Let me tell you about my experience reading Take A Hint, Dani Brown. I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. My kids are home with me all the time – my prime reading time used to be the hour before I picked them up from the bus, after I’d gotten all of my work done for the day. For the most part, I read digitally – can’t be helped, especially with ARCs and a limited book budget and a very active digital library card. But I spend a LOT of time on my phone in front of my kids – usually, looking up recipes to feed their ravenous hunger (a pandemic is obviously the time for a growth spurt!), trawling Pinterest for ideas to keep them occupied (the sidewalk chalk obstacle course was a big hit) or just trying frantically to keep up with emails, social media, and other communication involved in my life. Also, posting pictures of food on Instagram, which is obviously VERY IMPORTANT. All of this is to say that I’m not exactly a great model of ‘hey, you shouldn’t be staring at a screen all the time’ for my kids, and with them home all the time, staring at a screen in front of them even more to read in solid chunks of time has seemed like maybe not a great idea.
Plus, there’s the never-ending dread and existential despair to deal with, you know?
So anyway, I’ve had a hard time picking up a book to read. Nothing has held my attention, even though some of the books waiting patiently on my TBR pile are ones that I have looked forward to for AGES. Finally I dug out my Kindle (reasoning that a DIFFERENT screen was probably okay? I don’t know), and pulled up my library, to which I had downloaded several ARCs from NetGalley right before the entire world exploded. I reasoned that Talia Hibbert would never steer me wrong (spoiler alert, I was right), and pulled up Dani Brown. I read the first sentence, and was deeply charmed and finally! ready to end my reading slump! And then my Kindle battery died.
And then I had to learn how to make homemade bagels, and order meat from local farms, and plant a garden, and approximately eight million other things most of which I have posted about on Twitter and Instagram because I’m a compulsive oversharer. And then eventually I remembered that my Kindle was probably charged by now, and sat down to read while my kids watched TV, because frankly there are some days when Spy Kids: Mission Critical is the thing that keeps the entire household running.
And then I read, and read, and read, and paused to make dinner as quickly as possible, and read some more. I finished the thing in a few hours and looked up and discovered that I was BACK, BABY. If you’re going to break a reading slump, this is the book to do it with. I can’t imagine another book more perfectly tailored to making me feel good.
First of all, the writing is just so good it makes me want to swear. Like, from the first page, I kept wanting to pluck charming, delightfully-written sentences out of their paragraphs to cackle excitedly about them on Twitter – but there were so many of them that I would have essentially been copy-and-pasting the entire book. Which, uh, is against the rules. Talia Hibbert has always had a fantastic narrative voice but she just keeps getting better and better; I loved Get A Life, Chloe Brown (the first book in this series), but this one is, like, exponentially better. Yes, some of this has to do with the fact that the author apparently read all of my diaries and carefully crafted both protagonists to be EXACTLY MY TYPE, but it’s also because the writing is crisp, witty, and just leaping off the page with sensuality in all the right places. (The sex scenes are EXTREMELY GOOD, friends.)
There’s a lot to love about this book. Zaf is the hero we all want; he reads romance novels in a much more self-aware way than the boys of The Bromance Book Club – and clearly reads a significantly more diverse selection of them (there’s a shout out to Beverly Jenkins right in the text, AS THERE SHOULD BE). He’s a brawny former athlete with an anxiety disorder who teaches kids – particularly young athletes – about mental health! Like, I want to hire him to teach at my kids’ school. WHY ISN’T HE REAL. And Dani is EVERYTHING. She’s kind, confident, and absolutely brilliant – and she’s aware that she isn’t always in line with social expectations but realizes that she doesn’t need to be. Both of the protagonists are damaged in ways that don’t necessarily show on the surface – and don’t necessarily make them lesser people. They might have issues, but they’re still fully realized people who occupy a place in the world that doesn’t rely on them being ‘fixed.’ This is the kind of thing I want to see more of in romance. Make your characters real people who have to navigate a real world, with professional careers and lives that don’t revolve around them finding love.
Hibbert does the same thing here she did in Chloe Brown – love improves the characters lives, but doesn’t define it. They’re able to grow as individuals on their own – there’s an incredibly rewarding moment in Dani’s professional story arc that made me shriek with glee for her growth as a person, and Zaf wasn’t even in the room. And like all of Talia Hibbert’s books, this one neither shies away from tough topics nor makes them the basis of the story; mental health, race, religion, and body size are all touched on (thoroughly, in dialogue, narrative, and more) as matter-of-fact parts of people’s real lives, because they ARE, but the story isn’t ABOUT them. It’s about Zaf and Dani.
I honestly didn’t have a single complaint about this book (unless you count the fact that the sneak peek of Eve’s book wasn’t in there, since it was an ARC – I can’t wait for book 3!). The way that Hibbert used romance novels as a structure to both emulate AND discard with critical analysis was absolute perfection. My emotions were caroming through an absolute whirlpool of feelings as I read through the climax and finale, and just when I thought I’d caught my breath, the epilogue (the epilogue! not a place you expect to be wrung out to dry!) caught me up and threw me in again. I loved everything about this one.