Book Review: Paradise Cove

Last weekend, I read Paradise Cove as part of a read-along with Melanie. In the novel, Dr. Nora Walsh moves from Toronto to the tiny town of Moonflower Bay in the aftermath of a painful breakup. She plans to stay in town for only a couple of years, but there are compelling reasons for her to stay longer, including her developing chemistry with local fisherman/fix-it-man Jake Ramsey.

The book: Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday
Genre: Romance
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed this book in much the same way that I enjoy Hallmark movies. The story is set in the (fictional) small town of Moonflower Bay, Canada, where everyone knows everyone and the elders love to gossip and meddle in the young adults’ affairs. The town reminded me of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and like Stars Hollow, Moonflower Bay worked so much for me because I so badly wanted it to be real!

To continue with the Hallmark movie comparison, I thought that the key elements of the romance in this story were great. From the meet-cute in a hair salon, to the town emergency that forces Nora and Jake into each others’ lives, to their undeniable chemistry despite their firm assertions that they don’t have time for romance – it was all very compelling.

I do think that Paradise Cove offers a bit more than just an indulgent, escapist romance, however. Nora and Jake’s relationship is built not only on lust, but also on their deep emotional connection and their ability to listen to and support each other. Jake supports Nora by helping her with the chores that her demanding career makes it hard for her to keep up with, and Nora supports Jake by being an excellent active listener as he processes a traumatic event from his past with her. For all the time spent on Jake and Nora’s sexual chemistry, Holiday spends just as much time (if not more) focusing on their emotional intimacy.

Both protagonists also have meaningful relationships besides their romantic relationship with each other. Nora has an incredibly sweet relationship with her sister and grandmother, and she also makes fast friends with the residents of Moonflower Bay. Jake has lifelong friends in Moonflower Bay, who accept his need for lots of personal space, but also intervene when they recognize he is making self-destructive decisions. By giving both protagonists healthy friendships and familial relationships outside of their romance, Holiday shows that friendships and romantic relationships are not mutually exclusive – a message that I really appreciated.

I only had a few small issues with Paradise Cove. One was that the writing felt a bit cliched at times. There is one scene where Nora is feeling insecure about her ability to satisfy Jake sexually, and he thinks “Someone should just reach into [my] chest and pull [my] heart out right now. Stomp on it and throw it in the trash. Because this woman thought she was not sexy.” My other issue was some of the language used in the sex-scenes – language like “burrowed through her folds” – which not only felt actively unsexy, but was also vague and conceptually confusing.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Paradise Cove. It was easy to set aside the small issues when, on the whole, this novel was so heartwarming and bingeable. There’s another novel in the same series as Paradise Cove, plus a new novel in the series coming out in 2021 – I will most likely read them both based on my experience with Paradise Cove.

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project

After enjoying Beach Read, I decided to continue with the romance genre and read The Boyfriend Project. The novel opens with young professional Samiah Brooks learning via Twitter that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with two other women. After dumping the three-timing liar, the women become instant friends and vow to spend the next six months investing in themselves. But immediately after making this vow, Samiah falls for a new-hire at her office, and must decide whether she is willing to risk the potential consequences of breaking the pact and starting a workplace romance with someone she barely knows.

The book: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Genre: Romance
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

I really wanted to like this book because the premise sounded promising, but unfortunately it fell short in many ways. One of my biggest issues was that none of the main characters were well-developed enough. I especially wish that Samiah’s flaws and internal issues had been explored more deeply. For the first half of the novel, Samiah seemed too perfect to be real: she is super successful professionally, has a great relationship with her family, can make friends easily, and loves charity and “paying it forward.” These are all admirable and compelling characteristics, but taken together in the absence of any major character flaws, they don’t make for a very relatable protagonist. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that Samiah is a perfectionist, and that she has difficulty trusting and accepting help from others. But even then, all of these issues are revealed at once, with the author quickly telling rather than showing them. I still liked and rooted for Samiah, but I wish she had been a more deeply developed character.

If the characters weren’t the most relatable but their romance had been compelling, I probably still would have enjoyed this book. But it was hard to feel compelled by the romantic development when so much of it happened “off-page.” For example, Samiah and Daniel first meet and flirt when they happen to take a coffee break at the same time. Their next conversation takes place after they both attend the same work meeting, with the author/third-person-narrator noting that they had taken coffee breaks together for the past couple of days. As the initial basis for Samiah and Daniel’s romance, those other coffee breaks should have been shown! This is just one of many examples of the author telling the reader that something important happened off-page.

Another reason why I didn’t find Samiah and Daniel’s romance compelling was because I thought that Daniel kind of sucked! Some of the reasons why he sucked are spoilers, so I’ll just mention his emotional indulgence. He uses his strong feelings for Samiah to justify selfish and unethical behavior, which is a huge red flag to me. He also does things like show up at her apartment unannounced to “surprise” her, which seems like a problem with healthy boundaries and communication.

I’ve spent most of this review being critical, so now I want to focus on what I did like. I loved the way the novel started with a friendship, and how the importance of non-romantic relationships was emphasized throughout the book. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek commentary about corporate culture at startup companies, and the complex dynamics between coworkers. And I really appreciated the messages about the importance of recognizing one’s own advantages, using those advantages to help others, and just generally paying kindness forward.

I wanted to love The Boyfriend Project, but it just wasn’t for me. The romance at the center of the novel didn’t compel me, and I thought that too much important action happened off-page. I also thought the book was a bit too long. There were multiple points before the book ended where I thought “the story could end right here and it would be perfectly fine”…but then it continued on.

Even though this book wasn’t for me, please don’t discount it based on my review if you are interested! There are plenty of 4 and 5-star reviews of The Boyfriend Project on Goodreads, and its average rating is currently at 3.72. If you read this book and liked it, I would love to know what aspects of it compelled you.

Book Review: Beach Read

I recently hit a reading slump after reading back-to-back-to-back literary fiction novels, and Beach Read seemed like the perfect book to pull me out of it. At the center of the novel is January Andrews, a romance novelist who writes happy endings because she genuinely believes in them. But after a tumultuous year including the death of her father and a break-up with the man she thought she would marry, January hits a writing slump. She spends the summer at her late father’s beach house in North Bear Shores, Michigan, only to find out that her neighbor is her college-rival – the acclaimed literary fiction writer Augustus Everett. The two strike a bet in which January must write a somber literary fiction novel, while Augustus will write a romance novel with a happy ending. But maybe the real romance will be the one they find with each other?

The book: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Genre: Romance
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

An important thing to understand about this novel is that, although it features two writers who are both writing outside their genres-of-expertise, it is much more heavily focused on their relationship than anything else. The book touches on some interesting themes – like how female writers aren’t taken as seriously as men, even if they’re more accomplished; or why people get hooked on romance novels – but it doesn’t focus on these themes for long. This initially disappointed me, because I had hoped to see more glimpses of January’s literary-fiction-writing process and more excerpts of the novel she ultimately writes. Once I came to terms with the fact that this book was almost exclusively focused on its characters, though, I really enjoyed it for what it was.

It’s also important to know that while this book appears to be a light, fun summer read, it gets somewhat heavy at times. This is because author Emily Henry deeply examines the events that shaped the protagonists’ perceptions of the world. I personally liked this, and thought that the exploration of the characters’ backstories made them more realistic. Without this exploration, Augustus would have just been the stereotypical brooding, difficult-to-know commitment-phobe, and January would have been that person who masks their pain with unrelenting and inflexible positivity. Both characters do come across as the aforementioned stereotypes at times, but the psychological explorations allow the reader to see the characters in a more nuanced and realistic light.

WARNING: the next paragraph contains potential spoilers!!!

As for the romance between January and Augustus, I really liked it! Their initial flirtation is all-at-once sharp, funny, and charming. As the two spend more time together, they both open up and grow emotionally, owning up to personal shortcomings and unfair assumptions they made about one another. The only aspect of the romance that I took issue with was Augustus’ repeated profession that he has “wanted” January for years. This word didn’t sit well with me, because it makes it sound as though Augustus is only interested in pursuing January as some sort of sexual conquest. This turns out not to be the case, but that phrasing still felt more predatory than sexy to me.

Okay, we are past the spoilers now.

I found it interesting how the book moved between deep emotional development and the characters’ cute and flirty romance, with both protagonists using snarky humor as a means of flirtation and a coping mechanism for their internal issues. As someone who frequently uses humor to diffuse tension and negative emotions, the shifts between flirty fun and seriousness felt natural to me. However, I can also see how those transitions might seem jarring or inappropriate to other readers.

Overall, I really enjoyed Beach Read! I thought that January and Augustus made a great couple, and I liked how they both developed emotionally over the course of the novel. I also appreciated how the book balanced humor and flirtation with serious emotional development. My main criticism is that I would have liked to see more commentary on what it was like for January to write a literary fiction novel, and more excerpts of the novel she ended up writing. Still, Beach Read was a fun and endearing romance!

Side note: for a book called Beach Read, the characters spend VERY little time at the beach.

Red, White & Royal Blue (and an almond cake of those colors)

The book: Red, White & Royal Blue.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading the wonderful romantic comedy that is Red, White & Royal Blue. The premise of the book is that after a PR nightmare, frenemies Alex (first son of the United States) and Henry (Prince of England) stage a fake friendship to improve their public image. As the two spend forced time together, they actually become quite close and develop romantic feelings for each other. Both being major public figures in their respective countries, Alex and Henry must figure out if they can actually be together.

I really enjoyed Red, White & Royal Blue, and one reason why is the characters. The “White House trio,” Prince Henry, and many of the White House staff are all amazing role models: clever, capable, open-minded, and possessing a strong sense of self. They are also all so much more than just their professional role, especially the White House trio and Prince Henry. I got the sense that these young characters would be still be successful and making a difference in the world even if they weren’t the children of famous world leaders.

This message – that the characters are so much more than just an extension of their famous parents – is actually what’s at the core of this book. As Alex and Henry become romantically involved, they start to imagine themselves as more than just young public figures, and contemplate if a different life – one where they can just be themselves – is a realistic possibility given their circumstances. I really love this message because it is encouraging and inspirational to young readers who could also be struggling with sense of self.

Red, White & Royal Blue is also full of inspiring social and political messages. First, the book takes place in an alternate reality where a woman was elected president of the United States in 2016 after Obama’s term. The novel also describes LGBTQ+ characters really well. Several characters besides Alex and Henry are not straight, and this is a universally understood fact about them, and there’s not much more to it than that. For example: Nora (the vice president’s daughter) is bisexual and that is a part of her identity, but it’s also not the only or most important part of her identity, so her sexuality is mentioned but not fixated on. I think this is important because it demonstrates that sexuality is diverse, and that this should just be accepted without being a big deal.

My one critique of Red, White & Royal Blue is that – while uplifting – it feels wildly unrealistic. Without spoiling too much, this book ends on a positive note (rom-com lovers, rejoice!) – but one that feels more idealistic than realistic. Actually, the entire fictional universe in which a woman Democrat becomes POTUS in 2016 just felt like wishful thinking. I think that is intentional on the author’s part, but I have complicated feelings about escapism which is probably why the idealistic nature of this book didn’t always sit well with me.

All in all, I recommend Red, White & Royal Blue. It is a fun rom-com of a novel, but it also depicts important social, political, and philosophical issues. Also, I hardly touched on this above, but the book is also funny! The characters are razor-sharp, and the way they (playfully and lovingly) tease each other is both clever and hilarious. If you are a looking for an uplifting book to read this summer, Red, White & Royal Blue is a great option.

The bake: red, white, and blue cherry-almond cake.

To celebrate Red, White & Royal Blue, I baked a cake of those colors (and with pink frosting, as an ode to the book’s cover). Cake was a fitting bake for this novel, because the PR nightmare that forces Henry and Alex to become “fake friends” for publicity purposes involves them accidentally destroying a fancy cake. Making the cake colorful was important to me, too, because one of the major themes of this book is expressing yourself and being bold.

To make the cake, I took this recipe from My Name Is Yeh (leaving out the sprinkles, and switching the proportions of almond and vanilla extract), and frosted it with a homemade honey cream cheese frosting. I sandwiched the cake with frosting and fresh cherries, and then topped it with even more cherries.

The interior of the cake. It turned out to be pink, white, and blue – but it still looks pretty cool.

I am so happy with this cake! The interior of the cake ended up being “pink” white and blue (no red), but it still looks awesome; this might actually be the most aesthetically pleasing cake I have ever made. Also, it tastes really good. Cherry and almond go so well together, and the fresh cherries that I used are full of flavor. And since the cake uses egg whites instead of eggs, it is light and airy and not too dense. So to summarize, the cake is colorful, aesthetically pleasing, full of flavor, and not too dense: basically, the perfect bake to celebrate Red, White & Royal Blue.

The final cake! So aesthetically pleasing!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (and passionfruit cupcakes as bold as Evelyn’s love)

The book: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins.

I recently binge-read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins. The novel is about the (fictional) former Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo who, after several decades out of the limelight, sits down with journalist Monique Grant for a tell-all interview. Through the stories that Evelyn tells Monique – about her rise to stardom, her impressive career, her many lovers, and her biggest secrets – we see Evelyn’s complexity and humanity.

One of the best things about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the character of Evelyn herself, not because she is necessarily likable, but because she is realistically complex. She is calculating and business-minded, and also makes morally questionable decisions with zero qualms. At the same time, though, she can be soft: she loves whole-heartedly and optimistically despite having been hurt, and she will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the people she loves.

The story-telling and underlying messages in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo are also exceptional. A lot of online reviews have described the novel as a gossipy beach read. That description isn’t wrong…but it’s also not complete. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is scandalous and dramatic, for sure, but it also touches on deeper issues including what it means to love and forgive, the sacrifices people make for love and fame, and how people deal with regret.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also includes a lot of social commentary, especially surrounding sexism and harassment in Hollywood. Evelyn matter-of-factly describes having to use her body to advance in the male-dominated industry, as well as male superiors controlling personal aspects of her life (such as what she eats and who she dates). Evelyn’s stories also demonstrate how many events in Hollywood – like romantic relationships between celebrities – are actually staged.

Ultimately, though, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a story about love in various forms: romantic love, platonic love, familial love, sexual love, and practical love. I would definitely recommend this book: it is light and fun, yet at the same time surprisingly deep. If you like romance, drama, and complex, well-developed characters – I think you will love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

The bake: passionfruit cupcakes.

To celebrate The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I baked cupcakes inspired by the character of Evelyn. To represent her, I needed to use a flavor that was simultaneously bold, surprising, and delightful. Passionfruit seemed like a good fit: its flavor is punch-you-in-the-face bold, yet still so enjoyable. Plus, the name itself – passionfruit – is perfectly fitting for a character as passionate as Evelyn.

I adapted this recipe from The Great British Baking Show to make my passionfruit cake batter. I mixed the following ingredients together using the all-in-one method, poured them into a standard-size cupcake tin, and baked at 350 F for 18 minutes:

  • 50 grams all-purpose flour (approx. 1/2 cup)
  • 50 grams granulated sugar (approx. 1/4 cup)
  • 1.5 tablespoons almond flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • Pulp, juice, and seeds of 2 passionfruit

If you are planning on making this recipe, note that the portions listed above will only yield about 4 standard sized cupcakes!

This cupcake clearly lacks decoration and looks a bit plain…but its taste is rich and bold!

These cupcakes were simultaneously sweet, tart, and buttery. I didn’t frost them, but I think they would go well with a whipped cream or mascarpone frosting. The flavor of the cake itself holds its own, though, so if you don’t want to frost them – you don’t need to! Like Evelyn Hugo, these cupcakes are bold and full of substance.

(Valentine’s Day cheesecake with) Less

The book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and I recently finished a seasonally appropriate novel to celebrate. Less is the story of Arthur Less, a middle-aged writer who plans a spontaneous trip around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding. He travels to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan – with exactly none of the trips playing out as he had expected.

Less is phenomenal for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the prose. I have always been amazed at the ability of writers to describe common experiences in a way that makes them seem novel or profound. Andrew Sean Greer does this throughout Less. Take, for example, his insight into why anxious people are actually quite brave:

“…because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum.”

Another wonderful thing about Less is the humor. Although the novel is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is frequently smirk-or-chuckle-to-yourself funny. The entire visit to Germany, for example, is made incredibly light by translating Less’s broken German (Less thinks he is fluent, by the way) into its English equivalent. Even simple one-liners are enough to make you smile, like the description of Less feeling like “a criminal who has pulled off one last heist” for managing to mail off the airport’s tax-free form despite government bureaucracy making this a nearly impossible task.

Then, there is the plot itself. Arthur Less travels to eight different destinations, and we read about his adventures in each one. Despite the fact that world travel drives the plot, Less is neither travel-porn nor the stereotypical obscenely inspirational “finding-yourself” narrative. Although Less does reflect on his life and himself throughout his travels, I think the novel differs from the aforementioned genres because it never takes itself too seriously. Even at its most contemplative, Less is light-hearted.

Perhaps the best thing about Less was that it could have ended any number of ways and still been a satisfying read. By the end of Less’s journey, we know that he has grown and that he is going to be okay regardless of what happens when he returns home. That being said, I loved the ending that Andrew Sean Greer chose for this book. And if you are a fan of romantic comedies, I suspect you will too.

The bake: strawberry chocolate cheesecake.

Since Less is essentially a romantic comedy in novel form, I decided to be cheesy and bake a romantic dessert. No, literally. I decided to be cheesy, as in, I baked a cheesecake. Specifically, this raspberry chocolate cheesecake from I Am Baker. Actually, I ended up making a strawberry chocolate cheesecake, because all the raspberries at my local Kroger were covered in mold.

This bake is a little bit involved. The preparation required so many mixing bowls (read: so many dishes to wash)! Also, the actual baking of a cheesecake is no easy task! This was my first time ever attempting to make cheesecake, and I learned the hard way that precision is key. Luckily, I was able to hide the major flaws – cracks in the top of the cake – with decoration.

The finished dessert! I meant to take a picture of what it looked like sliced…but my co-workers and I devoured the cake too quickly!

Cosmetic difficulties aside, this was a fantastic recipe. This dessert is indulgent, cheesy, and sweet – making it an excellent tribute to Less and to Valentine’s Day.