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.”

Healing Through a Haunting: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

the cover of The Fall That Saved Us

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The author’s content notes, which also apply to this review: “While Cassiel’s story is focused on healing, heavier themes of trauma and shame are explored to give context to the protagonist’s journey. Please consider the major content notes: cutting scars, brief self-harm ideation, discussion of an eating disorder, family emotional abuse, and a manipulative mother. This book contains sexual content and is only intended for adult readers.”

The first time I learned about Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us, I was sold. A sapphic paranormal romance with a protagonist who runs a bookstore and heals from trauma? That sounded like the perfect way to ring in October. I’m happy to say that not only did it meet my expectations, but it became a favorite of the year.

Cassiel has cut off ties with her divine family of demon hunters, other than her sister, with whom she now has a complicated relationship. She has spent the last three years living in the ordinary world for the first time, trying to establish a life independent of the oppressive rules of her mother, Gabriel. She runs a bookstore and is friends with Ana, a witch with a coffee shop. Still, she won’t fully open up even to Ana, and she has struggled to integrate into society or unpack her internalized shame, as she was raised to avoid pleasure of any kind.

Though Cassiel is laying low, she attracts the attention of the succubus Avitue, who has been ordered to steal Cassiel’s soul. Avitue haunts Cassiel, attempting seduction through gifts and shared dreams. But by the time the two meet face-to-face, Avitue has realized that Cassiel is more than meets the eye, as someone who has been harmed by her family and is trying to escape the life of a demon hunter. Ordinarily, a confrontation between a succubus and an angel’s descendant ends in violence, but they both exercise restraint. This gives them enough pause that they develop a tentative trust and a less tentative chemistry. When Cassiel’s family gets involved at the same time that Avitue’s superiors apply pressure, they must team up to navigate these threats while also navigating their feelings.      

A whirlwind romance with a succubus pushes Cassiel out of her comfort zone in more ways than one, forcing her to confront the idea that demons are more complex than her family claimed and allowing her to embrace sensuality for the first time. Initially, going against her conditioning makes her recoil. However, Avitue understands that it’s important for Cassiel to push herself toward new ground on her own terms. When she falls, Avitue is there to catch her.                  

As an immortal succubus who fell millennia ago, Avitue is chaotic, morally grey, and distant from humanity. She is electrifyingly charismatic and doesn’t mind wielding this as a tool. However, coming into contact with Cassiel forces her to question her own assumptions about their natures. From the start, Avitue cares for and refuses to hurt Cassiel. Their developing relationship involves all of the negotiation and communication that this sort of dynamic requires, without shying away from the darker aspects of Avitue’s life.  

The theme of healing from trauma, especially religious trauma and familial abuse, stood out to me the most. Cassiel is reclaiming her own body, her own divinity, and her own experience with the world. As she explores all of the things she was denied, she finds that rather than being cut off from her power as her mother had claimed, she is actually growing more fully into herself. The narrative is a celebration of love, warmth, and tenderness, and an indictment of forcing people to sacrifice parts of themselves in order to fit into narrow boxes. 

This book understands that healing is not linear. Cassiel has already spent years living out in the world, but she still hides herself away from it, and she relapses into shame when she experiences attraction, enjoys food, or tries to wear nice clothing. Because she has people who genuinely care about her, she is able to pick herself back up when she falls. Healing may not be a straight path, but time marches onward, and so does she.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of paranormal romance, the pacing of some books can require adjusted expectations, with characters who’ve only known each other a short time falling in literally eternal love. However, I realize this is a genre convention borne of the combination of high-octane plots and immortal characters, and that this type of story asks for suspension of disbelief. What’s important is that I bought into these particular characters’ dynamic given their circumstances. The story calls for a breathless intensity that the book delivers on. I was also impressed with the layered ending, as the book’s complex conflicts weren’t wrapped up in a tidy bow after one event. 

An additional note that made this nonbinary reader happy: while the synopsis refers to both characters as women, Avitue doesn’t feel a connection with the concept of gender due to her experiences as a succubus. Being nonbinary doesn’t require any specific pronouns or presentation, so I was glad to read about a femme-presenting character who uses she/her pronouns and does not identify with gender.  

The Fall That Saved Us is haunting yet hopeful, with lush writing and aching devotion in every line. If that’s how you’d like to experience your fall, there’s still time to pick this one up before Halloween.

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

A High-Heat Heist: Double Exposure by Rien Gray

the cover of Double Exposure

Note: While I’ve avoided major plot spoilers, this review is relatively detailed regarding the character arcs and themes.

Fittingly enough, I’ve been exposed to Double Exposure by Rien Gray twice. The first time was through the Happily Ever After Collective, which releases monthly romance novellas from a variety of authors. Last year, Double Exposure released to patrons along with other second chance romances, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m delighted to have my own print copy of this book due to its recent wide release. 

Double Exposure is a romantic suspense novella about a pair of rival art thieves, Jillian Rhodes and Sloane Caffrey, who are hired to steal the same target—a never-before-seen collection of infamously scandalous photos. Ever since a steamy encounter gone awry, they have been at each other’s throats from a distance, but competing to pull off a heist at the Art Institute of Chicago brings the tension between them up close and personal. The stakes rise as they realize a larger game may be afoot—if they can overcome their own drama to uncover it. 

Jillian’s client is the son of the late photographer whose scandalous affair is depicted in the photos. For the client, retrieving them before the exhibit opens is a matter of his family’s honor. For Jillian, it is a matter of bragging rights. Sloane is just as determined to prove they’re the best by stealing the photos for a greedy baron. Though they loathe him, they’re happy to take a large sum of his money in exchange for a successful heist.

While the thieves are equals in ambition and ability, their approaches and backgrounds couldn’t be more different. As a charismatic con artist born into a rich family, Sloane steals to redistribute the wealth and return pieces stolen by colonizers. Meanwhile, the ever-pragmatic Jillian prefers stealth to small talk. She grew up with next to nothing and survived alone at a young age, so she still prioritizes self-preservation and independence. For all their differences, each acknowledges the other as their only worthy rival. What they lack is trust. After a messy misunderstanding left them brokenhearted, they have spent years sabotaging each other, turning to vengeance rather than risking reaching out. They’ve isolated themselves by placing each other on pedestals, untouchable, when they both yearn to be with the one person who might understand them.

Their second chance at love echoes a second chance at life, as the characters have already remade themselves. After traumatic childhoods, they cut ties with their families and built up their careers. Jillian has fought to claim the freedom, security, and access she once lacked, while Sloane strives to heal the damage of their family’s harmful legacy. Each of them attempts to take charge of their own futures and change the world around them. Double Exposure is interested in the different ways that people wield power, and what happens when that balance shifts, whether the power stems from perception, money and status, or institutions. This is mirrored in the ways that Sloane and Jillian, as exes and rivals, are constantly trying to one-up each other. Neither is used to the vulnerability that comes from a willful give-and-take, and they have already been burned by their last attempt to open up to each other. 

If you’re interested in romance that doesn’t follow the traditional formula, a second chance romance novella offers a unique opportunity. Because the two have already met, tried to be together, and broken up, this book reads almost like a more developed third act of a traditional romance novel. It explores the already established barriers between the two and challenges them to overcome those barriers. Meanwhile, they have a heist to worry about, as well as threats they aren’t even aware of.

Double Exposure effectively maintains its gripping suspense. The prose is precise, with each word and detail carefully chosen and arranged. The writing itself feels confident in a way that sells the characters’ competence. It leans hard into the satisfaction of watching masters at work, as both Sloane and Jillian approach the heist fully aware they are at the top of their field, with plenty of specialized knowledge woven into the narration to demonstrate it.        

For me, the most memorable aspect is the characters. I was especially drawn to Sloane due to their charm, cunning, and life’s mission. Being nonbinary, Sloane is keenly aware that their gender presentation affects how people perceive them, and they must keep this in mind as they take their more public, sociable approach to their work. This blog’s readers may also be glad to know that Jillian is bisexual and a side character is a lesbian.

If mutual pining, cutthroat competition, and intoxicating intensity appeal to you, then give this book a chance to break and mend your heart.

Content notes drawn from the book: In addition to explicit sex between consenting adults, this book contains “brief references to societal transphobia, historical anti-Black racism in Chicago, class discrimination, and exploitation of the opioid epidemic, as well as one incident of gun violence.”

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

Kayla Bell reviews The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist by Ceinwen Langley

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist by Ceinwen Langley cover

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If you think about it, “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale that can really apply to the queer experience. Being shunned by society, finding love that the people around you view as monstrous, and forming your own life outside of the norm is something that most LGBT people can relate to. In The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist, Ceinwen Langley makes this metaphor literal and does it extremely well. If you’re looking for a great new indie read, this book is for you.

In 18th-century France, the titular amateur naturalist, a young woman named Celeste, is torn between saving her family by marrying a man she knows she will never love or following her dream and passion of observing the world’s creatures to expand scientific knowledge. However, as she sets off on her adventure, she realizes that she cannot make it on her own. After seeking shelter in what appears to be an abandoned castle, she discovers a previously unknown creature. Befriending and studying this beast could be her last hope of survival.

One thing that this book does really well is establish characters and motivations. Celeste, her family, and everyone in her French village feel like truly well-rounded, unique individuals. I have a soft spot for nerdy protagonists, and Celeste’s love of science and animals really warmed my heart. The conflict she felt between marrying a man and securing social acceptance but not being happy and not marrying a man but being a social outcast was very authentic. Even the supporting characters felt well-rounded, which is notable because it would have been very easy for Langley to slip into lazy, one-dimensional villains.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the pacing. Setting up Celeste’s backstory and family was really important, but in my opinion, it took up too much of the book. Because this is such a short novel, I think the pacing might have been better if Celeste set out on her adventure earlier on in the story. In general, I also wish the story was longer. The ending definitely set up a sequel, which I would love to see, but I also could have done with more story in this installment.

Longer length would have also given the story more time to build on another aspect I thought it did really well: actually take into account the historical context of the time. Most fairy tales and, by extension, fairy tale retellings, seem to exist out of time. This book does not do that. The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist tackles head-on the rampant sexism of 18th-century France, and the very real impacts that would have on a female character. Seeing Celeste and her family and friends struggle to find joy and individuality in a society that tried to force them into being heterosexual wives and mothers was heartbreaking and compelling at the same time. More books should follow in these footsteps and actually grapple with what it would have been like for a spirited female protagonist to exist in a past that tried so hard to limit them. I truly commend Ceinwen Langley for doing so.

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist was published on September 1st, 2021. Grab your copy if you want the sapphic, feminist fairy tale of your dreams. Thank you to the author and Netgalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.