Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer

This was a surprise gift from generous fellow blogger Chachic over the winter holidays (thanks Chachic!). Seeing Me Naked is a book I’d been eying for a while and it arrived just in time to fulfill a craving for contemporary story with a bit of romance.

Seeing Me Naked
Liza Palmer

The Premise: Elisabeth Page is the pastry chef for a fancy restaurant in L.A. Her five-year plan was to one day open her own patisserie, but after the five years come and go, and then another five, Elisabeth wonders if that will ever happen. With a father who is world renowned novelist Ben Page, and a brother who is a publishing wunderkind, Elisabeth feels the pressure of unfulfilled expectations of her intellectual family. Her romantic life is no better than her professional one. Her relationship with Will, childhood-friend turned world-traveling journalist consists of a few nights of passion when Will breezes into town, then months of separation while Will is following a story. Then Daniel Sullivan wins the basket of pastries and private baking classes that Elisabeth donated to one of her mother’s charity events, and Elisabeth’s career begins to go in an unexpected direction. Can Elisabeth let go of her own expectations and try something different?

My Thoughts: I had to think a little bit to put Seeing Me Naked into a category.  Even though this story has an obvious romantic arc, Seeing Me Naked is a lot more focused on Elisabeth and her personal growth than it is on the relationship to be a strict Romance. It does focus on a single woman and her career and relationship with her family but it isn’t quite lighthearted enough to be put into chick lit (although there is some humor in it). I think the closest term might be “women’s fiction”, but that feels like it could be too big of an umbrella term. Really, this gave off the vibe of a mix between a literary novel and chick lit.

At first Elisabeth’s life was rather bland and lonely. She lives alone in an apartment close to work, follows a set routine every day, and doesn’t really socialize. Her life revolves around her stressful job making desserts at a high end L.A. restaurant with a tyrant for a boss. When she goes home to see her parents in wealthy Montecito, the dynamics there are similarly overshadowed by her father, a literary giant with a matching ego. While her high society mother (heiress to the Foster Family Fortune) is supportive of her children, Ben Page is a tougher, more critical parent. Dinner is a battle of wits and intellect with the great Ben Page presiding.  As for her relationship with childhood friend Will, Elisabeth hardly sees him and is tired of them leading separate lives.

As we say our goodbyes in the foyer, I look around at all that defines me. The rubric for success in my family has always been about legacy–what imprint will you make on this world. I have tired to live by these standards all my life. Measuring success and love by the teaspoon, always falling short, the goal constantly out of reach. My five-year plan has become an unending road to nowhere, both professionally and personally.

Despite all this, Elisabeth wasn’t actively trying to change her life. Instead she continued on while the stress made her stomach hurt. Elisabeth struck me as a steady type of character with a quiet creativity, a love of food, and gently sarcastic voice. But I was worried about a certain amount of ingrained judgementality she had. Maybe judgementality isn’t the right word — it was just that she seemed to have a self-imposed set of restrictions on herself and was trying to adhere to what she thought were her family’s unspoken expectations. For example, it felt like there was an assumption of who she should be and who she should be with. Any relationship outside these parameters is assumed to be temporary, like all of her brother Rascal’s “giant lollipop head” girlfriends. When regular guy Daniel enters the picture, he seemed to me like the most honest person in her life, but I wasn’t sure that SHE saw that. I think that this first impression could turn some readers off. I’m thankful that the back blurb of this book hints that the story is about Elisabeth having “the guts to let others see her naked…and let them love her, warts and all” because that made me trust that this story would go to a better place. That, and the setting of the story which kept me interested by giving me fascinating glimpses into a life that’s set in L.A. and revolves around food.

Seeing Me Naked takes its sweet time, but there is satisfaction in reading Seeing Me Naked all the way to the end. It’s enjoyable to sit back while the nature of the characters is revealed organically, their dialogue and actions and Elisabeth’s own reactions to them deftly sculpting clear personalities. And then there’s Elisabeth’s own character. She doesn’t actively seek change, but Elisabeth is smart enough not to fight it when a good things fall onto her lap. And the best part is she works to keep these good things. If you can handle Elisabeth in her rut, you will be rewarded by a very cathartic last few pages.  Where things ultimately go left me quite content.

Overall: I enjoyed this one but I can understand why this is an under-the-radar book. It’s not quite literary fiction, not quite chicklit, and not just about self-discovery, but it has elements of all three, so it falls in a difficult to categorize place which can mean you’re unsure as a reader what you’re going to get. Also, the story doesn’t start in the best point of Elisabeth’s life and rolls forward quietly, without much fanfare — so the reward of reading isn’t immediate. It’s much later in the story that the big gestures happen, so you have to be OK with waiting and watching characters grow, enjoying the way the writing builds the story layer by layer, experiencing food and L.A. through Elisabeth’s eyes and trusting that things will get good. They do though.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “I didn’t expect to get emotional over Seeing Me Naked but I’m glad that it surprised me.”
Angieville – “The characters are complex and carefully rendered. There is no black and white in the intricate web of family relationships they navigate.”
The Book Harbinger – ” wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Seeing Me Naked to casual and seasoned readers who like complex, multivalent chick lit.”

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

[Hi Everyone! I started a class that goes on for a month (it's for work) and the labwork is seriously cutting into my free time, which means less posting over here on the ol' blog, at least for May. This class is crazy busy - it's the pilot  so they're throwing everything at us right now to see how much we can take. Thankfully there are no grades, but each lab has to be completed correctly in order to do the next one - which means homework that takes me 3 hours every frickin' day. *shakes fist at instructors who cackle loudly as they give us our assignments*. But I STILL manage to squeak in some reading time, so there. ]
 
OK, review time.
 
Copy borrowed from my local library.
 

I've Got Your Number
Sophie Kinsella

The Premise: Poppy Wyatt was having a bad day. First she lost her engagement ring, the one that’s been in her fiance’s family for at least three generations. Then, her phone is snatched out of her hand by a passing thief on a bike. Now if someone finds her ring, they can’t call her to tell her about it! Frantic, salvation comes to Poppy in the form of a phone she finds tossed in the trash – a perfectly good phone that still works. She quickly tells everyone her new number, but then businessman Sam Roxton shows up. He says Poppy has his phone, and he needs it back. Desperate to find her ring and not to let her fiance Magnus or his intimidatingly intellectual family know it’s missing, Poppy gets Sam to reluctantly agree on a temporary deal – she will forward all his messages until she finds her ring. Of course, nosy Poppy can’t help glancing at a message or two as she forwards it to Sam, and pretty soon she’s giving him unasked for advice about his life and business, and Sam is helping Poppy out with her own problems.
 
Read an excerpt of I’ve Got Your Number here
 
My Thoughts: Sophie Kinsella is hit or miss for me. I either like her books OK, but not that enthusiastically (Shopaholic, Remember Me?), or I find them hilarious keepers (Can You Keep A Secret?). Sometimes they fall somewhere in between those two (The Undomestic Goddess). She’s an author who is perpetually on my “maybe” list. I’ve Got Your Number caught my eye because it looked like it had some of the elements that I liked so much about Can You Keep a Secret? (a quirky heroine, an alpha businessman, a plot with an amusing set of circumstances). I wasn’t sure about there being a potential love triangle, but when positive reviews from bloggers I trust came out, it gave me the push to get my hands on it. I’m so glad, because you can put I’ve Got Your Number in the keeper column now. It gave me what I wanted: a chick lit with a nice amount of getting-to-know-you time between characters, good romantic chemistry, and plenty of laughs.
 
Poppy narrates the story. I liked her. She amusing, but not so silly that I wanted to strangle her, and a pleaser, but not so accommodating that she becomes a complete idiot (I like to laugh, but not at the expense of my respect for the main character). Yes, Poppy has her moments, but I always understood where she came from, even if what she did was sometimes questionable. Plenty of people would peek at someone else’s emails given the opportunity, and who doesn’t understand keeping something quiet so they can themselves time to fix it? Of course, that Poppy is too afraid to talk to Magnus about losing her engagement ring says something about their relationship that she hasn’t admitted to herself, but that’s another issue altogether. Another is her fear of her soon-to-be in-laws, who intimidate Poppy with their genius level intellect. In Poppy’s eyes, the academic Tavish’s are so much smarter than her that she feels put on the spot when they ask her anything.
 
But what Poppy perceives and what the truth is are sometimes two different things – not just about her in-laws but about other people, including Sam. This is why the outside perspective of a complete stranger (like Sam) works out well for her. Similarly, Poppy’s nosiness starts off like it’s crossing the line, but it has its uses, which Sam finds out. There’s a lot of different elements of their lives in the mix here, and I really enjoyed how Kinsella managed to seamlessly tackle both the corporate politics of Sam’s world and the interpersonal relationship tangle of Poppy’s. There was something so addictive in following Poppy and Sam’s texts and emails and the breathless twists and turns that came from their fateful meeting. Everything manages to make sense in the end, and it worked out in a way that I was happy with. I had been worried about how the story would handle Poppy’s engagement while meeting another man, but that was tied up nicely. I felt that Kinsella made things romantic and even heady with anticipation at the appropriate times. And have I mentioned how hilarious the story is too? There is one part, Poppy and Sam’s second official face-to-face, that had me laughing so loud that my husband reports I scared the cat in the other room. It’s too long to excerpt here, but I tell you, it’s a scene I think about and grin like a fool. Instead, here’s a small example of the texts Poppy and Sam send back and forth. This is early in their relationship and you can already tell that there’s a familiarity forming between these two:

How will you explain missing ring?
I have a moment’s internal debate. What not get a second opinion? Lining up the screen carefully, I take a photo of my bandaged hand and MMS it to him. Five second later he replies.
You cannot be serious.
I feel a twinge of resentment and find myself typing:
What would YOU do then?
I’m half-hoping he might have some brilliant idea I hadn’t thought of. But his next text just says:
This is why men don’t wear rings.
Great. Well, that’s really helpful. I’m about to type something sarcastic back, when a second text arrives:
It looks phony. Take off one bandage.
I stare at my hand in dismay. Perhaps he’s right.
OK. Thx.

Overall: I really liked this one. I thought that I’ve Got Your Number had that perfect balance of hilarity and lightness with a page-flipping, not-always-expected plot while at the same time serving up the slow-burn of two strangers meeting and falling for each other over text messages and emails, shared secrets and experiences. I devoured it and sighed happily at the ending. I plan to eventually buy myself a copy for my keeper shelf.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Smexy Books – B+
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes – “Kinsella at her best: fun & light & romantic & entertaining”
Book Harbinger – “I haven’t had such a fun reading experience since I read my first Julie James novel”
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves – 4/5 stars
Angieville – “a real charmer”

A Girl Like You by Gemma Burgess

A Girl Like You
Gemma Burgess

I enjoyed Gemma Burgess’ first book,  The Dating Detox, and I liked the premise of this, her second. It’s not available in the U.S right now, but I was able to buy it online via Awesome Books. This turned out to be a good decision, since I liked this one even better than the first.
 
The Premise: After years in a stagnating relationship, Abigail Wood broke up with her boyfriend. Now she’s single for the first time in forever, and she has no idea how to act when it comes to men and dates. After a first date where all she could do was ask questions like she was interviewing someone, Abigail rehashes the experience with her new flatmate Robert (best friend of her sister’s fiancé), who tells her how to act the next time (“cool and detached”). With a different girl every other day, Robert is an expert at being single and sought after, so Abigail takes Robert’s advice as gospel and becomes much more confident at the dating game. As a bonus,  Robert is a great buddy. But as their relationship develops and their circles of friends overlap, she meets one of Robert’s best friends and her newly learned confidence begins to unravel.
 
Read an excerpt of A Girl Like You in Amazon Look Inside
 
My Thoughts: Like The Dating Detox, A Girl Like You is a book that’s about dating and the worries it brings: first dates, first impressions, and awkwardness. Abigail is in that situation after dumping her long term boyfriend. It was a brave decision, but now she’s clueless in the face of singledom. Having her flatmate Robert tell her what to do is a godsend. He has advice for any given situation, and it works! Abigail is soon walking into bars and thanks to Robert’s strategies, walking out with phone numbers. If she gets into a pickle, Robert is a phone call away to get her out of it.
 
Abigail had lost some friends in her breakup, but she has a core group of her sister Sophie, and her best friends Plum and Henry. With Robert giving Abigail advice and best friends with Sophie’s fiancé, he is soon part of their circle too. It’s a small but loyal group, often socializing and commiserating about their love lives (or lack thereof). And I’ve got to say, Gemma Burgess shines when it comes to writing scenes that illustrate the social lives of these young Londoners. There’s plenty of bar hopping and parties, and one significant weekend in the French countryside, but what I loved the most was the easy banter of long familiar friends. It’s clear that Abigail and her buddies have had years together, and these side characters with distinct personalities and their own relationship problems and shared past histories that are relayed as the book went on.
 
Now about Robert and Abigail and their unlikely friendship. While Abigail is a nice girl who just needs a dose of confidence in her life, Robert is almost her opposite. While she’s rather sweet (with a dose of sarcastic), he’s a little on the broodier side, with a reputation for being somewhat of a loner. While she’s a dating newbie, he’s a total player. Robert says of his love life, “I’m totally honest that I am not looking for, uh, anything, and I end it within a month. I mean, that doesn’t make me a bad guy, does it?” His many relationships don’t make him a bad guy, and he isn’t an obvious jerk to women in this book (he’s basically charming), but that Robert has broken a few hearts put him in a gray character area. If you can’t overlook that he is a playboy, it may be a problem, but when it comes to Abigail, and this story is told from her point of view (in the first person), Robert is always there for her. They are both completely themselves with each other, and like a proper friend, he never judges, even when Abigail calls frantically from the bedroom of a embarrassing one night stand. I was worried about him when I was introduced to him in this story, but he went against my expectations in the best possible way.
 
I liked that rather than the ‘rules’ of dating being the focus of the story, the story was more about the growth of Abigail and Robert’s friendship over time. Robert begins genuinely wanting to help Abigail build up her self-assurance, and his help is the catalyst for this story.

‘What’s mine? Achilles’ heel, I mean?’
‘Lack of confidence,’ says Robert instantly. Ouch.
‘I have confidence,’ I protested feebly. (This, of course, isn’t the correct response when someone accuses you of lacking confidence. The correct response is a derisive ‘blow me’.) ‘Dating is just out of my comfort zone.’
‘Well, you also often look preoccupied, like you’re arguing with yourself. It gives you a fuck-off aura.’
‘Suck my aura,’ I say sulkily.
Robert smirks.
‘It’s not my fault,’ I say, after a pause. ‘You need experience to be confident at anything. Driving. Putting on make up. Flipping pancakes. I have no experience at being single. How could I possibly be confident at it?’
‘We’re working on that,’ he says. ‘You’re next.’

The playboy and friend becoming something more story lines can become predictable, but A Girl Like You manages to make those tropes its own. It didn’t go the obvious route with a jealous scene or a glib moral about taking advice from a playboy, this story plays it a bit smarter than that. The story spans over a year’s worth of friendship and that in that time, the character’s actions tell us more than what they say. I liked that they were nuanced and that I learned about these two friends as they were getting to know each other. I liked the insights from things like Robert’s embarrassing past and Abigail’s unsatisfying career. I felt like there were shades of Sarra Manning in this story in that it delves more into the heads of the main characters. A Girl Like You didn’t make me quite as wrung out as Manning’s books have, but there is some gritty emotion in there, like Abigail’s desperation when she enters a relationship where she doesn’t feel like she’s in control. When Abigail unravels, it is raw, but so necessary. I think she has to experience something that’s not quite right in order to find the real thing.
 
A warning: if you read the prologue it may make you worry about the ending and possibly jump to the wrong conclusion. Wait it out. Do not flip to the end, no matter how much you want to.
A bonus for those who don’t like explicit sex scenes: this book always fades to black for those bits.
 
Overall: A Girl Like You has a protagonist who is trying to figure out dating after being in a perpetual relationship, a core group of loyal friends, and a playboy who is more dependable than you’d think. I really liked it. It was a chick lit/contemporary romance that had the right balance of fun (in the form of an active social life), and depth (in the form of character and relationship development), and I loved the interactions throughout the book. Gemma Burgess is going onto the autobuy list now.
 
I’m looking forward to her new New Adult series, Union Street, set in a Brooklyn brownstone with a cast of young women.
 
Buy: Amazon UK | Awesome Books | The Book Depository | Fishpond World
 
Other reviews:
None amongst my blogger friends. Let me know if I missed yours.

A Weekend with Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly


 

A Weekend with Mr. Darcy
Victoria Connelly

The Premise: Katherine Roberts is a university lecturer going to an annual Jane Austen weekend at Purley Hall, Hampshire. For the past three years she’s been invited to talk, but this year, she’ll also be meeting romance novelist Lorna Warwick for the first time. Lorna and Katherine have been exchanging letters for a while and have developed a close friendship through their mail. What Katherine doesn’t know is that Lorna Warwick is really a man named Warwick Lawton. Warwick never expected a fan letter from Katherine to turn into such a great friendship, and from his side, love. He’s panicked that when Katherine finds out he’s Lorna, all that they share will be destroyed. The Jane Austen weekend is Warwick’s chance to meet Katherine and tell her the truth, but when he sees her, he may not be able to go through with it.
 
Going to the same conference is Robyn Love, a Austen fan whose boyfriend Jace is completely insensitive to her and her interests. Her hope for a nice weekend by herself is thwarted when Jace invites himself to her trip at the last minute, and then expects her to rearrange her plans to spend time with him. When Robyn meets Dan at Purley Hall, it brings her incompatibility with Jace into sharp contrast. While Jace has completely different interests and can’t stand Jane Austen, Dan shares her love of animals and the country, and he’s willing to read Jane Austen. On the other hand, Jace wants to take their relationship to the next level and has been with her through a bad time. It all leaves Robyn very confused about what she should do.
 
Read an excerpt of A Weekend With Mr. Darcy here
 
My Thoughts: This is a story told in the third person, but it is a very intimate, confiding type of third person, often revealing the streams of consciousness of each of the characters as the story goes along. The three people that the narrative centers around are Katherine, Warwick, and Robyn. Katherine is a university lecturer tired of lying boyfriends (one caught with an ex-girlfriend, one caught with a wife!), Warwick is a popular romance novelist afraid of telling the world his real identity, and Robyn is a sweet Austen fan stuck in a bad relationship.
 
This is the first in a series called the Austen Addicts, and for good reason. When the book begins we are allowed a brief glimpse of Katherine, Warwick, and Robyn’s everyday lives, and then the setting changes to Purley Hall, where their three fates converge. Their reason for being there is of course the Jane Austen weekend, so a lot of the book is about the conference, which includes the lecture Katherine gives, the various events they go to, and general conference goings on. It is all Jane Austen, all the time! I enjoyed this to some extent.  The conference was a good way to show the characters meeting and getting to know each other over a shared passion for Austen and mutual dislike over the caustic Mrs. Soames. I was also really interested in some of the creative ways that Austen was celebrated at the conference.
 
The issue was that after a while, I wanted the story to be more about the individual characters instead of going into every minute detail of the conference. It got a little tedious, especially since, on top of the conference, the characters muse about Jane Austen whenever they can. At first it was cute when Robyn packed her Jane Austen books and went into detail about the state of each of her reading copies (of course she has more than one copy of each book), and when Katherine thinks about how her period drama DVDs got more use after a bad break-up. But over the course of the book, when Austen was referred to in every other page, and some small part of their life would begin a long internal monologue on Jane Austen, it felt like repetitive “filler”, and I started to feel irritation when the narrative went on another Austen-related rumination.
 
Warwick, Robyn, and Katherine were all likable characters, but I wanted to know more about them, and less about Jane Austen. The bones were there for what could have been an interesting set of characters: Warwick’s reasons for hiding the truth of his identity to Katherine, Katherine’s reasons for being wary of lying men, and Robyn’s conflict between what she knows (Jace), and what she wants (Dan). The story maintains a sort of light touch when it came to going into these issues. I think of all the three characters, Robyn’s story is what went the furthest, but it still felt like it could have gone a lot further. I felt like the narrative was playing things safe by focusing on Austen and the conference so much and avoiding character development.
 
Overall: This felt like one for the Austen-super-fans, because it’s a love letter to Jane Austen. The Austen conference in a beautiful country house and characters who can’t help thinking about their favorite author is great for a Janeite who wants to live vicariously, but as a chick lit novel, A Weekend with Mr. Darcy isn’t very substantial. The plot and character development were on the simple side of the spectrum. Once the charming setting wore off, I found the story flat.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
About Happy Books – “Lovely, charming, entertaining and beautiful”

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale


 

Midnight in Austenland
Shannon Hale

In Austenland, actors play courting gentlemen and cater to fantasies of Mr. Darcy and other Austeneque heroes for rich female customers. Austenland was about a reporter working on a story about this place, and I enjoyed it, so I was excited to see that Shannon Hale was releasing a follow-up, Midnight in Austenland. This is a review based on an eARC copy.
 
The Premise: Charlotte is a nice and practical woman who is also rather clever. She has two children, a nice husband, and a flush retirement account, thanks to her business sense. Then her husband James became not-so-nice. He slowly pulls away from their marriage until one day, Charlotte finds herself divorced, older, and a little bit lost. With her kids staying with their father and his new wife for three weeks over the summer, Charlotte decides to book a vacation. Admitting to the travel agent that she’d love to be in an Austen novel, Charlotte finds herself with a booking at the exclusive Austenland.
 
Unfortunately for Charlotte, she can’t stop her clever mind from chugging along. Worrying about her kids is driving her crazy, so instead she focuses on the people around her. Wondering if Miss Gardenside’s sickness is real or feigned, what is stressing out Mrs. Wattlesbrook, and if Mr. Mallery is sexy or sinister keeps Charlotte busy until she discovers a dead body. At least, she thinks that’s what it was, but she can’t prove it. Suddenly everything and everyone in Austenland is suspect.
 
My Thoughts: Charlotte is a very likable heroine –  successful in her online landscaping business, a protective mother, and just a little bit of a over-thinker (in an endearing way). For a long time, she felt her husband moving away from her, but no matter what she did to try to mend their marriage, nothing worked.  I felt for her as the only person trying, while James had already checked out. When she finds herself single again, her self-consciousness about not knowing what to do with herself. She worries about what the divorce will do to her teenage daughter and her young son, and she tries to date (and fails miserably). Even in Austenland, where Charlotte can pretend that she’s someone else, she realizes that she can’t stop being the person she is.
 
So to distract herself from her usual worries, Charlotte begins to look at the guests and actors she’s surrounded by in Austenland. These characters are sketched quickly but distinctly.  The gentlemen/actors courting the three guests are her friendly pretend brother, Mr. Edmund Grey (Eddie), the affable Colonel Andrews, and the dark and broody Mr. Mallery.  The guests: repeat visitor Miss Charming, the sickly Miss Gardenside (who Charlotte recognizes as a pop singer her daughter adores), and her nurse, Mrs. Hatchet.  Then there is household staff, including Charlotte’s lady’s maid, Mary. And finally Mr and Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the owners of Austenland. With all these personalities before her, and with the parlor mysteries that Colonel Andrews devises, Charlotte has plenty keep her imagination going. That is, until one of the games takes a dark turn and the story becomes less about Charlotte on vacation and more about Charlotte solving a mystery.
 
Because of this mystery, Midnight in Austenland was a very different story than Austenland. If Austenland is chick lit with shades of Pride and Prejudice, Midnight in Austenland is a suspense-comedy reminiscent of Northanger Abbey.  Charlotte’s thought process is a funny thing, and she can’t decide at first if she really felt a dead body or not. Was it part of the game? Was it her imagination? Or was it a man’s corpse? There’s no way to say for sure until she gets to the bottom of things, so she uses her clever mind to investigate. In the meantime, Charlotte finds herself extremely aware of the dark and mysterious Mr. Mallery (and the feeling appears mutual). This is a man so at home in Austenland, Charlotte can’t imagine him anywhere else. If Mr. Mallery is the bad boy of the place, Eddie, her ‘brother’, is the nice guy.  While Mallery exudes danger, Eddie is safety, even if Eddie seems to treat Charlotte’s strange behavior as a joke or product of his ‘sister’s’ overactive imagination.
 
This is a fun romp with some humor and suspense, and an interesting cast of characters. I enjoyed that Charlotte was not the typical chick lit heroine (twenty-something young working girl), but a older, divorced suburban mom with a brain she can’t stop from churning. But it’s also not a story with huge surprises. It’s clear early on who is behind things and who Charlotte should be with. The mix of the Gothic mystery in the modern day makes the story humorous for some, possibly too farcical for others. For those who want a romance, the mystery leaves less room for the relationship to develop. This also felt like a really short book. Now, my nook has 189 pages for the eARC, while the publisher says the hardcover is 288. Maybe my ARC is missing some scenes added on later? I enjoyed what was there, but it all ended a little quickly for me.
 
Overall: Charming but not what I expected. Don’t expect this to be your typical chick lit or to be the same type of book as Austenland was. This is more Northanger Abbey than it is Pride and Prejudice, but it was a nice little romp. I wished for a little more romance and a little less farce, but I also went into this book expecting something in the same vein as Austenland. If I hadn’t had this expectation, I think I would have fared better. If I reread this book knowing what I now know, I’d like it more.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Searched but didn’t find reviews within my blogging friends circle. Let me know if I missed you and I will link your review here.

Novella reviews: Fairy Tale Fail & Love Your Frenemies by Mina V. Esguerra

I first heard of Mina V. Esguerra on Chachic’s blog when she reviewed Fairy Tale Fail. This is a Filipino author who writes chick lit set in Manila. I always love a book NOT set in the usual places, and filed it away for future reference. At 99 cents each, I didn’t think I could go wrong with either Fairy Tale Fail or Love Your Frenemies, the two options I found at the Barnes & Noble ebookstore. Of course, I went with the one with “Fairy Tale” in the title first. :) Since these are each about 200 pages, I thought I would review both of them in the same post.

 

Fairy Tale Fail
Mina V. Esguerra

The Premise: Ellie Manuel is a young twenty-something working girl and free spirit. She enjoys her job in Marketing, but work is not the end-all and be-all of her life. Travel is her real passion, and can spend hours constructing her next vacation. From what to eat to where to stay, the options are limitless. Ellie is a dreamer for sure, and she is convinced that life is like a fairytale. There are only seven types of stories, but in Ellie’s life, she is the Hero, and eventually, she will get her happily ever after. That is why, when her boyfriend Don dumps her because they aren’t “in sync”, Ellie is sure it’s all just a part of her Hero’s Journey. Don will come back if she stays true. Then months pass, and Ellie isn’t so sure. She gets promoted, makes friends with the cute guy of the office, and begins to feel happy, without Don. Wasn’t Don her True Love? Or was she mistaken?

My Thoughts: It was very interesting to read about life in the corporate world that’s so different from mine. Not only do I know nothing about Marketing or Client Services, but the corporate culture in Ellie’s life sounds so different. Just the fact that there were a lot of young people in Ellie’s office blew me away (there is a serious dearth of people my age where I work), but that there is a social life among them? I’m jealous. I loved the concept of the barkadas – circles of friends and how they tied into the story. How social the work culture seems! I also enjoyed the glimpses of life in Manila like the food and the torrential rain that are a part of life there. Peppered throughout the story are Filipino words that I usually could guess the meanings of within the context. I wish there was a glossary, but I didn’t *need* it.

Ellie and Don belonged to the same barkada at work before they started dating. When Don breaks up with Ellie, it’s very painful for her, and it’s made more so because Don is still within her circle of friends, and he was there first. With Ellie’s feelings on her sleeve, things are very awkward with Don, Ellie, and their work barkada.  I really felt for Ellie during the breakup and it’s aftermath. I think most people have experience with a bad break up. The fallout amongst friends and the little dramas that play out afterwards felt very realistic (the dialogue felt particularly spot on as well). Ellie’s situation conjures up those feelings of denial, depression, and bargaining that are part of the grief process, although I wondered and worried about Ellie. She just wouldn’t get angry at Don nor would she accept her relationship with him was completely over, but this is obviously the crux of the story.

Ellie has to get herself out of her post-breakup rut and regain control. So she makes some changes like moving to a job in Client Services. She takes some trips alone, and makes friends with Lucas, the cute guy with Rock Star hair. Lucas at first doesn’t seem like Ellie’s type. He’s tattooed, a smoker, and agnostic, and office gossip has him dating one pretty girl after another and fathering a lovechild. For a nice Catholic girl, he hits everything on Ellie’s no-no list, but the more she gets to know Lucas, the more she realizes that her first impressions were wrong. They have a charming relationship with the sort of easy conversations you only have with your very best friends. A year later and Ellie is more like her original self:

“Ellie the Free Spirit was the girl [Don] fell in love with, the kind of person he kept comparing Ellie the Girlfriend to, and apparently by being away from him I was restoring myself to that state.”

It isn’t exactly a surprise where the story goes from here, but it is nice and satisfying the way it does.

Overall: This was a short and sweet chick lit that charmed me with it’s whimsical main character, easy dialogue, and feel-good romance. As a bonus, the Manila setting gave me a glimpse of another culture, and I’m always hungry to learn about places I haven’t been.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | B&N (eBook)

*****

Love Your Frenemies
Mina V. Esguerra

The Premise: Kimberly Domingo grew up in privilege. A fixture of the Country Club, she was raised alongside two daughters of her mother’s college circle, Chesca and Isabel, who became her closest friends. In high school, she got what she wanted by being direct (and intimidating), and at work, she got ahead easily with the same directness and ambition. She was the girl people loved to hate. The only person that can trip up Kimmy is Manolo, an on-again, off-again fling she’s had since she was fifteen. Unfortunately, Manolo’s M.O. seems to be: make Kimmy melt, then disappear. Then Kimmy met Zack. They were supposed to get married, but Zack broke off the engagement, leaving Kimmy the object of scorn and rumor. Unable to deal with it anymore, Kimmy left the country. Now, many months later, she’s back for her her best friend’s wedding. This time though, Kimmy thinks she knows how to get her life back in order – by cutting off the toxic friends that put her in the position she found herself in months ago.

My Thoughts: This story is told in alternating chapters that tell the story of what’s going on now that Kimmy is home, and what happened months ago, before her failed wedding. There were times, reading about Kimmy’s past, that I just didn’t understand her, particularly at the start this story. Compared to the dreamer main character Fairy Tale Fail, Kimmy was a much harder character to love. She’s a girl who is incredibly confident that what she thinks is how things are, who doesn’t seem to have any regrets being a Mean Girl growing up.

“If you went to school with us, you would think that Chesca and I had a lot of friends — but really, it was just us. We let one girl join our “group” because she had a driver and her own car. Another because she was good at math and she let Chesca copy off her once. We also kicked people out of our group fairly regularly, if and when they stopped being useful, so yeah, we weren’t very nice.
And this is how we did it: Chesca invited the girl into the group, and I eventually did something to kick her out. But we made decisions together, and just played different roles. She was always the angel, and I was always the witch.”

Kimmy is self-aware about who she is. This is the story about the not-nice girl – the girl who is actually the villain from the point of view of another Esguerra book (My Imaginary Ex), much like Darcy of Something Blue by Emily Giffin. She’s not so nice, but at the same time, it’s obvious that she’s still going through something and she hasn’t figured out her life yet. It takes some time, but slowly the reader begins to realize that Kimmy could be harder on herself and her friends than they all deserve. How she sees things colors what really happened, and people change as they grow up. I really liked the way Kimmy’s relationships were portrayed in this book. They were a little dysfunctional but realistic. It was refreshing to have a story with the dramatic best friend that demonstrates her love in a different way.

Love Your Frenemies felt like an internal story. We’re in Kimmy’s head a lot, and a lot of history and back story is implied. She grew up with Isabel and Chesca and Manolo and they are such a huge part of her life she will always feel their impact. It takes a little time to get into that part of the story, but it feels very organic the way Kimmy narrates as things happen and as she remembers the past. I really enjoyed the perspective from a more messed up, less happy heroine. If I were to have a complaint, it would be that I wanted more of a connection to the romance. I could tell that it was the kind of romance that devastates a person, but I felt like I was seeing it through the lens of time, and I wanted to understand Manolo’s perspective better.

Overall: The trials and tribulations of the not-nice girl was a refreshing perspective in this chick lit novella and I liked the depth and development that went into the story in such small space.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | B&N (eBook)

Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe? by Hazel Osmond

I’ve been dying to read Who’s Afraid of Mr. Wolfe ever since Sabrina reviewed it at About Happy Books and gave it a very positive review.  I’ve been dipping my toes into British Chick Lit more lately after Sarra Manning’s Unsticky just bowled me over this year, and Sabrina is my go-to girl on all that is Chick Lit-y (without being too Chick Lit-y). The only thing holding me back from hitting that buy button was the Ol’ TBR pile, but I eventually gave in (as I inevitably do).
 
The Premise: Ellie Somerset is a copywriter in a London advertising agency where the big bad Mr. Wolfe has just arrived to shake up and streamline the company. There isn’t a woman at the agency immune to Jack Wolfe’s broody Healthcliff aura, but Ellie is convinced that under it all, Mr. Wolfe doesn’t deserve all the fuss. She’s determined to stay above the fray but can’t seem to help using her sharp tongue to make little jabs at the boss. As for Jack, he doesn’t know why he’s noticing Ellie, who has a problem with authority and dresses like she’s still in college (nothing like the usual elegant women he dates). As time goes on these two people, each with their own relationship baggage find themselves drawn to one another despite their best efforts. Jack is in panic mode because Ellie brings up feelings he doesn’t want to deal with, but he can’t seem to stay away.
 
Read an excerpt of Who’s Afraid of Mr. Wolfe? here
 
My Thoughts: Ellie is half of a two woman creative team. She brings the words and her partner, Leslie brings the art, and together they produce fresh new ideas. Unfortunately, if they think out of the box too much, they’re usually shut down by higher ups afraid of pushing the envelope. At home, Ellie’s life has similarly stagnated with her long time boyfriend, Sam, who is often too busy entertaining clients to spend time with her. The only unexpected element in Ellie’s life is her great aunt Edith, who lives life loud and to the fullest, and has eccentric habits like playing scrabble with dirty words. While Ellie has a great relationship with her aunt and with Leslie (who has become her best friend), all in all, Ellie is in a very “comfortable” but unexciting place in her love-life and work.
 
Then Jack Wolfe arrives and shakes up her life.
 
Jack is basically what you’d expect from his name – the wolf of the office. Everyone is abuzz when he arrives and in short order begins to cut out all the laziness and uninspired thinking that kept the agency back. His tall frame, dark broody looks and Yorkshire accent paired with his confidence has colleagues swooning and calling him Heathcliff. Ellie is the only hold out. She’s convinced the culling will soon stop the silliness over “a guy who looks like a six-foot-three, permanently scowling, sharp-nosed wolf.”  When they interact, it’s a battle of wills as Ellie feels compelled to take Jack down a peg, and Jack enjoys deliberately unsettling her. Jack recognizes Ellie and Leslie’s ideas as good ones and challenges Ellie to do more for her career, but Ellie only ends up feeling defensive and picked on. Their attraction (which both try to deny) only muddies the waters further.
 
Even though this plot is one that is fairly typical (contentious coworkers who really are attracted to one another, the gay best friend, an obstacle to their happiness), it was still so delicious to read and see how Ellie and Jack would succumb to the inevitable. While I wasn’t surprised by how the story unfurled (for example, I fully expected Ellie’s boyfriend to go and was not surprised when he did – I doubt this is a spoiler to anyone), it managed to feel unpredictable and nuanced. Osmond added just the right touch of emotion and seriousness to the story to keep it from being just another frothy read, and I liked that while this was mostly a heady, romantic story, there’s pain and loss in here. I frowned over Jack’s track record, or how he acted when things got more serious than he could handle, but the story peels back his granite facade to reveal what is really going on there. So Ellie and Jack both have their emotional moments that trigger erratic behavior, but I understood why, and got to see what happened as a result.
 
I loved the glimpses into what made the characters tick, and boy, I could really feel their emotions and got caught up in their every drama. I loved Ellie’s quick and sharp sense of humor and her kindness and love for her aunt. And Jack’s presence just stole the show any time he was on the page. I think if I understood exactly what a Yorkshire accent was, I would be even more under his spell (I used youtube to figure it out, but I don’t think it’s the same). For North & South fans, if you need an excuse to read this one, the author gives Richard Armitage a nod: “because without his cravat and scowls there would be no Jack Wolfe”. Just sayin’.
 
I also quite liked the colorful secondary characters of Who’s Afraid of Mr. Wolfe, particularly great-aunt Edith and her naughty Scrabble. I got a chuckle at imagining this diminutive lady doing what she wanted and looking how she wanted. I think she got a kick out of surprising her niece, just a little. Leslie, the once intimidating, edgy artist that’s now Ellie’s best friend and creative partner was another character I enjoyed. Leslie and Ellie’s easy banter, their perfectly in sync partnership, and the sweet way Leslie acts around the girl that is her One made their friendship a lovely one to read.
 
Overall: Despite the 490 pages, I think I read this one in about a night and a day.  I was looking for a feel good romance and this delivered just that. The plot is familiar – two contentious coworkers falling for each other despite themselves, but Who’s Afraid of Mr. Wolfe expands it so it feels like the book equivalent of the extended version with deleted scenes. So if you like the Alpha male of the office falling for the plucky young up-and-comer storyline, this book delivers a generous serving peppered with humor and emotion.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
About Happy Books – “one of my favourite contemporary romances of the last months and maybe even of my whole life” (this review kicked off the Want for this book)
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive (her opinion matches mine with this one. Spot on)
 
Other links:
Interview with Hazel Osmond @ Chachic’s Book Nook

The Dating Detox by Gemma Burgess

The Dating Detox
Simone Elkeles

The Dating Detox was an impulse buy on Bookcloseouts (OK self, get real, what’s not an impulse buy from you at that website?).   I’ve really enjoyed the British chick lit/ contemporary romances I’ve read this year, and I want to read more. This looked like a good candidate, and a quick search said that my go-to-girl on this topic, (Sabrina of About Happy Books), liked it, so in the cart it went!

 
The Premise: Sass is a twenty-something girl, living in London and struggling with her love life. After getting dumped six times in a row, the latest the most humiliating (walking in on her boyfriend Rick and some other woman going at it at a Halloween party), she decides that she’s not going to date at all – why go through all the trouble, only to be severely disappointed in the end? The solution is to cut herself off dating for a little while. Go on a sabbatical, if you will. Sass and her friend draw up some rules to live by (“3. Obvious flirting is not allowed”) that Sass decides to follow for three months. Suddenly her life is looking up. Men are interested.  Work is going great. Sass is more confident and happy than she has been in a long time. Three months begins to look too short. Maybe she should extend the Sabbatical to six months. Or indefinitely. The problem is, Sass keeps running into A New Guy, who seems like a great guy. Is he too good to be true and not worth breaking the sabbatical over, or is Sass cutting herself off from a good thing?
 
My Thoughts: This is a story narrated by Sass herself, and she has a very casual voice that is fun and full of the pop culture references you’d expect of someone who grew up in the eighties and nineties.  Sass is also a girl who doesn’t lack for friends. She has a tightknit relationship with her girlfriends Bloomie and Kate (calling and emailing them to keep in touch throughout the work day), and then there’s a gaggle of other friends that she’s known since university, and satellite friends-of-friends that she sees at parties and nights on the town. For someone as social as Sass is, she is a girl surprisingly loathe to rock the boat. As a result, while she has a great relationship with her friends, when it comes to work and love, Sass has let others take the reins. This has led to disastrous relationships, a bully at work, and a salary that forces her to be extremely strict with her finances.
 
The premise of a dating sabbatical is very simple, but Sass’ active life provides plenty of meat. She’s someone who more social than anyone I personally know, but it’s fun to read about someone who goes out and sees her friends a lot. And there are plenty of amusing anecdotes, from the disasters that were her past six relationships, to the mental adjustment Sass has to go through to keep herself from going back to old habits. I found Sass to be a regular kind of girl – one who is a little creative (every morning she dresses in an outfit, which she names), a little dorky (she likes to get a little silly with her humor sometimes), and one who goes out A LOT (doesn’t she get tired?), but otherwise, she has a good head on her shoulders. I liked her. When the sabbatical gives her the excuse to say no and stay firm to her convictions, I cheered at the positive effect it had on her life, from learning how to be firm while still being polite, to getting to know the men she meets before becoming involved with them.
 
So when new men entered the story, knowing that Sass is on a dating sabbatical was kind of delicious. I knew that I would get a romance that was a slower moving one.  The new contenders could make her laugh or seemed nice, but with Sass’s new rules, she actually gets to know the guys before moving forward. She meets a few of the same men over again on different occasions and It was nice that by the time Sass was ready, her choice was clear, not because the only man standing, but because he is the best fit for her. And because Sass had her rules and had to abide by them, the romance was about an emotional connection, and is pretty cute. I adored the banter involved in this story with the guy she ends up with. Particularly adorable was a shared sense of humor, to the point where they were the only two laughing at their own jokes, while everyone else stared at them.
 
The only thing I would warn readers about ( I personally liked it but I could see others finding it draggy), is that the narrative goes into a lot of detail about things like Sass’s clothes and blow-by-blow accounts of the parties and nights out Sass enjoys. There is one section where a weekend party probably takes about 100 pages of the book. I LOVED that through dialogue and significant looks, I learned a lot about Sass’s friends and their relationships with each other. I’d say there was something like 15 people to keep track of at this party, and the book manages to make their personalities and general reputation within the group very clear. There are secondary and tertiary (and quaternary, quinary, senary?) relationships as Sass’s friends fall in and out of love around her, and the weekend party is a turning point in a lot of these. It was refreshing that it wasn’t all about Sass. And I laughed a lot.
 
Overall: This was a British chick lit that falls on the fun side of things, but at the same time is a dense story with plenty of characters. Sass’s social lifestyle is pretty removed from mine, but I loved the glimpse I got. It was a nice change to laugh at (and with) Sass and her friends: a mostly single group unfettered by life’s responsibilities, who spend their free time out drinking and having fun, but are for the most part, very likable. Sass fits right in as a working girl with a string of bad relationships under her belt and trying to break the cycle of disappointment. Her trials and tribulations are fun to follow, but I cheered for her as she overcame her ‘pleaser’ tendencies. I liked that she became stronger and happier (and got the guy), because she stuck to her guns.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository | Bookcloseouts
 
Other reviews:
About Happy Books – positive
 
Book Trailer:
This is one of the best book trailers I’ve seen in a while – it feels like I’m watching a RomCom movie clip:

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning

I didn’t even look at what the blurb for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning was about – I was so pleased with Unstickythat I went and bought it. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized that this was a story with a heroine with weight issues – not my favorite trope, but I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed. It managed to not offend me by treating the heroine’s problem with a lot more thought than I usually see when this trope is involved.
 
The Premise: Neve Slater was once morbidly obese, and weighed 358 pounds. She’s been working hard and is half the size she used to be, but she’d still like to shed some more weight and be a magical size 10 (US size 6). That way, when William, the man she’s been in love with since university, comes back from his three years overseas, she can surprise him with her improved self. The problem is that Neve has never been in a relationship, and this is where Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker at fashion magazine Skirt comes in. Max is a total man-slut, and willing to be her partner in a “fake” relationship, where she can learn what it’s like to be part of a couple. With Neve and Max knowing that this is a throw-away, pancake relationship from the outset, there’s no danger of hurt feelings or becoming too involved. Right?
 
My Thoughts:  Neve Slater is a heroine who is very different from that of Unsticky. She’s a good girl; more of a reader and thinker. She’s not much for partying (and has to be dragged out by her sister Celia), and works at a literary archive. And she’s got a romantic idea of what she wants in a relationship, as exemplified by her crush on William and her dream that when he gets back from the U.S., they can be together. Towards this end, Neve has been improving her body, writing him letters, sending him care packages and generally obsessing about his return. William’s arrival back in England is six months away when Neve realizes that she may changed outwardly, but inwardly, she’s still just as inexperienced as she was when he left. Luckily there is Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker and general womanizer who Neve went a little too far with one night when she was a little drunk. When she explains how she’s holding out for William but needs practice in being in a relationship, Max is completely fine with volunteering for the position as a fake boyfriend to figure out the ropes and then bowing out when William gets back.
 
This premise sounds a little hokey, yet it seems to be perfectly reasonable the way it’s presented in this story. Neve is not an idiot and this is not a set up for comedic effect. Instead the pancake relationship is taken seriously and has it’s strict ground rules. With his reputation as a shallow man-whore, Max could have been a big jerk (and Neve’s friends and family are concerned about how he would treat their sweet Neevy), but Max turns out to be a rather nice guy. For all his flirting and easy charms, Max is surprisingly caring and perceptive. It’s just that he has his way of keeping people at arm’s length, the way that Neve has hers. That’s why the “pancake relationship” arrangement is so good for the both of them. With Neve’s declaration that William is the man she’s in love with, there’s no pressure for Max and Neve to be anyone but themselves around each other. Things start off awkwardly between them, yet they soon settle into an easy understanding. Before long they’re sharing things with one another and Neve is surprised to find herself getting a thrill from seeing Max’s name on her caller ID instead of William’s.
 
When I compare this story with Unsticky, it felt less dark than that one. It felt sweeter and more open. I think that although the characters had their share of problems (particularly Neve with her body image issues), they don’t feel as broken as Vaughn and Grace felt to me. They’re very different couples, but both these stories share the characteristic of really well plotted relationships, where small moments build upon each other to give us a satisfying window into a love story. (Speaking of Vaughn and Grace – I was eager to see any update on those two, but they’re mentioned obliquely and separately – not as a couple, but fans of Unsticky will recognize Neve’s trainer, Gustav).
 
The only thing I was bothered by was how fixated Neve was about becoming a certain size, but I was eventually satisfied by how this was handled. And perhaps the only reason I was bothered at all is that I’m very close to someone with an eating disorder, and let’s just say it has colored my view of certain things. I believe that offhand comments that imply what a person should look like can be damaging, and that you can be gorgeous and still be a miserable, miserable person. I don’t have much patience for stories that feature some character who sound like they have an average body size whine about wanting to lose 5 to 10 pounds (*coughBridgetJonescough*), and I’m also not fond of reading about characters who go from overweight and miserable, to svelte and have their self-confidence issues solved. Blergh I tell you.
 
Anyway, with these hot buttons of mine, when I read about Neve’s concerns about her stomach and her body while at a club with her sister, I was full of trepidation, but I soldiered on based on my love of Unsticky. I am so relieved that You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me has a character who has weight problems that felt realistic.  I could believe in a character like Neve, who is incredibly smart and bookish and very likable, but who still has issues with how she looks, despite how much weight she’s lost. This is because the story doesn’t dismiss the path Neve had to take to where she is now. She may be thinner and have much healthier habits, and physically she’s doing well, but mentally she’s also still dealing her recent past, like a bully from her school days who torments her even into adulthood, and to a family member she won’t speak to because of what they said about her weight.
 
I liked how supportive and protective Neve’s family was of her, particularly her sister, Celia. Actually I found many secondary characters reacted wonderfully to Neve’s weight problems, including Max. He still managed to be something of a guy, but I loved how he dealt with Neve’s hang-ups. Alternatively, I love how she dealt with his.
 
Overall: I want chocolate right now so I’m going to go for a chocolate analogy. I feel like You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is milk chocolate and nougat to Unsticky‘s 80% cocoa dark chocolate bar: less edgy; complicated in a different way; still rich and satisfying. After reading this story, I have that same experience of having pieces of the story stuck in my head for days afterward, but the couple is very distinct and separate from that of my previous read by this author. This is good. Also good: a heroine with weight issues that were thoughtfully done and a story that addresses a serious topic without becoming depressing. Yes, Neve’s body issues are a part of Neve’s life, but it’s not all the Neve is and not all that this book is about.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
About Happy Books – positive
Dot Scribbles – positive

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Unsticky
Sarra Manning

(Reason for the quiet over here: I’m SO ludicrously swamped at work – we’re talking 15 hour days. Weekends too. I’m behind on blog email, but trying to keep up with comments when I can. This review is a result of my brain needing a break from work to save my sanity).

Usually when I hear about a book these days, I’ll wait for news in the ether, let my awareness build and then this percolates into a desire to read the book. Very rarely do I read one review and I HAVE to get the book right away, but this is what happened when I read the review for Unsticky at Angieville (the ‘Bibliocrack’ in the post’s title had my book lover sense’s tingling). I’m so, so glad I for my impulse buy.

The Premise: Grace Reeves is a twenty-something working for a pittance at the fashion magazine Skirt, and massively in debt. Her relationships with a string of grungy rock-band boys never seem to last, but it’s still a surprise when her latest boyfriend dumps her on her birthday – in the middle of her favorite high-end store. When Grace refuses to take the break-up quietly, she’s rescued by bystander Vaughn. This chance encounter becomes something more when Grace and Vaughn meet again and Vaughn proposes an arrangement. Grace has to follow specific rules and cater to Vaughn’s demands in return for thousands of pounds and exposure to the jet-set she’d never meet otherwise.

My Thoughts: Yep, this is sort of a Pretty Woman scenario, and I have to admit having qualms about how this would be portrayed. Thankfully, the story does not sugarcoat things – it’s pretty messed up, but on the other hand, so are Vaughn and Grace. At first Grace is horrified by the idea of being under contract to have a relationship with a man (which includes sex), in return for gifts and money, but she also has no idea how things work in Vaughn’s world and he makes it seem like the most reasonable thing. After some time to think about her ridiculously high debt and the rationalization that she wanted to have sex with Vaughn before he made his offer, she enters into a contract.

It’s a case of mutually using one another. Vaughn demands all Grace’s free time outside of work, and expects her to make him look good. This means weekends socializing in places like New York, Paris, or Beunos Aires, and weekdays preparing for these parties with spa treatments and shopping for new designer clothes, on top of her job at Skirt.  Grace gets cash which she uses to try to pay off her credit cards, and a new luxurious lifestyle.

In a typical romantic comedy, this would be all conveyed in a fun, frivolous way, but in Unsticky, this is not the case. The narration feels grounded (and very British), and it has a gritty underside – there’s drinking, swearing and sex, and questionable actions from the characters. Vaughn is an obnoxious dictator, a hard man, and he’s eighteen years older than Grace is. Grace has to deal with his demands as well as those of her equally scary, bordering on abusive, boss at Skirt.

I have to admit that part of the pleasure of reading this book is the ‘Did they really just do that?’ factor and wondering if I was watching a train wreck about to happen or not. There were things that Grace does that I can’t see myself doing, but it fit her character to make the decisions she did. And I rooted for her. She’s passionate about fashion and I sympathized with her issues with money and the way she bought things to make herself feel better, only to make herself sick at the thought of more debt. She goes through a culture shock at Vaughn’s world but her determination rise to the occasion was very endearing. At the same time, Vaughn has his own demons. Clearly a man who insists on having his mistress sign a contract has issues, and he has them in spades. He’s aware of what a obnoxious bastard he is, and that’s part of why he wants to pay Grace.

“Despite their differences, because of their differences, they were a perfect mismatched set. Two sides of the same tarnished penny. An out-of-step Fred and Ginger. Vaughn was just as fucked up as she was – he was just so much better at hiding it.”

Vaughn’s childhood and Grace’s have left them both with scars. The story works because despite the scars they each bear, there’s something lovely between them.  I loved how their broken pieces fit each other, but it’s not an easy relationship at all. These two may have excellent chemistry, but their understanding of each other and of themselves is sorely lacking. I think they both want to cross the divide, but the mercenary aspects of the relationship and their own hangups with love get in the way. They may be dropping their walls despite themselves, but there are also setbacks.  Parts of this story put me on the verge of heartbreak, but somehow despair becomes hope. I loved that both these characters have dark sides to them, but I loved more that they found each other and were better for it.

Overall: I am blown away. This book may be classified as chick lit, but I think I’d call it dark chick lit. It has such deliciously complex characters that it stands apart from the frothy, light reads that people associate with this genre, but it is ultimately not a dark story.  I felt like I’d fallen for Grace and Vaughn myself when I read this book, vicariously lived through their heartache and self-discovery, and came out the other side feeling like I had a good cathartic cry without having had one at all. I am seriously hooked.

I’m currently reading Manning’s other adult title You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me which I bought before I even finished Unsticky.

(I’m putting lots of buy options today because it’s only available in the UK right now, so may be hard to find)
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository | Awesome Books | bookcloseouts

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Emily’s Little Pink Notes – 4/5
About Happy Books – positive
Book Harbinger – positive