Review of “The Accidental Beauty Queen” by Teri Wilson

Wilson, Teri. The Accidental Beauty Queen. New York: Gallery Books, 2018.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197604 | 293 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

4 stars

The Accidental Beauty Queen was a random find while perusing my library’s catalog, looking for other books with librarian characters. Upon reading the blurb and some reviews, I was intrigued and thought it had a fun premise.

It ended up being a fun read, with a combination of a lot of fun things. While it is a little on-the-nose at times, and the author clearly wears her influences very close to her chest, from Miss Congeniality and beauty pageants to Harry Potter and Jane Austen geek-dom, to the point of borrowing elements from all of the above, some to a greater degree than others, it’s still a great read if you go in prepared for a light read and nothing particularly groundbreaking.

What I absolutely adored was seeing these two sisters grow through observing something of the other, whether it be a facet of the other’s life or their behavior. Charlotte shares the popular opinion that pageants are vapid and dumb, and is very much a stereotype of brains over beauty, but I love how she sees how much good those in the pageant circuit are doing and how hard some (like Ginny) are working to better themselves through trying to earn money for higher education through these competitions. And Ginny learns what it is to be a good person and sister through observing Charlotte.

This is an absolutely adorable book, full of humor and heart. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light-hearted romantic comedy, especially if you love book nerd culture or beauty pageants…or, as the book’s underlying message suggests, both.

Review of “The Cliff House” by RaeAnne Thayne

Thayne, RaeAnne. The Cliff House. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335004901| 361 pages | Women’s Fiction

3 stars

The Cliff House was my first book by RaeAnne Thayne, and I definitely won’t be the last. Despite this apparently being somewhat different in style from her romances, I like the small-town feel that exudes through the book, one I am guessing is a common staple of Thayne’s work.

Unfortunately, this book suffered from trying to do a little too much with a single book. The premise promises a lot, with the development of three women’s stories and romances. And while I cannot see a way to keep the current simultaneous nature of the events while also fleshing out the stories, I feel it fell a little flat in trying to squeeze it all into a single book.

The one storyline I felt came through and made me feel invested was Daisy and her developing relationship with Gabe. It was great to see her taking risks and living, not to mention those little moments of bonding that she has with Gabe throughout. It doesn’t hurt that their arc involves a stray (or is he?) French Bulldog.

I did think the one thing that held the story together, in spite of weaknesses in my investment with Stella and Beatriz’s story arcs, was the relationships between the women, especially as secrets come to light. I think, in spite of Thayne’s romance origins, this is a book that could have benefitted from more exploration of the familial relationships in favor of trying to develop three romances.

For the most part, this was a decent book, although I’m not sure if this is the best indicator of Thayne’s work. I would recommend it if you like romantic women’s fiction with multiple perspectives, and would encourage anyone else who’s interested to also seek out a second opinion from a seasoned RaeAnne Thayne reader to decide if this the place to start with her work.

Review of “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Jaswal, Balli Kaur. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. 2017. New York: William Morrow, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062645111 | 298 pages | Women’s Fiction

5 stars

I picked up Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows on a whim, looking for more books about Indian immigrants, and recalling seeing this author had blurbed another recent read, The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli. And while I had almost no idea what I was getting into, given the bold title choice, I really respect what this book did, in terms of discussing uncomfortable topics like women’s sexuality, particularly in the context of a conservative community of Punjabi immigrant women.

I enjoyed the dynamic between Nikki, as the modern woman who doesn’t fully connect with Punjabi cultural traditions, and the other women in her life and who she’s working with, who are also reckoning with the cultural expectations placed on them and their taboo sexual desires. There is this large cast of characters, but each of them has these rich backstories to them, particularly the widows, that makes them stand out, especially as they start to articulate their sexual needs through the stories.

And while the message could have been distorted in Jaswal’s attempt to combine many genres, I like how she managed to combine the genres so that the heartwarming (and heartwrenching) stories involving the dramas in the women’s lives are also complemented by a good dose of suspense. But it all comes together very well to convey this lovely story about female empowerment, with such wonderful character growth, even for characters I did not expect.

This book is an unexpected gem. And while I’m sure many have read it already, it being chosen as one of Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club picks, I would recommend this to anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet, particularly if they are interested in multi-layered multicultural stories.

Review of “The Matchmaker’s List” by Sonya Lalli

Lalli, Sonya. The Matchmaker’s List. 2017. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451490940 | 352 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

3 stars

The Matchmaker’s List was a much more disappointing read than I thought it would be, largely due to making a hash out of what is a good premise. But even so, it does still have some good qualities, most relating to the main setup of the story.

I love getting a look at the dynamics of love, dating, and marriage in different cultures, and this one did that relatively well, especially in terms of demonstrating the extended family’s involvement in an individual’s love life. The relationship between Raina and her grandmother isn’t perfect, and they don’t see eye-to-eye, but I love their slightly dysfunctional relationship all the same, especially when you see how both are affected by Raina’s flake of a mother, who the grandmother failed to rein in. Even when Raina messes up (and boy, does she), it’s obvious she’s doing it out of some form of love for her grandmother, just as the grandmother is doing what she does out of love for her.

That brings me to a discussion of the negative and problematic elements. This book unfortunately suffers from what I have started to call it “the Big Lie Syndrome,” where the plot gets out of control because our protagonist tells one lie that expands into more lies, and delays telling the truth. And what a lie it is. While I admit I wasn’t massively bothered by her lying about being gay, especially as I read on and saw what Lalli was trying to say about the conservative views among Indian immigrant families and breaking down those barriers, it still felt incredibly disingenuous to have this lie forgiven at the end, especially by actual LGBTQ characters, one of whom comes out to her at one point in the book. The grandma, I can understand, but I don’t know if I would have been so forgiving if I was in those other characters’ shoes.

I also found myself annoyed that she spent so much time mooning over a guy who clearly was only available when it was convenient for him, to the point of not even seeing a great guy right in front of her, just because she wasn’t willing to date a non-Indian. While she comes around in the end and I did feel that she had a solid arc, I questioned her intelligence when it came to her choice of an ideal romantic partner at times.

All that being said, this is still a decent book, with great ideas, even if they did get a little lost in execution. I would recommend this to those who are looking for a multicultural romantic comedy, and also don’t mind an incredibly flawed heroine.

Review of “Good Luck With That” by Kristan Higgins

Higgins, Kristan. Good Luck With That. New York: Berkley, 2018. 

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451489395 | 456 pages | Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction

5 stars

This is a book that went from being nothing but a blip on my radar, to worrying me intensely, all without reading it, thanks to a few reviews of the book, that criticized it for fat shaming. But as it is often said, literature is subjective, and that is definitely the case with Good Luck With That. 

As someone who has long struggled with weight issues, I can understand where these reviewers are coming from. There is so much “well-intentioned” fat shaming out there, that it can be hard to handle such a delicate subject. And given what Higgins wrote about her intent going into Good Luck With That on her blog, it’s obvious that this is something that is very personal to her.

And I’m glad she didn’t sugar coat it, ” while also charting the growth of her characters, for better (Marley and Georgia) or worse (Emerson). Through each of their journeys, I could relate to all of them in small ways. With Emerson, I found myself in shock watching her decline, noticing shades of myself at my worst. I found I also agreed with a truth that she shared in one of her diary entries, that fat people discriminate, not to put down others, but to compare themselves with others, in the sense of, “I’m not that far gone” or “she has it better than me” sort of way.

For that reason, I was initially troubled by the way Emerson’s ballooning weight was shared at various points, while Marley’s and Georgia’s were both kept ambiguous. But regardless of their size, they dealt with issues of self-acceptance too, and it seems to be true that women, regardless of size or weight, are hardwired by what society shows them to base their self-worth entirely on those things and being desperate to find love with someone else to make you feel more complete, instead of finding happiness with oneself. While there are relationships and HEAs in this book, they only happen with both Marley and Georgia have both achieved self-acceptance.

I think this is a book everyone should read, as it might alter their perspectives about themselves, and judgments of others. This is one of those books that really made me think about what I feel about my own body, instead of being in denial about it, and I would love for everyone to have that experience.

Review of “Now That You Mention It” by Kristan Higgins

Higgins, Kristan. Now That You Mention It. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN, 2017. 

Paperback |$15.99 USD |  ISBN-13: 978-1335903358 | 406 pages | Women’s Fiction

5 stars

Kristan Higgins was among a number of authors recommended to me when I was looking to try more contemporary romances and women’s fiction. And while I fully intended to read this book both as part of my reviews of select RITA finalists, and then again when it won, it was my decision to take a chance on her latest book, which generated controversy and debate, which led me to finally pick this one up to establish a baseline of what her recent work is like. And I must say, I was very impressed.

This book somehow managed to toe the line between being charming and funny, while also grappling with deep topics, like copious amounts of family drama, old grudges, and other small-town dramas while making the characters feel layered and like you could understand them. I loved the heroine and narrator, Nora, for her devotion to repairing old wounds in her family and she also proves she’s extremely intelligent, but she isn’t full of herself.

And while something I’m often skeptical about in contemporaries is that it might have references that might become dated in a few decades’ time, I found myself delighted with this one, as Nora and some of the residents of the Maine town bond over a shared love of Harry Potter, which I could relate to intensely. And the way it was peppered in to add humor to sometimes awful or awkward situations is great.

While this is not straight romance, the way I’ve been told some of her earlier work was, there is still a great romantic subplot. Sullivan “Sully” Fletcher makes a great romantic partner for Nora. Unlike his brother, who has an eternal chip on his shoulder, Sully is incredibly positive, despite the fact that an accident caused by his brother led to him gradually losing his hearing. And unlike Nora’s ex, who betrays her trust on more than one occasion, he proves himself to be incredibly reliable.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves charming small-town stories that are full of drama and have hints of a sweet romance.

Review of “The Night the Lights Went Out” by Karen White

White, Karen. The Night the Lights Went Out. New York: Berkley, 2017. 

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451488381 | 406 pages | Women’s Fiction

5 stars

Most books tend to fall into two categories: light and feel-good or dark and angsty. Some that lean one way might incorporate some aspects of the other, but for the most part, books I’ve read tend to fall into one of these two categories. That is not the case with The Night the Lights Went Out, which presents a atmosphere of a sweet, fun Southern book with its opening pages, but as the book goes on, the sense that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, some of it sinister, began to creep up on me. I love how Karen White managed to provide a good balance of both those elements, keeping me in the moment, while also foreshadowing the darkness to come.

Merilee is a character I rooted for, and I like the exploration of the layers of her life, starting with her recent betrayal, and going back into dark past. She is flawed in that she is a bit naive, but her character growth and new understanding of who she can really trust is wonderful to read. I also enjoyed seeing the parallels between her story and Sugar’s. Both of their stories show the strength of the bonds between true friends who go through tough times together.

And once again, White’s gift with words shines through. My favorite moments, much to my surprise, given my initial aversion to Southern fiction, were the delightfully Southern blog entries, which appear throughout the book, dispensing wisdom and humor. These entries contain many great words to live by, regardless of where on Earth you’re located, and my favorite is from the last pages, speaking against the idea of getting revenge: “We shine instead of sparkle, we smile and bless their hearts instead of giving the finger.” (405)

Review of “Dreams of Falling” by Karen White

White, Karen. Dreams of Falling. New York: Berkley, 2018. 

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451488411 | 404 pages | Women’s Fiction

5 stars

Despite having fallen in love with the Willig, White, and Williams collaboration, The Forgotten Room, and devouring much of the other two Ws’ backlists, I have long found myself reluctant to try Karen White, as she, of the three is the one who writes in more modern times, and also the South, and I have only recently overcome my mistaken prejudices against Southern fiction. But once I made peace with these factors and picked up her most recent release, I quickly fell in love, finding myself in a very similar book to ones I had adored from the other authors, rife with multigenerational family drama, mystery, and romance.

It is rare that I pay close attention to the author’s prose style, other than to note when certain POV and tense styles annoy me, but with White, her style is worthy of praise. While (of course) she does utilize multiple POV and tense styles, switching between present and past tense, or first and third, this adds to each character’s voice, and I actually found myself enjoying the first person present tense chapters the most, as they are told from the perspective of a character in a coma. This creates a sense of immediacy and I truly felt the purpose of this particular form. However, the passages in the other tenses are no different, with many passages being incredibly memorable and quotable, especially the closing lines that sum up the novel’s title in connection to the themes of the story.

I also loved the examination of the different relationships between the characters, with the different parallels between the choices made by the women across three generations, and how each previous generation’s choices had an impact on the next. But I love how, even though there is a lot of drama between Larkin and Ivy, Ivy and CeeCee, or CeeCee and Margaret, there is a sense of closure and peace brought to each of these relationships by the end, making way for future happiness.

Review of “The Wedding Dress” (The Wedding Collection #1) by Rachel Hauck

Hauck, Rachel. The Wedding Dress. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-1-59554-963-1. $15.99 USD. 

5 stars

Upon reading the blurb for The Wedding Dress, I was a bit unsure, as I had no idea how Rachel Hauck would convey four separate love stories 330 pages.

But despite my misgivings, I found myself  pleased with the execution of a seemingly odd premise. While it promises four stories in four time periods, the book is written to focus primarily on two: Emily’s story in 1912 and Charlotte’s in the present, with the other two sprinkled in through Charlotte getting to meet Hillary, and Mary Grace and her husband. I felt this made the pacing work well, as it helped establish both Charlotte’s connection to the “sisterhood of the dress,” and to Emily herself.

And despite not being the most devout person, I found the message and symbolism at the heart of the book beautiful, in that, it the Gospel of Jesus, like the dress, can fit everyone’s life. The way Hauck conveyed this message through the journeys of the four women in the book was fabulous, leaving me with quite a bit to contemplate upon finishing the story.