Tag Archives: romance

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.

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.

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.

Off the Map by Trish Doller

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Off the Map by Trish Doller

Doller, Trish. Off the Map. (Beck Sisters #3) St. Martin’s Press, 2023. 320 pp. ISBN 9781250809490 $16.99

****

Though not a Beck sister, Carla is Beck-adjacent, working with Anna at the pirate-themed bar in Florida that Anna skipped out of to sail the world in her dead fiance’s boat in Float Plan. Now Anna is getting married to Keane in Ireland, and Carla is going to be the maid of honor. Eamon, Keane’s brother, has been tasked with picking her up from the airport, but instead, invites her to meet him at the Confession Box, a tiny hole in the wall bar. She taps Eamon as her fake boyfriend the moment he walks in, kissing him to deflect unwanted advances from another barfly, and drinks turn into dinner, which leads into making love at his apartment.

A world traveler, Carla regales Eamon with stories of her single dad, a history teacher with summers off who took his little girl to nearly every state park in the country to stave off loneliness. Eamon has always longed to backpack but feels obligated to do what his family expects of him. With several days before the wedding, Carla talks Eamon into a little car camping and sightseeing. There’s a deadline to their fling, and the best man/maid of honor hookup is totally cliche, but this story works.

Like other novels in the series, this is highly character driven, and the journey motif is physical and geographical as well as internal. Carla’s dad is suffering from dementia, and she hasn’t been home to see him in six years–at his encouragement. She lives her life by a traveler’s code he ingrained in her from a young age, like “if it doesn’t fit in your backpack, you don’t need it,” and there is no such thing as being lost. After meeting Eamon, though, she begins to question her rolling stone gathers no moss philosophy and mourns that she met The One at a time in her life when she still doesn’t want to settle down. She also recognizes she might not want to be a seasonal bartender at retirement age. She breaks it off with Eamon… and goes home to see her dad, where his second wife and caretaker is all too happy to get a break for a few days. Details about caring for someone in mental decline are sensitive and authentic. Fans of the series may find this is little lighter and a little faster paced, but very satisfying nonetheless. Making a choice to forge a new path might be the plan, after all, and Carla may not be as off the map as she thinks.

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

Infamous by Minerva Spencer

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Infamous by Minerva Spencer

Spencer. Minerva. Infamous (Rebels of the Ton, #3). Kensington, 2021. 352 pp. ISBN 9781496732873 $15.95

***

A prank gone wrong results in a marriage of convenience, banishment, and hurt feelings; can the perpetrator be redeemed? Celia Trent, a nasty backstabbing debutante trying desperately win a rich husband to raise her station in life, meant to trap her intended’s annoying and odious twin Richard with the dull wallflower Phyllida Singleton as a joke at a ball, but instead it’s Lucien (Lord Davenport) who is comprised overnight in a locked room with Phyl. They make the best of it, marry, and even have two children, but something is off.

It takes sister Toni’s engagement to the unsavory bully Sebastian, Lord Dowden–the mastermind behind the mean behavior so many years ago–to uncover and set right the wrongs of ten years ago. Celia, now a widowed working girl playing maid to an ornery, elderly member of the ton, has been invited to the wedding festivities, to take place over the Christmas holiday. If she can just make it to the year’s end a bonus is hers. Once back in society’s orbit, Celia is shocked to feel a pull not towards Luce, but to Richard, now an naturalist whose risque paper on the breeding imperative makes him still weird, but not as odious as in his gawky young adulthood. She slowly realizations her fascination with him may have been chemistry, not aversion, all those years ago. One by one, Celia makes her apologies to each wronged party and is wonderfully accountable.She is reluctant to disclose the existence of her daughter (results of an unplanned pregnancy via Dowden), her history as a mistress, and her growing feelings for Richard, resulting in an air of mysteries unravelled throughout the novel. Will she–or someone else?–spill the beans about Dowden’s true nature, or will young, naive Toni marry in haste?

The story takes part in winter on an estate in regency England and captures the long weekend feeling with its’ food, fun and games; rivalries and romances. Period details feel authentic, as does the unsavory behavior. For the most part, the characters are quirky and interesting. I haven’t read the others in the series, but did not find it a hindrance to enjoying this novel.

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