Take A Peek Book Review: Roomies by Christina Lauren

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Marriages of convenience are so…inconvenient.

For months Holland Bakker has invented excuses to descend into the subway station near her apartment, drawn to the captivating music performed by her street musician crush. Lacking the nerve to actually talk to the gorgeous stranger, fate steps in one night in the form of a drunken attacker. Calvin Mcloughlin rescues her, but quickly disappears when the police start asking questions.

Using the only resource she has to pay the brilliant musician back, Holland gets Calvin an audition with her uncle, Broadway’s hottest musical director. When the tryout goes better than even Holland could have imagined, Calvin is set for a great entry into Broadway—until his reason for disappearing earlier becomes clear: he’s in the country illegally, his student visa having expired years ago.

Seeing that her uncle needs Calvin as much as Calvin needs him, a wild idea takes hold of her. Impulsively, she marries the Irishman, her infatuation a secret only to him. As their relationship evolves and Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway—in the middle of the theatrics and the acting-not-acting—will Holland and Calvin to realize that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?

My Thoughts:

Yet another sweet, wish-fulfillment romantic story by the amazing writing duo Christina Lauren! There’s not much of a shred of realism in the plot, but it’s oh so fun to just kick back and go with the flow.

We have Holland, mid-twenties, with an MFA that she’s not using, living a comfortable New York life (thanks to her amazing, generous uncles) — who decides that marrying her crush is the best way to help him get legal residence in the US so he can pursue his musical career. Of course, Calvin is both incredibly gorgeous and unbelievably talented, as well as being sweet, smart, and a considerate and passionate lover. Of course, Calvin shoots to instant stardom. And of course, their fake marriage turns into a real marriage, although not without the requisite trust and communication issues that plague any good contemporary romance.

It’s all good fun, and the happy ending is never in doubt. It’s an entertaining, sexy romp, and even though we know that these two crazy lovebirds will end up together, the excitement is in seeing how they get there. The book is quick and light, and despite the moments of emotional turmoil and illogical behavior, the characters are always likable (and have enough of a sense of humor to get past some super awkward situations.)

This is my 4th Christina Lauren book, and I have yet to encounter a dud! Not exactly deep reading, but great for when you need something cheery.

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The details:

Title: Roomies
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

 

The author of The Wedding Date serves up a novel about what happens when a public proposal doesn’t turn into a happy ending, thanks to a woman who knows exactly how to make one on her own…

When someone asks you to spend your life with him, it shouldn’t come as a surprise–or happen in front of 45,000 people.

When freelance writer Nikole Paterson goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, his man bun, and his bros, the last thing she expects is a scoreboard proposal. Saying no isn’t the hard part–they’ve only been dating for five months, and he can’t even spell her name correctly. The hard part is having to face a stadium full of disappointed fans…

At the game with his sister, Carlos Ibarra comes to Nik’s rescue and rushes her away from a camera crew. He’s even there for her when the video goes viral and Nik’s social media blows up–in a bad way. Nik knows that in the wilds of LA, a handsome doctor like Carlos can’t be looking for anything serious, so she embarks on an epic rebound with him, filled with food, fun, and fantastic sex. But when their glorified hookups start breaking the rules, one of them has to be smart enough to put on the brakes…

Ah, another fluffy romance that worked perfectly for me! What a fun read.

In The Proposal, Nik and Carlos meet and connect on what could be the worst day of her life. Their easy banter makes them want to keep in touch, and occasional texts and quick bites to eat turn quickly into terrific sexual chemistry and a natural, enjoyable friendship. Or is it more? (Yes. It’s more.)

Both have baggage in their lives. Both think they’re just looking for casual hook-ups with someone they like spending time with. Neither is willing to even entertain the idea of a relationship or emotional involvement… but emotional involvement sneaks in anyway, and throws them both for a loop.

As in the author’s previous book, The Wedding Date, the cast of characters in The Proposal is nicely diverse, and features strong friendships that give a well-rounded sense of balance to the story. It’s not just about two hot people meeting and having hot sex (although that happens) — it’s about two adults, both professional, who’ve been through some tough times, take their family and friends seriously, and think deeply about what they do and what they want.

The Proposal is quite a romp, with great dynamics between Nik and Carlos, plus lots of fun details like cupcakes, home-made enchiladas, a trip to a bookstore, and an amazing women’s gym with a terrific self-defense program. (If it existed in real life within driving distance of my house, I’d be there in a heartbeat!)

This really was a great choice for me this week, providing a much needed break from some heavier reads. I read it all in one day, which gives you some idea of how engaging the story is and how smoothy it just flows. This isn’t exactly a deep or serious read, but it does make some great points about women in relationships and the importance of having a circle of supportive friends. Nik and Carlos are both the kind of people who just sound great to be around, so it was a very cheery and upbeat experience reading a book that’s basically all about the two of them figuring out for themselves that they’re right for one another, long after everyone else in their lives knows it. If you enjoy contemporary romance, check it out!

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The details:

Title: The Proposal
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 30, 2018
Length: 327 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Macy Sorensen is settling into an ambitious if emotionally tepid routine: work hard as a new pediatrics resident, plan her wedding to an older, financially secure man, keep her head down and heart tucked away.

But when she runs into Elliot Petropoulos—the first and only love of her life—the careful bubble she’s constructed begins to dissolve. Once upon a time, Elliot was Macy’s entire world—growing from her gangly bookish friend into the man who coaxed her heart open again after the loss of her mother…only to break it on the very night he declared his love for her.

Told in alternating timelines between Then and Now, teenage Elliot and Macy grow from friends to much more—spending weekends and lazy summers together in a house outside of San Francisco devouring books, sharing favorite words, and talking through their growing pains and triumphs. As adults, they have become strangers to one another until their chance reunion. Although their memories are obscured by the agony of what happened that night so many years ago, Elliot will come to understand the truth behind Macy’s decade-long silence, and will have to overcome the past and himself to revive her faith in the possibility of an all-consuming love.

My Thoughts:

This is my 3rd book in about a month by Christina Lauren, a relatively new-to-me writer duo. I’ve been consistently finding their writing engaging, hard to put down, and emotionally compelling — but that said, Love and Other Words didn’t wow me as much as the other two I’ve read.

In Love and Other Words, there’s an aura of sadness that permeates the entire book, driven mostly by the “Then and Now” structure that keeps the narrative flipping back and forth between past and present. In the present, we know that Macy has never gotten over the heartbreak that Elliot represents, and that as a consequence, she keeps herself safe by never really opening herself up to feeling deep emotions. In the past, we see the growing friendship that turns into love, which is sweet and nostalgic, but even there, the feeling of sorrow hangs over everything as Macy mourns her deceased mother and tries to find a place for herself in the world. None of this is a negative exactly, but it does give the book a heaviness that keeps it from being an upbeat, fun read.

And having now read a few books by these authors in a relatively short space of time, I have a quibble that I can’t ignore: This is the 2nd of their books in a row (after My Favorite Half-Night Stand) where the main character is a woman with a very impressive professional life, which clearly required dedication and years of study — and yet their careers end up feeling like window dressing. In My Favorite Half-Night Stand, she’s a university professor; here’s, she’s a pediatric resident. Specifically in this book, we mainly see Macy coming and going from work shifts, but never actually see her working. What’s more, I don’t remember ever getting a clue from her “then” chapters that she had an interest in medicine or science. It’s great to see women in powerful, learned roles — but I want to actually see them in their professional capacity at least a little bit, rather than having their careers being just another fact that makes up the whole. If that makes any sense…

But back to the love story — Macy and Elliot are awfully sweet together, and it’s not exactly a surprise (so I won’t include a spoiler warning) that these two crazy lovebirds find their way back to one another by the end. “Then” Elliot and Macy take a long time to move beyond friendship, and it’s kind of lovely to see them navigating how to deal with first love. As an added plus, young Macy and Elliot bond over their love of words and books, and that’s never not a good thing! Give me a love story built around shared reading material any day!

I’ll close by sharing this sweet little exchange from a “Then” chapter, when Elliot asks Macy if she thinks about him when they’re apart:

It took me a second to process what he meant. When I was back home. Away from him. “Of course I do.”

“When?”

“All the time. You’re my best friend.”

“Your best friend,” he repeated.

My heart dipped low in my chest, almost painfully. “Well, you’re more, too. You’re my best everything.”

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The details:

Title: Love and Other Words
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman hate each other. Not dislike. Not begrudgingly tolerate. Hate. And they have no problem displaying their feelings through a series of ritualistic passive aggressive maneuvers as they sit across from each other, executive assistants to co-CEOs of a publishing company. Lucy can’t understand Joshua’s joyless, uptight, meticulous approach to his job. Joshua is clearly baffled by Lucy’s overly bright clothes, quirkiness, and Pollyanna attitude.

Now up for the same promotion, their battle of wills has come to a head and Lucy refuses to back down when their latest game could cost her her dream job…But the tension between Lucy and Joshua has also reached its boiling point, and Lucy is discovering that maybe she doesn’t hate Joshua. And maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game.

My Thoughts:

I picked up The Hating Game on a whim while pondering which of the heavier books on my list to tackle next. Sometimes, light and romantic is just the thing, and this book delivered — but also made me alternate between hair-pulling frustration and goofy, grinning swoons.

Office romances are risky, and depicting them in fiction takes some delicacy… which The Hating Game mostly lacked. I spent the first twenty percent or so of this book shrieking at the characters to grow up and act like professionals! (OK, my day job might be leaking through a bit here — as someone who works in HR for a living, I was more than a little horrified by the workplace behavior of the characters and the fact that their bosses were completely hopeless as managers). Add to the office nonsense the fact that Josh and Lucy were up for the same promotion (and just how do executive assistants suddenly get considered for COO jobs?), and much of the story drove me absolutely batty.

BUT… when we get Josh and Lucy away from the office, suddenly their banter, flirtation, and chemistry become adorable, and — I admit it — it was impossible not to be caught up in the steamy scenes of almost-but-not-quite between the two of them. Sure, the plot and romance development were complicated by the usual contemporary romance tropes of poor communications and jumping to wildly off-base conclusion about the other’s intentions, but my grumpiness about these elements was eventually washed away by the sheer cuteness and sexiness of Josh and Lucy together. (With Lucy as the only POV character, we have to take her word for everything — but she does have a tendency to freak out over Josh’s behavior in ways that seem overly exaggerated. For a smart woman, she jumps to some dumb conclusions… repeatedly.)

Oh, and for a book that was supposedly centered around the office competition between the two characters, the ending left the career elements strangely unfinished, at least for Lucy. [SPOILER ahead] The big interview for the COO job has been Lucy’s focus (apart from Josh) for weeks, yet the story ends before the interview, so we don’t find out if Lucy ever got the job. We do know that Josh withdraws his application and takes a job with another company so that he and Lucy can pursue their relationship without professional conflicts of interest, but Lucy isn’t necessarily a lock and there are outside candidates — so why, after all the emphasis on Lucy’s dedication to her career, do we not get to know if she achieved her goal? This piece left me decidedly unsatisfied.

So, I guess you could say that I had a love/hate relationship with The Hating Game. I definitely got caught up in the story and basically dropped everything else until I finished… but so many parts of the story left me snorting with disbelief or rolling my eyes. If I had to come up with a rating, I’d probably give 2 stars for the office romance components, but 4 stars for the out-of-the-office flirtation, chemistry, and sexytimes. And apparently, I’ve turned into a contemporary romance reader this month — who’d have thunk it?

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The details:

Title: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: August 9, 2016
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

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

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

My Thoughts:

This is a fun, light read — just enough thoughtfulness to offset the goofiness of spray tans, bedazzled ballgowns, and parading in front of judges in a bikini. Charlotte describes her sister Ginny as the “pretty one” — the Meg to her Jo, the Jane to her Lizzie — but in reality, they’re identical twins. There isn’t really a prettier sister — it’s all about self-image and what each sister does with her looks and her talents.

Charlotte is delightfully bookish and nerdy, dropping Harry Potter lines at a moment’s notice, thrilled at the idea of picking up a sorting hat to bring back to the children’s library where she works. Ginny is Instagram-famous and seemingly all about the looks. By having to literally walk in Ginny’s shoes, Charlotte of course learns that there’s more to her sister’s world than she thought, and also discovers elements of herself that she’d buried for years.

It’s all a bit silly and full of wish-fulfillment. In reality, could someone new to pageant life pull off a successful impersonation of an experienced, trained competitor? Does it make any sense that Charlotte could come up with a talent act that not only works, but wins? Of course not.

Still, it’s fun to see Charlotte apply her geekiness to the pursuit of a crown for her sister. Not unpredictably, everything ends up going wrong, but the sisters’ relationship is strengthened by it all. An unnecessary love story adds a romantic element to the plot, but it really doesn’t need to be there.

On the plus side, The Accidental Beauty Queen is a good reminder that all choices are valid, and that women who compete in pageants are not by default shallow mean girls. The book shows the individuality of many of the competitors and allows them to emerge as strong women rather than as stereotypes. Likewise, we see that there are some worthy causes associated with the pageant world, including a fictional organization that mirrors some real-life organizations that organize pageants for disabled, ill, and special needs youth, enabling them to feel proud and beautiful and deserving of appreciation.

I’ve never been interested in pageants (and would have said that I’m turned off by the idea of being judged based on appearances). My overall feelings haven’t changed, but this book did help me see another side. The twin-switch is definitely unrealistic, but it’s a fun bit of fantasy that makes the book an easy, entertaining read.

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The details:

Title: The Accidental Beauty Queen
Author: Teri Wilson
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 

A love story about what happens after you meet, or rather, don’t meet the one.

Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

It seems to me that your personal enjoyment of One Day in December will depend to a large part on a) whether you believe in love at first sight and b) your overall appreciation of love triangles, finding THE ONE, and other staples of modern-day love stories.

As I’ve mentioned about a zillion times elsewhere on this blog, I’m not usually a romance reader, and while I enjoy a good, frothy contemporary love story every so often, it’s often an uphill battle for me to get past the meet-cute scenarios and the seemingly obvious obstacles that come with the territory.

All that said, let’s focus on One Day in December.

First off, yes, it’s the love-at-first-sight scenario. From the bus, Laurie sees the perfect man. They make eye contact. He tries to get on the bus — but it’s too crowded, the bus pulls away, and Laurie spends the following months pining for the man her best friend Sarah dubs “bus boy”. So naturally, when Laurie finally meets Sarah’s perfect new boyfriend, it’s “bus boy” himself (a.k.a. Jack), and Laurie makes the split-second decision not to tell Sarah.

Laurie and Sarah are true-blue besties, and Laurie wants Sarah to be happy, so she says nothing about her prior encounter with Jack. Laurie and Jack become friends, and she’s always aware of an underlying chemistry — but meanwhile, Sarah and Jack are in the early stages of what will become a years-long committed relationship. Laurie is the best friend, and becomes close friends with Jack, but that’s it… apart from one drunken kiss that they agree to forget ever happened and never, ever tell Sarah about.

One Day in December covers about ten years, starting with the bus encounter, when Laurie and Sarah are in their early twenties, and following the three main characters through to about age 30, when their lives and loves and careers have all dramatically changed. Laurie and Jack both move on, but neither has ever completely forgotten their secret connection, and it haunts every encounter and every relationship they each try to have over the years.

In general, I found this a quick and entertaining read, heavy on the bestie-love, with plenty of wine and silliness to enjoy — not to mention vintage clothing shops, perfect gifts, romance on Thailand beaches, yearnings for babies, and plenty of hot men. But I do have some issues with the plot…

ENTERING MINOR SPOILER TERRITORY – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Here’s the part where I talk about what bothered me about this book.

First and foremost, Laurie — how dumb is it not to say something to Sarah when you’re introduced to Jack? The entire tension could have been defused by laughing, saying “oh my god, it’s bus boy”, and moving on. Either Jack and Sarah continue to date and get serious, or not — but that way, Laurie is upfront with both of them, and the situation could have been dealt with. Instead, the truth comes out years later, and Sarah is rightfully pissed at Laurie for hiding the truth for so many years, to the extent that it almost destroys their friendship for good. Which leads to…

Second complaint, Sarah — you choose to pursue the conversation about bus boy on the eve of Laurie’s wedding, blow up at her, stomp out, and skip the wedding, where you’re supposed to be the maid of honor. Not cool. Having the blow up at this particular junction is unnecessary and over the top.

Third complaint, Laurie’s love interest Oscar — he’s a perfect guy, madly in love with Laurie, gives her everything she could possibly want in a partner, and then seems to have a change of personality and becomes married to his work. Too big a turnaround, too suddenly, in my humble opinion. It would have been easier to accept the gradual decay of their relationship if there’d been earlier signs of Oscar being unworthy or otherwise acting like a jerk.

Final complaint, Jack — I just wasn’t so impressed. He lacks focus and clarity for much of the book, and doesn’t seem worth the adoration that Laurie feels for him. For me to believe that he’s Laurie’s perfect man, I would need to be a lot more convinced of his wonderful qualities.

But most of all, I just don’t buy the overarching concept, that two people can know at a glance that they’re each other’s perfect match, and nothing can ever stand a chance of coming close to that perfection. Nope. Life doesn’t work that way… I mean, yes, it makes nice stories in books and movies, but this ten-year drama seems awfully forced to me.

END OF SPOILERS

All this may sound like I didn’t enjoy reading One Day in December, which isn’t exactly accurate. Like I said, it was quick and fun, and I was never bored or uninterested. It’s a light read, great for a day when you need a bit of comfort and cheer, probably best read while wearing flannel pajamas and drinking a big mug of cocoa (or glass of wine — whatever rocks your world.)

And who knows, someone who’s less of a grouch and much more of a romantic than I am might find this book to be absolutely swoon-worthy!

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The details:

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

 

A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Sometimes, a reader just NEEDS light, fluffy, no-fuss entertainment. That was me this week, and The Wedding Date definitely fit the bill.

It’s a cute story, starting with an almost too tropey meet-cute: being stuck in an elevator with the perfect guy/perfect girl, instant attraction, and plenty of cheese and crackers. Drew and Alexa hit it off right away, joking, being a bit flirty, and just passing the time with an attractive stranger. But there is a spark, so Drew asks Lexie to be his wedding date for the weekend, and she throws caution to the wind and accepts.

By the end of weekend, they’ve gone from fake dating to seriously real hot sex. They just seem to connect, and they can’t resist the physical chemistry. And despite the distance — one lives in LA, the other in Berkeley — they’re soon spending weekends together, sending racy texts, and fantasizing to distraction about being together.

I liked the characters, and the fact that this is an interracial couple where they acknowledge their differences and also embrace them. Mostly, though, the book is about two hot people who have hot sex and really, really are into each other. It’s a nice touch to have the perspective shift between the characters, so we get to hear both sides of the story as they think about each other’s actions and how they feel. Drew and Lexie are both a lot of fun to spend time with, and seem really down to earth and overall like good people.

Which may be why the complications in their relationship drove me a little batty. And yes, there have to be complications, or there wouldn’t be much of a story, right? Still, for two intelligent, highly-educated professionals, their relationship communication totally sucks. They spend a lot of time in their own heads, wondering what the other meant by a simple phrase or question, doubting themselves, not being straight with one another, and never actually saying what they mean. If they just had a simple, honest conversation, so much drama and stress (and tears — SO many tears) could have been avoided.

The writing for the most part is light and flowy, but every once in a while there’s a real clunker. Take this scene:

“Has everyone at this table dated Drew?” Shit, she probably shouldn’t have said that out loud. But at least now she’d get an answer.

“Not me!” Lucy said. But Heather, Emma, and Robin all rose their hands. Huh.

I’m sorry, what? They ROSE their hands? No.

In any case, I liked the characters themselves, and found the descriptions of their junk food habits kind of endearing. They’re cute together, and I was glued to the page despite feeling like the characters were making dumb decisions and acting irrationally simply for the sake of having dramatic tension. It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s a happy ending. Just take a look at the cover and tell me you don’t expect it to end happily!

I had fun reading The Wedding Date. After some fairly heavy books and a heap of work-related stress, this cheery romance hit the spot. I’ll definitely check out this author’s upcoming new release as well!

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The details:

Title: The Wedding Date
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: 180 Seconds


Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…

After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.

One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.

When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.

In 180 Seconds, we experience Allison’s life through her first-person perspective. She has a wonderful adoptive father, Simon, and a best friend Steffi, but apart from these two, Allison travels through life alone. After her years as a foster child, she’s built sturdy walls around herself, and feels safest when those walls are intact. Even with Simon, Allison keeps a distance. He’s warm and loving and supportive, but after all she’s been through, Allison has a hard time trusting that it won’t just all go away suddenly. Better to never let someone close than to risk it and then get hurt.

Steffi, though, is Allison’s soul-sister. They met in a foster home, and over the years, even though separated by circumstances outside their control, they’ve never lost their bond. Steffi, never adopted, attends college on the West Coast while Allison is in Maine, but they keep in constant contact. Steffi is outgoing, bubbly, and mama-bear fierce when it comes to protecting Allison from anyone and everything that might hurt her.

When Allison meets Esben in that fateful 180-second experiment, she’s shattered by the experience. During those three minutes, her walls come crashing down and she and Esben connect in a way that’s immediately shocking and intimate. Of course, being the age of technology, those 180 seconds make her internet-famous, and Allison finds that her private bubble has been blown apart and the world wants in. And then too, she has to figure out Esben — did he feel it too? Is this connection real?

As Allison and Esben finally meet for real and begin to talk, Allison finds herself opening up for the first time in her life. As she comes out of her shell, she and Esben begin a gentle development of a relationship that’s unlike anything she’s ever experienced, and the positive energy she feels lets her take risks, shut off the white noise in her earbuds, and actually reach out and let the world in.

What I liked:

The characters are really wonderful. Allison is fragile and introverted to the point of unhealthiness — but it’s understandable based on what we learn about her childhood and the amount of rejection she experienced growing up. It’s hard to see her keep Simon at a distance. He’s an amazing person who just knew Allison was meant to be his daughter, and he provides her with a safe and nurturing home and so much unconditional love, asking nothing in return. I loved seeing their relationship deepen as Allison’s ability to trust and accept love expands over the course of the novel.

Steffi is a strong, kick-ass young woman, but even she has vulnerabilities that she tries to hide. Steffi’s secrets because central to the plot in the latter part of the book, and I won’t say anything to divulge them here, but just be warned that boxloads of Kleenex are imperative for this book.

Allison’s blossoming is believable and well-written. You can practically feel the glow spreading within her as bit by bit, her relationship with Esben allows her to open up to life and its possibilities and to start believing in herself.

Minor quibbles:

There’s nothing I actually didn’t like about 180 Seconds, but I do have just a couple of minor issues with the book.

My major issue is that Esben is really too perfect. He’s a lovely person, but there are times when it’s just too much. He’s always sensitive, always respectful, always exactly what Allison needs — plus he’s super hot and sexy and has a heart of gold. This is a guy who uses social media for good, so when he finds out that a little girl’s birthday party is going to be a bust, he takes to social media to make sure she has a birthday princess extravaganza. He’s just SO GOOD all the time, and it makes him seem not quite human at times.

My other complaint is that for the first half or so of the book, it feels pretty episodic, without much dramatic tension or building plot. In each chapter, Allison has some new situation to confront or an event to participate in with Esben, and they deal with it, and she learns something, and it’s all good. None of it is boring or pointless, but it starts feeling like just one nice interlude after another.

Wrapping it all up:

I started 180 Seconds as an audiobook, but when I got within about 2 hours of the end, I had to switch to print so I could move faster and get through the rest of the story. Plus, I’ll be honest — this is another one of those audiobooks that probably should not be listened to in public. I got to a certain part and was taken completely by surprise and began seriously ugly crying… while I was driving my car. Not good!

I’m really not going to go further into the plot or explain my ugly crying jag or anything that happens in the last third. It’s heartbreaking and yet also quite heartwarming… in other words, it gives your heart a work-out!

180 Seconds is a lovely book filled with sympathetic, enjoyable characters and complex relationships. Highly recommended.

Also by this author: Flat-Out Love

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The details:

Title: 180 Seconds
Author: Jessica Park
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Always by Sarah Jio

always

While enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with her fiance, Ryan, at one of Seattle’s chicest restaurants, Kailey Crane can’t believe her good fortune: She has a great job as a writer for the Herald and is now engaged to a guy who is perfect in nearly every way. As they leave the restaurant, Kailey spies a thin, bearded homeless man on the sidewalk. She approaches him to offer up her bag of leftovers, and is stunned when their eyes meet, then stricken to her very core: The man is the love of her life, Cade McAllister.

When Kailey met Cade ten years ago, their attraction was immediate and intense everything connected and felt “right.” But it all ended suddenly, leaving Kailey devastated. Now the poor soul on the street is a faded version of her former beloved: His weathered and weary face is as handsome as Kailey remembers, but his mind has suffered in the intervening years. Over the next few weeks, Kailey helps Cade begin to piece his life together, something she initially keeps from Ryan. As she revisits her long-ago relationship, Kailey realizes that she must decide exactly what and whom she wants.

Alternating between the past and the present, Always is a beautifully unfolding exploration of a woman faced with an impossible choice, a woman who discovers what she’s willing to save and what she will sacrifice for true love.

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

And a disclaimer: This just isn’t my kind of story, and that fact probably influences my reaction quite a bit… but maybe not. I’ll explain, I promise.

I like a good romantic tale every once in a while. A nice, contemporary story about falling in love, or rediscovering love, or the memory of love… what’s not to — you know?

So why didn’t I love Always? For starters, everything was so completely obvious. In chapter one, we see Kailey sitting down to dinner with her super rich, too handsome to be true, perfect gentleman from a fine family fiancé, and I could tell you already that these two will never work out. He’s a developer; she wants to save the homeless shelters in the square of his next big development project. He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married. They seem to read home decorating magazines for fun. There is just no way that these two should ever get married — so when she stumbles across the former love of her life dressed in rags and seemingly out of his mind, there’s really no dramatic tension. OF COURSE she’s going to end up with Cade. I mean, there isn’t the slightest shadow of a doubt about it.

Still, we get the alternating timeline effect, following the story of Kailey and Cade’s first meeting (Seattle in the 90s) and early romance, intercut with chapters set in the later timeline (2008) as she discovers Cade on the streets and decides that she has to save him. The more we see of Kailey and Cade’s relationship, the clearer it becomes that Ryan is all wrong for Kailey. But anyway…

Cade is homeless, begging for food, and clearly has been through something awful. He only shows a glimmer of recognition when he sees the tattoo on Kailey’s shoulder — because of course, he has the same one. She’s desperate to help him, and he doesn’t actually know who she is. Meanwhile, she never tells Ryan the truth, so she’s living a lie, missing work, and disappearing from life with her fiancé — not a good sign.

Plot-wise, there are just too many pieces that make no sense to me. (As I said earlier, SPOILERS!);

  • Cade just up and disappeared 10 years earlier, but it’s not clear whether Kailey actually did anything to find him. A guy, even one who’s been drinking too much, doesn’t just evaporate from his own life for no reason. Did she go to his apartment and notice that all his possessions were still there? Did she call the police? File a missing persons report? Hire a detective? Try to figure out who last saw him? If she’d done any of that, no matter the state of their relationship, I have a feeling she might have actually found him. Although then we’d have no big romantic reunion all those years later, but still.
  • So what exactly was wrong with Cade? “Traumatic brain injury” — what does that even mean? I know this isn’t a medical drama, but a little bit of a reality check might have helped. What part of the brain was affected? What’s the prognosis? And why is the treatment so vague? Living in a facility with unspecified treatments, medications, therapies… and suddenly he can talk and remember? More detail and grounding would have helped sell Cade’s condition better.
  • And what exactly happened the night of the accident? Apparently, Cade was the victim of some sort of crime… maybe? Or hit by a car? Or really, anything at all? We don’t know. And for that matter, why didn’t James, the former best friend, bother finding out afterward?
  • We find out, through Kailey’s barely-making-an-effort detective work, that a John Doe was admitted to the hospital with a brain injury right around that same time, but was checked out by a family member before treatment could be provided. AND THEN WE NEVER GET A RESOLUTION ON THIS PLOT POINT. Who checked him out? Why? Did something nefarious happen? No answers.

Okay, so the more I write, the more I realize how much the plot didn’t work for me. It felt formulaic and utterly predictable, with very little tension (Kailey’s choice is a forgone conclusion), and a romance that gets a pie-in-the-sky ending that feels like it glazes over any and all obstacles. Heck, they even recover Cade’s missing fortune by barely lifting a finger (and the story I expected, of insidious business dealings and a financial motivation, never actually materializes.) The storybook ending is yet another element of a paint-by-number love story that lacks any basis in the real world.

Sure, some may find this an inspiring story of true love finding its way. When two people are meant to be together, nothing (NOT EVEN A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY) can keep them apart. Love conquers all, yo!

Clearly, this was not a book for me.

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The details:

Title: Always
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: After I Do

after-i-doWarning: This review will include some minor spoilers. Don’t worry — I’ll flag the spoilery parts!

From the author of Forever, Interrupted comes a breathtaking new novel about modern marriage, the depth of family ties, and the year that one remarkable heroine spends exploring both.

When Lauren and Ryan’s marriage reaches the breaking point, they come up with an unconventional plan. They decide to take a year off in the hopes of finding a way to fall in love again. One year apart, and only one rule: they cannot contact each other. Aside from that, anything goes.

Lauren embarks on a journey of self-discovery, quickly finding that her friends and family have their own ideas about the meaning of marriage. These influences, as well as her own healing process and the challenges of living apart from Ryan, begin to change Lauren’s ideas about monogamy and marriage. She starts to question: When you can have romance without loyalty and commitment without marriage, when love and lust are no longer tied together, what do you value? What are you willing to fight for?

This is a love story about what happens when the love fades. It’s about staying in love, seizing love, forsaking love, and committing to love with everything you’ve got. And above all, After I Do is the story of a couple caught up in an old game—and searching for a new road to happily ever after.

I definitely have mixed feelings about this book. I’ve now read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books currently available, and I think she’s an amazing writer. She never fails to convincingly capture the inner lives of seemingly ordinary people What makes her books and characters so special is her knack for revealing what goes on beneath the surface. What’s really happening in the heart and mind of a young woman experiencing first love? What does it feel like to be so annoyed with one’s partner that it’s almost impossible to remember even liking the person, let alone loving them?

Lauren and Ryan have been together since age 19, when they met in college. For all intents and purposes, Ryan is Lauren’s only love and only relationship. She had a high school boyfriend, with whom she lost her virginity, but that’s it. So Lauren entered adult life partnered with Ryan, and her entire experience of being in a committed relationship is with Ryan.

And once the heady rush of lust and wonder and romance starts to wear off in the face of daily irritations like disagreeing over restaurants or calling the plumber, it’s hard for Lauren and Ryan to see a reason for their marriage any longer.

As the synopsis explains, they decide to separate for a year. Neither utters the word “divorce”. They’re going to take a year apart, with no contact whatsoever, to see if they can reset, explore their own lives on their own, and figure out how to reconnect.

SPOILERS AHOY! I can’t talk about the book any further without getting more specific, so skip this part if you’d rather not know.

As Lauren and Ryan are splitting, Lauren asks if this means that they’ll date other people, and Ryan confirms that this is part of the deal. There are no rules at all about their behavior while they’re apart. And not only do they date other people — they sleep with other people. A lot. And somehow still expect to have a marriage to come back to.

I’m sorry, but while I love the writing and zipped through this book, I just cannot buy the premise. This is so unhealthy and dysfunctional. SEPARATING FOR A YEAR, NOT COMMUNICATING FOR A YEAR, AND SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT HOW YOU SAVE A MARRIAGE.

They go straight from admitting that they can’t stand each other and don’t think they love each other any more to deciding to separate. What about couples counseling? They never even give it a try. Granted, going to counseling would be a fairly lame plot for a romantic novel, whereas the separation thing is much more dramatic… but in real life? This is a recipe for disaster.

If the goal is to get back together after a year, you do not sleep with other people! No matter how much their separation teaches them about being supportive and respectful and communicating, how do you get past knowing that your spouse spent a year having sex, including some great sex, with other people?

In Lauren’s case, her sex life with Ryan was all she knew, and it wasn’t very satisfying. So she has a no-strings, friends-with-benefits arrangement with a recently divorced man who’s not over his ex-wife, and through their encounters, she learns more about asking for what she wants in bed. Fair enough — but again, counseling, people!

In a key plot element, neither Ryan nor Lauren bother to change their email passwords during their year apart, so they end up reading each others’ draft emails throughout the year, thereby learning about the things that made them bonkers during their marriage as well as their current sexual encounters.

So, no, I don’t believe that they could have actually picked up the pieces of their marriage after all this, or that a year apart without every working on things together would enable them to realize what they need to do to have a healthy relationship going forward.

END OF SPOILERY BITS

What I did find convincing was the fact that Lauren grew up in a household with a single mother. Lauren’s mother raised her three kids marvelously and clearly devoted herself to them. But at the same time, Lauren never saw her mother in a relationship (she kept her boyfriends hidden from her kids), and never had a healthy adult marriage to model her own after. Which is kind of a debatable point, by the way — I by no means believe that children of divorce can’t grow up to have great marriages of their own, as a general rule. But in After I Do, this does seem to be a factor in Lauren’s unhealthy marriage, especially when compounded by the fact that her relationship with Ryan is all she’s ever experienced, and it seems as though the two of them were unprepared for the realities involved when transitioning to adulthood as a couple.

This may all sound very negative, so I want to be sure to point out all the good too. I loved Lauren’s family — her super-close relaitonship with her sister, her flighty younger brother who finds his own unconventional love over the course of the book, the amazing grandmother who influences Lauren’s life, and the family’s oddball quirks and traditions that make them feel unique and special. Likewise, Lauren’s best friend Mila adds another view of adult relationships to Lauren’s perspective, and helps her come to understand that love and commitment transcend daily drama and household nonsense.

As I mentioned to start with, I really enjoy this author’s writing. She has a knack for making her characters feel real. No one is perfect, and even our point-of-view characters are quite openly flawed. She does a great job of breathing life into her characters’ emotional traumas, as well as their silly fixations and disagreements, and realistically shows how relationships either grow or fall apart under the stress of ordinary life.

Do I recommend After I Do? I do, actually! While I disagreed with many of the plot elements, I still found it highly readable and engaging. If you enjoy reading about young adults dealing with the realities of love and romance in the modern world, try After I Do and other books by this author.

Check out my reviews of other books by Taylor Jenkins Reid:
Maybe In Another Life
One True Loves
Forever, Interrupted

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The details:

Title: After I Do
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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