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.

The Life Revamp (CBR13 #58)

I received an ARC from Carina Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Life Revamp publishes November 30th, 2021.

The Life Revamp (The Love Study #3)

This was a first for me, a romance featuring a polyamorous relationship, but one I had been looking for. Kris Ritter’s The Life Revamp tells the story of Mason, who wants to fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. You know, live the fairytale a little. His luck has been less than stellar, including being left at the alter as a younger man, and the hunt is beginning to wear him down, to the point of settling for Mr. Checks All the Boxes. That is, until he meets up and coming local fashion designer Diego. Everything sparks between them—the banter, the sex, the fiery eye contact across a crowded room. There’s just one thing: Diego is already married, which includes outside courtships. In fact, Diego’s wife Claris, who is also friends with Mason, sets them up – she’s sure they are what the other is looking for. Mason thought he knew what would make him happy, but it turns out the traditional life he’d expected has some surprises in store. 

The thematic thrust of this book is expectations, what they are, how we come by them, and what they might prevent us from seeing. We are experiencing the story from Mason’s point of view, and we are therefore treated (burdened?) with his hopes, fears, and insecurities about finding the person who will choose him and allowing the possibility that Diego might be able to choose him equally to Claris. While much of this book focuses on Mason’s romantic expectations (and falling for the delightful Diego), Ripper doesn’t sideline the other areas of Mason’s life, and their incumbent expectations. We see how Mason navigates his found family, the wonderfully named Motherfuckers, his relationship with his mother – and by extension his faith. The story climaxes as Mason realizes he’s been coasting both romantically and professionally and does something about it, and the doing something about it worked for me in a big way.

There are a few things that I wished were fleshed out in order to balance the story, both from an arc structure perspective, but also from telling a balanced story about an open relationship such as Diego and Claris have. While we spend a good amount of time with the various components of the Gentleman’s Fashion week, we never hear from the POV of the pair in the existing relationship, but we also don’t see Mason and Claris have a conversation, really, about what it means to be metamours especially as that relationship would be based on their existing friendship. But by and large I felt that Ritter wrote a believable and entertaining romance with characters that I was happy to spend time with.

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

Network Effect (CBR13 #48)

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

It has been almost three years since I last ventured into the land of Murderbot (January 2019) and while I had to wait like everyone else for Network Effect to publish, I also put it off a little while, over a year in fact. I blame Pandemic brain. Because the minute I picked this one up, I was back with Murderbot and it felt like almost no time at all since I last visited this part of fictional space. Wells has an incredibly strong authorial voice, which becomes even more evident late in the book. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing, and continues to hate humans looking at it and seeing the details of its personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit but it is getting better (more comfortable? More accepting?) at figuring out how to communicate with its humans for the best result for everyone. Usually. Although it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious just as easily as it did back in book one, All Systems Red.

This story continues Wells’ unpacking the nature of relationships and our humanity. Murderbot is actively telling us the story and since Murderbot is self-referential and sarcastic it keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace. We meet ART again (I still love it very much) and Dr. Mensah, her family, and her team are also here. Dr. Mensah continues to bring out the person in Murderbot in a way no other character does, with the exception possibly of her daughter Amena, as the story progresses. In broadest strokes the plot of this one is that Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, let’s not be crazy here. Well except maybe Ratthi.) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. So drastic action it is, then.

Murderbot still has to act within a system that would dismantle it, if its autonomy were known. That trapped feeling of the mix of trauma, depression, and anxiety all at odds with a desire for understanding and true independence makes Murderbot an incredibly compelling character, and that’s before we get into the never-ending job of keeping its humans alive. My only real complaint is that it felt like this book took a long time to get really going. The first hundred pages (of 350) are really setting up the story, and include some flashforwards (flashbacks? The HelpMe.file excerpts are hard to describe) that are not explained until much later.  But even through that there is a lot of action happening (and a lot of emotions) (Even Murderbot will agree to that). Because – and if I had read narfna’s review earlier I would have known this going in – Network Effect is also a romance. ART and Murderbot’s relationship goes through so many of the major plot points of romance, and I say this knowing full well that we’re talking about an asexual android and bodiless A.I. It’s a beautiful arc and the main reason I’m including this book in my Read Women Task 16: a book featuring a queer love story (and there’s a lot of other queer relationships running around in this book as well).

This story shows a lot of growth, both for Murderbot and those around it. I wondered about the title of the book when I got done, thinking I knew what it was after, and a quick search told me I was correct since the titular Network Effect is a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it. Sounds about right to me.

One Last Stop (CBR13 #26 – Half Cannonball!)

One Last Stop

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early last year I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut Red, White, & Royal Blue like many a Cannonballer before me. Upon its completion I knew McQuiston was an author to add to my must reads list – they were writing the kind of queer romance I was looking for in the world. Once announced I put One Last Stop on my to read list having faith in the author, if not exactly the premise.

One Last Stop is the story of August and Jane. August, a young recent NYC transplant with a complicated history, falls head over heels for a woman she keeps running into on the Q train, Jane. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her.

So much of the story is about the fear of letting someone love you, of being brave enough to think you won’t let them down. August and Jane spend time circling around the growing love between them, afraid of what it means. August uses her focus on solving the mystery of Jane to hide behind and it takes her entire found family unit to help build the confidence she needs to step out from behind that. But it happens multiple places along the narrative, Wes (honestly my favorite character by a long, long measure) is also running from how he feels about Isaiah and accepting the love being freely offered to him, exactly as and who he is.

Beyond the main romance plot focusing on Jane and August this book is about found family, and the way we create our identity by the community we make around ourselves, especially in our twenties (although I did it again in my thirties). The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and anxiety, which I appreciate from deep within my soul. McQuiston writes like a motherfucker. Even when I was bored (which happened at about the one third mark) I was enthralled by the writing. McQuiston created a world that is fully fleshed out with a variety of people and is explicitly queer. MCQuiston did their research and it shows, both in Jane’s past and August’s present.

This book is a four-star read for me; at times it was three, and times it was four, but it never reached a point where I thought it was a five-star read. I struggled to get myself into the book and read an entire other book (the very good People We Meet on Vacation) before picking this one back up. The problem was relatively simple upon reflection – the pacing was uneven and at times the plot stalled. But once it got going again, I was in, but it still sometimes felt like work, and that makes me a little sad. McQuiston has said their next book is going to be a YA ensemble piece about coming out in the religious South and I am still on board for whatever book they want to write.

“… thinking of Wes and how determined he is not to let Isaiah hand him his heart, of Myla holding Niko’s hand while he talks to things she can’t see, of her mom and a whole life searching, of herself, of Jane, of hours on the train – all the things they put themselves through for love. Okay, I get it.”

The Ruin of a Rake (CBR12 #26)

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series, #3)

I should have read this one much closer to the previous two in the series, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Brown Affair because so many of our previous characters reappear here and are woven into the plot. As a reader you can tell that Sebastian was getting more comfortable in her writing, overall, this book is stronger than the previous two, even if Sebastian shortchanges the plot a smidge in the final third. I continue to really like how Cat Sebastian builds her stories: they are steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the characters help heal or fill in the weaknesses in their partners, or in this case how the world around them sees them.

Cat Sebastian’s Turner Series are queer historical romances – her books feature complex and exceedingly lovable gay, bisexual, nonbinary, and otherwise diverse characters. The Ruin of a Rake is the story of Julian Medlock and Lord Courtenay. Lord Courtenay is the titular rake and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel which looks to be based on his exploits, he finds himself unable to see his nephew, and is willing to do anything to improve his reputation. Enter Julian Medlock, possibly the most proper man in al of London who has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes, and lusts after, most. With time spent in each other’s company their mutual interest grows and eventually Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve; and Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety.

There are several back and forths between the pair and the associated characters in each of their backstories as the figure out what life could look like if they can sort out what kind of life it is that they want. I’ll leave you with an answer that Sebastian gave in an interview said about writing to reflect identity “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! When I’m writing outside my identity, I either hire a sensitivity reader or ask someone who shares the character’s identity to do a sensitivity read. Every time […], the reader has found things I never in a million years would have considered problematic.”

Red, White, & Royal Blue (CBR12 #4)

Red, White & Royal Blue

Next up on my Diverse Romance reads is Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston wrote Red, White, & Royal Blue with the intention of making it queer, and making it queer in the way she wished she had read for herself as she was finding her own identity. Her care shows in every step of the novel and its going to be tough for another book to be better than this one this year.

Red, White, & Royal Blue has a great premise – what if the son of the first female president of the United States fell in love with the grandson of the sitting Queen of England? Better yet, what if they go from enemies to friends to lovers. What’s more is that we have one coming to the realization that he is bisexual and the other living deeply in the closet.

“Straight people, he thinks, probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves they’re straight.”

This book leans into being a political, queer, new adult romantic comedy. McQuiston finds room in her story for all of it, the realities of the American political system aren’t obliterated by her changed 2016 election, a wide variety of queer characters exist in the depths of this story because while its very specifically the story of Alex and Henry, their world is fully fleshed out with a variety of people, and is just downright funny. Basically any scene with Alex’s mom elicited a laugh from me – she’s absolutely brutal in her brand of mom humor and this book contains the single greatest use of PowerPoint ever.

The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and addiction. We get to watch as McQuiston unpacks what they see in each other and why would this person love that one through their emails and texts, spending large portions of the back half of the book creating a modern epistolary novel. I loved watching them fall in love and deal with the weight of what their choice to choose love meant to their realities. I’m not doing a great job reviewing it, but this is really a great book.

“The phrase “see attached bibliography” is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”