Black Cake

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2022 (read Sep. 2022 on Audible)

I have been sitting on this book all year! I’ve heard so many good things about it and have been meaning to pick it up for months, so I finally got the audiobook version and flew through it in a few days. 

Black Cake tells the story of two siblings and the life of their mother, who has just passed away. The siblings have been estranged for several years, but their mother, Eleanor, leaves a recording for them to listen to together telling the real story of her life – all the things she never told them about herself. 

It has a bit of a slow start, focusing on the 2 siblings, Byron and Benny, but once they start listening to Eleanor’s recording, I was hooked. Eleanor grew up in one of the Caribbean Islands (exact location not named), which has left its mark on her entire family, despite her children never having been there. 

It’s a long book, and as with most long books, I do think it could have been shorter, but the author does cover a lot of ground. We are introduced to a lot of characters over the course of the novel and while it was sometimes overwhelming, every character was well placed and had a role to play. It’s a smartly written book, it could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s the kind of narrative where there are no thoughts out of place. The author is intentional about both the plot and the characters and I like a book that is plotted that way. That said, while everything has its place, the author does tackle a lot and I think she could have done more justice to her ideas had she focused more on a few central themes (primarily as they relate to Eleanor). 

While I liked it a lot (it’s an engaging story), where I think it fails is in adequately developing Byron and Benny’s stories. Eleanor’s story is incredibly well developed, but for such a long book, I still didn’t really feel like I knew Benny or Byron or understood their relationship with one another. Their stories are briefly developed and we examine Benny’s struggles with being queer and Byron’s struggles with unconscious bias and racism in his workplace, but I felt their stories were topical and not given enough depth to be really meaningful.

Maybe it’s just that they paled next to Eleanor, but I felt that this story could have been historical fiction solely about Eleanor and it would have been just as good, if not better. There were complex relationships between all of the characters, but I do think the narrative is partially strained by the fact that we never get to meet Eleanor alive. Everything is recounted, which creates a level of separation between the events, how the main characters feel about them, and how the reader perceives them.

Despite how this review is making it seem, these are just minor criticisms of how it could have been improved, I did still really enjoy the book. It’s a great story and I loved the centering of it around the black cake. Culture and food do play a big role in who we are or become and I loved how the black cake grounds the story. I would definitely recommend and I’m interested to see what else Charmaine Wilkerson writes!

The Happy Ever After Playlist

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Abby Jimenez
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Sep. 2022)

I picked up this book while on holiday from a thrift store in a backwater town in BC because I had only brought 1 book with me and had finished it too soon. It had limited selection, but this book featured a dog and sounded cute, so it could have been a lot worse!

It actually started off really promising. Our protagonist, Sloan, rescues a runaway dog and then takes care of him when she can’t get a hold of his owner, Jason, for 2 weeks. Jason is a semi-famous musician who was out in the Australian wilderness backpacking and didn’t know that his dogsitter had lost his dog until he returned to civilization. Sloan agrees to watch the dog until he returns to America and they start having cute exchanges via text and phone. Sloan is getting over the death of her fiancé 2 years previously and this is the first time she’s been attracted to a man since. 

Their phone calls and text banter were really cute and I loved that the book centered around a dog. It had a good amount of depth and I was enjoying it. Unfortunately, I thought the author blew through the initial attraction way too quickly and the couple immediately starts dating. Sloan faces some initial challenges with the relationship as she tries to move on with her previous relationship, but I thought Sloan and Jason’s relationship got too intense too fast and the pacing didn’t work. I felt like I was at the climax of the novel at just the halfway mark, which made me question what the author was going to focus on for the second half without any romantic tension.

This is where she lost me. The novel takes a turn and focuses more on the struggles of being in a relationship with a rock star who’s always on the road. I felt like the “Sloan-as-a-widow” and the “couple-on-tour” plots were 2 very different storylines that just didn’t mesh with one another. Sloan was on a healing journey and then all of a sudden she’s chasing Jason all over the country? I felt they should be two different books with two different sets of characters.

There were other aspects I didn’t like – Jason is a bit of a womanizer – he’s very confident in himself, which should be a turn-on, but he read more as cocky to me and I wasn’t really into it. Both parties fell too hard, too quickly, and it removed some of the believability for me.

The other aspect I didn’t like was Lola’s character as the crazy-ex girlfriend. It’s bad enough when men call women crazy and portray them as such, but it’s so much worse when women do it to each other. So I was initially very turned off by this side plot, but I ended up being impressed with how the author handled in the end. Lola turns out to be pretty misunderstood and I appreciated when the characters were able to reconcile with each other and understand how Lola had been manipulated and abused by her record label. 

So overall it was a bit of an odd novel. I liked parts of it and disliked other parts, but I think it is a fairly standard 3 star read at the end of the day and considering I picked it up in a thrift store, it exceeded my expectations. I wouldn’t recommend, but also, don’t regret reading. 

Love on the Brain

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Aug. 2022 (read Sep. 2022)

Oh dear, I haven’t written a book review since June… I usually don’t read a lot in the summer, although I did read more than I anticipated this year, so it’s time to get caught up!

Love on the Brain was one of my most anticipated new releases for 2022. The Love Hypothesis was wildly popular last year and I really loved it – in retrospect I can recognize that it has some flaws, but it opened me up to the whole world of romance reading, so I have to give it some credit. Love on the Brain is the second of Ali Hazelwood’s STEM novels, though she did write 3 novellas in between that I haven’t read. 

Love on the Brain features Bee and Levi, a brainy neuroscientist and engineer who end up working on an astronaut helmet together for NASA. They’re both leaders in their fields, but the catch is they used to be in grad school together, and Levi had a very clear dislike of Bee, so she’s not sure how they are going to work together.

From there it follows the trajectory you would expect of any romance novel. Bee has a very strong character voice and I won’t lie that I devoured this book in 3 days while on holiday. I love the setting of Hazelwood’s books and that they focus on women in STEM and the various injustices they face. Unfortunately, Love on the Brain just didn’t have the same charm as The Love Hypothesis and even though it’s very readable, I couldn’t overlook its shortcomings. 

Let’s start with what I liked. I did mostly like Bee as the main character. She’s funny and she has a strong personality. She’s not afraid to go for it and she does call people out on their shit instead of just suffering in silence. She was a victim in her previous relationship, but she didn’t let that define her. She did have a tendency to go off on tangents though and I did feel she was a little manic pixie dream girl in that she’s “not like other girls”. Otherwise, I liked her relationships with her sister and her assistant – I can’t remember her name, but omg, the assistant was hilarious! She was pretty much the highlight of the book for me.

Unfortunately I didn’t like a whole lot else after that. My biggest gripe is that Hazelwood does absolutely nothing new with this book. I think that Olive and Bee are quite different characters, but Levi and Adam are carbon copies of one another and it’s still impossible to ignore that this is just Adam Driver fan fiction. I’m over the whole brooding, tall man trope and the romance genre’s obsession with large men and tiny women. It’s like Hazelwood tried to shake up the characters by having Adam be mean to everyone and only nice to Olive, whereas Levi was supposedly nice to everyone and only mean to Bee, but they still read like the same person to me and it just made me not like Levi. At least I understood Olive’s attraction to Adam (he was nice), but Levi was a jerk to Bee. Personally, I would never have forgiven his dress code comment. Levi read like a mess, like he can’t act like a normal human being around the woman he likes?

Speaking of understanding the attraction – I’d love to know what either of these characters saw in one another? Seriously though? Levi has been supposedly in love with Bee since he met her and has been harbouring the same pathetic crush for 6 years? That ain’t romantic! Get a life man! The whole “it was always you” trope drives me nuts because people have way more depth than that. Who wants a lover that’s obsessed with them? Isn’t it way more romantic to fall in love with someone with other interests and a nuanced personality? Hazelwood tells us these two characters love each other, but I didn’t understand why. There’s no context as to why Levi likes Bee or vice versa. Sure, I could get Bee’s sexual fantasies about Levi, but what does he ever do that makes her look deeper? We are never shown what makes these two love each other.

Which brings me to my next gripe – the miscommunication trope. I don’t like the miscommunication trope on a good day, but this book was the miscommunication trope on steroids. God, the level of misunderstanding between the two characters was unbearable. Can we please just all stop being idiots? Why do these super smart scientists have the emotional intelligence of a potato? They were so juvenille, I couldn’t handle it.

Finally, let’s talk about the ending, because that really went off the rails. Suddenly we go from a romance novel to an action mystery? Which gets resolved in the span of a chapter? Have you lost your place in the world Hazelwood? The drama at the end felt so out of place and crammed into the final pages that my jaw was on the floor. It didn’t belong. I feel like Hazelwood wanted some kind of physical confrontation because all of her characters are based on Star Wars, which is action, but like, girl you’re gonna have to write a dark romance or a fantasy if you want to go there. The ending didn’t work here when the rest of the novel was extremely bubbly. Also, the fact that both characters are obsessed with Star Wars when the reader knows this book is basically Kylo Ren fanfic is too meta for me. 

Anyways, I should probably clue up this rant, but plotwise, I do want to say that what I found the most disappointing is that in addition to the characters having no depth, the plot had none either. I loved what TLH did with the sexual harassment and reporting storyline. I feel like Hazelwood had a lot of balls in the air about sexism in academia and the workplace, but I felt like they were all ideas and none of them were developed. The story didn’t have any real meaningful social commentary. Sure, she draws awareness to ideas like men stealing women’s ideas, not listening to them, or only acknowledging women’s legitimacy when it’s pointed out by another man, but as a woman in STEM, these are really basic concepts and she doesn’t do anything with them. The most focus was on admissions standards, which was great, but it still felt surface level. There was no real tension in the storyline and everything with Marie Curie being exposed was too easily resolved. I didn’t feel the anguish or despair. The situations just felt contrived. 

So yeah, I didn’t like it. Initially I rated it 3 stars because I still flew through it, it is an easy read, but after reflecting on all its flaws, I think I’m going to have to bump it down to a 2. I haven’t read her novellas, but I’ve seen other reviews saying it’s more of the same, so I think I’m probably going to have to give them a pass. I will probably still read her next book, but I hope she branches out a bit and does something new, because this was such a disappointment.

The Hating Game

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sally Thorne
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Aug. 2016 (read May 2022)

This is another book that it’s been a while since I read it, but I did put together a summary of my thoughts right after which is giving me a refresher. After reading The Spanish Love Deception earlier in the year, I knew I would eventually get to The Hating Game, which seems to be the most well known book with the enemies-to-lovers/fake-dating tropes. 

I was anticipating this would be better than TSLD, and in some ways it was, but to be honest, I thought it was still a lot of the same and had some tropes that I didn’t like. The Hating Game is about two publishing companies that merged and the relationship between the two executive assistants to the CEO’s. The CEO’s do not have an amicable relationship and Lucy and Josh have been rivals since they started working together. Now they’re up for the same promotion, which further escalates their competitive nature.

I don’t want to continually compare it to TSLD, because The Hating Game was written first, so I will say that a lot of TSLD seemed like a knock-off, but that I think the “enemies” part of enemies-to-lovers was better done in The Hating Game. I understood why these 2 characters didn’t get along and I believed it. It wasn’t believable in TSLD, which just made the main character look kind of dumb. But I’ll end the comparisons there and focus on The Hating Game.

To be honest, I thought this was a mess at the beginning. I was expecting to like it and I think the story did improve later in the book, but initially I really struggled to buy into anything the author was selling. The first third of the book felt extremely disorganized and I found some scenes jarring because they felt so forced. I felt like the author had all these romantic fantasies that she wanted to write and decided to include them whether they worked with the narrative or not. For example, I found the elevator scene a bit jarring – I know it’s now a pretty iconic scene from the book, but it felt very sudden and forced to me when I first read it. 

But the most notable scene for me was the corporate paintball retreat. I didn’t think it fit with the rest of the book. It wasn’t believable to me that a corporate company would sanction paintball for a team building event and the forced proximity with Lucy and Josh was just TOO forced. The whole “big man defending the tiny woman” trope is tired and felt out of place for 2 characters that supposedly didn’t like each other. I also found the whole scene where Josh takes care of Lucy when she’s sick extremely uncomfortable and unbelievable for two co-workers. A normal reaction would be “please let me call your friend or drop you at the hospital”, not “I’ll stay at your house for 2 days and get my doctor brother to make a house call”. They have worked together as rivals for several years at this point, but now they’re suddenly all over each other, all the time. I know that’s kind of the point of the book, but none of it felt natural or organic to me. 

While we’re on the topic, I’d also like to say that I am SO tired of the big man-tiny woman trope. It’s not even that I mind that all the male protagonists are tall, but authors seem to be obsessed with beating us over the head about just HOW tall they are. TSLD and The Love Hypothesis were pretty bad for it, but The Hating Game was really the most aggressive with the trope. Josh is 6 foot 5 while Lucy is 5 foot nothing – that is a huge difference! It just made Lucy seem like a child and I feel like it would honestly be more frightening than sexy. Plus, men don’t need to be giants to be attractive. 

So what did I like about the book? Because I seem to mostly be railing against it. Once I got over the chaotic start and the characters chilled out a bit, I actually got pretty into it. I do think that Lucy and Josh had great chemistry and Thorne does a great job at building up the sexual tension. Lucy and Josh are both pretty nuanced characters with strengths and flaws. I liked the exploration of Lucy working to gain more respect at work and her passion for her field. As well as I liked the exploration of Josh’s insecurities and his relationship with his father. He wants more from his relationships and I liked that he had this depth. There was a good balance of sexual tension without waiting until the very last minute for the characters to be together (drove me nuts in TSLD).

The last thing I will say is that there were some questionable behaviours throughout the book. Both characters are certified stalkers. The “I painted my room the colour of your eyes” was a hard pass for me and Josh has some questionable possessive behaviour that I didn’t like. Sadly these ideas seem to be a bit normalized in romance novels, but as far as the genre goes this was a pretty solid 3 star read for me. I did watch the movie and I liked parts of it, but would still give the edge to the book.  

Book Lovers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Emily Henry
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: May 2022 (read May 2022)

It’s been almost 2 months now since I read this and I’m really regretting not writing a review about it then…

Emily Henry is quickly becoming an auto-buy author for me! I read People We Meet on Vacation and Beach Read earlier this year and am even debating reading some of her YA backlist. Of the 3 books I’ve read, I think Book Lovers might be my favourite! Beach Read had some definite flaws, but I really liked the friends to lovers aspect of People We Meet on Vacation. The plot of Book Lovers sounded a bit cheesy to me, but the story is so well crafted that I ended up loving it!

Nora Stephens is a literary agent for authors and has a tenuous relationship with Charlie Lastra, an editor who once passed on one of her biggest client’s bestselling book. Nora’s sister Libby convinces Nora to join her on a getaway to the small town in which her bestselling book is set, where they continually run into Charlie and learn the real reason why he passed on editing the book. But what Nora’s more curious about it why her sister really wanted them to take this trip and has a sneaking suspicion she won’t be very pleased when she uncovers the truth.

So the book has a pretty standard romance setting and plot, but what makes it stand out is the dialogue and characterization. First off, this is really a story about sisterhood, which is one of my all time favourite themes, and the romance that blooms during the sister trip is super organic and fun. Nora and Charlie have chemistry and I was really impressed with all of their banter. Emily Henry is quick witted and her dialogue is sharp. There’s no awkwardness and it’s a lot of fun to read. Like most enemies to lovers stories, Nora and Charlie are barely enemies, but I liked how quickly they become friends. There was an authenticity in easily sorting out your differences and acknowledging that your first impressions were misplaced.

I’ve said this of Henry’s other books, and it holds true in Book Lovers, that she is really great at bringing a strong dose of realism and depth to her romances. There’s always something going on in the story beyond just the romance and her characters are always realistically flawed, but in a way that is believable. Too many romances feature unrealistic men and while it’s nice to dream such a “perfect” man might exist, I like my love interests a little more nuanced.

What I liked about this one was that Nora and Charlie were very much the anti-heroes. Nora believes that she’s the high-powered, but lonely woman that always gets left behind in the city for the easy-going country girl, whereas Charlie’s the guy who always puts other people’s needs and happiness before his own. I loved that this book was basically in defense of all those women who like city life and pursue their careers over love. It’s about knowing who you are and what you’re willing to compromise.

As a side note, I’d also like to say that I loved that Nora was tall! I feel like almost all romances these days feature giant men and tiny women and I loved Henry’s exploration of height in a relationship and how little Charlie cared about it. The whole line about “there’s no such thing as a ‘too tall’ woman, only men who are too insecure to date them” had me swooning over Charlie! So I appreciate the realism since the average height for men and women is 5’9″ and 5’4″.

Then there’s a whole other element of this story that looks at Nora’s internalized guilt and responsibility. She’s taken on a lot of ownership over her sister’s happiness and this is very much about learning to let the people you love go. Letting them be responsible for their own success and happiness and being okay when your dreams don’t necessarily align with one another.

To conclude, I really liked it and read the entire thing over the span of 2 days. If you’re looking for a fun summer read, definitely pick up Book Lovers!