issues concerning Evvie’s marriage. The author presents a realistic look at Evvie’s process of shock, guilt, anger, and loss, and follows her through her coming to terms with what’s holding her back and seeking help. Likewise with Dean, there are no easy answers or fixes. As much as Evvie wants to find the solution to Dean’s pitching problem, it’s not something within her power, no matter how badly she wants to help him. Dean too has to go through a process of loss and anger in order to find acceptance and a way to move on.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is filled with likeable characters and small-town charm. I loved the New England town with its quirky characters and deep connections. where everyone knows everyone… and probably knew their grandparents too. Evvie’s relationship with her best friend Andy feels authentic, and I struggled along with Evvie as their paths seemed to diverge and their friendship suffered under the weight of Evvie’s secrets. Evvie and Dean’s relationship was pretty much pitch-perfect (*groan* — sorry for the baseball pun!) — rather than subjecting us to the dreaded insta-love scenario, the author allows their friendship to grow and blossom into romance with all the caution and hesitation that people in such precarious points in their lives might experience.

I really enjoyed this book, and heartily recommend it! There’s real emotion and some sad and painful moments, but there’s love and joy and friendship and family too, and overall the vibe is hopeful and a celebration of being open to life and connection. Don’t miss Evvie Drake!

Warning: This book may make you want to move to a small coastal town, get a dog, live by the water, and attend local sporting events. Proceed at your own risk.

Romantic two-fer: The Wedding Party and The Flatshare, two contemporary romances to lift your spirits

Sometimes, light-sweet-cute-hot is exactly what a reader needs. Right? I had a terrific time this week reading these two contemporary romances…

Title: The Wedding Party (The Wedding Date, #3)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend

2. They hate each other

After an “Oops, we made a mistake” kiss, neither one can stop thinking about the other. With Alexa’s wedding rapidly approaching, Maddie and Theo both share bridal party responsibilities that require more interaction with each other than they’re comfortable with. Underneath the sharp barbs they toss at each other is a simmering attraction that won’t fade. It builds until they find themselves sneaking off together to release some tension when Alexa isn’t looking.

But as with any engagement with a nemesis, there are unspoken rules that must be abided by. First and foremost, don’t fall in love.

Maddie and Theo are successful professionals, both dedicated to family and friends, and both in need of love and companionship. Despite sharing a best friend, they manage to take an instant dislike to one another at their first meeting, and only tolerate each other for Alexa’s sake. But with Alexa’s wedding coming up, they’re forced to spend more time together, and after an initial, spontaneous, one-time-only sexual encounter, they’re both aware that their chemistry is off the charts.

It’s totally engaging and charming to see Maddie and Theo battling their attraction and reluctance to admit feelings, when it’s so obvious that their connection is deep and real. And though they keep insisting to themselves that this is physical only, with an agreement to stop hooking up once the wedding is over, it’s clear that Maddie and Theo make each other happy in a way no one else can.

The Wedding Party fits in with the author’s The Wedding Date series, as characters from the previous two books (especially Alexa and Drew from book #1) appear in this book. I think The Wedding Party could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, although it’s even more fun to see the connections established in earlier books continue here.

As with Jasmine Guillory’s other books, I’m occasionally frustrated by how much lack of communication contributes to the couple’s obstacles. They really should be better at this, considering what they do for a living! Still, the book overall is a really fun read, and I loved the characters, the adorableness of their relationship, and their smoking hot sparks. Can’t wait for the next book, Royal Holiday!

Title: The Flatshare
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 28, 2019
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Tiffy and Leon share an apartment. Tiffy and Leon have never met.

After a bad breakup, Tiffy Moore needs a place to live. Fast. And cheap. But the apartments in her budget have her wondering if astonishingly colored mold on the walls counts as art.

Desperation makes her open minded, so she answers an ad for a flatshare. Leon, a night shift worker, will take the apartment during the day, and Tiffy can have it nights and weekends. He’ll only ever be there when she’s at the office. In fact, they’ll never even have to meet.

Tiffy and Leon start writing each other notes – first about what day is garbage day, and politely establishing what leftovers are up for grabs, and the evergreen question of whether the toilet seat should stay up or down. Even though they are opposites, they soon become friends. And then maybe more.

But falling in love with your roommate is probably a terrible idea…especially if you’ve never met.

What if your roommate is your soul mate? A joyful, quirky romantic comedy, Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare is a feel-good novel about finding love in the most unexpected of ways.

Oh, this is just too cute. And also surprisingly touching and serious at times.

Tiffy is broke, newly single, and desperate for a decent place to live. Leon needs cash. A flatshare seems like a great solution — their schedules never overlap, so why not share this cozy, one-bedroom apartment? (Okay, for me, the sharing-a-bed piece would be a dealbreaker, but it seems to work for these two so long as Tiffy sleeps on the left and Leon on the right). As they start communicating via Post-It notes, they begin to get to know one another and to open up in all sorts of charming and quirky ways, and instantly establish a funny, easy rapport.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though. Tiffy is just starting to realize how emotionally manipulative and abusive her ex-boyfriend was, and Leon is devoted to helping his wrongfully accused brother win an appeal of the conviction that landed him in prison. As the book progresses, we explore more of each of these issues, and the author does a great job of presenting the turmoil and trauma involved while balancing the serious moments with the book’s overall light-hearted appeal.

The narrative shifts between Tiffy and Leon’s POVs in alternating chapters. Tiffy is exceptionally funny and delightful, and Leon is sweet, devoted, and somewhat shut off from dealing with his emotions. When they finally meet in person, they’ve already established a connection that binds them together, and the physical chemistry is just icing on the cake.

The Flatshare deals with some serious issues, but is overall a charming, sparkly romance that left me feeling uplifted and entertained, start to finish. Bonus points for some truly unique, stand-out characters and a really off-beat set-up!

Both of these books are nominated for the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Romance. I don’t usually think of Romance as “my” genre, but between these two books and three others I’ve read from the list of opening round nominations, I may have to own up to being a romance fan! (As well as a sci-fi/fantasy/horror geek, a devourer of historical fiction, and… you know what? Why bother with labels? I’ll read anything!)

Book Review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

Sam Brandis was Tate Jones’s first: Her first love. Her first everything. Including her first heartbreak.

During a whirlwind two-week vacation abroad, Sam and Tate fell for each other in only the way that first loves do: sharing all of their hopes, dreams, and deepest secrets along the way. Sam was the first, and only, person that Tate—the long-lost daughter of one of the world’s biggest film stars—ever revealed her identity to. So when it became clear her trust was misplaced, her world shattered for good.

Fourteen years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress, only thinks about her first love every once in a blue moon. When she steps onto the set of her first big break, he’s the last person she expects to see. Yet here Sam is, the same charming, confident man she knew, but even more alluring than she remembered. Forced to confront the man who betrayed her, Tate must ask herself if it’s possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason… and whether “once in a lifetime” can come around twice.

With Christina Lauren’s signature “beautifully written and remarkably compelling” (Sarah J. Maas, New York Times bestselling author) prose and perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner, Twice in a Blue Moon is an unforgettable and moving novel of young love and second chances.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners and the “delectable, moving” (Entertainment WeeklyMy Favorite Half-Night Stand comes a modern love story about what happens when your first love reenters your life when you least expect it…

If you’d checked in with me a year ago, I would have told you that I’d never read anything by the author duo Christina Lauren. Flash forward to the present, and I’ve now finished my 6th novel by them — and it won’t be my last!

Twice in a Blue Moon is such a sweet, engaging love story. We start off fourteen years in the past, as 18-year-old Tate takes a rare vacation with her grandmother to spend two whole weeks in London after Tate’s high school graduation. Tate lives in a  small Northern California town with her mother and grandmother, and has never been anywhere! She’s thrilled at the idea of the adventure ahead of them, especially knowing that this trip is a total splurge for her grandmother.

And then, they meet Sam, a 21-year-old Vermont farm boy traveling with his grandfather Luther. In a switch worthy of A Room With a View, Tate’s grandma is vocally unhappy about their street-view hotel room, so Luther gallantly offers the women a trade. As the four chat, they find lots of common ground, and become travel buddies, enjoying the sights of London together.

And unbeknownst to the grandparents, Sam and Tate have also been sneaking out at night to hang out in the secluded hotel gardens, stargazing and sharing secrets. Tate has a whopper of a secret to share, one that she’s never told anyone: She’s secretly the daughter of Ian Butler, only THE biggest star in Hollywood (I’m thinking Brad Pitt-level superstar), but ever since her mom left her dad when she was 8 years old, Tate has had no contact with him. And while it’s been burned into Tate’s every waking moment that this is a secret that can’t ever be told, she trusts Sam so deeply that she shares the entire story with him… as the two fall deeply into an all-consuming first love.

Of course, it all comes crashing down when Tate discovers that Sam and Luther have checked out of the hotel early, and she proceeds to go outside only to be mobbed by papparazzi. The quiet, anonymous life Tate has treasured is over, and her heart is shattered by Sam’s betrayal.

The story picks up in the present, 14 years later, as 32-year-old Tate, now a successful Hollywood actress, is about to begin filming the movie that may final propel her career from supernatural/action genres into award-level recognition. Plus, the new movie is the first time Tate will be making a movie with her father, and the press is just eating it up. but when she arrives on location, she sees that the screenwriter is none other than Sam, the man who broke her heart so long ago. Tate has to figure out how to pull herself together in her most important career moment without causing a scandal or reverting back into the helpless teenager she left in her past.

Ah, such a terrific story! I think I loved the teen sections even more than the parts about grown-up Tate and Sam. For the first ten chapters, we’re living through a story of first love, and it’s gorgeous. The authors capture the highs and lows of falling in love for the first time, showing the sparks, the wonder, the uncertainty, and then the joy of realizing that feelings are reciprocated, knowing that a connection exists unlike anything else, and feeling so sure that it’s the right time to venture into a physical relationship. All of Tate’s emotions felt spot-on, and I really believed her thought processes as well as the chemistry with Sam and her worries about her future.

I enjoyed the adult storyline as well, but connected with it perhaps a little less. After all, it’s hard to really understand the pressures of a Hollywood star if you’re not actually a part of that world, whereas the ups and downs of first love is pretty universal, I think. Still, the story of the movie-making process, Tate’s emotional investment in the role, and the truth about Sam’s past and his betrayal are all fascinating. I loved the plot of the movie they were filming, and wish the real-life equivalent existed!

Tate’s father is such a piece of work — such a self-involved ass who lives for the camera, and who values his renewed relationship with Tate in exact proportion to the amount of positive press and trending social media posts it generates. And while I kept trying to picture Ian as Brad Pitt or someone of similar star wattage, I couldn’t keep Aaron Echolls out of my mind — the character played by Harry Hamlin on Veronica Mars (my recent obsession), whose personality seems very much in line with Ian’s!

Twice in a Blue Moon is a lovely, funny, emotional read — and while I’m not typically drawn to Hollywood stories, this one had enough grounding in everyday human experiences and emotions to make it relatable and real. Highly recommended! At this point, I will definitely read whatever these authors write next.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Twice in a Blue Moon
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

Aubiobook Review: The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it

Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it–or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina’s side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she’s ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn’t know won’t hurt her…

As Raina’s life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother’s dreams.

My Thoughts:

The Matchmaker’s List had been on my to-read list for a while, and after a few heavier books, I thought this would make a nice, light change of pace. And yes, it did, but it was also frustrating and ultimately disappointing.

In The Matchmaker’s List, Raina is 29 years old, a serious career woman — an investment banker — coming off a break-up with the love of her life. Dev is another investment banker, hard-driven in a way that Raina isn’t, and always puts his career ahead of their relationship. Raina is so blinded by love that she puts up with it, until she just can’t any more. As the book starts, Raina is living back in Canada after her time in London with Dev has ended, single, and devoted to her grandmother Nani, the woman who raised her.

Raina’s best friend Shay is newly engaged, and Shay’s mother Sarla is planning the ultimate Indian wedding bonanza. Nani just wants to see Raina settled as well, so she convinces Raina to go on a series of blind dates with suitable men from Nani’s list. The men are, for the most part, duds — arrogant or looking for an insta-mommy to their kids or just plain strange, and Raina is so not into it.

It’s a fairly cute set-up so far, right? Raina wants to please her Nani, and she’s not having any romantic success on her own, so why not try some traditional matchmaking? Except Raina is still hung up on Dev, who stays in touch just enough to keep Raina on the hook.

And here’s where I got really turned off by Raina’s character: After a misunderstanding, Raina lets Nani think she’s gay. In fact, she confirms it, thinking it’ll stay between the two of them and keep Nani from pursuing even more extreme measures to find her a prime Indian man to marry. Of course, it doesn’t stay between them, and soon, the entire Indian community knows the “truth” about Raina, causing a huge amount of scandal and division, and leading to Nani being shunned by the women she used to be friends with.

Still, Raina keeps up the fiction, even when she sees that Nani has been browsing the internet to learn more about gay rights and how to support one’s gay chldren, even investigating reproductive options for lesbian couples. Yup, Nani is ready to become a gay rights activist in defense of her beloved Raina. Raina still doesn’t back down — not even when the boy she used to babysit, now 18 years old, uses Raina’s “coming out” as inspiration for his own, pushing him out of the closet before he’s really ready and causing a huge rift within his family.

On top of Raina’s ongoing lie, which feels like a cop-out to me, so unnecessary and causing so much drama and tension, she just doesn’t strike me as a particularly good friend or nice person. When Shay mentions that she’d like to introduce Raina to one of her fiancé’s friends who’s just back from traveling the world for the past few years, Raina labels him a drifter and dismisses him — and when she meets him, she immediately decides he’s a stoner with no real evidence to support her conclusion, and continues to refer to him that way to his face even during additional encounters. Judgmental much?

What seems the most unforgivable to me is the huge fight she and Shay have during Shay’s bachelorette weekend, when Shay hears from Sarla that Raina is a lesbian. Shay knows that that’s a lie, and confronts Raina, and the two end up in a screaming match, during which Raina says this awful thing to Shay:

“I wonder if Julien would still marry you if he knew what a slut you used to be.”

Really? Slut-shaming her best friend? And threatening her this way? Just disgusting.

As is the way with what’s supposed to be a breezy romantic story, things of course work out for Raina and she ends up meeting the man of her dreams, getting the awful ex-boyfriend out of her life, telling the truth to Nani, and making up with the boy who came out because of her and felt horribly betrayed. And of course, she and Shay make up and are closer than ever, with Shay supporting Raina every step of the way.

And really, I just couldn’t. How could Shay possibly forgive Raina after the horrible thing she said? I’m sorry, I don’t care how angry Raina was (without justification, I might add) — I think her actions and statements were pretty unforgivable.

Also, by allowing Nani to believe she was gay, she thrust her unprepared grandmother into a controversy that caused her all sorts of grief and turmoil. Raina later seems to be using the experience to show how sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in terms of being loved and supported by one’s family and community, but it felt like co-opting someone else’s struggle. Raina, a straight woman, pretending to be a lesbian for her own convenience, and somehow holding herself up as a symbol of pride and equality? No.

I wish I could say the story itself is charming enough to get me to see past these issues, but it’s not. It wasn’t a slog to get through or anything — the narrative moves along quickly, and there are plenty of amusing incidents and vignettes that keep the pace going. Nani is a great character, and I enjoyed the sections that showed the complications of Raina’s childhood, her mother’s life, and the backstory for her relationship with Nani.

The cultural elements are also quite good — I loved getting the little snippets about Raina cooking with Nani or enjoying their favorite Bollywood movies together, as well as the customs surrounding a traditional Hindu wedding, and can only imagine how spectacular it might be to actually be there and experience the gorgeous clothing and amazing tastes and sounds and smells.

Still, that doesn’t outweigh how offensive I found so many of Raina’s actions. I’d love to hear opposing thoughts, of course. But for myself, I can’t really recommend this book, despite its occasional amusing and entertaining parts.

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The details:

Title: The Matchmaker’s List
Author: Sonya Lalli
Narrator:  Soneela Nankani
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Shelf Control #184: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: The Royal We
Author: Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
Published: 2015
Length: 496 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy when I stumbled across it in a thrift store.

Why I want to read it:

I seem to remember seeing some positive reviews on various blogs when The Royal We came out. I’m not really someone to ooh and aah over royalty, but this does sound like good escapist fiction, so it might be worth a try. Although… for a plot that sounds pretty light and fluffy, it’s got a hefty page count! The length of the book may be why I haven’t actually picked it up to read yet.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

The Monday Check-In ~ 8/12/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life. 

Later this week, I’m going under the knife! Nothing too dramatic — I’m having orthopedic surgery on my left hand. It should be a quick in-and-out procedure, home the same day, and then in a cast or splint for several weeks. I’ve been assured that I’ll still be able to type afterward, so yay for that. Still, I imagine that I’ll be less active than usual online for about a week or two, so if I’m not around much, now you know why!

 

What did I read during the last week?

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: Enjoyable YA, but not nearly as captivating as the Lara Jean books. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy, for sure.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center: A lovely, powerful story. My review is here.

Pop Culture:

I spent the weekend binge-watching season 4 of Veronica Mars on Hulu. As I write this, I’m about to watch the season finale, and I’m terrified that something very bad is going to happen to one of the characters I love. Speaking of love… man, do I love this show. I’m highly tempted (meaning I’m not even going to fight the urge) to go back and start again from season 1. VMars for the win!

Fresh Catch:

A couple of used book orders arrived this week:

Plus, the eagerly awaited 4th and final book in the Custard Protocol series was released this week — and yes, I bought myself a brand-new hardcover edition, even though I’ll probably end up listening to the audiobook (since that’s how I enjoyed the other three books in the series).

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Our War by Craig DiLouie: Disturbing because it’s all so plausible. I hope to wrap up in the next few days and will share my thoughts. This is definitely one that needs to be discussed!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I love, love, love this book. This is a re-read, and I’m savoring every moment of the excellent audiobook version (narrated by the author, who is an amazing audiobook narrator, for her own books as well as many others — including the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire).

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel about family, hope, and learning to love against all odds. 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to uproot her life and move to Boston, it’s an emergency of a kind Cassie never anticipated.

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the handsome rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because she doesn’t fall in love. And because of the advice her old captain gave her: don’t date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping…but will she jeopardize her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt, affecting novel about life, love, and the true meaning of courage.

Things You Save in a Fire is, at first glance, a pretty standard contemporary romance — but it’s also an exploration of trauma, forgiveness, institutionalized sexism, and so much more.

Cassie, at age 26, is a decorated, respected firefighter, an established, well-loved member of an Austin firehouse. Her life falls apart on the night when she’s receiving an award for outstanding bravery, when the presenter ends up being someone from her past, and she completely loses it on stage, leaving the presenter in the hospital and herself on the verge of being fired.

She does have a way out of the situation. Her mother had earlier called Cassie and asked her to come stay with her in her small town outside of Boston. Cassie’s mother Diana left her and her father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, and since then, the two have had a distant, unpleasant relationship. Now, though, Diana has lost sight in one eye after surgery, and asks Cassie to stay with her for a year to help her out with the things she can no longer do on her own. Cassie initially refuses, but after her meltdown, she sees an opportunity to request a transfer to the local fire station and start again.

The crew in the new town is much different than the fairly progressive Austin station. The guys (and yes, they’re all male) are old-school Boston firefighters, who see no place for a woman in their house. Cassie is determined to prove herself, and fortunately, she has years of training and hard work behind her, so it’s quickly clear to the other firefighters that she’s the best of the bunch. Still, someone is unhappy with her being there, and starts an underhanded campaign of stalking and harassment to drive her away. The question is, who’s behind it?

Complicating matters are Cassie’s unwanted but undeniable feelings for the rookie, who is kind, attractive, and very attentive to Cassie. Cassie has ruled out romance or relationships from her life long ago, but she’s having a hard time fighting the chemistry with the rookie — despite knowing that getting involved with another firefighter will torpedo her career for good.

There are hints early on about the trauma in Cassie’s past, but she doesn’t think about it or discuss it until much later in the book. Still, we can see the aftereffects and it’s clear that she’s suffered for all these years, even though she thinks she’s compartmentalized her past and that it doesn’t affect her in her present. The relationship with Diana is puzzling at first, and initially, I had no sympathy for Diana. What kind of mother abandons her child like that for the sake of an affair? As we learn, there’s much more to the story. Cassie’s baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness in her relationship with her mother is what eventually enables her to embrace the possibility of greater empathy and connection elsewhere in her life.

I was fascinated by the depictions of life in a firestation, and had nothing but admiration for Cassie’s mad skills and her practical, hard-as-nails approach toward earning her spot. At the same time, it’s hard to read about a workplace and lifestyle that so clearly resists the entrance of women in every way possible — which makes Cassie’s determination all the more impressive.

The theme of forgiveness is quite lovely. Cassie learns that forgiveness is possible, even (and especially) when it’s hard, and possibly the last thing you actually want to do. By practicing forgiveness, Cassie opens herself to connections that she otherwise might never have known, and her life is ultimately enriched in ways she’d never thought she’d experience.

The action in the last third of the book really heats up (no pun intended) as there’s a big fire that the crew battles that has awful consequences. Once I got to this part, I simply couldn’t stop reading until the end!

I enjoyed this powerful story very much, and really appreciated the unusual perspective provided by a tough, troubled young woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated environment. Above all, the relationships and Cassie’s growth are what make this book so special. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Things You Save in a Fire
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Olive is always unlucky: in her career, in love, in…well, everything. Her identical twin sister Ami, on the other hand, is probably the luckiest person in the world. Her meet-cute with her fiancé is something out of a romantic comedy (gag) and she’s managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a series of Internet contests (double gag). Worst of all, she’s forcing Olive to spend the day with her sworn enemy, Ethan, who just happens to be the best man.

Olive braces herself to get through 24 hours of wedding hell before she can return to her comfortable, unlucky life. But when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning from eating bad shellfish, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. And now there’s an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs.

Putting their mutual hatred aside for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs. But when Olive runs into her future boss, the little white lie she tells him is suddenly at risk to become a whole lot bigger. She and Ethan now have to pretend to be loving newlyweds, and her luck seems worse than ever. But the weird thing is that she doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she feels kind of… lucky.

My Thoughts:

Over the past year, I’ve become a fan of the writer duo known as Christina Lauren. Their books tend to be light and breezy, with lots of sass and romance, and The Unhoneymooners fits the mold. Olive ends up on an all-inclusive 10-day luxury vacation in Maui after the disaster of her sister’s wedding reception, and figures she’ll just grit her teeth and put up with Ethan’s company if that’s what it takes to enjoy some gorgeous beaches in paradise. Naturally, she and Ethan begin clicking in all sorts of ways, and before long they discover that their mutual dislike is founded on misunderstandings, missed cues, and some deliberate misdirection from an unlikely source.

Olive and Ethan are, naturally, totally adorable together, and their island escapades are silly and sexy. My quibbles with this book are around the unlikeliness and sheer ridiculousness of some of the set-ups for the plot. Ami’s obsession with freebies is, well, odd, and the fact that no one blinked twice about going along with her schemes is a little worrying. I found it really unlikely that Olive’s new boss — from back home in Minnesota — would show up at the exact same Maui resort as she did, and I just didn’t think her reasons for deception were all that convincing. (I’m also not convinced that his later decision to fire her for dishonesty based on something that happened in a casual setting prior to employment would really hold up, but hey, that’s me allowing my day job to creep into my book enjoyment!).

My main quibble with The Unhoneymooners, and with Christina Lauren books in general, is the tendency to create female characters with awesome professions and then never see them actually doing much in a work setting. Olive never makes it farther than the HR office in this book, and while we learn that she’s a virologist with a Ph.D., we mainly just see her awkward, ditzy self. Even when contemplating work and career, it’s not particularly serious or the topic of much discussion beyond a brief mention or two. Okay, yeah, this is a romance, so career is SO not the point, but still — I’d prefer to see these accomplished women doing what they’re great at!

That aside, the authors are great at building a mood, playing up passion and romance, and not being afraid to inject humor into any setting. In fact, humor and snark are really cornerstones of Olive and Ethan’s relationship here. and that’s part of what makes them so cute together. I also loved Olive’s big, over-involved, supportive family… and how could I not enjoy the hell out of a book that includes a passage like this one:

I stare up at him, hating the tiny fluttering that gets going in my chest because he knows the Harry Potter reference.  I knew he was a book lover, but to be the same kind of book lover I am? It makes my insides melt.

Sigh. Now THAT’s romantic.

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The details:

Title: The Unhoneymooers
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which First Son Alex falls in love with Prince Henry of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends…

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

Swoon.

Swoony swoon swoon.

For whatever reason, probably based on the cover, I thought this was going to be a sweet, light YA romance. But considering that the main characters are in their 20s, two healthy, lusty, consenting adults, I’m not sure how to categorize this. Is this what’s meant by new adult? Can we just agree that this is fiction featuring young-ish grown-ups, and forget about putting it on the correct shelf?

Red, White & Royal Blue is a delicious mix of sexy romance, hearts-and-flowers-worthy first love, politics, scandals, and plenty of hot and heavy action between two very attractive 20-ish young men. Who are, you know, royalty and the American version thereof.

Alex is the son of the first woman president, now up for reelection. He’s a smart-aleck who acts out plenty, but at heart he’s a policy geek who dreams of a career in politics for himself, following in the footsteps of his mother and his Congressman father. Henry is the second son of the heir to the British throne, the younger brother who’s handsome and pampered and kept very isolated from authentic experiences and relationships. The two have collided repeatedly over the years and are, at best, frenemies (without the friendship part), but after a public spectacle involved smooshed royal wedding cake, Alex and Henry are thrown together in a public relations ploy to defuse the media focus on their supposed fight.

As they start spending time together, Alex and Henry develop a strange connection via late night phone calls and texts, discovering unexpected shared life experiences and connecting through the strange reality of living life in a fishbowl, always under the scrutiny of the press and the public. When their fake friendship develops into true friendship, Alex finally realizes (after a surprise New Year’s kiss) that his friendly feelings for Henry run deeper than expected, and also, he finally understands that he’s bi and just never actually faced it.

Things blossom pretty quickly between Alex and Henry, and their encounters are hot and steamy and full of passion. But there’s also a lot of hiding and creating false narratives to throw their families and the public off their trail, and it’s exhausting. In this day and age, you wouldn’t expect coming out to be such a big deal, but Alex and Henry are not at all people in normal circumstances. The tabloids are already obsessed with their every move. What would happen to US/British relations if the truth was revealed? What would it mean for the President’s chances at reelection? What what it mean for the British monarchy to have an heir to the throne (third in line, in fact) publicly acknowledge that he’s gay?

Red, White & Royal Blue handles the issues with humor, political savvy, and a surprising depth of feeling. It’s hard not to feel sorry for both Alex and Henry. Each faces different sorts of pressure, and while either on their own coming out might be news for a bit, putting the two of them together can only lead to an explosion of scandal. Alex and Henry are adorable together, and their romance is lovely and funny and passionate in all the best ways. At the same time, it’s amusing to see the scurrying of secret service and campaign managers who need to keep the two in line, and how simple things like dating require NDAs and removals of cell phones just to get off the ground.

The politics is really entertaining too. First off, yes, it’s just as awesome as you’d think to have a story about a woman in the White House. I loved the President’s relationship with her kids, how no-nonsense she is, and yet how she comes through when she needs to. Seeing the royal family in action is a whole other set of fun, especially as the younger generation confronts the Queen about what they want out of life and what they’re willing to do to get it.

I was a little doubtful at the beginning, but pretty quickly, I was swept up in the giddy fun and the super-cute romance of the story. There are definitely lots of pretty steamy, detailed sex scenes, so ya know, if you prefer your fictional romances to be more flowery and less sweaty, you might think twice about picking up this book. But otherwise, prepare to swoon! Red, White & Royal Blue is escapist romantic fiction that hits lots of high points, starring very public figures without losing out on the personal, emotional connections that make a good love story.

And a final word — Red, White & Royal Blue would be adorable as a movie! Netflix, are you listening?
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The details:

Title: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley