Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

the cover of The Roommate Risk

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Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

the cover of Perfect on Paper

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Darcy Phillips secretly runs the relationship advice service that comes from the mysterious locker 89 at her school. When Alexander Brougham discovers her secret, he enlists her help in getting his girlfriend Winona back. Everything becomes complicated when her secret gets out, including how she used the locker for selfish reasons. While Darcy prides herself on her 95% success rate, she still has a lot to learn about people, relationships, and herself.

There’s so much teen drama that could easily delve into cringe territory. But Gonzales uses great finesse to illustrate how complicated and messy emotions can get. The characters all make frustrating mistakes, but her deft writing leaves room for compassion. At every turn, she gives her characters the chance to learn and grow.

The back and forth enemies to lovers between Darcy and Brougham is absolutely delicious. Perhaps calling it enemies to lovers is a bit strong. It’s more like moderately annoyed with each other to smitten. Still, seeing each character unravel to one another with every moment they spend together does a great job portraying how hard it is for some people to let others in. These are both characters that don’t let many people see their true selves often, so to do that for each other creates a beautiful romance you can’t help but get wrapped up in.

A cast of queer side characters makes it all feel like a family within this school community. There’s Ainsley, Darcy’s sister who’s transgender; Ray, the other out bisexual in their school; Finn, Brougham’s gay best friend; and a bunch of other students and their teacher Mr. Elliott part of the Queer and Questioning (Q and Q) Club.

While Darcy spends the majority of the book doling out relationship advice, both romantic and platonic, she has a hard time seeing herself and her relationships. She puts her best friend Brooke on a pedestal and calls it love. She fails to see her own shortcomings. She jumps to conclusions about Brougham and sees what she wants to see. But throughout the whole story, you keep wanting her to get better. And she does.

Gonzales creates moments that touch on tough subjects like divorce and fighting parents, and how those relationships at home affect the people these characters become. She also weaves in confronting biphobia, both from fellow queer characters and internalized by Darcy. She begins to question her bisexuality and if she belongs to the queer community if she has feelings for a cishet boy.

There’s a lot of angst and anxiety, but always a glimpse of hope for these characters.

Trigger warning: Biphobia

Danika reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

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This is a romcom starring a bisexual woman in a love triangle between two guy love interests, so if you’re not looking for an M/F romance, I recommend checking out another Lesbrary romance review!

This is a queer romcom that is essentially set at The Great British Bake Off, so I was immediately sold. Rosaline is a bisexual single mom whose life plan went off the rails when she dropped out of university when she unexpectedly got pregnant at 19. Now, she works at a stationary store–which is far from the doctor’s career she and her parents had expected. She adores her precocious 8-year-old (who’s obsessed with weird underwater animals), but she hates being reliant on her judgmental parents as well as constant favors from her best friend/ex-girlfriend. That’s how she ends up applying for a baking showing with a cash prize.

While this is an M/F romance with two male love interests, Rosaline’s queer identity is central to the story. The first chapter has her confronting Amelie’s teacher about biphobia, and she’s very close with her ex-girlfriend (who is now married to anther woman). Lauren stole the show a little bit for me, with sarcasm, inappropriate language, and unwavering loyalty. How can I resist a woman described like this?: “Lauren reserved the bulk of her enthusiasm and insight for her twin loves of satire and sapphism.”

Rosaline is a charming character for the most part, but she has one major flaw: she’s classist. She was raised in a wealthy family that cares deeply about status, and she’s internalized that–while resenting her parents’ judgements of her life choices. It was a little painful to read, but I knew that was her arc. At the competition, along with a cast of other characters, she meets the two competitors who form the other points of the love triangle: Alain, the suave, parent-approved guy who forages his own mint, and Harry, an electrician whose first interaction with her is being called out for calling her “love.”

Here’s the thing, and I don’t think you can call it a spoiler: we know she’s not going to end up with Alain. Any love interest whose selling point is “parent-approved” is not going to get the girl. But she is with him for the majority of the book. I understand that’s part of her emotional process–she learns about herself over the course of the novel and what she really values–but it did begin to drag a bit. I loved the (faux) Bake Off with its on-camera charm and off-camera stress, I thought the characters were engaging, and I even enjoyed most of the beats of the plot–it just lost me a bit in the middle.

I want to include a content warning for attempted sexual assault, but I think it’s worth a little more context, so spoilers in this paragraph: Alain tries to set up Rosaline and his ex-girlfriend/friend in a threesome. The ex is drunk and tries to force herself on Rosaline, who then locks herself in the bathroom until she can get a ride. I don’t think this was necessarily “problematic,” but I think I would have rather it wasn’t included. For context, within the first conversation Alain and Rosaline had, I thought, “I hope I am not supposed to like this guy.” I flipped to the back and saw he was the “parent-approved” choice and was reassured that I wasn’t. He is a judgmental dick the entire time, and I personally didn’t like that they broke up because of this extreme situation. I don’t like love triangles where one love interest ends up just being Bad–then there’s no real choice or tension. Harry was already the better choice; I don’t think Alain needed to be involved in an attempted sexual assault for Rosaline to chose Harry over him. (End of spoilers.)

As a small aside, I appreciated the healthy communication modelled during sex. Now that I think about it, Rosaline and Harry demonstrate good communication anyway, but the sex scene stood out to me. I’m not used to reading sex scenes where characters actually tell each other what feels good (and what doesn’t), or navigating the awkwardness of the first time sleeping with someone. I thought it was really well done!

If you like shows like The Great British Bake Off and the content warning isn’t a dealbreaker, I think you’ll enjoy this one. Despite having some issues with it, I definitely am looking forward to picking up the next books in this queer romcom baking competition series!