Review: The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London

Review: The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie LondonThe Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Paws in the City #1
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"London’s characters leap off the page... It’s a delightful start to a series that promises to be good fun."—Publishers Weekly
"This is the romcom Carrie Bradshaw would have written if she were a dog person, and I'm obsessed!"—Teri Wilson, USA Today bestselling author of 
A Spot of Trouble


How do you start over when the biggest mistake of your life has more than one million views?

Forget diamonds—the internet is forever. Social media consultant Isla Thompson learned that lesson the hard way when she went viral for all the wrong reasons. A month later, Isla is still having nightmares about the moment she ruined a young starlet’s career and made herself the most unemployable influencer in Manhattan. But she doesn’t have the luxury of hiding until she’s no longer Instagram poison. Not when her fourteen-year-old sister, Dani, needs Isla to keep a roof over their heads. So, she takes the first job she can get: caring for Camilla, a glossy-maned, foul-tempered hellhound.
After a week of ferrying Camilla from playdates to pet psychics, Isla starts to suspect that the dachshund’s bark is worse than her bite—just like her owner, Theo Garrison. Isla has spent her career working to make people likable and here’s Theo—happy to hide behind his reputation as a brutish recluse. But Theo isn’t a brute—he’s sweet and funny, and Isla should not see him as anything but the man who signs her paychecks. Because loving Theo would mean retreating to his world of secluded luxury, and Isla needs to show Dani that no matter the risk, dreams are always worth chasing.
Paws in the City

My Review:

Camilla the dachshund can wear anything she wants in this pawsitively delightful romantic comedy. She even has the opportunity to wear Prada for her photoshoot with Anna Wintour’s Vogue – whether her infamous dress-a-like is present at the time or not.

This romcom starts with both a meet cute and a meet ugly – and it’s the meet ugly, along with a whole lot of ugly crying – that happens first.

Camilla’s person is gone. After a long, extravagant, philanthropic and larger-than-life life, Etna Francois Garrison is dead, leaving behind a grieving grandson, an equally grieving dog – and leaving the two of them to each other.

Theo Garrison, the press-dubbed “Hermit of Fifth Avenue”, has lost the last person in the world that he loved. Who left him her spoiled little diva of a dog as a final consolation – or a final kick in the pants to let other people into his life. Or possibly both. His beloved grandmother always did know what was best for him – not that he’s even close to admitting that a month after her death, as Camilla has ruined his carefully ordered life, as many of his bespoke suits and imported silk ties as she can find – and driven off more than a dozen pet sitters along with an entire pet sitting agency.

Camilla has cut a wide swath through Theo’s formerly regimented life. He’s desperate.

So desperate that when Camilla escapes her leash in Central Park and runs to a woman that neither Camilla nor Theo have ever met and starts actually obeying commands and offering her belly for a scratch, Theo offers this miracle pet whisperer a job on the spot.

A job that Isla Thompson is desperate enough to take. Her formerly high-powered career as a social media consultant and influencer went up in flames after a disastrous video went viral. It was explosive. Well, her former client was exploding chunks down the front of a designer dress on a phone camera that had been off up until the fatal moment. Fatal to Isla’s career, that is.

Camilla needs a person. Isla needs a job. Theo needs to get out of his self-isolating rut. But when Isla invents an Instagram persona around Camilla as “The Dachshund Wears Prada”, Isla starts out having fun but finds herself receiving career validation and the seeds of success on her own terms.

A success that has the potential to break open the wall of obsessive privacy that Theo has been building around himself for years. A wall that he might be willing to open for Isla, if he can trust her enough.

But can he?

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one for the title. Not that the cover isn’t cute as well, but this is just one of those times when the title sucked me right in and I had to find out how the book lived up to it or even just explained it.

But it does. It absolutely does. And that part of the story is a hoot – or perhaps I should say that it justifies plenty of barks of laughter.

However, underneath that lighthearted fluff – and fluffy golden fur – there’s plenty to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. (Just don’t worry about Camilla – she comes out of the story happier and better dressed than she comes into it.)

There are serious issues aplenty dealt with and worked on in this story, which reads as if it were the book baby of Batman, the death of Princess Di, and the movie Maid in Manhattan.

And by Batman, I mean the original origin story created by Bob Kane back in 1939. The one where a young Bruce Wayne watches the murder of his wealthy parents on the streets of Gotham City. Young Theo Garrison watched his gorgeous, successful and wealthy parents die on the streets of New York City, being chased to death by paparazzi in the same way that Princess Di lost her life – complete with conspiracy theories.

Theo grew up isolated, raised by his grandmother with only a few people inside his circle of trust – because every time he lets someone in they betray that trust.

Isla’s side of the story is very Maid in Manhattan, in that she is a single pseudo-mother, raising her younger sister after their mother abandoned them both. She is desperate and blaming herself for the viral video that killed her career. Not that she did anything deliberately, but the series of unfortunate events has been laid at her door and she’s not just fired, she’s blacklisted from the industry. She’s running through her savings, is determined to keep her little sister not just fed, clothed, housed and schooled but also in the ballet shoes that represent her life and her dreams, when fate in the form of Camilla and Theo intervenes.

All three of them, Camilla, Isla and Theo, have issues. Camilla bites first to keep the world at bay. Theo is afraid to care about anyone because everyone he has ever loved; his parents, his grandmother; has died and left him. He’s afraid to be hurt again so he isolates himself as completely as possible. And he has the fortune to make that very possible indeed. Isla is just running as fast as she can, giving up as much as possible, to give her little sister the love and care and security that neither of them ever really had. She wants to give Dani her dreams because Isla’s got sidetracked at age 20 when their mother left her the responsibility of raising her sister.

The relationship that grows between Camilla and Isla is charming because it’s every loving, caring, pet-person doing their damndest to bring a scared or abused fur person out of their shattered shell. The ill-advised but life-giving relationship between Isla and Theo comes out of Isla’s care for Camilla. It’s kind of the reverse of “love me, love my dog”. The Insta account of The Dachshund Wears Prada is tongue in cheek, laugh out loud funny and sharply biting social commentary all rolled into one. But the more that Isla and Theo get involved, the clearer it is that it’s also going to be the breaking point for their relationship.

The redemption and resolution at the end was wonderful because it tied up the end of their fairytale romance with just the right amount of mutual groveling and HEA fairy dust with one big beautiful bow – made, of course, out of Prada scarves.

Review: Gouda Friends by Cathy Yardley

Review: Gouda Friends by Cathy YardleyGouda Friends (Ponto Beach Reunion #2) by Cathy Yardley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic comedy
Series: Ponto Beach Reunion #2
Pages: 304
Published by Montlake on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Two high school BFFs reunite and endeavor to fix each other’s lives in this geeky romance from the author of Love, Comment, Subscribe.
Tam Doan dumped her boyfriend after he threw away her gourmet cheese. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, but the point is, he had it coming. Newly single and unemployed, Tam calls up her best friend from high school and utters the emergency code word—goldfish. Next thing she knows, she’s on a plane back home.
Josh O’Malley was a troubled, unconfident teenager. Now he’s the successful owner of a multimillion-dollar ghost kitchen. Tam, his high school BFF and fellow member of the Nerd Herd friend group, was instrumental in building his self-esteem. When she calls him out of the blue, he jumps at the chance to return the favor.
Josh and Tam immediately get to work fixing her life—but again, it’s complicated. Their close friendship was always a lifeline between them; a blooming romance might confuse things. Still, at least one thing is for certain: their chemistry is un-brie-lievable.

My Review:

The question isn’t “Who Moved My Cheese?” when Tam Doan trudges into the apartment she’s been sharing with her boyfriend for the past six years after a “terrible, horrible, no-go0d, very bad day” with a suitcase she never got to use for a business trip she got to arrange but not take with a company that has burned out her last nerve.

She expects to find her extra-special treat, her saved for emergencies gouda cheese shipped to New York City from her favorite premium cheese maker in Seattle in the back of the refrigerator. She does not expect to find her boyfriend of six years sleeping with his ex in their bed.

Howsomever, she finds the douchecanoe in the bed and no cheese in the fridge. And it’s the last of all the damn straws and her give-a-fuck is completely broken. She’s too tired, hangry AND pissed to notice whether her heart is broken as well.

All she’s certain of is that she’s outta there – for good. And that she feels free. Also broke, lonely and not sure where she’s going to spend the night because her ex has isolated her from all of her friends and she rightfully doesn’t trust their mutual friends – meaning his – as far as she can throw them. Or him.

So she calls her ride or die bestie from childhood, high school AND college, the one person who not merely promised to always be there for her but who has always delivered. She calls Josh O’Malley back home in Ponto Beach California (near San Diego) and uses their codeword for “Need help NOW!” And Josh delivers, as he always has and always will.

In this case a plane ticket from NYC to San Diego. She has the weekend off, he has a place she can stay. Along with 48 hours to help her figure out who moved her cheese in the metaphorical sense, help her figure out what her cheese actually IS these days, and give her the space and tools she needs to find it and get it back.

Just like she did for him when he sent the code five years ago. It’s not so much that he’s paying it back or forward, because their friendship is much deeper than that. It’s that he’s always been there for her, she’s always been there for him, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Even if part of the cheese that both of them still need to find is whether they can navigate their way into the relationship that everyone they grew up with has thought they had all along.

Escape Rating A: This friends into lovers with just a slight touch of fauxmance turned unexpected romance was a delight – and the inevitable cheesy lines and even cheesier jokes just added to the fun!

As funny as it is that Tam leaves her douchecanoe ex more over the cheese than the cheating, it’s not really about the cheese. Well, as it turns out, it kind of is about the cheese. In all the best ways all along the way of this delightful romance.

First, it’s about his lack of respect for Tam’s stuff, which is really just a symptom of his lack of respect for Tam’s whole entire self. It just takes the cheese to make her finally see it. Or finally admit it to herself. The relationship has been toxic all along, while Tam has made excuse after self-effacing, self-sabotaging excuse rather than admit that everything about her life in New York was a poor choice she backed into out of fear of failure.

Taking that impulsive, life-saving trip back to Ponto Beach is Tam’s chance at making a fresh start. All she has to do is find a new job and a place to live while ignoring her ex’s attempts to drag her back into his mess, along with the voices of her family telling her that she has to take any job in order to be safe and secure if never as successful as she should be. No pressure!

But what Tam NEEDS is to figure out what she really wants. It’s exactly what she did for Josh five years ago, when Josh hit rock bottom and she helped him find his own bliss. Now it’s his turn to help her – and he’s all in for it.

All they both have to do is find a way to preserve their life-saving and soul-deep friendship while moving it to the next level. A possibility that scares both of them more than half to death.

I picked up Gouda Friends because I loved the author’s Fandom Hearts series (start with Level Up and be prepared for a sweet, funny, geeky blast!). Gouda Friends feels like it takes everything I loved about that series and well, leveled it up. Josh and Tam – and their entire Nerd Herd – are geeky and nerdy in all the best ways, but now they are adults doing their best at adulting and still relying on the friends who have seen them through EVERYTHING in their lives.

One of the things I loved about this romance is just how huge a role friends and friendships play in their HEA. This is a romance with a GINORMOUS side of relationship fiction and the combination was just wonderful. It’s also terrific that as much as I loved the Nerd Herd, it’s not necessary to have read the first book in the series (Love, Comment, Subscribe) in order to get right into Gouda Friends. But now that I have read this one, I definitely want to read that. And the next book in this series, Ex-Appeal, hopefully later this year. There are plenty of Nerds in that Herd who still need to find their HEAs and I’m definitely here for it!

Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam

Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance GillamThe Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 309
on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory, this laugh-out-loud #OwnVoices story proves that sometimes the least perfect arrangement can lead to something perfect for them.
Rashida Howard has never been a one-night-stand kind of woman, but she has good reason for making an exception with Elliott after meeting him in a bar. Cliché? Yes. Utterly amazing? Absolutely. Regrets? None.
Elliott Quinn is a workaholic. The one night he decides to break his routine, he has an encounter with the woman of his dreams. But no matter how amazing they are together, work will always come first.
Both of their lives get turned upside down when they find themselves on opposite sides of an ongoing fight between Elliott’s company and Rashida’s community. Though their chemistry is undeniable, neither of them will risk their integrity…or their heart.
And just when they think they might have found a solution that benefits both sides, they uncover a secret that will change everything.

My Review:

One way of thinking of The Hookup Dilemma is as a sexing-to-love romcom. The title certainly leads in that direction. But it’s not nearly that simple a story to describe, to the point where I might need some arithmetic notation or something similar. Because it’s more like sex to enemies to (frenemies AND lovers) to (frenemies OR lovers) to an HEA so big it encompasses an entire community.

It all begins with that hookup. An instant connection that leads to an evening of very hot sex with no strings attached and no plans for doing it again. Not that they didn’t do it plenty of times that night.

The thing is that both Elliott and Rashida want to do it again – and not JUST the sex. With each other. As often as possible. A possibility that intrigues Elliott and scares Rashida to the point where she does a nearly literal midnight flit, leaving a sleeping Elliott in a suite in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Atlanta. They know nothing about each other except their first names and that they’ve just had the best sex of their entire lives.

She never expects to see him again. She’s not interested in a relationship. He’d love to see where their chemistry might lead them, but he has no leads on her identity and not nearly enough information to get any.

When they meet again it’s a case of worlds colliding the way continents collide through plate tectonics, complete with the earth shaking and volcanos rising to spew molten lava. They meet at a Zoning Board hearing in the neighborhood where Rashida grew up and where her beloved grandmother still lives. Rashida, her Grammy, and Grammy’s neighbors are there to protest the zoning change to convert a parcel in their neighborhood to commercial use. The plan is to bring in high-end stores like Whole Foods – stores that the neighborhood of mostly retired senior citizens on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford to shop at. It’s the opening wedge of gentrification and everyone knows it.

The request to rezone was made by the new owner of the property, the construction company owned by Elliott’s father. Elliott is stuck carrying the ball on this project for his old man, who is recovering from a massive heart attack. And the company needs this project to succeed in order to get itself back on track after years of questionable financial decisions – made, of course, by Elliott’s father.

Elliott is caught between a rock, a hard place, and a community that plans to stonewall him every step of the way. He’s torn between pursuing a relationship with Rashida and keeping the peace in his relationship with his steamroller of a father.

Rashida’s all in on saving her grandmother’s home. She may be falling for Elliott, but her grandmother was there for her when she needed a refuge and a place to heal. Now it’s her turn to support her Grammy.

Rashida knows exactly what she wants, even if she’s having a bit of difficulty figuring out how to get it. Elliott has been too busy reacting to his father’s demands – his entire life – to completely figure out what he wants for himself. Let alone stick to it. But Elliott has to decide whether what he really wants to do is cave into his father one more time, or stick to his guns, get his father to retire before he has ANOTHER heart attack, and go all in with Rashida on a project that will actually help the neighborhood instead of bulldozing it.

Because if he doesn’t “man up” he’s going to lose it all, one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is correct that this does have a similar feel to many of the books in Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series – particularly The Wedding Party. It also has more than a touch of Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching, which is a suspense thriller about gentrification of a neighborhood not unlike the fictional Millhouse.

So this is kind of what When No One is Watching would have been if the author had written it with her romance hat on instead of her thriller hat.

This is also one of those stories where the tension keeping the couple apart isn’t a will they/won’t they? They already have and they can’t seem to stop from having each other again every time they’re alone.

Instead, this is a story about herding the elephant out of the room so they have a chance. Which is really difficult to do if they aren’t both ready to lay hands on that elephant and PUSH!

What makes this book so good is that once the story gets past the meet-cute, the issues that they face together and separately are very real and very much in the way.

Rashida’s issues are, well, not exactly easy but they are at least straightforward. She wants to save her Grammy’s neighborhood. She wants to save her Grammy’s house. She wants to save her Grammy’s friends’ houses. She also needs Grammy and her friends to stop driving their gas-guzzlers – sometimes without licenses – before they have more serious accidents than they’ve already had. Underlying all of that is saving a place that Rashida loves AND allowing her Grammy and her friends to live their retirements in their own homes as long as they are able to rather than be forced out by corporate greed or corporate desperation.

All of that is a very real struggle. Forms of that struggle are happening everywhere, all the time.

Elliott’s issues are, in some ways, a lot smaller than Rashida’s, but in other ways a whole lot bigger. In comparison, honestly, the idea that it’s Elliott’s father’s company going bankrupt because of his father’s poor business decisions vs driving Rashida’s grandmother and her friends out of their homes, Rashida’s situation feels more serious.

Underneath that, however, is Elliott’s very real fear that if he can’t get his father to slow down and obey his doctor’s orders the man is going to have another heart attack and die. Really, really, soon. But that doesn’t mean Elliott should keep kowtowing to the man when he’s so clearly in the wrong and so completely unwilling to listen to any advice from anyone at all. Which is a huge chunk of what caused that heart attack in the first place.

So the issues that keep Rashida and Elliott are not simple, and the solutions are not going to be easy. Reaching for them is going to cause a LOT of short term trouble in order to reach a long term HEA.

And that’s what made this story so very appealing. Read it for yourself and see what I mean!

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Review: All the Feels by Olivia Dade

Review: All the Feels by Olivia DadeAll the Feels (Spoiler Alert, #2) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Spoiler Alert #2
Pages: 385
Published by Avon on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Following Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade returns with another utterly charming romantic comedy about a devil-may-care actor—who actually cares more than anyone knows—and the no-nonsense woman hired to keep him in line.
Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Sex appeal. Wealth. Fame. A starring role as Cupid on TV’s biggest show, God of the Gates. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s dogged by old demons, and his post-show future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.
Enter Lauren Clegg, the former ER therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over handsome but impulsive Alex shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time they spend together, the harder it gets to keep her professional remove and her heart intact, especially when she discovers the reasons behind his recklessness…not to mention his Cupid fanfiction habit.
When another scandal lands Alex in major hot water and costs Lauren her job, she’ll have to choose between protecting him and offering him what he really wants—her. But he’s determined to keep his improbably short, impossibly stubborn, and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. And on a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves: anything at all.

My Review:

I was really looking for some fanfiction to read, but I’ve reread my faves so many times that I’ve practically memorized them. So I picked up the next best thing, even though it won’t be published until mid November and I really shouldn’t post the review until late October but here I am anyway. It’s early June and I’m reading All the Feels and loving every minute of it.

When I say it’s the next best thing to fanfiction, it’s way closer (literally as well as figuratively) than the old Ma Bell commercial about “long distance is the next best thing to being there”. Which honestly might have been true at the time, but does not preclude a huge gap between the two experiences. It just means that there wasn’t anything better sitting in that gap.

Which is pretty much how I felt when I started All the Feels, so that I could get, well, all the feels.

But speaking of spoilers, and Spoiler Alert, and kind of giving you a spoiler alert, All the Feels doesn’t so much take place after Spoiler Alert as it does in parallel with it. It takes place at the same time, during those nine months between closing out the filming of the last season of God of the Gates and the broadcast of the final episode.

So the stories spoil each other just a bit if you read them in order and a whole lot more than a bit if you read All the Feels first.

Consider yourself warned. Then go ahead and read them anyway because they are both marvelous!

Escape Rating A: This was, totally, absolutely and screamingly obviously, the right book at the right time for my reading – even if it really messed with my posted schedule. I needed the feels from this book, so I dove right in and wasn’t sorry I spent the whole day with it glued to my face.

One thing I keep wondering about is how well these books will “wear” over time. Because the TV series that Marcus (Spoiler Alert) and Alex (All the Feels) are starring in, caught up in the filming and promoting of and regretting more than a bit at many points, is all too clearly a poke in the eye with a sharp stick at the final season of Game of Thrones. A poke that works really well right now but may date the whole thing in the future. I really hope these stories hold up though because they have awesome things to say about romance and fake life in Hollywood and the real people who are caught up in it and loving yourself as you are and accepting yourself and accepting that you are worthy of love and consideration as you are and standing up for yourself and just SQUEE.

I want to hug this book so hard – and hug Lauren along with it.

Ironically, this story has one of the same elements as the book that I was rage-reading just beforehand that made me pick this up (I think that book was Someone to Cherish but I didn’t write it down at the time and now it’s driving me crazy trying to remember.). Lauren begins this story believing that everyone in her life is more important than she is, that everyone else’s feelings are worth all the consideration and hers are worth none, and generally being a doormat. (Unlike the other book, Lauren has given these people power over her not because law and society have decreed that she must but because she’s been brought up to be that way by a family that doesn’t realize they are abusing her and honestly each other.

Lauren has to learn to stand up for herself – and she finally does and that’s part of what makes this one so good.

On the other hand, Alex, who on the surface looks like he has it all and is acting out like a spoiled brat, turns out to be nothing of the sort. Much of the story is Lauren taking up more space in the world while Alex learns to, not so much take up less space as to get out of his own damn way.

That they fall into “like” long before they fall in love is what makes the romance work. They need to like each other – and they need to learn to like themselves – before they have a chance at love. When they finally both get there, it’s obvious that there’s still a lot of work for both of them to do, but they are on the right path.

Relationships take work, so the ending of this story had, pardon me, all the right feels. They love each other, they want to make it last and they know they have a lot of work to do both separately and together in order to make a go of it. We see them take the first steps and it’s just lovely.

And OMG I hope this series continues, because the entire thing is just plain marvelous and I want MORE!

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine GuilloryWhile We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #6
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two people realize that it's no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.
Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he's trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it's hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she's also down to earth and considerate, and he can't help flirting a little...
Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she's booked her next movie. However, she didn't expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?
But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they've barely shared with those closest to them.
When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna's life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

My Review:

Once upon a time in 2018 there was a book titled The Wedding Date. I picked it up on a whim. Honestly. I was looking for something happy and I got an offer for an advanced copy at just the right time. That was one of the best whims I ever indulged in, because that book was just an awesomely lovely and damn near perfect romance.

Fast forward three occasionally rather strange years and that wedding date has turned into an entire series that wraps itself around the friends of that original couple, and their friends and family, and hopefully and so on, discovering their own HEAs.

Quite often through either a meet-terribly-cute or a fake date or fake romance or some combination of all of the above. And this entry in the series is no exception.

Junior Advertising Executive Ben Stephens meets Oscar-nominated actress Anna Gardiner in what could best be described as a meet-cute professional edition. He’s supposed to be part of the team – meaning sitting at the table to represent diversity without being permitted to say anything – for an extremely important presentation to a big tech firm that plans to advertise their new smartphone as a lifestyle accessory. She’s the “talent”, the actress who will star in the commercials. Her contract gives her veto power over the campaign that no one seriously expects her to exercise.

But all his bosses are stuck at the airport, so he and an even more junior assistant are supposed to make the presentation they honestly created, all by themselves, at least until their corporate bigwigs finally show up. Anna is both wowed and charmed by Ben, and pleased as punch to see him take that unexpected chance and shoot for the win.

That all of the companies that present after him pull the same stunt that his intended to pull, bringing along an employee of color to fake diversity without letting them actually do anything puts Ben and his company ahead of the pack – even if it happened by accident.

But Anna, who knows first hand what it’s like to be picked second or third for a part because the powers that be just can’t believe that a black actress will have the same universal appeal as a white one, also knows how things work. So she firmly puts her vetoing foot down and says that she’ll  do the commercials only with Ben’s company and only if Ben gets to be the lead on the project.

It’s a win-win-win from the very first day of production. But the sparks that Anna and Ben ignite behind the camera have the potential to cause them both no end of trouble – if they can’t resist indulging in them.

Both know that it’s bad policy to get involved with someone at work – or with someone they are working with – even on a temporary basis. Both have professional plans and goals that have the potential to be seriously derailed if they take their eyes off the prize they are seeking. Both of them have traumatic secrets in their pasts that they are afraid to share with anyone except their therapists. And they are both equally afraid of sharing that they even HAVE therapists because neither of them is in a position where they can appear weak. Ever.

When a family crisis pushes Anna into relying on Ben for a quick getaway and a long drive to reassure her that whatever put her beloved dad into the hospital this time isn’t serious, Ben and Anna let their walls come down much further than they ever intended.

And neither of them is able to put those walls back up. No matter how hard they try. Not even when Anna’s manager convinces her to pretend they’re faking it – to the point where they almost believe it themselves.

Escape Rating A-: My two absolute favorite books in this series are the first book, The Wedding Date, and the 4th book, Royal Holiday. But I’ve enjoyed every single book in the series because these are romcoms for readers who don’t necessarily love romcoms. The issues that arise between every couple in the series feel real, feel part and parcel of their personalities and their situation. There are no misunderstandammits here. What goes wrong is not something that could be resolved with a simple conversation because it goes much too deep for the solution to be nearly that easy.

Howsomever, unlike the first three books which take place almost simultaneously, the most recent books in the series stand very much alone. Not that there aren’t recurring characters – Ben’s brother was one of the members of The Wedding Party, after all. But it’s not necessary to know Theo from the earlier book to enjoy his cameo here. Especially the part where Ben and Theo are carrying a suitcase full of giggling actress.

As much as I enjoyed reading While We Were Dating – because I was really looking for a happy place and certainly found it here – it felt like I’d read bits of this story before – and relatively recently at that. I think if you put You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria, Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert and Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai into a plot blender the resulting story would have most of the elements of While We Were Dating.

Since I loved all three of those books, it’s not exactly a surprise that I’d enjoy something that blended the three of them. And if you liked any of those or any of the previous books in the Wedding Date series you’ll probably like the others too. Just in case you’re looking for something fun and happy to read like I was.

Back when I first read The Wedding Date I loved the hell out of it but never expected it to turn into a series. But every single follow-up to that first marvelous book has been a great big ball of fun, so I sincerely hope that there are more books on the horizon. For reasons that will be plenty clear if you read While We Were Dating, I would LOVE to see Anna’s manager get his romantic comeuppance. Even the Tin Man eventually got a heart..

Review: Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley

Review: Talk Bookish to Me by Kate BromleyTalk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Inspiration can come from the most unlikely—and inconvenient—sources.
Kara Sullivan’s life is full of love—albeit fictional. As a bestselling romance novelist and influential bookstagrammer, she’s fine with getting her happily-ever-after fix between the covers of a book.
But right now? Not only is Kara’s best friend getting married next week—which means big wedding stress—but the deadline for her next novel is looming, and she hasn’t written a single word. The last thing she needs is for her infuriating first love, Ryan Thompson, to suddenly appear in the wedding party. But Ryan’s unexpected arrival sparks a creative awakening in Kara that inspires the steamy historical romance she desperately needs to deliver.
With her wedding duties intensifying, her deadline getting closer by the second and her bills not paying themselves, Kara knows there’s only one way for her to finish her book and to give her characters the ever-after they deserve. But can she embrace the unlikely, ruggedly handsome muse—who pushes every one of her buttons—to save the wedding, her career and, just maybe, write her own happy ending?
"A fun and sexy romp, with chemistry that gave me all the feels!" —Jennifer Probst, New York Times bestselling author of Our Italian Summer
"Add this book to your TBR list immediately!" —Sarah Smith, author of Faker

My Review:

Romance book tropes are not nearly as much fun to experience in real life as they are between the pages of the best-selling romance novels that Kara Sullivan writes. Or so she discovers when it seems like all of her favorite tropes are happening to her, all at once, when her muse is on strike and she runs into her ex in a meet-not-so-cute at her best friend’s pre-wedding party.

Some of Kara’s favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, forced proximity and forbidden love, and she gets all of those and more in this second-chance at love story. Which is, of course, yet another romantic trope.

Now that I think about it, Kara REALLY should have paid more attention to her list of favorite tropes from the very beginning. It would have saved her a lot of heartbreak – but it might have also prevented her chance at her very own HEA.

Not to mention keeping her from missing the deadline to submit her next book!

Escape Rating B: I’m putting the rating in really, really early because I really need to talk about this book and the myriad mixed feelings it gave me. Because there were lots. Bunches. Oodles.

A LOT.

For me, this didn’t read so much as a second chance romance as it did a kind of “unfinished business” romance. Kara and Ryan fell in love in college, and it was one of those stars blazing in the night overwhelming kinds of love that happens when we’re young and not yet jaded and haven’t felt anything quite like it before. It’s that first romance on the cusp of adulthood, when you can imagine spending the rest of your life with this person and you’re old enough for that to be real but you may not be quite mature enough to get through the hard parts.

Kara and Ryan didn’t so much break up as explode while both of them were dealing with terrible situations in their birth families. But it feels like when they broke up they weren’t really done with each other, so when they meet again ten years later, everything that wasn’t resolved back then comes back up now. Unfortunately along with bringing back all the feelings, they regurgitate the bad parts as well.

So Kara’s angst at seeing Ryan again is laid on top of her angst about her next book along with her long held grief and guilt at the sudden death of her father and the arguments they were having at the time he died.

(This was the part that gutted me. My dad also died suddenly, although thankfully not in the midst of us arguing. It’s been almost 30 years now and sometimes the grief still cuts like a knife. I was just so there for Kara that I almost couldn’t go on with the book.)

Also, I don’t know why, but I went into this one thinking that it would be a rom-com. It has all of the witty banter of a rom-com, but as funny as Kara’s and Ryan’s verbal interactions sometimes are, the story at its heart isn’t funny.

Now that I think about it, this might be verging on what some of my bookish friends are calling “sad fluff”. What happened between Kara and Ryan back in college ended sadly, and both of them have been sad about it for pretty much the entire intervening time – at least all of that time when they weren’t still seething with anger.

And what happens in the present, well it ends well. It ends with the chance of happiness. But it doesn’t end with a happy ever after because their relationship still isn’t ready for that. In some ways I’m glad to see a story that is set up as a romance not quite end romantically just because it’s a romance. An HEA at the point Kara and Ryan are at the end wouldn’t feel earned.

But it’s also weird to read a romance that doesn’t end in an HEA or HFN.

Talk Bookish to Me wasn’t quite as bookish as I was expecting, although her portrayal of just how much damn work it is to be a bookstagrammer made me glad that every time I investigated the possibility I backed off. Bookstagram is neat but I’m so much more about the words than about the pictures that I can’t even. So that bit made me perversely happy.

As I said earlier, this one gave me a ton of mixed feelings. Both while reading and after. Your reading mileage may vary but please be advised that emotions in bookish mirror may be closer than they appear.

Review: The Kindred Spirits Supper Club by Amy E. Reichert

Review: The Kindred Spirits Supper Club by Amy E. ReichertThe Kindred Spirits Supper Club by Amy E. Reichert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 20, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"A charming rom-com with a supernatural twist...Filled with a strong sense of place, mouthwatering descriptions of food, and a sweet love story (or two), Reichert's latest will surely delight readers." Booklist Starred Review
Named a Must Read for spring by Buzzfeed * Bustle * Booktrib * PopSugar * BookRiot * Midwest Living

Jobless and forced home to Wisconsin, journalist Sabrina Monroe can tolerate reunions with frenemies and kisses from old boyfriends, but not the literal ghosts that greet her in this heartwarming tale of the power of love and connection from acclaimed author Amy E. Reichert.
For Sabrina Monroe, moving back home to the Wisconsin Dells–the self-described Waterpark Capital of the World–means returning to the Monroe family curse: the women in her family can see spirits who come to them for help with unfinished business. But Sabrina’s always redirected the needy spirits to her mom, who’s much better suited for the job. The one exception has always been Molly, a bubbly rom-com loving ghost, who stuck by Sabrina’s side all through her lonely childhood.
Her personal life starts looking up when Ray, the new local restaurateur, invites Sabrina to his supper club, where he flirts with her over his famous Brandy Old-Fashioneds. He’s charming and handsome, but Sabrina tells herself she doesn’t have time for romance–she needs to focus on finding a job. Except the longer she’s in the Dells, the harder it is to resist her feelings for Ray. Who can turn down a cute guy with a fondness for rescue dogs and an obsession with perfecting his fried cheese curds recipe?
When the Dells starts to feel like home for the first time and with Ray in her corner, Sabrina begins to realize that she can make a difference and help others wherever she is.

My Review:

The saying goes that “home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Sabrina Monroe, unemployed and in student loan debt hell way over her head, has to go there – no matter how much she really, really doesn’t want to.

Her parents are more than willing to take her in. The rest of the town, not so much. Or, at least not so much in the person of her lifelong arch-nemesis, who is happy to have Sabrina back in the Dells just so that she can continue her literally lifelong torture of the one girl in school who never begged to be part of her inner circle of bitches.

I have to say that part of the story was not my favorite.

What was lovely, however, was the relationship that Sabrina reluctantly develops, one-step-forward and two-steps-back, with Ray Harper, the new owner of The Otter Club, a restaurant and supper club that has been in his family – and in the Dells – so long that both are institutions.

A relationship that is pushed and pulled and connived at and encouraged, not just by Sabrina’s mother who wants her oldest daughter to come home, but by the Monroe family’s resident ghost, Molly.

The Monroe women see dead people. It’s their duty to help the recently deceased with unfinished business finish that business so they can actually rest in peace. Or in the light. Or wherever they go when they shuffle off this mortal coil and all the worries and responsibilities that go along with it.

Molly, dead since Prohibition, is an exception. Whatever unfinished business she has can’t seem to be resolved, so she sticks around and helps the Monroes do the work that only they can do.

So far, at least, it hasn’t been a terrible afterlife. Molly loves movies – especially romantic comedies. She wants her friend Sabrina to get her own happy ending – no matter how much baggage Sabrina has piled in the way. Little do either Sabrina or Molly know that helping Sabrina get out of her own way with Ray Harper will lead Molly to her own, long delayed but seemingly literal, happy ever after.

Escape Rating B: This is one of those books that drove me absolutely crazy, both in a good way AND in a bad way at the same time.

The good way took me on a bit of a search, because as I read I kept having that “I’ve read this before” kind of deja vu. The trip down reading memory lane was a whole lot of fun, as I managed to latch onto what this reminded me of so strongly.

For most of this story, Molly reads very much like Colleen, the genius loci of Stella Maris Island in Susan M. Boyer’s cozy mystery series that begins with Lowcountry Boil. Both Molly and Colleen are ghosts that protect their respective families, have limited ability to act in the real world, and do one heck of a lot of spying for their favorite people. Both also died young with unfinished business.

But the heart of the ghostly interactions in The Kindred Spirits Supper Club echoes the way that the paranormal talent that Clare Cermak the protagonist of Robin D. Owens’ Ghost Seer series finds herself inheriting a family gift for interacting with the spirit world and helping the recently and not-so-recently dead finish their unfinished business and “go towards the light”. Clare and Sabrina would have a lot to talk about, especially about the negative impact that “seeing dead people’ has on their social life, professional reputation, and opportunities for romance.

In the not so good way of driving me bonkers, while I know that Erika is supposed to serve as the villain of the piece, her behavior, especially the way it continued to the present day, read as much too far over the top. The amount of humiliation that she has put Sabrina through since grade school – and continues into adulthood – made for an uncomfortable read. As did the way that Ray’s parents treated him over his desire to stay in the Dells and continue to operate his late uncle’s supper club. The way that relationship resolved worked out for the best, but it middled in a way that was pretty damn nasty.

And it still made more sense than Erika’s crazy. I detested Erika’s crazy and it colored my feelings about the entire book, which is a real shame because I wanted to love this book and expected to love this book but the Erika plotline made that impossible.

Your reading mileage may vary.

Even though I guessed the resolution of Molly’s story fairly early on, I still liked that part of the story and Molly as a character. I also enjoyed the strong sense of place that imbues this book – another similarity to the Lowcountry Boil series, BTW. In spite of living in Chicago for 20 years, I never visited the Dells as so many Chicagoans do. This story both made me wish I had and made me feel like I almost but not quite did.

I also felt for Sabrina, her love of her family combined with her conflicting desires both to be with them and to be as far away from the Dells as possible. Her retreats into herself, her panic attacks and her anxieties made her feel real and I liked her a lot. I wanted to see her happy as much as Molly did.

In the end, while there was one character/situation to hate, there was a LOT to love about The Kindred Spirits Supper Club.

Review: Game of Hearts by Cathy Yardley

Review: Game of Hearts by Cathy YardleyGame of Hearts (Fandom Hearts #3) by Cathy Yardley
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fandom Hearts #3
Pages: 236
Published by Cathy Yardley on January 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Kyla Summers has been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to get her cosplay business off the ground, and only one thing stands in her way. She needs someone to take over the auto shop, and there’s only one person she can think of to call…

Jericho Salomon hasn’t been back in his home town since he joined a biker gang and rode off nine years ago. When his best friend’s kid sister calls begging for help, he knows that he owes the family a debt and he intends to pay. This is easier said than done once he finds that the kid is all grown up…

She needs a pair of skillful hands. He needs to keep his hands off. When sparks begin to fly, can they keep things strictly business, or will their hearts get hopelessly tangled? No more games, it’s time to play for keeps.

My Review:

In the first two books in this series, Level Up and One True Pairing, the fandom in the heroine’s heart was pretty much front and center in their lives. But Kyla Summers’ love of cosplay reads as more like an afterthought in hers – because that’s the way that Kyla treats it.

Or rather, that’s how she lets other people, particularly her brother, guilt her into treating it.

Then again, Kyla lets her selfish and self-centered brother Billy guilt her into pulling all of her weight and most of his in the operation of the family auto repair business that they inherited from their parents.

Not that their parents are dead – it’s not that kind of inheritance. But their parents are off RV’ing on their earned and deserved retirement, leaving both the business and the operation of it to Kyla and Billy.

The problem is that Kyla is the one doing the lion’s share of the work. Not that Billy and Kyla aren’t both excellent mechanics. But Kyla has to be both mechanic and business manager, while Billy is the one who takes vacations while telling Kyla that whenever she wants to take a couple of days its never a good time.

And yes, there’s a problem there in that Billy TAKES vacation while Kyla ASKS for vacation – and gets shot down every single damn time.

Obviously, I don’t like Billy much and nothing that happens in the story makes me warm up to him at all. He’s not evil, but he’s self-absorbed and self-centered and it takes a mammoth amount of swallowing her justified and utterly righteous indignation for Kyla to finally call him on all his shit – of which there is a metric buttload.

When Billy comes back to town a day late after yet another vacation and with a broken arm, no less, Kyla is pretty much at her wit’s end. He can’t work on cars one handed, and the place needs two mechanics to keep up with the business they have and honestly need.

But Kyla was planning on taking every spare minute she could to work on costumes ahead of a Con that’s only a month away. There’s a costume contest, and if she wins it’s $10,000 and publicity for her dream costuming business AND an in with a big costume and geekwear company like Her Universe, but not actually them, of course.

With Billy’s broken arm, along with his unwillingness to learn any of the business side of the garage, Kyla knows it will take her every waking minute – along with any minute she might collapse from exhaustion – to keep the business afloat.

Like always, Billy minimizes and dismisses her cosplay. And pretty much everything else that Kyla wants, needs, or says. So, after a night of drinking and crying on the shoulders of her besties, the sisters who run the bookstore and collectibles shop that serves as an anchor for this entire series, Kyla drunk calls her teenage crush, Jericho Salomon.

Not because it’s a drunk booty call or even just a maudlin, drunk call to an ex-lover, because they never were that, but because Jericho spent his growing up years right beside Kyla and Billy in the Summers’ auto repair shop, and learned how to fix engines right beside them.

With Billy out of commission, Kyla needs another ace mechanic to keep up with the garage and maybe let her carve out enough time to finish the costumes she needs for the contest.

When Jericho comes back to Snoqualmie to help her out, she gets a whole lot more than just a great mechanic, and even more than a man who is willing to work on Kyla’s personal engine until it’s humming a very happy tune indeed.

As much as Jericho and Kyla enjoy each other’s company, both in bed and out, and as much as he wants to support her, not just with the repair shop but with everything in her life, he has too many bad memories in Snoqualmie and too many commitments outside it to ever plan on staying.

And Kyla is much too used to having no one to rely on to trust that he’ll ever come back once he’s gone.

Escape Rating B: I read the second book in this series, One True Pairing, a few years back and absolutely adored it, so I was all in to go back and read Level Up a few weeks ago when it popped up for a tour, and I’m back in Snoqualmie for Game of Hearts.

The title of which, I just realized this minute, is a play on Game of Thrones. Not that there is a Red Wedding or anything remotely like one, but rather that the signature costumes that Kyla works on for that contest are based on GoT.

As I said, I loved One True Pairing, and really liked Level Up. But I had some seriously mixed feelings about Game of Hearts for at least half of the book. Because I wanted to rant and rave about the patriarchy that had conditioned Kyla to believe that her wants and needs always had to take second place to Billy’s.

Not that Kyla isn’t a grown-ass woman who needs to take control of her own life and put herself first because no one else is going to, but I was watching her internal dialog and desperation and wanted to shake her until some backbone filtered in – which it finally did and hallelujah for that.

Let’s just say I REALLY didn’t like Billy because he just never gets hit by a big enough clue-by-four – and not that both Kyla and Jericho didn’t try. Billy’s sense of entitlement was pretty epic.

So this was a really hard read for me until Kyla started to use her own voice and take charge of her own life and stand up for her own self when it came to her brother.

Once Jericho enters the picture the story changed for me, a whole lot and very much for the better. Because Jericho believes in Kyla and does his level best to enable her to fulfill her dreams. That he also falls in love with her and vice versa was just delicious icing on what suddenly became a rather tasty cake, because his belief and real support was the most important thing.

When he does fall down and does disappoint her and doesn’t fulfill all of his promises – which becomes the central dramatic tension in the story, he still never minimizes her dreams or her desires. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t screw up and screw things up, but it happens because he has a lot of his own crap to deal with and doesn’t handle it well at times because he’s human like the rest of us and not ever because he thinks she’s less than.

So, as much as my teeth ground on this one in the beginning, I was definitely cheering for Kyla and Jericho by the end. So now that I’m three books in, I’m hoping that the rest of this series is going to turn up on tour in the months ahead. It feels a bit like someone is capitalizing on the overwhelming success and utter wonderfulness of Olivia Dade’s Spoiler Alert, and I’m just fine with that if it means more books like the Fandom Hearts series get more attention.

Meanwhile, I’ll be looking forward to the next book in THIS series, What Happens at Con the next time my own fannish heart needs a bit of a tune-up.

 

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia HibbertAct Your Age, Eve Brown (The Brown Sisters, #3) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Brown Sisters #3
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Act Your Age, Eve Brown the flightiest Brown sister crashes into the life of an uptight B&B owner and has him falling hard—literally.
Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It's time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she's not entirely sure how…
Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.
Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

My Review:

At the tail end of 2020, I was in a rather desperate mood for stories with happy endings – so I scheduled an entire week of romances. Two of those romances were the first two books in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown and Take a Hint, Dani Brown. Both of them turned out to be exactly what I was looking for that week, contemporary romances with a bit of bite and more than a bit of depth, and with absolutely marvelous and hard won happy endings.

But the series is a trilogy, because there are not one, not two, but three Brown Sisters. Now it’s time for the third and youngest of the Brown Sisters to get her due, by following, as her sisters did in their turns, the titular instruction.

Eve’s parents pretty much force the issue as the story begins. It seems as if 20something Eve is an example of a “failure to launch”. She’s in her mid-20s, she’s still living at home, she’s still living off the generous allowance – read that as trust fund distribution – her wealthy and successful parents provide for her, and she’s never held down a “real” job for any length of time.

She’s tried plenty of things, but Eve has a tendency to give up when the going gets tough. Something that she can afford to do, because her parents are financially backstopping her seeming inability to start adulting.

When Eve gives up her latest venture as a wedding planner because her client turned bridezilla, Eve’s parents give her an ultimatum that admittedly feels a bit like kicking her when she’s down.

They’re taking away her allowance and her room in the family mansion. She has a year to find and keep a job, AND support herself with her own earnings, before they’ll consider supporting her again.

At first, it feels like a bit of necessary tough love. Eve doesn’t seem to be adulting, and her self-talk sounds very self-defeating. She sees herself as a failure next to her driving and successful older sisters, and she does run away when things get hard.

And yet, she tries. She tries hard at everything she does. But just like her sisters, the drumbeat of her parents’ disappointed voices keeps her putting herself down at every single turn. She knows she’s a disappointment to them, because they constantly reinforce that message. So she lives down to it.

Faced with having to figure out things by herself and for herself, or so it seems, Eve first takes herself on a long drive to think over her options and escape her demons. Only to quite literally run right over one.

Eve needs a job. Jacob Wayne needs a chef for his Bed and Breakfast. Cooking classes are among the many, many things that Eve has dabbled in, so she sees his “help wanted” sign and drops in without an appointment or a CV in hopes that she can wow him into letting her have the job, at least on a temporary basis.

Jacob is sure it’s not going to work. He’s anal retentive to the max, and Eve is a master chaos agent. He shouldn’t let her into his B&B, let alone into his life. But once she’s run over him with her car, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

Not that, as it turns out, either of them ever seriously did have any choice but each other.

Escape Rating B+: The entire Brown Sisters trilogy has been absolutely marvelous, but I think that Eve is probably my least favorite of the sisters. Now that the series is complete, I can say that I liked Dani’s story the best, Chloe’s second and Eve’s not quite as much – but still quite a lot.

First let me say that I think these books can each be read as a standalone. The stories don’t exactly depend on each other, or on knowledge gained in one carrying over to the next, but I think there’s more depth if you read them all. And they’re all marvelous so why wouldn’t you?

But I said that Eve was my least favorite of the sisters, or at least her story is my least favorite – and I need to get back to that.

Although this series isn’t in first-person singular, this book still reads as being very much from Eve’s point of view. At the beginning, Eve’s negative self-talk really reads like a downer. And it also reads very much as if Eve’s parents are right – however disastrously they go about it. That Eve’s problems are self-inflicted because she just doesn’t have enough stick-to-itiveness.

It’s only as the story goes on, as we see Eve stick to her new job at the B&B, and most importantly as we see into the heart of her coping mechanisms, that we begin to realize that Eve is dealing with her own shit in ways that are much less obvious than either her sister Chloe’s chronic pain and fibromyalgia or Dani’s commitment-phobic workaholism.

Once Eve is able to put a name to her neurodiversity, that she is on the autism spectrum, as she accepts herself as she is, we do too. And it’s much easier to both feel for her and to see that her coping skills and where they fall short also feed into the way that her autism and the fact that girls are less likely to be diagnosed than boys has fed into her parents’ ableism and assumptions about the reasons for her behavior.

In comparison, Jacob is a whole lot more straightforward. He is also on the spectrum, but, well, he’s a guy. His autism was diagnosed in childhood, he’s been learning to cope with it ever since. His behavior, his actions, his coping mechanisms all seem more obvious because they are – because as soon as he was under the care of someone who actually cared, he got help. And he got that help because his caregiver knew what to look for because he was male and the signs were what they were expected to be.

Also, as much as Eve’s parents and extended family love each other, and they definitely do and it’s wonderfully obvious, her family is also a hot mess. They mean well, but that well-meaning really messes things up in the execution. It was obvious from the outset of Jacob and Eve’s romantic relationship exactly what was going to precipitate the inevitable breakup crisis. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop while watching it hanging up their heads by a fraying shoelace. That her family turned out to be the agency for it seemed equally inevitable.

Not that the friendship stuff that was inserted to string out that tension a bit longer wasn’t fun and interesting on its own but I had reached the point where the story needed to get on with it so they could reach the happy ending.

I was so very ready for that. And it was awesome and lovely and acknowledged the progress of both of their journeys, all at the same wonderful time. I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to the Brown Sisters and their eccentric family, but I’m looking forward to whatever and whoever this author introduces me to next!

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

Review: Level Up by Cathy YardleyLevel Up (Fandom Hearts, #1) by Cathy Yardley
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fandom Hearts #1
Pages: 154
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 11, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Geeky introvert Tessa Rodriguez will do whatever it takes to get promoted to video game engineer– including create a fandom-based video game in just three weeks. The only problem is, she can't do it alone. Now, she needs to strong-arm, cajole, and otherwise socialize with her video game coworkers, especially her roommate, Adam, who’s always been strictly business with her. The more they work together, though, the closer they get…
Adam London has always thought of his roomie Tessa as “one of the guys” until he agreed to help her with this crazy project. Now, he’s thinking of her all the time… and certainly as something more than just a roommate! But his last girlfriend broke up with him to follow her ambitions, and he knows that Tessa is obsessed with getting ahead in the video game world.
Going from friends to something more is one hell of a challenge. Can Tessa and Adam level up their relationship to love?

My Review:

I reviewed the second book in the Fandom Hearts series, One True Pairing, several years ago for Library Journal. I loved it so much that I gave it a Starred Review. While that review may be behind a paywall, a variation of it is here on Goodreads.

I also enjoyed it so much that I bought the first book in the series, Level Up, certain that I would get a round tuit eventually. When the notification for this tour popped up I decided that eventually was finally here.

And I have to say that Level Up was just as much geeky fun as One True Pairing.

The title of Level Up is a bit of a pun. Both Tessa and Adam work for the game design company MPG, whose name is also a pun but stands for Mysterious Pickles Games – not that anyone really calls the place that.

And they’re roommates. Adam owns the house, Tessa rents a room and shares the public spaces. They’re friend-ly rather than friends, as Tessa is very much of an introvert while Adam has a whole coterie of male friends that he works with and spends time gaming with outside of work.

The thing is that both Tessa and Adam need to do some leveling up in their lives and neither of them are quite ready to acknowledge it. Both are a year out of long-term relationships that went badly, and that’s a lot of it.

But Tessa in particular is in more than a bit of a “pickle” of her very own. She’s an excellent coder, she has serious skills in coding and design, but she’s a woman trying to break into a profession, a company and a gang that is an entirely male preserve.

She knows that she’s ready to level up her career and move from being merely the audio coder to a member of the engineering team. She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone nearly 24/7 in the hopes that her talents will be recognized.

And it just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.

If Tessa wants to be recognized, she needs to put herself into a position where she can be known – at least a little bit. She needs to spend some time with her colleagues and co-workers and not holed up in her cubicle or her room.

Stepping outside of her comfort zone – and her walls – brings her the friendship of the geeky women who operate the geeky bookstore around the corner from the house. Tessa finds friendship and sisterhood with a group of women who are every bit as nerdy and geeky as she is herself. She belongs.

And she can help them as much as they can help her.

They need to win a fandom contest to say the bookstore. Tessa needs a gaming project that she can spearhead to bring herself the right kind of attention at MPG. And Adam needs to get over his high-maintenance ex by getting himself a girlfriend.

Those things shouldn’t quite go together. But they do. And it’s awesome, geeky romantic fun every level along the way.

Escape Rating A-: There is just so much to love in the Fandom Hearts series, especially for anyone who is a bit of a geek themselves. The portrait of life at a game developer in Level Up, and the way that One True Pairing speaks to the heart of “shipping” are just so much fun.

This story succeeds on multiple levels – and they’re all a lot of fun.

The romance here is a geeky version of friends to lovers. Tessa and Adam are platonic roommates. They’ve worked together for a while and shared a house for a year. They’ve had a chance to get to know each other and they’re friend-ly without being close friends. It also seems like their bad breakups have insulated them from each other, keeping them from seeing each other as possible romantic partners.

There are, after all, plenty of professional pitfalls for Tessa if she gets romantically involved with a co-worker or even dresses like anything other than “one of the guys”. She’s in an awkward spot. And it’s a very real kind of awkward. Software development companies of all types are known to be sausage-fests. All guys, all the time, to the point where measuring whose is biggest is practically a daily event.

That the team lead of this particular development group is a known asshole to everyone but especially to women makes this scenario feel especially true to life. Tessa still wants in, but knows that she’ll have to prove herself every single day and pay for it with her career if she ever falls a bit short – even if that shortfall is something that a man would be forgiven for instantly.

So Tessa’s spearheading of this project for her new friends is ballsy. Necessary for her career. And a tightrope walk every minute. And we feel for her.

The romance is glittery icing on top of Tessa’s hard-working and hard-won cake. Adam has to both get over his ex and see her for the user that she really is. And that he and Tessa are good for each other because they already like each other for who they really are and not anyone they need to pretend to be.

And it’s lovely that they figure that out while snowbound – even if that particular part of the scenario felt a bit too close to real life this month!

For those of us who are geeky girls, Fandom Hearts is a series that demonstrates that we can be just exactly who we are and still meet cute and find romance without compromising on our love of all things nerdy.

BTW if the plot of One True Pairing reminds readers a bit of last year’s marvelous Spoiler Alert, just remember that One True Pairing was originally published in 2017. So if you like one you’ll love the other and definitely vice-versa. After all, we’ve all shipped the story of a romance between one of the characters we love – or the actor who plays them – and a real-life person more than a few times in our fannish lives, haven’t we?