Elinor reviews How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

howsweetitis

Molly O’Brien runs a bakeshop, Flour Child, in her impossibly charming hometown of Applewood. She’s never left Applewood, and why would she? Applewood is the sort of small town that exists in fiction, a real community where people all know and care about each other, where nothing terrible really ever happens. Plus, it’s only several hours’ drive from Chicago, conveniently close other adorable towns with delightful little restaurants, and you can get to a twenty-four Walmart in less than twenty minutes. Molly has spent her adult life with her high school sweetheart, Cassie Tuscana, whose parents are both local doctors. As young women, Molly took over her father’s bakeshop, Cassie went to work in administration in her parents’ medical practice, and the couple bought a darling old house and planned to live happily ever after. Then Cassie was killed in a plane crash.

The book opens four years after Cassie’s death, with Molly still running the bakeshop, still living in the darling house (that needs repair), and definitely not moving on romantically. Her in-laws, the Tuscanas, remain an important part of her life. When Cassie’s younger sister Jordan, a hotshot L.A. film producer, returns to Applewood for the first time since Cassie’s death, it makes sense that Jordan and Molly would reconnect. After all, they’ve known each other since Molly was a teenager and Jordan was a tween. But Molly’s surprised when spending time with Jordan awakens feelings she thought died with her late partner. Molly dips her toes into the world of dating again by being set up by friends, yet can’t stop feeling a spark with Jordan. Jordan feels it too, but neither woman is sure how to navigate this very unexpected mutual attraction.

How Sweet It Is is a pretty fluffy romance, despite the grief that everyone feels for Cassie. Each character has their own relationship with Cassie, and I liked that their feelings about her were not easily pushed aside. She was Molly’s only romantic relationship. It’s understandable why Molly is hesitant to start dating for the first time as an adult, particularly as she worries that doing so might upset her close relationship with her in-laws. Jordan loved and admired her sister, even though she spent most of her life in Cassie’s shadow–even Jordan coming out was brushed off by people as “Jordan trying to be like Cassie.”  While the grief about Cassie was still present for the characters, it in no way overwhelmed the sweetness of the romance or the cuteness of the town. At first I wasn’t sure about the whole falling-for-your-late-partner’s-sister thing, but it was done very respectfully and organically. Setting the story a few years after Cassie’s death helped with this, I think.

The other thing that helped was Brayden’s writing. The characters talked and bantered in a way that was genuinely fun to read. Even some of the things in this book that I initially side-eyed ended up working pretty nicely. For example, I found Molly’s business model unworkable. Her bakeshop has three employees besides Molly–one just doing deliveries–but no money to buy an espresso machine and therefore retain customers who wanted a latte with their cinnamon roll. Pretty early in the book, it’s revealed that Flour Child is actually in a terrible position financially and is on the verge of closing. Molly doesn’t tell her employees (or, it’s implied, consider laying any of them off) because Molly’s nice and wants to make people happy. She also runs away from conflict, which is shown as a part of Molly’s character consistently in many aspects of her life. It was well-done and the secondary plot of Molly trying to figure out how to save her bakeshop ended up being emotionally engaging and one of the best parts of the book.

Unfortunately, Jordan wasn’t a well-developed a character as Molly. She was still a complete character, but she wasn’t as rounded out. We’re told she’s stunning and her looks and clothes are described pretty frequently, but I wanted to know more about Jordan’s inner world than her outer appearance. Her career as a producer didn’t get as much attention as Molly’s profession, even though it could be incredibly interesting. I once dated somebody whose parents were television producers and it’s a weird job! I got an iPod from Drew Carey because of it, and heard occasional celebrity gossip, and that was just television production. Film production could add so much flavor. The demands of Molly’s career as a baker and owner of a small business are so different from the demands of Jordan’s career. What would Jordan’s late and irregular hours mean for Molly, who has to get up early? Jordan’s job either forces her to be away on location regularly or to be where there’s a market for film producers, which is probably not small town Illinois where Molly’s tied to a business. This could have been a rich source of tension, but Jordan’s non-Applewood past and her career seemed like an afterthought. Jordan returned to Applewood in part because she’d just lost her job because she was being sexually harassed, something that’s mentioned early and then never brought up again or resolved. Jordan also comes home to start a production company with a L.A. friend willing to relocate, with a business model I found even more unlikely than Molly’s, but doesn’t seem to encounter any difficulty at all. Early on, it’s implied that Jordan has never wanted to settle down and maybe had a lot of flings with women in the past, but this isn’t explored much either.

However, Jordan is much more a real person than many lesbian romance leads. She has quirks and charm, and so does Molly. Applewood is pleasantly free of homophobia, both the main characters are out, and the impediments to the romance make sense without being out of insurmountable. Those things alone make it worth the read for lesbian romance fans. I’m going to check out some of Brayden’s other books. Her writing is fun, which is something I always want more of when I’m reading romance.

Danika reviews Missed Her by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan E. Coyote is one of my very favourite queer writers. When giving recommendations for les/bi/etc books, Sarah Waters and Ivan E. Coyote are at the top of the list (though their styles are pretty different). Ivan is often described as a “kitchen table storyteller,” and it’s true. Their stories read as if one of your good friends is relating an anecdote to you, if your friends are really good at telling stories. If you ever get the chance to see Ivan perform in person, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, pick up their books.

Missed Her is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories–Ivan treads the line between memoir and fiction. Some common themes run through the stories, including being queer in a small town. I find this especially interesting, because when the “It Gets Better” project was getting a lot of coverage, there was some criticism about how many of the stories talked about getting out of small towns, and how it didn’t address how rural communities can change, or the positive aspects of them, or even how constantly moving queer people out of rural environments and into urban ones just perpetuates any bigotry in hostile towns (not that anyone has an obligation to stay in a threatening environment, I want to clarify). We’re used to queer stories being set in the big city, so it’s interesting and pertinent to have another narrative. (Ivan currently lives in Vancouver, so it’s not all small town, but growing up in the Yukon made a strong impression on them.)

Ivan presents a different image of being queer in a small town. Their family was supportive, and they appreciate that the people they meet in these towns are more likely to simply ask what they’re thinking instead of skirting around the issue. They have a story set in a small town in which a bunch of men gather around so they can teach them how to properly tie a tie. They do still acknowledge the disadvantages and even dangers of some of these small towns, however, especially when they describe trying to find a rural doctor accepting of their gender presentation.

Ivan’s stories have all sorts of variety, though. There’s some heart-breaking ones and some hilarious ones, though usually it’s a bit of both. (Some topics: looking for an old-fashioned barber in Vancouver, teaching memoir-writing to seniors, repeatedly being mistaken for a gay man, stories about their family, and musings on their butch identity and the policing of the label.)

There’s not much more to say than that I highly recommend it!

Danika reviews The Long Way Home by Rachel Spangler

I haven’t read a lot of lesbian romance, and I wasn’t sure how much I would like the genre; I’ve never had any interest in the straight romance genre. Well, Rachel Spangler has made me a convert.

My favourite part of The Long Way Home is the premise. I read it while there were a lot of criticisms coming up about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project. One of the more intriguing ones was discussing how Savage’s original video especially concentrates on this reaction to “small town mentality” and finding acceptance in a big city, and how this anti-rural sentiment not only gives small towns too little credit in their ability to be accepting and progressive, but also encourages queer people to keep draining out of small towns and heading to big cities, which only makes the situation worse. (Cities are more accepting because there are more queer people, but there are more queer people because queer people move to cities, because cities are more accepting…)

The Long Way Home tackles that anti-rural sentiment by telling the story of a woman who “escaped”, who left her small town and made a living talking about her escape story at various colleges around the country (the US), becoming a quasi-famous lesbian because of it.

But once she gets a little older, the calls stop coming for speaking arrangements: people don’t want to hear the same story anymore. Raine, as she’s known now, or Rory, as she was known in her home town, is forced to return to the place she escaped from if she wants to have a paying job. Raine/Rory comes face-to-face with the people she knew, the family she left behind, and the town she grew up in. While there she discovers the escape story she’s been telling for years may not be the only interpretation that should be drawn.

This is a romance, obviously, so Rory/Raine discovers a lot of this through an old school mate, including being introduced to a small-town queer community, something she couldn’t fathom of before. The romance is sweet and interesting, and I liked both of their characters, but it was the underlying message that really drew me in.

The only minor quibble I had with The Long Way Home was the occasional over-explaining, like this:

“Are you out of your fucking mind? I’ve spent my entire life getting away from that place. I’m Raine St. James, the one who survived.” Raine needed to remind herself that she’d made it out alive.

I’d rather the speech stood on its own, but that’s hardly noticeable. Overall, I definitely recommend it.

Have you read The Long Way Home or another of Rachel Spangler’s books? If so, what did you think of it?