Author: Sera Taíno

Sera Taíno was born in Jersey City, NJ to Puerto Rican parents. She studied English Literature at Rutgers University and holds a Masters in Education from Stetson University. Her publications include a contribution to various anthologies. In addition, she experiments with writing poetry, book reviews and literary fiction. She is currently at work on her debut contemporary romance series.

Review – All Hours

All Hours

Amazon

From the publisher:

A RESTLESS ROMANTIC
Felix Pascual misses being someone’s boyfriend, which is why he’s willing to get set up by the only Hernandez he’ll admit to liking (out loud)—Lola. But when he gets to the restaurant he finds that Lola has matched him up with none other than Joaquin Delgado, a man who has never shown one iota of interest in him.. And Joaquin doesn’t seem any more open to Felix’s unique charms this time around . . .

A SKEPTICAL SUITOR
Joaquin will do anything for his grandmother. Even give a foul-mouthed, flashy Puerto Rican caterer who gets on his nerves—and makes him thirsty all at once—a chance to run his kitchen after he’s injured. After all, it’s just a few weeks. And he won’t be tempted since he’s given up on dating anyway . . .

A MATCH MADE IN SOUTH BEACH
But Felix won’t give up without the satisfaction of getting Joaquin to admit that he wants him. Felix is stubborn, and his growing desire for Joaquin is about proving a point. After all, it can’t possibly turn into something real . . .

Review:

I picked up this book, excited because it featured Puerto Rican leads. Given the growing interest in diverse characters, I was thrilled to give this book a try.

There are many aspects of the novel to recommend it. The characters are likeable and there is a lot of chemistry between them. They have great dialogue and their motivations are clear. Joaquin is a work-a-holic who could use some training in employee motivation and retainment. Felix is getting over a broken heart and plan on moving to New York for a new chance at life. There’s no question that the conflicts in this story promised to be strong, internal ones and I was ready for it.

However, I quickly got lost. Part of the problem was certainly me – perhaps I should have read the other installments of the series. There were a lot of assumptions about things I should have known but simply didn’t. For example, what could have been a great chance to reinforce the nature and importance of extended family in Latinx culture ended up being a kind of name-dump because I missed out on the earlier installments. As a result, I couldn’t assign importance to anyone outside of the main pairing and Lola.

This carries me to my next major point. These are Puerto Rican/Cuban/Caribbean folks. But I just didn’t feel it. Like, what about the food and the language, the code switching and the Spanglish, the funny habits and quirks that make us who we are? There is the fact that there is no one way to be Latinx but perhaps a concession would have made me happy. For example, Lola is a transplant – what else is she besides match maker? Again, I lay the blame squarely on myself, for reading the books out of order so I’m going to assume that her background, as well as others, was addressed and developed in those books.

Structurally, the beats were good and the leads adorable together. I felt the conflict could have been solved with a quick conversation. Roman was not a formidable villain and was almost cartoonish. However, he was intriguing because he served to make Felix desirable and sometimes, that’s a goal in itself.

Overall, I’m giving it a 4 because it’s a quick, fun and engaging read that you’ll certainly enjoy more if you’ve done the work of reading the other books. Now I’m off to look for a book featuring Lola 😊.

I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review – How to Belong With a Billionaire

HTBWAB

From the publisher:

If you love someone, set them free…

I thought I’d be okay when Caspian Hart left. He was a brilliant, beautiful billionaire with a past he couldn’t escape. And I was … just me: an ordinary man lost in his own life. It would never have lasted. It should never have happened. Not outside a fairytale.

And I am okay. I’ve got my job, my family, my friends, and everything Caspian taught me. Except it turns out he’s going to marry his ex-boyfriend. A man who doesn’t understand him. A man who almost broke him. And I’ve finally realized it’s not enough for me to be happy. I need Caspian to be happy too.

Problem is, I’ve already done all I can to help him. I’ve followed his rules and broken his rules and learned his secrets. And he still won’t believe I can love him. So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me.

Review

Check out my combined review for the two previous books:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

Warning: Contains some spoilers

Initially, this review was intended to be a joint one together with my friend, handsfullmama. We’d broken down all the elements to discuss but realized, 5k words later, that maybe we’d taken the task beyond its intended purpose. Plus, 5k is very long for a review so we decided to cancel that project and take our observations back to our respective sites. As it is, this review is still insanely long so I apologize in advance.

So this series – I almost wish I could go back and review the series all over again with the third book in mind. What started off as a rejoinder to 50 Shades of Grey has in fact turned into a genre-challenging novel on sexuality, sexual abuse recovery and the subversion of the most toxic elements of mm romance. When looked at in its entirety, I have to kind of sit back and take a deep breath because there is a lot to work with here. I’m going to start with the craft stuff.

TL;dr – This series is excellent and worth all the stars. All. The. Stars.

Proceed at your own risk.

Structure/Beats

Obviously, being the third act of a trilogy and the post cliffhanger book, the beats differ from a standalone novel. There is a significant portion in the first half of the novel where Arden and Caspian do not spend actual time together on page. But Caspian’s presence is everywhere – he’s always on Arden’s mind as Arden actively works to get over him. Still, there’s lots of emotional tension from not knowing what form the resolution would take. It’s a credit to Hall as a writer that, even writing in the romance genre where an HEA is guaranteed, I was genuinely unsure until the very end if he would pull it off.

Characterization

Arden

My favorite character after Darian and Ash in Glitterland. Perfectly drawn, distinct voice, thinks like an English major steeped in pop culture. There’s a comment his aunt makes about Arden that sums up his character – he’s not a cynic. I don’t want to exaggerate his perfection because he’s not – Nathaniel wasn’t too far off base to call out Arden for wasting the privilege of studying at Oxford. But Arden’s faith in the goodness of people and general openness to life makes him precious. The way he sees Caspian is the perfect counterpoint to the way Caspian sees himself. Arden sparkles and you want to keep him safe even though he doesn’t actually need it. Arden is strong because he knows who he is, a sense of self that gets stronger as the narrative progressive. He also has a solid moral core, the result of being well-loved, and an intuitive understanding of what is right and wrong.

Caspian

Ah, Caspian, Caspian. He did not give me the kind of satisfaction as a reader that I wanted from a romantic lead. Hall does a good job of retooling the character of Christian Grey, with his need for control and his extensive emotional damage, to give us Caspian Hart. And considering the prime material, it’s a miracle we got what we got. Caspian has a lot of shortcomings. He pissed me off so many times because his own issues caused him to hurt Arden.

However there is no moment in the narrative where I doubted that Caspian loved Arden. Through all his misguided decisions, his self-loathing (“such a self-masturbatory vice”), his gift for hurting Arden, I knew he loved him. Caspian is himself wounded in so many ways and honestly, for as much as I kick and scream and whine about him, I get him. I’d have a hard time giving in to something that I felt reduced me as a human being and reminded me of my trauma. And if I considered my preference to be beyond deviant (the way Caspian describes himself, you’d think he was eating newborn babies), then I’m going to question who and how I love.

Arden fights this toxic belief throughout the series. It goes back to a persistent theme in Hall’s novels – that sexuality is fluid, that your preferences are your own and it doesn’t matter why want who you want, it’s the wanting that matters, if that makes sense. Arden keeps telling Caspian this – it’s just sex in the end. Who cares where your compulsions come from? It’s who Caspian is now. But Caspian takes a long time to accept what Arden is saying and he is still hesitant by the end of the novel.

His damage wrecks my heart. But he hurts Arden and really, I’m #protectArden all the way.

Also, as I’m rambling, this reminds me of a blog post that Hall made about Buffy the Vampire Slayer where he talks about the amorality of love – you can be evil and cruel and still be able to love someone. It isn’t that love, objectively speaking, is some sort of redeeming trait. Anyone can love. They may not love well, but they can love. Consider Ellery and the way Caspian responds to her. Caspian loves her but he has a tragic way of showing it.

After finishing the novel, I reread the blurb – “So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me ” I can’t help but feel that, yet again, it’s Arden, who fights to the bitter end and eventually saves Caspian.

Tropes

Billionaire Dom trope is completely upended. Caspian is a reluctant dom. I can see this being frustrating for readers who are ready for a bit of tie-em-up (and they get that through a secondary relationship) but Hall demonstrates a deep understanding and great respect for the experience of sexual abuse survivors. We never get to see actual BDSM between Arden and Caspian on the page and, given where the characters are in their personal development and in their relationship, this is appropriate. Not only, but the role of the dom and sub are subverted. Though Caspian will certainly take the lead in the role playing, it is Arden who is most at ease and will have to follow Caspian’s readiness and teach him to be comfortable.

In 50 Shades, we see an (overbearing) Christian Grey navigating Anastasia into a poorly interpreted BDSM space. In this series, the hesitation is on Caspian’s side, because of the association he makes with his sexual abuse, complicated by the fact that he takes too much responsibility for what took place. He is coming from a place where he sees his preferences, and by extension, himself, in a dirty light. Whereas James asks us to take at face value that Grey’s predilections were caused by his own abuse and can be “cured” by love’s true light (give me a moment while I barf), Hall has his Caspian suffering through the connection he has made between his abuse and his preferences. Caspian then enters into a truly toxic relationship with Nathaniel because it reinforces this image of himself, assumptions Arden continues to challenge. It is a neat role reversal and it works, again, because it’s very respectful of the experience of sexual abuse.

Another trope that is essentially trashed in this novel is the slutty bisexual trope. Because Arden is so sex-positive, he embraces the exercise of his sexuality like a maniac (yasss, son!). However, he then turns its ear completely because he is insanely in love with and committed to Caspian. He’s comfortable with the fluid nature of his sexuality and expresses pleasure with George without guilt (as well he should) but emotionally, he is all about Caspian. He demonstrates his commitment to Caspian by fighting for him to the very end, even when all evidence of Caspian ever reconciling with him seems absent. I’m all about smashing this trope. I honestly think you can’t label Ardy’s sexuality and that’s the point. We shouldn’t. Wherever our impulses come, they are valid, and sexuality is as much a part of a person’s character and their temperament as their other preferences.

So did I love this series? Sometimes I didn’t, but not because it wasn’t good. It was hard and demanding and intense but it was worth the roller coaster ride. There are so many fun references to pop culture and literature. Jane Eyre and Roland Barthes keep popping up (Barfes!). I’m not much for the post-structuralists but I’m going to have to go back and read something of Barthes now, dammit. All in all, this series is worth reading and rereading, as long as you don’t mind being emotionally shredded along the way.

Check out my combined review for the two previous books:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

ARC provided by Netgalley

Don’t Starve For Your Job

painting-1081808_1920.jpgThere’s been some advice floating around social media which shouldn’t have surprised me but did. I won’t reference the specific tweet because some variation of this advice/belief has been circulating since probably forever.

The statement was essentially: To be successful as an artist*, you have to lose your concerns about money.

Out of this declarative sentence, one can derive several corollaries:

If you are concerned about money, you are not an artist.

If you are a true artist, you won’t care about money.

If you are doing anything other than your art, you are not an artist

If you expect payment for your art, you are not an artist (this one also implies that if you create anything for the sake of being paid, you are not a true artist).

*I’m using the term artist to refer to anyone who creates, regardless of media.

I’m about to give you a declarative sentence of my own: That’s the most privileged pile of hot sh*t I’ve ever heard.

See, this belief, that you should not care about money, that you should somehow starve for your art because if you are not suffering, you can’t be doing this creator thing correctly, is an extremely toxic and crippling one. A little bit of anecdotal information for you regarding famous writers and their day jobs:

1. TS Eliot – Bank Clerk

2. William Carlos Williams – general practitioner until he retired.

3. Stephen King – High school English teacher

4. Andrea Camilleri – Lawyer

5. Agatha Christie – Pharmaceutical assistant

Even writers who do manage to write for a living often have to hustle together a series of activities to make ends meet, like conduct workshops, book speaking engagements, edit either for a publishing house or as a freelancer and write articles not always related to their projects. I know of many independent writers who monetize their review blogs to create an income stream. And with the altered landscape brought on by the monolith that is Amazon, writer salaries continue to plummet. When the average writer makes $10,000 per year, it’s no wonder writers keep multiple jobs to sustain themselves.

But most of us don’t start writing right out the gate. Or if we do, we often do it as a hobby while pursuing other careers. In my case, I was first a project manager and then went into secondary education before I even conceived of a scenario where I might want to publish anything from the loads of stuff I’d written over the years. By the time I gave myself permission to write and publish anything, I was 15 years into a teaching career and had two children to care for. The last thing I was going to do was ditch my hard-earned tenure, health insurance and retirement to run after an unstable career, no matter how satisfying it was or how good at it I thought myself to be.

It irks me when I see such “wisdom” pushed onto writers. We already struggle with doubts, impostor syndrome and the stress of working in a volatile industry. Very few of us have the luxury of relying on the salary of a well-payed spouse (though if you do, yay you!), an inheritance or a sponsor who will give us a year’s salary to get our career off the ground. This is especially true of diverse writers who come from medium to low socioeconomic backgrounds and don’t possess accumulated family income to support their efforts.

Now, I purposely didn’t use the phrase “Don’t starve for your art” in my title because art, for many, is their job and if you work, you deserve to get paid. This is another fallacy that is promoted by this kind of advice – that somehow, because we are creating art, we should not be paid for it. This is the same kind of rationale that is used to justify underpaying teachers – it’s a vocation, so we should do it for something other than money.

That’s also a steaming pile of sh*t.

I agree that if you don’t like kids and you don’t like the pedagogy of getting people to learn things, sometimes against their will, you will not do well as a teacher. However, as much as I love teaching, I also like to eat. Underpaying me increases my stress because I am engaged in a demanding profession that does not pay me sufficiently to meet my basic needs, hampering my ability to perform. This is not a sustainable expectation.

It’s the same with being a creator. Yes, there is an impulse beyond getting paid that inspires a person to create. But it’s work and if it is done well and provides a product others enjoy, a person should not be shamed for expecting remuneration for said work. We don’t expect engineers and CEOs to work without pay. Why would you expect the same of artists?

This also extends to creating products that have a better likelihood of paying the bills. I might write a contemporary novel because it sells well when what I really want to write is a genre mashup of magical realism and prose poetry. I’ll plug away at the latter, all the while promoting the former because, again, I have bills to pay. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with making that kind of decision.

The truth is, part of being a functional adult member of society is meeting your obligations. Artists are not exempt from such things as mortgages, utilities and insurances. That an artist should be made to feel guilty for meeting their basic needs without resorting to crime or debauchery not only reeks of entitlement, it’s facile at best and tone-deaf at worst. We live in a society where for the first time in history, our children will have reduced metrics of success compared to their elders, including health, social mobility and longevity. It is out of touch with the reality to suggest that a writer not consider economics when they are trying to create a work of art. At the very least, art takes time and time is money. We should be able to pursue our goals while providing for the very stability that allows us to be successful.

So going back to those corollaries, I instead suggest that:

If you are concerned about money, you are not still an artist.

If you are a true artist, you won’t will still care about money.

If you are doing anything other than your art, you are absolutely not an artist

If you expect payment for your art, you are not very much an artist.

There is no shame in creating art for the sake of gain.

There is no shame in working jobs other than the one that feeds your soul.

There is absolutely no shame in demanding that you be paid for your work, like any other productive member of society.

__

*I use the term artist to refer to anyone who creates, regardless of media.

Review – The Affair of the Mysterious Letter

TAOTML

From the publisher

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Review:

I read several novels this summer but this novel marked the beginning of my summer vacation. I loaded The Affair of the Mysterious Letter onto my kindle and, as soon as I was settled into my airplane seat, I began reading. And, of course, it was everything I expect Hall’s novels to be – fully immersive, clever and witty. I didn’t finish it on the flight – I fell asleep from the sheer exhaustion of going from one continent to another. But when I did finish it, I found it such a delightful novel, I shared it with my husband, with whom I normally share nothing in common in terms of books (I’m an avid fiction reader and he’s content to read Whitehead or Popper).

Hall writes the most distinct character voices. Some writers seem to write the same stock characters over and over in their novels but I have yet to find two characters in the books Hall has written that are the same. I enjoyed being in Captain Wyndham’s head. He’s a fitting stand-in for Watson, sort of the straight man to the sorceress, Shaharazad Hass. Conservative to the point that he won’t recount a swear word to the reader and possessing an endless store of euphemisms, he’s recently returned from fighting in a war in another universe to escape the disapproval of his people because he is trans male. But before you go imagining that sexual orientation or preference becomes some sort of extrinsic plot device in this novel, it’s not. It is part of Captain Wyndham’s backstory but it seems almost everyone in this fabulous novel is queer.

The world building is detailed and completely bonkers, featuring alternative universes, divergent timelines and weapons that defy the space-time continuum. And sorcery. Lots and lots of sorcery. The narrative is populated by the strangest creatures, not all of whom are humanoid or even mortal, and some beings who will just as soon take your soul as eat you alive. It’s really all delightful.

The character of Shaharazad Hass is a wonderful, well-wrought creation. She very clearly is a reworking of Holme’s character – unabashedly secular, intelligent and addicted to all kinds of substances. She simply does not give an absolute f*ck about anything. Cleanliness is optional. So are manners, politeness or punctuality. Everything bores her but when something crazy is about to go down, there is nothing she loves more. Her complete indifference to even the cursory exercises of the ordinary are thrown over in her gleeful pursuit of adventure and something upon which to engage her extraordinary mind. The blackmailing of her former lover provides just this opportunity and forms the mystery at the heart of the novel.

Talking about the mystery in the novel, it’s fun, it holds the plot together but is almost secondary to the pleasure of watching Hass get herself – and Captain Wyndham – in and out of mischief. Of course I wanted to know who was blackmailing Miss Eirene Viola (who stands in very nicely for the esteemed Irene Adler), but honestly, I just wanted to sit back and see what other complications Ms. Hass was going to drag her (somewhat) unwilling side-kick into. I wouldn’t mind a few more books featuring them in their wild adventures.

As books go, it’s a strong start to what I hope is a long series.

Review – Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night

 

  • Publisher: Vintage (May 26, 2015)
  • Publication Date: May 26, 2015
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English

 

Amazon

From the publisher:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away, her son even farther, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in empty houses, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. But maybe that could change? As Addie and Louis come to know each other better–their pleasures and their difficulties–a beautiful story of second chances unfolds, making Our Souls at Night the perfect final installment to this beloved writer’s enduring contribution to American literature.

Review:

I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long—all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.

I’ve been a fan of Kent Haruf’s writing ever since I read Plainsong when I lived in Germany many years ago. Maybe it was the dreary winters, the constant busyness of a young, stay at home mother juxtaposed with the loneliness of being an expat in a foreign country, but his novels spoke to my state of mind at the time. It is no coincidence that this was my Raymond Carver/Denis Johnson period. I was drawn to writers who stripped their prose bare, their streamlined narrative full of subtext. Like the low skies and barren landscapes of a cold day in Erlangen, the emotional life of the novel lay below the surface of pragmatic prose and simple sentence structures.

I’m clearly in another place in my readings these days, so that this reading was pregnant with nostalgia. Not unlike Addie and Louis who, also designing a pragmatic solution to the solitude of their late years, launch into an affair of companionship and memory, where their comfort in each other is simultaneously the excitement of a newly discovered experience coupled with the familiarity of a life, if not shared, at least experienced along parallel lines that only rarely converged on the peripheries.

Addie and Louis are widow and widower to others, respectively. Their age means they are now supporting actors in the lives of their loved ones – Addie’s son and grandson and Louis’s daughter. Addie, unable to sleep at night, proposes a solution to their loneliness by inviting Louis to sleep next to her. She tells him it isn’t about sex, but about getting through the night. After some hesitation, Louis agrees, embarking on a relationship that surprises their neighbors and dismays their children.

I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.

This idea that the ability to care and nurture others is not exhausted with age is a prominent one in this novel, exemplified by the Addie and Louis, but also further explored in Addie and Louis’s relationship with her grandson, Jamie. Abandoned by his mother and left with a father overwhelmed by the failure of both his marriage and his business, Jamie is left with Addie until his family life is sorted out. Many of the insights into helping Jamie come from Louis as they established a mini family unit of lonely people who find comfort and belonging with each other.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitements. And not all dried up in body and spirit.

There are simply not enough stories about deep relationships, much less love, between older couples. Though we live in progressive societies, the infantilization of the elderly is very common, as if the desire for connection, for the excitement of knowing a new person deeply bears an expiration date.  I enjoyed the development of Addie and Louis’s intimacy. Being of a certain age and knowing each other, at least superficially, for so long, there is a kind of short-hand to their intimacy that is paralleled in the paired-down narration.

I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.

Addie and Louis’s connection is firmly rooted in the natural world. Very little in the way of religious sentimentality is present in the novel. Even Louis’s ideas of the afterlife harken to the Romantic belief in man’s connection to nature (I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self. We’re just in this physical body till we go back to spirit). Many of their shared experiences take place during excursions to the mountains or camping in the woods, experiences that include Jamie.  Haruf equates human connection with nature, placing this need on par with the most fundamental needs of human survival.

People need each other, not in a superficial way. We can spend an entire lifetime creating fragile bonds that turn brittle and dried up by habit or neglect. Haruf’s novel shows us that we not only need to connect, but that we are capable of this communion long into the twilight of our lives.

 

 

 

 

Review – Arctic Wild

arctic wild

  • Publisher: Carina Press; Original edition (June 3, 2019)
  • Publication Date: June 3, 2019
  • Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.
  • Language: English

Amazon

From the publisher:

Hotshot attorney Reuben Graham has finally agreed to take a vacation, when his plane suddenly plunges into the Alaskan wilderness.

Just his luck.

But his frustrations have only begun as he finds himself stranded with the injured, and superhot, pilot, a man who’s endearingly sociable—and much too young for Reuben to be wanting him this badly.

As the sole provider for his sisters and ailing father, Tobias Kooly is devastated to learn his injuries will prevent him from working or even making it back home. So when Reuben insists on giving him a place to recover, not even Toby’s pride can make him refuse. He’s never been tempted by a silver fox before, but something about Reuben is impossible to resist.

Recuperating in Reuben’s care is the last thing Toby expected, yet the closer they become, the more incredibly right it feels, prompting workaholic Reuben to question the life he’s been living. But when the pressure Toby’s under starts closing in, both men will have to decide if there’s room in their hearts for a love they never saw coming.

Review:

I clicked on this novel in Net Galley for one superficial reason – I liked the cover. The series is set in Alaska and I’m a sucker for mountains and the wilderness, being an avid outdoors person myself.

Arctic Wild features two leads who are opposites in every way – Ruben Graham is a much older, successful lawyer who reluctantly goes on an Alaskan vacation after the couple who’d booked the trip with him bail at the last minute. He’s an intense workaholic, out of touch with his teenage daughter who just wants to a solid internet connection and a few hours of peace to get some documents read. Regarding the quest for internet and a few hours of peace, I can totally empathize.

Toby Kooley is a tour guide whose laid-back, social personality hides the burden of being the sole provider for his family. He is intrigued by Ruben’s intensity but, because of his work, he doesn’t pursue right away the spark of heat between them.

The romance between the two leads develops very slowly, accelerating after they experience a plane crash together in which Toby is seriously wounded. Ruben, out of a desire to be close to his daughter and a sense of duty towards Toby, takes a sabbatical from his work to care for Toby while he heals from his injuries.

I enjoyed the central love story of the novel. Often, I feel like mm romances tend to have less of a buildup and rush directly into the sex. This romance was a slow burn, where Ruben and Toby grow to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, becoming friends after the crash, and finally, acknowledging their attraction to become lovers. There is a bit of the frustrated love trope, where the leads think their romance cannot last beyond a certain expiration date and struggle to avoid investing emotionally in the relationship to minimize the pain of certain separation.

The descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness were pleasurable. I particularly appreciated the realistic reminders of the limits of living near the arctic circle – cold winters and short days. I love an idealized setting as much as the next reader, but I respect an author who does their research to provide as much verisimilitude as possible about the place they’re describing.

There were times when I found Toby to be a bit too limited in his thinking and it made me impatient with him. A lot had to do with his financial duress resulting from his inability to work. But his father also contributed to this idea that he should handle his own business, not ask for help and bear the weight of total financial responsibility without complaint. This expectation of excessive self-reliance hampers Toby’s ability to see his way to a long-lasting relationship with Ruben and while it made the father unlikable, it went a long way towards understanding Toby’s behavior.

Toby’s father and sister’s resistance to Ruben was a bit baffling to me. I understand a wariness of outsiders, but I found their concerns to be bordering on the paranoid. Without enough clarity from the narrative as to why they were so hell-bent on disliking Ruben, despite his wealth, selflessness and obvious feelings for Toby, it felt like a plot device dropped into the narrative to generate external conflict. On the other hand, Ruben’s teenage daughter, Amelia was very well drawn character and furthered Ruben’s development during their interactions.

Overall, it was a well-earned and satisfying love story featuring characters I mostly rooted for. The setting is wonderful and the path to intimacy felt authentic.  I have a soft spot for the slow burn and that was the case here. The writing was very pared down, as is often the case with contemporary romances, but it made for an easy read.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Review – Red, White & Royal Blue

rw&b

  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (May 14, 2019)
  • Publication Date: May 14, 2019
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English

From the publisher:

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

Review:

RW&RB is brilliant. One of the reasons I treasure this book is because it is one of the few modern LGBQTA+ romances that demonstrates an awareness of the history of the LGBQTA+ movement. To a degree, that makes sense. After all, romance is the genre of escapism and hope. Talking about the AIDS crisis or Stonewall or Compton’s Cafeteria Riot might not make for escapist reading. However, given the political environment of the novel and both Alex’s and Henry’s roles in their families and respective governments, history and politics form a central preoccupation. The main characters are the sons of world leaders. Therefore, their romance, as it grows, has the power to alter history and our main characters know this, a fact encapsulated in Alex’s phrase, “History, huh?”

But there’s more to it, right? Because LGBQTA+ people have had to contend with more than just violence and intolerance. We’ve had to deal with outright historical erasure. It becomes a major theme of the novel. Alex and Henry are constantly analyzing their place in history, especially given the consequences of their growing love for each other. The moment they both embrace the fact that they will occupy a glaring spot in the history of both countries, it is both epic and humbling for both characters. One of the most powerful moments is Alex speaking in a press conference and he tells his audience, “I am the First Son of the United States, and I’m bisexual. History will remember us.” A constant theme, McQuiston’s answer to historical erasure is to place the First Son of the United States and the Crown Prince of England on a world stage and in love and dare history to ignore them.

The book is also a coming out narrative. Alex comes to terms with his bisexuality as he falls ever deeper in love with Henry. There is forced exposure of the main character’s sexuality – if this is a trigger for a reader, be forewarned that it plays a central role in the plot. But the writer handles this deftly, and the responses by the different parties involved (Alex’s mother, his sister and best friend, Henry’s family and, finally, the public) are internally consistent for the novel but also realistic on a larger scale. McQuiston paints an optimistic world where some people are ogres about the revelation of Alex and Henry’s romance but most are cheering for them and take courage from their love. Essentially, all the right people are on their side, including the British and American public. America comes off a bit better in this novel than it does in real life.

Let’s talk romance a minute. There is a wonderful mashup of tropes in this novel: enemies-to-friends, fake relationships here and even forbidden love as Alex and Henry work to find reasons to see each other. The emails between them are a work of art on their own. McQuiston models their communications on the love letters of famous people throughout history. I have a collection of letters somewhere on my hard drive that I once collected by Virginia Woolf, Alexander Hamilton and Simon Beauvoir, among others and it was thrilling to see some of these show up in the letters between Alex and Henry. Their love and longing is palpable and is one of the highlights of the novel. I could read a book based on their letters alone and be happy. Alex goes from brusque American braggadocio to poetically waxing about his love for Henry and Henry’s responses are positively literary. The wit and banter is hip and clever but when they talk about love, the words smoulder on the page.

And the love scenes – if you are an aspiring writer, each love scene is worth studying as an exemplar of how to write love scenes rooted in strong characterization. They are a splendid combination of sexual desire, emotional intensity and delicacy – truly some of the best love scenes I’ve ever read.

Favorite Quotes:

Thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.

But the truth is, also, simply this: love is indomitable.

Should I tell you that when we’re apart, your body comes back to me in dreams? That when I sleep, I see you, the dip of your waist, the freckle above your hip, and when I wake up in the morning, it feels like I’ve just been with you, the phantom touch of your hand on the back of my neck fresh and not imagined? That I can feel your skin against mine, and it makes every bone in my body ache? That, for a few moments, I can hold my breath and be back there with you, in a dream, in a thousand rooms, nowhere at all?

You are a delinquent and a plague. Please come.

Never tell me the odds.

An enthusiastic 5-star read.