If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales; Cale Dietrich

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If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales; Cale Dietrich

Gonzales, Sophie and Cale Dietrich. If This Gets Out. St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 416 pp. ISBN 9781250805805 $18.99 $18.99

****

The members of Saturday, a fictional band modeled after One Direction, met at music camp as teens, and now at eighteen are hugely famous and on their first international tour. The singers are increasingly chafing at the archetypal boxes that management presses them into: the bad boy, the goofy one, the sexy one, the boy next door. The tour doesn’t leave any time for actual touring, it’s one locked hotel room after another. And fans have gone from cheering at a distance to smothering in their screaming adoration. Told in alternating chapters by Zach and Ruben, If This Gets Out details their affectionate friendship and growing attraction, Zach coming to terms with coming out, and the response from their colleagues, management, families and fans. Ruben has known he was gay for a long time, but recognizes their brands are designated to cultivate a wide fan base, and keeps things discreet. Management has been telling him since he was sixteen that he can’t come out; they promise that he and Zach can disclose their relationship publically “after Russia” but as time goes on, it seems like NO time is a good time to rock the boat.

This novel for teens is a sex (not TOO detailed), drugs and rock and roll lifestyle expose and critique that feels disturbingly realistic as it captures the sexualization of youth and homophobia still present in the entertainment industry and the high pressure environment of impossibly perfect standards and exhausting schedule that successful performers endure. The character development is strong as the members push through stereotypes and strain at their confines. Ruben’s passive-aggressive (possibly narcissistic, if I were diagnosing) mother is a piece of work, constantly berating him for not being good enough; Zach is sweet but confused, Jon is open minded but comes from a super-religious family, and his dad happens to be the big deal music producer that formed their boy band; Angel is delving into drugs and getting out of control. Ruben and Zach’s romance is fraught with fear but also passion. When the lovers try to spin the narrative on their own, the management company turns on them… but then their moms show up as a united front.

This novel could have gone so wrong, and read like bad 1D fanfiction, but it beautifully explores insecurity, anxiety, and a lot of other complicated emotions about people who love each other, change, and spend a lot of time in proximity. For another more adult look at romance while boy-band famous, read The Idea of You by Robinne Lee.

I checked this ebook out of the local library via #OverDrive.

If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

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If The Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy

Murphy, Julie. If the Shoe Fits (Meant to Be). Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 304 pp. ISBN 9781368050388 $26.99

***

Recent fashion school grad and shoe designer Cindy is feeling aimless and creatively blocked. Giving up on her dreams of designing shoes and eventually her own fashion line in NYC, she returns to the west coast home she shares with her (nice) stepmother and (nice) stepsisters. Her stepmother Erica is the brains behind Before Midnight, a bachelor-style reality television series. When two contestants are out of the running before filming begins, Erica decides all three of her girls should join the show and compete for the gentleman in question–who turns out to be the seatmate that Cindy had a moment with on the plane trip home. Cindy and Henry agree to pretend not to know one another, and even though they have a tiny history and major chemistry, she has to watch him woo a plethora of other women.

The other contestants, family and crew allow Cindy to develop supportive and adversarial relationships with other women, and create drama. In a twist, her stepsisters are generous and supportive even as they are vying for the suitor. Cindy is plus-sized and comfortable in her own skin, and a wonderful fat heroine. Most pleasing of all is that queer and trans characters are 100% accepted, and the main character follows her own dreams. The fashion details are fun and there is also a lot of behind the scenes about the fakeness of reality television and the influence of producers on the desired outcome. Readers who love all the gory intimate details may be disappointed. That said, this is a little superficial, shallow, sanitized and Disney-fied. Still, if the shoe fits is a sweet story and a strong start to the princess-themed series.

I received a free advance reader’s copy of#MeanttoBeIftheShoeFits from #NetGalley.

Meet Cute by Helena Hunting

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Meet Cute by Helena Hunting

Helena Hunting. Meet Cute. Forever, 2019. 384 pp. ISBN 978-1538760185. $15.99

***

Kailyn and Dax literally run into each other on their first day of law school. Dax was a teenage heartthrob on Kailyn’s favorite television show and to make matters even more embarrassing, she fangirls all over him…and bumps into him again later. They spend law school debating one another and competing for the top spot, and when Kailyn’s father passes away, she asks Dax to turn in her final paper… and he turns it in late, ruining her class standing. When they next meet, Dax’s parents have died in a terrible accident and leave him as the legal guardian for his thirteen year old sister. Kailyn is managing the trust, and when Emme’s aunt challenges the guardianship and sues for custody, Kailyn is established as Emme’s conservator. Her boss promises her a partnership at the law firm, more pro bono hours, and great benefits if she can reel Dax in to firm. She decides NOT to reveal this detail, making the plot not as sweet as the book’s cover hints.

It turns out Dax has always liked Kailyn with her fancy patterned hose and pencil skirts, brains and curves. Their chemistry is real, but she has put herself in an unethical position by sneaking around and dating him while becoming a support for his sister. The book details Aunt Linda’s escalating attempts to present Dax as being unfit to parent, Kailyn’s dilemma about when to reveal her motives, and Dax and Emme moving through their grief.

While I didn’t find Kailyn particularly likeable, her moments with Emme and her soothing Dax through parenting a teenager were redeeming. I didn’t find the writing strong or compelling, there was more showing than telling, and for two self-aware, supposedly smart adults, they didn’t figure out the mystery too well.

Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery

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Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Bowery, Liz. Love, Hate & Clickbait. Harlequin, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9780778311898 $15.99

***

Political campaigner Thom is convinced that his employer, the governor of California, will be the next POTUS, and is only in the job for how far it will launch his own career. He vehemently dislikes his co-worker, data analyst Clay, who comes off as smug (Clay thinks Thom is pretentious). When the governor makes an off-handed remark about her lack style because she doesn’t have enough gays on staff, there’s an uproar. What do you do when you can’t spin it? subvert the narrative. Clay and Thom are caught in an intense argument during the fallout, and a reporter snaps and posts a photo that makes it look like there’s about to share a heated kiss. The governor offers a promotion and raise to both men if they agree to fake-date throughout the campaign–and things escalate from a few gads about town, and spending a LOT of time together, and eventually getting off together under the guise of being the only options for the time being. When the governor demands a proposal at the Santa Monica pier, they gamely go along; how far will they take it, and at what cost.

At the beginning of the novel neither are out; in fact, Thom breaks up with his girlfriend in chapter one, choosing work over her; Clay’s preferences were very subtle and not disclosed until at least midway through the novel. When Thom realizes that he is in fact attracted to Clay, the subject is dispatched in about a paragraph that he’s open to whatever and it’s NBD, really. Thom is distanced from his family, and it’s never resolved, and pretty sad. Homophobia and bullying are barely addressed. A side plot with Clay’s first tech start up and some challenges with his current project are not fully resolved, except he settles when charged with a lawsuit. The narrative exposes problems with fame, politics and clickbait, but doesn’t take a strong stance in analyzing.

This book is terrific for wonks! I had to look up a few things, including stump speech, body man and pork. While in most cases I discerned from contact, I found Political Dictionary really helpful. The writing is sharp, funny, and set firmly in present day, and there are some really lovely moments of introspection, witty banter, and steamy sex…but the lack of character development and Thom almost always being terrible made this a 3-star instead of a 4-star book for me. It was a fun read and very entertaining.

Love, Hate & Clickbait might be a read-alike for Red, White and Royal Blue or Not The Plan, for those who like their romance with a side of politics.

I received a free copy of #LoveHate&Clickbait from #NetGalley.

Overheard by Maya Banks

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Overheard by Maya Banks

Banks, Maya. Overheard. (Unbroken, #2). AudioGO, 2013. 3 hours. ISBN 978-1620648896 $19.95

**

I love Maya Banks, truly, but this was not one of her better books. Gracie dumps her boyfriend because the sex is terrible, and then one of her best (male) friends, Luke, overhears her telling another (female) friend about her interest in exploring sex that’s not so vanilla, and decides her and their other best friend Wes should introduce Gracie to threesomes and light bondage. Luke starts with taking her out on a date, and then invites her to go away Valentine’s Day weekend, where they have amazing sex in a little cabin in the woods and his take charge attitude and Wes showing up make her cream. But when Gracie overhears Luke confessing he eavesdropped on her fantasies, she flips out, cuts and runs, mostly because she thinks their behavior was okay if they all love each other, but if Luke isn’t in love with her, her desires, and the sex, is… humiliating? shame-worthy? embarrassing? This seems like bad messaging to me.

I love the idea–very hot!–but the deceit, not so much. I recognize this is the second book in a series, but had trouble discerning setting of the story and occupations for the characters, but I guess it didn’t really matter… except in the Sweet series, the characters relationships are clearly defined, and consent is important, and the sex scenes are super hot, with delicious descriptive writing (although, I’m pretty sure one of those books also had a woman whose lover makes her come publically on a club’s dance floor). Also, it does have a HEA, but it’s unclear what the relationship will be, going forward: was the threesome a one-time thing? So it did not feel completely wrapped up.

The brevity of the book made for a frustrating read, with little character development, a misunderstanding that results in immature behavior, and fast processing and forgiveness. Gracie’s ex crosses boundaries and shows up uninvited twice, and tries to slut shame her because she has gotten nipple rings and wants to experiment in bed. The so-called best friends NEVER discuss consent, hard lines, safer sex or previous sexual histories. I get there is a fantastical element, but it could have been addressed in a forward or author’s note, like in responsible porn where there’s a disclaimer that all actors are of age, and the scenes depict scenes that meant to be fantasy and not do as we do here.

Cover image is for the ebook, but I listened to this in audio format, and found the Southern lilt of the characters distracting. Coupled (ha!) with their immature behavior, they read as not too bright, which was a turnoff.

I listened through OverDrive via my public library.

A Thousand Boy Kisses by Tillie Cole

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A Thousand Boy Kisses by Tillie Cole

Cole, Tillie. A Thousand Boy Kisses. CreateSpace, 2022. 352 pp. ISBN 978-1530496198 $11.99

**1/2

Thor-lookalike Rune moves from Olso to Georgia (USA) at age 5 and instantly falls in love with Poppy, the winsome, green-eyed girl next door. A handshake seals their promise to be besties forever. When her beloved mamaw passes away a few years later, she leaves Poppy with a glass jar of paper hearts, instructing her EIGHT-YEAR-OLD grand-daughter to record 1,000 kisses from her soulmate. By high school, Rune and Poppy are more than friends, with a number of kisses that matter memorialized in the jar. Not all the kisses make it, only the ones that Poppy deems make her heart feel like bursting. At fifteen, Rune’s father is relocated back to Oslo for a few years and while heartbreaking, he and Poppy consummate their love and promise to keep in touch (and promise to save their lips only for one another). And then, after two months of talking every day, she ghosts him after two months. It’s a surly, smoking, and smoking-hot Rune that returns two years later. Still dressing all in black, his insides seem to match the tough bad-boy exterior he projects. Their confrontation–and reconciliation–is inevitable.

The actions of the characters are generally appropriate to age group. For example, Rune screaming at his parents that he hates them. The complex emotions just aren’t there, though, and the writing is sappy, the dialogue repetitive and wise beyond years, the emotional manipulation and possessiveness and slut-shaming were cringy, and the epilogue very unsatisfying and unbelievable. Poppy’s love for music and Rune’s skill and love for photography with an old-fashioned point and shoot SLR camera adds some depth. Some plot points, like moving prom up by a few weeks or getting permission to sit in on a music dress rehearsal, feel a little far-fetched. The author hits you over the head with symbolism instead of allowing for nuance (how many times can one person reference Footprints–with no attribution! However, I was raised Roman Catholic, and as a teenager, had Margaret Fishback Powers’ allegorical poem posted on my bedroom door). Interestingly, A Thousand Boy Kisses is a book filled with faith that allows for teenage sex without guilt or repercussion (unless the whole getting cancer thing is implied as punishment for underage sex).

This book’s cover kept popping up on the romance group I just joined on Facebook, to rave reviews. I read it fairly quickly through Kindle Unlimited, laughed and nodded at the one-star reviews on GoodReads, and settled somewhere in the middle. I was a huge fan of Lurlene McDaniel tearjerkers in my teenage years (and early in my career as a young adult librarian, until they veered too Christian and too formulaic). Sometimes, though, you just need a good cry, and a sorrowful book can help get you there.

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

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While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Guillory, Jasmine. While We Were Dating. Berkley, 2021. 352 pp. ISBN 9780593100851 $16.00

***1/2

Ad-man Ben Stephens gets to lead on a pitch to a technology company because of a travel snafu–he’s aware that he did most of the work on the presentation: and knows he will get the least amount of credit from his firm, being not only young but a person of color. He rises to the occasion in spite of being flustered when the talent–beautiful and bodacious Ocsar-nominee Anna Gardiner–shows up; she and her smart manager wrote veto power into her contract. Ben gets the gig contingent on Anna’s request that he be the lead producer on the phone commercial they’re going to make.

To Anna’s delight, Ben is a safe, respectful person for the cast and crew and sensitive to institutionalized misogyny in many small moments, in part from his brief stint as a back-up dancer. Ben and Anna share similar interests and sense of humor, and they hit it off. When Anna’s father has a health scare and she can’t get a flight home, Ben offers to drive her. Bonding happens during the road trip, filled with requisite tunes and snacks. They get to the hospital just as her dad is checking out, and Ben has to pretend to be her driver. Crisis averted, there is #JustOne!Bed at the hotel and she sleeps with him, NOT because she feels she owes him anything, but because they genuinely like and respect one another. Her manager thinks Ben might be the perfect foil to pose as her boyfriend until her most recent film premieres, Ben good naturedly agrees (he’s not looking for anything long term and only his therapist seems to see a problem with his reluctance to commit), but then …. falls in love.

Subplots include Anna’s management of her anxiety and how fame and celebrate strain mental health; Ben’s discovery that his absentee father had a third child, a sister who found him through a DNA matching service–should he tell his older brother Theo? He wants Theo all to himself, and there might not be enough love to go around!) and the power struggles in the superficial film industry over race, color, size, gender and popularity. Each protagonist has a wonderful support network: a best friend to confide in, and family is really important: Ben is close to brother Theo, and his girlfriend Maddie, a stylist, saves the day. Anna, too, has a loving brother and parents who might not always understand her, but support her completely.

I didn’t find this as compelling as Guillory’s first novel, and am trying to pinpoint why. I struggled to get through this, didn’t write a review right away, wanted to provide one to boost my NetGalley completion rate, couldn’t remember a thing and had to re-read it… and slogged through it again. While We Were Dating has a lot going on, and the writing and characters felt simplistic. The author absolutely elevates important issues to the forefront for the romance readership without being didactic, using humor and empathy. The red carpet details were fun–and the publicist realities and paparazzi behaviors are abhorrent and terrifying. I like celebrity/regular person pairing but do find them very … fanfiction-y.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #WhileWeWereDating from #NetGalley.

Finding Elevation by Lisa Thompson

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Finding Elevation by Lisa Thompson

Thompson, Lisa. Finding Elevation. Girl Friday, 2023. 244 pp. ISBN 9781954854673. $25.95

****

As of of February 2021, 377 people have completed a summit of K2, while 91 have died trying. Clearly, author Lisa Thompson lived to the tell the tale, but the question of “did she summit?” will pull you through this fascinating book.

Mountaineering is so foreign to me that books on the topic read almost like fantasy novels–the icy, alien, high altitude terrain, the endurance of climbing for twenty hours straight, the sheer psychological willpower over the elements. And yet… I have been fascinated by Mount Everest since Into Thin Air was published, and there is no better armchair travel for me than reading about climbing 8,000 meter tall rocks. Thompson, hailing from the plains of Illinois, has peakbagged not only the tallest mountain in the world–Mt. Everest–but also the slightly lower, more deadly K2 in Pakistan. This succinct and well-written memoir follows her journey from a challenging family life with an alcoholic father to a crumbling marriage to an alcoholic husband; from a career competing with boys in tech to the freedom of climbing mountains alongside hiking bros who aren’t much better; from backpacking trips in the late 1990s along the River Hoh to Mt. Rainer to K2.

While Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there,” it takes Thompson many years, a lot of money, and a lot of steps to get to her WHY, but she does get there, and what a ride she takes the reader on. If anything, she is so honest and matter-of-fact about the deadly realities of hiking in icy, below-zero, low oxygen conditions that it is almost downplayed. She isn’t in it for fame or the adrenaline rush and(though it would have been nice to be the first, not second, American woman to summit K2. Those not familiar with hiking terminology may have to do some googling, but most things are defined in context fairly well, without a hiking jargon tone.

In addition to the climbing narrative, Thompson drops in personal details, also in an almost detached, just the facts manner. OH–and she’s a breast cancer survivor. Basically had surgery and kept training, and then got reconstructive surgery right before hiking Everest. She doesn’t seem to need our empathy, and thus earns it, but also? She is a badass, and this memoir from a woman lifts up other women, brings feminism and misogyny into the hiking elite conversation, and does it with class. Never feeling like she belonged, was valued or was good enough was hellish to go through, but it built a woman with massive accomplishments and thanks her detractors for the motivation provided by hearing “no” or “you can’t.”

The design is clever – each chapter is headed with an elevation, and a line graph of the two major mountains in her life. It is a visual progress and puts the journey into context. Some breathtaking landscape photos at the end, and one satisfying selfie from the summit of K2 are appended. Even though I knew how this was going to end, I could not put it down once I started it.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #FindingElevation from #NetGalley.

The True Love Experiment by Christina Lauren

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The True Love Experiment by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. The True Love Experiment. Gallery Books, 2023. 416 pp. ISBN 9781982173432 $27.99

****

Wisecracking, fearless romance novelist Felicity Chen, the best friend sidekick made of charisma, witchcraft, and bad judgment from The Soulmate Equation, has lost her mojo, and agrees to star in a reality dating show on her terms: the gents have to represent popular romance archetypes, and none of this forced proximity secluded crap, she wants her friends and family to have input and insight, just like in real life. The eight Heroes assembled represent tattooed bad boy, hot nerd, and vampire, but it’s the sexy British producer Connor–a total Cinnamon Bun–that Fizzy clicks with. It’s rewarding to see the novelist and Tinder queen thrown for a loop over feelings that she’s never experienced before. The ante is upped when the men all take River’s cutting-edge matchmaking genome sequencing test with GeneticAlly. The audience will vote on who Fizzy should end up with, and then the match results will be revealed. Will the science or heart rule?

More tension is created as Fizzy continues to fight writer’s block, Connor is actually a documentarian who doesn’t want to be producing reality television, he doesn’t do short term and she only does short term; her family doesn’t take her work seriously and she’s still perceiving pressure to settle down, get married and have a baby. And then, Fizzy is the one who makes a terrible error and has to win back her man. Some of the ground covered is that while we are influenced by our pasts, past actions do not have to define us. There’s also not so subtle commentary on continued derogatory attitude thrown at the romance genre.

Family and friends remain important in the story and character development. One of the best parts for me was the reappearance of grumpy hot nerd River, who keeps walking into rooms to her his wife or Felicity utter something outrageous…and walks right back out again. Connor’s daughter Stevie and Jess’s daughter Juno bond over hot boy band Wonderland. Felicity’s brother Peter is getting married, and since she has an agreement to not see any of the potential matches outside the show, none of the competitors can be her plus one…but Connor can, and does. The glamorous and expensive festivities that blend traditional and modern Korean customs add background and rich multicultural detail.

The dating adventures are entertaining, and the relationship between Fizzy and Connor balances both hot and sweet; the combination of funny banter, smart writing, juicy detail, and swoony romance are what we’ve come to expect from Christina Lauren, and this one does not disappoint. The drama at the live season finale and big reveal is palpable and perfectly paced and executed.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TheTrueLoveExperiment from #NetGalley.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

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Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Hazelwood, Ali. Love on the Brain. Berkley, 2022. 384 pp. ISBN 9780593336847 $17.00

*****

Neuroscientist Bee worships Marie Curie, and has even created a WhatWouldMarieDo? twitter profile that address issues of women in STEM: dismissive men, men who take all the credit. It’s anonymous, and she connects with a like minded guy who amplifies her tweets as the intersect with his field of research. When she’s tapped for a gig with NASA working on a biofeedback type helmet that will assist with keeping astronauts focused and at the top of their game, unfortunately, her co-leader on the collaborative project with NASA and NIH is none other than engineering superstar: Levi Ward, who has gone to great lengths to avoid her for years. She doesn’t know why Levi just doesn’t seem to like her–leaves a conversation every time she joins a group, declined to work on a project with her, and won’t deign to speak to her. The miscommunication is neatly resolved.

While there are some similarities in Hazelwood’s stories (STEM setting, small female protagonists who run, tall broody men with big dicks), there is something nefarious going on in this story and a mystery to figure out. Emails aren’t reaching their destinations, lab equipment is missing and then a trial goes wrong. I am generally not a fan of suspense with my romance (unless it’s straight up WHY doesn’t he like her?) but this worked for me. The nerdy banter, introspective lead, and steamy sex scenes are highly appealing, but mostly, Hazelwood just writes smart books. I love the science career details, the competent female scientist protagonists, the feminist stance, the slam against JK Rowling, the discussions of feminism and misogyny, and the challenges of women in STEM. A subplot takes a stance against standardized tests and their bias against women, BIPOC, and people in poverty.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #LoveOnTheBrain from #NetGalley–but I let it expire because I hadn’t read any Ali Hazelwood books at the time and didn’t know the awesomeness of her writing, so I had to wait for a copy through OverDrive.