Mini-Reviews: English, Havana, Watch

English WitchNext Year in HavanaOne to Watch

Loretta Chase, The English Witch

This book is the sequel to Isabella, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago, and the villain of that book is now the hero. Basil Trevelyan has been away from England for several years, working for a prosperous merchant and doing the odd job for the British government along the way. Now, at his aunt’s behest, he must rescue the beautiful Alexandra Ashmore, first from peril in Albania and then from an unwanted engagement in England. Though Basil is by nature a womanizer whose first goal is to pursue his own pleasure, he begins to develop genuine feelings for Alexandra. The fun of this book is watching Basil (1) recognize that he is capable of feeling actual love, not just desire, and (2) hilariously fail every time he tries to articulate his feelings. I’d recommend this book (as well as Isabella) to those who enjoy their historical romance on the lighter side, with lots of plot and minimal angst.

Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Despite unrest throughout the country and popular discontent with Batista’s regime, her life is mostly occupied with suitors and social engagements. But when she falls in love with Pablo, an intense and dedicated revolutionary, Elisa must rethink what it means to be loyal to her country. In the present day, Elisa has just passed away in Miami, and her granddaughter Marisol is returning to Cuba to lay Elisa’s ashes to rest. Marisol is excited to visit her family’s homeland but soon realizes that her Cuban American identity is more complex than she realized. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it never really grabbed me and took me a long time to finish. I found the historical background about Cuba fascinating — and sadly new to me, since I learned basically nothing about the country in school — but the individual characters and circumstances weren’t compelling. That said, Cleeton wrote a follow-up book featuring Elisa’s sister Beatriz, and I might be curious enough to seek that one out at some point.

Kate Stayman-London, One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger with a certain amount of internet fame. But when she writes a drunken rant criticizing the lack of body diversity on a Bachelor-style reality show, her piece goes viral, and she is unexpectedly offered the chance to become the next season’s star. Twenty-five men will compete for her affection on camera, and at the end of the season, she’ll become “engaged” to the winner. Bea agrees, but she’s hesitant; despite her efforts to accept her body, she knows that the world isn’t always kind to fat people, and she doubts whether any of the men on the show will truly be interested in her. But as the show is filmed, she finds both rejection and affirmation in surprising places. I enjoyed this book a lot! It’s fun and entertaining–a perfect beach read–but as a plus-sized woman myself, I also found Bea incredibly relatable. It was great to see her overcome her doubts and insecurities to find a happy ending. Definitely recommended if you think the premise sounds fun!

Mini-Reviews: Brittany, Thing, Diamonds

Assignment in BrittanyJust One Damned Thing after AnotherDiamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany

Martin Hearne, a British intelligence agent, has just been given a new assignment. He happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bertrand Corlay, a Frenchman recuperating in an English hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk. His job will be to impersonate Corlay and go “home” to the village of Saint-Déodat in Brittany, where he will research the movements of the occupying German troops. Of course, complications ensue as Hearne meets Corlay’s family, shelters an American journalist, and has several unpleasant run-ins with the Nazis. His situation becomes even more precarious when he realizes that the real Corlay hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. I really enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining book. It’s all the more remarkable because the novel was published in 1942, when the outcome of the war was far from certain. Definitely recommended for fans of spy and/or World War II novels.

Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing after Another

When Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is recruited to join the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she gets a lot more than she bargained for: the historians of St. Mary’s “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” — in other words, time travel! Max embraces the concept wholeheartedly and soon proves herself adept at her new job. But when a trip to the late Cretaceous goes horribly wrong, Max learns that another group of time travelers is wreaking havoc with history, and the St. Mary’s gang will have to stop them in order to protect both the past and the future. This book is a fun romp, although Max is one of those heroines who’s annoyingly good at everything. I found the present timeline hard to follow; the book starts with Max arriving at St. Mary’s, but it seems like several months (or years?) pass without really being acknowledged. There’s also a graphic sex scene that I could have done without. Despite these quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and will most likely continue with the series.

Jenny Colgan, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

This chick lit novel is about Sophie Chesterton, a shallow socialite whose life is upended when her father dies, and the terms of his will state that she must earn her own living for six months before receiving her inheritance. Sophie moves into a dirty flat in South London with four guys, attempts to pursue her interest in photography, and falls for not one but two of her roommates. Normally I really enjoy Jenny Colgan’s novels, but this one was disappointing. Sophie does grow throughout the book, but she’s so awful in the beginning that it’s hard to completely buy her redemption. I also didn’t find the romance angle satisfying; the outcome seemed to come out of the blue, so that I had no chance to become invested. I still recommend Colgan’s books in general, but this one just wasn’t for me.

Review: Would Like to Meet

Would Like to MeetRachel Winters, Would Like to Meet

Evie Summers has been an assistant at a film agency for several years, hoping one day to be promoted to agent. For now, though, her hands are full with the agency’s most important client, a critically acclaimed screenwriter who has been contracted to write a romantic comedy but who keeps missing his deadlines. In an effort to motivate him, Evie proposes an experiment to prove that people can fall in love the way they do in romantic comedies. She’ll use the meet-cute methods of famous romcoms to get someone to fall in love with her, and in return, the screenwriter will deliver his script. Of course, Evie’s various attempts at a meet-cute generally end in disaster; luckily, she has her friends and a sympathetic single dad named Ben to help her out. As she continues to struggle in her career and her love life, she gradually realizes that real love may have been right in front of her all along.

I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a fun, quick page-turner with a satisfying romantic comedy built into it. But I must say, I found a lot of Evie’s decisions frustrating, to say the least! She puts up with incredibly bad treatment from her boss, reasoning that if she just hangs in there a little longer, he’ll eventually promote her — but it’s immediately obvious that he never will. At one point, she seems to be torn between two suitors, but it’s painfully clear that one of them is just using her. There’s a big “twist” near the end of the book involving Evie’s written record of her meet-cutes, but I saw it coming a mile away. Basically, I felt sorry for Evie, but I didn’t have a lot of respect for her because she kept making such terrible choices. Also, I found her friend group a bit stereotypical, including a gay BFF and a super-type-A bridezilla. I did like the romance a lot and almost wish it had been more of a focus in the book. Overall, this is a cute chick lit novel that I’d recommend as a breezy beach or airplane read.

Review: The Bookshop on the Shore

Bookshop on the ShoreJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Shore

Single mom Zoe is at the end of her rope. She adores her four-year-old son, Hari, but is concerned that he still hasn’t started talking; he’s silent even when he cries. Zoe is also struggling financially, and Hari’s father Jaz is too busy chasing his dream of being a DJ to help out with child support. Fortunately, Jaz’s sister Surinder has a solution: her friend Nina needs help with her mobile bookshop in the Scottish highlands, and there’s also a live-in nanny position that Zoe could take to supplement her income and have a place to stay. Desperate, Zoe agrees, but she soon finds that both jobs are more difficult than she’d anticipated. Nina has very specific ideas about the right way to run the bookmobile, and some of Zoe’s innovations don’t go over very well. And at the “big house” where Zoe is to be the new nanny, she finds three out-of-control children who don’t want to listen to her, while their single father Ramsey seems to be totally disconnected from his children’s lives. The longer Zoe perseveres, however, the more successful she becomes, and the more she grows to love her new life. But when Jaz suddenly reenters the picture, she must decide where she truly belongs.

I’ve come to rely on Jenny Colgan for sweet, uplifting books with a hint of romance, and this book delivers on all fronts. It’s sort of a sequel to The Bookshop on the Corner, which focuses on Nina and the opening of her mobile bookshop, but it can be read as a stand-alone. I was in Zoe’s corner from the opening scene, where she’s sitting in a doctor’s office and describing all the times she cries in a given week. I was immediately hoping for good things to happen to her and excited to watch her overcome the various obstacles in her path. She’s a very likable heroine, hardworking and determined to do her best in any given situation. Sure, the actual plot isn’t terribly believable, nor is it unique; of course Zoe will eventually win over the difficult children and find her way to professional and romantic success. I also thought the precocious youngest child was completely implausible, but he was so entertaining that I didn’t mind. I should note that there is some depiction of mental illness in the book (including self-harm), which seems a bit dark for the overall tone of the novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this one a lot and look forward to my next Colgan book.

Review: Don’t You Forget about Me

Don't You Forget about MeMhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me

Thirtysomething Georgina Horspool is somewhat lost in life. She’s just been fired from a terrible waitressing job, only to walk in on her boyfriend cheating on her with his assistant. She’s also dealing with her judgmental mother and sister, who never miss an opportunity to criticize her life choices and who are having a field day with these latest crises. So when Georgina’s brother-in-law gives her a tip about a newly renovated pub that’s hiring bartenders, she jumps at the chance of gainful employment. Unfortunately, one of the owners of the pub is Lucas McCarthy, Georgina’s first love — and her first heartbreak. Back in high school, when they were paired together for a class assignment, Georgina fell hard for Lucas, and she could have sworn that the feeling was mutual. But a brutal incident at the end-of-year dance drove them apart, and they haven’t talked since. Now Lucas is smart, successful, and handsomer than ever . . . but he doesn’t even remember Georgina. As she wrestles with her complicated feelings about Lucas, Georgina also finds the strength to stand up for herself and mend the various relationships in her life.

Mhairi McFarlane has become one of my go-to authors for British “chick lit” with emotional depth. While Georgina’s situation is by no means unique in the genre — single, underemployed, dealing with family problems and low self-esteem — I found her both likable and relatable, and I was immediately rooting for her to overcome the various challenges in her life. I was drawn to her funny, self-deprecating voice and her vibrant personality that emerges when she’s hanging out with her friends. I also really enjoyed the development of her relationship with Lucas, which plays a prominent role in the story. I’m not usually a fan of second-chance romances, but the plot really worked for me here, in part because the reasons for their initial breakup are so understandable. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the incident at the end-of-year dance does involve sexual trauma [not perpetrated by Lucas], so be warned if you’re sensitive to that issue.) Lucas in particular didn’t handle things well, but I ultimately forgave him because (1) he was young and stupid and (2) he gives very good grovel in the end. Overall, if you like this genre, I’d definitely recommend this book, as well as McFarlane’s other novels.

Review: Life and Other Inconveniences

Life and Other InconveniencesKristan Higgins, Life and Other Inconveniences

Emma London is a single mom raising her teenage daughter, Riley, in Chicago. She adores Riley, but the rest of her family is more complicated: her mother took her own life when Emma was a child, and her father has never really been in the picture. Then there’s her grandmother, Genevieve, a wealthy fashion designer who cared for Emma after her mom died but kicked her out when she got pregnant before graduating from high school. Emma and Genevieve have been estranged ever since, so when Genevieve calls Emma to reveal that she’s terminally ill, Emma doesn’t have a lot of sympathy. Nevertheless, when Genevieve hints that Riley might inherit a fortune in her will, Emma decides to go back to her Maine hometown with Riley in tow, to care for Genevieve in her last days. In the course of the visit, Emma and Genevieve come to understand each other a little better, and they both deal with some unresolved issues in their pasts.

I’ve read several of Kristan Higgins’s lighthearted romance novels and really enjoyed them. Recently she’s moved into women’s fiction, and I’ve been more lukewarm on those books, although I still quite liked If You Only Knew and On Second Thought. This book, however, just irritated me. There’s nothing lighthearted or joyful about it; everyone is miserable, and they basically stay miserable until the very end. I’ve already described Emma’s sad backstory, but every other character is dealing with multiple tragic problems, too: Genevieve is not only dying, but she’s devastated by the loss of her husband and her older son. Miller, Emma’s love interest, is mourning his dead wife and trying to raise a hostile three-year-old alone. Emma has a sister who can’t live on her own due to a rare genetic disorder. It’s all just too depressing, especially when I’ve historically looked to this author for light and fluffy reading! I also didn’t love that the majority of the book is told in flashbacks; there’s very little forward motion to the plot, just a slow unfolding of past tragedies. In short, I’m not a fan of this one, and Higgins is no longer a must-read author for me.

Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Meet Me at the Cupcake CaféJenny Colgan, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Isabel “Issy” Randall has always loved baking. Her Grampa Joe owned a successful chain of bakeries and taught Issy everything he knew, including a deep love of giving pleasure to others through food. So when Issy is laid off from her boring office job, she decides to open her own bakery—after all, how hard can it be? Of course, she quickly realizes that starting a business is more difficult than she’d anticipated, and she faces a variety of problems, from the hostility of the local business community to the lack of foot traffic on her street to the astronomically high rent for the café’s space. Luckily, she has the support of her best friend Helena, her new friend and employee Pearl, and her bank loan officer Austin. Eventually Issy’s business starts to take off, as does a potential romance with Austin. But interference by a big-shot property developer — who also happens to be Issy’s ex-boyfriend — may derail both her professional and her personal life.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jenny Colgan’s books in the past, so I was excited to pick this one up. It pretty much follows the Colgan formula: the female protagonist starts out with an unfulfilling job and an unsatisfactory boyfriend, loses both, pursues a new career she’s passionate about, and finds love in the process. But while the other Colgan books I’ve read (The Café by the Sea and The Bookshop on the Corner) have a certain emotional depth that makes them more substantial than a generic chick-lit novel, this one was missing that depth, for me. I found Issy’s friend Pearl, who deals with poverty and class insecurities, much more interesting than Issy herself. But I did like that this book focuses a lot on the difficulties of opening a small business; Issy doesn’t just magically succeed because she’s a great baker. So the book feels a little more grounded in reality than, say, a Hallmark movie. Overall, this was a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more by Colgan, but it’s not my favorite of her books.

Review: Good Riddance

Good RiddanceElinor Lipman, Good Riddance

“Daphne Maritch doesn’t quite know what to make of the heavily annotated high school yearbook she inherits from her mother, who held this relic dear. Too dear. The late June Winter Maritch was the teacher to whom the class of ’68 had dedicated its yearbook, and in turn she went on to attend every reunion, scribbling notes and observations after each one—not always charitably—and noting who overstepped boundaries of many kinds. In a fit of decluttering (the yearbook did not, Daphne concluded, “spark joy”), she discards it when she moves to a small New York City apartment. But when it’s found in the recycling bin by a busybody neighbor/documentary filmmaker, the yearbook’s mysteries—not to mention her own family’s—take on a whole new urgency, and Daphne finds herself entangled in a series of events both poignant and absurd.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I’d never read anything by Elinor Lipman before, but a combination of the plot summary and cute cover interested me enough to pick it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it very enjoyable, mainly because I didn’t connect with any of the characters or understand the decisions they made. For example, why does Daphne go along with Geneva’s filmmaking plan sometimes and resist at other times? Also, the characters all seem very two-dimensional. Geneva is presented as a talentless nightmare (which is how Daphne sees her), and that characterization is never given more nuance. Daphne’s father is “the nicest guy in the world,” and that statement is never questioned. I kept wanting some depth, some irony, some surprise, but none ever came. As for the “mystery” of the yearbook, in one sense the solution is incredibly predictable, but in another sense June’s obsession with the class of ’68 is never actually explained. I did breeze through the book in about three hours, but that’s really the only positive thing I have to say about it.

Review: One Day in December

One Day in DecemberJosie Silver, One Day in December

Laurie has just left university and is living in London with her best friend, Sarah, as she pursues a career in magazine publishing. One December evening, she’s sitting on a bus crowded with Christmas shoppers, when she looks out the window and spots a man standing across the street. Their eyes meet, and Laurie feels a deep, instant connection. She could swear he feels it, too, but the bus drives away before she can get off and speak to him. For the next several months, Laurie searches for “bus boy,” convinced that they’re meant to be. But when she finally does meet him, there’s a catch: he just happens to be Sarah’s new boyfriend, Jack. The book follows Laurie and Jack over the next several years, as they experience career achievements and setbacks, tragedy, love, and heartbreak; but will they ever be able to act on that moment of connection they experienced even before they met?

This book caught my eye because of the adorable cover, and I was interested to read a cute holiday rom-com. In fact, this is much more of a drama than a comedy, and I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s very well written and executed. The premise made me nervous — I was skeptical about a romance that would presumably end in betrayal of the innocent best friend. But the book managed to make me sympathetic to both Laurie and Jack. I liked that Laurie sincerely tries to put her own feelings aside, not to spend time alone with Jack, and to move on by dating other people. I believed that Laurie and Jack really do become friends who care about each other, regardless of whatever does or doesn’t happen between them. But I’m not sure we needed to follow their story for so many years, especially since the expected confrontation between Laurie and Sarah doesn’t happen until almost the end of the book — and then it’s rushed to a resolution. As a skeptic of love at first sight, I also didn’t buy that both Laurie and Jack would be so affected by their initial brief moment of attraction. Despite my quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to people who are interested in the premise.

Review: I Owe You One

I Owe You OneSophie Kinsella, I Owe You One

Fixie Farr comes by her nickname honestly: she’s an extreme people-pleaser who can’t help trying to fix every problem in her family and friends’ lives. She is the manager of the family store, and while her brother James and sister Nicole are also supposed to help out, Fixie often finds herself picking up their slack. Now James is determined to turn the modest store into a trendy, upscale shop, and Nicole wants to get rid of merchandise and replace it with a yoga studio. Fixie is horrified by these changes but struggles to stand up for herself. She also faces trouble in her personal life, when she’s torn between her childhood crush and a handsome stranger whose laptop she rescues, kick-starting a chain of IOUs and possibly a new relationship.

I generally enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s books, and I had fun reading this one as well, but I must admit that I was bothered by several aspects of the book. The biggest problem is Fixie herself; she’s such a doormat, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see her constantly giving in to her awful siblings. I know that many people, especially women, are people-pleasers and have trouble advocating for themselves, but I couldn’t understand why Fixie was such a pushover. I also hated her obsession on childhood crush Ryan, who is obviously 100% terrible from the moment he’s introduced. Fixie’s deluded belief that he wants a relationship with her just made her seem stupid. I did like her relationship with the stranger, Seb, but even that has some weird pacing issues and questionable logic (why does he go back to his ex-girlfriend?). Despite my complaints, I did find the book an enjoyable experience overall, but it’s definitely not one of Kinsella’s best — try I’ve Got Your Number instead.