Book Review: My Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren

Millie Morris has always been one of the guys. A UC Santa Barbara professor, she’s a female-serial-killer expert who’s quick with a deflection joke and terrible at getting personal. And she, just like her four best guy friends and fellow professors, is perma-single.

So when a routine university function turns into a black tie gala, Millie and her circle make a pact that they’ll join an online dating service to find plus-ones for the event. There’s only one hitch: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid Campbell, secretly spend the sexiest half-night of their lives together, but mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic.

But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart. While the guys are inundated with quality matches and potential dates, Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”—Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Catherine” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship…but Millie can’t resist temptation in real life, either. Soon, Millie will have to face her worst fear—intimacy—or risk losing her best friend, forever.

Perfect for fans of Roxanne and She’s the Man, Christina Lauren’s latest romantic comedy is full of mistaken identities, hijinks, and a classic love story with a modern twist. Funny and fresh, you’ll want to swipe right on My Favorite Half-Night Stand.

Okay, I’m now 2 for 2 when it comes to reading Christina Lauren! My Favorite Half-Night Stand is yet another fun, engaging feel-good story about sexy smart people falling awkwardly in love… and I loved the heck out of this story.

Millie is 29, intelligent, adorable, the center of a friend circle consisting of four guys plus her, and she has a great life — except she hasn’t been with anyone romantically or sexually in way too long, and isn’t feeling particularly up to starting down that road again. After childhood losses and some strained family relationships as an adult, Millie prefers to keep her depths bottled up, showing her friends her bubbly outer persona but not letting anyone get under her skin or see too deeply into her soul.

Reid is her best friend, and they spend one very steamy night together — but Reid is looking for a relationship, and Millie can’t quite figure out how to be vulnerable enough to let him get closer to her. When the group decides to join a dating site, it goes pretty much how you might expect. Millie creates a second persona as an attempt to jazz up her profile in a safe way, but when this new profile “Catherine” gets matched with Reid, Millie lets it play out for far too long.

She and Reid have excellent chemistry and definitely heat up the page when they’re together. It’s interesting to see the tables flipped here, where it’s the woman who has a fear of intimacy and the man who’s frustrated by his partner’s insistence on keeping things light.

Told in alternating chapters, we see the events develop from both Millie’s and Reid’s perspectives, and get to see snippets of the online dating messages and group texts as well, which are funny and silly, and help illustrate the group dynamic. Both Millie and Reid are intelligent, sensitive people. I just wished they’d been more upfront with each other sooner. By pretending their nights together were just about the sex, they ended up tangled up in a situation where they both got hurt and risked losing something great. (Of course, as with many of these types of books, if they’d been clearer at the start, we’d have gotten to the HEA within about 50 pages, and then there’d be no story!)

My quibbles with this book are minor. First, everyone is gorgeous and successful in their fields. Not much to complain about, right? But it can be a bit hard to relate to people who are so perfect and flawless. My more serious complaint is that we don’t see enough of Millie at work. She a university professor with a book in the works, and her subject matter — female serial killers — is fascinating. I would have liked to see Millie actually teaching a class or being more active professionally in the book. Yes, we hear about what she does and what her field of research is, but I would have liked to have seen her in that role, so we’d get a clearer picture of her as a strong, brilliant woman, to offset the emphasis on her romantic triumphs and failures.

After reading Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating (and loving it), I was sold on Christina Lauren and needed more. Now that I’ve read her (their) newest release, I need to go back and read their previous books too. My Favorite Half-Night Stand is a smart and sexy romance that’s a quick read, perfect for a night in — best read with cozy pajamas, a fluffy quilt, and a mug of hot cocoa.

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The details:

Title: My Favorite Half-Night Stand
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Book Review: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them…right?

Ah, what fun! In my head, I don’t think of myself as someone who enjoys contemporary romance reading… but my recent track record seems to prove me wrong, over and over and over again.

Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating is a totally delicious and enjoyable story about two people who are determined to stay firmly in the friend zone… but we all know that intentions can be very different than what happens in real life.

In alternating chapters narrated by Hazel and Josh, we see these two come together in their late 20s, reunited by Josh’s sister, who just happens to be Hazel’s best friend. Hazel declares to Josh that she’s going to be his best friend too, and things certainly seem to head in that direction.

Let’s talk about Hazel for a moment. She is very out there, and at first, I was a little put off. Would I be able to handle a friend like that — someone who blurts, has no filters, and lives purely in the moment, going with what feels good and not worrying about tidiness or public opinion? She really would be hard to take — and yet, as the book progressed, I came to love her more and more. First of all, Hazel is all heart. She’s an elementary school teacher, for goddess’s sake! She loves 8-year-olds, with all their chaos and creativity and mess. When Josh first sees her in her classroom, he’s reminded of Ms Frizzle, and that’s really so on the nose. She’s a whirlwind of energy and good will, and it’s just impossible not to be charmed.

Josh is a little harder to pin down. He’s the older child of Korean immigrant parents whom he loves, he’s a successful physical therapist, and he’s a serial monogamist. He believes in committed relationships, and likes his world neat and sensible.

Josh and Hazel are clear that they’d be disastrous romantic partners, but they turn into excellent friends. Hazel pushes Josh’s boundaries and makes him laugh; Josh appreciate’s the Hazel-ness of Hazel without ever telling her to tone it down. Their series of blind dates, in which they each set up the other and then go on a double-date, are predictably epic failures, but it takes an awfully long time for Josh and Hazel to acknowledge that they’d rather be with one another than with anyone else.

My typical complaint with contemporary romances is about the communication factor. Surely, in real life, people would be just a little bit clearer about their feelings and intentions, right? There’s a lot of time wasted during which Josh thinks Hazel is interested in an ex-boyfriend and Hazel thinks Josh thinks that she should pursue things with the ex. They’re both wrong, of course, having completely misread each other and not spoken clearly enough to set each other straight. Of course, if everyone said everything they were thinking directly and without delay, there’d be no drama and no big payoff, so there you go.

This book surprised me in all the right ways. Sure, we know exactly where Josh and Hazel are headed, but it’s so much fun to see how they get there. I gobbled up this book in one day, and was left hungry for more. Apparently, I’ve been missing out by never having read this author (actually, two authors writing together) before, but I plan to rectify the situation as soon as I can!

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The details:

Title: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

For fans of Sophie Kinsella, Jojo Moyes, and Jennifer Weiner, a moving, laugh-out-loud novel—with recipes!—about a young woman who begins her life anew as a baker in Cornwall.

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it.

This is my third Jenny Colgan book — and in each, the pattern seems to be: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. And hey, it may be a pattern, but it works!

In Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly and her grumpy ex have been driven into bankruptcy by the failure of their graphic design business (he’s the designer, she handles the office). With no money, the relationship in tatters, and no place to live, Polly chances upon a flat for rent in Mount Polbearne, a location she remembers fondly from childhood field trips. Polbearne is an island attached to Cornwall by a causeway that’s only accessible when the tide is out. The town features a fishing fleet, a pub, some worn-down local businesses, and for Polly, a place of refuge to lick her wounds and retreat from the world.

It’s Polly’s love of bread that finally draws her out of her shell. The one and only bakery on the island is run by a grumpy old woman, Polly’s landlady, who makes atrocious bread but refuses to allow anyone to sell anything else. Polly starts baking as a hobby, to relieve her own stress and anxiety, but as her baking becomes popular with the local fishermen, she starts to find a place for herself in this isolated community.

Little Beach Street Bakery is quite a fun read. Polly is a relatable young woman, who has been through tough times but still maintains enough hope to start rebuilding. She’s goofy too — after rescuing an injured puffin, she develops a quirky relationship with the bird and the two become inseparable. (Side note, I’ve only just discovered that the author has written some children’s books about Polly and Neil the Puffin — how adorable is that?)

The love story in this book takes a while to build, and Polly makes a big mistake along the way. (Not her fault — he didn’t tell her he was married! Ahem.) But eventually, she realizes who it is that she really loves and wants, and after a prolonged period of misunderstanding, there are fireworks. (Yes, there really are fireworks!)

Along the way, we meet a host of quirky locals, get immersed in the battle between newly arrived trendy folks who want to modernize and the old-timers who want to keep things as they are, experience the trauma of waiting for the fishing fleet to come home after a storm, and get to know a beautiful little corner of the world. It’s no wonder Polly loves it there!

This is pure escapist delight. Who wouldn’t want to run away to a remote, gorgeous location and find true love, friendship, and a way to turn a favorite pastime into a successful and fulfilling career?

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Sometimes, light and frothy is just the right choice! Once again, many thanks to my book group for picking this book for discussion. After a bunch of heavier reads, it’s nice to turn to something that just feels good.

A note on the covers: The image at the top of this post is the cover of the Kindle edition, which I find a little funny, since Polly is a bread baker and never once mentioned baking cupcakes. The audiobook image — with loaves of bread, a jar of honey, and a view of the sea — is a much better fit for the story, in my humble opinion. And just yummy.

And a final comment: There are two follow-up books, Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery and Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery. I’m not planning to read them immediately (SO much else to read right now!)… but I’ll definitely keep them in mind for when I need a nice little reading getaway.

 

 

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The details:

Title: Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 13, 2014
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENTERING MINOR SPOILER TERRITORY – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF SPOILERS

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

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

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The details:

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

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Book Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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A book & a movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

It’s the classic tug-of-war: Book or Movie?

In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, why not enjoy both? That’s what I did this past week!

I watched the Netflix movie last weekend. Here’s the synopsis (via IMDb):

When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, Lara Jean finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down.

Okay, that doesn’t really tell us all that much.

The movie is super adorable. 16-year-old Lara Jean, a high school junior, lives at home with her widowed dad and her two sisters — but older sister Margot’s departure for college in Scotland throws the normal family routines out of whack. Lara Jean is missing Margot… and then somehow, her old love letters to five different crushes from her past end up in the boys’ hands, and things get rom-com cute and chaotic.

But what about the book? After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book — ya know, just for comparison’s sake. The book, by Jenny Han, is sweet and quirky (kind of like Lara Jean!). Here’s the book synopsis, from Goodreads:

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

In both versions, the main boys on Lara Jean’s very confused mind are Josh, the boy next door and Margot’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky, the super popular guy who once kissed Lara Jean back in middle school. Josh is blown away by Lara Jean’s letter confessing feelings for him, and Peter is trying to deal with a break-up from his long-term girlfriend, so Lara Jean and Peter end up as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, just to get everyone off their backs. Yes, the fake relationship plot has been around for a while, but To All the Boys manages to keep it fresh and fun.

The movie version is a great way to enjoy the full story without a whole lot of time invested, and the cast is pretty terrific. I have a definite weakness for John Corbett, who plays the dad (which gives you a good idea of my demographic, btw), but I appreciated the young’uns who make up the teen characters’ part of the cast.

I was a little confused, watching the movie, by the ethnicity of the sisters. According to the book, Lara Jean and her sisters are biracial, with a Korean mom and a white dad. The TV sisters appear to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which I kept thinking the movie might explain (are they adopted? I hadn’t read the book yet when I watched it). To complicate matters further, according to IMDb, the actress playing Lara Jean is of Vietnamese descent, and the actress playing Margot is of Chinese descent. No info on the younger sister (who, based just on looks, doesn’t appear to be Asian), but I thought it was odd casting to pick three girls who look nothing alike and then just ignore their diverse backgrounds. Sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive here, but not being familiar with the story beforehand, I was distracted by how distinctly un-related the sisters looked, and it took me a while to realize that the movie was just going to leave it all unacknowledged. Weird to get hung up on that, I know, but there it is.

The movie advances the plot a bit further than the book — the book leaves the ending on an open note. We know (and Lara Jean finally knows) how she feels, but not what the outcome will be. The movie has a suitably romantic and adorable ending… but since the book is the first in a trilogy, I assume we’ll get there in book #2.

Of course, I’m now a little worried about how there can be two more books’ worth of story left to tell, because the movie ending was pretty perfect and swoony. Now I’m anxious about what comes after that happy ending, and what direction books 2 and 3 might take the characters in.

So, which did I like more — book or movie? Hard to say! I’m glad I watched the movie first (which is definitely unusual for me). It strikes all the right notes, condensing teen worry, flirtation, hard family issues, mean girls, fitting in, first crushes, and the rush of first love, into a (less than) two hour experience that feels fun, fresh, and totally satisfying. If you need a quick mood boost, this is perfect (maybe with a mug of hot cocoa and some delicious cookies to go with). I liked the book a lot, especially the deeper look into the relationships between Margot, Lara Jean, and younger sister Kitty, and I’m glad I read it — but even if I hadn’t, the movie hits all the right beats and feels complete in and of itself.

So yeah, I say do both! Watch the movie, read the book… and as for me, I’m already moving on to book #2, PS I Still Love You… hoping there’s plenty more quirky romance and sisterly shenanigans in store!

Book Review: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

 

Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.

It’s 1759 and the world is at war, pulling the North American colonies of Britain and France into the conflict. The times are complicated, as are the loyalties of many New York merchants who have secretly been trading with the French for years, defying Britain’s colonial laws in a game growing ever more treacherous.

When captured French officers are brought to Long Island to be billeted in private homes on their parole of honour, it upends the lives of the Wilde family—deeply involved in the treasonous trade and already divided by war.

Lydia Wilde, struggling to keep the peace in her fracturing family following her mother’s death, has little time or kindness to spare for her unwanted guests. French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran has little desire to be there. But by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

Their doomed romance becomes a local legend, told and re-told through the years until the present day, when conflict of a different kind brings Charley Van Hoek to Long Island to be the new curator of the Wilde House Museum.

Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts. But as she starts to delve into the history of Lydia and her French officer, it becomes clear that the Wilde House holds more than just secrets, and Charley discovers the legend might not have been telling the whole story…or the whole truth.

Belleweather starts slowly, layering modern-day chapters with chapters from Lydia’s and Jean-Philippe’s perspectives. It’s masterfully done, like building a gorgeous home from the foundation upward. The early stages may seem like a lot of getting ready, but as the story builds, the pieces all come together to make an impressive whole.

We’re told from the outset that the Wilde House has a long, tangled history, going back centuries through generations of Wildes, who settled, married, bore and lost children, and over time expanded the original Colonial footprint of the house to include a Victorian wing. We also learn early on that the house may be haunted. When Charley accepts a job as curator for the Wilde House Museum, currently under renovation, one of the first stories she hears is the legend of a doomed love between a Wilde daughter and a French officer staying in the family home as a prisoner during the French and Indian War.

Charley is naturally charmed and intrigued by the tale — but the mission of the museum is supposed to be on Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Wilde. The stuffier members of the board of directors are not crazy about Charley anyway, and they refuse to expand their view of the musem’s purpose to include anything about this mysterious ghost story, despite the fact that over the years it’s become a favorite local legend, so much so that the woods around the museum have become a favorite Halloween destination for people wanting a chance at a ghost sighting.

Charley begins to dig through the old records to discover proof to back up the ghost story, and meanwhile, we hear from Lydia and Jean-Philippe about how they met, what conditions were like for them on the farm, and how family dynamics — especially conflicts with another French officer and Lydia’s brothers — seemed to make any future between the two utterly impossible.

Within the contemporary pieces of the story, we also learn more about Charley’s own family tragedies, including a long estrangement from her grandmother, the loss of her brother, her care for her young adult niece, and naturally, Charley’s own romantic frustrations and dreams. On top of that, there’s a particularly difficult and entitled set of board members to be dealt with, and lots of influential people with demands that can’t be ignored.

To be honest, I had my doubts at the beginning. The start is slow, and particularly in Charley’s chapters, there’s a lot of exposition up front, and tons of minor characters’ names to learn and remember. I was much more captivated by Lydia and Jean-Philippe from the start. Because we’re told the outlines of the ghost story at the beginning, we read about these two characters assuming we know where their story is going and wondering about the how and why — but the way it all comes together is both surprising and carefully built up to. I was very satisfied with the resolution, both of the contemporary and historical pieces of the story,

Overall, I enjoyed Bellewether very much, although I felt that certain of the emotional/family dynamics and complications in Charley’s part of the story were rushed. The storyline with her grandmother, in particular, needed a little more room to breathe and develop in order to have the intended emotional impact, and I thought the niece’s grief and healing was given a rather speedy treatment as well.

Still, as a whole, Bellewether is a great read, and by the second half, I just couldn’t put it down. Susanna Kearsley is a master of emotional, complex stories with historical elements that usually come with some sort of secretive or supernatural mysteries. Bellewether is a stand-alone that makes a great introduction to the author’s style and quality of writing, and for those who already love her works, you won’t be disappointed!

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A note on editions: The cover above belongs to the paperback edition released in Canada in April 2018, which I purchased via Amazon Canada prior to receiving an ARC via NetGalley. The US edition, releasing this coming week (August 7th), has a cover that, while nice, doesn’t match my existing collection of Susanna Kearsley books — and I’m enough of a fan and a completist that I just had to have that gorgeous Canadian cover!

Here’s the US cover:

And here’s a look at some of my other Susanna Kearsley books — which may help explain why I needed that particular cover:

 

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The details:

Title: Bellewether
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: August 7, 2018
Length: 414 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: NetGalley (also purchased)

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Book Review: How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

 

Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment.

In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect.

How to Walk Away is Katherine Center at her very best: an utterly charming, hopeful, and romantic novel that will capture reader’s hearts with every page.

Margaret seems to have it all on the day we meet her, but as she tells us right up front:

The biggest irony about that night is that I was always scared to fly.

Her too-perfect-for words boyfriend Chip has been working toward getting his pilot’s license. He’s gorgeous, head over heels for Margaret, and has told her to prepare for a special night. She knows they have a dinner reservation at a nice restaurant, and has a hunch that this is the moment when he’ll propose. But there’s an unwelcome surprise waiting for her — instead of heading toward dinner, Chip drives them to the airfield instead. He’s taking her up for a flight, and does not want to take no for an answer. Margaret realizes that this is a test of sorts. Does she have enough faith in Chip to accept the flight despite her absolutely not wanting to?

She does. Big mistake.

After a mid-air proposal and the presentation of a ring (that’s too big and not her taste — could that be a sign?), the weather turns on the way back to the airfield. They make it to the ground, but then the wind flips the plane. And it takes quite a while, from Chip running for help to the ambulance arriving to the helicopter flight to the hospital and beyond, for Margaret to realize that something might really be wrong.

In fact, things are very wrong. Margaret’s face and neck are burned, and she has a spinal cord injury. She may never walk again, and she’ll have scars from her skin grafts for life. And where is Chip? Poor dear is so effin’ distraught that he’s out getting drunk, too upset to actually see Margaret or, you know, be there for her.

Chip is a total dick, by the way, in case it’s not perfectly evident by now. I mean, for starters, you know your girlfriend is scared to death of planes, but you force her into one anyway through emotional blackmail when you don’t even have your license yet? And then he makes it all about himself. Boo hoo. I feel so bad. My girlfriend isn’t perfect anymore. I’m not even kidding — he actually says this:

“You used to be so beautiful — and now you look like a pizza.”

It takes Margaret a surprisingly long time to realize that he’s a total asshole. I’m sorry, but perhaps this pre-flight moment should have tipped her off:

Then he pulled me into a kiss — a manly, determined, all-this-can-be-yours kiss, digging his tongue into my mouth in a way that he clearly found powerful and erotic, but that I, given how the sheer terror of what I was about to do had iced my blood, was too numb to feel.

Like I say. Dick.

But as Margaret passes the initial weeks in the hospital, learning about her future and starting physical therapy, other pieces of her life start to come together. Her sister Kitty, estranged from the family for three years, comes home from New York and commits to spending every night in Margaret’s hospital room, giving the sisters a chance to reconnect and rediscover the joy in their relationship. Margaret’s mother is a lot to take, but certain truths come out that have an impact on the family as well.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Margaret’s physical therapist is a gorgeous, brooding, terse Scottish fellow who’s a genius at therapy and exuding quiet manliness, practically begging for just the right woman to find the key to his bruised heart. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much.) It’s not a spoiler to say that Ian the PT becomes Margaret’s new love interest — it couldn’t be more obvious if it was written in cotton candy-colored glitter paint.

So… did I enjoy How to Walk Away?

Actually, I did. Despite being fairly predictable and having some truly groan-worthy dialogue, the story itself kept me turning the pages — basically, a one-day read since I couldn’t stop once I started. I did care about Margaret and wanted to see how her life would turn out. I admired her bluntness, her honesty, and her ability to keep going at the worst of times. She’s deluged by advice and unwanted input, all about how staying upbeat is the answer to everything, and yet, she’s straight-forward in showing how staying optimistic isn’t easy or a cure-all, and despite all her best positivity, isn’t going to repair the damage to her spinal cord.

There was always a kind of backward logic to my mom’s crazy. I got it now. She hadn’t accidentally revealed to me that I was facing a possible lifetime of being unfuckable. She was doing it on purpose. She was attempting to motivate me. To get me focused. To rouse some unsinkable part of my soul that would stand up in outrage and simply refuse to give in.

Mother of the year award, anyone?

Despite the seriousness of Margaret’s condition and the challenging prospects ahead of her, the writing still manages to include plenty of humorous moments as well, in addition (of course) to a few swoonier bits too.

The ending includes a pretty farcical trip to Europe for a wedding, with lots of near misses, odd encounters, and physical comedy. It’s all a little silly and slapstick, but it was nice to get a happy ending after all of the ups and downs.

Do I recommend this book?

Yes. As I’ve said in plenty of reviews of contemporary romances before, this is not my usual genre. I like contemporary fiction, and every once in a while, I enjoy the hell out of a good romantic tale. But in general, modern-day love stories don’t really rock my world, so take my somewhat snarky comments with a grain of salt.

Bottom line, it’s a good sign that even a curmudgeon like me (kidding, mostly) enjoyed reading How to Walk Away — so if you are in fact a fan of romances and stories that explore family relationships and dynamics, this would probably be a great choice.

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The details:

Title: How to Walk Away
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 15, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Having way too much fun with My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran & Larissa Zageris

Thank you, Quirk Books, for providing me with a review copy!

You are the plucky but penniless heroine in the center of eighteenth-century society, courtship season has begun, and your future is at hand. Will you flip forward fetchingly to find love with the bantering baronet Sir Benedict Granville? Or turn the page to true love with the hardworking, horse-loving highlander Captain Angus McTaggart? Or perhaps race through the chapters chasing a good (and arousing) man gone mad, bad, and scandalous to know, Lord Garraway Craven? Or read on recklessly and take to the Continent as the “traveling companion” of the spirited and adventuresome Lady Evangeline? Or yet some other intriguing fate? Make choices, turn pages, and discover all the daring delights of the multiple (and intertwining!) storylines. And in every path you pick, beguiling illustrations bring all the lust and love to life.

Oh my.

If you’re like me, you have fond memories of all those choose-your-own-adventure books in the kids’ section of the library. But why should kids have all the fun?

My Lady’s Choosing spiffs up the concept with an astonishingly funny romance book for adult readers, full of suspenseful decisions, perilous outcomes, and a plethora of sexy love interests no matter which path you choose.

It’s decision time.

Do you throw caution, decorum, and all other respectable nouns to the wind in order to follow Lady Evangeline into the unknown? If so, turn to page 128.

Or do you value your limbs still being attached to your body and decide to sit this one out? If so, turn to page 71.

You could end up seeking the secrets of an ancient hidden treasure in the deserts of Egypt… or helping a (sexy) kilt-wearing Scotsman at an orphanage in the Highlands… or trying to figure out the secrets of a decrepit manor on the moors with a brooding, bad-boy lord and master… The possibilities are endless!

I had a blast flipping my way through this delightful book. I went through three different story variations — and cheated a bit by reading a few of the random pages in between. I know there are many more main paths I could follow, but at this point I’m holding off on the rest and planning to read them in bits and pieces when I need something to lift my spirits.

The writing is frothy and melodramatic, with plenty of humor and sarcasm — it’s like the authors are making sure that we readers know that they’re in on the joke. The language includes some of the best and worst of overwrought romance writing:

He senses your soul stirring betwixt your bosom.

“I sense your soul stirring betwixt your bosom,” he growls.

In answer, you make love to him again, with all the rushed intensity of spirits wrongfully dispatched from the mortal coil trying to communicate with the living from the great beyond.

Then there are the various descriptors of body parts, such as “womanly orbs”, “the moonstone of your sex”, and lots of talk about the Highlander’s “caber”. Or lines like this:

Mac’s own faithful steed strains at the flap of his kilt, ready to take you on as far a journey as you wish.

This book is really and truly a great time. But every once in a while a wee bit of social commentary sneaks in:

Do you accompany your tyrannical employer to the fundraising ball for the Society for the Protection of Widows and Orphans of the War? The company may be atrocious, but balls are fun! If so, turn to page 67.

Or do you run away from Lady Craven, only to find yourself with no other means of survival than to sell your young body into the cold, cruel night? If so, do not go to any other place in this book, for you will be utterly doomed and dead from syphilis within a year.

Sorry. This may be a choosable-path adventure, but as a penniless young unmarried woman at the start of the nineteenth century, your options are somewhat limited. They will get better, though! Turn to page 67.

You have to appreciate risqué romance and quirky humor to really enjoy this book… but if you’ve read this far in my rambling review, I suspect you do! Pick up a copy to enjoy on your own, or read it with a bunch of girlfriends when you want a night in, maybe with a few glasses of wine to go with. Good times, either way!

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The details:

Title: My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel
Authors: Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: April 3, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Humor/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of Quirk

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Café by the Sea

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

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

My Thoughts:

The Café by the Sea is a sweet, fluffy treat of a book — not especially deep or filling, but enjoyable the whole way through. I enjoyed the setting — a beautiful, isolated Scottish island where everyone knows everyone else, and where, sadly, the younger generation doesn’t see much of a future. When Flora arrives back on the island for a work assignment, she instigates changes that will ultimately lead to the rejuvenation of the island, by convincing a billionaire about to open an exclusive resort to hire and source locally.

The work assignment is also the means for Flora to finally get noticed by her boss, an icy playboy lawyer with a tragic past who never allows emotions to seep to the surface. Honestly, the love story didn’t click for me. Flora, a paralegal in a prestigious law firm, has had a hopeless crush on Joel for years, and although it’s not giving away too much to say that the island has a profound effect on him as well, I couldn’t figure out what Flora saw in him in the first place, other than his amazing good looks. Meanwhile, there’s a potential love interest on the island, but that part of the story doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so it’s pretty clear early on which way things are going.

I loved the parts of the story about Flora reconnecting with her father and brothers, coming to terms with a loss in the family several years earlier, and reconnecting with the people and natural beauty of Mure. However, I was a little unsure about some of Flora’s decision-making regarding her career and her future. When we meet her, she’s working as a paralegal with an eye toward becoming a fully qualified lawyer, but her actual work in law seems to fall by the wayside as she becomes more and more involved in using her family’s history to open up and run an amazing café in the center of town. Was she never really all that interested in becoming a lawyer? It seems that she’s just fallen into this new life, and I would have liked to have her at least think about what it might mean to walk away from her professional plans and change course like this.

Still, this is really a charming book, with a gorgeous setting, interesting, quirky characters and a plot that hits some emotional notes without ever losing its sense of romance and light. When you’re looking for something to lift your spirits, check out The Café by the Sea!

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The details:

Title: The Café by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 27, 2017
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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