Book Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish

Title: The Holiday Trap
Author: Roan Parrish
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 442 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

For fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Alexis Hall comes a charming, hilarious, and heartwarming LGBTQIA+ romcom about two separate couples finding love over the holidays from acclaimed author Roan Parrish!

Greta Russakoff loves her tight-knit family and tiny Maine hometown, even if they don’t always understand what it’s like to be a lesbian living in such a small world. She desperately needs space to figure out who she is.

Truman Belvedere has just had his heart crushed into a million pieces when he learned that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, all he wants is a place to lick his wounds far, far away from New Orleans.

Enter Greta and Truman’s mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap. Over the winter holidays, each of them will have a chance to try on a new life…and maybe fall in love with the perfect partner of their dreams. But all holidays must come to an end, and eventually Greta and Truman will have to decide whether the love they each found so far from home is worth fighting for.

The Holiday Trap has some cute moments, but is far too long and has way too many implausible plot points and annoying characters moments to rise above a 3-star read.

Our two main characters, Greta and Truman, are stuck in lives that clearly aren’t working for them. Greta’s large family is smothering and overly involved and controlling, and living on an island in Maine, there’s really no escaping their endless interference. Truman thinks his life in New Orleans is going well, until he discovers that his boyfriend of one year actually has a family, and Truman is just the bit on the side.

When a mutual friend suggests that they swap places for the holidays, Greta and Truman both agree — because really, it couldn’t be any worse than their current situations. And of course, in their new locations, they each find exactly what they’re looking for — love, community, and purpose.

Greta falls immediately in love with an outspoken, quirky woman who demands honesty and teaches Greta about stating one’s own needs and listening to others. She also finds meaning through a local gardening club, and becomes involved with a community garden and the beekeepers she meets.

Truman arrives on the island with low expectations, but soon discovers that his very favorite author may once have lived there, and then stumbles across the man of his dreams at the local florist shop.

For both, true love seems to arrive within approximately three weeks, so that before their brief swap agreement is even over, they’ve both resolved to make it permanent and start their lives over in their new locations. They’ve also changed themselves in significant ways, learning to speak up and pay attention to what they really want and what makes them happy.

Also (and annoyingly) in this brief time, they find themselves overflowing with amazing new ideas for how to improve their friends’ business ventures, which the friends seem to appreciate and embrace. (If I were in any of the friends’ shoes, I would find this intrusive and presumptuous AF, but hey, maybe that’s just me).

There are sweet interludes and funny moments, but overall, this romance drags on, has too many personal epiphanies crammed into such a short amount of time, and takes its perfect romances far over the edge into not-at-all-believable territory. And the fact that Greta and Truman seem to always have the perfect idea that perfectly solves other people’s challenges… so incredibly annoying.

I’m not sure why this is called The Holiday Trap. It’s not especially about the holidays, other than taking place during December when holidays are happening, and I have no idea what “trap” has to do with anything. Nobody ends up trapped in their new locations or relationships. May The Holiday Swap was already taken?

In terms of steaminess, this book’s sex scenes are graphic, so be aware of that if you prefer understated steam rather than outright step-by-step descriptions of intimate encounters.

Overall, the plot really doesn’t hold up particularly well. Truman is an endearing character and Greta is okay, but their huge personal awakenings and finding of soulmates just don’t feel plausible. The Holiday Trap is good entertainment, but I’ve read a lot better.

Book Review: The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston

Title: The Dead Romantics
Author: Ashley Poston
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 28, 2022
Length: 366 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A disillusioned millennial ghostwriter who, quite literally, has some ghosts of her own, has to find her way back home in this sparkling adult debut from national bestselling author Ashley Poston.

Florence Day is the ghostwriter for one of the most prolific romance authors in the industry, and she has a problem—after a terrible breakup, she no longer believes in love. It’s as good as dead.

When her new editor, a too-handsome mountain of a man, won’t give her an extension on her book deadline, Florence prepares to kiss her career goodbye. But then she gets a phone call she never wanted to receive, and she must return home for the first time in a decade to help her family bury her beloved father.

For ten years, she’s run from the town that never understood her, and even though she misses the sound of a warm Southern night and her eccentric, loving family and their funeral parlor, she can’t bring herself to stay. Even with her father gone, it feels like nothing in this town has changed. And she hates it.

Until she finds a ghost standing at the funeral parlor’s front door, just as broad and infuriatingly handsome as ever, and he’s just as confused about why he’s there as she is.

Romance is most certainly dead . . . but so is her new editor, and his unfinished business will have her second-guessing everything she’s ever known about love stories.

This was a good one!

The plot synopsis is almost too complicated, but once you get into the story, the pieces fit. Basically, Florence is a ghostwriter for one of the most successful romance writers in the industry, but she’s behind on turning in the last book she has under contract. After a harsh betrayal and break-up a year earlier, she just can’t envision true love and happy endings any more. But the clock is ticking, and not finishing is really not an option.

Florence’s family owns the funeral home in a small southern town. She grew up with parents who were infuriatingly romantic and in love, and their home was filled with joy. Florence also has a secret — she sees dead people. Both she and her father have the gift of seeing and being able to interact with ghosts, but when this becomes public during Florence’s teens, she faces so much ridicule and bullying that she swears never to return to her hometown again.

Now an adult living in Manhattan, she’s stayed away for ten years, but is forced to go back and deal with the past when her father dies suddenly. Amidst the turmoil of family grief and planning a funeral, the ghost of Florence’s brand new editor shows up on her doorstep, which is especially concerning since she had no idea that he’d died.

Dead Romantics is a love story, but it’s so much more. It’s a loving depiction of a family that celebrates life and views death as just another part of the journey. It’s also a look at the internal life of a writer, and it’s a study of what it means to feel lost and hopeless and burdened by shattered illusions.

I love how Florence’s family is shown, and I love the rituals they invent and embrace to celebrate the life of a man who seems like the perfect husband and father. I also really enjoyed the strangeness of Florence getting to know the ghost of a man she’d only met once, and how their connection is able to develop and bridge the obvious gap between a living woman and a man who’s passed on.

I won’t give anything away… but I couldn’t see how there could be a solution to their situation that made sense.

There were no happily ever afters between an undertaker’s daughter and her ghost.

Surprise! The ending totally works, satisfied me, and left me feeling upbeat and cheery.

The writing is quite lovely, and having suffered a family loss recently myself, I found that certain passages really resonated:

I’d always written how grief was hollow. How it was a vast cavern of nothing. But I was wrong. Grief was the exact opposite. It was full and heavy and drowning because it wasn’t the absence of everything you lost—it was the culmination of it all, your love, your happiness, your bittersweets, wound tight like a knotted ball of yarn.

There’s a certain character who deserves to suffer some truly bad karma and I felt a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see that happen… but then again, that’s not what this story was really about.

Overall, I’m really glad that I picked up Dead Romantics and gave it a try. It was just the right mixture of sentiment, humor, sadness, and joy that I needed this week. Having read this author’s Once Upon a Con YA trilogy, I was curious to see how she’d do with her adult fiction debut. I’m happy to report that she nailed it!

Book Review: Husband Material (London Calling, #2) by Alexis Hall

Title: Husband Material
Series: London Calling, #2
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a bowl full of special curry to get these two from I don’t know what I’m doing to I do.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

This Summer 2022, you’re invited to the event(s) of the season.

After giggling my way through Boyfriend Material earlier this year, I just knew I needed the sequel in my life. And for the most part, Husband Material does not disappoint… except for the ending. But more on that later.

Blatantly modeled on Four Weddings and A Funeral**, the plot of Husband Material follows Luc and Oliver, the extreme-opposites-extremely-attract couple from the first book as they navigate being in a healthy long-term relationship (a first for both of them) while seeing all of their friends embracing wedding planning and baby making.

Two years into their relationship, Luc and Oliver still have separate flats but are together constantly. They’ve each made progress with their own personal hang-ups and issues, love each other very much, and are still funny as hell. As they attend wedding after wedding, some of their differences seem more concerning — especially when it comes to gay identity vs mainstream norms, and whether finally being able to officially and legally go the traditional marriage route means that they should.

And that’s not even addressing the rainbow elephant in the room — Luc embraces the glitter and rainbows of his ideal of gay community, but Oliver finds it all too commercialized and judgmental. If he doesn’t want a rainbow balloon arch at his wedding, does that make him a bad gay? But if he denies Luc the balloon arch, is he forcing Luc to give up part of his own identity? (Seriously, they spend A LOT of time on the balloon arch debate…)

After an unplanned panic-driven proposal (from Luc, of course), the couple decide to get married, but their cute differences as a couple seem to morph into fundamental problems as they try to navigate actually planning a wedding.

I love Luc and Oliver as characters and was very happy to reconnect with them and see how their lives have progressed since the first book. Husband Material, as a second book, assumes that we know these people, so there’s less time spent on character development and much more on plot shenanigans, which is fine, but creates a shallower reading experience. We still get a taste for the two as individuals, but their escapades (and the ridiculous goings-on surrounding the various weddings) take center stage for perhaps too much of the book — so when we do get deeper character moments, the tonal shift can be a bit jarring..

As in Boyfriend Material, the writing is heavy on word-play and humor, and most of the time, that’s truly a reading treat — don’t we all need more silly and clever and laugh-out-loud funny moments in our serious lives?

A few little samples:

“As your token gay friend, it is my duty to say that you are a fierce, sickening, incredible woman and that when you find a man who deserves you, he’ll make you feel like a princess every day of your life in a way that somehow manages to avoid reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.”

… I couldn’t tell if we’d had a fight of not, and if we had, whose fault it had been. I mean, I had kind of dropped him on extra-special date night. Like a dick. Except I’d only done that because I needed to take care of my friend. Like definitely not a dick. Fuck. I was in a grey dick area.

I was increasingly convinced that weddings were just an elaborate cycle of vengeance that had got really out of hand. Some pair of selfish bastards had forced their friends to come to a tedious party two thousand years ago and their selfish bastard friends had decided to pay them back by forcing them to come to a tedious party, and then some wholly independent group of selfish bastards had built an industry around it and here we were. An eye for an eye leaves the world overpaying for table settings.

I made the air-quotiest air quotes that ever air-quoted.

All fun aside for a moment, I will say that I did not care for the ending, not even a little bit. And without getting into spoiler territory, I suppose it was meant to show that Luc and Oliver works best when they forge their own path and do what’s really right for the two of them — but all I could think was that they could have avoided all the angst and mess if they’d only had a real conversation months earlier. So while I think the author meant for the ending to come across as nonconventially romantic, I was just unsatisfied and a little saddened by it all.

I had thought this was the final book of a two-book story, but it looks like more is on the way. According to Goodreads, there are two more related books yet to come, although I believe the focus will shift away from Luc and Oliver to others in their friend circle.

Despite my feelings about the ending of Husband Material, I enjoyed the writing and characters enough to want more, so I’m sure I’ll check out whatever comes next.

Spoiler ahead — look away now if you don’t want to know!

**Spoilery bit: I’d completely forgotten that the main couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral decide to have a life together without getting married at the end. I guess if I’d remembered that, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised / let down by the ending of Husband Material!

Book Review: Ship Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade

Title: Ship Wrecked
Series: Spoiler Alert, #3
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 15, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand—and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again…

Maria’s one-night-stand—the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note—just reappeared. Apparently, Peter’s her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they’re about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him…but he now wants nothing to do with her.

Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won’t sabotage his career for a woman who’s already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends—possibly even best friends—but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.

For years, they don’t touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don’t have a future together, since Peter’s going back to Hollywood, while Maria’s returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he’s determined to change her mind, and he’s spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.

His shipwrecked Swede doesn’t stand a chance.

Ship Wrecked is the 3rd book in Olivia Dade’s romance series centered around the fictional TV series Gods of the Gates, a not-at-all-veiled reference to Game of Thrones. Gods of the Gates is one of the biggest television phenomena ever, but once the show moves past its book source material, the showrunners manage to complete derail the storylines and character arcs.

Ship Wrecked‘s story overlaps time-wise with the first two books in the series. Here, we meet new characters who join the show for its second season — Cyprian and Cassia, shipwrecked enemies who spend years learning to work together in order to survive on a deserted, treacherous island, and who naturally fall madly in love.

Peter Reedton, a character actor with a respected but not-flashy career up to this point, knows that his shot at Cyprian could finally show that he has what it takes to be a lead actor. But when he auditions against an unknown, inexperienced Swedish actress, he worries that she may drag him down and ruin his chances.

But that’s not really why he’s upset… The night before the audition, Peter has an amazing one-night stand with an incredible woman named Maria, who then disappears in the morning without leaving a note, contact information, or even her full name. And of course, the Swedish actress he meets the next day turns out to be Maria, and Peter’s anger is really all about his feelings of abandonment.

Still, the two have amazing chemistry on camera, and before they know it, they’re off to a remote Irish island to start what will be years of filming together. They soon discover that they like each other and work well together, but Peter is determined that, for the sake of the production, they should not get romantically involved.

Ship Wrecked continues the entertaining behind-the-scenes look at a huge TV production introduced in the first two books, and introduces two compelling new characters, Peter and Maria, who are easy to love and to root for. Their personality and culture clashes are funny, and I really liked their dynamic together.

The overall plot is perhaps a bit less engaging than the other books, as we see less of the rest of the cast — but when we do get snippets of the cast text threads or quick appearances, they’re always good for a laugh.

Maria and Peter’s relationship, when they finally get there, is steamy as well as rooted in true caring and affection. I didn’t quite buy the tropey breakup required in all romances before the big reunion and romantic finish — their relationship troubles didn’t seem as dire as they presented them to be, and reasonable adults should have been able to work through their issues without torpedoing the relationship.

In terms of steam factor, this book definitely falls on the graphic end of the scale. Sex scenes are explicit, no filmy curtains or fade to black. In fact, the very first paragraph of the very first chapter should give you a good idea about the content of the rest of the book:

When Maria’s hazy brown eyes blinked back open after her orgasm, Peter held her gaze for another dozen thrusts. Then, braced on his forearms, fingers tangled in her hair, he pushed deep one last time and groaned into her mouth.

If you find that completely off-putting, then this may not be a great reading choice for you. I don’t usually go for graphic in my romance reading, but these books are just so much fun that I didn’t mind the occasional cringing brought on by the more detailed scenes.

Ship Wrecked has great characters, plenty of laughs, and is decidedly fat-positive and body-positive, which is refreshing and (sadly) still not all that common. Peter and Maria are both great characters, and I love how the author depicts them as both fat and sexy.

I’ve seen other readers refer to Ship Wrecked as the final book in the series, and I don’t actually know if that’s correct or not. The world of Gods of the Gates is just so much fun — I’d gladly read more about these and other characters.

If you’re interested in Ship Wrecked, I’d really recommend starting from the beginning and reading Spoiler Alert and All the Feels first. Ship Wrecked could work on its own, I suppose, but then you’d miss out on the deliciously ridiculous bigger picture of Gods of the Gates, and really, that would be a shame.

Book Review: The Stand-Up Groomsman by Jackie Lau

Title: The Stand-Up Groomsman
Author: Jackie Lau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 25, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A bridesmaid and groomsman put their differences aside to get their friends down the aisle in this opposites-attract steamy romantic comedy.

They say to never meet your heroes, but when Vivian Liao’s roommate gets engaged to her favorite actor’s costar, she has no choice but to come face-to-face with Melvin Lee again. He’s just as funny and handsome as he is on-screen…but thinks she is a snob and a sellout. It’s none of his business how she chooses to live her life, no matter how charismatic he is.

Mel is used to charming audiences as an actor and stand-up comedian but can’t connect to Vivian. She’s a smart, talented artist–which is why he thinks she’s wasting her life as a corporate finance drone. The only thing uniting them is their goal for the wedding to go off without a hitch.

As they collaborate on wedding cake and karaoke parties, Mel realizes he might have seriously misjudged this bridesmaid, while Vivian discovers the best man might just be as dazzling off-screen as he is on. With the wedding underway, maybe more than one happily ever after is in the future.

In this follow-up to Donut Fall In Love, a self-contained finance professional falls for a loud, outrageous stand-up comedian, and sparks fly — despite the fact that on the surface, at least, they’re complete opposites, and what’s worse, had an awful first meeting.

When Vivian meets Mel, she’s thrilled to be meeting the star of one of her favorite sitcoms. I mean, she’s done fan art about him! But he makes the mistake of assuming she’s like he used to be — someone pursuing a corporate paycheck rather than taking a chance and following their muse. Vivian is furious and would be happy to never see him again. Unfortunately for her, they’re going to be forced together over the coming year, as her roommate Lindsay has just become engaged to his best friend Ryan, and they’re both going to be in the wedding party.

As the wedding events seem designed to throw Vivian and Mel together, they form a tentative sort of connection, realizing that their outward differences mask some life experiences and personality quirks that make them more alike than they realized. Of course, the more time they spend together, they more their chemistry heats up, and it’s only for so long that they can deny that they’re better off as lovers than as enemies (or even frenemies).

The Stand-Up Groomsman is lots of fun, with tons of cute flirting, silly gift-giving, and shedding of inhibitions and defense mechanisms. I was impressed with the author’s ability to peel back the outer layers of the characters to show us how they’ve ended up where they are. Vivian confused me for much of the story — why was she so closed off? Why did she seem so unable to make connections or get involved with other people? But eventually, we learn more about her childhood and her parents’ expectations of her, and it finally all clicks and makes sense.

Melvin himself is all sorts of adorable. He and Vivian are both bisexual, and their frank conversations about sexuality are very refreshing — I haven’t come across all that many contemporary romance tales with such positive bi representation. (Mel’s bi identity is one of the many pieces of himself that becomes fodder for his stand-up routines, and it’s both sweet and funny to see how he works it into his set).

As the title indicates, Mel is a stand-up comedian as well as being a comedic actor. We see his stand-up shows throughout the book, and while some bits are quite funny, this is actually one part of the novel that perhaps didn’t work all that well for me. Reading a stand-up routine as part of a book’s narrative is just not the same as seeing a stand-up performance — and without the personality and physical presence, I just didn’t feel like the comedy translated all that well to the printed page.

That’s really just a minor quibble. Overall, The Stand-Up Groomsman is silly, sweet, and romantic, with some sexytimes in the mix too. (In terms of just how sexy, I’d rank this one as somewhere between steamy and graphic on my non-scientific, inexact ratings scale — it’s detailed and shows everything, but doesn’t cross into downright overly anatomical descriptions, if that makes any sense.)

On Goodreads, The Stand-Up Groomsman is listed as Donut Fall In Love, #2 — and yes, it is a sequel, but if you’re interested in this book, no need to get too hung up on reading the first book first. The couple from the first book are the wedding couple in this one, but really, you can read The Stand-Up Groomsman as a stand-alone and it’ll work just fine. (That said, Donut Fall In Love is super enjoyable, so why not read both?)

I’d definitely recommend The Stand-Up Groomsman for anyone looking for a light, contemporary romance with unusual characters and a sense of whimsy. Really a fun read!

Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

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

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

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

Book Review: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or another example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, the Butch-and-Sundance-guy guy.”

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

“Who wasn’t a guy?”

“The guy reading.”

“Wasn’t a guy?”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!