The Secret Bridesmaid

By Katy Birchall

What?” I laugh, as though his throwaway comment is not affecting me to the core. “I don’t just watch rom-coms. I like lots of films.” “Only the ones when you know there’s a happy ending,” he notes, taking a sip of his drink. “Any hint that things might not turn out as they should and you’d scarper.” He sees my expression and grins. “It’s not a bad thing!”

“Always doing the right thing. Never breaking any rules. Playing it safe.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Something tells me you’re afraid.” … Suddenly Daniel flashes into my brain, his stinging comments about my love of happy endings and lack of brazenness to pull off red hair echoing in my mind. Ugh. “You’re afraid to get out there and take chances.” She sighs, tilting her head at me sympathetically as she twists the knife in further. “So you hide behind your brides, no eyes on you.” “That’s not true,” I protest, glaring at her. It’s a bit true, though. Isn’t it? 

This was an engaging funny 4-star read right out of the gate (or should I say, from the first step down the aisle?) At one point I thought it just might be a 5-star chick-lit comedy but when something inevitable happened, it did not happen in the way I wanted it to, so it stayed a 4-star.

Sophy has carved out a successful career as a professional bridesmaid. This is like a wedding planner, but she acts more as a buddy and “girl Friday” to the bride. She is a confidant, go-fer, advisor, and troubleshooter. Her professional identity is a secret to everyone except the bride. She’s just a friend with a cover story of why no one else in the wedding party has ever heard of her before. Her goal is the happiness and satisfaction of the brides under her care, and Sophie is a master at it. It’s not only what she does but who she is.

When a satisfied client refers Sophie’s services to the mother of the bride of one of the first families in England to help her daughter with what is destined to be the wedding of the year, Sophie knows that much is riding on the success of the Bride-to-be’s big day and her experience leading up to it. Unfortunately, the bride, Cordelia, is a very difficult person at the best of times and does not want Sophie’s help. Just to give you an idea, Sophie is the only bridesmaid because Cordelia does not have any friends. With good reason. Her goal is to make Sophie’s life so difficult with outrageous demands that Sophie quits.

It is a great setup for comedy, family drama, relationship development, suspense, and romance. It mostly lives up to the promise. We learn that Cordelia is beloved and respected by some surprising people in her orbit, including the groom, despite her well-earned nasty reputation and nasty behavior toward Sophy. How can this be? So that’s intriguing. Another reason I enjoyed this book so much was Sophy. She is so funny and nice. And she is so good at her job, that despite some reprehensible behavior and tricks on the part of Cordelia, she just refuses to quit trying to make her happy. Of course, Sophy has some growing to do as well. She is too nice. She is too eager to please and be accepted by Cordelia. As Cordelia herself points out, she is a “goody-goody.” She finally is driven to the end of her rope and decides to give up. Something the reader wonders why she didn’t do 120 pages earlier. Her mother convinces her not to quit and reminds her why she is so good at what she does. When she takes her mother’s advice on how to turn things around it is a turning point. And could it be possible that Cordelia may have had an ulterior motive for putting Sophie through fresh hell? Sophie’s best friend Cara points out, “I hate to say it, but this Miranda Priestly bride of yours isn’t a complete idiot. She may have gone about it in a weird way,” she says, taking a sip of wine, “but she pushed you right into your spotlight, whether you wanted it or not.” She finally wins Cordelia over, but we know, this being the kind of book it is that disaster awaits before the happy ending is achieved. How all was made well and smoothed over was why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me. **Big Spoiler**

A scandalous secret that Cordelia shared with Sophie in confidence finds its way to the British press the next day. The family somewhat understandably thinks Sophie is to blame. But they persist in blaming her despite her assurances of innocence. They know she has proven to be a person of honor and has been unfailingly loyal and supportive in the face of extreme challenges. They know what a great person she is. They know what a “goody-goody” she is. And she has no motive. Their faith is only restored when the guilty party confesses (thanks to Sophie.) Ironically, the guilty party is someone that was discounted and forgotten about, which only serves to bolster British upper-class stereotypes. Cordelia was supposed to be different. So that, along with Sophie jumping at the chance to too eagerly resume her bridesmaid duties after their apology further weakened the book for me. **end spoiler**

 If this would have been handled more thoughtfully and less patly it could have reflected some real growth on the part of both Cordelia and Sophie. It was an entertaining and engaging book in many ways and I would recommend this book to any and all chick-lit readers who don’t need a romance front and center taking up most of the book. Rest assured, Sophie does find romantic love, but she is much too busy with Cordelia (and her other weddings) to give it too much of her time. It was so close to being a 5-star read, it is frustrating.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hello Stranger

By Katherine Center

So funny. So witty. So romantic. So enjoyable. I had read two Katherine Center books before this one, and enjoyed them but with reservations. The stories and concepts were good, but I found the heroes boring and almost nondescript although they were both lovely. The heroines were, in one case, flat-out annoying and in another just meh. In both cases, their situations seemed intriguing and the stories full of possibilities but they ended up seeming a bit contrived to me. They were both immensely popular highly rated books, so it was a personal problem, apparently.

But this one! Yes, the heroine was flawed and frustrating at times and had some major issues to conquer and grow past. At first, I found her a little off-putting and I had a hard time getting a handle on her. But I liked her. She really spoke to me. Literally. Sadie tells her story in the first person and she establishes a close relationship with the reader. It is as easy and natural as if she is talking to her best friend (you). I was drawn in immediately. You listen to her telling you her side of the story, but you can also see her flaws and things she may be wrong about. Early in the book, I thought we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator situation. As it turned out, she wasn’t really, but confirmation bias is a theme.

“Anyhoo.” (and I quote.) As a result of minor brain surgery, Sadie develops face blindness. When she looks at a human face the features do not come together as such. It is as if they are “puzzle pieces spread out on a table.” Difficult and disconcerting for anyone, but alas she is a struggling portrait painter who has secured a place in a prestigious contest and is on a deadline to complete a traditional portrait. Even being asked to compete is an honor. Doing well will finally give her choice of profession much-needed validation. Sadie had a very painful childhood thanks to the death of her beloved mother, who was also a painter, and her subsequent relationship with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. She was victimized. It has caused her to always put on a brave face, never admitting vulnerability or need for others’ help. As Sadie works to deal with her new disability and complete the portrait to enter the contest, she learns and grows. Unfortunately, The North American Portrait Society folks cater to the Norman Rockwell set rather than the Pablo Picasso crowd. Her condition forces her to treat other people differently and accept help. The self-protective layers start to peel off. Meanwhile, we meet some interesting characters, both good and bad. Her long-term friends and landlords, the Kims, their daughter Sue, her wise doctor, her beloved old dog, Peanut, and his veterinarian, who she decides will be her future husband. Her troublesome family arrives on the scene and we learn that some step-sisters really are evil. And we meet Joe, who turns out to be the, at first, unlikely love interest. He is quirky, funny, and adorable.

Near the conclusion, there is a surprise appearance and an interesting twist I did not see coming but probably should have. But no, I take that back. It was so well disguised that when I started to suspect what was going on, I went back to review some parts to see if it could be true. Yes, the clues were all there, but I still didn’t see how it could be. To Katherine Center’s credit, the exposition of all of the reasons I (wrongly) didn’t believe it made sense. I bought it. Or chose to buy it. It made the ending even more satisfactory and joyful. No, her life and family relationships weren’t all perky sparkles, but as I’ve said before in a previous review, Katherine Center really knows how to end a book. My ratings of both of her books I read previously were bolstered by her climaxes and wind-ups. This one didn’t need bolstering.

There are two Author’s Notes at the end. One is about acquired prosopagnosia. The other is a defense and appreciation of The Romance Novel as a genre. Any reader who has ever felt belittled or apologetic about their tastes in reading such novels needs to read this. Anyone who has thought less of someone’s tastes in reading “Chick-Lit” or romance needs to read this as well. Though they probably wouldn’t. Brava Katherine Center.

Thank-You to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an uncorrected digital galley of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Artistic License

by Elle Pierson (Lucy Parker)

“Well, you will make mistakes. And people will get hurt. Unfortunately, that’s life. But that doesn’t automatically negate all the good stuff. And it doesn’t mean that you should make some sort of pre-emptive strike against taking the risk in the first place.” Sophy let out a sigh, examining the toes of her shoes as they scuffed in the gravel. “You’re a wise woman, Ma,” she said lightly after a moment. “I think so,” agreed Marion serenely. “Did you get that last bit from Oprah?” “A magazine at the hair salon.”

**4 1/2 stars.** For what it is, a light harlequin-style romance this was excellent. This was Lucy Parker’s first book, and it was self-published under what I assume is her real name. I’m used to her glittery sophisticated London-based books revolving around the theatre and other rarefied venues. Her ability to drop the reader right in the middle of her world has been part of her appeal for me. This one is set in New Zealand, and I was impressed that this setting seemed as authentic as her London milieu. I was surprised but not surprised to find she is a native New-Zealander, when all this time, based on her books, I thought she was a native Londoner.

This is an unapologetic romance with a bit of mystery thrown in to keep things moving. Sophy is very shy to the point that she suffers from debilitating social anxiety. With people she knows she is smart, funny, and cute. With people she doesn’t, she “shrinks in both size and personality” like a “spooked turtle.” An artist, she meets the very large, muscular, and very dangerous-looking Mick, a security specialist, while he is in charge at an art exhibit.

And look at them, for Christ’s sake. It was as if someone had mixed up the casting calls for a flowery chick flick and Terminator 5. He felt three times larger and at least twice as ugly as he actually was just standing near her. The chances of her reciprocating anything other than wary reluctance seemed to hover around zero.

When she finds herself in the middle of a domestic terrorist incident, Mick rushes to her aid when she is knocked down and has an asthma attack. Despite his reserve with women due to his looks (not attractive) and her shyness, it’s basically love at first sight.

This started off slow. At one point, I was going to temporarily put it down to start a book I was anxious to read. I gave it 20 more minutes and it came through for me. We learn that Mick does not like his family and that he comes from a very wealthy and privileged background. Interesting. Then Sophy starts getting anonymous gifts from someone who knows her tastes. It starts to get creepy. Hmmm. I loved Sophy’s family, whom we spend a day with. The Lucy Parker wit and sparkling banter seemed to get better and better as the book went on. Some of the humor is based on her talent for including apt cultural references. There were several engrossing scenes including Sophy meeting Mick’s heinous family. I liked that Sophy’s and Mick’s characters were true and consistent throughout. I enjoyed their warm and tender relationship. He was protective but respected her and didn’t try to “fix” her. I dreaded the point where Mick or Sophy’s hang-ups would endanger their relationship but the bump in the road was understandable based on their firmly established characters and was nipped in the bud quickly. The secondary characters were engaging. And it had a great ending. Really couldn’t ask for more from a light romance and it’s just what I was in the mood for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It Happened One Summer

by Tessa Bailey

This was Piper’s career. Partying. Being seen. Holding up the occasional teeth-whitening product and getting a few dollars for it. Not that she needed the money. At least, she didn’t think so. Everything she owned came from the swipe of a credit card, and it was a mystery what happened after that. She assumed the bill went to her stepfather’s email or something? Hopefully he wouldn’t be weird about the crotchless panties she’d ordered from Paris.

“There’s just nothing to you, okay? There are thousands of Piper Bellingers in this city. You’re just a way to pass the time.” He shrugged. “And your time has passed.”

This light rom-com by Tessa Baily was a lot racier than I am used to! Whew! If you like the kind of romance where the author doesn’t discretely draw a curtain soon after things get physical, I would highly recommend this one.

This has been compared to Schitt’s Creek by many including the author. I don’t know about that, but it was funny, sweet, and had a lot of heart. For me, Piper, the star of our show, was more of a Paris Hilton-type character especially as she portrayed herself in The Simple Life with Nicole Ritchie. She is a rich, famous, and gorgeous social media influencer who is addicted to parties, fashion, and her phone. When she is arrested during a bacchanal that gets seriously out of hand she is banished from L.A. by her stepfather to the small fishing village in northern Washington where she was born. Her heartbroken mother had left Westport with her and her younger sister when her biological father was killed at sea. She is tasked to stand on her own two feet without the luxury of her stepdad’s checkbook and prove she can be a responsible adult. Her only source of income will be the bar that her father left her in his will. Fearful for Piper’s welfare, and doubtful as to her ability to even survive, her loyal, loving, and more down-to-earth sister, Hannah, goes with her.

Despite her shallowness and initial cluelessness, people are drawn to her. She is unfailingly cheerful with a good heart. She had gumption. I liked her. She wins over the town and a certain gruff fisherman in record time. I liked him too. They quickly fall hopelessly in love with each other. I liked their relationship for the most part though he did tend to be a little too possessive and needy. They were honest about their feelings and fears. Despite their differences, they appreciated each other and understood each other. They were solid. Plus phenomenal sex. Although the attraction was quickly established, the falling into bed, or dining room table, didn’t come until around the halfway point.

And besides the romance, it had some engaging side stories: the renovation of the ramshackle bar, the discovery of a grandmother, getting to know her late father, and a promising love interest for Hannah. There were some wryly funny lines:

The unthinkable was happening. Her longest relationship on record . . . over in the blink of an eye. Three weeks of her life wasted.

Later that night, Piper stared down at the package of ground beef and tried to gather the courage to touch it with her bare hands. “I can’t believe meat looks like brains before it’s been cooked. Does everyone know about this?”

We could pull this board down, but we’re either going to end up with splinters or a herd of spiders is going to ride out on the backs of mice, holding pitchforks.” 

“Not so much you. More like your work ethic. I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing that right. That’s how not often I’ve said ‘work ethic’ out loud.”

I figured the problems and challenges would come from the outside: their clashing backgrounds, Piper’s mother and father, her fan base, the paparazzi, or widower Brendan’s still grieving father-in-law. What I wanted was for Piper and Brendan to weather the inevitable storms and conflicts together with an “us against the world” mentality. I was looking forward to her showing her mother and stepdad how she’d changed and grown and their meeting with Brendan. What I got was the stupidest misunderstanding and ultimate betrayal for no reason that I have come across in a book in a long time. It was almost like Brendan was sick of being happy and in love, and had to do something, anything, to sabotage it. It came out of nowhere. I have never seen a hero work so hard to screw things up. What was looking to shake out to be a solid 4-star read, despite it generally being too romance-focused for my taste, went to a shakey 3.5. And it only maintained that because he really suffered for his stupidity, and went to great lengths to redeem himself.

So I was satisfied by the happy ending and am tentatively looking forward to reading Hannah’s story sometime in the future. Tessa Baily made me like this book against all odds. Although I didn’t approve of all the turns this book took and didn’t take, she is a very sharp writer.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Beginner’s Luck (Chance of a Lifetime, #1)

By Kate Clayborn


I’ve read Kate Clayborn before and enjoyed her writing. Unfortunately, this one was marred by a heroine I didn’t care for. It wasn’t a case of a character arc situation where the protagonist starts off weak, victimized, flaky, selfish, man-crazy, or whatever and grows and learns in the course of the plot, eventually gets her head on straight, and demonstrates how she has changed. This one stayed in her lane until the very end. I became more and more frustrated and hostile toward her as the book went on.

Because of her dysfunctional upbringing, our heroine, Kit, a scientific genius in the field of metallurgy is bound and determined to remain a lab research assistant so she can stay in her community and her new home and not be separated from her two best friends. She craves stability. If she fulfilled her potential, including just taking credit for her work, it would disrupt her life. Ok. You know what? I can relate to and even respect someone who prioritizes home, community, and personal life over career and money. But here’s the thing. Except for her two best friends, who have lives of their own, she doesn’t really have a family or a personal life. She has no hobbies, causes, or interests other than her work and fixing up her old house which winning the lottery allowed her to buy. The premise of this little series: 3 friends who win the lottery and how it changed their lives sounded intriguing and fraught with possibilities. But despite this novel’s marketing, winning the lottery doesn’t change Kit or her life at all. It just gives her something to do and a bonafide neighborhood to live in. She would still have the same “maintain the status quo at all costs” attitude she has now, but would be living in an apartment with nothing to do after work. I am re-reading a book now, A Spring Affair by Milly Johnson, in which a downtrodden woman sorely in need of a new lease on life transforms her circumstances by moving all the detritus of years out of her house. As she “cleans house”, she gets out from under the thumb of her husband, re-establishes a relationship with an old friend, starts a business, loses weight, and falls in love with the bin-man. And a lot of other things as well. It is a slow but very sure progression throughout the novel. It provided a real contrast and insight into why this plot didn’t do it for me. Anyway, back to Kit. As far as family, she has a beloved globe-trotting photojournalist brother who brought her up and loves her, but whom she rarely sees. And that is because she has all but alienated him by her constant nagging to accept part of her lottery winnings as a gift. As soon as he comes home for a visit, she starts in on him again, forcing him to be harsh with her to get her to stop. He cuts his visit short leaving her bereft but none the wiser.

Kit’s genius and accomplishments have come to the notice of a huge corporate research laboratory. Ben, our hero, has been sent to recruit Kit to Houston Texas with promises of a big salary, top-of-the-line equipment, fabulous working conditions, fame, fulfillment, and prestige in her field. Of course, it’s a big “NO” from Kit. She is happy where she is. She doesn’t want the pressure or hassle, would have to move, and is afraid that her work will be used to do bad things like making weapons. (That I can respect, but she doesn’t even entertain the possibility that her talents could also contribute to the good of mankind as well.) Anyway, while attempting to woo her to his company, Ben and Kit fall in love. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Ben’s father, whom he is temporarily caring for, owns a salvage yard in her home town which has lots of cool stuff for Kit’s House.

It doesn’t take long for Ben to realize that Kit is deadly serious about not moving, and he quits trying to make her. The love story precedes predictably until the big misunderstanding that drives them apart. Kit’s nice boss who Kit loves and esteems is offered his sorely needed funding by the corporation Ben works for if Kit comes to work for them. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that Ben used her private confidences to blackmail her into changing her mind. Of course, he is not capable of any such thing. Kit ignores what a good person Ben has proven himself to be, believes the worse, and doesn’t give him any chance to defend himself or deny her accusation. She just coldly freezes him out.

When her derelict addict father has a stroke in another state, he drops everything to jump on a plane to be by her side in the hospital. Nope. She is not having it. She will not even listen to him. To her shock and dismay (!), she learns her father has gotten sober, stopped gambling, got a job, and is in a relationship with a nice lady, Candace, whom he met at an AA meeting. He has been saving all of the money that Kit has been sending him to supposedly keep body and soul together in order to pay it back on the one-year anniversary of his sobriety. Her reaction? She is angry and resentful. “Given that Alex and I both have been sending checks, it would’ve been nice to know that Dad himself could have supplemented…Maybe this should make me feel warm and fuzzy inside…But it makes me mad…to hear he has been going along, getting better at his life, making some grand gesture…when all we’d really want was a bit more kindness.” She looks at his sweet intention as self-indulgent. I just didn’t get the reaction and was even more fed up with her. Plus she was snippy with Candace, who, though she lived in a trailer park (horrors!), was a peach.

In the end, Kit gets tired of waiting for heartbroken Ben to come back to try to change her mind, realizes he is not, and finally takes action. No big epiphany, no growth, no lessons learned, she just got tired of waiting for him to beg her for another chance (to not do anything wrong.) In the epilogue, we find out that she has finally decided not to waste her talents career-wise and flies up and down the east coast consulting and training. Why? Search me.

So it’s another case where protagonists make themselves miserable and almost ruin their lives for no good reason until they choose otherwise for no good reason. I am weary of that but I can put up with it if the protagonists have enough redeeming qualities or a good heart underneath all the flaws. Kit is not a bad person. She had a tough childhood. But she’s not a great person either. So this was a fail for me.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

September 3, 2022

The Happy Ever After Playlist (The Friend Zone #2)

By Abby Jimenez

This book started out so good, I was barely 6% in when I downloaded the first one in the series from the library to read it right after this one. I really loved the writing, and the way it started: A nice likable woman still trying to recover from her fiance’s death two years prior, her funny supportive friend, and the adorable dog. The promise of the dog’s absent owner, an up-and-coming acoustic rock star showing up to claim him was the carrot on the stick. Unfortunately, it went south pretty quickly. They text and talk being very cute and flirty before they ever meet in person. The getting to know each other stage was sweet and nice. They find each other online. “ Jason was hot. No, he was beyond hot. He was bearded, thick brown hair, sexy smile, blue eyes hot. Six-pack abs on the beach hot.” I can only take so much of that. When they finally meet and see how hot and gorgeous they both are and how cool and nice, well, it’s a done deal. End of. I’ve read a few reviews of this and this is the part people seem to really like. It’s light and funny and romantic. But I’m sorry, I was just bored with all of the sweetness, perfection, and adorableness. Had I but known.

He takes her to meet his parents (they love her-who wouldn’t) and they finally have sex. Of course, it is mind-blowing. She says “I always considered myself immune to that kind of frenzy.” among many other things. So sex with beloved dead Brandon was not as good as with Jason? I didn’t like that she even implied that, and I didn’t even know Brandon or their love story from the first book. TMI, Sloan. The last half is all drama and angst all of the time. At first, I actually found this to be a relief from all of the perfection. They have really got themselves in a pickle, and I had to keep reading to see how they would get out of it and achieve a happy ending. To make a long story short, Sloan is sick and miserable on the road and Jason is miserable because she is miserable. It was a constant litany of what a miserable life it was and how it was going to last a whole decade so they can’t have kids or a home and Sloan has to give up her career as an artist. He finally sends her to his parents’ house so she can paint and not be miserable, but they are miserable without each other. Maybe he should have sent her to Sting and Trudy, or BonJovi and Dorothea, or Ozzy and Sharon, to see how they did it.

They have a big fight over Jason being a dick without her and Sloan can’t take the separation either so she surprises him by rejoining him. She has decided that the whole being miserable with life on the road was just her attitude problem and vows to make it work with a positive “can-do” approach. Meanwhile, though, Jason finds out that the record company he is tied to is even eviler than he thought it was and if Sloan stays with him, her very life will be in danger since the record company wants him with his crazy ex-girlfriend Lola for publicity purposes. Now I know record companies only care about the money, but it was pretty hard to swallow that they would maim (and maybe kill?) an inconvenient girlfriend. I mean wouldn’t that kind of thing get out? Anyway, Jason lies to her making her believe he is the worst person on earth so she will leave him and be able to lead a normal safe happy life. The other alternative would have been to just have a conversation, but I guess he just didn’t think it through. Or maybe he just likes the dramatic approach. So naturally, they are sick and miserable without each other. Jason says this:

It had been ninety-four days since I’d last seen her, and I was nothing but a husk of myself now. My world was dim. All was faded. And the more time that passed, the darker it got. Life without her was a sensory deprivation of my soul.

This is not the foundation for a healthy relationship, folks. No one should be that dependent on another for not only joy and happiness but not to be an empty shell with no soul. Sloan is actually trying to move on and is pretty successful, except she will never love again and spends her days in ‘various states of numb confusion,” so no, not really happy. They finally do get back together again after Jason overshares his personal business with a stadium full of people and all of the roadblocks are miraculously removed. But one of the things he says in his self-indulgent blubbering under the spotlight is this:

“Yeah. She’s on a date tonight. I saw her. Went down to her art gallery and saw her with some guy when I was about to come out. It fucking killed me,” he whispered. “I thought breaking up with her was hard. But seeing that…”

So in other words his 3-month separation from her was not as painful as seeing her moving on from him and trying to be happy in a nice relationship? And don’t forget, he purposely broke her heart just so this exact thing could happen. That is just messed up.

So there were even more problems for me with this one, as well as some good things. The redemption of Lola was well done. Abby Jimenez can be very funny-loved Kristen. Despite my difficulties, she is an engaging writer if a little over-wrought at times. I tried to skip ahead but had to go back. Life on the road with a rock star was something new for me, It was thought-provoking and educational. I even like that hunting was not demonized. It is told, and told well, from two alternating first-person viewpoints. Despite the bipolar nature of the plot, I might give her another try with a different story and not-so-problematic characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

August 24, 2022

The Identicals

By Elin Hilderbrand

I listened to this on audio because I wanted to give this author a shot but my time is always a consideration. I’m always looking for a shining star and her name is always popping up, especially in the summertime, and most people seem to really love her. I chose this one because twin stories always seem to be stuffed with possibilities. Two twins, Tabitha and Harper were separated as children when their parents divorced. Harper won rock paper scissors and stayed with her easygoing fun father on Martha’s Vineyard and Tabitha had to go with her cold controlling mother to Nantucket. Tabitha’s unreasonable resentment of Harper getting to stay with the Dad laid the groundwork for their estrangement. It was taken to another level when Tabitha (again) blamed Harper for a personal tragedy that was not her fault. Though only 11 miles apart, they had not seen each other for 15 years when Billy the father dies and the two sisters, their mother, and Tabitha’s out-of-control teenage daughter meet for his funeral.

Frankly, soon after the drama of the funeral, I was all set to give up on this, which would have been a first for me for an audiobook. Since I always listen while doing something else, it is just so easy to go along with them even if the book isn’t that enjoyable. There was not one likable main character. And the sisters in particular were both pretty contemptible. Harper was an immature, irresponsible underachiever who thinks nothing of carrying on an affair with a married man while two-timing him with another guy who is serious about her. Tabitha is such a bitter woman and “piss-poor parent” to teenage Ainsley, that I really questioned whether she cared about her own daughter at all. Ainsley is a mean girl whose teenage angst was just exhausting.

But soon after the funeral, They decide to change places. Harper will go to Nantucket to look after Ainsley and the family dress shop, and Tabitha will take care of renovating and selling Billy’s ramshackle house on the Vineyard. I thought that maybe this would be the turning point in the story that would result in healing their relationship and the evolution of their characters. In some ways, it did eventually but not before the sisters continued to reveal their awfulness, especially Tabitha. With both of them, every time I started to gain some liking and even respect, they disappointed me. Especially Tabitha. It was very frustrating. The difference between them was that although Harper made awful decisions she was essentially good-hearted and sensible. But towards the end, she did something so heartless that I couldn’t forgive her. Tabitha was just awful. The love interests were weak as well. I don’t even want to get started with those guys. There was one decent man introduced who was a possibility for a while for either of the sisters, but he got kicked to the curb and disappeared. The most positive thread was Ainsley finally maturing and getting herself together after being a horror throughout most of the book. This was thanks to the one nice and admirable character who needed a lot more pages and a story of her own.

The one really enjoyable part of this book was the last chapter in which everything was tied up into a happy ending (no accountability here!) and told from the perspective of Harper’s pet dog, who was the other unobjectionable character in this book.

Hilderbrand is a good writer and most of the book was pretty engaging. I might try another one someday. Surely not all of her protagonists are so flawed. **not quite 3 stars**

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 24, 2022

Pretty Face

“As he marched her to the second level, he heard muttering behind him. She really was going to have to work on her vocal range. If she wanted to make an impact when she called someone a “bossy prat,” she needed to project.”

“I’m not bossy.”
He actually sounded like he believed that.
“Okay, Captain Von Trapp. Keep telling yourself that.”
She’d broken the stern director facade again. He was grinning.”

I was a little disappointed in this one, but only because my expectations were so high. It is generally accounted to be her best book, and I just loved the other three in The London Celebrities series. The setting of London’s West end Theatre scene was just as glamorous and the witty quite sophisticated banter didn’t falter either. It is one of the main appeals of a Lucy Parker novel. I love the way her amusing use of pop culture includes references from Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars characters to even Harper Lee’s controversial Go Set a Watchman. It lends authenticity and immediacy to conversations and inner thoughts. Plus it’s very funny.

Sadly, the romance, maybe because it was so similar to the others, did not engage me as much. Luc Savage (that name!) hires Lily Lamprey (that name!) as one of the actors in his latest production, 1553, about Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary, and Lady Jane Grey. It is to open his own historic theatre which he is also renovating. He has to be talked into even looking at Lily’s audition tape for the role of Elizabeth I because although very high-profile as the sexy bombshell in a very popular prime-time soap opera, she has no experience in the theatre, and has a very soft breathy voice like Marilyn Monroe. Not exactly Virgin Queen material. However, he needs the publicity her casting will bring, and gives her the part when he finally sees her surprising acting talent. Also, he quickly learns she is not the empty-headed floozy she looks like and plays so well on TV. Lucy Parker does opposites attract romance very very well. In my experience, her heroines are usually sweet girl-next-door types and her heroes are powerful and cantankerous. In addition to the unlikely romance between the protagonists set to the drama of putting on the play that will open Luc’s new theatre, we have some side stories. Lily has to come to terms with problematic parents which have saddled her with abandonment issues. As a TV actress with a weak voice, she is under a lot of pressure to defeat expectations and prove herself to the company and the public. To complicate matters we have a prominent tabloid with a personal vendetta against Luc and by association, Lily. Towards the end, there are two crises that rear up. One cements their relationship and then the other (temporarily of course) tears them apart.

My problem with the romance was with the hero. He got on my bad side right away with his prejudging of Lily who is lovable from the get-go. It was not only sexist, snooty, and stupid but considering we are told that he returned to the London *Thee-uh-Tuh* only after selling out in order to direct Hollywood blockbusters, it was exceedingly hypocritical. Also, he was just so “above it all.” I mean, he could barely bring himself to pull a cracker at Christmas dinner with his nice family! And then he removes himself from the room when they start their traditional game of charades. Come on now. He has a lot in common with her heroes in other books, In fact, they, as well as her heroines, are almost interchangeable. Almost. But the others are made more palatable by some vulnerabilities and more of a sense of humor.

So whether it was the hero or I was just tired of the nice girl having to bring to heel a mean boy in an uneven power dynamic, this one was just a shade below the others in the series for me. It was still very good.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

July 22, 2022

Book Lovers

By Emily Henry

“You seem pretty pleased with yourself,” he says, “for a woman who just found out she was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil.” I scowl at him. Charlie rolls his eyes. “Come on. I’ll buy you a martini. Or a puppy coat.”

Mom and Libby liked the love stories where everything turned out perfectly, wrapped in a bow, and I’ve always wondered why I gravitate toward something else. I used to think it was because people like me don’t get those endings. And asking for it, hoping for it, is a way to lose something you’ve never even had.

I suspect that many romance authors put the word “book” in the title in order to increase their sales, so I vet a book set in a bookstore or involving novelists very carefully. This one was a no-brainer though because I enjoyed two of Emily Henry’s previous books, Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. I was immediately drawn in by the heroine, Nora, comparing herself to “the other woman” in a small town (read Hallmark) romance. That would be the hard-charging, cold and manipulative, career-oriented city-centric woman that the hero dumps for love and marriage with the sweet small-town heroine. Libby, Nora’s beloved sister, a happy but harried and exhausted mom, thinks that she and Nora need a reset in their lives. She, to get some rest and relaxation, Nora to re-examine her lifestyle and perhaps find love. Nora agrees to the plan because she cannot deny her sister anything. Libby decides to take her sister to a highly fictionalized (it turns out) version of the small town in the mountains of North Carolina in which one of Nora’s authors/clients set her recent best-seller (soon to be a major motion picture.) There, Libby presents a list of small-town romance cliches that Nora is to do (attend a festival, save a local business, etc.) before the end of their stay. Being a reluctant and slightly embarrassed Hallmark aficionado, I was hooked. Libby is trying to engineer the flipside of the Hallmark romance trope for Nora: The workaholic big city girl who finds love in the country and changes her ways. But that’s boring. Luckily, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of  Charlie, a city acquaintance of Nora’s who is kind of a male version of her and thus not suitable to force Nora out of her rut. Their initial antagonism, based on a past encounter and their mutual reputations, quickly leads to sharp and clever banter,  funny wisecracks, and lust.

The entertaining snark flows thick and fast, but I realized, around the 30% mark that nothing else was happening. Nora’s dates with the local swains don’t count because we know those are going nowhere. Her small-town adventures are just amusing window dressing. Nora’s growing lust for Charlie and vice versa is described over and over. Their personal relationship develops while working together on a new book. But it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  

Things did pick up a little over halfway when it became obvious that Libby, whom I came to like, was hiding something from Nora. Something not good. So the intrigue and mystery of that kept me going. Also getting a lot of pages are Nora and Libby’s childhood, the death of their mother, and how that molded their current dysfunctional relationship. Charlie’s past struggles with his family, and why Nora and Charlie, obviously made for each other, can’t have a sexual fling, let alone a long-term relationship, also get a lot of words.

In the end, it turns out that if everyone had just had frank and honest conversations with each other we wouldn’t have had a book. And why that didn’t happen didn’t make sense. And isn’t that just the ultimate Hallmark cliche? The bottom line is, that if this had been a TV romance movie, this would have been 5 stars. As a novel, it was maybe a shade over 3 stars. There were just too many times that, if this had been a movie, I would have been yelling at the screen, throwing the remote, and rolling my eyes. That’s fun when looking at a Hallmark, not so much in a novel.

According to Emily Henry herself, she wanted to portray what happened “after the credits” to the dumped city girlfriend who is joyless, ruthless, and as Nora is described, shark-like. We are told that is how Nora is, but we never see it. She is kind, nurturing, and patient throughout. Yes, she wants to go back to the city in the end, but she also has a lot of fun in the small town while she is there. So despite the fact that I enjoyed Nora, she was kind of a fail. I would have liked to see her being scary even if just in one token scene.

However, Libby’s secret and the big misunderstanding turned out to be a good one and really made perfect sense out of everything. I really liked the final chapters of the book, and the epilogue was one of the most charmingly written I can remember reading. It was very very well done. To sum up, the banter was good, the wisecracks were funny, Emily Henry is a good writer, the concept was great, I liked the characters with the caveat that we should have seen Nora’s “shark” side and we didn’t, the balance between the romance and the other threads was good, and the last 15% I enjoyed greatly. But see paragraph 4.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 3, 2022

Out of the Clear Blue Sky

By Kristan Higgins

I could tell from the git-go that Kristan Higgins’ new book, in some ways, was a return to her lighter fare of yesteryear after her recent forays into more serious women’s fiction. As much as I love and even esteem her more recent books, (4 out of 7 were 5-star reads for me)I welcomed her return to her days of yore. It was great to see that a beloved author can, in a sense, “go home again” no matter what Thomas Wolfe says. I say, “in some ways.” Her first books were definitely romantic comedies while incorporating emotional serious issues along with the fun. And this one has that lighthearted tone. But this one is not a romance. Not at all. The book concludes with our heroine in a satisfying hopeful relationship with a great guy. But the journey to that end is a very minor aspect of Lillie’s personal journey.

The book begins as our heroine, a happily married mother of a son about to leave for college in far away Montana learns that her husband, Brad, “out of the clear blue sky”, tells her he is leaving her for a beautiful, younger, and wealthy woman, Melissa. The story is told in first person by Lillie with occasional contributions from “the whore” who has a substantial journey of her own. Actually more substantial than Lillie’s, truth be told. Lillie is a 41-year-old nurse-midwife on Cape Cod who loves her family, her home, and her community in which she is a popular fixture. Everyone knows and loves her. At first, all she wants is revenge, and her brilliantly successful efforts are very funny. Yes, we know her stunts are petty, childish, and even mean. And she knows it too, but darn it, she just can’t help it. Brad deserves it all and more. But even as we laugh at Lillie’s antics, we start to get to know Melissa, her other victim. Yes, she is shallow (she almost makes it an art form), materialistic, a user, and a husband stealer. But such is Kristan’s imagination and craft, that as we learn her story and get to know her, you (by which I mean I) got to kinda like her and actually admire her. There was a lot to “Missy Jo” that was quite endearing (word of the day!). I didn’t always like and admire Lillie. Lillie has a lot of growing to do and challenges to overcome. In addition to losing her son (in a way) and her husband and his family, she tackles a problematic mother (a Kristan Higgins fixture) a fractured relationship with a once-beloved sister, financial difficulties, a childhood trauma that continues to impact her life, a terrible tragedy in her past, and even a professional nemesis who must be vanquished. It’s kind of amazing all of the issues that are explored in this book, without the tone turning dark. As in all of Kristan’s books, there are some epic scenes, both hilarious ones and triumphant ones. And, as always, some great lines:

*He studied the wine list like it was a lost gospel

*”What’s your daughter’s name?” “Ophelia.” I winced. Who names their kid after the doomed innocent who commits suicide in Hamlet?

*…my own mother, who had the same maternal instincts as a lizard that eats her own eggs.

*“Calm down,” he said, because women love hearing that.

*“Name’s Harminee. Spellin’ it different to be special. Harminee Fawn.” Well, that would just about guarantee the baby would become a stripper, Melissa thought. Harmony was a beautiful name. Harminee though? Gosh.

*I turned on the outdoor lights and peered out. It was a woman dressed in high boots, a fur coat, fur hat and fur gloves. It was either Lara from Doctor Zhivago or Melissa. Sadly, it was not Lara.

*“Thanks for buying me,” Ophelia whispered. She took a shaky breath, and Melissa knew she was crying, and hugged her close.

And as always, we are blessed with another Kristan Higgins trademark, an adorable dog with personality plus.
So what kept this from being one the best of the best Kristan Higgins novels ever? Two things. First of all, I found that Lillie was a little too hung up on her son. The time between the marriage breaking up, keeping that from him so as not to ruin his last weeks at home, and him leaving for college really dragged for me. I honestly couldn’t wait for him to go. Thank goodness Dylan was an independent, well-adjusted kid (yes, thanks to Lillie being a perfect mother). No woman ever loved a son more than Lillie loves hers. And she does go on about it. And no son is more perfect. I couldn’t really blame her.

Of course, no husband who cheats on his wife will ever be a hero. But Brad “Bridiot” Fairchild has got to be the most contemptible human being on Cape Cod or in any Kristan Higgins book ever. Not the evilest Kristan Higgins creation, I hasten to clarify, because she has created some doozies. Even Melissa started to see his true colors before the ink was barely dry on the marriage license. And Lillie was married to this pompous pretentious dickhead for 20 years? Happily? And mourned his loss (or the loss of who she thought he was) so dramatically and sincerely? As she looks back on him and their life together, she sees him clearly. Getting shot of him should have been #bestdayever, #Thank-youGod, #IoweMelissabigtime, #GoodRiddance. I have to admit I got very impatient with our heroine. Maybe even a little disdainful? To be fair, late in the book she does explain why the strong Lillie was happy with the weakling husband, but not until the 96% mark! I think Kristan kind of piled on a little too much when it came to Mr. Brad Fairchild (that’s Dr. Fairchild, huh, huh, huh.), as entertaining as his weaknesses and assholery were. It intruded on the credibility of her main character.

As I finished the book (kept trying to stretch it out!) I felt that this must be one of her shorter books. But it turns out that it was actually one of her longer ones. I think that is a high compliment. I can’t wait to see what her next one is like.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 15, 2022