Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Shipped by Angie Hockman

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My nether-kitty yowls and hisses at this interruption.

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

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

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

Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Title: The Charm Offensive
Author: Alison Cochrun
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.

Full disclosure: I have never, ever watched an episode of The Bachelor. I don’t believe people can find true love via a TV reality dating show. But, grudgingly, I suspended my disbelief in order to read The Charm Offensive, and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

In The Charm Offensive, Charlie makes for an unpredictable and unconventional “prince” for the fairy-tale based dating show Ever After, supposedly the most successful and popular dating show on TV. Charlie is a former tech genius who was fired from his own company. His publicist thinks putting him out there as a romantic lead on a hugely-watched show will rehabilitate his image… and hopefully, make him seem employable again when it’s all over. Are you feeling skeptical about this plan? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, Dev is a production team member of Ever After, tasked with “handling” the twenty women cast as potential love interests for Charlie. But after the initial filming attempt goes horribly, with Charlie barely able to talk on camera, Dev is reassigned to be Charlie’s handler. It’s Dev’s job to prep Charlie for the grueling weeks ahead, getting him into prince mode and making sure he’s ready to be on camera and at the center of attention.

The more time Dev and Charlie spend together, the more their chemistry and connection grow… but not without challenges. Charlie, it becomes clear early on, suffers from debilitating panic attacks and OCD, and he can barely keep things together when he’s under stress, which is pretty much constant on the set of Ever After. Dev deals with recurring depression himself, but his preferred persona is “Fun Dev” — he’s always, always upbeat and on when he’s around his coworkers and the cast, not wanting anyone to see beyond the surface.

Dev is out and proud, but he’s concerned about his growing attraction to the gorgeous Charlie. Charlie is… enigmatic. Because of his differences, Charlie has never seen himself as worthy of love, and he’s never explored romance or sexuality. As he spends time with the women competing for his heart, as well as spending almost 24/7 with Dev, he starts to acknowledge the attraction and the feelings he has — all for Dev. Yet his contract with the show requires him to continue playing out the romantic fantasy with the women competing to be his princess, and as for Dev, his career is on the line if he allows himself to act on his feelings for Charlie.

Charlie and Dev are very sweet together, and they share moments of vulnerability and honesty, as well as some absolutely swoon-worthy kisses. At first glance, the premise of The Charm Offensive makes this book seem like it’ll be mostly airy and light, but there’s actual depth here. Both Charlie and Dev have mental health issues to address, and Charlie is someone who’s neuro-atypical in a world that doesn’t quite know what to make of him or how to make room for him.

Additionally, Charlie hasn’t had an opportunity in his life to ever really consider love or orientation, and it’s refreshing to see the characters in this book talk about the spectrum of ways a person can be, discussing not just straight vs gay, but also delving into demisexuality, being aro/ace, graysexual, and more. There are some deeper moments of soul-searching that enable the characters to move beyond easy definitions and labels and make them feel like well-rounded, well-developed individuals.

The concept of Ever After is so ridiculous that it’s actually really funny, with the contestants competing in quests like rescuing Charlie from a tower and kissing frogs, the prince handing out tiaras at the weekly crowning ceremonies, and even the absolutely vital moment of riding up on a white horse. Still, the nagging little logical part of my brain couldn’t help thinking that there is actually no way that a show like this would cast someone like Charlie, who’s never been on camera, can’t speak publicly, is unbelievably awkward, and has just no game when it comes to the women. I couldn’t buy the idea that the show would gamble on him as its lead — it makes no sense, and it also makes no sense that this is the best idea Charlie’s publicist has for rehabbing his image and getting him another job in tech.

Putting that aside, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about The Charm Offensive. The writing is often very funny:

These are not appropriate morning-yoga thoughts. He tries to focus on things that calm him: Excel spreadsheets, quiet libraries, one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, 90-degree angles.

Dude, except for the 90-degree angles, I so relate.

Also puzzle-themed, I actually think Charlie could be my soulmate in another universe:

“This is your idea of a romantic time?”

… Dev asked Charlie what he would do with his ideal afternoon. So now they’re working on a jigsaw puzzle while watching the first season of The Expanse…

Most of all, Dev and Charlie are both great characters, and I loved seeing their connection grow. This is a sweet, funny, and thoughtful look at love and communication and choosing happiness. The geeky sci-fi and puzzle bits are just icing on the cake!

Book Review: Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau

Title: Donut Fall in Love
Author: Jackie Lau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 26, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A baker provides the sweetest escape for an actor in this charming romantic comedy.

Actor Ryan Kwok is back in Toronto after the promotional tour for his latest film, a rom-com that is getting less-than-stellar reviews. After the sudden death of his mother and years of constant work, Ryan is taking some much-needed time off. But as he tries to be supportive to his family, he struggles with his loss and doesn’t know how to talk to his dad—who now trolls him on Twitter instead of meeting him for dim sum.

Innovative baker Lindsay McLeod meets Ryan when he knocks over two dozen specialty donuts at her bakery. Their relationship is off to a messy start, but there’s no denying their immediate attraction. When Ryan signs up for a celebrity episode of Baking Fail, he asks Lindsay to teach him how to bake and she agrees.

As Lindsay and Ryan spend time together, bonding over grief and bubble tea, it starts to feel like they’re cooking up something sweeter than cupcakes in the kitchen. 

Donut Fall In Love is a sweet (because BAKING), light romance that follows the celebrity love interest trope. It’s fairly formulaic plot-wise, but the character specifics, the setting, and the families make this book stand out as something special.

Lindsay runs a donut shop with her best friend Noreen, where they specialize in high-end, super-fancy treats, like matcha tiramisu and chocolate espresso donuts. Their baked goods are not just delicious, they’re works of art.

Ryan has returned to Toronto to spend more time with his family, anxiously watching reviews of his latest film to see what it will mean for his career. And as he notes, as an Asian actor, the movie industry seems to see the success or failure of his rom-com as a litmus test for whether an actor of Asian descent can pull off a romantic lead role. He feels the weight of representation on his shoulders, and worries not just about his own career, but whether his so-so box office results will spell doom for other Asian actors.

When Ryan is asked to appear as a celebrity contestant on a popular TV baking show (Baking Fail), he instantly thinks of the cute bakery owner he (literally) ran into the previous week, and asks Lindsay for baking lessons so that he doesn’t completely humiliate himself on national TV.

Lindsay, while also of Asian descent, was raised by a mother whose family emphasized assimilation, so she grew up without speaking the language that her grandparents grew up with. While Lindsay and Ryan’s backgrounds have many differences, they share a sense of otherness from growing up in largely white communities, and soon learn that they have much more in common than ethnic background and experiences with tokenism and racism.

Their weekly baking lessons become a highlight for both of them, as they laugh, flirt, and bake together, and they each realize that their enjoyment of each other’s company might be more than just friendship. Plus, their chemistry is undeniable, and while Ryan is the one who’s famous for being a sex symbol, the attraction is clearly, strongly mutual.

As is typical in celebrity-in-love-with-a-regular-person romances, Lindsay deals with self-doubt. Ryan is super hot, as is obvious from the popular hashtag #StarringRyanKwoksAbs. How can such a gorgeous man with a stunningly perfect body possibly be interesting in an ordinary, not-perfect person like her?

Ryan and Lindsay are very cute together, and soon find themselves intimately involved. But as they learn, sex might be easy, but true intimacy, trust, and emotional connection are much harder.

I liked a lot of aspects of Donut Fall In Love. Both Ryan and Lindsay are dealing with grief over the death of a parent, and the author portrays the lasting impact of these losses very thoughtfully and sensitively. I also appreciated the depiction of the impact of the casual racism disguised as humor that Ryan and other Asian actors must deal with, as well as the off-handed cruelty that internet commenters seem to have no problem throwing around, as if the people on the receiving end aren’t actually real people at all.

The characters’ family relationships are also well depicted, although I did feel that Ryan’s difficult relationship with his father was fixed rather suddenly and without a whole lot of processing.

I feel like I should have a steaminess index for when I review romances, but haven’t come up with a scale yet! In any case, this book has a mostly light and flirty tone, but when sex happens, it’s explicit, so be forewarned if that’s not your style when it comes to romance reading.

Overall, I really liked Donut Fall In Love. Yes, the plot is somewhat predictable and by the book, but the unique personalities and donut-filled settings make the story a tasty treat.

My main complaint? I feel like this book should come with a gift card to a bakery. It made me crave sweets on every page! Gimme donuts. Gimme donuts now.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

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Book Review: The Sweetest Remedy by Jane Igharo

Title: The Sweetest Remedy
Author: Jane Igharo
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When a woman travels to Nigeria to attend the funeral of the father she never knew, she meets her extravagant family for the first time, a new and inspiring love interest, and discovers parts of herself she didn’t know were missing, from Jane Igharo, the acclaimed author of Ties That Tether.

Hannah Bailey has never known her father, the Nigerian entrepreneur who had a brief relationship with her white mother. Because of this, Hannah has always felt uncertain about part of her identity. When her father dies, she’s invited to Nigeria for the funeral. Though she wants to hate the man who abandoned her, she’s curious about who he was and where he was from. Searching for answers, Hannah boards a plane to Lagos, Nigeria.

In Banana Island, one of Nigeria’s most affluent areas, Hannah meets the Jolades, her late father’s prestigious family–some who accept her and some who think she doesn’t belong. The days leading up to the funeral are chaotic, but Hannah is soon shaped by secrets that unfold, a culture she never thought she would understand or appreciate, and a man who steals her heart and helps her to see herself in a new light. 

In Jane Igharo’s newest novel, family is family, even when least expected.

Hannah is a successful writer living in San Francisco near the single mother who raised her. She’s passionate about her career and her volunteer commitments at a local youth center. She’s also fed up with clueless, entitled men who try to hit on her by commenting on her “exotic” beauty or think it’s flattering to ask her about her ethnicity.

When Hannah attends an upscale cocktail party with her best friend, she’s pretty much over it all, until she meets a lovely man who seems to really see her, but their connection is cut short when he’s called away on something urgent. Soon after, Hannah’s mother shares painful news as well: She’s just been informed that Hannah’s father, a man Hannah met only once in her life, has died suddenly. What’s more, his final request was for Hannah to attend his funeral in Nigeria.

Hannah’s feeling are complicated and painful. She’s always known who her father was — a wealthy, powerful businessman from Nigeria. She’s googled his family and has seen photos of her siblings, none of whom know she exists. She has memories of his one visit to see her in San Francisco, and she knows that he’s always provided financially — and generously — for her… but why did he never actually want her? Why was she never good enough?

With a push from her mother, Hannah agrees to go to Nigeria, and the experience is astounding and life-changing. The Jolade family is not just well-off — they’re extremely wealthy, and their home is a gated estate in the exclusive Banana Island area of Lagos. Hannah learns upon arrival that the family has not been told anything about her, so when she shows up in their midst, their reactions are shock, anger, and resentment.

Still, their father has stipulated that the family must stay at the estate with Hannah until after his funeral or they’ll be cut out of his will, and so begins a two-week period where awkwardness and hostility slowly make way for new connections and emotional exploration.

As Hannah develops relationships with each of her siblings, she gains greater understanding of who her father was, why he made the decision he made, and how she fits into this world that’s so strange to her. Her journey is lovely and thoughtful, and also includes romance, as the man she’d met in San Francisco ends up being important to the Jolade family as well.

I loved reading about Hannah’s experiences, and admired her courage so much. She’s thrust into a world that she knew of as a child, but always viewed as a fairy tale, out of her reach. She describes herself at one point as the child looking through the candy story window, seeing a beautiful world but unable to participate. At the same time, she feels guilty too, not wanting to hurt the mother who devoted herself to her upbringing by embracing a world that she’s not a part of.

The book is mostly told through Hannah’s perspective, but also includes chapters from the points of view of other family members, and this approach really works. It allows us to see the other sides of the story — the emotional upheaval of not only losing your father, but also discovering the deep secret he’s kept, and being forced at the same time to accept a stranger into your midst and treat them as family.

We also see Hannah’s experiences in Nigeria, as she learns to connect with a piece of her own heritage, feeling alien yet finding ways to embrace what Nigeria means to her, and to see beyond the expensive lifestyle she initially encounters to understand the family’s history and deeper connections to the people of Lagos.

The love story is affecting and feels real, but it doesn’t take over or dominate the story. I see this book as much more about identity and family than about the romance, although all these elements come together in a really beautiful way.

The Sweetest Remedy is moving and lovely, with a storyline that’s well-written and evocative, and a main character you can’t help but wish the best for. I really loved this book. Don’t miss it!

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Audiobook Review: Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Matched
Series: Well Met, #3
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 19, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 30 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mother April Parker has lived in Willow Creek for twelve years with a wall around her heart. On the verge of being an empty nester, she’s decided to move on from her quaint little town, and asks her friend Mitch for his help with some home improvement projects to get her house ready to sell.

Mitch Malone is known for being the life of every party, but mostly for the attire he wears to the local Renaissance Faire — a kilt (and not much else) that shows off his muscled form to perfection. While he agrees to help April, he needs a favor too: she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner, so that he can avoid the lectures about settling down and having a more “serious” career than high school coach and gym teacher. April reluctantly agrees, but when dinner turns into a weekend trip, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s been just for show. But when the weekend ends, so must their fake relationship.

As summer begins, Faire returns to Willow Creek, and April volunteers for the first time. When Mitch’s family shows up unexpectedly, April pretends to be Mitch’s girlfriend again… something that doesn’t feel so fake anymore. Despite their obvious connection, April insists they’ve just been putting on an act. But when there’s the chance for something real, she has to decide whether to change her plans — and open her heart — for the kilt-wearing hunk who might just be the love of her life.

An accidentally in-love rom-com filled with Renaissance Faire flower crowns, kilts, corsets, and sword fights. 

Welcome back to Willow Creek, home of the best small-town Renaissance Town in the state of Maryland (and beyond?)!

Willow Creek is also the home of April Parker, a 40-year-old single mother who’s about to become an empty-nester once her teen-aged daughter Caitlin graduates high school and leaves for college. April is strong and self-sufficient, but she’s spent the past 18 years focused on raising her daughter and never really looking beyond her own walls. She’s well respected and liked, but has few close friends, never got involved at Caitlin’s school, and never found time and energy outside of work and child-raising to make Willow Creek feel like a true home.

We first met April in book one of this terrific series (Well Met), when her younger sister Emily came to town to help April after a devastating car accident. In that book, Emily was the main character, and April was in a supporting role. Here, April takes center stage, and it’s great fun to get to know her.

April is determined to sell her house and get the hell out of Willow Creek once her daughter is off to college. She doesn’t have a firm plan in mind, just starting over somewhere closer to where she works. Things start to change when April is out at the (only) local dive bar one night and is being hit on by a jerk, and Willow Creek gym teacher and total hottie Mitch Malone comes to her rescue. Posing as her date, he chases off the obnoxious dude, and then propositions her (no, not like that): Would she be willing to pose as his girlfriend at an upcoming family event? He’s tired of feeling looked down upon by the rest of his big family, and being in an established relationship with a great woman like April will help matters (he hopes).

April likes Mitch well enough, although they’re not exactly close. He’s good friends with her brother-in-law, and she knows he’s a decent guy, even though he has a reputation for being a huge flirt and sleeping around. They make a deal: April will be Mitch’s fake girlfriend, and in turn, he’ll help her out with her home renovation projects.

Naturally, the more time they spend together, the more the sparks start to fly. The two connect as friends, but also begin to feel a strong attraction. April has her doubts — yes, Mitch is kind and supportive (and hot), but he’s also almost 10 years younger, has lots of women’s names in his online calendar, and probably wants kids some day. What could he possibly see in her, beyond a short-term fling? This thing between can’t possibly mean anything… can it?

The books in this series are delightful, and Well Matched is no exception. I liked having a (somewhat) older woman in the lead romantic role — it’s interesting to see how she navigates rediscovering an interest in relationships, figuring out what comes next for her and what she wants now that “full-time mom” is no longer going to be her main definition.

April and Mitch as a couple have great chemistry, and even though it’s frustrating as a reader waiting for them to realize that their fake relationship has turned into something real, it’s still fun to watch their journey. I did find myself very annoyed with April later in the book, as she makes some choices that are counterproductive and are hurtful to Mitch. Mitch is written as an outwardly boisterous, non-serious character with a much deeper inner core, and while this book obviously had to end with a Happily Ever After, I couldn’t help but feel that in real life, after how April acts, an HEA would be unlikely.

My other chief complaint is that there isn’t enough of the book set at Faire! Yes, there’s some, and Mitch’s infamous kilt makes its annual appearance, but this is just a small segment of the book, and considering that Faire is the main connecting theme of this series, I wanted more.

That aside, Well Matched is a terrific read, and I love the audiobook narration, which really captures the bantering and the fun elements so well — and also the silliness of the Faire accents of the characters when they’re dressed up in their corsets, carrying swords, and engaging in medieval flirtation and jousting!

The end of the print edition of Well Matched includes a sneak preview of the upcoming 4th book, Well Traveled, due out in fall 2022, with Mitch’s cousin Lulu in the lead role. Can’t come soon enough for me!

Book Review: All the Feels by Olivia Dade

Title: All the Feels
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 16, 2021
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Following Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade returns with another utterly charming romantic comedy about a devil-may-care actor—who actually cares more than anyone knows—and the no-nonsense woman hired to keep him in line.

Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Sex appeal. Wealth. Fame. A starring role as Cupid on TV’s biggest show, God of the Gates. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s dogged by old demons, and his post-show future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.

Enter Lauren Clegg, the former ER therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over handsome but impulsive Alex shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time they spend together, the harder it gets to keep her professional remove and her heart intact, especially when she discovers the reasons behind his recklessness…not to mention his Cupid fanfiction habit.

When another scandal lands Alex in major hot water and costs Lauren her job, she’ll have to choose between protecting him and offering him what he really wants—her. But he’s determined to keep his improbably short, impossibly stubborn, and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. And on a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves: anything at all.

All the Feels is a follow-up/companion to last year’s Spoiler Alert. Not a sequel exactly, since the timelines are somewhat concurrent, but a look at different characters in the same world, with some overlap. In both books, the framing is the massively popular TV series Gods of the Gates, a multi-season, big budget production based on a very popular but unfinished book series, which seems to have gone decidedly off the rails once the storyline moved passed the published books. Remind you of anything yet?

In All the Feels, we start with a bang as lead actor Alex Woodroe, who plays Cupid on the show, is being severely reprimanded by the showrunner after he’s arrested in a bar fight in Spain as production on the final season is wrapping up. Alex is impulsive and known for his outrageous behavior, but drunken brawls are not typical for him. Still, the production is out of patience and taking no chances, so they assign him a minder — someone to shadow him everywhere, be with him at all times, and make sure he does not step a toe out of line until the new season airs.

His assigned minder? Lauren Clegg, the (dickish) showrunner’s cousin, who’s currently assessing her own next career move after burning out on ER trauma. Lauren is not your standard beauty — she’s (maybe) five feet tall, very round, with a crooked nose (thanks to an out-of-control ER patient) and an assymetrical face. Her cruel cousin refers to her off-handedly as ridiculous and ugly, but in Alex’s view, she’s birdlike, reminding him of a winter wren. Which, for reference, looks like this:

Alex, described by a loving castmate as a “delightful asshole”, is outraged by being assigned a nanny — but beyond the external assholery, he’s actually a very good guy. So, while he delights in trying to get a reaction out of “Nanny Clegg”, he also treats her with respect and kindness, especially once they arrive back in LA and she takes up residence in the guest house on his estate.

Alex himself is a complex character. His outgoing, full-speed-ahead, screw-the-consequences persona is cover for a man who carries deep guilt over family history and who is willing to put everything on the line to defend people in need, even if it means possibly torpedoing the career he fought so hard for. His ADHD makes him hard for others to control, and while he has coping strategies that work well for him, his impulse control challenges cause him trouble again and again.

As we get to know Lauren, we see how she’s internalized other people’s view of her, even her own family’s. She’s dependable, but not as important as everyone else — this is\the lesson she’s learned over the years, and she dreads having others (including Alex) come to her defense at their own expense. She knows that the world sees her as unattractive (and that awful people seem to have no qualms about saying so to her face), and she’s rather just put up walls and remove herself emotionally that have anyone else take risks on her behalf.

As Alex and Lauren spend time together, they create a bubble of two, moving beyond resentment and impatience into trust and friendship, and finally acknowledging a deep attraction too. Their growing feelings for one another are challenged by the outside world and the demands of Alex’s career — but they’re also challenged by their own baggage and their deeply ingrained defense mechanisms. When hurt and self-sacrifice threaten their new-found happiness, they each find that they need to dig deep, work on themselves, and learn to get out of their own way if they’re to have a future.

This is absolutely an opposites-attract fairy tale. Alex is a gorgeous movie star, yet the plain woman with an unassuming personality who does not meet standard beauty ideals is the one who steals his heart. It certainly strains belief, but accepting the wish-fulfillment elements, All the Feels is quite a lovely and engaging read.

In Spoiler Alert, we learn much more about Gods of the Gates, which is pretty delightful in its own way. Here, we hear more about the problematic nature of the final season and why it causes Alex in particular so much grief. We also spend more time with some of the castmates introduced in the first book, via group text chats and in person, and they’re a treat.

All the Feels also includes some of the fanfiction elements introduced in Spoiler Alert — to a lesser extent, but in a way that’s so Alex and so outrageous, and it made me really laugh.

I did really enjoy All the Feels, but as I mentioned, there’s a wish-fulfillment feel to the story that sometimes made me take a step back and squint at the book. Could this relationship work in real life? Well, maybe… but put this story together with the main relationship in Spoiler Alert, and it becomes a little harder to embrace the idea that two gorgeous and successful leading men, who also happen to be best friends, would fall for two women who — to be clear — are absolutely lovely and delightful, but who do not meet Hollywood beauty standards by a long shot.

The last third of the book includes very graphic sex scenes, so if you prefer your romance on the implied rather than explicit side, you might want to be aware of this before going in. Explicit isn’t usually my jam when it comes to my reading choices, but I was invested enough in the characters that I wasn’t thrown off too much by these scenes (and anyway, the characters are so clearly joyful together that it’s hard not to be happy for them, no matter how graphically engaged they are.)

All the Feels could work as a stand-alone — there’s enough context provided to make the key elements of the show and its issues understandable — but I’d recommend starting with Spoiler Alert to get the full picture. Also, Alex and Lauren’s story happens in the background in Spoiler Alert, so it’s fun to see pieces of it unfolding through other characters’ eyes before reading their story on its own.

All in all, I recommend both of these books. All the Feels features memorable characters, snappy dialogue, a moving (if improbable) love story, and a fairy tale ending. It’s a feel-good book that, for all its unlikely elements (not just the central relationship, but also some of the pieces related to Alex’s career), will make you smile.

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Book Review: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Title: Instructions for Dancing
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: June 3, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this romantic page-turner from the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star, Evie has the power to see other people’s romantic fates–what will happen when she finally sees her own?

Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

This YA book made me so, so happy. It’s sweet and sad, and makes me want to dance!

To understand Evie, the main character, you need to know a few key facts: Evie is a high school senior, and a former fan of romance novels. Evie is also the daughter of recently divorced parents. A year ago, Evie’s parents split up, and Evie discovered that her father was having an affair. Now she lives with her mother and younger sister, bottling up her anger at her father and refusing to see him, and she’s absolutely sworn off romance and love stories.

What I’ve learned over the last three weeks is that all my old romance novels ended too quickly. Chapters were missing from the end. If they told the real story—the entire story—each couple would’ve eventually broken up, due to neglect or boredom or betrayal or distance or death.

She’s seen it in real life — two people who were supposedly in love end up with nothing but pain and betrayal and ashes of a relationship. Why should she believe in happily ever afters?

Given enough time, all love stories turn into heartbreak stories. Heartbreak = love + time.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Evie winds up with a dancing instruction book that leads her to the La Brea Dance Studio, a small studio whose main clientele seem to be pre-wedding couples trying to master their first dance. The studio is owned by an older couple who are magnificent dancers and who’ve clearly been in love all their lives. While there, Evie meets X, the couple’s teen-aged grandson who’s recently dropped out of his senior year of high school and moved to LA to pursue a music career.

When Fifi, the domineering dance instructor, ropes Evie and X into being partners in an upcoming amateur ballroom dance competition, the two become friendly and then eventually acknowledge their chemistry, which grows along with their hustle, salsa, and tango skills.

“Anyway, you can play to thank us. Every good bonfire needs a hot guy playing guitar.” “You don’t have to play,” I tell him. “But you still have to be hot,” Cassidy says. “I don’t mind doing both,” he says with a grin.

Meanwhile, Evie has come into a strange gift: When she sees a couple kiss, she gets a flash of their entire romance — how they met, how they are in that moment, and what’s to come. This means that she sees the end of the relationships, not just the swoony romantic bits. And for Evie, that’s just further proof that love doesn’t last… so why even bother?

It’s not hard to predict that Evie and X will get together, but I won’t ruin things by going into further detail on how they connect, what obstacles they face, and how it turns out. Let me just share some observations instead:

I loved that this isn’t a by-the-numbers romance, with a meet-cute, initial attraction, getting together, obstacle/break-up, and happy ending. Yes, some of these beats are included, but the overall flow of the book is different enough to keep the reading unpredictable.

Evie’s family life is given equal weight to the romance elements, and this is critical. Evie’s perception of love and commitment have been perhaps permanently scarred by her parents’ divorce, but as the novel progresses, she learns more about long-term love and relationships, and learns that situations aren’t all one way or their other. By learning to let go of her bitterness, she’s able to start allowing some shut-off family connections back into her life, and she can’t help but acknowledge that this is much healthier for her.

“You think because your father and I didn’t last, our love was any less real?”

A harder lesson for Evie is X’s approach to life — saying yes to experiences, living in the moment, and grabbing joy when it’s in front of you. Evie is so consumed by endings that she’s unable to appreciate the middle parts — all the smaller and larger moments that make time together so valuable, no matter how long or short that time might be.

It doesn’t matter that love ends. It just matters that there’s love.

I feel like this would make a great movie, since my one complaint about the book is that I wanted more dancing scenes! At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it’s hard to make a written dance scene compelling, and while the author does a great job with this, I could only satisfy my need by diving down a dance video rabbit hole on YouTube.

Instructions for Dancing is a moving, well-written, thoughtful YA novel with some beautiful moments as well as heartbreak. With captivating characters, a hint of magic (that goes unexplained, but somehow doesn’t distract from the contemporary feel of the plot), great dance moments, and even some humor, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed!

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Audiobook Review: The Stand-In by Lily Chu

Title: The Stand-In
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 15, 2021
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 10 hours 55 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible Plus Catalog
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to upend your life:
–Get fired by gross, handsy boss
–Fail to do laundry (again)
–Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress
–Fall head-first into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly “friendly” boss, and yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: Due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself… and her heart.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original in which an ordinary woman suddenly gets the chance to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fun Cinderella story, but it helps to suspend disbelief A LOT to truly enjoy it.

When we meet Gracie, she has a job she hates thanks to a boss who sexually harasses her constantly — but rather than making a fuss or going to HR to report him, Gracie tries even harder to blend into the background, dressing dully and using makeup that’s neutral and not the least bit eye-catching. Gracie’s mother, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, drilled into Gracie’s head that she should always try to fit in, not stand out.

But when Gracie is mistaken for Chinese actress Wei Fangli in a coffee shop, her world changes dramatically. Caught on camera by a paparazzo on a day when she’d called in sick, Gracie is fired by her creepy boss and plunges into despair. How will she afford the nursing home her mother needs if she has no income? With her mother’s dementia steadily progressing, Gracie feels the pressures mounting, and none of her daily planners and apps seem to help her get her life under control. (Remember the bit about the planners — this is important later.)

Gracie is approached by Wei Fangli and her super-hot costar Sam Yao with a proposition: Because of their similar looks, Fangli wants to hire Gracie — for a huge amount of money — to be her public double. Gracie will dress and act like Fangli and attend social engagements in her place, allowing Fangli to just focus on her theater performances and otherwise avoid the pressure of a public life.

Against her better judgment, Gracie accepts the offer. She needs that money! But she soon learns that she likes it, too. She gets to dress in gorgeous clothes, live in a luxury hotel suite, and spend lots and lots of time with Sam. Yes, she feels guilty for essentially lying to everyone she meets as Fangli, but she keeps reminding herself that she’s doing it for her mother.

The Stand-In is a fun fairy tale of a story, with echoes of The Prince and the Pauper too. Wouldn’t every “ordinary” person love the chance to walk in a celebrity’s (high-priced designer) shoes? I wouldn’t say the plot is believable — I mean, they can’t really be that identical, can they? But it’s certainly amusing to see Gracie trying to master the art of posing on a red carpet, being photographed from every angle, and speaking as if she’s used to being the center of attention.

There are some interesting ideas too about public personas and what it means to always be on, especially as compared with someone like Gracie who’s been taught all her life not to make waves. Additionally, Grace is a biracial woman living in Toronto who doesn’t speak Mandarin, yet is impersonating a Mandarin-speaking Chinese actress and is also trying to connect with a mother who slips more and more into the language of her youth. Gracie has to deal with issues related to identity and race, on the one hand being seen as Chinese rather than Canadian, yet being seen by Chinese people she interacts with as not Chinese enough.

There’s also a love story, of course, and while it comes across as absolute wish-fulfillment (the sexiest man in the world falling for an ordinary woman!), it does have some very sweet moments of flirtation, sharing secrets and wishes, and making connections. Also, Sam really is a great character, and it’s easy to see how some of his big romantic gestures might make anyone with a heartbeat swoon.

I really liked Gracie’s blossoming friendship with Fangli and the ways in which they end up helping and supporting one another. I wasn’t crazy about the plotline revolving around Gracie inventing a daily planner. While I suppose the point is to show Gracie finding a way to take control of her own life and make a splash as a businesswoman, there’s too much time spent on her figuring out ways to organize her tasks and to-do lists.

Plotwise, The Stand-In really is more romantic fairy tale than real-life contemporary drama. A lot of the developments are ridiculous if you think about them too hard. If you can put aside the need to say “but this could never happen!”, it’s still a fun listen. I would also add my main quibble about the plot — the old “listening through a doorway and jumping to conclusions” romance trope. This makes me batty — a character overhears a conversation, immediately misinterprets what they hear, and then take dramatic action based on this misinterpretation. It’s just so dumb. At least verify what you think you’ve heard!! Sigh… but then where would the drama be?

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s a treat to listen to Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. This is her first full-length audiobook — you can read more about her experience recording it here. Overall, I think she does a good job voicing the different characters and making them distinct. The one complaint I have is that in dialogue scenes, it can be hard to tell whether Gracie is thinking a response to herself or saying the response to the other person — her voice isn’t actually different for asides, so it does get confusing.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original and is available (free) as part of the Audible Plus Catalog. For those who have access, I recommend giving it a listen. The story is sweet and engaging, and despite the fairy tale-esque twists and revelations, the characters are really special and will stick with you.

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