Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine GuilloryDrunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An intoxicating and sparkling new romance by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory. Margot Noble needs some relief from the stress of running the family winery with her brother. Enter Luke: sexy, charming, and best of all in the too-small world of Napa, a stranger. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and Margot is delighted that she lucked into the perfect one-night stand she'll never have to see again. That is, until the winery's newest hire, Luke, walks in the next morning. Margot is determined to keep things purely professional, but when their every interaction reminds her of the attraction still bubbling between them, it proves to be much more challenging than she expects.
Luke Williams had it all, but when he quits his high-salary tech job in Silicon Valley in a blaze of burnout and moves back to Napa to help a friend, he realizes he doesn't want to tell the world--or his mom--why he's now working at a winery. His mom loves bragging about her successful son--how can he admit that the job she's so proud of broke him? Luke has no idea what is next for him, but one thing is certain: he wants more from the incredibly smart and sexy woman he hooked up with--even after he learns she's his new boss. But even if they can find a way to be together that wouldn't be an ethical nightmare, would such a successful woman really want a tech-world dropout?
Set against a lush backdrop of Napa Valley wine country, nothing goes to your head as fast as a taste of love--even if it means changing all your plans.

My Review: 

The meet-cute that uncorks Drunk on Love is a classic for a reason. Strangers meet in a bar, at a party, or wherever – although in this particular case it’s a neighborhood bar with excellent drinks and great food. They strike up a conversation on one pretext or another and simply hit it off in a way that neither of them can resist.

So they don’t. A great meal, a fantastic night, and a not too terribly awkward morning after and then they’ll never see each other again. Or so one or both of them believes.

Then they do meet again, later that morning after, in the most awkward way possible. And so it begins.

In the case of Margot Noble and Luke Williams, what makes that awkward morning after into an even more awkward gift that is just going to keep on giving – at least for the reader – is that the new job that Luke walks into in the tasting room of a local winery turns out to be the family winery belonging to Margot and her brother Elliot.

Elliot Noble is the winemaker, Margot Noble is the business manager, which means Elliot mostly gets to work behind the scenes, while Margot is out front, managing the finances, drumming up business, schmoozing restaurants to get them to offer and promote Noble wines – and, you guessed it, running the tasting room at the winery.

In other words, Margot is Luke’s new boss. Which is where this romantic comedy kicks into high gear – and sometimes even gets drunk on the Noble Family Wineries’ products. Because neither of them can forget the best night either of them has had in a long, long time – if ever. And they both know it can’t happen again as long as Luke is working in Margot’s tasting room

But they both want it to. So, so bad. Because they already know it’ll be so, so good. If they can just find a way to make it – or let it – happen.

Escape Rating B: I loved the way that Drunk on Love started, and even more so as Margot was a bit older than Luke which is one of my favorite tropes.

Very much on my other hand, this one middled in places that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea – or that I just wasn’t in the mood for at the moment, leaving me with some mixed reading feelings.

The kickoff for this was a winner. Absolutely. There’s always something delicious in a forbidden romance but there are few non-squicky ways to make that happen in the 21st century. This is one that works.

That there is a certain amount of deception in this kind of romance is a given. What drove me bananas about the story wasn’t so much the coverup of their relationship but rather the lies they are telling themselves about pretty much everything else.

Luke is back home in Napa because he burned out at his high-paying, high-powered, high-tech job but can’t manage to tell anyone about it – in some ways, not even himself. So in order to cover that up he covers up more stuff until he’s at the bottom of a pit of lies and just can’t seem to stop digging.

Margot, on the other hand, is doing very well in her position but can’t believe that her brother thinks she is or even wants her there. Their relationship is filled with nothing but tension that might or might not still have a cause. They’re in the middle of a giant misunderstandammit and can’t seem to find a way clear of it.

It’s not just that Margot and Luke are standing in their own ways, but that the way they are doing so stands in the way of any potential future happiness. It’s hard to watch these two very sympathetic and likeable characters flail around at reaching their HEA, but once they do it’s very much earned.

So if you like a bit of angst mixed with witty banter between a couple of really great people who need a few good swift kicks to move them to an HEA, try a glass – or a chapter or two – of Drunk on Love. If you prefer the witty banter in your romcom to be undiluted, grab a copy of the author’s The Wedding Date – a bubbly delight from the very first sip to the last.

Review: Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

Review: Would You Rather by Allison AshleyWould You Rather by Allison Ashley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Noah and Mia have always been best friends, and their friendship is the most important thing to them. Life is going great for Noah and he’s up for a promotion in a job he loves. But Mia’s life is on hold as she awaits a kidney transplant. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and, never wanting to be a burden, has sworn off all romance. So when the chance of a lifetime comes to go back to school and pursue her dream, it’s especially painful to pass up. She can’t quit her job or she’ll lose the medical insurance she so desperately needs.
To support her, Noah suggests they get married—in name only—so she can study full-time and still keep the insurance. It’s a risk to both of them, with jobs, health and hearts on the line, and they’ll need to convince suspicious coworkers and nosy roommates that they’re the real deal. But if they can let go of all the baggage holding them back, they might realize that they would rather be together forever.

My Review:

The United States is the ONLY wealthy, industrialized nation on this planet that does not provide universal health care. And that is what honestly makes the U.S. health insurance industry the big, scary, and all too real villain in this romance.

Noah and Mia have been the bestest of best friends since they were seven years old. They absolutely do love each other, whatever form that love might take – and whatever feelings about the form that love might take they are hiding from each other and the rest of the world. Especially from themselves.

But Mia has a life-threatening chronic illness. Her kidneys are slowly but inexorably failing. Her condition is currently managed by expensive medications and occasional hospital admissions for flare-ups, but it’s manageable. At least so far.

She does need a kidney transplant, and her life has in many ways been on hold since she was diagnosed. Two of the specific things that she has put on hold are her career aspirations and any possibility of romance.

Mia does not want to kill anyone else’s hopes and dreams the way she did her parents’. Not that they see it that way. At all. But when she was diagnosed in her late teens, their savings were pretty much completely wiped out by the cost of her care that wasn’t covered by insurance. She just isn’t willing to do that to any potential romantic partner.

She dropped out of college when she was diagnosed – not surprisingly as it was a LOT to deal with. She’s stuck in a dead-end job because she needs the excellent health insurance the company provides. Without it, she will, quite literally, die.

The job has several good points and one really bad one. She is the administrative assistant at the architectural firm owned by Noah’s dad where Noah himself works. BUUUUT, one of the other architects is a douche who seems determined to make her miserable and puts her down at every turn. (There’s a bubbling vat of acid waiting in the wings for him, I swear.)

So, when she gets a scholarship for mid-career learners to return to college and finish the degrees they abandoned, she wants to take it. But she can’t. Because (insert evil villain music here) she needs the insurance from her job.

And that’s where this story both kicks off and goes just a teensy bit off the rails.

Noah offers to marry her so she can stay on his insurance and chase her dream of becoming a pediatric nutritionist, a job that will also pay at least twice what she’s making now and undoubtedly come with its own excellent insurance. Or, she’ll get a transplant which will automatically qualify her for Medicare – again solving the insurance problem. (The real crime in this story is that SO MUCH is caused by the evil insurance companies!)

What they are planning is a marriage of convenience, 21st century American style. Or so it seems. What they actually get turns out to be anything but.

Escape Rating B-: There’s so much of this book that is so good. It’s a terrific friends-into-lovers and fake relationship romance rolled into a lovely story, and those tropes are classics for a reason.

Noah and Mia have been besties for-literally-ever. Their deep friendship is the foundation on which both of their lives are built. They are each other’s person in some seriously profound ways. That they both want more but are too afraid to admit it because of the consequences if it doesn’t work out feels real. They know they belong together, but they have both made the decision that being together as friends is enough – or at least that it’s not worth the risk of trying for more because neither of them can face the thought of ending up with less.

Where the story sent me into a ranting internal monologue was in the nature of the “fake” of their fake relationship. They’re not the first or the last people, undoubtedly in real life as much as in fiction, to have married out of something other than romantic love. The problem in the story is that it conflates the issues involved in faking a Green Card marriage with marrying to get insurance.

Their marriage isn’t fake or a con. It’s a real marriage, with real legal documentation. They share a real house and a real life. Whether or not they ever plan to have sex or romance is not the insurance company’s problem and they are NOT committing fraud. They ARE married with all the legal consequences and legal responsibilities thereunto.

The real, true issue in the story is the lies they tell to their friends, their families and most importantly, Noah’s employer. Who is also his dad and they do have a good relationship which means that Noah could have been upfront about this mess from the beginning. But the story treats the reason for their marriage and their intention to dissolve it after Mia completes her education as the big bad sin, when it isn’t. It’s the lying that is both the sin and the thing that’s going to trip them up over and over until it’s dealt with.

So the blurb and at least the first third of the story make it seem as if their so-called “fake” marriage is the problem when the real, true problem is that they lied about it. And that they’ve been doing a whole metric ton of lying about a whole lot of very real issues – to themselves and each other most of all.

Where the story gets both very, very good and in many ways very, very sad is that once the first lie gets exposed, all the cats claw their way out of all the bags and they both have to deal with all the issues they’ve been hiding from themselves. And papering over by being so invested in their friendship that they let each other bury some real and serious shit that is painful to deal with and is only going to be more painful for being hidden.

So there’s a LOT to unpack in this story. It’s not nearly as bright and breezy as the blurb might lead you to believe. It is seriously NOT a rom-com. And it would have been a lot better – and a lot less frustrating (and this review would be a lot less ranty) if it had started out by focusing on the real culprits in the mess.

Once it finally gets on the path it should have been on in the first place, the story of two people who have loved each other nearly all their lives who have been living a pretense that suddenly becomes real, the story has a whole lot of charm along with a marvelously cathartic resolution and a solidly earned HEA.

 

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia Whisler

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia WhislerBecoming Family (Dogwood County, #3) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #3
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on August 16, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Family is a feeling
There’s nothing like an important birthday to make a person realize all the things they haven’t accomplished. As Tabitha Steele blows out thirty candles, she makes a wish to take charge of her life. It’s a tall order, considering she doesn’t have much to show for herself since leaving military service. She works at a motorcycle shop but has never even ridden a motorcycle; she’s floundering in massage school; her social life consists of her aunt and her gym buddies; and her closest relationship is with Trinity, the service dog who helps her manage every day. She feels like an imposter in every aspect of her own life.
Playful and wild-hearted gym coach Chris Hobbs is Tabitha’s opposite. He likes to keep things fun and temporary, which is why he’s never tried to move the deepening friendship he has with Tabitha into anything more. But he’s the perfect person to help Tabitha discover her strengths. Then the sudden reappearance of his estranged brother forces Chris to face his past and the vulnerable part of himself behind the party-boy persona…and that means letting Tabitha in.
As difficult as it is for Tabitha and Chris to leave the old definitions of themselves behind, the journey is better with someone special at their sides, becoming who they’re meant to be, together.
"Sweet and sexy, packed with emotions… Romance, rescue dogs, and a side of mystery." —Trish Doller, New York Times bestselling author of Float Plan,on Forever Home

My Review:

This is my second trip to Dogwood County, after last year’s marvelous Forever Home. While the story in this entry in the series is very different from that one, they do have one thing in common. All the animals and all the people do get rescued, usually by each other. And at the end of the story all the animals are very definitely OK. (This is important! A lot of readers want to be sure that all the animals make it before they start a book. There’s even a website: Does the Dog Die, that tracks a lot more than just dogs.)

Where the action in Forever Home followed a seriously badass ex-marine who was a little too good at taking care of herself, Becoming Family is the story of the new counter help at Delaney’s classic motorcycle repair shop, Tabitha Steele, who is pretty much Delaney’s exact opposite.

Tabitha isn’t good at taking care of herself at all. Or at least she thinks she isn’t good at it, because she’s convinced that she isn’t good at or for anything at all. Tabitha always sees herself as a failure and is honestly surprised that anyone wants to be her friend.

She’s also envious of the sheer badassness of all of her friends, to the point where her 30th birthday wish is to become just as badass as they are. A task at which she does not expect to succeed, because she never does. Succeed, that is. At much of anything. At least as far as she can tell.

So Tabitha’s journey in this story is learning to tell that truth. That she’s not a failure, that she is wanted by her friends, that she has a use and a purpose and a gift and that she’s good at what she does. And doesn’t have any worse a case of impostor syndrome than anyone else on the planet.

And that she doesn’t need to become a badass because she already is one. And that her therapy dog Trinity will have her back – and her front – while she figures it out. And beyond.

Escape Rating B+: Like the previous book in this series, the story in Becoming Family fairly comfortably straddles the genre line between relationship or women’s fiction and romance. Although, at least for this reader, it’s the relationship side that steals the show.

Especially if one includes all the relationships with all the animals who steal all the scenes!

The family that is becoming – at least according to the title – is a family of choice rather than birth. Both Tabitha and her romantic interest, Christopher Hobbs, have some serious issues with their birth families. Hobbs’ was abusive. Tabitha’s was nonexistent. She was literally a foundling deposited in a church.

But they have both made families in Dogwood County. Tabitha with the woman who raised her, her beloved Auntie El, and all the people who belong to the Semper Fit fitness studio, where Hobbs works as a trainer.

The relationship side of this story is about the interconnectedness of all the friendships that began at Semper Fit. Which messily ties in the place that rescues and trains Pit Bulls like Tabitha’s Trinity. And even more messily ties in Lily’s work at the local animal shelter, from whence she brings home all the hard luck cases – and finds them homes. (The animals are all terrific but not universally well-trained, especially in puppy- and or kitten-hood.)

Which is how Hobbs and his sister Hannah end up with Lily’s hardest of hard luck cases, the sweet Lab mix puppy Gracie and her hairless guardian cat George. Honestly, George and Gracie’s story was the very best thing in this book of good things.

But the romance between Hobbs and Tabitha has a rocky start – and probably a rocky ever after as well. These are two people who have spent their lives having their boundaries attacked in one way or another. It’s great watching them both start to figure out where their lines are drawn – but it’s a battle that just isn’t realistically over when the story ends.

Although they’re certainly getting there.

So in the end this is lovely. The animals, of which there are many, all get their own HEAs. The humans are all works in progress, but progress is most definitely made. There’s a hook to a next book in the series, which is terrific because I’d love a return visit.

And in the meantime, I still have the first book in the series (Rescue You) to look forward to reading the next time I want to visit this marvelous place!

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine CenterThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Narrator: Patti Murin
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 44 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise that this a bodyguard romance. After all, the title does pretty much give it away. But before your head starts playing “I Will Always Love You” on endless repeats, this book’s version of that popular trope would have Whitney Houston guarding Kevin Costner. Which is more than a bit of a twist, at least if that’s the picture you have in your head.

In this version, it’s Executive Protection Agent Hannah Brooks guarding the uber-famous actor Jack Stapleton. (In my head, I was picturing Jack as an amalgam of the superhero movie Chris brigade, so combine the features – and the careers – of Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Pine and Pratt to get sorta/kinda the picture in my head. And now, quite possibly, yours.)

The explanation of exactly why Hannah Brooks does not look like the beefy, burly, able to bench press a Hummer, stereotype is pretty much on point. Having that kind of bodyguard advertises that something is up and someone or something needs protection. It’s not exactly discreet, The company that Hannah works for is all about protection and discretion – even if some of the agents, including Hannah, seem to have a problem with the latter in their personal lives. Hannah and her team plan and prepare for every detail and contingency so that threats are eliminated before they happen.

Even if the biggest threat that Jack Stapleton seems to face is a middle-aged stalker who keeps Corgis and knits sweaters with Jack’s face in the center. Or at least the Corgi stalker is the reason that Jack’s team at the movie studio hires the protection agency.

Once Hannah is embedded in Jack’s life and his world, it starts to seem like Jack’s older brother Hank is a much bigger threat – but not as big or as difficult to fight as his mother’s cancer.

And that’s where things go really, really pear-shaped – especially for Hannah. Jack doesn’t want to worry his mom while she’s undergoing treatment, so he wants to hide the fact that he needs protection at all. Which puts Hannah in a really tough spot, as Jack’s plan requires that Hannah pretend she’s his girlfriend and not his bodyguard.

The longer it goes on, the realer the ruse seems to be – and not just to Hannah. Unless Jack is a much, much better actor than even Hannah thinks he is.

Unless the stalker is even better than that.

Escape Rating B-: This is a story where I had both the audiobook and the ebook, which means I started by listening to the audiobook. I switched to the ebook at less than a third of the way through – not because I was impatient to see what happened next but because the audio was driving me utterly bonkers.

So many people have loved this book, and it sounded like it would be so much fun, but the audio just about had me screaming in the car. I switched to the ebook because I was determined to finish the damn thing.

The story is told in the first person singular, so we’re in Hannah’s head listening to her voice and all of her many, many, many anxious thoughts and feelings, nearly all of which are negative and are flying by at what seems like a million miles per hour. The narrator’s delivery of the rapid-fire cacophony inside Hannah’s head was spot-on, but the overwhelming mass of negativity the character was projecting – well, I just wasn’t there for it. At all.

Hannah is a person who is afraid to sit still or even to slow down. Even if she’s not moving in the physical sense, her brain is whirling at a million miles per minute. And it seems like most of those miles and minutes are negative. She’s not happy with herself, she’s not happy with her life – particularly when the story opens – and she’s doing her level best to keep in motion so she doesn’t have to deal with ANY of her issues.

That her mother just died and her boyfriend dumped her the morning after her mother’s funeral is just the tip of the rock-filled iceberg that is Hannah’s emotional state. (Her boyfriend is a douche and she’s WAY better off without him, but it takes her awhile to figure that out – as it does.)

And her boss is a complete asshole. Even when he’s right, he goes about it the worst way possible – because he admits he enjoys torturing his employees. He’d call it “tough love” if he was willing to use the word “love” at all. But it comes off as just being an abusive asshole who enjoys his assholishness.

In short, Hannah has a metric buttload of issues that she is burying under her workaholism. All of her issues feel justified, but she’s not dealing with pretty much ANYTHING that needs to be dealt with. And her mother’s death provides the straw that is breaking the camel’s back of Hannah’s coping mechanisms.

Not that Jack Stapleton is in much better shape emotionally – he just hides it better. After all, he is an actor. The irony of their situation is that as fake as their relationship is supposed to be, Hannah is a much more real person than anyone Jack has ever associated with in Hollywood – including his supposed “real” girlfriend.

The relationship that develops between Hannah and Jack, as bizarre as its starting point, is the most real thing in his life – except for his older brother’s animosity and his mother’s cancer. He’s not coping well either – and he has just as much to cope with as Hannah does.

And that’s one of the places where the story is shortchanged by its cute sweetness. Because it certainly is both of those things. The issue that I had with the story in the end is that there is too much going on with both of these people for a romance that ends up being this light and fluffy.

Not that both Hannah and Jack don’t deserve a happy ending – because they both certainly do. But the way they achieve it, and the way that their happy ever after is presented, completely glosses over everything that is really, truly not cute or sweet at all. In the end, the story shores up the fallacy that love conquers all, including learning disabilities, impostor syndrome, feelings of total inadequacy, childhood trauma, and unprocessed grief.

It ends on the note that love doesn’t just conquer all, but that it cures everything that ails a person. Which just isn’t true. And this would have been a much better story, if not nearly as fluffy, if their very important issues had been dealt – or at least showed that they would BE dealt with – instead of swept under the carpet.

In the end, this wasn’t bad – and it’s a surprisingly clean romance if you’re looking for one. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey YatesThe Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Hqn on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"Yates packs an emotional punch with this masterful, multilayered contemporary…pitch-perfect plotting and carefully crafted characters make for a story that’s sure to linger in readers’ minds.” —Publishers Weekly
New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates dazzles with this powerful novel of sisterhood, secrets and how far you’d go to protect someone you love…
Ruby McKee is a miracle. Found abandoned on a bridge as a newborn baby by the McKee sisters, she’s become the unofficial mascot of Pear Blossom, Oregon, a symbol of hope in the wake of a devastating loss. Ruby has lived a charmed life, and when she returns home after traveling abroad, she’s expecting to settle into that charm. But an encounter with the town’s black sheep makes her question the truth about her mysterious past.
Dahlia McKee knows it’s not right to resent Ruby for being special. But uncovering the truth about Ruby’s origins could allow Dahlia to carve her own place in Pear Blossom history.
Recently widowed Lydia McKee has enough on her plate without taking on Ruby’s quest for answers. Especially when her husband’s best friend, Chase, is beginning to become a complication she doesn’t want or need.
Marianne Martin is glad her youngest sister is back in town, but it’s hard to support Ruby’s crusade when her own life is imploding.
When the quest for the truth about Ruby’s origins uncovers a devastating secret, will the McKee sisters fall apart or band together? 

My Review:

This story about the importance of stories is wrapped around the four McKee sisters, Marianne, Lydia, Dahlia and Ruby. They are all adults as the story opens, and for the first time as adults, all four of them now live in the tiny town of Pear Blossom, Oregon. It’s Ruby’s return home that precipitates all the crises in the story.

And are there ever plenty of those!

There are also four themes or plot threads running through the story, but not, as you might expect, one per sister. Rather they are all being put through the same set of wringers at the same time. It can be a lot. And it frequently is for one or more of them.

Ruby’s return home sets all the wheels in motion, just as Ruby’s original advent set Pear Blossom on its current trajectory as a well-known tourist destination. Because Ruby wasn’t born to the McKee family, she was found by them. A tiny baby, abandoned on the historic, picturesque Sentinel footbridge, on a cold December evening. The young McKee sisters found Ruby as they walked home from Christmas choir practice. Nothing about her origins was ever discovered and she was adopted by the McKee family as the youngest sister.

The town saw her as a miracle, and she kind of was. But her miraculous appearance provided a weird sense of catharsis for a tragic event the winter before. A young woman went missing and was never found. She was presumed dead, but with no body and very little evidence of any kind, the boy who was assumed to be her killer was charged – and imprisoned – but the state had to eventually drop the case.

He became the town bogeyman – at all of 15 – just as Ruby became the town’s savior – at least in an emotional sense. Those reputations remain tied to both of their lives, deserved or not, in both cases.

So one thread of this story is about some of the less-lovable aspects of small town living, that everyone knows everyone’s business, and that lives and reputations can be made or ruined by the sins of the parents – because everyone knows just what they are. Ruby can’t step out of her role as the sunshine bringer, while Nathan Brewer was condemned because his father was a violent drunk with a mean streak and the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But sometimes Miss Mary Sunshine has rain clouds in her life, and sometimes the apple throws itself as far from that parent tree as it can get.

The second thread is the driving power of stories, and the power of the past to impact the present. Because of the great mystery around Ruby’s origins and the way her adoption affected the McKee family, both Ruby and her sister Dahlia have made careers out of questioning and investigating the past.

Ruby is a historian, and the job she has just taken in Pear Blossom is to serve as the local museum’s archivist. Dahlia is a newspaper reporter. Together, they decide to do a series of newspaper stories and museum exhibits about the history of Pear Blossom. And it’s impossible to look back at the history of the town without taking a hard look at its two biggest stories; the disappearance and presumed death of Caitlin Groves, and the mysterious arrival of Ruby the following year.

But those events are just over 20 years in the past. There are plenty of people in town who remember what happened. And among those memories might be the key to unlocking one or both mysteries.

All four sisters are going through romantic crises, all at the same time. Marianne fears her husband is having an affair, Lydia is recently widowed and is still trying to figure out what happens next for herself and her children, Dahlia’s self-imposed inferiority complex is keeping her from pursuing the man she’s always loved. And Ruby herself, Miss Mary Sunshine, has fallen for the town’s biggest villain – because she realizes that he’s not the villain after all.

Which means that someone else is – and that they might still be around.

And that leads inexorably to the power of telling the truth, whether in big ways or small ones, and how the lies we tell ourselves are the hardest ones to let go of. Even if they are destroying not just ourselves but all those we love.

Escape Rating B-: One of the things I like about this author’s contemporary romances is that the situations that her protagonists are in tend to be fairly plausible. The dramatic tension in the romance is never a misunderstandammit, but rather two people honestly coming from different places that are, in real life, hard to resolve. (My personal favorite of hers is last year’s Confessions from the Quilting Circle.)

That plausibility was a bit lacking in The Lost and Found Girl. Any of the individual situations could easily happen, but all of them at once in the same family was a bit over the top. Honestly, more than a bit. Out of four sisters it seems like the odds would be that one of them would be doing okay – and not just think she was only to have the rug pulled out from under her.

And I have to say that the surprising conclusion to the more suspenseful elements of this story, particularly as there were two of them, seriously tested my willing suspension of disbelief. One felt plausible if barely. The second headed towards paranormal – which was both surprising and heading towards unbelievable.

Howsomever, I did like the overall concept of the story, about the importance of history and keeping it alive. That the stories we tell about ourselves and about who we came from matter and should be preserved. I loved the idea that Ruby and Dahlia were working together, from their entirely different angles, to create a living history for the town that everyone could enjoy.

That turning over rocks in the not-so-distant past uncovered some snakes in the grass pushed the story forwards and brought the sisters together. But the combination of that suspenseful part of the plot with all of the various forms of romantic angst went a bit over the top for me.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman

Review: The Edge of Summer by Viola ShipmanThe Edge of Summer by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Bestselling author Viola Shipman delights with this captivating summertime escape set along the sparkling shores of Lake Michigan, where a woman searches for clues to her secretive mother's past
Devastated by the sudden death of her mother—a quiet, loving and intensely private Southern seamstress called Miss Mabel, who overflowed with pearls of Ozarks wisdom but never spoke of her own family—Sutton Douglas makes the impulsive decision to pack up and head north to the Michigan resort town where she believes she’ll find answers to the lifelong questions she’s had about not only her mother’s past but also her own place in the world.
Recalling Miss Mabel’s sewing notions that were her childhood toys, Sutton buys a collection of buttons at an estate sale from Bonnie Lyons, the imposing matriarch of the lakeside community. Propelled by a handful of trinkets left behind by her mother and glimpses into the history of the magical lakeshore town, Sutton becomes tantalized by the possibility that Bonnie is the grandmother she never knew. But is she? As Sutton cautiously befriends Bonnie and is taken into her confidence, she begins to uncover the secrets about her family that Miss Mabel so carefully hid, and about the role that Sutton herself unwittingly played in it all.

My Review:

When she was a very young woman Mabel Douglas learned a hard lesson that it is dangerous to let people in – because once they are inside your guard they are close enough to administer a fatal blow to your heart if not to your body. So she keeps everyone in the small Ozark town of Nevermore at arm’s length – even her much loved daughter, Sutton.

So it’s fitting, in a terrible and sad way, that “Miss Mabel”, as she is known to her neighbors, dies alone, under quarantine in a nursing home during the early, deadly months of the COVID-19 pandemic, only able to see or be seen by her grief-stricken daughter through a window, the glass all too frequently darkly at best.

Sutton is alone, nearly 40, at best partially employed due to the pandemic, and suddenly aware that the few facts she thought she knew about her mother and her mother’s hidden past were all at best misdirection, and at worst outright lies. That’s one of the few certainties to be gleaned from her mother’s last letter to her, delivered to Sutton by the nursing home in a box of her mother’s effects.

In her mother’s cottage, Sutton has all the things her mother prized most – her vintage Singer sewing machine – known fondly as “Ol Betsy”, her few hidden keepsakes, and her vast collection of vintage buttons. Along with just a few hints to their real origins – a story that Mabel refused to tell her daughter in life and barely left a hint of after her death.

But once Sutton emerges from the depths of her grief, and the world emerges from quarantines and lockdowns, Sutton discovers that she doesn’t want to return to her job as a principal buyer and designer at a Chicago-based women’s clothing store chain. What she wants to do is follow those few tiny clues her mother left her, in the hopes of learning, at last, who her mother really was.

And to perhaps discover who Sutton is meant to be after all.

Escape Rating B: I very much liked the parts of The Edge of Summer, but in the end I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it gelled into a whole. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The story begins during the early days of COVID-19 pandemic. At the point where everything was uncertain, the disease was deadlier than anyone wanted to think about, and the end wasn’t remotely in sight. Which means we meet Sutton at pretty much her lowest ebb. Not just because her mother is dying – although that’s a big part of it – but because she can’t even BE with her mother while she’s passing. Sutton is alone on the outside of the nursing home while her mother is dying alone on the inside of it. Sutton’s life is in chaos and her one anchor in the world is dying – leaving all of Sutton’s questions unanswered and probably unanswerable.

Everyone Sutton knows or meets during this story lost someone to the pandemic. It’s still a very close and real event to people, and the reaction in the story is that a lot of people have drawn closer and become more supportive of each other in the aftermath. I’ll admit that bit felt more hopeful than real, but it was still nice to read. It was, however, heartbreaking but very real that people were impacted and were still being impacted even after the vaccines were available and the quarantines had ended.

Sutton’s sparse clues about her mother’s past lead her to the resort towns on the Lake Michigan shoreline, Saugatuck and Douglas. Douglas was, at least for the purpose of this book, once the pearl button capital of not just Michigan but the entire U.S. That’s where all those tiny clues point, and that’s where Sutton goes to hunt them down.

It’s a past that is elusive in a way that makes it clear that there’s a secret – or two – or ten – buried in the sand dunes near the towns. But as much as the story is about Sutton’s search for her mother’s past it’s also about a search for her own present and future away from her mother’s shadow – even as she learns the reasons why that shadow was so deep and so dark.

So it felt like there were three stories blended into one in The Edge of Summer. One was the bittersweet story of Sutton growing up in a tiny town in the Ozarks with her mother Mabel. It was a childhood filled with love and lies, where Mabel and Sutton were all in all to each other – if only because Mabel refused to let anyone else into their tiny world and taught Sutton to do the same.

The second story was Sutton’s quest to discover the truth about her mother’s past, and the real reason she ended up in Nevermore all alone with a baby seemingly before she turned 20. The past that Sutton searches for is still there to find, a snake lying in the grass ready to bite and poison her just as it did her mother all those years ago.

For this reader, that story had a bit of villain fail. There’s no question her mother’s reasons for leaving were real and valid and necessary, where I thought it fell down a bit was in the villain’s perspective. We know what happened but not really why it happened. Villains are never the villains of their own stories and I felt like I missed someone’s justification for their actions, however twisted it might have been.

The third story, of course, was Sutton’s search for a life no longer bounded by all the self-protective and isolating lessons that her mother taught her. Those are the kind of lessons that are most difficult to unlearn, because they were taught with love and were meant for the best. But Sutton is rightfully tired of being alone and she needs to let some of those lessons go in order to reach out to others. That she finds love as part of her journey is expected and even welcome, but I didn’t get quite enough of the romance to buy into this particular part of her HEA.

All in all, three lovely stories that didn’t quite gel into one whole, at least not for this reader. But a heartwarming time was still had by all, so I’ll be back during the holidays for the author’s next book, A Wish for Winter, which sounds like it might be a bit of a follow-up to this charming story.

Reviewer’s Notes: Two final notes before this review is closed. First, I had a surprising amount of fun jumping down rabbit holes trying to guess which dying Chicago department store Sutton was working for when the story begins. The trip down memory lane took me back to Marshall Field’s, Carson, Pirie, Scott and even Lytton’s in an attempt to narrow it down. I’m probably not even close but I had a grand time looking. Second, I never expected to find another reference to “crown shyness” in a book any time soon after A Prayer for the Crown Shy. I was wrong because it’s in The Edge of Summer as well. It’s turning out to be a surprisingly useful metaphor and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it turn up again!

Review: The Protector by Anna Hackett

Review: The Protector by Anna HackettThe Protector (Norcross Security #9) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Norcross Security #9
Pages: 245
Published by Anna Hackett on June 28th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

For a ballerina in the line of fire, the only man who can keep her safe is a scarred, battle-hardened soldier.

One minute Saskia Hawke is dancing on stage, and the next she’s been abducted by a very wealthy, very powerful man with connections. Whisked away to a country estate, she’ll do anything to escape, and prays the former soldier she can’t stop thinking about will come to rescue her.

What she doesn’t know is that her disappearance will light a protective fury inside Camden Morgan, and he’ll tear down the country to find her.

After a final mission leaves former Ghost Ops soldier Camden Morgan injured, scarred, and riddled with guilt, he comes home to San Francisco. Surrounded by his family and working at Norcross Security, he still can’t settle. He definitely knows he’s too broken to offer anything to the beautiful, raven-haired Saskia.

When she goes missing, Cam knows something is very wrong. He’s the man with the right skill set to bring her home, even as he knows he must protect her from himself and push her away.

But saving Saskia is just the beginning, as her abductor isn’t letting go of his obsession. Cam must go all in, be the protector Saskia needs, and risk his scarred heart. With the help of his brothers and Norcross Security, not to mention Saskia’s dangerous brother and his team, they’ll put everything on the line. And for Saskia, she’ll fight with everything she has to survive…and to prove to Cam that he’s capable and worthy of love.

My Review:

As is usual for Anna Hackett’s series, we saw the opening of The Protector in the close of the previous book in the series, The Medic. That’s when Camden Morgan first met ballerina Saskia Hawke and decided that he had too much damage to be the kind of man that Saskia deserved.

And as is also usual for the combat veterans of Norcross Security, he neglected to ask Saskia what she thought about his holding himself away from her for her own good.

As Saskia lived in NYC, and Norcross was based in San Francisco, Cam let himself believe that friendship was all he could give and the occasional late night phone call wasn’t more than either of them could handle.

Which was fine until Saskia was kidnapped by a Russian mobster with a taste for special, exotic women and an organization fine tuned in the ugly business of sex trafficking. A man who refuses to take no for an answer – even after he’s brought down again, and again, and again.

The first time Saskia escapes his clutches, the evil dude manages to slip through theirs. And Cam, being a fool, turns Saskia away even though he’s the only person making her feel safe.

But when he rescues her the second time, he starts thinking with his heart and stops trying to push her away. Only for her to get taken yet a third time by an obsessive villain who can’t afford to let anyone get away from him without punishment.

It’s an edge-of-the-seat adventure every step of the way as Cam and Norcross Security chase down Saskia’s latest prison – not just before her smart mouth and defiance gets her killed, but before she and Cam finally have the chance to admit what they’ve always felt for each other.

And before Saskia’s even more badass big brother sweeps in and eliminates ALL the threats to his sister’s life and happiness – no matter what she or anyone else has to say about any of it.

Escape Rating B: While The Protector was not my favorite book in this series – that honor is reserved for The Medic followed by The Specialist – it was a fitting wrap up for the Norcross Security series as a whole. We at least had the chance to touch base with all the members of the team and the Norcross family, and even had a glimpse of The Hacker’s new baby. Everybody’s fine and everyone, no matter how reluctant in the beginning, found their HEA.

The reason I like The Medic best of the whole series, is that in that story the heroine is an even bigger badass than the hero, and that he celebrates her badassery at every turn. Saskia is cast from a somewhat more traditional mold in the sense that she does need someone to rescue her from the repeated kidnap attempts. She does her best to stay strong and defiant, but she needs a hero in a way that Siv did not.

Also, I have to say that the “kidnapped by a mobster to be a sex slave” plotline is one that leaves me totally cold. Sex trafficking is real and terrible, but in fiction this particular villain type goes over the top into bwahaha territory, at least for this reader. It was too personal and this dude was just too much of a caricature. Your reading mileage of course may vary. This trope is popular with a lot of readers, I’m just not one of them.

The Protector is the final book in the Norcross Security series. The handoff from this series to the next, which will be Sentinel Security, looks like it starts with Saskia’s badass big brother Killian Hawke. The first book in the series is coming in August. I’m curious to see how Killian’s nemesis and frenemy, a federal agent who isn’t exactly FBI and isn’t exactly CIA but who certainly is going to finally bring him down. Or tie him up. Possibly both!

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Cana

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie CanaA Proposal They Can't Refuse by Natalie Caña
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Vega Family Love Stories #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Natalie Caña turns up the heat, humor and heart in this debut rom-com about a Puerto Rican chef and an Irish American whiskey distiller forced into a fake engagement by their scheming octogenarian grandfathers.
Kamilah Vega is desperate to convince her family to update their Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into the Fall Foodie Tour. With the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, it's the only way to save the place. The fly in her mofongo--her blackmailing abuelo says if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she'll have to marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend's grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working to turn his family's distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and he has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it's too late. And Granda knows just the girl...Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses both their businesses. With their futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.

My Review:

This story may have elements of a rom-com, but it absolutely does not start with anything remotely resembling a “meet cute”. The first meeting we witness between Kamilah Vega and Liam Kane is clearly not their first meeting. Their grandfathers have been best friends since before their parents were born, Kamilah and Liam have known each other since childhood – even if they can’t seem to stand each other as adults.

But the real reason that their meeting in the opening of this story isn’t a meet-cute is because the first interaction we see between Kamilah and Liam is when she punches him in the junk. Hard and fast. (I can still hear him wheezing in agony from here.)

That opening scene sets up a surprising amount of the action in this “proposal”, even if that’s not obvious to the players in that particular scene.

Both the Vega Family and the Kane Family owe their hearts, their souls and their origin to this two octogenarians, Kamilah’s beloved Abuelo, Santiago Vegas and Liam’s cantankerous grandpa Killian served together, bought a former blacksmithy in Chicago’s Humboldt Park together, and have raised their businesses and their families side-by-side.

Now the old men, the misbehaving delinquents of their senior citizens’ home, have come to their grandchildren with an offer that neither Liam nor Kamilah can afford to refuse.

Kamilah wants to modernize the Vega Family’s Puerto Rican restaurant to compete with the new, bougie eateries that are moving in on the gentrifying neighborhood. Her parents and her siblings never listen to anything she says, always brushing her off with tales of childhood misdemeanors – even though she has a degree in the culinary arts and is the person they all rely on to get shit done.

She still gets shit on to the point of abuse by pretty much everyone in the family – even though she’s right. They have to either compromise a bit to stay in business – or let the family business fade away with so many other local institutions that are being washed away in the tide of gentrification.

Liam just wants his grandpa to stick around long enough for them to realize Liam’s father’s dream. The Kanes are whiskey distillers, and the signature blend that Connor Kane put up before he died in a boating accident is about to mature. Killian has cancer that he’s not planning to even think about treating. Liam wants him to at least try to stick around – because he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else.

The old men still own those family businesses and the building that houses both the businesses AND the families, even if they’ve left it to the next generation to run those enterprises. So the deal is simple. Kamilah gets her shot at running the restaurant, Liam gets his grandpa to enter treatment, and in return Liam and Kamilah get engaged and move in together – even though they haven’t been able to be in the same room with each other without breaking into a fight since they were children. And in return their grandfathers don’t sell the building out from under them all..

Nobody’s motives are remotely pure in this arrangement, but everybody gets something they want. Except, of course, for Kamilah and Liam’s friends and family – who all believe that this fake relationship is real.

Unless, of course, it is.

Escape Rating B: I’m not exactly sure that this book is a romantic comedy. It is certainly a romance, but I didn’t think a bit of it was funny – at least not once we learn what the grandfathers are up to besides switching out ALL the decaf at their community with espresso. And even that’s not really all that funny, as someone nearly had a heart attack from the caffeine surprise.

These families are both hot messes, with Kamilah and Liam being the biggest messes of them all. A big part of this story is them revealing to each other exactly what’s packed inside the emotional baggage that each of them has been lugging around since they were children. The unpacking of that messy luggage is heartbreaking all by itself without factoring in Killian’s cancer diagnosis.

It’s also not funny that the Vegas’ treatment of Kamilah, as much as they love her and as much as they mean well, borders on abuse. Nothing she does is ever right, nothing she says is ever taken seriously, and she’s beaten down at every single turn with a recitation of her failures going all the way back to early childhood. Whatever they think they’re accomplishing, all they’re really doing is undermining her self esteem while expecting her to pick up everyone’s slack.

That Kamilah has turned into a martyr about it may not be a healthy reaction – but it’s not a surprising one either. She’s learned that the only way to get anything approaching what she wants is to be a big underhanded about it – in ways that eventually bite her in the ass.

Liam still blames his father for dying when Liam was 11. His grandmother died in the same accident and his grandfather drove Liam’s mother away in the aftermath. Liam expects all relationships to end in people leaving him, as his grandfather is about to do. He pushes everyone away and doesn’t know how to make himself stop.

Kamilah’s manipulations run smack into Liam’s need to push people away before they leave him – giving him the perfect excuse to expose everyone’s machinations in this mess into the bargain. It’s not funny at all. It’s downright tragic.

What makes this story work is that they get the help they both need. It’s not so much a complete happy ever after as it is a happy work in progress with a sincere hope of ever after. Love doesn’t conquer or cure all – nor should it. There’s too much that needs fixing in this case. But it does provide a firm foundation to stand on to get the work done.

That’s a lesson we don’t see often enough in romance, but I’m definitely here for it.

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith SchorrAs Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 352
Published by Forever on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fans of the Hallmark Channel and Gilmore Girls will adore this delightful rom‑com about a city girl who goes in search of small-town happiness, only to discover life—and love—are nothing like the TV movies.
Emerging journalist Adina Gellar is done with dating in New York City. If she’s learned anything from made-for-TV romance movies, it’s that she’ll find love in a small town—the kind with harvest festivals, delightful but quirky characters, and scores of delectable single dudes. So when a big-city real estate magnate targets tiny Pleasant Hollow for development, Adi knows she’s found the perfect story—one that will earn her a position at a coveted online magazine, so she can finally start adulting for real . . . and maybe even find her dream man in the process. 
Only Pleasant Hollow isn’t exactly “pleasant.” There’s no charming bakery, no quaint seasonal festivals, and the residents are more ambivalent than welcoming. The only upside is Finn Adams, who’s more mouthwatering than the homemade cherry pie Adi can’t seem to find—even if he does work for the company she’d hoped to bring down. Suddenly Adi has to wonder if maybe TV got it all wrong after all. But will following her heart mean losing her chance to break into the big time?

My Review:

As Adina Gellar discovers, life is NOT like a Hallmark movie. Except when it is.

It could be said that 25-year-old Adina Gellar is experiencing a “failure to launch”. She’s still living with her mother in their rent-controlled NYC apartment. She’s graduated from college, but she’s looking for a job in journalism – and that’s one field that very much isn’t what it used to be. So she has two low-paying jobs as a spin instructor and a barista so that she can contribute something to household expenses. And she keeps cold-calling the editor of one lifestyle publication hoping that one of her ideas will click. She’s trying, but it seems like not very hard because her nest is much too comfortable.

She’s also fed up with the dating scene after yet another first date where the guy can’t be bothered to show up. She’s done.

But she’s addicted to Hallmark movies, so when she sees a profile of a big time New York City real estate developer who has bought up a huge building site in a little town about 2 hours outside the city, she thinks she’s found a story straight out of one of those Hallmark movies she loves so much.

She even manages to sell the story to that editor she keeps calling. Now all she has to do is spend a week or two in beautiful, rustic Pleasant Hollow and write a story about its wonderful small town ambiance, close-knit community, and fears of losing its identity and heritage in the face of a big, bad developer coming in and gentrifying the place.

Adi assumes that Pleasant Hollow is going to be just like all the quirky, plucky, welcoming little towns that she’s seen in all those Hallmark movies. And that she’ll find a hunky, handsome local who will sweep her off her feet.

None of Adi’s Hallmark fueled hopes and dreams about Pleasant Hollow turn out to be remotely true. Except for one. She does find a hunky, handsome man who does sweep her off her feet – after he laughs at her rather a lot – and justifiably so. But Finn Adams isn’t local.

He’s the on-site representative for that supposedly greedy developer that Adi was planning to cast as the villain in her story. But bad boys need love too – and so do slightly naïve would-be journalists.

Escape Rating C-: I really, really wanted to like this and I just didn’t. The idea had the potential for so many happy feels – rather like the Hallmark movies that inspired it. But it was let down by its main character.

Adi is naïve to the point of ridiculousness. We’re not surprised that Finn has fun misdirecting her, we’re just surprised that she’s so gullible as to fall for it. I know that I lot of people LOVE Hallmark movies – and I’ve certainly enjoyed the books that some of them have been based on, but does anyone believe that anything in them is real? Seriously?
That being said, I kind of liked the schadenfreude of Adi discovering that small towns – or at least the small town she was visiting, were absolutely nothing like what she’d seen on TV.

While I did like Adi’s relationship with her mother, as well as her lovely friendship with her lifelong bestie Kate, Adi herself just wasn’t enough to carry the book. Although it certainly made for a fairytale ending that she not only got the guy but that she managed to fail upwards in her journalism career in a way that would be perfect for a Hallmark movie – but in real life only happens to cis, straight, white men who got much luckier in the difficulty setting for their life than the even the regular lowest difficulty setting would allow.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, but I think the next time I’m looking for the equivalent of Hallmark movie feels I’m going to go back to Virgin River – even though that’s on Netflix.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.