Review | The Happy Ever After Playlist, Abby Jimenez

HappyEverAfterPlaylistCoverOkay, how much do I love this book?! The Happy Ever After Playlist begins with a meet-cute facilitated by an adorable dog jumping into the heroine’s car. As if that weren’t enough to make me melt, we then have the hero admitting that he loves his dog like his own child. As a cat mom myself, I absolutely fell in love with both Sloan and Jason within the first couple of chapters. As their long-distance flirtation deepened over their shared love for Tucker the dog, I very quickly found myself eager for them to find their happily ever after.

Sloan and Jason had the cutest chemistry together. I remember taking a while to warm up to Kristin and Josh in The Friend Zone — I hated the whole ‘not like other girls’ vibe, and their flirtation felt more snarky/angsty than flirty/swoony at times — but I fell in love with Sloan and Jason almost immediately. I’m still not too keen on their shared love for hunting, but that’s a personal bias rather than a book flaw.

I love that the will-they/won’t-they question of Sloan and Jason getting together was based on a very real predicament: Sloan was still grieving the death of her fiance, and struggled to be able to move on. Jason very quickly decided he wanted Sloan in his life, but was dealing with a major career shift and had to decide if being with him at this time would be best for Sloan. Despite some heavy issues to work through, the first half of the book was very much a fun and fluffy rom com that was just a pleasure to read.

The second half switched to a more serious exploration of how Sloan and Jason can actually fit into each other’s real lives, and the story became even stronger for it. I love that Jimenez explored both the swoony heart-racing aspects of falling in love and the harsh realities that real life goes beyond the swoon.

Jason is a singer on the verge of stardom, and Sloan is an artist who has to figure out if she can actually live with the touring rock star life style. Jimenez does a great job of showing the physical and psychological toll that touring takes on Sloan, and the immediate improvement when she takes a vacation to focus on her artwork. We also see Jason’s dilemma, how he quickly tires of the touring / stardom aspect of his career, but has worked too hard to give it up easily. Neither of them is a jerk about it — both are incredibly supportive of each other’s happiness and respective careers; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make a difficult situation work.

There was also a subplot about Jason being stalked and Sloan being targeted. The prime suspect is Jason’s ex Lola, whose flagging career could use a boost from Jason’s rise, but as this thread develops, it begins to move away from the jealous ex trope to a more expansive critique of celebrity culture and the superstardom industry. This was probably my least favourite part of the book — I’m meh on the jealous ex trope in general, though I did like how things eventually turned out. But I found this plot thread to be somewhat melodramatic and unnecessary, especially given all the very real issues that Sloan and Jason were already working through without it.

There’s also an author’s note where Jimenez explains that she’d written this before The Friend Zone, which I appreciated. I thought that Sloan’s fiance dying in The Friend Zone was totally random and unnecessary, and apparently some other readers felt the same, but the author’s note explained that because she’d written Playlist first but Friend Zone came first chronologically, that twist was necessary.

Overall, I loved The Happily Ever After Playlist. From the best ever meet-cute over a dog to a delightfully cheesy over-the-top resolution, this story was super sweet and cute and feel-good.

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Thank you to Forever Romance for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sparrow, Mary Cecilia Jackson

SparrowSparrow is a fairly intense book about surviving abuse and having to live with the fallout afterwards. The titular character, Sparrow, is a talented teenage ballet dancer who has grown up trained to hold in her secrets. Sparrow’s major secret — and the one that colours all the decisions she makes throughout this novel — involves a truth about her mother, who died years ago.

The focus of this novel is Sparrow’s relationship with her boyfriend Tristan, a handsome and popular boy who turns out to be controlling, abusive, and overall a horrible person. Because of Sparrow’s history with her mother, she does her best to keep Tristan’s behaviour under wraps. Even as her friends and family express concern about how scared she seems of Tristan, Sparrow insists that everything’s fine. The novel switches POV from Sparrow and her friend and dance partner Lucas, taking us through the months of Sparrow and Tristan’s relationship, from the very first meet-cute to Tristan’s increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to a confrontation that proves almost fatal.

Coming into this novel, I knew that it would tackle the subject of abuse. Not sure how I got the impression, but for some reason, I thought it would involve a single incident of rape near the beginning, followed by a long yet ultimately hopeful process of healing. It’s an intense topic, and one I wasn’t sure I could handle yet I was curious enough about the book overall to give it a try.

Yet it turns out my presumption was wrong. Rather than showing us the fallout from a single incidence of abuse, the author takes us through the long-term reality of dealing with abuse on a daily basis. I don’t think there was any actual sex in the book; rather, a lot of Tristan’s abuse was emotional and physical. He was often jealous of Sparrow’s friendship with Lucas, and there were scenes when Lucas would discover Sparrow on the ground after an argument with Tristan. All that to say: this was a different type of difficult read than what I was expecting, and I wish I’d had a clearer idea of what to prepare myself for when I started.

Much of the power of Jackson’s storytelling is that she intentionally withholds specifics from us. In a way, that should make the story easier to bear, but instead, it’s an almost smothering reminder of the weight that silence can have. We learn the specifics of what Sparrow’s mother did near the end, and in a way, the knowledge brings with it a form of relief, of catharsis. It’s not easy to read, but it’s far preferable to the obscure allusions Sparrow makes — and immediately pulls away from — throughout the book.

Even with Sparrow’s relationship with Tristan, so much of the worst parts are deliberately kept between the lines. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time to reveal little vignettes as we go. We see Sparrow terrified about not answering Tristan’s texts immediately — and Jackson’s writing makes us feel her terror on a visceral level without actually labelling it such — but we don’t see all the conversations and arguments that led her to becoming that jumpy. We see glimpses of Tristan accusing her of being attracted to Lucas, of Tristan being pouty because she forgot to wear a piece of jewelry, of Tristan giving one of Sparrow’s friends the finger for no good reason… and somehow, because these glimpses are so brief and disjointed, they’re even more disturbing. We know there’s a lot more than what we’re seeing, and like Sparrow’s family and friends, we feel frustrated at our inability to stop the inevitable crisis.

It’s an intense, sad story. The ending is far from happy, but it does have a tinge of hope and catharsis. (CW: child abuse, domestic violence)

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Photos of You, Tammy Robinson

PhotosOfYouCoverOn her 28th birthday, Ava Green learns that the cancer she thought she’d beaten is back, and that this time it’s terminal. With less than a year to live, she decides to fulfill a long-cherished childhood dream: to get married. She may not have a groom, but she can still wear a white dress, invite her family and friends, and celebrate herself. Then a national magazine decides to do a series of articles about the wedding, and the handsome photographer assigned to the story turns out to be someone she could very easily fall in love with.

Photos of You is a moving, emotional novel that does exactly what it promises it will. There’s no last-minute miracle cure, no surprising reveal about a medical error. Ava Green will die, but she will fulfill her dream of having a wedding before she does. The love story reminds me a bit of Nicholas Sparks, especially A Walk to Remember, except it’s told from the perspective of the character with a terminal illness, which means, thankfully, that cancer is never reduced to a plot twist designed to shock and evoke tears. Rather, like Ava, we need to carry that knowledge with us for the entire book, infusing even the happiest of scenes with an incredibly complex mix of emotions.

I absolutely love that Ava decides to have a wedding even without a groom. It’s such a badass response to cancer, and a glorious celebration of life. I love how Ava’s dream of having a wedding can still come true even if she’s single, how she can still choose to enjoy dressing up in a beautiful white gown, and having a massive celebration with her loved ones. Ava’s decision to have a wedding is a determination to make her happily ever after come true, and I absolutely love that about this story.

Having said that, I also absolutely love that Ava does find love in the photographer, Lucas. Their relationship does feel a bit insta-love, but Robinson sets their story up in such a way that you want to suspend your disbelief.  You want to fully buy into their love story. Just as much as the wedding itself is a badass act of happily ever after, Ava’s relationship with Lucas is a promise that, no matter how bleak circumstances can feel, fate can still come through and surprise you with a taste of the happily ever after you no longer thought possible. It’s a romance that’s doomed to tragedy from the start, and you can’t help but root for Ava and Lucas to take every little bit of happiness together that they can.

Photos of You is a beautiful story. Odd as it may be to say about a story where the main character will die, Photos of You is also a hopeful, feel-good story. Yes, we know that Ava will die, and we know that she and Lucas will have a few months together at most. But we also know that love happens, and we also know that a lifelong dream will come true. And that’s beautiful.

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Thank you to Forever for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.