fiction · romance

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance · YA

Book Review: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Emily Albright’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez

Remember when I read The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez and immediately put its sequel, The Happy Ever After Playlist (Forever, 2020) on hold? That was in August, and it finally came in last week! (Doesn’t bother me. I seriously love that so many people are excited about reading the same things I am, so the wait never bothers me. Besides, my TBR is long enough that I always have plenty of other books to read. Not that I’ve had TIME to read lately… *sobs*) It was a nice surprise to be able to send that bad boy to my kindle and begin reading it the next day.

Ever since Sloan’s fiancé died, life has lost all its meaning and color. She’s mostly stopped enjoying anything about life, but that starts to change the day Tucker, a runaway dog, nearly throws himself under her car tires and then jumps through her open sunroof. Tucker turns out to belong to Jason, a surprisingly famous musician, and he and Sloan begin a flirty relationship via text while he out of the country. Caring for Tucker helps bring Sloan back to life, and flirting with Jason is shockingly exciting. Meeting him in person is even better.

But life with Jason and his fame is even more complicated than Sloan ever could have imagined. Living in tour buses, different cities every night, nothing to eat but fast food, manipulative and drama-heavy acquaintances, music companies that only care about the bottom line, giving up all of her dreams for all of Jason’s… Learning to live again means learning to compromise, and it’s not going to be an easy road for Sloan and Jason.

This ticked so many of my boxes: dual narrative, celebrity romance, cute dog (and the story didn’t immediately make me panic that something bad was going to happen to the dog!). Sloan is grieving hard at the beginning, and though the grief eases throughout the book, I love how her pain is handled throughout the book: she never abandons Brandon’s memory but finds a way to incorporate who he helped her become into her renaissance. His memory is honored at every step, and it’s bittersweet and beautiful. I loved watching her grow and find herself again throughout the arc of the novel.

Jason is a great hero, easy-going, dedicated, and not afraid of commitment. There was one spot where I felt he acted just a tiny bit out of character, not taking Sloan’s feelings as seriously as I thought he would have, but in general, I really appreciated his patience with and respect of Sloan’s grief. He never tried to rush her in anything and was content to wait for her until she was ready. And his love for his dog was beyond adorable, which never hurts.

Despite tackling the heavy subjects of grief and rebuilding a life after loss, The Happy Ever After Playlist is a light, refreshing read that made for a great escape from the world around me at a time when I really, REALLY needed it. I’ve already added the next book in the series, Life’s Too Short, to my TBR, though it won’t be out until April of 2021. Worth the wait. 😊

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

romance

Book Review: Lighting the Flames by Sarah Wendell

I’ve mentioned about a zillion times that I’m a big fan of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, even though it balloons my TBR up like nobody’s business (what, like that’s a bad thing???). I’ve read the two other books by its creators and current host- Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (read in the days before this blog; Goodreads link here) and Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell. So you know I had to read the romance novel Sarah Wendell penned herself, titled Lighting the Flames (Smart Bitches Trashy Books, LLC, 2014). Winter! Camp! Hanukkah! Romance! So many cozy good things going on here.  

Genevieve and Jeremy have been camp friends forever, but last year, he left early, with little explanation, and only after kissing her. Now they’re back together for a special winter camp, hoping to pull together a last-ditch effort to save Camp Meira from financial ruin and figure out what’s going on between them.

Color wars and snowfall, chilly temperatures and arts and crafts- not exactly the typical camp experience, but as Gen, Jeremy, and the campers light the Hanukkah candles each night, it’s obvious how special of a place this is. And little by little, Gen and Jeremy open up to one another, growing closer and closer until they can no longer deny what’s between them. Can they make it last outside the confines of Camp Meira, into their adult lives in the real world?

This is a sweet romance novella. There were times when I thought the writing could be stronger, but where Sarah Wendell really succeeds is in setting the scene. Camp Meira in the wintertime leaps off the page. It’s snowy, it’s cold, it’s icy, and the heaters are constantly breaking, but it’s gorgeous and cozy as hell. I’m *not* a fan of cold or being outdoors in the winter (shivering hurts my back and exacerbates my chronic pain), but she makes winter camp sound fun.

Gen is hurting from the recent deaths of her parents; Jeremy is settling into life working with his dad at the family business, a Jewish funeral home. He’s the one who sat with her parents after they passed (there are a few places in this story where some knowledge of Jewish traditions might be helpful, but it’s not necessary). They have some painful discussions on this topic, so if you’re grieving, this may be a good book to wait on until you’re further along in the healing process. Ms. Wendell handles this delicate situation with grace and ease, and it’s sweet to see Gen and Jer forge a new, more mature connection as they bond over Gen’s loss and Jeremy’s adult handling of their deaths.

Lighting the Flames is sweet and will put you smack-dab in the freezing winter cold and snow of Camp Meira. I’m not sure I love the cold and snow any more than I did before, but I enjoyed the coziness of reading about two people falling in love amidst the freezing temperatures.

Visit Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Follow her on Twitter: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

One of the things 2020 has taught me is to balance my reading better, that it’s better on both my mental health and my stamina and ability as a reader to inject plenty of lighter books among the heavier subjects. Although I’m still drowning in the all-my-books-came-in-at-once deluge, it was actually a pretty good thing that my library notified me that my copy of The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren (Gallery Books, 2020) had come in about eight weeks ahead of schedule. I needed something on the lighter side after finishing Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Carey has worked for home decor and redesign power couple Melissa and Russell Trip since she was 16; at 26, she’s given a huge amount of her time and talent to them and it’s a bit like trying to keep an angry hippo on a leash at this point. They’re *not* getting along, and with a new show and, of all things, a new book about how to have a great marriage, things are in serious trouble, especially since she and Russ’s new assistant, James, just discovered Russ balls-deep in their last show’s host. OOPS.

Now Carey and James have been thrown together in order to supervise Melly and Russ on their book tour. Carey’s not so sure about this; James isn’t exactly her cup of tea, but after being stuck with him in such a small space and with the common goal of keeping their bosses from destroying their own empire, they find themselves falling for each other. As Melly and Russ fall apart, Carey and James grow closer, but it’s a precarious kind of closeness when the stakes are *this* high…

Cute book. Carey has been with Melly and Russ since she was a teenager; they seem to have somewhat took over some parenting duties and given her opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have. Between that and the fact that she suffers from dystonia, a neuro-muscular disease (for which she needs the insurance they provide), she feels a loyalty to them that won’t allow her to envision more for herself. She’s somewhat trapped in an uncomfortable, semi-abusive relationship with her employers from which she’s not safe enough to leave, and that sums up a lot about what it’s like to be young-ish and employed in the US today, unfortunately.

James is a bit stodgy and self-important at the beginning. He’s an engineer who got shafted by his last employer shutting down due to white-collar crime (I hate that term; it’s insulting. Rich upper-class crime, let’s call it), and he needs this job to improve his now-dismal resume. He was hired on to be an engineer for Russ and Melly, but he was almost immediately shoved into the role as Russ’s assistant and it’s obvious he feels he’s too good for the role. That might have been why I didn’t get immediate warm fuzzies over him like I do about the majority of Christina Lauren heroes. He does come around to value Carey for who she is and what she’s contributed to the brand, but the whole attitude of “I’m too good/educated/classy for this job” is an instant turn-off.

Melly and Russ are a hot, hot mess. They’re a Chip-and-Joanna Gaines-like couple and Russ is absolutely over Melly’s famewhoring, claw-her-way-to-the-top-and-drag-my-husband-behind drive. He just wants to build things and drink beer and watch sports, and this causes him to make some terrible decisions. There’s no excuse for infidelity like that, even if Melly is basically the Cruella de Villa of the design world. I felt bad for him for putting up with so much for so long, but he also let Melly steamroll Carey and let some bad stuff go down for years that he knew wasn’t right (trying not to spoil anything here!), so I had plenty of issues with him too. So while they were both kind of terrible people…they’re well-written. They’re both constantly screwing up and showing their worst selves, and then they let a bit of decency peek out so you can’t entirely loathe them, just mostly.

I didn’t love this the way I’ve loved some other Christina Lauren books- again, I think James’s initial snobbery ruined that for me a bit- but it was a nice read that helped break up some tougher books. I saw that Christina Lauren’s next book is a Christmas-themed one, and honestly, I’m kind of ehhhhhhhh about that. I’ll still end up reading it at some point, I’m sure, but Christmas books don’t really call to me that much. If you’ve read an ARC of it and loved it, though, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Christina Lauren’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

Follow Christina.

Follow Lauren.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez

I am currently suffering from the wonderful problem of having all my books come in at once, and that problem began with the arrival of my library ebook copy of The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez (Forever, 2019). This book hadn’t been on my radar prior to this spring/summer, but as soon as I heard about it on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, I hit the want-to-read button and requested it from the library. There was a months-long wait; no problem, I thought, I have no problem virtually standing in line.

And then, of course, everything comes in months before, all at the same time. I’m not complaining…

Kristen is long distance dating a military man who’s due to get out in a matter of weeks and who will be moving in with her, but instead of being excited, she’s hardcore freaking out. How is he going to fit into her life? How will Tyler deal with her constant heavy, painful periods that have pushed her to having a hysterectomy soon? He’s not even the type of guy who feels comfortable making a run for tampons… Kristen’s not feeling great about their future, and then she meets Josh.

Josh is the station’s newest firefighter, best friend to Kristen’s best friend’s fiancé (got that?). After their meet-cute fender bender, sparks fly between them and Josh is in, but Kristen, determined to be faithful to Tyler, keeps him at arms’ length…especially after he talks about wanting a ton of kids. That’s not something she’ll ever be able to give anyone, and thus there’s not even the slimmest chance, even if she were single. Which she isn’t.

But things keep heating up between them, and when the universe yanks away the final barrier, Kristen finds herself in Josh’s arms. It’s everything she could have dreamed of, but how could she be so selfish as to deprive Josh of what he wants most in this world? When tragedy strikes, they’ll have to figure out where each of them stand, and how to move forward in a world where everything has changed.

Wow, are reviews ever mixed on this one! While I enjoyed the book, I totally understand why.

Kristen. She’s bold, brash, in-your-face, doesn’t take crap from anyone…except her overbearing, dragon-lady of a mother. She’s been managing a long-distance relationship with Tyler the Marine for the past two years. She runs her own business designing clothing and items like stairs and doghouses for small dogs. She’s always there for her best friend Sloan, and at 26, fibroids and extremely heavy, painful periods that last for weeks on end are pushing her to a partial hysterectomy. She won’t be able to have kids, something that doesn’t seem to bother her too much until she meets Josh, Sloan’s fiancé’s best friend. The attraction between Kristen and Josh is strong from the beginning, but when he starts talking about wanting a whole passel of biological kids, Kristen knows there’s no hope there, not even if she were single.

Kristen’s inability to talk to Josh about her upcoming hysterectomy is the key problem in this story. If she had been open and honest from the beginning and laid out the facts- I’m having surgery in a few months to remove my uterus- it would have spared everyone a lot of drama. Instead, she choses to avoid that conversation entirely. I see a lot in writing circles on Twitter and in books on writing that if the problems in your book can be solved by a single conversation, your plot isn’t strong enough, but I think Ms. Jimenez’s writing in this story is strong enough and her characters are complex enough that they’re able to carry the book despite this.

Infertility is a huge theme in this book- Kristen’s acceptance of and struggle with it (because both can be true at the same time). It seems like a lot of readers didn’t enjoy the ending; I’m on the fence about it. I understand why the author wrote it the way she did, it’s not entirely unheard of and I know a handful of people who have experienced something similar, but it can also be a giant slap in the face to people in Kristen’s shoes. If you’re struggling with infertility, have struggled in the past, or love someone going through these struggles, this may not be the book for you.

Josh as a hero is pretty great. He unknowingly puts his foot in his mouth about wanting biological kids, pushing Kristen to clam up about her upcoming surgery, but he’s swoon-worthy as a love interest, always looking out for Kristen and taking care of her and anticipating her needs. It’s Kristen’s upbringing at the hands of her demon mother that has rendered her unable to believe that she’s worthy of such care that forces her down the road of problem-avoidance, a detail that I think deserved a little more attention throughout the story, but Josh handles this admirably.

However, I didn’t care for how often Josh veers into ‘she’s not like other girls’ territory with Kristen; he never outright says it, but it comes dangerously close and that made me uneasy. I had thought romance was past that by now, but apparently not?

That said, I did like this. Josh and Kristen are fun together, and their chemistry is off the charts. There’s a major content warning for sudden death, though; if you’re struggling with grief, wait until you’re feeling stronger and ready to read about this topic before picking up this book. These chapters felt like a punch to the gut for me, so I can only imagine how much they would affect someone whose pain is fresh and raw. Take care of yourself.

I enjoyed The Friend Zone enough that I already have its follow-up, The Happy Ever After Playlist, on hold at the library. And that’ll probably come in in about ten seconds…

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website 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

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.