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Love in Panels Review: Stripped by Zoey Castile

This review was originally published at Love in Panels:

Zac Fallon has been stripping for 10 years and he has always loved everything about it. He loves making women smile, being in the spotlight, the camaraderie with the other guys in the show, the freedom to travel and the money. But he just doesn’t quite love it as much as before - something is missing in his life.

Robyn Flores had it all together once. She is the one who did everything right but ever since since her 

best friend, Lily, the wild one of their duo, got engaged and started settling down, her life has started falling apart. She is happy for Lily, maybe a bit jealous of how together and happy she seems, that she can’t bring herself to tell Lily about how much she struggling. Robyn can barely get to work on time, is coming dangerously close to losing her teaching job and has little clue of why she can’t bring herself to care.

This Magic Mike XXL-inspired romance by Zoey Castile (who writes YA as Zoraida Cordova) was a roller-coaster - part frantic romantic comedy, part angsty relationship drama. While there are lots of glitzy and sexy scenes, what I loved were the quieter romantic moments that let me see why Fallon and Robyn were getting so wrapped up with each other so quickly. Castile captures the allure of someone who listens but might not be there to judge one’s bad choices the next day, especially as Robyn struggles to figure out what she wants to do, not what she thinks will please the people in her life.

But he listens to every word and, somehow, the space between us on the couch disappears and we’re sitting side by side...”

-Robyn -- Stripped by Zoey Castile

I also I really like the frank moments late in the novel where Lily and Robyn finally face why their friendship is floundering and it was interesting to contrast the state of their relationship to that of Fallon’s with Ricky and Aiden.

“... they want the spectacle. I want someone who might see more in me.”

-Fallon -- Stripped by Zoey Castile

The ‘Magic Mike Life” that Fallon is living is losing its charm after 10 years. Hosting an apartment-full of women for an after-party, just feels like a chore rather than a perk. But is an adjustment to become someone’s boyfriend, even a temporary one. Castile does a good job presenting the double edged ness of Fallon’s career. While he has plenty of people who get it and support him simple small talk with Robyn friends and family feels like traps, intentionally or unintentionally. Fallon is ready for something new, for a change, but outside of loving Robyn what that new thing was left too vague for my liking. 

I got a little tripped up in the early chapters by several eyebrow-raising references related to Robyn’s teaching (how can any teacher avoid meeting their new principal for two months? Do they not have faculty meetings?) but if anything, it showed how checked out Robyn was from her career and her life in general. Her gigantic heavy work bag she lugs back and forth to work did make me feel seen. I also appreciated that she frequently considered filling out union incident reports because she was certainly entitled to have done so. The whole storyline with Lukas, her inappropriately fixated principal was an ode to trusting one's instincts when other people think someone is okay.

There is a lot to like in this romance and I am intrigued enough by a lot of supporting characters, particularly Ricky the lead choreographer and organizer of the crew that I will come back to the Happy Endings series again.

If you are looking for a Magic Mike XXL-inspired romance with a sweet hero that doesn’t sugar coat the challenges, is full of emotionally messy people, set in a NYC that is as diverse as the real one and has just enough humor to balance the angst you should check this out.

I received an ARC for this book for review consideration from its publishers, Kensington.


Thirsty by Mia Hopkins (Eastside Brewery Bk 1)

Second chances new start (1)When his temporary post-prison living arrangements fall apart, Salvador Rosas need a cheap place to crash, quick.  Chinita, an old lady from the neighborhood lets him crash in her garage for $200 and the labor of cleaning it out.  Chinita's granddaughter Vanessa, loses her mind when she finds out, but lets him stay anyway, on probation. 

Sal was sent to prison at 19, after spending most of his teens stealing cars and running with a Hollenbeck gang in East LA, ever since his family started disintegrating after his mother and sister's death. He knew back then that Vanessa  was too good for him, with her good grades and her drive. But just as he was being sentenced, she was finding out she was pregnant by the first boy she ever kissed, another gangster just like him, Sleepy.

In the 5 years Sal spent in Prison, Vanessa's life changed. Widowed before she became a mother, she didn't get out of the neighborhood, but she did get her degree. She works hard as bookkeeper, studying hard to pass the CPA exam. She let her life get derailed once and is determined not to let it ever happen again.

Thirsty is told exclusively through Sal's POV, his worries, anxiety and tension about what to do next with his life is central and that focus is what makes this story work. Sal is big, dangerously built, charming and super-sexy, but from his POV we also know how he struggles to acclimate to life outside of prison, to figure out what the right choices are for him.  We  know that he is wary, anxious and utterly convinced that he isn't worth taking a risk on.  That contrast between his outward  image from images-na.ssl-images-amazon.comappearance and his inner vulnerability allows me to connect to him.

Hopkins does a wonderful job with depicting the complexity of Vanessa and Sal's connection to their neighborhood and their Mexican American heritage.  While I don't love the fact that Sal and Vanessa's ex, were both gang-members and the centrality of gang life to the story, and I wish there were more non-gang affiliated supporting characters in the story, I still liked it.  Chinita and her gang of elderly chismosas were a ton of fun. I also liked the contrasts Hopkins developed between the two white men who enter Sal's life.  Barry is his boss at the gym, sees someone he can exploit in Sal. He might frame his offer to train him to be a trainer as something that would benefit both of them, but Sal is right to be wary. To Barry, Sal is an opportunity.  Alan on the other hand, recognizes in Sal someone with potential.  He mentors and befriends without in non-patronizing way.  He feeds Sal's curiosity by sharing his passion openly and I wasn't surprised that he was there when Sal needed him most.

If you enjoy stories about second chances, about finding a new path in life despite past mistakes, try Thirsty. Despite my wariness that the story w
ould reinforce the very harmful stereotypes of Latinx criminality, it was a story that was very respectful of the challenges of growing up with few choices and focused on building a better future. 

 

 

 


RT Review Round-up December

Everything at Last by Kimberly Lang 

Nice Small town romance, that was easy to enter despite being the third? book in a series.  But it was a tricky review to write. There is a surprise revelation pretty far into the novel that I couldn't spoil. I struggled with how to address it.  

Cold Fusion by Harper Fox

This was a hard book to review. I really liked parts of it, but some elements were really problematic.  Really liked the setting and premise.  I don't know if it just me, but I found the names in this book very odd.


Never Loved by Charlotte Stein

23433442After spending most of her young life held captive by an unstable and abusive father, Beatrix is finally free. She is free to live a normal life & do normal things, and forget everything that came before, starting over and building a new life in a new town & new country. That she doesn't quite know how to be normal is not going to stop her, she is going to fake it till she makes it and hope that no one ever learns of her messed up past.  When her troubled brother goes missing, Beatrix finds an unlikely knight in a large, surly street-fighter named Serge. Serge is an inexplicably kind and soft-spoken giant of a man. He intervenes on Tommy's behalf and is always there to protect and rescue Beatrix.  But Serge holds himself apart from Beatrix.  Although clearly attracted and protective of her, Serge is baffled by Beatrix's interest in him.

In Never Loved, Stein brings together a young woman learning to be normal with a man who has never had that option. I found myself wanting to have Serge's POV instead of Beatrix's, which is the first time I have ever felt that way reading a Stein novel. The story as it was told was still very interesting but I found Serge's struggle to accept and see himself as worthy of Beatrix's desire more compelling.  I did enjoy how enthusiastic Beatrix is about everything that Serge thinks should scare her away, from his rough appearance, his crazy hair stripes and his almost uncontrollable desire for her.  By claiming Serge, Beatrix claims herself and her desires for the first time, inspiring her to build authentic relationships with other people. 

 

I received a review copy of Never Loved from the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 


The Dark Space by Mary Ann Rivers & Ruthie Knox

DarkSpace-500x750I've read all of Mary Ann Rivers and Ruthie Knox's previous books, but I really didn't know what to expect from The Dark Space. I particularly didn't know if Brain Mill Press's "love books for humans" could actually satisfy my romance loving heart.

The Dark Space is the story of Cal and Winnie, college seniors at a nameless smallish midwestern liberal arts college. Winnie is a wallflower, quietly observing but not belonging, bitter that all the things she wanted to happen and expected to happen to her at college never have.

Cal is a skinny, pushy professor's kid, too at home on campus, killing time till graduation and his dream of aimless slacker life in California. For their last semester they are both taking an extremely popular elective open only to seniors, Contact Improv, colloquially known around campus as "the Make-out class". Cal is eager, obnoxiously so, for the opportunities this class might give him. Winnie is reluctant and skeptical. The class is and is not what they expect it to be but it transforms them. The story takes a metaphysical/woo turn, when Cal and Winnie's energies collide and they become somewhat psychically linked, able to transmit their desires to each other. This bond, that Winnie terms The Dark Space, draws them toward each other, and other people. Their exploration of that magic, of its boundaries, its mutability, its permanence becomes the spark of their love story.


I'm in love with Cal Darling, and my love isn't beautiful or good in itself, but our love will lead us to beauty and truth. Our love will be the helper of our better natures.

Plato said it.

Professor Darling said it.

But what matters is that when I said it, Calvin Darling said yes.

The Dark Space veered off well-trod romance paths to become a different kind of story but I still enjoyed it for the most part. Although the story has a romantic arc, it did not feel like a romance, even if the climax of the story was a climax. It was really a story about self-discovery and self-love fueled by a love affair.

While Cal and Winnie are together happily at the end of the story, that was not the HEA. The HEA is the transformation they have experienced, the assurance Cal and Winnie have within themselves about how to move through life & the joy they have chosen to experience together.

The Dark Space occasionally got too woo and abstract for me, with its talk of energies, and inner lights and reflections on the nature of love. I was turned off by how privileged Winnie and Cal are in their college experience and how little acknowledgement of that is given by Rivers and Knox even when Cal and Winnie continually reflect on their college experience.

The Dark Space does captures well the fantasy of the final college semester, of a time that is supposed to be both the ending something and the beginning something and people search for ways to make it meaningful.

My favorite part of the whole book was Becky Mailer Darling. Becky is Cal's mom, who tells somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat awkward yet tender comforting stories. No one in the book really deserves how much she loves them, and I was a little heartbroken when she breezily summarizes her somewhat painful life, into brief paragraph. I wanted to pick her up out of this story and give her a better one.

In the end The Dark Space was an interesting, somewhat challenging book that had a stronger romantic arc than I expected.

I received a review copy of The Dark Space from Brain Mill Press.


The Girl Next Door (Bend or Break #3) by Amy Jo Cousins

811EYqcZ1iL._SL1500_This is book three of Amy Jo Cousins's mixed/crossover NA series Bend or Break for Samhain. I have not read the first two books which were M/M, and while some past conflicts and events are referenced the book stands well on it own. 

Cash is a former rich/jock/party boy who has radically remade his life. He left a job at his dad's firm, leaving the fancy car and downtown condo behind, to go work his dream job. He has been working in the inner city coaching kids for little more than minimum wage for two years and generally just working very hard at doing things the right way.  He has never felt like the smartest kid in the room, but is very aware of how massively privileged he has been in life, so he is doing his best to do something worthwhile and real.  But his life is complicated by the surprise arrival of his runaway gay teen cousin.  He doesn't want to screw things up further for his cousin, so he calls on his best friends Tom and Reese  for help. Tom and Reese urge him to call Steph. 

Steph is the reason for Cash's life change only she doesn't know it. She broke his heart when she ended their friends with benefits arrangement, to pursue a relationship with a closeted Muslim girl their last year of college together.  Although it has been two years since Cash and Steph have had any real contact when Cash needs help she drops everything to help him. 

I liked how quickly Steph and Cash fell back into their old habits of sexual flirtation and interest and how that was both very good (in bed) and very bad (emotionally) for them.  Their sexual compatibility and interest has never been an issue, but falling into bed together easily just masks their inability to honestly confront and talk about their feelings for one another. They are both playing the same game, hoping not to be hurt if they don't push for more and if they don't define what they are doing together.  The what-are-we-doing-but-I-want-more conversation between Steph and Cash gets pushed back into the background for a very long time, but once they do have it is spectacular. I loved how big and out of control their conversation became.  It felt like just the kind of friendship-splitting fight that could and would happen if a couple have been dancing around each other emotionally for months.

I liked the book as a whole a lot, particularly the exploration of the complicated ways friendship/relationships rules develop. There was an incredibly hot threesome (mentioned in the blurb) that I thought was fantastically executed but that I struggled somewhat to make sense of story wise. In talking to a friend about it I  realized that I might have been carrying some Erom expectations into this book as I don't usually read NA.  I had expected the threesome to serve as challenge or confirmation for Cash and Stephany and their relationship. But they were at the same place emotionally at the end of the threesome as they were at the beginning.  Cash trusts Steph and is blown away by her sexual adventurousness.  And it did not turn into a relationship test. What we do see is what a loving, tender and all around good guy Cash is by the way he treats Varun through out. We also see a continued exploration of Cash's straight but not narrow sexuality. However the threesome might have been pivotal for Varun and I'm curious if it will be revisited in Varun's book.  

Despite the story being told exclusively from Cash's point of view the story sometimes felt crowded. While Steph is first and foremost in  Cash's mind, his life is complicated. He is trying to figure out how to make his budget balance, how to take care of his cousin, how to do well at his job, how to be a good friend and at the same time figure out how to keep Steph in his life however much distance and artificial obstacles she wants to put between them. I thought his realization of how to finally achieve that was wonderful and true to his character and I can only wish Cash and Steph many many years of happiness.

I received a review copy of The Girl Next Door from the author, Amy Jo Cousins.


Signal Boost (Off the Grid #2) by Alyssa Cole

Signal Boost is the second novel in Alyssa Cole's post-apocalyptic series Off the Grid for Carina Press.  A mysterious event has damaged  the world's or at least North America's electrical grid and crippled communication systems.  In Radio Silence, John leads his best friend Arden out of Rochester, NY to his family's well stocked remote cabin.  There John's big brother Gabe and Arden unexpectedly fall in love.  Signal Boost is John's story and a continuation of the post-apocalyptic plot.

Pre-Flare, John or Jang-wan as he known to his family was a happy gay man, studying computer science and sharing an apartment with Arden. Post-Flare, his life has become stifling and monotonous, he lives for his pre-dawn conversations with Arden before the rest of the family wakes.  The predictable routine of his Post-Flare life is upset when he tackles an intruder trying to pilfer tomatoes from their vegetable garden.

Mykhail was an astro-physics graduate student Pre-Flare, home on extended leave to take care of ailing relative. His Post-Flare life has been incredibly traumatic. He hasn't had any of the comforts the Seong family has enjoyed. He has experienced the horrible things since the Flare and has very little to live for. The one thing that keeps him going is the hope that if he find his way back to his former college campus he can  help get the grid up and running again. Mykhail is convinced his former professor and graduate adviser was one of the few people prepared to respond to this event.  

Jang-wan & Mykhail immediately hit it off.  Mykhail is funny, interesting and they connect over long conversations about the cosmos while stargazing. Jang-wan jumps at the opportunity to be of  use. His orienteering skills can get Mykhail to Burrell where his computer skills might be again be of use. 

On the road Jang-wan & Mykhail get to know each other a lot better and face perilous situations. Jang-wan learns all about Mykahail's complicated family, and the life choices.  The heightened emotional situations they experience on the road eventually breakdown Mykhail's resistance to his attraction and admiration for Jang-wan.  The story takes a big shift at this point, moving from trek-road-trip romance to romantic suspense. Many things don't seem right at Burrell College and  Mykhail's will to pursue their relationship is very quickly tested.

I was really looking forward to this book. I enjoyed Radio Silence a great deal and the teaser chapter for Signal Boost was fantastic. But uneven pacing & world building issues tripped me up.  I liked the characters, but I liked the idea of them together more than I liked the execution of it.  Jang-Wan and Mykhail's lengthy conversations about the stars and astrophysics felt like they had been cribbed straight from Neil Degrasse Tyson's Cosmos series.  Jang-Wan & Mykhail's complex emotional and relationship issues  were abandoned in the last quarter of the novel, replaced by a larger set of issues. The action scenes and intrigues were exciting but I felt Mykhail & Jan-Wan's romantic arc suffered.  

 There was a lot of great potential in this story but it did not quite live up to my expectations.

I received a review copy of Signal Boost from Carina Press via NetGalley


Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole

Carina_0215_9781426899638_radiosilence

When the news turns ugly and I can't read anymore I often retreat to books. One of the books that has provided me with solace in the past month was Radio Silence. Radio Silence is an post-apocalyptic NA with diverse cast, set in Western New York. Arden, who is African American and her best friend and roommate John (Gay & Korean American) live in Rochester, NY (my current hometown). One day, with no warning an unknown event takes down the power grid and all communications devices & services. At first people are calm, waiting for some official response, for FEMA, or the Military to roll in. But no news is not good news. While at the beginning they shared their fridge food with neighbors, and joked about their shared plumbing issues,  soon the post-event calm dissipated, and people started seeking refuge behind locked doors, as suspicion and paranoia spread through the community. Cries, and fearsome sounds of looters or other raiders started filling the night. Convinced that whatever has happened isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon, John and Arden pack up their remaining food stuffs and choose to hike out of Rochester and head to John’s family cabin, 100 or so miles away which they know is better provisioned and likely safer than their city apartment. They are only miles from the cabin, with Arden taking a turn at navigating when they are attacked by desperate strangers and only survive due to Gabe’s John’s brother miraculous intervention.

Gabe hauls the unconscious John to the cabin, and does what he can to make him comfortable (Gabe was an emergency room doctor). Arden is torn. She has reached the destination they were fixed on but it doesn't really feel like a safe haven, as life in the cabin is not without fear and tension. Gabe and John’s parents are missing and Gabe has been unable to track them down and keep his teenage sister Maggie safe. Gabe is relieved to have John arrive but he takes an immediate dislike of Arden, who he blames for leading John off-track which lead to him being attacked on their way to the family cabin. While John recuperates from his head injury, Arden and Gabe frequently butt heads over big and small decisions. It is clear to everyone else that Gabe and Arden’s conflicts have a strong undercurrent of unspoken attraction and sexual tension. Gabe and Arden have to resolve their feelings for each other so they can survive in the cabin’s close-quarters.

 

“The better I got to know him, the more I wanted him. That wasn’t usually how things worked out for me, and it was new and frightening territory”

 

I really liked that Arden, while head-strong & bold in lots of way, is also vulnerable. She sometimes feels like an intruder in the Seong’s home. She feels deep guilt for being on the other side of the country from her aging and ailing parents. Guilt is something Gabe and Arden have in common. Gabe feels responsible for failing to protect or find his missing parents. He is trying to do too much & carry too much to compensate. I liked how Cole developed Arden and Gabe’s relationship, from their high-tension encounters, to the gradual thawing and eventual recognition of that they can depend on each other. I really liked that neither Arden or Gabe are perfect. They misjudge each other, they screw up. Neither of them is as competent or together as they want others to think they are.

My only real criticism of the book is that I felt some of the post-apocalyptic details were only lightly sketched in. Limited as we are by Arden’s deep POV, we only know as much as she does about what is happening in the rest of the world. It chafes that we know so little about what is happening. At a certain point I just had to admit to myself that I wasn't going to get satisfactory answers to all my questions at least in this book, and had choose to read on anyway for the sake of the characters and  romance, which I was enjoying immensely.  

 Also as a resident of Western NY, I also had to give up trying to figure out where exactly the Seong’s cabin was located, eventually deciding it must be some where up in the Adirondacks or Thousand Islands area (both areas that border Canada but not the Canadian border we first think of in this side of the state).  Maybe I am completely wrong with my guess, but once I mentally settled on a location I could relax and enjoy the book.

I am very eager to read the next book in the series. The excerpt in the back was great, and I can’t wait to read about John and the man he tackles raiding their garden, especially because he seems to have some knowledge about what did happen.

It was wonderful to read a interracial romance, where both the main characters were people of color in a mainstream line. I liked that Cole didn't shy away from the racial tensions but dealt with them honestly but in a non-exploitative manner.  I hope we see much more of that in the future.

 

A digital review copy of Radio Silence was provided by Carina Press via NetGalley.


Forbidden by Charlotte Stein

Forbidden is the second of Charlotte Stein’s novels of longing and thwarted desires for Avon Impulse. In the first book, Intrusion, featured two characters deeply scarred by violence whose desire is paralyzed by fear. In this novel, the hero Killian is a young Irish seminarian months away from taking priestly vows when he learns of young woman held captive by her mother somewhere in the deep South, when the mother ask the priests in his Boston-area seminary to perform an exorcism.

Dot has spent a large part of her life, confined and abused by her unbalanced mother, who has equated her daughter’s puberty and budding sexual interest with demon possession. Killian rescues Dot not just by carrying her out of her mother’s home, getting her medical attention, & finding her a refuge, but by he talks to her. His voice and words soothe Dot when she is at her most anxious. He answers her questions and refuses to condemn or stifle any of her bubbling curiosity. They can talk of innocent things for hours but they are both terribly aware of the taboo of doing more than enjoying each other’s conversation. Stein instills deep eroticism to intertwined hands, momentary touches, and the warmth of felt by two people desperately trying not to touch each other. 

What I loved:

Stein is a master of first-person narration, and she doesn't disappoint in this novel. She is able to convey Dot’s progression from traumatized oversensitive tentative fearful anxiousness, to growing confidence and near-certainty about her feelings and desire. Dot’s feelings, desires and wants might overwhelm her at times but she learns to see them not sinful, dirty or wrong. She moves from passiveness to aggressiveness in believable trajectory.

Limited by Dot’s point of view, the reader shares in her the confusion about Killian’s true desires and motivations. She comes recognizes his frustrated wants, reading his blushes, the clench of his fists, the way he holds himself taut. She see in him desire equal to her own, but is not certain of his own willingness to claim them. She recognizes that he is drawn to her thirst and enthusiasm for feeling but is conflicted and tortured by Dot’s unwavering awareness of him. I appreciated that the characters raised most the questions I would have had about their relationship. Killian questions Dot’s attachment to him, his fear of having failed her by not being able to hide his attraction and interest in her while she was under his care. Dot wrestles with herself as to whether she should feel guilty over Killian’s desire for her and how it conflicts with his aspirations.

What I didn't:

I felt that while the climatic conflict and ending were consistent with the story and brought to romantic resolution, I wished it had gone slightly differently. It felt abrupt to have the antagonist & lots of other dangling worries addressed off-page and have their tidy resolution reported in a single sentence.

However if you want to be smeared with the squishy gooey feelings, immersed vicariously in new-found sensation and relish Dot’s self-discovery, Forbidden has that and more.

 

4 stars


I received a digital review copy of Forbidden from the author,  Charlotte Stein.


Trade Me by Courtney Milan

It is unlikely that in all of Berkeley there is someone less interested in the good opinion of a spoiled billionaire’s son as Tina Chen. She has absolutely no time for him.  She is not some fluffy co-ed happily paying her bar-tab with her daddy’s money. Her life is dangerous financial balancing act. She is methodically and determinedly counting each cent, saving every dollar to make sure she has enough to finish school, so she can get a good job, and comfortably provide for her family. But until that day she has to count out the rice left in the bag, and hope it is enough for her to make till her next paycheck. Her mind is constantly filled with worry, whether her sister will have her attention medication this month; will her mother’s over-generosity with her time and money working to help other with immigration issues, mean they won’t have money for their utility bills; will her father, a torture survivor be able to keep a job. With all of this and regular college concerns like tests and papers due, she simply has no time for boy billionaires. Certainly no time for Blake, who nearly runs her over with his Tesla on his way to parking in chancellor’s spot. Blake is walking blind privileged.

But Blake wants to make time for Tina. He want to prove to her that he has been “seeing” her for a long time, that her life is not insignificant to him. He also wants to take her up on her empty offer to trade lives. He latches on to her idea, and turns it into a challenge/dare/distraction from the problems he doesn’t want to face.

And Blake does have problems. His problems are  rooted in his loving dad’s suffocating pressure to abandon school and take over running their company “temporarily” and their shared grief for Peter , Cyclone Industries's dynamic CFO who died suddenly the year before. Fixated on Peter's death, Blake can only see himself disappearing under the demands of the company or die trying. He doesn’t want to fail his father or admit why he can’t do it. His despair and anxiety is manifesting in ways he doesn’t want to admit to.  Coerced into a compromise of taking over the writing the launch script for their newest product,  he recruits Tina to secretly take his place. He will live in her crappy garage apartment, he will work her minimum wage hours, and she can work on the script, while receiving a generous allowance and living in his palatial home.

This is an offer Tina wishes she could refuse, but she can’t walk away from that kind of money. Money that is only drop in the bucket to Blake, can make all the difference in her life and for her family. But Tina can’t take the money and run, she ends up spending time with Blake trying to understand the why of it all. The more she gets to know Blake the more she realizes things are far from right in Blake’s life even if he can throw money at his problems.

I loved Loved LOVED Tina from the very beginning. She is strong & proud even if she is terrified inside of failing and letting everyone down. I loved the genuine friendship she has forged with Maria (the Latina & Trans heroine of the next book in the series). I loved her uncompromising honesty and brilliant wit.

I was impressed by Milan’s ability to breakdown and humanize Blake. Milans is able to create real challenges, without ignoring his wealth. She created a character that is not simply “poor little rich boy”. I liked how he surprises Tina and himself throughout the book with his feelings and dreams. He might be able to be charming and confident, but also despairing, fearful & needy.

I cried a lot reading this book, (I am a crier) but there were so many moments of genuine emotion, as they learned each others secret hurts and joys. I loved how their relationship slowly developed over text messages, weekly script review meetings and long car trips.

I also loved the family relationships portrayed in book. I deeply identified with Tina’s conflicted feelings about her family, who she loves but who exhaust her. Blake’s relationship with his dad is more complex, sometimes funny and sometimes incredibly sad.

After easing us slowly into a friendship and relationship, the book takes a jarring turn in the last quarter. Tina and Blake are caught up in situation that shows how little they do have in common, despite how much they value each other. The crisis is a have a huge reminder of how differently the world treats them, and how easily they can be wedged apart. While I believed the resolution and Blake's action throughout, it is a departure from the book's pacing up to that point. I am glad that Milan is planning on returning to explore Blake and Tina's relationship in book three, for although they have HFN at the of this novel, and they feel confident that they have survived a huge hurdle, it still felt fragile to me.

4.5 Stars

I received a review copy of Trade Me from Ms. Milan via NetGalley