Wednesday, September 20, 2017

[Jen's Review]: "Take the Lead"

Take the Lead by Alexis Daria
Publisher: Swerve (October 3, 2017)
Series: Dance Off, 1
Genre: Contemporary Romance

The first book in a sizzling duology about dancers who find love from #OwnVoice's Alexis Daria.

Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a top-rated network TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. When she meets her latest partner, she sees her chance. He's handsome, rippling with muscles, and he stars on the popular Alaskan wilderness reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition, she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles, he hates reality TV, and he hates that fact that he had to join the cast of the The Dance Off because of family obligations. He can’t wait to get back to Alaska, but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, and Stone can’t risk revealing his secrets, but as they heat up the dance floor, it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead.

When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance, the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy. Gina and Stone will have to decide if their priorities lie with fame, fortune, or the chance at a future together.

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Jen's Review:

Listen. Take the Lead by Alexis Daria is perfect. PER. FECT. I loved this book. I want to take this book out behind the high school and make out with it. This book was so goddamn good that after I finished reading it, I spent the rest of the day watching Strictly Ballroom, the Step Up movies, and Magic Mike. This book made me want to sign up for dance lessons----and I am a white girl with NO rhythm! I clap on the wrong beat and my husband jokes I need a walking helmet! I’d sooner give up romance and only read Jonathan Franzen novels before I’d take dance lessons! I just wrote a paragraph with like 18 exclamation points, and I hate exclamation points! I have been reduced to a quivering pile of happiness at the perfection of this book. I mean, I guess you could stick around for the particulars, but if you haven’t one-clicked yet, I really can’t help you.

The characters in this book are both trapped in a web of their own making, beholden to their lives as reality TV stars. Gina Morales is a professional dancer on a Dancing With the Stars-type show. This season, her partner is Stone Nielson. He and his family are stars of their own reality show about being survivalists in Alaska. He’s farmed out from the family show to the dance show to try and win enough money to pay for his Mother’s medical bills. Gina is determined to win this season, knowing it could catapult her career to the next level.

Gina and Stone have all the chemistry, but their beliefs about who they are and how to be in the world couldn’t be more different. Some of it on the surface: he loves Alaska and she’s a city girl; he’s quiet and taciturn while she’s bright and chatty. On a deeper level, each character is fully developed, with a set of fears and foibles that make them afraid of making a future together.

I loved Gina. She’s strong, hard-working, and knows exactly what she wants. She’s also savvy about the ways in which the whole system is working against her. Early in her career, she had a boyfriend who used her to get ahead and then dumped her. She’s determined not to let anyone else have a chance at ruining her career. When they first meet, Gina is instantaneously wary of Stone, sensing her producer is setting them up for a “showmance.” While other dancers might enjoy being at the center of a showmance, Gina negotiated a contract that expressly outlaws being cast in that light. Even though she can’t resist him and their romance is real, she explains when they need to keep it secret:

“Do you have any idea how much my agent fought them on the showmance angle when I was hired? A lot. And because I’m Puerto Rican, I’ve been fighting against the ‘sexy and promiscuous’ Latin stereotype my entire career, something that’s hard enough when you’re a dancer....You don’t get to make this about you.”

Gina breaks her own rules when she gets involved with Stone, and she is convinced that if others know about their romance, it will hurt her career. There is no part of her worry that seems contrived or hysterical, by the way. It just feels real. She’s a woman of color, and she knows damn well she can’t make any mistakes. But is Stone a mistake?

What Gina doesn’t realize is that Stone has been lying for his family for years. Their reality TV show is contrived, and his whole life is managed, scripted, and filmed. Stone doesn’t ever have the chance to be himself, because his reality TV contract forbids him from sharing anything that would ruin the illusion of his family’s life in the Alaskan wilderness. Stone loves his family, but he cannot wait for his contract to be over so he can return to a regular life. Stone is impressed that Gina lives by her principles while he is living a lie. This means it is especially painful, hurtful even, to keep his feelings about Gina a secret. He thinks

“Everyone wanted him to be silent--his family about their pasts, and Gina about their relationship. The silent protector, keeping secrets and putting aside his own needs. Well he was sick of being the quiet and reserved one.”

Stone’s inner turmoil is just as real and grounded as Gina’s, and neither of them can figure out how to move forward together.

It’s this conflict and character building that makes Take the Lead a 5 star romance for me. I cared for both of them, wanting both of them to get what they need and to end up together. It truly takes compromise and work from both of them to find that HEA. Part of the reason I called this book perfect is Alexis Daria’s flawless portrayal of their emotional and physical intimacy. Every steaming glance builds the heat, every kiss feels earned, and the sex simultaneously builds intimacy and reveals their vulnerabilities. I desperately wanted them to end up together but had no idea how it would happen.

Finally, I think the best books are always having a larger conversation about society and the world. Yes, this book needs a Spotify playlist and a YouTube channel of dance clips. But it’s also as damning an indictment of reality TV as the scripted lifetime show Unreal. On Twitter, author Cecelia London recommended another novel that takes on reality TV called The Last One by Alexandra Oliva, saying “She really nails the bullshit involved in the way the media is presented to us, and how it creates doubt in our minds.” Take the Lead is doing something similar, but oh so personal. Gina and Stone are caught in the web of expectations of family and society, but I couldn't read it without wondering about the webs keeping me in place, or the webs I am inadvertently weaving for others.


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Jen received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley.

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Thanks for the review, Jen! I'm excited to start this one. And also do a binge rewatch of the Step Up movies. [Though really the original is the best, forever and always.]

Remember, since this is a Royal Pick, come back on September 28th for a chance to WIN an ecopy of your own!


Until Next Time,

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