‘Again, but Better’ – Christine Riccio

Again, but Better seems to have very mixed reviews, and though it won’t go down as one of my favourite reads I enjoyed many elements of it. I had no awareness of the author prior to reading this, and I can’t decide whether or not that was a good thing – but certainly meant I was able to take the story at face value.

The story itself is straightforward. Hard-working student, Shane, hasn’t really felt comfortable in her chosen studies. Her parents want her to go into medicine as it’s a safe choice. She’s always worked hard to try and fulfil their hopes for her, but evidently doesn’t really enjoy it. Her passion is reading and she dreams of being a writer. So it comes as little surprise when she finds a way to organise a semester studying abroad – in London, on a creative writing course.

We watch Shane arrive in London and settle into her new life. She ends up with new flat mates that she finds great fun, and loves the freedom she has to travel to new cities and experience things she’s only read about. She finds herself with more than a little crush on one of her flat mates, Pilot. Unfortunately, though it seems they’ll get on and sparks are there, Pilot has a girlfriend. There’s some late night conversations and an almost-kiss…but before we know it they are leaving to return home and there’s a definite sense of what might have been.

It was at this point that things became less convincing. Shifting to six years later for part two, we see Shane has returned home and is about to further her career in medicine. She still dislikes it, realises she doesn’t particularly like her boyfriend who has recently proposed…and feels there’s still some unresolved issues with regard to the boy she crushed on all those years ago.

Unlike many people who might put that down to timing and move on, Shane finds her ex-friend/crush and decides to tell him how she feels. Before we know it, thanks to what we’re meant to believe is a fairy godmother-type character who pops up regularly at key moments in Shane’s life, the pair of them have travelled back in time. They get the chance to redo their time in London, but better.

The second part was, in many ways, more credible than the first in spite of the time-travel premise. It would have been all too easy for the romance to be the driving force here, but this was just a part of the story. Pilot and Shane, inevitably, balk at sharing their feelings on this matter, then decide to take the plunge…but even this time it doesn’t quite go to plan. Shane has a bit of a wake-up call (and I think this had potential) and realises she, ultimately, has to be happy with her decisions before she can expect to be happy with anyone else. This didn’t get pushed as it could have done, and we still get the happy ending. That doesn’t make it bad, but it was safe. I also found myself increasingly irritated by the never-ending stream of references to books, films and music that we are expected to see as helping present this character. She was more engaging when we actually dealt with her, and not the construct she seemed desperate to present to others.

 

‘Beach Read’ – Emily Henry

Beach Read has so many of the elements I’d expect of a light summer read, but there’s a glimpse of darkness within that actually makes this so much more engaging than you might expect it to be.

Our main character, January, has always felt like someone who believes in love and its power to transform us. She writes romance and has always looked for her happy ending. But when we see her things aren’t going quite to plan. She is struggling to write, she is grieving her father and yet trying to reconcile herself to the discovery that her father had a secret second life.

Upon arriving at his second hideaway home, January is nervous about what she’ll find. Nothing could prepare her for the discovery that her new neighbour is an old college acquaintance, Gus.

Like January Gus is a writer. But we quickly see that, like January, things in his life aren’t quite going to plan.

What follows is quite obvious – they slowly form a new bond, breaking down the barriers each had in place and eventually starting a relationship each has secretly harboured dreams of since they first met.

The interaction between these two was great fun. Seeing two such different outlooks and the little bet to each write a book in the style of the other gave it an interesting twist. Not everything runs smoothly, but it always feels like we’ll end up where we hope.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. I loved it!

‘The Bromance Book Club’ – Lyssa Kay Adams

The Bromance Book Club was not what I expected at all. Fun, yes, but it also gave some interesting thoughts about relationships and how we interact.

The focus of our story is baseball player, Gavin, who is experiencing difficulty with his relationship. Having learned that ever since they had children his wife has been faking things, their relationship is in trouble. Thankfully, this is a feel good romance so we guess things aren’t as bad as they seem, and the characters just need a bit of a steer.

In this book the steer comes from a most unlikely place…the fellow teammates who all have weathered their own storms, and who have decided the way to sort things out is to look to romance novels.

A rather unusual idea, and there are some weirdly amusing moments. The excerpts from what becomes the guide to how to fix his marriage are cheesy, but it’s quite entertaining to see how these ideas are transferred to the modern times.

At its heart this book was really exploring attitudes to romance and relationships. It showed how honesty and trust are earned, and can help you through some pretty awful moments.

I found this good fun, perfect escapism, and have bought book two just to see whether it’s as good.

 

‘Date Me, Bryson Keller’ – Kevin van Whye

I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have to think so much about your sexuality, or to be so cautious about your thoughts/feelings. Whatever your views, however, nobody should be forced to come out unless they choose to. Some of the actions in this made me unbelievably cross, and I hate the fact that this will be something people even have to consider.

I’ve read a couple of views criticising this novel for being so similar to some other stories. I can’t comment on that, but I can certainly say how much I enjoyed this story.

Our main character, whose point of view we’re predominantly focused on, is Kai. He knows he’s gay, but hasn’t said anything to either his friends or family. He seems fairly happy in himself, but we learn he’s desperate to head to college so he can be himself. Kai is a character on the periphery of his high school experience, but he finds himself in a rather unusual situation.

This situation involves the school golden boy, Bryson Keller, who’s got himself caught up in what could be a pretty crass scenario. Whoever asks him out on a date each Monday he has to accept, and date them for the week. For reasons I’m still not totally sure about – but it stems from a chance detention and a drama task – Kai ends up asking Bryson on a date. And he agrees.

We follow Kai and Bryson through their somewhat unexpected week. They keep it quiet, and at points I feared this might be because Bryson was going to do something awful. That wasn’t the case, though, and this quickly becomes a tale of two boys finding a mutual love. Almost insufferably cute, it would take a fairly hard-hearted person not to warm to these two.

There’s hints that this will not be plain sailing. I know some might have a worse experience, but when it matters people are generally seen to do the right thing. Kai’s little sister was wise beyond her years and the kind of cheer squad anyone would be proud to have. Plenty to like in this, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Swipe Right’ – Stephie Chapman

Thank you to NetGalley, Hera books and Stephanie Chapman for giving me that warm fuzzy feeling where you don’t dare hope for that ending…but really really want that ending.

Our two main characters are Ollie and Fran. Both go for an interview. It’s clear, from the off, that these two have a spark. But will it ever be more? When they both end up working in the company we do wonder. Everyone around them seems to think they make a great couple – but each has a partner.

For seemingly ages Fran and Ollie walk the line of friends who quite fancy each other. It’s all very When Harry Met Sally without the annoying leads, a lot more alcohol and no fake-orgasm scene.

There’s a warmth between the two characters that seems very genuine. They open up to each other in a way that you can’t help but envy…but nothing happens.

Hang fire. Don’t get disheartened. Sometimes you just need to wait for the right time to put everything in place. Of course, it might not happen – but that really would have been a miserable read.

 

‘Tweet Cute’ – Emma Lord

I’m perhaps in a minority here, but I wasn’t totally won over by this in the way other readers seem to have been.

It’s a fairly stereotypical romance, with Jack and Pepper seemingly very different then spending time together and realising they quite get on. At the same time they’re developing a close relationship via an anonymous app, so it’s fairly standard that we’d expect them to get together eventually.

What’s being touted as the thing that sets this apart is the Twitter background. To cut a long story short, Pepper’s mum is behind a highly successful burger chain that has gone big after humble beginnings. Jack’s parents run a deli in New York that’s been in the family for years. Both serve a grilled cheese sandwich and it sparks a Twitter war. The whole scenario is preposterous, and it was so unrealistic that it frustrated me beyond belief.

It’s a shame I got sidetracked by this part of the story because the characters themselves and the way they were presented was appealing. I liked them and hoped things would work out, but the attempt to make it more than it was (as a way of tying up some loose ends regarding their parents later) just made it all too much.

 

‘The Happy Ever After Playlist’ – Abby Jimenez

Thank you NetGalley for offering me something a little different. I got the love story I wanted, but so much more besides.

Our main character, Sloan, is the kind of woman you probably can’t help but find intimidating. A talented artist, successful blogger, physically attractive and clearly a good person who inspires love in those who meet her…but we don’t see this immediately.

When we first meet Sloan she’s still mourning the tragic death of her husband two years ago. Her life is on hold, and though her friends are looking out for her she’s not ready to move on. Then, unexpectedly, she ends up with a dog jumping in her car. Soft-hearted she refuses to let the dog be taken to a shelter, and decides to look after it. She gets a contact number for the dog owner and leaves messages, daily, but hears nothing.

That could have been it. But, no, where would the fun be in that? The dog’s owner is a musician who’s been abroad for a few weeks. When he picks up the messages he is immediately intrigued by this woman. And so starts a most unusual courtship.

What we learn pretty early on is that the dog’s owner, Jason, is a star in the making. Totally unlikely, but there’s an immediate bond and it seems pretty deep. Can these two ride out the somewhat inevitable pitfalls to this existence? I’d like to say it’s never in doubt, but the author sure makes her characters work for it. At times it’s ugly, but at times it’s beautiful.

 

‘The Best Laid Plans’ – Cameron Lund

The Best Laid Plans is packaged as a frothy feel-good read, and there are definitely elements of the novel that fulfil that label. However, one thing this book is definitely trying to show you is that labels can be deceptive, and that not everything is easy to define.

Our story focuses on a group of seniors in a relatively small town who seem to have been together as a class for years, feel they know everything about each other and have to come to terms with the fact they’re growing up and will move on. Our main character, Keely, is fixated with the fact that she is the only virgin left in their class. She is obsessed by the fact that everyone around her seems to be so adult and in control of their lives, and is convinced that if she can lose her virginity she’ll suddenly receive the magic key to knowing how adulthood works.

The main impetus for her being so fixated by her status is the attitude of those around her to sex. Her best friend, Andrew, has a reputation as a ‘player’ and her female friends all seem to use sex and their sexuality as the way to define who they are. When Andrew hosts the party for Keely at the start of the book – the party that causes so much of the problem – and someone leaves a condom wrapper by Andrew’s parents’ bed, they jump with glee at the thought their offspring have finally got together. Everything about the attitude to sex in this book seems a little weird to me, and I felt it gave rather mixed messages to the target audience.

That aside, the novel focuses on Keely having a huge crush on an older boy, Dean. In an attempt to look more experienced, she hides the fact she’s a virgin. However, this then means she becomes preoccupied with the physical aspect of their relationship. So far, perhaps so normal – but then someone comes up with the bright idea that Keely should ask her friend, Andrew, to help…what could be weirder, eh?

For me, the entire book is focused on Andrew and Keely coming to terms with who they are, what each means to them and and how this growing awareness might impact on their current relationship. Along the way there are casualties, and characters who are clearly just used to help illustrate the point the author is trying to make.

Reading back through my thoughts, it seems quite negative. That’s not the case. This was such a quick read, and there were some genuinely funny moments. I liked the majority of the characters, and even felt they were genuinely developing as we progressed through the story. I had a feeling which way this would go, and the author definitely didn’t make this quite as easy as it might have been. It’s only afterwards that I start to consider exactly what message is being presented that I feel this isn’t quite as good as it could have been.

 

‘One True Loves’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Having read two more recent books by Taylor Jenkins Reid, I was surprised at how different this was. A love story, but not quite what I expected.

Emma Blair always fought against the expectations for her: to manage her parents’ book shop and to stay in her home town. When she ends up dating Jesse, the young man she had a crush on for years, he brings out a side to her that encourages her to do things differently. They are happy together. They travel and enjoy planning for their future. Then, a day before their first anniversary, Jesse takes a flight and we learn his helicopter crashed. He is presumed dead.

We learn that Emma fell apart after this revelation. She, slowly, learned to accept that Jesse was gone and found ways to think of him fondly but also to make changes to her life. She ends up moving back to her hometown, where she starts running the book store and becomes closer to her sister. She is about to marry Sam, a childhood friend who we know has always loved her. Then comes the revelation that Jesse has been found.

I cannot even begin to imagine how this kind of thing would turn your world upside down. How do you come to terms with learning that the love of your life is not dead…and that you have fallen in love with someone else and it’s okay?
The situation is unbelievably tough to imagine. The characters each have things about them that are not particularly appealing, but it was interesting to see how each of them reconciles their past thoughts of each other with the present reality.

Definitely not one to read if you’re feeling remotely wobbly, but it was a great read.

 

‘Betrayals’ – Kelley Armstrong

When Olivia’s life exploded–after she found out she was not the adopted child of a privileged Chicago family but of a notorious pair of convicted serial killers–she found a refuge in the secluded but oddly welcoming town of Cainsville, Illinois. Working with Gabriel Walsh, a fiendishly successful criminal lawyer with links to the town, she discovered the truth about her parents’ crimes in an investigation that also revealed the darker forces at work in the place that had offered her a haven. As if that wasn’t enough, she also found out that she, Gabriel and her biker boyfriend Ricky were not caught in an ordinary sort of love triangle, but were hereditary actors in an ancient drama in which the elders of Cainsville and the mysterious Huntsmen who opposed them had a huge stake.

Now someone is killing street kids in the city, and the police have tied Ricky to the crimes. Setting out with Gabriel’s help to clear Ricky’s name, Olivia once again finds her own life at risk. Soon the three are tangled in a web of betrayals that threatens their uneasy equilibrium and is pushing them toward a hard choice: either they fulfill their destinies by trusting each other and staying true to their real bonds, or they succumb to the extraordinary forces trying to win an eternal war by tearing them apart.

The whole link between Gabe, Liv and Ricky isn’t going away, so we can safely say nothing will get resolved any time soon as they try to figure out the best way forward. Things are still good with Ricky and Liv, but there’s more than a few nods to Liv and Gabe being a potential relationship. So, until that point we keep muddling along with nothing satisfactorily sorted.

This time round Ricky is under suspicion for crimes we know he didn’t commit. Supernatural elements are required to help figure it out, and the backdrop of the two fae forces battles on.

A few dramatic moments and plenty of opportunities for each to come to the rescue of the other. We get a number of past visions thrown in and hints of ongoing plotting by the two fae groups.

This felt like business as usual, but I’m hoping we get some answers soon.