So it’s going to be very hard to write this review, because basically I am sitting here flailing (which makes it very hard to type), and it is taking everything I’ve got not to just scream “Eeeeeeeee this is so adorable everyone should read it right now!” and then just dive back in for another reread instead of writing a proper review.
Therefore, in the interest of not standing between you and an AWESOME ADORABLE SWEET PERFECT CINNAMON ROLL of a book, here is a short list of reasons to one-click on this book.
- The hero is a children’s librarian who looks like a Viking. He is charming and sexy and kind. (He is also the kind of uncle who lets his niece and her friends hold a slumber party at his house where they play Alanis Morisette and paint his nails.)
- The heroine is a Black professor of literature who kicks ass both in her profession and also, well, she is a military brat and she can actually kick ass. Even the hero’s, if necessary. She is organised and serious and has a plan for everything. (She also has an overdue library book. It’s called For the Duke’s Convenience.)
- They flirt with literary-themed innuendo and overdue library books and it is unbelievably hot. Seriously, the overdue library book flirtation storyline is the best thing that has ever happened to me in a book. It is charming and sexy and romantic and funny and it has thematic weight and I don’t know how to end this sentence because *flails arms, squeeing wildly* eeeeee!!
Have I mentioned yet that I love this book?
Right, yes, I suppose I should write a proper, sensible review for people who actually need to know more about a book than the fact that it has book-related flirtation in it (do those people really exist?) and that it is clearly my catnip in a way that I had not previously realised was possible.
Hearts on Hold begins with our heroine, Dr Victoria Reese, an Assistant Professor in African-American Literature at a private university, pitching an idea for a library internship for English students at a faculty meeting. The staff have been asked to come up with ideas to advance the visibility of the department, and there are a lot of egos involved, as well as the usual sexism, classism, and covert racism at play. I am not an academic, but I grew up in universities and work in a research institute, and I have to say, the faculty politics were depressingly spot on. Sent off to put together a more detailed proposal – a clear delaying tactic, frankly – she decides to put together a plan so thorough and watertight that it can’t be turned down. Detailed plans are very much Victoria’s forte – she is not fond of spontaneity – so she decides to start by approaching the head of the local library, who passes her message on to the head of the Children’s Department.
That would be John Donovan. John, who is tall, tattooed, long-haired, and apparently looks like a Viking. A very, very gorgeous Viking, if Victoria and all her friends are to be believed.
I choose to believe he looks like one of these Vikings. Oh yes.
(Also, Denmark was robbed in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. But I digress.)
I should say right here and now that this review is going to be very John-heavy. This is because while I loved Victoria and related to her on a lot of levels (her perfectionism, her hyper-organisation and control issues, her need to help everyone and inability to say no…) I completely fell for John and he is my new Book Boyfriend now and so a lot of this squee will be me swooning over how adorable and sexy he is.
Anyway, John does not waste time getting his library-related flirt on:
I look forward to meeting w/ you re: internship. Might be a bit late. Btw, looks like you got an overdue book w/massive fines…
For the Duke’s Convenience?
We might need to discuss
In fact, John doesn’t waste much time in general. He may be 27 minutes late to their first meeting, but he immediately approves her proposal, and indeed, he approves it so quickly that Victoria isn’t sure he is serious. It doesn’t help that John has an absolute gift for inserting innuendo and flirtation into otherwise sensible conversations about the details of the internship.
He suggests that she spends time shadowing him in the library, to get a feel for what her students will be doing. Victoria is a little unsure about this – she is extremely attracted to John and not entirely sure she wants to be – but an appeal to her desire for thoroughness is successful, and before long, there is flirtation and snogging happening in the History section (that’s the 900s to you).
“You’ll have to excuse me,” she said. “I’m new on the job.”
The corner of his mouth quirked. He had not stepped away, and she did not want him to. “That much is evident,” he rumbled. The hand that had held Roosevelt fell on her wrist, his calloused fingers circling her with a gentleness she hadn’t expected.
Victoria didn’t move away. “But I’m a quick learner,” she breathed.
John raised a brow. “Is that a fact?”
She licked her lips and nodded her head.
“Learning sometimes requires the student to relinquish control, Dr. Reese. You hardly seem capable of that.
She wasn’t imagining his flirtatious tone or how scandalously close he stood. His hand was on her wrist, thumb stroking her riotous pulse. He was also issuing her a challenge: could she give up control? “It’s been a long time since I was a student.”
John smiled down at her. “Not too long, I hope.”
Her brow knit in confusion. “Wait, what are we talking about?”
He blinked as he snapped his mouth shut. Soon his shoulders shook in quiet laughter and he released her wrist. The spell was broken. “Jesus Christ,” he said in between louder chuckles.
Shaken from her reverie, Victoria raised her hand to her mouth and averted her eyes. She was certain that embarrassment colored her brown cheeks as she quickly returned to her neglected pile of books. “Never mind […] I think I misunderstood this interaction.
“What did you misunderstand?”
Victoria closed her eyes and sighed. “Please.”
“I asked if you were capable of being a student,” he said, keeping his tone light. “I’m pretty sure that was a simple implication.”
She picked up another book and ignored him. Another Vietnam War book.
“Dr Reese, I didn’t think I had to spell it out to an academic. It kinda takes the fun out of this interaction.”
Her movements stilled. “What?”
“If you want me to speak plainly, all innuendo aside, I think I was asking, in so many words… if you’d like to start a sordid affair with me.”
Victoria dropped the book in her hand.
“You really have to stop abusing my books.”
As a super awkward person myself, I love that John doesn’t hang Victoria out to dry here – when she says, wait, what are we actually talking about, he might tease her a little, but he doesn’t pretend that it is anything other than an invitation.
I do want to acknowledge that John comes on to Victoria early and often, and in another setting this could be super creepy and boundary pushing. I think it works here because there is a lot of humour and sweetness to it – John’s teasing has a layer of affection and appreciation behind it that is evident to Victoria, even when she isn’t quite sure how seriously she should be taking him. It’s so obvious he likes her and sees her, right from the start. He understands that she is tightly wound, and has a pretty good idea of where that’s coming from – his step-twin is also a Black woman working in a male-dominated profession, so he gets the need to achieve and overachieve and never put a food wrong in order to get anywhere. And he just plain likes her and is attracted to her and wants to give her what she needs and also maybe tease her a bit.
(He also makes it clear that if she wants the flirtation to go further than words and the occasional touch of a hand to a wrist, she will need to make the first move, which I appreciated.)
John is, I think, a perfect exemplar of a Beta Hero. He is attracted to Victoria because of her intelligence and extreme competence, and every time he discovers that she is better at something than he is, he is even more delighted by her. He occasionally worries that he is not good enough for her, but he never feels threatened by her achievements, and it’s marvellous. And yet, he does have one thing that Victoria lacks, which is a gift for intimacy, which perhaps comes from his security in who he is. Victoria always needs to be ‘on’, and she wears so many masks in life, but with John, what you see is what you get. They complement each other beautifully, because Victoria is, by necessity, very good at staying grounded in the real world where John is apt to be distracted by… everything (he has ADD, which doesn’t help with this), whereas John provides the solid, supportive emotional base that Victoria desperately needs.
The other thing that John brings to the relationship is a sense of play, which is perhaps even more important than his steady affection. Victoria is a very driven person and likes to – perhaps needs to – control everything. She schedules their sordid affair down to the hour (taking care to avoid clashing commitments for either of them, something John finds both touching and mildly horrifying), and she wants it to be just about sex, not dating. Also, she knows she isn’t good at the fun stuff, so that’s up to him. John is appalled, but responds by really inviting her into playing with sensuality, constructing and echoing classic romance tropes and clichés for their mutual enjoyment, both intellectual and sensual. He even reads For the Duke’s Convenience to try to work out what Victoria might find appealing, since she is uncomfortable talking about sex directly.
Also, he quotes poetry to her and it is just electrically seductive. I don’t want to spoil a perfect scene, so I’ll just leave this GIF here to convey my emotions.
(Honestly, I’ll never be able to look at T.S. Eliot the same way again. And I don’t even like his poetry that much.)
Speaking of electrically seductive, the sex scenes in this book were some of the hottest I’ve read in a long time, and a huge part of that was of because of what words are spoken and what is going on in the character’s heads. Victoria is accustomed to being in control of everything in her life, and so relinquishing that control to John, even just in the moments when they are together, is very powerful.
Also, this book contains the most adorable overdue library book subplot in the world. It starts off as simple joking and flirtation, but as the story unfolds it gains an unexpected thematic weight, and by the time John tells Victoria that he ‘would give you unlimited rental privileges if it meant you came back to me’, I’m just
But there’s a lot more to this book than just the central relationship. At the start of the book, John has just become a temporary single dad to his niece, Becca. This is a bit of a shock to the system, because while he is excellent at being the fun uncle, playing father figure to a niece whose parents have just divorced and whose father won’t even speak to her while her mother is working overseas is a whole different ball game.
Becca is great fun. She is twelve, so she doesn’t always handle her emotions well, but she is very bright and has John wrapped around her finger (something he is aware of… but still unable to resist, because he is a great big softie). Their relationship is very sweet – John is very mindful of Becca’s dignity and her feelings, and I love the way when she needs a hug but doesn’t want to ask for one, he will tell her that he is in need of a hug, and could he have one please (later in the book, she plays this one right back at him when he is upset and in need of hugs, and it is adorable).
He’s also really good at listening, and being honest.
“Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush, honey. Being twelve is shitty. You just left fifth grade where you knew everyone, your mom is in Europe doing work you don’t understand or care about, and your parents are divorced. Is that the long and short of it?”
“Okay, got it. You can’t control these things. You can’t go back to fifth grade, you can’t bring your mom back early, and whatever is going on with your parents is their problem.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “You’re going to one of Farmingdale’s whitest schools, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make friends with girls who think like you. There’s got to be at least ten like-minded girls who can create another vegan feminist collective, right?”
My friends, by the end of the book she has indeed created a vegan feminist collective. Well, a vegetarian one, at least.
I also love the aplomb with which John handles the arrival of Becca’s first period, and the firmness with which he stands up for her when she gets in trouble for shoving a girl who was bullying her. Another fun part of this scene is that he does this despite completely missing the racist subtext and microaggressions from the teacher – he is White and his niece is Black – but Victoria, who was once a little Black girl at a mostly White school certainly doesn’t, and makes this politely and firmly clear to the teacher.
We also get to meet John’s family, who are the best sort of blended family and also #relationshipgoals. He essentially has two mums – his mother, and his stepmother, who bonded over the death of his father and became best friends. They are, frankly, hilarious – they are loving and supportive of both John and his ‘step-twin’ Jessi but they are merciless in their teasing of John, and it’s sort of delightful to see him get a taste of his own medicine (and also, now we know why he teases Victoria so much – evidently, that’s just how people show affection in his world). John’s step-twin is also great – like Victoria, she’s a Black woman working in a male-dominated field, and thus has to put up with a lot of random bullshit; but unlike Victoria, she has this amazing, solid base in her family. In some ways, you can see in her how good John is going to be for Victoria, and it’s just all
Victoria’s family is less delightful, and in fact her main subplot is about finding a way to deal with her mother, who is incredibly critical, and also manipulative and controlling. She won’t take no for an answer, ignores boundaries (the bit where she posts an article on Victoria’s Facebook page about female fertility and age was just a world of YIKES), and can be relied upon to ask Victoria why she didn’t plan better if something goes wrong or if Victoria doesn’t have time to do her bidding. Her father, while theoretically on Victoria’s side, is also unhelpful – he kind of goes, oh look, the womenfolk are fighting again, that’s women’s business, I’m not going to get involved, which is emotionally lazy and a tad sexist. He does come through for Victoria in the end, but it takes a lot to make it happen. I found this aspect of the story painful to read.
On the up-side, Victoria’s friends are delightful, from her posse of besties (the ‘Write Bitches’), who are lovingly amused at her need to turn even an affair into a spreadsheet and encourage her to spread her wings a bit further, to her female colleagues, who are playing the academic game on a similar difficulty setting and are aware of the importance of academic alliances against the department chair. I especially enjoyed Paula, who writes romance novels and is gleefully egging Victoria on and possibly using the things Victoria tells her about her relationship as material for her current novel.
Are there any flaws in this book? (Are you really asking me to find flaws in my Book Boyfriend? Really?)
Well, there is one small thing, and that is that the ARC I read was in fairly desperate need of a copy editor. There were quite a few places where the word used was one that sounded a bit like the actual word that was intended, but meant something rather different, and that was distracting. Hopefully this will be fixed in the final version.
Other than that… the only real flaw I can find in the book is that I can’t just have it constantly in my eyeballs.
Really, if you like sweet, sexy heroes who are completely supportive of their heroines, and if you like smart, ambitious heroines who are really good at what they do, and if you love libraries and teasing and friends and kindness, not to mention innuendo that manages to be both silly and seductive at the same time, then you will love this.
Maybe even as much as I did.