Audiobook Review: People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Title: People We Meet on Vacation
Author: Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 364 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased (Kindle); Library (audio)
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Two best friends. Ten summer trips. One last chance to fall in love.

Poppy and Alex. Alex and Poppy. They have nothing in common. She’s a wild child; he wears khakis. She has insatiable wanderlust; he prefers to stay home with a book. And somehow, ever since a fateful car share home from college many years ago, they are the very best of friends. For most of the year they live far apart—she’s in New York City, and he’s in their small hometown—but every summer, for a decade, they have taken one glorious week of vacation together.

Until two years ago, when they ruined everything. They haven’t spoken since.

Poppy has everything she should want, but she’s stuck in a rut. When someone asks when she was last truly happy, she knows, without a doubt, it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. And so, she decides to convince her best friend to take one more vacation together—lay everything on the table, make it all right. Miraculously, he agrees.

Now she has a week to fix everything. If only she can get around the one big truth that has always stood quietly in the middle of their seemingly perfect relationship. What could possibly go wrong?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Beach Read, a sparkling new novel that will leave you with the warm, hazy afterglow usually reserved for the best vacations. 

Poppy and Alex are a delightful pairing in all the right ways. They’re diametrically opposed when it comes to lifestyle and goals. Poppy dreams of travel and freedom; Alex dreams of home and family and being settled. He’s uptight, she’s loose and open. And yet, they bond so tightly that everyone and everything else in their lives are extraneous. So long as they have each other, even if they only see each other during their annual summer trips, then their lives are good.

But something went wrong two summers ago, and they haven’t talked since. And for Poppy, nothing makes sense any more. She has her dream job, working for a high-end travel magazine and basically getting paid to go anywhere in the world and enjoy the hell out of it… but her life has been pretty joyless ever since Alex was removed from the equation.

People We Meet on Vacation is framed around “this summer”, but interspersed chapters take us back to “10 summers ago”, “5 summers ago”, etc. Through these chapters that show past history, we get to experience the depth of Alex and Poppy’s connection, why they mean so much to one another, and get hints of why they are the way they are, as we learn more about their families, their upbringings, and their formative years.

I loved the chemistry and the adorable banter between the two. They’re funny in so many unexpected ways. Any scene that they’re both in absolutely shines.

At the same time, there’s plenty of harder times in the mix as well. Why did their friendship fall apart? Why do they seem to have such a hard time identifying what they want? Why do none of their romantic partners ever work out for them?

The travel segments add crazy fun, as most of their plans end up derailed or taken in unexpected directions, and their random adventures and encounters keep the entertainment value of this novel high.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the masterful Julia Whelan, and it was a delight. I can see why people become fans of certain audiobook narrators. I’ve now listened to more than a few audiobooks narrated by Julia Whelan, and she’s truly gifted. Here, her voices for Poppy and Alex are perfectly tuned to their personalities, and her delivery of their funnier exchanges made me laugh out loud.

I have to admit that it was touch and go for me for the first few chapters. The introduction of Poppy’s best friend, a social media influencer, made me want to duck out, and their discussion of “millennial ennui” was practically the nail in the coffin… but since I really enjoyed my last book by this author (Beach Read), I decided to stick with it. And I’m glad I did!

People We Meet on Vacation is surprisingly insightful for a book with such an upbeat cover and title. It allows its characters to dig into their wants and needs (while also showcasing their outstanding chemistry and dynamics), including introspective moments that give greater depth to the story without ever weighing it down.

This ended up being an excellent audio experience — highly recommended!

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Book Review: The Pick-Up by Miranda Kenneally

Title: The Pick-Up
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 250 pages
Genre: YA contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When Mari hails a rideshare to a music festival, the last thing she expects is for the car to pick up a gorgeous guy along the way. Mari doesn’t believe in dating–it can only end with a broken heart. Besides, she’s only staying at her dad’s house in Chicago for the weekend. How close can you get to a guy in three days?

TJ wants to study art in college, but his family’s expectations cast a long shadow over his dreams. When he meets Mari in the back of a rideshare, he feels alive for the first time in a long time.

Mari and TJ enter the festival together and share an electric moment but get separated in a crowd with seemingly no way to find each other. When fate reunites them (with a little help from a viral hashtag), they’ll have to decide: was it love at first sight, or the start of nothing more than a weekend fling? 

Miranda Kenneally, author of the terrific Hundred Oaks series, is back with a fresh new stand-alone YA novel. The PIck-Up is a quick read with sweet romantic moments as well as more serious reflections on family and damaged relationships.

When TJ and Mari meet in a ride-share, their immediate attraction gives each a fresh burst of hope and excitement, and as they spend time together at the music festival, their connection seems instant and electric. At first, seeing them separated by the crowd and trying to find one another again, despite not exchanging contact info, I thought we were in for a story about missed connections and long searches. But thankfully, this wasn’t that!

Instead, TJ and Mari do manage to reconnect, thanks to the intervention of their friends, and commit to spending more time together over the weekend.

They each bring baggage, though. TJ is in Chicago for the weekend staying with his older brother, to whom he always compares himself and finds himself lacking. TJ’s family expects him to study business when he starts college in the fall, but he secretly yearns to pursue his passion for art.

Meanwhile, Mari is staying with her dad, stepmom, and stepsister for the weekend before returning to her home in Tennessee. Her parents divorced after her father’s affair with the woman he ended up marrying, and Mari’s mother is so consumed by anger and bitterness that she takes it out on Mari. Her verbal abuse has taken a frightening turn to the physical, and Mari both wants to stay with her father and is scared to mention it, for fear that it’ll just make things with her mother even worse.

As TJ and Mari spend time together, they each experience the highs of early attraction and emotional connection, but each also has to contend with their own fears and insecurities.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between TJ and Mari as narrators, and it’s a really effective way to show how their perspectives on the same events can be different and still make sense to the person experiencing it. While they’re both struggling with family issues, Mari’s are much more serious, and her scenes of confronting her father with her feelings and her fears are deeply affecting.

While there are plenty of serious matters portrayed throughout The Pick-Up, there’s also a lot of fun, from scenes at the festival to a Ferris wheel ride to goofy beach shenanigans. Mari and TJ have chemistry, and I really enjoyed Mari’s stepsister as a character as well.

Miranda Kenneally has a gift for creating well-drawn teen characters who feel real. They’re not idealized — they’re complicated and messy and emotional, and that’s what makes them so compelling to read about.

I really enjoyed The Pick-Up, just like I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read by this author. Check it out!

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Book Review: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Title: Instructions for Dancing
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: June 3, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this romantic page-turner from the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star, Evie has the power to see other people’s romantic fates–what will happen when she finally sees her own?

Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

This YA book made me so, so happy. It’s sweet and sad, and makes me want to dance!

To understand Evie, the main character, you need to know a few key facts: Evie is a high school senior, and a former fan of romance novels. Evie is also the daughter of recently divorced parents. A year ago, Evie’s parents split up, and Evie discovered that her father was having an affair. Now she lives with her mother and younger sister, bottling up her anger at her father and refusing to see him, and she’s absolutely sworn off romance and love stories.

What I’ve learned over the last three weeks is that all my old romance novels ended too quickly. Chapters were missing from the end. If they told the real story—the entire story—each couple would’ve eventually broken up, due to neglect or boredom or betrayal or distance or death.

She’s seen it in real life — two people who were supposedly in love end up with nothing but pain and betrayal and ashes of a relationship. Why should she believe in happily ever afters?

Given enough time, all love stories turn into heartbreak stories. Heartbreak = love + time.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Evie winds up with a dancing instruction book that leads her to the La Brea Dance Studio, a small studio whose main clientele seem to be pre-wedding couples trying to master their first dance. The studio is owned by an older couple who are magnificent dancers and who’ve clearly been in love all their lives. While there, Evie meets X, the couple’s teen-aged grandson who’s recently dropped out of his senior year of high school and moved to LA to pursue a music career.

When Fifi, the domineering dance instructor, ropes Evie and X into being partners in an upcoming amateur ballroom dance competition, the two become friendly and then eventually acknowledge their chemistry, which grows along with their hustle, salsa, and tango skills.

“Anyway, you can play to thank us. Every good bonfire needs a hot guy playing guitar.” “You don’t have to play,” I tell him. “But you still have to be hot,” Cassidy says. “I don’t mind doing both,” he says with a grin.

Meanwhile, Evie has come into a strange gift: When she sees a couple kiss, she gets a flash of their entire romance — how they met, how they are in that moment, and what’s to come. This means that she sees the end of the relationships, not just the swoony romantic bits. And for Evie, that’s just further proof that love doesn’t last… so why even bother?

It’s not hard to predict that Evie and X will get together, but I won’t ruin things by going into further detail on how they connect, what obstacles they face, and how it turns out. Let me just share some observations instead:

I loved that this isn’t a by-the-numbers romance, with a meet-cute, initial attraction, getting together, obstacle/break-up, and happy ending. Yes, some of these beats are included, but the overall flow of the book is different enough to keep the reading unpredictable.

Evie’s family life is given equal weight to the romance elements, and this is critical. Evie’s perception of love and commitment have been perhaps permanently scarred by her parents’ divorce, but as the novel progresses, she learns more about long-term love and relationships, and learns that situations aren’t all one way or their other. By learning to let go of her bitterness, she’s able to start allowing some shut-off family connections back into her life, and she can’t help but acknowledge that this is much healthier for her.

“You think because your father and I didn’t last, our love was any less real?”

A harder lesson for Evie is X’s approach to life — saying yes to experiences, living in the moment, and grabbing joy when it’s in front of you. Evie is so consumed by endings that she’s unable to appreciate the middle parts — all the smaller and larger moments that make time together so valuable, no matter how long or short that time might be.

It doesn’t matter that love ends. It just matters that there’s love.

I feel like this would make a great movie, since my one complaint about the book is that I wanted more dancing scenes! At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it’s hard to make a written dance scene compelling, and while the author does a great job with this, I could only satisfy my need by diving down a dance video rabbit hole on YouTube.

Instructions for Dancing is a moving, well-written, thoughtful YA novel with some beautiful moments as well as heartbreak. With captivating characters, a hint of magic (that goes unexplained, but somehow doesn’t distract from the contemporary feel of the plot), great dance moments, and even some humor, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed!

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Audiobook Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Road Trip
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators: Josh Dylan, Eleanor Tomlinson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Print length: 398 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 15 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel by the author of the international bestseller The Flatshare.

What if the end of the road is just the beginning?

Four years ago, Dylan and Addie fell in love under the Provence sun. Wealthy Oxford student Dylan was staying at his friend Cherry’s enormous French villa; wild child Addie was spending her summer as the on-site caretaker. Two years ago, their relationship officially ended. They haven’t spoken since.

Today, Dylan’s and Addie’s lives collide again. It’s the day before Cherry’s wedding, and Addie and Dylan crash cars at the start of the journey there. The car Dylan was driving is wrecked, and the wedding is in rural Scotland–he’ll never get there on time by public transport.

So, along with Dylan’s best friend, Addie’s sister, and a random guy on Facebook who needed a ride, they squeeze into a space-challenged Mini and set off across Britain. Cramped into the same space, Dylan and Addie are forced to confront the choices they made that tore them apart–and ask themselves whether that final decision was the right one after all.

In The Road Trip, exes Dylan and Addie are forced into spending time together on a road trip from hell. In sections alternating between “Now” and “Then”, we see the awful hours spent in the car as well as flashbacks to their first days of romance — and most importantly, learn how they went from swooningly in love to completely estranged over the last few years.

Addie and Dylan first meet in the most romantic of settings, a huge villa in the south of France where Dylan is vacationing and Addie is the summer caretaker. There’s an immediate attraction, and within days they’re spending every waking moment together (as well as every night in bed together). Even when they’re joined by a swarm of Dylan’s buddies (including his posh but toxic best friend Marcus), Dylan and Addie are inseparable.

When the holidays are over, they pick up their relationship back in England, but not without hiccups. Addie is a teacher in training, and Dylan is still trying to find himself. He’s a poet, and wants to pursue a graduate English degree, but his domineering, emotionally abusive father wants him to either join the family business or be cut off entirely. On top of this, Marcus wants Dylan by his side constantly and resents Addie’s presence, and does what he can to pry the two apart.

Meanwhile, in the “now” portions of the story, the cramped Mini and its passengers encounter hazards and accidents and a variety of unfortunate escapades they make them later and later to the wedding. The upside of the crowded car and the endless hours on the road is that Dylan and Addie are literally thrown together, and are finally forced to confront the circumstances that drove them apart. Emotions run high, truths are shared, and ultimately, the couple have an opportunity to face the problems that came between them and to admit to the deep love that still exists.

The Road Trip is not nearly as light and fluffy as I’d expected it to be, but it works remarkably well. The “now” side of things is mostly light-hearted and comical — there’s spilled breast milk and a random trucker and an ill-timed pee break and a musty motel room without enough beds… not to mention a mad dash to save the bride from a stalker and getting lost in a faux castle. It can be quite silly, but the more we get to know the characters, the more endearing it all is.

In the “then” parts of the story, Addie and Dylan go through tremendous ups and downs, and these sections are much more wrenching than the “now”. The author gives a sensitive portrayal of two young adults with enormous chemistry and a deep love between them, yet shows that other people and other problems can derail even the most devoted of couples. A love story that starts in a summer villa has the feel of a perfect fantasy romance, but when it has to survive in the real world of jobs and family and unreliable friends, the fantasy elements fall away and the couple’s love faces its hardest tests.

I listened to the audiobook, and it was wonderful. There are different narrators for the Addie and Dylan sections, and can I just take a minute to fangirl over the fact that Eleanor Tomlinson narrates Addie??? Eleanor Tomlinson is the actress who played Demelza in the BBC series Poldark, and she’s wonderful. Her narration gives so much character and expressiveness to Addie. I’m not sure whether I’d have enjoyed it nearly as much in print — the narration is that good!

Overall, The Road Trip is often touching, sometimes very sad, quite a bit silly, and frequently very romantic. There’s a nice mix of serious and fun moments, and the framing of a hellish road trip works very well as a contrast to the sweetness and then sorrow of the earlier days of Addie and Dylan’s relationship.

The characters are all well-drawn and nicely detailed, from leads Addie and Dylan, to an array of supporting characters including sad-sack Rodney, unsteady and mostly unlikeable Marcus, Addie’s wild sister Deb, and the very over-the-top bride Cherry. Their banter and arguments and lighter moments feel very in tune with how they’ve been depicted, and I really enjoyed the time spent with them.

The Road Trip is a great summer read, and I especially recommend the audiobook edition. Enjoy!

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Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silva Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a sweeping romance with a dash of magic.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina—and himself—that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

A book doesn’t have to be long to be a completely immersive reading experience. Case in point: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — a 320-page novel that left me feeling utterly transported.

The Beautiful Ones was originally published in 2017, but is being reissued this month via Tor Books, with a gorgeous new cover. I hope this book gets tons of attention — it’s definitely one of my top reads of the year.

From the very first page, we’re swept up in a love story that feels desperate, epic, and heart-pounding all at once.

Ten years earlier, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, Hector and Valerie, fell madly in love. But their relationship was unsanctioned and seemingly faced impossible hurdles. Hector was a young, poor performer, but Valerie was one of the “Beautiful Ones” — a descendent of an old-money upper class society family. Valerie’s family, however, having lost its fortune, was relying on Valerie marrying wealth in order to redeem them from impending disaster. Hector and Valerie pledged to marry and became secretly engaged, and then he left to seek his fortune — only to receive a letter from Valerie several months later, letting him know she’d married someone else.

The world of The Beautiful Ones is familiar in many ways, yet with its own oddities. It has a Victorian feel to it, with a huge emphasis on manners, class distinctions, reputation, and social connections. At the same time, this is a world where people may have rare talents, such as Hector’s telekinesis — which elevates him to heights of fame and admiration, but which in a woman is considered somewhat gauche, a bit of a magic trick that polite women don’t display in public.

“Nina, if you want to play these games in the privacy of your room, I will not chide you, but in the presence of others, you should restrain yourself…

“It is not normal. It is a performance at a fair, like the freaks they display for a few coins…

“I don’t mean you. I mean, in general, these are carnival games, these are things unfit for ladies.”

The story is centered in the city of Losail, considered the epicenter of fashion and society. There’s a continent called Iblevald where Hector spends ten years exploring and performing, which sounds tropical and dangerous, with cities as well as undeveloped areas. Losail sounds like it could be in France (certainly, many of the names are French or French-inspired), but this is really a world that’s not ours, so the comparisons only go so far.

As the story begins, Hector returns from his ten years abroad, now a wealthy and famous man, appearing in performances in Losail to great fanfare. Why Losail? Because that’s where he’s heard that Valerie and her husband live, and after all these years, he’s still obsessed. He knows she’s married, but he can’t help himself — he has to see her, be near her once again.

As he attends his first social engagement, he’s crushingly disappointed to learn that Valerie is not present, but instead ends up meeting Antonina — who prefers to be called Nina — Valerie’s husband’s young cousin who is staying with the couple as she enters her first social season. Nina is sweet, impulsive, not held back by manners, and very, very curious. She also has talents of her own — telekinetic powers that come out when she’s particularly emotional, usually without her control, which have earned her scorn and a nickname (the Witch of Oldhouse) back in her country village.

Nina is starstruck and full of admiration for Hector, but he sees her as a means to an end — getting close to Valerie again. As Hector starts to court Nina, he’s clearly using her, but even as his obsession with Valerie continues, Nina’s essential goodness begins to impress him in unexpected ways.

But then Nina smiled. It was like looking down and finding the first green sprouts rising from the frozen, black earth. Almost invisible and yet there, heralding spring.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stick to major themes instead of plot points from here on out. The Beautiful Ones has the breathless feel of a romantic tragedy, but there are also moments of joy and sweetness and emotional connection. The obsession that at first had me thinking of Wuthering Heights turns into something else, and I loved both Nina and Hector’s emotional journeys over the course of the book.

The book includes chapters from different points of view, and it’s fascinating and illuminating to be inside Nina, Hector, and Valerie’s heads. Each are very, very different, and the intentions (and manipulations) that become apparent can be moving or shocking, depending on whose POV we’re focused on in any given moment.

I was thoroughly spellbound as I read this book, and found it hard to focus on anything else in my life until I could sit back down and keep reading. There’s so much drama and tension, and it all builds to an unforgettable set of confrontations and consequences.

Nina herself is a fabulous character, with hidden depths, a core of steel, an undeniable curiosity and intelligence, and a heart that wants nothing more than to love and be loved. She makes this book so enjoyable, and you can’t help rooting for her happiness at every turn.

I love the elegance and the urgency of The Beautiful Ones. There’s a tense, dramatic mood created right from the start, and I couldn’t help fall under the spell of the beautiful writing and the magical atmosphere that builds from page to page.

The Beautiful Ones is a must-read! Don’t miss it.

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Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!

Book Review: Maggie Finds Her Muse by Dee Ernst

Title: Maggie Finds Her Muse
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A sparkling romantic comedy starring a bestselling author who goes to Paris to overcome writer’s block and rediscovers family, independence, and love along the way.

All Maggie Bliss needs to do is write. Forty-eight years old and newly single (again!), she ventures to Paris in a last-ditch effort to finish her manuscript. With a marvelous apartment at her fingertips and an elegant housekeeper to meet her every need, a finished book—and her dream of finally taking her career over the top—is surely within her grasp. After all, how could she find anything except inspiration in Paris, with its sophistication, food, and romance in the air?

But the clock is running out, and between her charming ex-husband arriving in France for vacation and a handsome Frenchman appearing one morning in her bathtub, Maggie’s previously undisturbed peace goes by the wayside. Charming and heartfelt, Dee Ernst’s Maggie Finds Her Muse is a delightful and feel-good novel about finding love, confidence, and inspiration in all the best places.

What a refreshing change to read a romance with a mature woman in the lead role!

Maggie is a successful romance writer, but she’s stuck. The second book in her current trilogy is about to be released, and she’s fast approaching the deadline for book #3. There’s a lot at stake, including a potential TV option that will take her to the next level of financial success and finally enable her to buy the beach house of her dreams. The problem is, Maggie is completely blocked. She’s got nothing on the page, and she just can’t ask for another extension.

Her trusted agent Lee offers a change of scenery as a desperate last-ditch effort to get her writing again: Come to Paris with him and his husband, live in their fabulous apartment free of charge, and let the Parisian vibe restore her to full inspiration once again.

After dumping her live-in boyfriend (who gives off a traditional romance alpha-male vibe, but is actually a self-centered leech), Maggie sets off to Paris. And soon, her creative juices start flowing again. But Maggie is a writer who relies on superstition (like wearing the same old sweater every single day until she finishes a book), and she starts to believe that Max, a charming Parisian who happens to be staying in the apartment as well, might just be her new muse. But what happens if Max leaves? How will she keep writing if her flesh-and-blood inspiration isn’t present any longer?

Along the way, Maggie spends time with her adult daughter and her ex-husband — her first love, who’s newly retired and interested in rekindling their romance after all these years. And yes, it might be nice to spend more time with Alan, who’s lovely and intelligent and comfortable — but what about that spark she feels whenever Max is around?

There’s a lot to love about Maggie Finds Her Muse. As I said at the start of this review, three cheers for a romantic heroine who’s not in her 20s! I love reading about a smart, successful, motivated woman who’s able to take charge of her professional and personal life. Maggie isn’t perfect — she has insecurities and doubts, but she’s also lived life and has learned a lot about herself, her needs, and what she expects from a potential partner.

“Do you think a person becomes too old for love?”

… “No, I don’t think you’re ever too old,” I said. “But I do think that how you love changes. The things you look for when you’re young are not the same ones you want when you’re older. Not in your life, or in the person you want to share it with.”

It was really fun reading about her writing process, and I liked hearing about the story elements she explores over the course of the book. While her actual book doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d ever read (war-torn romantic drama), I was amused by scenes of her figuring out blocking by having her friends act out action sequences. I did feel not quite so charmed by the setting of her books, an invented country with vaguely foreign elements, which sounds like a Westerner’s standard generic anywhere-but-here kind of setting — warlords, non-English names that are hard to pinpoint, desperate escapes through deserts and mountains… It all feels a little too America-centric, like anyplace that’s not the US must be uncivilized and “other”. But I’m probably over-analyzing. After all, this is romance!

The Paris setting is delicious, of course. Maggie enjoys the food, the sights, the people, the customs, and so we as readers get to do so as well. It made me want to pick up and fly to Paris RIGHT NOW, but only if my trip would include a marvelous flat and totally chic and supportive housekeeper/cook/emotional guide like Maggie has.

“Maman, you cut me to the quick,” Max said, eyes twinkling. “surely, there’s room in one of those books for a dashing older gentleman who can ignite a bit of passion, non?”

Oui. That’s definitely a oui.

As for the romantic elements, Maggie and Max are well-matched and are clearly the pairing to root for in the romantic triangle. Max is suave, kind, confident, and totally supportive of Maggie. They’re not without their difficulties, but I like that Maggie, as a romance writer, is very much aware of the genre tropes, and is horrified when her friends point out that she has fallen into a romance novel complication in her real life.

“Maggie,” Alison soothed, “what I think Cheri is trying to say is that maybe you were the victim of A Great Misunderstanding.”

I sat very still.

A Great Misunderstanding is a commonly used device in romance writing wherein the hero or heroine says something that is completely misconstrued by the other party, and chapters of angst and possible revenge sex happen before the truth is finally known. I hate A Great Misunderstanding and have never used it in any of my books, if for no other reason than if I did, neither Cheri nor Alison would ever read anything I wrote ever again.

“No,” I whispered.

Overall, Maggie Finds Her Muse is a sweet, delightful read. The characters are smart and relatable, and I couldn’t help but want every single one of the people we meet to get a perfect HEA.

From reading the author bio on Goodreads, I learned that Dee Ernst specializes in writing older (okay, I hate calling them that — let’s say age 40+) leading characters, and I think that’s awesome. This is an author whose work I’ll be following!

Book Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Title: Second First Impressions
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

From the USA Today  bestselling author of The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine comes the clever, funny, and unforgettable story of a muscular, tattooed man hired as an assistant to two old women—under the watchful eye of a beautiful retirement home manager.

Ruthie Midona is a 25-year-old who seems to have found her niche, living on-site in a cottage at the retirement community where she works. She’s there 24/7, except when she dashes out on an errand for one of the residents, and obsessively checks all doors and locks, is available at a moment’s notice whenever needed, and takes her job very, very seriously.

She also gives off a 95-year-old vibe, as Teddy Prescott laughingly tells her when they first meet at a gas station. He thinks she’s in costume as an old lady, down to the glasses on a chain around her neck, until she sternly lets him know that no, this is just how she dresses.

But not for long.

While Ruthie’s boss Sylvia is off on a cruise, Ruthie is temporarily filling in as the property’s office manager, and she hires a vivacious temp to help her out. Melanie is 22, fun, creative, and very invested in turning Ruthie back into someone who acts her own age, and decides to set Ruthie on an improvement plan aimed at loosening her up and getting her to date and find true love.

A complication arises when the new property owner shows up with his directionless son… and of course, it’s the guy from the gas station: a very attractive man with glorious, gorgeous long hair and a body that’s covered in ink. Teddy is more than meets the eye, though. Sure, at first glance he’s a good-looking charmer with no job, living off his family’s wealth — but he’s actually a gifted tattoo artist who dreams of opening his own studio, rather than settling down, getting a haircut, and going into the family business. Teddy’s dad gives him no choice — he’s cutting him off financially, and can either find a way to support himself or accept that the business is his future.

Teddy moves into the other side of Ruthie’s cottage and takes a job working for the fearsome Parloni sisters — two elderly women who go through young male assistants incessantly, driving them away through crazy tasks and unceasing demands. Teddy is made of just the right stuff, though, and is a hit with the ladies… and as he settles into the cottage, he reveals to Ruthie that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

I was a little skeptical at the beginning… but my “second first impression” of this book is that it’s really quite charming! Ruthie and Teddy are so different at first glance, but they soon learn how much they connect once they get past first impressions. Teddy has no boundaries and impinges on Ruthie’s space and time constantly, but as Ruthie soon learns, she’s cut herself off so much from real human contact that having someone around who’s actually interested and cares is a jolt to her system.

I really liked seeing their connection develop, from simple shared tasks to opening up about their hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities, to sharing the hurts from their pasts that have led them to where they are at this point in their lives. They each have a lot to get over, and finding a way toward their dreams will be difficult, but knowing one another gives them each a new burst of strength and inspiration.. and even hope.

The characters are sweet and fun and entertaining, and the setting at the retirement community is adorable without coming across as saccharine. (Side note — why do I keep encountering romance novels set at senior homes? Is this a thing now? Because as sweet as this is in fiction, the reality is far grimmer than a bunch of eccentric old folks just needing someone young and attractive to organize a prom for them.)

I’m not typically a fan of workplace romances in fiction, but this one worked for me, maybe because the office pieces are mostly offset by time spent on the property, interacting with the residents and the high volume of tortoises who make their home there.

The writing is cute and quirky, and some of the wording made me giggle:

Every time he looks up and seeks eye contact with me, I know that complete dazzlification has occurred.

I’m not sure I quite understood this one, but that’s okay:

He reaches for me, maybe to smooth the hair back from my face, but my grenade pin is caught on his pinky.

But I do think this is funny:

The shine in his hair gives me a candle-flicker in my uterus.

There really are lots of adorable moments of banter and flirtation, but I guess I neglected to bookmark them as I devoured this book. You’ll just have to read the book to find them!

Second First Impressions is a great spring/summer read. It verges maybe too far into the fantasy realm, in that I couldn’t see characters like these actually connecting in real life. Still, as light entertainment, it’s a fun, positive, and uplifting read, and makes for a nice escape from the real world!

Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!

Audiobook Review: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop by Jenny Colgan

Title: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2013
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 31 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rosie Hopkins is looking forward to Christmas in the little Derbyshire village of Lipton, buried under a thick blanket of snow. Her sweetshop is festooned with striped candy canes, large tempting piles of Turkish Delight, crinkling selection boxes and happy, sticky children. She’s going to be spending it with her boyfriend, Stephen, and her family, flying in from Australia. She can’t wait.

But when a tragedy strikes at the heart of their little community, all of Rosie’s plans for the future seem to be blown apart. Can she build a life in Lipton? And is what’s best for the sweetshop also what’s best for Rosie?

A Christmas-themed book is such a non-typical reading choice for me — unless it’s a book by Jenny Colgan, and especially if it includes favorite characters and is a follow-up to a favorite book!

I absolutely adored Sweetshop of Dreams, and just needed to keep main character Rosie in my life a little longer, so naturally, I couldn’t resist starting Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop right away.

This 2nd book in the series (it’s a trilogy) picks up about a year after the events in the first book. Rosie is happily settled in the little town of Lipton, running the town sweetshop, living with her beloved boyfriend Stephen, and feeling happier than she’s ever felt in her her life.

As Christmas approaches, things are looking good. Rosie’s family is about to arrive from Australia (although she hasn’t quite gotten around to telling Stephen yet). Stephen has just started his dream job teaching at the little local primary school. They’re happy in their cozy cottage, and Rosie is relieved to know that her great-aunt Lillian is happy too in her retirement home, where she merrily raises holy hell amongst the old folks and is as feisty as ever.

But tragedy strikes due to a freak accident that injures Stephen and threatens the future of Lipton’s school. As Stephen recovers and Rosie’s family hits town, tensions rise and eventually come to a head. Meanwhile, because of the accident, an elderly man suffering from dementia ends up in Lipton, and appears to have connections to the town that no one could have imagined.

Once again, Jenny Colgan’s book strikes just the right note of joy and love, while blending in dramatic complications and moments of fear. The tensions play out throughout the plot, but we readers can rest easy knowing that the author would never truly leave us in devastation. There are sweet secrets revealed, plenty of feel-good family moments, adorableness from small children, dramatic rescues, and plenty of romantic highlights too.

As the 2nd book in a trilogy, Christmas at Rosie Hopkin’s Sweetshop left me very happy, but also eager to read more about these characters — most of who I’d like to either hang out with or give big hugs to, or both.

This was a quick and cheery listen that also packs in emotional moments and enough worries and sorrow to keep it from going too far over the line into a nonstop sugary utopia. I’ve loved both books about Rosie, and need to start #3 immediately! Highly recommended.