Posted in Books

“Secretly Yours” by Tessa Bailey

I have read some Tessa Bailey, but I’m not a completest for her. I’ve enjoyed some of her work in the past, but WOOF this one was a miss. Secretly Yours is overly long, dull, and lacks both depth and interesting characters. This review will mainly be a roast of this ridiculous book, and enumerating all of the ways it is bad. If you’re a Tessa Bailey fan, I think you’ll be disappointed by this one.

Julian Vos is a professor at Stanford, and he’s also a member of the Vos family, the prominent vintners in St. Helena. We are never told what kind of professor he is- it’s something to do with time or history maybe? He’s back at home in St. Helena, living in his family’s guest house, because he’s taking a sabbatical from work to write a book.

Hallie Welch is a local gardener, and she’s been in love with Julian since high school. She’s a chaotic person with a good heart, and she’s dealing with the loss of her beloved grandmother, who raised her. Hallie decides to use Julian’s return to their hometown to see if he remembers her from high school, and if there could be a spark between them.

I’m not really a fan of the secret admirer trope, which is used poorly in this story. Many other reviewers have said that it adds nothing, and I disagree: I think it makes the book actively worse. The only place it matters is at the end, where Hallie’s absence in retrieving a letter to hide it accidentally triggers a panic attack.

The mental health representation in this book is ABYSMAL. I cannot believe I haven’t seen anyone else writing about this! Maybe readers just haven’t noticed it, but it’s truly awful. Julian has an anxiety disorder, and panic attacks, and he has previously gone to therapy. When his coping mechanisms stop helping and start hurting him, he doesn’t, I don’t know, SEEK HELP. Instead, he jumps into a relationship and does a grand gesture. Hallie doesn’t blame Julian for his mental illness, which is good, but Julian doesn’t get treatment. I have said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, MENTAL ILLNESS CANNOT BE CURED WITH LOVE, OR FRIENDSHIP, OR PUPPIES. This is just another iteration of my least favorite naughties trope: the throwing your meds out the window. *sigh* If this book wasn’t so poorly structured, this issue alone would kill it for me.

There isn’t really much of a plot? Julian and Hallie are supposedly finding themselves, but I don’t really see that happen anywhere in the text. Hallie is an interesting character, possibly with shades of ADHD? But she doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s no development, and no real growth. What does she want? Who does she want to be? All we really get is who her mother is, and who her grandmother was. Who is Hallie? I couldn’t tell you. Julian isn’t particularly distinct either- he’s kind of uptight, but what are his interests? No idea. It was also weird that Hallie seems to have no life experience? It’s like she froze when Julian was last in town and has resumed life now that he’s back. She’s never been in a relationship, and that’s not unusual for her age, but why? Give us some context! Tell me what her life is like! Any details at all!

I feel like Bailey tends to write characters as relatable instead of giving them real traits. Hallie is kind of a cringe, embarrassing person, and we’ve all done cringe things. But that doesn’t make her a real person to me. Hallie seems to genuinely be struggling with the loss of her only real parent, and instead of exploring that, she’s kind of infantilized by the people who love her? Like the response to someone you care about acting irrationally following a death isn’t chastising. I do think Hallie has a good support network, they just don’t seem to support her much. Equally, I’m not sure Julian has any friends? He has that WASPy, closed relationship with his family that evolves into being closer by the end of the book, but this man seems to genuinely not have any friends outside of coworkers.

I think the main point is that this book is severely underwritten. I think St. Helena had potential, but the foundation can’t be the house. You need to actually build it, and that didn’t happen. It’s nearly 400 pages of nothing. Give it a pass.

Posted in Books

“Partner Track” by Cat Wynn

Partner Track by Cat Wynn is a contemporary workplace romance between two lawyers who can’t come to terms about their attachment.

Perdie is thirty-nine and hasn’t made partner at her law firm yet. Never mind that she worked her way up, she’s about to land a big fish that will finally get her the recognition she deserves. Too bad that instead of getting a promotion, she gets a new coworker- Carter Leplan. Carter, who she just destroyed in arbitration. Carter, who she had a fabulously hot encounter with that night. Carter, who is now a partner at her law firm. Eek.

I think this is a great book, and it’s amazing for a debut novel. I loved all of the characters- particularly Lucille and Perdie’s friendship. Because Perdie is a bit older than your average romance protagonist, she and Lucille have been friends for a few decades, and their relationship is more familial than anything else. All of the characters were really dynamic and interesting, and I hope that there will be a second book for Lucille and Noah.

Carter is an amazing love interest and I enjoyed him immensely. He follows the current trend of male love interests being all-in, which I love. I think he’s a bit of a flat character, but that’s because the story isn’t really about him needing to grow and change. His big arc is falling in love with Perdie, and also taking some of the risks he wouldn’t have normally. I think their relationship is written perfectly, the issues they face as a couple mostly stem from Perdie’s emotional problems. There are some external pressures, but for the most part, Perdie is her own greatest enemy. I like how emotionally complex Perdie is, and I do love that she pursues a healthier, happier life with therapy. We need more therapy in romance! I think Perdie’s arc is great, and I love how things work out, but I would have liked a bit more of a resolution. I love how much development Perdie gets, and she comes so far, but I wanted to see her thrive a bit more.

I do think that a lot of readers will be put off by this cover, which I do not like. The color scheme is fine, but the illustrated cover conveys a lightness this book really doesn’t have. This is a very steamy romance, and it starts out that way. Also, I know a lot of people were annoyed that the dog on the cover does not make it through the book. Though it didn’t bother me, I think he doesn’t belong on the cover. This book isn’t really a lighthearted romance, and I think a more down-to-earth cover would have conveyed that. It’s super funny, and I don’t think it’s a dark story, but it’s definitely not as light as it looks. I almost completely passed this one by, because the cover seemed kinda off to me, but I liked the blurb so I gave it a chance. I did love it, so I hope some folks can look past it.

Partner Track can be purchased wherever books are sold. A copy of this book was provided to this reviewer in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Books

“When Sparks Fly” by Helena Hunting

I really enjoyed Helena Hunting’s 2019 release Meet Cute, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it’s a hot mess. The premise is strong, and it has a lot of fun tropes, but the book has so many problems that this review will mostly be a litany of my complaints. When Sparks Fly is pretty disappointing, especially if you get excited about a good friends-to-lovers slow burn.

The book starts out with Avery Sparks living with her best friend Declan platonically. They have been close since college, but their bond solidified after Declan took Avery’s side in a terrible breakup. Avery works for her family’s hotel and event space, and is very proud of her work. She’s also an avid sportswoman and super active. Declan is in finance, and also very into sports. They share a condo and a friend group, but they’ve never been romantically involved. While Avery certainly knows Declan is attractive, he’s a commitment-phobe and she’s seen him break a lot of hearts. Their relationship becomes a lot more intense when he takes care of her following a car accident that leaves Avery partially immobilized and in need of a lot of help. They give in to mutual attraction, but Declan’s baggage might scuttle their happily every after.

There are a lot of issues with this book, but I do love the premise. I love friends to lovers, sickbed, and forced proximity, and I think there are a lot of themes that really could have worked if they were given space to breathe. The problem is that this book wasn’t finished. Reading closely, there are a lot of dropped threads, and the story really needed to go through a few more drafts before reaching its final form. I really liked the ground laid for Avery being too into her work. Being such a driven person could have been tied to the loss of her parents, or a desire to make her grandma proud, or even just a need for stability. But we never see how or why she develops better work-life balance, nor is the problem really interrogated. There is a point at the end where it could have been addressed, but it just doesn’t happen. I also really enjoyed the vibe that was attempted with the mostly male friend group, but unfortunately this too was a victim of underdevelopment. The two male friends and Avery’s sisters are all basically interchangeable, with so few traits assigned to them you could have basically removed one of each.

Then, there are the points where one simply cannot suspend disbelief. Am I supposed to believe that 1) someone brought pot cookies to a gathering with an invalid and 2) she ate all of them soundlessly and quickly, without one of three other people seeing her? The whole “getting stoned and doing something regrettable” is such a cliche, and it’s not a good one. Frankly, this should have been cut in the first draft.

I also just don’t buy that no one else works at the damn hotel. Three people cannot run an entire hotel and event space, it is simply not possible. A small bed and breakfast? Sure. Not a fancy hotel that caters to large gatherings. Also, the manufactured money problems are a joke. If the venue has been open for three generations, I don’t buy that there’s no savings or slush fund to get them out of a small financial quagmire. If Hunting wanted to set up money troubles, we needed more context. Like, their grandmother had been struggling for a few years, or there was some kind of huge damage to the property that drained them. Also, where does their grandmother go? She is supposedly on a retirement trip to Italy, but it’s mentioned offhandedly that Avery wants to fix up a fountain for her return. And she’s just never mentioned again? This is something that could have been caught in another round of edits. If the grandmother just needed to be out of the way without having another tragic death, she could have just retired and moved to Florida for part of the year. Avery’s sisters are woefully underwritten, basically just serving as plot devices.

A huge component of the book is that both characters have a Tragic Backstory. Avery lost both of her parents as a teenager, and Declan’s parents had a toxic relationship that soured him on love and commitment. However, despite some mentions of Avery’s trauma, she never really talks to Declan about her parents, and we don’t see how their deaths drives her or changed her life too much, except in one or two small ways. If you’re going to have Dead Parents as a trope, you need to justify it. It just comes off that the parents needed to be out of the way, and that’s pretty lazy. If the effects of their deaths had been expanded upon, it could have been a great way to characterize and distinguish the two sisters, so this is a huge missed opportunity.

Declan’s trauma really drives the story, and it’s his issues that cause the third act breakup. Declan, in a moment of jealous rage fueled by his parental issues, treats Avery like trash, and doesn’t give her a moment to diffuse the situation. He’s clearly having a trauma trigger response, and neither of them have the tools to deal with it. I’m not mad about this plot twist, but the execution frustrated me. After, Avery is basically super understanding and Declan ices her out. Then, he eventually gets on his feet, and she wants to forgive him instantly and be together. Still, he keeps distance between them so that he doesn’t just use sex to resolve their relationship problems, and Avery just waits for him???? They carry on a long-distance friendship for a while, which seems needless, but okay. Then, he does a grand gesture and they get back together, and we get a proposal epilogue. Thanks, I hate it. Declan does off-page therapy and he just deserves her forgiveness? NO. Just because you understand why someone did something shitty doesn’t mean it never happened. This really rings false.

One of the main structural issues of this story was the dual points of view- if you’re going to have both, it needs to add something. We kept getting the same thing from both characters. “I shouldn’t want him, but this increased proximity is making me see him differently.” “She’s my best friend, and she needs me right now, but my hormones are taking over and I need to stop wanting her.” It adds nothing- if you took out the Declan chapters, I’m pretty sure you’d still have the same basic story. Plus, after the third act breakup, we get almost no Declan, I assume to keep the suspense alive and help smooth the happy ending, but it does the opposite. It feels so uneven. Declan does all of this growing off-page, and so it feels unearned and kind of rushed. The end is pretty lackluster overall, but this really contributed to the problem.

There are also just a few little things that annoyed me. In a better book, I would have let them roll off my back, but this was bad. Avery is Not Like Other Girls, being sporty and rejecting a lot of traditional femininity. I don’t like that Declan only really realizes he’s attracted to her when she wears revealing, feminine clothing- workout clothes can be very sexy! And being sexy and being feminine are not the same! There are also a lot of gendered assumptions in the book, like “men this, women that” which rubbed me the wrong way. I also rolled my eyes reading some of the traits assigned to Avery. She prefers male friends because they’re chill? Sure, Jan. I also hate the trope of the sporty girl who reluctantly takes on femininity to attract men. I don’t buy AT ALL that it took Declan seeing her in a dress to make him jealous. I’m just not a fan of female characters taking on affects that make them uncomfortable uncritically, I like seeing them empowered in their own skin, at least by the end of the book.

If you read the 75% of the book, you probably wouldn’t notice the plot holes as much, but after that point it deteriorates pretty quickly into just a plot swamp. Hunting is a strong writer, and I have no problem with her prose, this book is just a hot mess in terms of plot and character, which are kind of important.

Posted in Books

“A Lot Like Adiós” by Alexis Daria

A Lot Like Adiós is an amazing new contemporary romance from Alexis Daria , following Michelle Amato, cousin to the heroine from You Had Me at Hola, and her one-that-got-away, Gabe.

Gabe and Mich were best friends and neighbors, but Gabe ran away from his family (and by extension Michelle) after high school. He started his life over on the other side of the country, while Michelle got on with her life. Michelle is successful, motivated, and intentionally single, with little desire to cave to her family’s marriage-minded proddings. Gabe is equally unattached, focusing on expanding his business. When chance throws Gabe back into Michelle’s orbit, the two have a lot of tension to work out, and a lot of history to untangle. Michelle is still angry, and Gabe hasn’t fully moved on from what made him leave.

This book bangs, just leading with that. Michelle and Gabe have crazy chemistry and seeing them try to work that out, first physically and then emotionally, really works. I’m also a sucker for a lot of the tropes in this one- it’s a second chance, childhood best friends, enemies-to-lovers, and secret-FWB. This is all catnip for me. Just like You Had Me at Hola, these characters have issues that are backed up by a strong emotional core, making the conflict between them feel real and urgent. I think the family stuff (on both sides) was handled very well, without minimizing the past. I loved this book, I think it’s incredible. Definitely read it if you liked YHMaH, I think it’s even better.

The reviewer was provided with a copy of this book for review. You can purchase A Lot Like Adiós anywhere books are sold, or borrow it from your local library.