Tag Archives: contemporary

Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

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Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

Cochrun, Alison. Kiss Her Once for Me. 368 pp. Atria Books, 2022. ISBN 978-1982191139 $17.99

*****

I feel the same about LGBTQIA+ romance as I do about science fiction novels: as long as the plot is engaging, the setting is strong, the characters compelling (and their names pronounceable), I’m in, even though I don’t self-identify as a science fiction fanatic or queer. I selected this from NetGalley’s offerings months ago, tugged in by the twisty premise of demisexual girl gets fake engaged for money to her ex’s brother. I felt like I just wasn’t in the mood for a queer romance, or a holiday story, and avoiding cracking open my ARC until there were only about three days left on the ticking clock of the review window. I could not put this one down and finished it just in time.

Told in flashbacks that describe a webcomic series based on a perfect romantic snow day with a mysterious Jack one a year ago, and Ellie’s present day dilemma (should she confess the terms of the engagement to Jack? Disclose to Andrew Jack is the manic pixie dream butch from last Christmas?), the only thing that could make this more perfect is if the described comic sections were actual panels…or if the entire book was a graphic novel, hint, hint, @SimonAndSchuster, get on it already!

Ellie is an empathetic character. An animation school grad who got her dream job and then got let go for not being able to cut it, she landed at a coffee-shop with a terrible boss where Instagramming foam creations on lattes is her artistic outlet. Denied a promotion and facing eviction because her terrible! mother is exhorting her as payback for RAISING her, a wealthy investment banker/hedge fund type overhears her plight, takes her on a date, and suggests they catch two birds with one stone and get engaged to solve her financial troubles and allow him access to his inheritance that will only be unlocked if he marries. Ellie drunkenly agrees, and Andrew whisks her off to spend the holidays at his family’s cabin (read: mansion) to introduce her to his relatives and solidify the relationship. His sister Jacqueline/Jack turns out to be the beautiful butch baker from last year’s Powell’s excursion. In a side plot, her best friend–trans tattooed kindergarten teacher Dylan–was Andrew’s super-sekrit hookup last year when Jack was skipping the family festivities and hooking up with Ellie.

The characters are three-dimensional and pop off the page, and they are also delightfully messy and unexpected. Andrew and Jack’s Korean-Americanism is a subtle undercurrent. The rich widowed grandmothers are best buds with an it’s five o’clock somewhere attitude, and in spite of their imbibing, are more astute than they initially let on. Only Andrew and Jack’s father is stereotypical, with a piece on the side and outdated, unsupportive, critical attitudes. Pop culture is a strong secondary character in the novel, with Alexa playlists popping up to provide the perfect pop music soundtrack. Cochrun pays homage to Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, Fun Home, and While You Were Sleeping. Portland has a life of its, with its lack of snow planning, coffee culture, and queer pride.

It’s difficult not to contrast Kiss Her Once for Me with Not The Plan, which I read in the same week. Both couples have a keyword that means time to tell the truth; “honesty game?” works for Jack and Ellie in a way “blunt, honest?” does not for Isa and Karim. The slow burn and careful respect is hot with Jack and Ellie, and plodding and wooden with Isa and Karim. The detailed sex scenes in Kiss Her Once For Me incorporate sensory detail and delicacy, emotion and acceptance, and make unsexy parts sexy, instead of focusing just on erogenous zones. Bodies in Not The Plan are described in gym-honed terms, firm and perfect, while in Kiss Her Once for Me the imperfections are adualated: stretch marks and soft bellies and hairy legs are celebrated as “so fucking perfect.”

Ironically, what makes Kiss Her Once for Me a 5 star (perfect!) book is how it celebrates messy, looking at failures as falls you can pick yourself back up after. “It’s not a failure to let people see you imperfections, it’s vulnerability,” says the best friend who seems to have her shit together but failed her bar exam. Words to take to heart.

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

The Do Over by Suzanne Parker

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The Do Over by Suzanne Parker

Parker, Suzanne. The Do Over. Avon, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN ‎ 978-0063216051 $16.99

***

On the verge of landing an executive position, Lily Lee, start-up consultant and empowering author, discovers she has failed her background check due to being a few credits shy of her diploma. She will need to return to Carlthorpe College, not just to make up a class, but to meet graduation requirements that have changed in the last ten years. This oversight also threatens her personal integrity and second book deal. Insult to injury is bumping into her college boyfriend Jacob Cho (the one that broke her heart, natch!) who is now a T.A. for one of her required computer science courses–unless she can get off the waitlist for statistics.

In the midst of the drama, Lily gets the opportunity to try things she missed out on and re-experience a frat party (attending doesn’t improve with age) and stocking up on road trip and dorm snacks, but adding to her stress is her first book simultaneously getting criticized, mansplained AND borderline plagiarized by a white dude intent on creating a series of feminist business books with his sister to both bury Lily’s work and use her for an “urban” edge.

Lily’s Korean ancestry helps to round out her characterization in terms of her relationship with (and expectations of) her family. Dialogue is sprinkled with Korean terms and she references favorite Korean dishes. I recognize it is not the job of the author to educate this white girl on banchan and translations, but I appreciated the effort and level of detail that Park went to.

Also appreciated are the details of Lily’s anxiety, which manifested in college, and which she still goes to somes lengths to downplay or hide until pressed. Luckily, relief comes in the form of a ride-or-die bestie, Mia, who keeps showing up on campus for support; her new roomie; Beth, a baker with a case of extreme positivity; and a puppy-ish group of young Asian students who form a study group. Lily is able to be real and honest and is accepted when she discloses her stressors and coping mechanisms, and coming clean about her mental health helps to direct her next work in progress.

The romance feels less central to the plot than Lily’s coming of age: standing up to the dean that could have prevented the credits mishap, disclosing her anxiety, confronting a privileged male, rethinking her career goals, and reframing her work. Amends with Jake happen too, but way late in the book, and not until after the two violate Title IX by falling into bed together (she was going to drop his class, then doesn’t) and then deciding to keep it professional. To my disappointment, sexy scenes are kept behind firmly closed (and locked) doors.

What stopped this from being a four-star book for me was that it was billed as a second-romance and there is a HEA, but I wanted more Jake and more steam. The author (or editor’s) choice to flashback to his devotion even as they are breaking up, in the form a promise no matter what Jake will always pick up when Lily calls, is placed way too close to her actually needing him to follow through on that promise. In another flashback, her reaction to his needing to follow through on the events that lead to her separation are immature. His apology for it ten years later seems unnecessary. He (immaturely) asks her to no be mad, to be happy — you cannot tell other people how to feel. At thirty-two, these characters should be a little more evolved.

One last bone to pick: the reference to women as females as though they are biological specimens is a personal pet peeve. It’s great Lily is the first lady to be a intern with the prestigious company Solv, but multiple times throughout the book there are references to humans as female (and not just by the statistician protagonist) that made me squirm and made the book feel dated in a time when we are evolving from gender as biology and sex as binary to a spectrum. Since I read this in ARC, it’s not too late to fix it.

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

Ship Wrecked by Olivia Dade

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<em>Ship Wrecked</em> by Olivia Dade

Dade, Olivia. Ship Wrecked. Avon, 2022. 416pp. ISBN 978-0063215870 $17.00

*****
I might have squeed when this one showed up in my NetGalley queue. Dade, author of a series of Guardians of the Gates themes stories based on a fictional epic (and possibly epically bad) fantasy television series, their stars, and their love interests, has done it again. I might or might not but definitely did read it three times even through my TBR pile is through the roof.

Ship Wrecked focuses on the story of Maria, a Swedish actress brimming with insults, jarred herring and body positivity, and her Viking-esque also full-bodied co-star Peter. Their meet-cute is a one-night stand that starts in a sauna and ends with Maria sneaking out the next morning… only to bump into Peter in the casting session. Having been left before, and never quite measuring up to his father’s dreams for him (hint: not acting) makes the rejection sting all the more and he plays it cool. Their talent and chemistry land them the roles that launch them into superstardom. Over multiple seasons of a shipwrecked story arc that leaves them filming remotely with a skeleton crew, Maria wins Peter over to friendship, not realizing his slow burn for her. When filming is finally over, and they are free to risk a crash and burn they give in to their passions, expecting geography will separate them, but an unexpected press tour forces them to stay in proximity, but meet one another’s families as well, waaay too early into a typical romance, but somehow, just right for their six-year friendship.

Dade’s male characters are real and flawed, and always have something to overcome: Marcus’s dyslexia, Alex’s ADHD and anxiety. For Peter, it’s a social ineptness that leaves his unable to make small talk or form friendships. Outgoing Maria seems to see through his surly mask and without taking on his emotional load, facilitates the crew forming a sort of family while on location, and helps Peter open up and make connections. He makes the mistake of not sticking up for her once, and then finds ways to keep her safe during some dangerous and dramatic filming moments. While they fundamentally disagree on the value of their job, it is cynical (or savvy) Maria who recognizes the choice to cast fat actors may have been to have them dramatically lose weight for their storyline, and she flat out refuses. And to be clear, she has her own hangups and issues and needs to resolve them. When Peter gets offered a job filming on location in another country, will Maria be forced to abandon her dreams to follow him, or to abandon her love to pursue her own path?

This warm, funny, sexy novel also dips into themes of abandonment (her adoption in late childhood, the death of his mother and rejection from his former fiance) and details the making of a television series. Body issues are dealt with handily–not jus challenged, but denounced–Maria refuses to starve herself or shave for the gig, no matter what the producers want, and is armed with an iron-clad contract, suitcases full of snacks, and a social media following for support.

One of my favorite part of these books is the reintroduction of past characters through their group chat thread. The exchanges are delightful and true to form and Dade manages to both remain true to the characterizations and move their stories forward. Bonus: the cover art is by the same artist as the previous two books, and is just perfect. Also: Why isn’t this series called Guardians of the Gates?

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

Part of Your World by Abby Jimenez

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Part of Your World by Abby Jimenez

Jimenez, Abby. Part of Your World. Forever, 2022. ISBN 978-1538704370 400 pp. $15.99

****

In this opposites-attract romance, Dr. Alexis Montgomery, fresh off an abusive relationship and still coping with the mean ex who won’t leave their shared home, meets and falls for grilled cheese making, baby goat fostering, tattooed carpenter who runs a B&B in Wakan in a tourist village two hours away. The scandal? Daniel is only 28 to her 38, and she is a shoe-in for chief of medicine Royaume Northwestern Hospital, where a Montgomery has not only been on staff, but involved, for 125 years. Her world is mansions, designer duds, and staff; Daniel’s is an inherited house hand-built by his grandfather, flannel, and DIY.

Alexis does a lot of angsting over the right thing to do, slowly growing less superficial. Daniel is nothing but sweet and mature –and maybe a bit too perfect to be believed. He’s got his own legacy of sorts: mayor of the little town, he’s the guy who takes care of everyone and everything. The tension is not in the will they/won’t they have sex, but will they/won’t they realize it’s a LOT more than just sex.

Jimenez uses humor very effectively. In one memorable scene, breakfast is disrupted by Daniel’s doggo bringing a gift of a not-dead-yet squirrel to the party and hilarity ensues. Alexis’s brother Derek has run off with a famous pop star, and since there is an NDA, Alexis is listening to her new sister-in-law’s complete oeuvre one album at a time, which seem to correspond with her own moods and the phasing of her relationship. at their second meeting, Daniel reveals there is a $100 bet for who can take her home, this becomes another in-joke. And on a memorable date, Daniel arranges for a showing at the drive through of The Princess Bride, and they quote lines to one another throughout the novel.

I have to admit, with the “fairy tale” description, red-headed heroine and title straight out of The Little Mermaid, I had to adjust my expectations. The cover reflects the city girl/country boy theme and the format: the story is told in alternating points of view, chapter by chapter. Domestic abuse is a strong theme and while it comes with no trigger warnings, a list of resources at the back is relevant and helpful.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #PartOfYourWorld via #NetGalley

How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days by K.M. Jackson

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How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days by K.M. Jackson

Jackson, K.M. How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days. Forever, 2021. ISBN 978-1538703502 336 pp. $15.99

***

What a fun romp of a book! While I am not personally a Keanu Reeves mega-fan of his acting work, Speed was awesome, he is very pretty to look at, and lives his life in a very cool, down-low, non-celebrity kind of way, so I definitely related to Bethany Lu’s crush. Okay, obsession; she is certain Keanu is The One for her and is devastated to find out he’s engaged to be married in 90 days! With the help of her best friend, can she stop the wedding, meet her soulmate, and convince him to marry her instead? And still complete the required pieces for her upcoming art show and not sell out to The Man who comes offering a too good to be true deal?

Bethany comes with some baggage that may be the reason behind her focus on the unattainable and avoidance of a real relationship: she lost her brother tragically, and Cole’s best friend–economics professor True –has become one of her best friends too BUT she refuses to acknowledge their simmering attraction. And True (aptly named!) nobly accompanies Lu to a variety of locations to try to track down the celebrity crush of the woman he’s in love with.

Told in alternating points of view, the fast paced story takes us from New York to New Mexico, Las Vegas and California, amusement parks, bungee jumping, and with close brushes with celebrities. The Black protagonist doesn’t shy away from racial issues and brings her voices concerns about Black artists and their work being undervalued by those who don’t understand the ancestral legacy. She also stands up to someone who makes a pass at her really well.

Clever chapter headings (Break Point, Much Ado, Rush Rush, A Walk in the Clouds) become an homage to Keanu’s body of work, and alongside plot points like a hard and fast deadline, surfing, and a vineyard, all serve as Easter egg for Keanu fans. And the banter-y language, pop-culture droppings, and gently poking at the NYC restaurant scene are highlights of the writing.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #HowToMarryKeanuReevesIn90Days from #NetGalley.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuintock

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McQuintock, Casey. One Last Stop. St. Martin’s / Griffin, 2021. ISBN 978-1250244499 418 pp. $16.99

*****

I was chuckling within the first few pages, and shed a few tears near the end. In this magical novel, jaded August has moved to NYC in part to escape her missing-persons obsessed mother. Everything about NYC is a little weird–her psychic roommate, her job at a pancake diner, and the cute girl on the Q train.

The writing is almost as lyrical and delicious as Francesca Lia Block’s classic Weetzie Bat, the characters unique and real, and the themes of coming to terms with your past, your sexuality, and the world at large resonates.

Hot sex, heart of gold friends, a campaign to save a restaurant and rescue a relic from the past made this unputdownable. It will find a different audience, maybe, than McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue but the carefully drawn, passionate characters and dialogue will appeal.

I received a digital review copy of #OneLastStop from #NetGalley.

Do-Over by Bethany Turner

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Do-Over by Bethany Turner

Turner, Bethany. Do-Over. Thomas Nelson, 2022. ISBN 978-0785244974 320 pp. $16.99

**

It’s nice to read about a career-focused woman in her almost forties–a refreshing change from all the twenty-somethings in NYC who have met their match. Corporate lawyer McKenna is GOOD at her job, and is working hard toward partner. When she gets called to the boardroom instead of getting promoted, she is put on (unpaid) leave for suspected embezzlement.

Sure it’s a mistake, she returns home, where her much younger sister is planning a wedding, and her genealogy obsessed father is excited to share some new finds with her. She reconnects with her high school rival Henry Blumenthal, now a documentarian, and when the family curse of unmarried women dying before the age of forty catches his attention, they are back in one another’s orbit.

McKenna is carrying a lot: biological clock, a not-so-great relationship with her family members, and the secret of her leave. I really enjoyed her character growth, and Henry’s awkwardness. I didn’t find some of his moves believable in an era of #MeToo – hiring McKenna, whisking her away for a trip and making a move came across a little sleazy, and was the flaw of the book for me.

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

Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon, Rachel Lynn. Weather Girl. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593200148 352 pp. $6

*****

I am in love with everything about this book. I appreciate my romance with a side of issues, peopled with real, imperfect characters, and Weather Girl’s protagonist Ari Abrams struggles with depression, managed by therapy, anti-depressants, and a fake-it-til-you-make it attitude. She struggles to keep her game face some days at her job as a television meteorologist, where her boss and her boss’s ex are creating a toxic work environment instead of the mentoring Ari had been hoping for. After an Emmy gets hurled through the window at the local Hilton, Air and the sports broadcaster on her shift, Russell Barringer, make a drunken pact at the annual Christmas party to Parent Trap their bosses into getting back together to create more office harmony, and find themselves bonding at swing dance lessons, a company retreat where Ari slips and breaks her elbow, her first hockey game on a double date with the bosses, and finally, an actual date to watch a solar eclipse.

Ari is fresh off a breakup and single dad Russell hasn’t dated in years, and it’s quickly apparent that the sparks between them aren’t just desperation. While Ari accessorizes with weather-themed jewelry and is on a single-handed mission to bring back the brooch and seems very comfortable in her skin and with her own desire, Russ defines himself as fat and is more self-conscious than Ari about getting naked in a refreshing and vulnerable twist. Part of Ari’s evolving to be more authentic is coming to terms with her own mother’s mental illness, that is just now getting addressed, and her mother’s lack of stability as a parent and in her romantic relationships.

The scheming to get Seth and Torrance back together seems to be working, and Ari is finally getting the things she needs to grow at her job, and things are great with Russell… until the bosses figure out what’s going on, and Ari sabotages the whole thing.

I loved Ari’s voice, which is sometimes funny, sometimes anxious, and wholly real. The chapters are titled like weather headlines and are cute, clever, and yet not over-the-top. Ari’s brother, his chef husband and their wise beyond their year five-year-old twins are strong characters, as is Russell’s twelve-year-old musical theatre geek daughter. Jewish practice is woven throughout, and an importance touchstone in the book. The sex is real: not just PiV, no immediate effortless orgasms, and with a hefty dose of consent, anxiety and insecurities. Most satisfying are the adult conversations Ari manages to have–with her brother, with her therapist, with Torrance, with her mother and with Russell. Her bravery to sort out the messy parts of her life is aspirational. This is book I want to own and re-read, and it’s going on my shelf next to Get a Life, Chloe Brown.

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