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.

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.

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.

All the Monsters in Kai Cheng Thom’s Falling Back in Love with Being Human

the cover of Falling Back in Love with Being Human

Editor’s note: This is one of the rare Lesbrary reviews of a book that doesn’t have sapphic content.

Kai Cheng Thom dedicates Falling Back in Love with Being Human to “all the monsters who are still waiting to be loved.” Fun fact: In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the being that Victor creates is referred to as a “creature” far more he is referred to as a “monster.” Creature or Monster—that decision is always made by the person who beholds him. Because that’s the thing about monsters: we don’t get to choose who sees us as monstrous. All we—trans women—can do is be the monster, which is what Thom implores us to do. She tells us to be the monster, be the witch, be the madwoman. 

Falling Back in Love with Being Human is a book that can be read in under an hour, but it can be an overwhelming experience that will stay with you for much longer. In this series of letters, Thom writes of the grief and sorrow and loss that comes with being a trans woman. There are many parts of the book that do not reflect my experience because, as it turns out, not all monsters are alike. Among other topics, she writes about being a trans woman of color, her sexuality, and her experiences with Christianity. (Another part of the book that does not reflect my experience is that there is no sapphic content in this book, though Thom has written elsewhere about the problems that trans fems face in the sapphic community.) The epistolary frame allows her to discuss all of these experiences for the benefit of all readers while addressing certain people directly. Even when you are not the person who she’s addressing, though, Thom’s writing is invitational rather than exclusionary.

Yes, she is somehow inviting even in her letter to Joanne Rowling, in which she refers to us as “the Ones Who Lived.” She implores TERFs in another letter to see us monsters as people who have so much to give and no desire to take away. The anger is palpable, but Thom expresses it in a way that still aligns with her goal of making this work an expression of love and self-acceptance.

A book that feels this deeply personal is not an easy thing to write about. That is perhaps the best recommendation that I could provide for Falling Back in Love with Being Human. There’s a reason that I prefer to write about sapphic romances; HEAs and the tropes that us sapphic folks share are comforting. They are a nice break from the other tropes and all the doubts about whether a HEA will ever be in the cards for this monster.

I imagine that Falling Back in Love with Being Human might be a difficult read for some; if you’re reading this review, however, I urge you to pick up Thom’s book. Early results of the 2022 U.S. Trans Survey were released recently. Though the vast majority of us (94% of 92,329 people surveyed) are happy with the decision that we’ve made regarding our gender, over half of us are thinking about or have already moved to another state because of unequal treatment. Falling Back in the Love with Being Human is far more powerful than survey results (even though the U.S. Trans Survey is itself an extremely powerful story told in a responsible, ethical manner). Thom provides a narrative that is similar to the survey results in many ways, but her version of the story is the monster’s version. 

And that’s the other thing about monsters: people are always telling stories about us. One more fun fact: There are two versions of Shelley’s Frankenstein. There’s the 1818 version where the Creature has the possibility of free will and humanity, and the 1831 version where the Monster is kind of, well, doomed. It would be accurate to say that Shelley “saw some things” in the intervening years, souring her view on humanity. Thom asks all of us to move in the opposite direction. She knows that some people walk around with an image of “the ghost of a monstrous transsexual…in their heads,” and yet she implores us to choose love anyway. Thom’s stories cast us as a sisterhood of outlaws, caregivers, deathwalkers, and sidekicks whose Bruce Wayne never showed up. My favorite story that she tells about us monsters is the one about the “silly girl,” “the girl who was never meant to exist but breathed herself into being on the strength of her desire alone.”

There is no Victor Frankenstein in this story, but there are monsters like Kai Cheng Thom who are doing their best to light the way.

Content warning: many different kinds of violence

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.

An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

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Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

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.

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

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.

Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date Is a Satisfying End to Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls Series

the cover of  iris kelly doesn’t date

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First, a confession: I never liked romance novel covers. For the first thirty-five years of my reading life, I had no idea what went on between the covers of romance novels (well, okay, I had some idea), but if it had anything to do with what was on the cover—hard pass. Now, I am aware that some genre purists detest the illustrated cover trend, and I get that. For how many readers, though, has the illustrated cover been a gateway drug to the romance novel? It was for me. And that brings us to Delilah Green, the town of Bright Falls, and their creator, Ashley Herring Blake.  

From the very first chapter of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care (2022), I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Delilah Green, Claire Sutherland, Iris Kelly, Astrid Parker, and anyone else to whom Blake would introduce me. Yes, even Astrid—who, by the way, gives off such extreme Lemon Breeland vibes that I’ve since had to go back and rewatch a few episodes of Hart of Dixie. Blake balances the sibling tension between Delilah and Astrid with the main romance plot between Delilah and Claire, all the while developing the setting of Bright Falls, Oregon. Another confession: I have been trying to escape from coastal Georgia for a while now, hoping to end up in Oregon. If the Bright Falls that Blake wrote about was real, I would have moved there immediately. Delilah needs a GenX friend who can go toe-to-toe with her sarcasm and eyerolls, right?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered what was waiting for me in the sequel, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail (2022). Blake introduces her readers to a new character, Jordan Everwood, who has arrived from—yes, serendipity and irony are real things, folks—coastal Georgia. (It is less surprising if you know that Herring lives in coastal Georgia. But no less serendipitous.) After a crushing breakup that challenged her sense of self, Jordan finds herself an unlikely match for Astrid. Astrid learns to loosen up (sort of), and everyone in Bright Falls is happy. Almost everyone. Something truly unfortunate happens to Iris Kelly in Astrid Parker, which serves as the setup for the third Bright Falls novel. 

Oh, and the plot of Astrid Parker revolves around an HGTV-esque renovation reality show. If that sort of thing matters to you.

Blake is not the first person to create a charming small town in which romance and hijinks occur. I know I said that I didn’t know what went on within the pages of romance novels, but I’ve seen Hart of Dixie, remember? For what it’s worth, though, I’d take Bright Falls over Bluebell, Virgin River, or even Stars Hollow (yes, Stars Hollow) any day. The best feature of Blake’s Bright Falls series is the way that she examines the trauma that her characters have had to face. Whether it’s the death of a parent, an overbearing mother, a devastating breakup, or a bad reputation, Blake takes her readers through what it means to be wounded by life and by the people in it. Trauma doesn’t just “scar” us; it lives on, at least until it is dealt with. Nothing, and I mean nothing—not even the illustrated covers—gets me more in a romance novel than one character telling another that their trauma is real and then helping them deal with it. 

Iris Kelly doesn’t date because anyone she dates will inevitably let her down. Blake provides us with a catastrophic example of this maxim in Astrid Parker. When we meet up with Iris at the beginning of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date (2023), she’s done with it all: cheaters and liars, people who think being bisexual means being greedy or hypersexual, and people who are convinced that Iris does not have her life priorities straight. And that is how Iris ends up at Lush, a club in Portland, where she spots her next one-night stand. All is going to plan until the stranger responds to Iris’s seduction technique by vomiting all over her. 

I wonder sometimes if there are people out there who are as forgiving as the characters in romance novels. I’m sure there are, but I have no interest in the world of people who are securely attached. Another thing I’ve learned about what goes on between the covers of romance novels: no one seems to have a secure attachment style. And I am here for it. Because the fantasy (or heightened reality) of people helping each other process their traumas while finding love is one I can wholeheartedly support. 

I almost didn’t write this review because, as I suspected, it was too easy to discuss what has resonated with me in the Bright Falls series rather than actually review Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. I would argue, though, that those are not two separate things. I felt a lot of sympathy for Iris, but Stevie’s anxiety is something that I have actually felt. (Not in the way that she felt it during her first interaction with Iris, I should clarify.) Stevie is a fawner who is still friends with her ex. She also lets people tell her what she thinks (or should think), and she struggles with who she is on multiple levels. I am much more interested in those issues than I am with the fake dating plot of the novel. As far as fake dating plots go, this one’s pretty good—it involves an extremely queer production of Much Ado about Nothing.

If that sort of thing matters to you.

What I am going to remember about the Bright Falls series is thinking about how it must have felt for Delilah, Jordan, and Stevie to (re)discover a magical place that is a thousand times better than Narnia. (There is a White Witch—it’s Astrid. And Delilah and Iris have some fierce manes. Also, Astrid makes a caramel dark chocolate seven-layer cake, so those Narnia kids can just keep their Turkish Delight to themselves.) I don’t want to leave Bright Falls, and Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date certainly lives up to the first two novels in the series. As a standalone novel, Iris Kelly would still merit a solid four stars. The Bright Falls series, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. Five stars for six people who I would be glad to know in real life.

If I have to, though, I’ll settle for Delilah Green cameos in every single one of Blake’s future novels.

Content warning: manipulation, panic attacks

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.

Alexandria Bellefleur Continues to Make Seattle the Romance Capital with The Fiancée Farce

the cover of The Fiancée Farce

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In a year of reading romance novels, I have learned a lot about the genre. First, and most importantly, I enjoy it so much that I usually read an entire novel within a single twenty-four hour period. Another thing that I have noticed—something that threatens to temper that enjoyment from time to time—is how often romance plots revolve around class differences and wealth. Romance, it turns out, often costs money. Considering one of the main conventions of the romance genre is the grand gesture, that should be no surprise. Most of the time I can overlook this pesky intrusion of reality, but I was less successful in doing so while I was reading Alexandria Bellefleur’s latest, The Fiancée Farce (2023).

Before getting into The Fiancée Farce, I want to talk about Bellefleur’s previous three novels: Written in the Stars (2020), Hang the Moon (2021), and Count Your Lucky Stars (2022). These three Seattle-based novels share a cast of characters who I very much wish were real people with whom I could be friends. As someone who wishes she still had her Rainbow Brite doll, I am partial to Elle, one of the main characters of Written in the Stars. Darcy, the grumpy to Elle’s sunshine, is a great combination of ice and red hair. I could also easily see myself as Annie, the protagonist of Hang the Moon, who has found herself directionless and alone. She comes to visit her best friend Darcy in Seattle and meets Brendon, the man who wants to sweep her off of her feet.

Okay, so the M/F romance in Hang the Moon was definitely my least favorite part of these three novels. My second least favorite part, though, was Brendon’s obsession with grand romantic gestures. The convention of the grand gesture bothers me on some level because I don’t really think that it proves much of anything about one’s feelings for another person. Indeed, to me, it proves access to wealth and/or resources, which is why it should be no surprise that Brendon is the CEO of a matchmaking app company. Now, don’t get me wrong—Bellefleur approaches issues of class much more effectively in Count Your Lucky Stars. And, yes, I know that romances are escapist. Still, give me J.Lo’s “My Love Don’t Cost a Thing” over Richard Gere at the end of Pretty Woman any day.

Another potentially expensive romance trope is the marriage contract trope. While I understand the convention of money changing hands in a fake dating/marriage contract situation, six million dollars is quite a lot of money. That is how much Tansy Adams needs to keep her stepmother from selling her father’s beloved independent bookstore, above which she lives in an apartment filled with memories of her deceased parents. The novel begins with the culmination of a six-month-long deception, the purpose of which is to mollify her overbearing family. According to Tansy, she has been dating a woman named Gemma. Except Gemma isn’t real. Well, that isn’t entirely true—Gemma is real, but she is a romance cover model who Tansy has never met. Well, that also isn’t entirely true—Tansy hadn’t met Gemma until she arrived at her cousin’s wedding. The same wedding where Tansy had just inadvertently caught the bouquet.

The Fiancée Farce exists in the same Seattle as Bellefleur’s previous three novels. If Bellefleur is not on the city of Seattle’s payroll yet, she should be, because I have never seen a better advertisement for the Emerald City than her novels. Of course, the reality of living in Seattle requires a cost-of-living conversation, a conversation that lives at the heart of The Fiancée Farce. Ultimately, the plot of the novel revolves too closely around the exchange of money to capture the whimsy of Bellefleur’s previous three novels. Gemma’s family, the van Dalens, as well as her friends (who have clearly spent some time with Rory Gilmore and Logan Huntzberger in the Life and Death Brigade) too persistently hammer in the trope of immoral wealth. There is also a subplot involving Tucker van Dalen that I could have lived without. We get it—rich people often don’t behave well.

Bellefleur creates a cast of awful family and eccentric friends to show that Gemma van Dalen is not like them. The reader, though, is ready to believe that from her first appearance, not to mention that half the book is from her point of view. If Gemma didn’t have a heart of gold, how could she possibly earn the love of down-to-earth and delightful Tansy? I think the answer to that question is what I have taken away the most from a year of reading romance novels: the delight in reading these novels is that I know what is going to happen, and it makes me happy. The author’s main responsibilities are to create characters who I’d like to meet in real life and to ensure the delight of predictability. Of the four novels by Alexandria Bellefleur that I have read in the past month, The Fiancée Farce is the one that sparked the least delight. Tansy is adorable, and Gemma indeed has charm—but I hope that Bellefleur will dump the rest of the van Dalen family into the Puget Sound in her next novel.

Content Warning: revenge porn

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 she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.