Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

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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

Maggie reviews Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

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Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky is a cute adventure graphic novel about Sanja, a girl with troublesome brothers and a family that doesn’t understand her, and Lelek, a witch trying to survive on her own as she journeys across the countryside. When someone catches Lelek cheating them and causes a scene, she witnesses Sanja wielding a sword in the resulting chaos and kidnaps her. They end up traveling together, learning about each other and the world around them, and the result is a charming story full of lovely artwork, diverse world-building, and gals becoming much more than pals.

Lelek kidnaps Sanja because she wants Sanja to teach her how to use a sword, showing a somewhat callous disregard for others in how she uses her magic. Sanja agrees to teach Lelek and to travel with her, as long as Lelek stops cheating people. What follows is best described as a longform traveling montage full of moments as the girls attempt to learn sword work, understand magic, and figure out how to keep themselves in the world as they slowly develop feelings for each other. Sanja is optimistic and full of care and quick thinking as she tries to help Lelek. Lelek is suspicious and full of past hurts, operating on a different mode of being than Sanja, but their feelings for each other grow naturally and sweetly. It’s a very cute relationship, buoyed by artwork that conveys feelings well. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked Lelek, but I felt the softening of her attitude along with Sanja, and was rooting for Sanja’s growth of self-confidence and determination, and in the end, I was fully committed to their relationship.

This work also had some things to say about family that I found pretty interesting. Lelek has a Tragic Backstory that shapes all of her present day actions. There’s a clear line between what happened during her childhood to her circumstances during Witchlight. Sanja, on the other hand, was a part of a large family, and had this adventure thrust upon her unexpectedly. Nonetheless, Sanja’s family also influences their travels in many profound ways. Sanja knows how to use a sword, but she is expected to sit quietly and mind the market stall while her brothers go off and have careers using their fighting skills. The family seems to overlook her, and once she gets over the shock of being kidnapped, takes to adventuring like a fish to water. The non-fighting skills she had to learn are useful in their journey too, as she puts them to use supplying her and Lelek, cooking, and in general making sure they’re taken care of to continue their journey. During the height of the story, Lelek has to come to terms with what happened during her past, as they meet people that give them more information on those events. But it is Sanja’s simple, more straightforward family that causes the most difficulties for them, and Sanja and Lelek both face a lot of hard emotional decisions from their family relationships. This book has a lot to say about found family, destiny, and forgiveness that I found very interesting, and it lent a lot of complex emotional flavor to Lelek and Sanja’s relationship.

Also elevating this work is Jessi Zabarsky’s simple but pleasant artwork and world-building. Zabarsky has created a diverse world that is interesting yet recognizable. I was pleased to see the vast range of people she conveyed in the Witchlight. Of the two main characters, Lelek is dark-skinned and Sanja is fat, and every village they travel through is sure to be populated with a range of skin colors and body types. Everyone is also just cute. I adored all of Sanja’s outfits and little head coverings. I loved how expressive Lelek’s face is, and how much emotion was conveyed, not through the dialogue, but through the art.

In conclusion, Witchlight is an adorable sapphic graphic novel full of interesting characters and satisfying emotional arcs. The artwork is easy to digest but also packs a powerful punch. I had a great time reading it, and I do recommend it for anyone who is looking for something cute, with a good balance of adventure to romance.

Cath reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

the cover of That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston is a servant to Eliza Hamilton — yes, that Eliza Hamilton — and most of her work consists of assisting Eliza with her research into preserving Hamilton’s legacy. Her life is boring, quiet, and predictable, and at this point she prefers it that way. She’s been burned too many times by letting herself love and care about others, and she’d rather not make that mistake again.

But when Andromeda Stiel arrives at Hamilton Grange for an interview her grandfather can’t attend, Mercy’s immediate attraction to her throws all her carefully-laid plans into chaos. Andromeda’s charismatic, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer personality doesn’t help, and Mercy quickly finds herself spending more and more time with her and doing exactly what she’d promised herself she’d never do again — falling in love.

This is a really sweet story, centered around two queer black women and their journey from vague antagonism to love. We learn a surprising amount about both characters for such a short story, and we get a few glimpses into their work and into their relationships with others beyond the romance. They both feel like fleshed-out people with their own lives, which change and stretch as they get to know one another rather than contracting to only the two of them. Both of their relationships with others also changed as the story went on, and especially Mercy’s with Eliza and Angelica (Alexander and Eliza’s daughter).

The romance between Mercy and Andromeda is cute and engaging, but because this is a very short piece, some aspects of their relationship felt quite rushed or skipped over. They write letters to one another, and while you can absolutely (start to) fall in love with someone through letters, the time period over which this takes place doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the pacing of the story. They seem to move from “admitting they’re attracted to one another” to “and we’re totally in love” very quickly, and while that’s often a mainstay of romance novels, it stuck out from the rest of the story for me.

I did struggle a little with how “easy” some of the problems of issues like homophobia were glossed over. Mercy is deeply afraid of how people will react if they find out she likes women, compounded by the way some of her previous partners reacted to her desires for commitment and their incredulity that they could have a life together as two women. Andromeda does not exactly dismiss these fears, but the way she soothes Mercy’s worries and the way others reacted to the two of them felt a little too accepting. I do recognize that this is likely my own fears and worries coming to the forefront, and while this felt out of place in the story, it was not a bad thing, and I did appreciate that they had a variety of supports around them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and mostly wish that it were longer!

Content Warnings: sexism, homophobia, racism, parental death (past), sibling death (past), partner death (past)

Kelleen reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

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“Queer, feminist, angry, and beautiful.”

When I say I want sapphic romcoms, this is what I want. I want sapphic romcoms that pack an emotional punch. That present the diversity and the affinity of queer womanhood. That have queer women who call themselves queer with no explanation and bi women who have loved men. That have complex family dynamics that both are about queerness and absolutely are not. That feel like romance novels with romance tropes and everything that we love about romance and are at the same time fundamentally, intrinsically, profoundly, and lovingly queer. Romcoms that f*ck and also fall in love. Romcoms with real, wild emotions and feminism and humor on every page. Romcoms that were written for queer women about our own lives, to be enjoyed only secondarily by everyone else. When I say I want sapphic romcoms, I mean I want this book.

Delilah Green is a historical romance alpha hero wrapped up in tattoos and soft butch vibes and I am into it. Delilah is a photographer who’s hired to photograph her stepsister’s wedding, and reluctantly returns home to discover that her childhood crush and stepsister’s best friend is all grown up — and very queer. And Claire Sutherland is a single mom and bookstore manager who is just trying to live her best life and take care of her best friend in a retro polka dot dress and sexy librarian glasses.

The way that the love between Delilah and Claire develops is gentle and sexy and hilarious. In coming home to Bright Falls, Delilah must confront her strained relationship with her stepmother and stepsister and come to terms with the grief and feelings of rejection that she’s been running away from since she was a teenager. Falling in bed (and then in love) with her stepsister’s best friend doesn’t help matters, especially as Claire is actively trying to break up her best friend’s wedding to a terrible man. Fascinatingly, throughout this book Delilah and Claire are both allies and adversaries. They embody everything that the other is trying to avoid and yet must team up to save Astrid from herself and her fiancé. And the raging sexual tension between the two doesn’t help matters. The conflict in this book is just so good, the way they are pulled together and run apart.

This is a book about family, and how scary and slippery and beautiful family can be for queer folks. It’s about motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and partnership. It’s about joy and it’s about grief and it’s about art and it’s about all of it all at once.

These heroines are strong and flawed and sexy and fantastic. They make bad choices and take big risks. They fall in love and try to resist falling in love. And they do it with humor and heart.

This book is the epitome of queer joy and we all deserve queer joy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley for this ARC.

Content warnings: death of a parent, toxic partner

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Kayla Bell reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

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Have you ever wished for a sapphic romance that isn’t all about angst and homophobia and actually focuses on the development and drama of the characters? Look no further, because Alyssa Cole’s excellent novella Once Ghosted, Twice Shy has you covered. This entry into the Reluctant Royals universe follows Prince Thabiso’s assistant, Likotsi, as she navigates a romantic relationship with another woman, Fabiola. It’s a second chance romance full of tropes, but the genuine connection between Likotsi and Fab makes it truly unique. 

A lot of people might avoid this book because it takes place as part of the Reluctant Royals series, so they might not want to read this without having read the first book. I can safely say that this is nothing to worry about. I haven’t gotten to A Princess in Theory yet (it’s on my list) and I could totally keep up with the story. Reading the first book will obviously give you a little bit of background into Likotse’s life and make the story richer, but you definitely can read this as a standalone and keep up. 

The best part about this novella, in my opinion, is the characters. Likotsi’s type-A, methodical mindset plays well against Fabiola’s more go-with-the-flow type personality. The banter between the two women was lively, natural, and fun to read. Personally, I love the second chance romance trope, so I thought the ups and downs of the relationship were very fun to read. As with most romance novels, I found the love at first sight, conflict, and lack of communication at some points in the novel to be pretty irritating, but that part resolved quickly and the two ladies returned to their healthy, loving relationship. I also thought that Fabiola’s plotline was very authentic and relatable. I won’t spoil it, but it rang very true for me as someone who has been through something similar. Overall, it is so fantastic to see a book come out about a loving relationship between two queer, Black women, rich characters, that isn’t about trauma or angst. 

Another thing that was really fantastic about this novel was the setting. I’m born and raised in New York City, so I can be pretty particular about books that portray New York in an extremely romanticized and unrealistic way, or that paint New York as some sort of Disneyland for other people to come to and pursue their dreams without examining the lives and struggles of those of us actually from there. Luckily, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy does none of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very fun, romantic moments at iconic places in the city in this book. But Cole’s New York felt incredibly authentic and alive. Far from using New York as a generic stand-in for any major urban area, as many romances do, in this book it was like this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. Plus, Fab and Likotsi end up at the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. 

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy surprised me with how rich of a story it told in just ten chapters and an epilogue. I immediately became invested in Likotsi and Fabiola’s love story, and felt that warm, fuzzy feeling where most other romances make me roll my eyes. In the future, I will definitely be picking up more of Alyssa Cole’s romances and commend her for writing a book highlighting the experiences of two characters who wouldn’t often get the spotlight. 

Larkie reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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Passing Strange is a novella that feels like it has it all: a bit of mystery, a lot of history, and just a hint of magic. A queer love story set mostly in 1940 San Francisco, the book opens with Helen Young, and elderly woman who has just a few errands to run before her life is over. As she finishes these and her life comes to a close, we drift back to when she was a young woman–and unravel some of the mystery surrounding her final actions.

This novella reads like a love letter to San Francisco, and the setting feels vibrant and clearly well researched. The plot mostly revolves around the romance between two creatives: Haskel, the visual artist who paints covers for pulp novels; and Emily, a singer at the lesbian nightclub Mona’s. They also spend their time in Chinatown, climbing the steep streets of Nob Hill, and visiting the World’s Fair, as Haskel and Emily melt together in a passionate romance. Helen is there too, of course, as are a few other queer women who enjoy throwing dinner parties, but they are all secondary characters to Haskel and Emily’s exploration of the city. While there is a lot of love for San Francisco in the novel, it clearly isn’t perfect, as we still see the prejudices of the time: Mona’s is a lesbian nightclub, sure, but it also acts as a tourist destination, where straight white couples come to be scandalized by the unnatural acts of its target patrons. Similarly, Helen is a lawyer who can’t get clients because she is a Chinese American woman, so she dances with her (beard) husband at the Forbidden City, which plays up American interests in Orientalism. All the characters both rely on and resent the tourists, as well as the stereotypes they have to perform in order to pay rent.

While I did enjoy the romance between Haskel and Emily, I was a little disappointed with how little the side characters are really involved in the story. The book opens with Helen, and she feels like the most interesting character to me, but she mostly spends her time off doing other things while Haskel and Emily go on dates and get to know each other. Then there are Franny and Babs, whose names I can hardly remember as they are only in a few scenes in the book. After such a strong opening with Helen, the ensuing domestic romance felt like a bit of a letdown–again, it was a very nice romance, but I was expecting something grand and mysterious, and I got a fairly standard romance that was like Carol, but set in San Francisco and better.

And then there’s the magic. I have mixed feelings about the magic in this story, and I think the shortness of the novella might influence a lot of it. Franny does fold maps to create shortcuts around the city, but they explain that magic is difficult, and needs to be very precise, like a complex mathematical equation. Magic is only used three times throughout the whole book, and twice are at the very end; the first usage introduces it and allows the characters to discuss it a bit. That makes this book feel less like a fantasy and more like a historical fiction that just has a magical deus ex machina so that the characters can escape the trouble that they got into at the end of the book. Now, given that the magic doers themselves talk about how this isn’t something everyday, and the magic is often small and unnoticeable to anyone not directly involved in it, there really isn’t enough room in a short book like this for there to be a lot of magic. So it does make sense in universe as to why there is so little actual magic use in the book. But I was drawn to this book because of the fantasy elements, and if I didn’t like historical fiction, it would have been a bit of a letdown.

This was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a sapphic historical fiction that is short and sweet, with just a sprinkle of magic. However, I doubt I’ll be revisiting it. I do have a lot more opinions about the ending, so highlight below for spoilers!

I appreciate the open ending, where we don’t actually know whether or not the big magic works (but assume it does). But I have…a lot of questions about even the presumed happy ending. Nitpicky, perhaps, but…what exactly happens when a singer and a visual artist emerge in modern day San Francisco? Where do they stay? How do they afford rent in one of the most expensive places in the country? They don’t even know what a computer is, how are they going to make money and support themselves? I appreciate the sentiment of disappearing into a painting until you can emerge in a more accepting time, but it’s also a more expensive time, and I feel like it would have been easier to just…change their names and move to New York or something.

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

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Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

Kelleen reviews Love & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly

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I don’t really like baking. On the whole, I am much more of a cooking girl myself. But recently in romance, there has been this massive proliferation of baking show romances (Rosaline Palmer Takes the CakeMangoes and Mistletoe, Battle Royal, etc), seemingly because of the rise of the overwhelmingly cozy and wholesome The Great British Bake Off. And I’ll confess that as a romance reader, I have been feeling a lot of fatigue with this trend, and with reality show romances in general.

But then Love & Other Disasters showed up and hit me over the head with how amazingly perfect it is. This book is excellent. It’s delicious. It’s like a perfectly sculpted queer monument shaped out of mashed potatoes.

Set on a reality cooking show, this book follows the romance between two contestants -Dahlia, a recently divorced comfort cook with messy hair and an even messier life–and London,  a talented cook and the first out nonbinary contestant on the show.

This is an #OwnVoices nonbinary romance, and the care and generosity with which Anita Kelly writes London’s emotional journey is almost breathtaking. Though a lot of London’s struggle throughout the story has to do with being misgendered, they are never actually misgendered on the page. The story portrayed what felt like the very authentic, real, and mundane life of a nonbinary person falling in love and living their life, not only “out and proud” but also “inside and confused” (a phrase I just made up that really feels like an important addition to queer vernacular). I felt so safe reading this book (as a cis, gender-nonconforming queer woman), even as it dealt with real, challenging issues of transphobia, self-worth, and familial rejection.

Anita Kelly writes such vibrant, awkward queers with so much loving respect. I’m not sure how to describe it except that it feels honest to me–deeply uncool and messy and self-conscious and abundant. And the romance! The romance between these two is so sweet and swoony.

A lot of reviews I’ve read of this book talk about how steamy it is and yes, it is very steamy! There is a lot of very sexy sex on page, which I think the cartoon cover belies! But the sex scenes in this book is also so so tender. They are profound explorations of body and self, they just also do include whipped cream and peaches.

While this is Anita Kelly’s first traditionally published novel, they self-published two queer novellas in 2021 that I absolutely recommend as well: Sing Anyway and Our Favorite Songs.

As far as queer voices in romance go, I think Anita Kelly is one to watch.

Thank you to NetGalley and Forever for the ARC.

Content warnings: Transphobia, misgendering (not on page), familial rejection, divorce

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Danika reviews She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen

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If you want a teen romcom in an F/F YA book, this is the read for you!

I’m getting caught up on 2021 reviews, and I listened to this several months ago and don’t remember a lot of details, but what more do I really need to say than that and also showing you that cover?

Scottie is struggling to get over her ex-girlfriend, Tally. They used to be on the basketball team together, but Tally transferred to a wealthier school to get on the better team. Now, she acts like she’s superior to Scottie and barely acknowledges her, even when they’re playing against each other. While Scottie is still mulling over that disastrous game, she backs up into Irene’s car. Irene is a cheerleader who has been Scottie’s nemesis (whether she knows it or not) when Irene called to have Scottie’s car towed at a party, apparently just to be a jerk.

Their moms decide that Scottie will drive Irene to school until her car is back from the shop: a solution neither of them is very happy about. Then Scottie decides that the best way to show up her ex is for Irene to pretend to date her–in return, she’ll empty her savings to pay for the damage on the car.

Yep, it’s enemies to lovers and fake dating! It is very much like a teen romcom movie: the two of them get to know each other over their music choices on the drive. They have miscommunication. They both open up about their insecurities. Scottie realizes that, despite being hung up on her toxic ex, maybe the girl she’s been looking for has been right in front of her this whole time. There’s also the “only one bed” trope. They even discuss teen romcom movies!

I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a quick, fun listening experience! It’s cute, and the ending is cathartic and sweet.

Larkie reviews How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

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Alyssa Cole is a master of over the top, slightly ridiculous romcom writing, which always makes for delightfully fun books that hit all the emotional highs and lows of a perfect romance. How to Find a Princess is the second in her Runaway Royals series, although like most good romance series, the books can stand alone as well. The story follows Makeda Hicks, a New Jersey girl who loves to fix things for other people, whether they want her to or not. She has just lost her job and her girlfriend, despite the fact that she’s bent over backwards for both of them, and moves back in to her grandmother’s B&B where she decides she’s going to start being selfish and stop giving herself away. This is when Beznaria Chetchevaliere, royal knight and junior investigator for the World Federation of Monarchists, comes crashing in, determined to prove that Makeda is actually a princess: the long lost heir to the throne of Iberania. But Makeda doesn’t want to be a princess, and is tired of hearing people insist that she is one—so Bez has to convince her to come home.

One of the things that I enjoy about Cole’s writing is her endless optimism and creativity for what a small monarchy could look like. The countries she writes about are fictional, but they feel grounded in reality, and her books are filled with little details to reflect that. Iberania is a small island in the Mediterranean, with Italian and North African influences—which you can see in the names (and swears) of all the Iberanian characters. But despite being a royal romance, Cole clearly doesn’t glorify all monarchies. In this example, Iberania is functionally a democracy, and the hunt for their lost princess is more of a tourism act than anything else. Additionally, the WFM (and its leader) are portrayed as ridiculous for trying to maintain that they’re better than other people because of some accident of birth and generational wealth. Her books modernize the royal romance in new ways every time, which is what makes me willing to keep reading them.

However, despite the fun writing style and the great world building, this book really fell flat for me. The first several chapters were extremely interesting and fun, but then the plot stagnated. Bez kept insisting that she was going to convince Makeda to return to Iberania, and then did a bunch of side stuff that was more about flirting with her than actually advancing the plot. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind excessive flirting, but it didn’t really go anywhere. They spent forever dancing circles around each other, and had one failed kiss to show for the majority of the book. Even when Bez finally does convince Makeda to go to Iberania and at least participate in the contest, the next third of the book is focused on their voyage over—and even though there’s only one bed, they still don’t kiss! They also meet AK, who provides some moral support for Makeda and they have…a lot more chemistry than I feel between Makeda and Bez. He is clearly going to be the main character in the next book, but it kind of made me wonder why I had spent 250 pages trying to connect to a relationship that is less interesting than this friendship that formed in just 2 or 3. They finally get to the island and there are two short chapters that are packed with action, as all of the various plot threads get tied up, but they really felt rushed and I had a lot of questions. I feel like the pacing was the downfall of this book, and I would have rather spent less time in New Jersey, the same time on the ship, and then more time actually watching the ending play out. There were some good twists in there, and I didn’t dislike the way it ended, but it felt very abrupt after all the time we spent trying to get there.

Overall it wasn’t a terrible book, but I would rather recommend some of Cole’s other work. The good parts about this book shine through in other ones she’s written, and make for more entertaining stories. I liked the premise of this one a lot, but it really didn’t deliver like I was hoping it would.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING (highlight to read):

I enjoyed (and didn’t predict) the twist that Bez was the real princess after all, although it did open up a lot of new questions. My first one was, so what really happened to Queen Aaza? She lived in Australia, but did she have a son? Where did Makeda get that ring (or I guess, where did the sweet talking man that Grandmore slept with get it)? I guess these didn’t need to be specifically answered, but having the ending be so abrupt made them feel a lot more pressing to me. I also feel like this opened up an issue, specifically what Bez says here: “So you mean, I’m a Chetchevaliere and an al-Hurradassi? I am the product of the two most prestigious families on the island? My belief that I am an above-average human, all of us are, is now backed by evidence?” Like I said earlier, one of the things I like about Cole’s royal books is that she dismantles a lot of royalty tropes. They aren’t any better because they’re royalty, they just have more responsibility. Bez herself hates her employers for thinking that they’re better than her because they have money and think they’re royalty! I know that this was meant as a commentary on how Bez clearly has ADHD and is considered lesser because of it. I related to her concerns of being Too Much a lot, as someone with ADHD myself. But it struck a wrong chord that it was her being royalty that is her ‘evidence’ that she’s above average, not that she was more capable or that she managed to get Makeda to Iberania despite all of the obstacles that the WFM put in her way. She’s saying she isn’t better because she outsmarted the antagonist, she’s better because of her lineage. Again, maybe that wouldn’t have struck me as so weird if we’d had more time to process the events of the last two chapters, rather than getting hit by this revelation and the book ending just a page later. But after a lot of the book spent criticizing and ridiculing people who think so highly of themselves because they’re royalty, this line really got to me.