Publisher: Gallery Books

Sidelined by Suzanne Baltsar

Sidelined by Suzanne BaltsarSidelined by Suzanne Baltsar
Published by Gallery Books on 27th August 2019
Pages: 320
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two-stars

When Connor McGuire loses out on his dream job of being the head coach of the local high school football team, he thinks life can’t get any worse. Then he discovers just who got the coveted position—it was a handout to the kid of a well-known, successful college coach. Connor’s sure this is just a publicity stunt, but the kid turns out to be not only a sharp strategist, but a driven and sexy young woman, too. Frustrated in more ways than one, Connor realizes that he might have to step up his game or risk losing altogether.

Coach Charlotte “Charlie” Gibb calls a flag on the play when she finds out that her very male, very attractive, but definitely-rooting-for-her-to-lose assistant coach resents her for taking what he considers to be his rightful position. But never one to back down from a little healthy competition, Charlie is determined to prove her worth—both on and off the field.

Hacking it in a man’s world of competitive sports is tough, but as the head coach of a high-school football team with disgruntled men with the boys’ club mentality, Charlie Gibb starts off with everything against her.

I commiserated immediately. ‘Sidelined’ was a book I wanted to read because I needed to see a woman succeed in a position that typically garners misogynistic comments, barely-veiled sexual barbs and plain old discrimination because of her gender. To this extent, Suzanne Baltsar tells a pretty decent New Adult story of what it probably takes to make it—and stay standing—in an all boys’ club.
It was primarily characterisation of the unlikeable protagonists that I had a problem with—and a pairing that I simply couldn’t get behind. I found neither Connor Mcguire nor Charlie Gibb blameless in all their self-made conflicts, stubborn and defensive as they were of their own behaviour without wanting to give each other an inch for most of the book. The shift from enemies-to-lovers came too abruptly (I didn’t feel much chemistry there) and I just couldn’t quite get the frenzied push-pull that was somehow called heated foreplay when all I saw was hostile sniping and unkind insults.
To begin with, Charlie wasn’t easy to like, abrasive and pushy (and sometimes lacking total control of her emotions) as she was after her years of fighting male opposition and public scrutiny. In fact, she was one of the most callously insensitive ‘heroines’ I’ve ever come across; making light of Connor’s history in comparison to the way she’d tried to overcome her own insecurities and her constantly eagerness to push the blame onto Connor for their relationship problems made her bloody intolerable.
Yet frankly, I’m also well aware that she might be a protagonist I can see some readers liking for standing her ground as stubbornly as possible while shooting her mouth out at everything that her sensibilities are offended by.
On the other hand, throw in Connor’s emotional shutdowns, the constant blowing hot and cold? I was tired of them by the time I finished the book.
I wish I liked ‘Sidelined’ a lot better—I did come in expecting a rom-com-type story, but was left feeling by the end of it as though I was stuck with a pairing that would easily fall apart when the next big obstacle was thrown their way.
two-stars

Desperate Girls by Laura Griffin

Desperate Girls by Laura GriffinDesperate Girls by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security #1
Published by Gallery Books on 7th August 2018
Pages: 368
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four-stars

Defense attorney Brynn Holloran is right at home among cops, criminals, and tough-as-nails prosecutors. With her sharp wit and pointed words, she has a tendency to intimidate, and she likes it that way. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom, but in her personal life, she’s a mess.

When a vicious murderer she once helped prosecute resurfaces and starts a killing spree to wipeout those who put him behind bars, one thing becomes clear: Brynn needs to run for her life.

With no help from the police, Brynn is forced to take matters into her own hands, turning to a private security firm for protection. But when Brynn defies advice and gets involved in the investigation, even the former Secret Service agent assigned to protect her may not be able to keep her safe. With every new clue she discovers, Brynn is pulled back into the vortex of a disturbing case from her past.

As the clock ticks down on a manhunt, Brynn’s desperate search for the truth unearths long-buried secrets and reignites a killer’s fury.

‘Desperate Girls’ isn’t a title I’d immediately associated with the blurb of the story and it became quite clear from the onset that the story is so much more than the rather irrelevant-sounding title. As a sort-of offshoot of Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I was eager nonetheless to take a closer look into Liam Wolfe’s Security company staffed by supersized heroes and the different kind of romantic suspense revolving around security that Griffin was going to write.

The stoic bodyguard who eventually falls for his principal when they are paired up—typically reluctantly on the latter’s part—as a threat escalates isn’t a new idea, but Griffin’s take on it is a unique, intriguing one, going further than the usual bodyguard-type romance. The standout as always, is Griffin’s writing, her ability to juggle so many elements at once while revealing the intricate details about the security business that simply go beyond shadowing a principal. The complexity of the police case, the red-herrings, solid protagonists and the well-researched and fantastic writing made ‘Desperate Girls’ an entertaining read, even though my rather shallow way of measuring this had partially to do with the amount of sleep I had the past few nights at night as I got lost in Griffin’s writing.

My only gripes were the few TSTL moments early on, the courtroom drama that proved a bit of a lull (I was more caught up in the danger of a psychopathic, escaped convict and the slow, amping up of the action) and the final plot-twist feeling like a last-gasp attempt at drama that proved to be downers for me. I did feel that characterisation suffered a little under the hyper-focus on the court case and the overall suspense but these however, weighed against how much I enjoyed the developing action nonetheless, probably seem somewhat churlish to include. Still, the pulse-pounding moments, all leading up to the action-movie-type ending (complete with the exotic location) seemed to be over too soon, leaving me eager for the next book in this promising series and its fresh, new cast of characters.

four-stars

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina LaurenJosh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on 4th September 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them...right?

Josh and Hazel are apparently undateable together—that much power-writing duo Christina Lauren wants to bring across. But the irony is that they are never better matched despite their opposite ways, as the story trundles on. Both go on blind double dates (mostly disasters), get on as good friends (loads of banter and nonsense talk), then finally realise that they do actually belong together.

After having quite a good time with a few of this duo’s books, jumping into Lauren’s ‘Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating’ was something I eagerly did…that is, until the very first chapter caught me out with the antics of a female protagonist I had a bad feeling about.

There’s no other way for me to say this, but I simply found Hazel cringe-worthy. At least, there’s the part where the adorable, bumbling fool kind of woman would probably find purchase with many readers because it’s so obvious how flawed she is. Unfortunately, she simply read like a protagonist who couldn’t grow up and stayed that way so as to become as a plot device mirroring the loud, clueless millennial—as reported about with derision in the newspapers these days—who stumbles over everything and says whatever her mouth decides to say without engaging her brain.

But unlike Bridget Jones, she appears fully formed, owns her quirks, and pretty much heads the movement for how women should be themselves (and proud of it for going through men, not wanting commitment) without changing for anyone…which is a good thing right?

Um.

For me, it was too much, too hard, too affected because it felt like the authors were trying too hard to make her the kind of woman who’s just like a commitment-phobic male protagonist unable to hold a relationship. Written as larger than life because it’s fiction and drawn up so deliberately like a character in a sitcom or as a mirror of this kind of male hero, Hazel simply made me sigh in resignation and not in a good way.

Unlike the usual style of Lauren’s that compelled me to read what this writing duo has done so far—the first person narrative, the huge touch of the insane in this romcom—this book started as a rough ride for me, oddly so because of its very lighthearted feel that just didn’t leave me clutching my sides in laughter. It did get somewhat better as Josh and Hazel find their groove together first as good friends, but I couldn’t really hold an interest in a book where the protagonists obliquely get closer together while dating others.

In short, it’s a story that will appeal to many, but it isn’t one for me.

two-stars

Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

Love and Other Words by Christina LaurenLove and Other Words by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on April 10th 2018
Pages: 432
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four-stars

The story of the heart can never be unwritten.

Macy Sorensen is settling into an ambitious if emotionally tepid routine: work hard as a new pediatrics resident, plan her wedding to an older, financially secure man, keep her head down and heart tucked away.

But when she runs into Elliot Petropoulos—the first and only love of her life—the careful bubble she’s constructed begins to dissolve. Once upon a time, Elliot was Macy’s entire world—growing from her gangly bookish friend into the man who coaxed her heart open again after the loss of her mother...only to break it on the very night he declared his love for her.

Told in alternating timelines between Then and Now, teenage Elliot and Macy grow from friends to much more—spending weekends and lazy summers together in a house outside of San Francisco devouring books, sharing favorite words, and talking through their growing pains and triumphs. As adults, they have become strangers to one another until their chance reunion. Although their memories are obscured by the agony of what happened that night so many years ago, Elliot will come to understand the truth behind Macy’s decade-long silence, and will have to overcome the past and himself to revive her faith in the possibility of an all-consuming love.

One thing I know after reading ‘Love and Other Words’ is that that’s Christina Lauren’s searing, literary-tinged writing is the book’s standout, more so because of a romance built on intellect, the love of words and books. Lauren takes on the second-chance romance with aplomb here and I’m grudgingly admitting that the unusual mix of circumstances and events do make this scenario more plausible than many others that I’ve come across, thereby making Elliot/Macy a pairing that aren’t back together just because they decided to give it a go once again.

Told with interspersed flashbacks but only in Macy’s POV, Elliot’s and Macy’s story is one of teenage love, love lost and then found again many years later, all because a mistake turns into a history of grief and tragedy that neither could have expected. In the present, serendipity—written as fate that would inevitably draw these one-time lovers back together again—forces an awkward reunion in a coffee shop and the moment Elliot and Macy are back in each other’s orbits, their coming back together despite the circumstances is written and seen as inevitability. If the timeline in the past is one of anticipatory dread to the moment where they are torn apart, the present crawls a little, almost moving backwards as it constantly points towards the upcoming revelation of what really happened before closing with a short (and rather abrupt) resolution thereafter.

Structurally, ‘Love and Other Words’ is well-balanced between past and present, as the measured but slow pacing of Elliot’s and Macy’s relationship builds to a point where you cannot—or would not—look away from the train wreck that’s coming. The rocky road back together isn’t necessarily an enjoyable a journey for every reader nonetheless; Macy’s engagement and Elliot’s quick breakup with his girlfriend mean that secondary characters do play a role here, and it could be argued that cheating (sort-of) had been a significant part of the whole mess.

There’s breadth and depth in the storytelling and insights given into the emotional damage they’ve both carried throughout the years, though it is harder to believe however, that they could gravitate towards each other again that easily and quickly after 11 years. I actually wanted to know if there was really any comeuppance for the guilty parties involved which felt glossed over, but Lauren does not get into the tic-for-tac business nonetheless. This is my own cynical and vindictive self speaking clearly, as the focus steadfastly remains on the idea of star-crossed lovers and soul mates who, after having established their belonging to each other in their teens, seem destined to always love and find each other again no matter the distance. Elliot/Macy are, by this time, above the mistakes of their past, though I would have been happier seeing a more concrete resolution that didn’t just span the last 2 or so chapters wrapping up their HEA that prioritised their moving on and moving in together.

‘Love and Other Words’ does however, suggest that there’s only ‘the one’ without whom the other can’t function properly—it’s an idea I’m vaguely uncomfortable with, despite the commonly-held romantic notion perpetuated in fiction that 2 people are simply biding time (with others) before they can get back to each other. Furthermore, Elliot’s assumption that they could have waved the past away with an explanation of his drunken mistake without considering the ramifications of the betrayal felt overly optimistic as well; that it should be forgiven because he hadn’t known he was making the mistake at the time just doesn’t feel justified enough.

But maybe I’m grasping at straws for a pretty entertaining read; the all-is-right-with-the-world ending is what Elliot/Macy’s dreams are supposed to be made of after all, isn’t it?

four-stars

Roomies by Christina Lauren

Roomies by Christina LaurenRoomies by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on December 5th 2017
Pages: 368
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four-stars

Marriages of convenience are so…inconvenient.

Rescued by Calvin McLoughlin from a would-be subway attacker, Holland Bakker pays the brilliant musician back by pulling some of her errand-girl strings and getting him an audition with a big-time musical director. When the tryout goes better than even Holland could have imagined, Calvin is set for a great entry into Broadway—until he admits his student visa has expired and he’s in the country illegally.

Holland impulsively offers to wed the Irishman to keep him in New York, her growing infatuation a secret only to him. As their relationship evolves from awkward roommates to besotted lovers, Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway. In the middle of the theatrics and the acting-not-acting, what will it take for Holland and Calvin to realise that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?

Have you ever wanted something so much that you’d do anything for it, particularly when life is in limbo?

‘Roomies’ seems to revolve around this central question with the fake marriage trope, when a series of events actually leads to the courthouse to get around immigration issues, until feelings get thrown into the mix.

I’m going to say from the start that I’m quite simply blown away by Christina Lauren’s prose. That much alone kept me up late at night, though I did have to give into the pillow by the time I was a third through. Still, the meta-speak about authorship, the nuanced understanding of dreams that grow smaller and flit away as the years go by, the fear of never being the person you’ve aspired to—they’re all very adult-themes that are written into this story, woven with metaphors of performance, music and the being players on life’s very stage which I loved and wanted to linger over. How long has it been since I’ve had a book like this, after all?

This, by extension, made Holland a very relatable protagonist, well, at least up to three-quarters of the way when I empathised with her and walked in her shoes. Written wholly in her POV, the authors stripped Holland raw—the embarrassing bits don’t get put away and shoved into a closet; they were instead, brought out to light via her rambly thoughts, in a manner that had me grimacing and cringing with her because stuff to do with infatuation can’t always be remembered through rose-tinted lenses particularly when you’re confronted directly with it. By and large, I loved the slow burn, the gradual development and the deepening of Holland’s and Calvin’s connection past the crush and down to the nitty-gritties of a relationship.

But ‘Roomies’ did take a bit of an unwelcome turn that felt like unnecessary angst with small obstructions here and there, as was the whole cliché of needing to reinvent oneself or trying to find oneself in that journey to sort out the emotional mess that I found myself rolling my eyes at. That bit, that enforced separation, simply felt like a way of forcing ‘character growth’ while keeping them miserable and to some extent and wallowing in self-pity while a supposed transformative work of art was in the making during this turning point.

In movie-speak, it’s the dawning of the new day after blustery, electricity-popping thunderstorm before the HEA happens—essentially, the waxing-lyrical about the need to rediscover those years of lost self-worth.

And I hated it with a passion.

Not just the clichéd conflict but also the whole new level of Holland’s self-absorption, paranoia and low self-esteem that seemed to take the story apart after the glorious build, just as I wanted to scream that every relationship took work despite the screw-ups and that this separation felt more like running away than anything else, because no one seemed the better for it.

Kicking Calvin out to take time for herself, then getting angry when she had a glimpse of him apparently moving on and making assumptions without really finding out what happened? Just what became of the Holland of the earlier pages that I near-idolised, who in fact, seemed to have become more brittle and more cowardly than the one who meandered her way around searching for purpose a few months past her walking away? Had this break really served its purpose, then, if all I got at the end was a weepy, egg-on-her-face woman who’d lost more than I thought she’d gained?

Some may say Holland/Calvin’s HEA was hard-won. I can only shake my head and say that it could have come sooner, with a lot less drama and well, stupidity—without taking the fun out of it to boot.

four-stars