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.

fiction · YA

Two books by Nicola Yoon!

The parent education series that brings authors, clinicians, speakers, and other experts to our area is one of my favorite things about where I live- at one of the last events I attended, the director let us know that they’d just confirmed booking Tara Westover, author of Educated, for next year! Super excited about that. But next week, young adult author Nicola Yoon will be here, and since I’m never one to miss out on an author event, I prepared by reading both of her books.

First up was Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015), because I own a lovely hardcover copy which I snagged at a used book sale last summer (right after I learned she’d be coming here). Madeline is stuck in the house- literally and quite permanently, a victim of SCID, commonly referred to as Bubble Boy disease. Her mother, a doctor, cares for her with the help of a visiting nurse; the house is equipped with an airlock, a mega-air filter, windows never open, and almost no one ever visits. Madeline does her schoolwork mostly online and spends her days reading, until a new family moves in next door. Olly, the cute teenage son who catches Madeline’s eye, begins to awaken in Madeline the desire for a bigger life, a life outside her bubble, but the risks she takes will end up revealing some long-buried secrets and truths about the health of her family.

After I finished that, it was off to the library to grab their copy of The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte Press, 2016). In a novel that’s reminiscent in certain ways of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, two teenagers with different backgrounds and ways of looking at the world meet and fall in love in the twenty-four hours before one of them is due to be deported. It’s a race through New York City, a journey to the heart and soul of identity, family, culture, home, and what it means to fall in love and make yourself vulnerable to another person.

Between the two books, I preferred Everything, Everything, even though I called the twist pretty early on. Madeline is a sympathetic character, and I loved the premise of a character who isn’t allowed to live in the normal world. Carla, her nurse, was my absolute favorite; without her, the story would never have gotten legs, and her willingness to take a chance, to defy Madeline’s mother (and her exasperation with her teenage daughter!) made her complex and realistic. Olly’s situation lends even more credibility to the story, and the culmination of it all is nearly perfection.

The Sun Is Also a Star was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it quite as much. While I respected Natasha’s commitment to science and logic (and understood her reasons for doing so), at times, her denial of the importance of emotion annoyed me, and her constant chirping of science facts was tiresome. Daniel is pretty great all around, but just like Nick and Nora, I didn’t find the premise of the book to be entirely realistic. I’m well aware of and remember acutely from my own teenage years the huge emotions that adolescents are capable of, but having these two fall that hard for each other so quickly, when Natasha is trying to square up her family’s situation…I couldn’t *quite* buy that she’d have the mental space for that at that particular time.

So now I’m ready and prepared to listen to Ms. Yoon speak next week! (That is, if coronavirus or the stomach virus with which my daughter is currently plagued doesn’t take us all down…) I’m glad I got these two read beforehand, because once again, I’m so far behind in my reading. I do have these two books and my library book discussion group book done for the month, though, so there’s that, which is nice. 😉

Are you often able to attend author events? I used to go to them fairly frequently when I lived in the Nashville area, especially when the Davis-Kidd bookstore still existed and hosted them (*pours one out for Davis-Kidd, which was an excellent store*). There’s a local-ish store here that plays host to a ton of amazing contemporary authors as they pass through on book tours, but I haven’t managed to make it over there yet; most of the author appearances are at times when traffic would make it difficult for me to get over there. But one day… Most of the events I attend now are through this parent education group (anyone of any age is welcome to attend; it’s not just for parents), so I very much appreciate its existence!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Tangled- Emma Chase

While not something I necessarily would have picked up on my own, Tangled by Emma Chase (Gallery Books, 2013) fits a prompt in the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challege: a book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it.

Obviously, as you can see by the cover, this book definitely has nothing to do with the 2010 Disney retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Thank goodness… (Speaking of covers, this was one that I was glad that I finished solely at home, because…I don’t embarrass easily, nor do I ever really feel ashamed of reading any kind of book, but…this was a cover I wasn’t really interested in displaying while I waited outside my daughter’s school with the other parents, you know?)

Drew Evans is a playboy to the nth degree. He’s a love ’em and leave ’em kind of guy, one who has never made any promises or commitments, and he’s more than okay with that. The less tying him down, the more fun he can have in his high-powered lifestyle. That is, until he meets Kate Brooks, the sexiest woman he’s ever seen who also turns out to be his new co-worker. His engaged new co-worker, that is. But when has that ever stopped Drew?

Their relationship starts out with a little bit of a friendly (and occasionally not-so friendly) rivalry, as they both compete for the same client, but as Drew gets to know Kate, he finally starts to understand what love might be like as a long-term thing. Kate’s fiancé and her lack of confidence might present a bit of a challenge, but Drew and his massive ego are up for the fight.

Oof. So.

First off, this was well-written, and I totally see why it gets so many stars on Goodreads. It’s steamy, it’s fun (and funny), it’s cute at times, and there are a lot of great tropes at work: Drew is definitely a bad boy with a heart of gold, his rivalry with Kate over that first client tips this a little in the direction of Enemies-to-Lovers, and the book is narrated by Drew, which puts an interesting spin on the romance novel. Big Rock by Lauren Blakely is also narrated by its male hero, and I do enjoy that perspective.

My issues with this book, however, are entirely (and almost hilariously) personal, which makes this a difficult review to write. Case in point:

My husband likes to watch stuff on TV with me at night; it’s pretty much the one thing we’re able to do on our own, since my daughter is still young, we can’t really afford babysitters, and going out is something we have to really plan for (which also means less time he can spend with our daughter, and his time is already limited). For ages he’s wanted me to watch one of his favorite shows, and finally I gave in, so we’re currently on season 8 of the adult cartoon Archer. If you’re not familiar with the show, Archer is the title character, a bad boy secret agent. He does have a decent side, but he also sleeps with anything that moves, can’t commit to any woman, has an ego the size of the sun, and has the same crass vocabulary as Drew in Tangled. Can you see where this is going?

Yeah. I read the entire book narrated in Archer’s voice. It was…interesting.

There were other things that didn’t quite make this the book for me. Kate felt a little under-defined; I wish we’d gotten to know more of her personality. She seemed like a different person when she was talking with or to Billy, her fiancé. I’m not sure if that was deliberate and trying to show that she was a more actualized version of herself with Drew, or something else, but it definitely stood out to me. And there’s a lot- a LOT- of cursing in here. I don’t mind reading that or hearing it, but this seemed excessive even for me (and that’s saying a lot). It became a little tiresome reading conversations with swear words in almost every sentence (although there are a few amusing scenes where Drew’s niece follows him around with a swear jar, demanding money for each bad word, and references to her paying her way through college with the proceeds, so the author isn’t unaware of the excessiveness here).

There’s also a “We’ve only known each other for a ridiculously short period of time and have barely started a sexual relationship, but hey, I’m clean and since you say you are too, despite any kind of proof, let’s ditch condoms right now!” scene, which I am absolutely not a fan of. Nope. TEST YO’SELF, show your partner the paperwork, and then have a discussion about birth control and sexual health like mature adults. I feel like readers deserve that, and this particular “We can skip the condoms immediately, I promise!” scene never, ever works for me no matter what book it appears in.

For my own personal tastes, Drew’s a bit smarmy; I don’t find the kind of guy who sleeps with anything with a pulse attractive or trustworthy, so this wasn’t quite the book for me- which is fine! Not every book is for every reader and there are plenty of people who enjoy all the things that didn’t quite do it for me here. I never quite mind getting through a book that wasn’t right for me, because it’s taught me something more about what I like and what I don’t, what I look for in a book, and who I am as a reader, and that’s something I can always appreciate.

There are sequels, as this is a series, so if you’re into playboys finally finding the one girl with whom they can fall in love and for whom they’re willing to give up their wild ways, you might want to check out the Tangled series!

Visit Emma Chase’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Love You So Mochi- Sarah Kuhn

I was just thinking this morning that 2020 is an Olympics year- super fun, because I love watching summer Olympics (winter, ehhhhhh- my apologies to my Norwegian heritage)- the swimming! The diving! The gymnastics! The fifty three million games of beach volleyball! It’s a whole lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it. I had added I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (Scholastic, 2019) to my reading list because I needed a book set in Japan as part of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge, but I’d forgotten that particular prompt was because the 2020 Olympics will be set in Japan! Pretty cool to get to travel there via book before I get to travel there via my television. 🙂

Kimi Nakamura loves to create clothing. Her skills as a painter lend her ideas for bold designs with bright colors, and she’s easily able to translate what’s in her sketchbook to a fully wearable unique outfit. It’s something that brings her joy and makes her feel alive. After she realizes she no longer wants to go to art school and paint professionally the rest of her life, her relationship with her mother blows up, and a plane ticket and invitation to visit the Japanese grandparents she’s never met couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Kimi’s off to Japan on a journey of self-discovery, trying to figure out what her future should look like.

In addition to getting to know her grandparents, Kimi meets Akira, a cute boy who helps out at his uncle’s mochi stand, occasionally dressed as a large mochi. Together with Akira, Kimi visits the sights around Kyoto, taking inspiration from everything she sees- including her blossoming romance with Akira- and figures out where she fits in in the world.

It’s been a while since I read a book set in Japan (I tried one last year and DNF’ed it). Ms. Kuhn’s descriptions of the places Kimi visits with Akira and her grandparents are perfection, especially her descriptions of the fabric shop (I love fabric! I don’t sew as often as I would like, but I so enjoy checking out what’s on the shelves in fabric stores). Seeing Japan through the eyes of a teenager who had never been there before was incredibly charming, as Kimi is a very engaging character who feels things deeply.

I loved Kimi’s passion for sewing. One of my favorite books growing up, Baby Sister by Marilyn Sachs, featured a main character who loved to sew and who created outfits for herself. Combine that with the fact that sewing is just such a practical skill, and I automatically enjoy a character who sews. I’m trying to think of other teen characters I’ve read that sew, and none are coming to mind (although I’m certain I’ve read them before…). Because of that, Kimi’s a breath of fresh air, creative and bubbly and fun.

There was a lot that didn’t quite work for me, though. Everyone Kimi meets in Japan speaks fluent, near-perfect English. Their receptive language is also perfect, nothing is lost in translation, and everyone is able to understand even the most complicated idioms and teenagery slang, something I found entirely unrealistic. It’s explained about two-thirds of the way through the book that her grandparents have been taking English lessons for over twenty years (the exact number isn’t named, but they took them as a family when Kimi’s mom was young and she left Japan twenty years ago; I’m assuming they kept them up on their own afterwards for their skill levels to be this high), but unless they had some sort of practical application for their language skills outside of lessons (conversation group, maybe? Working with teenagers in order to learn their slang?), I can’t see how they could have maintained that kind of level of receptive and expressive language. Akira’s fluency is never explained, which I found equally as bothersome. It’s probably expected that the reader understands he studies English in school, but again, he’s a teenager, one who wants to be a doctor and who spends his time studying obscure medical textbooks, and because of this, I didn’t buy his extremely high level of skill with the English language. (And I say this as a former ESL tutor. The nuances of language can be tough and it takes a lot of time and opportunities to practice and learn. A brief explanation of Akira’s English acquisition- lots of work with tourists! Extra lessons! His best friend once lived in an English-speaking country and helps him practice!- really would have lent some credibility here, because Kimi goes full-on slang-talking teenager with him all the time, and I couldn’t buy that he never once misunderstood her.)

Akira as a character seemed a little bland to me. His romance with Kimi is adorable, but we never really learn all that much about him. He wants to be a doctor, he’s the youngest of six siblings (I think that was the number), he feels a strong obligation to his family, and…that’s about it. Does he have friends? He never once mentions them or does anything with them, and other than the times he’s helping his uncle out at his mochi stand, he’s with Kimi. Does he have no other commitments? No other hobbies or activities?

Kimi’s journey of self-discovery is a great idea in theory, but it didn’t end up being much of a journey. In the beginning, her mother insists that fashion is just a hobby, a distraction from real art, and both she and Kimi seem entirely unaware of the many careers that exist in which a degree in fashion design, or even sewing skills, can be useful. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I point out that the end results in Kimi’s journey aren’t exactly all that surprising. Had her mother been totally against Kimi going into fashion design in the first place and Kimi worked to find the confidence to stand up to her mother and point out all the reasons why this would be in her best interest, that would’ve worked better for me.

So while a lot of this didn’t quite work for me, it was still a cute book, and Ms. Kuhn’s writing helped to create beautiful pictures of Japan in my mind, ones that I’m sure will stick with me. I’m going to have to poke around and see if I can’t hunt down some sort of sewing class (that doesn’t cost like nine bazillion dollars, looking at you, local community college…), because I really would like to be able to have skills more akin to Kimi’s…

Visit Sarah Kuhn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Dating by the Book- Mary Ann Marlowe

Diving into a new book by an author you’ve read and enjoyed in the past is like coming home, getting out of your uncomfortable work clothes, and putting on your favorite pair of sweats and a pair of fuzzy slippers. It’s cozy, it’s relaxing, it’s just what you’ve been dreaming about all day long. That’s how I felt about finally being able to dive into Dating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe (Kensington, 2019). This book went on my TBR list long before its release date, since I had read Ms. Marlowe’s A Crazy Kind of Love and very much enjoyed it, then subsequently followed her on Twitter and very much enjoyed her as a person as well. Dating by the Book came out in June, but it was available only at the library in the next town, and finally, finally things matched up so that the book was available there and I needed books! (Of course, as soon as I got all those books home that I checked out, literally everything I’d requested via interlibrary loan, even the book I suggested my library BUY and that I wasn’t expecting them to get in until at least January, came in at the same time, so now I’m entirely swamped. Best problem in the world, right?)

Maddie’s a struggling bookstore owner (is there any other kind?) whose problems don’t only stem from the shop, her favorite childhood store which she bought from the deceased owner’s son, and which she’s desperately trying to keep afloat in her tiny hometown. Her own book, the one she actually wrote herself, is due to be released soon, and she’s both excited and nervous. Six months ago, however, her fiancé didn’t show up at their wedding, and Maddie’s still stinging over Peter’s betrayal. She hasn’t been able to date yet, but things may be changing…or at least, Maddie’s trying to change them. Her old boyfriend-turned-rock star is back in town for a bit, attending her store’s book club, and beyond him, there may be sparks with Charlie, another book club member and regular customer. But none with Max- NONE, DID YOU HEAR THAT- her best friend’s brother and Maddie’s childhood friend (whom she once kissed, but nevermind that either), who keeps trying to squeeze his way into her business and her life.

When a three-star review of an early copy of Maddie’s novel hits a nerve, she finds herself unable to walk away and writes the reviewer, a male blogger who goes by the moniker ‘Silver Fox’ an irate (and also drunken) response. Thus begins a correspondence that slowly turns into friendship. Maddie’s able to be more open and honest with Silver Fox than anyone in her life, and his tough questions and commentaries (along with what she’s been learning about her ex-fiancé, who’s still part owner in her struggling bookstore) have her questioning her life choices. The drama is high, both in regards to Maddie’s love life and the dilemma of her barely-limping-along store, but when Silver Fox’s true identity comes out, Maddie will realize what it is she’s really been wanting- and needing- all this time.

Maddie’s far from a tragic figure, but she’s majorly down on her luck at this moment in time, and thus she makes for an easy character to root for. She’s also easy to identify with- how many of us have followed a dream or two, only to have them backfire on us? Ms. Marlowe’s style is so friendly, so easily readable, that reading Maddie’s words were like listening to an old friend chat. And with the book centering around Maddie’s bookstore and book club, literary references and conversations abound. Book lovers rejoice!

I had to laugh when I turned to the page where Maddie goes full-on Author Behaving Badly and types out a drunken hate-mail to Silver Fox when he picks apart her novel on his book blog. In that moment, she’s the epitome of What Not To Do to a book blogger, and it’s obvious that Ms. Malone has done her research and kept her ear to the ground in terms of author-blogger drama (well done!). Maddie’s response is a total cringefest, which made it super fun to read, being on the Silver Fox side of things (I haven’t received hate mail, fortunately, but I’ve received author comments on negative reviews in the past, and that’s uncomfortable enough). It had been so long since I’d added the book to my TBR that I’d forgotten there was a blogger component at all (although Ms. Marlowe does mention us in the dedications! See photo below), so this was a seriously fun surprise.

Maddie’s a little confused, romantically, about what she wants and where she should end up, ping-ponging back and forth between her attraction to different guys. While this did bother me initially, the more I thought about it, it makes sense. Maddie’s trying to rebuild emotionally after having what she thought was her perfect future crushed to bits. Everything had been mapped out perfectly (or what she’d thought of as perfectly at the time), and when Peter didn’t show up at their wedding and subsequently moved back to the city, leaving her to struggle with the bookstore alone, everything that she thought had been set in store became far more precarious. Add this to the fact that Maddie’s been looking for a place to belong since she was young. Adopted by a couple where the father died almost immediately after she joined them, Maddie spent a lot of her childhood at the neighbor’s, a warm, welcoming family who made her feel at home (her mother does make appearances in the book and is a lovely character. She and Maddie have a great relationship, but obviously Mom hadn’t expected to be raising her as a single mother). She’s trying to figure out what she wants and is viewing the men in her life as stand-ins for the male romantic leads in the books she loves, but at this point, it’s a distractionary technique in order to avoid taking a harder look at what Peter’s destruction has wrought upon her life, what his control and manipulation did to her, and what she truly wants and needs.

Maddie returned to live in her hometown as an adult, and with the exception of one character, the town seems to have aged particularly gracefully, something I appreciated, because I cannot say about my own hometown; my best friend and I have discussed whether the people there were always terrible or if that’s been a new development. After close scrutiny, it’s easy to see that the racism and misogyny was always there and we weren’t always aware enough as young children to see it for what it was. It’s just more obvious these days thanks to social media. Maddie’s hometown, however, is home, warm and friendly and supportive. It plays a huge part in the conflict between Maddie and her ex, so the town being as accessible and welcoming as it is makes it a lot easier to root for Maddie despite her yikes-please-don’t-hit-send behavior with Silver Fox.

There are shades of You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan rom cot set in a book shop and over email, so if you’re a fan, Dating by the Book may be right up your alley. Reviews are mixed on Goodreads; some people thought Maddie was too passive, others found her selfish (if you can’t be a little selfish after being dumped at the altar, when can you be?), while still others wanted more from the male characters. For me, this worked just fine, and it was a nice, light read. Every book isn’t right for every reader, and that’s okay! 🙂

Check out Mary Ann Marlowe’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.