Fun fact: I recently noticed there are quite a few 2021 contemporary romance releases with yellow covers. Weird. Clearly everyone decided that yellow was the must have look for this year. Can’t say I’m mad because yay for cheerful looking books. But are the insides as cheerful? Not always.
Over the last few weeks I’ve ticked two 2021 romance novels off my TBR, both of which I was super keen for. The first was Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle, which I added to my to-read shelf as soon as I knew it existed because I loved Hogle’s debut in 2020, You Deserve Each Other. The second is Abby Jimenez’s third entry in her The Friend Zone collection. I haven’t read either of the previous two books but apparently you don’t have to read them in order. I’d heard good things about her novels and this one sounded good, so why not? Here’s how things went…
Twice Shy – Sarah Hogle
Maybell Parish is a dreamer and a hopeless romantic. But living in her own world has long been preferable to dealing with the disappointments of real life. So when she inherits a charming house in the Smokies from her Great-Aunt Violet, she seizes the opportunity to make a fresh start. Yet when she arrives, she realises not only is the house falling apart around her, but she isn’t the only inheritor: she has to share everything with Wesley Koehler, the grouchy & gorgeous groundskeeper who has a very different vision for the property’s future.
Convincing Wesley to stop avoiding her and compromise is a formidable task. But when Maybell uncovers something unexpectedly sweet beneath his scowls, and as the two begin to let their guard down, they learn that sometimes the smallest steps outside one’s comfort zone can lead to the greatest rewards.
It’s official: Sarah Hogle is now one of my auto-buy romance authors. Because, darn if this wasn’t just the sweetest, most adorable, uplifting book. Yes, it might start to verge into corny at times but I can’t even be bummed about it, because this novel is a cinnamon roll if there ever was one.
The characters in Twice Shy are super endearing and loveable. Both have such a great level of depth. You really understand who they are, where they’ve come from, and what they want for their future. On the one hand, we have Maybell who’s this big-hearted dreamer, romantic and optimist who hasn’t experienced a lot of genuine love and care in her life and is trying to recapture the one time in which she did. On the other, there’s Wesley – a soft, sexy, vulnerable artist/gardener who cares deeply about animals and suffers from severe anxiety. Marry me already.
The interactions between Maybell & Wes, once I got past their early conflicts, were warm-fuzzy wonderfulness. Their note chain conversations were especially adorable. There was this lovely, gradual development of their relationship as they came to understand each other better and look beyond the surface. While their exchanges didn’t have the same degree of banter or snarky-ness as Nicholas and Naomi’s in You Deserve Each Other, I enjoyed them just as much but in a different way. I particularly loved how the characters were able to talk about their issues in a healthy way and be there for one another. Ugh, they’re just so ridiculously perfect together, okay?
Plot wise, most of the book revolves around Maybell and Wesley working to fix up Maybell’s Great Aunt Violet’s large and run-down house after they co-inherit it. FORCED PROXIMITY TROPE FOR THE WIN. They both have different ideas about what they want to do with the house but that’s part of the fun. This one is more of a character journey type book (e.g. Wesley dealing with his anxiety, Maybell realising her worth) than an external complication type thing, which means the climax is akin to a small speed bump rather than a major drama and this might feel underwhelming for some people.
I will admit, I didn’t find this one as laugh out loud funny as I did Sarah’s debut, but I can forgive that. Not every book needs to be jokes to the max. The one thing I did find somewhat…weird was Maybell’s tendency to slip into romantic day-dream interludes about her ideal man and imaginary café. Sure, it’s part of her charm and helps drive home her eventual realisation that reality can be better than imaginary perfection, but still…odd.
Basically, I read this in about a day and it’s the perfect medicine for when you’re feeling crappy.
Life’s Too Short – Abby Jimenez
Vanessa lives every day to the fullest and isn’t willing to waste a moment when she has no idea whether she might share her sister’s fatal genetic condition. But when her half-sister leaves Vanessa custody of her infant daughter, Vanessa must put her life as a successful travel Youtuber on hold. The last person she expects to show up to help is Adrian Copeland, the hot lawyer next-door. As they get closer, Vanessa realizes that her carefree ways and his need for a structured plan could never be compatible for the long term. Then again, she should know better than anyone that life’s too short to fear taking the biggest risk of all.
Life’s Too Short was one of my most anticipated romance reads for 2021. I’m not sure whether I just wasn’t in the right mental space for it or couldn’t reconcile my expectations with the reality, but either way I have mixed feelings.
One of the things I wasn’t super keen on was the plot. I’m not averse to darker, heavier reads, but that is not what I come to romcoms for. While I want them to have depth and I’m fine with serious undertones, I found this one to be too tonally unbalanced, especially being marketed the way it is. Vanessa’s story is A LOT and the book would have benefited from her family baggage being stripped back somewhat. She believes she may have the terminal illness which killed her sister, her half-sister is a drug addict and has left her baby for Vanessa to deal with, her mother died in a car accident, her father is a hoarder and was a negligent parent, her step-mother abandoned them, and her half-brother is a lazy moocher. To top things off, the novel’s main complication is that Vanessa is convinced she’s going to die in about a year. Pretty bleak for something the blurb claims is: “A brilliant and touching romantic comedy”, huh?
In terms of the romance itself, I enjoyed Adrian and Vanessa’s opposites attract, strangers-to-friends-to-lovers relationship. Their scenes together were nice, had a good level of back-and-forth and felt weirdly comforting. I found the balance between their sexual tension and sweet bonding solid and really liked the dynamic being responsible for Vanessa’s niece, Grace, brought to their romance (even though she felt like a flat plot device at times). On the downside, there are some early insta-love vibes, the book really doesn’t need to drive home how attracted Vanessa is to Adrian as hard as it does, and some of the dialogue is super over the top and not how people would speak, but, on the whole, it’s a tentative thumbs up.
As individuals, I liked both Vanessa and Adrian, yet didn’t fall in love with them the way I have many other romcom leads. I enjoyed Vanessa’s sense of humour, adventurous spirit, and love for her family. However, this was tainted by my immense frustration with her stubborn unwillingness to consult a medical professional about her self-diagnosed ALS. Meanwhile, Adrian is the straight and narrow lawyer – organised, tidy, likes routine, not great with work-life balance, but caring and kind. I liked Adrian’s family subplot and interactions with his assistant Becky, but I feel as though the character’s anxiety could have been handled better than it was.
Another thing that didn’t really click with me on this one was the climax and ending, which felt extremely melodramatic, cheesy, and too neatly resolved. I think the reason it feels so exaggerated is because of how much heavy “reality” is crammed into the rest of the book. It’s a big, crazy romcom ending for a book that isn’t really a romcom.
Overall, Life’s Too Short has some good underlying parts but didn’t really hit the mark for me as much as I would have hoped.