A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

Fake Dating Meets Single Parenting: Make Her Wish Come True by A.L. Brooks

the cover of Make Her Wish Come True

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Make Her Wish Come True by A.L. Brooks was released on October 23, 2003 and is a contemporary romance about two women who are absolutely not in a place to date. Or so they keep telling themselves.

Abby Baxter had to grow up way too fast, stepping in to raise her 12-year-old half-sister after their mom passed away. She’s been working for an online magazine as an administrative assistant until she can break into her dream profession: a journalist. Her prospects seem to get a boost when her friend, a columnist who writes for the magazine, offers Abby a deal: fake date a woman for a story, and she’ll do what she can to get Abby her shot at writing.

Erica Goode has been solely focused on raising her daughter, Kayla, for the last eight years. She works two jobs to help support their family, and has no time for a social life. When she’s presented with the chance to date Abby, and get out of the house in the process, who is she to say no? What follows is a slow-burn romance for two women who have both made sacrifices that many others can’t easily understand—and neither knows quite what to do when presented with someone who understands what the other has been through but recognizes they might not be at the same point in life.

I adored this sweet and charming story about two women trying to find their way after both of their lives took unexpected turns when they were young. Abby is so sure she doesn’t want another child in her life after having to put hers on pause to raise her sister. When she meets Erica and her daughter Kayla, Abby is adamant she can’t be in a real relationship with someone who has a kid. And despite finding Abby incredibly attractive in more ways than one, Erica’s number one priority is her daughter. What I really appreciated about this story was that you couldn’t fault either woman for how they felt and what their limitations were. I understood why Abby was so hesitant. After dropping out of college to care for her sister, Abby knows better than anyone that raising a child is a huge responsibility and, with her sister now in college, it makes sense that she is incredibly reluctant to do it all over again. As much as you want Abby to give this relationship a real chance, I respected that A.L. had Abby take her time. Deciding whether you’re prepared to make all those sacrifices again can’t be something decided overnight. As a reader, I wouldn’t have been able to trust it otherwise—and certainly neither would Erica.

As a parent myself, I found Erica’s emotions around dating to be relatable and true. It’s so hard not to lose yourself in parenting, and you have to make the conscious decision to make time for you to be a “person” outside of that role. As a single parent, Erica feels the added pressure of trying to be everything to her daughter. It’s so easy to think that our kids should be our sole focus all the time. Sure, for a period of time after they’re born, that is how it needs to be, but as kids age, it’s necessary to have an identity outside of “parent” and to be a whole person. With that said, it is often incredibly hard to balance these roles and responsibilities, and to do so without feeling guilt is near impossible. A.L. presents that dilemma in a realistic way, though you can’t help but hope Erica allows herself the happiness she deserves. I also loved the multigenerational parenting that occurred in this story. Erica’s mom is such a huge part of helping raise Kayla, and we see that the concern for your kids never goes away—even when they are grown.

At its heart, this feels like a story about letting go of the past and being willing to be brave enough to see a brighter future. Things can always go wrong, hearts can always be broken, but sometimes those risks are worth taking. Both Erica and Abby have things to lose, but they both also have everything to gain.

Kayla, Erica’s daughter, is cute and precocious. She’s a good kid, and it’s clear in the story that Abby’s reluctance isn’t about Kayla, but about the undertaking of caring for another human being. The way Abby and Kayla’s relationship grows is sweet and organic. Kayla asked Santa for another mom, and the journey to that answer is complicated and real.

While this story has many sweet moments, and I appreciated that any angst along the way was dealt with in a timely manner, it should also be noted that this certainly has some steam that not just Erica and Abby appreciated! Although Erica has known she was bisexual since she was a teenager, she’s never physically been with a woman before, and A.L. builds that tension between her and Abby incredibly well. There is something delicious about the fake dating trope, especially when it’s clear both main characters are fighting that attraction. The series of dates, including skating and romantic dinners, offer plenty of situations for that tension to build and grow.  

This is a great book to kick off November!

A Queer M/F Romance of Healing and Reconciliation: A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

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This novel is a masterful exploration of various themes, ranging from consent and communication during intimate moments to faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics. The author’s ability to delve into these topics with depth and sensitivity truly impressed me.

The novel shines in its approach to consent and communication during sexual encounters. Lee’s portrayal of characters navigating these conversations felt both authentic and refreshing. The way the characters navigate their desires and boundaries is a testament to the importance of open dialogue in relationships.

Furthermore, the exploration of faith and its impact on one’s identity within the context of the Orthodox community adds another layer of complexity to the story. Lee handles this topic with great care, highlighting the struggles and conflicts faced by Ely as she grapples with her past.

Substance abuse is tackled with a nuanced perspective, portraying the protagonists’ journey through recovery with empathy and realism. Lee’s portrayal serves as a reminder of the challenges individuals face on the path to sobriety, and how recovery is a continuous process.

The examination of power dynamics is another highlight of the novel. The teacher-student relationship between the characters introduces a layer of tension and complexity that is brilliantly executed. The internal struggles of the characters as they navigate their feelings while maintaining a professional boundary is both engaging and thought-provoking.

In conclusion, A Shot in the Dark is an exceptional read that skillfully weaves together a myriad of important themes. Victoria Lee’s ability to approach subjects such as consent, communication, faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics with sensitivity and depth is truly commendable. This novel is a must-read for anyone seeking a captivating story that sparks introspection and provides a platform for meaningful discussions.

Trigger warnings: substance abuse, alcohol, overdose, transphobia, abusive parent, antisemitism, drug use, religious trauma, relapse, death of a parent, domestic violence

Fake Dating at a Sapphic Island Getaway: The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre

the cover of The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre

The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre was released in June 2023, and it’s a sweet and spicy contemporary romance about two people facing unusual circumstances which leads them both to a situation of a lifetime. Basil Jones has the seemingly perfect life until she is left at the altar by her fiancé. Determined not to lose out on an important work deal, she goes on the honeymoon trip as planned. She flies to gorgeous Sapphire Isle, where sapphic women go to escape their real life and live in paradise, even for a short time. The only issue? It’s a strict “couples only” policy, and Basil is without a partner. Enter Caroline King. The two had one brief encounter prior to meeting each other for a second time on the island. That second meeting is a little less by chance than Basil thinks, but Caroline is both taken with Basil and needs a place to stay, so she agrees to be her “wife.”  What follows is a fake relationship trope for the ages, with each of them holding on to secrets from the outside world and one another.

If you are a fan of fake relationships, sapphic islands, and intense sexual chemistry, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a must read. I admit that I do find something delicious about two people having to fake their way through intimacy, only for that intimacy to grow into something real. The tension in this fake marriage is no different and is perhaps even turned up several levels due to how Basil’s and Caroline’s first encounter went down. (Ahem…so to speak.) There is no denying these two women are attracted to each other, but each has their own reasons for trying to resist the pull they feel. Caroline has learned mixing business with pleasure can lead to heartbreak, and Basil was just left at the altar–an event that would leave anyone to proceed with caution.

In addition to these two women having to play wives, the forced proximity of sharing a honeymoon suite (*there is, indeed, only one bed*), and being on a literal island adds to them not being able to escape the other. Fyre, who’s name is fitting for how she writes certain scenes, has created an environment that any sapphic will be clamoring to find. There is something incredibly lovely about the thought of escaping to a safe island filled with other sapphic women. Also, it is no secret in my personal life that I am quite competitive, so Fyre’s invention of the “Sapphic Olympics” left me longing to find a real life version. The events she’s created are clever and fitting for its participants. I don’t mean to brag, but I would absolutely nail the dresser building competition. Within the context of the story, the games are just another area to add fuel to that tension between Caroline and Basil. Having to work together as a team and pitting them against one of Basil’s childhood nemeses creates another scenario where they are forced to confront their ever growing attraction. Basil’s Type A behavior, paired with Caroline’s more practical approach, fueled by her time in the military, creates a perfect storm of additional conflict.

As the weather gets colder, it would be wise to hold on to this book if you’re looking to read something to keep you warm. Literally. I, for one, will never be looking at a photo booth the same way again. I have a feeling after reading this book, neither will you. Their story is filled with delicious tension and heated looks. Fyre is incredibly good at building tension so tight you think you might burst, so you can only imagine what the characters are feeling. Thankfully, you don’t have to imagine too much. There are those scenes that will have you looking around to make sure you’re  alone or, at the very least, that no one is peeping over your shoulder. Maybe don’t read on public transportation. Or do, who am I to judge? (If there is one thing the sapphic community can do, its school features so no one knows you are reading about two women doing the horizontal polka.)

As filled with sexual tension as this book is, there are other themes that flow throughout. Through Basil, it examines the pressure of family obligations and how long we can allow our parents’ dreams to propel us forward before a resentment starts to build. Fyre also forces the main character/reader to examine at what point hurtful actions and breaches of trust, despite the intentions behind them, are too much for us to forgive. What is that line and do those good intentions absolve the person who hurt us and broke our trust? I found myself asking what that line would be for me.

At its base level, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a story about overcoming your fear of failure—in life and relationships—and being brave enough to try again. I appreciate the twists that Fyre also throws in, keeping you guessing about a few mysteries until a reveal leaves you saying: “OH!?!”. Did I want to grab one character at one point and say: “please, out with it!” Yes! But without it, there would be no conflict to overcome.

With a cast of side characters that include a hedgehog and supportive best friends who will leave you smiling, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a great read.

A Sapphic Ice Queen Reality TV Romance: Reality in Check by Emily Banting

the cover of Reality In Check

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Emily Banting’s latest release, Reality in Check, came out August 12, 2023 and I couldn’t wait to get my hands (and eyes) on it. If you haven’t already, you should absolutely check out Broken Beyond Repair, Emily’s preceding novel in the South Downs Romance series.  It’s not necessary to have read that before diving into Reality in Check, though if you have, you will certainly appreciate the cameos in the epilogue of the book. 

Reality in Check follows two women, Arte and Charlotte, on their journeys to find happiness, both professionally and personally. We meet Arte as she is returning “home,” to the hotel her grandmother and grandfather used to run and own. Arte, and her sister Sophie, have been left the hotel after the death of their Gran. While Arte’s sister is not really interested in running the hotel, Arte is determined to honor their Gran by getting it back up and accepting guests as soon as she can. Arte, unlike Sophie, had spent a significant amount of time in the hotel. For all intents and purposes, it had been her home and it’s filled with memories. Arte is so committed to making things work and honoring the woman who had been there for her when she needed it most, she leaves her work and life in Rome. What meets Arte is a wall of memories, a pile of bills, and a hotel in desperate need of work—maybe more than Arte can do alone. Arte is also left with her Gran’s lab, Rodin. (You just know a book is going to be good when there’s a dog involved.)

It seems Arte’s Gran knew the hotel needed help and that things had gotten to a point where she could not do the updates that needed to be done on her own…if only Arte had known that. 

Before Arte’s Gran had passed, she contacted the reality show to help revamp parts of the hotel. Enter Charlotte Beaufort—host of Hotel SOS.  “A formidable woman with a trigger. Colour me intrigued.” Color me also intrigued. I have never read a description that had me ready to meet someone so badly.   

Charlotte has been the host of Hotel SOS for the last several years. She has a reputation for being honest and a tad bit brutal in her commentary about the state of the hotels she has been sent to help. Prior to that, she was managing one of her family’s Beaufort Hotels. We come to meet Charlotte at a time in her life when she’s unhappy in her marriage and all she wants is for her mother to trust her enough to take over the family business. But, Charlotte’s mother, Claudette, seems bound to stay at the helm. Before I go any further, it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I love an Ice Queen. Any shape or form, I am here for a woman with an icy exterior who is competent, a tiny bit (or a lot) bossy, and who has a lot going on under the surface no one knows about. With Charlotte Beaufort, it was as if I went to a Build-An-Ice Queen brick and mortar and picked her out myself. A fifty-one year old woman who has worked hard, is incredibly good at her job, hot, AND mommy issues?? Sign me up! That is the roundabout way of saying to you, dear reader, that I loved her.

When Arte and Charlotte first meet, it goes…poorly. Charlotte doesn’t know who Arte is and in an effort to make small talk, absolutely steps in it. What follows is a dynamic involving a woman who is still dealing with the loss of her grandmother, contrasted with a woman who has been wearing a persona for so long it’s hard for her to know whether that’s who she actually is, or whether it has just become like second nature because she’s gotten so good at being that way.

The thing about “Ice Queens” is that there is always more than meets the eye, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much. Charlotte is no different. We see examples of that told through her assistant. After all, an Ice Queen would never directly tell us they have a big ol’ heart filled with kindness under that icy exterior, now would they? 

Woven into the potential blooming romance, there is the very fresh grief Arte is experiencing. Emily writes so beautifully about grief, and how that process is never a linear line. There is a line in this book that I immediately loved and highlighted: “If it represents your grief, it’s unlikely to ever be finished.” That is absolutely the thing about grief. It’s never gone, and when we lose someone we love, that grief will always be present. This is a gorgeous story about the things people do to honor those they have lost, the ways humans try to ease the grief they are feeling, and the very real acknowledgement that it never really goes away. It also shows us that grieving does not always look the same for everyone, even within the same family. Through Arte, Emily wrote a character that was doing her best to honor her grandmother, while also honoring the dreams she has had for her life and being true to those, as well. After all, those who truly loved us would want that above all else. 

Where Arte has been given the freedom from a young age to pursue the things that made her happy, Charlotte had been set on a path for one thing only: take over the family company. That was her father’s intention for her before he died. And for many years, that was what Charlotte was working toward. She worked hard for it, and she was very good at everything that was set (intentionally) in her path. Charlotte is a prime example of someone that was born with expectations put on her, and when you’re born with those, sometimes it is easy to conflat those expectations with your own dreams. What I loved about Charlotte’s story was that while in many ways meeting Arte may have been the catalyst for her to re-evaluate things, it was her that took the steps needed to change what she didn’t like about herself and her life. But I think that is what good matches do: they allow us to see ourselves in a way we may have been afraid to and give us the push we need to be a little (or a lot) brave.

I absolutely adored this book. In many ways, it was reminiscent of all the things I love about a Hallmark movie, which I mean to be the highest of compliments. Only, this book was gayer, better written with more depth, and tackled serious parts of the human experience with beauty and realness a Hallmark movie could never. I consider it to be an aspirational Hallmark story where if I could make a sapphic one, it would look like this. There is growth for both of these characters, not just Ice Queen Charlotte. Charlotte helps Arte broaden her view of the world just as much as Arte helps Charlotte get in touch with what is most important to her. There is a balance each character offers the other. Did I mention I love Charlotte Beaufort? 

I highly recommend Reality in Check for you to discover for yourself the beautiful story of Arte and Charlotte.

A Sapphic Romance at Adult Summer Camp: That Summer Feeling by Bridget Morrissey

the cover of That Summer Feeling

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That Summer Feeling delivers exactly that. A beach read set at an adult summer camp, this read is low angst and very wholesome. The beginning of the book starts out with a bit of chaos: a flashback to the past, a bit of family history to set the stage, and a frantic rush through the airport to catch a flight—not to mention a vision (there’s a light helping of woo in the beginning, but the book doesn’t involve much magical realism). But the pace slows considerably after the prologue, as the rest of the book spans the course of only seven days. 

Our main character Garland requires a bit of patience—she’s 32 years old with zero sense of self identity, though the thing she’s got going for her is the awareness of that flaw. It’s one of the reasons she’s at this camp. Garland is licking her wounds from a recent divorce (to a man; this a toaster oven situation) but is also sort of letting the divorce define her in the same way that the relationship defined her. She was Married—now she’s Divorced. And she might just be done with romance, unless of course her fella decides to take her back. She’s hoping this summer camp will lead to a new start. 

On paper, Garland is the sort of character that should really annoy me. She might really annoy you. But I found her to be so obtuse about her own feelings that it was actually kind of hilarious. When she meets Stevie, her roommate at camp, she’s immediately fascinated by her, and the two form a “camp alliance.” Despite enjoying her new friend’s company more than is typical of a platonic relationship, Garland takes a while to come around to realizing her queerness. It’s not for a lack of having queer friends or exposure to the idea of sexuality being fluid, she’s just been so caught up in a heteronormative idea of things like marriage as a measure of success she’s never paused to consider her sexuality. 

Vague spoilers, highlight to read: Once she realizes her feelings for Stevie are romantic, it opens the floodgates for her Big Moment of Self Realization. For those who hate the instalove trope, you’ll likely not love Insta I Just Figured My Shit Out either, so you’ve been warned! It does make for a refreshing third act when our main character, in a situation where a main character usually does something monumentally stupid, instead shows her growth as a person. It’s tough to pull off that kind of low angst read yet still maintain tension through the end of the book, but That Summer Feeling gets it right.

There are also some solid themes of found family, not needing others to define your worth, and the difficulty developing adult friendships. With the addition of tropes that keep things light and help make this a pretty fluffy book overall, this is perfect for a relaxing day at camp.

A Bisexual Armenian American Self Discovery Story: Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni

the cover of Sorry, Bro

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Armenian culture and self discovery are primary themes in Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni. These themes are the strengths of the book, especially when it comes to culturally sensitive issues and heavier topics like genocide, racism, homophobia within the Armenian community. On the other hand, Sorry, Bro also has one of the most extremely infuriating main characters I have ever encountered in a sapphic romance. It’s less of a romcom and more of a journey of self discovery, where our main character takes one step forward and three steps back. It reads a little like a YA book at times, despite having a main character in her late 20s, as Nareh’s development into adulthood feels like it went off track when her father died. She still lives in her childhood bedroom with her high school posters tacked to the wall and a curfew. Nareh is heavily invested in how people in her community and family perceive her, needing their praise and acceptance, even though she’s not really involved herself in the community and feels disconnected from it.  

One of the main issues for me comes at the beginning, when, not 48 hours after her boyfriend of almost five years proposes and she subsequently turns him down, Nareh announces she’s on the prowl for a new fella. No mourning period, no me-time, it’s just time to go to the Man Store and get something in a size handsome-with-a-sharp-jawline. Nareh is bisexual, but aside from her male friends, she doesn’t seem to really like the men that she thinks are “her type.” She approaches potentially dating them in a very detached way, not unlike her mother, who’s been making Nareh spreadsheets of eligible Armenian bachelors. This goes on for a couple of chapters longer than I had patience for, to be honest. A lot of these qualities make Nareh feel quite shallow. 

Nareh is solidly in the closet, afraid of the fallout from her community should she come out as bi, and also perhaps wary after making out with too many straight girls in college and getting burned. But no matter how hard she tries to focus on finding a Armenian husband, she keeps getting distracted by her new, very attractive friend Erebuni, who it turns out is *not* straight. Like the book, it takes a while to get to our secondary character. Erebuni is the polar opposite of Nareh—she’s confident, doesn’t care what people think of her, and has a tight knit group of Armenian friends. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much time on the page, and if she does, it seems she is always surrounded by other people. Erebuni never really feels like a main character, more of a prop for Nareh. 

As a romance, Sorry, Bro has some room for improvement. But as a book about self-discovery and finding one’s place in the world in the context of culture, community, and societal pressure, it’s worth a read.  

Nat reviews Tailor-Made by Yolanda Wallace

Tailor-Made by Yolanda Wallace

I went looking for one of Wallace’s newer books at the library and, to my delight, stumbled on a few of her older books, which is always a nice surprise when you find a new author you like. Instant book list! Tailor-Made is an opposites attract, forbidden love romance with a lot of interesting dialogue on gender and bias, which while sometimes clumsily explored, shows good intention. 

Grace Henderson is a tailor working for her father, and set to take over the family business when he retires. Grace is a daddy’s girl, and still lives at home with her family, including her two sisters. It’s a full house with not a lot of privacy. Grace is out to her family, and while they’re church-going folks who care about their standing in the community, and who lean on the conservative side, they’re supportive in a conditional sort of way. As long as Grace is dating “respectable,” feminine women, they really don’t care about her sexuality. 

Enter Dakota Lane, bad boi lesbian and famous men’s clothing model. She’s butch, white, and always in the tabloids with a new woman. When Dakota and Grace have instant chemistry during a suit fitting, they try and fail to stay away from each other. Grace struggles with her undeniable attraction to a masculine woman and repeatedly tells herself Dakota is “not her type,” as her childhood posters of Janet Jackson prove. 

Gender presentation is a really important theme in the book, though there are some awkward moments during the exploration. One of these speed bump moments is courtesy of Dad, who is maybe a little out of touch in that boomer sort of way. There’s a moment near the beginning of the book that gave me pause, with Dad describing a new, transgender client as “a woman who used to be a man,” and it took a few more pages to confirm this was Dad’s voice and a tool to introduce the topic of gender identity, rather than a direct reflection of the author. A few more pages clears this up nicely, but I did tilt my head and brace for the worst. Grace realizes she has something to learn about the transgender community, pronoun use, and her unconscious bias toward masc of center women. This leads to some exploration of what it means to be visibly queer vs passing, and a well-placed, very real and uncomfortable scene where Dakota goes through an airport scanner and is misgendered. 

There are some issues and tension with one of Grace’s sisters that largely remain unresolved, not a huge deal as far as loose ends go as the sister wasn’t a main part of the plot, but she did introduce a healthy amount of negativity and resentment toward Grace. I think one of my larger disappointments came with how Grace handled her budding relationship with Dakota, which was filled with miscommunication. After a pep talk from her other, more supportive sister about not letting your parents dictate your decisions and life, she still didn’t really make the decision to embark on her independence both in terms of her career and romantic relationship without daddy’s approval. That irked me a little bit, even though things worked out for her—of course, it is a romance—I was really rooting for her to reach a point where she didn’t need her father’s acceptance to move forward. 

There could have also been a touch more groveling at the end after Grace and Dakota part ways in our third act conflict. Poor Dakota was way more forgiving than warranted considering how things go down (though that is a frequent complaint of mine in a lot of recent contemporary romances). Girl, make her work for it! Wallace’s Tailor-Made may not be the bespoke suit of romance novels, but it’s certainly a fun read to add to your list. 

Meagan Kimberly reviews Make You Mine This Christmas by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

the cover of Make You Mine This Christmas

Christopher and Haf meet at a university Christmas party one night and after drunkenly kissing under the mistletoe, they’re mistaken for a couple. Rather than own up to the truth that they were simply strangers making out at a party, they go along with the idea. Haf agrees to fake date Christopher during the break with his family so as not to admit to her own family that she will be alone this holiday. Along the way, Haf meets an incredible woman at a bookstore, and oops, it turns out, it’s Christopher’s sister. Shenanigans ensue.

Haf and Christopher are absolutely delightful characters, despite what trainwrecks they both are. It’s pure bisexual chaotic energy as they go about trying to convince Christopher’s family that they’re a couple. Meanwhile, Haf is trying her damndest not to keep falling for his sister, the beautiful and intimidating Kit.

Huxley-Jones does a phenomenal job of developing Kit’s character. She is disabled and living with a chronic condition that leaves her physically exhausted and having to walk with a cane. But this never defines her entire character. She’s saucy, confident and a bit formidable, but in the best way. It’s no wonder Haf falls head over heels in love with her.

It’s easy for readers to fall in love with Haf as well. She’s a plus-size heroine who totally owns her body. It’s so refreshing to read a fat character’s story that doesn’t center on fretting over her weight. Moreover, no one around her ever makes her feel bad about her body.

Perhaps the most delightful thing about the plot is how it takes the fake dating trope and turns it into a rather sweet friendship between Haf and Christopher. It never turns into an awkward love triangle situation between her and the two siblings (which frankly I’m thankful for because that would have been too weird).

There are plenty of rom-com shenanigans to keep you laughing throughout the whole book, mixed in with heartwarming moments of friendship. There’s a particularly excellent chapter involving a baby reindeer and that’s all I’ll say about that. It’s the perfect cozy romance for the winter season and holidays.

Susan reviews Above All Things by Roslyn Sinclair

the cover of Above All Things

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Above All Things is the second part of Roslyn Sinclair’s Carlyle series. Vivian and Jules have committed to each other, and now they have to find a way to stay committed to each other during upheavals at work, family drama, and the small matter of Vivian’s pregnancy.

To start off: this really feels like the second half of Truth and Measure, and it benefits from reading it as soon after as you can. Again, this is a 200k fic that’s been rewritten and split into two books, so this isn’t a surprise! But it’s still something to be aware of going in.

Above All Things does something that feels rare to me, in that the characters are out of the getting together phase. A lot of romances focus on how the characters get into a relationship and not how they stay in it, so seeing Jules and Vivian have to negotiate and renegotiate their relationship is really satisfying. There are so many obstacles – Vivian’s fame, Jules’ family, their own ability to communicate—but they choose each other, and they keep choosing each other in the face of all of them! It helps that the characters are still very much themselves as well. Being in love doesn’t soften Vivian at all; she is still ruthless and terrifying, and not always in a way that Jules enjoys. Jules desperately wants to prove herself, and that she doesn’t need Vivian’s help, despite how much Vivian would help her. They have to negotiate the power dynamics, the perception of their relationship, and their contradictory wants, and seeing the way it balances is glorious.

The scenes with Jules’ family are quite hard—well-written, but hard. Being understandably worried about your daughter in a relationship with heavily skewed power dynamics is fine, but the undercurrent of homophobia that her parents have carried from the previous book is there in force. There are some supportive and affirming reactions from other characters, but I thought it best to highlight that Jules’ parents are a whole thing.

For those who want to know how it compares to the fic version of Truth and Measure:

  • Above All Things doesn’t have as much of Jules being aggressively competent as T&M did Andy, but what we get is very good.
  • There’s an actual discussion of heteronormativity and the optics of Vivian and Jules’ relationship in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ve really appreciated how much more casually queer the New York of the Carlyle series is than that of The Devil Wears Prada, so I enjoyed that the characters could be out—even if only to have a media strategy in place to prevent abuse allegations. (Feel free to join me in feeling old because T&M came out in 2013.)
  • “Does [x] big confrontation still take place?” Yes and it’s GREAT. That is the least spoilery way I can put that.
  • If you were like me and appreciated that Miranda didn’t give birth on-page: I’m so sorry.

The long and short of it is that I enjoyed the level of drama and relationship dynamics in Above All Things. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as Truth and Measure, but I enjoyed the novelty of what it was doing and the finely tuned drama of it all. If you want fashionable queer women earning their peaceful ending, you should definitely pick up this series.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, pregnancy, birth, age gap romance, coming out

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.