The Love Study by Kris Ripper

53710329._SY475_Sure, The Love Study has a sweet couple whose romance I enjoy, but the way it examines the nature of love is even better.

First the setup – Declan abandoned his last boyfriend at the altar and has avoided dating for years, thinking that relationships are beyond him. His heart has healed in the meantime, though, and he might be ready to try meeting people again.

Enter Sidney. They’re a relationship advice YouTuber looking to start a new video series – The Love Study – and Declan is the perfect subject. Sidney will set him up on dates, and after each they’ll discuss what worked and what didn’t. But as they spend more time together, Declan realizes the only person he has chemistry with is Sidney.

Before I get into the review proper, some rep – Ripper is genderqueer and so is Sidney. Yes, the jacket copy says “nonbinary”, probably because it’s a more recognizable term, but in the book Sidney prefers “GQ” to “enby”. Declan has anxiety including panic attacks, but it’s not overly detailed and didn’t end up bothering me. There are also mentions of homophobia, transphobia, and racism.

The little things make me feel safe reading this book, and most boil down to respect. When Declan and Sidney make plans options are offered including the option to do nothing, no pressure. They brainstorm solutions, like when trying to figure out what to call each other – partner? lover? datemate? companion? They’re comfortable talking out their feelings, even when they don’t have all the words for them yet. This kind of respect should be the foundation of all relationships, not just intimate ones, and I love seeing it.

Related – Declan is used to spilling the beans about his sexual escapades to friends, but Sidney wants to keep things private and he respects that, even grows to like it after a while. Sidney’s wishes end up affecting us readers as well – this is a closed door romance, so there’s no explicit sex on the page.

The respect is great but my favorite thing about this book, hands down, is how it made me think about the nature of relationships. By watching Declan’s dates – never disasters, but always lacking somehow – Ripper examines what it means to be “romantic” and how different people have different definitions. Sidney laments how “romantic” gestures often have a gendered element, even in queer relationships – someone offering to pay for dinner, opening doors, giving chocolate on Valentine’s Day. That it feels more like playing a role than being genuine.

There are thoughtful discussions on whether dating is the best way to get to know someone, and the “goal” of relationships. Now that everyone can marry, should that be the universal goal? Is long-term commitment sufficient? Heck, is it necessary? How much are thoughts around queer marriage are bound up with it being not only a personal statement, but also a political one?

In examining these issues Ripper is also taking a meta look at the Happily Ever After in romance. Many books end with a marriage or similar, but can the main characters simply like each other a lot and have that count as an HEA? There were times that I would put the book down and stare off into space, thinking about everything Ripper is laying down.

As much as I love this book there are a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. I would have preferred a higher heat level, while recognizing that it would have brought a genderqueer character’s genitals into the conversation, which is never ever a requirement. There’s a found family element but it felt a bit forced to me. Then again, I think that dynamic takes a couple of books to develop. And the ending was… fine. A bit predictable, not bad, just fine.

If you are a thematic reader, if you would like to examine the nature of love and relationships, and if you are looking for a comfortable, safe space to go in these uncertain times, there’s nothing better than The Love Study. I’m an instant fan of Ripper and can’t wait to dive into zir backlist.

Thanks to Carina Press for providing a review copy.

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

50043108._SX318_SY475_Michele Harper is a female, African American emergency room physician in a profession that is overwhelmingly male and white. Brought up in Washington, DC, in an abusive family, she went to Harvard, where she met her husband. They stayed together through medical school until two months before she was scheduled to join the staff of a hospital in central Philadelphia, when he told her he couldn’t move with her. Her marriage at an end, Harper began her new life in a new city, in a new job, as a newly single woman.

In the ensuing years, as Harper learned to become an effective ER physician, bringing insight and empathy to every patient encounter, she came to understand that each of us is broken—physically, emotionally, psychically. How we recognize those breaks, how we try to mend them, and where we go from there are all crucial parts of the healing process.

At the highest ranks (doctor, professor) medicine is still a very white field, so I was excited to pick up this memoir by an African-American ER doctor, especially because there was a bunch of buzz around its publication.

The title is apt, as one could say that Harper has “broken” several times in her life. While her family situation looked great from the outside – a doctor’s family in a big house – it hid how horrifyingly abusive her father was, mostly to her mother. She managed to go to medical school herself, fell in love and got married, only to have her husband leave her right before moving to a different city. We follow her as she works at different hospitals and focuses on different parts of the job – administrative, patient care – as she comes to terms with it all.

I can’t go any farther in this review without mentioning that this was a buddy read with the wonderful Louise at the blog A Strong Belief in Wicker. She’s an emergency department doctor in Australia so we had a wonderful time dissecting the text on a medical level along with discussing Harper’s life experiences.

The most solid pro for The Beauty in Breaking is the writing. Some turns of phrase are beautiful, and she’s eloquent when talking about how racism in the medical system has affected her personally, as well as her patients. On that more surface, literary level I have little to complain about.

When it comes to medicine I have questions, though. There are some basic errors (for example, the Glasgow Coma Scale is scored 3-15, not 1-15) so I’m guessing the text wasn’t proofread for medical accuracy. Some of the patient scenarios didn’t make sense – why wasn’t a nurse called in to help with a particular procedure? Why is she ordering a head CT for a run of the mill headache?

While most of the patient stories are interesting and informative, several feel unrealistic. One conversation felt a roleplay scenario that’s part of my training as a medical interpreter – everything clearly said in logical order, with no meandering or backtracking or extraneous information. I’m guessing it was a composite patient, but even composite patients should talk like real people, right?

Harper finds peace via yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, which I’m glad for. I do yoga, too. But I don’t need to read detailed descriptions of her yoga class, and I was surprised that she talked to patients about their “spirit” as much as she did. I’m all for wellness and health in a general sense, but this tipped over into “woo-woo” too much for my liking.

All in all The Beauty in Breaking does a great job discussing certain issues beautifully, but if you’re in medicine yourself details will certainly needle you.

Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.