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

Book Review: Well Met (Well Met #1) by Jen DeLuca

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard about Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Berkley, 2019), but it went onto my list immediately. A romance set at a Renaissance Faire? Sign. Me. Up. I’m not that far from the Bristol Renaissance Faire and have gone many times throughout my life, starting with friends as a tween. It’s a super fun (and usually ridiculously hot) day, and we always have a fabulous time. (Although, when you think about it, any kind of history cosplaying is just…an odd thing to do, isn’t it? Can you imagine people of the future cosplaying as us???) I knew this would make a fabulous setting for a romance novel, so onto my list it went.

Emily’s life was headed nowhere fast after a crappy breakup, so when her sister needed help after breaking her leg in a car accident, it was no trouble at all to drop everything and move to Willow Creek to take care of her and her teen daughter. When Emily’s niece needs an adult with her in order to volunteer for the town’s annual Renaissance Faire, she figures why not and signs on to be a tavern wench for six weeks out of the summer. The Faire is fine- better than that, actually. Men in kilts? Fun fake accents? Fancy costumes? That’s all great (okay, maybe not the corset part). Simon, the uptight dude in charge of the Faire? Not so much. He and Emily start out on the wrong foot, and everything just goes downhill from there.

But there’s a growing attraction between Simon and Emily, something they can only explore when in character, and the more they explore, the more Emily wants. Getting to know the Simon behind his pirate Faire character deeply intrigues Emily, but can Simon learn to relax and give up control in order to fully let Emily in?

This was soooooooooooooooooo cute. The Faire setting was just as wonderful as I thought it would be. Emily is getting to know her older sister for the first time in her life and is really enjoying that. She appreciates feeling needed again after her ex dumped her after she quit college to work two jobs to put him through law school, and she’s enjoying the small town she’s ended up in. She might not know exactly what she wants for her future, but Emily is a comfortable character; she’s not struggling with multiple aspects of herself, and she’s content to take the future slow, one day at a time. I really enjoyed her.

Simon. Simon. Swoooooooooooooon. Despite the major stick up his ass and his grief over his brother, I loved Simon. Like, LURVED him. Uptight English teacher who grows out his hair and beard each year to become a pirate captain in leather pants? YOW. A few times, I wanted to tell him to take a chill pill, but overall, he was one of the most swoonworthy male leads I’ve read in a while. He’s going to be hard to get over.

I’m not a big series reader, but I do enjoy these books by the same authors, set in the same worlds, with characters that carry over into the next novel (but that can absolutely be read as stand-alone novels), so I followed this up immediately with Well Played, Ms. DeLuca’s next novel. Because more Ren Faire! I can’t go to the actual Faire this year, but honestly, this was absolutely the next best deal. I’m in kind of a ridiculous amount of pain writing this, so I feel like I’m not doing it justice. This is a super fun novel that will absolutely transport you from wherever you’re reading this into the dusty lanes of a small-town Ren Faire, and into the throes and push/pull of a new relationship that’s both sweet and steamy. If you like well-written romance, hot pirates in leather pants, and Renaissance Faires, Jen DeLuca needs to be on your TBR.

Visit Jen DeLuca’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: 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 · romance

The Right Swipe- Alisha Rai

Ohhhhhh you guys. This has been a terrible month for reading. 😦

So, back in the second week of October, our weather went from about 75 degrees to a low of 33, and we had a massive cold front move in. And because of that, my body FREAKED OUT. I’ve got degenerative disc disease and sacroiliac joint dysfunction (and possibly more things, but who knows, specialists are expensive), and when there are either massive pressure changes or huge temperature swings, my pain becomes utterly unbearable. And that’s what happened a few weeks ago. My entire life got put on hold and I had to cancel a few things because I had pain zinging from my neck to my toes every second of the day.

Even sitting hurt. And driving? OMG. Nope. I still had to, though, and it was enough to make me sweat.

I’m doing a little better off now- driving doesn’t hurt so much, and I can do things around the house other than merely existing and going to bed at 8:30 every night to escape the pain- but during that period of about a week and a half, I pulled out an ARC of The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2019), sent to me by a longtime friend in Michigan (thanks again, Sandy!) and did my best to lose myself in the story in the brief periods where I could focus.

Rhiannon Hunter is creator of one of the most popular dating apps out there, but romance hasn’t really been in the cards for her, and her latest hook-up, someone she could’ve actually seen herself with long(er)-term, ghosted her after one unforgettable night, so she’s really not feeling this whole dating thing these days. It’s business only as she plans to grow her company by purchasing a smaller company, but it’s there she finds the ghoster himself. Samson Lima, former professional football player, is working for his kind-of aunt’s dating website as he tries to figure out his place in this world now that he’s left professional sports behind. He’s still grieving the loss of his uncle to CTE (caused by too many concussions), and he’s unsure of what the future holds for him. Having Rhiannon back in his life, once he explains the very real and very serious circumstances that led to him accidentally ghosting her, would help him feel more at ease with everything.

But it’s going to be a learning process for both of them, and Rhiannon isn’t going to have an easy time growing her business into what she knows it could be, especially not with her jackass of an ex in direct competition with her. She’s bound and determined to do this one hundred percent on her own…but as she’ll learn, all the best things in life happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable.

Rhiannon is an utter pistol of a character, nearly so driven that I had a little bit of a hard time trying to relate to her. Don’t get me wrong- she’s definitely a fabulous character, a highly motivated black businesswoman who knows her worth and refuses to settle for anything less than she knows she deserves. She’s surrounded by amazing friends and family who are supportive yet flawed (and still lovable!), and she works for what she wants with an almost pitbull-like strength. She’s basically #goals all the way. I am pretty much the exact opposite in every way and had an easier time relating to her best friend Katrina, who suffers from such terrible anxiety that she rarely leaves the house. (*nods at my blog title* If I’m not getting groceries or driving a kid or husband somewhere, I’m either at the library or at home, for real, so I feel you, Katrina…) I long for the confidence of Rhiannon Hunter and wish I could take her Master Class or sit in on her TED talk. She’s got some major trust issues to work through, but that’s not unexpected for romance novels, especially contemporaries, so it doesn’t necessarily detract from her strong personality.

Samson is an amazing hero. Principles for DAYS and he’s willing to put his money (and his professional sports career) where his mouth is. A man who stands up for his beliefs AND he’s in touch with his emotions AND he’s romantic and not at all a serial dater??? You guys, this dude is the sparkly unicorn of romance heroes! Can Samson teach a Master Class, too, one that’s required for all men to take? This could really, really work, y’all. If we can get a hologram all set up, I’m sensing a mammoth Alisha Rai enterprise…

There’s a lot going on in this book, including discussions of the #MeToo movement (so there’s a content warning there if you’re not up for that at the moment); Rhiannon’s ex-boyfriend is a blackmailing sleazebag and needs to be thrown out entirely (calling Whole Man Disposal Services…). If you’ve never read much on CTE (or Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, the neurodegenerative disease that makes the news often these days in regards to professional sports), this is a great primer; for further reading, Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is excellent and will give you an in-depth look at how the condition was discovered and all the NFL has done to try to bury evidence of it and research on it. High five to Ms. Rai for throwing the floodlights on a subject that needs as much coverage as possible, especially to an audience that will be majority female and who either have kids now or may have kids in the future who might play contact sports (or be in gym class and wind up with not one, but TWO concussions, one of which he received as a mere SPECTATOR, ask me how I know *stares hard at my son*). We’re the perfect audience for this kind of education, and the stories of Samson’s father and uncle and their struggles with CTE add such depth to the story.

I love a good novel that not only entertains me but educates me as well, and despite the problems I had being able to focus due to my pain, The Right Swipe made for an enjoyable read with a gloriously diverse cast, chock-full of contemporary issues, and a truly adorable love story. Ms. Rai’s next novel in the series is set to come out in April of 2020 and focuses on Katrina, Rhiannon’s anxiety-ridden friend, and you know I’m here for that!

I have to give a shoutout to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast here; this is where I was first introduced to Ms. Rai and thus began following her on Twitter. She’s smart, funny, incredibly charming, and has such a great personality that you’ll be immediately wondering if she’ll be your new BFF upon listening to any episode with her on it (or maybe that’s just me and I desperately need to get out more and develop an actual social life instead of living vicariously through fictional characters), and her Twitter feed is the same way. Even if you’re not into romance in general, she’s such a great person that I highly recommend giving her episodes a listen and her Twitter a follow!

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.