Book Review: Husband Material (London Calling, #2) by Alexis Hall

Title: Husband Material
Series: London Calling, #2
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a bowl full of special curry to get these two from I don’t know what I’m doing to I do.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

This Summer 2022, you’re invited to the event(s) of the season.

After giggling my way through Boyfriend Material earlier this year, I just knew I needed the sequel in my life. And for the most part, Husband Material does not disappoint… except for the ending. But more on that later.

Blatantly modeled on Four Weddings and A Funeral**, the plot of Husband Material follows Luc and Oliver, the extreme-opposites-extremely-attract couple from the first book as they navigate being in a healthy long-term relationship (a first for both of them) while seeing all of their friends embracing wedding planning and baby making.

Two years into their relationship, Luc and Oliver still have separate flats but are together constantly. They’ve each made progress with their own personal hang-ups and issues, love each other very much, and are still funny as hell. As they attend wedding after wedding, some of their differences seem more concerning — especially when it comes to gay identity vs mainstream norms, and whether finally being able to officially and legally go the traditional marriage route means that they should.

And that’s not even addressing the rainbow elephant in the room — Luc embraces the glitter and rainbows of his ideal of gay community, but Oliver finds it all too commercialized and judgmental. If he doesn’t want a rainbow balloon arch at his wedding, does that make him a bad gay? But if he denies Luc the balloon arch, is he forcing Luc to give up part of his own identity? (Seriously, they spend A LOT of time on the balloon arch debate…)

After an unplanned panic-driven proposal (from Luc, of course), the couple decide to get married, but their cute differences as a couple seem to morph into fundamental problems as they try to navigate actually planning a wedding.

I love Luc and Oliver as characters and was very happy to reconnect with them and see how their lives have progressed since the first book. Husband Material, as a second book, assumes that we know these people, so there’s less time spent on character development and much more on plot shenanigans, which is fine, but creates a shallower reading experience. We still get a taste for the two as individuals, but their escapades (and the ridiculous goings-on surrounding the various weddings) take center stage for perhaps too much of the book — so when we do get deeper character moments, the tonal shift can be a bit jarring..

As in Boyfriend Material, the writing is heavy on word-play and humor, and most of the time, that’s truly a reading treat — don’t we all need more silly and clever and laugh-out-loud funny moments in our serious lives?

A few little samples:

“As your token gay friend, it is my duty to say that you are a fierce, sickening, incredible woman and that when you find a man who deserves you, he’ll make you feel like a princess every day of your life in a way that somehow manages to avoid reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.”

… I couldn’t tell if we’d had a fight of not, and if we had, whose fault it had been. I mean, I had kind of dropped him on extra-special date night. Like a dick. Except I’d only done that because I needed to take care of my friend. Like definitely not a dick. Fuck. I was in a grey dick area.

I was increasingly convinced that weddings were just an elaborate cycle of vengeance that had got really out of hand. Some pair of selfish bastards had forced their friends to come to a tedious party two thousand years ago and their selfish bastard friends had decided to pay them back by forcing them to come to a tedious party, and then some wholly independent group of selfish bastards had built an industry around it and here we were. An eye for an eye leaves the world overpaying for table settings.

I made the air-quotiest air quotes that ever air-quoted.

All fun aside for a moment, I will say that I did not care for the ending, not even a little bit. And without getting into spoiler territory, I suppose it was meant to show that Luc and Oliver works best when they forge their own path and do what’s really right for the two of them — but all I could think was that they could have avoided all the angst and mess if they’d only had a real conversation months earlier. So while I think the author meant for the ending to come across as nonconventially romantic, I was just unsatisfied and a little saddened by it all.

I had thought this was the final book of a two-book story, but it looks like more is on the way. According to Goodreads, there are two more related books yet to come, although I believe the focus will shift away from Luc and Oliver to others in their friend circle.

Despite my feelings about the ending of Husband Material, I enjoyed the writing and characters enough to want more, so I’m sure I’ll check out whatever comes next.

Spoiler ahead — look away now if you don’t want to know!

**Spoilery bit: I’d completely forgotten that the main couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral decide to have a life together without getting married at the end. I guess if I’d remembered that, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised / let down by the ending of Husband Material!

Book Review: Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk

Title: Even Though I Knew the End
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 8, 2022
Length: 136 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above.

An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother’s life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can’t resist―the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves.

To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.

In this noir-ish novella, Helen Brandt is a private investigator who specializes in occult-related crime scenes. She’s also a woman who, years earlier, sold her soul in exchange for her mortally-wounded brother’s life.

With only days left before her bargain comes due, all Helen wants is private time with the woman she loves. But when a particularly gruesome murder takes place, she’s pulled into a battle between demonic forces, powerful magicians, and fallen angels.

As a novella, the action by necessity is fast-paced, and the storytelling moves quickly from one set-piece to another. I’m not that big a fan of stories about bargains with the devil or battles between angels and demons, but what really sucked me in was the love story and the desperate need for just a bit more time.

The title comes from Helen’s thoughts about The Great Gatsby, and the essence of love and hope:

Jay Gatsby knew a lot about hope. Hope felt a little painful, on account of it not being a sure thing. In fact, there was almost no hope for him, which made that tiny flashing light all the more precious. I’d read this book a dozen times, two dozen. I always held my breath, waiting for Daisy to come to him. Jay hoped every single time, and I hoped right along with him, even though I knew the end.

A week after finishing this short but powerful story, I couldn’t tell you the specifics about the outcome of the murder plot… but I absolutely remember how Helen and Edith’s love story made me feel. Even when the end is inevitable, even when a deal with the devil is coming due, Helen will savor every moment, because every moment with the woman she loves is worth much more than the pain of thinking about losing it.

They love, even though they know the end.

Book Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Title: Lavender House
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Forge Books
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it’s not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they’ve needed to keep others out. And now they’re worried they’re keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He’s seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn’t extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House opens with a desperate man in a bar having one last drink while contemplating suicide — before a broad in bright colors walks in.

She has a deep, sharp voice, and it cuts through the fog of drunkenness in my mind. She’s right out of a movie — she could ask me to kill her husband any second now.

In this noir-tinged murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco, there’s no place to hide if you’re queer, and that’s especially true if you’re a cop. Our main character, Andy Mills, has just been fired from the SFPD after being caught in the act during a police sweep of gay bars. Broken, beaten, and with no hope, he’s having one last drink while considering throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl walks into the bar.

Pearl is a classy older woman with an aura of money, and as Andy listens to her pitch, he learns something truly shocking: Pearl refers to her long-time companion Irene as her “wife”. How can two women possibly live a domestic, committed life together without persecution? Soon, Andy learns much more: Irene is the head of the Lamontaine family, who own a fabulously successful soap company known for its lush floral scents and secret formulations. With the Lamontaine money, Irene and Pearl are able to live a rich, free life within their secluded, gated estate in Marin, along with their son Henry, Henry’s partner Cliff (who poses publicly as Henry’s secretary), Henry’s wife Margo (again, a public-facing role), and Margo’s lover Elsie, who runs one of the most successful queer clubs in San Francisco, sheltered by generous payoffs to the police.

Henry turns and kisses him on the forehead. And everyone acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world. No one even seems to notice it happen. I’ve seen affection like that in the clubs before, sure. But here, in morning light, at a breakfast table, it’s like they’re so bright it makes my eyes hurt.

The Lamontaine’s idyllic life is devastated, however, by the event that’s brought Pearl to Andy: Irene is dead, and Pearl suspects murder. While the rest of the household believe the death was an unfortunate accident, Pearl thinks there’s something more sinister at play, and she invites Andy back to the mansion to investigate. As he takes up residence in a guest room and gets to know the family, Andy uncovers many secrets, but also sees both the freedoms and limitations of the family’s isolated lives, and considers whether he might ever find a way to live a freer, truer life himself.

There’s so much to love about Lavender House! First, the murder mystery itself is well developed, with an intriguing set-up, plenty of clues and red herrings, and a cast of characters who all seem like good people, until we’re forced to see other sides of them and wonder what lies beneath the friendly surfaces. This is a manor house mystery — an isolated, grand house, with each resident a suspect, and a detective in their midst, who may end up in grave danger himself. It’s quite deliciously built, as we get to know and like the various characters — but like Andy, we need to also look beyond the smiles and sympathetic conversations and to hold ourselves at a bit of a distance while we assess which of these people is a murderer.

Beyond the mystery itself, there’s also the historical setting and the depiction of gay life in the 1950s. The era shines through via the author’s descriptions of the bars and alleys and criminal life, as well as the music, clothing, and cars. But it’s the narration of Andy’s inner turmoil, the constant threat of discovery and the very real danger of beatings and abuse that give this book such a gritty, sad, realistic feel.

Even amidst the seemingly open life of the Lamontaine house, Andy is constantly aware of the redwood trees that line the drives, looking like prison bars, and the heavy gates that must be kept locked to keep the world out — and by extension, to keep the family locked within their private haven, unable to leave without putting on masks to shield them from the world.

As long as the world out there stays the same, a paradise like this keeps you in as much as it keeps you safe.

There’s so much sorrow in Andy’s experiences of living a secret life, his attempts to keep himself safe and his shame at not having done more to help others like him, his knowledge that the camaraderie he once experienced on the police force was erased in an instant the moment his true self was exposed, and the physical danger he faces simply by being spotted by someone who might recognize him. Through Andy’s investigation, we also learn more about the backgrounds of the various other inhabitants of Lavender House, and it’s a sad litany of secrets, shame, family disgrace, and abuse.

The murder is, of course, tied up neatly by the end of the book, and I thought the resolution was quite clever and not at all obvious. Andy’s life seems on the verge of a new beginning, and it’s wonderful to be able to leave him with a sense of hope. Life in the 1950s hasn’t magically changed, but he at least has options and a vision for how his life might be better. It felt as though the ending might be leaving the door open for additional mysteries starring Andy, and that would be amazing! Here’s hoping this is just the first in a continuing series.

I’m not at all surprised that I ended up loving this book. The author, Lev AC Rosen, has written some fabulous books already, including two gems that I think deserved much more attention than they got (All Men of Genius and Depth — go look them up and check them out!!). I haven’t read his YA novels yet, but they’re on my TBR list. In any case, Lavender House seems to be generating lots of buzz and is getting a big, splashy release, so I hope this is the book that will finally provide this talented author with a much bigger audience.

Lavender House is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery with a deep inner core of emotional impact and sensitivity, and I loved the sharp way the characters’ experiences enhanced the murder genre aspects of the story. This is a terrific new release for October — don’t miss it!

Book Review: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3) by TJ Klune

Title: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Heat Wave is the explosive finale to the thrilling Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Nick, Seth, Gibby, and Jazz are back in action bringing justice, protection, and disaster energy to the people of Nova City.

An unexpected hero returns to Nova City and crash lands into Nick’s home, upturning his life, his family, and his understanding of what it means to be a hero in the explosive finale of the thrilling and hilarious Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune.

This series! This book! These characters! At this point, I love the characters so much that I just want to tuck them all away somewhere safe and shower them with love and ice cream. THEY ARE SO ADORABLE AND AMAZING.

Heat Wave, the 3rd and final book in the Extraordinaries trilogy, opens as a hot summer rolls through Nova City. The main characters are on summer break, hanging out, fighting crime… you know, like kids do! But it doesn’t take very long before something starts to seem just a little bit off. I won’t say what, but at first it was just a nagging little “huh?’ voice in my head, which soon escalate to full-on shouts of WTF?

Never fear, it all makes sense eventually. Our gang – the incredibly lovely and awesome and over the top Nicky, his true love Seth, and their best friends (who are also deeply in love) Gibby and Jazz — continue their Extraordinary activities as, respectively, superheroes Guardian and PyroStorm, with Gibby and Jazz as their tech support and secret lair gurus, aka Lighthouse. Also involved are the various parental units of our four teens, and the parents are equal measures supportive, loving, and totally embarrassing. (Oh, the Dad jokes! These people are just so much).

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot. There’s action, adventure, danger, and telekinetic and fire-power heroics! There are also bad guys who are very, very bad and very, very powerful. Plus, a mayoral election that’s truly a battle for the heart and soul of Nova City, and a police reckoning that’s very much a reflection of today’s real-world society.

I need to stop and mention that Nick and his dad Aaron have THE BEST father-son dynamic I’ve ever witnessed. Aaron is excruciatingly in Nick’s face in the most cringe-y ways, and it’s so clearly coming from a place of unconditional support and love that you want to stand up and shout “YES!” whenever they have a scene together. This book does also include the most cringe-worthy Nick and Aaron scene of the entire series. Suffice it to say that Aaron loves his gay son and wants him to be fully informed, prepared, and safe when it comes to moving things forward with Seth. I kind of wanted to die of embarrassment reading this scene, and at the same, I couldn’t help thinking how absolutely affirming it might be for gay teens who need that kind of open information and communication in their own lives.

Likewise, Seth and Nicky’s physical relationship moves forward, and the author does not shy away from the details… but it’s not at all gratuitous. Again, all I could think was that there are probably teen readers who really need to see a healthy, loving, consensual relationship depicted in such a positive way, and I hope this book finds its way to those who need it.

But anyway… even putting aside how amazing all of the above is, this is just a GOOD STORY. The action zips along, there are some astonishing surprises and big reveals, and a major blam-pow-kabam superhero battle to finish it all off. (Also, there’s the introduction of a new character named Burrito Jerry, and he’s pretty amazing, so there’s that too.)

The book’s epilogue ties up the story and gives us a flash forward into the characters’ lives several years down the road, and while it’s a little disconcerting to see them all as adults, it’s also wonderful. And yes, the conclusion is quite definitely a conclusion… but I’d pay oodles to get to spend more time with Nicky, Seth, Gibby and Jazz! I’m sure they’re all going to go on to lead fabulous, fascinating lives, and I just wish we could see it!

As always, the writing in Heat Wave is smart and funny, and I’ll wrap up this big gushy love letter to The Extraordinaries trilogy by sharing some favorite bits and pieces:

“We’re queer. We walk fast because of our survival instinct.”

He snorted. “Okay, that was funny in a really sad way. I feel bad for the heteros. They wanted us to run from them, and so we did, and now we evolved to be much quicker than they are. They really don’t get anything aside from having all the rights they could ever ask for.”

If he’d known how much worse it was about to get, Nick would’ve probably fled the house, moved to Canada, and spent the rest of his days living in a cabin while making maple syrup, or whatever it was Canadians did aside from being pleasant and supportive, most likely because they enjoyed the benefits of universal healthcare.

Owen had been Nick’s first… well. Almost first everything. First kiss. First sort-of boyfriend. First breakup. First (and so far only) former flame who’d turned into a villain and had tried to kill them.

You never forgot your first.

“I’m supposed to be in a romantic comedy, not a horror movie!” Nick cried as the blade wiggled from side to side as if it was stuck…

But before Nick could be dragged away he leaned forward, knowing he’d never get the chance again to have this many people listening to him. “Queer rights!” he shouted. “Down with the patriarchy! Defund the police! Support fanfic writers!”

“We’re going to hug you, but then we’re going to yell at you. It’s going to be very loud, but you will sit there and take it.”

I’m tearing up just thinking about these characters and their lives and how amazing they are. I can’t believe the story is over!

The 3rd book, and the trilogy as a whole, get five glittery stars!

Book Review: Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Alexandria Bellefleur
Narrator: Lauren Sweet
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

With nods to Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice, a charming #ownvoices queer rom-com debut about a free-spirited social media astrologer who agrees to fake a relationship with an uptight actuary until New Year’s Eve—with results not even the stars could predict!

After a disastrous blind date, Darcy Lowell is desperate to stop her well-meaning brother from playing matchmaker ever again. Love—and the inevitable heartbreak—is the last thing she wants. So she fibs and says her latest set up was a success. Darcy doesn’t expect her lie to bite her in the ass.

Elle Jones, one of the astrologers behind the popular Twitter account, Oh My Stars, dreams of finding her soul mate. But she knows it is most assuredly not Darcy… a no-nonsense stick-in-the-mud, who is way too analytical, punctual, and skeptical for someone as free-spirited as Elle. When Darcy’s brother—and Elle’s new business partner—expresses how happy he is that they hit it off, Elle is baffled. Was Darcy on the same date? Because… awkward.

When Darcy begs Elle to play along, she agrees to pretend they’re dating to save face. But with a few conditions: Darcy must help Elle navigate her own overbearing family over the holidays and their arrangement expires on New Year’s Eve. The last thing they expect is to develop real feelings during a fake relationship.

But maybe opposites can attract when true love is written in the stars?

The synopsis really says it all — Written in the Stars is a fake-dating, opposites-attract romance with a guaranteed HEA, but with a few bumps along the road.

Darcy is a (gorgeous) tightly-wound actuary who likes her world orderly, clean, and easily analyzed and compartmentalized; Elle is a (super-adorable) astrologist who likes gel pens, glitter, marching to her own drummer, and a certain amount of chaos. They have nothing in common — yet somehow, their fake-dating arrangement starts to feel more and more real as they have fun together, learn to see beneath their surfaces, and (obviously) recognize that they have a major spark going on.

The comparisons to Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are mostly unnecessary. Yes, the Darcy character comes across as judgy and off-putting, but that’s just a piece of the puzzle in this relationship, and the P&P trappings (sisters named Jane and Lydia, for example) are just minor details that don’t particularly matter.

Elle and Darcy have a lovely chemistry, each forcing the other to rethink basic assumptions and stretch a bit in their worldview — although honestly, most of the changing seems to happen on Darcy’s end. They’ve each been hurt in different ways in the past, through family dynamics or disastrous relationships, and they bring their baggage with them. As their fake relationship deepens into something more, they’re forced to open up and be honest about their dreams and their fears — but of course, as happens in pretty much all romance fiction, there’s a major falling out before they can get to a happy ending.

I enjoyed Written in the Stars, but not without some quibbles. The writing is spirited and light, and I liked getting chapters from both Darcy and Elle’s perspectives. But, certain wording choices started getting on my nerves, possibly more noticeable because I listened to the audiobook and repetitions really jumped out at me — for example, I lost count of how many times it’s mentioned that a particular character licked her lips. (It was a lot.)

All romance novels have the inevitable obstacle right before the happy ending, but the big drama here had to to with an overheard conversation and misinterpretation, and the way the scene was constructed left me feeling that the characters were behaving unreasonably and with a lack of maturity. Yes, their fall-out was over some big issues that they needed to address and resolve in order to move forward, but an actual conversation would have been a much healthier approach.

Side note: Some day, I’d like to read a romance where the main characters have a misunderstanding and then TALK ABOUT IT LIKE ADULTS, rather than having to go through a break-up, pints of ice cream, ugly crying, and then a BIG GESTURE in order to get to a good place. Anyway…

In terms of sexual content, there aren’t a huge number of sex scenes, but the ones that do exist are on the graphic end of the scale. (See my thoughts on a ratings scale for sex scenes in books, here). We are up close and personal with the characters through every moment of their encounters. Not my personal taste in fiction, but could appeal to those who generally enjoy these scenes on the explicit side.

Overall, Written In the Stars is a sweet story with lots of cute and funny moments. The audiobook is well done, with the narrator infusing humor and personality into the dialogue (and doing a great job with how she reads the many texts between characters — a very fun aspect of the story).

There are two more books that follow Written In the Stars, one focusing on Darcy’s brother, the other on Elle’s best friend and roommate. I don’t feel a need to continue at this point, but I may keep them in mind for when I want a light diversion at some point down the road.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Title: Boyfriend Material
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Length: 427 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Wanted:

One (fake) boyfriend

Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go. 

Sometimes, mood is everything. Several months ago, I borrowed the audiobook of Boyfriend Material from the library, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. Too self-absorbed, too focused on partying, too desperate to be adorable… or so I thought.

Here I am, months later, to tell you that I was wrong, wrong, WRONG about Boyfriend Material. My friends, this book is a delight!

On a whim, I borrowed the e-book from the library, incredibly in need of a light, engaging story — and that’s exactly what I found here, plus heart-warming squishy love and oodles of giggles.

Our main character is Luc, the son of a famous rockstar who walked out of his life as a child. After a terrible betrayal by an ex-boyfriend years earlier, Luc lives fast and free, and has developed a tabloid relationship of being yet another spoiled, misbehaving brat of a has-been celebrity. When Luc’s latest exposure in the tabloids (honestly, he just tripped! he only looks like he was passed out in a gutter!) threatens his job in fundraising, he knows some serious reputation repair is needed.

Enter Oliver, an uptight lawyer whom Luc once propositioned years earlier (unsuccessfully). Through a mutual friend, Luc and Oliver are reintroduced and agree to the ultimate romantic trope, the fake-dating scheme. Oliver is posh and presentable, someone who will give off “good gay” vibes for the donors Luc needs to charm, and Luc will make a fine companion for Oliver at an obligation-and-guilt-filled upcoming family event.

He gave me the type of look you give someone when you’re mentally shifting them from the box that says “attractive” to the box that says “weird.”

Initially like water and oil, Luc and Oliver eventually find that they complement each other in all the best ways. Trust, friendship, support, and (obviously) feelings soon follow. Their fake relationship turns into something real, but they’ll need to each get out of their own heads and put their unproductive inner dialogues aside if they’re going to make it work.

Oh, my, is this fun! First of all, while Luc is definitely a fiction type — the messy, unreliable, flighty guy with a heart of gold, who just needs someone he can count on — he’s also a total sweetheart, and outright hilarious. He’s silly and snarky, and I love him to pieces. Oliver is a little harder to love, since he comes across as stiff and serious, but hey, despite being a total neat-freak, he makes a mean French toast and is sweet and protective when it counts.

The plot zips along and hits the major plot points you’d expect, but the journey is just so adorably entertaining that I loved every minute.

The writing is consistently funny, and managed to catch me by surprise with its silliness and cleverness the whole way through. A few choice bits:

Peeping through my eyelashes like a small child braving an episode of Doctor Who from behind the sofa cushions, I checked my notifications.

We went on a couple of dates and I thought it was going really well, so I introduced him to Bridget, and she fucking stole him from me. Well, she didn’t steal him. He just liked her more. And I don’t resent it at all. I mean, I do. But I don’t. Except when I do.

“I’m sure we can negotiate matters as they arise. And you’re still welcome to stay. If you’d like. If you have no other engagements.”

Engagements? Oh, Oliver. “There was this tea dance I was meant to go to in 1953, but I can probably skip it.”

“You”—I gave a thwarted sigh—“are a terrible fake boyfriend.”

“I’m building fake anticipation.”

“You’d better be fake worth it.”

I stood at the sink and did that thing people do in movies where they brace themselves on the counter and stare meaningfully at their reflection. Turns out, it didn’t help. It was just a dick, looking at a dick, asking why he was always such a dick.

… Really, what do you have to lose?”

“Pride? Dignity? Self-respect?”

“Luc, you and I both know you have none of those things.”

You get the picture. Boyfriend Material is a book you’ll want to hug. There are emotional moments and people confronting past hurts and obstacles, but overall, it’s sweet and upbeat and just cute and romantic as hell.

A follow-up book comes out this August, and I absolutely cannot wait!

Release date: August 2, 2022

Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult / historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a beautiful, sensitively told story of a young woman in 1950s San Francisco, discovering her sexuality, finding first love, and navigating her place in the world of Chinatown and beyond.

Lily Hu is a high school senior who loves math, science, and reading Arthur C. Clarke. She’s fascinated by the idea of rockets and space, and dreams of one day working alongside her aunt at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Lily is the oldest child of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and her world revolves around the neighborhood and its community. While she attends a nearby high school, her friends and her activities are all based in Chinatown too — until she starts to get to know Kathleen, a girl in her advanced math classes.

Lily and Kathleen — or Kath, as she prefers to be called — begin to form a tentative friendship after Kath accidentally picks up a newspaper ad that Lily had saved, a promo for a male impersonator’s appearance at a nightclub. Kath mentions that she’s been to the Telegraph Club once, and the two girls agree to sneak out late one night and go together.

Meanwhile, Lily is unsure what to make of the feelings stirred in her when she reads about Tommy Andrews, the nightclub performer, or when she spies a pulp novel at the local drugstore that features two scantily clad women on the cover. When she and Kath finally make it to the Telegraph Club, Lily’s eyes are opened, seeing women together in clearly romantic relationships.

As Lily’s story progresses, she and Kath explore their feelings and learn more about the secret underworld of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time, the “red scare” is bringing fear to Chinatown, as even naturalized or American-born Chinese people are threatened with deportation and pressured to inform on others. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.

Last Night the Telegraph Club is a moving coming of age and coming out story, and also a well-researched and eye-opening look at a particular time and place in 20th century history. The author shares a great deal of information at the end of the book about her research, her intentions, who she interviewed, and even provides a wide-ranging bibliography for those who want to learn more.

As she points out, there isn’t a lot written about Asian lesbians in historical fiction. The topics covered within this book are a unique blend of LGBTQ+, Asian American, and San Francisco history, and they work together spectacularly.

Lily is a fabulous main character. She’s not flashy or outrageous by any means. A studious, smart girl devoted to her family, she’s really never stepped foot out of line prior to this point in her life. She struggles with the conflict between her identity, her emotions and desires, and her family duty. Lily is portrayed as a sensitive girl who might have truly thrived in the modern era, but because of the time and culture in which she’s born, there is no easy answer for her.

As a non-native San Franciscan myself, I’m always interested in learning more about the history of my adopted city, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club delivers. While many of the places and neighborhoods are the same, the city has changed in dramatic ways since then. I loved seeing all the familiar streets and landmarks mentioned as Lily and Kath and others explore the city, and appreciate that they venture beyond the areas often covered in popular media to include lesser known spots too, such as one of my own favorite places:

Judy had fallen in love with Ocean Beach the first time she saw it almost four years ago, right after she first arrived in San Francisco.

Although as Lily herself later reflects, you can’t always count on the weather:

She suspected it would be freezing out by Ocean Beach

On a more serious note, the response of Lily’s family to learning about her orientation is sadly typical of the time, but still incredibly painful to read:

“There are no homosexuals in this family,” she said, the words thick with disgust.

… and …

“There are studies,” her father said. “You’re too young for this. This is a phase.”

My only quibble with this book is that I wished for a little more at the end, between the last full chapter and the book’s epilogue. I can’t say much without entering spoiler territory, but I wish the events of the last chapter had been carried forward longer to show what happened in the ensuing months. The epilogue wraps the story up very well, but it’s almost too abrupt in its resolution. Still, overall, I’m happy with how things were resolved for the various characters, and felt so invested in Lily’s well-being that I wish I could check back in with her to see how her life turned out 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is engrossing, moving, and sensitive, with memorable characters and a fast-moving plot that manages to convey so much, so well. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2) by TJ Klune

Title: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Flash Fire is the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries by USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Through bravery, charm, and an alarming amount of enthusiasm, Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams. Now instead of just writing stories about him, Nick actually gets to kiss him. On the mouth. A lot. But having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be—he’s still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers.

When new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City—siblings who can manipulate smoke and ice, a mysterious hero who can move objects with their mind, and a drag queen superhero with the best name and the most-sequined costume anyone has ever had—it’s up to Nick and his friends Seth, Gibby, and Jazz to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous.

And new Extraordinaries aren’t the only things coming to light. Long-held secrets and neglected truths are surfacing that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Which is a lot to handle when Nick really just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Will it all come together in the end or will it all go down in flames?

I’m not sure that I can say anything more positive about this book than the fact that I WANTED TO HUG IT throughout the entire reading experience. Flash Fire is sweet and funny and adorable. It’s also a superhero story! But secret powers and daring escapades — while awesome — are really secondary to me in terms of why I love this book so much.

The heart and soul of Flash Fire (and The Extraordinaries, the first book in the series) is Nicky, the sweet, nerdy fanboy who is madly in love with his best friend Seth… who just happens to secretly be Pyro Storm, the superhero who recently saved the people of Nova City from the villainous Shadow Storm.

Now that Nick knows the truth about Seth and his superhero alter ego, he’s even more head-over-heels in love. Fortunately, Seth is just as crazy about Nicky, and the two of them are are maddeningly sweet and goofy whenever they’re together.

Gah. I can’t seem to write a single paragraph about Flash Fire without using the word sweet. Guess I should just accept it and move on.!

As Flash Fire moves forward, Nicky and Seth are starting to explore more of their physical relationship, but they can’t seem to get very far without Nick’s super embarassing yet incredibly lovable father giving them demonstrations on how to use condoms or make dental dams. It’s SO cringe-y, yet also amazing. Meanwhile, Shadow Star has been caught and imprisoned, but there’s a sense that more danger is on the way.

Nick and Seth are joined by their best friends Gibby and Jazz, and with the backing of their supportive parents, the four are on high alert for any new threats. And new threats do surface, and violence seems to stalk Nick and Seth wherever they go — and they’re also endangered by nosy, unethical reporter Rebecca Firestone, whose mission seems to be to expose Pyro Storm’s secret identity, no matter the cost.

One of my favorite YA tropes is cataclysmic events happening at prom, and Flash Fire does this to the nth degree and then some. Who doesn’t love a streamer-decorated school gym becoming the setting for a superhero showdown? The battle at prom is all sorts of awesome, and I won’t say much more about it, but you’ll love it too. Nicky’s sequined and spangled prom suit is just icing on the cake. Trust me.

This book!! HUGS HUGS HUGS. The dialogue is amazing, the writing overall is lovely and funny, the plot zips along, and there’s so much heart in it all that I can’t stop talking about how fabulous the whole thing is. Basically, rather than writing a review, I’m apparently participating in a one-woman love fest.

I’ll just wrap by sharing some great moments from the book, starting with a snippet that’s comes up a lot in the book, whenever Nicky is about to do something incredibly stupid or brave or both. (Have I mentioned that Nicky is a lot? He’s very extra.)

“Nicky, no,” they all groaned

“Nicky, yes!”

Seth was pretty much the hottest thing in existence when he wore a cravat and spoke forcefully.

“Hello, boyfriend of mine,” Nick said, and because he could, he leaned forward and kissed Seth right on the mouth. He hoped a homophobe had been watching and was now filled with so much heterosexual rage, they were choking on it.

“Yeah, no,” Gibby said. “It’s weird. What are the chances that three people we know personally ended up being Extraordinaries?”

“And they’re all gay,” Jazz said with a frown.

“Seth’s bisexual,” Nick said, because he’d be damned if he’d allow bi erasure, even in the face of all the ridiculousness.

“Quiet,” Jazz hissed at her. “We can’t interfere. We can only observe. We talked about this. You know how queer boys are in the wild. If they know they’re being watched, they get skittish and run for the forest.

He didn’t even realize he was crying until Seth said, “Hey, hey, Nicky, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I know,” he sobbed. “I’m pretty much the best thing ever. You’re so lucky to have me.”

“I really am,” Seth said.

So yeah. Five stars all the way!! I love this SWEET book so much, and just CANNOT WAIT for #3.

Book Review: Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Perfect on Paper
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 9, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper, Leah on the Offbeat meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: a bisexual girl who gives anonymous love advice to her classmates is hired by the hot guy to help him get his ex back

Her advice, spot on. Her love life, way off.

Darcy Phillips:

• Can give you the solution to any of your relationship woes―for a fee.

• Uses her power for good. Most of the time.

• Really cannot stand Alexander Brougham.

• Has maybe not the best judgement when it comes to her best friend, Brooke…who is in love with someone else.

• Does not appreciate being blackmailed.

However, when Brougham catches her in the act of collecting letters from locker 89―out of which she’s been running her questionably legal, anonymous relationship advice service―that’s exactly what happens. In exchange for keeping her secret, Darcy begrudgingly agrees to become his personal dating coach―at a generous hourly rate, at least. The goal? To help him win his ex-girlfriend back.

Darcy has a good reason to keep her identity secret. If word gets out that she’s behind the locker, some things she’s not proud of will come to light, and there’s a good chance Brooke will never speak to her again.

Okay, so all she has to do is help an entitled, bratty, (annoyingly hot) guy win over a girl who’s already fallen for him once? What could go wrong?

Darcy Phillips is seventeen, well-intentioned, and caught in the act.

A high school junior, Darcy has a thriving business going at her school, offering relationship advice — anonymously — via notes left in an abandoned locker that only she has access to. Students drop their notes, along with the $10 fee, in the locker, and Darcy replies via email with well-researched, supportive advice. Results guaranteed! She offers a refund for failed advice, and is proud of only having to give back the fee once (and even then, blames the failure on the letter writer not providing a full picture of the situation).

But one day, Darcy gets caught by a boy she barely knows as she retrieves the day’s stash of letters from locker 89. He offers her a deal — he’ll keep her secret, but she has to act as his personal relationship coach. He wants his ex-girlfriend back, and wants to hire Darcy to show him how to make it happen. Since he’s offering to pay her for her time, and since keeping the secret is vital, Darcy agrees.

Darcy is an out and proud member of the school’s Q&Q (Queer and Questioning) club, identifying as bi. She’s supportive of her friends, a devoted sister, and very proud of the professionalism she applies to her locker/advice business. But Darcy also has a secret — she’s in love with her best friend Brooke, and when Brooke and a girl interested in her each wrote to the locker the previous year asking for advice on how to move the interest forward, Darcy intentionally sabotaged them out of jealousy. She’s not proud of what she did, and she’s deathly afraid that Brooke would never forgive her if she knew the truth. (Fair point — it was a lousy thing to do.)

Meanwhile, Darcy’s coaching of Brougham helps her get to know him, and while she’s supporting him through his relationship woes, she’s startled to realize she may have feelings for him.

There’s so much to like about Perfect on Paper! The characters are all well-drawn individuals, quirky and unpredictable, and feel very much like real people with real feelings. They’re messy and make bad decisions from time to time, but hey, perfection isn’t reality. Brougham’s home life is terrible despite his wealth, and Darcy’s home life, while full of love, is also not providing her with the support and attention she needs. Perfect on Paper shows that to truly understand someone, it’s necessary to dig deeper, go beyond immediate impressions, and have compassion for the things that may not be obvious.

It’s wonderful to see bi representation presented as thoughtfully as it is with Darcy. Darcy comes across as very confident, and she is in many ways, but she also carries a lot of weight with her around being bi — from being asked if she’s “turning straight” when she gets involved with a boy, to fear that her Q&Q friends won’t accept her as one of them depending on who she dates, to the frustration of having to endlessly explain that being bi doesn’t equate to inability to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. The author does a fabulous job of showing Darcy’s depths and insecurities, as well as the importance of a supportive community.

Overall, I really enjoyed Perfect on Paper. There’s a feeling of lightness to it, even when the characters go through darker moments, and a nice balance of fun and seriousness. Darcy is a terrific main character, but the supporting characters are all wonderful too. Definitely recommended!

For more by this author, check out my review of her 2020 book, Only Mostly Devastated!Sav.

Shelf Control #244: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Published: 2012
Length: 485 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules. 

How and when I got it:

I found a copy on the book swap shelf at work.

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing positive reviews for this book over the years, and I know there was a movie version too. After reading Plain Bad Heroines this fall, I’m really interested in reading more by this author.

I haven’t been reading much YA this year, but this does sounds like a good one!

Have you read this book? Would you want to?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!