Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

Title: Mr. Perfect on Paper
Author: Jean Meltzer
Narrator: Dara Rosenberg
Publisher: Mira
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 387 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 27 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the author of The Matzah Ball comes a pitch-perfect romcom following a third-generation Jewish matchmaker who unwittingly finds her own search for love thrust into the spotlight…

The perfect Jewish husband should be:
* A doctor or lawyer (preferably a doctor)
* Baggage-free (no previous marriages, no children)
* And of course—he must be Jewish

As the creator and CEO of the popular Jewish dating app J-Mate, matchmaker Dara Rabinowitz knows the formula for lasting love—at least, for everyone else. When it comes to her own love life, she’s been idling indefinitely. Until her beloved bubbe shares Dara’s checklist for “The Perfect Jewish Husband” on national television and charming news anchor Chris Steadfast proposes they turn Dara’s search into must-see TV.

As a non-Jewish single dad, Chris doesn’t check any of Dara’s boxes. But her hunt for Mr. Perfect is the ratings boost his show desperately needs. If only Chris could ignore his own pesky attraction to Dara—a task much easier said than done when Dara starts questioning if “perfect on paper” can compete with how hard she’s falling for Chris…

Jean Meltzer, author of 2021’s The Matzah Ball, is back with another Jewish-themed romance, this one depicting a young Jewish matchmaker’s search for her own true love.

Dara Rabinowitz is the powerhouse CEO of J-Mate, the super successful Jewish dating app she created inspired by her mother and grandmother’s careers as matchmakers. Knowing what makes a good match, as well as being a hugely talented coder, is the secret to Dara’s rise to corporate stardom. Dara lives with generalized anxiety disorder, which she’s quite open about, and manages her high-pressure life through coping and calming strategies as well as medication.

Dara is devoted to her darling grandmother, bubbe Miriam, whom she considers her best friend — but Miriam wants to see Dara happily married and exploring life. When Miriam goes off-script on a TV appearance and shares a private list of Dara’s requirements for her perfect husband (written one night while drinking with her sister), Dara is utterly humiliated… until the video clip goes viral, the show’s rating skyrocket, and suddenly everyone wants more of Dara.

The show’s host, Chris (handsome, non-Jewish, and a widowed father of a tween girl) is enchanted by Dara, and sees her as a potential key to saving his floundering show. Reluctantly, Dara agrees to his proposal: He’ll use her app and algorithms to find her nice Jewish men who are “Mr. Perfect on Paper” — checking all the boxes on her list — and she’ll allow the show to follow her on her dates.

What could go wrong?

Obviously, plenty. Dara encounters one dating disaster after another… and meanwhile, even once she meets a man who might really be her perfect match, she can’t quite shake her attraction and feelings for Chris himself. Chris, too, feels drawn to Dara, but he knows he’s not what she wants. But what if????

Dara and Chris are both sensitively portrayed and well developed. I really felt like I got to know each of them, with attention paid to their family backgrounds and the tragedies and struggles they’ve each endured. Chris’s story is particularly sad, and his dedication to being the best dad he can be, while navigating the tricky world of dealing with a pre-teen girl, is quite moving.

Dara and Chris have good chemistry, and I appreciated how genuine their care and concern for one another is. While denying to themselves that they could ever be romantically involved, they do both consider themselves friends, and they’re truly there for one another in the way that real friends should be.

Some elements of the book just didn’t work as well for me, however. Based on this book as well as her previous one, it seems that this author’s approach to conveying humor is to create slapstick moments where everything goes wrong. Maybe some readers will find these moments funny (such as Dara ending up dunking her head into a barrel of water in the middle of a date in order to get away from a pesky bumblebee), but honestly, I tend to find them too silly and embarrassing and over the top.

I had to question some of the Jewish elements too. Dara is devoted to her religion and her people, which is nice to see, but some of her choices in regard to the TV show seem questionable — for example, allowing the camera crew to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and follow the date that arranged for her at the break fast. I doubt any synagogue would actually allow a camera crew to set up and film on the holiday, and the idea of having a blind date at a break fast after a day of fasting seems like a set-up for disaster (which is exactly how it ends up).

The audiobook was mostly enjoyable, but the narrator seemed to struggle with some of the Jewish/Hebrew/Yiddish terms and names, and that was very distracting to me. Still, when the characters are in more natural or relaxed setting, the narration flows well, and I liked the scenes with Chris and his daughter very much.

Overall, Mr. Perfect on Paper is light entertainment with a sweet story to tell. The characters are bright spots, very engaging and sympathic, but on the downside, the predictable nature of the plot and the occasional cringe-worthy pratfalls and dating disasters keep this book from being totally successful. It’s fun, but I had to overlook a lot of my quibbles in order to appreciate the good stuff.

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

Title: Birds of California
Author: Katie Cotugno
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours 49 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Former child actor Fiona St. James dropped out of the spotlight after a spectacularly public crash and burn. The tabloids called her crazy and self-destructive and said she’d lost her mind. Now in her late twenties, Fiona believes her humiliating past is firmly behind her. She’s finally regained a modicum of privacy, and she won’t let anything–or anyone–mess it up.

Unlike Fiona, Sam Fox, who played her older brother on the popular television show Birds of California, loves the perks that come with being a successful Hollywood actor: fame, women, parties, money. When his current show gets cancelled and his agent starts to avoid his calls, the desperate actor enthusiastically signs on for a Birds of California revival. But to make it happen, he needs Fiona St. James.

Against her better judgment, Fiona agrees to have lunch with Sam. What happens next takes them both by surprise. Sam is enthralled by Fiona’s take-no-prisoners attitude, and Fiona discovers a lovable goofball behind Sam’s close-up-ready face. Long drives to the beach, late nights at dive bars… theirs is the kind of kitschy romance Hollywood sells. But just like in the rom-coms Fiona despises, there’s a twist that threatens her new love. Sam doesn’t know the full story behind her breakdown. What happens when she reveals the truth?

Sparks fly and things get real in this sharply sexy and whip-smart romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a post #metoo Hollywood from New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno–page-turning escapist fun in the spirit of Beach Read, The Kiss Quotient, and Red, White and Royal Blue.

In Birds of California, former star and tabloid bad-girl Fiona has left her acting days firmly in the past, preferring a quiet life tending to her father and sister, working in the family print shop, and avoiding the spotlight. Of course, it’s hard to actually forget her past when not a day goes by without being recognized, but for the most part, Fiona lives a private, quiet, hidden life.

Until one day, her ex-agent calls out of the blue with big news: There’s going to be a reboot of Birds of California, the show that made Fiona a breakout teen star, and the production wants her in it. Fiona wants no part of it — but then Sam Fox, her former co-star shows up at the print shop on a mission to change her mind. Fiona still is adamantly opposed to doing the show… but she’s less opposed to spending time with Sam.

The two start to connect, and rediscover a chemistry that was cut short back in their teen days, but of course, misunderstandings and hidden secrets arise and threaten to tear them apart, just as they’re growing closer.

Birds of California is billed as a romantic comedy, and yes, there are some funny moments, but a lot of it really has to do with the damage done to Fiona as a rising Hollywood star hounded by tabloids and paparazzi. The romance between Fiona and Sam is dynamic and worth cheering for, but I did wish they’d each open up and be honest a lot sooner than they did.

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

Mostly, my lasting impression of Birds of California has to do with its brushing up against toxic Hollywood culture and the #metoo movement. It’s pretty clear early on that Fiona didn’t publicly self-destruct for no reason — she was a young girl who wasn’t adequately protected and who was victimized by the people and studios that should have kept her safe. Unfortunately, while the book eventually makes clear what actually happened to her, it focuses so much on the current-day romance between Fiona and Sam that the past isn’t explored sufficiently.

I would have liked a little more attention at the end of the story, after Fiona finally tells Sam about her experiences, on what happens next and why. I would REALLY have liked to see the fall-out and (hopefully) justice that must be coming for the people who so seriously mistreated Fiona — the story ends with wheels set in motion, but no concrete consequences.

Overall, I enjoyed the characters and the story, and the audiobook narration — by Julia Whelan, one of my very favorite narrators — makes it both fun and heartfelt. I wish there had been a bit more substance beneath the romance, including more development of the more serious aspects of the story, but still, Birds of California is an entertaining read with fresh, funny, authentic characters to root for.

Book Review: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Title: Love on the Brain
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis comes a new STEMinist rom-com in which a scientist is forced to work on a project with her nemesis—with explosive results.

Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do? If NASA offered her the lead on a neuroengineering project – a literal dream come true – Marie would accept without hesitation. Duh. But the mother of modern physics never had to co-lead with Levi Ward.

Sure, Levi is attractive in a tall, dark, and piercing-eyes kind of way. But Levi made his feelings toward Bee very clear in grad school – archenemies work best employed in their own galaxies far, far away.

But when her equipment starts to go missing and the staff ignore her, Bee could swear she sees Levi softening into an ally, backing her plays, seconding her ideas… devouring her with those eyes. The possibilities have all her neurons firing.

But when it comes time to actually make a move and put her heart on the line, there’s only one question that matters: What will Bee Königswasser do?

Bee is a brilliant neuroscientist and Marie Curie’s #1 fangirl… but she’s also stuck in a job at NIH under a non-supportive boss and limited prospects, until she’s offered a spot co-leading an exciting project at NASA. This could be her big breakthrough! But Bee’s excitement dims when she learns that she’ll be partnering with Levi Ward, an engineer who was her nemesis back in grad school — the man despised her!

Still, it’s too good an opportunity to let slip by, so Bee heads off to Houston, determined to establish a good professional collaboration with her sworn enemy. Her first attempts at collegiality fail — he doesn’t even answer her emails, and he reprimands her about dress code (he apparently doesn’t care for her purple hair and septum piercing) on her very first day.

As they work together, Bee starts to notice Levi being less… awful, and even coming to her rescue when she (weirdly) gets trapped in a cemetery overnight. Their working relationship is blossoming, and their project is going amazingly well, but how can she allow herself to think that Levi is warming to her when she knows how deeply he hated her?

Love on the Brain, Ali Hazelwood’s follow-up to her debut novel, The Love Hypothesis, once again succeeds in combining romance with a portrait of women in science. I love that she shows brilliant women actually doing their jobs, using their education and intelligence to make a difference in their fields — and also battling the deeply embedded sexism and patriarchal structures that seem to doom women to unnecessary struggle just to get a seat at the table.

Bee’s humor shines through, even while describing the absolutely infuriating experience of being second-guessed or undervalued simply because she’s the woman in the room:

With Levi present, his team tends to agree to my suggestions more quickly — a phenomenon known as Sausage Referencing… In Cockcluster or WurstFest situations, having a man vouch for you will help you be taken seriously — the better-regarded the man, the higher his Sausage Referencing power.

Or another example:

I marvel that I was given credit for my idea. Goes to show how low the bar is for cis dudes in STEM, doesn’t it? Thank you, Oh Penised Overlords, for the recognition I deserve.

Bee is a fascinating character, obviously brilliant (I know I keep saying that, but it’s true!), but also burdened by a childhood in which she and her twin sister, after being orphaned, were shuttled from relative to relative and place to place, never establishing roots or a stable home. Bee has learned not to expect anything to last, especially after her scumbag ex-fiance cheated on her shortly before her wedding. So when she and Levi have the expected romantic breakthrough, she doesn’t allow herself to think of it as anything but colleagues-with-benefits — love just doesn’t last, so why set herself up for failure?

The book is very engaging and a quick, entertaining read. The plot balances the romantic elements with the challenges Bee faces at work, as someone tries to sabotage both her project and her professional reputation. Through Bee, we also get insight into other women’s struggles in STEM, both via her secret Twitter account (@WhatWouldMarieDo) and through her involvement in a new movement to promote fairness in grad school admissions by eliminating the GRE as a measure of worthiness. It’s not that we don’t know that women face unfair barriers, but seeing these brought to life through Bee’s experiences is really eye-opening in a dramatic way.

I do have a few quibbles, naturally. Bee is quirky and unusual, to say the least, but some of her affects, like her breaking down in sobs whenever she sees roadkill, feel a little over the top. Her EQ is also rather low for such a smart woman — I mean, she misses so many blatant cues about Levi’s true feelings that her obliviousness just seems unrealistic.

Not that this point takes away from my enjoyment, but Love on the Brain is the 3rd book I’ve read this summer where an anonymous correspondence turns out to be between the two main characters — it’s just not a big reveal if it’s completely expected! I think the secret-penpal trope may need to be retired…

Overall, I really enjoyed Love on the Brain — in fact, for some unknown reason, I went into it not expecting to really be in the mood, but then was happily proven wrong! This book was just what I needed, funny but with depth, with amazing smart women in the spotlight, and a writing style that keeps the story zipping along. The sparkly, funny dialogue (and Bee’s internal asides) make this such an engaging read, and I look forward to reading more by this author!

Audiobook Review: Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan

Title: Thank You for Listening
Author: Julia Whelan
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Avon and Harper Voyager
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 11 hours 16 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (ebook); purchased audiobook via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the author of My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan’s uplifting novel tells the story of a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator–who has lost sight of her dreams after a tragic accident–and her journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance when she agrees to narrate one last romance novel.

For Sewanee Chester, being an audiobook narrator is a long way from her old dreams, but the days of being a star on film sets are long behind her. She’s found success and satisfaction from the inside of a sound booth and it allows her to care for her beloved, ailing grandmother. When she arrives in Las Vegas last-minute for a book convention, Sewanee unexpectedly spends a whirlwind night with a charming stranger.

On her return home, Sewanee discovers one of the world’s most beloved romance novelists wanted her to perform her last book–with Brock McNight, the industry’s hottest, most secretive voice. Sewanee doesn’t buy what romance novels are selling–not after her own dreams were tragically cut short–and she stopped narrating them years ago. But her admiration of the late author, and the opportunity to get her grandmother more help, makes her decision for her.

As Sewanee begins work on the book, resurrecting her old romance pseudonym, she and Brock forge a real connection, hidden behind the comfort of anonymity. Soon, she is dreaming again, but secrets are revealed, and the realities of life come crashing down around her once more.

If she can learn to risk everything for desires she has long buried, she will discover a world of intimacy and acceptance she never believed would be hers.

I think I’ve found my favorite audiobook of the year!

Julie Whelan is a gifted narrator — according to her Goodreads bio, she’s narrated over 500 audiobooks! I’ve had the pleasure of listening to several of the books she’s narrated, and she is very, very good. But did you know she’s also an author? Her previous novel, My Oxford Year, was published in 2018 (and is one that I haven’t read yet, although I certainly intend to!). And now, in 2022, along comes her 2nd novel, and what could be more perfect than a story of an audiobook narrator?

In Thank You for Listening, main character Sewanee Chester did not intend to become a highly successful, award-winning audiobook narrator — but her Juilliard-trained acting career was cut short in her 20s, just on the cusp of break-through success, by a freak accident. It’s taken Sewanee years to recover — and emotionally, it’s questionable whether she’s actually recovered at all.

Sewanee is now the voice behind the scenes, incredibly gifted at bringing characters to life — so much so that clueless fans can’t believe what she can do, even when she states it plainly:

Roy peered at Sewanee, seeing her anew. “You crushed it! Wait, so did you meet the guy who played Butch and Sundance? Do you, like, record together?”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other, then back at Roy. Adaku said, “What guy?”

“The guy! The guy who voiced the guys.”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other again. Adaku said, “That wan’t a guy.”

“No, the Butch-and-Sundance-guy guy.”

“Ohhhh, that guy. Yeah, he wasn’t a guy.” Adaku was enjoying this a bit too much.

“Who wasn’t a guy?”

“The guy reading.”

“Wasn’t a guy?”

“Nope.”

When Sewanee and her best friend Adaku, a rising Hollywood star, share a celebration in Las Vegas that gets interrupted when Adaku has to leave early, Sewanee is left on her own… and meets a dashing stranger in a bar. After an intense connection and a one-night stand, Sewanee and Nick part without exchanging contact information, and Sewanee is left with amazing memories of a night that was very out of character for her.

Back in her real life, she receives an unexpected job offer: Although she’d long ago stopped recording romance audiobooks, which she’d done under the pseudonym Sarah Westholme, she’s asked to do it one more time. Bestselling romance writer June French, who recently passed away, left a final script, and she specifically wanted it read, in alternating voices, by Sarah Westholme and romance audiobook superstar Brock McKnight. While Sewanee is initially reluctant, the insane money on the table means she’d be able to maintain her beloved grandmother in comfort at her pricey but wonderful memory care facility, so she takes the job.

As she and Brock (a pseudonym, naturally) start recording their chapters and communicating via email and text about delivery, intonation, accents, and other details, a friendship develops. Their exchanges are funny, smart, and full of hilarious double-entendres and innuendos, and while not knowing each others’ true identities, they click in a way that’s unexpected and potentially more than just collegial.

This is a story that unfolds in lovely, unexpected ways, so I won’t go further into plot details (although I’m sure you can guess where certain elements are headed). What’s wonderful about this book is the character development, the chemistry, and the way the author, via her characters, deliberately plays with and acknowledges romance genre tropes, even while making these tropes fit and support such a thoughtful, funny, and emotionally rich story.

Sewanee’s past and present are shaded by sorrow and disappointment, from her parents’ failed marriage to worries over her grandmother’s dementia to her own tragedy and the self-doubts that have plagued her since. Sewanee’s pain and insecurities feel real and relatable. Would any of us be able to bounce back as far as she has? She doesn’t immediately, magically get better thanks to the power of love, either — instead, we see her process her past over time, and learn how to see a possible future that could include happiness. It’s not easy, but it does feel well-earned and fought for.

I loved not only Sewanee, but the supporting cast as well, including Adaku, the hilarious Blah-Blah (Sewanee’s outrageous grandmother, a former Hollywood starlet whose favorite name for her granddaughter is “Dollface”), Brock (of course), and even Sewanee’s mother’s new beau, who’s very funny in his own right, in a way that just needs to be experienced.

I also loved how each section of the book is introduced by both a “literary” quote (such as thoughts by Hemingway on pain and writing) and a quote from a (fictitious) June French interview with Cosmopolitan, where she’s brash, blunt, and incredibly funny:

It’s always the men, isn’t it, talking about writing from a place of pain. Maybe try writing from joy. We get it, the world is hard. Which is precisely why I write: to escape it. Calm down with this tortured artist shit already, my God.

I originally received an ebook ARC via NetGalley, and as wonderful as this book is in print, I simply had to take the audio path — so I treated myself to the Audible version as well. I’m so glad I did! The opportunity to hear Julia Whelan not only narrate her own book, but narrate a book about a narrator, seemed too good to miss! She’s just as amazing here as you’d expect: As a listener, I was never, not for a moment, confused about who was speaking, whether the lines were intended as spoken dialogue or a character’s inner thoughts, or what the mood or intent was. Dialogue snaps and crackles, chemistry blooms, and even when the characters are putting on their own fake voices, it absolutely works.

Beyond the central plotline, I also loved the behind-the-scenes view into the world of audiobook narration — how it works, how some narrators become stars in their own right, and what challenges the industry faces. Also wonderful is the power of non-romantic love — Sewanee could never have come as far as she does in this book without her beautiful friendship with Adaku, the care she and her mentor Mark share, or the family heartstrings connecting her to Blah-Blah and to her mother.

Thank You for Listening is a treat, start to finish, and I highly recommend it!



Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Shelf Control #324: Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Don’t You Forget About Me
Author: Mhairi McFarlane
Published: 2019
Length: 433 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

If there’s one thing worse than being fired from the grottiest restaurant in town, it’s coming home early to find your boyfriend in bed with someone else.

Reeling from the indignity of a double dumping on the same day, Georgina snatches at the next job that she’s offered—barmaid in a newly opened pub, which just so happens to run by the boy she fell in love with at school: Lucas McCarthy. And whereas Georgina (voted Most Likely to Succeed in her school yearbook) has done nothing but dead-end jobs in the last twelve years, Lucas has not only grown into a broodingly handsome man, but also has turned into an actual grown-up along the way, with a business and a dog.

Meeting Lucas again not only throws Georgina’s rackety present into sharp relief, but also brings a dark secret from her past bubbling to the surface. Only she knows the truth about what happened on the last day of school, and why she’s allowed it to chase her all these years… 

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition in early 2020.

Why I want to read it:

Summer is the perfect time for reading light romances, and this one seems ideal to pick up while lounging on a patio chair or with my feet in the sand…

I don’t specifically remember buying it, but it’s in my Kindle library, so I suppose I grabbed it on a day when there was a price break. I’ve been seeing recommendations for this author for a while now, and have been wanting to try her books. The synopsis sounds like fun, even though the title is giving me an irritating ear worm.

This sounds like the kind of book I’d want to read on vacation or on a plane — not that there’s anything wrong with that! I just tend to go for upbeat, enjoyable books during the summer months — nothing demanding or heavy, just pure entertainment to leave me in a happy mood.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Alexandria Bellefleur
Narrator: Lauren Sweet
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

With nods to Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice, a charming #ownvoices queer rom-com debut about a free-spirited social media astrologer who agrees to fake a relationship with an uptight actuary until New Year’s Eve—with results not even the stars could predict!

After a disastrous blind date, Darcy Lowell is desperate to stop her well-meaning brother from playing matchmaker ever again. Love—and the inevitable heartbreak—is the last thing she wants. So she fibs and says her latest set up was a success. Darcy doesn’t expect her lie to bite her in the ass.

Elle Jones, one of the astrologers behind the popular Twitter account, Oh My Stars, dreams of finding her soul mate. But she knows it is most assuredly not Darcy… a no-nonsense stick-in-the-mud, who is way too analytical, punctual, and skeptical for someone as free-spirited as Elle. When Darcy’s brother—and Elle’s new business partner—expresses how happy he is that they hit it off, Elle is baffled. Was Darcy on the same date? Because… awkward.

When Darcy begs Elle to play along, she agrees to pretend they’re dating to save face. But with a few conditions: Darcy must help Elle navigate her own overbearing family over the holidays and their arrangement expires on New Year’s Eve. The last thing they expect is to develop real feelings during a fake relationship.

But maybe opposites can attract when true love is written in the stars?

The synopsis really says it all — Written in the Stars is a fake-dating, opposites-attract romance with a guaranteed HEA, but with a few bumps along the road.

Darcy is a (gorgeous) tightly-wound actuary who likes her world orderly, clean, and easily analyzed and compartmentalized; Elle is a (super-adorable) astrologist who likes gel pens, glitter, marching to her own drummer, and a certain amount of chaos. They have nothing in common — yet somehow, their fake-dating arrangement starts to feel more and more real as they have fun together, learn to see beneath their surfaces, and (obviously) recognize that they have a major spark going on.

The comparisons to Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are mostly unnecessary. Yes, the Darcy character comes across as judgy and off-putting, but that’s just a piece of the puzzle in this relationship, and the P&P trappings (sisters named Jane and Lydia, for example) are just minor details that don’t particularly matter.

Elle and Darcy have a lovely chemistry, each forcing the other to rethink basic assumptions and stretch a bit in their worldview — although honestly, most of the changing seems to happen on Darcy’s end. They’ve each been hurt in different ways in the past, through family dynamics or disastrous relationships, and they bring their baggage with them. As their fake relationship deepens into something more, they’re forced to open up and be honest about their dreams and their fears — but of course, as happens in pretty much all romance fiction, there’s a major falling out before they can get to a happy ending.

I enjoyed Written in the Stars, but not without some quibbles. The writing is spirited and light, and I liked getting chapters from both Darcy and Elle’s perspectives. But, certain wording choices started getting on my nerves, possibly more noticeable because I listened to the audiobook and repetitions really jumped out at me — for example, I lost count of how many times it’s mentioned that a particular character licked her lips. (It was a lot.)

All romance novels have the inevitable obstacle right before the happy ending, but the big drama here had to to with an overheard conversation and misinterpretation, and the way the scene was constructed left me feeling that the characters were behaving unreasonably and with a lack of maturity. Yes, their fall-out was over some big issues that they needed to address and resolve in order to move forward, but an actual conversation would have been a much healthier approach.

Side note: Some day, I’d like to read a romance where the main characters have a misunderstanding and then TALK ABOUT IT LIKE ADULTS, rather than having to go through a break-up, pints of ice cream, ugly crying, and then a BIG GESTURE in order to get to a good place. Anyway…

In terms of sexual content, there aren’t a huge number of sex scenes, but the ones that do exist are on the graphic end of the scale. (See my thoughts on a ratings scale for sex scenes in books, here). We are up close and personal with the characters through every moment of their encounters. Not my personal taste in fiction, but could appeal to those who generally enjoy these scenes on the explicit side.

Overall, Written In the Stars is a sweet story with lots of cute and funny moments. The audiobook is well done, with the narrator infusing humor and personality into the dialogue (and doing a great job with how she reads the many texts between characters — a very fun aspect of the story).

There are two more books that follow Written In the Stars, one focusing on Darcy’s brother, the other on Elle’s best friend and roommate. I don’t feel a need to continue at this point, but I may keep them in mind for when I want a light diversion at some point down the road.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Title: Boyfriend Material
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Length: 427 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Wanted:

One (fake) boyfriend

Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go. 

Sometimes, mood is everything. Several months ago, I borrowed the audiobook of Boyfriend Material from the library, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. Too self-absorbed, too focused on partying, too desperate to be adorable… or so I thought.

Here I am, months later, to tell you that I was wrong, wrong, WRONG about Boyfriend Material. My friends, this book is a delight!

On a whim, I borrowed the e-book from the library, incredibly in need of a light, engaging story — and that’s exactly what I found here, plus heart-warming squishy love and oodles of giggles.

Our main character is Luc, the son of a famous rockstar who walked out of his life as a child. After a terrible betrayal by an ex-boyfriend years earlier, Luc lives fast and free, and has developed a tabloid relationship of being yet another spoiled, misbehaving brat of a has-been celebrity. When Luc’s latest exposure in the tabloids (honestly, he just tripped! he only looks like he was passed out in a gutter!) threatens his job in fundraising, he knows some serious reputation repair is needed.

Enter Oliver, an uptight lawyer whom Luc once propositioned years earlier (unsuccessfully). Through a mutual friend, Luc and Oliver are reintroduced and agree to the ultimate romantic trope, the fake-dating scheme. Oliver is posh and presentable, someone who will give off “good gay” vibes for the donors Luc needs to charm, and Luc will make a fine companion for Oliver at an obligation-and-guilt-filled upcoming family event.

He gave me the type of look you give someone when you’re mentally shifting them from the box that says “attractive” to the box that says “weird.”

Initially like water and oil, Luc and Oliver eventually find that they complement each other in all the best ways. Trust, friendship, support, and (obviously) feelings soon follow. Their fake relationship turns into something real, but they’ll need to each get out of their own heads and put their unproductive inner dialogues aside if they’re going to make it work.

Oh, my, is this fun! First of all, while Luc is definitely a fiction type — the messy, unreliable, flighty guy with a heart of gold, who just needs someone he can count on — he’s also a total sweetheart, and outright hilarious. He’s silly and snarky, and I love him to pieces. Oliver is a little harder to love, since he comes across as stiff and serious, but hey, despite being a total neat-freak, he makes a mean French toast and is sweet and protective when it counts.

The plot zips along and hits the major plot points you’d expect, but the journey is just so adorably entertaining that I loved every minute.

The writing is consistently funny, and managed to catch me by surprise with its silliness and cleverness the whole way through. A few choice bits:

Peeping through my eyelashes like a small child braving an episode of Doctor Who from behind the sofa cushions, I checked my notifications.

We went on a couple of dates and I thought it was going really well, so I introduced him to Bridget, and she fucking stole him from me. Well, she didn’t steal him. He just liked her more. And I don’t resent it at all. I mean, I do. But I don’t. Except when I do.

“I’m sure we can negotiate matters as they arise. And you’re still welcome to stay. If you’d like. If you have no other engagements.”

Engagements? Oh, Oliver. “There was this tea dance I was meant to go to in 1953, but I can probably skip it.”

“You”—I gave a thwarted sigh—“are a terrible fake boyfriend.”

“I’m building fake anticipation.”

“You’d better be fake worth it.”

I stood at the sink and did that thing people do in movies where they brace themselves on the counter and stare meaningfully at their reflection. Turns out, it didn’t help. It was just a dick, looking at a dick, asking why he was always such a dick.

… Really, what do you have to lose?”

“Pride? Dignity? Self-respect?”

“Luc, you and I both know you have none of those things.”

You get the picture. Boyfriend Material is a book you’ll want to hug. There are emotional moments and people confronting past hurts and obstacles, but overall, it’s sweet and upbeat and just cute and romantic as hell.

A follow-up book comes out this August, and I absolutely cannot wait!

Release date: August 2, 2022

Audiobook Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Title: By the Book
Series: Meant to Be, #2
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Narrator: Sarah Hollis
Publisher: Hyperion Avenue (Disney)
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 42 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.

All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?

But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn’t there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

Everybody, sing along!

There’s something sweet and almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
And now he’s dear and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

In By the Book, Disney publishing comes through with another endearing fairy tale adaptation, thanks to the clever imaginings of Jasmine Guillory. It’s Beauty and the Beast with a modern, grown-up spin, set in the world of publishing, and it’s all very, very charming.

For Izzy, every day is like the one before…

When she first landed her job at TAOAT Publishing (that’s Tale As Old As Time, of course), she was starry-eyed and thrilled to finally be entering the world of books. But a couple of years on, she’s stuck as an editorial assistant, with a boss who doesn’t take the time to give feedback, and a coworker who slyly undermines Izzy’s confidence under the guise of sympathy.

While attending an industry conference in LA, Izzy gets her moment to do something bold: Her boss is frustrated by celebrity Beau Towers, who has yet to deliver even a word of his memoir under contract. He refuses to even respond to emails. Izzy boldly offers to knock on the door of his Santa Barbara mansion and offer her assistance in person.

Once she arrives, she’s wowed by Beau’s gorgeous home — so beautiful it’s practically enchanted! — but less impressed by his surly demeanor. Still, by the time their initial confrontation takes place, it’s too late for her to make her flight back to New York, so she’s stuck as a guest for the night. Her room is gorgeous, and she falls so deeply in love with the luxurious bathtub that she feels like it’s talking to her.

I talk to inanimate objects like my teacup and the candlestick because Beau Towers doesn’t talk to me, and I feel like at any moment the teacup and candlestick will start, like singing and dancing for me.

By the next day, Beau grudgingly agrees to let Izzy stay and offer him writing pep talks, and they soon settle into a routine of writing together in his vast and breathtaking library.

This library was all her library dreams come true. […] Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined every wall, with those rolling ladders so you could reach each and every book.

Beau’s assistant cooks up amazing food for them, and Izzy even grudgingly tries the gray stuff — an energy drink — and it’s delicious!

FYI, Beau’s wifi password is Lum1ere!

Are you singing along yet? Don’t worry, I found myself breaking into song throughout this adorable book…

Of course, there are ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings, but Izzy comes to realize that underneath his beastly behavior, Beau actually is quite a prince. Izzy’s warmth and kindness melt his heart, and by the time she comes swooping down the main staircase in a long yellow dress, he’s completely smitten.

The romance is sweet, but maybe because of the fairy tale element, it’s also completely predictable. Of course it’s all going to work out! Of course they’ll find happiness despite their differences! Izzy’s career challenges are neatly resolved by the end as well, and every aspect of the story gets tied up with a pretty HEA bow.

I enjoyed the flirtation, the California scenery, and the glimpse into the world of publishing. I did find the stakes fairly low throughout the book, and the revelation of the bad guy’s deviousness is completely predictable (although this Gaston stand-in does not brag about his chest hair, spitting abilities, or use of antlers for his interior décor, and no one’s actual life is on the line, so he’s not quite as despicable as the Disney version).

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s most well-done and breezy, although the narrator’s habit of laughing whenever the lines in the books say “she laughed” got on my nerves after a while. Ignoring that, though, it was a really fun listen, and didn’t require a huge amount of focus or concentration in order to follow the story.

There are a ton of cute little nods to the Disney movie — from someone commenting that they feel like they should be wearing a tea cozy to Beau telling Izzy to “be my guest” to the flight attendant named Angela offering tea and cookies– and these all made for sweet giggle-inducing interludes throughout the book.

I mean, in the end, what’s not to enjoy about a Beauty and the Beast retelling? After all, it is…

… a tale as old as time.

As for what’s next in this series…

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t wait to find out which adaptation is in store for us!

Book Review: Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

Title: Something Wilder
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Growing up the daughter of notorious treasure hunter and absentee father Duke Wilder left Lily without much patience for the profession…or much money in the bank. But Lily is nothing if not resourceful, and now uses Duke’s coveted hand-drawn maps to guide tourists on fake treasure hunts through the red rock canyons of Utah. It pays the bills but doesn’t leave enough to fulfill her dream of buying back the beloved ranch her father sold years ago, and definitely not enough to deal with the sight of the man she once loved walking back into her life with a motley crew of friends ready to hit the trails. Frankly, Lily would like to take him out into the wilderness—and leave him there.

Leo Grady knew mirages were a thing in the desert, but they’d barely left civilization when the silhouette of his greatest regret comes into focus in the flickering light of the campfire. Ready to leave the past behind him, Leo wants nothing more than to reconnect with his first and only love. Unfortunately, Lily Wilder is all business, drawing a clear line in the sand: it’s never going to happen.

But when the trip goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the group wonders if maybe the legend of the hidden treasure wasn’t a gimmick after all. There’s a chance to right the wrongs—of Duke’s past and their own—but only if Leo and Lily can confront their history and work together. Alone under the stars in the isolated and dangerous mazes of the Canyonlands, Leo and Lily must decide whether they’ll risk their lives and hearts on the adventure of a lifetime.

Christina Lauren books are always great fun, but Something Wilder didn’t quite reach the enjoyable heights of some of their previous books — at least, not for me.

In Something Wilder, we get a second chance romance as Lily and Leo are reunited after an abrupt separation ten years earlier left each of them feeling dumped by the other — a situation based on misunderstandings and missed communications, not actual intent. The truth of the matter is, neither has ever gotten over the loss of their first and only true love.

But time marches on, and Lily is left making ends meet — barely — by taking urban cowboy wannabes out on adventure tours through the canyons of the west, recreating old Wild West outlaw routes and seeking out (fictitious) hidden treasures. When Manhattan-based coder Leo sets off on his annual guy trip with a bunch of college buddies, he doesn’t know exactly where they’re headed — but when he arrives at the cowboy camp, all his old memories and feeling come rushing back as soon as he sees Lily.

Once Lily and Leo are thrown together, they face the fact that they’ll be spending the next week in close quarters. Super awkward! Fortunately, their resentment and pain are soon confronted — I was glad that it didn’t take them the whole book to finally clear the air and understand why things happened the way they did.

The plot of Something Wilder is built about the adventure trip that Lily and her best friend Nicole lead the guys on. Lily’s business is leading groups on treasure hunts on horseback, solving puzzles and discovering a hidden “treasure” that she plants for them — essentially, a Wild West scavenger hunt.

Lily’s father Duke was a famous expert on the mysteries of the Old West, and one of the biggest legends he focused on was about Butch Cassidy, who was rumored to have stashed away his loot from all his various heists somewhere along the region’s remote trails. Legend has it that this stash is still out there, waiting to be found. Duke devoted most of his life to tracking down the loot, and his obsession made him an absentee father who was never around when his daughter needed him. Lily always resented Duke’s determined focus on treasure hunting, but now, Butch Cassidy’s long-lost riches may be the only hope she has left if she wants to save her family ranch.

In this mix of these Wild West shenanigans are some modern day bad guys. One of the members of Leo’s group is an extremely unlikeable uber-macho type who thrives on conspiracy theories and online craziness, and he’s convinced that the treasure is real and that Lily is the key to finding it. Things take a turn toward gritty violence once his true goals become clear, and from there, the plot turns into a desperate adventure tale. (Note: the synopsis says the trip goes “horribly and hilariously wrong” — no idea what whoever wrote that blurb thought was hilarious. Not at all a funny situation.)

While there’s romance, once Leo and Lily clear the air and recognize that their feelings are still simmering not too far below the surface, the main arc of the plot is about the treasure hunt. And I gotta say… I just wasn’t that into it. Yes, it’s fun to see the city slickers on horseback, and the descriptions of the canyons made me want to go on an adventure of my own — but the plot is much too much about the heist and the conspiracy and incipient danger and violence. Not really my kind of story.

A few of the characters are fun, but several are pure cookie-cutter assholes, and the story itself was too action-focused to suit my tastes. The parts I liked best had to do with Lily and Leo, their family stories and complications, and their give and take about whether renewing their relationship was even a possibility. And yes, I enjoyed their steamy reunion too — romantic and sexy without being overly graphic or detailed.

Christina Lauren’s books are always enjoyable, and I breezed through Something Wilder in about a day and a half. The adventure plot wasn’t to my taste, but it’s still a fun read, and I can easily recommend this book for a sunny day of beach reading.