Book Review: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale by Stephanie Eding

Title: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale
Author: Stephanie Eding
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for:
Found family who always look out for you

A second chance romance with your high school crush

All the fried food that’ll take your mind off your troubles

A chance to start over and do things your own way
Then The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale is exactly what you need!

When 30-year-old Josie discovers that she’s unexpectedly pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby (darn that last attempt to save their marriage), she seeks comfort in deep-fried food at the county fair. There she runs into her two old friends, Ben and Kevin. While sharing their own disappointments with adult life, they devise a plan to move in together and turn their lives around. Soon Ben and Kevin make it their mission to prepare for Josie’s baby, not least by making sure Josie always has the food she’s craving. Maybe all together they can discover the true meaning of family and second chances in life…

What a cute story… with so much junk food!

Josie moves back to her small suburban home town after discovering her husband is cheating. After spending the summer living with her parents (who inform her that they’re about to downsize and really won’t have room for her in their new condo) and working at a smoothie shop (having left her home, husband, and steady teaching job back in Chicago), she’s broke, without a place to live, and oh yeah, just took a home pregnancy test and found out that yes, she’s pregnant with her soon-to-be ex’s baby.

Craving fried food, she stops at the county fair, where she runs into her high school friends Ben and Kevin. Over corn dogs, they catch up and share everything that’s gone wrong in their lives — Kevin works at a job he hates, and Ben dropped out of college when his girlfriend got pregnant and now works a dead-end job and has a daughter who can’t stand him. As Josie breaks down in tears over her mess of a life, a plan is formed: Ben and Kevin are roommates, and there’s room for a third. Josie needs a place to live, they could use the help with the rent, and hey, maybe together they can all turn their lives around. And thus, the Corn Dog Pact is formed.

The Corn Dog Pact is actually Kevin’s idea — written down and tacked up on their refrigerator. They each commit to improving their finances, their work lives, and finding love by the time the last of their 31st birthdays roll around. With a signed pact to keep them on track, Josie moves in — noting that she may have just moved into a frat house. Living room furniture consists of beanbag chairs and a gaming console, and she’s hard-pressed to find even a mug in the empty kitchen.

The three friends are good for one another, and little by little, they do actually start making progress on their lives. The guys are supportive — Kevin is a goofball with a heart of gold and Ben, Josie’s secret crush in high school, is a sweetheart who yearns for a better relationship with his 11-year-old and who would seemingly do anything to help Josie.

As Josie’s pregnancy progresses, we see the trio’s homelife (so much pizza and nachos!!), Josie’s advancing pregnancy, and her quest for teaching work. We also see how the three encourage little steps for each other. With Josie present, Ben is able to start connecting better with his daughter, and seeing Ben with Izzy helps Josie find a way to allow her ex to plan to be in her baby’s life.

I really enjoyed the storylines overall, although I did get a little tired of the horrifying food the characters eat ALL THE TIME. When Josie brings home a salad one day, they’re all aghast! Healthy food? What?? (Still, it is rather cute that each chapter title has a food in it — the author really sticks to the theme!)

At times, the story feels a little laggy. There are perhaps too many scenes of shopping, home decorating, and other elements of domestic life. It’s nice to see the characters working on themselves and on creating a home, but it gets to be a bit much after a while.

I will say that some of the scenes related to the pregnancy, and particularly to Josie’s labor and delivery, were especially well done. Josie’s experiences during delivery felt very real to me, perhaps because I had a similar experience to the character myself. It’s not the comedic or over-the-top kind of scene you sometimes see in fiction (or especially on TV shows) — I could absolutely relate to what Josie goes through, and loved how Ben and Kevin are by her side.

Overall, this is a sweet, engaging story, not particularly deep, but with enough personal growth to make it satisfying. The characters are funny and likable, and you can’t help but cheer them along every step of the way. There’s a romantic subplot too, but it doesn’t dominate or define the book. Really and truly, this is a book about friendship and how loving friends can help each other turn their lives around.

Worth checking out!

Book Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Title: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family–and a new love–changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

This witchy book is sweet, a bit romantic, and very whimsical. It’s a bit Mary Poppins, a bit House on the Cerulean Sea… and just a wee bit naughty too (more on that later).

Mika is a young, kind-hearted witch who grew up in loneliness and isolation — because the biggest rule for witches is to stay very, very far away from one another. When witches gather, so does magic, and when a lot of magic gets concentrated in one place, all sorts of unwanted outcomes can result — and when there are big magical accidents, it attracts attention. As history has shown, attention can be very bad for witches, so it’s best to just avoid it at all costs.

But Mika is lonely, and to keep herself amused and engaged, she creates a web series where she pretends to be a witch offering videos on potion-making. It’s cute and silly, and she doesn’t expect anyone to actually believe her… but of course, as the synopsis points out, someone does.

She’s invited to Nowhere House, where three young, orphaned witches are being raised by an assortment of adult caretakers. They’re sheltered and fed and clothed (and completely doted upon), but they have no control over their magic, and no one to teach them. Without some sort of intervention, the adults in charge are afraid of what might happen. Mika seems to be the answer to their prayers.

Before long, she’s made herself a part of the household, captivating the girls with her magical abilities, and captivating the sexy librarian with her sweetness and smiles. There are some outside threats to their happy household, but I felt pretty confident throughout that nothing too bad could happen, given the light, bubbly tone of the book.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches could almost be a children’s story, if the point-of-view characters changed a bit and if you stripped away the romance. There are some adorable scenes of wide-eyed wonder, as Mika shows the girls the possibilities of a life infused with magic — like, for example, when she arrives at Nowhere House with an entire koi pond in the backseat of her car.

The romance elements are for the most part understated, although (as I hinted earlier) there is one scene that’s fairly steamy in nature (not anatomical, in terms of graphicness, but more than just implied). Side note: I was annoyed that the characters did NOT use a condom! Most contemporary romances incorporate safe sex practices into the sex scenes these days, so it’s very noticeable (and not okay!!) when one doesn’t.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, with many different ethnicities, national origins, genders, ages, and orientations represented. I appreciated that this element was all very matter of fact, too — the diversity is just part of the whole, and not presented in a “hey, I’m being so hip and inclusive!” sort of way (if that makes any sense).

Overall, the mood and tone of this book is light, cheery, and yes, very whimsical. Nothing terrible ever happens, the characters are delightfully quirky, there are plenty of silly little moments, and there’s an overarching sense of wonderful awe whenever magic is involved.

This is a sweet, quick read, good for when you’re looking for a fanciful diversion with lovable characters. A great choice to read with a mug of hot cocoa and some fuzzy slippers!

Book Review: When You Get the Chance by Emma Lord

Title: When You Get the Chance
Author: Emma Lord
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nothing will get in the way of Millie Price’s dream to become a Broadway star. Not her lovable but super-introverted dad, who after raising Millie alone, doesn’t want to watch her leave home to pursue her dream. Not her pesky and ongoing drama club rival, Oliver, who is the very definition of Simmering Romantic Tension. And not the “Millie Moods,” the feelings of intense emotion that threaten to overwhelm, always at maddeningly inconvenient times. Millie needs an ally. And when a left-open browser brings Millie to her dad’s embarrassingly moody LiveJournal from 2003, Millie knows just what to do. She’s going to find her mom.

There’s Steph, a still-aspiring stage actress and receptionist at a talent agency. There’s Farrah, ethereal dance teacher who clearly doesn’t have the two left feet Millie has. And Beth, the chipper and sweet stage enthusiast with an equally exuberant fifteen-year-old daughter (A possible sister?! This is getting out of hand). But how can you find a new part of your life and expect it to fit into your old one, without leaving any marks? And why is it that when you go looking for the past, it somehow keeps bringing you back to what you’ve had all along?

Millie Price is a LOT, and she knows it. Almost 17, done with junior year of high school, and completely obsessed with musical theater, Millie is ecstatic when she finds out that she’s been accepted ot a competitive “pre-college” (a combination senior year of high school plus four-year undergraduate program) that claims to have huge success in turning wannabes into Broadway stars. The problem? She never told her dad that she’d applied, and he’s absolutely opposed to her going.

But Millie is nothing if not determined, and she decides to convince her dad to let her attend in the weirdest way possible: After stumbling across her dad’s awful LiveJournal musings about his sad college romances, she decides to track down her mother — who, she’s sure, will back her up on this pre-college thing, since one of the few things Millie knows about her is that she was also a performer.

On her quest, Millie ends up taking an internship at a talent agency, where she’s forced to work side-by-side with Oliver, the grumpy stage manager from her high school theater department with whom she’s had a serious battle of the wills (not to mention ongoing very loud conflicts) for three years now. But working together, she finds out there’s more to Oliver than she realized.

When You Get the Chance is a cute story, sure to appeal to anyone who (a) loves New York and (b) loves musical theater — but even if you don’t happen to love either of those, Millie’s out-there personality, her relationship with her father and her aunt, and the madcap search for her mother are sure to charm you anyway.

Millie’s extroverted personality, in person, would make me hugely uncomfortable. She’s someone who craves the spotlight, and her big emotions and reactions are constantly on display. While these traits carry her where she needs to go, she also steps on people’s toes and gets into all sorts of awkward situations, not to mention hurting the people she loves most by not talking to them directly instead of carrying out her wild schemes. Still, as a fictional character, she’s funny and charming, and we readers know that her heart is in the right place, even when her actions are over the top.

There are a lot of cute and engaging elements in this story: Millie’s search for her mother, based on the sparse cues she and her best friend find, take her all over the city and introduce her to people who all enrich her life in various ways. The mother “candidates” are interesting women who share some traits with Millie (and whose scenes with Millie are very entertaining), and the travels around New York are lively and enjoyable. Also, Millie’s aunt owns the Milkshake Club, a performance space that serves amazing milkshakes, which is such a fabulous concept… and now I desperately want a huge milkshake of my own!

The family conflicts and drama get resolved in satisfying ways, the romantic element is sweet (and I appreciated that the romance doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story), and as a musical theater fan myself, I appreciate all the silly ways that various lyrics, plotlines, and characters get woven into Millie’s daily conversations and thoughts.

When You Get the Chance is a engaging read with an entertaining (and occasionally exasperating) main character. It releases the first week in January — what a fun way to start the new year!

Audiobook Review: The Stand-In by Lily Chu

Title: The Stand-In
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 15, 2021
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 10 hours 55 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible Plus Catalog
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to upend your life:
–Get fired by gross, handsy boss
–Fail to do laundry (again)
–Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress
–Fall head-first into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly “friendly” boss, and yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: Due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself… and her heart.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original in which an ordinary woman suddenly gets the chance to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fun Cinderella story, but it helps to suspend disbelief A LOT to truly enjoy it.

When we meet Gracie, she has a job she hates thanks to a boss who sexually harasses her constantly — but rather than making a fuss or going to HR to report him, Gracie tries even harder to blend into the background, dressing dully and using makeup that’s neutral and not the least bit eye-catching. Gracie’s mother, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, drilled into Gracie’s head that she should always try to fit in, not stand out.

But when Gracie is mistaken for Chinese actress Wei Fangli in a coffee shop, her world changes dramatically. Caught on camera by a paparazzo on a day when she’d called in sick, Gracie is fired by her creepy boss and plunges into despair. How will she afford the nursing home her mother needs if she has no income? With her mother’s dementia steadily progressing, Gracie feels the pressures mounting, and none of her daily planners and apps seem to help her get her life under control. (Remember the bit about the planners — this is important later.)

Gracie is approached by Wei Fangli and her super-hot costar Sam Yao with a proposition: Because of their similar looks, Fangli wants to hire Gracie — for a huge amount of money — to be her public double. Gracie will dress and act like Fangli and attend social engagements in her place, allowing Fangli to just focus on her theater performances and otherwise avoid the pressure of a public life.

Against her better judgment, Gracie accepts the offer. She needs that money! But she soon learns that she likes it, too. She gets to dress in gorgeous clothes, live in a luxury hotel suite, and spend lots and lots of time with Sam. Yes, she feels guilty for essentially lying to everyone she meets as Fangli, but she keeps reminding herself that she’s doing it for her mother.

The Stand-In is a fun fairy tale of a story, with echoes of The Prince and the Pauper too. Wouldn’t every “ordinary” person love the chance to walk in a celebrity’s (high-priced designer) shoes? I wouldn’t say the plot is believable — I mean, they can’t really be that identical, can they? But it’s certainly amusing to see Gracie trying to master the art of posing on a red carpet, being photographed from every angle, and speaking as if she’s used to being the center of attention.

There are some interesting ideas too about public personas and what it means to always be on, especially as compared with someone like Gracie who’s been taught all her life not to make waves. Additionally, Grace is a biracial woman living in Toronto who doesn’t speak Mandarin, yet is impersonating a Mandarin-speaking Chinese actress and is also trying to connect with a mother who slips more and more into the language of her youth. Gracie has to deal with issues related to identity and race, on the one hand being seen as Chinese rather than Canadian, yet being seen by Chinese people she interacts with as not Chinese enough.

There’s also a love story, of course, and while it comes across as absolute wish-fulfillment (the sexiest man in the world falling for an ordinary woman!), it does have some very sweet moments of flirtation, sharing secrets and wishes, and making connections. Also, Sam really is a great character, and it’s easy to see how some of his big romantic gestures might make anyone with a heartbeat swoon.

I really liked Gracie’s blossoming friendship with Fangli and the ways in which they end up helping and supporting one another. I wasn’t crazy about the plotline revolving around Gracie inventing a daily planner. While I suppose the point is to show Gracie finding a way to take control of her own life and make a splash as a businesswoman, there’s too much time spent on her figuring out ways to organize her tasks and to-do lists.

Plotwise, The Stand-In really is more romantic fairy tale than real-life contemporary drama. A lot of the developments are ridiculous if you think about them too hard. If you can put aside the need to say “but this could never happen!”, it’s still a fun listen. I would also add my main quibble about the plot — the old “listening through a doorway and jumping to conclusions” romance trope. This makes me batty — a character overhears a conversation, immediately misinterprets what they hear, and then take dramatic action based on this misinterpretation. It’s just so dumb. At least verify what you think you’ve heard!! Sigh… but then where would the drama be?

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s a treat to listen to Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. This is her first full-length audiobook — you can read more about her experience recording it here. Overall, I think she does a good job voicing the different characters and making them distinct. The one complaint I have is that in dialogue scenes, it can be hard to tell whether Gracie is thinking a response to herself or saying the response to the other person — her voice isn’t actually different for asides, so it does get confusing.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original and is available (free) as part of the Audible Plus Catalog. For those who have access, I recommend giving it a listen. The story is sweet and engaging, and despite the fairy tale-esque twists and revelations, the characters are really special and will stick with you.

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Book Review: Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie

Title: Skye Falling
Author: Mia McKenzie
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A woman who’s used to going solo discovers that there’s one relationship she can’t run away from in this buoyant novel from the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The Summer We Got Free

Twenty-six and broke, Skye didn’t think twice before selling her eggs and happily pocketing the cash. Now approaching forty, Skye moves through life entirely–and unrepentantly–on her own terms, living out of a suitcase and avoiding all manner of serious relationships. Her personal life might be a mess, and no one would be surprised if she died alone in a hotel room, but at least she’s free to do as she pleases. But then a twelve-year-old girl shows up during one of Skye’s brief visits to her hometown of Philadelphia, and tells Skye that she’s “her egg.” Skye’s life is thrown into sharp relief and she decides that it might be time to actually try to have a meaningful relationship with another human being. Spoiler alert: It’s not easy.

Things gets even more complicated when Skye realizes that the woman she tried and failed to pick up the other day is the girl’s aunt and now it’s awkward. All the while, her brother is trying to get in touch, her problematic mother is being bewilderingly kind, and the West Philly pool halls and hoagie shops of her youth have been replaced by hipster cafes.

Told in a fresh, lively voice, this novel is a relentlessly clever, deeply moving portrait of a woman and the relationships she thought she could live without.

Main character Skye is definitely an acquired taste in this funny yet touching novel set in West Philadelphia. Skye is a loner by choice, always fleeing before friendships, relationships, or family can make too many demands on her. She’s abrasive and off-putting, and has basically one friend left who puts up with her selfishness and unreliability.

Skye runs a tour company that specializes in international experiences for Black travelers, and she’s wildly successful. It not coincidental that leading tours around the globe pretty much nonstop means she never has to stay put for very long in any one place. Her life is filled with adventure and one night stands, and she prefers to keep it that way.

All this changes when 12-year-old Vicky shows up in Skye’s life and reminds her of that time way back when, when Skye donated eggs to Cynthia, a former friend from summers at camp. Cynthia has recently passed, Vicky is being raised by her aunt Faye, and guess what? She’s Skye’s egg. Initially, Skye’s reaction to this news is to both vomit and then try to climb out a window to escape (seriously), but she starts to come around to the idea that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have a connection to someone — someone who’ll maybe take care of her in her own age. (Once again, Skye’s selfishness is front and center — it’s about her, not about Vicky.)

For once, Skye decides to stay put in Philly and get to know Vicky, and as she does, a new bond starts to grow between the two. And staying put, Skye is forced to start dealing with the trauma and bad memories of her youth, rather than always running away at the first hint of having to be serious.

Complicating matters too is Skye’s growing attraction to Faye, which may or may not be reciprocated, her long-ignored relationships with her mother and brother, and confronting memories of past rejections that may not be as clear-cut as Skye would like to think.

It’s really hard to like Skye, and at first, I absolutely didn’t. She’s mean to people, irresponsible, and doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone. Gradually, though, we get to see how much of her personality and her actions are defense mechanisms based on escaping her past, and as Skye starts to (finally) mature, she slowly starts to become a person who gets involved and actually cares.

Vicky is a terrific character, and she’s not all sweetness and light. She’s dealing with her own set of traumas, including losing her mother, having a stepmother she hates, and living in a gentrifying neighborhood where the newly arrived white neighbors feel the need to call the cops on the long-term Black residents over so-called noise infractions. While the book focuses on the personal relationships, it also pays great attention to the world around the characters,

Overall, Skye Falling was a quick read, and I while I always felt at a bit of a distance from Skye, I did enjoy the relationships and getting to know the characters and the neighborhood.

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