Love & Other Disasters (CBR14 #3)

I received an ARC of Love & Other Disasters from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Love & Other Disasters publishes January 18th, 2022.

Love & Other Disasters

I love when you can tell that a book was written from an authentic place, that the author is taking their own feelings, their own emotions, and building out from there to tell an honest story that they hope will resonate with readers. Anita Kelly does just that in Love & Other Disasters and I’m so glad to have been able to spend time with it and its characters over the past several days. I was initially pulled in by its arrestingly pretty cover which I was pleased to discover is a faithful representation of the actual  characters.

Love & Other Disasters is an nb/f adult contemporary romance centered around contestants on a televised cooking show for non-professionals. There’s a significant cash prize for the winner, and it would make an immense difference in the lives of our leads Dahlia and London. Neither dream of becoming a professional chef, but each wants to take their love of cooking, and what it gives them, and turn it into something more. Anita Kelly built characters of equal footing on parallel arcs, and it serves the story so well – each are struggling with emotional baggage from their “real” lives, each have uncertainty waiting for them upon their return, each are not really sure what their next steps are, and each is hesitant about what even to do with all these emotions they are feeling about each other.

One of the dynamics I loved about this was that Dahlia and London don’t necessarily instantly fully grapple with their attitudes and attraction to one another but find that they are drawn to each other over time and have feelings that they can’t ignore, and everyone else has already noticed. Since the narrative is handed back and forth, we are also treated to each character’s inner monologue and motivations, which makes some scenes so funny (the cows!) and others so painful (the fight!). Kelly makes sure the reader has the information to understand the full emotional landscape of her characters, weaving it in as they go, and then drops the reader in to enjoy the fully realized ride.

This is Kelly’s full length debut, and it is a stunning work. It is also first in a series of three and I am SO intrigued by what will come next based on Anita Kelly’s website blurb and mood boards.

One Minute to Midnight & Resolutions (CBR14 #1-2)

Having always intended to spend New Year’s Day home and reading I had stashed a light, fun read in my Kindle account to help kick off the year. Then, scrolling through Twitter this morning I saw a link to another and thought – yes, let’s do this.  About half the time I start my Cannonball Reads off with a romance (although my first Cannonball book ever, Pope Joan, was definitely NOT) so it felt like the absolute right way to start off CBR14.

One Minute to Midnight

One Minute to Midnight by Jasmine Luck

My impulse buy this New Year’s Day, and proof that authors absolutely should include links in their tweets about their books, especially if they are on sale.

This short story is all about transitions. We meet our lead as New Year’s Eve takes a wrong turn when Amber is subjected to a public break-up, for not being “fun.” She sets out in search of adventure and finds a handsome stranger to celebrate the night with instead. I’m not usually interested in books about one-night stands, and this story makes it clear at the end that Amber is not intending to start up a relationship with Diego at the end of their New Year’s Eve together, but the way in which Jasmine Luck frames it worked for me.

The reader immediately empathizes with Amber as we pick up with her directly after her boyfriend breaks up with her at a New Year’s Eve Party while making out with someone else. What bumped this one up to a four for me was that at the end of the story when said jerk ex tries to make a half assed apology Amber is able to take the past several hours – where she went to a bar alone, struck up a conversation with a handsome guy, navigated the sexual politics of hooking up, and several orgasms – and tells her ex in quick decisive language that they are done and deciding for herself what feels right, all while a very handsome naked man is standing in her apartment beckoning her back to bed.

Resolutions

Resolutions by Lucy Eden

This one is a novelette featuring the time-honored friends-to-lovers trope around the tradition of resolutions. The previous year Lucy had chickened out of telling her best friend Mike that she was in love with him when the fear of ruining their friendship got the best of her. Mike had similarly intended to reveal his feelings to her, but her speech about not ruining their friendship had him deciding that someone else would have to do (apparently this character features in another of Eden’s books and gets a better treatment, so that’s good news). Fast forward eleven months and the list that Lucy had gone home that night and the list of resolutions Lucy had written while drunk and heartbroken about needing to get over Mike falls out of her bag only for Mike to pick it up and decide to help Lucy finish the list… and perhaps get it right this time.

I liked this one more while I was reading it than I did once I started thinking about reviewing it. I’m not so excited about how Lucy characterizes Mike’s ex Chellie (she of the other book) as lesser than based on her good looks and social media savvy. Eden does a successful job of writing great scenes of Mike wooing Lucy with activities he’s thought up specifically to fulfill her resolution goals, and some great steamy scenes, it felt like we were missing the quiet moments between the characters to let the shift of perceptions settle.  Which meant that while the relationship building from friends to more worked for me (even with Mike not leading with the fact that he had broken up with Chellie), the narrative felt uneven in places.

This one does come with a bonus Spotify playlist that I do suggest listening to while reading, and an epilogue told entirely from Mike’s POV which after getting the rest of the story from Lucy’s was a nice addition.

In a Holidaze (CBR13 #73)

In a Holidaze

One of the prevailing bits of wisdom running around if you happen to find yourself with COVID (which I probably do – not to worry, I’m not feeling too poorly, have plenty of supplies, and have a test scheduled) is to avoid screens. With that in mind, and cognizant that my brain does not want to focus on anything weighty (which is seriously impinging on my ability to finish So You Want to Talk About Race and Eva Luna) I settled in on the couch this afternoon with Christina Lauren’s In a Holidaze.

According to the handy info keepers over at Goodreads I added this to my TBR in November, but apparently had not managed to put the book blurb into my memory banks. I was caught off guard initially with the plot in front of me, but once I got my head on straight, I enjoyed it much more than the terrible holiday movies I watched yesterday in a fever dream (mistakes were made, naps were taken).

In a Holidaze is the story of Maelyn Jones. She’s 26, in a bit of a rut, and just experienced a truly horrendous end to her family’s holiday with their chosen extended family. It looks to her as though all that she enjoys most in this world is ending and she’s headed back to a life that just is, and knows that she is not happy, so she asks the universe to show her what will make her happy. One car crash later and Maelyn finds herself waking up a week earlier on her flight to Utah. In a nod to time loop stories everywhere Maelyn proceeds to restart her holiday week a couple times trying to figure out why the universe sent her back and what is in fact (and who) going to make her happiest.

The things I enjoyed in this one are many – the extended friends group who function in a familial way, the lead having to get to a place of “fuck it” in order to finally be herself, and having that be the thing that starts to make the pieces fall into place, the cozy charm of the cabin the families spend each Christmas at together and learning to let go of the lockstep of tradition. But there are also things which didn’t work for me, particularly in the early stages of figuring out who was meant to be Maelyn’s partner (I flipped to the back after about page 20 which is something I never do), and how the various motivations of Maelyn, Theo, and Andrew are portrayed. I also got seriously confused a few times as the characters (and this is a cast of about 12) routinely use nicknames for each other that are not consistent, and I had to stop and think about who was on page and that’s not helpful.

This is my third outing with the writing duo Christina Lauren (Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) and I can see in this one positive and negatives from my previous rounds with Dating You, Hating You and Sweet Filthy Boy. I felt at a bit of a distance from the story, even though I understood the characters very well, and I wished that we got any of the story from Theo or Andrew’s point of view. We also get some sloppy plotting, specifically that there’s a a-ha moment late in the book for Maelyn that comes down to a misunderstanding happening because she didn’t take into account how the other person has historically processed emotions, but we the reader weren’t let in on that either, which made that character’s behavior a tough sit occasionally.

Do I suggest this? Yes, but with the caveats that there might be some things in it that have you give the book some side-eye, but no more than in any other holiday rom com you might choose to spend time with, and probably a lot less.

Questionable Communications Skills series (CBR13 #68)

I have kept up with the fanfic habit I gained in 2020, although I have slowed down a bit, partly because my ability to focus on traditionally published books has increased, and partly because I have not been keeping up with one of the television shows that fed most of my 2020 consumption. But one of the wonderful things about fanfic is there is so bloody much of it that whatever small thought might be scratching at the back of your mind, or story thread you would love to see explored a bit further, it exists for you to find.

One of those story threads that jumped out to me earlier this year is the Sam and Bucky of it all at the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. Of the shows, it is my least favorite live action (I have major problems with What If that drop it right down to the very bottom of my personal rankings), but Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie have such good chemistry and at the end of the series I wanted more of that pairing being soft and fluffy together. So off to AO3 I went. I found what I was looking for by the truckload, and one of those is the ongoing series Questionable Communication Skills which takes a slightly skewed version of the characters we have seen on the show and movies (and one can only assume comics) and shows the ways these two characters can screw up basic communication, because feelings are hard.

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It’s grown over time, first arriving in late April 2021 as a place for the author to play around with some of the events we see in the show and all the side characters we see (and a few of their own creations) being nosy, gossipy shippers (like the rest of us). In the months that followed we have been treated to a full rundown of the pair working on their communication (119 posts worth so far as of this review), dealing with the public, getting together, Bucky getting a bestie who is also a newspaper reporter (she is great), the spider kids get involved… there is a lot happening. It is told in quick bursts, often posts are just a couple hundred characters long and are formatted to look like text messages or Instagram posts. Abhorsenbranwen also weaves in tons of easter eggs, New York, and Brooklyn specific history, and has been highly active in taking suggestions from the readership in how they progress the story, but also doing a commendable job not letting themselves be derailed, just sent down fun side paths. They’ve been playing around with established characters and spaces and giving us their own view, their own original characters, and at the end of the day a bit of fun.

Bucky and Sam in episode 6 of Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I started early on, within the first few posts, and it could be confusing at times since the individual works were not posted in chronological order. If you read now the posts have month and year headers to let you know where you are in the timeline, but it does still bounce around quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed this series a lot, and for many months waiting for the regular subscription alerts provided a much-needed endorphin hit – it turns out I do enjoy a bit of serialized fiction. I can’t say when or if more of this series is coming, odds are yes since abhorsenbranwen has indicated where their story is headed next in the notes of the latest post, but its from over a month ago.

As of December 18, 2021, Questionable Communication Skills has 119 works and is 125,621 words.

If the Fates Allow (CBR13 #57)

If the Fates Allow: A Short Story

A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement on Rainbow Rowell’s Instagram that she was releasing a holiday short story this year and I rejoiced. I like Rowell’s short form work as much as I like her novel length ones. I’ve read Kindred Spirits, her 2016 take on fandom and waiting in line for Star Wars. Rowell also has holiday themed ones: Almost Midnight, 2017’s collection that includes both Kindred Spirits and Midnights. Midnights tracks a pair across several years’ worth of New Year’s Eves and 2019’s Pumpkinheads which is a delightful graphic novel that celebrates all things Halloween.

If the Fates Allow brings Reagan from Fangirl forward in time to now, including all the COVID-19 reality we’ve been living through the past nearly two years, and gives us a peek into her in her early 30s (I think, the math is throwing me a bit). Reagan is still just as kick-ass as she was when we first met her: she’s quippy and quick, she’s a bit of a misanthrope but she cares about the people who matter to her. In 40 pages we learn that social distancing came easily to Reagan (girl, I feel you). Maybe a little too easily (yep). But it’s Christmas 2020 and Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for his first Christmas as a widower, and like everyone else (who is properly isolating) he’s already spent too much time on his own. After quarantining for two weeks Reagan leaves Lincoln and heads back to her hometown to spend the holiday with him. What Reagan wasn’t expecting or planning for was to run into the boy next door. Mason’s family has lived next to her grandpa for years, and like Reagan he is all grown up now, not that Reagan can remember him from their shared years in high school. The person in front of her now is considerate and funny, and just the sort to put himself in a bit of danger to help someone who needs it.

In their short time together Mason’s warmth defrosts Reagan a bit. Not that he’s trying to, one of the things I liked best about Mason was that he wasn’t put out by how prickly Reagan is, in fact, he appears to like it (and perhaps always has). This is Rowell, she’s able to craft quality characters quickly and she deftly handles how COVID effected interacting with others, both those we know well and those we’re meeting again. I’m going with four stars for this because it wraps up a bit too quickly, and I didn’t feel like the first and second halves were balanced, but I was glad to have spent the time back in this fictional neck of the woods and I’m sure I’ll probably read it again before the end of the year.

(There’s also another check-in on Levi and Cath, like in Landline, and it made me smile to read it.)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb (CBR13 #54)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is Sebastian’s trade paperback debut and I’m excited for the people who get to discover her work with this outing. There were times during The Queer Principles of Kit Webb that I was reminded of the first Cat Sebastian I ever read (her debut) The Soldier’s Scoundrel. There’s a class difference, one character making their living on the wrong side of the law, and a major injury. Plus, I really, really liked it. Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the protagonists find their matches in their partners. We have two characters falling in love despite themselves, humor, and found family – which is catnip for me.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is set earlier in time than the other of Sebastian’s works that I’ve read. We’re in the mid-18th century, 50 years at least before the more common Regency era. I’m borrowing much of narfna’s plot summary since she nailed it and I’ve been struggling for a week to write a better one. We get our two heroes, the titular Kit Webb, a former infamous highwayman who is now retired due to a job gone wrong that left him disabled and with a dead partner. He now runs his coffee shop, once simply a front for his criminal activity it is now his entire life. When we meet him, he hasn’t much left its general environs in weeks. Next, we’ve got Edward Percival Talbot, Lord Holland, who goes by Percy. Percy has returned from the continent to several pieces of awful news not the least of which is that a blackmailer has surfaced with proof that his father the Duke is a bigamist, making his mother, his childhood best friend and now stepmother Marian (and there appears to be much drama there) victims, and himself and his new baby sister Eliza illegitimate. Marian and Percy have only a few months to concoct a plan to salvage their futures and punish Percy’s father. Marian is the brains of the operation and it’s her idea to hire Gladhand Jack, Kit’s alter ego, to rob the Duke, so that she and Percy can get the book they need for leverage. When Percy approaches Kit, it’s clear that his bad leg will make performing the robbery impossible, so instead, Kit offers to teach Percy to do it himself. From that point we watch as the two men are drawn to each other while Kit teaches Percy the skills he needs to commit the crime and Percy plans for his future. This outing also features Sebastian’s command of banter, her salty secondary characters and situational humor balances everything out.

Sebastian takes on the different elements of privilege that are tied up together and starts pulling them apart. In this case it’s how Kit and Percy are seen by the world around them– specifically in the ways they use artifice to hide. Class plays a significant role in the story, as Sebastian writes characters who are conscious of class – as the should be – and hinges much on characters moving up and down the social rungs and what life looks like when they do. I love Sebastian’s “eat the rich” mentality and how in this book she has Kit blatantly state it. It could be the thing that breaks these two characters of vastly different backgrounds, but it isn’t. Because Percy has come to agree that while the trappings of the wealth mean home to him, they are in fact not worth what they cost in terms of people’s suffering and use of resources. It is an example of how Sebastian uses her craft to create tension and release it without having to write a break-up at the 80% mark and I appreciate that about this book, much as I did with Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal.

The other is how she navigates the differing sexual identities of her two leads. Percy is pretty open about his only being attracted to men and finds himself a bit of a challenge in understanding Kit, who appears to be sexually interested in him, but does not act on it for a decent amount of the story. We the reader bounce between Kit and Percy’s viewpoints so we know that Kit is likely what we would now term a demisexual in that he feels sexually attracted to someone when he has an emotional bond with them as well as being bisexual having had a fulfilling sex life with his deceased wife. Kit’s need for emotional connection, and Percy’s relative inexperience in the emotional arena is the other tension point Sebastian works her characters through. I would have liked to see it get a little more conversational space in the story, but that even isn’t much of a complaint. I do wish I knew going in that there are significant portions of the narrative that are left on a cliffhanger, even though Kit and Percy find a way to be together even though they live in a society that has deemed it illegal.

In an interview Sebastian commented about writing to reflect identity and I find it instructive to understanding why Sebastian’s books work so well for me. “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better!”

Content notes (from the author): non-graphic violence (including gun violence), reference to past infant death, reference to character being imprisoned in the past, period-typical homophobia, explicit sex, alcohol use

Blackout (CBR13 #49)

Blackout is a novel comprised of several short stories covering five hours in the course of one night in New York as it experiences a blackout. Tiffany D. Jackson writes The Long Walk which is broken up into five acts, Nic Stone contributes Mask Off (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), Ashley Woodfolk’s Made to Fit, Dhonielle Clayton provides All the Great Love Stories… and Dust, as well as being the person who sparked the project into existence, Angie Thomas’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and the Nicola Yoon penned Seymour and Grace. (It should be noted that Nicola Yoon just made headlines this past week as part of the YA Authors NFT cluster.)

Of these authors, I’ve only personally read The Hate U Give by Thomas. While I found that work very, very good, there isn’t much in this collection that ranks at that level – but it is still definitely worth your time. I love the premise of Blackout, following six pairs as they experience the big, dramatic love stories that we don’t often get to see Black teens have in our pop culture. We get a full swath – first meetings, friends of longstanding who might be more, bitter exes forced to spend time together, and unexpected opportunities. There’s also a wide variety of identities present, we’re treated to m/m pairing as well as f/f, non-binary persons, immigrant families, single parent households, and on and on.

The book has been optioned by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company to turn it into a six part anthology and I’m quite excited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix because the entire time I was reading I was seeing it as a movie, bouncing from one interconnected group to another as they each make their way to converge at the block party.

Read Women 16: Read a Queer Love Story

Read Harder 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

40-Love (CBR13 #47)

40-Love (There's Something About Marysburg, #2)

I think I laugh the most whenever I read an Olivia Dade romance, her humor hits all the right notes for me. Even when I’m not expecting a laugh, Dade delivers them through her characters who are achingly self-aware, or sometimes not.

Following a meet-cute involving a runaway bikini top and the need to keep from flashing nearby children, we get the story of Tess and Lucas. Lucas, 26, a former top-level tennis pro now giving lessons at a Florida resort, fled there after the abrupt, painful end to his injury-plagued career. He’s met his match (pun very much intended) in Tess, an assistant principal in Virginia in town to celebrate her 40th birthday with her best friend on a well-earned two-week vacation while simultaneously plotting to get the principal job coming open at her school. They only have these two weeks together to figure out if this chemistry between them can survive both their age gap and outside the bubble created by their time together at the resort.

What I learned about myself during this one is that I’m not a huge fan of May-December romances, I don’t think. Or, rather, I completely identified with Tess and her reluctance to take a 26-year-old man seriously from the vantage point of someone in their late 30s (Tess turns 40 early in the book, I turn 39 in a few months). In fact, there was a ton of things I identified with in this book – early injuries ending a pursuit before its time, continual pain from injuries and the acceptance that some things are just going to have a physical cost involved, the never-ending tedium of the physical therapy cycle, growing up quick, just knowing – immediately – that someone might be your person and not wanting to deal with that, letting fear make decisions… its all there hiding just below the surface of this seemingly light vacation romance.

But this is Olivia Dade, you are going to have large feelings, laugh a lot, and enjoy pop culture references as they go by and get absolutely puled in to romance that deals with its characters emotions while simultaneously giving you a bit of escapist fun. This wasn’t the book I had initially intended to read for the Sportsball square. I don’t know why, it’s been on my to read list since last year. When I took the other book out from the library and immediately couldn’t find my footing with its tone and authorial voice, I returned it and went back through my list to see what else I had on deck, and I could have smacked myself for how obviously this one was just waiting for me, perfect and ready to go.

A Room with a View (CBR13 #46)

A Room with a View

When thinking about my White Whale pick for Bingo this year I was coming up short. Then the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads voted to read A Room with a View for October and I found my whale. Many classics are heavy reads, but I found A Room with a View to be refreshingly light on the whole with some lively characters. It’s an accessible story, funny, biting, poignant, wistful, romantic. It’s a study of (mostly) good people, who love one another as best they can, who save one another from muddles.

The plot, from Goodreads is as follows: Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiancé Cecil. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?

I love the word muddle, and it shows up throughout the novel. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy she has gotten herself into a muddle.  And it was, indeed, a muddle with all the lying she was doing near the end of the novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The conflict of the book is between open kindness and honesty, and strict adherence to manners.  But the heart of this book is the romance. George and Lucy barely know each other and are young but do grow up over the course of the book. The romance between Lucy and George is like one of the songs Lucy plays and in leaving the conventional, boring Cecil, who is upset when Lucy plays music too passionately, or any other way displays true personality, Lucy is choosing to live as she plays. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting was the observations about societal norms, especially George’s speech where he declares that while he and Cecil share some of the same flaws that he loves Lucy better, in a real way, because he wants her to have her own thoughts. A good book and a whale I’m glad to have finally taken on.

Battle Royal (CBR13 #38)

Battle Royal (Palace Insiders #1)

I absolutely adored Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series and was excited to get my hands on the first book in her next series, Battle Royal. How could I not be excited for a book where the introduction to our protagonists involves a confectionary unicorn hoof hitting one of them on the forehead mid-judging of a televised baking competition?

After that first meeting four years ago Sylvie Fairchild has gone on to open her own bakery, Sugar Fair, across the street from Dominic De Vere’s eponymous shop. She (and her business) is all things fantastical while De Vere’s is much more classic in its aesthetic (Sylvie describes his color palette as ranging from white to cream). The television show where Dominic is a judge and Sylvie is a former contestant is in need of a new third judge, and Sylvie is tapped for the job as one of their most popular former contestants with a successful baking business. Dominic and Sylvie are thrown together during filming, and they are both in the process of trying to land the contract to create the wedding cake for the King’s eldest granddaughter whose aesthetic is much more in line with Sylvie’s, but Dominic’s family bakery has been the go-to for decades.

What I love about this book is that while a good synopsis I’ve just written, it covers almost nothing of the core of the story. Sure, it gives you the beats of the plot (mostly, this book has a lot of plot) but it doesn’t really give you the heart of the story. For the life of me, I’m struggling to review the heart of the book forty-eight hours out from having finished it. While Sylvie and Dominic are presented as opposites and rivals, they are much more kindred spirited than is initially evident. Parker does what she does best, she slowly but surely layers in depth to her characters and provides them with deep inner lives. Watching how Dominic is surprised, but not all that surprised, at how natural it feels to let Sophie in was one of my happiest reading moments of the year because it rang so honest.

One of the things I’ve been grousing about in other reviews is the un-needed third act break up. It is my contention that while there often needs to be a tension point to be released, it doesn’t always need to come in the form of a break-up or large, boisterous fight. Battle Royal does a great job of proving my point for me. Something happens in Sylvie’s life that makes her nervous about how fast and how deep her feelings for Dominic have developed and with that added to her personal scars surrounding death and loss makes her step back emotionally. Dominic gives her the space she needs to work through whatever it is, and once he’s called back to action by Sylvie’s friend and coworker, he waits for Sylvie to explain what’s happening, giving her the space to do so even while it makes him scared that she might be pulling away full stop. This is the tension point of the story: she has to be open to what truly feeling might cost, he has to be open to the vulnerability of truly letting someone in and the events of the 80% mark do that without making it a fight between them. That was the moment I decided I was rounding this one up to 5 stars.

Content warnings for: discussion of grief (death of family members, including a memory of a death scene in a hospital), parental neglect of child (memory), attempted knife attack.

I was granted an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.