Audiobook Review: An Island Wedding (Mure, #5) by Jenny Colgan

Title: An Island Wedding
Series: Mure
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator:  Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: June 21, 2022
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan brings us a delightful summer novel that will sweep you away to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where two very different weddings are about to take place…

On the little Scottish island of Mure–halfway between Scotland and Norway–Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of “sweetheart weddings,” a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.

Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald–who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things–returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora’s hotel, the same weekend as Flora’s carefully planned micro-wedding.

As the summer solstice approaches, can Flora handle everyone else’s Happy Every Afters–and still get her own?

The 5th installment in Jenny Colgan’s wonderful Mure series brings us back to this beautiful, remote Scottish island. It’s like a reunion with old friends, as we see what our beloved characters are up to now, and for at least some, get to witness the happy event they’ve been building toward over the four previous books.

(For the story so far, see my wrap-up post, here.)

In An Island Wedding, Flora Mackenzie is finally set to marry the man of her dreams. But there’s a problem — Flora, born and bred on Mure, wants to celebrate with everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE. The entire island expects to be at their wedding, from Mrs. Kennedy’s dance school students to the old fishermen who drink away their evenings down at the Harbor’s Rest. But Joel, a product of a lonely childhood in the foster care system, wants only those who truly love them to be with them on their big day — just immediate family, an intimate occasion, and donate all the money that would have gone to a big wedding to the local couple who take troubled youth on outdoor adventures.

What’s Flora to do? She loves Joel, and wants to do what makes him happy… but she can’t help but feeling just a wee bit sad and guilty every time an island neighbor comes up to tell her how much they’re looking forward to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Olivia MacDonald, the beautiful island native who’s now an international Instagram star, has decided to hold her own lavish wedding back home on Mure, in a most likely misguided move to impress her fabulously wealthy, fabulously snooty future in-laws with her connection to an authentic Scottish community. Olivia arrives with an upscale wedding planner in tow, and proceeds to transform The Rock (the hotel Flora manages) and the entire island into the fantasy wedding setting of her dreams.

Most of the book is devoted to the wedding plans, as well as to the ongoing tension between Flora and Joel over their divergent visions for how they’ll get married. I was never truly worried about Flora and Joel — they love each other, and they’ve been through enough so far that I was sure it would all work out — but it was sad to see them at what appeared at times to be an impasse.

The most moving and gripping parts of An Island Wedding have to do with the love story between Lorna, the island’s schoolmistress, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s found a new home for himself and his two sons on Mure. Saif’s wife’s fate has been a question mark since the start of the series, and when new information is uncovered, it forces Saif to make an impossible choice. I won’t say too much, but it’s heartbreaking. The terrible sadness of the situation is written so beautifully, and my heart just ached for Lorna, Saif, and for the boys too.

The stakes for the Flora and Olivia storylines never feel terribly high or risky — after all, it’s really mostly to do with wedding plans! Still, it’s fun to follow along and laugh at all the mishaps, miscommunications, and over-the-top wedding arrangements, and the ending left me with a few little tears of happiness. After spending so much time with Flora and Joel over the course of this series, I was ready for them to get all the joy they deserve!

My initial understanding had been that this would be the final Mure book… but actually, I don’t see that stated anywhere, and given that there’s a MAJOR story thread left hanging, I’m hopeful for more! So please, if you happen to meet Jenny Colgan someday, tell her we want MORE MURE. I’m not ready to say good-bye to these wonderful characters and the beautiful island just yet!

Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Title: Book Lovers
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 377 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming….

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.

If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

I’ll keep this brief — at this point, when I see a cute contemporary romance cover and discover the book is by Emily Henry, it’s going to be a must-read for me. Book Lovers caught my eye immediately (I mean, the title alone! who can resist?), and it was a perfect pick for reading during a vacation week.

In Book Lovers, main character Nora is a hard-edged, polished, driven literary agent who is unrelenting when it comes to making deals for her clients. Her nickname is the Shark — but don’t call her that to her face. While she represents highly successful authors, including those who write heart-warming love stories about small-town romances, she knows absolutely where she fits in the trope: She’s the one left behind.

You know how it goes: A big city character heads to a small town for some vague business purpose, falls unexpectedly in love with the local farmer/baker/craftsperson, and gives up city life for a life full of purpose, love, and baked goods in the country — breaking up with their former city boyfriend/girlfriend along the way. And that city boyfriend/girlfriend who gets dumped is Nora. It’s happened to her again and again, and she’s over it.

But Nora also has a soft spot for her younger (and very pregnant) sister, so she reluctantly agrees to a three-week sisters’ trip to a small town in North Carolina, where her sister Libby is determined to milk the experience for every romance-worthy trope possible. What they do not expect is for (a) Nora’s New York business nemesis Charlie to also show up in the same town and (b) for all the sparks that fly between Nora and Charlie.

The plot has much more depth than you might expect. Emily Henry excels at creating funny, quirky, unusual characters, then giving them rich backstories that humanize them and expose the pains and sorrows behind their facades. The same is true here, and it makes Nora much more likable than she initially comes across, so much so that I became very invested in her happiness and well-being.

I liked Nora and Charlie together as a couple — their banter is adorable! And while it takes them a while to get past the outer animosity to their inner deep connection, it’s totally worth the journey. The sisters’ relationship is just as important as the romantic relationship, and I really appreciated how lovingly their connection is portrayed.

The writing is light and fast-paced, but there’s plenty of emotion to unpack too. I truly enjoyed Book Lovers — although I’m a little mad that the author managed to burst the bubble of all my small town romance fantasies! The book trope talk is so much fun, there are plenty of references to real books (which made me really happy), and I love that the author includes “Nora and Libby’s Ultimate Reading List” at the back of the book!

Book Lovers is a perfect choice for a summer beach book! Don’t miss it.

Blog tour + Audiobook Review: Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Dreaming
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased/Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Return to Tokyo for a royal wedding in Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Dreaming, the sequel to the Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller Tokyo Ever After

When Japanese-American Izumi Tanaka learned her father was the Crown Prince of Japan, she became a princess overnight. Now, she’s overcome conniving cousins, salacious press, and an imperial scandal to finally find a place she belongs. She has a perfect bodyguard turned boyfriend. Her stinky dog, Tamagotchi, is living with her in Tokyo. Her parents have even rekindled their college romance and are engaged. A royal wedding is on the horizon! Izumi’s life is a Tokyo dream come true.

Only…

Her parents’ engagement hits a brick wall. The Imperial Household Council refuses to approve the marriage citing concerns about Izumi and her mother’s lack of pedigree. And on top of it all, her bodyguard turned boyfriend makes a shocking decision about their relationship. At the threat of everything falling apart, Izumi vows to do whatever it takes to help win over the council. Which means upping her newly acquired princess game.

But at what cost? Izumi will do anything to help her parents achieve their happily ever after, but what if playing the perfect princess means sacrificing her own? Will she find a way to forge her own path and follow her heart?

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour celebrating the release of Tokyo Dreaming by Emiko Jean. Many thanks to Macmillan Books for the chance to participate!

Tokyo Ever After was one of my favorite reads of 2021, and the sequel, Tokyo Dreaming, definitely lives up to expectations!

In Tokyo Ever After, we met Izumi Tanaka, Northern California teenager who suddenly discovers that her long-lost bio dad is the Crown Prince of Japan. Whisked off to reunite with the father she’s never known, Izumi faces a steep learning curve when it comes to fitting in as a member of the Imperial Family, especially with the eyes of all of Japan tracking her every move.

As Tokyo Dreaming begins, Izumi is in a very good place in her life. She’s finished high school, has become more acclimated to life in Japan, has learned how to behave like a real princess, and even has a happy relationship with the boyfriend of her dreams, her former bodyguard Akio. And best of all? Her parents have been reunited and despite their almost twenty years apart, have rekindled their love for one another. A royal wedding is on the horizon!

But Izumi and her mother don’t quite fit the mold of Imperial family members quite perfectly enough, and it’s clear that her parents may not actually get the official approval they’ll need to move forward with getting married. Izumi realizes that she can make a difference: If she polishes up her princess act and starts doing a better job of being perfectly in line with expectations, it’ll help her parents secure the stamp of approval.

But, as Izumi discovers, being a perfect princess may mean pushing aside her own interests and wishes for the sake of appearances, and that doesn’t actually bode well for her long-term happiness.

The plot of Tokyo Dreaming is not super high-stakes — it’s impossible not to expect a happy ending, so even though there are obstacles, I never expected them not to be overcome. The fun of this book is seeing how Izumi manages her life, from befriending her twin cousins — formerly nicknamed The Shining Twins (as in Stephen King, not because they’re glittery) — and discovering that they’re not as evil as she once thought, to gaining acceptance to a prestigious Japanese university, to losing her boyfriend but possibly finding another. Sigh — yes, there’s a love triangle, but it’s handled very well, and the author does a good job of letting us into Izumi’s feelings and showing us why it would be so hard for her to make a choice.

I loved the depiction of Japanese culture (I was practically drooling over all the amazing-sounding food!), as well as the vicarious pleasure of experiencing life as an Imperial Princess, with amazing clothes and experiences and first-class everything!

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, adapting to royal life but still the down-to-earth American girl she’s always been at heart. I love her relationship with her parents, and it’s lovely to see how her bond with her father has built after their years of not knowing each other. And the twins absolutely grew on me too!

The audiobook is a treat. Narrator Ali Ahn is amazing at portraying Izumi, her friends, her family members, the stiffly formal household staff members, even giving voice to the tabloid press! Plus, it’s fun to hear so many words and phrases in Japanese (and there’s enough context and/or translation to ensure that nothing is lost for those who don’t understand Japanese).

Together, Tokyo Ever After and Tokyo Dreaming are immersive, warm-hearted, fun-spirited books with terrific characters and a great plot progression. Tokyo Dreaming’s ending seems to tie up all the plot points, so I’m assuming the story is done at this point… but I’d be totally okay (i.e., jumping up and down happy) if another book in the series came along.

I highly recommend checking out both of these books this summer!

About the author:

When Emiko Jean isn’t writing, she is reading. Before she became a writer, she was an entomologist, a candlemaker, a florist, and most recently, a teacher. She lives in Washington with her husband and children (unruly twins). She is also the author of Empress of all Seasons and We’ll Never Be Apart.

Find out more at https://www.emikojean.com/

Audiobook Review: A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Ever After
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it’s always been Izumi—or Izzy, because “It’s easier this way”—and her mom against the world. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after? 

If you’re a fan of The Princess Diaries, have I got a book for you!

In Tokyo Ever After, Japanese American high schooler Izumi stumbles across her long-lost father’s true identity — he’s none other than the (George Clooney-esque) Crown Prince of Japan! Raised by her single mother in a predominantly white small town in California, a place where Izzy always felt like something of an outsider, she suddenly finds herself whisked across the ocean to meet her father and be introduced to life as a member of the Japanese Imperial family.

Talk about whiplash.

Izzy’s casual, self-deprecating, none-too-serious approach to life does not help her succeed in Japan. Suddenly, her every move is scrutizined by the imperial-obsessed press. From her unscheduled airport bathroom break to her leggings and sweatshirt to her failure to wave to the crowd, Izumi is picked apart and criticized, literally from the moment she steps foot in her new country.

Nothing is easy. Her clothes, her manners, her gestures — all have to be replaced with behavior and looks befitting a princess. Not to mention the fact that despite being descended from Japanese immigrants to America, she grew up speaking English only, so language lessons are a must as well. And while Izumi’s father is warm and eager to get to know the daughter he never knew he had, certain members of the household are not thrilled by this new arrival, and will do anything to undermine her.

Tokyo Ever After is a delightful listen, with an entertaining mix of modern teen angst, humor, and texting with an entirely new culture and way of life. As Izumi learns more about Japan and life as a royal, so do we. The lessons and introduction to the imperial family are never dull or heavy handed; as Izumi experiences each new fascinating sight and taste and wonder, we readers/listeners get to experience it along with her.

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, not perfect by any means, but full of hope and willing to give this new twist in her life a real chance. She’s flawed (not a very good student, no compelling hobbies, not all that much going on in her life outside of her amazing set of friends — known affectionately as the AGG, the Asian Girl Gang), she’s not intentionally disobedient but has a hard time with the level of compliance required of young princesses, and she’s not entirely okay with putting up with slights for the sake of etiquette.

There’s a love interest, of course — the super attractive young Imperial Guard assigned to head Izumi’s security team. Akio is introduced as stiff and surly, but Izumi soon discovers the sensitive, poetry-loving soul hidden beneath that gruff (and muscled) exterior. A relationship between a princess and a commoner is not okay as far as Japanese tabloids are concerned, and when their budding romance is exposed, the plotline of the book comes to a head as Izumi must decided where she belongs and where her future lies.

The key themes of the book — family, fitting in, understanding identity, finding a way to belong without giving up who you are — are all well developed, but the writing never hits us over the head screaming important message here. Instead, through Izumi’s adventures and challenges, we’re along for the ride as her journey helps her find her own voice and figure out what matters, and how to stay true to herself while also welcoming tradition and family expectations.

The audiobook narration by Ali Ahn is just terrific. First off, it’s so much fun to hear the bits and pieces of Japanese dialogue, as well as Izumi’s attempts to learn the language. Also, the narrator’s voices for Izumi and her friends are really distinctive and well-done, giving each a shot of personality and conveying their humor, even while reading aloud their text exchanges.

Overall, Tokyo Ever After is a treat to read and listen to. The story is fun and upbeat, yet includes emotional connection and thoughtfulness too. Highly recommended.

The sequel to Tokyo Ever AfterTokyo Dreaming — is due out in May 2022, and honestly? It can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Izumi!

And finally… can we just take a minute to appreciate the gorgeousness of these covers??? These might be my favorites this year!

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: Cackle by Rachel Harrison

Title: Cackle
Author: Rachel Harrison
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?

Feeling witchy? Cackle is a perfect choice for the spooky month of October!

As Cackle opens, Annie’s life, to be blunt, sucks. Her long-term boyfriend has informed her that their relationship is more friendship than romance — but since good apartments are hard to come by, they keep living together, taking turns on the futon, for five more months. No wonder Annie is depressed and in a rut, especially since Josh was so much the center of her world for all these years that she never developed a friend circle and is now alone and miserable.

Annie finally makes a change in her life, and it’s a big one: She’s moves from Manhattan to the small town of Rowan in upstate New York, where she accepts a teaching job at a local high school and moves into a rented apartment. She doesn’t quite know how to connect with locals and worries that she’s made a terrible mistake… until she meets Sophie.

Sophie is beautiful and kind, immediately taking an interest in helping Annie settle in and offering her unconditional friendship. But why do the townspeople all seem so deferential and even afraid when it comes to Sophie? Sophie takes Annie to her mansion in the woods, showers her with gifts, and offers her a refuge in which to be pampered and recenter her life. And Annie loves it — but is Sophie too good to be true?

Cackle is a fun romp, with some scary/slightly gross moments in the mix, but it stays mostly on the lighter side. There’s a lot of pleasure to be found in Annie’s enjoyment of Sophie’s friendship, even while red flags are popping up everywhere. (There’s also super adorable Ralph, and I’m not going to say any more about him! You need to meet him for yourself.) While it seems clear from the start that Sophie has secrets, Annie remains oblivious for quite a while, and even when she begins to sort it all out, her responses aren’t entirely what I would have expected.

This is an enjoyable pre-Halloween read — not too heavy or serious, some good character development and support of not bowing to others’ opinions, finding one’s true self, and a celebration of friendship. Plus… witches!!

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Book Review: Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Title: Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town
Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Publisher: Random House/Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Young adult – short stories
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A lyrical and heartfelt collection by an award-winning writer that connects the lives of young people from small towns in Alaska and the American west. Each story is unique, yet universal.

In this book, the impact of wildfire, a wayward priest, or a mysterious disappearance ricochet across communities, threading through stories. Here, ordinary actions such as ice skating or going to church reveal hidden truths. One choice threatens a lifelong friendship. Siblings save each other. Rescue and second chances are possible, and so is revenge.

On the surface, it seems that nothing ever happens in these towns. But Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock shows that underneath that surface, teenagers’ lives blaze with fury, with secrets, and with love so strong it burns a path to the future.

In this collection of interconnected short stories, a varied group of teen characters each face the challenges and rewards of small-town life. Through ordinary events, showing brief moments in the characters’ lives, we see their inner struggles, how they deal with pain or boredom or being left behind, and how they find new paths and moments of healing.

Set in the mid-1990s, the stories are set in Alaska and in small towns scattered across the American west. We meet hitchhikers, kids with reputations, girls who grew up wild and free, siblings who’ve suffered loss. Some common threads are apparent across multiple stories — the early warnings of a wildfire in one story turn into an out-of-control inferno in another; the aftermath of certain events are sprinkled throughout several characters’ lives, but we only get the full picture in a seemingly unrelated story later on.

I loved seeing the way the characters’ lives intersect and have impacts big and small on other characters’ lives, even when there’s no obvious connection. In fact, these characters for the most part will never know the threads that connect them, even though we as readers are treated to the bigger picture and have the pleasure of seeing where all theses lives overlap.

The author’s first novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, is one of my favorite books, and is a must-read. In Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town, we’re once again treated to her simple yet affecting approach to language, the realistic-feeling dialogue, and the tour of the inner workings of teen minds and hearts.

I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a short story collection, but I picked this one up because of the author, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a slim, lovely book, and I’m sure I’ll read it again to gain new appreciation now that I know how the very different pieces all fit together.

Highly recommended.

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Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)

Book Review: The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

Title: The Ghost Tree
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When people go missing in the sleepy town of Smith’s Hollow, the only clue to their fate comes when a teenager starts having terrifying visions, in a chilling horror novel from national bestselling author Christina Henry.

When the bodies of two girls are found torn apart in the town of Smiths Hollow, Lauren is surprised, but she also expects that the police won’t find the killer. After all, the year before her father’s body was found with his heart missing, and since then everyone has moved on. Even her best friend, Miranda, has become more interested in boys than in spending time at the old ghost tree, the way they used to when they were kids.

So when Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging the remains of the girls through the woods, she knows she can’t just do nothing. Not like the rest of her town. But as she draws closer to answers, she realizes that the foundation of her seemingly normal town might be rotten at the center. And that if nobody else stands for the missing, she will.

Now THAT’s how you write horror.

The Ghost Tree is chilling and disturbing, fascinating and unforgettable. I could not put this book down.

Set in a small idyllic Midwestern town, The Ghost Tree reveals the darkness that lies underneath the town’s peaceful, prosperous surface.

14-year-old Lauren is our main character. It’s the summer of 1985, and Lauren is looking forward to starting high school, even though she and her best friend Miranda have been growing apart. Lauren wants to keep playing in the woods and riding bikes, but Miranda is more interested in reading Cosmo and flirting with the older boys who drive cool cars.

Lauren is also dealing with her father’s death during the previous year, and her ongoing battles with her critical mother. Fortunately, her 4-year-old brother David is the bright spot in her life.

As the story starts, the awful, racist woman down the street discovers the dismembered bodies of two girls in her back yard. The girls are clearly outsiders, perhaps runaways passing through. But after the initial shock, these gruesome deaths don’t seem to make much of an impact on the town or its small police force, and it’s only through great effort that newcomer Officer Lopez can remember that there’s something odd that he should look into.

Told through multiple points of view, we get to see how the various townspeople have strange perceptions and faulty memories of the events that happen in Smith’s Hollow, and nothing seems to alter the pleasant lives of the town’s residents.

When Lauren’s grandmother shares a disturbing tale with her, Lauren is shocked and angry that her Nana would say such terrible things and expect her to believe them… but little by little, she comes to realize that there’s a dark truth lurking in the town’s memories, and that she and David might be the keys to preventing further bloodshed.

The Ghost Tree is so creepy and SO GOOD. The author does such a great job of letting us into Lauren’s mind, showing the uncertainties that a girl her age feels about all the changes in her life, but also showing her taking a stand and starting to own her opinions and take a stand.

The more we get to know about the town history and the secrets that everyone seems to have forgotten, the creepier and more disturbing the story becomes. And yes, there’s gore and bloodshed, but for me anyway, the scariest parts have to do with the mind control that the town seems to be under, and how inescapable its dark secrets seem to be.

I’ve read other books by Christina Henry, and already knew how talented she is. The Ghost Tree proves that she’s just as amazing at horror as she is at more fantasy-heavy stories.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this story for days. This is a story that sticks with you. Check it out!