Audiobook Review: If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

Title: If the Shoe Fits
Series: Meant to Be
Author: Julie Murphy
Narrator: Jen Ponton
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: August 3, 2021
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 51 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Cindy loves shoes. A well-placed bow or a chic stacked heel is her form of self-expression. As a fashion-obsessed plus-size woman, she can never find designer clothes that work on her body, but a special pair of shoes always fits just right.

With a shiny new design degree but no job in sight, Cindy moves back in with her stepmother, Erica Tremaine, the executive producer of the world’s biggest dating reality show. When a contestant on Before Midnight bows out at the last minute, Cindy is thrust into the spotlight. Showcasing her killer shoe collection on network TV seems like a great way to jump-start her career. And, while she’s at it, why not go on a few lavish dates with an eligible suitor?

But being the first and only fat contestant on Before Midnight turns her into a viral sensation—and a body-positivity icon—overnight. Even harder to believe? She can actually see herself falling for this Prince Charming. To make it to the end, despite the fans, the haters, and a house full of fellow contestants she’s not sure she can trust, Cindy will have to take a leap of faith and hope her heels— and her heart—don’t break in the process.

Best-selling author Julie Murphy’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is an enchanting story of self-love and believing in the happy ending each and every one of us deserves. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good modern-day fairy tale, If the Shoe Fits might be a perfect… fit. (Sorry.)

In 2020, Disney’s publishing arm announced its new series of fairy tale retellings, aimed at adult readers. With different authors writing the different installments, each book will retell a classic fairy tale as a contemporary romance. If the Shoe Fits is the first in the Meant To Be series… and I have to say, after reading this one, I’m definitely on board for more!

If the Shoe Fits is very funny, but also surprisingly emotional in key ways. Cindy is a recent graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, but after barely squeaking by on her final project, she has no immediate job or career prospects. She returns to LA to live with her stepmother and extended family, planning to nanny for the summer and hit pause for a bit… but then reality TV upends her plans.

[Side note: Why are there so many romance novels framed around TV dating shows these days? I swear this is at least the 4th I’ve read… and I’ve never watched a single episode of The Bachelor!]

In one of the lovely twists on the classic Cinderella story, Cindy’s stepmother and stepsisters are not evil! In fact, her stepmother Erica is loving and supportive, and her stepsisters Anna and Drew are sweet and love Cindy unstintingly. After Cindy’s father’s sudden death (while Cindy was in high school), Erica moved forward with the surrogacy they’d been planning, so there are also three-year-old triplets for Cindy to adore.

Erica is the creator and producer of the biggest reality TV dating show, Before Midnight. Cindy’s always loved the glamor and romance of the show, but she never could have conceived of being on it herself. When the new season loses contestants right before filming, Anna and Drew are called in as subs, and Cindy decides to take a chance and ask to be included as well. As an aspiring designer with a killer shoe collection, what better way to get her name and her designs out into the world, even if this is way outside her comfort zone? The $100,000 prize doesn’t hurt either — if she can’t find a job, maybe she’ll launch her own brand!

Cindy doesn’t hesitate to describe herself as fat, although it makes her non-fat family and friends cringe. She’s plus-size, and she knows it. She’s tired of going shopping with her sisters and never having options in her size. She’s tired of being told she’s “brave” for wearing stylish or sexy clothes. She’s tired of being viewed as less because of the shape of her body, and she’s tired of being invisible. Go, Cindy!

The actual reality TV experience is just as silly as you’d expect, with 20 women competing for love, although most have reasons for being on the show that have nothing to do with true romance. Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight, and between the influencers and walking memes and mean girls, it’s hard to imagine that love has anything to do with it.

The twist is that this season’s suitor is someone Cindy had met randomly weeks earlier, when the two seemed to share an instant connection. Suddenly, the fake reality dating show becomes a lot more real for Cindy… could he possibly feel what she’s feeling? And what if he doesn’t actually choose her in the end?

I mentioned the emotional aspects of the story. Cindy is still deeply grieving her father’s loss. Her memories of her father and all the ways in which her grief has affected her life are truly touching. The weight of the loss hit her fresh her senior year, which is why she struggled to graduate and felt that she’d lost her creative spark. As she competes on Before Midnight, she also starts to deal more directly with what she’s experienced, how her grief has shaped her last few years, and what reconnecting with her creativity might possibly look like.

I really appreciated the sensitivity with which all this is portrayed, as well as the depiction of Cindy herself as a funny, attractive, determined woman who refuses to feel shame or let others hold her back because of her body size.

I don’t mean to make this sound like serious literature — overall, the tone is funny and sweeet, and there are plenty of silly escapades to laugh over. Surprisingly, Cindy even manages to find true friends among the other contestants, even as the competition heats up, and I loved the idea that women can connect and be kind and supportive to one another even in the weirdest pressure-cooker situations.

The audiobook is a delight. The narrator does a great job with Cindy, as well as making the other Before Midnight contestants and producers come alive as individuals with distinct voices. Also, the dialogue can be very funny, making the audiobook super entertaining.

The next book in the series will be released in May — a Beauty and the Beast retelling (!!) written by Jasmine Guillory (!!), set in the world of publishing and authors (!!). I am so there for it.

Meanwhile, check out If the Shoe Fits! Just a really fun reading/listening experience.

Book Review: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Title: The Charm Offensive
Author: Alison Cochrun
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.

Full disclosure: I have never, ever watched an episode of The Bachelor. I don’t believe people can find true love via a TV reality dating show. But, grudgingly, I suspended my disbelief in order to read The Charm Offensive, and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

In The Charm Offensive, Charlie makes for an unpredictable and unconventional “prince” for the fairy-tale based dating show Ever After, supposedly the most successful and popular dating show on TV. Charlie is a former tech genius who was fired from his own company. His publicist thinks putting him out there as a romantic lead on a hugely-watched show will rehabilitate his image… and hopefully, make him seem employable again when it’s all over. Are you feeling skeptical about this plan? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, Dev is a production team member of Ever After, tasked with “handling” the twenty women cast as potential love interests for Charlie. But after the initial filming attempt goes horribly, with Charlie barely able to talk on camera, Dev is reassigned to be Charlie’s handler. It’s Dev’s job to prep Charlie for the grueling weeks ahead, getting him into prince mode and making sure he’s ready to be on camera and at the center of attention.

The more time Dev and Charlie spend together, the more their chemistry and connection grow… but not without challenges. Charlie, it becomes clear early on, suffers from debilitating panic attacks and OCD, and he can barely keep things together when he’s under stress, which is pretty much constant on the set of Ever After. Dev deals with recurring depression himself, but his preferred persona is “Fun Dev” — he’s always, always upbeat and on when he’s around his coworkers and the cast, not wanting anyone to see beyond the surface.

Dev is out and proud, but he’s concerned about his growing attraction to the gorgeous Charlie. Charlie is… enigmatic. Because of his differences, Charlie has never seen himself as worthy of love, and he’s never explored romance or sexuality. As he spends time with the women competing for his heart, as well as spending almost 24/7 with Dev, he starts to acknowledge the attraction and the feelings he has — all for Dev. Yet his contract with the show requires him to continue playing out the romantic fantasy with the women competing to be his princess, and as for Dev, his career is on the line if he allows himself to act on his feelings for Charlie.

Charlie and Dev are very sweet together, and they share moments of vulnerability and honesty, as well as some absolutely swoon-worthy kisses. At first glance, the premise of The Charm Offensive makes this book seem like it’ll be mostly airy and light, but there’s actual depth here. Both Charlie and Dev have mental health issues to address, and Charlie is someone who’s neuro-atypical in a world that doesn’t quite know what to make of him or how to make room for him.

Additionally, Charlie hasn’t had an opportunity in his life to ever really consider love or orientation, and it’s refreshing to see the characters in this book talk about the spectrum of ways a person can be, discussing not just straight vs gay, but also delving into demisexuality, being aro/ace, graysexual, and more. There are some deeper moments of soul-searching that enable the characters to move beyond easy definitions and labels and make them feel like well-rounded, well-developed individuals.

The concept of Ever After is so ridiculous that it’s actually really funny, with the contestants competing in quests like rescuing Charlie from a tower and kissing frogs, the prince handing out tiaras at the weekly crowning ceremonies, and even the absolutely vital moment of riding up on a white horse. Still, the nagging little logical part of my brain couldn’t help thinking that there is actually no way that a show like this would cast someone like Charlie, who’s never been on camera, can’t speak publicly, is unbelievably awkward, and has just no game when it comes to the women. I couldn’t buy the idea that the show would gamble on him as its lead — it makes no sense, and it also makes no sense that this is the best idea Charlie’s publicist has for rehabbing his image and getting him another job in tech.

Putting that aside, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about The Charm Offensive. The writing is often very funny:

These are not appropriate morning-yoga thoughts. He tries to focus on things that calm him: Excel spreadsheets, quiet libraries, one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, 90-degree angles.

Dude, except for the 90-degree angles, I so relate.

Also puzzle-themed, I actually think Charlie could be my soulmate in another universe:

“This is your idea of a romantic time?”

… Dev asked Charlie what he would do with his ideal afternoon. So now they’re working on a jigsaw puzzle while watching the first season of The Expanse…

Most of all, Dev and Charlie are both great characters, and I loved seeing their connection grow. This is a sweet, funny, and thoughtful look at love and communication and choosing happiness. The geeky sci-fi and puzzle bits are just icing on the cake!

TV Time: What’s Lisa watching? Thoughts on a disappointing season of Survivor.

Oh, Survivor. What did you do to my show this season?

I can’t call myself a superfan. There were bunches of seasons that I just didn’t watch. But I’ve been back in for the last 8 – 10 seasons, and it’s been a blast. There’s just something about Survivor. The personalities, the scheming, the strategizing, the challenges — it’s a suprisingly entertaining little social experiment, with stakes of $1 million dollars each time a batch of new players hits the beach.

The 38th season of Survivor wrapped up this past week, and geez — what a letdown. In some ways, the season was doomed from the start due to a weird and dull-but-infuriating theme. Here are some thoughts on the highs and lows, and where I think the season really went wrong.

The full cast competes on SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction when the Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 38th season, Wednesday, Feb. 20 (8:00-9:00PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

New and returning players. This season, we had 14 new players and 4 returning players. Why, Survivor, why? The four returnees are all relatively recent players, all very popular with fans despite never winning the game. And I mean, it’s nice to see them again — but who decided it would be a good idea to mix new and returning this way? The new players, while some quite starstruck, nevertheless pretty immediately banded together to decide to get rid of the returnees. They were seen as big threats, and the general feeling seemed to be, “they had their shot already — this is OUR time.” Two returnees were placed on each of the two tribes, making them outnumbered from the start, and despite some good alliance-building, they never really seemed to have a shot at making it to the end.

I like seeing returning players (well, some of them, at any rate), but not in such a weird ratio to new. I’d much rather watch an all-returnees season, or a fans vs favorite set-up, where at the least the numbers are even going into the game. I couldn’t really figure out the rationale here, and it ended up seeming like a waste of good, exciting players to put them in this no-win situation.

The returning players

Edge of Extinction was a disaster. The concept here is a new one for Survivor. Instead of being out of the game once voted out, as expected, each player who’s voted out has a choice: Go home (to Ponderosa) and kick back until the game is over, or grab a torch and get in the boat to the Edge of Extinction. All of the players voted out chose the torch, naturally, and then they just sat around on a bare island, waiting… and waiting… and waiting. The voted-out players had a chance to compete to get back in the game mid-way through, and then again toward the end, when only a handful of players remain. And lo and behold, the guy who ended up winning the game spent 28 out of 39 days on the Edge of Extinction. So how did he win the game, and was it fair?

In my view, no, it wasn’t fair. Chris, the winner, was the 3rd person voted out of the game. He then had all those weeks to hang out with all of the other voted-out players, all of whom ended up being the Survivor jury. So he had a chance to make friends, resolve any hurt feelings, not compete, and basically just lay low, meanwhile scooping up all sorts of intel that ended up giving him an edge when he did win his way back in.

No disrespect to Chris — he’s not the one who created the concept. But it does seem like a bizarre twist, and one that gives an edge to someone who actually played much less than the other remaining contestants. And by playing less, he didn’t piss people off, have to compete, deal with alliances or betrayals, or any of the other key elements of game play. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

The final three

On top of the fairness question, Edge of Extinction had a strangely diluting impact on the TV show itself. Most episodes featured some amount of check-in time with the voted-off players, who really weren’t doing anything of note, which ended up taking time away from the action amongst the players who were actually still in the game. At first, the twist seemed kind of cool… but once it became clear that there was nothing actually happening at Edge of Extinction, it became more and more clear that something was off about the entire concept.

They need to fix the final four elimination. A couple of seasons ago, the Survivor powers-that-be added a fire-making competition to determine the final three. At the very last immunity challenge, when there are four players left, the winner automatically goes to final three. He/she then gets to pick who also goes to final three, and the remaining two have to compete to make fire, with the winner getting the 3rd spot in the finals.

The problem is, it’s a dumb way to figure out the finalists. In seasons where there’s someone who’s a clear favorite to win, unless that person wins that last immunity challenge, there’s no way anyone (with an eye on winning a million dollars) will bring that person to the end. And fire-making is a crapshoot. Someone could be a great fire maker, but just have an off day or maybe the wind is blowing wrong. It’s just so disappointing to see someone play a truly great game and get knocked out right before the end.

That’s what happened here. Chris, returned from Edge of Extinction, won the final immunity. The other three contestants included Rick Devens, the clear favorite to win, and two others, Gavin and Julie, who made almost no impression on me with their gameplay. Chris made the risky decision to give his immunity to Gavin and go up against Rick in the fire-making, knowing that (a) if he won, it would be a big move for his Survivor resume and increase his odds of winning the ultimate prize, and (b) if he lost, well, he would have lost to Rick in the final anyway, so why not chance it?

The player most likely to win… until he got knocked out in the fire-making competition.

Chris made a smart move — but I still hate it. At four, it feels like too much power in the hands of the person who won the last immunity challenge. And if that particular challenge happens to be one that the best overall player isn’t suited to, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be eliminated. Look what happened to Malcolm the first time he played — if he’d made it past that last challenge, he’d have won the game.

My suggestions? Try a different approach. Maybe make the remaining three battle it out three ways, with the top two finishers moving to the finals. Or maybe allow hidden immunity idols to still be played at final four, offering one more reward to a person who hustled to find it. I just can’t stand seeing finals where the strongest player has been pushed out, so we end up with lackluster players who made it to the end because no one saw them as dangerous enough to vote out.

♦♦♦♦♦♦

Will I keep watching Survivor? You betcha. But I hope the show runners take steps to fix some of the problems from this season.

For anyone who watched, what did you think of this season? Did you think the right person won? Hit me up in the comments!