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.

A Painfully Realistic Teen Romance: Cupid’s Revenge by Wibke Brueggemann

the cover of Cupid's Revenge

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I will admit that the cover really influenced me in picking this one up. I think it’s stunning. But I’m glad I did!

Tilly is only non-artist in a house of passionate artists, and she’s always felt left out. Her parents don’t really understand her, and they also have never seemed very enthusiastic about being parents. (I had to put the book down for a moment because I was so overcome with anger at them.) What’s worse, though, is that they’ve let her know that her Grandad with Alzheimer’s is coming to stay with them. In theory, it’s so they can take care of him, but Tilly knows they’re completely unreliable and that it’s going to become her responsibility to look after him.

She’s also terrified that he’s going to die in their house. She already experienced loss in her life and struggles with the grief. Tilly used to be part of a trio of friends, along with Grace and Teddy. They grew up together and were inseparable. Then Grace was hit by car and died when she was thirteen, and Teddy confessed to Tilly that he was in love with Grace and never told her. Grace’s death looms large in both their lives, and Tilly sometimes imagines her in the room with her, commenting on her decisions.

That’s already complicated enough, but then Teddy asks her for a favour. He has a crush on a girl named Katherine, but is hopeless about acting on it. He wants Tilly to help him. Katherine is an actor, and Teddy auditions for the same play as an excuse to spend time with her. Tilly is roped into being assistant to the director. Unfortunately, she also instantly and overwhelmingly falls for Katherine herself.

This is the most painfully realistic book I’ve read about being a teenager. At some points Tilly “wonder[s] if I’d have to spend the rest of my life feeling both aroused and miserable,” and that really is what she’s like through the whole book: confused, horny, and sad. I don’t know about your teenage experience, but that felt uncomfortably true to being flooded with adolescent hormones. It’s both the biggest positive and negative of the book.

Also realistic is that this is an instalove story. Tilly is immediately attracted to Katherine at first sight, which I think is pretty typical of teen relationships in real life versus fiction. Both Tilly and Katherine are flawed, which I thought made it more compelling and convincing, but I know not all readers enjoy.

I do want to give some warnings for this, not so much in terms of content but tone. I found this a stressful read, both because of Tilly having to shoulder far more of her grandfather’s care than she should have had to, and because of her stress and guilt about lying to Teddy. I also want to give a content warning for outing. There’s some religious talk, though that’s not a big focus. The pandemic is mentioned, but it’s also not a focus, and it’s talked about past tense. And one more thing, if it wasn’t obvious: there is a lot of sex talk. Including researching sex techniques through reading fanfiction.

On another note, there’s a side character who’s a Polish immigrant, and I found it strange how much he was distilled down to just “the Polish immigrant.” Like this line, where Tilly watches him have a completely normal interaction and thinks, “I wished so much that I was an immigrant who knew no one and hadn’t done anything wrong in this place that was now home.”

If you want to be transported to the awkward, stressful, and often miserable time of being a teenager, this book does it perfectly. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it as a teen, I’m sure.

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.