Book Reviews: The Boy with the Bookstore by Sarah Echavarre Smith + All Dressed Up by Jilly Gagnon

Since I read far faster than I write reviews, I’ve found myself working to pair up certain books. Sometimes they’re in the same genre, sometimes they share a theme. Considering The Boy with the Bookstore is a romance about a couple getting together and All Dressed Up is a mystery about a couple trying to stay together, I suppose you could say they have “couple” in common. Really, though, I needed to get these two written and they both happened to be published on September 6th.

The Boy with the Bookstore by Sarah Echavarre Smith

the boy with the bookstore sarah echavarre smith

Title: The Boy with the Bookstore | Author: Sarah Echavarre Smith | Publisher: Berkley | Publication date: September 6, 2022 | Genre: Romance

When a baker meets the bookshop owner of her dreams, and he turns into her nemesis, they’ll both have to read between the lines to avoid a career-ending recipe for disaster.

Max Boyson looks good…from a distance. But up close and personal, the tattooed hottie Joelle Prima has been crushing on for the past year and half has turned into the prime example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by his delectable cover.
When she first learned about the massive renovation to the building they share, Joelle imagined that temporarily combining her Filipino bakery with Max’s neighboring bookstore would be the perfect opening chapter to their happily ever after. In her fantasies they fed each other bibingka and pandesal while discussing Jane Austen and cooing over her pet hamster, Pumpkin. Reality, however…is quite different. Her gallant prince turned out to be a stubborn toad who snaps at her in front of customers, dries his wet clothes in her oven, and helps himself to the yummy pastries in her display case without asking.
But beneath Max’s grumpy glares, Joelle senses a rising heat—and a softening heart. And when they discover the real reason for the renovation, they’ll have to put both their business senses and their feelings for each other to the test.

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: Pleasure meets business when bookstore owner Max and baker Joelle are forced to share a space while their individual storefronts are being renovated.

My thoughts:

Considering books and baking are my two favorite things, I could not resist this book. It’s cute, but wasn’t exactly the kind of romance I was expecting, taking a few twists and turns to narrowly avoid the romance novel template I hate so much. This was also much steamier than I expected, but the inclusion of a hamster, a dog, and a cat made it all worthwhile for me. I also adored Joelle and her family, but Max felt more hit and miss for me. There were some really great elements in this book, but also some that left me disappointed.

Joelle and Max are really cute together, and especially sweet when Max isn’t acting like a hot headed teenager. They were something of a study in opposites, but I suppose opposites attract, even if Max sometimes made me want to slap him and Joelle sometimes made me want to scream some sense into her. But they really did feel like the perfect pair. Joelle felt very much like all sweetness and light. She comes from a very close Filipino family and they will do anything for each other. She’s so nice and sweet and understanding that it sometimes got in her way, especially when it came to Max, who was quite the opposite to her. When we first meet Max, it’s established he’s hot, and Joelle sometimes felt like she would go out of her way just to expound on how hot he is (as though he has nothing else to offer?). As a matter of fact, while writing this, I can’t think of anything else he is. He does take some very moody turns at some very inadvisable times, basically creating all the conflict in their romance. I couldn’t help thinking just how patient Joelle is. But Max has had a hard life, and that’s revealed little by little. He can be sweet and loving, but he shuts down at just the wrong word, which annoyed me to no end and made me feel like these two were flirting back and forth between maturity and immaturity. Considering they’re supposed to be in their 30s, I expected better.

The romance really was very cute. I liked that it started off in a way unexpected to me. I also appreciated how there wasn’t as much dancing around how much they liked each other; it was established to the reader and to each other early on. Their conflicts felt like they were entirely because of Max, but Joelle’s life perspective also was at complete odds with his, so she should share part of the blame, even if it felt like Max took on all of it. There were a lot more sex scenes that I anticipated, but I also found them oddly sweet at times. As a couple, they went through so much, so many ups and downs, and life still wasn’t done with them.

There are two other side stories in this book. One dealt with the complicated relationship between Max and his mother. It broke my heart. While I was glad for the way it ended, it made things feel a little too easy, like Max just flipped a switch and suddenly everything changed. I would have appreciated having that story line worked in a little more to make it feel more realistic. The other dealt with the renovations. As with everything else, it involved family. This one felt like it came out of left field, or just to make the book a little longer. I suppose it could have also been the catalyst for how Max and Joelle’s relationship changed, but, again, I felt like I had no warning and it was just popped into the story.

What I did love, though, were the fur babies and a bit of exploration of Joelle’s Filipino culture. Joelle’s hamster and Max’s dog and cat weren’t stars, but were definitely an excellent supporting cast. They were so sweet and had their own personalities. I just wish they had been on page more often. But I liked that they both have furry babies. I also loved getting a figurative taste of the Filipino culture. I loved getting to know Joelle’s family and seeing just how close-knit they are. But it was the food they made that stole my stomach. Joelle and her family make European and Filipino pastries, and they all sounded so delicious. I have no idea what some of the things they baked are, but, the way they were described, I’d eat them in a heart beat. I’m just disappointed there were no recipes.

The Boy with the Bookstore was a fun, sweet, steamy romance with a few good twists and turns. Sometimes it felt like the author was trying to work in too much and find too many ways to create conflict between Joelle and Max, but the stars of this book really are Joelle and Max, and just how well they fit together. I took issue with just how often Max was just described as hot. It only served to make him sound hot and a bit dysfunctional, making me wonder why, exactly, Joelle wants to be with him. But they really were sweet together and offered each other a nice balance.

My rating: 4 cups of tea

All Dressed Up by Jilly Gagnon

all dressed up jilly gagnon

Title: All Dressed Up | Author: Jilly Gagnon | Publisher: Bantam | Publication date: September 6, 2022 | Genre: Mystery

The weekend getaway at a gorgeous hotel should have been perfect. But Becca is smarting from her husband Blake’s betrayal and knows that the trip is just an expensive apology attempt. Still, the drinks are strong, and the weekend has an elaborate 1920s murder mystery theme. She decides to get into the spirit and enjoy their stay. 

Before long, the game is afoot: Famed speakeasy songstress Ida Crooner is found “murdered,” and it’s up to the guests to sniff out the culprit. Playing the role of Miss Debbie Taunte, an ingenue with a dark past, Becca dives into the world of pun-heavy clues, hammy acting, and secret passages, hoping to take her mind off her marital troubles.

Then, the morning after they arrive, the actress playing Ida’s maid fails to reappear for her role. Everyone assumes she flaked out on the job, but when snooping for clues as “Debbie,” Becca finds evidence that the young woman may not have left of her own free will.

Told over a nail-biting forty-eight hours and interspersed with in-game clues, set pieces, and character histories from the flapper-filled mystery nested inside a modern one, All Dressed Up is a loving tribute to classic whodunits and a riveting exploration of the secrets we keep.

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: During a murder mystery weekend with a 1920s theme, Becca and Blake work to repair their marriage, but actual murder might get in their way.

My thoughts:

I’m a big fan of Clue, both the movie and the game, and the 1920s is one of my favorite time periods. Combine that with a murder mystery weekend at an isolated hotel and I’m intrigued! All Dressed Up has a couple whose marriage is on the rocks trying to work things through while attending a themed murder mystery weekend. It sounds like it should be a lot of fun, perhaps a little humorous and maybe a bit suspenseful. I mean, there are two mysteries going on at the same time even if one is completely fabricated. Unfortunately, there just seemed to be too much going on and the characters were mostly flat, each playing one or two roles and doing nothing else. I found it to be a more pleasant reading experience as long as I didn’t think about it and simply went with the flow.

At its heart, All Dressed Up is about Becca and Blake trying to repair their marriage after an unforgivable breach of trust. It’s woven throughout the book, though it takes a while for what happened to come to light, and then Becca just dwells and dwells without making much forward progress. Honestly, about three quarters of the way through I still wasn’t sure of what she intended on doing and whether or not this supposed last ditch effort was actually going to work. For one, Becca was excellent at keeping things from her husband, and her husband felt like he used his introversion to get out of just about everything that actually mattered to his wife. Though she didn’t do much about it herself, telling herself that was just what her husband was like and she ought to take care of him. It really sounded a bit like a bizarre marriage where both of them avoided a lot of things, but I suppose it worked for them. I was just left dissatisfied with how this plot line ended.

Then there are the two mysteries. One is contrived as it’s the one four couples are working to solve while taking on 1920s personas, including a gangster, a reporter, and a society lady. It was humorous the way it was so contrived and the acting on the part of the staff was clearly subpar, but so amusing. I loved how this one hit the ground running and I liked how the character backgrounds and the different game play sessions were woven in. It made me feel like I was reading one of the Clue books. Unfortunately, this one had the most unsatisfactory ending despite being my preferred plot line. The second mystery took a while to get going, but I liked how it seemed to really get to Becca psychologically. It made me feel a little nuts, too, especially since it was woven in right alongside the contrived mystery. Sadly, it felt like they didn’t jive together well and poured too much confusion into the story. They, since both used the same people, tended to blur together too much to the point where it was impossible to tell who was playing their 1920s role and who was actually involved in the very real mystery. This one did have a satisfactory ending and I liked that it made sense, even if I was missing out on all the hints that should have lead to whodunit (I don’t actually remember very many clues to this).

But my biggest issue was with the characters. There are four couples, two who are unknown to Becca and Blake and one who are basically couple friends with Becca and Blake. Only one couple, one of the unknown ones, was really into the theme of the weekend, making it impossible to tell which mystery they were actually involved with, which really made things confusing. They were the only ones who actually played their 1920s roles well. The others felt like they were doing things half-heartedly. But, at the same time, I really couldn’t figure out their actual characterizations. They all just felt like they were there for the sake of the story and no more thought was put into them. I did find the hotel staff to be interesting, though. They played their 1920s roles and then easily slipped back into being modern people. Their transitions were clear and I liked how they could pull off the duality in a way that made all the hotel guests just feel confused about what they were there for.

On the plus side, the contrived mystery did feel a bit tongue in cheek, very much like Clue. I loved how exaggerated it was and just how well each piece was actually thought out. I also loved how isolated the hotel was, and how the grounds and hotel reminded me of the mansion. Even though the story slipped back and forth in time, I loved feeling like I was working to squeeze myself into one of the Clue books. The setting was probably my favorite part of this book, so I was a little disappointed the characters and plot didn’t use it quite as well as I would have liked.

All Dressed Up had so much promise. There are so many good pieces that just didn’t work well together, making it feel like it was trying to bite off more than it could chew. The characters felt like cardboard cutouts, the marriage story was pushed and pulled in and out of the spotlight in a way that felt uneven. The mysteries were poorly meshed. There was simply too much going on, and I hated the way Becca and Blake were supposed to be there to repair their marriage but managed to not actually spend much time together. Overall, this was disappointing, but I was highly amused and really loved the contrived mystery.

My rating: 3 cups of tea

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for review copies. All opinions expressed are my own.

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