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!

Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Met
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author, Jen DeLuca.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek. 

Okay, show of hands: Who among us hasn’t ever wanted to lace up a corset, grab a turkey leg, and head to ye olde Renaissance Faire for some old-timey fun? Not just me, right?

In Well Met, Emily Parker is 24, unemployed, and temporarily living in small-town Willow Creek while helping her older sister April recover from a serious car accident. Part of this help is ferrying around her 14-year-old niece, Caitlin, including taking her to sign up as a volunteer cast member for the upcoming summer’s Renaissance Faire. The catch, however, is that minors can’t volunteer unless they have a responsible adult volunteering with them, so Emily reluctantly finds herself roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the summer.

Emily takes an immediate dislike to the Faire’s organizer Simon, who seems rigid and overly obsessed with filling out forms correctly. He causes further offense by accusing Emily of not taking Faire seriously — which, granted, she’s only half-heartedly doing, at least at first.

But as rehearsals warm up and the big event approaches, Emily is more and more drawn into the excitement, the pretend world of Faire, and the real world of Willow Creek. She’s had a hard few years, but is finally starting to feel like she might have found a place to put down roots and create a life for herself.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Simon seem to be developing some real chemistry — especially when they’re in their Faire personae of tavern wench and swaggering pirate.

Well Met is so much adorable fun! First off, the Faire goings-on are amazing and made me want to be there! Jousting, troubadors, Queen Elizabeth, ladies in waiting, kilted men… there’s just so much to love! And it’s so cute to see how into it everyone is, from giddy high school students to long-time Faire veterans.

I enjoyed Emily’s character,and there are plenty of great supporting characters too — such as April, Caitlyn, Emily’s new-found bestie Stacy, local bookstore owner Chris, and more.

Emily and Simon both have painful baggage, and their histories hold them back from fully exploring what they want and what they need to find happiness. When they do finally get together, it’s not all smooth sailing, as they both put up their defenses, misinterpret each others’ communications, and just generally mess things up quite a bit.

One of my standard romance complaints comes into play, which is that if people would only talk to each other rather than jumping to conclusions, life would be a whole lot easier! Of course, then the story would have less drama, but still. Emily spends a week worrying that she’s being fired from her job and that Simon played a part in it — but a), that’s a ridiculous assumption that’s really not based on anything concrete, and b) she could have asked one simple questions and clearly up her confusion instantly.

Still, what’s a romance novel without stumbling blocks? It would have all wrapped up much too quickly if Emily and Simon got together when they did and then remained blissfully happy until the end. So yes, we get the requisite drama, fight, and break-up, but hey, it’s a romance, so of course there’s going to be an HEA to end the story!

My one lingering complaint about Well Met is that there’s a storyline thread I would have loved to see get tied up. Part of Emily’s backstory is that she dropped out of college about a year short of an English degree in order to support her (awful) ex-boyfriend through law school. While Emily is happily employed and fulfilled by the end of the book, I would have loved for her to decide to go back to school and finish the education that clearly meant so much to her. Well, hopefully we’ll find out that that’s exactly what she did by the time the sequel comes out!

A note on the audiobook: I originally picked up a print version of this book, but I’m so happy I ended up going the audio route instead! I really enjoyed the narration. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the narrator did a great job showing us the characters putting on their fake accents for the Faire personae and getting into the spirit of it all.

Well Met is the first in a trilogy of novels centered around Faire, each one focusing on a different couple’s love story. Book #2, Well Played, due out this coming September. And yes, I absolutely want to read it!

Well Met is good, romantic fun, and a great choice for a summer read.

Huzzah!

Book Review: Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay

Title: Of Literature & Lattes
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 12, 2020
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Katherine Reay returns to the cozy and delightful town of Winsome where two people discover the grace of letting go and the joy found in unexpected change.

After fleeing her hometown three years earlier, Alyssa Harrison never planned to return. Then the Silicon Valley start-up she worked for collapsed and turned her world upside down. She is broke, under FBI investigation, and without a place to go. Having exhausted every option, she comes home to Winsome, Illinois, to regroup then move on as quickly as possible. Yet, as friends and family welcome her back, Alyssa begins to see a place for herself in this small Midwestern community.

Jeremy Mitchell moved from Seattle to Winsome to be near his daughter and to open the coffee shop he’s been dreaming of for years. Problem is, the business is bleeding money—and he’s not quite sure why. When he meets Alyssa, he senses an immediate connection, but what he needs most is someone to help him save his floundering business. After asking for her help, he wonders if something might grow between them—but forces beyond their control soon complicate their already complex lives, and the future they both hoped for is not at all what they anticipated.

With the help of Winsome’s small-town charm and quirky residents, Alyssa and Jeremy discover the beauty and romance of second chances.

Of Literature & Lattes is Katherine Reay’s follow-up to The Printed Letter Bookshop, which I finally read and reviewed just last week. In this new novel, we return to the town of Winsome, Illinois — home of an amazing bookstore, lots of cute shops, and people who get what community is all about.

The story follows two main characters: Alyssa, returning with dread to her hometown after a disastrous stint in Silicon Valley, and Jeremy, a grown-up with a sad childhood behind him, looking to spend more time with his daughter and investing everything in a new coffee shop.

For Alyssa, nothing has worked out as intended, and she seems like the walking embodiment of someone having baggage. After her parents’ divorce three years earlier, she sided with her father, cut her mother out of her life, and moved as far away as she could get. Alyssa’s magic with numbers and coding landed her a great job at a medical start-up — but her world crashes down sudddenly when it turns out that the company was nothing but a fraud, and what’s worse, provided false information to people about future diagnoses of awful illnesses.

Wracked by guilt and totally broke, Alyssa has no choice but to head home — where nothing is as expected. Alyssa’s mother is Janet, one of the main characters in The Printed Letter Bookshop, and Janet has changed dramatically. Alyssa expects to be able to hide out at her father’s apartment, but instead, he forces her to face her mother. As Janet and Alyssa spend time together, they form new understandings and realize that they have a lot of work to do to overcome the harmful patterns of their past, if they ever hope to have a relationship in the future.

Meanwhile, life for Jeremy is complicated too. His 7-year-old daughter Becca lives nearby, and he’s relocated from Seattle to be with her. Jeremy invested all his savings into buying the local coffee shop from its retiring owner, dreaming of turning it into a modern, successful business. The problem is, the locals don’t share his vision — and as he transforms the cozy, shabby coffee shop into something sleek and streamlined, the daily traffic plummets.

Jeremy is a good guy and his heart is in the right place, but he has to learn to step back and understand what community is all about if his business is going to survive — and if he’s serious about creating a new home for himself and for Becca.

There’s a lot to love about Of Literature & Lattes. First of all, the town of Winsome is just as charming as in the previous book. It’s an idealized version of small-town homey-ness, and wouldn’t we all love to find a place like that to belong?

The people here seem to really care about one another, and while yes, they are all up in each other’s business a little more than I’d personally care for, this connection comes out in all sorts of ways that are heart-warming and important.

Alyssa and Janet spend a lot of this book at odds, and it’s messy and a little terrible, but also feels real. Their dynamic goes back years, and has as much to do with Janet’s feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction as with their actual relationship. It’s not easy for them to sort out all the ways in which they’ve hurt and misunderstood one another, but over the course of their months together, they make major strides — and find that they both truly want to make things better.

For Jeremy, the relationship with his ex Krista is difficult, and his business isn’t going as he’d hoped. He starts off very focused on his own vision — an outsider who thinks he knows what the town needs. It’s only when he allows himself to admit that he needs to learn that he starts to connect with the community in a real way, realizing that a coffee shop that’s perfect but lacks heart just isn’t going to cut it.

Once again, I really enjoyed the author’s way of weaving personal stories into a bigger picture of a community. I enjoyed seeing the familiar characters from the previous story, as well as meeting Alyssa and Jeremy and seeing how they fit into the greater whole.

While Of Literature & Lattes could work as a stand-alone, I’d recommend reading The Printed Letter Bookshop first. I’m glad I did! OL&L is touching and lovely, but it’s so much richer when set into the context of the larger story, and I think without the previous book, many of the connections would have gone right by me without leaving an impression.

Another heart-warming story from author Katherine Reay — and yes, plenty of book talk too!

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay

Title:The Printed Letter Bookshop
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Love, friendship, and family find a home at the Printed Letter Bookshop

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a captivating story of good books, a testament to the beauty of new beginnings, and a sweet reminder of the power of friendship.

What a difference a year makes!

And reading moods certainly make a difference too.

Last year, I received an ARC of The Printed Letter Bookshop via NetGalley. And I was excited to read it, because I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books previously. But according to my Goodreads post, I DNFd this book at about 25%, saying that I just wasn’t interested and couldn’t get into it.

This could probably be an entirely different post about reading according to a schedule (I was trying to read ARCs on or before publication date) and feeling obligated when choosing what to read… but suffice it to say, for whatever reason, this just wasn’t the right book for me at that particular time.

So here I am, a year later, and I received an ARC of Katherine Reay’s soon-to-be-released newest book (Of Literature and Lattes) — and as I started reading it, I realized (a) it’s set in the same town as The Printed Letter Bookshop, and (b) while it appears to be focusing on different characters, there’s definitely crossover. And even though I was already five chapters in, and enjoying it, I decided it was time to go back to The Printed Letter Bookshop and give it another try.

Whew. All that is just context for the actual review! So here goes…

The Printed Letter Bookshop is charming! It’s a look at women’s friendship, centered around a bookshop located in small-town Winsome, Illinois, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, but worlds away in terms of the cozy, quaint, close-knit nature of the community.

When the store owner Maddie dies, her two colleagues and close friends Janet and Claire are devastated by her loss, and then immediately have to begin worrying about their future of their beloved store. Maddie leaves all her belongings, including her house and the bookshop, to her niece Madeline, a hard-charging young lawyer who hasn’t visited Maddie in years.

Madeline doesn’t want the store or any permanent link to Maddie. While they used to be close, some rift between Maddie and Madeline’s parents years in the past caused horribly hurt feelings, and Madeline has never forgiven Maddie. Now, though, Maddie’s holdings are her responsibility, and they come at a time when Madeline’s professional life has taken a sudden detour.

Madeline’s plan is to get in, get the store’s finances in shape, and sell. But life seems to have other plans.

Once she begins to get involved at The Printed Letter Bookshop, Madeline starts to understand how much it means to Janet, Claire, and the town. She also gains fresh insight into Maddie as a person, how badly she misunderstood her parents’ estrangement from Maddie, and just how much she herself needs a fresh perspective on her own life.

Janet and Claire are also POV characters. Each has her own reason for being drawn to Maddie, who gave them purpose and connection by welcoming them into the bookshop. They each have troubled home lives, but through their work at the bookshop, they reinvent themselves and start to understand where their lives’ turning points were, and how to choose different directions.

Although the book opens with Maddie’s funeral, she’s a large presence throughout the story. She’s a warm, lovely person who truly understands the way books can transform lives. She has the knack of finding the right book for each person who enters The Printed Letter Bookshop, and as her parting gift to Madeline, Janet, and Claire, leaves each a list of books to read — no explanation, just a list. And for each woman, the book list helps her grow and change.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a lovely book. I’ve seen it shelved as Christian fiction (publisher Thomas Nelson specializes in Christian content) — but if I hadn’t known that, I don’t think I’d classify this book that way. (Full disclosure: I am not Christian, and would not normally read books classified at Christian fiction. I’m glad I didn’t see a “label” before picking up this book!)

There are discussions about faith and God in the book, but I never felt like those discussions dominated the novel or that I was being hit over the head with religion. Instead, these themes are a part of the women’s journeys, as they think about their lives, their families, their relationships, and the meaning of it all. While their beliefs don’t align with my own, I was actually quite moved by some of their inner processes and how they decide, each in their own way, to make important changes in their lives.

There’s also a love story for Madeline, but that’s probably the part that I cared about least in this book. I mean, it was nice, but I didn’t get a good feel for the relationship or how it grew, and didn’t feel all that invested in that piece of the plot.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to give this book another chance! It’s a quick, engaging read, with heart, emotions, and LOTS OF BOOKS. (The author helpfully includes a list of all the books mentioned or referred to in the story at the back of the book… and we all know how awesome books about books can be!)

And now, I feel ready for Of Literature and Lattes.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.