Just Like That by Cole McCade (Albin Academy #1)

49875508._SY475_Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts. But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the Albin Academy boarding school—and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.

Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.

Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.

Review:

Just Like That is this month’s addition to the Carina Adores line, huzzah! I’ve been meaning to read McCade and this is a fine introduction.

Before I go any further I want to point out that there are tropes with squick potential including age gap (24/pushing 50) and the fact that this is a teacher/former student romance. The content warnings are detailed at the front, but I especially want to point out anxiety (including a panic attack on the page) and suicidal ideation.

The romance is hurt/comfort in both directions – Summer has a bright, soft personality and is continuing a lifetime struggle with anxiety, while Fox has built up prickly armor around a traumatic event from his past. Both are psychology teachers, so it should be no surprise that the conflict is entirely internal. Expect lots of talking and ruminating with a fair side of angst.

Let’s start with the good, at least for me. McCade’s writing is descriptive and flowery, and it won’t be for everyone. It was just what I wanted right now, though – flowing and lyrical in a way that felt comforting.

Fox is half-Japanese/half-Western and grew up in Japan to age 14. I found one small bobble in the Japanese culture references, which is pretty good considering how much authors usually get wrong.

As for the not-so-good, the believability isn’t quite there for me. Fox and Summer have make out sessions in their classroom on the regular, the assistant principal doesn’t even blink an eye when he walks in on them. There’s a side character that shares living space with Summer, but he disappears as soon as he’s not needed for the plot. And while I get the romance, I’m not completely sold on Summer and Fox as a couple.

Speaking of, to the reviewers saying that a formerly straight guy goes gay for his student – stop. Fox never said he was straight. There is something called bisexuality, let’s not forget it.

Between the squick potential and the writing style it’s hard to recommend Just Like That to everyone, but I’m sure it will have its fans. I’m looking forward to reading another book by McCade to get a better feel for what he can do.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Unvarnished by Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll

48254184When it opened a decade ago, the acclaimed Los Angeles speakeasy The Varnish—owned, designed, and managed by award-winning cocktail aficionado Eric Alperin—quickly became the stylish standard bearer for modern bars.  Alperin and veteran bartender and writer Deborah Stoll push back against the prevailing conceit that working in the service industry is something people do because they failed at another career. They offer fascinating meditations on ice as the bartender’s flame; the good, the bad, and the sad parts of vice; one’s duty to their community as a local; the obsessive, compulsive deliberations of building a bar (size matters); lessons from Sasha Petraske—Eric’s late partner, mentor, and the forefather of the modern day classic cocktail renaissance—and the top ten reasons not to date a bartender. At the book’s center are the 100 recipes a young Jedi bartender must know before their first shift at The Varnish, along with examples of building drinks by the round, how to Mr. Potato Head cocktails, and what questions to ask when crafting a Bartender’s Choice.

Review:

It’s interesting to see how different people approach their craft. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain centers cooking as a physical act – I can’t separate my image of him from banging pans and frantic kitchens. Marcus Samuelsson comes across as a more cerebral chef, chasing flavors as he’s led by his taste buds in Yes, Chef. Alperin tends towards the latter by paying great attention to detail while making the perfect drink – the right ice, ordering ingredients just so, arranging the workspace for maximum efficiency.

I especially appreciate this detail in the chapter about ice. It’s fascinating how far bartenders will go to get perfectly clear ice in the shape best suited for the drink. Overall I like the chapters that are close the to the bar best as Alperin, with the help of Stoll, does a great job sharing his knowledge about the hows and whys of bartending and how he applies them at The Varnish. His insights on hospitality and what his mentor calls “offhand excellence” are especially memorable. I like that he doesn’t name drop – there’s a couple of mentions of “a celebrity” stopping by, but nothing else. The memoir-esque sections concentrating on his personal life and boozing it up in LA are hit and miss, though.

Speaking of things that are hit and miss, footnotes are used heavily throughout. Sometimes it’s to define a term, other times to add a funny anecdote or source. I wouldn’t mind if they were limited, but at one point there were three within a couple of lines of each other. I was sick of clicking through. At that point it’s better to gloss P&L as “profit and loss report” and leave it at that.

There’s 100 cocktail recipes smack dab in the middle when, at least in the ebook, it would feel more natural at the end. And when we do get to the end we’re met by an afterward full of essays by people who are in some way connected to The Varnish – regulars, the piano player, bartenders, and so on. Not a couple, not even a dozen, but 26 essays. Some are great, and I love that the barback writes his in Spanish, but the sheer number feels like padding.

All in all, Unvarnished is a quick read with interesting bits as well as flaws.

Thanks to Harper Wave and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Review:

3.5 stars

I love Hibbert’s novels. She does so many things right – rep of all sorts (as evidenced by own voices reviews), characters who use their words and treat each other with respect, and comedy. She also does angst well but alas, angst isn’t my thing. As a result I love her fun, rompy novels like the mega hit Get a Life, Chloe Brown and have complicated feelings about the rest.

I want to be clear, Take a Hint is a very good book. The first third is full of laugh out loud fun – Dani making entreaties to a sex goddess with her bestie, banter, a routine evacuation drill that goes wrong and leaves Dani stranded in an elevator. Zafir, former rugby player turned building security guard, carries her out of the building Cinderella style and #DrRugbae is born. Everyone thinks they’re a couple, and Zafir could use the publicity to promote a charity he runs, so would Dani continue the fake relationship for a good cause. Of course. It’s not like Zafir isn’t tall, dark, and handsome. And definitely not kind. Nope.

The good:

  • Again, all the rep including Black bisexual woman, Punjabi Muslim guy, anxiety including panic attacks.
  • Content warnings are front and center when you open the book, great for those who want them.
  • Hibbert makes my least favorite tropes bearable, and here it’s secrets. It’s not ‘if I tell him this he’ll hate me’. Instead it’s ‘I’m not ready to face this myself, and I’m sure as hell not ready to tell him’. But before long words are used because we are all adults here.
  • The funny parts are really funny and had me grinning.
  • There’s a great message about mental health, seeking help, and not going it alone.

Neither-here-nor-there:

  • I love me a gender flipped trope, and here stereotypical roles for men and women are reversed. Dani is a workaholic, is only looking for a fuck buddy (her words), and has given up on love and relationships. Zaf has been to therapy, is emotionally fluent, reads romance novels, and helps Dani come to realizations about her past and herself. I recently read another novel that tried to do this and failed, but Hibbert delivers. It works.

The not-so-good-for-me:

  • After the first third we go deeper into the waters of internal conflict and angst. Not my thing, but I know a lot of people love it.

The not-so-good:

  • The plotting feels a little off. The conflict gets wishy washy in the middle, making the book easy to put down. And while the emotional work at the end is superb and the reason for the extra .5 star, the end feels a bit disjointed. It’s almost like we get an HEA, a black moment is thrown in, followed by another HEA.

If you like more angst in your romance you will love where Take a Hint, Dani Brown ends up. It’s not my thing so I didn’t like this one quite as much as Chloe’s installment, but it’s easy to recognize all that Hibbert is doing right and I love where she went at the end. I’m sad that there’s only one Brown sister left.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.