Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan

Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel MonaghanNora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan
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: 272
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Nora's life is about to get a rewrite...
Nora Hamilton knows the formula for love better than anyone. As a romance channel screenwriter, it's her job. But when her too-good-to work husband leaves her and their two kids, Nora turns her marriage's collapse into cash and writes the best script of her life. No one is more surprised than her when it's picked up for the big screen and set to film on location at her 100-year-old-home. When former Sexiest Man Alive, Leo Vance, is cast as her ne'er do well husband Nora's life will never be the same.
The morning after shooting wraps and the crew leaves, Nora finds Leo on her porch with a half-empty bottle of tequila and a proposition. He'll pay a thousand dollars a day to stay for a week. The extra seven grand would give Nora breathing room, but it's the need in his eyes that makes her say yes. Seven days: it's the blink of an eye or an eternity depending on how you look at it. Enough time to fall in love. Enough time to break your heart.
Filled with warmth, wit, and wisdom, Nora Goes Off Script is the best kind of love story--the real kind where love is complicated by work, kids, and the emotional baggage that comes with life. For Nora and Leo, this kind of love is bigger than the big screen.

My Review:

This initially anti-romantic Nora actually writes those made-for-TV-sponsored-greeting-card-company romances that the Nora in yesterday’s book initially believed cast her as an unfeeling villain in every single outing. Unlike the romances that either of them reads, writes, agents or even watches, the particular script that this Nora is dealing with when this story begins is the story of her own life, and it’s about to be filmed in her very own picturesque but slightly run down home.

Or rather, it’s about to be filmed on her lawn and in “The Tea House” on the grounds where she does her writing. It’s a bit of art imitates life imitates art, as that Tea House was her emotional escape from an emotionally abusive but otherwise absent husband. It was the place where she wrote the scripts that literally kept their life afloat – because the asshole was just too “good” – at least by his own definition – to go out and get a damn job to contribute to the household.

Which also wasn’t good enough for him in any way, shape or form. Not Nora, and not their two kids. So he upped and left and she was actually pretty damn happy about it. She chose not to be a victim of any of her circumstances, and that’s her story and it sold and it’s being filmed and just the fees from using her house for part of the movie shoot is going to get her out of the debt the asshat left her in.

But her asshat ex is being played by the Sexiest Man Alive, and Nora is just a bit smitten. Or at least her fantasy life has suddenly taken on some new dimensions. Still, Leo Vance’s invasion of her life and occasionally her house is just a bit of excitement in her otherwise pretty ordinary and pretty contented life.

And she can’t wait for the film crew to be gone so she can get back to writing. But when the film crew leaves, Leo decides to stay. And stay. And STAY.

That’s where what was merely a blip – although a pretty damn big blip – of excitement turns into a whole lot more. Leo doesn’t just camp out in her tea house, he becomes part of her life and the lives of her two kids, Arthur and Bernadette. In a few short weeks, they become a family.

It’s easy for all of them to fall for him. He’s more involved in all their lives than the asshat EVER was. And it’s not an act. He’s not playing a part. So when Nora and Leo finally give in to the simmering tension between them, it seems like something that shouldn’t be possible might be possible after all. They might, just maybe and possibly, have some kind of future. No matter how much that seems like a fairytale.

But just when they do – they don’t. Leo gets a call, jets off to LA and then to Asia to film a big movie, and he ghosts the whole family. He misses all the things he promised he’d come back for and just disappears out of their lives if not out of their hearts.

Howsomever, this isn’t Nora’s first time on this particular merry-go-round. She wasn’t a victim before, and she isn’t going to be one now. She knows what to do. She writes her pain. She picks up the pieces and moves on. She survives.

It’s then, and only then, that the truths finally come out. The only question is whether or not it’s too late.

Escape Rating A: I fell into this one nearly as hard as I did Book Lovers, and that’s saying a lot. The two romances have a lot in common, particularly in the way that they both mix in a lot of relationship elements. Because this isn’t just a romance between the scriptwriter and the actor, it’s also a love story about the actor and the scriptwriter’s kids. They have to be able to become, not just a couple but actually a family in order for this to even possibly work.

And Nora is as surprised as anyone – if not a bit more so – that it might possibly work. So she’s not surprised at all when it doesn’t. Heartbroken this time around, but not surprised.

One of the things that makes celebrity romances so much fun – especially when they work as well as this one does, is that we’ve probably all had that daydream at least once or twice – if not a whole lot more times. It’s not remotely likely or even plausible, but it’s fun to dream.

But to make it work as in a novel that dream has to at least seem like it might possibly come true in this one particular case. (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, both by Olivia Dade, also play with this idea but in a completely different way.) And it does seem to be working in Nora Goes Off Script – at least from Nora’s perspective.

Howsomever, because the story is told entirely from Nora’s point of view, we get why it works but we also see exactly how much she questions whether the relationship has ANY long term potential whatsoever. She knows she wants it to, but she’s realistic about wondering whether it can. That we don’t see things from Leo’s point of view means that we share her doubts and totally get why, when he disappears it’s disappointing but not as surprising as either she – or we – want it to be.

(Some of the folks in my reading circle saw these events as a giant misunderstandammit. While it’s true that the mess might have been cleared up by a conversation or a series of texts in their particular case, because of the agency in the middle of things it was easy to see that that conversation actually couldn’t happen. YMMV, as theirs obviously did.)

That all of Nora’s justified angst does lead to both another big money script sold to Hollywood AND to an HEA without her having to compromise a thing – because she shouldn’t – was a surprise and a delight. The ending fed the fantasy in a way that made this reader end the book with a big smile on my face – although probably not as big a smile as the one on Nora’s daughter Bernadette’s face.

Nora Goes Off Script is the author’s debut adult novel, although she has previously published both YA fiction and grown-up nonfiction. I’m so very happy that there is more where this one came from, and I’m looking forward to reading her sophomore adult romance, Same Time Next Summer, coming out THIS summer!

Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Review: Book Lovers by Emily HenryBook Lovers by Emily Henry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 377
Published by Berkley on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn't see coming....
Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.
Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.
If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

My Review:

When it comes to Happy Ever Afters, one size definitely doesn’t fit all – even if a certain ubiquitous type of romance movie leads you to believe it does.

You know the ones I mean, on the channel created by the equally ubiquitous greeting card company, where a City Person™ is forced by circumstance to spend a month (or two) in a (very) small town and discovers true love, happiness and fulfillment in the welcoming embrace of that small town and particularly in the arms of one of the handsomest or most beautiful people who loves the place and everyone in it that all that love converts the City Person into a country person.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about the city people that former City Person left behind back in the big city. Because there’s always someone in that city who they were supposed to marry as soon as they got back – which they never do. Whether that other City Person just doesn’t really understand or love them after all, or whether that person is the reincarnation of Cruella de Vil (whether male or female, doesn’t matter), that person who thought they knew where their life was going and who it was going with is left in the lurch, scrambling to put things back together.

Nora Stephens has been that ‘left behind’ person four times now. She’s a highly respected, perhaps just a teensy bit cutthroat book editor who will do anything and everything for her clients – but doesn’t leave much time, energy or effort for herself. She’s been left behind in love so many times that she’s given up on the idea.

The one person in her life that she always makes time for – even if not nearly fast enough or often enough – the one person she loves without reservation is her younger sister Libby. So when Libby entreats, inveigles and somewhat emotionally manipulates Nora into taking a vacation, together, just the two of them, away from Nora’s all-consuming job and Libby’s beloved husband and two little girls, Nora caves. Pretty much instantly. Libby has that effect on her.

Nora can sense there’s something that Libby’s not telling her. And whatever it is, she needs to get to the bottom of it so she can fix it for her sister. Because that’s what Nora always does, one way or another.

Because she can’t fix the one thing that both of them want more than anything. She can’t bring back the mother who died and left her girls behind. So she’ll give everything else instead. Including her own dreams of a Happy Ever After.

Unless, just this once, Libby can fix things so that it’s Nora who finally gets to have it all. While still managing to remain that City Person> But finally a City Person with her very own, fitted just for her, HEA.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one for all the reasons that made Nora’s HEA seem so impossible to her at the beginning. Because her HEA fits her and doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. And I loved her for it every bit as her sometimes-nemesis (but not really) does. So there’s a reason Book Lovers won so many plaudits and was on so many “Best of the Year” lists and I’m there for every single one of them.

The story is a bit meta, but in a terrific way. It’s a book about romance tropes and a romance between two people who love books, fall for each other, and have a romance that appears to be casting against all those romance tropes, only to learn that they’ve been happening while they haven’t been looking at anything but each other.

There’s also a bit of a relationship fiction/women’s fiction/chick lit story going on very much in the foreground of the story, as the only long-term relationship in Nora Stephens’ life isn’t a romance – because she’s been avoiding those or failing at them (or a bit of both) – right, left and center.

The sustaining relationship in Nora’s life is her love for her younger sister Libby. Normally, I don’t like misunderstandammits, but it’s fascinating in this book because the misunderstandammit in Book Lovers isn’t in Nora’s very slowing brewing romance with Charlie Lastra, but rather with her sister Libby.

There’s something wrong between them, and Nora knows it but doesn’t know what it is. Libby’s keeping something important from her, but she doesn’t know what that is, either. It’s only when the blowup actually happens that we – and Nora – finally understand why it needed to happen. AND why it had to reach such a huge boiling point so that Nora could finally hear it instead of trying to fix it. That what it’s about is so very real was a big part of why this book was just so damn good.

This is a story with not just one beating heart for the romance, but actually two – one for the romance and one for their sisterhood. It gives the story the kind of balance that it needs to make it work. Because Nora can’t be truly happy unless things are alright with Libby, which can’t happen until Nora stops playing “mom” so she can just live being “sister”.

And then there’s the romance. As much as the romance in this story doesn’t fit a lot of the usual tropes as Nora describes them early on, it does fall very nicely into the enemies to lovers trope. Not that Nora and Charlie Lastra ever were truly enemies. They’re not rivals or competitors in any way. They just met on what turned out to be a terrible day for each of them. Every single word of their entire conversation wasn’t heard without being filtered through their respective miseries. They gave each other good snark but just couldn’t get past their own admittedly terrible crap to see the person on the other side of the table.

Two years later, unbeknownst to each other, in the middle of trips that they’ve each been separately strong-armed into, they run into each other in the tiny town of Sunshine Falls, NC, to discover that their enmity isn’t really all that strong, but their bantering snarkitude is excellent.

It’s not every couple who gets to say they bonded over truly terrible Bigfoot erotica. But when you’re both book lovers, the bad ones are THE MOST FUN to giggle over. Together. (If there’s any truly great Bigfoot erotica I doubt that either of them would want to know. And neither do I.)

I loved Book Lovers very, very hard. Which means I’m now very much looking forward to the author’s next romance with relationships story, Happy Place. It’s coming in April so happily I don’t have that long to wait!

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu MandannaThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family--and a new love--changes the course of her life.
As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don't mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she's used to being alone and she follows the rules...with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and...Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he's concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn't know she was looking for....

My Review:

What would happen if people discovered that there really were witches in the world, and that magic really did work – if only for a privileged few? Most of the urban fantasy/paranormal stories that use this premise in the world we know tend to look at how witches were treated historically – whether the women (and it was almost always women) – who got burned, stoned or drowned could actually practice magic or not and take the Harry Potter option of a Statute of Secrecy or equivalent prohibitions.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Even without the possibility of witchcraft, humans already find plenty of reasons to persecute each other over perceived differences that mostly total up to some people hate and fear others and will latch on to any excuse to practice that hate in the hopes of putting that fear to sleep. People who are different because they have actual, real, mysterious powers? The line to pick up torches and pitchforks forms on the right. Please maintain an orderly queue.

In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, the witches in question, irregular or otherwise, have taken that very reasonable fear and run a bit too far with it. Pretty much running away from each other into the mixed results at best bargain.

Mika Moon is a witch. And she’s lonely. She is forced to live a secret, and fears staying anywhere long enough to put down roots or develop friendships for fear that if people get to know her they’ll figure out what she’s hiding. Or they’ll simply decide that she’s just not worth their time, their care or their friendship.

Her entire life is a sad song of just not being enough to make anyone want to stay. Unless, of course, they have a USE for her powers.

So she’s sure that the advertisement she’s seen on the interwebs, that someone is searching very specifically for a witch, is probably a scam of some kind – at best. Howsomever, between losing her most recent job, not having enough money to pay rent and feeling like it’s time to move on from her current location, Mika is at loose ends.

The job, if it really exists, comes with room and board – along with the mystery of why someone is looking so specifically for something and someone that isn’t supposed to exist. That the location of this puzzling offer is called “Nowhere House” adds to the sensation that Mika is probably being pranked.

At least until she gets there, and meets the job head on. Three little witches, all gathered together in a way that Mika’s been taught is never supposed to happen, need an adult witch to teach them how to do magic. And more importantly, how and when NOT to do it.

Mika’s never been a teacher before. She’s been taught that witches are NEVER supposed to gather together – and certainly never to practice magic together. But the girls need her, and Mika needs a refuge where, for once in her life she can be exactly who and what she is without having to keep so many secrets.

That the adults in the house all know about magic, and seem to have a Mika-shaped hole in their lives and their hearts is the icing on a cake that Mika never thought she’d even get to taste.

Everything about Nowhere House seems like it’s made of magic. The answer that Mika has to discover for herself is whether or not it’s real – or just another illusion.

Escape Rating A-: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches was absolutely charming – and I was utterly charmed by it. It’s a heartwarming read with just the right touch of magic to keep you turning pages, both to be part of this wonderful if extremely irregular household and to see what happens next.

It’s also a story that sits very comfortably on the border between cozy fantasy, paranormal romance and relationship fiction, snuggled right next to The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – with both Witch, Please by Ann Aguirre and Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck looking on with stern disapproval.

By that I mean that the magical household is centered around the care of the children, in this case the three young witches. Their caretakers are not magical themselves, but they obviously love the children very much, and have gone more than a bit overboard in protecting them. They are, for the most part, an utterly delightful gang, including the young, grumpy librarian, Jamie, while the madcap Ian felt more than a bit like an homage to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, particularly in his later incarnation as “The Curator”.

And just as in The House in the Cerulean Sea, there is more than the possibility of a romantic relationship in the air – which Ian is delightfully encouraging with mad abandon – to the consternation of Jamie, Mika and his own husband Ken.

But amongst the joy of Mika finding her place in the world, the girls learning magic and the adults making an eclectic but warm and loving home for the children and each other, there are clouds on the horizon. Just as in Witch, Please and Small Town, Big Magic, the forces of official witchdom, in the persons of the elderly ladies who have overshadowed Mika’s life as a witch from childhood, are ever present as the voice in Mika’s head telling her that everything she is doing is wrong and will be punished. Severely. Because she is breaking ALL THE RULES.

At the same time, it’s obvious fairly early on that a secret is looming over the entire household, and that secret, with all of its accompanying chickens, must come to roost before the story can reach anything like a happy ending.

So the Sword of Damocles casts a long shadow over everything – at least until it crashes down and cuts through all the hidden issues and agendas, including all the secrets standing in the way of pretty much everything. And, while it may seem like everything wraps up just a bit too neatly, by this point in our investment in the story that’s kind of what we want.

And in the end, that happy ever after, for the girls, for Mika and Jamie, and quite possibly, eventually, for witches everywhere, is utterly magical.

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie London

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie LondonPets of Park Avenue (Paws in the City, #2) by Stefanie London
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Paws in the City #2
Pages: 336
Published by HQN Books on December 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"One of the year's most delightful rom-coms."—New York Times bestselling author Julia London on The Dachshund Wears Prada
The perfect romcom for dog lovers! Pets of Park Avenue is the story of a self-confessed hot mess who learns that life is more fun when things don't go according to plan.

What do you do when The One is also the one who broke your heart?

Self-proclaimed hot mess Scout Myers is determined to prove she’s finally got her act together. Raised by grandparents who saw her as her wayward mother’s wayward daughter, Scout’s used to being written off. So when the opportunity for a promotion arises at Paws in the City, the talent agency where she works, Scout is desperate to rise to the occasion. With shared custody of her little sister also on the line, Scout can’t afford a single mistake…like suddenly needing a canine stand-in for an important photoshoot. Luckily (or not) she knows the owner of the perfect pup replacement: the estranged husband she walked out on years ago.
On the surface, it appears Lane Halliday’s life has been blissfully drama free without Scout, but she suspects her handsome-as-ever not-quite-ex-husband doth protest too much. Working together even feels like old times—except for all that lingering, unresolved tension. But Scout’s not sure she’s ready to confront the reasons she left Lane, and when their plans to finalize the divorce become very real, Scout starts to wonder whether second chances might be worth a little hot mess.
Paws in the CityBook 1 - The Dachshund Wears Prada

My Review:

Pets of Park Avenue combines a second chance at love romance with a bit of a comedy of errors wrapped around the paws of an adorably fluffy little Bichon Frisé who seems to be experiencing nearly as much sad fluff as her people.

Both the one she still has and the one that only thinks she got away.

This followup to The Dachshund Wears Prada follows the second member of the Paws in the City media team, that self-proclaimed hot mess – and Isla’s best friend – Scout Myers. When the small agency’s star Bichon Frisé, Sasha, is accidentally dyed hot pink in the middle of a big opportunity for both the dog and the agency, Scout is the one sorta/kinda in charge of their canine charge.

At least, she’s the one who feels responsible for the accidental dye-job. Because being held responsible for every accident that happens in her vicinity and taking the blame for all the fallout is just what her cold, rule-bound, hidebound grandparents have conditioned her to do.

Theirs was not a house in which the phrase “shit happens” was ever even uttered, let alone believed. If Scout was nearby, it must have been her fault – whether it was or not. Because Scout was just like her mother, their wayward daughter, and had to be straight-jacketed into proper behavior no matter how much it broke her spirit.

Reining Scout in was the only way her grandparents could hope to save Scout’s little sister Lizzie from her terrible influence. So they did. At every opportunity. Until they kicked her to the curb at age 21. For not being properly obedient and respectful and for not following every last one of their stifling and arbitrary rules.

So Scout feels responsible for the temporarily pink Bichon, and needs a well-behaved substitute until the dye and the resulting buzz-cut grow out. Which is where her not-exactly-ex-husband, and his suddenly not-exactly-perfectly-behaved Bichon come in.

Scout ran out on both the man and the dog five years ago because, well, reasons. Reasons that they never told each other. They were together for one glorious month and have been separated for five years of limbo but Scout needs a dog just like Sasha, and Twinkle Stardust (yes, really) is her best chance to fix what’s broken.

With the agency and possibly with herself.

What she really needs is to either put her past behind her or, perhaps, put it back in front of her again. She’s a bit older, possibly wiser, and trying to be more responsible. Because she wants custody of her teenage sister. Because she needs to start adulting.

And because she’s never found anyone to remotely match the one that she left behind.

Escape Rating B: The thing about Pets of Park Avenue that made this one so interesting was that it’s Scout’s discovery that she doesn’t need to get it together because she’s had it together all along. It’s also about the difference between what is said and what is meant, and that’s a sad and often hard lesson to learn.

In other words, Pets of Park Avenue isn’t as light and fluffy as one of the Bichon Frisés. I missed The Dachshund Wears Prada, at least the social media account that both establishes Isla as a media influencer AND gets her in so much trouble. Because the voice of the Dachshund that Isla puts out there is wry, funny and so very sharply observant that it gives the book a lighter tone than this one in spite of just how much Isla also needs to overcome.

Scout IS a hot mess in this book, but not for any of the reasons she thinks she is. She’s a hot mess because that’s all she’s ever been told she can be, and she’s taken that lesson so very much to heart. Throughout the story, it seems as if her grandparents are the villains of the piece. And they kind of are.

But they also kind of aren’t. Or at least, they didn’t intend to be. But what they meant versus what they said and how they said it, how much they saw AND treated Scout as if she was a carbon copy of her mother, sent their relationship and Scout herself off in some terrible directions that she spends the whole story dealing with.

The second-chance-at-love romance was, at first, heartbreaking. But as the story continues, they are both forced to acknowledge that they were just too young and too impulsive. The bitter turns to sweet as they look back at themselves and look now at each other in order to figure out what direction they need to go, together or apart. Either way would have made a satisfying ending, but I preferred the direction they chose – if only to give Twinkle Stardust her own happy ever after.

So The Dachshund Wears Prada had a whole lot more lightness in it. Pets of Park Avenue was leavened with a bit more bittersweet. I’m looking forward to seeing what just what kind of canine and human drama we’ll get in Confessions of a Canine Drama Queen next summer!

Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman

Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola ShipmanA Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, holiday fiction, holiday romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I love this book—funny, perfect and wonderfully good. A not-to-be-missed delight.” —New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery
With echoes of classic Hollywood love stories like Serendipity and An Affair to Remember, Viola Shipmans latest winter charmer following the USA TODAY bestseller The Secret of Snow is sure to tug on heartstrings and delight readers who love books about books, missed connections and the magic of Christmas.
Despite losing her parents in a tragic accident just before her fourteenth Christmas, Susan Norcross has had it better than most, with loving grandparents to raise her and a gang of quirky, devoted friends to support her. Now a successful bookstore owner in a tight-knit Michigan lakeside community, Susan is facing down forty—the same age as her mother when she died—and she can’t help but see everything she hasn’t achieved, including finding a love match of her own. To add to the pressure, everyone in her small town believes it’s Susan’s destiny to meet and marry a man dressed as Santa, just like her mother and grandmother before her. So it seems cosmically unfair that the man she makes an instant connection with at an annual Santa Run is lost in the crowd before she can get his name.
What follows is Susan and her friends’ hilarious and heartwarming search for the mystery Santa—covering twelve months of social media snafus, authors behaving badly and dating fails—as well as a poignant look at family, friendship and what defines a well-lived and well-loved life.
“Viola Shipman has written a captivating story for anyone whose memories run deep… This book keeps faith and hope alive!” —New York Times bestselling author Sherryl Woods

A Country Living Magazine Best Christmas Book to Read This Holiday Season!

My Review:

First of all, A Wish for Winter is a heartfelt love letter to the entire Mitten State of Michigan. Every single square inch and winter snowflake of it, from the hungry lakes to the deep bays to the very rocks, specifically the Petoskey stones that are foundation, the bedrock, the official state rock and the name for the tiny tourist town where the Claus family, officially known as the Norcross family, make their home.

Second, this is very much a paean to the spirit of Christmas – not necessarily in the religious sense but rather in the faith and belief that is strangely but sometimes beautifully displayed by the more ‘Hallmark-y’ aspects of the season. The idea that with a bit of belief in the magic of the season, it is more than possible to reach out and pluck a star – or at least a happy ending – down from the heavens, the top of a tree, or the place where dreams really do come true.

It is also a sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story of Susan Norcross, the owner of the Sleigh by the Bay bookstore in beautiful Petoskey, Michigan, where her grandparents play the part of Mr. and Mrs. Claus every December in the front window of the store she inherited from them.

Susan’s grandparents may keep Christmas in their hearts all year round, and display it pretty much every chance they get, but Susan hasn’t felt all the joy of the holiday since she was ten years old. Because that’s the holiday season when her parents were killed by a drunk driver. Susan is now forty, the age her mother was when she died, and she’s been stuck cycling through the first four stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) for the past thirty years without ever reaching acceptance.

Without ever managing to forgive either the drunk driver – in a coma all these years – or herself.

Not that Susan hasn’t had her own version of a wonderful life. Her grandparents are everything anyone could ever have wanted in mentors, parents AND grandparents. She’s an integral part of a town that loves and supports her and her bookstore, she’s respected in the publishing industry to the point where authors, their agents and their publishers court her for appearances at her store and cover quotes.

And she has the best, most supportive even if sometimes a bit too up in her business best friend in the world. Along with excellent colleagues who have become the greatest found family she could ever have imagined.

As her 40th year approaches she’s becoming aware that there’s something missing. Both her mother and her grandmother met their perfect matches when said matches were wearing Santa suits. As a child, Susan expected to do the same. Then her parents were taken from her and she walled herself off from getting too involved and being too hurt.

But those friends, those wonderful, loving, a bit too intrusive friends, have a solution to Susan’s missing ‘Single (Kris) Kringle’ by putting Susan’s search for the Santa of her dreams on social media and inviting the entire country to watch her hunt for her very own one true Santa.

They’re going to pull Susan out of her uncomfortably comfortable rut – no matter how many likes and ‘thumbs up’ emojis it takes to make it happen.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve ever heard of “sad fluff” and wondered what it was, look no further because A Wish for Winter is a perfect example of the type. “Sad fluff” is a story where a whole lot of sad stuff happens but at the same time there’s an earned happy ending – whether romantic or not – and there are plenty of happy or even funny bits in the story. There’s lots of good support for the main character, but that character is still going through the story with a sucky place inside and the tone of the book is ultimately just a bit, well, sad.

And that’s A Wish for Winter in a nutshell. Susan has plenty of reasons to be sad, reasons that still overwhelm her at times even after 30 years. And there’s no one process or amount of time needed for an individual to process their grief, which in Susan’s case is not just real but also overwhelming. Because Susan suffered such a big loss so young, it has affected her entire life. It’s not something she’s ever going to get over or get past, nor should she. But she’s well past the point where she needs to reach the acceptance stage of grief and not hold onto it quite so tightly because the only person it’s hurting is herself.

The story of Susan taking those two steps forward, one step back towards that acceptance is a bit halting – not in the pacing sense but because her journey is supposed to be halting and uncertain. Still, her journey through that slough of despond hangs over all of the lighter moments in the book.

Although there certainly are plenty of those lighter moments. Her friends are an absolute delight even as they are invading her comfort zone, pushing her out of it and making her hesitant search for her HEA go viral.

I also adored the love of books and reading and bookstores, and the transformative power of all of the above that practically shines through every page. This story has all the elements of being a book lover’s delight from the very beginning.

As a reader, I found the sadness of the sad fluff took a bit too much of the joy out of a story that is ultimately joyful. For me, that pall took a bit too long for the book to process – making no comments whatsoever on how long it took the character to process it because no one can go there for another.

In the end, I liked the book, I liked some aspects of it quite a lot, but didn’t quite love it as much as I did my first exposure to the author’s work in The Clover Girls. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen Anthony

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen AnthonyThe Book Haters' Book Club by Gretchen Anthony
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

All it takes is the right book to turn a Book Hater into a Book Lover…
That was Elliott’s belief and the reason why he started The Book Haters’ Book Club—a newsletter of reading recommendations for the self-proclaimed “nonreader.” As the beloved co-owner of Over the Rainbow Bookstore, Elliott’s passion and gift was recommending books to customers. Now, after his sudden death, his grief-ridden business partner, Irma, has agreed to sell Over the Rainbow to a developer who will turn the cozy bookstore into high-rise condos.
But others won’t give up the bookstore without a fight. When Irma breaks the news to her daughters, Bree and Laney, and Elliott’s romantic partner, Thom, they are aghast. Over the Rainbow has been Bree and Laney’s sanctuary since childhood, and Thom would do anything to preserve Elliott’s legacy. Together, Thom, Bree and Laney conspire to save the bookstore, even if it takes some snooping, gossip and minor sabotage.
Filled with humor, family hijinks and actual reading recommendations, The Book Haters' Book Club is the ideal feel-good read. It’s a celebration of found family and a love letter to the everyday heroes who run bookstores.

My Review:

Elliot Gregory is watching from somewhere over the rainbow – or somewhere in the ‘Great Beyond’ – as his business partner, her daughters and his domestic partner all flail together and separately in the aftermath of his sudden death.

Yes, this is one of those stories that starts, to paraphrase Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Elliot was dead, to begin with.

He left behind a mess. He also was a mess. And he’s left behind a whole bunch of people who all loved him in one way or another to clean it up. But first they have to find the depths of that mess.

And then they have to find the true depths within themselves and each other.

Things don’t begin auspiciously. Irma Bedford meets her daughters, Laney and Bree, along with the late Elliot’s domestic partner Thom, at the offices of a real estate development firm to inform them that she has already sold the bookstore and the land it sits on to said investment firm for a sum that does not remotely look like the true value of the business and its real estate.

And that it’s a done deal that closes in less than a month.

What Irma doesn’t tell them is why – no matter how many sneaky and not so sneaky ways they ask. As far as Irma is concerned, it’s her business and not theirs. And an argument could be made for that. (Elliot and Thom were not married, Elliot didn’t leave a will, so as the surviving business partner the bookstore is legally Irma’s to continue to operate or dispose of as she pleases. Or as she feels compelled to. Or whatever the hell is motivating her at this point.)

But it makes no sense. It’s clear from the outset that the development firm is shady AF and that they seriously lowballed the offer. Even if Irma does want to sell she’s being taken advantage of while she’s at a low place. And even if she does want to retire – and she might – she’s been grooming her younger daughter to take over the bookstore for Bree’s entire life. The change in direction is abrupt to say the least.

And the more Laney, Bree and Thom dig, the fishier the whole thing seems. So they fight back with everything they have, banding together and stepping way out of their collective comfort zones to get the developers to back off of the deal before it’s too late.

But just when they think they’ve won, they discover that they had lost the war long before they began the first battle. Now they’ll have to fight on an entirely different front – before it really is too late after all. Again.

Escape Rating B-: I expected to fall in love with The Book Haters’ Club, but I left – or rather I middled – with a whole lot of mixed feelings.

I say middled because the first half of the book is all about Laney’s, Bree’s and Thom’s all-out, no-holds barred campaign to save the bookstore – no matter what Irma thinks. While what Irma thinks, feels and for that matter what in the hell she’s doing this for is all a deep, dark secret that makes absolutely no sense at all.

At the midpoint, the story turns itself around, because it’s only then that the first layer of the secret is revealed. But it kind of feels like that slog to save the store was all a waste. It is a waste for Laney, Bree and Thom, but it’s at that point where the first half of the story feels like it was pointless for the reader as well.

But once that first, brittle, outer skin of that onion of secrets gets cracked and peels away, the story finally starts getting somewhere. Because, while Elliot may have left them all with his big, untidy mess of secrets, they all have plenty that they need to reveal, not just to each other, but to themselves.

So the first half of the story was a whole lot of frenetic action that led nowhere, The second half is a whole lot of introspection and grief and the work of opening up and letting friends in to help with your mess.

While turning a group of people who were once a roiling mass of resentment at each other – and honestly for good reason – into a surprisingly cohesive found family.

The biggest part of the charm of this story is in the characters, once we’re finally able to start getting to know them – and they’re back to getting to know each other. One of the odder things about this story is the way that dear, dead Elliot breaks the fourth wall from on high (presumably) to inject himself into both the storytelling and the proceedings in a way that just didn’t work for me. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

So there’s plenty to love in this story about secrets, partnerships, quirky neighborhoods and found families. And if you love books about books and reading filled with terrific book recommendations, there are plenty of those here to savor. I just wish the whole thing had gotten to its point a whole lot sooner.

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!

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: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’Neal

Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’NealThis Place of Wonder by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 316
Published by Lake Union Publishing on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the wake of a personal tragedy, four women face the past, their futures, and each other in a novel of broken ties and healing by the Amazon Charts bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids.
When famed chef Augustus Beauvais dies, he leaves behind a celebrated reputation―and four women grappling with loss, anger, pain, and the question of how the world will turn without him…
Meadow, the ex-wife with whom Augustus built an empire―and a family―still holds a place for him in her heart, even as she continues to struggle with his infidelities, which ended their twenty-year marriage. More unforgiving is Maya, his estranged daughter, who’s recently out of rehab but finally ready to reclaim her life. Norah, his latest girlfriend, sidelined her own career for unexpected love and a life of luxury, both of which are now gone with Augustus. And then there’s Rory, Meadow’s daughter, the voice of calm and reason in a chorus of discontent.
As Meadow, Maya, Norah, and Rory are flung together by tragedy, grief, and secrets yet to be revealed, they must accept―or turn away from―the legacy of great intentions and bad decisions Augustus left them. And when the circumstances around his death are called into question, their conflicted feelings become even more complicated. But moving forward is the only choice they have, and to do so, they’ll need to rely on family, friendship, and inner strength.
Set on the stunning, rugged California coastline, This Place of Wonder is an emotional, lush, and empowering story of four women finding their way in a changed world―and what a wondrous journey it will be.

My Review:

As wonderful as this story is, its protagonists are not exactly in a place of wonder as it opens. Unless that wonder is wondering WTF happens now that Augustus Beauvais is dead.

Not in the way that stories like this used to be written, with all of the late man’s “relicts” desperate to figure out how they are going to survive in the literal sense now that their financial support is gone. Thankfully, women’s stories don’t work that way anymore.

But Beauvais was a towering figure (literally as he was 6’4”) in the American culinary scene of the 1990s and early 2000s. And even though his best days may have been behind him, he was still a huge personality and an outsized influence on everyone whose life he touched.

Especially the four women he, in various ways, tried to save. Because he needed to be needed. And because he couldn’t save the one woman who mattered the most.

Meadow was the love of his life, something that was as true on the day he died as it was on the day he met her, even though they had been divorced for eight years because the two things he seems to have been incapable of being were faithful in marriage or alone either inside or outside of it.

Rory, the daughter he adopted and Maya, the daughter he abandoned. And last, but surprisingly not least in the end, Norah, the much, much younger woman he thought needed saving, but who, in the end, turned out to be strong enough to help his family save themselves.

In the aftermath of Beauvais death, in the midst of the suspicious questioning of police who are adding two plus two and reaching a number that might be getting a bit too close to four, Maya learns that the father she never forgave left her everything except one final opportunity to get him to accept the blame for so many things he did that were so very wrong. And Meadow accepts that just because she built a life more or less without him it doesn’t mean that she will ever be ready to let him go – no matter how much she needs to.

Escape Rating A-: Like several of the author’s previous books that I have enjoyed, When We Believed in Mermaids, The Art of Inheriting Secrets and Write My Name Across the Sky, This Place of Wonder is about a multi-generational group of women who share a tragedy in the past that has come crashing down in the present.

What links all four of these women, besides their obvious links to Augustus Beauvais, is that they all see – or at least saw – themselves as damaged. Or perhaps it’s that Beauvais saw them all that way and that’s how he drew them into his orbit – because he needed their damage to fix his own.

Only Meadow – and by extension Augustus, are old enough to even have a past – or at least one far enough in the past for it to be hidden. For good or for ill, Rory’s and Maya’s lives have been lived in the public eye – because of their relationships with August and Meadow.

Who isn’t actually Meadow at all. Or at least wasn’t, back in the days before the internet made all the salacious details of everyone’s life available at the press of a few keys.

Which is what Norah came to California to discover, once upon a not very long ago time, before she got caught up by Augustus’ magnetic pull. And with the loss of his overwhelming presence, its a search she picks back up again. Because Norah is a whole lot stronger, and a whole lot less damaged, than anyone thought.

The stories are on a collision course from the opening of the book. Augustus is dead, in the arms of yet another damaged young woman. His death was sudden, the tests are inconclusive and the stories told by the women in his life almost but not quite match up. At least not until the other half of the story is revealed, and Norah’s probe into Meadow’s past reveals exactly how the past connects to the present.

But for a lot of the book, that investigation is in the background. In the foreground is the way that this strange and damaged family stitches itself together and learns that the hole in their center is something that has always been there. That, in some ways, it’s easier to deal with now that they know it will never be filled. And that they have a way forward without it, and without him, both together and separately.

And it’s that part of the story that gives this its heart. In spite of where they came from. In spite of what was done to them – and in spite of what he did to them as well. That they are, each of them, the legacy of a flawed and fascinating man. And that they are all, together and separately, so much more than that.

And they always have been, even if they haven’t always been able to see it.

TLC
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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!