Tag Archives: NetGalley

The Last Encore by Elodie Colliard

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The Last Encore by Elodie Colliard

Colliard, Elodie. The Last Encore. self-published, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9781778137907.

**

Avery, a photographer, is recovering from multiple traumas: sexual assault in high school and the abrupt disappearance of her best friend shortly thereafter, and more recently, her mother’s mental health decline and her father’s dissolution of their marriage. She has mixed feelings when her best friend from high school, a talented pianist, reappears in her life after ten years of silence. Hired to play at a benefit where Avery is accompanying her father as his date (even though she’s furious at him for the affair he had), Josh is the musical equivalent of the keynote speaker and plays a song to tug at her heartstrings before he even knows she is in the audience. They reconnect, but the balance of indignation and let’s just forget about our conflict and our chemistry for not to try to restore the friendship, is not quite believable. The anxiety rings true and so does the trauma, but the processing isn’t on the page to see.

Minor details like Avery’s dad working for a hospital and not connecting with family if they are brought there in an emergency, and feeding her pet cat raw fish (a strict no-no!) make the whole novel a little less believable. Typos, poor grammar, and more telling than showing are the hallmarks of lack of professional editing.

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

A Dash of Salt and Pepper by Kosoko Jackson

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A Dash of Salt and Pepper by Kosoko Jackson

Kosoko Jackson. A Dash of Salt and Pepper. Berkley, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN 978-0593334461. $15.99

***

I am a sucker for culinary romances and New England settings. Solid writing, but the contemporary setting and fast and furious pop culture allusions felt frenetic to me, and I put it down at 40% read–I just could not get vested in the character.

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

The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic by Samantha Verant

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The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic by Samantha Verant

Verant, Samantha. The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic. Berkley, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0593546000. $17.00.

****

It’s always interesting to see how things trend in entertainment, in subject or theme. This is one of several novels set in Paris revolving around food I’ve read in the last few months. Kate is a woman on a culinary mission to open an authentic Parisian restaurant in spite of the location’s cursed reputation and the sneery son of the landlord, Charles, a chef in his own right who doesn’t believe she can pull it off. His mother, wildly eccentric Garrance, offers to provide both business advice and spice stock from her exotic indoor garden; oddly, any changes Kate makes at Garrance’s request result in tremendous success…

Full of romance and intrigue, The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic offers an authentic and exquisite French setting and decadent, delicious food writing, within the framework of a magical realism story. The novel includes recipes featured in the narrative, with clear instructions and ingredients that are fairly easy to source, prefaced by a note about philosophy (a recipe is a guideline!) and substitutions. They are mouthwatering and inspiring.

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

A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

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A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie  Murphy and Sierra Simone

Murphy, Julie and Sierra Simone. A Merry Little Meet Cute. Avon, 2022. 432 pp. ISBN 978-0063222571. $21.99

*****

When plus-sized adult film star Bianca von Honey and former bad-boy Nolan Shaw, a boy band member turned actor, get cast opposite one another in a Hallmark movie-esque time travel rom com, she’s under orders to not reveal her porn industry connection, and he’s under orders to maintain a squeaky-clean image for rebranding. Bee keeps her composure when she meets the fantasy-inspiring man whose photos are still taped all over the walls and ceiling of her childhood bedroom, and Nolan pretends not to recognize Bee as the alt-porn star who has been not only feeding his spank bank for three years, but hides his super-fan top-tier support of her members-only ClosedDoor (think OnlyFans) account. The chemistry seems to be there, but she thinks the funny look on his face when they meet is because he thinks she’s fat (he doesn’t).

No one except Bee knows Teddy Ray Fletcher, producer of the film under the newly minted Fletcher Productions, is also Uncle Ray Ray, budget porn mogul. Due to an unfortunate accident that takes out several original crew members, Teddy substitutes behind the scenes crew members gleaned from the adult film industry for hair, wardrobe, and gaffer. Mums the word, because no one can know the streams have been crossed, or the family-friendly Hope network will drop the Duke the Halls project and Teddy will be out a lot of much needed cash.

BrillIantly plotted, inclusive, diverse, sweet and raunchy, the narrative is fucking hilarious and full of quick comebacks, racy references, cultural allusions and laugh-out-loud funny moments. It’s entirely likely authors Murphy and Simone alternated the chapters as Bee and Nolan, but the voices and narrative, while different, are cohesive. I have sense that Murphy brings along the YA drama and angsty, pop culture allusions and movie-making know how, while Simone adds in the romance and historical aspects to create a really seamless whole; when Bee and Nolan are arguing over which BBQ reigns supreme (Texas or Kansas), the authors might be making their own preferences known, but it works.

Characters were multifaceted and diverse in background, ethnicity and sexuality, all normalized and embraced. Most of the Christmas romances I read exist in a vacuum of other religions and cultures not existing, but A Merry Little Meet cute references multiple Jewish-adjacent characters, which was refreshing and affirming. This holiday romance novel also deals positively with mental illness, sex work and slut-shaming, body positivity and fat shaming and feminism.

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

Once Upon a December by Amy E. Reichert

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Once Upon a December by Amy E. Reichert

Amy E. Reichert. Once Upon a December. Berkley, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9780593197790. $17.00

**1/2

The concept of this fantastical romance: Brigadoon, but a magickal Christmas village instead of an idyllic Scottish one (and the female lead is the one who stumbles into the land set apart from time) is sweet and well-developed. Astra Noel Snow thinks there is something vaguely familiar about the hottie that sells her the most delicious cherry almond kringle pastry and can’t quite place him… but Jack Clausen knows she has stopped by almost every time the Julemarked (Yule Market) appears in Milwaukee. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her name, their chemistry is off the charts, but Jack isn’t able to communicate his time restrictions, and Astra is disappointed to return from Christmas in Florida with her parents to find a brick wall where the Julemarked used to be, and her friend’s memories of it are fuzzy at best.

She spends the year fighting with her ex-husband about shared custody of Bernie (their dog) and dreaming of Jack. The next December first, Astra’s waiting to confront Jack when the Julemarked reappears, demanding an confirmation of her suspicions. They now have three and a half weeks to court while Astra has to decide if she wants to trade her library job, two parents, three best friends, and four seasons for a future and a family with Jack; it seems out of the question that he would leave the Julemarked when it’s so perfect and his work is so fulfilling.

It turns out the Julemarked has no currency, no WiFi, and a slow, peaceful pace. Hidden from sight like 12 Grimmauld Place and resembling a holiday Diagon Alley, the market appears from Dec 1-through midnight on Christmas Eve, popping up annually in a new spot each time, selling handmade items–toys, sweaters, pottery, baked goods–that the locals purchase as holiday gifts. The residents get a break through New Years… and then the Julemarked pops up somewhere else (a year later in real time but only a week later, for them) and it’s Christmas, again.

Strong in Danish culture and rooted in place, the library job details felt a little like pandering and unrealistic. The female friendships are strong but the relationships don’t pass the Bechdel test. The sexual tension is rich but the sex is behind closed doors. The worldbuilding is very complete and highly sensory: you can almost smell the hot cocoa and caramelized potatoes, and hear the clock striking. The structure is well-executed, with past encounters filling in the fifteen years of backstory from Jack’s point of view. Berkley has produced some stellar romance novels, and I appreciate the branching out into a fantasy holiday romance, but the narrative sometimes reflects from poor editing, with words or phrases repeated multiple times, sometimes within a few pages of one another, such as descriptions of Ronnie, Steph and Cassie which also suffer from the dreaded telling instead of showing. There are 14 religious holidays celebrated in December, and only Christmas gets a mention. The cast is not diverse. I didn’t find the public drinking or binge drinking or Astra’s tactics to get her dog above board. The ending was not entirely predictable;I might have even teared up a little! but I felt a little emotionally manipulated with Astra’ (Reichert’s?) choices.

I wavered between 2/12 and 3 stars. This was charming, but another pass by an editor might have made for a stronger book. Still, I could see it cinematically while I read, and Once Upon A December would make a great Hallmark movie. It will find its audience.

Bonus half star for the Hans Christian Anderson allusions and biographical details.

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

French Kissing in New York by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau

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French Kissing in New York by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau

Jouhanneau, Anne-Sophie. French Kissing in New York. Delacorte, 2023. 336 pp.ISBN 978-0593173619. $12.99

***

When Parisian Margot and American Zach and meet at a high school culinary program in France, they fall fast, enjoy exploring Paris together, agree long distance relationships are recipes for disaster and pledge to meet again in a year in New York a very specific location in Times Square. Fast forward a year; Margot has gone to NY to stay with her dad for a bit, and anticipates a restaurant job that doesn’t involve using her chef mother’s clout, but lands at Nutrio. They call her desparate for help while she is still jet-lags, she accomodates and shows up in time for family meal… only to get trained on the commercial dishwasher in spite of her culinary chops. To add insult to injury, she gets out of work late, and gets turned around on the subway. Zach either misses the connection–or just didn’t care enough to show up.

When Margot shares the details of the relationship and failed meeting with line cook Ben, he offers to help her track down the guy. He is also a wonderful support when Margot is bullied at work. Every time she is on the verge of giving up on Zach, and beginning to consider that maybe Ben might be more than just a friend, the trail heats up with some new sighting or detail, and she’s back to Zach.

This a unique coming of age tale about identity, geography, and connections, with a strong setting and predictable ending. The food details are great–there’s a funny moment where Luz tells Margot that cinnamon is the national spice and we put it on everything, and much to Margot’s horror, goes on to explain the pumpkin spice phenomenon and the concept of seasonal coffee. The touristy descriptions of the people along the Highline and the shops in the West Village, even the rats, are fresh through Margot’s eyes.

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

Ruby Spencer’s Whisky Year by Rochelle Bilow

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Ruby Spencer’s Whisky Year by Rochelle Bilow

Bilow, Rochelle. Ruby Spencer’s Whisky Year. Berkley. 2023. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0593547885. $17.00

***

An American food writer rents a cottage in Scotland, sight unseen, to spend the next year writing a cookbook, trying all the whisky, and maybe finding a hot Scotman. In exchange for room and board, Ruby puts in some hours at the adjacent pub, which conveniently has the kitchen her cottage lacks. The pub has some good whiskey and a friendly vibe, if a little quiet… and then a local guy shows up as the handyman at proprietor Grace’s request, to make a few minor repairs to the flophouse, as the cottage is affectionately known, and Ruby is smitten. She sends all the right vibes to Brochnan, but he does not seem to be picking up what she’s laying down until well into the novel. The relationship was drawn out way too much for my liking.

Ruby only ended up in charming Thistlecross because it’s where her dart landed, but she soon feels part of the community, and ends up overhearing something she shouldn’t have from the mayor, a childhood friend of Brochnan. As their relationship deepens, she wonders if she should tell him what she knows about the future of the pub and cottage, especially after he confides about his trust issues with women… but chooses not to. I may or may not have been grimacing in disappointment at the character’s actions.

The writing is solid and attention to detail is excellent. The food and drink descriptions are good but not enough to make this a culinary read, a little disappointing, since the cookbook idea is a major plot point. Ruby’s first pitch is rejected, and she eventually hits on a winning idea (but WHY not focus on the family style suppers she hosts???). This missed opportunity, dishonesty and slow pacing was like sip of not-aged-enough whisky: yes, complex, smokey, peaty, but a little too much wincing as it goes down rough.

The cover art perfectly depicts a scene where Roo convinces Broo to take a selfie on one of their adventures–well done.

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

A Little Wilder by Serena Bell

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A Little Wilder by Serena Bell

Bell, Serena. A Little Wilder (Wilder Adventures #4). Serena Bell Books, 2022. 292 ISBN 978-1953498212. $15.99

***

This is an excellent, stand-alone fourth volume in a self-published series about a family business focused on leading outdoor adventures. Steady boy-next-door Kane is the one who does what’s expected, and having a no-strings attached one night stand in Las Vegas at his brother’s bachelor party is out of character. When his flame gets hired by the business to renovate some campers, Kane is surprised to see Mari again–and equally surprised to discover she’s pregnant. They agree to keep it between them for the time being, but also to see if there is co-parenting potential.

The character development is the star of this story. Marigold doesn’t have roots (and might not want them) while Kane has a lot of roots and might be ready to branch out on his own. The way they slowly grow comfortable with one another and develop their romantic relationship was a treat. The airstream renovation business that Mari has is a great aside.

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

Do I Know You? by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

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Do I Know You? by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Wibberley, Emily and Austin Siegemund-Broka. Do I Know You? Berkley, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 9780593201954 $17.00

***

Is it a second chance romance when the couple is question is already married and still together? After five years, Graham is withdrawing and vibrant Eliza, an audiobook narrator, isn’t sure why. When his parents gift them a second honeymoon getaway at a romantic resort that is also hosting a dating seminar the same weekend, Eliza books her own room to get a little space. Assumed single and introduced to one another at the bar by another well-meaning stranger, the two decide to take on a little role-playing in the hopes of rekindling their romance.

My initial thought was that there might be some sexy pretend-to-go-home with a stranger games, but authors Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka do not take the easy way out in this angsty tale of longing. Told in alternating points of view, we learn of Eliza and Graham’s insecurities, hurts and baggage as they fake date, reconcile and try to heal their marriage. The writing is deep and introspective and the resolution satisfying, but I didn’t like it as much as The Roughest Draft, which knocked the narrative, plot, pacing, sexual tension and characterizations out of the park.

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

Best Served Hot by Amanda Elliot

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Best Served Hot by Amanda Elliot

Elliot, Amanda. Best Served Hot. Berkley, 2022. 386 pp. ISBN 978-0593335734 $17.00

****

Two restaurant critics go about their reviews in very different ways: Julie is a built from scratch go-getter with 50,000 followers on social media, pays for all her meals, and takes a photo of everything she eats, favoring ethnic food and hole in the wall spots. Bennett is an ivy-leaguer fan of fine dining who takes longhand notes at his expensed meals–and he’s just landed a coveted column at the New York Scroll that Julie applied for and didn’t get. When their competitive natures collide at a food festival and their argument goes viral, the newspaper’s marketing team decides a little friendly competition is in order, and in hopes of boosting both their print subscribers and followers, offers to pair them together and send them to joint review a bunch of eateries. They agree, with reservations, and develop a grudging respect for one another as they break bread at a number of establishments. A particular fine and funny moment is when they challenge one another to a cook-off, decide to make burgers, and the comedy of errors ends at ShackBurgers.

Far from a superficial book about food, Best Served Hot explores themes of class, wealth and privilege, social media and image, job satisfaction. I also felt a little thrill when Bennett references Thomas Keller’s Per Se loss of a michelin star and review downgrade from 2 to 4 stars–and I knew when it occurred, and why; and I chuckled when I realized I had read Pete Well’s scathing takedown of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar. There is an art to timely allusions that make the reader feel smart when they get them (as opposed to alienated or worse, stupid, when they don’t), and Elliot hits the right note.

As in Sadie on a Plate, the food is front and center, and it’s the lush descriptions of what they eat that will make your heart pound and elicit your envy, admiration, and longing: “The bread was earthy and chewy, crunchy on the bottom and meltingly soft on top, and rather than rubbing the bread with tomato as in a traditional pan con tomate (yes, I’d done my research), the raw tomato had been shredded and mashed and spread on top, a cool, sweet, tangy contrast to the bread. A hint of garlic spoke up in the back of my throat; anchovies whispered somewhere underneath, the salt and the brine making everything else taste sweeter.” If that isn’t a metaphor for the individual features of their complex relationship Julie and Bennett have that creates a perfect whole, I don’t know what is.

The sex was more descriptive that in Elliot’s previous book (the single flaw I found was Julie’s boasting about her anatomy’s allowing for the capability of multiple orgasms and Bennett not pursuing that particular challenge).

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