Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (True Colors #1)

Luc O’Donnell’s rock star parents split when he was young, and now that the father that he’s never met is making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material.  So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating.

 

I wasn’t completely with this book at the start – Luc is a bit of a disaster in more  ways than one, and I was looking forward to the stability Oliver was sure to bring. And what’dya know, he did.

The good:

  • Once I got into the groove of things I laughed out loud every few chapters – some of the characters are ridiculous and over the top in good ways. If you’re looking for a rom com bordering on lovingly silly this book is for you.
  • There’s complex emotional stuff going on here with both heroes, including with their families. Luc and Oliver support each other as best as they are able and pull away when they need a break, but it’s never left to fester long. Both are dealing with some fairly major stuff and we get to watch them talk about it and grow, both as people and in the relationship.
  • I love that some situations aren’t cut and dry – hard conversations with no right answers. No best way to console someone who’s crying his heart out. But our heroes do their best and it ends up being enough. More than enough.
  • I think it’s interesting that while Luc and Oliver are both gay they surround themselves with completely different kinds of people. Luc found a home in the LGBTQIA+ community when he needed one most, while Oliver’s circle of friends is almost completely straight. Both are presented as okay and valid – having mostly straight friends doesn’t make you any less queer.
  • The side characters are fleshed out and interesting. From Luc’s parents to the posh donors at a charity party, we get a solid feel for everyone as people.
  • There’s a nod at how difficult family can be when a couple decides they don’t want children (‘but we want grandbabies!’) and as someone without children myself I appreciate it.
  • Thanks to libro.fm I received the audiobook for review and my god, Joe Jameson does an amazing job with the narration. Luc’s fumbling is natural, more natural than it looks printed on a page, Oliver’s baritone is sexy, and the voices of women, especially, blew me away.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • The sex is infrequent and of the fade-to-black variety. If you’ve been wanting to try an m/m romance but were looking for something more tame in that department, this book is a great place to start.

The not-so-good:

  • I’m sad that we don’t have any chapters from Oliver’s point of view. At first I wanted to get out of Luc’s head for a while – he really is a disaster in the beginning – but I think seeing some scenes from Oliver’s POV would have added some depth.
  • It wouldn’t have worked for plot reasons, but I was dying to see Oliver get mixed up in Luc’s group of friends. How would he react? Would he become looser or clam up? Love them or like them? (There are no other options, natch.)
  • Some scenes got long, especially in posh dining rooms.

I ended up reading Boyfriend Material in a combination of print and audio and with such amazing narration I ended up liking the latter more. Three stars for the print, four stars for the audio, averaging out to 3.5 overall.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca and libro.fm for providing review copies.

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.

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.

Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

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

Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Vampire Sorority Sisters #1)

10161265It’s rush but college freshman Ginger Carmichael more has important things on her mind, like maintaining her perfect GPA. No matter how much she can’t stand the idea of the cliques and the matching colors, there’s something about the girls of Alpha Beta Omega—their beauty, confidence, and unapologetic sexuality—that draws Ginger in. But once initiation begins, Ginger finds that her pledge is more than a bond of sisterhood, it’s a lifelong pact to serve six bloodthirsty demons with a lot more than nutritional needs.

Despite her fears, Ginger falls hard for the immortal queen of this nest, and as the semester draws to a close, she sees that protecting her family from the secret of her forbidden love is much harder than studying for finals.

Review:

I love Weatherspoon but her next book is half a year away (gah!) so I’ve decided to dip into her backlist. Better Off Red, a paranormal erotic romance, is her first book.

The good:

  • Huzzah for own voices queer romance! And if you’re looking for hot sapphic sex, we have lots of it here.
  • The plot is built around an interesting idea – that vampires would use a somewhat secretive institution, like a sorority, to recruit people to feed on. The world building in general is deeper and more well thought out than I was expecting in a debut.
  • I didn’t even think about rushing a sorority, so I like the look and observations about a corner of college life I know little about.
  • I’m a fan of the vampire mythology and ethos. Humans aren’t used merely as food – they’re carefully selected and protected for their entire life. It’s a loving relationship, both in feeling and deed.

The not-so-good:

  • There are some typical debut wobbles. The plot gallops a bit at the end, and I’m not sure I buy everything that happened.

Not amazing, but enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

translated by Achy Obejas

40679930._SY475_Plucked from her life on the streets of post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, young maid Acilde Figueroa finds herself at the heart of a Santería prophecy: only she can travel back in time and save the ocean – and humanity – from disaster. But first she must become the man she always was – with the help of a sacred anemone. Tentacle is an electric novel with a big appetite and a brave vision, plunging headfirst into questions of climate change, technology, Yoruba ritual, queer politics, poverty, sex, colonialism and contemporary art. Bursting with punk energy and lyricism, it’s a restless, addictive trip: The Tempest meets the telenovela.

Review:

Tentacle is hard to explain. It’s queer. Some sections are science fictional, others historical. There’s time travel. It touches on the health of our oceans, climate change, politics, indigenous culture, colonialism, and the art world. All in 160 pages.

While I enjoyed the book it’s not exactly a satisfying read. First of all, I recommend that you read it in a day or two, in long bursts. There’s a lot going on here – two disparate story lines in three different historical eras that end up uniting by the end. Character names change several times. The fresher the details are, the better. I ended up reading it in long spurts but over a week, and I found myself flipping back and forth to double check names, relationships, and places.

I may have gotten more out of this book if I were familiar with Dominican politics and history. I get the feeling Indiana is touching on broader issues that I don’t know about and am having trouble identifying. And I want to mention that one main character is racist and misogynist and uses slurs against people of color and women on the regular.  It gave me pause because I’m not sure it had a point other than to show how awful he is, and that’s obvious even without the slurs. Which reminds me, content warning for an animal being killed to spite someone. Sigh.

The ending leaves the reader hanging out to dry. It’s not vague, but it feels odd and left me with a lot of questions. I had a moment of, ‘but then why did I read this?’ I think Indiana is making a point about how humans are (ineptly) dealing with climate change, and how current comfort can affect our thinking more than vague, long-term consequences.

Tentacle was a mind-bending trip and while I’m glad I read it, I’m not sure it’s a book for me.

Fire on the Ice by Tamsen Parker (Snow & Ice Games #4)

36471949Blaze Bellamy is the bad girl of the short track speed skating world. She’s got a punk attitude to match her provocative dress and her dyed hair, and she’s determined to get onto the front pages of the papers regardless of how she has to do it.

Maisy Harper is the workhorse of the Canadian women’s figure skating team. Maisy would prefer to win her victory on the ice rather than in the press, and is exasperated by Blaze’s antics. After they both failed to make the medal podium at the last Snow and Ice Games, they drowned themselves in gin—and each other.

Despite their hookup being drunken, they both harbor fond memories of their night together and are keen for a repeat. But they’ve got different ways of going about getting what they want, and Blaze’s willingness to go to any lengths for the spotlight could ruin any chance she has with Maisy.

Review:

Fire is right! ~wipes brow~

The good:

  • The Snow and Ice Games stand in for the Olympics, because copyright, and it’s fun to watch people from totally different sports interact. Blaze only wants to go to events ruled by the clock, while Maisy wants to check out curling and ice dancing.
  • Maisy and Blaze’s public personas are near opposites, but their personalities have enough in common to make this thing work.
  • Their sports have given them very different bodies – the thick thighs of a speed skater, the petite build of a figure skater – and they love each other for it.
  • Yea for a name check of Surya Bonaly, who is badass.
  • Blaze is bi, poly, and out and proud, while Maisy prefers to shield her private life, including being lesbian, from prying eyes. Her homophobic parents, who have repressed her in all kinds of ways her entire life, are part of that.
  • There’s bunches of interesting conflict to drive the story forward. Will this be a hookup like before, or a relationship that lasts? Can Blaze resist the urge to drag Maisy into the spotlight? Will Maisy ever go against her parents?
  • Harmful stereotypes about people who are bi, as well as those who are poly, are challenged head on. They talk about how important communication is in a relationship, and they actually do it. Woot.
  • The story fits the length, a novella-esque 169 pages. There’s nothing slapdash, no hanging ends.
  • There are a bunch of lovely sex scenes, all different and smoking. However…

The not-so-good:

  • …they all come at the front of the book. It makes sense – this is a re-hookup, and both ladies are eager to get back into bed as soon as possible. It slows the story to a crawl, though, when you spend that much time doing one thing, no matter low lovely it is. For a while there I was worried the whole book would be pron without plot.
  • The story is there, almost all in the second half, and the sex dries up to nothing. It all makes sense as far as event timing goes, but at the same time I would rather the sex and plot were more balanced.

It all evened out into an average read for me, and I’m interested in reading more from Parker even though I won’t be searching it out right away. It’s rare for a single romance series to have differently gendered pairings, and I love how this one has m/f, f/f, and m/m all mixed together.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

35412372Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Review:

Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, self-harm, self-destructive behavior, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

I went into Freshwater, my first read for the semifinal round of The BookTube Prize, with little information. My friends loved it but were cagey in their reviews.

I’m going to join their ranks.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful in a lyric, understated way.
  • I enjoy watching all these personalities, Ada and the spirits, rub against each other and unsettle each other. Many take turns as narrators, allowing the narrative to slip backwards or forwards in time in a seamless way. I’ve read a bunch of books that do this poorly, but it’s a great device when used well, like here.
  • It took me a while to get into the story, especially as I felt the narrators out. But once I did, wow. I read the last 40% in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.
  • We see the legacy of abuse and how trauma experienced as a child can shape you.
  • Ada shares traits with the author, and it feels like a deeply personal story.
  • Emezi slowly cracked open my mind so a reality that I never imagined could pour in. They patched me up when they were done, and I’m a better person for it.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing major or of particular note.

I am more than excited to read more of Emezi’s writing. They have a YA fantasy coming out this fall and more books in the pipeline – I can’t wait.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

43496429Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.

Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.

Review:

I love this book for all of the own voices elements and the loving depiction of drag, but it doesn’t escape some first book shakiness.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for lgbtqia+, POC, and drag king rep. Huzzah!
  • Nima’s father is awesome, never a given in YA. He’s absent later in the book so she can do her thing, which is more usual, but yeah. At least he’s awesome.
  • Diedre is a fairy godmother of a drag queen. It toes the line of believability for me, but I know there are good people in the world like this, helping queer kids find their way.
  • The drag scenes jump off the page. I could read Boteju describing drag shows all day, they’re so full of joy and energy.
  • I love love love that Nima is questioning her sexuality throughout the book. Literature often looks at coming out, completely skipping any questioning phase. The only other book I’ve read with decent questioning rep is Dress Codes for Small Towns, but I’m hoping for more. (The recent release Red, White, and Royal Blue has good questioning rep, I’ve been told.)
  • The characters are diverse in race, gender, and sexuality. One disabled character has a one page, non-speaking appearance.

Neither good-nor-bad:

  • The plot doesn’t tie up every thread neatly. It will annoy some, I’m sure, but it feels true to life. A 17-year-old figuring out her sexuality, connecting with family, trying drag for the first time, and falling into a perfect romance, all in the course of one summer? Not happening. I was fine with the loose ends but your mileage may vary.

The not-so-good:

  • It’s a debut and feels like it. The plot, especially, has clunky points in need of polish.
  • A bunch of this is me coming to YA as an adult reader, but I have a hard time when teenagers make obviously stupid decisions and we have to cringe through both the act and the consequences. Here someone decides that getting smashed at a party would be a cool thing to do, and I quickly pushed through that part to get to the other side. I get that young people can get a lot from reading these scenes, and that seeing the results on the page is much better than experiencing them in real life, but that doesn’t make me cringe any less.

All in all Kings, Queens, and In-betweens is a fun read. Normally I would sell a three star read back to the used bookstore, but I’m keeping this one on hand so I can hopefully give it to the right person at the right time.