Review: Like a House on Fire (Lauren McBrayer)

I am, much like Merit in Like a House on Fire, conflicted. On the one hand, there are things that irritated me about this book: the perfect/oblivious nature of the two people who are most important in Merit’s life, for one, and others that I’ll get into. On the other hand, it’s a bit of an outlier (in a good way) in the genre, with certainly a bit more gravitas about questions that are part of the genre, which I’ll also get into. I wound up giving it the higher rating based on the latter.

Spoilers ahead.

Merit is a married mom of two who has been out of the workforce for awhile. The goal of becoming a fulltime mom at home was to pursue her painting, hopefully to have gallery showing and then make art her career. That didn’t exactly pan out the way she wanted and hoped for, so it’s handy that she has an architecture degree and experience to fall back on. She lands a job at Jager+ Brandt, apparently right out of the gate (how handy!), were she meets Jane, her boss.

Jane is dazzling. Smart. Funny. Impeccably dressed. Quick-witted. All the superlatives. Perfect in every way. Jane hires Merit, and on her first day, takes Merit to a client meeting, where Jane is impressed with ideas Merit is adding to the mix.

They work long hours together, of course, and the women develop what is described as a deep friendship. This was the first stumbling block for me. It seems their friendship involves working long hours and copious amounts of alcohol after. In fact, I’m having a very difficult time recalling any time these two are together on the page outside of work or medical appointments where they are not drinking. I’m not a teetotaler, and I’m fine with some social drinking. But there are instances in this book where they just get completely shit-faced, and it seems as though Merit in particular wants to blot out the parts of her life that don’t involve Jane when she is with Jane somewhere.

Merit’s husband Cory, who seems like a nice enough, if a tad oblivious, guy, doesn’t get any marks of approval from Merit, who dings him – in her mind only – as forgetful, often lazy, and unwilling to share the burden of raising two very young children and helping take care of the household. One of the things that annoys me to no end in some fiction is a conflict that merely exists for a character to have a springboard to decisions they make when the conflict could have been solved or at least dampened a little if the characters just had a discussion about whatever it is. Maybe the outcome would be different, maybe not, but I’d think that Merit, married to Cory for 14 years, and who seemed to actually care about the guy, would have invested a tiny sliver of time in tamping down some of her resentment by just having a sit down with him.

It’s a slow, long burn of a book. If you come to this book looking for meet cute and sexytimes starting by the third chapter, you will be sorely disappointed. At least a year passes in book time (ding: the time passage is not altogether clear) before Merit hatches a plan to cheat on Cory with Jane. There’s no graphic sex in this book either, so if you were disappointed above, you’ll probably be disappointed by this as well. I’d say that Merit’s (infrequent) sex with Cory is more graphic, simply because there’s a handy appendage to mention (never fear, it’s only a mention).

Merit finds herself more and more attracted to Jane, and apparently Jane to Merit, although this is not well developed or clear. The two carry on an affair behind Cory’s back, through the turbulence of having two small children to raise – the duties for which seem to fall increasingly on Cory and a nanny while Merit figures out what she wants.

There’s a miscarriage, a fatal heart attack, and a ton of Jane and merit calling one another “bitch”, as if they are in a high school clique or have been watching far too much Real Housewives or Sex and the City than is healthy. A couple of times, sure, but thy do this far more often than you’d expect from a woman in her late 30s and another woman almost 60. Did I mention this is an age gap story as well? It is.

At the end, Merit decides to call it off with Jane, which I will say was written quite well, and is devastating. There is then an epilogue that is five years later, and while I was fine with the result, it annoyed me that we didn’t get any of the “how we got here” narrative after investing so heavily in everything that came before. It was almost as if the author ran out of gas or couldn’t figure out the “in between”, as I call it, to get the readers from point A to point B for the ending. It does work – of course it does, it’s a standard of the genre – but it felt rushed after everything before had been examined at length and in depth.

I wavered between three and four, but went with four stars out of five, as a nod to the genre and how this floats a little above most of the books of the same type.

Thanks to Penguin/Putnam and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

Review: The Complication – Camille Delaney #1 (Amanda duBois)

I wavered between three stars and four on The Complication, ultimately settling on a three for reasons I’ll explain.

Camille Delany, former nurse, current lawyer, has a job with a high-price firm. When her friend Dallas dies after a routine procedure, his widow asks Camille for help. Problem: her firm doesn’t handle medical malpractice. Solution: quit your job, establish your own firm, and take on the case yourself. And that is what Camille does.

She has her PI pal Trish helping, along with a few other side characters. The investigation is where my issues with the story began.

I’ll say this first: I read Coma (Robin Cook) when I was younger. At the time, the mystery at the heart of that book really creeped me out, as it was supposed to do. I think that if I read that now – after years of getting familiar with medical procedures, doctors, nurses, hospitals, operations, and so on (thanks, cancers!) – I would have the same issue with it as I have with this book.

The investigation itself is fine. It proceeds, as these things do, with medical staff leery of and sometimes hostile to legal staffs, hospital personnel turning their backs while leaving records out, etc.. It gets bogged down from time to time, trying to convey information to the reader about procedures and processes that may be unfamiliar to them, and sometimes introducing characters that don’t really mean anything in the story. Every time someone entered an already-crowded stage, my brain said, “Too many notes.” If you’ve seen Amadeus, you will understand. If not, well, you should watch it. The solving of the mystery relied a bit too much on coincidence for my tastes.

Finally, my biggest issue with the story: I just didn’t believe the crime. I’ll rephrase. I believe that A crime like the one in the book could occur. What I don’t believe is that the crime could be committed on the scale it is in the book, nor as publicly as it is. There are far too many people involved in operations that the manner of the crime would be exposed long before it is in the book.

That said, if you are able to suspend your disbelief, it’s a perfectly fine beach or place book, a couple of hours of time in an almost-real world.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Girl Friday Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Kagen the Damned #1 (Jonathan Maberry)

Kagen Vale, leaders of the guard and personally responsible for the security of the royal family and more specifically the royal children of Argentium, wakes up hungover and disoriented. Eventually, he pulls himself together enough to understand that there’s an active attack against his land by the Hakkians, who use magic that was banned in Argentium. When he arrives at the royal wing, he finds all of them, right down to the babies, killed in various gruesomely described ways. He decides at that moment that he is incompetent, terrible at his job, and damned.

I’m a firm believer that what matters when tragedy strikes, or when some life situation goes terribly wrong and bad, that what matters is owning your responsibility in it, if any, and that true character is shown by how one acts after such tragedies occur.

And his personal mindset of mind had a very large issue with Kagen and his nonstop whining, drinking, and lamenting about how he sucked at his job. I started calling him Kagen the Whiny, and promised myself at about the 35% mark that if he didn’t get his shit together, I was going to make this a DNF. The author pulled out of the nosedive shortly thereafter.

While Kagen was drinking and whining his way about this fictional world, other characters were also introduced – some appeared and hen vanished until almost the end of he book. I get that Kagen is the main character and so much of he book time is devote to him, but we got some pretty detailed narrative time with the other characters, including a young nun destined for a sacrifice, so I was expecting a bit more from her at some point before the end of her journey.

There are various side characters who show up, either for Kagen to fight against and kill, or just to give us some information about what’s happening in the rest of the world instead of the usual “As you know, Bob.” stuff where someone just talks at he main character. I hope some of them show up again later, because they were just as interesting (sometimes moreso) than Kagen.

But Kagen is back to himself by now, halting he drinking, and even invading a vampire witch’s tower, where he is “captured”, but not killed, as every other interloper has been. There’s a prophecy, of course, and she lets him go because of that prophecy.

And that brings me to another issue I have with this kind of book in general. Kagen was obviously taken out of action by a woman who drugged him. My question: why not just poison him and take him out of action entirely?I understand the value of humiliation some people require others to feel, to know that they have been bested, and with barely any effort, but in things like this, a better leader would have weighed the value of having Kagen gone versus his humiliation and gone with the former.

In any case, throughout the book we pop into the heads of other characters wandering around this world, so we get a good picture of what has happened and how the occupation of Argentium is ongoing. It presents a good reference point for the reader, and avoids head-hopping within any one individual scene.

There is a lot, and I mean a LOT of violence in this book: torture, rape, general war and individual fighters killing one another – all are here, and all described in very detailed ways. If you can’t handle fictional blood, or don’t like descriptions of rape and torture, stay far away.

It occurred to me after finishing that the whole magic question came across as the usual 2nd Amendment stuff here in the US. One side (Hakkian) had and used all the magic (guns) and one side (Argentium) had no magic (guns) because of very strict laws. Of course the Hakkians quickly overran Argentium. I’ll let the reader make the conclusion there.

Overall, not bad for an afternoon read if you can get past the main character whining his way through the first 30% so and don’t mind gore.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press ad NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Can’t Look Away (Carola Lovering)

Do you want to read some high school-level drama, except populated with adults with lots of money and zero worries in the world?

You’re in luck.

Molly and Jake, a writer and musician respectively, lock eyes one night at one of Jake’s gigs, and the next thing you know, they’re a couple. Of course, it doesn’t last long, because this sort of love usually doesn’t. Molly, irritated that Jake wants to work more on his music than on their relationship – because it has to be one or the other, it certainly cannot be both in the world of Lifetime movies (which, fair warning, this is). What I find interesting is that anyone who has an artistic bent – like Molly, supposedly a writer – could not understand another person with an artistic bent not wanting to give up their art.

But that’s all academic, because they break up and go their separate ways.

Years later, Molly is now married to Hunter and has a five year old who loves Frozen. I totally get the latter; my nieces were obsessed with it. Much as I adore Idina Menzel, every time there was a reference to the movie, all I could hear was Idina singing Let It Go, and it was a bit of an overload.

Molly, Hunter, and their little girl live in a wealthy enclave amongst other similar families. Molly’s having trouble fitting in with the other wives in the neighborhood, until Sabrina shows up. She’s married, but her husband has not yet joined her. Molly hits it off with her immediately, and from there, the two are pals. We then get the usual Lifetime-esque interactions between the wives who have always had money, before they married their wealthy husbands, and the duo of Molly and Sabrina.

The narrative is told by rotating through Jake, Molly, and Sabrina, and it doesn’t take long (or a genius) to figure out one of them is a psycho stalker. There isn’t a lot of suspense to be had in the book, but there is loads of “woman perceives another woman has wronged her and seeks revenge” drama going on. I’m not generally a fan of those, but swank enclave drama does interest me somewhat, so I did finish this to its disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying ending.

Everything wraps up neatly, bow on top. If you like your thriller-wannabes or drama-filled tales ending very tidily, or if you’re a big fan of Lifetime movies, this is your book.

Warning: there is a lot of swearing in this book, with the f bomb going off every 20 seconds it seems. I read mysteries, hardcore thrillers, and things of that nature, so I wasn’t put off by it. If you’re sensitive to it, you might want to give it a pass.

Two stars out of five.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Our American Friend – Anna Pitoniak

Thinly – very thinly – veiled Melania Trump fanfiction, at its heart.

Sofie Morse, a journalist covering the White House, gets tired of i all and decides to retire. She’s invited, however, to write a biography. Of the First Lady, Lara Caine, by the First Lady, Lara Caine.

Lara Caine is simply Melania, with some details altered (Caine was born in Soviet Russia; Melania in Slovenia), some not (both are former models). Caine has a whole pack of baggage, including a former KGB dad (Putin) and the whole thing was unpalatable, really.

Morse, of course, as a reporter, gets wrapped up in the story, which runs from the 70s to current times, and stops being able to tell where the line should be.

I finished it, grudgingly, to see where the mystery slash thrillerish thing went. There aren’t a lot of twisty turns or things that make you go hmm. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, as the ending wasn’t worth the buildup.

If you think you admire the former First Lady, it may be more your style. It certainly was not mine.

One star out of five.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

Review: Hideout – Alice Vega #3 (Louisa Luna)

Alice Vega is part Lisbeth Salander, part Jack Reacher in this, the third in the series that bears her name.

Thirty years ago, Zeb Williams is a football player, and during the infamous Cal-Stanford game, takes the balls, runs off the field, and vanishes. Over the years, his disappearance has become the stuff of legends, replete with Bigfoot-like sightings. in the present day, Alice is asked to find him. For what purpose, she does not know. After initially declining, she eventually agrees to take it on, and starts out to determine where he is and what happened to him.

I’m a fan of cold cases, and I appreciated the way Alice started very methodically working through and puzzling out the details – and occasional red herrings – of Zeb’s disappearance. She lands in the tiny southern Oregon town of Ilona, a place that has seemingly become awash in traitorous white supremacists called the Liberty Boys (a not terribly subtle reference to the Proud Boys, a very real group).

As she digs, the stakes grow ever higher, and her partner Max Caplan is not and cannot be a greater presence in the case, dealing as he is with his own issues. This doesn’t deter Alice, and even after getting beaten up and told to leave town, she doggedly continues her quest to find the missing Zeb.

This is the first book in the series that I’ve read, and I didn’t feel I was missing anything crucial by not having read the first two. There’s obviously some kind of (broken) relationship between Alice and Max, and I suppose if I had read those earlier books, or if Max was involved more in this story, I would have more than a vague idea about that; however, the lack off true backstory on that didn’t bother me in the least.

The story is told with a good balance of physicality and cerebral pursuits in tracking down the missing man. Alice is also not a character who gets beaten up and then is ready to go fight more after just shaking it off. There’s a reality of her being a mere mortal that I appreciate,

Four and a half stars, rounded to five. Recommended.

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for the reading copy.

Review: Unbreakable (Cari Hunter)

If you’re going to start a book, you could do worse than to make it the kidnapping of a doctor at gunpoint in a garage by a woman with multiple injuries, including a gunshot wound.

That’s how Dr. Grace Kendal meets Elin Breckinridge at the opening of the book. As they make their way out of the garage and hit the road, Grace learns at least a little about Elin, and realizes she needs some immediate medical care. She urges Elin to go to the hospital, but that option is right out.

How did we get here? Elin runs a security-related company with a friend from the Army. In flashbacks, er learn that one evening, two men burst into her home, beating her up, and taking her young daughter Amelia, nicknamed Mouse. After Elin wakes up from her beating, she finds the kidnappers want a million pounds, and they want it quickly. She starts transferring money around, which catches the attention of her friend. After finding out what’s happening, he rushes over, but she insists she has to go alone. She’s given instructions on where to go, ending up on the heath, where one of the men is waiting. Unfortunately for him, he gets his head blown off by a third party, and Elin gets shot trying to get away. She manages to elude those chasing her, and then goes on, trying to figure out how to get medical care – she very nearly goes into the ER but then spots Grace, and we wind up at the beginning.

DS Safia Faris and her partner Suds catch the case of the dead guy on the Heath. They quickly realize the scene seems wrong. Eventually, they make their way to where Elin had parked, and through CCTV from one of the homes, realize she’s been injured. The race is on for them to determine who she is. As they work the case, they get the call about Grace not appearing for her next shift, and through cameras again, find the mystery woman has taken her.

Meanwhile, Grace has removed the bullet from Elin, but Elin is still in very poor shape. As Grace is doing something in the lobby, one of the concierge people tell her an older man was in, looking for Elin, but he didn’t give the guy any info. Elin tells Grace they must leave immediately,and they do. Elin, still holding the million pounds, gets a call on the burner phone she was given, giving them the next location to be. Safia and Suds are not far behind on things.

There is no sudden instalove between Grace and Elin, and I was thankful for that, even in a “fall in love with the caregiver” trope. There is a touching love between Safia and her wife Kami (also great sounding food, courtesy of Kami’s grandmother).

It becomes fairly clear who is behind the whole thing if one pays close attention. The action keeps the book moving along, and you may find, as I did, that you read the book in a single sitting. The police procedural portion is excellent, even with a point I’d say could have been picked up earlier, and the fugitive from justice (sort of) part is likewise very good. Characters don’t suddenly start saying or acting in ways inconsistent from how they were introduced, and all the adults are adults.

I’m going five stars on this one.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Scarecrow Has a Gun (Michael Paul Kozlowsky)

If you have the sudden urge to spend a couple of days hashing out the philosophical questions surrounding your memory, how it’s perceived by you versus other people, and how a not quite accurate memory can affect you, you’re in luck: there’s tons of that in this book. If you prefer to have those questions asked, but not in a drill to the center of the earth way, and to read a science fiction novel (as this is also categorized) wrapped around this, you may be slightly disappointed. I was.

First, the length. This book would have worked much better as a novella, in my opinion. There are pages in the book that could have easily been jettisoned, as they were a bit echo-ey of things already discussed, and it caused a drag in multiple places.

Second, the premise: our protagonist Sean works as a drone in a large, nameless company doing some kind of video/graphic production. Is this important? It could have been, if there was some exploration of how Sean, with a graphic-centered life at work, may have been able to remember things more accurately than someone without that focus. This was not explore, however.

The precise: There is a group of employees of this company called The Widowers Club, summoned once a year to the boss’ office. All members of the group, as the name describes, are men. I’m not sure why Mr. Ulger, the boss, only selected men for his little games, where he would tell the group to perform some inane stunt – running through a glass window, for instance.

One year, Sean, who has been summoned for several years but who has never “won”, actually does win. His prize is a box contraption with two lines that attach to the temples. This box then shows the memories of the person hooked to it. Sean has been trying his hardest to remember an attack that leaves his wife dead and Sean unable to recall the exact events surrounding the attack. Now is his chance, but he finds what he remembers doesn’t jibe exactly with what the machine is telling him. My question: why does he simply assume that Ulger is telling him the truth and the machine is more accurate than what he himself remembers?

The rest of the book proceeds with Sean trying to get to the bottom of the attack, discovering along the way that nearly all his memories have that same unsettling wrongness about them. We also meet his fiancee Hayley is entirely unlikable, and his son not much better. There’s also a female crossing guard with some serious issues. I get that she’s meant as a sort of humor device, given the inappropriate things she says and the gossip she dishes, but she comes across as annoying and doesn’t serve as much of a break from the overall rather dense story.

Eventually Sean makes it to the truth of his wife’s death, and there’s an ending that seems rather far-fetched, given Ulger’s penchant for knowing absolutely everything Sean is doing.

There’s a real lack of the science fiction component, as it isn’t clear just how the box works, or really anything about it, other than it’s the type of science fiction that exists just because. That is, it’s like warp speed in virtually any science fiction: it is simply something that exists in this universe, and doesn’t require many pages of explanation. I would have liked something, though, even just a little. A good example of how something exists in a universe without going on for many chapters about it is the Epstein drive in The Expanse books.

The philosophical question is interesting, but in this particular book it really brought things to a halt when I hit some of the denser pages of that discussion. I’d have liked to have seen some discussion of how Ulger saw this as a way to make whoever used the machine wealthy beyond belief – this wasn’t really explained, since the machine only looks backwards, not forward (so one might invest in an invention or company one might remember reading news about, only to find with a forward-looking machine that said invention or company was a bonafide winner, and one might invest in the thing/company in their current moment in the timeline, for instance). It’s easier to believe Ulger when he talks about mind control, as the machine could be programmed to serve up the memories Ulger wanted someone to believe about their past memories.

Overall, I’m rather neutral about the book, so it’s three stars out of five from me.

Thanks to Imbifrex Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected publication date: August 2022.

Review: Sweet Surprise (Jenny Frame)

I definitely haven’t had the best luck with books these past few weeks. I am certainly in the minority on some of them – like this one – so take that as you will.

One evening, Flora Buchanan is hurrying to her car when a group of men start hassling her. Mack Sharkey, enforcer for a crime family, happens to see it on one of the cameras inside the establishment and hurries out with some of her people to rescue Flora. Before Mack can check on Flora, she’s gone.

Then Mack spends a year and a half in prison, and it’s two years later. Is the prison part important? Nope. It seems to be there just to provide a gap, and to tell us how noble Mack is, by taking the rap and serving the time so her sister, who is head of the family, does not have to. Message received.

The Sharkeys have been legit for ages, it seems, but still police their territory in Glasgow. Mack, with some seed money fro the family, starts up a barber shop. And guess who has opened a candy shop right next door? Of course, it’s Flora. I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed it wasn’t a flower shop, for obvious reasons.

We find out that Flora is a bundle of mental health issues: social anxiety (same, girl!), OCD, PTSD. This was first thing to stop and wonder about: why on earth does someone with social anxiety open a store where interactions with people are not expected, but required? Not just adults, either: kids. And kids are right little monsters sometimes. It’s never really explained what the PTSD stems from, and I guess it doesn’t make any difference anyway, but I’d have liked to have known.

In any case, Mack starts up her barbering and the word starts getting out that she’s there, so business picks up fairly quickly. Flora’s shop also starts drawing people in, including Mack, who remembers saving her from the dudes in the parking lot that night. Little by little, Mack helps Flora work on her mental health issues (and later in the book, helps convince her to get to a therapist).

A pause here, and one of my complaints about the genre (or course). Mack is an (of course) superbutch. Do they all need to have superdudenames? Mack, Ben (another I read right after this), etc. Mack’s also the enforcer for the family – but we get no sense at all of what she looks like beyond her eyes, really. How tall is she? Is she a fairly large person? I mean, I know we can fill in the blanks and assume so, but every so often, I wonder what would happen if someone wrote a superbutch character with the name Gloria, who was nicknamed Glo, an who was the enforcer for a crime family, because if you got out of line or did something to the family, she’d light you up. I’d read that. I love gangster stories. But here we have Mack, a solid, one syllable named woman who is not unused to violence, caring for the shrinking violet, Flora, and getting into savior complex territory.

Second pause, this time about Flora and the obvious codependence that was ramping up. It’s not a favorite of mine, because it’s unbalanced and also toxic in general. I also find it odd that Mack deals with the uncivilized dudes who live above Flora and their harassment of her with a small spot of violence, bu Flora seems to have no real issues with that.

Third pause: I didn’t get the romance between these two. Mack references this as what got her through prison. Really? A meeting,if you can even call it that, that lasted less than ten seconds and in which the two of you shared nothing at all? I’d buy it if Mack were some kind of philosopher-warrior type, and it was the ideal of the (perhaps) true love carrying her through, but no, it’s Flora, herself, and I didn’t buy that at all.

But on we go with the story, and somewhere before chapter ten, we get the first instance of the phrase guardian angel – a phrase I came to hate because it was repeated so very many times, and spoke to that codependence. I stopped here and searched it on my Fire: 13 times! Too many, editor! But as with the last one I read, way to go, editor, with no constant drumbeat of heads snapping up!

Mack promises to always protect Flora, but actually does not: due to another crime family wanting to expand and sell drugs in Sharkey territory, the head of that family tells some lowlife that Mack tuned up before (not in the book) to go grab Flora and Isy, who has been helping out at the candy shop. He does so, and then is stuck with the two, when the boss tells him to kill them both, something he doesn’t want to do, but he knows that his boss will kill him or Mack will when she finds him.

But Flora saves herself and Isy by distracting the thug and then whacking him in the head – nothing preventing her from doing these things with adrenaline flooding her body.

No sexytimes of note, explicit or otherwise that made a blip on the page. If you’re looking for that, it isn’t here. If you’re looking for more of a slower evolution without a bunch of sex scenes that sound like human anatomy or gyno classes, though, this could do it.

HEA, etc.

My favorite character: Mack’s dachsund, Dexter.

Two stars of five. Not my thing.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected publication date: December 14, 2021

Review: The Christmas Proposal (Lisa Moreau)

If you’re a fan of the Hallmark or Lifetime movies, you’ll probably like this. Me? Don’t like them, didn’t much care for this. If I hadn’t been told the ages of the characters, I’d have thought they were teenagers, with the constant inner monologues.

Grace (of course her name is Grace, it’s an xmas book) is a PA to her boss and is also sleeping with her boss. Bad idea all around. Of course her boss is a soulless, soul-sucking, commitment-fearing workaholic who, by the by, is also cheating on Grace. Grace finds this out after bringing yet another cup of coffee to her. With amount of coffee this woman appears to drink, it would be cheaper to just set up a coffee station in the office and get a full time barista to handle it. But I digress. Grace stumbles out of the office crying, running into Bridget, who is there to apply for a programming job. Grace convinces Bridget to go get her purse, which she has left in her boss’ office in her haste to leave. Bridget does, and that’s the extent of their first interaction. There’s the merest whiff of instalove in the atmosphere, but that’s all.

Bridget gets hired as the boss’ new PA instead of programmer, promised that she’ll get a look after the first of the year. She accepts. Tip: never do this in the real world. Terrible bosses will string you along forever, just like an MLM scammer, promising big things just around the corner if you’re patient. If you’re good at what you do – and Bridget is – you can get a job that doesn’t involve running personal errands for your boss. Like fetching coffee every ten minutes and oh yeah, planning your boss’ marriage proposal to her girlfriend. At xmas. With three weeks to prepare. This is not a good boss.

So off Bridget goes, fetching round nth of coffee, and she happens to pick up Grace’s card from the counter there. Grace is now an event planner, and she’s just done an event at that coffee shop, dressed as an elf, for some dude proposing to his fiancee. Grace’s boss is also not a good boss, although at least she isn’t running off to fetch coffee. No, instead, she’s decorating the xmas tree in their lobby, by herself, because her terrible boss has tasked all the interns with something else. On the plus side, her boss’ boss is opening a branch in Maui, and the choice to lead it is between Grace and one other person.

Bridget calls Grace, and they talk one time. Grace says it’s impossible to plan this in a short amount of time AT XMAS when everyone does events AT XMAS, which is just like another book I read recently. Apparently it is not impossible, when one is either the xmas girl (as the other book called the woman in question) or comes from one of those Hallmark/Lifetime seasonally-named towns like Mistletoe Mountain.

Off they go, total strangers, to MM, as I’m going to call it. This was just bizarre to me. There is no way I’m going off on a five hour (or however long it was) drive to the middle of nowhere with someone I just met, when I have no family (Bridget – it means strength, as the book keeps telling us many times – was surrendered anonymously by her mother, so we can get her tragic backstory of abandonment issues) and apparently, no friends, to tell. But that would have cut the story short.

On the one road that leads to the town, there’s a violent earthquake. Strong enough to shake the roadbed so much that Graces bangs her face on the steering wheel. And strong enough to cause an avalanche that is later determined to be a landslide AND avalanche. How romantic: stuck in a small town you don’t know, with a woman you don’t know and her family, for at least a few days. Side note: while Colorado, like pretty much any mountainous place, has probably hundreds of earthquakes every year, really violent ones are rare. FYI.

Naturally, the outgoing and affable Grace, who still has rampant inner monologue-ism about an as-yet unnamed tragedy with a capital T, works on the taciturn Bridget who just wants to get this thing set up (price is not an object, which is a good thing for a dying town) and get back to designing her mobile game. Clearing the one and only road leading into town will take longer than expected, which annoys Bridget’s boss, probably because she now has to fetch her own coffee.

We get the whole Grace – Bridget love thing going on after about three days, and after about five, we get Grace’s tragic story: her girlfriend, who was a figure skater, died. In an avalanche/landslide, of course. Turns out Grace was also a figure skater, and was heading to the Olympics, but all this put the kibosh to that, and Grace hasn’t skated since.

By now they’ve also had their sexytimes, neither one of them having kissed anyone like they have the other, etc. It’s a trope, so ok. There’s a very, very strange thing during this sleeping together series: one morning, Grace wakes up early, slips out of bed, and heads down to get coffee and breakfast for the two of them. When she gets back, Bridget is awake and also somewhat distant, because she thinks Grace somehow abandoned her, like everyone else. What? Where exactly is she gong to go in a small town, when you’re staying at her sister’s inn? That was bizarre.

Also by now, their time in MM is done: the proposal stuff is set, and Bridget’s even finished her game and rebuilt the town’s web site. Man, she is efficient!

Back in LA, Bridget gets an attagirl, and she and Grace act like teens again, constantly texting cutsie stuff, telling one another how much they miss each other all day when they’re supposed to be working, etc. Bridget’s boss loves her new game, gives the programming job to her, and makes her game the number one item at some upcoming thing. Bridget takes herself over to Grace’s office to tell her the good news. But the receptionist and her big mouth tells Bridget that Grace got the job in Maui (because the other person decided not to take it, for personal reasons).

As is the case in every. Single. One. Of. These. Books, instead of just hanging around, waiting for Grace and talking to her about it – as an adult would – Bridget decides that Grace doesn’t care after all, and is abandoning her, and storms out, not replying to any of Grace’s calls or texts. When Grace shows up at her apartment, Bridget is stony, kicks her out. Grace heads back to MM to be with her family at xmas, and Bridget – after the boss’ heart grows five sizes on the last day before the holiday and she tells Bridget her own little story about commitment – heads off to MM as well.

Grace has decided to skate in the xmas eve benefit, which has become a huge event, and Bridget has missed that, but finds Grace and apologizes. They have one of those touchy feely moments that are all so common these days about how they’ll always talk to one another about everything, the town is saved, Bridget proposes to Grace, they both move from LA to MM, Bridget working remotely and Grace teaching skating, and they live HEA.

It may sound like I don’t enjoy stories of strangers thrown together. There are as many romantic stories of this nature as there are more macabre ones (Strangers on a Train, And Then There Were None) and they can work. But it seems in some genres – like romance, straight or LGBTQ+ – authors are sometimes so very keen to hit the beats, or story notes/tropes, that the story is either not good, or there’s way too much of some elements that send it not quite over a cliff, but just into my not favorite pile. Bridget isn’t just abandoned, she’s abandoned by everyone. Grace wasn’t just a skater, she was set to be an Olympian. The two of them didn’t just get caught in an earthquake and stranded by an avalanche, Grace’s former girlfriend died in an avalanche. There’s pathos for your story and there is PATHOS, and sometimes – a lot of times – less is more.

Two and a half stars of five, rounded down to two. This just didn’t do it for me, sorry.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected pub date: December 14, 2021.

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