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

In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins cover

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

A grump, if you will.

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

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

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

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

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

I could probably end this review here, right?

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

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

Neither does grumpy/sunshine.

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

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

A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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

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

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

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

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

✨ The Vibes ✨

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

 Quotes

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

❝Ah. There’s the you I missed.❞

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

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

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

A Sapphic Marriage of Convenience Manga: I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama cover

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Machi has been going along with what other people want for as long as she can remember, but she’s so sick of her parents nagging her to find a husband that she’s ready to marry someone they’d hate to spite them. She wasn’t expecting her (female) best friend Hana to volunteer for the role, though!

Yep, we’re skipping the fake dating and going straight to marriage, that’s how we roll here.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up is a fast, tropey read with a really cute art style. Machi and Hana have been friends for a long time, and work as a classic “the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one” pair, so their teasing and support for each other is lovely! And while the relationships starts off feeling unbalanced due to Hana’s pushiness and Machi’s passivity, its gradual evening out is fun.

I have so many mixed feelings about Hana’s pushiness, by the way; she’s mostly a cheery and flirty character, with her arc being all about revealing the serious core beneath that. But her response to Machi’s internalised homophobia (or what looks like homophobia) is sexual aggression that borders on harrassment. It’s presented as her issuing a challenge in the face of Machi’s previous knee-jerk reactions, and she always backs off without needing to be told, but it’s such a weird off-note with the rest of the manga. The manga’s tone is mostly funny, with jokes about boobs and playing with the stereotypes of heterosexual marriage! Hana pinning Machi to a bed to prove a point didn’t fit with that, to me.

But there is a serious core to I Married My Best Friend, in the form of Machi’s character arc—it’s my favourite part of the book. Machi grows so much as a result of living with Hana. She starts out completely detached from her own life, only doing what’s convenient and never actually thinking about what she wants. Her growth is entirely realising that there are things she cares about, and she’s allowed to say so! Whether that’s asserting herself at work, standing up to her homophobic mother for the first time, or trying to move from fake dating Hana to really dating her, she’s growing and changing for the better!

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up is a lot of fun. If you’re in need of some f/f fake dating in the new year: this is a good place to start!

Caution warnings: homophobia, sexism, parental abuse

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

Ted Lasso But Make It Sapphic: Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner

the cover of Cleat Cute

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“Calling Phoebe loud and obnoxious and gay ignores all her layers and contradictions. That’s Grace’s issue with fame—people take you at face value. Nobody bothers to look for the person beneath the brand.”

⚠️ Spoilers ahead. Book contains graphic sex scenes. ⚠️

Phoebe Matthews is ready to take her first season as a professional soccer player by storm. She even gets to play alongside her idol, Grace Henderson: the veteran star of the US Women’s National Team. Since they met, there’s been a spark of chemistry between them, and Phoebe can’t help but flirt with and seduce the woman she’s had a poster of since childhood. Though they’re on the same page on the pitch, a little miscommunication outside of the game leaves them both mentally spiraling. Are they brave enough to make a move both on and off the field?

The few factors that drove me to finish reading this book were the focus on fame, personal identity, and neurodiversity—NOT the relationship between Grace and Phoebe. The story touches on Grace’s preference not to reveal too much about who she is outside of soccer, in an effort to protect her privacy, until soccer becomes her entire identity, both to the outside world and herself. From the beginning, it’s also obvious that both main characters are neurodivergent. Phoebe is diagnosed with ADHD by the epilogue, and though Grace isn’t diagnosed with autism, it’s mentioned as a possibility. Though their neurodiversity is obvious from the first two chapters, the topic isn’t discussed in any way that matters to the story. There’s so much going on under the surface of these characters that would have made the story beautifully important if they were the focus, rather than a subtle plot point that’s slipped into the end of the book.

I almost DNFed this book many, many times; it takes a one-star read for me to give up on a book, rather than give it the benefit of the doubt. Though I did finish it, I dragged my feet every step of the way. The most obvious issue with this novel is the point of view. A third-person objective point of view is cold and distant. It leaves readers disconnected from the characters and the story. For Phoebe—passionate, energetic, a thousand thoughts a second Phoebe—we’re cut off from what she’s really feeling. Beyond that, this POV is choppy, especially for a story that primarily involves women. Unfortunately, the objective POV means the entire story is tell; we’re not shown through actions or imagery or any form of creative writing. The tension between them doesn’t last long enough to keep readers enthralled, either; once the sex is introduced, that’s apparently all that matters.

Every other sentence starts with a name to avoid referring to too many “she’s” within a single thought. The writing also lacks descriptive language, even though the story is set in vibrant New Orleans. For all the scenes focused on food, we never smell, taste, or experience a moment with the characters. Even during gameplay, there’s no sweat, heat, or the sound of screaming fans in our ears. The readers are kept at arm’s length at all times. Perhaps worse: the sex scenes read like fanfiction—a first-time writer’s fanfiction. Instead of steamy, the word choice makes it awkward and off putting. “Baby girl?” Really?

Despite my issues with it, I do recommend it for fans of workplace romances, Ted Lasso, or A League of Their Own. You’re going to get serious “Ted Lasso but make it sapphic” vibes from this, I promise; Phoebe and Grace are very much Jamie and Roy. If you’re in your sporty romance era, give this a try!

✨ The Vibes ✨

⚽︎ F/F Romance
⚽︎ Neurodiversity / ADHD and Autism Rep
⚽︎ Sports Romance
⚽︎ Secret Dating
⚽︎ Workplace Romance
⚽︎ Miscommunication
⚽︎ Grumpy vs Sunshine

A Chaos Theory Psychological Thriller: Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn

the cover of Strange Attractors

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Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn was released in August 2022 and it follows the complex character of Sonja J. Storey. The book has been described as a psychological thriller, and it takes a deep dive into the darker side of academia. It is not a light and fluffy romance, but if you allow the main character to have her flaws, and go on her journey, it is a novel that will stay with you for a long time after you’re done reading. I am usually a pure romance kind of gal, so this was certainly a different novel for me, but I am glad I took the plunge.

Dr. Storey is a professor of chaos theory, and this novel takes you on a well-written roller coaster of what happens when life seemingly begins to imitate the very theory one teaches. Dr. Storey teaches at a small college in North Carolina and has plans to put the tiny school on the map. Not only does she believe she can do it, but she also has the drive to do so. It takes one post-it note to set Sonja’s arc in motion. 

Interpersonally, Sonja is closed off and doesn’t make friends easily (or at all).  It’s fair to say she intentionally pushes people away with her ultra icy exterior. The closest relationship she has is with that of her telescope, which seems fitting as it allows her to escape in the stars, a place seemingly uninhabited by people. Her telescope can’t let her down, can’t judge her, and can be directed only where she points.

Those around her wouldn’t hesitate to call Sonja all sorts of names, but as a reader, we are let into parts of her story that the people around her are not privy to. As you read this novel, and Dr. Storey’s past is revealed little by little, it is of little wonder that she interacts with the world around her the way she does. 

Wrenn presents us with two characters in this book: Dr. Sonja J. Storey and junior professor Dr. Crystal Byrd. Where Sonja is closed off and receives every outside interaction with skepticism and a desire to exit the interaction immediately, Dr. Byrd is in many ways the opposite. Both have experienced trauma in their lives, but the path each has taken to both deal with that trauma and how they see the world around them couldn’t be more different. Where Sonja is closed off and icy, Crystal is open, warm, and friendly.  

When the two women meet, it goes as you would expect, but there is something about Crystal Byrd that Sonja, despite her unwillingness to allow anyone in, can’t seem to stay away from. Crystal is persistent, but it’s also undeniable that Sonja finds her intriguing. Despite her misgivings, Sonja allows herself to become close to the other woman. In Crystal, Sonja finds someone who does not hesitate to push back and call her out for her behavior when the situation warrants. Crystal makes it clear she is there for her and there to support her, but Sonja has to put in the work. Crystal won’t be her savior.

Wrenn weaves a tale that will have you wondering and guessing about connections, past and present, and questioning if things are really as they appear.  

Sonja J. Storey is a complex character with a lot of reasons to present herself to the world in the standoffish way she does. She is, at times, a cautionary tale of how our past influences the way we interpret and view the events of our life. Ultimately, I would consider Sonja’s story to be one of courage and of a character making the hard decision to move forward without constantly looking back. It lays bare the dark side of being a woman in academia and of a woman trying to escape a past that isn’t keen on letting her go. 

Wrenn’s debut novel is smart, twisty, dark, and a read that will stay with you long after you’re done. There are scenes that serve as absolute gut punches—but this is not meant to be a Hallmark romance. Wrenn is brilliant in being able to set a scene so emotionally charged that I found myself holding my breath and heart. And it wasn’t just once.

I highly recommend Strange Attractors if you’re in the mood for something a little darker, and if you’re a fan of Ice Queens protected by an iceberg that makes the one that took down the Titanic look like an ice cube from your freezer. I maintain the freeze is understandable, but whether you agree will be up to you. I took this journey knowing that not everyone loved Sonja J. Storey, but love her or not, I encourage you to read with an eye to at least understanding her and the layers she possesses. When everyone around you, including those meant to protect you, have failed you over and over, self preservation tactics seem bound to kick in. I felt for her, and I was rooting for her. I think the sign of a good novel is one that, even when you’re done, you can’t stop thinking about it. Strange Attractors is that novel. 

Content warnings: discussion of past abuse, descriptions of past sexual assaults.