“Well Met” by Jen DeLuca and “The Flatshare” by Beth O’Leary

Well MetSince the lead characters in Well Met are 25 and 27 years of age, I’m probably a little too old to be in the book’s target audience. But I still found it a delightful novel, and one with some significant wisdom that readers in the protagonists’ age range could benefit from.

Emily dropped out of college in order to work as a bartender and help put her fiancé through law school, but after he graduated and got a job with a high-powered firm, he broke up with her. When Emily’s older sister April, a single mom, is seriously injured in a car accident, she leaves Boston and heads to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, in order to help out.

Emily and April have never been particularly close due to their 12-year age difference. But moving in with April and her teenage daughter Caitlin at least gives Emily a place to live and something to do while she recovers from her broken heart. Emily quickly learns that every summer, Willow Creek hosts a wildly popular Renaissance Faire—and Caitlin is dying to participate in the cast. Since she’s too young to do so without an adult guardian nearby, Emily agrees to serve as a tavern wench, figuring her bartending experience will come in handy.

The festival is run by a local English teacher named Simon, who immediately strikes Emily as an uptight killjoy. However, at the fair, Simon dons the costume and persona of a charismatic pirate named Captain Ian Blackthorne. The pirate strikes up a flirtation with the wench, and Emily finds herself attracted to him… at least when he’s in character. Once he’s back in civilian clothes, the two of them always seem to be at odds.

Both Simon and Emily have a lot of personal baggage, and need to learn some serious life lessons before they can be together. Simon is mired in the past, due to family tragedy, while Emily is still bruised and deeply insecure because of her break-up. The happy ending in Well Met is truly well-earned, which makes it all the sweeter.

The FlatshareBeth O’Leary’s The Flatshare also has some insights to impart, wrapped in a high-concept romcom about two Londoners who wind up living in the same apartment—even sleeping in the same bed—without ever meeting. Tiffy desperately needs a cheap place to live after breaking up with her boyfriend; Leon is in dire need of cash to pay for a solicitor willing to take his incarcerated brother’s case. Since Leon works nights as a nurse, he figures he can rent his flat to someone with a 9-to-5 job, and their paths will never cross. (He plans to spend the weekends at his girlfriend Kay’s place.)

Kay interviews Tiffy and hands over the key to Leon’s flat (“Her expression could not be more obvious: It says, I was worried you might be hot and try to steal my boyfriend from me while you make yourself at home in his bed, but now I’ve seen you and he’d never be attracted to you, so yes! Come in!“). Weeks pass, then months, and the two roommates never bump into each other, but they do communicate prolifically via Post-It notes. Leon is so preoccupied with his brother’s legal issues—he’s in jail for armed robbery, but swears he’s innocent—that it begins to affect his relationship with Kay. Meanwhile, Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend begins to display an unnerving knack for popping up wherever she happens to be. It seems like he’s trying to win her back, but his reappearances cause Tiffy to develop PTSD-like symptoms as she gradually comes to realize that her ex was emotionally abusive.

Like Well Met, this is a novel that’s fun but not frivolous. Both O’Leary and DeLuca bring welcome fresh voices to the modern romantic comedy genre.

“The Most Fun We Ever Had” by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever Had was released last June, which indicates that the publisher thought of it as a summer book, perhaps something to take along to the pool. I would argue that this is a quintessential autumn or winter book, the sort of novel you want to read at home while sipping tea when it’s chilly outside. For one thing, it’s over 500 pages long, so it’s not practical to tote along with you (unless you’ve downloaded it onto an e-reader). From the orange gingko leaves on its cover to the often-awkward family holidays described inside (one Christmas is thrown into crisis when an older child hints to a younger one that Santa isn’t real), this is a book to keep you company during long, dark evenings.

Claire Lombardo’s debut novel tells the story of the Sorenson clan, David and Marilyn and their four adult daughters: Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. Prickly Wendy, having inherited great wealth after the death of her older husband, spends her days drinking too much and entertaining a variety of young men at her glamorous Chicago condo. Violet, a married lawyer with two kids, is thrown for a loop when the son she gave up for adoption years before, now a teenager named Jonah, reappears in her life. Liza, a professor of psychology, is pregnant by her boyfriend, a man so depressed he can barely pick himself up off the couch. And Grace, the baby of the family, is the only Sorenson who lives far away, which makes it easy for her to lie to everyone about how well she’s doing.

The novel alternates between scenes set in the present day, as Jonah’s arrival (his birth parents were killed in an accident some years before, and he’s been in and out of foster care ever since) creates upheaval in the lives of all the Sorensons, and flashbacks to the early years of David and Marilyn’s marriage and the girls’ childhoods. The complicated relationships between the siblings shift and change throughout the years as they experience tragedy and moments of joy.

I was shocked to find out after I’d read about 3/4 of the book that Lombardo was in her 20s when she wrote it. She is obviously an author in possession of great reserves of empathy and emotional intelligence, someone who is able to inhabit her characters fully, even when she doesn’t share their life experience. “Nobody’s ever prepared to care for a child full-time,” Marilyn tells her daughter Wendy at one point. “Nobody understands what that means until they do it for themselves. We’re all just holding our breath and hoping nothing catastrophic happens. And how deeply you get hurt doing that!… It takes such a long time to realize that it’s worth it. I wonder why we’re engineered that way. We’re sleep-deprived to the point of madness those first couple of years and then one day you wake up and you see the little person you’ve created and she says a sentence to you and you realize that everything in your life has been an audition for the creation of that specific person.”

This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to commit to a book this long—but anyone who is willing to truly immerse themselves in a modern family saga will find themselves richly rewarded.

“Royal Holiday” by Jasmine Guillory

Royal HolidayJust a few months after her appearance in The Wedding Party, fashion stylist Maddie Forest is back in Royal Holiday, which sends her to England to pick out clothes for a young duchess (unnamed in the book, but obviously inspired by Meghan Markle). However, Maddie and the duchess play small supporting roles in Royal Holiday, which focuses on Maddie’s mom, Vivian Forest.

Vivian is an Oakland social worker who hasn’t taken a vacation in years when her daughter persuades her to come along on her Christmastime work trip. (The duchess’ regular stylist is out of commission due to a difficult pregnancy, so Maddie will be filling in.) It may be her last chance to relax before starting a new job—Vivian’s boss is retiring, and she’s in line to become director of her department once he departs.

Vivian, who has been divorced for decades, was not expecting to find romance on her trip, but then she meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. Smitten with the American visitor, Malcolm offers to show her around the property. Their flirtation develops into a friendship, and when it’s time for Maddie to go home, Malcolm invites Vivian to stay on and spend a few extra days with him. Surely there’s no chance that this fling could turn into something more, considering that the two of them live thousands of miles apart?

After reading Guillory’s trilogy of novels about a group of friends who are mostly in their early 30s, it was refreshing to encounter a more seasoned pair. Their priorities are different, and they’re both in stable, successful careers. Certainly The Wedding Party was more of an emotional roller-coaster ride, while Royal Holiday is basically a pleasant opportunity to spend time with some very likable characters in splendid surroundings, from Sandringham House to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewelry collection.

[Incidentally, I went to Guillory’s launch event at a bookstore in Oakland, and she was asked who she’d like to play Malcolm in a hypothetical Royal Holiday film. Idris Elba’s name came up, but Guillory felt it might not be believable for the “sexiest man alive” to portray a character who has been unattached for several years. Of course, readers may “cast” the characters in any way they please, and I think Elba and Viola Davis would make a perfect Malcolm and Vivian.]

“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendWhen Sara Lindqvist arrived in Iowa, she was expecting to meet her pen pal Amy, an elderly woman with whom she had been exchanging letters and books for two years. Sara worked at a bookstore in Sweden, until it went out of business, leaving her jobless, with plenty of time on her hands—and enough money to buy a plane ticket to the U.S.

The day she comes to Amy’s hometown of Broken Wheel, however, she is greeted by some unfortunate news: Amy has just died. Her friends decide that Sara can live in Amy’s house until she figures out what to do next. Surely no tourist would want to linger too long in a place like Broken Wheel, a small town where “the buildings were low because there had never been any need for more than two stories. Nowadays, there wasn’t even the need for one… There was something sad about the town, as though generations of problems and disappointments had rubbed off onto its bricks and its roads.”

Sara decides to stay for a while—after all, Amy’s home is full of books, and she is in no rush to return to Sweden. Then she learns that Amy owned an empty storefront in the town’s almost-deserted main drag, and Sara is inspired to give it a fresh coat of paint, add a couple comfortable armchairs, and open a bookshop, using Amy’s vast collection as inventory. Unfortunately, no one in Broken Wheel is particularly interested in reading. However, the townspeople are intrigued enough by Sara that the store manages to attract a handful of customers.

Among the volumes in the store are, of course, a few Scandinavian crime novels, by Stieg Larsson and Jens Lapidus. “It was actually quite disheartening. Broken Wheel’s only image of Sweden was comprised of sadomasochistic conspiracies and organized crime, with a touch of Serbian mafia thrown in to confuse things.” (In the charmingly eccentric categorization used by Sara in her bookshop, these novels are filed under “Sex, Violence, and Weapons.”)

Eventually, Sara realizes that she doesn’t want to leave Broken Wheel, but the U.S. immigration authorities have other ideas. The townspeople don’t want to lose her, either, even though they’re not quite sure why anyone would want to spend so much time around books. They need to come up with a plan…

This is a droll and witty book that paints a vivid picture of small-town midwestern life, despite the fact that Katarina Bivald had never set foot in the U.S. until after her novel had already been published. (She gleaned a lot of knowledge from books, obviously; she has said she was particularly inspired by Spencer, Iowa, home of the celebrated library cat Dewey.) Unlike Sara, I don’t think I’d want to stay in Broken Wheel forever, but I very much enjoyed my visit.

“The Warehouse” by Rob Hart

The WarehouseThe first thing I saw when I opened The Warehouse was the dedication: “For Maria Fernandes.” As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to dedications in books, unless I happen to recognize the name of the dedicatee. In this case, I did not; I assumed it was a friend or relative of the author, turned the page, and didn’t think anything else of it.

Until, that is, I finished the book and read the acknowledgments section. The final paragraph explains who Maria Fernandes is and why the book is dedicated to her, and at that point it all makes sense and has an unexpectedly powerful impact. (If you read the book—and you should—I urge you not to skip ahead; I guarantee that The Warehouse is such an exciting novel that you’ll be completely caught up in it.)

The Warehouse takes place a few decades from now. Global warming has taken its toll, and we learn that something called the Black Friday Massacres caused virtually all brick & mortar retailers in the U.S. to close. What’s left is Cloud: a sort of Amazon.com on steroids. All of their products are delivered by drone. The company employs a huge segment of the American populace and houses them in live-work facilities. The employees wear color-coded shirts depending on what job they are assigned, and are paid in credits, which they can use for everything from delicious CloudBurgers to an extra five minutes in their morning shower. CloudBand bracelets keep track of where the employees are, what they’re supposed to be doing at any given moment when they’re on the job, and stores their credits.

As the book begins, we meet two new employees: Paxton, a former prison security guard who quit his job in order to form his own company, which was a success until Cloud gradually forced him to tighten his margins, forcing him out of business (a story no doubt inspired by the real-life facts in the 2003 Fast Company piece “The WalMart You Don’t Know”); and Zinnia, the code name adopted by a corporate spy who’s been hired to gain some inside information on Cloud. Because of his prior occupation, Paxton is assigned to security at Cloud. He takes an immediate fancy to Zinnia, and she decides a man in his position could be of use. Paxton is genuinely head over heels, while Zinnia is trying to figure out how she can fulfill what is an insanely difficult mission, considering the surveillance culture of Cloud.

Zinnia and Paxton’s stories are interspersed with blog entries written by the terminally ill billionaire founder of Cloud, Gibson Wells, who plans to reveal the identity of his hand-picked successor while on a final journey to visit as many Cloud locations as possible. Wells adopts a folksy “we’re all family” tone, but it’s clear to the reader that what he has accomplished is the ultimate goal of many corporate titans in the U.S.: privatizing absolutely everything, from education to the FAA. (There’s no mention made of who the president of the country is, but whoever it is, he or she probably has a good deal less power than Gibson Wells.) The mandatory live/work aspect of employment at Cloud also ensures that they control every facet of their workers’ lives.

As Wells prepares to visit Zinnia and Paxton’s facility, the novel continues to reach new heights of suspense as our two protagonists get ready for the big day in very different ways. This is not a particularly optimistic story, but it is one that will make readers consider where we’re headed and whether or not we want to hand corporations the power granted to Cloud, which makes even Microsoft and WalMart look like small potatoes.

“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi

Trust ExerciseWhen I was in high school, the tests in my English classes were given to make sure that we’d actually read the books on our assigned-reading lists. The questions were all about the characters and plot. As a result, when I got to college and was asked to analyze texts, I felt completely at sea. Suddenly, I was expected to have original thoughts and ideas about the great novels we were reading (at least one book every week! Imagine that). Used to simply parroting back the who, what and where, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the why.

Those old sensations came rushing back to me as I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which left me feeling confused and, yes, a little bit stupid. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I mainly read and review crime fiction, but I do dip into literary fiction from time to time. Trust Exercise is certainly one of the most lauded books of the year so far, with the Boston Globe calling it “piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining” and Publishers Weekly raving, “Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”

I might have given up on it after the first 30-40 pages had it not been from the blurb on the back by one of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta, who described it as “an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling.” The book starts out by telling the story of a romance between two high school freshmen, Sarah and David, who attend a performing-arts school with a theater department that is led by a highly charismatic teacher. Sarah and David have a lot of sex, described in a way that is almost repulsive, which may be appropriate, since who wants to get turned on by reading about two 15-year-olds?

Some of the writing seems pretty bad, especially when a troupe of performers from the U.K. come to Sarah and David’s school in order to present a run of “Candide.” The British characters’ speech patterns struck me as particularly fake, kind of like an “oi, guvnor” parody. But eventually, I figured, something would turn, as Perrotta’s quote promised. And it finally does, about halfway through, when we are presented with a new narrator who informs us that everything we’ve read up to now is from a novel written by “Sarah,” looking back on her high school experiences. An untrustworthy narrator, as it were. But is the person narrating part 2 any more reliable?

What really made my head hurt, though, was the book’s brief third part, which upends almost everything we’ve read about in parts one and two. If I’d been assigned to write a term paper about what it all meant, I’d have given up in frustration. But luckily, there’s Google, and I searched for “Trust Exercise ending.” That led me to this brilliant review by a college professor, who just goes ahead and lays out her whole theory of what happens in the book and what it all means. (Spoiler alert, obviously.) I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel, but Adriel Trott’s review made so many things click into place that I felt at least I finally understood what the author was getting at.

So while Trust Exercise isn’t a particularly fun or entertaining book to sit and read by yourself, I do think it would be an interesting book to discuss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to review it, since admitting that your first thoughts upon closing a novel are “What did I just read? What just happened?” is kind of embarrassing. But there can be value in getting out of your comfort zone, right? Still, I think the next book I read will be something a little more straightforward.