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

Book Review: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The next 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt I had to fill was ‘your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge.’ Okay, cool. Since this is the first time I’ve participated in the challenge, I had to go dig through previous years’ challenges, until I found prompt #18 from 2017: A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile. I knew that was the one, because I’d been looking for an excuse to reread one of my favorite books of all time: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel (Onyx, 1994). I first read this book when I was sixteen, having purchased it on a solo trip to the nearest bookstore to my hometown, about a 30-minute drive away. I was eyebrow-deep in depression all through my teen years, and occasionally, on really bad days, I’d drive to the bookstore and soak up the atmosphere there while searching for a book to take my mind off the darkness and self-loathing in my brain. I stumbled upon this book, bought it, took it home, read it…then read it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s probably my number one reread of all time, and I’m not much of a rereader. This book never fails to make me smile.

Krissa and Danny French are siblings growing up on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Their surroundings are both beautiful and desolate; theirs is a community whose economy depends solely on the mines. Their father, injured in a mining accident and who can now only pull light duty, is angry, sullen and violent towards Danny. Their mother is high-strung, full of criticism and only sees what she wants to see. Danny is viewed by his parents as the bad child, Krissa the good. It’s only when Krissa sees, for the first time, evidence of her father’s abuse on Danny’s skin that she begins to understand that her family is different from everyone else’s. And it’s on this occasion that things change between her and Danny.

Danny opens up to her about his plans, his goals, to leave the Range. He wants to get far away and he plans to go in style by getting into an Ivy League college. Unfortunately, his grades aren’t stellar and he needs to learn Krissa’s study habits to improve. With her help, he’s able to get himself into Princeton, but not before he convinces her to follow in his footsteps and get off the Range as well. Krissa’s not as certain as he is, but she knows she wants to see at least a little more of what’s out there. One of Danny’s tickets out is music- he’s a talented singer, a great guitar player, and his participation in choir (as difficult as it can sometimes be for a rebel like him) helps win him recommendations that lead to his college acceptance, and ultimately, change his life and Krissa’s.

At Princeton, Danny meets Quinn Hunter, the privileged son of self-involved parents. Quinn is as different from Danny as possible- he’s blond, polished, WASP-y, raised in a world of tennis lessons, sailing, and house servants. The two get off to a rough start, but Danny’s intrigued enough by Quinn to take a chance, and the two begin a friendship and a musical partnership that will take the world by storm. Danny writes the music, Quinn writes the lyrics, and together they form the band Dodd Hall (named after their Princeton dorm). In the spring, Danny’s sister comes out to visit, and with a single look, Quinn is not only smitten, he’s deeply, head-over-heels in love. And Krissa feels the same way- it’s because of Quinn that she decides to come east for school at all.

The book goes back and forth between the 70’s, during the heyday of Dodd Hall, their rise to fame and their fiery end, and the 90’s, when Krissa and Quinn haven’t spoken in 15 years and she’s divorced from someone else and has four boys, and she and Danny only speak once a month. As you inch forward with Dodd Hall’s story, you learn piece by piece what happened to them and how it affects Krissa, Quinn and Danny’s lives now. You read about the love story of Krissa and Quinn, the twisted triangle between Danny, Quinn and Krissa, and what happens when too much weight is placed on one side of that triangle. You learn how fame affects even the smallest aspects of a person’s life and how easily it can destroy everything, how fragile trust is, and how easily it can go up in smoke when manipulation enters the picture. Throughout the book are “excerpts” from “articles” in Playboy, Rolling Stone, and books on rock ‘n’ roll that really add that extra punch of realism to the story.

This is a story rich with emotion and description. At times, the writing gets a little flowery with the metaphors, but they still work well within the story to show the depth of the beauty of Krissa and Quinn’s love- before it all fell apart, of course; their breakup, if it can even be called that, was absolutely devastating to me when I first read it. I might’ve actually cried, and I know it at least made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t until reading this as an adult that I fully understood exactly why Krissa did what she did and how trapped she must’ve felt. Struggling to find my identity after the birth of my daughter helped me relate to Krissa’s desperation for an identity outside the confines of Dodd Hall. The music, the fame, the love, the search for self, it all comes together to make such a wonderful, perfect book.

I never quite understood Danny when I was younger, and he’s still not my favorite. I was more like good-girl rule-follower Krissa. The book often talks about how working with your hands is soothing for the soul, and I smiled as I re-read that; it’s something I’ve incorporated into my life as an adult, but I hadn’t remembered that it came from this book (particularly the scene where Krissa’s making pierogies…which is also something I make by hand, and which I learned *could* be made by hand by reading this book. Don’t @ me, I never actually tried them until I was at least 18 and that was at college, and they definitely weren’t homemade then!). And Quinn… He was as close to a perfect romance novel hero as my sixteen year-old heart could have imagined. Rereading this helped me to realize how much Kathleen Gilles Seidel has influenced my own writing. This reread was a pure joy for me.

I own a paperback copy purchased from a used bookstore years ago, as my original copy was unfortunately lost; its pages are yellowing and the ink is a bit faded, but I will treasure it forever. Physically, the book has been out of print for years, but if you’re lucky enough to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited (I do not), you can read this book there, or pay a mere $1.99 to read it. (Many thanks to my friend Sandy for pointing this out! It gives me SO much joy knowing that people can still continue to experience the magic of this book.)

It’s been almost twenty-four years since I first read Till the Stars Fall, but the story hasn’t lost its shine for me. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. Or, alternately, do you have a book like this, one that you keep coming back to over and over again, that never loses its luster? What makes that book so special for you?

Visit Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge was (cue ominous music) a western. I’ve never really been a fan of that particular genre; ranching and horses and cows don’t interest me in the slightest. I had been planning on reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, but then I realized it was over 900 pages and noped out of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love big books, but my pandemic-exhausted brain seriously cannot right now. (I’ll put that one on the back burner for later, because everyone I’ve ever heard speak about that book has raved about it, so I’ll get to it at some point.) Fortunately for me, my library’s version of the Libby app had a section of all the western ebooks they own, including a whole lot of romances, which I hadn’t even thought to consider. Sure, let’s do that. After scrolling for a bit, trying to find one that both interested me AND wasn’t checked out (apparently herding cattle in Texas is a majorly popular fantasy?), I finally basically gave up and chose Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2013).

Laura’s sister has gotten herself into gambling trouble- AGAIN- so after asking a wealthy cousin to help with a loan to pay off her debts, Laura’s taken a job at billionaire Colton Nelson’s ranch in order to pay back the money she owes. Poor Colton’s had women throwing themselves at him since he won the lottery a few years ago, so his employees (including Laura’s cousin) come up with a plan: have Laura and Colton pretend that they’re dating so that Colton is finally left in peace. Laura’s not thrilled with this, but her cousin sweetens the deal by allowing her to talk to her sister in gambling addiction rehab, so she begrudgingly agrees.

They pull the scam off, presenting themselves to the tonwsfolk as a couple head over heels in love…maybe a little too well, since it’s not long before they’re sucking face for real. Laura’s not sure what she really wants, other than her independence; Colton doesn’t need a woman, but he’s sure enjoying this one. Throw in a handful of quirky ranch employees and family members, including a mercurial 16 year-old, and everyone has an idea of what Laura and Colton should be. But their relationship is something they’ll have to figure out themselves…

Ehhhhhhhhh. Didn’t love this one. It was readable, I’ll say that. I didn’t buy the chemistry between them at all, especially in the beginning, since it was based on things like, “OMG, we both enjoy the same obscure flavor of Sno-Cone!” …really? That’s what you want to build your relationship on? I didn’t see each character as that much of a catch, either. Laura’s personality is based on being a hard worker and also bailing her sister out at every turn (and her trust issues); Colton…also had trust issues, but didn’t seem to have all that much of a personality beyond that.

And then there was a scene when Colton was dressed in “cutoff denim shorts, boots, and the shirt he’d worked in that day, unbuttoned.” Uh…I don’t think that’s quite the super hot look the author thinks it is; all I could think of after reading that was, “This guy is definitely auditioning for The Village People.” (My own father used to mow the lawn in cutoff jean shorts in the late 80’s. It was…a look.)

Follow that up with the fact that there’s ZERO CONDOM USAGE in this book. HOW ARE ROMANCE AUTHORS STILL DOING THIS IN 2020? Well, okay, I looked at the copyright when I read this and it was published in 2013- so still, NO EXCUSES! Consent is sexy. Protection is sexy. If you can write, you can find a way to make keeping your partner safe hot, because otherwise, all I’m thinking when I read scenes like that is, “Someone is definitely getting that strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.” That, and, “And somehow they’re still going to be soooooooooooooooooooo shocked when she turns up pregnant.” Neither of which happened in the happy-flower-kittyland of this book, but reality? Yeah, no one likes the consequences of unprotected sex. Romance authors, wrap those fictional penises up, please.

And one more nitpicky point of contention. If your first sex post-coital pillow talk includes the phrase, “We worked up an appetite, didn’t we?”, I don’t know there’s a woman in the world that’s going to find this endearing.

As far as romances go, I found this lukewarm at best. Someone must like it; Carolyn Brown has written what looks like zillions of books, so these kinds of things must work for some readers, but I’m not one of them. If you’ve read any of her other books and enjoyed them, I’d love to hear about it. I don’t want to turn away from an author after not enjoying one book (unless the book was hella problematic, and then I’ll absolutely flee). The writing here was usually okay, but the story and the characters were what didn’t work for me. If you have a Carolyn Brown book that worked for you, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Carolyn Brown’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour

#TheWriteReads Presents: Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D. L. Orton Blog Tour

Howdy ho, fellow readers! Your friendly first chapter reviewer here with a new book that seems fairly apt for the times, Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D.L. Orton (Rocky Mountain Press, 2015). Right from the start, this seems like a whopper of a story, and I have questions.

The prologue starts out in what seems like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where Isabel is forcing herself to buy a gun from a skeevy creeper in the parking lot of a burned-out Walmart somewhere out west in view of the Rockies. Instead of money, she’s got a backpack full of spices- pepper, dry mustard, you know the kind- and the parking lot she’s in is full of other makeshift businesses. She goes through with the purchase, not without Skeevy Creeper Gun Dude nearly murdering a stray dog and making some gross lecherous comments towards her (BECAUSE OF COURSE). The prologue ends with Isabel looking at the wasteland around her and asking herself, “Oh my God, Diego, what have we done?”

Wait- Diego? Who’s Diego??? And what on earth did they do?!?!!???

As the first chapter starts, ten months before the apocalyptic hellscape of the prologue, we meet up with an earlier version of Isabel, who is somewhere in her early 40’s. Life seems normal as she’s coming out of what seems like divorce proceedings in downtown Denver, until she twists her ankle catching her heel in a grate and is rescued by a man who seems familiar- yup, you guessed it, Diego. The two of them had a romantic relationship that ended several years ago; neither one of them seem completely over the other, but now that they’ve reconnected, Isabel reluctantly agrees to have dinner with him.

*record scratch*

How on earth did they get from business casual in downtown Denver to the apocalyptic nightmare scenario in the prologue in just ten months? (Although, looking around at the world right now…*nervous laughter*) Dystopian/apocalyptic fiction isn’t usually my thing, and I don’t think I could mentally handle it right at this moment, but I’m deeply curious as to what the heck happened. This is a strong, strong beginning, and I have a feeling that D.L. Orton had a LOT of agents requesting full manuscripts after seeing these first pages!

There’s time travel here (which I love), and romance, and this is something that’s going to stay on my kindle so I can read it further when my exhausted brain can manage it better and more fully, but this is an intriguing beginning, and if you’re into dystopian love stories (I did not know that was a genre!), this just may be the book for you. I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s reviews so I know exactly what I’ll be getting into and when I can handle more.

Plus, check out that gorgeous cover. I love the swirl of bluish light!

Thanks to Dave from #TheWriteReads and D.L. Orton for including me on this tour!

Visit D.L. Orton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads and TheWriteReadsOnTour on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: 40-Love (There’s Something About Marysburg #2) by Olivia Dade

When Olivia Dade is handing out copies of her new book on Twitter, you accept immediately, AMIRITE???

For real. I was lucky enough to be on Twitter at night a week or two ago when she was offering up copies of 40-Love (Hussies and Harpies Press, 2020), and I clicked that link SO hard. I’ve never read her before but I’ve enjoyed her on Twitter, and hey, free book (and free publicity for her! Win-win). I filled out the form and the book was in my email inbox that morning. Ah, life as a book blogger!

(I mean, the cat probably barfed on the floor that same morning, and I’m SURE my daughter fought me tooth and nail over doing her schoolwork, but let’s just pretend for a moment that the book blogging life is nothing but glitz and glamor, okay?)

Tess Dunn is smack in the middle of a relaxing beach vacation when the wardrobe malfunction of the century threatens to erase her years of hard work (seriously. ‘Public indecency’ is not a good charge to have on your police record when you’re gunning for that job as principal). By chance, the only nearby adult- uh, mostly an adult?- is the resort’s tennis instructor, Lucas Karlsson. The two don’t exactly get off on the right foot, but after Olivia’s best friend and vacation buddy signs her up for some of Lucas’s lessons, sparks are flying alongside those tennis balls on the court.

Sure, Lucas is younger than Tess by about thirteen years, but he knows what- more like WHO- he wants- at least in that aspect of his life. Career-wise, he’s been biding his time at the resort since injuries forced him off the professional circuit. But Tess has helped him to clarify a few things in her short time on the island. Though, as we know, vacation isn’t real life, and the two of them will have some heavy decisions to make if they’re going to make this work.

Such a cute, fun story. I opened my copy on my kindle, read the first line- “Jesus, this stupid bikini was killing her”- burst out laughing, and knew this was my pick for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a great first line. (Ladies, we’ve all owned some version of that swimsuit, haven’t we? UGH). Tess is a strong heroine who knows what she wants and doesn’t really hesitate to go for it. She’s confident in her abilities and her body, and she’s got a fun, funny personality.

Lucas is a thoughtful hero caught in a holding pattern, wearing the outward appearance of a bro that masks his sweet charm. He’s deeper than he looks, and probably deeper than most young men his age, possibly due to his experiences with so many injuries and so much pain throughout his tennis career. The loss of that career has caused him to doubt himself and his abilities, but he never wavers in his affection for Tess and takes every chance to express it.

What I adored most of all, though, was the setting. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’ve all been stuck at home, or that the weather has still been a little cool here, especially when I was reading this (but now, not so much!), but a steamy, palm-tree filled island off the Florida coast? Talk about a dream vacation right now- although, to be fair, anywhere that’s not one of the rooms in my house or the residential areas within several miles of my house on my walking route sounds like a dream vacation. But really, Olivia Dade created a perfect resort with amazing weather, awesome amenities, delicious-sounding restaurants, and gorgeous beaches (including a nude beach!) that had me mentally digging my toes into the sand and relaxing in the warm waves. Ahhhhhhhhh.

The tennis stuff, I didn’t love, but that’s merely a personal thing. I’m not huge on sports in books (although hockey’s a minor exception), and I’ve never really had any interest in tennis at all, so I wasn’t personally drawn to that. It’s absolutely not overdone, though; Ms. Dade covers it just enough so that the non-sportsing reading will be able to understand, if not relate to, Lucas and his background. This is still an enjoyable read even if you can’t tell the difference between a tennis ball and a bowling ball.

If you’re looking for a fun summer romance and just want to take a mental beach vacation, 40-Love is a great choice. Don’t forget the sunscreen, and, uh, maybe secure that bikini top a little more, just to be sure, okay?

Thanks to Olivia Dade for a copy of this book!

Visit Olivia Dade’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: American Royals by Katharine McGee

This is the best part of reading challenges right here, finding new-to-me authors and new books that I love, especially ones that I might not have looked twice at if I hadn’t been prompted to pick them up. The only reason I even knew of American Royals by Katharine McGee (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019) was because it appeared as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge‘s prompt of a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. While I’ve enjoyed a few books about characters learning they’re actually royalty, I don’t know that I would have picked this up based on the title or the cover, but upon reading the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Imagine that instead of becoming President, George Washington instead chose to serve as America’s first king. And instead of the American populace electing a (potentially new) leader every four years, the throne passed from father to son, until the law changed in order for the throne to allow women to reign as queen.

The Washingtons, America’s royal family, are the fascination of the country, especially since daughter Beatrice is set to succeed her father, the first future queen after a long line of kings. She’s prepared her entire life for ascending the throne, but despite her privilege, her lack of options in life are beginning to feel restrictive. Her younger sister Sam, known for being the wild child to Beatrice’s more uptight personality, has spent her childhood doing all the things Beatrice can’t; far from feeling free, she chafes at being the spare (being, of course, four minutes older than her twin brother Jeff).

When Beatrice’s parents reveal that she needs to pick out a husband, a series of events are set in motion that will pit sister against sister, reveal tragic secrets, and lead both sisters to fall deeply in love. But for royalty, the crown must come first above all other things, and difficult choices will need to be made by all.

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

Ms. McGee tells the story of young adult royals in a multiple third person narrative that will have you turning the pages so quickly you develop a nasty case of tendinitis in your right hand and wrist (okay, maybe I can’t fully blame her for this, ow, but it didn’t help! Still worth it, though). Her characters are all so very well-rounded that they practically leap off the page and seem like real people you could actually Google. Over and over again, I wondered if maybe having a monarchy would have been the right choice; if it had led the country to a family like the Washingtons, it just might have been.

Beatrice is cool and regal on the surface; on the inside, she’s torn between her duty and responsibility to her country and her growing love for her guard, Connor. Sam is jealous of her older sister, but never so much as now, when Beatrice seems to be getting everything Sam always wanted. Nina, Sam’s best friend, is in love with Jeff, but can she ever fit in to palace life? And Daphne, Jeff’s scheming socialite ex, is always skulking on the edges, desperate to claw her way back into Jeff’s life and into a position as his future princess.

Ms. McGee has created deep, complex emotions behind these royal characters, but she writes them in a way that feels natural and never forced. It’s an amazing, fictional deep dive into about the most entertaining ‘what if???’ scenario I’ve ever read. It ends on a serious note, and I am HERE for the sequel, Majesty, which is due out in September 2020. I’ve already added it to my TBR, and for someone that’s not much into series, that alone should tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Racing the through palace halls, sitting down for a chat in the study, digging through the vault of Crown Jewels, waltzing at a ball, the settings for every chapter are fabulous and Ms. McGee puts you right there in the DC palace that you’ll wish were real from the first page.

While American Royals is classified as YA, I feel that it reads the same as adult fiction. The characters who narrate it are all in their very late teens or early twenties, but the style reads as easily as any adult contemporary fiction. If you’re not usually interested in young adult novels, don’t let that stop you here; this is a compelling story that deals with heavy emotional themes and makes for an enjoyable read for any age.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this a scenario you’d considered before? What led you to pick this book up? Are you interested in the sequel? If you’re American, do you think we’d be better off if Washington had made the decision to be king?

Visit Katharine McGee’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

Book review: Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) by Traci Borum

Cozy comfort reads. So many of us are looking for those right now, and I’m no different. I enjoy a good romance novel (of any heat level, to be honest); there’s just something about a couple falling in love, the yearning, the anticipation, the sparks, that speaks to me and tugs at my heart. So when Traci Borum contacted me and offered a copy of her new novel, Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) (Red Adept Publishing, 2020), I was intrigued by her description of the novel as having a “Hallmarky” feel. I’ve only seen a handful of Hallmark movies (no cable here), but I know plenty of people enjoy their movies and find them comforting, so I was in.

Jill McCallister, author of a popular four-book mystery series, is stuck. Writer’s block has struck hard after she finished her series, and she has no idea what to write next. Desperate for inspiration, she accepts an assigned article on genealogy from a friend’s struggling magazine, only to discover her very own ancestor founded a small Texas town called Morgan’s Grove. Figuring a change of pace could only help, Jill packs up, leaves her small Denver life behind, and heads off in search of creativity and answers about her family in the Lonestar state.

What she’s not expecting is to be pulled so deeply in by the town. Morgan’s Grove and its residents are immediately welcoming, presenting her with the friendly, charming hometown Jill’s never had. Lucille, the woman at whose house she’s staying, quickly becomes a trusted friend and surrogate grandmother, and Rick, Lucille’s handsome, quiet, somewhat distant grandson, slowly moves from mysterious to sympathetic, and then more. After having spent her childhood on the run, Jill’s finally found a home…and maybe even a home for her heart.

Ms. Borum wasn’t exaggerating in her description; Love Stars Here is all the Hallmark without the cheese. The story is set during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which qualifies this as a Christmas novel for those of you who look for those kinds of things (but it worked out just fine at the end of April, thankyouverymuch!). There’s cool weather, gingerbread cookies and a homegrown baking business (and even a yummy-looking recipe at the end of the book!), decorations, Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols, a million mugs of cocoa…if you’re looking for cozy, you’ll absolutely find it here. The romance is a sweet, slow burn and is absolutely appropriate for the youngest of romance lovers.

(And if you like Corgis? There are Corgis in the book. As someone who has been absolutely dying over a friend’s pictures of her new Corgi puppy lately, this made me ridiculously happy.)

Jill McCallister is a delight of a heroine, and her realistic struggles with writer’s block and her difficult relationship with her almost entirely absent mother lends her an air of empathy from the start. Her giving nature with Lucille and faith that her writing mojo will return, even when it feels as though her Muse has abandoned her for good, makes her a joy to read. Rick remains enigmatic through much of the story, but the fact that their romance didn’t move from zero to one hundred immediately made that work for me.

Ms. Borum has nailed small town charm in a big way with Morgan’s Grove. The town has all the appeal of any tucked-away New England seaside village or midwestern crossroads, but without the reality of what we know small-town life can be (no gossip, no true town busybody, no dark secrets). It’s the quaint hometown of our dreams, sweet without veering into saccharine, crisp holiday weather without the glop of five day-old slush, spooky, wind-whipped storms with only minimal property damage, friendly neighbors who are always willing to pitch in and who have your back without talking behind it. If you’re looking for a cozy book-vacation destination, traveling with Jill McCallister to Morgan’s Grove, Texas needs to be on your literary map.

One of the best things about this book was that it wasn’t a high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat novel. Sometimes we as readers want that, and other times, a slow, gentle read that presents each story component wrapped in a soft, hand-knit blanket and accompanied by a steaming mug of our favorite warm beverage is more in order. Love Starts Here fits easily into that latter category and was a sweet, enjoyable read during a time when the outside world’s roar needed to be tamped down by something that felt more familiar, more palatable. Escaping into Morgan’s Grove was the literary break I needed.

Thanks to Traci Borum for sending me a copy of Love Starts Here to read and review!

Visit Traci Borum’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.