Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)

Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Title: Spoiler Alert
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 

Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.

April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.

Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.

With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

Spoiler Alert is a body-positive yet somewhat angsty romance, ultimately a feel-good story but one that makes its characters work pretty hard to get there.

April Whittier is a 36-year-old geologist who’s comfortable in her own skin, despite the constant pressure from parents who’ve always wanted to fix her through diets or exercise or “foundation garments”. As she gets ready to start a job with much less focus on image, April decides to come out as a cosplayer by posting a photo of herself in her full Lavinia glory.

Lavinia is one half of the madly shipped pairing of Lavinia and Aeneas from the hugely popular Gates of the Gods book series and TV adaptation. In the world of Spoiler Alert, Gates of the Gods is the biggest thing on TV, adapted from the books series by author E. Wade — but the author has only published three books so far, and the TV series has moved beyond book content in its later seasons, with plotting and scripts by the showrunners. By most accounts, their work is a disaster, at least according to true fans. Only the cast knows what’s coming up in the final season which has just finished filming (and they’re sworn to secrecy) — but privately, most of the cast feels like their characters have been ruined and given plotlines that destroy or negate seasons worth of development.

Marcus Castor-Rupp is one of the stars of Gates of the Gods, in the leading role of Aeneas. Almost 40, Marcus is known for his gorgeous face, fine physique, sharp acting skills… and lack of intelligence. His public persona is all about his good looks. He’s a truly pretty face, but there’s no there there.

When April posts her cosplay picture on Twitter, the trolls come out. When some particularly cruel comments are posted which tag Marcus, as if inviting him to have fun mocking April, Marcus swoops in in hero fashion and declares April gorgeous and asks her out. It may be a publicity stunt, but April decides to be brave and accepts.

Their date is horrible. April wants to get to know Marcus, and Marcus is dull as rocks (or duller than rocks, since April is a geologist and finds rocks fascinating.) But finally, April starts to realize that the pretty boy facade might hide someone else, a man of intelligence, and almost unwillingly, she’s intrigued.

As April and Marcus get to know each other better, a further complication arises: They are each active fanfiction writers, and their fanfic alter-egos are actually close friends, and maybe even more. While April admits to her fanfic identity up front, Marcus does not, knowing that his writing could get him fired and make him untouchable in Hollywood if anyone ever found out. As they continue dating, Marcus digs himself a deeper and deeper hole — the closer he gets to April, the more he wants to tell her the truth, but that would mean admitting he lied in the first place, which he’s sure would drive her away.

There’s a lot to really enjoy about Spoiler Alert. I liked the fictional world within the world, learning about the plotlines and characters of Gates of the Gods throughout the story. There are snippets of fanfic included in between chapters, as well as some rather hilarious script selections from the truly awful movie and TV productions Marcus was in before hitting it big.

I also appreciated the confidence both April and Marcus have when it comes to their chosen professions. They both have devoted themselves to becoming great at their work, and they have faith in themselves and their own abilities. (Also, it’s kind of awesomely funny every time we find out about yet another skill that Marcus has learned in preparation for roles — not just horseback riding and sword skills, but also how to chop like a chef and even ride a unicycle.)

April describes herself as fat, and she’s okay with that. While others (especially her mother) might try to change her or make her feel unworthy due to her size, April knows she’s an attractive woman and dresses to show herself to best advantage. She’s also clear that she wants to be loved for herself, and not despite or because of her fatness. She’s also very sex positive, understanding what she like and what she wants, and being very upfront about giving and receiving pleasure.

Both April and Marcus carry heavy baggage from the pain of their childhoods. April’s parents fat-shamed her her entire life, and it’s amazing that she grew up to be as well-adjusted as she is. Marcus, the son of two academics, was made to feel slow, lazy, and stupid throughout his childhood and adolescents, because his undiagnosed dyslexia made his schooling a nightmare. His sense of shame from this stays with him and absolutely informs the “just a pretty face” act that he puts on in public. Even though he’s recognized his dyslexia and learned adaptations to help him succeed, the scars have stayed with him.

Other stuff I like:

  • April and Marcus’s hot chemistry
  • How frequently we hear Marcus think about how gorgeous April is and how attracted he is to her
  • April and Marcus’s ages — they’re adults, not teens or early 20-somethings. I like the maturity and the stage of life they’re both in, where they’re both successful, but feel like it’s really time to make changes in their lives if they’re ever going to.
  • The story within a story, particularly when it comes to the Lavinia and Aeneas characters
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor shown in the fanfic and the script snippets
  • The way Gates of the Gods is clearly meant to be a Game of Thrones-type production
  • April’s professional pride and success
  • The celebration of fandom culture as a whole — I loved the positive portrayal of cosplay and fanfiction and cons. The author makes this world rich and vibrant and so much fun.

Some quibbles:

  • SO much pain and angst. I appreciate how thoughtful April and Marcus are and how deeply they feel everything, but the scenes of anguish and mental suffering are way too frequent and long. As April’s fanfic persona points out to Marcus’s early on, some writing should be tagged “misery ahoy”.
  • Perhaps one reason the angst felt like too much to me has to do with the overall length of the book. For a fun, upbeat romance, it’s long. I think the story would have been stronger with about 30-40 pages whittled down, at least.
  • The conflict over secret-keeping is obviously going to cause a break-up. We readers can see exactly where it’s going, right from the start of the relationship. Being obvious isn’t a deal-breaker, but at some point I found myself just waiting for the inevitable.

For those who prefer to know in advance, the sex scenes in this book are explicit, which usually isn’t my taste in romance reading. However, there aren’t so many that it’s overwhelming, so overall I was okay with it.

Whew. This is a long review. I love the positive messages conveyed by this steamy love story: You don’t have to fit some society-determined idea of what perfect is to be attractive, sexy, desirable, and most importantly, to be loved. The body-positivity is lovely, and the plot itself and the charming characters are really enjoyable and entertaining.

I understand that there will be a follow-up novel focusing on Marcus’s best friend and his love interest, and I will definitely be on board!

Book Review: In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Title: In a Holidaze
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One Christmas wish, two brothers, and a lifetime of hope are on the line for hapless Maelyn Jones in In a Holidaze, the quintessential holiday romantic novel by Christina Lauren, the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…but not for Maelyn Jones. She’s living with her parents, hates her going-nowhere job, and has just made a romantic error of epic proportions.

But perhaps worst of all, this is the last Christmas Mae will be at her favorite place in the world—the snowy Utah cabin where she and her family have spent every holiday since she was born, along with two other beloved families. Mentally melting down as she drives away from the cabin for the final time, Mae throws out what she thinks is a simple plea to the universe: Please. Show me what will make me happy.

The next thing she knows, tires screech and metal collides, everything goes black. But when Mae gasps awake…she’s on an airplane bound for Utah, where she begins the same holiday all over again. With one hilarious disaster after another sending her back to the plane, Mae must figure out how to break free of the strange time loop—and finally get her true love under the mistletoe.

Jam-packed with yuletide cheer, an unforgettable cast of characters, and Christina Lauren’s trademark “downright hilarious” (Helen Hoang, author of The Bride Test) hijinks, this swoon-worthy romantic read will make you believe in the power of wishes and the magic of the holidays.

As a rule, I do not read Christmas-themed books. But, rules are made to be broken, especially when the Christmas-themed book in question is by Christina Lauren, the author duo whose books I always seem to love.

In a Holidaze is a feel-good holiday story with a little bit of Groundhog Day mixed in as a twist. Maelyn Jones loves her family’s Christmas tradition. For as long as she can remember, her parents, their college best friends, and the assorted offspring gather at a cabin in Utah to catch up and celebrate. It’s the best sort of found family.

The only downside for Mae is that her teen crush on Andrew Hollis, the older of two brothers who are sons of the cabin owners, has morphed over the years into unrequited love. For ten years, Mae has pined for Andrew, but Andrew has never looked at her as more than a kid sister.

This year, Mae’s holiday gets complicated. On the last night at the cabin, she drunkenly makes out with Andrew’s younger brother Theo, which she instantly regrets. Not only that, but Andrew’s parents inform everyone that they’re selling the cabin, so this is the last year of the traditional Christmas holiday together.

Mae is upset and depressed, and not at all excited about going back to her disappointing life and job back home. A random car accident on the drive back to the airport launches Mae into an impossible new reality — she wakes up back on the airplane on the way to the cabin to start the holiday all over again.

Of course, no one else realizes that anything weird is afoot, but Mae is freaking out. After a couple more reboots, each caused by a seemingly fatal accident, Mae is determined to stop being so cautious and timid and just go for what she wants… and that includes telling Andrew how she feels.

From here, it’s a feel-good romance, as lifelong friends discover passion and deep emotional connection. The setting is such fun — a snowy cabin, a big family, holiday traditions like sledding and setting up the tree and having snowball fights, board games and drinks by the fire. The big extended family is of course very invested in the Mae/Andrew romance, and some complications arise that almost ruin everything. But, this is a holiday romance, so despite some fears along the way, I was pretty confident that things were going to work out just fine.

Christina Lauren books are always a good time, and I really liked this one. I loved the set-up — the large group gathered at the cabin for a week — and how the different friends and family present interact, support one another, act out, make fun of each other, and show just how strong a family of friends can be.

Mae and Andrew are sweet together, and the only issue I had was that I spent the 2nd half of the book holding my breath in case another random reboot would happen and wipe out all the wonderful relationship steps these two managed to take.

In a Holidaze is really a sweet read, and is a perfect choice for when the weather turns colder. Ideally, this book should be read while wearing flannel, under a big cozy blanket, in a comfy chair next to the fireplace, while snow falls outside. Don’t forget the hot chocolate!

Book Review: Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo

Title: Ties That Tether
Author: Jane Igharo
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When a Nigerian woman falls for a man she knows will break her mother’s heart, she must choose between love and her family.

At twelve years old, Azere promised her dying father she would marry a Nigerian man and preserve her culture even after emigrating to Canada. Her mother has been vigilant about helping–forcing–her to stay well within the Nigerian dating pool ever since. But when another match-made-by-mom goes wrong, Azere ends up at a bar, enjoying the company and later sharing the bed of Rafael Castellano, a man who is tall, handsome, and white.

When their one-night stand unexpectedly evolves into something serious, Azere is caught between her growing feelings for Rafael and the compulsive need to please her mother who will never accept a relationship that threatens to dilute Azere’s Nigerian heritage.

Azere can’t help wondering if loving Rafael makes her any less of a Nigerian. Can she be with him without compromising her identity? The answer will either cause Azere to be audacious and fight for her happiness or continue as the compliant daughter.

At first glance, Ties That Tether might seem to be just another contemporary romance. But really, it’s so much more.

Right off the bat, we know that Azere has done something completely out of character. After a terrible first date with yet another mom-approved man, Azere decides to cool off by having a drink in the hotel bar… where an attractive stranger strikes up a conversation with her. After talking for hours, they end up in bed and have a fantastic night together — but Azere leaves quietly the next morning, never intending to see him again.

Azere is Nigerian Canadian, born and raised in a village that she remembers fondly, until her father’s death when she was 12 years old led the family to immigrate to Canada under the protection of her paternal uncle. While Azere and her sister Efe learned to become Canadian, Azere’s mother holds the girls to their heritage, and most of all, she holds Azere to the promise she made to her father on his deathbed: To marry a Nigerian Edo man.

Azere feels guilt over her one-night stand, because she’s never been with a non-Nigerian man before, but intends to move on and be a dutiful daughter once again, until the man in question, Rafael, shows up in her office as a new hire with whom she’ll be working closely. Rafael is white, of Spanish decent, and is nothing like the type of man her mother would approve of. But there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two of them — and then something complicates matters further (no spoilers from me!) in a way that guarantees that Azere and Rafael will have to deal with their feelings for one another.

Besides the terrific connection between Azere and Rafael, this book really shines when it comes to exploring the immigrant experience, spotlighting the pressure to be loyal to one’s heritage while at the same time trying to establish a new life in a new world.

I’ve been compromising for thirteen years, rearranging things so I can exist in two different worlds. Now, he wants me to exist in a third — his. I can’t do that. And maybe I’m being unreasonable and even selfish, but I’m terrified — terrified that adopting Rafael’s culture will put me at great risk of losing mine. After all, my mother warned me of the possibility.

Azere is a wonderful character. She adores romantic movies, which I find incredibly endearing. She can pull out rom-com quotes or comparisons for seemingly any occasion, and it’s just so cute.

Our bodies are in perfect sync, complementing the band’s tempo. I’ve somehow been transported into the movie Dirty Dancing. I’m Baby and Rafael is Johnny.

Azere tries so hard to be the good daughter her mother expects, but her mother leaves her no room for anything but the way she thinks she should be, going so far as to threaten to disown Azere if she persists in a relationship with Rafael. It’s a terrible situation, and the author lets us see the awful pain Azere experiences, being forced to choose her family or the man she loves, with no middle ground available.

The book does a very convincing job of showing the challenges of being an outsider in a new country — particularly for children, who are expected to live up to family expectations and keep traditions alive, yet whose day-to-day existence can be brutal at an age where differences can mean exclusion. Only by adjusting their clothing, food, and other outward signs of their culture can Azere and Efe finally make friends and fit in as young girls.

The writing is lovely, letting us inside Azere’s head (and occasionally Rafael’s), showing the heightened emotions of falling in love without going too far over the top… and sometimes, surprising with how powerful simple words can be.

From Azere:

Whenever he kisses me, no matter how brief, reason eludes me, and I forget I’m kissing lying lips.

And from Rafael:

This is my rescue mission. Though, unlike the fairy-tale-themed movies she once made me watch, there are no dragons to slay or evil queens to overthrow. In this case, the damsel stands as her own obstacle. So rather than using a sword or a life-restoring kiss, I use words, hoping to wake her from the obligation-induced trance she’s been in for years.

The course of true love never did run smooth, so of course there are all sorts of issues beyond the cultural differences that stand between Azere and Rafael. Still, given the nature of romances, there’s never any doubt that these two will end up together — it’s just a question of how, and how long it will take.

The author, like Azere, immigrated from Nigeria to Canada at age 12, and it’s obvious that she knows what’s she’s talking about. Azere’s struggles and experiences feel authentic and realistically portrayed. She’s a wonderful main character, and I loved seeing the care and thoughtfulness she devotes to fulfilling her own romantic destiny while not discarding her family heritage.

I really enjoyed this book, start to finish. It’s a quick and captivating read that pulled me in right from the start. The romance itself is terrific, full of steam and attraction, as well as true emotion and vulnerability. If anything, Rafael is maybe a shade too perfect (and even though Azere has cause to distrust him, we readers know perfectly well that he’s hiding bits of his past for valid reasons and can guess what those reasons are). As a couple, Rafael and Azere are easy to root for — they’re just so right for each other.

Ties That Tether is a delight. Don’t miss it!

Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Met
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author, Jen DeLuca.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek. 

Okay, show of hands: Who among us hasn’t ever wanted to lace up a corset, grab a turkey leg, and head to ye olde Renaissance Faire for some old-timey fun? Not just me, right?

In Well Met, Emily Parker is 24, unemployed, and temporarily living in small-town Willow Creek while helping her older sister April recover from a serious car accident. Part of this help is ferrying around her 14-year-old niece, Caitlin, including taking her to sign up as a volunteer cast member for the upcoming summer’s Renaissance Faire. The catch, however, is that minors can’t volunteer unless they have a responsible adult volunteering with them, so Emily reluctantly finds herself roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the summer.

Emily takes an immediate dislike to the Faire’s organizer Simon, who seems rigid and overly obsessed with filling out forms correctly. He causes further offense by accusing Emily of not taking Faire seriously — which, granted, she’s only half-heartedly doing, at least at first.

But as rehearsals warm up and the big event approaches, Emily is more and more drawn into the excitement, the pretend world of Faire, and the real world of Willow Creek. She’s had a hard few years, but is finally starting to feel like she might have found a place to put down roots and create a life for herself.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Simon seem to be developing some real chemistry — especially when they’re in their Faire personae of tavern wench and swaggering pirate.

Well Met is so much adorable fun! First off, the Faire goings-on are amazing and made me want to be there! Jousting, troubadors, Queen Elizabeth, ladies in waiting, kilted men… there’s just so much to love! And it’s so cute to see how into it everyone is, from giddy high school students to long-time Faire veterans.

I enjoyed Emily’s character,and there are plenty of great supporting characters too — such as April, Caitlyn, Emily’s new-found bestie Stacy, local bookstore owner Chris, and more.

Emily and Simon both have painful baggage, and their histories hold them back from fully exploring what they want and what they need to find happiness. When they do finally get together, it’s not all smooth sailing, as they both put up their defenses, misinterpret each others’ communications, and just generally mess things up quite a bit.

One of my standard romance complaints comes into play, which is that if people would only talk to each other rather than jumping to conclusions, life would be a whole lot easier! Of course, then the story would have less drama, but still. Emily spends a week worrying that she’s being fired from her job and that Simon played a part in it — but a), that’s a ridiculous assumption that’s really not based on anything concrete, and b) she could have asked one simple questions and clearly up her confusion instantly.

Still, what’s a romance novel without stumbling blocks? It would have all wrapped up much too quickly if Emily and Simon got together when they did and then remained blissfully happy until the end. So yes, we get the requisite drama, fight, and break-up, but hey, it’s a romance, so of course there’s going to be an HEA to end the story!

My one lingering complaint about Well Met is that there’s a storyline thread I would have loved to see get tied up. Part of Emily’s backstory is that she dropped out of college about a year short of an English degree in order to support her (awful) ex-boyfriend through law school. While Emily is happily employed and fulfilled by the end of the book, I would have loved for her to decide to go back to school and finish the education that clearly meant so much to her. Well, hopefully we’ll find out that that’s exactly what she did by the time the sequel comes out!

A note on the audiobook: I originally picked up a print version of this book, but I’m so happy I ended up going the audio route instead! I really enjoyed the narration. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the narrator did a great job showing us the characters putting on their fake accents for the Faire personae and getting into the spirit of it all.

Well Met is the first in a trilogy of novels centered around Faire, each one focusing on a different couple’s love story. Book #2, Well Played, due out this coming September. And yes, I absolutely want to read it!

Well Met is good, romantic fun, and a great choice for a summer read.

Huzzah!

Book Review: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Title: Party of Two
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 23, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A chance meeting with a handsome stranger turns into a whirlwind affair that gets everyone talking.

Dating is the last thing on Olivia Monroe’s mind when she moves to LA to start her own law firm. But when she meets a gorgeous man at a hotel bar and they spend the entire night flirting, she discovers too late that he is none other than hotshot junior senator Max Powell. Olivia has zero interest in dating a politician, but when a cake arrives at her office with the cutest message, she can’t resist–it is chocolate cake, after all.

Olivia is surprised to find that Max is sweet, funny, and noble–not just some privileged white politician she assumed him to be. Because of Max’s high-profile job, they start seeing each other secretly, which leads to clandestine dates and silly disguises. But when they finally go public, the intense media scrutiny means people are now digging up her rocky past and criticizing her job, even her suitability as a trophy girlfriend. Olivia knows what she has with Max is something special, but is it strong enough to survive the heat of the spotlight?

Jasmine Guillory has quickly become one of my go-to authors for when I want a light, upbeat romance, for so many reasons. Her women are strong, determined, and professional; the relationships are relationships among equals; her cast of characters is always diverse and well grounded; and hey, the books are just fun!

Party of Two takes place in the author’s established world, first introduced in The Wedding Date. This is the 5th book in the series, although I use the term “series” loosely. Yes, characters from earlier books show up, and the characters are all connected — but on the other hand, the books absolutely work as stand-alones. You can read Party of Two on its own and enjoy it fully.

So… Party of Two.

This is the story of Olivia Monroe, a super-smart lawyer who’s left the corporate law environment to strike out on her own, opening a boutique law firm in LA with her friend and colleague Ellie. In her first week in LA, Olivia meets an attractive guy in her hotel’s bar, where they share a good conversation about cake, among other things — but this is LA, and Olivia assumes a guy this good-looking must be an actor, and she just isn’t interested in dating actors, thank you very much.

Imagine Olivia’s surprise when she later turns on the news and realizes the hot guy from the bar is actually an up-and-coming United States Senator, Max Powell. Obviously not for her. Can’t trust a politician, after all, and Olivia has no desire for a public spotlight.

Still, when they run into each other at a fundraising event a few weeks later, their connection is still there — and Max finds that he’s just as smitten with Olivia as he was when they first met. After courtship via baked goods, the two cautiously begin a cross-country romance, which soon blossoms into much more than the fling that Olivia was expecting.

The writing in Party of Two is funny, emotional, and on point. Olivia has some scathing views of the men she typically meets:

“I was in too many relationships in my late twenties and early thirties with men who got mad at me for how much I was working, or required so much of my time to, I don’t know, sympathize with them about their mean lady boss or tuck them into bed when they had a man cold or whatever.”

Man cold. Snicker.

She’s a very self-aware, determined woman who doesn’t compromise her integrity and doesn’t give in easily to big gestures, and yet…

“… I still get that fucking gooey look on my face when he texts me! I can tell I get it! I try not to get it! But the goo just spreads over my face and I can’t make it stop!”

One of the things I love about these characters (besides their chemistry and adorableness together) is that they’re socially aware and committed individuals who want to do good in the world. Max’s key goal in the Senate is to push through a justice reform bill, and he spends time learning and listening to people who’ve suffered from a broken system. Likewise, Olivia devotes herself to volunteer work in a food pantry, and is passionate about food insecurity and offering hope and resources to underprivileged and disenfranchised youth.

One of the key stumbling blocks between Max and Olivia is his tendency to rush forward without full consideration of risks. As a wealthy white man who has never truly known adversity, Max expects the world to work out for him. But as Olivia points out:

“… you just leap in to something without thinking about the implications, say the first thing comes to your mind, and smile and charm your way out of every hole you dig yourself in. I can’t do things like that. I’m a black woman, I don’t ever get the benefit of the doubt in the way someone like you does. I can’t afford to make split-second decisions and assume they’ll work out.”

Not that this is a heavy book in any way. The romance is sweet and sexy, and clearly, these two crazy kids are meant for each other. It’s totally engaging to see how they handle heavy-duty professional lives (which in Max’s case, comes with a lack of privacy and an ever-present spotlight) and balance these with their need for intimacy and space, and the ability to carve out time alone together to nurture and grow their relationship.

Party of Two is delightful, romantic summer reading, but with a grounding in the real world that makes it feel relevant. It delivers a message without pounding readers over the head, but consistently enough to keep the social justice theme prominent throughout the love story aspects of the plot.

As I mentioned, this book absolutely works on its own, but if you want to place it within the context of Jasmine Guillory’s other books, Olivia is the older sister of Alexa, the lead character in The Wedding Date.

Highly recommended!

Book Review: Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another, clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Rico Silva, that’s what.  

Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster. 

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. 

But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…? 

In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.

Persuasion is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so of course I was going to read this modern romance that riffs on Persuasion‘s themes!

Recipe for Persuasion is a loose follow-up to last year’s Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. The Raje family is still the center of the story, but here, the focus shifts to Ashna Raje, who was a supporting character in the previous novel.

Before getting too far into discussing Recipe for Persuasion, I want to get one thing straight, which is that the blurb above is very misleading. I think if you go into this book expecting a heartwarming romantic comedy or a fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy, you’ll be both disappointed and quite possibly very confused.

Because at no time in my reading of Recipe for Persuasion did I feel it was a comedy. Not at all.

Which does not mean it was not a good read. I actually enjoyed it very much. But readers should know that this is a much sadder and darker story than the synopsis would make it out to be.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Ashna and Rico were high school sweethearts, very much in love, but each with a ton of baggage related to family expectations and demands. They dreamed and planned for a life together, but ended up apart after a really terrible set of circumstances, and the faulty communications at the time which led each to believe that the other had betrayed him/her.

(Yet another example of bad communications leading to heartbreak, which is a standard trope of the genre, and which drives me bonkers as a plot point… but I digress.)

Now, twelve years later, Ashna is a French-trained chef who’s struggling to keep her late father’s classic Indian restaurant viable, and Rico is a superstar soccer player forced into early retirement by a devastating knee injury.

When Rico is reminded of Ashna while attending a friend’s bachelor party, he decides to Google her. And when he learns that she’ll be appearing on Cooking with the Stars, he makes sure to get a slot on the reality show as her cooking partner. Rico is looking for closure, a way to get past the hurt from all those years ago when Ashna turned him away, giving into family pressure that he just wasn’t good enough for the high-class Raje family.

Meanwhile, Ashna is consumed by the guilt and trauma that accompanied her father’s death, experiences horrible panic attacks when she tries to cook anything not on her father’s original menu, is estranged from her super-feminist mother… and has never, ever gotten over Rico.

Their first meeting on set for the cooking show involves a near-miss with a very sharp knife, and suddenly, they’re a viral internet sensation. The pressure is on. Each wants to win… and also to prove to the other that they’re totally fine, which is so not the case.

Over the course of the book, we learn much more about Ashna’s past. Especially powerful are the chapters told through her mother’s point of view, which show her experiences as a young woman and the horrific situation she was forced into. Here’s where content warnings might be important: Someone expecting a romantic comedy probably won’t be prepared for scenes of abuse and rape, and I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to encounter these scenes while expecting a light romance.

This piece of the story is handled very sensitively, but of course, it’s awful and heartbreaking to read about. It also explains so much about Ashna’s experiences as a child, her parents’ marriage, her lingering resentment toward her mother, and her inability to move forward in a meaningful way in any sort of adult relationship. There’s really a lot to unpack here.

On a brighter note, Ashna and Rico have great chemistry, and I really enjoyed the scenes that show their teen years and the early stages of their romance. Because she is so traumatized, Ashna isn’t exactly a fun character (sympathetic, yes, but not fun), but luckily, Rico is — with his swagger, charm, and man-bun, he’s clearly supposed to be walking sex appeal, and this definitely comes through in the writing.

The San Francisco setting is a big plus for me, and I enjoyed revisiting the Raje family members from Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. As for Austen elements — the general themes of Persuasion are present, but not in such an obvious way that it feels like a retelling. As with Persuasion, the young lovers are separated in response to family pressure, but not really in the same way as in the Austen novel. Still, it’s an interesting way to weave the classic into a modern romance, and bonus points to the author for having Rico quote Frederick Wentworth’s “half agony, half hope” line!

Overall, Recipe for Persuasion is a very good read, although the balance between truly painful memories and emotions and the bustle of a reality show doesn’t always work in terms of tone. Still, I really enjoyed Ashna and Rico’s journey back to one another (there’s never any doubt, after all, that they’ll find love again)… and who can resist a book that lovingly describes so much amazing food?

Maybe that’s my main complaint, when all is said and done: This book should come with samples! I want to try every dish and cup of tea that’s described in Recipe for Persuasion.

Book Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Title: Real Men Knit
Author: Kwana Jackson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

A book about men knitting? Yes, please!

In Real Men Knit, the Strong brothers are all super attractive, muscular, successful men… and they knit. These four adult brothers were all adopted as children by Mama Joy, who rescued them from the foster system and turned them into a family. Mama Joy ran a small Harlem knitting shop that was more than just a play to buy yarn — Strong Knits was a community home away from home, a place to gather, interact, and improve lives.

But when Mama Joy dies, her sons are devastated, and the fate of the shop is up in the air. Perhaps as devastated as the Strong brothers is Kerry, the neighborhood girl who grew up in Mama Joy’s shadow, always present and helping out, and devoted completely to Mama Joy (while totally crushing on Jesse). Now an adult with a degree in art therapy, Kerry works at the community center with neighborhood kids, but agrees to stay on at the shop to help Jesse reinvigorate it and make sure it has a future.

I love any scene where the brothers casually knit. It’s such an “in your face” to stereotypes about male and female hobbies. There’s nothing gender-specific about knitting! And I really enjoyed the brothers’ complicated relationships, their resentments, their sibling squabbles, and their clear and abiding love and respect for Mama Joy.

I also really appreciated reading about the positive change a single dedicated woman can make. Mama Joy used her yarn store as a jumping off point for changing lives, and it’s beautiful to see how many different people were affected by her influence and contribution, in so many different ways.

In fact, it’s only the romance parts of this story that left me feeling a little blah. I really liked all the characters and thought the premise was unique and original, but Jesse and Kerry as a couple didn’t really seem all that special to me. I mean, they were fine, but I wasn’t actually cheering for them or particularly invested in whether they got an HEA.

That said, I did feel invested in the overall story, and wished that it had continued long enough to see how everything turned out with the shop! Of course, there are four Strong brothers, all single, and only one featured in a relationship in this book… might there be more Strong Knits stories still to come? One per brother, perhaps? Because I’d definitely read those!

With gratitude to Reading Tonic, whose review was the first I’d heard of this sweet and satisfying book. If you’re looking for a summer beach read with romance, heart, and a diverse set of characters, Real Men Knit would be a great choice.

Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Cute Romances

Once again, I’m joining in with the Top 5 Tuesday meme this week! Top 5 Tuesday is hosted by Bionic Bookworm, who posts the month’s topics at the start of each month. Today’s topic is Top 5 Cute Romances. 

I’m not a big romance fan, but I do love a good love story every now and then, and I especially love when they’re light and sweet and enjoyable. Here are five adorable romances that I’ve really enjoyed:

1) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: I love Levi and Cath — and also Cath’s fanfiction romance between Simon and Baz. 

2) Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory: Okay, maybe “cute” isn’t quite the right word for a romance between two fifty-somethings, but everything about their meeting is adorable — how could it not be when they meet on royal grounds and go horse riding, among other activities?

3) Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales: This Grease-themed YA story has plenty of sorrow and emotion, but it’s sweet and lovely as well.

4) Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan: The Little Beach Street Bakery trilogy is just out and out adorable. Two super cute people in an awkward, funny relationship, plus small-town shenanigans, and even a pet puffin! Plus recipes and descriptions of baked goods to die for.

5) Geekerella by Ashley Poston: A YA love story set at a Comic-con-ish festival, with intense fans and cosplay and a Cinderella story all rolled into one? Yes, please!

 

What are your favorite cute romances? Let me know, and please share your Top 5 link if you have one!