Monday, 10 May 2021
#CBR13 Book 13: "Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema" by Lindy West
Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Official book description:
New York Times opinion writer and bestselling author Lindy West was once the in-house movie critic for Seattle's alternative newsweekly The Stranger, where she covered film with brutal honesty and giddy irreverence. In Shit, Actually, Lindy West returns to those roots, re-examining beloved and iconic movies from the past 40 years with an eye toward the big questions of our time: Is Twilight the horniest movie in history? Why do the zebras in The Lion King trust Mufasa--who is a lion--to look out for their best interests? Why did anyone bother making any more movies after The Fugitive achieved perfection? And, my god, why don't any of the women in Love, Actually ever fucking talk?!
From Forrest Gump, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Bad Boys II, to Face/Off, Top Gun, and The Notebook, West combines her razor-sharp wit and trademark humor with a genuine adoration for nostalgic trash to shed new critical light on some of our defining cultural touchstones--the stories we've long been telling ourselves about who we are.
At once outrageously funny and piercingly incisive, Shit, Actually reminds us to pause and ask, "How does this movie hold up?", all while teaching us how to laugh at the things we love without ever letting them or ourselves off the hook. Shit, Actually is a love letter and a break-up note all in one: to the films that shaped us and the ones that ruined us. More often than not, West finds, they're one and the same.
This is the first book I have ever read by Lindy West. I should undoubtedly read both Shrill and The Witches are Coming, but in this corona-ridden dystopia we are currently living in, fighting my reading slump rather ineffectually since depression keeps kicking my ass, I was in need of something easy and fun to read. Snarky movie reviews seemed absolutely perfect, and I'm happy to report that I finished this book in less than 48 hours, which is almost a record for me this year. Sad, but true.
Had I watched all the movies that West covers? No, but the vast majority, because I am a huge fan of big trashy, blockbuster cinema. I'm upset that she doesn't cover gems like Pacific Rim in her book, because that is a glorious movie spectacle. Nevertheless, I did get her opinions on The Fugitive (which between West's write-up in this book, and John Mulaney's stand-up, I don't really feel I need to ever watch - I've gotten all that is best about it already), The Rock (I'm never going to apologise for how much I love this film), Twilight (frankly better than it should be, shame the director didn't get to continue the series), Face/Off (so dumb) and a number of other great and not-so-great movies.
Pre-corona, going to the cinema was one of my treats. It really was a kind of self-care for me, and while going to the cinema with my husband or friends was good, going by myself and sitting in a dark theatre, with my popcorn, overly sugared beverage and quite probably my knitting is one of my favourite things to do. Thanks to the excellent baby cinema program here in Oslo (on weekdays around lunch time, they offer screenings for parents with babies/toddlers), where the lights are dimmed rather than turned off entirely and the sound isn't as loud), I went to the cinema as soon as possible after having my baby (about three weeks after my c-section) and kept going once every two weeks or so until my little boy was too energetic and demanding for me to get anything out of the movie. The things I miss the most from pre-corona society are probably hugging and going to the cinema.
As I don't drink alcohol and am generally quite indifferent to a lot of music, I don't really miss bars/pubs or going to concerts, but man, I miss the cinema. So Lindy West's book allowed me to revel in the joys of prepostrous plots, over the top action sequences, cheesy characterisation and all the other things you frequently find in really popular movies. Is this book great art? No. But it's a fun read, especially if you have at least a passing knowledge of most of the film she covers in the book and it made me forget about our rather dreary present for a little while.
Judging a book by its cover: Very appropriately, this cheerful, butter yellow cover is sprinkled all over with popcorn, which a guide (however irreverent) to modern cinema probably should be.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.
Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler warning! This is book 6 in an ongoing series. There will be minor spoilers for earlier books in the series. You can read these without having any background, but it's always best to start at the beginning, which happens to be A Curious Beginning.
Intrepid lepidopterist and sometime crime solver Veronica Speedwell and her grouchy partner and now lover Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (goes by Stoker) are working on preparing a memorial exhibition at the Curiosity Club for one of its recently deceased members, pioneer mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene. Veronica finds evidence that suggests the woman was sabotaged and her accidental death while climbing in the tiny European principality of Alpenwald was, in fact, murder. While Stoker strongly opposes them getting embroiled in yet another potentially dangerous investigation, Veronica feels she must bring her findings to the attention of the exhibit's patron, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald. The royal chancellor of Alpenwald doesn't seem to think that there is much to investigate, but is soon forced to approach Veronica on a sensitive matter of state.
Shortly before the opening of the memorial exhibition, princess Gisela has disappeared without a trace. This is apparently something she does on occasion, but her current disappearance comes at a critical time. As well as opening the exhibit, meant to highlight the beauty and mountaineering opportunities in Alpenwald, the royal delegation was in London to sign a secret peace treaty. It's essential that Princess Gisela is seen publically at a number of important functions, and coincidentally, Veronica looks enough like the princess to act as her double with the right jewelry, outfits, and makeup. Sensing a chance to continue her investigation, Veronica agrees to masquerade as the princess and help the peace treaty become a reality. Naturally, as Veronica and Stoker seem to be magnets for danger and complications, the mission isn't exactly as simple and straightforward as it seems, and our brave protagonists find themselves in danger more than once before they are able to unmask Miss Baker-Greene's murderer.
I'm not going to lie, I'm delighted that Stoker and Veronica are now romantic as well as investigative partners. Of course, while they have now both declared their feelings for one another and acted on them, it's not necessarily smooth sailing in all aspects of their relationship, especially because Veronica has no wishes of ever getting married and fears being trapped. This could present a big problem for the couple, if Stoker wasn't so very observant and aware of all things Veronica. Considering his ugly and public divorce, it's not like her reputation would be noticeably more tarnished if they continue to live in sin, rather than tie the knot at a future date.
Stoker, however, would really prefer it if they stay out of the danger that investigating possible murders always brings. Veronica needs to work diligently to prove to him that there even is a case to investigate, but once they are both persuaded that a murder has taken place, they're not going to stop until justice has been served.
I don't exactly think this book did anything new, but if you're already a fan of Raybourn's brand of historical mystery with a romantic twist, you're going to get exactly what you want from this book. I was amused by all the moustaches adorning the Alpenwald contingent, and the fake one that Stoker was made to wear when out and about in disguise.
Judging a book by its cover: This series always has lovely woodcut-inspired covers and this one is particularly pretty. The blue colour is inspired by the official sky blue of the fictional principality of Alpenwald from the novel. The same with the delicate white flowers, which I'm assuming is supposed to be the St. Othild's wort flowers. I'm sad there aren't any otters, really. I get why the little Veronica silhouette is still sporting her trusty butterfly net, but she really hasn't done a lot of lepidoptery for quite a few books now, so I'm not sure it's entirely appropriate anymore.
Monday, 29 March 2021
Page count: 282 pages
Rating: 2 stars
Elin has worked as a GP in the centre of Oslo for more than two decades. She's married to Aksel, an orthopedist who seems obsessed with either cross country skiing in the winter and roller skis in the summer. They met during med school, and have lived in the same house long enough to see the little residential area that used to be full of idealistic and progressive residents become distinctly upper-middle class (as have they). They are now empty nesters after their two daughters (also medical students) moved away.
However, at the moment, Elin is literally living in her office She's sleeping in a chair or on her examination table, sneaking out in the mornings and evenings to wash in the employee bathroom. She's refusing to answer texts or calls from her irate husband, her concerned neighbour and sometime drinking buddy, or her lover, having moved out after her husband discovered that she's been having a year-long affair with Bjørn, her ex-boyfriend from before she met Aksel. Since Bjørn seemed rather freaked out about the revelations that their affair was out in the open, he seems to have decided to just stay with his wife, so Elin is feeling abandoned and even more disillusioned with life and people than she did before she stumbled into her affair.
A bit over a year ago, Elin added Bjørn as a Facebook as a drunken impulse one evening. Back then, she would go through the motions with her patients in the office all day, then go buy a box of white wine on the way home, and spend her evenings and weekends drinking heavily and binge-watching television, while her husband focused on his skiing. Once she and Bjørn actually met up again, after decades apart, and she discovered just how much chemistry there still was between them, she replaced the heavy drinking with another obsession, her secret love affair with her ex.
Literally translated, the title for this book means "Complete (or total) spread" and the subtitle is a "doctor novel". Traditionally, 'doctor novels' are a subsection of romance novels in Norway, starring handsome doctors and nurses who find love while saving the lives of their poor patients. 'Total spread' is also the term used to cancer patients when the disease has taken over and spread throughout the body, making the disease inevitably terminal. So the author uses a common term associated with a devastating cancer diagnosis, coupled with an ironic subtitle - this book is pretty much the opposite of brave, selfless, and altruistic doctors finding love while caring for the less fortunate. Instead, our protagonist is a fifty-something pessimist whose internal monologue (so much of this novel is told in internal monologue or flashbacks) constantly makes her indifference, if not her outright disdain for her patients and vocation very obvious. Going through a kind of midlife crisis, experiencing the consequences of being caught in an affair - the title very much gives a lie to the contents of the book.
Considering my rather impressive reading slump and how difficult it is for me to pick up a book and read it (even listening to an audiobook feels like far too much effort than I'm able to give, most of the time), the fact that I not only read the whole book, despite low-key resenting our protagonist throughout is certainly some testament to the author's ability to keep me curious. This novel has generally received rave reviews from not only Norwegian book reviewers, but the book has been translated into multiple languages and won both Norwegian and international book awards.
Pretty much every time I try to read an acclaimed literary novel, it just proves to me that I'm much happier reading speculative fiction, be it romance, fantasy, or science fiction. I'm sure this book was a satirical masterpiece, showing us the petty complaints of most patients nowadays, not to mention how incredibly first world the so-called problems of well-to-do doctors are. It was a well-written book, I suppose, but it was just so bitter and the tone throughout was generally nasty, I'd much rather read a romance (and will, as a palate changer). The fact that this book was due back at the library is one of the reasons I actually motivated me to read and finish the book, and it's certainly much easier reviewing something I didn't much like than something I love.
I don't really feel that I can recommend this book, but if the sales numbers I found are correct, the author doesn't need my recommendation anyway. I'm sure she's laughing all the way to the bank, no matter what I thought of her book or not.
Judging a book by its cover: There isn't exactly a lot to make a reader interested or curious about the contents of this book. On the library copy I had, there were also various review quotes and a reminder that this won the Brage prize (the Norwegian book award) for 2019. I'm assuming the publishing company went with a "Less is more" approach and figured people might pick up the book based on word of mouth. Because there really is nothing here to make a reader interested.
Friday, 26 March 2021
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Eve is the youngest and seemingly flightiest of the three privileged Brown sisters. She's always felt like the odd duck in the family, neither as focused nor as intelligent as her two older sisters and completely unable to settle on anything for very long. When she abruptly closes down her wedding planning business after one single event (a generally very successful wedding, that nevertheless descended into some chaos after Eve took it upon herself to liberate all the doves that the bride had wanted, and was left with a large bill to reimburse the animal wranglers), her long-suffering parents have had enough. They demand that Eve get a job, any job, and hold it down for at least a year. They'll freeze her trust fund payments until she can prove herself thusly. Deeply frustrated with herself and the whole situation, Eve goes driving and ends up a bit lost.
Jacob Wayne needs to hire a new chef for his B&B asap, after his previous one won the lottery and popped off to Scotland with her boyfriend. None of the candidates he's seen so far live up to his exacting perfectionist standards, and no matter what his best friend (the local pub owner) tries to do to persuade him of each candidate's virtues. Jacob knows he's not easy to work for or with (his autism makes it difficult for him to casually interact with people), but he's not willing to settle when it comes to the quality of his B&B's food. Eve comes barrelling in, soaked through because of a sudden rainstorm, with no apparent resume, and applies for the job. It takes him about two seconds to conclude that she's 1) wholly inappropriate for the job and 2) that he finds her inexplicably and incredibly attractive. After a series of unfortunate events lead to Eve backing into Jacob with her car and breaking his arm, she feels that she pretty much has to stay around to help him with the running of his B&B until he is better, even though she finds him insufferable and robotic and he finds her unreliable and chaotic.
This wouldn't be a very good romance if our protagonists didn't overcome their initial antipathy towards one another and found some common ground. Because of Eve's many different attempts at a career over the years, she turns out to actually be really good in the kitchen. While her charm and bubbly personality don't really do anything for Jacob, to begin with (she did land him in the hospital with a broken arm and a minor concussion, after all), she seems to be a big hit with the guests at the B&B and aptly handles not just the various breakfast orders, but baking for the afternoon teas. Jacob's not exactly thrilled to discover that she's living in his spare room, but despite his suspicions and misgivings, has to admit that Eve is a good cook and that she throws herself into helping with the housekeeping and other duties in the establishment while Jacob recovers.
Having been presented with Jacob's big pile of handwritten employee handbooks (that he never really intended for anyone to read), Eve comes to understand how important order, a clear system and predictability is for Jacob. She has no problem with his neurodiversity, having grown up with sisters who are clearly both also on the spectrum. Over the course of the story, Eve comes to realise that her own struggles are also due to her being on the autism spectrum, without ever having been diagnosed as such in the past. She finds a connection and acceptance with Jacob that she's never felt in her own family, for all that her sisters love her deeply.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown was one of my very favourite books last year, and I was very eagerly expecting this third book in the series, despite having found Eve a bit annoying as a supporting character in her sisters' books. I needn't have worried, however, because once I got to read about Eve as the star of her own book, I came to love her just as much, if not more than both of her unusual sisters, since Eve, despite having grown up in a wealthy and loving family, always felt like a failure and the black sheep. She needed my love more, if you will.
As well as having a wonderful pair of protagonists, who start out as short-term enemies, this romance has a great cast of supporting characters, from Jacob's best friend and said friend's formidable twin sisters (all three characters will be the stars of Hibbert's next romantic trilogy, and I am super excited), to Jacob's aunt, who ended up raising him and his brother after his parents just really abandoned them on her doorstep. Eve's two sisters and their lovely boyfriends also make appearances, of course, as does her colourful grandmother and yoga teacher/wife. I feel like we didn't really get a sense of the Brown parents until this book, and while I understand their frustration with Eve, feel like they could maybe have made a bit more of an attempt to get to know their youngest in a more in-depth way rather than just wash their hands of her temporarily.
Because 2021 seems determined to constantly challenge me, this is so far the ONLY book I have been able to finish, all month. I can already see myself revisiting it often. I am so happy I have discovered Talia Hibbert as an author, and hope that some of the earlier books of her career can help break me out of my extended reading slump. This was a great read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting a good romance to take their minds off the seemingly never-ending pandemic.
Judging a book by its cover: I don't love this cover as much as I did the one for Take a Hint, Dani Brown, but the whole series has adorable covers, in very pleasing colours and has made me at least partially rethink my antipathy to the cartoon trend that is so popular now. For these books, the covers really fit.
Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 53 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars
Official book description:
When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.
A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.
By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.
The engagement/marriage of convenience is quite a common trope in historical romance, it's harder to pull off in contemporary ones (although, by all means, it happens all the time, even though the author tends to have to get a bit more creative). Shanti has wanted to become a queen since she was a little girl, and has worked very hard to become a beautiful, poised, fit, and well-educated woman who would be the prize of any ruler. She doesn't want to become queen for the prestige, wealth, or title, but because she genuinely wants to take part in the day-to-day ruling of a kingdom, and trying to make the world a better place for as many as possible. When her profile is picked on Royalmatch.com and she is married off to Prince Sanyu of Njaza literally on his father's deathbed, she has already done thorough research into the country's resources, infrastructure, social conditions, and what challenges the country, still trying to recover from centuries of colonisation, are facing. Sadly for her, however, the tradition in Njaza is for women to be seen and not heard and this applies at all levels of society.
Sanyu's role models for marriage were his now-dead father, who kept replacing his queen every four months or his father's closest advisor (now Sanyu's), who never married. Sanyu's mother disappeared after she bore him, seemingly quite happy to be free of the kingdom, and the two ex-revolutionaries raised Sanyu to believe that any expression of softer emotion or personal need is unforgivable softness. Having fought a civil war to liberate Njaza from colonial rule, the two elder men were big on spreading propaganda about how strong, glorious, and unbeatable the nation was, and Sanyu's father ruled with an iron fist. Sanyu, who suffers from occasional crippling anxiety, doesn't even want the throne but has no choice but to step up upon his father's death. While he finds Shanti very attractive the first time he sees her, before the wedding, he then barely gives her a thought for several months after the coronation, grieving his father and trying to get some sort of idea of what the job of the king actually entails. Not that his royal council or advisors seem to want him to think too hard for himself, they seem to have very firm ideas of how the country should be ruled (no changes whatsoever from his father's rule). Meanwhile, the country's finances are suffering, a lot of the populace are starting to be unhappy with the lack of progress and innovation, while the royal council's isolationist views are keeping Njaza from making lucrative international deals that would benefit them both diplomatically and economically.
Resigned to the fact that she'll be sent packing after her four month marriage trial is over (after about three months she's barely seen her husband), Shanti is nevertheless doing what she can to make a difference in the country. She's been sneaking out of the palace in disguise at night, trying to help out a group of women organising protests and trying to affect change from a local bookstore. She is rather surprised when Sanyu shows up at her private rooms one evening, asking to hear her suggestions and plans, and suddenly wanting to act on the clear attraction that's been there between them since their first meeting. However, he keeps their growing closeness a secret and only shows up at her quarters at night. Is he ever going to work through his anxiety and stand up to his advisors, becoming the husband that Shanti wishes for and the progressive king that Njaza needs?
It seems to me that a common theme in all of Alyssa Cole's contemporary romances featuring fictional royals and the people they fall in love with, is that the heroes rarely, if ever, prove themselves worthy of the awesome heroines. Despite almost throwing my e-reader across the room because of my frustration with A Duke by Default, I ended up reading all of the main novels in Cole's previous series, Reluctant Royals, and I found things to like in each book. Having once again heard many great things about this new book, I gave it a try, and mostly liked it, even though the "runaway royals" of the series title is a stretch in this book. While Shanti eventually gets sick of Sanyu's inability to confront his sort-of-uncle/head adviser and leaves the palace for a little while, she doesn't exactly go very far, and I would say calling her actions running away is exaggerating wildly.
While there are a lot of dumb men in this book, Sanyu's close friend and one of the junior members of his council is very cool. I also liked the Njazan tradition of triad marriages, which I would happily have seen explored in more detail. There are sort of cameo appearances from quite a few of the protagonists in the previous series via a group chat Shanti is accepted into, and it was nice to "hear from" some of the other women that I'd come to quite like.
While I found this to be a perfectly OK novel, I'm not sure I'll be re-reading it any time soon. One of the two heroines for the next books shows up in a very memorable scene, though, and I hope that her book, having a lesbian couple at the centre may escape the unworthy partner trope, since both protagonists are women. We shall see. I'm not willing to give up on Ms. Cole yet, but she's now on "get books from the library until they are on sale for less than 3 bucks" list.
Judging a book by its cover: The frocks on Alyssa Cole's contemporary novels are always amazing. The female cover model they've used to portray Shanti seems pretty spot on, in looks and general bearing. The dude who I'm supposing is meant to be Sanyu doesn't look anything like what our hero is described as (my mental image was Winston Duke as M'Baku). He's far too skinny looking and only has designer stubble, no actual beard. Do better, cover designers!
Friday, 26 February 2021
Page count: 412 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 5 stars
The Night Watch of the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork consists of only three people (although people might question if Nobby Nobbs is entirely human) led by the depressed and shambolic Captain Samuel Vimes. No one is more surprised than he when he finds out that they have a new recruit from the mountains who actually volunteed for the Watch. No one ever does that. The fact that young Carrot Ironfunderson claims to be a dwarf, even though he's 6 foot 2 and seems to keep misunderstanding how the city is run is something Vimes really doesn't really have time to worry about. He's busy either getting drunk or recovering from a hangover.
Then, a series of mysterious incidents around the city leave people entirely vaporised, with wall tiles melted from high heat. Now everyone knows there's no such thing as actual dragons, that they disappeared a very long time ago, but it sure looks like there may be a dragon terrorising innocent (and not so innocent city dwellers). The city's patrician is very clear that the Watch leave the situation alone, no need to investigate and cause critical questions to be asked. One of the reasons why Vimes is the drunken leader of a sad bad of unwanteds, however, is that he doesn't really like to conform to what people expect of him. He enlists the help of Lady Sybil Ramkin, who knows everything there is about the only dragons that SHOULD exists, tiny swamp dragons.
Not that anyone, let alone Vimes, is very happy when it turns out that there is in fact a big, dangerous dragon threatening the citizens of Ankh-Morpork. Now normally, these sort of situations seem to require a hero to be revealed to slay the dragon, and win the hand of the daughter of the king, but the Patrician doesn't even have a daughter (only an elderly aunt, who doesn't seem to want to marry anyone) and the ransom offered really isn't very high, so none of the regular heroes feel motivated to show up for the job. It might be up to Vimes and his rag-tag squad to save the city, the unlikeliest heroes of all.
Reviewing a book I really love is much harder than reviewing one I hated or even one that was just fine. Terry Pratchett's Discworld books have been such an important part of life for the last 25 years or so. Reading my first one was a wholly different experience to any other fantasy novel I'd read before, and after moving to the UK for university, and especially after meeting the man who is now my husband (21 years together this year, baby!), the books became even more special to me, as he grew up with the series and loved them all.
I knew no one else who read them when I was a teen in Norway. In the UK, Pratchett was a best-selling author every time he released a new novel. He did frequent signing tours (which is why many of my books are signed by him - Pratchett used to say it was rarer to find an unsigned copy of his works since he toured so much. My husband even has Good Omens signed by both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, not as easy a feat, since Gaiman didn't use to tour places near us very often).
This was the first time I re-read Guards! Guards! for probably 15 years or so. Of the 40+ Discworld novels (if you include the various YA books he also wrote in the world, which I do), this is book 8, and probably the one where the series goes from being an interesting experiment where Pratchett tries to satirise traditional classic adventure novels and fantasy to something truly genius. From this book onwards, the books pretty much all keep getting better and better and sharper and more observant of human nature, modern society, politics, and generally the world at large, all delivered in the guise of humorous fantasy. Only with the last few books, written after the Alzheimer's really started affecting him, is the quality noticeably lower than in the rest.
There's a number of entry points into the Discworld books, depending on what takes your fancy the most. There are the Death books, the Witches books, the Rincewind (and later Wizards of the Unseen University) books, there are a number of excellent sort of standalone one, like Pyramids or Small Gods. Later in the series, there are the Moist von Lipwig books, and the wonderful YA Tiffany Aching books. Guards! Guards! is the first of the City Watch books. The fact that this, not even the best of the ones featuring those characters, is a five-star book for me should tell you how amazing some of the later ones are. If you're a Pratchett novice, there are a number of guides online for where you could start (I don't really recommend just reading the series in chronological order, as some of the first ones just aren't that good compared to what came later). If you can't be bothered to look up any guides, however, this is a very good place to start.
Judging a book by its cover: This book was first published in 1989, so it's obviously had a ton of different covers, depending on what country it was published in or what audience the publishers were trying to attact. Most of my Discworld novels have the original cover designs by Josh Kirby, which I can see might appear a bit chaotic and messy to some, but holds a lot of sentimental value to me.
Tuesday, 23 February 2021
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer! I got this book as an ARC from NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.
Sixteen years ago, Will Stirling first cast eyes on Nora Clarke and was instantly smitten. He was standing under a shaded tree, listening with a sinking heart to his mother pleading with the uncle he hadn't even realised existed, while she was up high on a balcony, throwing little tomatoes at thieving squirrels.
Cut to the present day, when Will is an overworked doctor and has inherited his uncle's apartment. With the exception of seeing his intriguing mystery girl in the garden, he has nothing but bad memories associated with the place and he doesn't like the run-down building or location. The terms of his late uncle's will states that he can't sell the place for the first year, but he's planning on having it modernised and put up for short-term rentals, so he can go on with his life.
Nora Clarke and the other residents of the building where Will has inherited are appalled when they realise that Will wants nothing to do with the place, and is going to use his unit as a rental. Nora is still grieving for her grandmother, whose apartment she inherited and now lives in, having barely changed a thing since her dear Nonna was alive. Having always had a safe haven in the building, and feeling a strong sense of kinship with the other long-time residents, Nora can't understand why Will wouldn't want to be enveloped by their quirky community. She and the other owners decide to try to sabotage Will's efforts as much as they can.
As it turns out, of course, Nora and Will have a lot in common. Both grew up with distant and preoccupied parents, the difference was that Nora had a loving grandmother and the other residents in her Chicago apartment building. Will had no one else and was completely orphaned in his late teens. He's used to having to fend for himself, putting himself through college and medical school through hard work and dedication. He's never had any long-term relationships and seems frankly baffled by the many slightly off-beat traditions that the residents of his uncle's apartment building seem attached to. He's very attracted to Nora, though, even more so after he discovers that she is, in fact, the same person he saw on that balcony all those years ago.
The blurb for this romance describes it as a second chance story, but it's not like Nora and Will have this complicated past and just need to find back to one another. Their past encounter consists of one single encounter, where they didn't even speak or even see each other - Will is the only one who is aware of it having taken place. So it's more of a love at first sight story, as having seen the vivacious teenage Nora all those years ago seems to have made Will uninterested in all other women.
I liked a lot of things about this book, but unfortunately, the actual romance between Will and Nora is probably third or fourth down on that list. Will and Nora on their own are both interesting and complex characters, both with a lot of emotional baggage they need to work through before being able to commit to a romantic relationship and finding a happy ending. The various supporting characters in the book are all awesome and made the book really come alive. They include Nora's best friend and colleague Deepa (who I will happily read a book about) and Will's starchy superior who's trying to reconnect with his ex-wife. There are the various individuals who live in the apartment building, all of whom are great and act as Nora's extended family and support network. I loved reading about all of them - I didn't really feel swept away by the actual central romance.
Kate Clayborn is a good writer and seems very skilled at writing memorable characters. I still clearly remember and think about several of the protagonists in her Chance of a Lifetime trilogy. There was a lot to like about this story as well, but the romance that should have been front and centre kind of came second to the found family narrative that I found most compelling. It was still a lovely read, and I'll keep my eyes open in case Clayborn decides she wants to give Deepa a book next.
Judging a book by its cover: It's become quite clear that cute, animated covers for romance novels are the popular thing right now, and this is a really nice example. I may be biased because purple is my favourite colour and just look at that rich plummy colour, lightening towards the bottom. Gorgeous. It may be that I also prefer the covers not to have actual little cartoon people on them.