The Holiday Trap (CBR14 #80)

Very early in 2022 I found a couple of holiday romances to place on this year’s to read list for reading during the holiday season as I wind down my reading year. Roan Parrish’s The Holiday Trap was one that found its way on that list by virtue of its place on Buzzfeed’s Most Anticipated LGBTQ Romances of 2022 list and that I had been meaning to pick up a Parrish book anyway. Honestly, the premise of The Holiday but queer was likely going to pull me in no matter what (one f/f pairing, one m/m). Our house-swappers are Greta Russakoff who while she loves her family needs a break from their overstepping and an escape from their tiny Maine hometown following her mom and older sister forcing her to participate in a holiday date auction that they knew she would hate (for various reasons explicitly stated by the character in the text). Truman Belvedere (a last name I had entirely forgotten he had) just discovered that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, he needs a place to re-group far away from New Orleans. Enter Greta and Truman’s mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap between them.

As the book proceeds, we get the stories of Greta and Truman unpacking what about their previous lives wasn’t working for them and finding new romantic interests. The New Orleans based story is all queer found family to balance out the overstepping, co-dependent family of birth that Greta is emerging from. It’s a pretty textbook instalove scenario as Greta meets Carys on her first full day as she’s wandering the neighborhood walking Truman’s dog, Horse. Carys is almost entirely the opposite of Greta, which gives her a nice counterbalance to examine herself against. But my favorite part of Greta’s arc centers around the community of older gardeners whom she becomes involved with. Truman and his love interest Ash’s story, in counterbalance, was a slow burn, featuring characters unsure if their feelings are requited and struggling with self-worth. It is also in many ways a hurt/comfort romance that focuses on the process of uncovering the details of who someone is and how to bring yourself to a relationship even when you don’t feel as though you can. The story on Owl Island is similarly focused on community, and specifically how a small community can survive by a bit of ingenuity and relying on each other in times of need and learning to ask for what you want. There’s also a significant storyline featuring a parent with dementia that I thought was well done as I’ve got a bit of my own experience in that regard, but it may be difficult reading for others.

The pacing of two relationships on different paths made for a book that could feel uneven at times. But, unlike several reviews of this book that I’ve seen I preferred having the two together as opposed to wanting them to be their own books. When executed well (which it was most of the time), having the parallel structure allowed each narrative to elucidate the other. Which feeds in a bit to why I think so many other reviewers felt disengaged from Greta’s storyline. Truman has real, honest friendships with people who tell him the truth, even the hard truths. Greta… doesn’t and finding those people who can be truthtellers to help her is counterbalanced in Truman’s story as he learns to listen to the people who already do that for him and learn to trust himself again. The holidays are present in the story as the action takes place over the month of December (Chanukkah, Christmas) but they are not the focus even though they are drivers for some of the action, especially the idea of how you can learn to change and shape the way you fit into the life of your community. While things went a bit off the rails during the epilogue, I still found a lot to enjoy with this one, 3.5 rounding up.

Season of Love (CBR14 #79)

Cover of Season of Love, featuring two women wrapped up in holiday lights in front of an evergreen tree silhouette surrounded by a menorah and mezuzah

Season of Love would not have made its way to my holiday season reading if not for emmalita’s lovely gifting of it to me, but it does check several boxes for my recent reading input: it is a queer romance which unpacks big emotions, specifically grief and trauma responses. Season of Love is also a very Jewish story told around several holidays, including Christmas. It also made Buzzfeed’s list of most anticipated LGBTQ romances of 2022 and the books I’ve read from that list (Love and Other Disasters, A Lady for a Duke, The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes) all have been immensely successful for me, 4.5 and up. This book immediately shot to the ‘read right now’ section of my TBR.

In it we have Miriam Blum, an artist who specializes in upcycling antiques with her own unique, glittery lens. She thinks she has her life as she wants it – opening her dream store, beautiful fiancée whom she is in a deal with that includes the fact that they will not fall in love, limiting contact with her family to a once-a-month phone call with her mother, her best friend Cole who is always right where she needs him – until she receives the devastating news that her great-aunt Cass Carrigan has passed away. Doing right by the person in her family she viewed as her north star but hadn’t seen in ten years, forces Miriam to return to Cass’s home and reunite with the family she felt she had to walk away from all those years before.

But great-aunt Cass is the sort to meddle from the grave and has made a change to her will, Miriam is now part-owner of Carrigan’s, her Jewish-run Christmas tree farm and inn with her cousin Hannah, Noelle the tree manager, and the absent Levi. When the truth of the new ownership comes in, along with the fact that the farm and inn are about to go under, Miriam must reckon with every choice she’s made in the past decade and decide what kind of life she really wants. However, she is not the only surrogate kid in Cass’s life. This set of events has thrown into turmoil Noelle Northwood spent a lot of years without roots, or a home. Carrigan’s gave her that, a best friend in Hannah who is simply her person, and the family she had lost many years ago in the form of Cass and the Matthews who live and work at the farm and inn. Miriam’s arrival, and the very lusty thoughts she has about her, threaten to ruin the equilibrium she has built her life on.

There is so much more that could be said about this plot because Helena Greer gives us rich, multi-faceted characters who are going through it in major ways. Each character we meet is fully fleshed out and has their own inner life, whether they have chosen to be completely honest with the people around them or not (often, not). From how the book is structured and how it ends I’m sure the next book by Greer will tell the story of Hannah and Levi, but there is not a single character in the greater world of Carrigan’s and Advent that Greer hasn’t laid groundwork for, and I hope we get treated to an entire series of stories in this universe (I want a Cole book so badly I am practically salivating about it).

I would read all of them, because while Greer gives us the holiday trope-filled Romance that I’m looking for she does it with great depth. The characters speak to each other in conversations that sound so very similar to conversations my fellow elder millennials and I have (Miriam is 35, Noelle is about the same – I can’t remember if we are told her age). Characters have nicknames for each other that are well-deployed but not confusing, they fight and hurt each other and talk it through, sometimes against their will. People’s traumas and previous abuse have lasting impacts that are felt and seen and experienced. The Jewishness is frontloaded, and the Christmassy stuff takes a supporting role. Watching as Miriam thawed out from the icy prison she had put herself in for safety was rewarding enough to keep me up past my bedtime, but it was all the other glorious details that had me reading into the dark hours of the night.

A Merry Little Meet Cute (CBR14 #61)

I’m the sort of person who loves ridiculous holiday romcoms and wishes they contained more romantic content. A Merry Little Meet Cute should have been aces for me: a steamy plus-size holiday rom-com about an adult film star who is semi-accidentally cast as a lead in a family-friendly Christmas movie, and the former bad-boy pop star co-star she falls in love with. This has potential!

The basic plot builds on that potential. We have Bee Hobbes, a successful career as a plus-size adult film star paired up with Nolan Shaw, an ex-boy band member in desperate need of career rehab. When Bee’s favorite porn producer casts her to star in a Christmas movie he’s making for the squeaky-clean Hope Channel, Bee’s career could move into a more family-friendly direction, something she’s been thinking about as her time in porn will eventually come to an end. For his part, Nolan’s goal is to be able to provide a more stable living situation for his sister and mom and the only way he can see to do that is to step back into the limelight, if he can manage to get his reputation to stop being the first thing every one associates with him.

But… while Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone show themselves to be highly adept writers who do a fantastic job balancing their authorial voices to create one for the book, the execution is uneven, leaving me feeling a bit let down. I loved everything about the fat rep (including Bee’s vacillating between being confident and not), and the sex and sex work positivity. But for the sheer number of times Bee’s sex toys and Nolan’s proclivities and preferences are mentioned, much of the raunchier sex was off page if alluded to at all. It was strange to me to read a book that was so up front in its positions regarding presenting less frequently mainstream topics in romance, but not following through on including them in the actual relationship that the book is focused on.

I had fun while I was reading the book, got pulled into the ever more complicated goings-on of the characters. But… I never felt that urge to get back to them after I put the book down, and I had to talk myself up to getting my review written, having ignored it for the better part of a week once I was finished. I think I’ve gotten to the heart of the matter, though. While I loved all the parts of this book, the reason I don’t love the book is because the emotional component of the relationship building between Bee and Nolan is the least present thing in the book, and that’s a damn shame.

Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Stand-up Groomsman (CBR14 #50)

Cover of The Stand-up Groomsman by Jackie Lau featuring a heavyset Asian man in a suit with a microphone and a thin Asian woman in a pink one shoulder bridesmaid's dress looking up at him.

I know a Jackie Lau romance is going to make my heart happy. In some ways The Stand-up Groomsman is a departure from the types of Lau books I’ve enjoyed in the past. In this follow up to last year’s Donut Fall in Love Lau takes a more serious tone and unpacks some bigger emotional truths, in this case how we handle expectations and how it interacts with larger family dynamics. But in most ways, this is almost exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect from Lau – there’s tropes that she’s going to play around with and there’s going to be spades of representation.

When Vivian Liao’s roommate gets engaged to her favorite actor’s costar, she has no choice but to come face-to-face with Melvin Lee again following their terrible first meeting the previous year. He’s just as funny and handsome as he is on-screen…but thinks she is a snob and a sellout. Mel is used to charming audiences as an actor and stand-up comedian but can’t connect to Vivian even though he wants to make up for judging her based on his own fears and experiences. The only thing uniting them is their goal for their friends’ wedding to go off without a hitch. As they collaborate on wedding cake and karaoke parties, antagonism turns to burgeoning friendship to something more.

The Stand-up Groomsman features both opposites attract and enemies to friends to lovers. It’s also a queer m/f book as both main characters are bi. Vivian and Mel have vastly different temperaments and personalities, which made for an interesting chemistry. Lau writes well-rounded leads who understand and respect each other’s boundaries. It was not a typical relationship, and the ways in which Lau steps outside the “norm” meant a great deal to me personally and I was excited to see it. This one doesn’t shy away from making a happily ever after for its characters that makes sense for them, not for what might be expected for them.

A major emotional beat is worth and family expectations about Mel and Vivian’s relationships with their families. Vivian is made miserable by her family, specifically by their expectations of who she should be and the way they robbed her of her childhood by forcing her to act as a third parent for her younger siblings. Between her family and her terrible ex Vivian is convinced that people only want to be with her for what they can get from her. She must find that she is worth happiness and someone who sees her as she is and loves her without expectations, which paves the way for a consistent undercurrent of how consistently kind the leads are to each other. Mel also has trauma he must work through, and Vivian is steadfast in her support of his healthy boundaries as she has fought for her own.

It could be easy to get frustrated with Vivian, and I was for sections of book, but at the same time Lau uses Vivian’s past experiences well in explaining who she is today and how her personality formed. There were some things that weren’t great – the grovel was too quick for my tastes. I also got possibly irrationally angry with the break-up at the 80% mark. Lau occasionally falls back on telling the reader how the characters are feeling, instead of letting the characters’ behaviors and actions do the speaking, but overall this book and its predecessor are worth your time. 

I received this book as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, it has not affected the contents of this review. The Stand-up Groomsman publishes October 25, 2022.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes (CBR14 #45)

I loved this book. I loved the very concept of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes when it was announced, I loved wondering what the story could be. When we get to the end of The Queer Principles of Kit Webb it isn’t a cliffhanger, but there are a lot of loose ends which still need to be tied up – this is the book that does that tying, while unraveling and re-weaving a few threads of its own.

So, what is this book? The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes is two bisexual disasters doing their worst. If that tag line doesn’t get you interested in this one, I’m not sure what will. But we can at least go with how Sebastian describes the story: “It’s the story of a woman who falls in love with the man writing her blackmail letters, and a man who is the worst blackmailer ever (and who has a convenient weakness for women who write him mean letters). When she kills her husband and needs an accomplice to help her run away, she turns to the only person she knows who has any experience with crime—her blackmailer.”

I have a fondness for epistolary novels (although I haven’t always) and the idea of two characters falling in love with one another through blackmail letters intrigued me. And the letters – Sebastian writes with such clarity of voice, that their letters sound like them and you immediately know what kind of people these characters are.  These are two characters who seem predisposed to making terrible choices, but they make terrible choices which work in concert with each other’s terrible choices. Marian is prickly and difficult, and Rob is warm and charming and in love with her from page one, and it all just works. So, so well.

Sebastian notes in the interview that I linked to above that Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair was integral to her desire to write Romance, in that it is a consent-driven love story between two ordinary people that focuses on loveliness, not on suffering. This book lives up to those goals while simultaneously doubling down on the class warfare of The Queer Principles of Kit Webb and interrogating Rob and Marian’s habits of hiding their problems or needs, of choosing pride over other things. There is so much this book does, and does exceedingly well. I want everyone to read it and its predecessor with a quickness. I promise you’ll be happy you did.  

Last Night at the Telegraph Club (#34)

In Last Night at the Telegraph Club Malinda Lo created National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner which aims to challenge pervasive perceptions of the 1950s in the United States, including stereotypes about Chinese Americans, the invisibility of the lesbian and gay community, and the role of women in the space program, and the reach of Red Scare paranoia on people’s day to day lives. It is also the story of two young women falling in love during their senior year of high school and navigating all the things that seemed destined to keep them apart.

So much of queer history is about reading between the lines and understanding the meaning behind coded words and actions. It helps create the “gal pal” problem in historical recounting – its good historical practice to not assign labels you cannot support, but with so much of the evidence going unnoticed by those who aren’t adequately trained or who are actively seeking to ignore it, people’s lived experiences get missed or erased. Lo’s research for this began with the desire to uncover the stories of the lesbians who lived in and around Chinatown in the 1950s, and her dedicated research shines through in the authenticity of the narrative she was able to craft.

I just wish I liked it better. I have a firm feeling this is a case of I’m not the audience Lo wrote this book for, in that I am no longer a young adult. There’s plenty of story for me – or anyone – here, thus my indecision of whether to round my 3.5 up or down, but the pacing felt slow to me, and part of that was in the way the layers of the story were laid in, the structures familiar to me now as hallmarks of YA. Which isn’t to say this isn’t well written, the opposite is true. But I can’t make myself give it a higher rating, but I am looking forward to discussing it for #CannonBookClub.

For the Love of April French (CBR14 #31)

For the Love of April French is an immensely readable book with a strong authorial voice that is a wonderful fluffy romance playing in the D/s kink realm. It’s the story of April and Dennis who have a temporary no-strings sex agreement, but Dennis is secretly trying to woo April, which is a great trope to build an emotions-first BDSM romance around.

Dennis and April are wonderfully flawed and human characters. Aimes writes with her characters humanities front and center. April and Dennis can be easily broken down into their demographics, but that dramatically undersells the characterization that is achieved. Those demographics matter – and the characters deal with them, and the ways they have built their experience of the world – but Aimes steadfastly builds a full picture of each character’s humanity, which is always a treat to find in any book, but especially in a debut.

This book is about a love story, but it’s also a story about growth. Each character actively chooses to change, to grow, including both going to therapy. Dennis’s path sees him starting the book very insecure after horrifically messing up his marriage which he takes responsibility for, and Aimes lets that be what we know – that he fucked up, there is no equivocating about it. Dennis gets a kink mentor and educates himself both about his preferred kink and issues surrounding trans women. Best of all when he screws up (because everyone screws up… again we’re human), he owns the error and does better. April is a trans woman with a fair amount of insecurity and trauma because the world is not a kind place to trans, genderqueer, and non-binary folks. She’s a smart, attractive heroine who is nevertheless unrepentantly insecure. She’s been hurt many times and has built a way of moving through the world designed to protect her from hoping for too much, and throughout the work we see her learn to accept the sort of care and support that she has been pouring into her friends for years, and more importantly accept it from her romantic partner.

Something Fabulous (CBR14 #29)

Quickly on the heels of reading Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material last month I requested Something Fabulous from the library keen to see how Hall’s voice translated from contemporary romance to historical. The verdict: mostly quite good with moments of brilliant, but also moments of not good at all. I’ve gone with a 3.5 rounded up for this one.

We’ve got the story here of Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, and his twin problems: Belle and Bonny Tarleton. Operating under his deceased father’s desire for  Valentine to marry Miss Arabella “Belle” Tarleton, unfortunately she has decided she will not have him and flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again. Belle’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted scoundrel he seems to be. A hungover Valentine finds himself pursuing Belle to Dover with Bonny by his side. During their time together Valentine finds Bonny to be unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Hall is very good at what he does we are shown the things that we need to know to unpack the neuroses, inhibitions, and things that make his leads feel other, or afraid to hope (those last two often the same). This is the second romance with a demisexual lead I’ve read in the past six months (the other the glorious The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian) and I though Hall handled it beautifully, the slowly dawning realization for Valentine the longer he spends in the company of Bonny worked for me. As did the pacing of their developing relationship, and the crux of being asked, being chosen. While the chase through the countryside had its highlights, it was the time at the hunting lodge that firmly rounded this one up for me.

The things that don’t work for me all circle around Belle, Bonny’s quite awful twin sister. The book opens with Belle absolutely loosing her mind about the terrible and oppressive proposal by Valentine… which left me immediately concerned about proceeding with the book at all since the reader is dumped into this dramatic overreaction with no background, and spends the rest of the book, some 350 pages, wrapping our minds around what exactly her problem is. And its… something that makes sense at the end, and I can see Hall picking at the need to view all people as just that, but the ever-increasing histrionics and lying that Belle does make her loathsome as opposed to a character we can find any reason to care for and left a bad taste in my mouth reminiscent of Sarina Bowen’s The Fifteenth Minute. This book is without a villain – Belle is the antagonist, and Valentine seems uniquely committed to getting in his own way – but Hall writes her in a way that is just too close to irredeemable and as she is crucial to Bonny we almost must care about the final part of her story and I simply didn’t want to, nor did I want her to have the good turn she receives.  

I’ve received an ARC of Hall’s next queer historical romance, A Lady for a Duke, and am looking forward to seeing how Hall moves from this book with possibly an entirely queer cast (seriously, so much it was great) to the story with a trans heroine and her Duke next month.

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.