fiction · romance

Book Review: Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma

When someone mentioned Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021) on Twitter a few weeks ago, I immediately added it to my TBR (this is why I can’t get my TBR down any further, y’all!). I love books with characters who come from different cultures or sub-cultures than I do, and the premise of a series centered around a friend group whose members are all different versions of Indian (two are Indian American, one is British Indian, and another was born and raised in India but lives in America now) intrigued me. Seriously great Indian rep right there. There was a lot to enjoy here, but the story itself fell a little flat for me.

Kiran grew up in a small village in India, the daughter of parents who sacrificed her whole life so that she could be educated and successful. Her older sister Kirti was disowned after her wedding to a man from a lower caste; her village didn’t approve, and thus to avoid the shame it would bring on the family and the lessening of Kiran’s chances in life, the family banished her. Kiran has since become a successful engineer in New York City, but she’s weighted down by her responsibilities and her parents’ expectations.

Enter Nash, a blond psychologist who just moved to the city from- of course- Nashville. He’s Kiran’s new neighbor with family drama of his own, and as they strike up a friendship, Kiran feels like she might be falling in love for the first time. Which is big time not good, since Nash is white and American- definitely not on her parents’ approval list. Her friends are there for her when she struggles with her options, and there for her when her parents cast her away as well. It’s only when an emergency happens thousands of miles away that everyone learns the power of family, forgiveness, and love.

I loved the premise of this, the closeness of the friend group, and their diversity of experience (both in terms of work experience and life experience; so many different and beautiful connections to India); their support for Kiran and each other; their constant text messages; and the fact that there’s a GUY in this friend group! (I’m super curious as to what Akash’s love story will look like.) Kiran’s sense of duty to her parents, especially in the light of what happened with her older sister, is admirable; her struggle with that sense of duty is realistic and relatable. I did want her and Nash to work out as a couple, since she obviously loved him, and I was pulling for them.

Nash is…a little on the bland side, to be honest. For having a doctorate in psychology, he seemed deeply unaware of how to handle cultural differences and unable to fully grasp most situations from Kiran’s point of view. For someone so highly educated, I would have expected him to start delving deeply into some cultural studies and making an effort to understand what made Kiran the woman she is, where she came from and what life was and is like there, but nope, nothing. He just…fumbled here and there. Not exactly my ideal hero. And really, he has no excuse. Nashville, for its being a blue dot in a red (RED RED RED) sea, is a deeply multicultural city. I lived on the outskirts for five years and was constantly in Nashville proper, where my husband worked. There are multiple synagogues; a large Muslim population; a Somali community; and among many, many others, an Indian community. There are many excellent Indian restaurants in Nashville (two of my favorites were within walking distance of Vanderbilt, where Nash graduated from (and where my husband worked, so I’m intimately familiar with the area. He 100% would have known about them; they’re both really popular. I often say those two restaurants are the only thing I miss about living there). If Nash was as oblivious as he seemed, it wasn’t because he lived in Nashville and attended Vanderbilt University; he would’ve had to work pretty hard to avoid the cultural mosaic around him.

It felt to me as though the story went from cutesy-first-butterflies scene to Nash and Kiran admitting their feelings and ending up immediately in bed (all fade-to-black; zero open door scenes) very quickly; I never got a good sense of why they liked each other and had a hard time feeling much chemistry at all between the two. This may be because I didn’t feel like I connected with the writing style well, but I also felt that the writing itself lacked sparkle. Too much telling and not enough showing for me.

This was just okay; I had hoped for a little bit more, to be honest.

Visit Annika Sharma’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I’m trying to think back to where I learned about Love at First by Kate Clayborn (Kensington, 2021). Most likely it was mentioned on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast (which I really need to catch up on!). Most of my romance novels come from there, whether they mention the book directly, or just the author, and I decide she sounds like someone I want to read (and then prance off to my library website to see what’s available. I have a Sarina Bowen on my list coming up soon that ended up there for exactly this reason!). Anyhow, I’d been checking the library on a few past trips, but this was always checked out. Last time, it was in!

Will and Nora first meet as teenagers in a way that Will remembers for the rest of his life, for both good and tragic reasons, but they don’t meet again until they’re adults, Nora grieving the death of her grandmother, and Will, now a doctor, struggling to figure out what to do with the apartment he inherited from an uncle he only met once. Their connection is instant and nearly palpable, but things are tense: Nora’s apartment building is her family, the people in it standing in for the close-knit relatives she didn’t have beyond her deceased grandmother, and Will wants to fix up and rent out his unit as temporary lodgings. Nora and the other residents are aghast; Will can’t understand why this is such a big deal.

But as they get to know each other, each begins to soften to the other’s point of view, and the distance between them softens and the pain of the past comes to light. Nora and Will need to learn to compromise and trust- easier said than done, but they’ve got a whole building of family rooting for them.

Sweet little romance novel without a ton of drama. Nora is having a hard time moving on from her Nonna’s death, stuck in her grief and needing to keep everything in the apartment (and apartment building) just as it was, no matter how inconvenient, in order to hang on to the last vestiges of Nonna. Will, who lost both parents by 18, has nothing to hang on to, and he’s been living his life based on a sharp remark about himself that he overheard his distant uncle make the one time he met him years ago. It’s served him well in some ways, but in others, it’s made it impossible to truly live…and that’s a problem when he starts falling for Nora.

There aren’t a ton of ups and downs here; it’s not exactly the most exciting and dramatic romance novel I’ve ever read, but it’s sweet, and it made for a relaxing read in the midst of all the depressing nonfiction I’ve been plowing through lately. I did enjoy the quirky apartment residents. Ms. Clayborn really created a building full of people with distinctive personalities, without venturing into caricature territory- it reminded me a bit of all the Maeve Binchy novels I loved as a teenager. Her supporting characters are always a little off-the-wall and well-defined, and this gave me the same feeling. Despite its bizarre velvet hallway wallpaper, this is a building I would love to live in. (And can I just say, I LOVED that this was set in Chicago! It’s such a great city and there aren’t enough books set here.)

Cute read. I really liked Will as a hero. As someone who really takes other people’s criticism hard, I understood his motivation for shaping his life the way he did.

Visit Kate Clayborn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…

Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?

At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.

This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much  healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?

Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).

There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.

If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.

Visit Hannah Orenstein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Pretty sure You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (Avon, 2020) came to my TBR from an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast. Book-related podcasts fill up my TBR so fast, as do those end-of-the-year ‘Best Books of This/Next Year!’ lists, and this book had been on the list for a while. I did recently have to rewrite my local library TBR list- the old one had gotten too messy, full of crossed-out books that I’d finished, and the list of books from my list that are available at my branch is down to 53, which actually kind of scares me! We’re allowed to sign up at other branches in the same system and check out books there, but I haven’t done that since before the pandemic, since I didn’t want to add to their stress. Interlibrary loan is up and running, though, so that’s at least a relief!

Jasmine Lin Rodrigues, soap opera star, has just been publicly dumped and humiliated, so she’s back home in New York, licking her wounds and resolving to the be the powerful leading lady she knows she can be while preparing to head a new romantic comedy series for the hottest streaming service out there. She’s not counting on the last-minute recast of the series hero, one that changes the course of her life. Ashton, telenovela superstar, is juggling a lot right now- a son he’s kept secret from the world for eight years, an aging father and grandparents back in Puerto Rico (their restaurant is still struggling to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria), the PTSD caused from a psycho fan breaking into his home with a knife years ago. But this bilingual romantic comedy is his chance to break into the English language market and become the megastar he know he can be.

Ashton’s secrecy and standoffishness immediately affects the intimacy between his and Jasmine’s characters; it’s hard to give a performance your all when you’re holding back. But little by little, he and Jasmine begin to fall for each other, and Ashton starts to let his guard down. Old habits die hard, however, and both he and Jasmine have a lot of work to do to overcome the pain of their pasts.

Cute contemporary romance novel. I loved the setting, and now I want Carmen in Charge (the show they’re filming)- or something like it- to be real. Bilingual shows, with the option for subtitles in either language? HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE? I would watch the hell out of something like that! Someone from Netflix call Alexis Daria, because this woman has brilliant ideas! Ashton is an actor who has spent his career making a name for himself in telenovelas (which I’ve always wished my Spanish was good enough to follow); he’s trying to break out and become Hollywood’s biggest Latinx leading man, and I loved hearing his perspective on his career, where it’s been and where he wanted it to go. His relationship with his family was sweet; the dilemma his career, which supported them all, caused, in terms of maintaining his son’s privacy, was an interesting aspect of the story.

I didn’t love Jasmine quite as much. I wished the story would’ve gone deeper into her psyche, instead of just focusing on ‘middle child who wanted attention and whose family thought her career was silly and not serious.’ I definitely felt as though her issues weren’t as serious as what Ashton was struggling with (especially the PTSD and worrying over his son’s safety). Obviously breakups suck and having your face splashed across crappy tabloids isn’t fun, but I wanted a little more from her side of the story. I did love, however, that she’s starring in this bilingual rom-com series without being fully fluent in Spanish. She needed help here and there, mostly extra practice with what seemed like pronunciation and the fluidity of her delivery. This really added an interesting aspect to her character (one that I’d love to see explored in other novels as well. My husband is Belgian and my daughter has so fully resisted learning the French he spoke to her when she was young. It’s something I’m sure she’ll eventually regret- second languages are so useful- but not every child of immigrants speaks their parents’ native languages, for various reasons, and I appreciated this aspect of the story).

A fun read with a great setting.

Visit Alexis Daria’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Life’s Too Short (The Friend Zone #3) by Abby Jimenez

My wish was granted, my wish was granted! I’ve never actually wished for a book on Netgalley before, but I adore Abby Jimenez so very much that I decided to take a chance on her Life’s Too Short (Forever, 2021), the latest installment in her The Friend Zone series. I loved the first two books so very much that I wanted to sink my claws into this book as soon as possible, and to my massive surprise, the publisher granted my wish. Thanks, Forever and Netgalley. If you’ve loved Abby Jimenez’s other books in the series, get ready to fall even harder…or, if you’re looking for a new author to swoon over, Abby Jimenez is one you cannot miss. Life’s Too Short is amazing.

Vanessa Price, well-known YouTube travel vlogger, has been sidelined by the unexpected. Her addict sister has abandoned her newborn with her, and Vanessa is struggling (hey, newborns are tough!). Her bedroom wall apartment neighbor, hot workaholic Adrian, steps in to help her out one morning at 4 am, and the rest is history. The two start up a symbiotic friendship: Vanessa gets some help with the baby, Adrian finally gets to experience a life outside of work, and, despite vowing to remain just friends, the two of them inch closer to a five-alarm blaze of a relationship.

But things are complicated. Vanessa might be dying. The women in her family are cursed with a familial gene that triggers early-onset ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Both her mother and her sister died with/from it, and Vanessa’s chances are about 50% of having it, too. It’s why she became a travel vlogger, determined to see as much of the world and squeeze as much out of life as possible before dying young. Adrian doesn’t quite understand how dire things are for her, and when he does learn the truth, it’s nearly too much for him to handle. Can Adrian find a way to live life- however much is left of it- on Vanessa’s terms?

This. Was. Adorable. Despite the heavy subject matter- death and dying are always looming in the background, whether it’s the memories of Vanessa’s mother and sister, or Vanessa’s potential demise- Abby Jimenez manages to keep this a light, optimistic read. Her characters are vibrant, brimming with life and energy, bursting off the page in a manner that puts her writing on my list of insta-buy authors. Vanessa is determined, buoyant despite her circumstances, and yet not so optimistic that she seems unbelievable. Her odds of dying from ALS have forced her to define in exact terms what she wants out of life and the direct route to getting it. She doesn’t have time to beat around the bush; her directness and persistence, rather than making her brash, portray her as confident and courageous. She’s someone the reader immediately wants to spend time with- whatever time she has.

Adrian is a fabulous hero. He’s capable and confident, a little gun-shy from having been burned by his recent ex, but not so damaged that his heart isn’t open to Vanessa. But- and this is HUGE- he doesn’t pursue her, because early on, she tells him she doesn’t date, and he respects that. SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. As if a hot lawyer who takes charge and figures out why your baby is screaming and takes over so you can go shower for the first time in days isn’t already amazing enough! Hello, I’d like to order one of those, please! He’s not without his flaws, big ones that will eventually put him and Vanessa at what initially appears to be insurmountable odds, but…love finds a way. Or at least it does in romance novels like this, and that’s more than enough for me.

I loved this. I love this series, I love this author. Abby Jimenez has a way of creating characters who, for the most part, don’t need to worry about money (because that can bog a story down, so giving characters financially lucrative careers is definitely a nice tactic for an author to get that out of the way) but who don’t seem unrealistic, and who don’t let their financial status define them. Even though her stories often deal with tough subjects (infertility, grief, death), she approaches each topic in a way that breaks it down enough to seem manageable, greeting every theme with a can-do attitude and a supportive cast of characters that make even the unfathomable seem not so bad. If I could have any author pen my life story, I’d want Abby Jimenez on the job.

Huge thanks to Forever and NetGalley for providing me with an early copy of this book. Life’s Too Short is available on April 6, 2021, and I highly suggest you check it out. While it’s part of a series, it would read just as well as a stand-alone, but really, you want to read the other books in the series as well. They’re just as fabulous.

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Fix Her Up (Hot & Hammered #1) by Tessa Bailey

Time for a romance fix! I put Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey (Avon, 2019) on my TBR after listening to some of the podcast that Tessa Bailey cohosts (Read Me Romance; warning: the heat levels are pretty intense in some of the novellas they read. If you’re more of a fade-to-black romance fan, this probably isn’t for you). I was curious as to what her books were like, and this was what my library had of hers. (I did ask a librarian this past month on their virtual chat feature, and they said that it’s totally fine to request books via interlibrary loan these days; it’s just taking longer, so I feel a little better about maybe requesting a few books from other libraries now! I was holding out because pandemic, and everyone’s stressed and I didn’t want to add to any of that at the library, but now…!!!) This book ended up being kind of a mixed bag for me, honestly.

Georgie Castle is the youngest Castle sibling, a clown (literally; she performs at children’s birthday parties), and practically still a kid at 23. Her parents, her older siblings, and everyone in the town still treat her like a child, and she’s pretty fed up with it. When her brother’s best friend and retired professional baseball star Travis Ford comes home for good after too many shoulder injuries permanently bench him, Georgie is dismayed to find that Travis- the object of her fantasies for a decade now- still sees her as her brother’s pesky little sister. Not for long, though. Georgie’s all grown up and Travis is starting to take notice.

Georgie’s faith in Travis is helping him grow into the man she always knew he could become, but he can’t move forward with his career without rehabbing his bad boy image. No worries; fake-dating Georgie should prove that he’s not the playboy he once was, right? They can mess around and still maintain some boundaries. But feelings run deeper than that on both sides, and Travis needs to reckon with his past before he’s able to make any sort of commitment…

Hmm. This wasn’t a terrible book; I liked it for the most part, but didn’t love it. I’m not a huge baseball fan, so that part didn’t do anything for me (hockey, sure; I enjoy a good hockey romance, but not really baseball or football). And the best friend’s sibling trope has always kind of felt icky to me. Sure, maybe that’s an issue when you’re still in high school, but by the time you’re all legal adults, no one should have any say over whom their sibling dates or sleeps with- that’s just weird, yo.

Georgie as a heroine was…just kind of okay. Nothing special. I’m no huge fan of clowns, so her clown business kind of freaked me out (and there was a line in there about performing for bat mitzvahs, which threw me off a little; I don’t know of many thirteen year-olds who would want a clown performing at their bat mitzvah, but okay…). She made her living doing children’s birthday parties and was able to purchase an inexpensive house by doing this, but the numbers there didn’t really add up for me. How did she pay for a car? Car insurance? Health insurance? Food, electricity, heat, water, those stupid expenses like a flat tire or the refrigerator dying unexpectedly? My brain always wants to know these kinds of little things when characters have non-traditional employment (health insurance is a big worry when it comes to self-employed characters for me!), and I didn’t feel like this was covered adequately. Exactly how much can one person make when solely performing as a clown at children’s birthday parties? This really threw me out of the story.

The female friendships in this book didn’t really gel for me. Bethany, Georgie’s older sister, is bossy and irritating; Rosie, another woman who joins their group, is passive and uninteresting (the next book in the series focuses on her and her husband, which surprised me; I didn’t find her intriguing enough to want to read an entire book about her). The women form a club to band together and support one another towards achieving their goals, which was a good idea, but the execution of it felt stiff and awkward, and there were some seriously weird scenes with their brother Stephen’s wife, Kristin. I had a hard time not skipping over some of this, to be honest.

Travis was…also just kind of okay. Hometown athlete/Lothario returns after injuries force him out of the game; every woman in town wants to hop on board; he feels like a failure. Lots of family issues going on here, but the focus is mostly on his father; what happened to his mother isn’t really mentioned, and I felt left hanging by this. His dirty talk goes from steamy to wait-wtf-did-you-just-say-ew and back again. There are scenes where he and Georgie defend each other, in front of both townsfolk and Georgie’s family, that felt kind of forced and ridiculous. He wasn’t anything swoonworthy, in my book, just…okay. Cocky athlete isn’t my type unless there’s more to him, and it didn’t help that Travis was just constantly held up as the high school sports hero made good. Yawn.

Fix Her Up was, as a friend of mine said, a nice distraction, but it wasn’t anything super special, and there were times where it struggled to hold my attention. I probably won’t continue on with this series, but the writing was okay enough that I’d give Tessa Bailey another chance with a different set of characters.

Visit Tessa Bailey’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon

Whew! After my last read, I needed something lighter. I love nonfiction, but I know I need to balance the heavier topics with books that are more on the fun side of the spectrum. I enjoy a good contemporary romance and I kept hearing great things about The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon (Forever, 2020), so that’s how it ended up on my TBR. It was always checked out at the library, though, so I had to wait until it was my lucky day and it was on the shelf. This book made me happy for a lot of different reasons: Black author, Black heroine, mixed hero (Black and Korean), lots of successful Black women in tech and science, a great setting, and a secret that must be kept but that might change everything. All of this worked so well for me!

Things seem to be going well for Samiah as she prepares for a date, until her sister clues her in that the guy she’s dating is currently going viral on Twitter- for being a horrible date for someone else in a restaurant down the street! When she arrives at the restaurant to clue Craig’s date in, she also meets the third woman he’s dating, and the video of their confrontation goes viral. Not exactly Samiah’s idea of success. She’s a hardworking, talented computer science geek whom her company can’t live without; this won’t damage her career, but it doesn’t exactly help it, either. After getting together with Taylor and London, Craig’s other dates, the three swear off men for six months in order to work on themselves. Samiah is all in and throws herself into working on an app she’s been developing for years. And then she meets the new guy at work…

Daniel has just started at the same company where Samiah works, a tech geek himself, but his employment there isn’t exactly what it seems. No one knows he’s working undercover for a government agency in order to uncover money laundering. He’s there to do his job and move on, but gorgeous, intelligent Samiah is making it difficult for him to remember his duties. Their flirtation and subsequent blossoming relationship leaves him exhilarated and guilty- he can’t be honest with her about who he really is, and it’s eating him up inside. When the investigation comes to a head, Daniel will need to make a difficult decision that may ruin everything he and Samiah have. Will he choose duty…or love?

Usually I’m not a fan of books where dishonesty is a key factor in the plot, but this worked really well as a plot point because it was realistic. Daniel’s secrecy surrounding his job made for absolutely necessary deception, and Ms. Rochon handled this in the most delicate way possible. Never once did I feel that any part of this story wasn’t working or wouldn’t happen like this in real life. That’s a huge plus for me.

Samiah is wonderful. She’s intelligent and hardworking, and she knows that she didn’t get there on her own and works hard to give back. But she’s not perfect, either; she doubts herself and is unsure of the next steps to take with developing her app. (As someone who has projects on the back burner that she’s currently shying away from for similar reasons, I understood this well!) She recognizes the value in pushing herself, however, both in work and in her personal life- her newfound friendship with Taylor and London was supportive and lovely, and something I hope to emulate when life gets back to normal.

Daniel is definitely a swoonworthy hero, handsome, respectful, dedicated to both Samiah and his job, and with a sense of duty that is both wonderful and complicates things to the max (which makes for excellent tension!).

The Boyfriend Project is a fun, lively contemporary romance with an excellent balance of romantic tension and stress coming from outside sources. Its cast of realistic characters- ones you’d want to spend time with in real life- makes for an entirely engaging read, and I’m looking forward to meeting them again in future books in this series by Ms. Rochon!

Visit Farrah Rochon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

Remember used book sales? (Heck, remember going anywhere? To anything? In person? EVER??? HAHAHAHAHAHA *sob*) Last year I managed to stop by quite a few, one of the really great kinds where you cram as much as you can into a paper bag for one low price (I wrote about one here, the one where I purchased this particular book). I’m desperately hoping that the women’s education group that puts these on will go back to it once the pandemic is done, because those book sales are something I look forward to for months, and they’re always crammed full of people (so, uh, this definitely needs to be over before then!). But one of those sales is where I picked up a copy of Come Back to Me by Mila Gray (Pan Macmillan, 2014). The cover looked enticing, so into the bag it went, and since I paid only seven bucks for the entire bag, I could afford to take the chance. Man, I miss those book sales.

Jessa’s life is ruled by her military father and his PTSD-fueled moods. She and her mother walk on eggshells around him, she’s changed her entire college and career plans in order to suit his iron-fisted control, and she never, ever dates. Not that she doesn’t have feelings- big ones- for her brother Riley’s best friend Kit. Kit and Riley joined the Marines a few years ago and Jessa’s been pining away for Kit ever since the last time he was home on leave. And now that he’s back again, she can’t keep those feelings at bay.

Kit has had it bad for his best friend’s sister for a while, but being deployed to Sudan has made it easy to do nothing about it. Being home on leave for four weeks ups the ante, though, and suddenly things are exactly where he always dreamed of them being for the two of them. She’s everything to him, and it doesn’t matter that her dad hates his guts. They’ll figure out a way to make their long-distance relationship work.

But this is a military romance novel, and when tragedy strikes, both Jessa and Kit have some reckoning to do with their pasts and their futures. Can they move beyond the pain to find their way back to one another?

This is a solid New Adult romance with solid writing and a good, if not slightly predictable, romance. It’s sweet and flows well, which makes it an easy, enjoyable read. Jessa and Kit work well together, and as someone who has been in a military relationship-turned-married (turned divorce, turned vowing to never get involved with anyone in the military ever again, turned falling love with a longtime friend who was finishing up a deployment with the National Guard so maybe don’t trust me on this one here, haha), Ms. Gray nails all the turmoil that comes with that. It’s constant stress and worry, being alone more than being together, waiting for that phone call or email or letter (or text/video chat these days, you lucky ducks!), and counting down the days until you see each other again. Stress, stress, stress. I don’t miss those days one bit.

There are some content warnings here: death (one of which is described as it happens, though not in graphic detail); emotional abuse; PTSD; brief discussions of suicide, and sexual assault. Jessa’s dad is a piece of work. His story wraps up a little too nicely for me; I worry that readers may get the wrong idea of the ease of tackling long-term PTSD. The story isn’t focused on him, though, which may account for Ms. Gray’s choice to sum up his story a little more swiftly than his own novel would call for.

I was mildly irritated by a few things in the novel, specifically the cardinal sin-lines of how Jessa’s ‘not like other girls,’ and ‘Kit isn’t like normal guys.’ I admit to scrunching up my face when I read both of those lines. No, no, no. Editors everywhere need to have their red pens at the ready for any versions of those. Unless Jessa has three arms and Kit is missing his entire face and has a functional tail, yeah, they’re both like every other person out there and there’s no need to slam other girls and other guys by demeaning them in order to prop your main characters up. There was also a throwaway line about how Kit lost his virginity at age 14 to the babysitter, but since his sister was older than him, I’m unsure of whom the babysitter was babysitting, and this unnecessary line creeped me way, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out. Forget these lines, though, and the rest of the book is perfectly solid.

I don’t know that I want to read more of this series- like I said, I’ve been through my own military romances and don’t necessarily feel the pull to relive them, but I’d definitely read Mila Gray again.

Mila Gray is the pen name of author Sarah Alderson. Visit her website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Meet You Under the Stars (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #2) by Traci Borum

Back in the spring, author Traci Borum contacted me to read the first romance novel in a new series that she’d penned, Love Starts Here. I enjoyed it and was happy to read and review the second in the series as well, Meet You Under the Stars (Red Adept Publishing, 2020). Who couldn’t use more sweet, cozy romance in their life right now??? And after a heavy nonfiction as my last read, I definitely needed the literary equivalent of a soft fuzzy blanket to wrap myself up in!

Chaynie Mayfield came back to her hometown of charming Morgan’s Grove to help her mother after her father died, and although she enjoys it there, her life seems a bit…stagnant. Her job as a librarian technician is great, but it’s got no room for growth, so it’s application time and she’s putting out feelers all over the country. Her boyfriend dumped her last Valentine’s Day and there are zero prospects on the line. Life just is…until her boss assigns her the gargantuan task of putting together a Valentine’s Day event for the library. The historic building, home of many of Chaynie’s fondest childhood memories, is also beginning to undergo extensive renovations, headed by none other than local architect Greg Peterson, a guy she only vaguely remembers from high school but who looks really, really good to her today.

Working together to plan both the Valentine’s Day Movie Night and a children’s alcove renovation, Chaynie and Greg slowly grow closer, though Chaynie is hesitant. What about her plans to leave Morgan’s Grove? Greg couldn’t possibly be into her, anyway, they’re just friends…right? It’s a case of everyone else seeing first what Chaynie’s unsure of, and she’ll have some major decisions to make. Hopefully she’ll remember to listen to her heart…

What a sweet book. Morgan’s Grove is small-town life as we all dream it could be (definitely not like the small town I grew up in. A guy I went to high school with and who never left town is currently in prison for murder, so… *laughs nervously*), and it’s a lovely place to take a literary tour of when we’re all stuck in our homes. A charming town square, local businesses that aren’t in constant danger of going under, locals who care deeply about the community and want to participate in town activities, a library in a historic building (with donated funds enough to do the proper renovations! Don’t get me started on how this played out in my community! *snarls*). What a dream town Ms. Borum has created. I loved coming back here.

Chaynie is delightful as a main character, penning a children’s book while her artist mother creates the illustrations in their spare time. She grows in confidence as the story moves forward, learning to take chances and realizing that it’s okay if things don’t always go the way she’d hoped, finally realizing what she has right in front of her and taking full advantage of it. Greg as a hero speaks more through his actions than his words (and there are a few scenes where the romance is in what’s left unsaid! I love that kind of tension!), something that speaks deeply to me, and I appreciated his dedication (and his long game. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book. Go, Greg!).

If you’re looking for five-alarm heat levels, this isn’t it; Meet You Under the Stars is a very sweet, slow-paced romance with the heat level of a cozy cup of tea and your favorite winter cardigan. It’s more of a cozy fireside story than a slow burn, but I’m here for all heat levels and watching Chaynie grow into the realization of her feelings for Greg made for a delightful winter evening read.

If you’re in the market for a slow-paced romance set in a modern-day Mayberry, Meet You Under the Stars is the trip you need to take- but don’t forget Love Starts Here first!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance · YA

Book Review: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

I’m a sucker for royal romances. For someone who has zero interest in real-life royalty or royal families, there’s something deeply charming to me about a prince falling for a commoner (it’s probably related to my adoration of stories where a celebrity falls for a regular person- and again, I have almost no interest in actual celebrities, so…). It’s how The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright (Merit Press, 2016) made it onto my list, and I grabbed it in a last-minute dash to the library before they went back to curbside pickup only, because our Covid case numbers are so high. It’s a bummer, I’ll miss my quick dashes in to grab my items, but at least curbside pickup is still available!

Evie, a 19 year-old American college student, is off to Oxford, the alma mater of both her parents. Her English mother died when Evie was just six, leaving behind a stack of letters, one for Evie to open on each birthday, and now a series of letters which send Evie on a quest around England to discover her family’s past and her mother’s secret. Complicating things is the fact that the cute boy Evie began falling for her first week at Oxford turns out to be none other than Prince Edmund, second in line for the crown. His parents have ideas about whom he should marry, and that doesn’t necessarily include a common. It may, however, include Jax, aka Lady Jacqueline, who loves nothing more than to set Evie’s teeth on edge by draping herself all over Edmund like ill-hung wallpaper.

As Evie falls harder and harder for Edmund, the truth about her mother’s true identity comes out, and Evie is shocked to learn she must prepare herself to inherit a title, an estate, and a way of life she never expected. She’ll have to figure out who and what she wants to be, and how to maintain any kind of relationship- friendship? more?- with the prince she’s not sure can ever fully commit to her.

So.

This is an adorable story. Evie is the Heir in the title, with Edmund being the Spare; I thought that was a clever switcharound. Edmund is charming as possible, and Evie’s mother’s letters are sweet and wistful.

The problem is that the writing is barely strong enough to carry the story. There’s so much telling and very little showing, and this began to irritate me early on. Had I not enjoyed the storyline so much, I likely would have DNF’d due to this.

Evie as a character is this side of Mary Sue. She’s super gorgeous and every eligible guy in the book is of course in love with her, including Edmund’s best friend (and of course Edmund is jealous) and Theron, a character that exists solely to evoke Edmund’s jealousy, rage, and protective streak when he assaults Evie on their sole date (the incident and Theron are never mentioned again outside of that chapter). She’s brash and free with middle school-level retorts and insults (which, of course, massively impress all her Oxford friends), which made me cringe quite a bit, especially in the beginning where she goes off on a few characters who are, admittedly, being quite rude. I’m not advocating for tolerating rudeness, but I feel as though one might take a bit more caution in acting crassly during their first days in a country where one is a guest and has been heretofore unfamiliar. Evie acted almost immediately like a stereotypical American, and that irked me.

So many of the characters in this book are flat and unnuanced. Jax and her crew are Mean Girls with no redeeming qualities and no other character traits. Evie is Mary Sue-ish; she’s gorgeous and smart without ever  needing to demonstrate her intelligence; people just remark on how intelligent she is (I wondered multiple times exactly why Oxford admitted her other than as a legacy. This seems to be an issue in a lot of books set at places like Oxford, Harvard, etc; the characters’ display of intellect or, more accurately, lack thereof doesn’t exactly merit their place at a top university, and I find that irritating. Don’t just tell me how smart they are; show what makes them smart. Have them reminisce about their discovery of something interesting during a high school research internship. Let a friend or professor stumble upon their publication of a literary criticism paper from a summer program. SOMETHING other than having characters go, “You’re so smart!” or discussing how swamped with schoolwork they are). Her Oxford friends are almost interchangeable in terms of personality, and every phone call she has with her supposed best friend from back home is entirely about Evie, nothing ever about Abby.  This would have been so much more enjoyable if all the characters had been better developed.

I didn’t hate this, but I didn’t love it, either. It had a lot of potential but fell short of the mark for me.

Visit Emily Albright’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.