fiction · romance

Book Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

For the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book recommended by my favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club, and what a perfect time to pick up Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2020), who had popped up on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books that I had *so* enjoyed. She’s smart, funny, witty, and such a joy to listen to; she tells great stories, has an amazing laugh, and I seriously live for the episodes when Sarah from Smart Bitches has her on. I read Ms. Rai’s The Right Swipe last year; I enjoyed it, though it was a little harder for me to relate to Rhiannon’s driven sense of ambition (I’m, uh, way more laid back and go-with-the-flow!). I enjoyed her writing style, though, and was eager to read more from her. And lo and behold, Girl Gone Viral was available via my library’s ebooks with NO WAIT. It felt like I’d won the lottery when I hit that check out button.

Katrina King is more than a bit of a recluse, but she’s working on it. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, and PTSD have steered her life for years, but she’s been working with a therapist and doing everything she can to take back control, and step by step, she’s making it work, adding places outside her home she can travel to. What’s not working is her mad, unrequited crush on her bodyguard, Jasvinder. He’s perfect, beautiful, everything she could ever dream of wanting in a man, and she’s like 99.7% sure he views her as just a client. Sigh. When a photo of Katrina and another customer at a cafe, complete with speculative Twitter thread, goes viral, Jasvinder takes Katrina to hide out at his family farm where she can be safe from the prying eyes of the world and from the people in her past who don’t have the best intentions.

At the farm, Jasvinder’s long-avoided family drama is front-and-center, as are his feelings for the woman he’s been protecting for years. He’s in serious, serious love, but how can he admit that without sounding like a creep? As his past elbows its way forward, his family situation needs immediate attention, and he and Katrina begin to grow closer. But it’s their mutual growth that feeds their mutual attraction…maybe going viral isn’t the worst thing that could have happened…

LOVED. THIS. SO. MUCH. I got Katrina. I could relate. She’s determined and driven like Rhiannon, but in a quieter way, and what really spoke to me was her panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which I’ve been diagnosed with. I was never as severely affected as she is, but I know the terror of being stricken with a panic attack in public, how scary and embarrassing it is. I’ve had to sit down on the floor while waiting in grocery lines (those used to be my worst places, the places most likely to cause a panic attack. Grocery stores are actually *really* common places for people to have panic attacks), which was really embarrassing at the time. I understood her needing to work to grow her list of places she could visit; I had to do the same, years ago, and there are *still* places that are hard for me to go on my own, but like Katrina, it’s something I try to work on and keep pushing myself. I don’t know that I’ve ever so fully related to a fictional character before. Alisha Rai has done a fabulous job at portraying a character with my exact same brain malfunction, and I’m impressed and grateful to see that so well-written and so expertly crafted and handled in fiction.

Jasvinder.

Jasvinder.

SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON.

He’s a former Marine who struggles with PTSD and is dealing with something straight out of the headlines today, to which he reacts in completely understandable ways. He’s honorable, not wanting to overstep his boundaries with Katrina, but adorable in the ways that he loves her in secrecy. His love for and frustration with his family work together in such a realistic fashion; Ms. Rai nails family drama and the push/pull of navigating stressful relationships with family members over sensitive topics. Jas is seriously one of the most swoonworthy romance heroes I’ve read recently in contemporary romance, and I so enjoyed his chapters.

To sum it up, I adored this book. Loved Katrina, loved Jasvinder, loved their love story, loved Jasvinder’s dedicated, loving,opinionated family, loved his attempts to make new friends with Samson from The Right Swipe, loved Katrina’s friend group with Rhiannon and Jia (is Jia next???? OMG JIA IS NEXT AND I AM DYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYING! February is when this book is supposed to hit, and I for one am willing to fast-forward EVERYTHING to get there!!!). This was a lovely, lovely distraction from the mess of the outside world, and I didn’t want the book to end. Anyone know how to jump into the world of a book and never leave???

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

On rare occasions, books from my TBR match up with books from my reading challenges, and then we celebrate!!! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads wasn’t hard to fill, but I used this category as an excuse to read Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (Avon, 2019). I adore Ms. Hibbert on Twitter, so I added this book to my list before it came out- meaning, this was a TBR book I actually got to before it had lingered on the list until it was old enough to drive! (Speaking of which, I need to go in and clean up my list again. Haven’t done that in a year or so, so it’s definitely time, just to make sure I still really want to read everything that’s on it.)

Chloe Brown needs a life. Ever since her diagnosis of fibromyalgia years ago, Chloe’s let her life dwindle down to work, her sisters and family, managing her pain, and little else. First on the list, move to her own place: check, and unfortunately, it’s one with a majorly hot super, one Red Morgan, whom Chloe was not prepared for and for whom she can’t control her attraction. But maybe, just maybe, he can help her complete at least some of the tasks on her list…

Red Morgan was expecting Chloe Brown to be more of a snob, but he’s actually starting to enjoy her surprisingly witty personality right along with her gorgeous face. He’s out here working as a super to get his life back in order after his last relationship tanked badly and left him scrambling for a sense of self. Red and Chloe are two very different people from different sides of the tracks, but they’ve got enough in common to make a go of it, and enough sparks to start a five-alarm fire. If only they can get past themselves and the ghosts of their pasts…

I had a hard time getting into this one, something I fully blame on the state of my brain at the time I was reading this, because the book itself is a delight. Red is just a little bit bad boy (tattoos, motorcycle, comes from a lower class than Chloe, something that is occasionally a point of contention between them but never as much as it was between Red and his last girlfriend), but he’s also got heart and a killer talent as an artist. He’s a study in contradictions and the unexpected, and he’s also just so GOOD. He notices even Chloe’s tiniest grimaces of pain and reacts accordingly (uh, JEALOUS HERE. SUPER, SUPER JEALOUS); he cooks for her, helps her when she needs it (and lets her manage if she can or wants to), he takes care of her. Talia Hibbert has really created a fabulous hero in Red Morgan.

Chloe Brown has retreated from the world, something I could definitely identify with. My back (which is my catch-all term for where my pain is; it starts about mid-spine and goes down, affects my entire pelvis but mainly on the right side, and goes down both legs to my feet but again, mainly on the right) can go from perfectly fine to rendering me almost entirely unable to walk in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to plan for things- who wants to schedule something you might have to cancel? How can you make long-term career plans if you’re not sure your body will cooperate? The pain is bad enough some days that I have a difficult time focusing; I liken it to trying to watch something on the TV when you also have the radio blasting at full volume. In that aspect, Chloe and her life were familiar to me. When she realizes there’s a problem, that her life has gotten so small as to be ridiculous, she takes charge and creates a list of all the things she would like to do in order to throw herself back into living, something I admire deeply. I had a similar plan this past year to engage with the world more (which is probably why this whole pandemic started! Sorry ’bout that…)- I’ll get back to all of that one day…

It’s a nice change to see chronic pain represented in a romance, although I constantly wondered throughout this book how it would have played if the characters were American instead of British. Insurance would have been a huge stressor for Chloe (and the stress may have exacerbated her condition); she would have worried about how to pay for all her medical appointments and prescriptions and may have worried about her increasing medical debt; it’s possible that Red may have factored in his ability to support her and pay for her medical care into his decision to begin or continue a relationship with her (in the US, people on disability, which often includes being on Medicaid, lose their disability and medical care if they get married, which forces many of them to remain unmarried against their desires). In a country where medical care for a chronic problem means money, money, money, this story may have looked different, and it made me sad to consider this while reading what was, in the right setting, a love story and not a tale of financial stress. Amazing how easily something meant to be fun takes on different dimensions when you change the setting.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a sweet love story between two people who, on the surface, don’t seem to fit, but who work together quite well once they get over themselves. The second book in the series, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, comes out on June 23, 2020!

Visit Talia Hibbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

The Governess Game- Tessa Dare

One down off the TBR, finally! Confession, though: I added this to my TBR because I wanted to read Tessa Dare, and The Governess Game (Avon, 2018) was one my library had (so I wasn’t necessarily longing to read this book specifically). I’ve followed Tessa Dare for ages on Twitter and have adored her on there and thus felt the need to engage with her work. As luck would have it, the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge includes a prompt for a book by an author who has written more than 20 books, and Ms. Dare fits right in with that category! I was happy to kill two birds with one store and checked this out from the library the day before it closed.

Alexandra Mountbatten is not having the best of days. The man she’s been fantasizing about for months after interacting with him (barely) at a bookstore has resurfaced in her life, and it…didn’t go well. And after losing the bag of tools she uses to set clocks in the homes of her customers, she’s forced to return to Chase Reynaud’s fancy home and accept his earlier bizarre offer to act as governess to the two ill-behaved orphan sisters left in his care. His playboy reputation, Alexandra’s schoolgirl crush, and the terrible behavior of the girls, none of it matters- Alexandra’s desperate.

But Alexandra’s sharp mind helps her to see the weak spots in both the sisters’ and Chase’s defenses, and it’s not long before everyone has come to love this unexpected addition to the household. In a one-step-forward, two-steps-back fashion, Chase and Alexandra will find their way to each other, but not without a few heart-stopping- and heart-pounding!- moments along the way.

I’m nearly aghast that Avon publishes both this absolutely wonderful, feminist, sex-positive and healthy historical romance, alongside the dumpster fire novel It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The two books are light years apart in terms of quality, with Ms. Dare’s work the clear winner by a million miles. Alexandra is not only confident but full of self-respect as well; she takes pride in her hard work, her education, and who she is, despite a lifetime of difficult circumstances. Her friends are supportive and respectful; they cheer her on and push her to achieve her goals and grow as a person. She’s a strong heroine who can be emulated and imitated, and I knew within several pages that I’d absolutely read more of Ms. Dare’s work. The same could not be said after several pages of It Had to Be You.

Chase is a pretty decent hero. He’s a rake, for sure; he’s been around the bush more than a few times (while managing to keep himself clean and free from illegitimate children, a feat covered in the book), but for reasons that make him a bad boy with a heart of gold, one in need of healing. He’s a man with a sense of humor and not afraid to follow or let himself be bested by a strong woman, and that was exactly the hero antidote I needed at this point in time.

I’m always so impressed by well-written (and FUN!) historical romance. The research has to be daunting- I’m not sure I’d even know where to start. But included in each one of these books is a free history lesson- it’s never names or dates or battles (unless you’re reading something with a more intense historical background, like Outlander), but more of a sense of the daily life of the members of a certain class during the time period the book is set in. Dress styles, decorating trends, speech, class hierarchy, how certain professions went about their work, food choices, it’s all in there, and to be honest, I love these lighter historical romances. (When I say lighter, I’m comparing this to books like Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews– that felt heavier to me and not as enjoyable as The Governess Game or Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.)

Have you read Tessa Dare? I’d love to hear any recommendations for what else I should read from her (besides everything!). Tell me about your favorites!

Visit Tessa Dare’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

It Had to Be You- Susan Elizabeth Phillips

So, approximately three million years ago, when I was naively and optimistically making out my lists for this year’s reading challenges (LOLSOB), I perused the suggestions for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt for a romance starring a single parent. I didn’t find anything there that struck my fancy, but another group suggested It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Avon, first published 1994. Remember this). I’d never read this particular author, but I know she’s a big name in romance, so I figured sure, why not. I went into this knowing full well that romance has changed immensely since 1994 (THANK GOD), but also curious because my library copy was almost pristine. This book is still very much in print, to the point that new copies are being purchased and circulating. This is important to my review. Buckle up, folks. I don’t usually eviscerate novels, but this one deserves it.

(Disclaimer: This book, and thus this post, is chock-full of content warnings. The book contains mentions, often graphic, of molestation and rape by a family member, racism, misogyny, multiple uses of the N-word, fatphobia and comments on eating disorders that haven’t aged well, kinky sex roleplay that involves one partner pretending to be an underage girl BUT WITHOUT INFORMING THE READER THAT THIS IS ROLEPLAY UNTIL AFTERWARDS, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, alcoholism, a mistaken abduction and sexual assault that briefly traumatizes a main character, a drunk driving death, and multiple depictions of Donald Trump where he’s portrayed true to life, being only too happy to help pull one over a main character. This is a tough time for all of us and we’ve all got far too much on our plates. I won’t be offended one bit if you’re not able to handle more and need to stop reading here. Be well, friends.)

It Had to Be You starts out with Phoebe Sommerville attending her father’s funeral in a wildly inappropriate outfit and holding her toy poodle, who then pees all over the top of the casket (yes, really), but before that unfortunate incident comes this line, which tipped me off to exactly the kind of mess this book was going to be:

Beads of perspiration from the midday heat glimmered on skin that ranged in color from a glistening blue-black to a suntanned white. Like plantation slaves, the National Football League’s Chicago Stars had come to pay homage to the man who owned them.

Uh, yikes. Followed by this super fun typo (how has no one noticed this in all the time this book has been in print?):


A Gold Coast socialite, who fancied herself an expert on small dogs, since she owned a shiatsu…

Let’s try this again.

Shih-Tsu:

Shiatsu:

Two very, very different things. If anyone’s looking for a copy editor, I’d make an awesome one! 😉

Dad, who was a disgusting Donald Trump-style blowhard misogynist creep, owned the Chicago Stars football team (located in, surprisingly, the county I live in, and about which the author makes some seriously puzzling statements about tractor pulls and religious crusades, by which I’m guessing she meant revivals? I can’t speak to those- there are sections of this county that can be pretty Christian [looking at you, Wheaton] so I can’t say what happened here in that regard in 1994- but I asked my husband, who grew up here, about tractor pulls, and he was baffled. Outside of county fairs, I can’t find any evidence of tractor pulls here in the past. So weird. We’re right next to Chicago, it’s not like we’re super rural), and has left the team to his daughter Phoebe in order to humiliate her. If she’s able to help the team win the championship, she’ll get it keep it, but if not, ownership goes to her rapey cousin Reed, her father’s clear favorite. Phoebe’s also left with custody of her standoffish half-sister Molly, who’s trotted out now and then as a plot device.

At first, Phoebe doesn’t give a crap about the team, but the head coach, Dan Calebow, a good ol’ boy from Alabama (I think) isn’t having any of that. How DARE that bimbo act this way! He’s furious, furious enough to use the word bimbo at least nineteen times throughout this book (although the actual count may be several more, because I think I started counting after having been irritated by it multiple times. And no, Ms. Phillips, tempering it by having Dan call her ‘my brainy bimbo’ doesn’t make it better). Dan is a total alphahole, a complete 90’s romance man’s man, misogyny and grossness all over the place. He and his Congresswoman ex-wife have a friends-with-benefits relationship going on, leading to an early scene where Dan picks up a teenager from a convenience store, follows her to her house, then proceeds to spank her and have sex with her in her father’s office. It’s only AFTER the chapter has ended that Ms. Phillips clues us in that it’s actually Dan and his ex-wife ROLEPLAYING here and he’s not actually engaging in statutory rape. I was DISGUSTED by this, to the point where my hands were shaking and I had to read the scene twice to make sure I was reading it right- was he SERIOUSLY having sex with a girl who told him she was 16?!!?!?!?- and should have put the book down. NOT COOL, SUSAN ELIZABETH PHILLIPS. NOT COOL AT ALL. Alas, I read on, because the world needs to know how terrible this book is.

Phoebe, who has put on a show of being a dumb blonde most of her life, and Dan are obviously on an enemies-to-lovers trajectory, but before we get to that, we have the problem of Phoebe’s hips. They’re nearly their own character in this book. I wish I were joking:

Uh….okay.

There’s a lot of weird imagery in this book as well, along with fashion that was never, ever in style (and definitely not on gay men in the 90’s, which is who was wearing this particular get-up). Consider, if you will, these following paragraphs (which have nothing to do with each other, but which both include a lot of wtf):

Blond, handsome, and bigger than life, he looked like a born troublemaker. Instead of a knit shirt and chinos, he should have been wearing a rumpled white suit and driving down some Southern dirt road in a big old Cadillac hooking beer cans over the roof. Or standing on the front lawn of an antebellum mansion with his head thrown back to bay at the moon while a young Elizabeth Taylor lay on a curly brass bed upstairs and waited for him to come home.

Ignoring the fact that a grown man is littering and howling at the moon (what even?!??), with the white suit, all I can think of is Colonel Sanders from KFC. But then there’s Phoebe’s gay male friend in this outfit:

He wore a fitted black silk T-shirt with camouflage pants, orange leather suspenders, and motorcycle boots.

I know the 90’s weren’t exactly known for great fashion, but come on!

And there’s a lot of weird, puffed-up masculinity and misogyny. For example:

“…Bobby Tom’s from Telarosa, Texas, and being forced to live in the state of Illinois for even part of the year challenges his idea of manhood.”

Viktor beamed like a proud father, fluffed Phoebe’s hair, and nudged her toward the kitchen. “Do your women’s work. We men are hungry.”

He turned to Phoebe and held out his hand. “Pass over the keys, honey lamb. There are certain things a man still does better than a woman, and driving a car is one of them.”

Dan grinned as he unlocked the driver’s door and reached inside to flip the automatic locks. “Climb inside, ladies. I’d open the doors for you, but I don’t want to be accused of holding back anybody’s liberation.”

For one, I don’t think I can take seriously any grown man who goes by the name Bobby Tom, so he can take his idea that having a penis is only valid within the state borders of Texas and cram it up his cramhole. And come on, Phoebe, you let your friends talk to you like that? Nah, girl. You can do better. Have enough self-respect to shut that shit down hard. And later on, there was this gem:

Didn’t she realize this was DuPage County? Women didn’t dress like this in DuPage County, for chrissake. They went to church and voted Republican, just as their husbands told them.

EXCUSE ME??? This is a deeply diverse area, of which I’m very proud, and we have women from all walks of life, from women who show plenty of skin in the grocery store to women who wear niqab at the library. And we’re all perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves, thank you VERY much. UGH.

At one point, Phoebe goes over to Dan’s house late at night in an attempt to confront him, only to get caught in the middle of what Dan thinks is a kinky sex game with his ex-wife. Phoebe, who has no idea what kind of weird things Dan does with his ex, thinks Dan is hauling her into the woods to rape her, and the whole scene is horrifying. And then there’s more of this:

Just…why???

Phoebe and Dan develop a physical relationship (Phoebe is, of course, playing the whore to the Madonna preschool teacher that Dan is also seeing but not touching), but their relationship is…uncomfortable to read at best. Phoebe has some serious and understandable baggage from being raped and molested by her cousin in the past, but Dan isn’t aware of this until later, and there are some disturbing sex scenes where she tells Dan not to stop no matter what she says, then freaks out when he doesn’t stop, which, as both a reader and a woman, is deeply insulting.

Phoebe works hard and inspires the football team by instructing them to picture the other team naked (which is endlessly funny to the team and pisses Dan off), and of course they start to win and win big. But at the championship game, the one that matters, the crazed father of one of Dan’s former team members kidnaps Phoebe and threatens to kill her unless Dan throws the game. What’s a coach in love to do?

To be honest, this entire book was insulting, from Phoebe’s faux pre-drugs Anna Nicole Smith act, to Dan’s toxic masculinity and misogyny, to the disgusting abuse hurled about in memories of her father, to the completely unnecessary trauma scenes. Part of this is that this book is pretty geriatric when it comes to romance. Twenty-six years ago is practically prehistoric when it comes to romance, and it’s obvious that the genre has come a long, looooooooooong way since then. But it obviously hasn’t come far enough. This book, with all its throwback, regressive attitudes, is still in print, and like I mentioned above, my library copy seemed fairly new, with no creased pages and a cover that showed no signs of wear. Meaning, of course, that…

This book is still in print, and what that tells me is that some romance publishers don’t necessarily think that women deserve better books, books where we aren’t called bimbos nineteen times throughout the pages and made to suffer rape and other forms of trauma in order to further the plot. I know that’s a bunch of crap, because I’ve read far better romance novels, where women rightfully give men who belittle them the middle finger and bestow their time and attention on men who prove themselves worthy of it. ACTUALLY worthy of it. Why should we be subjected to reading stories where women degrade themselves by falling into the arms of someone who, just pages ago, referred to them as a bimbo? Why does rape still continue to be a plot device in 2020? Why should books with abject racism and fatphobia still take up shelf space and space in our minds?

What I’m saying is that for those publishing companies still championing this kind of garbage by keeping books like this in print- you can do better, and your readers deserve that. This is one author I won’t be reading again. My time is worth more than that.

Visit Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.