Susan reviews Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

the cover of Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

If you’ve been in the Devil Wears Prada fandom at any point since 2013, you might be familiar with Truth and Measure as Telanu’s 200k epic post-canon Andy/Miranda fic – featuring Miranda’s nasty divorce, her surprise pregnancy, and Andy weaving herself into the heart of Miranda’s life. Or, you might know Truth and Measure as the first part of Roslyn Sinclair’s latest office romance, featuring an all-capable assistant who’s devoted to her terrifying magazine editor boss, and only finds herself growing more so as she supports her through her nasty divorce and a surprise pregnancy.

What I’m saying is that I’ve been desperate for this to come out ever since I found out Roslyn Sinclair has been rewriting her fic as original stories, and the wait paid off!

I went into this with high expectations, and they have been exceeded. For those who aren’t coming to this from a fandom background: Truth and Measure is an incredibly satisfying romance with brilliantly drawn characters. Vivian particularly is great; Sinclair does a beautiful job of showing all of her different facets, from the terrifying and spiteful goddess, to the competent and ruthless editor, to the magnetic mentor, to the very vulnerable woman who only has one (1) person she trusts. Jules, Vivian’s assistant, is relentlessly charming – she’s believable in her reactions and attitudes, and she is absolutely earnest and competent, which I adore. And the chemistry between them is excellent. Even before the romance really kicks in, the slow reveal of respect and empathy they have for each other delights me. The grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one – if you look closely enough.

It helps that Truth and Measure does explore how healthy it is to a) date your boss, and b) be so mutually obsessed with each other that spending a day apart is anxiety inducing. Jules’ life revolves around Vivian in so many ways, so her impatience with people questioning whether it’s a good idea versus her own assessment of how deeply she’s involved feels like a delicate balancing act. This isn’t completely resolved in Truth and Measure, only partially, but there’s enough set-up that I’m assuming the balance of their relationship is going to be the linchpin of the sequel. (For bonus points: Jules’ mother is somewhat homophobic, which is a Chekhov’s gun that hasn’t gone off by the end of this book, so brace yourselves for that going off in Above All Things.)

Possibly my favourite part though is how much the characters value their work. The scenes where Jules explores queerness and fashion and how she wants to write about that warmed my heart, because that is what I want. People who care deeply about what they’re doing getting to the root of what it is they care about! And Vivian is consistently terrifying and demanding, but also really good at her job. Characters who fall in love while doing things that are important to them, and understanding how important that is to their partner? Yes.

For those who read the fanfic original: the storyline cuts are seamless. The twins have been excised completely, which has trimmed down the book immensely from the behemoth we know and love, but Ellie is still there! The duology is split after Jules’ birthday, so brace yourselves for that emotional whirlwind and maybe make sure that you have Above All Things ready to go immediately. Most of the changes are updating the story to reflect 2022 instead of 2013 – Jules is openly bisexual, the tech level has been updated, the real life publications and websites have been modernised. Honestly, I’d say that Truth and Measure is anchored by the most important scenes you’d recognise from the fic, but the journey to and from those scenes is different enough that it feels new.

My biggest reservation about Truth and Measure is that I don’t know how it would read for someone completely new to the story. I’ve read the fic version too many times to be unbiased on that front! But having read it that many times means that I can say Roslyn Sinclair has done the impossible, which is packaged up one of my favourite stories and given me a way to read it again for the first time. I can’t recommend it enough.

This review is based on an ARC from the publisher.

Caution warnings: mentions of homophobia, infidelity, boss/subordinate relationship, age gap romance, pregnancy

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Nat reviews Chef’s Kiss by Stephanie Shea

the cover of Chef's Kiss

Late last year I started really getting into reading sapphic romance after discovering that a guaranteed happy ending is nothing short of a potent drug. A shot of serotonin right into the veins! As I ventured down the queer romance rabbit hole, I realized that some books are certainly more of a balm than others, and reading Chef’s Kiss was a reminder of why I fell for the genre. While our main characters pull grueling shifts in a Michelin star kitchen, Stephanie Shea’s book provides a heaping serving of your favorite comfort food. 

It’s always fun to read a book set in a city or town you live in and let me tell you, a restaurant romance set in San Francisco was right up my alley. Valentina Rosas is a passionate chef and recent graduate of the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the organization that makes you disappear) who’s just landed a stage, a working interview, at her dream restaurant in the Mission. Through Val’s eyes, we get a glimpse of restaurant life starting from the very unglamourous bottom rung, and I think Shea did a great job of showing the not so shiny side of the industry. The shifts are grueling, the hours brutal and exhausting, even the lowest positions are ridiculously competitive, and some stage positions aren’t even paid.

Shifting perspectives, we get the view from the flip side with renowned Chef Jenn Coleman. A child of a Black mother and Italian father, Jenn knows that it’s hard enough to be a woman in this industry, but as a woman of color? She’s had to work hard to get to the top, and comes across to many as a no nonsense, career first, workaholic. While she has a reputation for being a hardass and a perfectionist, you can see that Coleman uses food as her love language. I really liked that she’s very protective over Val, whose character is Mexican American, and that Shea brings attention to the struggles of women of color in a very white and cis male dominated industry. (Which, to be fair, is like almost every single industry.) I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the Spanish dialogue between Val and her parents! 

While workplace romance is not an uncommon theme, and IRL restaurant hook-ups may be a dime a dozen, the potential for a problematic power dynamic here is something that Shea doesn’t shy away from discussing.  Don’t worry, there’s an HR department to make sure everything’s on the level. This is explored through Chef Coleman’s POV, and we get some mention of the #MeToo movement and the predatory behavior and toxic environment that exists in restaurant culture. 

While Val and Jenn may have their differences, their love of food and community unite them. And, speaking of food, Shea has some fun with her fictional restaurant Gia and its Mexican-Italian fusion menu: spicy enchilada raviolis! spaghetti tacos! taco lasagna! Shea’s romance had all the right ingredients for me: memorable characters, the perfect amount of tension, good pacing, and timely injections of comedic relief, making the title of Chef’s Kiss right on the nose. 

Shana reviews Humbug by Amanda Radley

the cover of Humbug

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Humbug is a quiet Christmas novel with an age gap romance. I found it a relaxing and wholesome read, but it’s an unbalanced workplace romance. The book struggled to decide if it wanted to focus on the characters’ careers, or their love story.

Ellie is a brilliant statistician who is stuck in a dead end job at an HR recruitment firm. Everyone in her office knows that she loves Christmas because her desk looks like a Hallmark holiday movie year-round. So when her firm’s CEO, Rosalind, needs someone to organize an epic office Christmas party at the last minute, she taps Ellie to be her new executive assistant in a cushy penthouse office. There are just two problems. One, Ellie is terrified of heights and can barely stand to be in her new office without hyperventilating.  Two, Rosalind hates Christmas, and her last assistant canceled all the party plans. As they work together, mutual crushes abound! But since neither can imagine the other wanting them, we get a slow sweet burn with plenty of personal growth along the way. 

Rosalind is an intimidating, and exacting boss, and Ellie is initially a nervous wreck around her. But Rosalind is also a compassionate coworker, and a protective single mother, who appreciates Ellie’s talent. And Ellie is clearly talented. The woman engineers a winter wonderland from scratch, outside, during a London winter!

I loved watching Ellie rediscover her confidence through working with Rosalind. At the beginning of the book, Ellie has forgotten her worth and is grateful for any job after a period of unemployment. Slowly, Ellie learns that she’s been coasting along with an unfulfilling role, with roommates who take her for granted. I liked seeing Ellie find her happiness and I think this would be a great read for someone feeling stuck in their life or career. But I was left wishing that the end of the book had focused more on resolving Ellie’s career, and less on ramping on the romance. Still, if you love watching characters slowly figure out they like one another, and prefer your romances with no sex scenes, this may work for you. 

I appreciated that Rosalind was portrayed as both a nurturing person who adores her articulate queer daughter, and as a shrewd businesswoman. She’s powerful and sexy, without feeling unattainable. I don’t usually like ice queen romances OR boss/employee romances, but I loved both of those tropes in Humbug. I thought the power dynamics were smoothly addressed. While there’s several work scenes where Rosalind enjoys flustering a blushing Ellie, Rosalind is too ethical to act on her growing attraction to Ellie. And though there is an age gap, and the two women are clearly at different points in their lives, they both clearly respected one another. 

My favorite part of the story was Ellie’s unapologetic love of all things Christmas. It was intense, and adorable, and I loved that Ellie happily accepted other characters’ more  muted—or hostile—feelings about the holiday. This is a classic Christmas rom-com, with holiday cheer and a predictable storyline. I would vote for Humbug as my favorite Christmas novel of 2021.

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.

Shannon reviews Something To Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

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I picked up Meryl Wilsner’s Something To talk About as a palate cleanser of sorts. It looked like a quick, light read, something to make me smile in between some of the heavier books I’ve been reading lately. Unfortunately, though parts of the story were engaging, I struggled to connect with the characters, making this a less than stellar reading experience.

I love books that center around TV shows, so the synopsis of Something To Talk About looked right up my alley. It’s the story of Jo, a successful show-runner who holds the world at arm’s length, and Emma, her free-spirited assistant who is desperate to make her mark on Hollywood. Their relationship has been nothing but professional up until Emma accompanies Jo to an awards ceremony. A reporter snaps a photograph of the two of them on the red carpet, and from there, the town is buzzing with rumors about the romance that seems to have sprung up between them. Of course, these rumors are blatantly false, but no one seems to be interested in the truth. Instead, they’re looking for the next big scandal, and a scintillating romance between Jo and Emma promises to keep the rumor mill going strong.

Jo was a difficult character for me to warm up to. She’s really aloof, and while the author has given her a compelling backstory to explain her behavior, I had trouble getting past the facade she shows the world. Some readers may find her prickly nature endearing, but it didn’t work for me. I was turned off by the brusque way she treats Emma, even when they’re spending time together outside of work hours. It’s like she’s always in professional mode. The author tells us there’s another side to her, but the story doesn’t bear this out, and I ended up feeling more frustrated than intrigued.

Emma is Jo’s opposite in every imaginable way. She loves her work, but it doesn’t rule her life. Just around the time she and Jo are seen together at the ceremony, she learns she’s in line for a promotion, something she’s been working toward for years. Now though, she’s the subject of all kinds of gossip. She’s understandably concerned that all the talk could negatively impact her career, but Jo dismisses her concerns out of hand.

And this, my friends, is the basis for so much of what I disliked about Something To Talk About. There’s an obvious lack of equality between Jo and Emma, and Jo, the one with the most power in the relationship does nothing to address this fact. Instead, it felt like she was constantly dismissing Emma’s very real concerns. It didn’t come off as protective or nurturing, even though that seemed to be the author’s intent. It was off-putting and cringy, and I found myself wanting Emma to run for the hills as fast as she could. Unfortunately, she stuck around for more of Jo’s bad treatment.

In order for a romance to be believable, the characters must have some kind of chemistry on the page. Unfortunately, the relationship between Emma and Jo fell flat. I couldn’t buy into their feelings for one another, and a lot of what threatened to keep them apart felt contrived. I think it was a case of the author doing too much telling and not enough showing.

Some books just aren’t good matches for certain readers, and that’s okay. I’m sure there are people out there who will love everything about this particular romance, even though I struggled to make it through to the end. Luckily, there are tons of great books in the world and I’m sure I’ll find the perfect one for me in the not-too-distant future.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perspective by Monica McCallan

Perspective by Monica McCallan

Campbell St. Claire is a best-selling author whose novel is being produced for a film led by Sloane Murphy, a former friend from college. But the two haven’t spoken since an incident one night that left Campbell brokenhearted. Reunited, Campbell learns what happened that night with Sloane and the two reconcile. But misunderstandings ensue, and the two are once more at odds. It’s an uphill battle to get to their happily ever after.

For readers seeking a fun yet angst-filled romance novel, this is one to pick up. The character dynamic between Sloane and Campbell sizzles and burns as they orbit around one another, constantly coming together and pulling away. Miscommunications and mishaps cause their tug of war love affair as they decide what they mean to each other.

Both women suffer from insecurities that lead to their miscommunications. Campbell’s writing slump gives her a bout of impostor syndrome as she wonders if she’ll have another hit novel after her current gig. That impostor syndrome extends to how she sees herself and her worth. She considers Sloane totally out of her league and thinks the glamorous actress made her feelings clear long ago in college.

Sloane has a natural distrust of everyone as she created a career in the film industry. But her rough upbringing, which is kept vague, also influences how she views others. She believes the worst in people without knowing the full story. She guards her heart, but it’s a lonely life living in constant distrust.

The romance between Sloane and Campbell is built with care and compassion. While Campbell has been out and proud since college, Sloane did not come to peace with her sexuality until Campbell returned into her life. It’s a sweet relationship where Sloane wants to explore her feelings and Campbell helps her, but never pushes her. Their flirting is teasing, but never mean. It’s clear that although they have a great deal of sexual tension and physical fun, their relationship has always been based in friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so of course there are hot and steamy scenes throughout. But unlike many other romances, the sex doesn’t happen every other page. As Campbell guides Sloane through her journey of coming out as a lesbian, there’s more moments of tension than sex on the page. McCallan is adept at describing the sensuality of intimacy, especially in a budding romance between two women who take great care with their hearts.

When they do have sex, McCallan pulls all the stops. From start to finish, Sloane and Campbell’s intimate moments leave the readers and characters alike breathless. As they engage in their first time together, and Sloane’s first time with a woman, Campbell is incredibly careful about consent and boundaries.

Campbell always made sure to check in, but it never ruined the moment. The details in the scene depicted a positive experience for both women as they finally brought their burgeoning romance to its inevitable next level.

The one characterization that felt lacking was Sloane’s past with her mother. Details were dropped here and there indicating that the relationship was strained and that her childhood was traumatic. But it was all kept vague, making it hard to understand Sloane’s distrust in others. However, it can be argued that the point of leaving out Sloane’s difficult past and childhood was purposeful so as not to be voyeuristic.

One of the defining moments between Sloane and Campbell is when Campbell reaches out to Sloane after the actress’s mother gives the tabloids a tell-all. But Campbell never reads the story, because she knows that’s not what Sloane wants. Campbell is so considerate and respectful of Sloane’s boundaries that it’s what makes the actress drop her guard and give in to the love she has for the author.

There are a few supporting characters that round out the story and create a connection between the protagonists when they are circling each other. Riley the screenwriter befriends Campbell on set as the author stayed on as a consultant for the movie adaptation of her book. She also took a liking to Sloane, who had no choice but to keep her on as a friend. Riley is the kind of personality that doesn’t give others much choice in accepting her friendship.

Campbell’s younger sister Val plays a fleeting role. She acts more like a tool for the development of Campbell’s communication skills. She isn’t really given a chance to be her own character. Still, the love between the sisters is clear and sweet. In a story that’s mostly about Sloane and Campbell, it’s hard to add more of Val without digressing.

As with any good romance, the characters get their HEA. For any readers like myself who don’t usually gravitate toward the genre, this is a great book to give romance a chance. It keeps you turning the page and hoping for the best for everyone.

Mallory Lass reviews One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers, narrated by Lori Prince

One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers

One Walk in Winter is a workplace romance set in the fictional mountain town of Evergreen spanning three US winter holidays: Thanksgiving through New Years. There is something about a book set in a place where it snows that really gets me into that cozy winter mindset. Light on the angst and high on the heat, Beers’ latest spin on a timeless trope left me smiling for days.

Hayley Boyd Markham is a New York City girl who has been working out her grief over her mother’s passing by setting the city on fire. After a particularly expensive night out, her father informs her he’s cutting off her credit cards. In order for Hayley to earn her allowance back, she’ll need to go manage one of the Markham family resorts, the slowly declining Evergreen Resort and Spa, through the winter. The problem is, Hayley is an artist like her mother and not very interested in the family business like her father and step brothers.

Olivia Santini has worked as the Assistant Manager of the Evergreen Resort and Spa for seven years; she thinks she’s a shoo-in for the open Manager position, only to be crushed when she doesn’t get the job. More ego bruising, the new Manager doesn’t seem to have any resort management experience, and Olivia isn’t sure where she went wrong. It doesn’t help that she’s finding it really hard to maintain her grudge against Hayley, who, aside from her penchant to be late, is extremely attractive and likeable.

Olivia and Hayley have a picturesque meet cute about 3 hours before finding out Hayley is Olivia’s new boss. After the rocky second meeting, despite their obvious attraction, Hayley and Olivia take it slow, working hard to earn each others favor. Sometimes, two people just need a good push in the right direction, and that is where Angela Santini, Olivia’s mom comes into the picture. Angela is a supportive mom, and she pushes Olivia to give Hayley the benefit of the doubt. It’s just the encouragement she needs to get out of her own way.

The supporting cast and the hidden gems of the town of Evergreen are slowly revealed throughout the story. Beers’ created a town I would love to be able to go visit and friends I wish I could call my own.

Hayley has been ordered by her father to conceal her Markham identity and prove she can help turn the Evergreen around. As Hayley and Olivia become closer, Hayley’s concealed identity is no doubt going to become an issue. I was pleasantly surprised with how Beers resolved their conflict, but will it be too late for Olivia to forgive Hayley? You’ll have to give this one a read (or a listen) to find out.

Speaking of, I listened to this book on audio, and Lori Prince does a wonderful job bringing Hayley and Olivia to life. I can’t wait to listen to other books she’s narrated.

Julie Thompson reviews Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes

Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes cover

Just in case you’re unaware, author Jae is hosting Lesbian Book Bingo. There are twenty-five genre categories, including a free square in the center of the board. If you’re like me, some of the squares will challenge you to give books you might otherwise skip over a second chance. Celebrity romances and hospital dramas, for example, aren’t my cup of tea (though I did watch a shizzload of “Primetime in the Daytime” ER episodes between classes and devoured gossip magazines in college).

Aside from the joys of discovering great new books to read, if you participate you could win some sweet prizes! Starting this month and through the rest of the year, I’m going select review books based on bingo categories.

Last month I read Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes, a romance set in the waning years of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) United States policy, fits snugly inside the camo pocket of the “women in uniform” category. Department of Defense directive 1304.26, E1.2.8 (1993-2011) forbid US soldiers from asking about the sexuality of service members or tell others about their own or others. Prior to this, many people not only received dishonorable discharges from being targeted as gay, lesbian, and queer, they also lost out on future job opportunities and much, much more. The private and public ramifications of being labeled unfit for duty because of their sexuality had far-reaching effects.

One of the reasons that I usually avoid military novels is that I don’t want to read a 150 page plus advertisement for the armed services and that I’ve already watched countless documentaries, mini series, and movies. Thankfully, Noyes has crafted a thoughtful romance about the heavy toll that government policies such as DADT exact from queer service members.

Captain Sabine Fleischer, an Army surgeon, carries on her family’s tradition of military service. Out of range of the brass or colleagues, she lives openly as a lesbian with her supportive family, and her longtime girlfriend, Victoria. On duty, she hides all traces of her personal affairs. The pressure of leading a dual life is palpable throughout the story.

Her current deployment to Afghanistan is spent scrubbing in for surgery, hanging out with her best friend and fellow surgeon, Mitch, or crushing on her superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Keane. When an unexpected letter from home arrives, it triggers a surge of emotions with few healthy outlets. The novel’s romance, much like the surgeries performed on wounded soldiers, centers on patience and attention to detail as the women navigate attraction in a restrictive environment. Supporting cast of family, friends, and co-workers add depth to the story as it moves between Afghanistan and the US, between difficult decisions, and towards an uncertain future. If you’re like me, the almost snowglobe focus on routine medical procedures and DADT insulates you against the fact that they are in a war zone. Despite the battered and broken people coming through their operating rooms, the last quarter of the novel may take you off guard. Absorbing, moving, and unhurried, Ask, Tell gives readers a hard-won possibility.