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 · romance

The Right Swipe- Alisha Rai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

romance

Icebreaker- Deirdre Martin

During the same library trip where I picked up a copy of Their Pretend Amish Courtship, I also grabbed this copy of Icebreaker by Deirdre Martin (Berkley, 2011). I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned it here before, but I love hockey. I have a love-hate relationship with it, somewhat; I love the rush of it all, the sounds, the skaters flying down the ice, the hard-won goals, but I hate the concussions, the injuries, the lost teeth. It’s a great sport and it’s an absolute rush to watch (especially live; I’ve been lucky enough to see two NHL games and a minor league game in person), but no professional sport is worth permanent injury in my book. So hockey in books is a lot safer, although there’s no cool sounds of skate blades and sticks on the ice. Unless they have those in audiobooks on hockey, in which case I’ve been going about this all wrong.

Sinead O’Brien is as single as it’s possible to get. That’s not without its benefits; she’s worked her way up to being the only female partner at her law firm, and part of that is because work is pretty much all she does. Her newest client, Adam Perry, a professional hockey player who’s been charged with assault after a rough hit on another player, is a man of few words, so few that Sinead’s about ready to rip her hair out whenever she’s around him. He’s barely willing to say anything at all, even if it means saving his butt. It’s a good thing Sinead is as good of a lawyer as she is.

But this is a romance, so you know there’s something simmering under the surface. It takes her a while to admit it, but Sinead is attracted to Adam from the start, and the feeling is mutual. With so much to lose if her bosses find out, Sinead’s not sure how far she can let this go, but Adam’s not interested in going back to being just friends…

Icebreaker is actually the third book I’ve read in the series; all the novels work well as stand-alones and the series doesn’t need to be read in order. This was just kind of okay for me. Adam was so reticent at times that he fell more into the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype; I never saw much evidence of more going on upstairs, especially with some of his throwback, caveman-style ideas (that another character rightfully took him to task on, multiple times). Sinead was fine, although her weird obsession about not connecting with her infant nephew became tiresome. He’s a baby. You’ll get there, don’t force it. Babies are weird and scream their faces off when their parents leave; it’s probably not you. (AKA my daughter every time I did something heinous like try to take a ten minute shower while my husband held her. SCREAMED THE ENTIRE TIME. See, Sinead? NOT JUST YOU. My poor husband. He was so frustrated, haha. And lest you think I’m exaggerating:

Her onesie says ‘Princess Fussypants,’ purchased specifically because she never stopped screaming when I handed her off to Papa.)

So this was just okay, not my favorite book, nor my favorite series about hockey (I preferred Mister Hockey by Lia Riley and See Jane Score by Rachel Gibbons). Not a bad read by any means, though, for a sports romance.

Are you a sports fan at all? Hockey is pretty much the only sport I enjoy watching, other than Olympic sports (swimming, gymnastics, track and field… I could sit and watch the Olympics all day. I don’t care about teams or countries, it’s the skill that amazes me!), but we don’t have cable, so I rarely get to watch (not that the Blackhawks have played all the well recently, but let’s not discuss that…). If you’ve got any suggestions for hockey romances, I’m all ears!

Visit Deirdre Martin’s website here.