Audiobook Review: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton

Title: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard
Author: Tom Felton
Narrator: Tom Felton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Print length: 286 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

They called for a break, and Gambon magicked up a cigarette from out of his beard. He and I were often to be found outside the stage door, having ‘a breath of fresh air’, as we referred to it. There would be painters and plasterers and chippies and sparks, and among them all would be me and Dumbledore having a crafty cigarette.

From Borrower to wizard, Tom Felton’s adolescence was anything but ordinary. His early rise to fame saw him catapulted into the limelight aged just twelve when he landed the iconic role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

Speaking with candour and his own trademark humour, Tom shares his experience of growing up on screen and as part of the wizarding world for the very first time. He tells all about his big break, what filming was really like and the lasting friendships he made during ten years as part of the franchise, as well as the highs and lows of fame and the reality of navigating adult life after filming finished.

Prepare to meet a real-life wizard.

Draco speaks!

In Beyond the Wand, actor Tom Felton shares stories from his early childhood, the Potter years, and beyond. Unlike some of the seriously dire and disturbing celebrity memoirs of the past year, Beyond the Wand is a mostly upbeat, light-hearted romp through the life of an actor whose professional work will forever be defined by the sneering Slytherin he portrayed so well.

Significantly younger than his three older brothers, Tom grew up with a healthy dose of love and fun, but also humility — his brothers were always happy to cut him down to size before celebrity could go to his head. After roles in two smaller films, Tom’s life changed forever when he was cast as Draco Malfoy… without ever having read the Harry Potter books. (His description of the audition scene, where he had to fake knowledge of the story — and failed — is very funny).

His descriptions of the early years of filming are sweet, humorous, and eye-opening. There’s nothing scandalous here, don’t worry! Tom shares stories of on-set experiences, filming challenges, and lots of fun little stories — for example, his grandfather, acting as Tom’s required on-set chaperone, had such an impressive white beard that director Chris Columbus ended up casting him as a Hogwarts professor!

Because Draco was a lower-profile character than the big three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Tom’s profile as a star was somewhat lower-key as well. And because he had fewer scenes over all, he was able to continue attending his Muggle school in between filming, which he credits with enabling him to have a semi-normal childhood. Yes, he had a lead role in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, but he also had regular school, friends, and older brothers to keep him grounded (and occasionally get him into trouble as well).

The tone of Beyond the Wand is light and funny. Listening to the audiobook is a pleasure — he narrates his own story, and speaks it all as if he were hanging out with you and telling stories. It feels accessible and personal, and he injects a sense of fun into it all.

One of the elements I really appreciated in Beyond the Wand was Tom’s depiction of the older cast of Harry Potter and their influence on him and his child co-stars. As he describes, walking onto set as a 12-year-old, he had no idea of the stature of the adult cast members. And yet, over time, he came to realize just how fortunate he was to act alongside actors such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. He shares plenty of lovely anecdotes about their interactions with the children, their influence, and their generosity, and he also pays loving tribute to the cast members no longer with us, which is quite touching.

It’s only in the last couple of chapters that we get to anything darker, as he describes his post-Potter Hollywood years, his sense of loss of direction, a brief period of alcohol abuse, and struggles with mental health. The focus is mostly on the positive, though — on the importance of being able to get help without shame, and the value he’s found in seeking treatment when needed.

Other than those chapters, the tone is very fun and full of larks, and overall, Beyond the Wand is a really enjoyable listen. Even for huge Potter fans, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits shared here that will be new and fresh. (Nothing scandalous — it’s all good fun, with a sense of Tom’s enjoyment at being a bit of a rascal.)

This would be a great gift for any adult who grew up on Potter. Tom Felton presents his story with humor and modesty, as well as deep appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s worked with. He comes across as very human and not overly impressed with his own celebrity — it’s a friendly, chummy memoir about a boy who ended up following a very unusual path. Lots of fun — definitely recommended.

Audiobook Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Title: I’m Glad My Mom Died
Author: Jennette McCurdy
Narrator: Jennette McCurdy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair. 

My kids and I spent countless hours watching iCarly, and we always loved that crazy Sam character, with her wild antics and silly schemes and out-there sense of humor. But now, having read Jennette McCurdy’s painful, raw memoir, I don’t think I could ever watch iCarly in quite the same way again.

The Goodreads synopsis (above) doesn’t really do justice to this book — if anything, it goes light on the depths of abuse and trauma portrayed through Jennette’s story. There’s very little here I’d describe as “hilarious” — and the “joy of shampooing your own hair”? Please. As we find out in the book, she was not allowed to shower on her own until late in her teens. There’s nothing joyful about it.

From an absurdly young age, Jennette was conditioned to make her mother’s happiness the absolute focus of her life. From the annual family ritual of watching an old video of her mother’s dying message to her kids (from an earlier bout with cancer, which she survived for another 20 years or so) to her mother’s emotional meltdowns if Jennette voiced her desire to quit acting, the mother’s narcissism and need to be in control was the dominant influence in the family’s lives.

As she describes so meticulously and painfully, every aspect of her life and career was dictated by her mother’s wishes and need for the spotlight, even if only available vicariously through her daughter. Jennette’s preferences didn’t matter. She was forced into auditions, acting classes, hours of dance lessons per week, and the pursuit of any other skill that casting directors might want. In one anecdote, she relates that after not getting cast for a part that required bouncing on a pogo stick, her mother immediately bought a pogo stick and forced her to practice on it in their backyard until she could get to a bazillion bounces in a row. Anything in pursuit of fame and success.

Much more dire than the endless lessons and “beauty” treatments is the eating disorder. As she began developing breasts on the cusp of puberty, Jennette’s mother offered to help her stay childlike (and therefore, more castable) by teaching her about “calorie restriction”. Essentially, the mother taught her own child how to be anorexic.

In addition to the severely unhealthy mother-daughter relationship, further trauma was inflicted by the toxic working conditions on the Nickelodeon set, in particular in regard to the man referred to in the book as “The Creator”, whose behavior paints him as creepy, emotionally abusive, and invasive — as well as being the person who gave the very young actress her first taste of alcohol.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and I have to be honest, it’s a very tough listen. Jennette McCurdy’s delivery is full of personality, and she certainly knows how to use her voice to evoke and portray emotion — but the story she tells is so gut-wrenching that it can be really hard to hear. Somehow, listening to her voice her own story makes it that much more painful — it feels very personal and real.

I’m Glad My Mom Died has a provocative and controversial title, but I think her point is very well articulated through her writing. She examines how there’s a whole culture built up around putting mothers on pedestals, and how incredibly difficult it can be for someone with an abusive mother to understand that she wasn’t perfect, and that she was in fact responsible for so much of the trauma in her child’s life.

As I’ve said, this book is not easy. While there are some funny moments, and the actress’s trademark deadpan delivery can be really offbeat and startle a laugh out of the listener, it’s overall quite serious and heartbreaking. As well as the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, there are very frank discussions of eating disorders and addiction, so readers for whom those topics are triggering may want to consider whether this is the right choice for them.

Overall, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a strong, deeply sad memoir, told with honestly and blistering forthrightness. It’s uplifting to learn how far the author has come in her personal growth and recovery, but that doesn’t change the harrowing truths about her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Jennette McCurdy bravely shares her truth in this book and makes a lasting impression.

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: 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: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant

Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.

What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.

Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)

From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.

Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.

But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?

In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.

I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?

I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.

The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.

I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.

This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).

Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.

Book Review: All the Feels by Olivia Dade

Title: All the Feels
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 16, 2021
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Following Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade returns with another utterly charming romantic comedy about a devil-may-care actor—who actually cares more than anyone knows—and the no-nonsense woman hired to keep him in line.

Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Sex appeal. Wealth. Fame. A starring role as Cupid on TV’s biggest show, God of the Gates. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s dogged by old demons, and his post-show future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.

Enter Lauren Clegg, the former ER therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over handsome but impulsive Alex shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time they spend together, the harder it gets to keep her professional remove and her heart intact, especially when she discovers the reasons behind his recklessness…not to mention his Cupid fanfiction habit.

When another scandal lands Alex in major hot water and costs Lauren her job, she’ll have to choose between protecting him and offering him what he really wants—her. But he’s determined to keep his improbably short, impossibly stubborn, and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. And on a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves: anything at all.

All the Feels is a follow-up/companion to last year’s Spoiler Alert. Not a sequel exactly, since the timelines are somewhat concurrent, but a look at different characters in the same world, with some overlap. In both books, the framing is the massively popular TV series Gods of the Gates, a multi-season, big budget production based on a very popular but unfinished book series, which seems to have gone decidedly off the rails once the storyline moved passed the published books. Remind you of anything yet?

In All the Feels, we start with a bang as lead actor Alex Woodroe, who plays Cupid on the show, is being severely reprimanded by the showrunner after he’s arrested in a bar fight in Spain as production on the final season is wrapping up. Alex is impulsive and known for his outrageous behavior, but drunken brawls are not typical for him. Still, the production is out of patience and taking no chances, so they assign him a minder — someone to shadow him everywhere, be with him at all times, and make sure he does not step a toe out of line until the new season airs.

His assigned minder? Lauren Clegg, the (dickish) showrunner’s cousin, who’s currently assessing her own next career move after burning out on ER trauma. Lauren is not your standard beauty — she’s (maybe) five feet tall, very round, with a crooked nose (thanks to an out-of-control ER patient) and an assymetrical face. Her cruel cousin refers to her off-handedly as ridiculous and ugly, but in Alex’s view, she’s birdlike, reminding him of a winter wren. Which, for reference, looks like this:

Alex, described by a loving castmate as a “delightful asshole”, is outraged by being assigned a nanny — but beyond the external assholery, he’s actually a very good guy. So, while he delights in trying to get a reaction out of “Nanny Clegg”, he also treats her with respect and kindness, especially once they arrive back in LA and she takes up residence in the guest house on his estate.

Alex himself is a complex character. His outgoing, full-speed-ahead, screw-the-consequences persona is cover for a man who carries deep guilt over family history and who is willing to put everything on the line to defend people in need, even if it means possibly torpedoing the career he fought so hard for. His ADHD makes him hard for others to control, and while he has coping strategies that work well for him, his impulse control challenges cause him trouble again and again.

As we get to know Lauren, we see how she’s internalized other people’s view of her, even her own family’s. She’s dependable, but not as important as everyone else — this is\the lesson she’s learned over the years, and she dreads having others (including Alex) come to her defense at their own expense. She knows that the world sees her as unattractive (and that awful people seem to have no qualms about saying so to her face), and she’s rather just put up walls and remove herself emotionally that have anyone else take risks on her behalf.

As Alex and Lauren spend time together, they create a bubble of two, moving beyond resentment and impatience into trust and friendship, and finally acknowledging a deep attraction too. Their growing feelings for one another are challenged by the outside world and the demands of Alex’s career — but they’re also challenged by their own baggage and their deeply ingrained defense mechanisms. When hurt and self-sacrifice threaten their new-found happiness, they each find that they need to dig deep, work on themselves, and learn to get out of their own way if they’re to have a future.

This is absolutely an opposites-attract fairy tale. Alex is a gorgeous movie star, yet the plain woman with an unassuming personality who does not meet standard beauty ideals is the one who steals his heart. It certainly strains belief, but accepting the wish-fulfillment elements, All the Feels is quite a lovely and engaging read.

In Spoiler Alert, we learn much more about Gods of the Gates, which is pretty delightful in its own way. Here, we hear more about the problematic nature of the final season and why it causes Alex in particular so much grief. We also spend more time with some of the castmates introduced in the first book, via group text chats and in person, and they’re a treat.

All the Feels also includes some of the fanfiction elements introduced in Spoiler Alert — to a lesser extent, but in a way that’s so Alex and so outrageous, and it made me really laugh.

I did really enjoy All the Feels, but as I mentioned, there’s a wish-fulfillment feel to the story that sometimes made me take a step back and squint at the book. Could this relationship work in real life? Well, maybe… but put this story together with the main relationship in Spoiler Alert, and it becomes a little harder to embrace the idea that two gorgeous and successful leading men, who also happen to be best friends, would fall for two women who — to be clear — are absolutely lovely and delightful, but who do not meet Hollywood beauty standards by a long shot.

The last third of the book includes very graphic sex scenes, so if you prefer your romance on the implied rather than explicit side, you might want to be aware of this before going in. Explicit isn’t usually my jam when it comes to my reading choices, but I was invested enough in the characters that I wasn’t thrown off too much by these scenes (and anyway, the characters are so clearly joyful together that it’s hard not to be happy for them, no matter how graphically engaged they are.)

All the Feels could work as a stand-alone — there’s enough context provided to make the key elements of the show and its issues understandable — but I’d recommend starting with Spoiler Alert to get the full picture. Also, Alex and Lauren’s story happens in the background in Spoiler Alert, so it’s fun to see pieces of it unfolding through other characters’ eyes before reading their story on its own.

All in all, I recommend both of these books. All the Feels features memorable characters, snappy dialogue, a moving (if improbable) love story, and a fairy tale ending. It’s a feel-good book that, for all its unlikely elements (not just the central relationship, but also some of the pieces related to Alex’s career), will make you smile.

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Book Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Title: While We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Two people realize that it’s no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.

Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he’s trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it’s hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she’s also down to earth and considerate, and he can’t help flirting a little…

Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she’s booked her next movie. However, she didn’t expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?

But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they’ve barely shared with those closest to them.

When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna’s life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

Jasmine Guillory’s books are reliably romantic, intimate, and full of unusual characters, and While We Were Dating is no exception.

Our two main characters are Ben, an up-and-coming advertising executive (who, BTW, used to be a backup dancer — hot!), and Anna, an Oscar-nominated actress who needs her next movie to be the big breakthrough that will take her back to the Oscars and send her home with the prize.

When Anna agrees to star in the ad campaign Ben is leading, they’re immediately drawn to one another and develop an easy rapport. But it’s not until Ben offers to drive her all night to reach her family at a Southern California emergency room that they truly connect, spending the long car ride sharing secrets and dreams. Their intimacy becomes physical, and they’re both wildly attracted to one another — but neither imagines that this can be anything but a fling.

Later, Anna’s manager comes up with a plan: In order for the studios to see Anna as a big enough box-office draw to land that next crucial movie contract, she needs to be more in the public eye. He convinces her to go public in a fake relationship with Ben, making sure the paparazzi are on hand to capture their every private-but-public flirtation. Soon, they’re featured in People magazine and are walking the red carpet together, but Ben knows that once the premieres have ended, so will this relationship.

I enjoyed a lot about While We Were Dating. Anna and Ben are both well-developed, flawed people. Sure, they’re super hot, but they’re also vulnerable, each dealing with his or her memories and past painful experiences, cautious about who they trust and who they allow into their lives. They have an easy chemistry together, and their banter is adorable and flirtatious and very down-to-earth.

This author also tends to go outside the societal norms of beauty when it comes to her heroines, and Anna is depicted as both stunningly gorgeous and plus-sized. And honestly, I love that about her.

I’m not a huge fan of “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” kind of stories, so the Hollywood magic is, if anything, a minus for me when it comes to books featuring glamorous stars and their love lives. Here, though, we see Anna’s family and her roots, her struggle to adjust to her new reality, the invasiveness of the paparazzi, the need to always be “on”, and it makes her feel relatable, even if the day-to-day of her life — with stylists and gowns and borrowed jewels — feels like something from another world.

The books in The Wedding Date series are all loosely connected, but don’t worry if you haven’t read the others. Familiar characters show up, and you’ll be happy to see them if you know who they are, but it’s not at all crucial to know their backstories in order to enjoy While We Were Dating (or any of the other book in the series.) Each book focuses on a new romantic pairing and can stand on its own just fine.

If you’re a fan of Jasmine Guillory’s books, you’ll definitely want to read this one as well. Even if you’re new to this author, this would make a great pick for beach or poolside reading.

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Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

Shelf Control #216: The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips

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 Fade Out: The Complete Collection
Author: Ed Brubaker (author) and Sean Philips (illustrator)
Published: 2018
Length: 360 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A bold new paperback edition of the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel―now finally collecting the entire story in a single edition!

An epic graphic novel of Hollywood in the early days of the Blacklist, THE FADE OUT tracks the murder of an up-and-coming starlet from studio backlots to the gutters of downtown Los Angeles, as shell-shocked frontman Charlie Parish is caught between his own dying sense of morality and his best friend’s righteous sense of justice.

A picture-perfect recreation of a lost era, THE FADE OUT is an instant classic from the bestselling team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who are joined by acclaimed color artist Elizabeth Breitweiser.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

It’s been a while since I’ve read a graphic novel (or featured one as a Shelf Control pick). A family member recommended this to me last year — she swore it was one of the best graphic novels she’s ever read. My reading habit when it comes to graphic novels is really almost exclusively sci-fi/fantasy, but given the rave review, I thought I should give this one a try. It does sound good, and I liked the illustrations when I quickly paged through it.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

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

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • 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: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins [a spoiler-free review!]

Title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: June 13, 2017
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now? Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ’80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a mesmerizing journey through the splendor of old Hollywood into the harsh realities of the present day as two women struggle with what it means–and what it costs–to face the truth. 

My first 5-star read of 2020! The only question is, why did it take me until now to read this excellent book?

I’ve been a fan of author Taylor Jenkins Reid for several years now. I first read her book Maybe in Another Life when it was released in 2015, then went back and read everything else she’s written. I loved, loved, loved last year’s Daisy Jones and the Six. But for whatever reason, despite having a copy on my shelf since 2017, I just didn’t get around to Evelyn Hugo. Now I finally see what all the buzz was about — and let me tell you, it’s all completely justified!

By now, most people have probably read this amazing book — but here’s the thing: I went into The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo remarkably unspoiled. I’d read the blurb, and knew it was about a former Hollywood icon who’d been married seven times. And that’s it.

(And thinking about it, perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel especially compelled to pick up the book, despite all the glowing reviews. Hollywood stars and scandals isn’t usually a topic that draws me.)

Now, having read the book, I know just how much more there is to Evelyn’s story. And I am so appreciative of the fact that I read it with no expectations and no advance knowledge of the true depths waiting to be discovered.

So, for the sake of anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo yet, I’m not going to give anything away!

Taylor Jenkins Reid introduces us to star Evelyn Hugo at age 79, as she’s finally ready to share her true story to a relatively unknown writer. Why does she choose Monique? Why tell her story now, after so many years outside of the spotlight? All will be revealed by the end!

Evelyn is a marvelous character, a girl who came from nothing and reached the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. The public came to know her through her movies and awards, but she became equally (if not more) famous for her series of marriages and their scandals.

But each marriage is a key to understanding the puzzle that is Evelyn. Each reveals yet another chapter of her history and her control of her own narrative and destiny.

As I said, I simply refuse to give anything away, because I love the fact that all of Evelyn’s secrets ended up surprising me as I read the book. But here’s what I can share:

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is filled with:

  • Complex, fascinating characters
  • Powerful emotional connections
  • Deep, abiding friendship
  • True, passionate love
  • A reverence for families of all sorts
  • Unflinchingly honest reflections on sacrifice, power, manipulation, scandal, and fame

… and so much more.

I just loved this book, plain and simple. I think it would make a fantastic book group choice, as there’s so much to mull over and think about. I’m pushing this book on a few key bookish friends so I can talk about it with them!

As if I were in any doubt, this book absolutely confirms the talent of Taylor Jenkins Reid. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Whatever it is, I’ll be first in line to read it.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:

Forever, Interrupted (2013)
After I Do (2014)
Maybe In Another Life (2015)
One True Loves (2016)
Daisy Jones & The Six (2019)