The Joy of Neurodivergent Romance: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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If reading Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun and Late Bloomer this year has taught me anything, it’s that I have a type in romance novels: two neurodivergent sapphics in love.

When Opal wins the lottery, she’s overwhelmed by everyone in her life who wants a cut. She impulsively buys a flower farm to get away, and as a place where she can pursue her art. When she arrives, though, she finds out that Pepper is already living there: her con artist mother sold Opal the place, and the property is now under questionable ownership. They decide to live together until they can sort the situation out, even if it means Pepper slowly buying Opal out.

What I loved about this story is that at one angle, Pepper and Opal are perfectly complementary—and at the other angle, they are contradictory opposites. Opal is a people pleaser, always eager to help others and get on their good side. Pepper is suspicious of others after being burned many times, including being manipulated by her mother. To her, Opal’s generosity looks like a trap. While they’re both neurodivergent (Pepper is autistic, Opal doesn’t have a definitive label), they have very different communication styles: Opal is bubbly and chatty, Pepper is more guarded and suspicious.

As you can imagine, they have difficulty living with each other, even as they can’t deny their chemistry. Their relationship often takes one step forward and two steps back. But what I liked about this dynamic was that their conflict all made total sense. They have a lot of miscommunication, but that’s because they have clashing communication styles. They are also both dealing with trauma that sometimes bumps up against each other’s in uncomfortable ways. And besides, they are trying to communicate. This isn’t a book where I was mentally yelling, “Just talk to them!”

While they have obstacles to overcome, I was rooting for this couple the whole time. They have good chemistry and obviously care about each other, so it’s worth getting over those hurdles. Also, this may be my favourite romance cover of all time. It’s gorgeous. It’s well worth the price just for that cover alone.

Healing Through Fake Dating: Cover Story by Rachel Lacey

Cover Story by Rachel Lacey cover

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Natalie Keane is one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies. Unfortunately, with fame comes unwanted attention, sometimes in the form of crazed fans turned stalkers. With award season approaching as the man who held her hostage gets released from prison, Natalie agrees to extra security. To avoid another tabloid spectacle, her bodyguard, Taylor Vaughn, poses as her in-house girlfriend. Is it the perfect cover story, or will fantasy and reality blur as these two women grow closer?

After reading Rachel Lacey’s Stars Collide last year, I was all too eager for another sapphic celebrity/forced proximity story. This one even features a character from Stars Collide (plus a few fun cameos): Taylor, who was previously Eden Sands’ security detail. The story is layered, focused on healing from past trauma instead of the trauma as it happens. With most stories, we neglect that process, going from a dire situation to a rescue to a happily ever after epilogue. Lacey invites us to recognize how trauma can have a ripple effect on our lives, and how healing is an ongoing process. Natalie learns how to build a safe space for herself, even knowing that nothing in this world, including her own safety, is guaranteed.

To be completely honest, the chemistry felt rushed and forced for me. There’s a flare of initial attraction between the two women when they first meet, not when Taylor interviews to become Natalie’s bodyguard, but even before that, as a memory. We don’t feel and experience that moment live, which fails to give readers the chance to experience what the characters felt as it happened. Most of the conflicts don’t feel dire, which creates a lack of tension. Since the story is focused on healing after a trauma, it’s more reliant on internal conflicts for momentum. We get a lot more show than tell (internalizing than action) as a result. Also… there’s an adorable little kitten in the story, and while she becomes a way for the main characters to bond in a cute found family moment, she’s all too quickly forgotten once the main characters start sleeping together.  

Recommended for fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Anita Kelly’s sapphic romances.

The Vibes 

⭐ Sapphic Romance
⭐ Hollywood Romance
⭐ Actress/Bodyguard
⭐ Fake Dating
⭐ Forced Proximity
⭐ PTSD/Healing From Trauma

Quotes

“I’m less afraid when I’m with you.”

“Everything felt better, brighter, less overwhelming or terrifying, when Taylor held her.”

“Our cover story became a real-life headline.”

“She brought Natalie here to show her the stars, but instead, Natalie had made her see stars in a completely different way.”

Falling in Love at the Food Packing Convention: Lavash at First Sight by Taleen Voskuni

Lavash at First Sight cover

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I enjoyed Sorry, Bro, Taleen Voskuni’s first novel: the main character breaks up with a non-Armenian tech bro, falls in love with an Armenian woman, and struggles with her identity as a bisexual woman. What’s not to like? I also appreciated the opportunity to learn about Armenian culture and the Bay Area Armenian diaspora.

Unfortunately, Lavash at First Sight is not as good as Sorry, Bro for one simple reason: it is too short. I am actually not bothered by the fact that the plot follows the same sequence described in the previous paragraph. What I don’t think works is that the novel reads like an extended Before Sunrise/Roman Holiday situation in which the girl has to leave home to find love on vacation. 

Of course, it isn’t really a vacation–Nazeli works for a Bay Area tech company, after all. (Yes, using PTO, but still having to do work is gross, and no one should do it.) The bulk of the novel takes place at PakCon, a food packaging convention for vendors and distributors. If that doesn’t sound very Jesse and Celine, that’s because it isn’t. In between scenes at PakCon, which features an old family rivalry (yes, there’s also some Montague and Capulet action in Lavash), Nazeli and Vanya tour some of Chicago’s sights while they get to know each other. To review, there are the plot beats of Sorry, Bro, PakCon and the reality-esque competition that occurs there, family rivalry, and a Roman Chicago holiday. As I said, Lavash at First Sight needs to be longer in order to support everything Voskuni wants to include.

Two quick asides:

1) If you like your novels on the shorter side, I understand; however, you’re not often going to see me suggest than an author cut/edit. Just write more stuff for me to read!

2) It is actually kind of a Roman holiday because there is a scene set in a Roman bath. No, really, there is.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that Before Sunrise and Roman Holiday don’t have HEAs. (They don’t, and I will not be taking questions.) The plot structure of those films won’t work in a romance novel if the expectation is an HEA. It seems like Voskuni knows this and inserts the family rivalry and the competition at the food convention to give the story a place to go, but those elements belie the breeziness of Nazeli and Vanya’s budding relationship. And while we’re on the subject of too much going in too little of a page count, here seems like a good point to bring up the fact that Lavash at First Sight is a fade to black romance. 

To me, none of these elements go together. Again, I think more time was needed to knit everything together in the most successful way. I liked the story, and I would have liked it better if it had time to breathe.

One thing that I really appreciated about Lavash, however, is the way that Voskuni deals with cell phones. There are text message conversations in almost every book that I’ve read this year, so my reaction to what Voskuni does definitely merits notice. Okay, now I know how this is going to sound, but hear me out: I miss long phone calls. I’m talking about the phone calls that go on for so long that you actually run out of things to say and someone falls asleep. It’s not like cell phones and texting replaced those—if anything, emails and instant messaging did. Plus, you can still call someone on a cell phone, and you don’t even have to worry about phone cords anymore.

What I’m trying to say is that I learned what “dry texting” was a couple of months ago. I mean, I already knew what it was; I just didn’t know that there was a name for it. This will come as a surprise to no one, but I don’t usually write short texts. If I send a short text, I can guarantee that something has been edited out (probably either an aside that begins with the word “also” or has parentheses around it). And, sure, in terms of texting, some people can do a lot with a little. Within the first few chapters of Lavash, we’ve seen multiple exchanges between Nazeli and the tech bro. Not a spoiler alert: he’s not one of those people. Nazeli’s first text to Vanya, on the other hand: quality flirt. 

The cell phone thing is a relatively small detail, but that small detail drew me in. In a genre that is well-known for its conventions and tropes, the small details are often what make us remember a novel or an author. If it isn’t completely clear by now, I wanted more from Lavash at First Sight. That said, I still recommend it, and I will happily read whatever Voskuni writes next.

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Sweet and Steamy Polyamorous Romance: Triple Sec by T.J. Alexander

Triple Sec cover

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Before this book had even come out (happy release day, Triple Sec!), I’d already been recommending it nonstop on Our Queerest Shelves. Ever since I finished it, I haven’t been able to stop talking about. It’s definitely one of my favourite books of the year so far, and in my top five favourite romance novels I’ve ever read.

This is about Mel, who is a bartender who’s jaded about love ever since her divorce. But then Bebe walks into the bar, and they have undeniable chemistry. Bebe is interested in dating Mel — she’s also married and polyamorous. Mel has never tried an open relationship, but it seems like a good way to tiptoe back into dating. This will be totally light and casual, right? They mutually agree: no falling in love. And Bebe’s nonbinary wife Kade is so intimidating that Mel can’t imagine actually being a part of their lives. But obviously, feelings don’t obey even the most clearly written out agreements.

I’ve long thought that reality TV shows are missing out by not casting all bisexuals. (Other than that season of Are You the One?) Think of the drama potential! The opportunity for different pairings increases exponentially. Since reading Triple Sec, I feel the same way about romance novels and polyamorous main characters. You can have two falling-in-love scenes in the same romance! Twice the first kisses! Two — or more — completely different relationship (and sexual) dynamics! I feel like I’ve been spoiled and will have trouble going back to two-person romances.

I know romance novels are so specific to each reader, but I loved the relationship dynamics and especially the dialogue. When Mel shows Bebe her tattoo of Pompeii and Bebe replies, “I love a good disaster myself” — look, I also would have fallen in love right then and there. I also liked the friendship between Mel and her roommate, who both agree to follow the good word of Saint Channing Tatum.

It’s also very steamy. I’m not going to get into it, but wow.

I enjoyed the ongoing rewriting of Bebe and Mel’s relationship agreement as they renegotiate things like pet names, catching feelings, and the dynamics between Kade, Mel, and Bebe.

While the central plot is the relationships between Mel, Bebe, and Kade, there’s also a subplot about a cocktail competition. I don’t drink, but I still found it fascinating to read about Mel’s different creations and how she keeps reworking her creations leading up the competition. Winning would mean she could buy her own bar, a dream of hers.

I also liked reading about Mel’s job: Terror & Virtue is a high-end cocktail lounge, and Mel is very skilled and passionate about her work — but it’s also customer service. It means dealing with drunk, rude customers and worrying about your next paycheck. In fact, the only criticism I had with Triple Sec is that I feel like the class difference between Mel and Bebe/Kade wasn’t really explored, other than Mel admiring their apartment and feeling a little out of place. Bebe and Kade are wealthy — Kade is a successful artist and Bebe is a lawyer defending workers’ rights.

That’s a very small complaint, though, especially since the ending didn’t go where I thought it would. If you want a fun, queer, polyamorous romance with lots of kind people learning how to best support each other, I highly recommend Triple Sec.

An Emotional Demon Hunter Romance: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

The Fall That Saved Us cover

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Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us centers around Cassiel, a former demon hunter who has left her abusive family behind in favor of a quiet life in a little bookshop she now runs. When a succubus named Avitue shows up one day, the two fall into a dangerous albeit passionate love affair that threatens both of their places in the world.

Despite such high stakes, this is a deeply personal book. In fact, when I think about this book, the word that jumps to mind is affectionate. This book had so much affection for its characters and their journeys, and it made it so easy for me to share that affection. While this book felt really heavy at the beginning, due to all of the religious trauma Cassiel was working through (and boy does this book do religious trauma really well!), by the end I was left feeling lighter. The relationships certainly helped with that, but even more so was the book’s emphasis on being kind, both to yourself and to others.

As for the relationships, I don’t only mean the romantic relationship between Cassiel and Avitue, though of course that is the main one. Cassiel’s friendship with her neighbor Ana, a witch who runs a nearby cafe and who gently but firmly encourages Cassiel to open up about her past when she’s ready, was a particular light. Likewise, the more complicated relationship with Zuriel, the sister who stayed behind, will likely resonate with many readers who come from difficult family situations.

Something I really appreciated with Cassiel and Avitue’s romance was the honesty. With a setup like this one, I find I expect a lot of secrecy and drama of the “how can I trust you!” variety. To my delight, however, Avitue was clear almost from the beginning about who she was, why she was here, and what each of them was risking by being together. This allowed the focus to remain on the actual building of a relationship, and it also made room for much more interesting conversations about how people deserve to be treated and what kind of future there is for a mostly-mortal and an immortal demon.

The only criticism I had was the pacing felt a bit off at the beginning, almost like things were being skipped over or time was moving weirdly or something I could never quite put my finger on. However, I didn’t notice that as an issue in the second half. While some might say the final conflict wrapped up rather quickly, that’s a feature for me rather than a bug, and honestly, I do think that choice ultimately served the book better as a whole. This is very much a character-driven book, and a drawn-out battle would almost feel like a detraction from a story that should center on Cassiel’s internal journey.

I am certainly planning on checking out Tamara Jerée’s next book, and if they ever wrote another book in this world (maybe about Zuriel and/or Ana), I would read it without hesitation. Though I would suggest  taking care if one struggles with religious themes, I heartily recommend Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us.

Grumpy/Sunshine Behind the Bar: In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins

In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins cover

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In Walked Trouble, Dana Hawkins’s newest novel, takes us away from the coffee shop of Not in the Plan and into Nueve’s, a Puerto Rican bar and restaurant that should totally exist. (Has anyone else noticed just how many great concepts for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, films, TV series, etc. that exist in romance novels?) Remi James is briefly introduced in Not in the Plan, but all anyone really needs to know about this character becomes clear in the first chapter of In Walked Trouble—Remi is definitely on the surly side of the personality spectrum. 

A grump, if you will.

Despite her grumpy nature, everything seems to be coming up Remi: her boss has called her in to discuss what must be the promotion that she so rightly deserves. Having grown up in the foster system, Remi is obsessed with the idea that a house will make a home for her, but she needs more money for a downpayment. Money she will earn when she finally gets that promotion to head bartender. Which is why she’s so angry when she discovers that her boss has brought in Maya to co-bartend with Remi. No promotion, no raise. Remi’s attraction to Maya is immediately replaced with anger. (“Replaced” is a strong word—let’s say “supplemented by” instead.) To make matters worse, the money that would have gone into that raise is now being offered as a bonus. May the best bartender win.

Remi thinks that this will be no problem because of how fast and efficient she is. What she doesn’t know is that Maya tosses bottles, which tends to make a bartender very popular very quickly. Maya, according to Remi, is “ready for a runway.” And she smiles too much.

Is there a better trope than grumpy/sunshine? Don’t bother answering that question—there isn’t.

Maya also needs that bonus to afford her master’s in nursing, a degree she’s pursuing in part because of her sister, who has type 1 diabetes. She is also grieving her father’s sudden death nine years earlier. As I’ve written many times before, I appreciate when a romance novel focuses on the trauma of the main character (or, in this case, both main characters). While two characters can’t fix the trauma that the other faces, they can listen, be supportive, and offer help when appropriate. Sure, the other stuff is pretty good as well, but I really enjoy this element of Remi and Maya’s relationship.  

What other stuff? Well, if asked, I would point to a scene that involves mop water, ice cubes, a lemon slice, and dueling soda guns.

I could probably end this review here, right?

Back to trauma for a moment. If you’re the kind of romance reader who prefers the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” approach, In Walked Trouble is probably not for you. Yes, there is instant chemistry between Remi and Maya, but the movement on that attraction only occurs after they actually get to know each other. Fine… there is also a lot of alcohol. But even that isn’t what you think it is. Hawkins puts together a narrative where it is not entirely clear whether the physical intimacy came before the emotional intimacy or vice versa. That sentence felt cringey as I wrote, but I’m sticking with it because of how strongly I value the whole “talking about feelings” thing. We know that it isn’t exactly easy to open up to other people in a genuine way, and I can’t help but think stories like this one model a better approach.

Hawkins does reinforce a few other concepts in In Walked Trouble, including one of my favorites: coming up with really bad excuses to be somewhere or to do something for someone. Because sometimes you’re not ready to talk about your feelings with someone, but you still want that someone to know that eventually you might want to. The really bad excuse approach to getting to know someone never gets old.

Neither does grumpy/sunshine.

(One more thing: I had no intention of comparing In Walked Trouble to a film like I did last month in my review of Cover Story… but then I read someone comparing In Walked Trouble to the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. You know, the movie they show clips of during the “Kokomo” music video? And, okay, yes, Maya does toss bottles like Tom Cruise’s character. That is, and I cannot stress this enough, the only connection between this book and that movie. Seriously, don’t watch Cocktail thinking it’s a romcom. Watch it because a) it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Movie and b) it goes way darker than any movie whose soundtrack features “Kokomo” has a right to do.)

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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After winning the lottery, Opal Devlin puts all her money in a failing flower farm, only to find an angry (albeit gorgeous) Pepper Boden already living there. Though she’s unable to find her grandmother’s will, Pepper claims she’s the rightful owner of Thistle and Bloom Farms. While they agree to cohabitate, Opal and Pepper clash at every turn. Can something softer blossom between these polar opposites, allowing a new dream to take root and grow?

Oh. My. (Sappho.) Goddess. You may think you know Mazey Eddings’ writing style, but I assure you, you do not. Many of us read The Plus One and/or Tily in Technicolor last year, but Eddings has far exceeded herself with this one. As a neurodivergent author, Eddings’ stories often have some element of neurodiversity/mental health, shining a light on the different ways people’s brains work while embracing those differences through beautiful, realistic characters. Opal and Pepper are no different, both on the spectrum yet unique in their behaviors and view of the world. These women are not predictable, pre-programmed components of a story; they are ever-blooming, learning how to plant roots alongside one another, share sunlight, and rise despite being different species. Both plants, growing and adapting to different elements, yet very much the same. While Opal and Pepper have always struggled to fit in with the world around them, they manage to cultivate a safe, healthy garden for one another.

This is one of those overwhelming, layered, awe-inspiring sapphic stories that will tug at your heartstrings long after you read it. Eddings’ language leaps off the page, making it a little reminiscent of One Last Stop (be still, my little sapphic heart). I’ve beyond annotated Late Bloomer, when I’m usually selective about choosing quotes. You don’t just see love blossom between these two women; you feel it. It made me smile, laugh, get all messy and misty-eyed. As I said, neither woman is predictable. Opal feels directionless at the story’s start, allowing her (fake) best friend and (on/off) ex to step all over her. I expected her to be the wallflower, especially with the BITE we see from Pepper (pun unintended) in her first chapter, but the two balance each other out. When Pepper feels uncertain or anxious, Opal steps forward, bold and unwavering. When Opal begins to crumble, Pepper holds her up. They support each other, never allowing the other to wilt.

Unfortunately, this book relies heavily on miscommunication. Both women are eager to hide their real feelings at the risk of scaring the other. That lack of communication continues until almost the last chapter.

Recommended for fans of One Last Stop and Imogen, Obviously. Side note: please, please read the author’s note. Good goddess.

✨ The Vibes ✨

❀ Neurodivergency/Autism Spectrum
❀ Sapphic Romance
❀ Grief/Healing
❀ Forced Proximity
❀ Spicy/First Time
❀ Cottagecore Vibes
❀ One Bed
❀ Touch Her and You Die
❀ Dual POV
❀ Miscommunication
❀ Flower Competition
❀ Grumpy/Sunshine

 Quotes

❝Slowly, she leans toward me, and my heart pounds so violently in my chest that my head swims. Is she . . . It almost seems like she’s going to press that smile to my mouth. Teach me how it tastes.❞

❝Ah. There’s the you I missed.❞

❝I used to stress over finding a label that fit me. Lesbian. Bisexual. Pan. Demi . . . I’ve filtered through them all many times over, none ever feeling quite right. Just say queer and move on with your life, Diksha finally told me late one night after what was probably my sixth sexual identity crisis of my early twenties. But what does that mean? I’d wailed, draining more boxed wine into my plastic cup. My brain loves order and labels and concise frameworks to understand things, and not knowing where I fit feels unbearable. It means you’re you, and only you get to decide who you like and when you like them, Tal had said from their chair in the corner. The name of your feelings isn’t anyone’s business but yours.❞

❝But instead, she reaches out to me—opening her hand like a flower unfurling its petals to the sun. I stare at it. The ink stains and calluses and chipped nails and bitten cuticles. For a moment, that hand looks like a second chance.❞

❝Her poems spoke softly—as intimately as confessions between lovers—about the terrible, wonderful ache of being in love.❞

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

Awards Season, a Fake Relationship, and Healing from Trauma in Cover Story by Rachel Lacey

Cover Story by Rachel Lacey cover

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What does Rachel Lacey’s new novel Cover Story have in common with the second-highest grossing film of 1992, The Bodyguard? A lot. Or nothing at all. If you’ve seen The BodyguardCover Story will definitely feel familiar. There really are only so many ways that a celebrity/bodyguard romance can go, after all.

Unlike Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, who were both nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Acting, Natalie Keane is going into awards season with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her performance in A Case for Love. She should be happy, but all she can think about is that the man who kidnapped her years earlier is about to be released from prison. Wanting to increase her security but not give the press a story in the process, Natalie and her team hatch the Romance Novel Plan of Plans: a fake relationship in which the fake girlfriend is a real bodyguard. 

Bodyguard Taylor Vaughn, newly cleared for duty after aggressively rehabbing Chekhov’s back injury, is more than happy to take on this unconventional job. Actually, hold on for just a second. In our world, the whole “celebrity falls in love with her bodyguard” would be seen as “unconventional.” In Lacey’s world(s), or in any world where romance novel plots are real, though, a love story where sparks fly that we know the ending of all too well wouldn’t be unconventional at all, would it?

Really, think about it. One of my favorite reads of 2023 was Stars Collide, which features Taylor in the role of bodyguard to Eden Sands (who also shows up in Cover Story). As romance readers, we’ve grown accustomed to this kind of serendipity. Or kismet. Call it what you want, but think about how many things in our world would have to go just right in order for our wildest dreams to come true. As I continue to become more familiar with the genre, I’m still trying to figure out if the escapism of the romance novel is helpful or not. What I’m noticing, I think, is that the escapism of the genre pairs very well with explorations of trauma. Fortunately, that is exactly what Lacey has to offer in Cover Story

I love author’s notes/acknowledgments that add to the novel in some meaningful way. In the Acknowledgements section for Cover Story, Lacey talks about the process of shifting the original direction of the novel to one that focuses more on safety and healing from trauma. If you’re not familiar, the 80s and most of the 90s were an interesting time for romance in films. Yes, there were plenty of romcoms, but there were also lots of romantic dramas/thrillers. The Bodyguard is, of course, one of those romantic drama/thrillers. (I had occasion to rewatch The Bodyguard not too long ago; considering that it was written in 1975 and filmed in the early 90s, the fact that it holds up at all is impressive.) It’s true that suspense can heighten a romance plot, but as a Sandra Bullock character once said, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.”

That is certainly not the case, however, in a romance world of kismet and HEAs. Who needs reality when you have serendipity? I love The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and I have warm feelings toward both of its remakes, In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Maybe I’ve always had a thing for the enemies-to-lovers trope. Who doesn’t love not being able to tell the difference between bickering and banter? (If done correctly, they’re the same thing.) What makes Read Between the Lines (2021), Lacey’s updated version of this story, so rewarding, though, is how—eventually—Rosie and Jane are able to help each other overcome deeply personal obstacles. You can also see Lacey trending in this direction in her earlier Midnight in Manhattan series.

Picking up Cover Story, I knew that I was going to find a story about two people who learned to treat each other with care. That’s what Lacey does so well, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with her newest story. (I do find myself questioning why I’m especially drawn to plots that involve celebrities like Natalie Keane and Eden Sands, but that particular exploration is best kept for another day.) One thing I do find disappointing—Lacey’s fictional movies are just that: fictional.

I’m guessing that most people know The Bodyguard for the song that Dolly Parton gave to Whitney Houston. You know…the song. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to listen to the A-side of the The Bodyguard soundtrack while reading Cover Story, but I certainly recommend it. You can also listen to Lacey’s own playlist for the novel. Either way, if this is your first Rachel Lacey novel, be prepared for the adorable pets.

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Muffin Baking- and Hijinx-Filled Romantic Comedy: Vengeance Planning for Amateurs by Lee Winter

Vengeance Planning for Amateurs cover

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Vengeance Planning for Amateurs by Lee Winter was published February 2024 and is Lee’s first intentional romantic comedy. The book follows muffin baker Olivia Roberts, her beloved stuffed penguin Trip, and her band of book club misfits that meet at the local crime bookstore. When one of her exes steals Trip, Olivia sees red and has decided enough is enough. She has had a terrible string of relationships with people who have been varying levels of awful, and she decides it’s time to take her life back in the form of revenge against every ex that has hurt her. She posts an ad for a henchperson at the bookstore, and she is truly shocked when the person who sits across from her is none other than the owner of said bookstore: Margaret Blackwood. Margaret keeps to herself and is rarely seen. Olivia’s only real interaction with Margaret has been Margaret’s commentary from her office during Olivia’s book club. When the stoic and beautiful Margaret signs up to be her henchperson, Oliva isn’t sure why this brilliant, mysterious, woman would want to help her. However, Olivia’s other candidates are less than stellar, so Margaret gets the job. What ensues is an absolutely beautiful, chaotic, and laugh-out-loud story about two people that offer the other a chance to start over. 

I am a huge fan of Lee Winter. I have read every book she has written, some multiple times. I was excited to see how she would handle a romantic comedy, a different flavor from her usual books (though almost every one of her others also made me laugh out loud at times). I was not disappointed. Nor was I surprised that even though it had that romantic comedy feel throughout, it still packed an emotional punch. There is a cleverness that is always present in Lee’s books, and this book was no different. While the baking puns are plentiful (and I enjoyed every one), there is also not a wasted word or character. Every plot point is well thought out, every person has a purpose. A romantic comedy follows a certain formulaic path, but even so there needs to be something new, and Olivia hiring a henchperson certainly adds something fresh. Every visit upon one of Olivia’s exes provides not only an opportunity for hijinks, but a moment for Olivia and Margaret to learn more about each other and grow as individuals.

As I said, there is an emotional component to this story that I felt was incredibly well written. While I won’t give spoilers, Lee handled Margaret’s backstory in a beautiful way that was written with immense care. The way she chose to give us insight into Margaret, through diary entries, offers an intimate look at her thoughts and emotions. Without those entries, I think it would have been difficult to understand someone that keeps her cards so incredibly close to her chest. But it allows you to see who Margaret truly is, and it provides context to her other actions throughout the book. (Some of those entries made me cry, but we are going to forgive Lee for that.) In a scene towards the end, I Lee captures an emotion in the best way I have seen in a novel dealing with this particular topic. It is a sentiment I will be thinking about for a long time. 

Margaret and Olivia are two very different people, but I loved them together. In any pairing, there needs to be a balance, and as a reader you want to be able to understand why these people are drawn to each other. Margaret and Olivia each offer the other something that has been missing in their lives. Olivia has only ever been treated as expendable, as someone people use to get what they want and leave when they don’t find her useful any more. She has never been put first and has been with some truly terrible people. She has rarely experienced loyalty or someone asking: what do you want? What can I do for you? Other than her sister, she has never had someone who had her best interest in mind. With Margaret, she has found someone loyal and who not only has her best interest in mind, but that actively goes out of her comfort zone to help her. Margaret’s life in many ways has been closed off and has been dark for many years. Olivia is the opposite of that, and offers Margaret light in a way she has been desperately needing. Even more, despite all the things that have been thrown at her, Olivia continues to shine that light, and I do think that is part of why Margaret is so drawn to her. I loved these two together. I loved how they each showed through actions how they felt about the other, even before any words of that nature had been uttered. 

I will also always go a little feral for a character that goes into protective mode, and this story has that in spades. I think Lee is one of the best at writing that dynamic, and I adored those scenes. I also happen to think that she is the best at writing two oblivious people who clearly like each other, but are so lesbian that the thought never occurs to them that the other might like them back. That scenario is top tier in this novel, and I loved every moment. 

If you’re in the mood for a romance with unhinged chaos, laugh out loud moments, character growth, a cast of hilarious side characters, and beautiful moments of communication and vulnerability, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.