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.

Susannah reviews Mistakes Were Made by Meryl Wilsner

the cover of Mistakes Were Made

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Mistakes Were Made, Meryl Wilsner’s second f/f romance following 2020’s acclaimed Something to Talk About, is billed as “a sexy rom-com about a college senior who accidentally hooks up with her best friend’s mom.” While I anxiously awaited this book as much as the next reader of queer romances, I admittedly postponed picking it up, afraid that a relationship between a college student and a woman one generation her senior would be too problematic, or too cringe, for me to root for. But Wilsner proved me wrong–this book is funny, nuanced, deeply empathetic, and piping hot.

It’s Family Weekend at Keckley College, but not for senior Cassie Klein, who is effectively estranged from hers. Cassie goes to an off-campus bar to escape the festivities, not to cruise for hookups, but when a statuesque older woman catches her eye from across the room, she can’t resist sending a drink her way. Erin Bennett is not there to cruise for hookups either. A recent divorcee splitting Family Weekend visiting hours with her ex-husband, she is simply killing time in a college town. But when a bold younger woman sends a drink across the bar, she has trouble turning down the opportunity to enjoy her relatively new singlehood. A steamy backseat romp ensues, and the two women part ways–no numbers exchanged and no plans to meet up again.

When Cassie’s best friend Parker invites her to tag along to breakfast with her mom the following morning, Cassie comes face-to-face with Erin–the Erin from the bar last night, the Erin she never intended to see again, the Erin who is also her best friend’s mom.What was meant to be a one-night fling becomes impossible to ignore as Cassie and Parker become closer friends and Cassie’s and Erin’s paths repeatedly cross. 

When Parker surprises Cassie by inviting her home for the holiday break, Cassie can’t say no despite the, um, complication of cohabitating with Erin. Unsurprisingly, she can’t say no to Erin either, who is still as alluring as she was the night they met. Erin and Cassie start to sneak around behind Parker’s back as their fling morphs into something more serious. (A side effect of their sneaking around is a liberal number of very hot sex scenes in a variety of covert locations.) This begs the question: will Cassie and Erin come clean about their secret relationship at the risk of losing the most important people in their lives, or will they end it and live with the heartbreak?

While I scoffed at the likelihood of Cassie so cavalierly hitting on Erin in the opening chapter, Wilsner expertly develops both Cassie’s and Erin’s characters and shines light on their motivations. Cassie is a whip smart, ambitious aeronautic engineering major whose hardscrabble youth has translated to a resilient, confident demeanor. Erin is a highly successful attending physician whose professional badassness is not evinced by her interpersonal skills. A bisexual reentering the dating scene following a suffocating marriage, Erin lacks the self-assuredness to confidently go after what she wants. This sometimes comes across as iciness toward Cassie. Aside from these few moments of emotional withholding, however, the dynamic between the two women feels authentic and relatively balanced. That said, it can’t be ignored that given her age and independent wealth, Erin inherently holds some amount of power over Cassie, a young woman only on the cusp of post-college adulthood.

Surprisingly, the one factor about this book that didn’t sit well with me was not the age-gap trope, but the tokenizing of Cassie’s and Parker’s friend Acacia. Through the course of the book, Acacia, who is the only Black main character we meet, is the sole person who carries the secret of Cassie’s and Erin’s affair. That Acacia has to do the emotional labor of navigating this extremely sensitive situation for an entire academic year feels like an unfair burden to throw on her, and I would be remiss not to mention it.

Ultimately, this is a thought-provoking contemporary romance that challenged some prejudices I carried about age differences in relationships. And that, to me, is the mark of a well-crafted book: to make readers open their minds and hearts to situations and people that make them feel uncomfortable.

Content warnings: alcohol consumption, alcoholic parent (mention), cheating partner (past), divorced parents, misogyny, parental neglect, recreational marijuana use.

Susannah (she/her) is a public librarian and writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She consumes mostly queer literary fiction, with contemporary romance novels as palate cleansers. You can find her on Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/ohhsusannah and at https://www.susannahbt.com/