Monthly Archives: November 2022

Seven Percent of Ro Devereux by Ellen O’Clover

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Seven Percent of Ro Devereux by Ellen O’Clover

O’Clover, Ellen. Seven Percent of Ro Devereux. HarperTeen 2023. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0063255036. $18.99

*****

I am 100% in love with this book–which places the enemies-to-lovers genre in high school setting–even though it contains on-purpose mean. Endorsements from Rachel Lynn Solomon and Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka got me to download from NetGalley, and I was hooked by the end of the first chapter. I read it in one sitting, foregoing beauty sleep, and cried. Twice.

When Rose Devereux’s senior project, a future-predicting app based on a childhood cootie catcher game, goes viral, she is unexpectedly matched with her childhood best friend turned enemy, Alastair Miller, who agrees to participate in the ruse they are in love and meant to be for the price of his college tuition. The app, designed in conjunction with the help of family friend and behavioral scientist Vera, makes predictions for your future housing, career, number of children and then matches you to a prospective partner, based on your answers to a 100-question quiz. When a start-up becomes interested, eighteen-year-old Ro signs the contract against her father’s wishes, hoping to go directly into a coding career and skip college altogether. Her senior year of high school becomes lost to daily meetings, app coding adjustments, social media training, and fake dates, and no one seems to be listening to her assertation that human behavior is only 93% predictable, and Vera doesn’t want any part of profit-sharing on the project. MASH provides no guarantees, but XLR8’s narrative focuses only on the shiny promise of the peace of mind of leaving nothing to chance. Ro’s best friend Maren is reluctant to take the quiz and lock herself in, focusing instead on her own senior project, and provides some foreshadowing in wondering what happens when one half of a couple in a happy relationship opts into the partner matching aspect. And then, XLR8 starts adding unvetted questions to the quiz to stay “nimble” and the New York Times breaks an story on the rise of teenage depression due to dreams not just deferred but destroyed.

The slow burn between Miller and Rose is wholly believable. They were best friends because their mothers were best friends, and after Ro’s mom split when she was two to pursue a career, Miller’s mom Willow became of surrogate of sorts–until their freshman year, when they have a falling out when Ro cruelly puts Miller down at a party, simply to look cooler in front of the senior basketball star she’s crushing on. Ah, the terrible decisions we make at fifteen without thought to the consequences! And the grudges we hold, when the air could have been cleared with time and patience… Miller and Ro don’t speak for three years–until he comes up as her perfect match. Having a front seat to their gradual and skittish trust, acceptance, and reliance on one another was a beautiful thing. Supporting characters are a little more one-note: ambitious Evelyn, the orchestrator of the project; concerned dad, a coffee shop guy with restaurateur dreams. Felix, who is appointed as stylist and babysitter, channels a gender-neutral Nigel from Devil Wears Prada but stands out–and stands up, as does Maren.

The Denver setting and Colorado suburbs are a great contrast to the NYC publicity circuit. The XLR8 offices with their kombucha on tap and infused waters seem a bit tongue in cheek. I had a little trouble suspending my disbelief that the principal would be on board with MASH’s detraction from academics, with students downloading the app surreptitiously under their desks and couples being made and broken from an app. Still, this contemporary novel covers ethics, science, psychology, media, grief, fame, love and loyalty with authenticity and grace. Ro suffers tremendous losses and is incredibly resilient and resourceful, and she does the right thing, even when it’s not the easiest path, which is tremendously satisfying.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #SevenPercentofRoDevereux from #NetGalley.

Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath

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Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath

Heath. Virginia. Never Rescue a Rogue. Merriwell Sisters #2. Griffin, 2023. ISBN 978-1250787781 $16.99

****

Opposites attract in this British regency romance with notes of intrigue and mystery that has revealing hidden identities and relationships at the heart of it. Rakish Giles Sinclair is by all appearances doing his best to disappoint his father the Duke with his lavish, immoral lifestyle–while secretly making sound business deals and investments and doing right by his servants and tenants. Diana Merriwell is a confirmed spinster more interested in chasing a tidbit for her popular gossip column–while secretly undercover as a expose journalist. Their witty banter of putdowns is totally flirtation veiled as disdain, and when the Duke unexpectedly dies just as he’s about to announce his impending engagement, Giles fears his lineage will be exposed for a lie. Diana gets involved in helping him to prove his identity and of course, they fall for one another–but must resist!

The writing is juicy: rich with details of period etiquette, clothing and food, and the reparte is fast and satisfying. The book stands alone but seems to move the story of the first in the series forward. There are many funny and poignant moments, strong character development (including of secondary characters), and a darn good action story to boot.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #NeverRescueARogue from #NetGalley.

Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young

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Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young

Young, Louisa. Twelve Months and a Day. Penguin Putnam, 2023. ISBN 9780593542651. $17.00

****

More of a narrative with romantic elements, Twelve Months and a Day tells the story of two recently widowed people — and their recently deceased partners, who come together in their confusion and sorrow and develop friendships. The living one between musician Rasmas and videographer Roisin is gently and strategically nudged along by the ghostly Nico and Jay, whose presences are felt so strongly because they are literally still there, calling on help when Rasmas falls into a depressive episode, holding Roisin close in bed as she grieves. As someone open to the idea of spirit lingering, I completely bought into life after death as Young presented it.

The writing is so gorgeous–evocative, emotional, sensory. The pacing is slow in a deliberate and unhurried sense, giving plenty of space for character and plot to develop. Roisin and Rasmas share their thoughts and lives in ways they have not been able to in grief groups or with friends, mostly through email. When Rasmas makes a comeback with his band to share music he wrote for Jay, it is Roisin who is hired to be the interviewer and then documentarian.

There are few surprises but this is a highly compelling story. Fans of Josie Silver will devour this beautiful and poignant tale of what happens to love after loss, and rejoice in how love changes and goes on and clears the way for future love.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TwelveMonthsAndADay from #NetGalley.

Re-Read: The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan

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Re-Read: The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan

Jordan, Sherryl. The Raging Quiet. Simon & Schuster, 1999. 362 pp. ISBN 978-0689870040. $

*****

What is it about some books that makes you want to come back to them over and over? I first read The Raging Quiet and fell in love immediately. My favorite fantasy novels are set in a medieval time period with a little bit of magic or alternative history, in this book, sixteen-year-old Marnie is comely and feisty, a hard worker who wants to do right by her family when her father has a stroke and loses his position as overseer. The replacement overseer is angling for the nice house her large family still occupies, and when a vicious rumor circulates that Marnie was caught in the hay with a local boy, the only way to save face, and their home, is to agree to marry the lord’s son. Isake Isherbrook has been flirting with her and is a good dancer and easy on the eyes, so she agrees; wedded bliss is not all Marnie hopes. Her groom takes her to a village far from her home where she witnesses a local young man getting a beating. Isake stops for an ale and gets drunk, then brings her to a dilapidated cottage to consummate their marriage with none of the gentleness a virgin needs. Much to Marnie’s horror and relief, Isake falls to his death patching the roof thatch (while inebriated) a day later. Frantic, Marnie calls on the local village priest, who calls in a witness to affirm the death was an accident–but not before three villagers overhear her telling the priest it is her fault her new husband is dead (because she wished it on him, hoping to avoid the pain of her marriage bed again).

The kindly Father and his sometimes-ward Raver become Marnie’s only companions; all three are outsiders of sorts. It is Marnie who figures out Raver, named for his lunatic behavior, is not a madman but simply deaf. She begins to devise a way of communicating with hand signs, making friends with the wild boy and renaming him Raven. Meanwhile, there seems to be a question about the validity of Marnie inheriting, even though she was legally wed to Isake; his brother Pierce is convinced, like Isake, that there is something valuable left behind in the cottage by an ancestor who was put to death for witchcraft.

Mob mentality and the Isherbrook family are enemies to Marnie’s feminist free thinking; she just wants a peaceful life with her garden, goat and chickens, and with her kind and funny friend who sometimes sleeps at her hearth and sometimes disappears to the forest and fields for days. History seems to repeat herself when her efforts at making Raven civilized are viewed as witchcraft, and she is put to the test.

The novel examines religion from pure to maligned and provides a glimpse at how deaf people must have seemed in medieval times. The worldbuilding is perfect, the writing is luminous, and Jordan’s controlled vocabulary as Marnie and Raven make up their own language is nothing short of brilliant. The romance is slow burning, healing, consensual and romantic (if predictable). The painterly cover hints at the beauty of their relationship in spite of some ugliness to get there. Recommended for those who like medieval with a twist.

Great or Nothing by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood

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Great or Nothing by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood

McCullough, Joy; Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood. Great or Nothing. Delacorte Press, 2022. 400 pp. ISBN 978-0593372593 $11.99

****

Four authors voice the infamous March sisters in this novel based on Little Women, set during WWII. Beth, already dead and gone, is present through verse and in her sister’s memories. The remaining three sisters have had a falling out that disperses them. While Meg stays home in Concord with Marmee, missing her fellow schoolteacher John; Jo is working in a factory building parts for airplanes; and Amy is supposedly in art school in Montreal but has actually registered for the Red Cross where she has been shipped out to London and is serving as a Doughnut Dolly. More modern subplots address Japanese interment, Jo’s lesbianism, classism, bullying, and coping with grief.

The story contains many period details–music, makeup, brands, hairstyles, books and movies, and slang–that position it during the 1940s. Many are just name dropped in without context. A fan of the original who is of a certain age or older will hear the Glenn Miller orchestra, or envision Victory Red lipstick, but a Gen-X or younger will skim over the references.

The authors skillfully blend in many details from Little Women, referencing the time Amy burned Jo’s manuscript, the time Laurie rescued Amy from falling through the ice, the time Beth got the piano from Mr. Lawrence. Other favorite scenes are incorporated into the present timeline: the time Laurie proposed, the time Sallie lent Meg a dress and Meg made a fool of herself at a party, the time Meg defended John to Aunt March, the time Amy fell for Laurie, the time Jo found a love of her own, the time Marmee confessed her own inner anger (although here, it’s Meg she’s confiding in, not Jo). The faith, hope, yearning and moral compass of the original is here too, and never saccharin.

Beth’s poem(s) at the end of each chapter are a heart-wrenching reminder of her loss. As if writing from heaven, her omniscience view encompasses the past and hints at the future.

The digital version of this book contains letters from the various characters to one another; I found the font difficult to read. The cover, showing the four sisters from the back, in period clothing, allow the reader to imagine herself as one of the faceless characters.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #GreatOrNothing from #NetGalley

The Second You’re Single by Cara Tanamachi

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The Second You’re Single by Cara Tanamachi

Cara Tanamachi. The Second You’re Single. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2023. 288 pp. ISBN 78-1250842268. $16.99

***

Having just listened to a When in Romance episode focusing on holidays, this Valentine’s day story feels timely. Freelance writer Sora pledges to stay single during the month of February to avoid Valentine’s Day and all of its trappings and disappointments, and #gosolo goes viral. The initiative is ill-timed with reconnecting with a crush from elementary school, Jack, who is all grown up and an accomplished baker recovering from his divorce to a very manipulative person.

Jack seems too good to be true, but is the real deal and everything Sora ever wanted: kind, considerate, loves her plus-size body, they share a sense of humor and sense of adventure. She is having trouble trusting and is suspicious of his conniving ex. But most of all, she needs to decide if she should hold to the “no-dating in February” rule that she’s commemorating in a column that will hopefully launch a regular feature and allow her to do the kind of journalism she’s really like to sink her teeth into.

This was a solid romance with funny moments and descriptive detail–Jack’s concoctions are mouthwatering. Sora and Jack were fully realized characters and even supporting characters had a complexity and depth, from Sora’s sister to Jack’s friend.

I received a free advance reader’s edition of #TheSecondYoureSingle from #NetGalley.

Friendshipped by Savannah Scott

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Friendshipped by Savannah Scott

Scott, Savannah. Friendshipped (Get Shipped! #1). Dreamscape Audio, 2022. Unabridged. 8 Hours, 58 Minutes. ISBN 9781666624458 $48.99

***

I don’t listen to a lot of audio books, but decided for a change of pace to try this one, very admirably narrated by voice actors Amy McFadden and Will Damron. Ohio natives Lexi and Trevor grew up down the street from one another, work for the same newspaper, and now share a duplex. They have been best friends forever, with two failed attempts by Trevor (once in high school, once in college) to move their relationship out of the Friend Zone. The relationship hasn’t evolved or fizzled because they are each secretly in love with one another, and so convinced the other doesn’t feel the same, neither will take the risk of rejection or destroying their friendship. This sophomoric behavior and refusal to communicate is the central tension of this friends to lovers romance.

As a gentle read, with warm family and community relationships, expletives limited to “Oh my sweet pickles!” and no admittance of sex, this is a real throwback. Not even the threat of a tornado and just!one!bed! trope disrupts their ethos to not ruin their friendship. In spite of the dating app that brings several duds to Lexi, and that Trevor hops on to connect with Lexi at a friends insistence, this could have been set anytime in the last thirty years except for a few modern musical and Hollywood references. Lexi at times seems immature for her almost-23 years, and at other times, matronly and chaste. Trevor speaks with great sensitivity all the time and the wholesome of the characters was warm and sweet but not always believable. Overall, this slow burn was too painfully slow for me.

The voice actors are both very talented but I found Lexi’s midwestern twang seasoned with a hint of valley girl (attributed to her youth, and identifiable from her more polished mother and sister and aged MeMaw) to be mildly annoying and more Minnesota than Ohio. The commitment to a new distinctive voice for each character introduced is impressive and consistent, and the accents are authentic enough (although my mother’s Columbus relatives hard R’s are softened by a faint West Virginian drawl). This sweet story will be widely appealing to readers looking for a kind and cozy story.

I received a free advance reader’s edition of #Friend(Shipped) from #NetGalley

Something Wild and Wonderful by Anita Kelly

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Something Wild and Wonderful by Anita Kelly

Kelly, Anita. Something Wild and Wonderful. Forever, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN 978-1538754887. $16.99

*****

Sometimes I have a rating in my head a few pages in; sometimes it hits midway; I often close a book with a number of stars firmly assigned. This one crept up on me, and the more I wrote and reflected, the count just kept increasing. Truly, this is a five-star romance.

The Pacific Coast Trail is the backdrop for a relationship between a nurse and data analyst (computer analyst? something with IT? I can’t remember and eGalleys are not searchable, sadly.) Recently out–and ousted–by his religious Russian family, lonely Alexei is an avid birder and on the trail to come to terms with this loss and his identity as a gay man. Exuberant Ben has just passed the NCLEX and is on the trail to cleanse his palate from toxic relationships and gain some insight before settling into a health care career in geriatrics. Their meet cute is Alexei noticing a rattlesnake just before Ben and his hiking companions walk into it, and they reconnect again off the trail on a break for food and running water (sinks!) and decide to walk together for a bit.

Their particular chemistry is a mix of banter and attraction and deep appreciation and acceptance for who the other is. There are a few secrets (like the degree of Ben’s queerness) that are early humps to get over, but when Ben asks Alexei to step off the trail for a week to attend a family birthday party and his sister’s high school graduation, he allows the time for processing and Alexei agrees. Unfortunately, he returns to the trail alone when the weight of his loss is juxtaposed with Ben’s welcoming family. The next section of the book is a combination of sent and unsent letters to one another and to friends and family which becomes an excellent device for exploring thoughts and feelings, so Ben and Alexei can rejoin paths at the conclusion of the story.

The journey is a metaphor for their own character development through the desert and into lush woodlands. While told in both viewpoints, Alexei seems to be the one who is more introspective and has more to process, and so gets more screen time (page time?). Formerly observant, Alexei remains prayerful and his spirituality is a lovely thread throughout the novel.

Flora and fauna of the PCT, natural history of the area, and details of hiking culture (trail families, trail magic, trail names, rest days or “zero” days”) make the narrative highly authentic. I’m an armchair traveler and loved the vicarious trip towards the Canadian border, even though I would never want to walk all day and not shower for a week, myself. The descriptions of the setting make the story come alive; Alexei is without camera or phone and has an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals that Ben wholeheartedly embraces.

This title comes with thoughtful trigger warnings; medical descriptions stem from minor injuries, self-loathing and family rejection. Kelly is a candid but sensitive writer. The sex scenes are realistic and hot, and the writing hits a few really excellent notes, in particular when Alexei writes of desire lines, the paths that people and animals naturally form around developed paths, eschewing the planned way for the instinctual and right one. The character development is very well-executed (I’ll just say I figured some things out about Alexei before they were revealed). The many literary allusions speak to a very well read writer and augment the story, and the careful construction made this a five-star book for me.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #SomethingWildAndWonderful from #NetGalley.

Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen

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Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen

Jessen, Lauren Kung. Lunar Love. Forever, 2023. 336 pp. ISBN 978-1538710258 $15.99

****

Full of rich sensory detail, warm family relationships, and Chinese culture, Lunar Love focuses on a third generation traditional matchmaker who uses the Chinese zodiac for astrological compatibility. Just as Olivia is poised to take over the business, competitor Bennett launches a matchmaking app based on the Chinese zodiac–that matches incompatible signs! In the interest of scoping out the competition, she downloads ZodiaCupid and completes a profile that attracts Bennett’s attention, and they make a plan for a date at a baking school and clash over following the instructions as written. She begins a campaign to bring down ZodiaCupid as she’s falling for him. They make a bet they can use their own proven methods to find love for the other, but the chemistry between them seems like it’s going to be a barrier.

Food, especially baked goods, and flowers play a big role in the story. Olivia and Bennett’s first meeting is in a bakery, there’s the class they take together, and the horse shaped cake Olivia makes for her Po Po. The details flesh out the narrative and balance out Olivia’s sometimes immature and unhinged vendetta against ZodiaCupid. The ending is predictable but satisfying.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #LunarLove from #NetGalley.

Happy Place by Emily Henry

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Happy Place by Emily Henry

Henry, Emily. Happy Place. Viking, 2023. 400 pp. ISBN 9780241609460. $27.00

*****

Emily Henry excels at character-driven novels with romantic themes, and Happy Place is no exception. When Harriet and Wyn first hooked up, they kept it a secret from their college friends–some of whom they lived with–for a year before revealing their relationship. Almost a decade later, the same friends don’t know they broke up five months ago, and in the interest of keeping up appearances at their annual retreat in Maine, where the hostess Sabrina and their mutual friend Parth are planning to wed, Wyn and Harry must keep up the charade of their long-distance relationship and engagement. Happy Place swings back and forth between remembrances of summers and times past (Harry’s Happy Place) and Real Life, where ex-lovers are acting lovey-dovey and touchy-feely in front of their best friends while sharing a gorgeous master suite and behind closed doors, showering separately and one of them is sleeping on the floor.

The novel explores relationships of all types and how they change: college roommates grow up, get married, get pregnant, change majors and careers. Children become caregivers to widowed parents with Parkinsons. Friends hold onto resentments, keep secrets, betray and forgive. Harriet still isn’t clear on exactly why Wyn broke up with her–midway through her surgical residency in California, he returns home in Montana caring for his mother; they did live together briefly, but he was a shadow of himself, still fighting to hold minimum wage jobs while she was exhausted and never home.

Henry writes so evocatively. Throat-achingly full of Harriet’s and Wyn’s pain, angst and longing, she also made me feel the stickiness of the movie theatre floor at the cinema, the fuzzy edged world after a pot gummie, and the joy of a swim during the golden hour. She must have pages of details about Cleo, Sabrina, Harriet, Cleo’s wife Kimmy, Parth and Wyn that never even see the light of day. Each has a signature scent, a style, and a unique way of moving through the world that shows their individuality and similarities, the glue that holds them together, still. Having spent my life in New England, with many trips of Maine, she captures it’s appeal beautifully, and the story is masterfully, brilliantly plotted, with just enough tease to propel the reader forward to find out what really happened.

Sabrina, intent on making sure everybody has the best time ever at this last hurrah before her dad sells the vacation home, has a by-the-minute itinerary that schedules everything from grocery shopping to special surprise treats that speak to each one’s passion. Sabrina books studio time for Harry, whose newfound hobby of making pottery is a saving grace. Wyn shows up and Harry invites Wyn to take a turn at the wheel, and their conversation becomes a metaphor for their relationship. “You didn’t ruin it. We’re just changing the shape of it.” she tells him, summing up their struggle to remain friends with someone who was more than a friend from the moment they met.

I have two minor quibbles with the book, neither of which is with the author: there is sometimes repetitiveness in the way things are described (“creamy lobster rolls” pops up twice), which I chalk up to imprecise editing. I do not care for either the ebook or hardcover art, for which I lay fault with the art director–it’s too hot pink for New England, and poppy for the sadness within; Wyn is described with dark blond hair, and Harriet with dark and neither cover gets both right.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #HappyPlace from #NetGalley.