A- #BookReview: The Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan

A- #BookReview: The Summer Swap by Sarah MorganThe Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Canary Street Press on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

"The perfect summer novel—sharp, smart and so much fun!" —Viola Shipman, USA TODAY bestselling author, on The Island Villa
Cecilia Lapthorne always vowed she’d never go back to Dune Cottage. So no one is more surprised than Cecilia to find herself escaping her own seventieth birthday party to return to the remote but beautiful cottage on Cape Cod—a place filled with memories. Some are good—especially memories of the early days with her husband, volatile artist Cameron, before his fame eclipsed their marriage. But then there are the memories she has revealed to no one. Especially not her daughter, Kristen, who hero-worshipped her father.
For aspiring artist Lily, Dune Cottage has been a refuge, albeit an illicit one. After dropping out of medical school, she’s cleaning houses on the Cape to get by, guilt-ridden for disappointing her parents. Unoccupied for years, the cottage seemed the perfect place to hide away and lick her wounds—until Cecilia unexpectedly arrives. Despite an awkward beginning, Lily accepts Cecilia’s invitation to stay on as her guest, and a flicker of kinship ignites.
Then Cecilia’s grandson, Todd—and Lily’s unrequited crush—shows up, sending a shock wave through their unlikely friendship. Will it inspire Lily to find the courage to live the life she wants? Can Cecilia finally let go of the past to find a new future? Because as surely as the tide erases past footprints, this summer is offering both Cecilia and Lily the chance to swap old dreams for new…

My Review:

There’s a saying about the best things to give children are “roots and wings”. Roots to ground them, and wings to fly free. The Summer Swap is a story about, not just those roots and those wings, but particularly about the way that family expectations can add so much ballast that those wings can’t lift their load – no matter how much they yearn to fly.

The story begins with Lily, who has literally fled her parents’ well-meaning but wrong-headed expectations. Her parents worked hard and sacrificed a lot to make their two middle-class but not highly compensated jobs stretch – with grants and scholarships – to get Lily into an elite private school, college and then medical school.

They wanted her life to be richly rewarded and financially secure and put every penny and every effort into making it happen. That her rich and snooty classmates saw Lily as a charity case and treated her accordingly was something Lily stuffed down deep inside – just as she buried her dreams of becoming an artist in favor of pursuing the practical medical degree her parents had scrimped and saved for – and seemed to have their hearts set on.

Until it broke her, and she dropped out of med school. At which point her parents broke her again and kept on doing it, smothering her with their anxiety and their concern and trying to find ways to fix her so that she could go back to school – which was the last thing she wanted.

Her parents meant well, and they did their best to do well. But their dreams weren’t her dreams and she couldn’t deny herself a minute longer so she left. When we meet her she’s cleaning expensive but empty bungalows on Cape Cod, giving herself a bit of mental space so she can figure out what she wants to do with her OWN life while finding a way to manage those heavy parental expectations.

While squatting in an empty bungalow because it’s tourist season and there’s no place around that she can afford to live in on the trendy, touristy, expensive Cape.

Which is where Cecilia Lapthorne comes in. Literally.

Cecilia, seventy-five years old and the recent widow of a larger-than-life artist, has let herself be effaced by the expectations of being the “great man’s” helpmeet while he wowed the masses and kept his name in the limelight. Now that he’s gone, her daughter’s expectations that she continue to serve her artist dad’s memory and legacy for the rest of her life are smothering her.

So she too runs away – to the “cottage” on Cape Cod where she and her late husband had some of their happiest – and one of the awfullest – times of their lives. Because she needs that same bit of mental space that Lily does – to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of HER OWN life.

Which is the point where Lily and Cecilia run into each other. They can give each other something that few seem to have given either of them – time and space to think, and an open mind and a listening ear to help them each think through the life ahead of them as well as the trials and errors behind them.

And in that open space, they are able to capture the dreams they left behind and move forward into brighter futures – no matter how many years they each might have ahead.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I absolutely fell in love with The Summer Seekers and was looking for the same kind of multi-threaded, multi-generational story about women at different milestones in their lives and the ways that they navigate the ties that bind and the ties that strangle – whether they are related to each other or not.

There are three women tangled together in this story, just as there were in The Summer Seekers. Cecilia, her middle-aged daughter Kristen, and 20something Lily. Cecilia and Kristen’s relationship is strained – frankly most of their relationships are strained for interconnected reasons – and Lily’s relationship with her parents is fraught as well.

What makes the interconnectedness work is that the strain in all of the relationships is wrapped around the same issue – each of them is protecting someone else by keeping secrets that probably should have seen the light of day years ago but haven’t for reasons that are realistically human.

And are also wrapped up in the female condition – that if you are female those around you (including, unfortunately, other women) often believe that you don’t know your own mind or haven’t thought things through or are being overly emotional. Something that’s especially true for Lily – her parents are sure that she’s too young to know her own mind and they only want what’s best for her. But equally true for Cecilia, who is seventy-five and recently widowed. Her daughter Kristen is just as sure that it’s her mother’s grief talking and she really isn’t in a position to make big decisions about her own life and that it will all look better later and that Kristen is just being protective and really knows best. When in fact Kristen is actually trying to manage her own grief over her father’s death by managing her mother – so of course it’s not working AT ALL for either of them.

Then again, Kristen is one of those people who ALWAYS knows best and is constantly managing everyone around her to make sure that her ‘best’ decisions are the ones that get implemented – never realizing that it often happens because it’s less stress for others to let her handle things rather than get bulldozed out of the way. Which explains at lot about the strain in all of the rest of Kristen’s relationships as well.

This particular triptych, similar to the triad relationship in The Summer Seekers, (I REALLY loved that book!), is something that this author is particularly adept at. (It worked a bit less well in The Book Club Hotel with four instead of three and YMMV)

All three women have similar issues, in that they need to stop trying to manage other people’s emotions, responses and expectations and set boundaries on their own – particularly with each other in the case of Cecilia and Kristen.

I did figure out Cecilia’s big secret fairly early on – but there was still an impact in seeing it revealed to the others and the way in which it was revealed. At the same time I was never quite sure exactly what the stumbling block was in Lily’s romance but was happy to see her happy all the same. And I was thrilled to see Cecilia get her own second-time-around HEA because she’d earned it, deserved it and was utterly entitled to it. I left the story still not sure how to characterize Kristen’s progress – but on the other hand, I’m not sure she is yet either.

If you enjoy stories like this, stories where women are at the center of all the action as well as all the emotions, where a romance may occur but isn’t remotely the entirety of the point, or simply like spending time with women who you’d love to have coffee with after, or simply books where you can feel the summer breeze wafting by as you read, The Summer Swap is just the ticket. And if one summer book is not enough, don’t forget to pick up this author’s other terrific ‘beach reads’ The Summer Seekers AND Beach House Summer to extend the breeze of your summer reading vibe!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily Henry

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily HenryFunny Story by Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Length: 11 hours and 23 minutes
Published by Berkley, Random House Audio on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A shimmering, joyful new novel about a pair of opposites with the wrong thing in common.
Daphne always loved the way her fiancé Peter told their story. How they met (on a blustery day), fell in love (over an errant hat), and moved back to his lakeside hometown to begin their life together. He really was good at telling it…right up until the moment he realized he was actually in love with his childhood best friend Petra.
Which is how Daphne begins her new story: Stranded in beautiful Waning Bay, Michigan, without friends or family but with a dream job as a children’s librarian (that barely pays the bills), and proposing to be roommates with the only person who could possibly understand her predicament: Petra’s ex, Miles Nowak.
Scruffy and chaotic—with a penchant for taking solace in the sounds of heart break love ballads—Miles is exactly the opposite of practical, buttoned up Daphne, whose coworkers know so little about her they have a running bet that she’s either FBI or in witness protection. The roommates mainly avoid one another, until one day, while drowning their sorrows, they form a tenuous friendship and a plan. If said plan also involves posting deliberately misleading photos of their summer adventures together, well, who could blame them?
But it’s all just for show, of course, because there’s no way Daphne would actually start her new chapter by falling in love with her ex-fiancé’s new fiancée’s ex…right?

My Review:

This is not a meet-cute, it’s more like a meet-really-really-ugly. But it starts with a meet-cute. It’s just that the meet-cute is NOT between our protagonists Daphne and Miles. It’s between Daphne and her very suddenly ex-fiancé Peter. There may, or may not, have been another meet-cute between Miles and his equally suddenly ex-girlfriend Petra – but that really doesn’t matter by the time we meet all of the above.

Because of all of that VERY sudden ex-ing that happened. In the wee hours after Peter’s bachelor party, between Peter and his childhood bestie, the beautiful Petra. The woman he claimed had always been a platonic friend. Always.

At least until Petra confessed to Peter, when they were alone in the aftermath of that bachelor party, which of course Petra attended because she was, after all, his bestie, that she was in love with him and couldn’t watch him marry someone else without letting him know that.

The resulting mess – and was it ever a mess – left Daphne with one week to move out of the house that she and Peter were supposed to share, alone in the small town she’d moved to because that’s what HE wanted, with no support network because all of “their” friends were really his friends – and a job she loved and didn’t want to leave in a place she could no longer bear to stay.

Not too far away, in that same tiny little town, Petra’s ex Miles was left with an apartment he could only afford half the rent on, in a town that he felt like he’d made his own, with an utterly shattered heart.

Daphne, ever practical EXCEPT when it came to Peter, made Miles an offer he literally couldn’t afford to refuse. His need for a roommate dovetailed heartbreakingly and conveniently with her need for a place to live.

They may have agreed to be roommates out of their shared tragedy but they are definitely respectful of each other’s space and each other’s brokenness. At least until they both receive invitations to – you guessed it! – Peter and Petra’s upcoming nuptials. After a long and very drunken night of shared drinking, ranting and more than occasional sobbing, Daphne and Miles decide that living well – or at least the appearance of it – will be their revenge on their exes.

They RSVP to the wedding of the people they each once believed to be the love of their lives, together. And to back that up, they post a selfie that gives the unmistakable impression that they’ve found the new loves of their own lives – with each other.

Miles is certain that they can keep up the pretense of dating each other for the summer – just long enough to get past that dreadful wedding. Daphne isn’t nearly so sure – but she’s willing to try. She certainly expects it all to go terribly, terribly wrong long before they reach that Labor Day weekend disaster-ganza. And it very nearly does.

At least until it all starts going terribly, terribly right.

Escape Rating A: I started out listening to this one, and that’s probably what got me over the hump of the early chapters. This is one of those stories that, of necessity, has a very hard start. We meet Daphne just after very nearly the entire life she had planned crashed and burned. She’s wallowing in a whole lot of angst and regret and self-recrimination, nearly buried by the weight of her emotional baggage piling up all around her. Listening to the excellent narrator makes the listener feel like they are literally inside Daphne’s mostly despairing head and it’s a realistically well-portrayed terrible place to be.

Fortunately for the reader/listener and Daphne, it really does get better – mostly thanks to Miles – who very nearly crashes and burns it all around her again.

The thing that keeps the whole meet-ugly/meet-cute of the thing from going over the top is that Peter in particular may be the villain of this piece – which he definitely turns out to be – but he isn’t evil. He’s certainly awful, and he displays all of his awful bits over the course of the story – but he’s not actually, technically, evil. He’s just selfish and self-centered and more than a bit spoiled.

Daphne was willing to continue spoiling him because he represented something she’d never had – stability. Her dad was mostly absent and generally in the midst of his next big score that never materialized. Her mother was the very best in Daphne’s eyes, but they moved a LOT in pursuit of financial security and Daphne stopped bothering to make connections because she knew they’d never survive a move. Peter, his large, loving family and his wide circle of lifelong friends is a situation she wants to be adopted into wholesale so she lets herself be surrounded and subsumed into it.

Only to be confronted with the fact that it was never really hers – and neither was Peter. (Although that turns out to have been dodging a bullet she never would have seen coming.)

The fun part of this story – and it mostly is fun after that first long, deep and totally justified wallow – is watching the way that Miles courts Daphne by getting her to fall in love with tiny, slightly touristy, totally scenic, Waning Bay Michigan. He loves the town that he’s adopted and been adopted by, and does his damndest to share that love with Daphne. That he makes the town irresistible makes him irresistible and their hesitant steps toward a relationship turn this story into a marvelous kind of dance of a romance.

That, at the very same time, Daphne uses the foundation of having a job that she totally loves – even if it barely pays the bills – to put herself out there in the sense of opening herself up to the possibilities of deep and true friendship and fellowship – is what makes this story so much her journey to happiness and fulfillment. Whether or not, in the end, either of those things includes Miles, or Waning Bay, or both, or neither.

That Peter ultimately gets the shaft all the way around turned out to be merely the icing on a very tasty cake of a book – or perhaps that should be the slathering of cheese and jalapenos on a fresh, hot serving of Petoskey fries. The part that makes a good thing just that much better.

My favorite of Emily Henry’s books is still Book Lovers, but Funny Story definitely moved into the runner-up slot. I loved that Daphne was a librarian, and she definitely read like “one of us” while her Waning Bay Library read as both realistic and on the good side of places to work – except for the poor salary which was equally realistic – dammit.

I’ve read all of the author’s adult books except for People We Meet on Vacation, which I can feel climbing the virtually towering TBR pile as I type this. It looks like a perfect book to pick up later this summer – when we’re on vacation!

A- #BookReview: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

A- #BookReview: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu KawaguchiBefore the Coffee Gets Cold (Before the Coffee Gets Cold, #1) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Narrator: Geoffrey Trousselot
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, relationship fiction, time travel
Series: Before the Coffee Gets Cold #1
Pages: 272
Published by Picador on September 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


What would you change if you could go back in time?

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer's, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .
Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?

My Review:

We all have regrets. Things we wish we’d said or done differently. Words spoken in the heat of a moment that can’t be unsaid. Things we would have said or done if we’d known that this moment would be the last chance we’d ever have to say or do those things.

This book is a collection of stories, first in a series of such collections, that features a Potterverse-type Time Turner in the form of one single seat in a tiny Tokyo cafe. Just as in Harry Potter, the rules for turning back time are very specific.

The would-be time traveler can’t change the present, no matter what they or anyone else does in the past. Which is actually a rather limited slice of that past, as they can’t leave the cafe – they can’t even leave their seat – and they can only remain in the past for the length of time it takes for one cup of coffee to get cold – which they also must drink before it does.

Just getting the opportunity to try is a cautionary tale, as the seat they can’t leave is occupied nearly, but not quite, 24 hours a day by the ghost of a woman who didn’t follow all the rules. A solid ghost who will curse anyone who tries to move them forcibly but needs to get up and go to the bathroom once every day.

So the opportunities are very definitely limited. Which doesn’t stop people from trying, and even – occasionally – succeeding. After all, just because you can’t change the present – just as in the Potterverse you couldn’t change something that you already KNEW had happened – there is a loophole.

Just because you can’t change the present, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grab the opportunity for just a little bit of closure. And it absolutely doesn’t mean that having a second chance to say the right thing then doesn’t mean you can’t change the future that proceeds from now. Even if all you do is change a heart, that might very well be enough – even if it’s just your own.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up – in fact I bought the whole series so far – because I’ve enjoyed several books recently that used this one as a pattern; Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, The Kamogawa Food Detectives, and Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop. I’m also in the middle of listening to What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, which also follows a similar pattern.

Each book is a collection of several “slices of life” stories linked by a central theme or location, or even better, both. In each case, the protagonists of the individual stories are changed in some way by their interactions with the place and its proprietor(s), with each story having its own little catharsis while the framing story carries the reader from one to the next.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a lovely little collection – to the point where its easy to see why it started this trend.

In this particular case, the stories start out at a remove from the central characters. Nagare, Kazu and Kei own and run the little cafe, which has been in business for a century-plus and has been frustratingly popularized as the place where you can step back in time but only if you follow those pesky, persnickety rules to the letter.

The first time-travel ‘customer’ that we meet is a woman who broke up with her boyfriend in the cafe – and wants to take it all back a week later after he’s moved to America. They’re discouraging, she’s driven, we get a full explanation of the quirks of the operation, and she does her best to say the things she wished she’d said – and is pretty sure that she fumbled so much she just made things worse. But it’s enough to shift her future the tiniest bit and gives the reader the possibility of a happy ending.

What makes the collection as a whole work is that the remaining stories move the time travel further back and forwards in time, but step by step – or story by story – closer to the cafe’s proprietors and from that sweet possibility of a happy ending to something much closer to the bitterness of the coffee they serve. With just a hint of sugar to help the poignancy to go down.

These are comfort reads, in the sense that each story’s resolution, even if it isn’t exactly happy, provides the relief of closure, the possibility of change and a sense of catharsis and resolution. The stories are each charming and lovely in their own right and make a surprisingly harmonious whole.

I needed just this kind of comfort read this week and this ‘sad fluff’ book filled that niche perfectly. I’ll certainly be back for the next book in the series, Tales from the Cafe, the next time I have a taste for something just the right side of bittersweet.

#BookReview: A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen

#BookReview: A Quantum Love Story by Mike ChenA Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, science fiction, science fiction romance, time travel
Pages: 368
Published by Harlequin MIRA on January 30, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The only thing harder than finding someone in a time loop is losing them.

Grieving her best friend's recent death, neuroscientist Mariana Pineda’s ready to give up everything to start anew. Even her career— after one last week consulting at a top secret particle accelerator.

Except the strangest thing a man stops her…and claims they've met before. Carter Cho knows who she is, why she's mourning, why she's there. And he needs Mariana to remember everything he’s saying.

Because time is about to loop.

In a flash of energy, it’s Monday morning. Again. Together, Mariana and Carter enter an inevitable life, four days at a time, over and over, without permanence except for what they share. With everything resetting—even bank accounts—joy comes in the little a delicious (and expensive) meal, a tennis match, giving a dog his favorite treat.

In some ways, those are all that matter.

But just as they figure out this new life, everything changes. Because Carter's memories of the time loop are slowly disappearing. And their only chance at happiness is breaking out of the loop—forever.

My Review:

Carter Cho recognizes that he’s in a time loop. He has four days to live, over and over and over and OVER again, with no way to stop it and no way out. All he can do is watch, wait and repeat. It’s boring, it’s disheartening, it’s downright depressing. Most of all it’s terribly, terribly lonely.

Until Carter decides to take one loop and do the opposite of everything he did the first and all the subsequent, mind-numbing, heart-breaking times he’s looped before. And in that opposition he manages to convince, coerce, drag another person into the loop with him.

Dr. Mariana Pineda and technician Carter Cho are opposites in every possible way, but all they have is each other. And a seemingly endless amount of time to figure out what keeps making the Hawke Accelerator accelerate itself into a catastrophic explosion, time after time after time – and resetting the world as everyone but the two of them knows it.

Neither of them has the training or the tools to diagnose what’s going wrong – but they are all they have. And that turns out to be more than enough. Just in the nick of, well, time.

Escape Rating B+: If the blurb or the description above are making you think of the movie Groundhog Day, you are not alone. Neither was it alone in my head as I was reading my way through the first part of the story – because time travel loops have been done before.

In other words, this loop has been looped before. As they do.

At one end of that time loop story perspective there’s Groundhog Day, which has kind of a sweet ending no matter how much of an asshole the protagonist (played by Bill Murray) is as the story begins. But Carter Cho is a really nice guy – if a bit of an underachiever according to his parents – so that resemblance isn’t 100%

The ending of A Quantum Love Story, or rather, all the endings of the world before the resets, have all of the explosive punch of the movie Edge of Tomorrow, although there’s no war in Quantum.

A Quantum Love Story felt more akin to the Stargate SG-1 episode “Window of Opportunity” as following the protagonists through the loops of that journey goes through many of the same stages that Carter and Mariana go through while following characters that one really does want to follow. Also there’s no real villain in “Window of Opportunity”, which is also true in Quantum. The story, the journey, the battle if you will, is to solve the mystery and break the cycle – not to break heads.

But the chasing down of just how many different time loop stories this one brought to mind kept me from being as invested in Carter and Mariana’s problem solving through their loops, although the emotional journey they took did hold my interest even as it briefly looked like it was heading for Flowers for Algernon territory which made for some tense moments for this reader. (Don’t worry too much, it doesn’t go there, but there were a few bits that just about gave me the weepies when it looked that way. Howsomever, the author has form for this, as that’s part of the direction that his lovely Light Years from Home went.)

The heart of the story, and it very much does have one, is in the relationship between Carter and Mariana, who begin as opposites in just about every sense of the word and bond through shared trauma. But what they discover through that sharing is that their version of opposites attract brings out the best in both of them, and that there are possibilities in life that neither of them ever imagined.

Including the possibility of a happy ever after with someone that they would otherwise never have had a chance to meet. A chance that will be whisked away if they ever manage to solve the problem and stop the resets.

The solution to both problems, to the endless resets of the time loop and to stopping those resets, turns out to be exactly the same thing. With one surprising and beautiful deus ex machina of an exception.

Ultimately, the repeating time loops with their repeating reminders of other time loop stories is both a bit of a bug AND a feature. After all this is a story about things repeating until they don’t, so it seems right that they kind of do. In the end I was charmed by the story and the characters as they worked through both repeating and not repeating time at the same time.

I’ll certainly be repeating my exploration of this author’s work and his signature combination of science fiction and relationship fiction with his next outing, hopefully this time next year. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by this review, check out the first chapter excerpt I posted last week. If you like SF with just a touch of romance and a heaping helping of relationship building and problem solving, you just might fall in love with A Quantum Love Story!

Review: Role Playing by Cathy Yardley

Review: Role Playing by Cathy YardleyRole Playing by Cathy Yardley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, geek romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 331
Published by Montlake on July 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From Cathy Yardley, author of Love, Comment, Subscribe, comes an emotional rom-com about two middle-aged gamers who grow their online connection into an IRL love story.
Maggie is an unapologetically grumpy forty-eight-year-old hermit. But when her college-aged son makes her a deal—he’ll be more social if she does the same—she can’t refuse. She joins a new online gaming guild led by a friendly healer named Otter. So that nobody gets the wrong idea, she calls herself Bogwitch.
Otter is Aiden, a fifty-year-old optimist using the guild as an emotional outlet from his family drama caring for his aging mother while his brother plays house with Aiden’s ex-fiancée.
Bogwitch and Otter become fast virtual friends, but there’s a catch. Bogwitch thinks Otter is a college student. Otter assumes Bogwitch is an octogenarian.
When they finally meet face-to-face—after a rocky, shocking start—the unlikely pair of sunshine and stormy personalities grow tentatively closer. But Maggie’s previous relationships have left her bitter, and Aiden’s got a complicated past of his own.
Everything’s easier online. Can they make it work in real life?

My Review:

I was tempted to start this review by doing one of those “there are two types of people” kind of things, but those always leave some people out. Also, in this particular case, there are four types of people, introverts, extroverts, ambiverts and omniverts.

This is very much a story about introverts, as both Maggie and Aiden are both clearly on the far end of the introvert side of the introvert vs. extrovert teeter-totter. Maggie, in fact, may be just a bit too far over, as she realizes that she hasn’t been outside in days and has run out of absolutely every food in her pantry and will be forced to rely on condiments if she doesn’t go to the local small town gossip factory that passes for a grocery store.

For anyone wondering why not just get food delivered, well, food delivery is something that Maggie misses – a lot – by having moved to tiny Fool’s Falls in eastern Washington State. She’s so far out of town that even the local pizza place doesn’t deliver.

Maggie is a freelance editor, so she doesn’t need to go TO a job to HAVE a job. She’d rather socialize online anyway, which is why she’s still very much an online gamer at 48. She’s also suffering – really, really hard – from empty nest syndrome as her son, and fellow introvert – has just started college at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But she’s right about the grocery store being town gossip central, and she’s equally right about being accosted the minute she steps in by one of the local, means so very well but isn’t listening, obvious, oblivious, obligate extroverts who is determined that Maggie get out of her house and won’t take no for an answer.

Won’t even hear ‘no’ as an answer.

Which is where Role Playing takes off, as Maggie finds herself stuck in the role of introvert at a party of extroverts who all focus on her. One thing leads to another – not necessarily bad things, just frustrating things from Maggie’s point of view – leading to the lovely heartwarming answer to a question that hasn’t been asked but should be: how do introverts find each other as they retreat to their homes to escape a world full of loud, intrusive extroverts who are just sure that their way is best.

The answer is delightful from beginning to end, and all the more so because Maggie and Aiden – or rather Bogwitch and Otter – are not your typical 20somethings finding true love. Instead, it’s a story about two grown ups who have given up on finding someone who will ‘get’ them EXACTLY as they are, and who will love them not in spite of their introversion, or even because of it, but because together they fit in a way that neither ever expected to find.

And it makes for the best kind of romance, between two people who have accepted who they are in themselves and have finally found ‘their’ person in spite of all the meddlers and extroverts trying to get in their way.

Escape Rating A: I picked this book out of the virtually towering TBR pile for two reasons. One, I loved the author’s Fandom Hearts series with its combination of romance and geeky fun. And two, because it’s a reality in my house, particularly this month when there are long weekends and time off built in, that the two introverts who live here are going to be spending a LOT of time playing video games. Because that’s part of what brought us together, too.

So, I fell hard for this book because I felt hard for both Maggie and Aiden, but especially for Maggie. I really got her, both in the whole sense of how easy it is to get lost in your own little world when your job lets you avoid the big world outside – even if it’s lonely. AND her combination of extreme annoyance and absolute cringing when confronted with determined extroverts – because they are all determined and they are all wrong but convinced that they are right.

(Obviously I’m venting my own feelings here, but hers were just SO REAL and felt SO TRUE. Also, I’m also still a gamer, and a bit older than Maggie, so people’s reactions to that part of her persona felt equally spot on.)

I digress, but hopefully in a germane way.

And then there’s Aiden, who is caught up in a bunch of really, really HARD adult dilemmas, with no good outlet for the stress except, of course in this context, gaming. (I understand so completely that there are nights when pixels just need to die that I can’t even…)

Both Maggie and Aiden are in some very hard places, but they are also very grown up places. Maggie needs to make a life that works for her by herself now that her son is in college. Which is going to mean changes – and that she’ll have to find ‘her people’ somehow because Kit’s presence in the house kept the social isolation at bay for both of them.

Aiden has also been in a holding pattern as he came home to tiny Fool’s Falls to take care of his dying father. But his father has been dead for a year and Aiden is left in a place he never wanted to come back to, dealing with his grief-stricken mother who is determined to blame Aiden for never being the son his parents wanted him to be in spite of his very real success.

His mental health requires his departure, but his mother still needs him even if she seems to hate everything he is and does. (If you’ve ever read any 9-1-1 fanfic, Aiden’s mother is toxic in the same way that Eddie’s mother is. I digress again, but geeky references are part of the fun of this story)

Maggie and Aiden find each other through the gaming that everyone in their lives thinks they should have given up years ago. Quite possibly because it’s a symbol of the fact that they are both determined to live THEIR OWN lives and not FOR anyone else.

Obviously, I had a ball with Role Playing, to the point that I’m a bit chagrined that I missed it when it came out back in July , but am oh-so-glad I rediscovered it now thanks to Book Riot’s Best Books of 2023. I sincerely hope the author gives us some more grown-up but still geeky romances to fall in love with, but in the meantime I’m going back to see where I left off with Fandom Hearts the next time I need to put a little more heart in my reading!

Review: The Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman

Review: The Wishing Bridge by Viola ShipmanThe Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

With unabashed winter charm, The Wishing Bridge sparkles with the humor and heart fans of Kristy Woodson Harvey, Nancy Thayer and Jenny Colgan love most.
Once the hottest mergers and acquisitions executive in the company, Henrietta Wegner can see the ambitious and impossibly young up-and-comers gunning for her job. When Henri’s boss makes it clear she’ll be starting the New Year unemployed unless she can close a big deal before the holidays, Henri impulsively tells him that she can convince her aging parents to sell Wegner’s—their iconic Frankenmuth, Michigan, Christmas store—to a massive, soulless corporation. It’s the kind of deal cool, corporate Henri has built her career on.
Home for the holidays has typically meant a perfunctory twenty-four-hour visit for Henri, then back to Detroit as fast as her car will drive her. So turning up at the Wegner’s offices in early December raises some eyebrows: from her delighted, if puzzled, parents to her suspicious brother and curious childhood friends. But as Henri fields impatient texts from her boss while reconnecting with the magic of the store and warmth of her hometown, what sounded great in the boardroom begins to lose its luster in real life. She’s running out of time to pull the trigger on what could be the greatest success of her career…or the most awkward family holiday of her life.
Includes the bonus novella Christmas Angels

My Review:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” at least according to Robert Frost. But just because they have to take you in, or even if they WANT to take you in, that does not give you permission to steal it out from under them.

Which is EXACTLY what Henrietta Wegner plans to do when she returns home to Frankenmuth, MI and to the ‘all Christmas all the time all year round’ store named after her family. A store that anchors not just the Christmas season in Frankenmuth but the whole, entire town.

50something Henri is on the ropes at the cutthroat mergers and acquisitions firm she cut a wide swath through back in the day – when she first left home to make her own mark. Now she’s back home, attempting to defend that mark by ‘acquiring’ the store her parents have put their heart and soul into.

Henri sees herself as the Grinch, descending upon Whoville with a heart that’s three sizes too small – if not a bit more.

But just as no plan survives contact with the enemy – a description that Henri is sure will be left in her wake – Henri’s plan to put the Grinch into her family’s Christmas doesn’t look like it can survive contact with the Spirit of Christmas.

Henri’s story has all the makings of one of those Hallmark holiday movies that she and her mother are not-so-secretly fond of – if she’ll just let it. Happy Holidays, indeed!

Escape Rating B+: The Wishing Bridge, in addition to being a heartwarming story for the holiday season, combines two romance/women’s fiction tropes in a way that the one reinforces the other and back around again, and both lean in to the holiday season in a way that just wraps the whole story up with a bright red holiday bow with an ornament hanging from it.

At first, The Wishing Bridge is that tried-and-true story about the stone-hearted corporate bigwig coming to a tiny town to take it over and make it over – or tear it down – who discovers that he or she has a heart after all that gets captured by the town, the people who live there, and some special someone.

AND The Wishing Bridge is also a story about second chances. Not just a second chance at romance, although that too, but a second chance at pretty much everything. It’s a story about that ‘road not taken’ winding back around and intersecting with the road that Henri took all those years ago, giving her the opportunity – not so much to do things over, because life has happened and this isn’t a time travel story – but rather to make a different choice for the next phase of her life.

Both of those tropes require that the main character take a good, hard look at the life they have and decide whether it’s REALLY the life they want or need, and those are never easy decisions – and they’re certainly not for Henri.

(That her boss is an utter douchecanoe seems like it should make the decision easier, but it’s right that it doesn’t and even right-er that he’s not her ex. Because that would be gross under the circumstances. This is about Henri and what she wants, his asshattery is not REALLY what her decision needs to be about and that’s handled well.)

One thing that turned out to be difficult for this reader, and leads to a bit of a trigger warning. A lot of what makes the idea of selling Wegman’s out from under her parents instead of signing on and continuing their legacy is that the all-Christmas all the time dream was one that she shared with her father. He still has that dream, but she’s let it fall behind her – or buried it under her own ambitions. There’s a lot about fathers and daughters in this one, and it gave me a bit of the weepies even though the ending is a happy one. (In other words, if you have unfinished business with your dad, it may hit you the same way.)

To make a long story at least a bit shorter, even though the eARC did not include the bonus novella Christmas Angels, The Wishing Bridge all by itself is a charming story and a lovely start to the holiday reading season!

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Wishing Bridge by Viola ShipmanThe Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, holiday romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

With unabashed winter charm, The Wishing Bridge sparkles with the humor and heart fans of Kristy Woodson Harvey, Nancy Thayer and Jenny Colgan love most.
Once the hottest mergers and acquisitions executive in the company, Henrietta Wegner can see the ambitious and impossibly young up-and-comers gunning for her job. When Henri’s boss makes it clear she’ll be starting the New Year unemployed unless she can close a big deal before the holidays, Henri impulsively tells him that she can convince her aging parents to sell Wegner’s—their iconic Frankenmuth, Michigan, Christmas store—to a massive, soulless corporation. It’s the kind of deal cool, corporate Henri has built her career on.
Home for the holidays has typically meant a perfunctory twenty-four-hour visit for Henri, then back to Detroit as fast as her car will drive her. So turning up at the Wegner’s offices in early December raises some eyebrows: from her delighted, if puzzled, parents to her suspicious brother and curious childhood friends. But as Henri fields impatient texts from her boss while reconnecting with the magic of the store and warmth of her hometown, what sounded great in the boardroom begins to lose its luster in real life. She’s running out of time to pull the trigger on what could be the greatest success of her career…or the most awkward family holiday of her life.
Includes the bonus novella Christmas Angels

Welcome to the blog tour for The Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman. I first discovered this author through participation in a blog tour, so it’s fitting that they are back again with not just another book but also another tour. I will be reviewing The Wishing Bridge at the end of next week. Howsomever, the book is coming out TODAY, so here’s an excerpt from the very first chapter to whet all of our reading appetites!

Excerpt from Part One, Chapter 1 of The Wishing Bridge by Viola Shipman

December 7
I hit the brakes, my car fishtailing on the slippery road. I come to a stop just inches from the car before me.
Ah, the hazards of winter in Michigan and Detroit drivers who think snow is a reason to hit the gas.
I cock my head and see an accident just a few cars in front of me. A man is out of his car, screaming into the window of the car he hit.
Merry Christmas!
I take a breath, sip my coffee—which miraculously didn’t spill—hit my blinker and wait to merge into the next lane.
That’s when I notice it: the abandoned house I drive by every day to work.
There are many abandoned homes in many forgotten neighborhoods in this proud city whose shoulders were slumped by the mortgage crisis, layoffs in the auto industry and never-ending
winters that used to be as brutal and mind-numbing as a Detroit Lions football season. Neighborhoods stand like ghost towns, and, in winter, they look even sadder, the grass dead, the green gone, broken glass shimmering in the sun before the snow arrives to cover their remains.
This particular home is a three-story redbrick beauty that looks like a castle. The windows are broken, the walls are collapsing and yet the wooden staircase—visible to the world— remains intact. I slow down just enough every day to admire the finials, worn and shining from the hands that have polished them over the years.
There is a line of shattered windows just above the ground, and as you pass by, you catch a glimmer of red in the basement. Coming the opposite way, you swear you can see a man smiling.
I stopped years ago to investigate. I parked, careful to avoid nails, and wound my way in high heels through the weeds to the broken window. I knelt and peeked into the basement.
Santa!
A plastic molded Santa smiled at me. It was a vintage mold—like the one my grandparents centered in the middle of a wreath on their front door every year—of a cheery Santa with red cheeks, blue eyes, green gloves, holding a candy cane tied in a golden bow.
I scanned the basement. Boxes were still stacked everywhere.
Tubs were marked Christmas!
In the corner of the basement sat a sign overrun with cobwebs that read Santa’s Toy Shop!

December 1975

“They’re here! They’re here!”
My voice echoed through my grandparents’ house. I ran to the front door, grabbed the first catalog, which seemed to weigh nearly as much as I did, and tottered down the steep basement stairs. Back up I went to retrieve the next one from Mr. Haley, the postman, who looked exactly like Captain Kangaroo.
“Don’t move!” I said, disappearing and returning moments later.
Then back down the stairs I scrambled once again.
Mr. Haley laughed when I returned the final time, out of breath.
“Last one,” he said. “Oh, and a bunch of Christmas cards for your grandmother.”
I bent over, panting, as if I’d just done wind sprints on the track.
“Tired?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No! Think of what Santa carries! Not to mention what you carry every day!”
“You got me there,” he said. “Here’s the cards. I’ll see you tomorrow. Merry Christmas!”
I watched him trudge through the freshly fallen snow, just enough to dust the world in white. If there’s one thing we never had to worry about in our town of Frankenmuth, it was a white Christmas. My dad said it was one of the gifts of living in a Christmas wonderland.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Haley!” I yelled, my breath coming out in puffs.
I shut the door, tossed the cards on the telephone desk sitting in the foyer and hightailed it back down to the basement.
I looked at the catalogs where I’d set them on the shag carpet and ran around them in a happy circle doing a little jig.
I turned on the electric fireplace. It was so cool, fake brick, and it just faded into the Z-BRICK walls. The flames seemed
to dance, even though they weren’t real.
I went over to the card table where my grandparents played games—bridge, canasta, hearts—and I grabbed my marker from a cup.
The red one.
The one I used every year.
The one Santa would recognize.
I took a seat on the orange shag and arranged the catalogs in a semicircle around me: the Christmas catalogs from JCPenney and Monkey Wards, and my favorite, the Sears Wish Book.
The catalogs were heavy and thick, big as the Buick my grandpa drove. They were brand-new and all mine. I began to f lip through the crisp pages, turning quickly to the ones that showed all the toys, clothes and games I wanted for Christmas.
I was lost for hours in the pages, dreaming, hoping, wishing. “Yes, yes, yes!” I said, my marker in constant motion.
“Are you using a red marker so Santa will see?”
I looked up, and my dad was standing over me. He was tall, hair as fair as mine. He had just gotten off work. He was an accountant at a car dealership, and he never seemed happy when he got home from work.
Until he came down to my grandparents’ basement.
“Of course!” I said. “Finn gets green. I use red!”
“So what do you want Santa to bring you this year?”
I patted the carpet, and my dad took a seat next to me. I began showing him all the things I’d marked in the wish catalogs.
“I want this eight-room dollhouse, and, oh! this Shaun Cassidy phono with sing-along microphone and this battery-operated sewing machine! It’s the first ever like this!” I stopped,
took a deep breath and continued, “And this dress, and this Raggedy Ann doll, but—” I stopped again, flipping through pages as quickly as I could “—more than anything I want this
game called Simon. It’s computer controlled, Daddy! It’s like Simon Says, and you have to be really fast, and…”
“Slow down,” he said, rubbing my back. “And what about your brother?”
“What about him?”
“What does he want?”
“He’ll want all the stupid stuff boys like,” I said. “Stars Wars figurines, an erector set, a Nerf rocket and probably a drum set.”
My father winced at the last suggestion.
“Maybe a scooter instead,” my dad suggested. “What do
you think?”
“Good idea, Daddy.” I placed my hands over my ears.
He laughed and stood up.
“Hey?” I asked. “What do you want for Christmas?”
My dad headed over to the workshop he had on the other side of the basement. We lived in a small ranch house on the other side of town that didn’t have a basement, much less any extra room. My grandparents let my father convert this space a few years ago so he could pursue a second career and his true passion: Christmas.
“You know what I want,” he said with a smile.
My dad picked up a sign and turned it my way. It was a handcarved wooden sign that read Frohe Weihnachten! Frankenmuth is a Bavarian town filled with all things German: a wooden bridge flowing over a charming river, a glockenspiel that—on the hour—played the Westminster chimes followed by an entire show complete with dancing figurines,
a cheese haus and competing chicken-and-noodle restaurants. I was named Henrietta, my father Jakob, my brother, Finn. Only my mother, Debbie, escaped the German name game with the
very American moniker.
“What’s this mean, Henri?” my dad asked.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“And what do I want?”
“Christmas all year long.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Just like you. Except as a grown-up.” He looked at his sign. “That’s my Christmas wish.”
For a long time, everyone thought this was just a hobby of my father’s, sort of like other dads tinkered on car engines, went fishing or coached baseball. For an even longer time, people thought my dad was nuts.
Why would a man spend all of his time creating Christmas signs in July, or designing ornaments in March?
They didn’t know my dad.
They didn’t how serious he was, that he often worked until three in the morning from October through December and countless weekends the rest of the year.
“You have a good job, Jakob,” friends would tell him. “Don’t ruin your life over some silly notion.”
But my mom and grandparents believed in him just as much as I believed in Santa.
I watched my father work. As he did, he began to whistle Christmas tunes.
The world was finally catching up with my father’s dream.
He was now creating window displays for two of the biggest stores in town: Shepherd Woolen Mill and Koch’s Country Store.

Excerpted from The Wishing Bridge. Copyright © 2023 by Viola Shipman. Published by Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.

About the Author:

VIOLA SHIPMAN is the pen name for internationally bestselling LGBTQIA author Wade Rouse. Wade is the author of fifteen books, which have been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies around the world. Wade writes under his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, to honor the working poor Ozarks seamstress whose sacrifices changed his family’s life and whose memory inspires his fiction.
Wade’s books have been selected multiple times as Must-Reads by NBC’s Today Show, Michigan Notable Books of the Year and Indie Next Picks. He lives in Michigan and California, and hosts Wine & Words with Wade, A Literary Happy Hour, every Thursday.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS

 

Review: The Book Club Hotel by Sarah Morgan

Review: The Book Club Hotel by Sarah MorganThe Book Club Hotel by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, holiday fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Canary Street Press on September 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This Christmas, USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan returns with another heartfelt exploration of change, the power of books to heal, and the enduring strength of female friendship. Perfect for fans of Emily Henry and Jennifer Weiner.
With its historic charm and picture-perfect library, the Maple Sugar Inn is considered the winter destination. As the holidays approach, the inn is fully booked with guests looking for their dream vacation. But widowed far too young, and exhausted from juggling the hotel with being a dedicated single mom, Hattie Coleman dreams only of making it through the festive season.
But when Erica, Claudia and Anna—lifelong friends who seem to have it all—check in for a girlfriends’ book club holiday, it changes everything. Their close friendship and shared love of books have carried them through life's ups and downs. But Hattie can see they're also packing some major emotional baggage, and nothing prepares her for how deeply her own story is about to become entwined in theirs. In the span of a week over the most enchanting time of the year, can these four women come together to improve each other’s lives and make this the start of a whole new chapter?

My Review:

This is the story of how the Hotel Book Club transformed the Maple Sugar Inn into The Book Club Hotel – with a little bit of help from the spirit of Christmas. It’s also the story of four women living the old saying that goes, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

The members of the Hotel Book Club, former college roommates Ericka, Anna and Claudia, have met up every year since those college days at some hotel or another to catch up with each other, sightsee a bit, drink wine and talk about books. Not necessarily in that order.

As the story begins they are all just one side or the other of 40. Which is turning out to be one hell of a milestone birthday for each of them – even if they are having a difficult time admitting that to themselves – let alone each other.

There’s that saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence? They’re all feeling a bit of that because they went very different directions after college, which was not exactly a surprise as they were not exactly peas in a pod when they met.

Anna and Claudia both envy Ericka for her high-powered and highly-successful career and the lifestyle it affords her. Ericka and Claudia both see Anna’s happy marriage and picture-perfect family as a touchstone, proof that some relationships do work and some marriages are successful and some families are perfect – even if that hasn’t been the experience for either of them in their birth families or their own history. While Ericka and Anna both have a touch of that same envy over Claudia’s passion for and expertise in being a chef.

And all of those things are true, but, under the surface each situation is nowhere near as perfect as it seems from the outside. Anna is beset by empty-nest syndrome as her ‘job’ as the ever-supportive mother to twins Meg and Daniel is moving to a new and dreaded phase as those twins get ready to leave for college.

Claudia’s 10-year relationship with John has just ended, and she’s just lost a job that burned her out so badly she’s thinking seriously about re-inventing herself as something, anything, to get out of soulless kitchens run by abusive dictators that do not respect her skills AND leave her no time for a personal life.

While Ericka is waffling on the first steps of the road not taken. Or rather, the road her father took minutes after she was born, leaving her and her mother behind to fend for themselves while he ran about as far away as he could get. An event that sent her life into an utter inability to depend on anyone else for anything ever – with Anna and Claudia seeming to be the only exceptions.

When the friends gather at the Maple Sugar Inn that early December, they enter what seems like a picture perfect place to spend a week putting each other back together – even if none of them can admit that’s a big portion of what they are there for.

Just as they arrive, that picture-perfect picture melts down. The innkeeper Hattie is having a crisis of her own. Multiple crises, in fact, as both her head housekeeper and her five-star chef have quit in the midst of tantrums worthy of a two-year old while the inn is full to the rafters and there seems to be no help in sight.

But there is. And in the course of helping Hattie set the inn on the course she finally has the spoons to create for herself, Anna, Claudia and Ericka each find the fork in their own roads – and reach out to take it.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up for two reasons, and I’m not sure which is first or second. The whole concept of a vacation just to read and spend time with lifelong friends and read, (did I mention read?) and relax and oh, yes, read – sounds a bit like heaven. And the setting of The Book Club Hotel seemed particularly idyllic, including a brief trip to a ‘Winter Wonderland’ without having to stick around for the next several months of freezing temperatures, gray snow and mud. (Been there, done that, the t-shirts are all long-sleeved and insulated.)

The Stacking the Shelves stack that included this book garnered a whole lot of comments about just how wonderful this particular vacation sounded, so I’m clearly not alone in thinking it would be lovely.

That other reason for picking up The Book Club Hotel is that I really enjoyed this author’s The Summer Seekers a couple of years ago, and was hoping for something similar.

In spite of the wildly different settings, that particular wish was just a bit too on the nose. The characters read a bit too similarly particularly Ericka and Anna standing in for emotionally distant Kathleen and helicopter worrywart mother Liza.

The story follows a familiar outline. Four women, each at their own personal crossroads, come together accidentally and on purpose and forge or re-forge the bonds between them while figuring out which way to turn at that crossroad with a little help from their old and new friends.

It’s a familiar formula because it works – and it certainly does in The Book Club Hotel. And that’s down to the four protagonists, Ericka, Anna, Claudia and Hattie. It helps a lot that not only are they all individually charming, each in their own ways, but they also represent different but very real dilemmas. Readers may not identify with all of them, but it would be difficult not to resonate with one or two. (Personally, I was on Team Ericka and Team Claudia but your reading mileage may take you down the other fork in the road.)

What really makes it all work is that each of these women does find a happily ever after, but it’s not the SAME happy ever after – and it shouldn’t be. I particularly liked that not all of those HEAs were wrapped around relationships and children. They each needed to work on themselves, and happiness followed from that work.

I have to confess that, in spite of my deep, abiding love for the concept of an actual Book Club Hotel, the story in said hotel didn’t pull at my heartstrings quite as hard as The Summer Seekers but a good reading time was absolutely still had by this reader.

If you like women’s fiction/relationship fiction, I’m confident that you will, too.

Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Review: Beach Read by Emily HenryBeach Read by Emily Henry
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 358
Published by Berkley on May 19, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.
Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.
They’re polar opposites.
In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.
Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.

My Review:

Beach Read has been in the virtually towering TBR pile ever since I read – and fell in love with – Book Lovers early this year. I’ve been “playing along” with the Kindle Achievements every quarter, so when the list of possible titles to fulfill that last badge included Beach Read, it seemed like the universe was telling me that now was the time. So here we are.

Both January Andrews and Augustus Everett are best selling authors – but most definitely NOT in the same genre. January writes women’s fiction (not all that different from the author herself), while Augustus Everett is famous for his dark and gritty literary fiction.

Their characters and worlds do not even begin to intersect – but they do. They are both graduates of the same University of Michigan Creative Writing Program. In fact, they attended together and graduated at the same time, spending four years competing for every single award and critiquing pretty much every single one of each other’s works.

Saying they are familiar with each other is hardly a stretch – even if they have nothing in common. Or believe they have nothing in common. At least not until they find themselves next door neighbors in a northern Michigan beach community, wanting nothing to do with each other.

But needing each other all the same.

They’ve each fallen into some really deep ruts, and they are separately having a damn hard time crawling out of those ruts. January has stopped believing in happy ever afters, after the one she believed her parents had found turned out to be based on a lie. A year after her dad’s death, she has a book due, an empty bank account, and a severe case of writer’s block.

Leading her to her dad’s old home town and the house he shared with his childhood sweetheart at a point considerably after either of their childhoods.

Gus has never believed in happy ever afters. Or even happy for nows. He’s always looked on the dark side and is in the throes of his third book, this time about death cults and their few survivors. But he’s going through his own case of writer’s block, for reasons that he isn’t willing to share with January. Because sharing isn’t something that Gus does easily. Or at all.

Still, they’re both writers and they’re both stuck and they have a whole lot of common ground to build on – even if that ground is more than a bit shaky on both sides. So they challenge each other as a way of breaking their writer’s block.

And it turns into the making of a happy ending for everyone – including sorta/kinda – the protagonists of not one but two surprising new books.

Escape Rating A-: I enjoyed Beach Read, but not quite as much as Book Lovers, because it’s a bit too much like Book Lovers. Which isn’t fair to Beach Read, as it was published first even though I read it second. Still, if you like one you’ll like the other – although it probably isn’t a good idea to read them too close together.

Like Nora and Charlie in Book Lovers, January and Gus are not just both in the book business, but in the same end of the book business as each other. (Nora and Charlie were both editors, January and Gus are both authors). Which means that both books, in addition to being just the kind of stories that January writes, are steeped in the book business – merely different aspects of that business.

And both stories begin when the protagonists meet when both parties are in the midst of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” What makes both stories fun to read is the way that they get themselves and each other past the horribleness.

We’re in January’s head in this story, so we know what she’s been through, what she’s thinking, and what she’s feeling. Because she and Gus knew each other fairly well – and very nearly better than that – once upon a time, we are also aware of all of her pre-conceived notions of who Gus is and what he thinks of her and in both of their situations.

Which gives Beach Read a very strong sense of “assume makes an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’” because January’s assumptions about Gus were and are too frequently wrong, wrong, wrong. But this steers clear of misunderstandammit territory because Gus has a damn hard time communicating his thoughts and feelings in any way other than expiating the worst of them through his writing.

While it was a given from the outset that January and Gus were going to reach at least the kind of happy for now that both the character January AND the author usually write, what made this book interesting and different was the books that January and Gus each produced on their way to it, and how those books managed to be both a departure from their usual styles while still expressing the core parts of their personalities and their reasons for becoming writers in the first place.

So a good reading time was definitely had in Beach Read. Because it was most definitely a good reading time, and because one of the other possible titles for that last achievement was the author’s People We Meet on Vacation, I bought that too. I’m pretty sure I’ll be picking that up and meeting those people the next time I’m looking for a feel-good read!

Review: Famous in a Small Town by Viola Shipman

Review: Famous in a Small Town by Viola ShipmanFamous in a Small Town by Viola Shipman
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: 352
Published by Graydon House on June 13, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

"Full of summertime delight…and sweet, nostalgic charm, Famous in a Small Town is a beautiful reminder to…fully embrace the magic that lives inside you." —Heather Webber, USA TODAY bestselling author of Midnight at the Blackbird Café
For most of her eighty years, Mary Jackson has endured the steady invasion of tourists, influencers and real estate developers who have discovered the lakeside charm of Good Hart, Michigan, waiting patiently for the arrival of a stranger she’s believed since childhood would one day carry on her legacy—the Very Cherry General Store. Like generations of Jackson women before her, Cherry Mary, as she’s known locally, runs the community hub—part post office, bakery and sandwich shop—and had almost given up hope that the mysterious prediction she’d been told as a girl would come true and the store would have to pass to…a man.
Becky Thatcher came to Good Hart with her ride-or-die BFF to forget that she’s just turned forty with nothing to show for it. Ending up at the general store with Mary is admittedly not the beach vacation she expected, but the more the feisty octogenarian talks about destiny, the stronger Becky’s memories of her own childhood holidays become, and the strange visions over the lake she was never sure were real. As she works under Mary’s wing for the summer and finds she fits into this quirky community of locals, she starts to believe that destiny could be real, and that it might have something very special in mind for Becky…
Bursting with memorable characters and small-town lore, the enchanting new novel from the bestselling author of The Clover Girls is a magical story about the family you’re born with, and the one you choose.

My Review:

In the summer of 2023, “Cherry Mary” Jackson is eighty years old and holding both a record and legacy in Good Hart, Michigan.

Mary Jackson has held the world record, officially certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, for the furthest distance a cherry pit (from a Michigan cherry, of course) has ever been spit. By anyone, male or female, man, woman or child. It’s a record she’s held since 1958, when she was 15 years old and cherry spitting was considered to be utterly unladylike.

But Mary has never thought of herself as a lady – and neither did either her mother or grandmother.

Which relates to the legacy that Mary is holding. She’s the latest in a long, unbroken line of female owners of the Very Cherry General Store in the heart of Good Hart. It’s not exactly an untarnished legacy, as Mary is all too aware. That Mary’s grandmother was able to pass the store intact to her daughter, who was, in her turn, able to pass it intact to Mary herself, had a rather active hand in making it happen in more ways than just the obvious.

Mary has always known she’s supposed to pass the store to another woman in her family when it’s her time to go. At age eighty, Mary is all too aware that her time is coming sooner than she’d like to think. But her only child was a son, and now, her son’s only child is a son in his mid-30s who seems to be following in his father’s footsteps far away from Mary and the store.

Meanwhile, just-turned-forty Becky Thatcher (yes, her parents really named her that and the inevitable schoolyard taunts and bullying were every bit as awful as one might imagine) has also always known that she had a destiny out there waiting for her to find it. A destiny she learned about when she was a child, spending summers with her beloved grandparents on the shores of Lake Michigan.

They’re gone now, but the memories remain, including Becky’s memory of a dream, or a vision, or a Fata Morgana mirage out of the lake, of a group of three women coming towards her and herself walking towards them.

This summer of 2023, after breaking up with her long-term utter douche-sponge of a boyfriend, Becky and her BFF Monique (AKA Q) take a ride back through time. Not time travel, more like a reboot. They take a ‘Girl’s Vacation’, just like they used to before adult responsibilities sucked them under, and they drive to Lake Michigan, back to where Becky’s grandparents used to take her, to take a summer off from real life to decide if the real life they have to go back to is the one they really want for the next forty years.

Becky and her fate run straight into “Cherry Mary” and her legacy – along with Mary’s yummy grandson – and it finally all comes together. For all of them. In the ‘Blue Hours’ and ‘Golden Hours’ of one beautiful Lake Michigan summer.

Escape Rating A: Famous in a Small Town is an utterly charming take on “we are too soon old and too late smart” applied across multiple generations, from 80-year-old Mary to 40-year-old Becky while in between Mary’s parents are trapped in their own fears and expectations and need to drive a cherry red convertible out of their damn garage and into a life they can both love.

But to give the story a bit of spice (and body!) it also includes just a pinch of the bad decisions and ruthless practicality that seasoned those Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

It’s also a marvelous if sometimes bittersweet tale of the power of women’s enduring friendships – as well as the lifelong enmity that can be spawned when those friendships go sour. As much as the laughter in this story is buoyed by the rock solid, lifelong sisterhood between Becky and Q, it is salted with tears over the even longer relationship between Mary, Francine and Virgie, who now in their sunset are celebrating both the support that Mary and Francine have always given each other as well as the once-upon-a-time kick-in-the-pants that Virgie administered to Mary when she needed it the absolute most.

Sometimes friendship involves standing side by side, and sometimes it manifests as a boot up the backside – even if that boot pulls that friendship apart.

I picked up this book because I loved the beautifully “sad fluff” of the author’s earlier novel, The Clover Girls. (I’ve liked the author’s subsequent books but I just haven’t loved them the way I did The Clover Girls.)

At least not until now.

The very cherry flavored fluff of Famous in a Small Town isn’t nearly as sad as The Clover Girls. There is a touch of bittersweetness in the chocolate the cherries are enrobed in, but the story as a whole is considerably lighter – even though there are some absolutely appropriate and completely justified dark spots.

Then again, I like dark chocolate considerably better than milk because it has just the bit more bite.

I think that’s because the characters in this one, especially Mary and Becky, are at much better places in their lives than any of The Clover Girls were when their story begins. That Becky’s part of this one begins just as she’s kicked her dead weight of an ex to the curb starts her part on a bit of a celebratory note – even as she’s kicking herself for having tolerated the situation for so long.

But still, this one starts out at a point where no one is in dire straits. Things could be better, things will be worse on the horizon, but they’re at a point where they begin by being open to something good happening, so the fact that it does and that the good happening is the story bakes the whole thing into a delicious Cherry Chip Cake with Cherry Vanilla Buttercream Frosting – the recipe for which is included at the end!