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.

Audiobook Review: Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson

Title: Ramón and Julieta
Author: Alana Quintana Albertson
Narrators:  Alexander Amado, Vanessa Vasquez
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 1, 2022
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 25 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When fate and tacos bring Ramón and Julieta together on the Day of the Dead, the star-crossed pair must make a choice: accept the bitter food rivalry that drives them apart or surrender to a love that consumes them.

Ramón Montez always achieves his goals. Whether that means collecting Ivy League degrees or growing his father’s fast-food empire, nothing sets Ramón off course. So when the sexy señorita who kissed him on the Day of the Dead runs off into the night with his heart, he determines to do whatever it takes to find her again.

Celebrity chef Julieta Campos has sacrificed everything to save her sea-to-table taqueria from closing. To her horror, she discovers that her new landlord is none other than the magnetic mariachi she hooked up with on Dia de los Muertos. Even worse, it was his father who stole her mother’s taco recipe decades ago. Julieta has no choice but to work with Ramón, the man who destroyed her life’s work–and the one man who tempts and inspires her.

As San Diego’s outraged community protests against the Taco King take-over and the divide between their families grows, Ramón and Julieta struggle to balance the rising tensions. But Ramón knows that true love is priceless and despite all of his successes, this is the one battle he refuses to lose. 

The vibrancy of Mexican culture in a San Diego neighborhood is threatened by gentrification — and in this contemporary romance version of Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert — with a much happier ending!), a Day of the Dead meet-cute throws together members of rival families with a long, bitter history.

from the author’s website

Dia de los Muertos is a very big deal in Old Town, San Diego. Besides attracting tourists, for the Mexican community, it’s a day of beautiful traditions honoring their loved ones who’ve passed away. Julieta, chef at a popular, authentic local restaurant in Barrio Logan, plans to sell her specialty tacos at a pop-up stand at the festival, and Ramón, CEO of the multi-million-dollar family business that owns a hugely successful chain of Taco King fast food joints, is planning to schmooze up the local politicians and gain a little last-minute publicity before sealing the deal to buy an entire block of Barrio Logan.

Dressed in full Dia de los Muertos costumes and face paint, when Ramón and Julieta have a chance encounter in a garden near the festival, there’s instant attraction and a deeper connection as well — but they don’t exchange real names and can’t see one another’s faces. Tired of her responsiblities and lack of pleasure in her life, Julieta makes the impulsive decision to go home with Ramón, but once back in his La Jolla mansion, about to remove her face paint, she realizes who he really is — he’s the enemy.

Decades earlier, as Julieta’s been told countless times, her mother was a young woman selling home-made fish tacos at a stand in Mexico, when a Mexican-American student on a surfing trip during spring break fell in love with her and her tacos. He never returned as promised, but he stole her family’s secret recipe and turned it into the key to Taco King’s success. When Julieta realizes that Ramón is the son of her family’s nemesis, who profited off of her family’s recipe all these years without ever acknowledging or compensating them, she’s livid and appalled.

Things become even worse the following day when Ramon’s offer on the block in Barrio Logan is accepted. Ramón’s father plans to raise all the rents, force the existing businesses out, and replace Julieta’s lovely restaurant with a flagship location for a new Taco King. This is war! But also, this is love… because despite their stance on opposing sides of this gentrification battle, Ramón and Julieta can’t deny their feeling or their attraction for one another.

from the author’s website

I enjoyed the depiction of the close-knit community of Barrio Logan, the sense of tradition and pride in the Mexican culture of the residents, and the absolutely amazing-sounding descriptions of spices and flavors and foods. But, these great elements are in many ways background to the romance, and that’s where the book didn’t particularly work for me.

First of all, the characters: Not only is Ramón CEO of the family empire, he’s also Stanford and Harvard educated. Not only is Julieta an amazing chef, but she’s been trained at Michelin-starred restaurants. [Side note: Why does every romance novel about foodies throw around Michelin stars? Why does everyone in business need a Harvard MBA?] They’re both gorgeous and have amazing bodies, of course. They’re not just reasonably nice people who meet and connect — they’re both stellar in every way. It’s too much.

Second, I just couldn’t help cringing over their dialogue and their inner thoughts. Within seconds of meeting, Julieta is admiring how good Ramón looks in his costume, including “that huge bulge in his pants”. But don’t worry, the ogling is two-sided, as Ramón notes about Julieta: “That ass was the kind that songs were written about”.

The supposedly romantic moments are super corny, and the sexy/steamy scenes are unnecessarily specific and graphic. Then again, I recognize that preferences about graphic vs implied sex vary widely among romance readers, so while this aspect didn’t work for me, it may not be a deal-breaker for other readers.

The audiobook features different narrators for chapters from Ramón and Julieta’s perspectives, although they each still have to depict the other character whenever there are scenes together, which means there are two different voices each for Ramón and Julieta — a little weird at times, since they sound so different. It’s a light listen, and overall, the audiobook presentation is well done and entertaining.

I gave Ramón and Julieta 3 stars: I really liked the creative use of Shakespearean inspiration in telling a modern tale and the way the story honors and depicts elements of Mexican heritage and the strong sense of community. It doesn’t rise above 3 stars for me, though, because of the hokiness of the love story — which, in a romance, should be its strongest element.

Ramón and Julieta is enjoyable, despite the cringe-factor. Apparently, it’s the first in a planned series called Love and Tacos. The pieces that didn’t work for me are enough to make me doubt whether I’d want to come back for more.

Audiobook Review: If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss

Title: A Season for Second Chances
Author: Jenny Bayliss
Narrator: Ell Potter
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: October 19, 2021
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A charmingly quirky seaside town offers a recently separated restauranteur a fresh start and possibly a new lease on love in A Season for Second Chances, by the author of The Twelve Dates of Christmas.

Annie Sharpe’s spark for life has fizzled out. Her kids are grown up, her restaurant is doing just fine on its own, and her twenty-six-year marriage has come to an unceremonious end. Untethered for the first time in her adult life, she finds a winter guardian position in a historic seaside home and decides to leave her city life behind for a brand-new beginning.

When she arrives in Willow Bay, Annie is enamored by the charming house, the invigorating sea breeze, and the town’s rich seasonal traditions. Not to mention, her neighbors receive her with open arms–that is, all except the surly nephew of the homeowner, whose grand plans for the property are at odds with her residency. As Christmas approaches, tensions and tides rise in Willow Bay, and Annie’s future seems less and less certain. But with a little can-do spirit and holiday magic, the most difficult time of her life will become…a season for second chances.

A Season for Second Chances is a sweet, good-natured book about finding a new purpose and a new love when least expected.

When Annie walks in on her husband having sex (a) in the restaurant they co-own (b) with a younger woman who (c) is a member of the wait staff, Annie has had enough. Max is a serial cheater who’s managed to convince Annie to stay time and time again, but now she’s finally done. After taking a few weeks to hibernate, she finds an ad for someone to live in and care for a seaside home over the winter, and throwing aside any doubts, Annie jumps in.

The house is utterly charming, in an equally charming small town. The home’s owner is an elderly woman whose nephew is trying to convince her to sell the property to a developer, throwing historical preservationists into a tizzy. Annie finds the house and town just what she needs, and soon decides she needs a project — reopening (with the owner’s blessing) the bistro and coffee kiosk on the property that have been shuttered for years.

Annie’s immediate tiff with the nephew naturally develops into an enemies-to-lovers situation (very sweetly). As she settles into small town life, she makes friends and finds a new direction for her life, but then must find a way to make it permanent. There are ups and downs in Annie’s love life as well as in her pursuit of her new home and business in Willow Bay, but as you’d imagine, there’s a happy ending — and despite a near tragedy close to the end, it’s never in doubt that Annie’s life will turn out to be wonderful.

This is an enjoyable book — it has all the elements you’d expect in this sorts of story: quirky characters, new friendships, sexual tension, a dashingly good-looking man with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. I can’t say the plot holds many surprises, but it’s pleasant and upbeat, which we can all use once in a while.

The audiobook is quite lovely, with terrific narration that captures the various character’s expressions, opinions, and personalities. The story itself goes on a bit longer than it perhaps needs to, and I did occasionally get impatient with scenes about house repairs and setting up the cafe, but overall, it kept me good company on long walks and my commute!

I liked that the main characters are adults in their 40s with grown children, who bring a certain level of earned skepticism to romance and wooing. The ex-husband is a jerk, even when he’s (pathetically) trying to get Annie back, and it was lots of fun seeing Annie put him in his place. The near-tragic accident towards the end of the story seems a bit unnecessary, but it fits the standard romance beats in terms of throwing a big wrench into events before getting to the happy ending.

Overall, this was a good choice for a week when I needed some light, happy entertainment!

Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Title: The Love Hypothesis
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

EVERYBODY seems to either have read or to be reading this contemporary romance — so I gave in to temptation and joined the crowd! And mostly, it’s a really enjoyable, sweet tale.

But — ugh — let me just say that I do not like the synopsis (above). It just doesn’t convey the charm of the characters or what’s special about the book’s set-up.

So… Olive is a Ph.D. student working her butt off, living off her meager grad stipend, and basically focused solely on her work. A complication arises when it becomes clear that the guy she’d started casually dating is actually much more interested in Olive’s best friend, who seems to return the interest. But Anh would never agree to date him and break the friend code, even if Olive insists she’s just not that into him.

When Olive lies to Anh and says she’ll be out on a date with a new love interest, leaving Anh free to start a romance with Jeremy, things get complicated. Anh sees Olive in the lab building — clearly not on a date. So, as the synopsis says: Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees — who just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, a young powerhouse in the academic field, with a reputation of being an arrogant ass when it comes to his grad students.

Olive is embarrassed and super awkward… but as it turns out, a fake dating scenario would benefit both Olive and Adam. Olive needs Anh to believe that Olive is in a relationship so that she can pursue her own love life guilt-free, and Adam needs Stanford to believe he’s in a relationship so they don’t consider him a flight risk and cut off his grant money. So hey, what’s a little fake-dating between (kind of) colleagues? Olive assumes a weekly coffee date is enough to seal the deal and make it believable.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as Olive and Adam are constantly thrown together, and (of course) develop an easy rapport, ridiculously cute banter, physical attraction, and, eventually, real and actual feelings.

The Love Hypothesis follows many of the standard story beats of the fake dating trope, but it’s got a lot of unique elements going for it as well. First of all, the science and academia setting is terrific. I love seeing a woman in science, here presented as dedicated to the point of obsession when it comes to her profession and her research. Olive is smart, motivated, and committed, and her struggle to be taken seriously and get the opportunities she deserves is well portrayed and convincing.

Also, the academic setting provides a structure that I haven’t come across much in contemporary romances. The science and lab work and dissertation meetings are all part of the plot. I’ve seen too many romances where we’re informed that the lead character is a respected professional, but we never see her doing any actual work. Here, we follow Olive in and out of meetings and labs and conferences, and get a real feel for the texture of her life as a graduate student (as well as the truly minimal financial resources she has… so yes, it’s a big deal when Adam pays for her pumpkin spice lattes!).

An added unique element is Olive’s sexuality, which I’d describe (although not labeled as such in the book) as demisexuality. Olive is fairly inexperienced when it comes to sex, mostly having tried it a few times during her college years as something to check off a list, rather than experiencing desire. As she explains, she’s only able to feel sexual attraction when with someone she likes and trusts, and this hasn’t really happened for her previously in her life.

Olive and Adam do have great chemistry, and I enjoyed them together as a couple. Despite Adam’s fearsome reputation in the department, he warms up around Olive, and they’re able to joke and exchange quips together that would probably make his grads’ heads spin.

I’m not typically a big fan of awkward encounters, which seem to be a staple in contemporary romances, and this is an obstacle for me in The Love Hypothesis as well. There’s a lap-sitting scene and a sunscreen scene, to name but a couple, that are kind of clunky and weird — I think they’re meant to be funny, but really, just made me cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Also, some of the lying really bugged me after a while. Olive persists in lying about the fake-dating to Anh even well past the point where she should have just come clean. She also lies to Adam after he overhears a conversation that could reveal her feelings about him, and continues to allow him to misinterpret her feelings even after it’s clear that she should be honest. She’s way too smart for some of the dumb decisions she makes about her emotions and her personal life, and even though she’s portrayed as someone so focused on science that she’s neglected her inner life, I feel like this goes overboard and undersells Olive’s maturity and good sense.

If you’ve read any of my other romance reviews, you may know that I prefer my romances with steaminess on the implied rather than explicit side of things. In The Love Hypothesis, there’s really just one major sex scene, but it is very explicit. Because it was limited to one encounter, I didn’t feel that it took over the book or overwhelmed the reading experience — but still, if you prefer these kind of scenes to be off-screen or fuzzy, just be aware in advance that the sex in The Love Hypothesis is graphic.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis and found the characters and the set-up charming and off-beat. I love seeing women in STEM professions, especially when the professional aspect is treated seriously and not just as a side note. I’ll definitely want to read more by this author!

Book Review: Shipped by Angie Hockman

Title: Shipped
Author: Angie Hockman
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Unhoneymooners meets The Hating Game in this witty, clever, and swoonworthy novel following a workaholic marketing manager who is forced to go on a cruise with her arch-nemesis when they’re up for the same promotion.

Between taking night classes for her MBA and her demanding day job at a cruise line, marketing manager Henley Evans barely has time for herself, let alone family, friends, or dating. But when she’s shortlisted for the promotion of her dreams, all her sacrifices finally seem worth it.

The only problem? Graeme Crawford-Collins, the remote social media manager and the bane of her existence, is also up for the position. Although they’ve never met in person, their epic email battles are the stuff of office legend.

Their boss tasks each of them with drafting a proposal on how to boost bookings in the Galápagos—best proposal wins the promotion. There’s just one catch: they have to go on a company cruise to the Galápagos Islands…together. But when the two meet on the ship, Henley is shocked to discover that the real Graeme is nothing like she imagined. As they explore the Islands together, she soon finds the line between loathing and liking thinner than a postcard.

With her career dreams in her sights and a growing attraction to the competition, Henley begins questioning her life choices. Because what’s the point of working all the time if you never actually live?

Perfect for fans of Christina Lauren and Sally Thorne, Shipped is a fresh and engaging rom-com that celebrates the power of second chances and the magic of new beginnings.

In this office romance (set on a cruise ship!), two people competing for one job end up finding romance and chemistry while forced to spend time together. Henley has harbored anger and resentment toward Graeme ever since he joined the marketing team of Seaquest Adventures, although they’ve only ever met via video conferences. She is not thrilled to learn that he’s being considered for the promotion that she thought she had in the bag, and is especially unhappy to learn that part of the selection process for the promotion involves going on the company’s Galapagos tour — with Graeme.

While enjoying the gorgeous setting, Henley continues to bump heads with Graeme, but between their instant physical attraction and the fact that he actually seems nice in person, she’s forced to reevaluate her opinions of him.

Shipped is pretty standard fare when it comes to contemporary romance. It’s the enemies-to-lovers trope, every step of the way, and while the Galapagos setting makes it fun, the plot beats are exactly what you’d expect.

I had a hard time with main character Henley pretty much the entire way through the book. Her impression of Graeme and the way she interacts with him are so uncalled for — she comes across as unreasonable and extreme, and I doubt that was the author’s intention. He’s clearly not an awful person, and the way she talks to him and acts around him just doesn’t make sense. As Henley puts it:

The fact is, I acted like a lunatic today […]

Some of the writing is a little clunky, with language that left me scratching my head:

We barely make it through the door before we’re on each other like duct tape.

That sounds… painful? sticky? Not sexy, which I think was the intent. And then there’s this, which… I don’t even know.

My nether-kitty yowls and hisses at this interruption.

Of course, I also should disclose that office romance storylines are probably my least favorite romance plots, so that factors in as well. I didn’t find the office dynamics believable, and don’t even get me started on the promotion competition or the book’s tidy resolution for Henley’s career.

Still, there are some cute moments, and I liked Henley’s relationships with her friends and her sister, as well as the importance she places on giving credit where credit is due. The descriptions of the sights and wildlife of the Galapagos makes me want to go there, immediately! And I appreciate that the author includes all sorts of information on how to support wildlife preservation initiatives in the area as part of her notes at the end.

Maybe this book will work better for those who enjoy the specific romance tropes included here. Alas, while it was a quick and light read, it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Title: The Matzah Ball
Author: Jean Meltzer
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.

But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.

Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze. 

This Hanukkah-themed romance was a nice winter treat, with surprising depth amidst some of the goofier shenanigans.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is the daughter of a prominent Long Island rabbi. She’s an observant Jew… and a secret writer of bestselling Christmas romance novels. She’s spent her life in the public eye, always being monitored by her father’s congregation — is she following all the traditions? is she living a good Jewish life? is she a dutiful daughter? — so how would the congregation react if they knew about her hidden obsession with all things Christmas?

When her publisher declines to renew her contract for more Christmas romances, instead requesting a Hanukkah romance, Rachel panics. To her, Hanukkah is yet another Jewish tradition, nice, but not evoking that sparkly holiday magic like Christmas. But if she’s going to get a contract for a new book, she’ll have to find a way to find the magic in Hanukkah as well… and for inspiration, she’s needs to get a ticket to the sold-out Hanukkah blowout, Matzah Ball Max.

Matzah Ball Max is being produced by Jacob Greenberg, a famous and very successful producer of massive celebrity parties and music festivals and the like. But now, for the first time, Jacob is looking to reconnect with his Jewish background, as well as his problematic family history, by throwing the Hanukkah party of the century.

Back when Rachel and Jacob were twelve, they attended Jewish summer camp together, where they were each other’s first loves and first kisses — but a major conflict left them holding lifelong grudges against one another. Still, Rachel needs a ticket to the Matzah Ball, and reconnecting with Jacob may be her only hope.

The Matzah Ball deals nicely with Rachel and Jacob’s respective backstories and current challenges. For Rachel, this means exploring how she lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — yet another part of her life that she tries to keep secret. For Jacob, it’s coming to terms with his late mother’s years of chronic illness and his father’s abandonment, which led him to teen years full of acting out and resentment toward everyone who cared about him.

As adults, Rachel and Jacob are cautious when they encounter one another again after so many years, but their old connection is still there, and each reluctantly recognizes that their feelings may be more than just dislike and old hurts. They have to be willing to be honest and open up in order to deal with the past and move forward, and this proves difficult for both of them.

There’s a lot to love about The Matzah Ball. For me, well, they had me at “Jewish summer camp”. As the author explains in the notes following the story, she grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish family in the Northeast, and so much of what she describes absolutely rings true for me. And as for the summer camp piece, all I can say is that if you grew up attending a Jewish summer camp, you’ll get it. The lifelong friendships, the way those brief summers become life-shaping experiences… yes, yes, yes, so true!

I also really loved the warmth with which the author describes Jewish traditions and home life. She’s clearly lived all of this, and while I was afraid initially that the book would include too many stereotypical Jewish-isms, it’s all conveyed with respect and appreciation.

The romance is sweet, and builds nicely along the course of the novel — with the usual amount of miscommunications and nearly-impossible obstacles that you’d expect in a romance novel. Also very well done is the portrayal of Rachel’s chronic illness, shown with sensitivity and compassion — again, based on the author’s own real-life experiences. Here, Rachel’s CFS informs every aspect of her life, and while she’s not looking for pity, she’s also very much aware of how her illness keeps her from living the life she once thought she’d have.

On the downside, there are some slapstick-y scenes that I’m sure were intended to be humorous, but to me, they were just cringey. Putting Rachel in an awful matzah ball costume, having her get stuck in doorways, and colliding with a giant menorah? Just, no.

I also didn’t love a scene with Jacob’s grandmother, in which she shares her Holocaust experiences with Rachel as a sort of pep talk for getting out there and facing her fears. I appreciated hearing about Toby’s experiences, of course, but didn’t like how something this tragic was being spun as a device for getting Rachel to go after Jacob when all hope appeared to be lost.

Overall, though, I did really like The Matzah Ball. Despite its occasionally cornier scenes, there’s a sweetness and warmth that shines through, and I loved the portrayal of Jewish family life as a vibrant way of experiencing the world. This was a very enjoyable read, and I’ll be on the lookout for more by this author.