Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

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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: Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia Whisler

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although they’re certainly getting there.

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

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

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

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

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

My Review:

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

And are there ever plenty of those!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: 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!

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim Fay

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim FayLove & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: foodie fiction, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 208
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The #1 Indie Next Pick, in the vein of the classic 84, Charing Cross Road and Meet Me at the Museum, this witty and tender novel follows two women in 1960s America as they discover that food really does connect us all, and that friendship and laughter are the best medicine.

When twenty-seven-year-old Joan Bergstrom sends a fan letter--as well as a gift of saffron--to fifty-nine-year-old Imogen Fortier, a life-changing friendship begins. Joan lives in Los Angeles and is just starting out as a writer for the newspaper food pages. Imogen lives on Camano Island outside Seattle, writing a monthly column for a Pacific Northwest magazine, and while she can hunt elk and dig for clams, she's never tasted fresh garlic--exotic fare in the Northwest of the sixties. As the two women commune through their letters, they build a closeness that sustains them through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the unexpected in their own lives.
Food and a good life--they can't be separated. It is a discovery the women share, not only with each other, but with the men in their lives. Because of her correspondence with Joan, Imogen's decades-long marriage blossoms into something new and exciting, and in turn, Joan learns that true love does not always come in the form we expect it to. Into this beautiful, intimate world comes the ultimate test of Joan and Imogen's friendship--a test that summons their unconditional trust in each other.
A brief respite from our chaotic world, Love & Saffron is a gem of a novel, a reminder that food and friendship are the antidote to most any heartache, and that human connection will always be worth creating.

My Review:

It’s 1962 and the world is about to change. Neither Joan Bergstrom in LA nor Imogen Fortier on Camano Island (in Puget Sound outside Seattle) have any foreknowledge of what the 60s are going to bring, either to the country or to themselves.

They are both writers, and their correspondence begins when 27-year-old Joan writes a fan letter to 59-year-old Imogen about Imogen’s monthly column in a Seattle-based lifestyle magazine, Northwest Home & Life. Imogen is kind of who and what Joan wants to be when she grows up. Joan is Imogen’s chance to help, befriend, advise and share her soul with a woman living on the cusp of change.

They tell their stories to each other in letters over the next four years as the country grieves through the assassination of JFK and watches the Civil Rights Movement come to life. They mourn together, they hope together, and most importantly for their friendship, they explore the cuisines of the world together even though they’re usually eating more than 1,000 miles apart.

But they begin their friendship, their correspondence, and that delicious sharing with Joan’s first letter. It includes both a recipe and a few, precious strands of saffron to make the flavors come to life. And they do.

Joan is the explorer while Immy supports her and cheers her on. Joan starts out wanting to explore the cuisines of her native Los Angeles, and ends up finding the love of her life. Immy shares Joan’s discoveries, her recipes and her saffron, and discovers whole new facets of her husband of over 40 years. Both of their worlds expand because of their friendship with each other.

It all makes for a beautiful story, a sharing of hearts, minds and perspectives. With an ending that will make even the hardest of hearts shed a tear that it doesn’t last forever.

Escape Rating A: This is a bit more Charing Cross Road than Meet Me at the Museum, but it is every bit as marvelous as they are. It’s just that the ending has the bittersweetness of the former more than the hope of the latter. Not that both of those things aren’t part of its story.

I did figure out how this was going to end long before I got there but it honestly didn’t matter. This is one of those stories that are about the journey and not the destination.

More than anything else, what I read was that this journey was all about opening. Joan and Immy begin their journey far apart, in geography, in age, in circumstance. While those gaps aren’t bridged, they cease to matter. Because what they open up to each other are both their minds and their hearts.

They laugh together, they cry together, they share their triumphs, their tragedies, and their innermost thoughts. They inspire and encourage each other to leap and believe that the net will appear – even if the other has to provide that net. It’s impossible not to envy the depth of their friendship.

This is also not a book to read if you’re already hungry. From the very first letter, they share recipes, occasionally actual food and condiments, and encourage each other to explore new tastes and new cuisines at a time when the height of suburban culinary achievement was a fancy jello mold. They encourage each other to live a bigger life than they have been.

Love & Saffron is a very quick read with a lot of heart that kind of sidles up to the issues that were fomenting during the mid-1960s. We’re led into Joan and Immy’s sometimes sideways discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, racial prejudice and women’s rights through the perspectives of two intelligent women who are in the midst of having their eyes opened and their consciousness raised and figuring out where they are going to stand. It was easy to feel with them and for them and this is just a story that I’m very glad I read.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster

Review: The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori FosterThe Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Cemetery Indiana #1
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was fine arranging other people’s weddings… But life had other plans.

When it comes to creating the perfect happily-ever-after, Yardley Belanger is a bona fide miracle worker. From bridal bouquets to matching cowboy boots, the quirky wedding planner’s country-chic affairs have caused quite a stir in the small town of Cemetery. But when it comes to her own love life? She’s clueless.

Completely clueless.

Perhaps it’s for the best. The thirty-one-year-old has poured her heart and soul into her business and doesn’t have time for anything—or anyone—else. And that’s something not even the gorgeous older brother of her newest client can change…right?

All Travis Long wanted was to give his little sister, Sheena, the wedding of her dreams. Ever since the tragic death of their parents, he’s done everything he can to make her feel loved and give her everything she needs. Still…a country wedding? In a place called Cemetery? But Yardley seems to know exactly what to do and how to do it—and Travis finds himself falling for her a little more each day.

Soon Yardley and Travis find themselves being nudged together by well-meaning locals who want to see the town’s favorite wedding planner get her own happy ending.

My Review:

If you love quirky romances set in equally eccentric small towns you’ll love The Honeymoon Cottage, set in the weirdly named Cemetery, Indiana, where every business in town is required to include the town’s name in their own.

Which is a bit of a problem for wedding planner Yardley Belanger. She is terrific at planning weddings – and she’s a bit of a genius at marketing her business. But it’s hard for Yardley – as well as people who are shopping for a wedding planner – to get past “Cemetery Weddings” as a concept. Those two words just don’t go together.

(I’ve seen this in real life. We drove through a town named Newborn several months ago. There’s a taxidermy shop in Newborn called “Newborn Taxidermy” and I have the pictures to prove it. Those are two words that should NEVER appear in the same sentence. I digress.)

So Yardley’s story begins with her regular agitation of the town council to remove the naming requirement. Cemetery weddings, Cemetery candy, Cemetery florist and Cemetery Pit Stop BBQ are all on Yardley’s side.

But the president of the town council, 84 year old Betty Cemetery, great-granddaughter of the town founder Henry Harrison Cemetery, fights Yardley – and every other business owner in town – at every turn.

Howsomever, The Honeymoon Cottage is a small town romance, so the battle between Yardley and Betty isn’t the main event. That’s reserved for Yardley and her latest client, Sheena Long. Well, not exactly them either.

Because when Sheena comes to visit Yardley and plan her wedding, Sheena is accompanied not by her soon-to-be-groom (also the father of her soon-to-be-child) but by her older brother Travis. Travis raised Sheena after their parents died in an accident when Travis was 20 and Sheena was only 5. He’s been big brother, father, mother, uncle and best friend to his little sister for nearly all of her life and he’s the one paying for the wedding – no matter how many doubts he has about the groom.

Sheena and Yardley hit it off instantly. Travis and Yardley draw sparks from each other just as instantly. The kind of sparks that 31-year-old Yardley had pretty much given up on ever feeling ever.

But Travis is wary of getting involved with someone who is rapidly becoming important to his sister. It’s happened before and the results were NOT GOOD. Yardley has spent her whole life being denigrated by the two women who raised her – her mother and her aunt. Aurora and Lilith Belanger have spent Yardley’s whole life telling her how awkward and unlovable she is and that she didn’t inherit any of the family beauty or charm and that she can never do anything quite right.

The only person who believes in Yardley is her lifelong bestie Mimi. Yardley doesn’t even believe in herself.

So at first she doesn’t believe that Travis is really interested in her. Or that all of her fellow business owners in town really, truly want her to run for president of the town council in opposition to the recalcitrant Betty.

But all is not as it seems, because we never know what’s in someone else’s heart.

Travis really is interested, and they really are falling for each other. And in spite of their actions and attitudes, her mother and her aunt really do love her – even if they have a terrible way of showing it. While Betty is fighting Yardley not because there’s any real animosity, but because she’s lonely and arguing with Yardley has put more spring in her step than anything in a very long time.

And all it takes is the love of one adorable scamp of a dog to help put the pieces of Yardley’s life and her heart together.

Escape Rating A-: Like so many of my recent reads, The Honeymoon Cottage sits right on that line between romance and relationship. It sits very comfortably on that line, because it has oodles of elements of both of those genres.

For this reader, the most interesting parts of the story wrapped around Yardley’s terrific relationship with her bestie Mimi, her supporting and supportive relationships with the other business owners in Cemetery, and her surprising frenemy-ship with Betty Cemetery. Along with her growing love for Travis Long and especially for the dog Dodger who scampers his way into pretty much everyone’s hearts.

And on the other hand there’s her bizarre, toxic relationship with her mother and her aunt. Like Mimi, I wanted Yardley to blast those two for the way they treated her. The degree to which they’ve been negging her all of her life, to the point where her mother continually reminds her that getting pregnant with Yardley ruined her life, deserved a good blast or ten. In those circumstances, that Yardley turned out to be such a terrific person is beyond surprising all the way into practically unbelievable. It’s pretty clear that Mimi’s friendship and support saved Yardley’s sanity, and kept her self-esteem from being any lower and sinking straight into clinical depression.

That Yardley’s willingness to listen and empathize results in bringing Betty Cemetery out of her self-imposed shell and turns the two from potential enemies to very good friends worked beautifully. Something about the way the situation with her mother and aunt resolved didn’t quite feel real – but then it didn’t feel real to Mimi either.

The romance between Yardley and Travis is wonderful, it just didn’t feel like the center of the story, hence my wavering over whether this is romance or relationship. And again, falling on the relationship side, that both Yardley and Mimi develop strong friendships with Sheena, that Mimi’s husband and Sheena’s fiance become friends, and that Travis even comes to understand and approve of Sheena’s fiance and their relationship just adds to that feeling.

Whichever side you fall on, romance or relationships, The Honeymoon Cottage is a lovely story. The romance is heart melting, the relationships are, for the most part, heartwarming, and the dog naturally steals more than a few of the scenes. And the scenes that Dodger doesn’t steal are hilariously capped by the town’s mannequin mascot Kathleen – who somehow manages to be present for ALL of the town’s big events.

I confess I am a bit surprised that this is the first book in a series set in Cemetery because the story seemed complete. However, I look forward to seeing how Dodger and his humans are doing, and I can’t wait to see who will find their HEA next!